She should have known that it would come back to Sunnydale. Truly, demons were nothing if not predictable. Humanity weak and barely aware of your existence? Open the hellmouth! Humanity strong but still barely aware of your existence? Open the hellmouth? Humanity far stronger than any demon empire could ever aspire to be and completely aware of your existence? Open the hellmouth! They were verging on the boring in their predictability. The only even vaguely new aspect to their strategy was recruiting dissident wand wavers to their cause. And that was hardly anything innovative. Using disposable allies was a time-honoured tradition for virtually every culture that had ever existed.
Though saying that, wizards could be a problem. They'd dealt well enough with the fools who'd tried to arrest her in Britain but they'd blundered in like amateurs thinking that their magic would carry them through. If they stayed behind the scenes, using their magic to augment the efforts of front-line fighters, they could make things very interesting indeed if they just used their brains a little. She remembered well the chaos caused by the few wizards who'd been sent after her that used their brains instead of shooting off curses. Transfiguring crates into tigers, turning sections of the ground to acid, and so on had caused some serious carnage.
Still, this wasn't the little leagues. All indications pointed to the fact that they were facing a real heavy hitter this time out. Some of the information they'd retrieved from the raid pointed at the Circle of the Black Thorn, or at least its remnants, and from what they'd been able to gather that was was a very dangerous group indeed. The fact that they'd survived the purge of Wolfram & Hart that had followed Glory's attack certainly pointed towards them having enough between the ears to know when to get out of sight if nothing else and that was a rarer talent than you'd think amongst demons.
A knock on the door drew Rachel's attention. With a wave of her hand she unlatched it and pulled the door open from her seated position. "Come in," she said.
Lieutenant Miller stepped through the door. "General Vasquez requests your presence at the command post, ma'am" he said after offering a quick salute.
Rachel rose to her feet. "Very well, Lieutenant," she said. "Will you be accompanying me?"
"No, ma'am," he replied. "I have to oversee my platoon's assigned mission."
"Very well, I won't keep you then," said Rachel. "Good luck."
Miller nodded and saluted. "You too, Brigadier."
And then he left. Force, she hoped he wouldn't get himself killed doing something stupid when the enemy showed their faces. It would be a very poor tribute indeed to Miller to have a hand in getting his oldest son killed. Not that there was much she could do about it then. The decision had been made and he'd have to sink or swim on his own merits. He'd known what he was getting himself into.
"HK," called Rachel. "Come."
"Bored statement: yes, master."
The journey from Giles's apartment to the 'command post' wasn't a particularly long one but it did let Rachel get a good look at how the defences had been arranged. In the twenty minutes it took her to walk the distance she saw half a dozen aerial HK patrols and two ground HK patrols - which, HK-47, of course, just had to insult despite their inability to comprehend or retort to those insults - as well as a road-block manned by a couple of bored looking soldiers with a heavy repeating blaster cannon, better known to those in the know as an E-Web. An entire brigade was a lot of soldiers for a town as small as Sunnydale and when you weighed in the accompanying machinery there was no shortage of manpower or firepower at all.
The command post had been set up in the library of the rebuilt Sunnydale High. It was, suffice to say, a strange sight to see the school she'd attended from the age of fourteen onwards as a fortress, but that's pretty much how it had ended up. It was logical though. The demons would be heading there - it was the location of the hellmouth - and putting the command post there allowed them to concentrate their defences around a single location. Risky but logical.
Gaining access to the school took longer than it normally would. Sure, the town's civilian population had been evacuated and she was about as recognisable as it got, but they had to be sure she wasn't a shape-shifting assassin. The system they'd rigged up wasn't perfect, but an aura checker was difficult enough to fool to keep ninety-nine percent of shape-shifters from trying anything and having HK-47 in tow was a pretty good indicator too. No shape-shifting impersonator in their right mind would try to persuade HK to follow them. Still, they had to go through the formalities.
The school itself was a pretty bleak place inside. The builders hadn't got much past erecting the buildings before the army had occupied the place and the last thing of the mind of an officer arranging the defence of a town is putting up decorations. And that left you with a building of bare concrete and little else. Half the doors and windows hadn't even been installed and no-one had much of a reason to fix that sort of thing. But they had toilets at least. Thank the Force for small mercies.
