Disclaimer: Joss and co. own all things Buffy, and SFC owns Stargate. No copyright infringement is intended, so please don't sue. I don't have any money anyway.
Dedication: To Helen and Nikki, for whom I do everything. And my angels, Jordan and Jessica, may they rest in peace.
Summary: Three years after the end of the series (BtVS), a group of former Scoobies have a new mission. Kicking interplanetary undead ass.
Author's Note: Special thanks to DaBear, Sirius, Miss Kayl, Big G, Rob Clark, Darklight, Eykar, S.M., charmedfanatic3000, Alexandra, slbwhitewolf, Mytryk, Calia, WBH21C, RickW22, lmichelle1, Jwolf, Enjael, Jen007, Thundertb, weirdfrog, Agent-G, Damia, Lel x, Bex, Icealina, KaIrO, LizaGirl, and Dirbatua for the feedback. It's much appreciated. Also, this is an AU as far as the Stargate universe since O'Neill is still a colonel and Janet Fraiser is still alive.
March 31, 2005
Colorado Springs, CO
Xander and Willow stood in the gate room along with SG-1 and General Hammond, watching the stargate light up as it connected to an incoming wormhole. Today was the day, Xander thought. Time to find out if he was going to be any use at all to these people. Today was the day they were going to reach into Xander's mind and try to pull out the long dormant soldier memories.
The wormhole established and the gate flushed sideways. It was an amazing sight that Xander and Willow still weren't used to yet. A few seconds later, two people emerged from the gate and started down the ramp. An older looking man with a bald head, and a beautiful woman carrying a case of some kind.
"The High Council of the Tok'ra sends its greetings," the man said, extending his hand. General Hammond shook it.
"Good to see you, Jacob," the General said.
"You too, George. Jack, Daniel, Teal'c."
"Hi, Dad," Sam said, stepping forward and giving Jacob a hug.
"Hey, kiddo," Jacob said affectionately. Xander and Willow looked on with puzzled expressions.
"Wait a minute," Xander said. "This is your father?"
"Yeah," Sam answered.
"And he's an alien?"
"Are you an alien?"
"No, of course not."
"You better get used to it kid, it happens a lot with this job," Jack chimed in.
"The Tok'ra are symbiotes," Daniel explained. "Like the Goa'uld. They need human hosts."
"The key differences being, we don't take a host against their will, and we share the body equally. I'm Jacob Carter," Jacob said, extending his hand to Xander. Xander shook it. Jacob lowered his head and closed his eyes.
He looked up again and spoke, his voice a deep baritone. "And I am Selmac."
Xander nodded. "Nice to meet you…both of you."
"This is Anise," Selmac said, introducing the Tok'ra woman.
"Anise," Xander said, shaking the woman's hand. "That's a very pretty name."
"It means Noble Strength," Anise said.
"My name is Alexander, it means, um…Wills, what does it mean?" he asked, turning to Willow.
"Defender of mankind," she answered.
"How appropriate then," Anise said. "That you've chosen this life for yourself."
"I suppose. I never really thought about it."
"I'm Willow. It means tree."
"Well, now that we're all acquainted, what do you say we get down to business," Jacob said. "I have to tell you George, the High Council was intrigued by the message you sent. If all this stuff about demons is really true…"
"It's true," Xander answered.
"Well, that makes this a whole new ball game, doesn't it," Jacob said. "Why don't we get started."
An hour or so later, more pleasantries had been exchanged, Daniel and Willow had shown Jacob some books and pictures of ruins to take back to the Tok'ra High Council, and Xander found himself sitting in a chair in the conference room while Anise set up her equipment in front of him.
"So, what exactly does this thing do?" he asked.
"It scans the brain and creates a visual representation of memories," Anise answered. "We used it not too long ago to investigate the possibility of a zatarg in the SGC."
"What's a zatarg?"
"A spy that doesn't know he's a spy," Jack answered. "It's a long story. Suffice it to say, I'm not going to be getting scanned by this thing again any time soon."
"Well thanks Jack, I feel much better now," Xander said.
"There is nothing to be concerned about, I assure you," Anise said. "It's perfectly safe."
