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DeadWar 1.12: Strange Aeons

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  • DeadWar 1.12: Strange Aeons

    Disclaimer: All characters in this work of fiction belong to Joss Whedon. Illyria can protest all she likes; it won't change anything.

    Rating: PG

    Beta: frogfarm and darlas_mom

    ...What though the field be lost?
    All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
    And study of revenge, immortal hate,
    And courage never to submit nor yield,
    And what is else not to be overcome?
    --Milton,Paradise Lost

    Intersection: the alley.

    Illyria crouched among the corpses. The space between buildings stank of acrid blood, of ash, of ozone. Before her lay the mortal remains of the human who called himself Charles Gunn.

    One of the half-breeds appeared before her, his face finger-streaked with faint lines of sodden ashes. "I tried," said Angel. "I tried to save him."

    "You failed," Illyria said, and was surprised to find condemnation in her voice. Angel had done nothing to affront her. She tried to soften her tone. "Your lieutenant's death was inevitable by the mere fact of his joining battle here."

    "Was Spike's?" Angel queried. Of course--it was Spike's ashes on his face. He had been reaching out to pull the other half-breed from the dragon's flames when the blond one combusted.

    "Of course," Illyria responded. "So yours should have been." Angel had considerable skill in battle for one so young, but he was only a vampire. "The aura of power you carried is fading."

    "Hamilton's blood," Angel said listlessly. "I was fighting them with their own power. No wonder I--what's wrong?"

    She ignored the insult his implication carried. "When does it end?" she asked him.

    "The fight's over."

    "I am still experiencing grief," she explained reluctantly. "In fact, the emotion has grown stronger." The half-breed refused to enlighten her. "We have triumphed in battle. Our vengeance is attained. When does the grief end?"

    Angel kept silence for an additional five seconds, presumably to annoy her. Just as she was about to demand an answer...."It doesn't," he said. "It never goes away."

    "Inform me how to end it," she insisted. "I do not believe you are still grieving for..." She paused. Wesley had informed her, inadvertantly, that her mere existence kept the wound of the shell's death open. "...your liason with the powers."

    "I still miss Cordy," he lied, his face altering minutely in a further attempt at deception. "I'm still grieving Darla. I'm still grieving my father, and I hated the man's guts. It never goes away. Not completely."

    Illyria decided to accept this provisionally. "But it lessens?"

    "In time," Angel said, pronouncing her doom. "The memory fades."
    ****
    Illyria has no memories of her own.

    She has Fred Burkle's, of course, transmitted to her in the moment of the shell's death. The alien experience, the "sparks" that entered her function systems, remain with her still. How could it be otherwise?

    Illyria has no memories because she does not require them. Motion through time is a human conceit, an illusion born of their limited existence. What Illyria experiences, she continues to experience, her existence woven eternally through space-time. Her future is still in motion, her past largely fixed, but each is as real as her present. Angel has experienced this, briefly, though he did not understand. The fallout of that event dimmed her awareness, like the power that came with it, but the mechanism remains the same.

    For this reason it is impossible to follow Illyria's history. Illyria does not "flash back". Illyria does not "plan ahead". She knows, or--much more frequently than before--does not.

    One can only map the intersections between "now" and "before".
    ****
    Now.

    Old Ones do not run.

    Once Illyria could have covered the distance between the detective's office and the Hyperion in the blink of a human eye, striding imperiously among halted cars and motionless pedestrians. It baffled her that humans did not understand why she hated change. Change was loss. The loss of her empire. The loss of her powers. The loss of those individuals that--quite inexplicably--she had come to value.

    Illyria was tired of loss.

    She resolved that when her new empire over the world of man was established, she would make an end of change and loss. Perhaps her powers over time could be restored, mortality made to obey her as all things should. The array of possible futures did not change; either this outcome was already guaranteed, or it was impossible. She knew which she preferred to believe.