The library, or at least the room where the library was to be placed in, was filled with all sorts of high tech contraptions. Between the communications equipment, the sensors to detect incoming threats and what have you, and the battlefield management equipment, there was no shortage of wires about the room. And that wasn't even touching on the miscellaneous bits and pieces that always, inevitably accumulated anywhere you set up shop.
Brigadier General Vasquez, US Army, was sat behind one of the communications terminals to the side of the room sending orders to and fro. He was pretty young for his rank, but he seemed competent enough to Rachel. There were probably some out there who'd been tweaked by his getting a star on his shoulder so young, but there were probably even more who were tweaked about her getting to the same sort of rank and not even going through Sandhurst. It made sense that he was young really. Demon hunting was a new activity for the US Army outside of a few very limited, very ineffectual operations that had been commissioned under the table and they'd wanted a younger, more adaptable up-and-coming officer rather than an old hand. At least that's what she figured. The US Army didn't, as a rule, invite her to their high-level strategy-setting meetings.
"General Vasquez," said Rachel upon approach. "You wanted to see me?"
He looked up. "Yes," he said, standing from his seat. "Walk with me. I have some things we need to discuss before the demons come."
So they walked through the spartan corridors of an unfinished, unfurnished school.
"These civilians," said Vasquez eventually, breaking the silence. "The Slayers and the witches, are you sure about them?"
"This is what Slayers live for," said Rachel. "They're built for this sort of fight. Sending them away would be a sad waste of a useful resource."
"They have no military training worth speaking of," said Vasquez. "No idea of how to work with us. The Summers girl might have worked with those clowns at the Initiative, but this is a whole different ball game. They're going to get in the way as much as help us."
"Well, this is why they pay you the big bucks, General."
"Big bucks?" snorted Vasquez. "You obviously haven't seen my bank statements.
"Yes, well," replied Rachel. "Anyway, I'd use the Slayers as troubleshooters, sweeping up breakthroughs, but it's your show. I'm just an advisor."
"I don't think I want a teenage girl with a sword or an axe dealing with a force that can break through a machine gun emplacement."
"I'll let you in on a little secret, General: Slayers are quite capable of using firearms. They'll whine about it something fierce most likely, but they can use them just fine. Better than fine, even. They're damn fine shots. They just don't like it when they can't get up close and personal and slice their enemies' guts out."
"I'll take it under consideration. What about the witches? They're a bit . . . well, they're not exactly the fighting sort. I'd be surprised if they could beat the skin off a rice pudding."
"You'd be surprised," said Rachel. "Tara I'm not sure of, but Willow? Willow is the magical equivalent of a nuke when she puts her mind to it. If we get any heavy magic types show up, we might need her."
"We have Potter and some other wand-wavers for that."
"Ah, Willow's stronger than them. Way stronger. Not as quick or as skilled, but much more in way of raw power."
"And you can't always substitute for that," he said. "Fine. They can stay at the command post with me until they're needed. They'll be safe enough there, I suppose."
"If things get tight enough that the command post's about to be taken, we'll have more important things to worry about than keeping them alive, I think."
"Yeah. Hell on Earth. What a cheery thought. As if alien invasion wasn't bad enough."
"I wish these fucking demons would hurry up and attack," said Faith. "I hate this fucking waiting."
Rachel didn't so much as twitch from her position laid out staring at the ceiling. "I'd never have guessed," she said dryly. "No nervous energy to work off at all."
"I didn't hear you complaining." Rachel could almost hear the smirk in Faith's voice. "Plenty of begging for more, but not much complaining."
"That's me," said Faith. "But fuck, I just want to get this over with. It's just not right to tease a Slayer with a big fight and then not come up with the goods. Makes us all cranky and shit."
"Cranky? When I hear that I think of Willow getting stroppy because someone's half-inched her book, not a Slayer ready to go on a rampage."
"Do you really want to tempt me?"
Rachel wasn't touching that with a barge pole. She'd more than had enough. "You know," she said finally. "I'm not sure there's anything that doesn't work you up. Get into a fight? You get worked up. Can't find a fight? You get worked up."
"What can I say? Girl's got needs."
Well, what can you say to that? It wasn't like Faith being over-sexed was anything new.
"Anyway, can't you, I don't know, see the future and tell us when they're coming or something? I can't take this sitting around waiting much longer, you know. And it ain't like there's nowhere else a Slayer's needed, you know? Plenty of bad guys running around needing a Slayer-sized beating still."
Rachel closed her eyes and sighed. "I wish," she said. "I really do. The hellmouth obscures everything. I can't See worth shit in Sunnydale."