"Unless you're a zatarg, which your not," Sam added. "So you have nothing to worry about."
"I am ready to proceed," Anise said.
"Okay, what do I have to do?" Xander asked.
"I'll ask you questions to uncover the memories, the machine will do the rest. Let's start with a test first, to make sure the machine is calibrated properly. Tell me, what happened to your eye?"
Xander frowned. "I'm not sure that's a good…"
He didn't even finish his sentence before an image appeared in front of him. It was the vineyard, their first encounter with Caleb. He was tossing Buffy around like a rag doll. A lot of the potentials were hurt. Rona had a broken arm, Kennedy was lying on the ground, not moving. Xander helped her to her feet. They weren't leaving anyone behind, not tonight, not ev…
"So, you're the one who sees." It happened so fast. He turned around and there was Caleb. His grip was like steel, there was nothing Xander could do. "Let's see what we can do about that." His thumb slid into Xander's eye socket with a sickening ease, like he was pulling a cherry out of a pie. A horrifying scream filled the conference room, and Xander wasn't sure if it was coming from the machine or him.
"Shut it off!" Willow yelled, rushing to Xander's side. The image disappeared. Xander was breathing hard, shaking his head back and forth like he was trying to physically force the memory to leave him. Willow pulled him into her arms before turning to Anise, shooting her a look that would make a grown man wet himself. "What the hell is the matter with you!"
Everyone else in the room seemed dumbfounded by what they had just seen, except for Teal'c whose expression was, as usual, unreadable. Sam and Daniel looked like they were about to be sick. Jack had seen more combat than either of them, he wasn't quite as shocked by it as they were, but he still wore a sympathetic frown. No one that young should know that kind of violence, he thought. Xander was barely in his twenties, and he was already a veteran of a war that most people didn't even know existed. Seeing it like that was a shot of reality, and none of them were prepared for it.
Anise looked horrified. "I…I'm sorry…I didn't know…"
"What did you think, it was licked off by kittens!" Willow bit back.
"It's okay, Willow," Xander said as he caught his breath. "I'm okay, I'm fine. It was just a bit of a shock is all, okay?" He turned to Anise. "I guess that means it works."
"Yes," Anise said. "I'm sorry, the experience can be jarring, I just wanted you to be prepared for it."
"Well you could have told us first," Willow snapped.
"Willow, really, it's okay," Xander said. "Maybe you all should wait outside. Something tells me a lot of the soldier memories aren't going to be much more pleasant than that."
"I'm sure, Willow," Xander said, cutting her off. He squeezed her hand reassuringly. "I want to do this." Xander pointed at himself. "See, resolve face."
The two exchanged a look for a few seconds before Willow nodded. "Okay. Just...be careful." Willow leaned down and kissed him on the forehead.
"If it's alright with you son, Colonel O'Neill and I would like to stay," General Hammond said. "Get a sense of what these memories are about, specifically what kind of training and knowledge you may have."
"That's fine, General," Xander said. Willow gave his hand one more squeeze before following Jacob, Sam, Daniel, and Teal'c out of the room.
Xander took a deep breath and steadied himself before looked back to Anise. "Okay, I'm ready. Let's do this."
Almost three hours later, Willow was still pacing back and forth in the corridor in front of the conference room. Sam and Daniel were still waiting with her, while Jacob and Teal'c had taken a break to get something to eat. "Why is this taking so long?" Willow asked for what seemed like the hundredth time.
"I guess there must be a lot of memories to sort through," Sam said. "I know from experience how confusing it can be to have memories that aren't your own floating around in your brain."
"How's that?" Willow asked.
"I was temporarily blended with a Tok'ra symbiote once, her name was Jolinar. I still have fragments of her memories that pop up once in a while. I can't imagine how difficult it will be for Xander to try and make sense of all these soldier memories once he has full access to them all."
"You're not making me feel better, Major."
Carter smiled sheepishly. "Sorry."
"I may not have known Xander for very long," Daniel piped in. "But if it's any consolation, he seems very good at adapting to new situations. I'm sure he'll be able to handle these memories."
"I hope so," Willow said. "Because if he can't, knowing Xander, he won't tell anybody until his head explodes. He always puts himself last."
