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The New Dark Age

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This story is No. 4 in the series "Once More with Demons". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: There are some things out there that you just don't want to meet ...

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
BtVS/AtS Non-Crossover > Action/AdventurepythiaFR1816,251171,57621 Mar 1021 Mar 10Yes
DISCLAIMER: The concept of the Slayer is the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Sandollar Productions, Kuzui Enterprises, 20th Century Fox Television and the UPN Television Network. This particular version of that universe is mine. The story is written for the pleasure of the author and readers, and has no lucrative purpose whatsoever. Please do not reproduce this story anywhere without the author's consent.

 The air was hot and humid, almost too heavy to breathe. Moisture dripped from hanging leaves and painted the surface of every tree trunk, vine and moss covered rock. The ground underfoot squelched with every step, and small slimy things slithered away into the dense undergrowth before they could be seen.

The Slayer crept forward slowly, all her senses on full alert. Tiny sparks danced around her as passing bugs immolated themselves on her energy shields, and the crystal hanging at her throat hummed softly, reacting the to presence of magic in the air. Somewhere in the distance something howled, a pain filled, mournful cry that sent a shiver down her spine. Her hand clenched convulsively on the sword hilt at her belt, but she didn’t draw the blade. Not yet. The trail she was following was leading her deeper into the jungle, the evidence of her quarry’s passage blazed across the bruised and broken vegetation it had left behind.

She didn’t like it one little bit.

It all seemed too easy. The trail was obviously fresh and the creature had made no effort to cover its tracks. There was even blood, deep rich drops of the stuff, glimmering like black rubies where the silvered moonlight pierced the canopy overhead. Whatever the thing was, it was dragging its prey behind it like a hunk of meat, heedless of any hurt it was causing. The briefing had indicated that two of the colonists were missing; she’d found the headless and gutted remains of one of them back in the clearing at the start of this trail. She strongly suspected she was following the about to be equally mutilated body of the second – and that there would be little she could do for him beyond slaying the demon beast that had dragged him away.

But she couldn’t shake the feeling that this was more than a routine monster hunt. Her body was tense, and her heart was racing. She could feel eyes watching her, somewhere in the night …

"Report in, Angel One. See anything yet?"

The Slayer nearly jumped out of her skin at the question, then grimaced with a mixture of affection and self annoyance. Of course there were eyes watching her. She’d be in trouble if there weren’t.

"You tell me," she protested, pitching her voice soft and low. "You’re the one with eyes in the sky, Warlock. All I got down here are bugs, bushes and a blood trail. I don’t even know what I’m looking for."

He snorted softly. "You’ll know it when you find it," he said. "Scouting orders?"

She’d been peering into the gloom, trying to discern if anything was moving through the jungle ahead of her. The soft hum of active hover drones drew her attention, and she glanced over her shoulder, seeing three of the small silver spheres floating effortlessly behind her. "Showoff," she accused with a small grin. It took a lot of skill and talent to fly more than one drone at a time – and here he was, manoeuvring a trio of them. Pretty impressive stuff, given the circumstances. But then, she often thought that impressive should be his middle name.

"Focus," he chided sternly, although there was a hint of a smile behind his reprimand. "Where do you want me?"

There were all sorts of answers to that one, most of which she’d need to save for far more private and personal circumstances. "On top, in close – and going deep," she responded, smirking a little as she did so. Her directive gestures were clear enough though – one drone immediately shot ahead into the dark, and a second spun upwards, seeking the view from higher in the canopy. The third dropped into place at her shoulder, close enough to keep track of her movements, but not so close as to impede her should she need to defend herself.

"Tracking," he reported dryly, obviously refusing to rise to the bait.

You started it,she laughed to herself, resuming her wary forward progress. The moment of friendly innuendo had settled her nerves and allowed her to refocus her concentration. The sense of wariness was still there, the inner voice of alarm that warned of danger and the need to be alert – but the threat of panic had abated, soothed, as always, by the reassuring presence of her beloved Watcher. Clouds were drifting over the moon, filling the jungle with inky shadows. She thought she could sense movement ahead, but it was hard to be sure. "Anything blippy?" she queried, lifting her hand so that she could whisper directly into the pick-up.