Not that there was much difference between what she could See in Sunnydale and what she could See elsewhere while the war was raging. The war, the endless carnage of it, lent strength to the Dark Side and that made her ability to discern the future of dubious utility even if you left aside the efforts of the alien collective to defeat those abilities. It really pissed her off.
"Sucks," said Faith. "Don't suppose ol' green-eyes can see the future?"
Rachel snorted. "Not quite," she said. "His lot are pretty rubbish at that sort of thing as far as I can tell. You get the occasional vague prophecy that's real, but otherwise it's all looking at chicken entrails and rubbing crystal balls - useless."
Before Faith could reply they were interrupted by the insistent beeping of Rachel's communicator. Rachel immediately summoned it to her hand and opened the link. "Giles speaking," she said.
"Get your ass to the command post, Giles," said Vasquez. "We got incoming. Least we think we got incoming. Someone's futzing around with ECM of some sort."
Rachel sat up. "I'm on my way," she said. And then she clicked the link closed. "Looks like your wish has been granted, Faith," she said. "The fight's starting."
"'Bout fucking time!" she hollered before springing out of the bed and gathering her clothes up. "Been too long since I kicked the shit out a demon."
The command post was very different when Rachel reached it. Her last visit had been to a relatively relaxed, for a military command centre, place; this time it was a real hive of activity. Every terminal was occupied and in use. A multitude of officers and enlisted men buzzed around the holographic display that dominated the centre of the room. And of course the guards. Every entrance, every window, was covered by both men and machine alike just waiting for any demon to try and enter.
The holographic display was the centre piece of it all. It was, quite frankly, magnificent. It had been one of Rachel's pet projects before it had reached a usable state and it was one of her favoured developments. Bigger and better weapons and stronger armour and all the rest was all well and good, but augmenting the ability of the commanders to command - that was where a war could be won. The hologram showed a representation of all of Sunnydale, down to the last imperfection, and all the military units within its environs. It was a wonderful little toy.
Of course, the display wasn't quite real-time. It would be but the aliens were never so polite as to not deploy ECM to interfere with such things. The display still functioned, of course, but there was a lag in it. It was forced to rely on officers and NCOs and their making proper use of the systems built into the advanced armour that had been one of the first products of X-COM's research. Not how anyone would want it to be, but unless someone found a way to completely burn through all ECM that was all they could manage.
It wasn't perfect, but it was about as good as anyone could manage till someone found a way to imbue all officers with the sort of supernatural senses a Jedi had. And even then, you had things like the hellmouth which could make those much less than perfect very quickly.
"Giles, get over here, barked Vasquez from his position by the display. "I want you to take a look at this."
"Well, that's . . . bizarre," she said. "I've never seen the display distort like that before. It sure as hell isn't in the design specification."
The distortion was like the static you see on an untuned television. Localised as it was to certain areas of the display, it was mildly disturbing. If it'd been the whole display, Rachel would have felt like crying because the system would have irrevocably broken and useless. But what could cause that? ECM didn't produce such blatant distortions. Not a single sort of ECM had ever had such an effect in testing and they'd tried everything they could get their hands on.
Okay, so she needed to think about their enemies. Alien involvement was a given. The initial reports from the Seers had indicated as much, so could it be them? No. She'd had access to their technology through X-COM and testing against that never produced such an effect. Stolen human technology? No. The aliens never used that and the demons were almost allergic to such things. What did that leave? Magic.
She'd never seen magic used as a countermeasure to modern technology before, none of their equipment was really specced for it: magic had been seen almost as a separate thing altogether, with mages of various sorts cancelling each other out so that the real workers could do their thing. She'd ran some tests, of course, but qualified wizards were like gold dust in the military and few could be spared for such things. And, rather obviously, there weren't many powerful demonic mages who could be tapped for that sort of work; most had the 'rah! All humans must die!' attitude still.
And they were facing demons. It all made sense. Even the amateurish nature of it. What did a demon know about advanced technology, after all?
Rachel almost laughed. "Well, that's pretty pathetic," she said. "About the worst attempt at a countermeasure I've ever seen, to be honest."
"So those are the attackers?"
"Right, he said. "I'll reinforce those chokepoints then. They're going to get a nasty surprise when they hit us."