"Well, then it's a good thing he has someone like you who puts him first," Daniel said. "I wouldn't worry too much, Anise knows what she's doing. If Xander is in any danger, they'll stop."
Willow nodded, but she still wasn't sure. If Xander feels like he doesn't have enough, he might not want to stop.
That's when the door to the conference room opened and General Hammond stepped out, followed closely by Anise. A second later, Jack and Xander came out with Xander leaning rather heavily on the Colonel.
"Xander!" Willow exclaimed. She was at his side in an instant, putting his other arm around her shoulder so he could lean on her a little.
"I'm okay, Wills," he said. "Just a little tired, with the mother of all headaches."
"He did remarkably," Anise said with more than a little astonishment in her voice. "Considering the...nature of the memories, he bore the stress quite well. He should rest now, give his mind a chance to sort through it all."
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm sure, I'm fine. On the Xander Harris pain scale, it fit somewhere between emergency dental surgery and getting my eye gouged out. I wouldn't want to do it again, but it's not the worst thing I've ever felt.
"Yeah well, your scale goes a little higher than most, so excuse me if I don't find that comforting. I'm going to take you to the infirmary so they can take a look at you while you rest," Willow said.
"I'm in no position to argue," Xander said.
"Just a second, son," Hammond said, stepping closer to Xander. "I was going to wait until later to do this, but after what I've just seen, I don't think I have to." The General reached into his pocket and pulled something out. "Alexander Harris, by order of the United States Air Force, I hereby grant you the honorary rank of Captain, with all the rights and privileges that go with." Hammond opened his hand to reveal a set of dog tags on a chain. He reached up and put the chain around Xander's neck. "You'll still have to pass a few tests and a physical exam, when you're up to it, but I don't think that will be a problem."
Xander looked down at the dog tags, grinning from ear to ear. He took his arm from Jack's shoulder and gave the General a salute. Hammond returned it. "Thank you, Sir."
Hammond reached out and shook Xander's hand. "No son, thank you."
"Come on," Willow said. "We better get him to the infirmary before his head gets too big to fit through the doorway." Jack just smirked as he took Xander's other arm again and the three of them made their way down the hall towards the infirmary.
"Check it out Wills, local kid makes good," Xander said, still smiling.
Willow leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek. "That happened a long time ago, Xan."
August 13, 2006
Riley and Faith had been moving through the tunnels for over a half an hour. Faith had taken point, claiming she could feel the demons and could lead the way. They had taken a few twists and turns at intersecting tunnels, but still no sign of any more demons.
"We have to go back," Riley said, keeping his voice low. "I can't get Xander or Willow on the radio, something's wrong."
"They can take care of themselves, Cornbread. Besides, we're getting closer, I can feel it."
"You said that ten minutes ago."
"And I meant it. Just trust me okay, slayer instincts. There's a nest down here somewhere and we're going to find it."
Riley didn't know why he always let Faith talk him into stuff like this. He knew they should go back. Xander had said, radio checks every fifteen minutes. Something had to be wrong. But there was something to be said for slayer instincts. They had kept them alive this long. Fact was he trusted Faith, like he trusted all of his teammates. He would give it five more minutes. Five more minutes, and if they didn't find anything…
"Holy sh…" Faith exclaimed a little too loudly before Riley clamped his hand over her mouth and pulled her down to the ground.
They had rounded a corner and found themselves looking at a very large cavern. It spread out before them, the size of three football fields. They were perched on a rocky ledge, twenty feet or so from the cavern floor. Faith had almost fallen before Riley grabbed her. They both quickly killed their flashlights. There was some natural light, probably from more tunnels closer to the surface. It was dim, but it was enough to make out a large group of Chaos demons wandering around.
"How many do you think?" Riley whispered. He knew her eyes were much better in the dark than his were.
"At least fifteen up and moving," Faith said. "Ten or so more lying down. At least some of them are dead but some I can't tell."
"Remind me never to doubt you again."
"Don't worry, I will. So what's the plan?"
"Well, enough C4 should bring this place down. But we have to check in with the boss man first." Riley reached for his radio. "Xander, come in," he said into the radio for the fifth time in the last fifteen minutes. Surprising them both, he actually got an answer this time.