    What mattered in this moment was the recovery of the anomalous human, Alexander Harris. Once the Slayers discovered his changed loyalties, they would either execute him or--being squeamish near-humans themselves--imprison him until their Watchers decided he was a liability. She had no illusions that he would respond positively to her, nor did she comprehend what the red-haired witch had suggested she might learn from him, but Willow Rosenberg had agreed that something about his survival had to do with humanity's rise to power. If it could serve humanity, it could serve her as well.

    Besides, she...missed him. His rise from apparent powerlessness; his bitter grief; his stubborn insistence that a human could be and do what an Old One could not, in spite of all evidence that she was the greater--these did, in fact, remind her of Wesley, who had been her guide in spite of himself. And who was now gone.

    How ironic that her previous self could have stepped across the worlds and retrieved Wesley, but never would have cared to. Illyria had lost far too much before his death. How dare the universe take from her, and without compensation, rather than offer tribute?

    One of the humans' reeking combustion chariots howled to a stop just short of striking her. Illyria increased her pace...marginally. The conveyance could not have harmed her....

    But she had no intention of losing more.
    ****
    Intersection: Cleveland.

    Angel had led her into the scorpion pit. Though she suspected their stings could not harm her, Illyria respected his attempt to offer amusement. Indeed, she found some small humor in the Hellmouth having attracted twelve Slayers; she knew Slayers to their bones, knew what they were better than they did.

    Intersection: Vahla Ha'Nesh.

    ....the Trackerbeast tore out the Blood-Drinker's throat, drove woody talons into its heart, and began to feed. Cheers echoed across the arena, followed by a few mutters of annoyance as Illyria collected its winnings
    ....

    "The last I heard, you'd allied yourself with Wolfram and Hart. Forgive me for being skeptical when you return accompanied by an Old One and with all your associates dead!" Rupert Giles' self-righteous moral assurance grated on her skin like an exfoliating mudbath. Illyria concluded she could wallow here all day and made no response. Few human emotions were so pleasant, albeit incongruous given that humans had so little to be proud of.

    "You ought to know casualties happen when you're fighting a war, Giles. You think I'm not mad as hell they're dead? I am." Angel reciprocated. Illyria tried not to smile too widely; it might unnerve them, and then they would stop. "But they went out fighting the good fight, and that's as good a way to die as there is. We took out the entire Circle of the Black Thorn, and--"

    "Our agent in Rome reports the Circle is already being reformed," Giles said sardonically. "I believe an acquaintance of yours there is in serious running for a position. The Senior Partners are untouched. And Wolfram and Hart is still running upwards of thirty branch offices worldwide. Yes, certainly a victory to be celebrated in song and story."

    "We hurt them," Angel began to retort, but a disgusting lump melded of anxious frustration, guilt, and ferocity intruded on the conversation. Illyria looked away as if bored; these beings were not worthy to witness her discomfiture.

    "Who invited the hellbeast?" Buffy Summers, the eldest Slayer, stormed into the office. "That thing--"

    Angel cleared his throat. "--helped me save the world."

    "Of course." the Slayer said wryly. "She wants it for herself." She reluctantly averted her attention from Illyria and the halfbreed. "Giles, this thing in the Phillippines..."

    "...is being handled adequately by Chao-Anh and Satsu," Giles insisted soothingly. "They have more experience than the poor girl who was killed there. Be glad that that's possible now."

    "Damn it, Giles! It was supposed to get easier." Buffy had begun to generate uncomfortable levels of grief as well. Illyria considered lashing out to remove the irritant, then decided that would only demean her further. "Instead we've got vampire cults sprouting up like dandelions all over the yard, and every time we dust one leader, it's like they turn into that white puffy stuff that you blow on and...er, forget I said that part."

    "Escalation is inevitable," Illyria muttered.

    "Didn't ask your opinion," the Slayer growled. "Giles, does dismemberment work on Old Ones in human bodies?"

    Rupert Giles ignored Buffy's question. "Go on, Illyria. By all means, share any strategic wisdom you might have."