Before Rachel could say anything, the ground shook fiercely and she felt a surge of horrifically powerful dark magic wash over her as a massive explosion roared in the distance. Several small chunks of plaster fell from the roof and quite a few of the men in the room had to clutch onto something to remain upright as the ground shake passed. Once things had stabilised the room immediately erupted into some barely organised chaos as the people running the command post sought to discover what had happened.
"They took the bait, said Rachel to Vasquez.
"Yeah? Looks like it," said Vasquez. What sort of charges did you put in that place?"
"Felt like dark magic," said Willow, coming up to stand beside Rachel. "Dragon slave?"
Tara looked to be in agreement, but she didn't say anything.
"Good thing I listened to you about that national guard base, Giles. Got any more insights?"
"Nothing useful. You already know they'll be coming straight for us, said Rachel. "Kill them before they kill us. I think you can manage that."
Vasquez's grin was positively infectious and more than slightly manic. "Oh, I think so."
The battle reigned clearly on the display for a few minutes after that. Once the demons had made visual contact with the defence emplacements, it was all quite clearly visible on the hologram. Hundreds of demons came barrelling down the roads into down and they all funnelled quite nicely into the choke points that had been established at the outermost defence perimeter. Between that and the human control of the air, it was beginning to look like Great War style trench warfare with the attackers having shit all chance of success.
Rachel's frown just grew as the battle proceeded. It just didn't make sense. The demons were no great shakes when it came to modern warfare, but between the aliens who had to be working with them and the experience of Glory's attack they shouldn't have been that stupid. If nothing else, there should have been Cyberdiscs there contesting the air battle with the HKs. Charging in head-first against automatic weaponry when they didn't even have air support was the absolute height of idiocy.
"Something isn't right here," she said to Vasquez. "No-one can be as stupid as this."
He frowned and stared at the display for a good long moment before turning his head to face her. "I think I agree" he said. Another moment passed as he eyed the display. "Yeah, I have a bad feeling about this. It's too easy," he said before turning to his second. "Colonel, have the men withdraw to the next ring."
The order didn't come a moment too soon. As the defensive positions emptied out and the men double-timed it to the next level of defence, several of the outermost points just vanished from the map as a rain of missiles fell upon them. Her intuition was still worth something even with the hellmouth interfering, it seemed.
"Here come the aliens."
Several clusters of Cyberdiscs appeared at the edges of the map and began floating inwards towards the defensive positions in support of what looked to be a Sectoid strike force. Several of the aerial HK formations immediately changed course to intercept the aliens.
"Okay, get reserve formation C to reinforce those defensive positions," ordered Vasquez. "And deploy two of our reserve HK groups."
The battle proceeded along those lines for a little while. The aliens combined with the demons to provide a more effective attacking force but the defences were stout and had been designed with that sort of attack in mind. It was pretty much one way traffic, as far as Rachel could discern from the hologram. Of course it couldn't last. Nothing ever goes according to plan for long in Sunnydale.
Dark magic washed over her. Not as flashy as the last batch and without the other effects, but she felt it all the same and just as powerful. And a moment later she felt the wards start to groan under the weight of it. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see quite a light show taking place outside the windows as the wards struggled to repel the attack.
"What the hell?" That was Vasquez. "Giles, Rosenberg, what the hell is that?"
"The wards are under attack," said Rachel simply. "And they're losing."
In the blink of an eye, Vasquez had his communicator in hand. "Granger, report," he barked.
"We've got maybe two minutes before the wards fall as is," she replied over the link. "I'm trying to reinforce them, but there's just too much power. More than I can manage."
"Giles? Rosenberg? McClay?"
All three of them shook their heads. Rachel, for one, didn't know much of anything about warding. Enough to be dangerous but not enough to be useful about summed it up, to be honest.
"Shit. Do what you can, Granger." He clicked the link off. Then he barked out, "prepare for incoming wizards."
Rachel drew her lightsabre and ignited it ready for any attack. A few of the soldiers in the room stared for a moment before busying themselves with their own preparations. She supposed that it wasn't every day you saw a lightsabre in person, though judging by the look by Vaquez's face he wasn't terribly impressed by their staring. Helmets were donned, weapons were cocked. They were ready. Nearly.
"HK, disengage safeties," ordered Rachel. "All hostiles are to be terminated on sight regardless of their species."
It actually took nearly five minutes for the wards to fall. Five of the longer minutes Rachel had ever experienced. And when the wards fell, they fell with a truly thunderous crack as the magical energy that had been anchoring them was expelled in a roar of power that blew out every window in the school and most likely the town. Immediately cracks and pops filled her hearing and wizards began appearing in the room and throughout the whole building.