"I'm a little busy right now, Riley," Xander said over the radio. "Stand by."
April 10, 2005
Somewhere in the jungles of Colombia
Riley flopped down on the ground at the base of a tree, trying to catch his breath. He looked down to check the charge on his pulse rifle. He had it on the maximum setting, which meant he probably only had a few shots left. He did a quick inventory of the rest of his weapons. Nine millimeter on his hip with a couple clips of ammo, that wasn't going to do him any good. He had already used the rest of his grenades on this thing and it was barely stunned. A wooden stake and a combat knife. No way was he getting close enough to use those. He already had a nasty gash on the side of his face and what he guessed was a sprained wrist from the last time he got too close and the thing backhanded him a good six feet in the air.
Riley looked through the dense jungle and spotted his wife sitting behind a tree, not looking much better than him. He could hear the thing in the jungle, and it was getting closer. They were in serious trouble. Riley peeked out from behind the tree and saw the trees in the distance moving as it got closer. Finally, he saw it, as it stepped out into a small clearing. It was eight feet tall, with red leathery skin and a single horn coming out of the top of its head. There was bits of shrapnel sticking out of it in places, but near as Riley could tell, it wasn't even bleeding anywhere. Riley's life flashed before his eyes, and he decided that it was filled with far too much demon fighting and not nearly enough sex with his wife.
That's when two things happened that left Riley's jaw hanging open. The first was an energy bolt that came from somewhere in the jungle and struck the demon. The thing stumbled, looking stunned, which was a much greater reaction than it had had to his or Sam's pulse rifles. The second was a man running out of the jungle and jumping on the demon's back. He had what looked like a dagger in each hand, which he quickly plunged into the demon's eyes. The thing wailed in pain, while the man hung onto its horn like a bull rider, wrenching its head from side to side to keep it from pulling the daggers out. After about ten seconds, the demon collapsed. Another man stepped out of the trees, pointing some kind of weapon at the demon. Once he was sure it was dead, he replaced the weapon on his leg.
"What do you think?" he heard the first man ask the second.
"Your form was good, but I'm going to have to deduct points for not staying on the full eight seconds," the second man said.
"Bullshit, that was way longer than eight seconds."
That's when Riley recognized the voice. "Xander!" Riley climbed to his feet and stumbled into the clearing. He could see Sam doing the same out of the corner of his eye. Riley's mouth was still hanging open as he walked closer and looked down at the dead demon. "How did you do that?"
"It's a Gralok demon, blessed silver in the eyes," Xander answered matter-of-factly.
"How did you know that?"
"I didn't," Xander said. "I have a satellite phone with Willow on speed dial. Are you two...Oof!" Xander was cut off as Riley enveloped him in a bear hug. "It's nice to see you too, Ri," Xander said with a smile. "Okay, oxygen becoming an issue." Riley let him go. "Hey Sam, your husband here seems to like hugging other men, you better watch...Oof!" Xander was cut off yet again as Sam nearly tackled him in a hug of her own. "Well, this is a warmer welcome than I'm used to."
"What are you doing here?" Riley asked.
"Looking for you, actually."
"What happened to your eye?" Sam asked as she finally broke the hug.
Xander reached up and touched his eye-patch. "Oh, that's right, I haven't seen you guys since..." Xander drifted off. "Long story short, you should see the other guy."
"That cut looks pretty nasty, let me take a look at it."
"Oh, I'm sorry, where are my manners," Xander said. "Riley, Sam, this is Colonel Jack O'Neill, United States Air Force. Jack, this is Riley Finn and his wife, Sam."
"Pleasure to meet you," Jack said, inspecting the gash on Riley's face. "It looks superficial, you shouldn't need stitches. Hang on, I have a first-aid kit in my pack."
"Thanks," Riley said. "What did you mean you were looking for us?" he asked Xander. "Is there a problem?"
"Nothing apocalyptic," Xander said. "The Air Force is putting together a little team for a special project of theirs, and they're looking for people with experience fighting demons using military tactics. I thought you might be able to give me some names."
"How did you find us?" Sam asked.