"Single target," he murmured back, his voice equally quiet as it was transmitted to the receiver embedded behind her ear. There was a trace of anxiety lurking behind the words, and she wondered what was bugging him. He’d been on edge all day.

"Distance and vector?"

"Twenty metrics. Seventeen degrees right. Holding ground."

She looked in the relevant direction, catching the shift in light as something large moved in among the intermittent striations of shadow and moonlight. "I got it," she reported, slowly drawing her sword. "Looks big."

"Mass readings are indeterminate. Pattern matching’s a negative. This one isn’t in the database."

The Slayer cursed softly under her breath, beginning to stalk forward as quietly as she could. She preferred to know what she was hunting – but that wasn’t always possible. "Life signs?" she hissed, hoping for good news. She didn’t get it.

"Demonic. Strongly enzonic too. Be careful, Brittany. This thing’s nasty."

She didn’t really need the warning. She could feel the thing now, up close and personal. Whatever it was it was old and cold and very, very malignant. It was also right ahead of her, a bulky, misshapen shadow in the darkness. It seemed to be bent over something, making an unpleasant snuffling, slurping sound. A memory of the dead colonist flickered through her mind – the way his head had been ripped off and his body torn open. There’d been only traces of blood and no sign of internal organs. His head had been empty when she found it; it had been smashed open and the brain tissues sucked clean from the skull.

Eww, she shuddered, suddenly realising what the thing was doing. She wasn’t sure she wanted to interrupt that. But, on the other hand, it would probably be at its most vulnerable when it was feeding …

"Time to slay," she muttered, tightening her grip on the sword hilt – and charged in to attack before she could change her mind.

Her world shifted from studied alertness to adrenaline driven perceptions. Everything started to happen at once, to register at once, as if time had become compressed into tight packets of data and event.

There was the whip of vegetation, slashing across the shifting shimmer of her energy shields; the certain balance of her sword in one hand, the weight of her impulse pistol in the other - and the practised pace of her attack, the curving run in and the half spin designed to bring the pistol to bear before the target could react. She could measure every breath, count every pace. Could feel the surfaces that carried her forward; the yield of the jungle litter, the creak of the raised root that briefly took her weight, and the firmness of the rock that gave her forward impetus. Sight, scent and sensation combined to give her perfect situational awareness, put her perfectly in control.

Damn, he’s good, she thought, her lips beginning to curve into a smile.

Then the demon stood up, and everything dissolved into alarm and panic and overwhelming terror.

There was cold; a bitter gust of soul freezing presence that shattered her protective field and sank straight into her skin.

There was stench; a gut churning odour that burned into her mouth and nose and drowned her in its effluence.

There was hunger; a sense of malice and emptiness and need that sent her mind and body reeling with its intensity.

And there were tentacles; a myriad of tendrils reaching for her, a blossoming of writhing, rolling movement and shape that boiled out from the demon’s maw to seize and strangle and engulf.

"Warlock!" she screamed in dismay and horrified protest. Her pistol fired wildly, the shot tearing through the engulfing mass, scattering blood into the air. The sword blade swung, cut deep and then was tugged away. Writhing, squirming muscle and flesh overwhelmed her, wrapping her in bands of ice. She struggled and they constricted, squeezing tighter and tighter, driving all the air from her lungs and the feeling from her limbs. She was lifted up, lifted away, lifted into numbness and terror and a darkness that pressed in on every side … 

 When the light came back it was soft and gentle, like the drape of sun late into the day. The sounds that slowly registered were a quiet murmur of waves along a sandy beach, the echoed cries of distant sea birds, and the whisper of a soft zephyr stirring the branches of ancient trees.

There was a softness beneath her that held and cradled her as sweetly as her mother’s arms. - and there was scented air, the perfumes of languorous orchids, the freshness of a sea breeze, and the fragrance of herbs.

She was warm and comfortable, draped in indolent pleasures and a sense of perfect safety. For a long, mesmerising moment, she relaxed into the sensation – and then memory came back, and she was instantly on her feet, her hands groping for weapons and her eyes darting round for danger, for signs of demons and the onslaught of the dark.

She found none.

Just the slowly dissipating remains of the shimmer bubble that had been her couch, its iridescent surfaces dissolving into nothingness.