    Suspecting he was baiting her, Illyria considered ignoring him. She should have said nothing at all. Still, she sensed some level of genuine curiosity. "Previously most vampires had little to fear from a single Slayer. Now there are thousands. The balance of power has shifted. Naturally they will organize and seek to strike back. This is...an inevitable reaction. To kill more will only enrage them, at least until they are sufficiently weakened to be cowed into submission. Surely you understand this."

    The Watcher began to clean his glasses. He did understand. The Slayer looked pained. "What the hell else do you expect us to do?" She made a threatening gesture with her fist, which Illyria ignored. "They're not going to stop killing if we let up. They're not human. We can't treat them like they're human."

    Illyria considered...shrugged. It was no concern of hers.
    ****
    Now.

    Sparks. She corralled, connected, assembled them.

    Illyria had never been one to settle for one life at a time. She built a Fred, a homunculus, shaping the character's details in her mind.

    How would Fred accomplish this task?

    Why the hell should I care? Illyria had the power at her disposal. If she wished, she could carve a path of dead Slayers to whatever she desired.

    She did not wish it. My army is my own. Killing them is no net gain.

    An army of Slayers, serving an Old One? Is there a naked singularity 'round here someplace?

    There is no...you jest with me.

    Then you jest with yourself. Just a copy, remember? They don't know what you're planning, do they? Sneaky of you.

    If necessary. Compromise...the very word disgusted her.

    As I hate hell, all Montagues, and.... Slayers won't serve you. They won't fight for you. You should know better. I do.

    I should have known better than to consider the problem from this angle. She could have reshaped the simulacrum, removed certain attributes. But then its value would have been lessened.

    Why go back for him?

    Because he interests me. Because I desire it. That is no concern--

    Of ours? Why'd you go back for Wesley?

    He interested--

    You're getting really good at lying if you're doing it to yourself. Nice and human of you.

    Illyria began to disassemble the Fred. It did not fulfill the purpose she intended for it. Therefore--

    We don't want to make a frontal attack. But they'll sense us coming a mile away.

    I am distinctive. This era knows nothing like unto me.

    But we've got no idea how to cloak ourselves. There had never been the need. There had never been the desire. So you confront them without making a frontal attack.

    That makes no sense.

    If you don't feel anything human, we must have a great poker face.

    Go on.

    You show up with something they want. Or pretending to. Then you bargain with them.

    I will not demean myself--

    Then you're back to wading through your army's blood.

    Very well.

    You give in fast. Wish I'd had that level of...academic interest in Wes. We'd have had more time together.

    Enough. Illyria took the Fred apart, and another step.
    ****
    Intersection: Cleveland.

    "Dammit, Angel!" Nina is upset. Illyria watches the argument, not entirely comprehending.

    "I had to go after her," Angel protests. "You couldn't expect me not to."

    "No," says Nina, looking down. "No, of course you had to try and save her. And then you had to try and kill her."

    "Nina, she's a vampire now. You know--"

    "I know what it means!" Nina worries at her jacket. "I know what it means that she's a Slayer, too. She was stronger than you before. But you went alone. You didn't tell me, you didn't tell anyone, you just ran off the moment you heard."

    "There wasn't time--"

    "Exactly. There wasn't time, no matter what you did or who you didn't tell. You had to know you were going to be too late. That she'd either be dead, or..." Nina hesitates here. "...worse."

    "I...thought I could deal with her best...alone. I couldn't ask anyone else to see her like that unless there wasn't any other choice."

    "Not even Willow?"

    "What?"

    "You could have taken Willow with you. She could have ensouled Buffy, like you, and--"

    "I couldn't do that to her, Nina. You don't understand what it's like, being...like me."

    Nina's face comes up. Tears are trickling down her face, but her eyes are furious. Illyria attempts to read her complex emotional state more directly. Learns nothing. "If anyone does, Angel, it'd be me, don't you think? Just because you're unique again, now that Spike's dead--is that it? Did you let him die?"