"Locator spell," Xander said. "Led us to a village a few miles from here. They told us they had been having some demon trouble, up until a few days ago when they heard a big boom, and presto, no more demons. We thought you guys might still be around picking off the stragglers. Where's the rest of your team?"
"Probably Panama by now," Riley said bitterly.
Jack wiped the blood from Riley's face and taped a bandage over the wound. "There. It's not pretty, but it'll hold you till you get to a medic."
"What do you mean, Panama?" Xander asked. "What happened?"
"We were sent down here to take out that Gralok nest, like you said. We found it, in a cave a couple clicks East from here. Blew it up, took out most of them with the initial blast. But instead of tracking the ones that got away, our CO says we got another mission. José Londono, a big time drug trafficker and key member of one of Colombia's biggest drug cartels. They gave us some bogus story that he was a vampire. Told us to raid his compound, kill him and anyone else that got in our way, and burn the place to the ground."
"Are you sure this guy wasn't a vampire?" Jack asked.
"Londono has been on a government watch list for years, if he was a vampire, they would have known it long before now," Sam answered. "No, I've seen this happen before. Demon hunting units are so top secret and so elite, that pretty soon the brass start thinking they can use us to take care of their dirty work nice and quietly. Assassinations, secret wars, the stuff that no one is supposed to know the Army is involved in."
"A few of us knew it was BS," Riley continued. "So we refused to do it. They left us behind."
"Can they do that?" Xander asked.
"The unit doesn't officially exist. Our military careers don't officially exist. They can pretty much do whatever they want," Riley answered.
"Who else is out here besides you two?" Jack asked.
"We're all that's left," Riley said dejectedly. "Sanchez and Peterman stayed behind with us. This...thing killed them two days ago," Riley said looking down at the dead demon with disgust. "Would have killed us too if you two hadn't happened by."
Xander leaned down and pulled the two silver daggers from the eyes of the Gralok demon. The demon's head collapsed and started to melt. "We're just glad we could help," he said. "This the last one?" Riley nodded. Xander and Jack shared a look, both of them nodding slightly to each other.
"Well, we've got a long hike back to the village," Jack said. "We have a jeep there we can take back to the air field, give you folks a lift back to the states."
"We'd appreciate that very much Colonel, thank you," Riley said, his voice filled with relief.
"Not a problem. Come on, the hike will give us a chance to chat." Jack put his arm around Riley's shoulder and started into the jungle with him, Xander and Sam not too far behind. "Son, have you ever thought about joining the Air Force?"
May 1, 2005
The Haunt was a nightclub in downtown Cleveland. The decor was medieval goth, the music was industrial house, and the patrons were dressed like it was Halloween. It was one of the more popular clubs in town, as evidenced by the long line of people still waiting to get it. Two women, who looked a bit out of place among the club goers, were walking up the sidewalk toward the front of the line.
"What are we doing here?" Major Samantha Carter asked.
Willow smiled. "Places like this are prime hunting grounds for vampires," she answered. "It's loud, it's crowded, easy to slip away with someone unnoticed. Plus, look at these people. Some of them are probably dumb enough to buy into that whole romantic Anne Rice crap. If I was a vampire, this is where I'd be. Which means, this is where she'll be."
Carter nodded. "Makes sense."
Willow liked Carter. She was brilliant, and yet not arrogant about it so as to think that she had all the answers. She was taking the whole finding out about demons and vampires thing a lot better than most people did. She was curious, and very interested in Willow's knowledge and opinions. She was also very cute, which certainly didn't hurt.
Willow walked straight up to the doorman and waved her hand in front of his face. "We're on the list," she said.
The doorman unhooked the velvet rope. "Go right inside ladies, have a nice night."
"Thank you," Willow said with a cheery smile.
Carter followed Willow inside. "How did you do that?" she asked, shouting above the music.
"Just a simple mind clouding spell, only lasts a few seconds. Xander calls it my Jedi mind trick."
Willow made her way through the crowd toward a spiral staircase that led to the club's second floor. Sam followed behind her as they climbed the stairs to the terrace that overlooked the dance floor. "So, how are we supposed to find this woman?" she asked.