One unfortunate, dark-haired wizard appeared directly in front of Rachel and he was sliced in two before he could so much as blink. Within the blink of an eye the room was filled with blaster and spell fire as the two sides engaged. Rachel absent-mindedly batted a couple of bright green curses up into the roof as she took it all in. There were far more wizards than she'd expected for the battle. They must have pissed off more people then they'd realised when they'd annexed wizard-controlled territories.
A soldier fell to the ground next to her, his armour ablaze with black fire, and Rachel cast a counter-spell without thought. Another wizard popped out of thin air next to her and Rachel slashed her sabre through his ribs and through a lung into his heart; he fell to the ground with a gurgling wheeze. If they were going to set themselves up like that, she wasn't going to leave the opportunity untaken.
With a deft movement, Rachel stepped aside out of the way of a stray blaster bolt that blew a large chunk out of the concrete wall behind her. Tsk. Sloppy aim. She fired a glare at the soldier who'd fired the shot before turning her attention back to the battle. Wizards were being killed left, right, and centre, but they weren't going down without a fight. And they were a distraction. She frowned. Where was the main event? None of them had the power to break the wards.
A dark-coloured spell came flying Rachel's way and she moved her blade to send it back the way it had came, but a moment before it impacted her lightsabre disappeared to be replacing by an overly-long, drooping dandelion. So surprised was she that she barely noticed as the spell dug into her forearm and cut her right down to the bone with a hissing sound. Of course, she noticed the pain that struck a moment later. And she certainly noticed when the dandelion that had replaced her lightsabre burst out into flames.
With a growl, Rachel sent a hail of magical missiles at the witch who had cursed her in a non-verbal attack. The witch's eyes widened and with a quick circular motion of her wand she raised a fairly stiff-looking magical shield. It did her little good, though. The first three missiles clanged against the shield with an almighty gong but the fourth blew through and blasted her across the room where she slammed into a wall and fell to the ground unmoving.
After that, Rachel turned her attention to the witch who'd destroyed her weapon. Ah, tall, blonde, and with a look on her face that said 'my shit doesn't stink'. It could only be one person from Harry's descriptions.
"Narcissa Malfoy," said Rachel. "So, you're the assassin, I take it? As I recall, you have a shape-shifter in your bloodline."
Narcissa made a sniffing sound in reply as if she was soiling herself by even talking to Rachel. "And you are the muggle with delusions of grandeur," she sniffed. "I shall soon put you in your place, but where is the Potter brat?"
"Right here, Malfoy. Avada Kedavra!"
Harry was obviously in no mood for subtlety. Narcissa had no time at all to counter the spell and it hit true. The green light washed over her body and then . . . nothing. Rachel's mind worked over the probabilities in a moment and she was left with only one viable answer.
"You've sold your soul."
Harry's face immediately twisted with a visceral sort of revulsion. Narcissa's expression, however, was almost gleeful. "And it has brought me power!" she exclaimed. "Such power! Far too great a power to be ever defeated by anything borne of filthy muggle blood such as-"
Whatever she was going to say would have to be forever left to the imagination as a blaster bolt striking her mid-section cut her off. And it wasn't a quick end. Whatever power she had gained from selling her soul fought the disintegration tooth and nail right to the bitter end. She died screaming and howling in agony as her body slowly fell to dust. Quite the horrific sight, Rachel was sure. Not that she took any satisfaction from it at all. No, that would be wrong!
Still, the only way it could have been better would have been if it had been Miller's kid pulling the trigger instead of HK.
"Declaration: That recording shall see me through many a day of tedious non-bloodshed."
The battle didn't last much longer after that. Narcissa's death seemed to dishearten those that hadn't already been dealt with and the ones that weren't killed teleported away not to be seen again. They did, however, leave a few nasty surprises as they went. Rachel was not at all impressed with the bastard that transfigured half a dozen computer terminals into sabre-toothed tigers before he popped out. Not one bit. Well, okay, maybe a little bit. Nifty bit of magic even if it was utter bastardry. It'd be easier to admire if they hadn't mauled the shit out of a couple of soldiers before they were put down though.
The command room was in absolute chaos. Much of the equipment was smashed to pieces or otherwise ruined and several of the soldiers simply weren't moving, whether that be because they were dead or simply unconscious. The actual losses were quite light, though, all things considered. She doubted that they'd killed more then two or three soldiers despite their own numbers. A function of preparation most likely. The wizards hadn't exactly helped themselves by just charging on in without heed to what they would be facing. It made her wonder just what the plan had been.
