Chapter I: Calm Before The Storm

"Here at last
We shall be free;
 Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven."
- John Milton, Paradise Lost

~¤~

Sunnydale, CA: Earth

"Faith, how're you doing over there?" Buffy yelled, trying to make herself heard over the screeches of the hawk-like demon she was fighting. When the demon lunged at her, Buffy pushed off from the ground and landed a solid punch to the demon's head, throwing it off balance.

"Five by five, B," Faith hollered back, grinning. She leapt, executed an awesome three-sixty and kicked her opponent to the ground, smashing its skull against the gravel.

"Oh yeah," Faith exulted, "I'm the best! Slayer numero uno!"

Buffy rolled her eyes and managed a roundhouse kick that brought down the hawk-demon once and for all. She added some additional bone-cracking blows to its head and finally stepped back to let the creature's lifeless body disintegrate into grayish, slimy goo.

Gross. I am so never eating tapioca pudding again.

Faith wiped her hands on her leather pants and glanced around. "Hey, where'd the others go?"

"Excuse me?" Cordelia's outraged voice reached them from the other end of the street corner, answering Faith's question for her. "Who gave you permission to slime all over my new boots? These things cost forty bucks!"

Buffy skidded to the corner to find Cordelia swiping at a burly, fur-covered creature with a broken broom, yelling insults at it between jabs and slicing movements. Fred, armed with a metal chair leg, was trying to get at the creature from behind, but she wasn't getting anywhere fast.

"Ares, hear my cry," Willow's voice suddenly rumbled, powerfully magnified. "Destroy those who stand in my way, with all the force of fire and flame!"

As she finished the incantation, flames leapt from her hands and engulfed the nearest fur-creature, fiercely reducing it to a pile of smoldering ash.

The auburn-haired witch surveyed her hands and smiled in satisfaction before turning to the others.

"Are we all clear?" Cordelia asked, tentatively lowering the broom.

Buffy nodded in affirmative, her gaze skirting the empty street. "Yeah, I think so."

"Good," Fred said empathetically, her Southern-accented voice relieved. She threw the chair leg back into the Dumpster it had come from. "Ah never want to come unprepared to another of those meetings again."

"Yeah. I'm going to need a shower with a fire hose before I get clean of this guck." Faith held up two very grimy, slime-covered hands, half-grinning despite her disgust.  

"Tell me about it," Buffy groused. "It'll take me a week to get clean."

"I think we earned ourselves a reward," Cordelia decided, smiling. "Who's up for ice cream?"

~¤~

"Mmm." Faith slowly licked away a huge chunk of her ice cream, savoring the taste. "Heavy chocolate, light on the mint. Delicious."

She pretended not to notice that she was attracting the attention of about every guy seated outside of the ice cream parlor; her dark hair was ruffled, her makeup had smeared and made her look slightly wild and her clothes were torn oh-so-fetchingly, which amounted to quite a lot for the male patrons of the parlor to ogle at. The others were, of course, equally attractive, but somehow nobody managed to dress quite as eye-catchingly – or, in the words of Cordelia, as "sluttily" - as Faith did. 

"Ah never been a chocolate fan myself," Fred said, "but give me a raspberry cream soda any day." She looked upwards, beyond the umbrella that covered their table, and squinted at the bright sunlight as she slurped the last of her soda.

"Or strawberry cream," Willow remarked, stirring her own soda with a straw. "I love strawberry cream soda. With extra cream and lots of syrup."

Buffy finished off her butterscotch sundae with a sigh of satisfaction. "Okay, so now it's official. There is so nothing like ice cream after a hard day at work."

Cordelia shook back her newly-dyed dark brown hair and ate the cherry off of her banana split. "The only thing that could make this better is being guy-free more often. Or, you know, planning a heavy shopping trip afterwards." She sighed. "But we don't have all that much free time on our hands."

Faith shrugged. "I think we should just enjoy our free time while we've got it. That shopping trip doesn't seem like such a bad idea, C."

"Really?" Cordelia perked up. "Good, 'cause there's this great place on Weststreet that carries shoes to die for. It might take our minds off stuff for a while."

"I'm up for it," Buffy said. She stood up and stretched lightly. "I need something to take my mind off all this slayage. What with that and the sudden influx of vampires, I've barely had time to sleep lately."

"Don't worry 'bout it, B. We'll have you wide awake and kickin' in no time!" Faith promised, winking as she stood up.

~¤~

"Checkmate." Wesley smiled and settled back in his chair, enjoying the mildly confused look on his opponent's face.

Giles sighed and straightened his glasses. "Well, I must say, it was rather a challenge." He paused to drain his teacup. "Rematch?"