"Easy," Willow said. "Faith always draws a crowd." Willow scanned the crowd on the dance floor until she found what she was looking for. A cluster of men surrounding a couple dancing. It was Faith all right, wearing skintight black leather pants with a red halter top, dancing with a guy in ripped jeans and a tee shirt. "There," Willow said pointing. "That's her."
Sam looked surprised. "That's her? She looks so..."
"Skanky?" Willow supplied.
"I was going to say young."
Willow just shook her head a little. "Only on the outside," she said. Willow thought briefly about how that could apply to a lot of people she knew, herself included, but she quickly cleared her thoughts to focus on the task at hand. "Looks like she's already got one on the line."
"You mean the guy she's dancing with is a...vampire? How can you tell?"
"Look at him," Willow said. "He looks like the lead singer from Def Leopard. She wouldn't be dancing with him unless he was a vampire, he's not exactly her type." They watched for a few minutes more, until Faith started leading the vampire toward the back of the club. "She's reeling him in, come on," Willow said, heading back to the stairs. Sam followed.
Willow and Sam left the club through the front and walked around back to the alley. Sure enough, they came upon Faith kicking the crap out of the vampire she had just been dancing with. They waited until she staked him before making their presence known.
Faith turned. "Red? Hey, fancy meeting you here. What brings you to Cleveland, business or pleasure?"
"Business I'm afraid. Speaking of which, how is business?"
"Booming, as usual. The Hellmouth still attracts them, as much as it ever did in old SunnyD. Except now the suckheads have a whole lot more places to hide. How are things in, ah, New York, right?"
"Not anymore. My attempt at a normal life failed spectacularly. I'm working with Xander on a new thing now."
"Oh yeah? How is Pirate-boy?"
"He's fine," Willow said, smiling at the new nickname she had saddled Xander with. "How's Robin?"
"Oh, he's fine. So, who's your friend?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. Faith, this is Samantha Carter. Sam, this is Faith, the vampire slayer."
Sam extended a hand. "Nice to meet you."
Faith shook it politely. "Likewise." She turned back to Willow. "What happened to, ah, what was her name, Eisenhower?"
"Kennedy," Willow corrected. "She, ah...she's still giving that normal life thing a try."
"Bummer," Faith said. "Still, it looks like you've...moved on," she said, glancing at Sam. "You work fast, Red."
Willow cleared her throat and quickly changed the subject. "Anyway, the reason we're here actually is I wanted to talk to you."
"Me? What for?"
"Well, this thing that Xander and I are working on, we're consulting for the military on this project that they're putting together. And I was wondering if maybe you knew of some slayers that might be interested. They'll draw a nice salary, get to travel to...far away places."
Faith looked skeptical. "Military project? You sure this is on the up and up?"
"I know how it sounds, I was skeptical at first myself. And I wish I could go into more detail, but I really can't. Suffice it to say, they're on the level. Xander is the one who brought me in on this, and he trusts them."
Faith seemed to think about that for a moment before nodding. "Okay. So why are you coming to me? If you want slayers, why not go to the Watchers?"
"Well..." Willow paused as she glanced awkwardly at Sam. "The American government is still a little hesitant about showing all their cards to a group like the Watchers, so we're kind of trying to stay off their radar...for now. I knew that you and Robin had run into a few slayers here and there, so I thought I'd see if you knew anyone."
"Well, all the slayers we ran into either took the hop over the pond to tea and crumpet land, or are here in Cleveland at the school."
"School?" Willow asked.
"The Wood Academy for Gifted Girls," Faith said. "Robin thought it would make a nice cover for a slayer school. It's the official Watcher HQ here in Cleveland. There's only about five slayers there now, but the Watchers are planning on sending more from what I've heard. The Hellmouth is still where all the action is."
Willow nodded. "So, you don't know anyone who would be interested?"
"Well, I might know one person," Faith said. "She can be a bit of a handful, and she doesn't deal well with authority figures. But she kicks serious amounts of ass, and a paying gig would definitely be right up her alley. I think she'd be interested in what you have to say."
"Great," Willow said. "When can we meet her?"
Faith smiled. "You already have. When do we leave?"