A soft wind caressed her, tugging at her hair and sending stray locks dancing across her face. She was standing on the edge of low cliff, overlooking a sloping beach; the ocean lay spread out before her like a blanket of blue and silver. She recognised it instantly. It was one of her favourite places, a haven of peace sculpted for her and her alone. She took a deep breath to settle the pounding in her heart, and deliberately turned her back on the stunning vista. He wasn’t going to get around her that way.

"Okay," she demanded through gritted teeth. "What in hell was that!"

There were deep woods and hidden valleys in the islands interior. Their image shimmered and blurred, rippled and refracted by magic and light. Once they had settled back into breathtaking illusion, her Watcher was standing there, right in front of her.

"’Thullu demon," he offered softly, watching her with wary eyes. Her own went wide with shock – and then she snorted in disbelief.

"Thullu demon?" she echoed. "Like hell it was. They’re just a myth. Rumours and blurred vids and high angle shots on old and very suspect news viddage. There’s no such thing as a Thullu – and even if there were, no-one would risk getting that close and personal. You don’t face something like that and survive," she added, turning away from him with a small shudder.

"I did," he said, just as softly as before. "And if I prepare you properly, train you – maybe you will too."

"You-" She swung back towards him, anger starting to blaze in her eyes. She knew he had to test her when they were training, but there were limits – and as far as she was concerned, he’d just stepped over one. That hadn’t been a test. It had been a massacre. The anger died as swiftly as it had come. The import of his words had reached her – along with the look in his eyes. "You - did?" Her hesitancy was a mixture of alarm and doubt. He’d never lied to her – not about things that really mattered – and she could see he wasn’t lying now.

But a Thullu?

They weren’t real. They were just things that seasoned Slayers used to scare raw recruits and get them to pay attention to their training; lurid tales that allowed them to play down the horrors that lurked behind all the other darkened visages that they faced on a regular basis. And the stories all agreed; all they ever left behind were empty corpses …

He nodded. "On Lyra nine." There was no emotion in his voice, and none on his face, either – but the link between them resonated with his effort to restrain his feelings. There was something lurking beneath his dispassionate exterior – and not just the sense of guilty apology that he was allowing to reach her. She stepped a little closer, looking his black clad, rangy figure up and down with perceptive eyes. Nobody could read him as well as she could.

He didn’t regret what he’d done – but he did regret having to do it to her.

"Lyra nine?" She wrestled to place the reference. It sounded vaguely familiar, but … Whoa! The connection fell into place with almost physical impact, making her catch her breath. Lyra nine. The official designation of the world where – as folklore would have it – someone trying to seal a hellmouth had managed to tear it wide open instead. Folklore became a little lurid after that, but official history simply recorded that the demonic incursion had been effectively dealt with.

The Lyra system only held eight planets these days.

But then, the application of a class seven fusion sphere doesn’t tend to leave much behind.

"You were there when all hell broke loose? You never told me that."

The faintest of smiles quirked across his features. "I wasn’t supposed to," he said. "It’s – um – classified. Strictly -need to know only. Besides," he added apologetically, "I – um – I don’t like to talk about it."

Writhing tentacles, engulfing and devouring; a stench from hell and a malignancy that tore at her soul … He’d shared a memory with her, in almost the most intimate way possible. Even thinking about it sent shivers down her spine. "I can see why," she said, shakenly. "Was that …?"

"No more than an echo," he assured her, his voice still soft with apology. "I wanted to … give you a taste of what they were like. So that, if you do need to face one, you won’t do what I did."

"Freeze?" she hazarded warily, and he laughed, a sound without any humour in it..

"Among other things. Actually," he confessed, looking out to sea with vague embarrassment. "I – uh – screamed. And soiled myself. Not my greatest moment, I have to admit."

"Last and the First, Warlock," she exclaimed, rolling her eyes. "You met that – only more so? I’m not surprised you – well, I – I guess anyone would. No wonder you wake up shaking some nights. How ever did you get away?"

He heaved a small sigh, his eyes still fixed on the illusionary distant horizon. "I ’ported."

"’Ported? You don’t ‘port. That’s the one thing you don’t - oh," she realised, staring at him with wide eyes. "That’s - why, right?"