Of course, HK was barely even scratched. Killing curses and what have you just weren't going to cut it against him. She was going to have to enchant him to resist being transfigured though; bad enough to lose her lightsabre, but HK? That would be an expensive disaster.
Before Rachel could go to check on her friends who'd been in the room with her, Harry tapped his wand against her wounded forearm and a stream of bandages spouted forth from the tip of his wand and wrapped around the wound. The pain she'd been suppressing was instantly relieved somewhat.
"Thanks," said Rachel, sending a grateful smile Harry's way and moving her arm around to test it as she spoke.
Harry shrugged. "No problem," he said. "But you'd best get a real healer to check it out sharpish. Where's your lightsabre?"
Rachel stared mournfully at the ashes that were all that remained of her sabre. She really didn't have much luck with her weapons.
Before anything else could be said Rachel's sixth sense flared up, warning her of an incoming danger. Her head snapped up away from where her lightsabre's remains had fallen and she scanned the room quickly looking for an indicator but she saw nothing out of place. She was about to give people a head's up when a flare of magic played across her senses and a short, red demon with stringy white hair appeared in the middle of the room leaning on a staff.
Rachel saw an ugly look of surprise appear on the demon's face as every soldier in the room who still had a weapon aimed it at him. She was rather surprised to note that more than a few soldiers appeared to have lost their rifles along the way but there still wasn't any shortage of weapons being pointed that way. Suddenly the wizards' plan made much more sense even if it had failed. Cleverer than she'd expected of a demon but it had failed.
Within seconds of the demon teleporting in the air sizzled with blaster fire sent his way, HK leading the way with his repeater rifle churning out shot after shot after shot. The time between him teleporting in to the room and the massive concentration of crimson energy impacting on his shields was only a couple of seconds but it was enough for him to dissolve into the air and escape the firestorm heading his way. Barely.
Rachel tracked the demon to its destination point, still within the room, and acted first. She yanked the blaster pistol she'd been assigned on arrival in Sunnydale out of her belt and and fired off a quick grouping of three shots at the demon's head. That was when things turned screwy. The demon saw the bolts coming and dodged them. Pretty impressive for an old man. Too impressive. He wasn't exactly a blur of motion but he was moving far too quickly considering his weak appearance and she could feel magic about him. Active magic.
Her mind moved quickly enough, but she couldn't place the feel of the magic he was using. It wasn't something she'd ever used herself and she couldn't come up with a counterspell on the spot; that confusion cost. Before anyone could do anything to bring him down he spat out a quick series of phrases in a language Rachel had never heard before.
And then the hellmouth opened.
A massive beast straight out of a primal nightmare smashed through the concrete floor in the centre in a flood of dark energy that reeked of places that even a Sith would hesitate to tread. Rachel vaguely heard someone yelling into a communications link at the edge of her hearing but her attention was focussed on the monster before her. She hadn't seen it herself but she knew it from the descriptions. It was the creature that had followed in the wake of the Master. It was the Hellmouth Spawn. The creature that resided in the void between Earth and Hell. Their time was limited. They had to close the hellmouth and they had to do it now before it fully opened.
Faith pulled a dagger from her belt and slashed at one of the creature's tentacles as it flopped through the air near her. She managed to land a blow that opened up a miniscule cut in the creature's thick hide but as payment for her efforts another tentacle slashed around with dizzying speed and smashed her across the library, slamming her against a concrete wall with crushing force. She'd be fine but Rachel expected that she'd be damn sore for a while.
That action shook the soldiers out of their demon-powered haze of shock and they immediately opened fire on the beast. Dozens upon dozens of blaster bolts impacted against its hide and the creature let loose a psychic roar as it hurled its tentacles around the library bouncing soldiers around like so much deadweight.
Rachel leapt away from a tentacle that would have smashed into the side of her head and took a moment to evaluate the situation. The Hellmouth Spawn was a monstrous beast that was virtually impossible to kill and could deliver tremendous amounts of damage with blows from its massive tentacles, but it was a symptom and not the actual disease. The mage was the real threat. He was the power behind what was happening and with his death it would end. The hellmouth hadn't reached full opening and until it did the mage had to keep pumping magic into it to keep it opening. With his death, it would close immediately, and it would be over.