    "No, I--"

    "You've always got to be alone. No one else is like you, no one understands? Bullshit, Angel!" Nina raises a hand, scrubs at her wet cheeks. "One day it's going to be me who's the problem. You know that, don't you? And you're not going to ask. You're not going to ask me or anyone, you're not going to look for options, you're just going to do whatever the hell you think is best, because it's all about Angel. Angel the Champion. Angel the hero who fixes everything."

    Angel's mouth opens and closes. Illyria reads the spoor of half a dozen defenses forming, unforming. In the end he says nothing.

    "Everyone you get involved with dies, Angel. Everyone. It's just a matter of time. If you want anyone in your life, ever again, you think on that. Think hard, and ask yourself why."

    "What're you saying, Nina?"

    Nina wraps herself in a raincoat. Opens the door. "Ask yourself who you really are." The door slams.

    Illyria considers this. Judges herself to be in no danger.

    She returns to perusing Fred's books.
    ****
    Now.

    It felt anathema. The bargaining, and the weapon in front of her face. Kennedy held the Scythe.

    "They are nothing to me. They are as much vermin as yourselves. Give me what I ask and I will tell you the Gtterix' locations, and the simplest method of killing them."

    A tall belligerent Slayer pressed forward through the crowd. "We don't need this thing, Ken. Just hack it to pieces and we go back to the plan."

    "The Gtterix are nonsapient. They will not join in the assembly you speak of. They exist to devour and destroy."

    "Then we can mop 'em up after--"

    "Quiet." Kennedy lowered an arm in front of the confrontational Slayer. "What's it you want?"

    "Give me Alexander Harris."

    There was a moment of confused silence. A few seconds of laughter. Then Kennedy lowered the blade end of the Scythe at Illyria's chest.

    Skewed intersection.

    A timeslice that is not her own. A small figure in skins and grease paint. Whirring pincers that do not, have never belonged to Illyria. The Scythe bites deep...


    "We don't trade our people." Illyria had blinked. Kennedy must not have noticed before that Illyria does not do this. "Especially not to demons. This thing can kill even you. I'm under orders, but if you wanna give me a reason to break 'em...."

    You've got a trump card, a spark whispered without being asked. "Alexander Harris is not one of your people. He is an informant. He will betray you."

    "Really?" Kennedy smirked. "For you, huh?"

    "For the half-breed calling itself Buffy Summers." Illyria raised an eyebrow in a manner she had seen Willow use. "He is under its thrall."

    "Long as Buffy's out Slayin'," Kennedy averred, "we've got no problem with her."

    "How long will she do so?" Illyria addressed the ranks of Slayers. "Is this vampire your ally? Do you trust her to guard your flanks?" A murmur of discomfort and confusion rose.

    "In that case," growled Kennedy, "why the hell should we trust you?" The Scythe's blade pressed forward against Illyria's throat.

    Illyria's lips curled into a mimicry of Kennedy's smirk. "Deception is beneath me."
    ****
    Intersection: the beginning.

    The Earth is one of many jewels sparkling in front of it. It touches the murky oceans with a tentacle. The scum flickers brightly in response. Amusing.

    This toy belongs to Illyria, and Illyria alone. All of them do.

    Keep away, whines a hooved and horned thing. Mine.

    Mine. A ball of golden flame.

    Mine. A skittering length of plates and legs.

    Mine.

    Mine.

    Mine.

    ****
    Now.

    Such a pathetic thing. But she had come all this way for it. It must have been of some importance.

    "You must be pretty upset with me, to come back here under guard to kill me." He was being defensive, though he had nothing to defend.

    "You assume much."

    "Big Blue," Kennedy said, "claims you're under a vampire's thrall. Which makes you a spy. I don't really like spies, and I don't like weak-willed losers either."

    "Spend some time with Dracula," Xander muttered. Then, more clearly: "Yeah. I'm sorry. I was just starting to figure it out."

    "I don't get this," complained the belligerent one. "Where's the 'Dark Mistress' talk? Xander, you hate Buffy."