He nodded, his expression distant and his eyes bleak. "I was … Ripping," he explained softly. "Taking the recommended year or two away before putting in for formal assignment. Back then I thought I was one of the Ascending Arc. Top of my class, champion swordmaster, that sort of thing. I treated the magic like a game. It was one I could play almost without thinking about it – and I felt I was invincible. The only thing you don’t know when you’re young," he said, his lips twisting wryly at the thought, "is just how much you don’t know."

"Yeah, well," she retorted softly,"that’s why Slayers get Watchers. But don’t tell anyone I got it figured out."

"I won’t," he promised warmly. He gestured across the landscape, the distant images rippling under his fingertips. "We’re in seclusion here. Locked in as tight as I can. It’d take the Captains’ personal authority to eavesdrop on us today."

"Figured that, too," she smiled. "You running me a Thullu you’re not supposed to talk about kinda gave me a hint. So what happened? You go Ripping for real? Summoning things? Second Founder’s first lesson …"

"… is a lesson well learned," he capped, folding his arms and giving her one of his patented glares. "I may have been young and foolish, Brittany, but I wasn’t that foolish. I was curious though. There had been – rumors – about activity in the Lyra system …well, all right," he admitted, catching the knowing look she was giving him. "I’d – um – hacked into the intelligence matrix before I left, picked up one or two intriguing reports, and … gone hunting. I’d never even seen a demon – other than in an imasphere like this one, of course. Training programmes," he sighed, "are nothing like the real thing."

His Slayer snorted. "Yours get pretty close." She was still shaking a little from her earlier experience. "But I know what you mean. Just an echo, huh?"

"Just an echo," he reiterated, giving her one of those quietly sad smiles that never failed to melt her heart. She knew this wasn’t easy for him. The tale he was telling was distant history, something that had happened long before he met her - before she was even born. But to him the memories were clearly still raw and painful. They had lain in his heart for a long time. They had helped to shape him, helped make him the man she knew, the soul she loved - and he had finally been able to find the strength to face them, to share them with her.

True, his method of doing so had been a little startlingly, but she suspected that she’d needed that experience to truly understand what he was telling her now.

"Think I’ll sick with vamps," she joked, trying to make light of the sudden shiver that had run down her spine. "You know where you are with vamps."

"Dead, usually." He lifted his eyes and focused on the far horizon, his introspective mood reflected in the way the clouds darkened and a slight chill whispered through the breeze. "With a Thullu? Who knows. I certainly don’t. And I …" He shivered, and she stepped closer, reaching out to gently touch his arm and offer a silent reassurance that she was at his side, and would be, no matter where his memories took him.

"It was far worse than the reports had suggested." He gave no sign that he’d even noticed the contact, but she felt him relax a little, felt his mood shift from anxious dismay to one of remorse and regret. "Turned out it wasn’t just a little activity. It was a full blown incursion. The planet had experienced all the usual portents – earthquakes, rains of fire and blood, that sort of thing. The colony had decided not to report them, for fear they’d lose their settlement contract. Sweet ascension," he swore softly, a curse on greedy stubborn politicians throughout the universe. "We’d gone to look for a little hunting, and we found ourselves stumbling into a warzone. All contact had been lost with the outlying settlements, and there were vamps leaving victims drained in the street … making no attempt to hide their presence anymore. The elected leaders had hired a circle of mages thinking they would contain the situation, but they were doing more harm than good. By the time we arrived the hellmouth was beginning to tear open under the strain, spawning dimensional fracture lines and secondary portals across half the main continent. Anyone with any sense would have realised it was hopeless. But we – my friends and I – we thought we could handle it. We thought we could charge in and save the day like – like avenging angels."

"It’s been done," she pointed out softly. "Sometimes a brave heart can be enough."

He quirked a humourless smile. "A brave heart. Not a foolhardy one. We had no idea what we were getting into. Oh, we dusted a few vamps and beheaded a couple of ghouls between us, but … it was more by luck than judgement. The only focused source in the colony was the one the wage mages were using, so I – I started drawing on raw magic, on chaotic energies rather than the purer stuff I was used to. And the dimensional rip, the heart of the hellmouth – that was corrupting everything faster than you would have believed possible. I didn’t know enough to separate the bad from the good; I was just using it – and it was using me."