Willow looked surprised. "You? But what about Robin? I thought you and he...you know, I thought you were happy here?"
"I've never been one to let grass grow under my feet," Faith said. "And Robin and me, we're just too different, like oil and vineger."
"Oil and water," Willow corrected.
"That too. He's a little too straightlace for me. Plus, he's got serious mommy issues. We're doing the whole 'we'll still be friends' deal, but the truth is I've been looking for a new gig. And Robin's pretty much got things covered here. So, about that nice salary. Exactly how much are we talking?"
Willow and Sam shared a look. "It's negotiable," Sam said. Faith just smiled.
August 13, 2006
Xander was sitting by a small fire, where the guards had escorted him after Grizzly stopped the execution. He was still shirtless. It was his tattoo that had somehow saved their lives. Grizzly recognized the symbol, he must have. Xander could still see Willow from where he was. They had untied her, but looked to be keeping a close eye on her. A few minutes passed before Xander heard someone approaching. He looked up and saw the man with the claw marks on his chest plate. The one they assumed to be the leader, Claw.
"I am the Tribe First," the man spoke.
"Xander Harris, nice to meet you," Xander said casually. There was no point in hiding anything now he figured.
Claw sat down on a rock next to him. "My Second tells me that you say you come from a place far away, where there are no demons," he said. Claw looked around before leaning in closer to Xander, like he was afraid what he was going to say next would be overheard. "Did you come through the Great Stone Ring?"
"We call it a stargate," Xander said. "And yes, we did."
Claw smiled. "Then the legend is true. There aren't many among us who still believe. I myself have been starting to wonder if the stories my grandfather told me of the Great Exodus were anything but that, stories. But it's true, our people have survived."
"The Great Exodus?" Xander asked.
"You don't know the story? Isn't that why you've returned? To take us from this place, to lead us to salvation?"
"We are here to help, that's true. But I'm not sure that we are exactly who you think we are. Tell you what, why don't you tell me about the Great Exodus, and I'll try and explain where we're from."
"Alright, I'll tell you the story the way my grandfather used to tell it to me. Four generations ago, when my grandfather was just a boy, there was once a great civilization. Our people lived on the surface, in peace with each other and with the world around us. And then they came. Some say they came from the valley to the South, others say it was from the mountains in the West. Either way, they came and they brought death with them. We tried to fight, but they were too strong. We tried to run, but they were too fast. Many died in the beginning, too many. So we hid. Some fled to the mountains, some hid in the caves. Some built strongholds to keep the demons out. But still, our numbers grew smaller with each day that passed.
"Then one day a priest came out of the mountains, and told the people of an ancient legend. The legend of the Great Stone Ring, from where our people were born. He said that he had found the Ring, and that we could use it to escape from the demons, to travel back to the place where our people came from. Many were skeptical, but most felt that there was nothing left to lose.
"My grandfather told me that he was there, that he saw the Great Stone Ring with his own eyes. He saw it's surface shimmer like water, and he saw people disappear into it. The ones who stayed behind were either non-believers, or simply too afraid of where the Ring would lead us. Those who left promised to return if it was safe, to take us to salvation. When no one returned, the non-believers saw it as proof that they were right. Those with faith kept it, because they had little else. And they passed their faith from generation to generation.
"And life continued. Those that were left splintered into tribes. And when our numbers dwindled, tribes joined with other tribes, until there were only two left. The ones who lived in the caves, and the ones who lived in the stronghold. As the years passed, the surface became more and more barren. Food became more and more scarce. This armor once belonged to my father. He was a hunter. He was wearing it the day he killed the last Razor Beast he ever saw. The last Razor Beast anyone ever saw. As our numbers became fewer, so did the demons. Until the only ones left were the most vicious, the most bloodthirsty. That's when the surface became too unsafe for even the bravest of hunters.
"The demons concentrated all of their efforts on the stronghold after that. We were too well hidden for them. That's when the tribe war started. First they tried to steal our caves, steal our food. We fought them off. Then they tried to betray us to the demons, in exchange for their own lives. But the demons don't care about fair exchange, and they killed the stronghold tribe. We survived by staying hidden. Finding new caves, digging new tunnels. And when food became almost impossible to find, we did the unthinkable."