Wesley considered this for while. "All right. You're on."

Dawn yawned, as loudly and obviously as she could. "Bo-ring. Don't you guys ever do anything for fun?"

"Well, I warned you, didn't I?" Connor relaxed into the sofa next to Dawn, almost as bored as she was. "British people make lousy babysitters."

"Hey." Dawn smacked him lightly on the arm. "I never said anything about babysitters!"

"Fine, so they're parentless-teen fun-activity coordinators." Connor paused. "Is that better?"

Dawn sighed. "I wish Anya was here. She could show us some really cool demon-power moves. You should really see the way she blows stuff up –" Dawn halted when she saw the look on Giles's face. "Or maybe I should just stop there."

"Hey, I think dad left the training room open. Want to go try out the new equipment?" Connor asked, almost as an afterthought.

Dawn looked faintly interested. "What sort of equipment?"

"Punching bags, axes, maces, bo staffs, a couple of swords… You know, the usual."

"Sounds good enough for me. Let's go."

They raced each other to the training room, and Connor beat Dawn by barely half a second.

"Ha! You can't even keep up," he crowed victoriously, earning himself another smack on the arm. Dawn glared at him, but soon forgot her annoyance when she surveyed the training room.

Metal and chrome glinted at her in abundance, along with polished wood and tough leather; sharp edges of swords, daggers and knives gleamed behind the doors of a glass cupboard, leather punching bags swayed invitingly, gorgeous grappling gloves lay ready on a long, thin wooden table and wooden dummies just waiting to be beaten were lined up against the walls.

"Whoa," Dawn breathed in admiration, "Angel sure knows how to build a training room."

Connor grinned. "I know. And wait until you try the titanium spears on for size – those things can run straight through solid brick."

Dawn quickly slipped on a pair of grappling gloves, flexed her fingers in admiring satisfaction and moved straight at one of the dummies. She started easy at first, moving lightly on her feet and delivering barely visible butterfly blows to the wooden head of the dummy.

Then she executed a couple of kicks, nothing very heavy, just to warm her up. She kept the rhythm in her head: kick, kick, blow, spin, blow, kick, dodge, jab, spin, blow, jab, kick…

Pretty soon she was giving it all she had, throwing herself full-out at the wooden dummy. Soon enough the dummy's straw padding fell apart, and when Dawn gave it a final, heavy flying roundhouse kick, wood splintered as the dummy's midsection cracked under the pressure of the blow.

"Whoa." Connor stared at the ruined practice dummy and the hay and splinters strewn on the floor. "You should really lay off the caffeine there, Mighty Mouse."

Dawn shook her hair back and wiped her forehead as casually as she could. "At least I have energy enough to make a real training session," she retorted. "You don't seem to be doing all that much damage yourself."

"Yeah, well, I'm not related to the Slayer, am I?" Connor shot back. Dawn only glared in reply and spun out of the training room, severely ruffled.

Did I just score a direct hit? Connor wondered, watching the young Slayer-to-be storm off.

He could only hope.

~¤~

"Oh, yes," Spike said sarcastically, "getting myself lost in the bloody sewer system was exactly how I had planned on spending my day."

"For once, I share your sentiments," Xander said, staring in utter disgust at a dead rat floating by in a small river of something very smelly, very oozy and very green. Oh my god. And whatever killed that rat might still be in here.

The thought did not cheer him up.

"Hey, it wasn't my plan," Oz said lightly. He seemed totally unaffected by the stinking sewerage surrounding him, and he only stopped once in a while to lift his foot away from a gooey pile of something or other.

"Okay, so maybe it wasn't Operation Brilliant," Angel admitted, squinting into the dim light of the tunnel. "But it was the only way to patrol without having to worry about the sunlight."

"Newsflash, Dead Boy – now we have even worse stuff to worry about." Xander wrinkled his nose, trying to hold his breath for as long as possible. Oh yeah. Something definitely did some heavy decaying down here.

"Look, let's just make it to the mansion. Then we can all send suggestions on how to improve sewer hygiene to the Sunnydale Slayers-R-Us society. Or maybe the Council for Improved Lifestyles of Undead Beings."

Spike rolled his eyes. "Cool off there, Peaches. Just get us out of the damned tunnel first, will you?"

Suddenly the silence was broken by a loud crunch, followed by a sickening squishing noise.

"Whoops." Oz looked down and squinted in the dim light.

"What?" Xander craned his head around. "What happened?"

Oz glanced up briefly. "Dead squirrel. I think. It had fur, anyway."

"Oh." Xander paused for a very long moment. "Well, that certainly helped my digestion along."