Lightning danced along the horizon, an echo of the turmoil that underlay his words. The illusion was crafted by the underlying programs, but it was shaped by his influence, given texture and colour by his intent. There were few, even aboard the Giles, who possessed the kind of skill and creativity he brought to this aspect of his craft; it had long been recognised that shaping an illusion wasn’t a matter of mastery. It was a matter of art.

"I didn’t realise it at the time, but – every time I drew in power? It was helping tear the rift open, countering the efforts of those who were trying to force it shut. Not that they knew what they were doing, despite all their desperate efforts. You just can’t close a breech like that by force. You have to remake the world around it. Weave it back into reality. But nobody knew that back then. So there I was, throwing lightning about and feeling invincible – and the Thullu came. The reports – the ones only an authorised few ever get to read – say that my little firework display probably saved a lot of lives. There have been very few Thullaic incursions recorded over the centuries, so not much is known about them, but it seems that - wherever they’ve appeared – they’ve been drawn to the strongest emanations of power. The investigators thought that if I hadn’t been throwing the magic around like that they’d have probably emerged right in the middle of the main settlement. I don’t know. I can’t help wondering if all that raw, wild magic was what brought them through the rift in the first place. I do know that the mages had given up trying to close the hellmouth by then and had begun helping with the evacuation instead. My – distraction – delayed the demons long enough for several ships to get clear of the ground. It was that – probably only that – that stopped me from being summarily dismissed from the order, later."

"You couldn’t have known what your castings were doing to the rift," she defended. "You didn’t deliberately break your oath."

"I helped the Thullu come to that world," he said tightly. "And that world no longer exists. It was a world of incredible beauty. A world like this – " His hand swept around the landscape, and the image shimmered and shifted behind the gesture, briefly revealing the dark utilitarian walls of the projection chamber. "It had deep forests and majestic mountains. It had oceans of azure and sapphire, silver waterfalls and birds with voices so clear it was like hearing a choir of angels in the sky. The darkness came and the darkness devoured it and there is nothing left. Nothing. Not even dust. I never buried my friends. I don’t even know if their souls made it to the other side."

"If I’d known – if I’d known for just one minute what was coming, I might have been able to save them. Send them back. But I didn’t know. I didn’t know what … hell was. Until I stumbled over the body of my best friend, his skull torn open and his body sucked dry, like a – like a ripe fruit."

The Slayer shivered, remembering the corpse she’d found in the simulation. She was no stranger to death; she’d witnessed it many times and in many places. Too many times, perhaps – but that was part of her calling, the destiny she been chosen to follow. It never got easier; each and every loss was hard, a constant reminder of the war they pursued and the reason they pursued it.

To lose a friend though – to have known the spirit that had once animated vital flesh, to have shared memory and experience with them – that could be a bitter thing to face. And to lose one like that, with no certainty that they’d made it to the other side, with little guarantee of the survival of their soul? It must have been devastating.

"What did you do?" she asked softly, watching him with sympathy. His expression was bleak but guarded – a determined façade that did little to conceal the emotions that the memories stirred. Not from her, at least. True, part of that studied control reflected the effort he was making to keep his feelings from spilling out, from overwhelming the link that lay between them– but that didn’t mean she couldn’t sense the rawness that lay behind his words, or the depth of the pain and the guilt that haunted him, even now.

"You know," he considered slowly, "I’m not entirely sure what I did. My memories get a little- blurred, after that. I remember running – and I remember energy crackling around me, like – like the hum from a plasma cannon, just before the discharge. Then I ran into this clearing and … there was the Thullu. Just like you saw today. Only … more so."

"You went after it," she breathed, wondering if that was what she would have done, her heart cracking with grief and her soul howling in rage and pain. If it had been him the demon had ripped apart like that … there’d have been no doubt in that case. She’d have been filled with vengeful fury, as lost to it as the Witch had been, the day her beloved Tara had been taken from her. "You Willowed out and went after it."

"I suppose I must have done." His first sigh was soft. "I don’t know. I just know how I – " His second sigh was heavy, a forceful discharge of breath. "You felt it, didn’t you? Hate and anger and cold corruption …"

"I felt it." She could still feel it, an echo of something truly foul, a malevolency that went beyond evil, a hunger that would never be satisfied. She ought to be still mad at him for putting her through that, for teaching her such a hard lesson. But she understood why he had done it – and was beginning to see how hard it must have been for him to teach it to her, especially if that had been merely a shadow of the real thing.