With that in mind, Rachel scanned the room searching for him, absent-mindedly dodging flailing tentacles as she did so. It didn't take long to locate him. Not only was he the only demon in the room but he was also radiating magical power like no other creature she had ever ran across. It wasn't the monstrous brute power of the insane goddess Glory but the tightly controlled, refined power of a master wizard. And that worried her a hell of a lot more than any mindless beast ever could.
But he was a truly arrogant bastard. He stood there as if he didn't have a care in the world, moving his arms as if he was directing an orchestra rather than taking part in a fight to the death, and sending spells left, right, and centre as he took full advantage of the confusion caused by having a monster straight out of Lovecraft sprout out of the floor and start bashing soldiers about.
Harry was the first of the magical types to engage him, reacting with lightning reflexes, but that was a short engagement. His killing curse was intercepted by a piece of rubble that sprang from the floor and into its path in the blink of an eye before a black beam blew through his shields and smashed him to the ground, knocking his wand out of his grasp and sending it skittering along the floor.
And then the demon started exchanging spells with Tara and Willow, who had their hands clasped tightly together, sharing their power. If there was a greater proof of arrogance than that in the world, Rachel had never seen it. Willow was the magical equivalent of a nuclear bomb without other people augmenting her power. It was insanity. Utter insanity. But if her enemy was determined to be foolish, Rachel wasn't going to complain.
A tentacle grasped at her feet as she darted over to Harry, who had rolled onto his knees, but she deftly hopped over it and kept going.
"You OK?" she asked, crouching down next to him.
"Fine," he said as he drew another, longer wand from a pouch on his belt. Then with a wave he summoned his other wand to his hand. "Let's deal with this bastard."
Rachel nodded and then the pair of them rose to their feet in unison. "You go left," ordered Rachel, as she saw Willow and Tara shudder under the impact of a writhing, twisting beam of black magic that stank of the most horrible sort of demonic evil.
Harry nodded in return and then they moved, Harry going left and Rachel going right as they approached the demon's back. As they went, Rachel felt the wards snap back into place, albeit weaker, and Rachel sent a mental nod of thanks Hermione's way. That would be helpful.
Rachel opened the offensive against the demon with a torrent of white-hot fire that spewed forth from from her fingertips in a blaze of magical energy. The mage reacted with startling speed for one so old and threw up a quick shield before a surge of magic that could only be an attempted teleportation emanated from him. The look of horrified shock that spread across his face when nothing happened was one Rachel would remember for a long time to come.
Such was his surprise that he didn't react in time to Harry's curse and a red burst of magic slashed through his neck, a cutting curse, in a spurt of green ichor. And that was the end of the demon mage. His face still held the exact same expression of shock when it rolled to a halt at Rachel's feet.
The magic that had held the portal to hell open vanished in a moment and the Hellmouth Spawn, blackened and scarred as it was by blaster fire, was sucked back down into the void between dimensions as the power that allowed it its foothold was removed. For a moment, as the demonic power was sucked away, the power of the hellmouth was stilled and Rachel's senses were given full reign for the first time in Sunnydale. And in that moment she saw exactly what she needed to do to bring an end to this battle and to the Circle of the Black Thorn.
Rachel's teleportation deposited her in one of the many abandoned buildings that littered the route into Sunnydale. The particular room she found herself in was particularly dilapidated with obvious signs of damp rot present in the walls, but the demons had, for some reason, decided to turn it into some sort of throne room. A thick, deep-red carpet led from the rotted door frame to an ornate golden throne that had been placed at the back of the room in front of a pair of empty window frames.
There were seven demons in the room. One was sat on the throne and bore the look of one who was accustomed to such a position. The others were arranged as an honour guard standing along each side of the carpet that led to the throne. All of those demons were of the same breed: they all had the same white skin, the same long horns, the same pointed ears, and the same yellow eyes. They were all Raknar Demons. A politically powerful breed, known for their large numbers and unusually unified society. They were only at roughly the same level as the Roman Empire or thereabouts as a society, but that was far better than the ungovernable mobs that made up most demon species.
The guards drew their swords in a blur of steel a moment after she appeared, but she was in no mood to waste any time on plebs. She reached down into her reserves of Force power and with a precisely controlled release of telekinetic power she took hold of each of the guards and proceeded to dash their heads against the walls with great force. And that was the end of them. Not, strictly speaking, a proper Jedi use of the Force but it was effective enough.