    His face became very cold and still. "No. I don't, Jaylynne. Sorry you weren't around in the good old days. What I hate is vampires. It's not her...I...I think." There was something of a fragile uncertainty about him, something Illyria had rarely noticed before. His voice broke, then steadied again. "I loved Buffy from the day I met her. Still do. She just happens to be dead. But there's a real good actor wearing her face as a mask."

    "I still..." Kennedy moved the Scythe away from Illyria's neck a fraction of a centimeter, scowling. "I would've expected you to slip. Will always said you did with Drac."

    Xander chuckled, a hollow, bitter sound devoid of mirth. "Drac's full of himself, and who'd blame the guy? I called him the Dark Prince because he liked it, and I knew he liked it. When I trashed Buffy, I wasn't faking. I was saying what she really thinks." He swallowed and looked down. "I said what she'd want to hear from me. She's an evil, disgusting thing. She doesn't...wouldn't ever want me to forget."

    Some of the younger Slayers tittered nervously. "A vampire with self-esteem issues," one of them piped up. "Suddenly I get it."

    Quite suddenly, Xander stood up straight and looked Kennedy in the eyes. "What do you think about vamps, Kennedy? Think you'd just for--I mean, think the fake you would be different? Or me? I never could figure out what Buffy saw in Angel or Spike, but she knew they were trying to be different. They were exceptions, or thought they were, and she got that. It doesn't mean she hadn't spent half her life training to kill things like 'em. You can't do that and not hate what you're killing, hate them down deep in the bones. Trust me on this. Buffy hates...hated vampires. All vampires. Still d....er, you know what I mean."

    "You think I'd be like her?"

    "No one's like Buffy. But...yeah, more or less. Vampires are demons. Hate's what they're good at."

    Something chilly brushed across Kennedy's spine. Illyria raised an eyebrow. An interesting experience, and very nostalgic. "I think maybe you'd better take him," Kennedy said roughly. "Having some vampire thrall around...probably not good for morale. Just keep in mind, any friend of Willow's...."

    "...is a friend of yours," Illyria finished, when Kennedy did not. "You have no cause for concern. Harming him offers me no amusement."

    Kennedy studied her appraisingly. "You know, rumor had it, about you two...." Again, she failed to complete her sentence.

    This time Illyria let it dangle. "Alexander will be safe with me. Malice from a mere human is no threat, not to a god. I will deliver him unharmed."

    "So he's insignificant." For some reason, Kennedy seemed to be relieved.

    "What save myself is not?"
    ****
    Intersection: an ending.

    A city, in flames. Illyria did not know what city; she had never cared to ask. Even the humans agreed that names hardly mattered any longer.

    Buffy stood gazing at her atop the pile of ichor-smeared corpses, a look of sick triumph on her face. "Figured it'd come down to you and me." She hefted the Scythe. "Guess it's punishment for not believing in God. I keep having to fight them. But it's the last time now."

    Illyria could feel the Scythe echoing at her, and ignored it. She was the last, aside from the Slayers; it seemed probable that their essence would fade without other demons to fight. She was the last. But also the greatest. She lunged, concentrating hard, trying to summon up some scrap of her power over time.

    The Scythe came down, not in the manner she had expected at all, and something white-cold, a light, penetrated deep into her armor, and her shell. She was burning inside, still moving forward, carrying the weapon with her as the other end of it pierced deep into Buffy's heart. As Buffy had always intended. They were the last.

    Fire, and dust.
    ****
    Now.

    "You cut a deal," Alexander said, baffled. "I thought you didn't do that."

    "Compromise is weakness," Illyria explained. "But I have...become weak already. I do not desire to remain weak." She studied him. "You were lucky. The half-breed's knee did you no lasting injury. We are pleased."

    "Um, non with the sequitur there? I don't think I'm using that right, but...." His gait was awkward, but he was capable of walking. Still, he would not keep pace with her if she made haste. "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to betray...well, Giles and Willow and the others."

    She noticed the implication and set it firmly in mind. "You were under the sway of your former friend. And I am unperturbed by your betrayal of them." Perhaps he would espy hers as well.