Only when facing our fears can we recognise their true faces …

If any of the Second Founder’s sayings demonstrated that he’d known what he was talking about, that one certainly did. He’d been a true Watcher, and a very, very good one, by all accounts.

"You know," she observed with a great deal of affection, "this is so typical of you. Everyone else starts small and sensible. First real demon? Usually a vamp. Or maybe two. Kindergarten stuff. But you? You have to tear open a hellmouth and come face to face with – a – a Thullu demon of all things. Did you skip your ABC’s and start straight off with machine code?"

"No, hieroglyphs. I didn’t get linked until I was three." His come-back was equally affectionate, his brief smile acknowledging her attempt to lighten the conversation, to give the events he was recalling the distance and perspective they needed. She couldn’t tell if her ploy been successful or not – but then she wasn’t entirely sure if he’d been joking, either. "The thing is," he went on soberly, "that ‘first’ demon was very nearly my last one too. They – entangle their victims, smother and engulf them. I think - " he swallowed a small gulp, "I think they suck out your soul before they start on your body. It certainly felt that way."

"That was when you – "

"Yes," he nodded. "I panicked completely. Struggled – much good that did me – screamed, and then, in total and utter desperation, grabbed every whisper of magic within miles and ‘ported. Blindly. No time to visualise, no opportunity to orientate myself, and not even a thought about where I was going. I just went."

"Hellfire!" she breathed shakily. ‘Porting was a tricky business at the best of times and it usually required very careful preparation. A group of skilled practitioners could instantly transport an object or person across vast distances – but to do it, they had to be well grounded and completely focused. Self ‘porting introduced even more risk into the process, despite – or perhaps because of - the laws of magic that made it difficult for two things to be in the same place at the same time. But to ‘port like that – blindly, with no destination in mind and no chance to centre yourself before you left … well, that was a little like trying to jump into hyperspace without setting any co-ordinates or engaging the compensation field.

Ships that did that generally tore themselves apart in the hyperflux and re-entered real space as little more than dust and debris.

"Where did you - ?"

"End up?" he completed quietly. "Within arms’ reach of the nearest source – which happened to be in orbit, several miles above atmosphere. We’d sent a report back to the Council as soon as we’d arrived and assessed the situation, and they’d sent the nearest ship to investigate. The Faith Redeeming, one of the old Hunter class … They think my mind instinctively sought the emanations of pure essence; that it found the sanctuary of order to save me from drowning in chaos. That may be the case, but - if so, I don’t remember doing it. What I do remember was being displaced for what felt like eternity – and that for a good part of it, the Thullu was still with me."

The Slayer’s eyes went wide.

"With you?" she gulped, shivering with the memory of tentacles engulfing her. "Warlock, I - " She didn’t know what to say. Didn’t know how to express the horrified empathy that had twisted through her heart. She didn’t need too. Their link conveyed the feeling all too well.

"No," he reacted, not exactly pushing her away, but turning and mentally stepping back to avoid her emotions unbalancing him completely. "No, Brittany, please, I – I’m sorry. I should never have – "

"Yes, you should." The Slayer took her own backwards step, re-centering herself just as he’d taught her. "You are my best friend, and you are the strength of my heart, but … first and foremost, you are my Watcher. Your knowledge, your skills and your experience are the things that help keep me alive. I’ve heard the stories. The locker room talk of death ships, and the star eaters out on the rim. If the Thullu are real – if they’re out there somewhere, lurking in the dark - then if … no, when we come to face them, it will be the things you’ve shared with me today that will give me the strength I’ll need to win."

"You’ve danced with the darkness, Warlock, just as the Second Founder did. And just like him, you place the needs of your Slayer above the ease of your heart. I can’t be angry at you for that. I can be a little … phased about it," she admitted wryly, "but only because you should have told me this stuff a long time ago."