"Your powers are impressive," said the last remaining demon, the one sat on the throne. His voice was calm, as was his facial expression, but he reeked of fear.
"It's over, Sebassis," said Rachel. "You've lost."
"Oh?" he asked. "I have to disagree. Between my legions and the aliens, I think it's far from over, child."
Rachel shook her head. "Fool," she spat out. "Your legions burn as we speak and the aliens burn with them."
He seemed unconcerned.
"And your friend, the mage, is dead. I watched him die. An amusing sight. All that power and for what? He was a fool. An arrogant fool."
Sebassis blinked. "Impossible," he said, his eyes slightly widened. "Vail was powerful beyond description. Reality itself bent to his whims. No mere mortal could ever defeat him."
"You know, it's that exact attitude that got him killed. He thought he could take us all on and win. He was wrong."
Sebassis frowned. "Ah," he said. "I did warn him about the witch. Well, those are the breaks. You win some, you lose some. We'll just have to do this the old-fashioned way."
"If you're talking about the aliens you have near here waiting for your orders, well . . . "
The sound of heavy sustained blaster fire and explosions echoed through the room. And Rachel nodded. "They're no longer relevant."
"Is this where you arrest me, girl? Parade me through the streets as a vanquished foe? Put me on trial, perhaps?"
Rachel cocked her head and asked a simple question. "Why would I do that when I could simply kill you?"
"You don't just kill an archduke!"
"Why ever not?" asked Rachel. "I've killed senators, kings, presidents, chancellors . . . what's an archduke to that?"
"You'll find that I'm not without my defences," he said flatly, standing up sharply and clenching his fists.
"We'll see," said Rachel. "For crimes against humanity, you are to be summarily executed under the authorisation of Brigadier General Robert Vasquez and Brigadier Rachel Giles under the Treaty of Mutual Co-Operation and the War Powers Act of 2002."
Immediately, a telekinetic grip settled around her throat and began to squeeze. Rachel dispelled that grip with a wave of her hand. Before Sebassis could attack her again, she pulled a blaster pistol free from where it had been attached to her belt and put a bolt of crimson energy between the demon's eyes. He dropped like a rock and didn't move again.
"And that is the end of that."
Well, that was a bit of an exaggeration. There was still a lot of cannon fodder that had to be disposed of and the aliens were always capable of putting up a good fight, but it was still over quickly with Sebassis and Vail dead. You were lucky if you could get demons to work together well when they had strong leadership. With their leaders dead they degenerated into a rabble. And the aliens? There was wasn't enough of them to take on a full US Army brigade by any stretch of the imagination.
When it was over, Rachel went to track down Miller's kid. The aftermath of the battle was everywhere to be seen but it was nowhere near as grim as most she had been part of during her time. It had been the proverbial man taking a knife to a gunfight and she'd never been the sort of get worked up over the slaughter of demons. As far as she was concerned, a battle that ended with lots of dead demons and minimal dead humans was about as good as it got battle-wise.
She found the lieutenant at one of the medical facilities that had been established in one of the many unused buildings in Sunnydale, waiting for one his men to come out of treatment for some sort of injury. The battle may have had minimal casualties on the human side as battles went but it was still busy and the smell of the blood there still irritated her werewolf nose something fierce.
"Hey, Miller," she said.
"Brigadier," he replied, looking a little tired. "Is there something you wanted?"
"Well, I wanted to make sure you hadn't gotten yourself killed," she said. "But that's done. Unless you're a zombie of some sort?"
"No," he said with a very small smile. "No zombies here."
"Good," she said. "So how are you? Feel better now you've had a spot of revenge?"
"A bit, I suppose," he said with a shrug. "At least they didn't get what they wanted. My father didn't die for nothing."
Rachel nodded. "I thought you should know," she said. "The woman who killed your father is dead. She lead the attack on the command post and was disintegrated for her troubles."
Miller closed his eyes and breathed deeply. "Who killed her?"
"My droid," she said. "HK. It wasn't a quick death either. She'd dabbled in some seriously dark magics and it made it all go real slow when she died. Whatever evil she did, she's paid for it in spades."
And she'd go on paying for it for all eternity. Selling your soul for power was a one-way ticket to the deepest, darkest pits of a hell dimension somewhere. It was a particularly stupid thing to do and she'd gone and done it anyway. And for what? A short-lived power boost.
"Thanks. I . . . that's . . . good to know."