Xander's eyes fell on the piece of antler tied around Claw's right bicep. "You started hunting the demons," he said with a shocked realization. "That's why you dug that tunnel to intersect with theirs."
"Our tunnels give us a small advantage, but still...it's very dangerous. But we do what we must to feed the tribe."
At that moment, Xander's radio crackled to life from his belt. "Xander, come in," Riley's voice said.
Xander and Willow had both turned the volume down on their radios when they first entered the cave, so as not to frighten the locals. But when Xander took his jacket off, the mic clipped to it came unplugged from the radio, so now the sound was coming from the radio itself. Xander took it off his belt and spoke into it. "I'm a little busy right now, Riley. Stand by."
"Sorry about that," he said, turning back to the Tribe First. "You're a brave man, Claw. And a good leader. These people wouldn't be alive without you. You're right about one thing, we are here to help you and take you to a better place. We are human, just like you, but I'm afraid that we're not descended from the people who left your planet four generations ago. Your Great Stone Ring is one of many, in a vast network all connected to one another. We are from a planet called Earth, and we travel through the stargate to explore and meet new people. My team specifically travels to planets like this one, where there are demons, and we fight them and help the people there."
"You can take us with you, to this Earth?"
"We can take you to a place my people call the Omega Site. The people who live there call it Hope. It's a colony of people like your people, who have fought against demons and lost their homes. It's a safe place, with lots of land for farming, plenty of food, and a whole lot of great people building a life for themselves. I think your people will fit in just fine."
Claw seemed to be practically in tears at the thought of it. "Such a thing," he said after a moment. "I never thought it was possible. I had lost hope for my people, and now it seems that hope has found us. Thank you." Claw grabbed Xander and pulled him into a hug.
Xander held back a yelp of surprise at the gesture, and patted the Tribe First on the back. "Not a problem," he said. "Just doing my job."
"I have just one more question," Claw said, pulling back from the hug. "If the Great Stone Ring really works, why did my people never come back for us?"
"Well, I think I might know," Xander said. "You see, in order to activate the stargate, you have to enter a series of symbols, like this one," he said, pointing at his tattoo. "Each planet has it's own series of symbols, or gate address, with the last symbol entered specific to the gate dialing out, the point of origin. I don't know where your people got the address they used when they left, but without knowing the address for this planet, they wouldn't have been able to dial back here. Or maybe they did have the address for here, but couldn't find the symbol for the point of origin of the gate they were dialing from." Xander could tell from the look on Claw's face that he wasn't following him. "I'll try to explain it better."
"Just tell me this," Claw said. "Can you help us find the rest of our people?"
"If we had the gate address they dialed, maybe, but without that..."
"You said it was a series of symbols, right? Is it seven symbols, is that how many?" Claw asked.
"Yes, it is. How did you know that?"
Claw reached down to the bracer he wore on his right forearm and started to pull it off. "The day of the Great Exodus, my grandfather's father marked his arm. He told him that the markings may one day be important. My grandfather marked my father, and my father marked me." Claw held out his arm for Xander to see. Tattooed on the inside of his forearm, was a gate address. The third symbol in the address closely matched the one on Xander's arm, the symbol for the point of origin for Earth. "This is how my Second recognized the symbol on your arm. He had seen it before on my arm."
Xander smiled. "If this is the address then we should be able to..." Xander trailed off as he looked closer at the tattoo, his smile disappearing. "I...I'd like for my friend to see this, is that okay?"
Xander turned and caught Willow's eye from across the cave. He waved for her to come over. Claw nodded to the guards from behind him, and Willow jogged over. "What is it? Is everything okay?" she asked.
"Well, I've got good news, bad news, and worse news. the good news is they believe me and they're not going to kill us. The bad news is that I lost our bet and I owe you dinner."
"So they did leave through the stargate," Willow confirmed.
Xander nodded. "And here's the worse news, this is the address they went to," he said, pointing at Claw's arm. "Look familiar?"
Willow looked closer at the tattoo. When she looked up again, her expression matched Xander's. She spoke only two words. "Ro'chok's temple."