    "I figured that. You realize that's why you lost, right? You can't betray friends and expect to get away with it."

    She estimated the level of force he would feel as roughness and gave his arm a tug. He grunted. "Keep moving. You betrayed them for your principles. Your strictures are filled with contradictions, as all such chains are. This is simply the human method of betrayal, which is a constant." He did not respond to that. "You are as you are," she allowed. "I no longer take offense. To share a cosmos with such weak creatures annoys me, but I have grown accustomed."

    "But it was you who came to get me." His breathing had become labored, and his legs were moving awkwardly. "I figured it'd be Willow, or Faith maybe. And not for a few more days. You found out about Buffy." She slowed her pace very slightly.

    "Harmony and Anne had words with us."

    "And Harmony didn't get dusted?" There was an unexpected knot in his stomach.

    "It astonishes us that you care. No, she did not. She made overtures from a distance, with one of your devices."

    "I shouldn't care. I...I don't care, not about her."

    Illyria attempted a human verbal game. "Perhaps you are only bothered because you are bothered?"

    He made a face at her. "I hate it when you say things like that about yourself. Rather you don't start on me. You still haven't explained why you came for me."

    "I am unobliged to explain myself to you, but surely I have made my interest plain."

    His wheezing was laughter, his laughter wheezing. He ceased moving and sat down on the sidewalk. "Oh, god, no. Not again. You're not joking, are you? I thought you were just making some kind of, some kind of experiment."

    Illyria crouched easily beside him. "I have spoken to your friends of this, but it is nothing I comprehend myself. I find your company agreeable, yet can find no reason for such behavior. Are you unwell?"

    "I'll...I'll be all right." His spasming began to subside. "She-mantises. Vengeance demons. Mummies. Now this." He did not get up.

    Illyria came to a difficult decision. "Do you have coin?" He only stared at her. "I shall summon transport."
    ****
    Intersection: an ending.

    Three suns rising. Illyria does not stop to look back at them. Some of those she has liberated do. "This is not the time for stargazing. We must hurry." Not even the shell ever really knew whether Pylea's suns were stars. Nor did she know whether Pylea was a sphere, or what lay beyond this ocean in the south. The Americans may, though Illyria does not believe they have physically explored farther than the coastline.

    This is not an army. It is a band of refugees--Brackens, Deathwoks, Anomovics, others--and she is uncertain how to organize them.

    "We must reach the ship." There is a stolen hovercraft awaiting them on the beach. Taking it out of sight of land is risky. Not that any of them care, her least of all. The Deeper Well was humiliation enough; that humans could have imprisoned her, however briefly, fills her with rage and shame.

    "They will seek me above all others," she tells an emaciated M'Fashnik at the water's edge. "I will remain here and engage them in combat. For your own safety, go now." Her escape will have triggered a maximal response.

    A dozen pairs of hands seize her. She could shake them off with but a thought.... "We ain't leavin' you," the M'Fashnik tells her. "Not to the gov'mint, an' sure as hell not to that bitch they're list'nin' to now." "Eve", the government has designated "that bitch", for reasons Illyria has only recently learned. Names are unimportant; the girl in question is Buffy Summers. Illyria allows them to draw her into the craft.

    Twenty-three hours have passed when she hears a crackling from above, followed by a whistling sound. A jet vanishes back into the portal high overhead; the object it has dropped does not. Her own code name is Hostile Omega.

    Fire, and ash.
    ****
    Now.

    Illyria pointedly did not fasten the restraints. Fortunately, the driver ignored the petty rules of this age and sped away. This vehicle was even more confining than the minivan had been. It was a wonder she could move her mouth to speak.

    "You could've packed me," Alexander suggested.

    "That would have displeased you," Illyria noted in response. "Though in truth, you seem displeased with all my works. And no, I do not understand why that should concern me."

    "But it does." The notion disturbed and confused him. She could relate, which disturbed and confused her even more.