~¤~

Fenacia, Trinity: Galaxy of the Stellar Alliance

"No!" All she could hear was her own voice, repeating the same word over and over, in a shrill, hysterical moan. "No! No!"

She couldn't breathe, couldn't think; her senses were clogged and her eyes blinded with panic. Why? The thought seemed to boom inside her head. Why are they doing this?

"No! Darian!" She sat there, tears streaming unheeded down her face, shuddering violently. Darian. Why?

She gripped her arms in a tight hug that almost cut off her circulation, desperately fighting to breathe in sharp, painful gasps between wild sobbing.

They took him away, chained and bound, like some sort of cattle. No… no… not Darian! They can't do this!

And then, in a sudden moment of clarity, it struck her: they could do it. They had done it. They had torn him from her, simply to be executed as slowly and torturously as possible in whatever dirty pit they chose to throw him in.

For just a moment, Neyla D'Kan forgot. She forgot that she had sworn never to touch the ways of the Dark. She forgot that Darian – her Darian – was a full-fledged Overlord who could survive anything the Shadows threw at him. She forgot that she was a Guardian, and therefore not privileged to be personally attached to any sentient being – especially not an Overlord.

She forgot that she had no right to kill.

But only for just a moment. Then she realized that she had to push her panic – her fear – away for as long as possible. The only way to save Darian was to find Nemesis, and quickly.

Maybe then, they could save the Living Worlds from complete annihilation.

~¤~

"They took him?" Lord Karan couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Are you quite sure?"

Neyla nodded, her mouth set in a thin, bitter line. She couldn't afford to let anyone see what she had suffered and was suffering – for her own sake as well as Darian's.

"Yes. Lord Darian has been taken by the Shadows."

Lady Garnet, standing across from Neyla in the Council circle, shook her head. "There has to be more to it. The Shadow soldiers do not take without reason. There must be an explanation."

"Really?" Neyla, Guardian as she was, could not keep her voice from trembling – with rage as well grief. "Then explain it to me, dear Lady Garnet. Fenacia now lies in ruins, and it was the last free town standing. Trinity is destroyed. The Stellar Alliance is falling apart. And now the Shadows have taken Overlord Darian. Innocents are suffering, dying, for no apparent reason. Evelon is burned to the ground and the Serene Empress has been captured."

Neyla took a deep breath and stared the other woman straight in the eye. "How do you explain all that?"

Lady Garnet looked away. "I only meant…"

"You meant nothing," Neyla said tiredly, "but that doesn't make it untrue. The Stellar Worlds are doomed."

"No. Ruined, but not doomed." When she looked up, Neyla found Nemesis' iridescent silver eyes fixed on her. "There is a reason for all of this." Nemesis usually communicated through thought, and her thought-speak was as silvery and gentle as her voice. The tall, regal woman held the key to the very Gates of Time, and she was a respected member of the Council.

Everyone in the Council waited while she raised her scepter, pointing it towards the center of the circle of deities.

"The Shadows seek something. All this ravaging, all this killing and destroying… It has a purpose."

Four rays of light burst from the scepter and formed figures in the center of the room, four smooth, dark orbs that revolved slowly in mid-air.

"They are searching for this - the Apocalypse Four.

The only things that will grant the Shadows complete control of the Living Worlds."

~¤~

Author's Note: Well, that's the end of the chapter. Reviews are welcome, as always. I know the storyline seems kind of stiff right now (and, yes, slightly cliché) but I'll hopefully be able to change that soon.

And just for the heck of it, I've decided to put up some quotes from my collection of Buffy the Vampire Slayer books, as well as my usual quote at the beginning of a chapter (those books were basically just collecting dust anyway – might as well use 'em for something).

~¤~

"I'm the Slayer. Slay-er. Chosen One? She who hangs out a lot in cemeteries? Ask around. Look it up. Slayer comma the." – Buffy

~

 Buffy: "You know, hand-holding goes better with music."

Angel: "I'll hum."

Buffy: (Rolling her eyes in mock fright) "No! Anything but that!"

Angel: "You know, that kind of attitude will lose you your hand-holding privileges."

– From Revenant, by Mel Odom.

~

Cordelia: "I can't believe we're out here by ourselves."

Xander: "I know. Kinda spooky, huh? I guess you feel like cuddling up to me so I can protect you?"

Cordelia: "In your dreams."

Xander: (Nodding reasonably) "Yes, and your point would be…?"

– From Immortal, by Nancy Holder and Christopher Golden.

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Willow: (While staking a vampire) "You messed with the wrong girl, Chumley!"

(Exchanging a look with Oz) "Okay, so maybe my tough chick banter needs work."

- From Immortal

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