the Dark Angels
She watched him from across the battered wood table through a haze of second-hand cigarette smoke, her impossibly blue eyes disconcerting and probing.
There was a long silence between them, then she let out a low, throaty chuckle.
They always come back to me in the end, she said. There was a darkness in her voice, matched by her sable hair and black silk blouse. In the dim light of the bar, she seemed almost part shadow.
She was also a remarkably beautiful woman, though Giles.
These are unique circumstances.
Well, Im a unique woman, arent I? she asked. The mirthless chuckle came again and she said, Funny. Everyone loves your sweet, innocent Slayers. But eventually, that innocence runs up against something like this, and then you have to call in the big guns.
Under normal circumstances, I wouldnt call you, said Giles, trying not to look directly into those hypnotic azure eyes. Your methods are often extreme.
Effective, you mean.
They are certainly that, but I have always felt that you often become what you fight.
So, better to sacrifice innocent young girls for the sake of being self-righteous than to accept the very real price of fighting evil. Is that it?
Giles was silent.
The truth hurts, doesnt it, knowing how many children you Watchers have sent to their deaths over the centuries. All that blood on your hands. How do you live with yourselves?
The Slayers are what they are. We just assist them, give them a fighting chance, said Giles.
You use them. Oh, you cloak it in predestination and prophecy, but in the end you use them to fulfill your particular vision of the world.
Thats quite enough, he said quietly. Whatever you think of me, or the Watchers, or the Slayers, the fact remains that the world stands on the brink. A thousand years ago, you were instrumental in stopping Armageddon. Im asking you to do that again. We need the Dark Hunter. The world needs her.
The Dark Hunters eyes were cold. Are you sure youre willing to pay the price I will ask for that?
Giles hesitated, then asked, What price?
The Hunter smiled. Cautious, arent we? Not a bad policy, in such troubled times.
What price? he asked again, firmly and with a trace of anger.
If Buffy Summers ever returns from Hell, I want to offer her the opportunity to stop being the Slayer and become the Dark Hunter. If she accepts, you renounce all your duties as her Watcher.
I cant agree to that, said Giles.
Its strictly voluntary on her part. You know the drill. If she refuses me, fine. You owe me nothing but gratitude. But if she chooses to become the Hunter, you must agree not to stand in the way. Thats my deal. Her choice. No one elses.
Shed never become you. Shes not like that.
She smiled that cold, unnerving smile again. Are you so very certain of that? And are you so very sure that my way isnt, in the end, the better way?
Giles looked down at his drink and shook his head. I dont know what Im sure of anymore. I just dont know.
* * *
Buffy Summers stood atop the frigid, wind-swept ridge and looked out across the vast valley stretching away below. The wind blew stray strands of hair in a golden dance around her emerald eyes. It ruffled the furs she wore against the knife-edged cold of this part of Hell. It coursed around the perfect blade strapped diagonally across her back, around the sword she had named Slayer. And it whispered through the great void inside her, through the vast, dark space that grew with every passing day in this place.
She adjusted her supplies, resettling the crude pack more comfortably on her back, then reached behind her to make certain Slayer was still within easy reach. Satisfied, she returned her attention to the valley, and the great, dark city at its frozen heart.
Pandemonium. Hells greatest metropolis and fortress, and her destination. After months of journeying and fighting through the endless wastes of Hell to find this place, she would have expected exhilaration, or at least a quiet satisfaction. Instead, there was only the old emptiness, the emptiness that had been filled so very briefly by Angel but which now widened within her like the Abyss itself.
She wasnt certain she would find her way home here. But it was a direction, a goal to give meaning to her days and nights. What she would do afterward, if she failed here, she didnt know. Perhaps this was where she belonged, perhaps it was her rightful place.
Buffy let out a long, frozen sigh, her breath condensing instantly into soft white mist that trailed away on the arctic wind. Then she started down the barren, rocky slope, toward whatever rendezvous fate had planned for her.
* * *
If there was any argument to be made for saving the world, this was it, thought Lillith Prophet as she looked out across the lush, scenic vista of springtime in the mountains of New York State. She rested her coffee mug on the hardwood railing of the balcony that ran along the perimeter of her house and watched as the sun dropped ever lower behind the mountains to the west. The low peaks changed from gold-green to dusky red to sinister and dark, the valleys melting into deep pools of shadow.
Her mood turned black as the sound of a vehicle on the winding road below intruded upon her solitude, its banks of too-bright halogen lamps impaling the dusk.
Irritably, she turned and went back inside the house, its rich wood flooring and walls glowing the color of dying coals in the last rays of the fading sun.
After a time, gravel crunched under tires in the front drive, and Lillith heard sudden silence as the trucks engine was shut down. Then came the solid thump of a door being closed, follow by a sharp rap on her front door.
She pressed the button of the nearby intercom and said, Its open.
He didnt look like much. Flannel shirt, khaki pants, hiking boots and a weathered, knowing face that could have been forty years old or a hundred and forty. Gray eyes regarded her without emotion.
Its time, was all he said.
Lillith nodded and moved over to a polished rosewood box sitting on a small stand in one corner. She opened the lid and removed the carved jade cylinder within, about the size of a roll of quarters.
She handed it to her guest and said, Be careful with it, Ishmael. The Gehenna Matrix can spell our end as easily as it can mankinds.
Ishmael shrugged. Assembling the Gehenna Key wasnt my idea, but the stakes have gotten much higher.
Some things are coming together, converging. This ones not so simple anymore. The Defenders are different this time, less inclined to play by the old rules. Weve got a Slayer in Hell the likes of whom no ones ever seen before. Powerful in ways that in the distant future may put even us in jeopardy. And theres something else of more immediate concern.
The Hunter is back in the game.
Are you certain?
An entity as powerful as the Hunter raises its head, someones going to notice.
This is bad. This Slayer and the Dark Hunter at one time I dont like it.
Ishmael gave a little shrug. Who does? Some of us think this time its going to go badly for us. For all of us, on both sides. The Gehenna Matrix is our weapon of last resort, if we are left with no other options.
Lillith nodded. It was what shed expected and feared ever since her confrontation with the Slayer in Hell.
And in the meantime? she asked.
In the meantime, we play the game out as usual and hope for the best.
Except, it wasnt a game, thought Lillith. And there was nothing usual about it this time.