    "You call me self-possessed. But not since waking have I felt I owned myself. My responses are mine, yet not." Humans sometimes attempted humor to defuse tension. Perhaps...? "I sometimes suspect that I am only a pale copy of my glory. A shadow. That I am but a human being which believes itself to be Illyria."

    "No way you're human, Il...lyria. And there's no good way to shorten that, is there?"

    "Your reassurance, though feeble, is appreciated. And do not attempt to alter my name again."

    "For something that had to have its arm twisted to use other folks' names, you seem touchy about your own."

    Could it really be that he did not understand? "Do you name motes of dust? To call a thing by its name is to acknowledge it. To empower it. You hurl names about so cavalierly that, had you any real power of your own, the world of things would shake itself, rouse, and fling you aside."

    He blinked. "So it's a 'don't speak Latin in front of the books' kind of thing?"

    "Since my words go unheard unless I use your names, I use them, Alexander." That had the desired effect, except that it also made him shy away from her again. But everything she did made him do that.

    He stared at the cab's floorboards. "Look...I'm flattered...okay? And I ought to be used to this sort of thing by now. Demon chicks dig Xander Harris. But it doesn't work the other way 'round."

    "We know well of your lust for this body."

    "So not the point. It's not that simple for humans. I don't love you, Illyria. I can't love you. I just want to find a nice human girl, settle down...maybe have a rugrat or two. I can't do that with a demon. It just doesn't work, I've seen it." His speech grew more rapid as he continued. "Mostly because you don't and can't love us, either. These things don't end well."

    "You seek to conceal something from me. Explain to me why your desire for this body is not the point." That appeared not to be the locus of his secret, but it was interwoven somehow, a web that reached deep into his thoughts.

    "Because it's not your body, damn it! It's not yours!" Anger gave way to desperation as he realized that he had begun shouting, at her, in an enclosed space. Not that he could have escaped her. "You killed Fred, some girl I never knew but who everyone tells me was sweet and wonderful, you ate her and she's gone, and you have the damn nerve to act like people thinking you're hot means they're attracted to you! You're not pretty, Fred was pretty, you're some slimy tentacled thing and nobody, nobody is ever going to love you! So just break my goddam neck already!" He slumped forward in the seat. "It's a frickin' curse," he muttered.

    "To harm you would serve no purpose," Illyria said patiently. "What is a curse?"

    "Demons fall all over themselves for me. Like I said...mummies, vampires, the works. Hell, I had Drusilla swooning over me one time, even if that was just a love spell. Most of them want to eat my eyes or my brains or something, but they always say they really love me...in whatever way they love anyone. But if I ever really fall for some human girl...she dies. She turns into a demon and she dies. Not necessarily in that order. Cordy. Anya. And now Buffy. For all I know, maybe Fred was meant for me, and that's why you got her."

    "That is...unlikely. And irrational And, if so, the girls you had relations with in past weeks are in mortal danger on your account."

    He waved it away. "I told myself, maybe if they were totally out of the loop on the supernatural, maybe it couldn't get them. But you know, I think the truth was...we didn't have it. And I knew, on some level, we didn't. Which meant they were safe."

    Illyria searched for some means of understanding that. "I believe that can only be called...'insane troll logic'. And I had no knowledge that you had ever been engaged with the Slayer."

    "Engaged...?"

    Human languages had an overabundance of double meanings. "Involved. In a relationship."

    "We haven't. I had a crush on her...even loved her...but I was only ever just a friend to her."

    "Then what has happened to her cannot be your doing. And this...'house of cards' you have created, with only two remaining examples, crumbles."

    "Do you think I don't know that?" He glares up at her. "It's not about what I'm thinking. It's what I feel. And you will never, ever understand what it's like, so quit pretending."
    ****
    Intersection: an ending.

    Cleveland, in turmoil. "I told them it was too late to slay Buffy now," said the red-haired witch. The tunnels were jammed so tightly that not even the two of them could easily clear a path.

    "The world you knew has been ending for some time," Illyria agreed. "The death of one girl could hardly have prevented that." Willow did not answer, only attempted to shape the energy shield into a wedge which would allow them to press forward. The Slayers were somewhere deeper in, but they would not be enough now. Perhaps nothing would be enough.