He wasn’t so willing to forgive himself. "I wasn’t ready," he said. "And I couldn’t …tell you." He was trembling, wrestling with the emotions that had surfaced inside him; they painted his presence with the pain of wounds that had been festering deep inside him all these years, never truly lanced clean. Until now. "I tried, you know? Tried to tell them why it took me months before I could sleep again. Why it was that – for long weeks after that - even a whisper of magic turned my stomach. Why every spell I tried to cast filled my mouth with blood and bile. I tried to explain what it had been like: how it had touched me, how it had tasted my soul. But it’s not something you can tell. Only something you can feel …"

He broke off with a shudder, staring out at the illusionary horizon. She stared at him, wondering how many times he’d forced himself to re-live those moments, preparing the program for her – and how long it would be before he could live with himself again.

"I found ways to reclaim my magic," he admitted slowly, "but I’ve never ‘ported since. I’ve never had the courage to. It’s as if – as if I can feel it there, waiting to finish what it started. A darkness lurking in the in-between, a terror haunting my sense of neverspace. The one place I can go where it will know I am truly alone."

She stepped in close, reaching to catch his cheek and turn his head towards her. Her eyes met his with determined intensity. "You are never alone," she said, willing him to understand her heart, to remember the promise she’d made and the truth it represented. "While we are together, we will never stand apart."

He held her gaze for a long time, the depths of his eyes drawing her in, embracing her with that deep and abiding love that words alone could not describe. Eventually, a shaky smile slowly surfaced from the depths of his distress. His words echoed the Slayers’ prayer, the words composed to capture the spirit of their lives, their dedication to their cause – and the faith that gave them strength when all else failed. "When hell and harm and horror seek to claim us – we will hold fast. When the darkness rises, when the hunger comes – we will defend the light. When all seems lost, when we can bear no more – we will give our all, and more. As long as one stands, we all stand – for we stand and serve as one. For the Last of the First and the First of the Many …"

She stretched up and kissed his cheek, gently and with a great deal of tenderness. "… may we always be Watched over – with love."

Later that night she lay beside him in their quarters, listening to the ragged whisper of his breathing and the strong beat of his heart as he finally succumbed to sleep. It was her turn to watch him, to hold vigil through the night while he wrestled with old nightmares and paid – as he so often paid - the price of preparing her for war. Memories of the day’s lesson still haunted her, along with the history he’d shared because of it.; the horrors she had faced over the few short years of her career paled beside the events he’d described.

They were supposed to be a myth …

But the world she lived in, the reality she defended, was defined by creatures of myth; she was a Slayer, chosen to make a stand against the vampires and the demons and all the monsters that laid claim to the night.

The endless night.

The abyss that cradled the stars.

I’ll be ready, she vowed, reaching to brush back the unruly locks of his hair where they’d tumbled across his face. Her fingers traced across the implant that nestled at his temple and she smiled, fascinated by how someone gifted with such wisdom and power could still seem so vulnerable, so unguarded while he lay asleep.

It was an illusion, she knew. He was never truly unwatchful, even in repose. Should danger threaten – should she so much as whisper his name in need – he would awake in a moment, brought to full awareness by the sentinel systems that held vigil while he slept. A Watcher was never off duty. Not while their Slayer needed them.

Together we’ll be ready.

No matter what comes.

In some distant and unreachable darkness, in a dimension of eternal night, vast ships rolled and wallowed among eddies of dark matter and the soft drift of entropic dust. Fell voices murmured between the dying stars, bewailing the worlds they had devoured and the doom they had brought upon themselves. Tales of light and life and the remembered whisper of living souls haunted them, stirring their hunger and heightening desire. On one such ship - a shadow born of shadows – the need became too great, the desire too strong. It knew the taste of freedom;

it had found a way to defy the dying destiny of its homeworlds, a way to escape into living, thriving universes. The last such time it had breached a universe of promise, only to be cast back, mewling and hurting from the impact of holy fire. Now all of its precious treasures had been devoured, the last of the stolen souls sacrificed to its endless hungers. Yearning and desperate, it used its remaining energies to wrench itself away, sliding into the rifts

of neverspace, twisting through the nothingness that surrounded their hellish dimension as it hunted for a way back into that other, sweeter existence.

Eventually it found one. A minor weakness, a subtle flaw in the fabric of the universe. Somewhere out on the rim, in among the drifting edges of the galaxy a portal opened.

The stars shuddered.

A hellmouth vomited darkness.

And the Thullu returned …

The End

You have reached the end of "The New Dark Age". This story is complete.

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