    The vampire whose head she crushed had a soul. All of them did; the Popular Alliance of Reborn Aurelius did not admit the unsouled. Together the pair of them struggled forward through a mass of slogan-bearing t-shirts. "This is the law: we are not men" competed with "Beware the beast Man" and "Zipacna/Tezcatlipoca 2012". Many of the rabble sang or ranted as they fought. "...from the grave, for me-e-e," belted out a girl whose shirt depicted a marked-out cross with the caption: "Torture Device"; "One day when I was lost, they hung him on the cross..." A man whose shirt read "I am become Death" was chanting, "I see all people rushing into your mouths as into a blazing fire...."

    "Is it just me," Willow muttered, "or is the apocalypse becoming way too commercial?"

    "In my experience, whatever happens frequently is treated this way by the people of this era," Illyria said with a shrug. "I have three t-shirts which say 'I was at the end of the world--'" The witch began to laugh so hard she nearly lost control of her force field. "Concentrate."

    "Sorry. Trying not to cry, which leaves the laughing."

    Ahead of them a chant rose from the crowd. "Humans go to hell! Humans go to hell!"

    "At least no one is shouting 'Trick lives'," Illyria observed. The vampire was known to have been deceased well before the presidential assasination, but Osiris seemed to be sleeping on the job in recent years. If they survived this, she would have to have a word with him. Especially if the rumors were correct.

    "Trick lives," someone said from in front of them, and the crowd parted. "Humanity can fry."

    "Gabriel," Willow said. "I don't understand."

    "All we wanted," Michelle answered for him, "was to be invited back in." Her face wavered between demonic and human features. "You have no idea how much we paid for that." The ground shuddered.

    "Humanity's had its chance to prove it was really better than us," Gabriel snapped, "that it wasn't all just propaganda. Now we know the truth."

    A group of cultists appeared behind the pair, dragging Slayers wreathed in chains. Willow started forward, a hand raised, and at that moment the earth cracked open, erupting in a torrent of flame. Tentacles followed. Willow turned towards the gap, chanting, but the voices of others drowned her out, the many overriding the one.

    Illyria took a step towards the chasm. She had no illusions that she could defeat her former acquaintances, not as she was. Nor that they would greet her as an equal.

    But perhaps they would do an old friend the favor of eating her first.

    Fire, and brimstone.
    ****
    Now.

    Kate's office.

    "They told me this place burned down," Alexander said. "Somebody firebombed it."

    Illyria spoke more to herself than to him. "A shell, once empty, is worthless to the owner. It would have been repaired or rebuilt." She offered him a hand to escape the taxi and was surprised when he accepted her aid. But, once standing, he immediately let go.

    "I shouldn't have shouted at you," he muttered. "I'm sorry."

    "But you can feel nothing for me."

    "Yeah. Sorry. Again."

    "Your kind often say they cannot feel for demons. They then explain their inability by saying that demons cannot feel for them, or at all." He did not respond. "If symmetry is truly present, why do you hold demons to account, but not yourselves?"

    "We should go on in. They'll be worried."

    She tried another approach. "Do you truly desire that I should give up human seeming?"

    "Be easier to kill you."

    Illyria understood and ignored his meaning. "No. It would not."

    "Not what I meant."

    "You blame me both for being what I am, and for attempting to be otherwise."

    "Life isn't fair. Get used to it. I can't give you what you're after. That's all." He walked away toward the entrance.

    If he indeed had the key to power, he would not relinquish it to her.

    Not in any eon had Illyria ever willingly given up. Not hope, not life, not power, not one square inch of territory. Even her long sleep had been an act of desperate endurance and patience. "That is not dead which can eternal lie," as the humans said. She would not give up now.

    But no matter which way she turned, no matter what lifepath she looked down into her future, every ending was the same.

    The fire was coming.
    Last edited by Mabus; 10-12-08, 06:32 AM.
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