QnD I don't own anything Joss thought up. No spoilers. Way AU.

This was inspired by the ficlet 'firelight' by jesse. Hey jesse, want to distract me from Empress by collaborating in this AU of yours? I've almost got Buffy being the only one ;^)

Payback

"Father, why are the old ones always saying how things were better?"

"Because there used to be a lot of food. We didn't used to have to hunt each other."

The child played in the ashes with a stick. He could always play in the ashes, they reached from here to the river, and every rain gave him a fresh canvas to scratch on while his father stood watch. The position was exposed, but then all available cover was an implausible bow shot away, and nothing could sneak up on them.

Once, the Fyarl's from the next valley over had made a raid when his dad stood watch, and he's seen them coming, grabbed his offspring and run for his life. The child remembered it, but not very well, he'd only been six months at the time. He was three, and in just one year he'd be asked to stand watch. Watches he'd stand alone, most likely.

"How much food was there?"

The father crouched and made a 6, a comma, and a 5. "Put eight zeroes on the end of that. Remember where the commas go."

The child made the number out correctly, and the father beamed. "That's good. Shame the elders won't send you to the Archives to study. But we need to keep watch more then we need readers right now. Lots of pressure from the Fyarls, and the M'fashniks. Not such happy times."

"You're making it up!"

"You interrupt me to tell me I'm a liar!"

"There couldn't be that many, where'd they all go?"

The father stared dumbly at his son for a brief moment, his jaw working without speech. "They're dead. Ten years ago, when we all, all of us demons, broke into this realm, there were that many prey beasts on this world." His shoulders twitched at the memories, and his fangs were bared involuntarily. "We fought with each other, they fought with each other, but mostly we killed them, they killed us. The war seemed unending and glorious. The stench of the dead lay over the whole planet. There are places by the world's great rivers where the bodies of the dead still lie in drifted heaps. The carrion on the tops of the piles keeps air from getting to the bottom. They lie pickled in the funk from the ones on top." Eyes widening at other memories. "The prey we had with us in the home world was so different. They didn't fight us, they never fought each other. They had no spirit. The prey we found here was fierce and dangerous. Alone, many would flee and caught screaming and easily be consumed. In groups they made stands. In the country, almost all were armed with guns, like the one Tsahlnik has, or more powerful ones. The Fyarls have one that can shoot the head off a M'fashnik from one hill top to the next, but they've only got a handful of shells for it. It's called a Barrett BMG. Tsahl's is a Bennelli shotgun from the year 1990, an army gun. I saw him shoot the head off a vampire with it once. Boom! Head flew off and he was all dust before it landed. You know about vampires right?"

The child nodded. "Prey beasts become demons like us."

"Yes. Kind of like us. They can't reproduce anymore. They are possessed animate corpses; made not from mating but by a vampire almost killing a preybeast and then forcing the prey to drink the vampire's blood. No more prey, no new vampires. When they are wounded in their hearts by wood, or their heads are removed, or touched by the symbols of the faith the prey followed in life. They catch fire easily, too." The father's head whipped around, and he hailed his replacement. "Come, let's get back to the settlement."

The settlement was a small cluster of houses where the prey had once lived. Earth had been banked against the buildings, berms made between them, and hulks of junked vehicles stood up from the top like rotten teeth. The father hailed the nightwatch, and he went into the dry moat. Concealed from watching eyes by the depth of the ditch, he dragged his half exhausted, half stubborn child into the sally port, where the doors and back end of van jutted into the moat. The aperture was overlooked to either side, and the surround sculpted into a glacis offering no cover in approach. The unwelcome would know no pity.

Opening the doors to the van, he and his son went in, under the berm, and climbed out on the hood through the empty windshield frame. The settlement's subholder immediately handed him the salted thigh of a Fyarl demon, the father's reward, and a day's eating for himself and his son. They went into the room given then, once the master bedroom of a two story brick house. Pictures of prey still hung on the walls, and a heap of the clothing of the former inhabitants was a bed for the young one, since his father pretty much took up the whole bed. It creaked and shook when he got in it, and it occurred to the boy that if it broke, no one could fix it. He gnawed on his salty bit of knee, and waited for his father to snore.

It didn't take long. Standing up and looking around wasn't exactly hard work, but doing it for a whole twenty-four hours added up to one tired demon. The boy crept away quietly.

The settlement was large, about twenty houses on a projecting leg from a large mass of them, a great clump of about two hundred empty structures, well, mostly empty. The boy knew one that wasn't.

Mrakalnik had been the settlement's holder until Tsalhnik took the job from him. Tsalhnik had ambushed him, emptying his shotgun into Mrak's good leg, crudely severing it just above the joint. Tsalh said it was perfectly good leg, and he'd said it with his mouth full, so you kind of had to believe him. Moving between dark windows, the boy felt the watching spirits of long dead prey stalk him. The ghosts could be amusing, when they cowered and silently screamed. The ones who brandished translucent shapes of long lost weapons were just boring, unless they could interact well enough to be unwitting sparring partners. Now that was good fun.

He remembered being younger, only a few months old, and playing with the ghosts of young prey. Tag was pretty pointless, but hide and seek was challenging. The one that kept on wanting to play catch just didn't get it. Stupid.

He'd grown so fast, they quickly quit trying to play with him, and he got pretty embarrassed about how he'd "played with food." He hoped he was never a ghost, it didn't seem like a good way to be. His dad told him he wasn't at all like the prey, and he'd live until he was killed by something. Then he'd just not be, at least if whatever killed him ate him.

He finally got to the right house, and quietly called out. "Mrak. You dead Mrak?"

"No K'tal. Come on in."

The child, almost an adolescent of his species, crawled into the house through the window he'd heard the voice come from.

Mrak was in bad shape, and not at all the one he was born with. In the wars with the prey, when they first broke into the world, he'd gotten shot in the left hip by what he said was called a tank. K'tal thought a tank was something like a metal house that moved on metal worms, and had big gun in the front. Mrak had told him the gun's bullet was as big around as K'tal's head, and that it had carried Mrak's leg off like a leaf in the breeze. That wasn't something K'tal could understand, at least not then. Guns hurt, but they couldn't do that. Then Tsahl had taken off Mrak's other leg, and K'tal got it.

"You catching enough rats Mrak."

"I'm doing good enough. That piano you found has plenty of wire for snares. And traps." Mrak's one good eye-K'tal was still sure that was unreasonable bad luck, you get four, how do you loose three?-and elder glared at younger demon. "Never come by any other path, or you'll run into those traps. Do you hear?" "You'd feed me for a good two weeks, but I'd rather talk to you."

"I like talking to you to Mrak." The boy paused, and then cautiously asked. "How did you loose your eyes?"

"The prey. I was fighting some of their army, and they shot them out. This soldier had a full belt of bullets on his gun and he tried to grind up my face with it." A sheepish grin crossed the older demon's face, and tension flattened out the looping, pocked scars. "I guess he did a pretty good job of grinding up my face, but I ate his, so I won."

"You know we almost lost. If the prey had had a year to prepare, none of us would have lived to get one mile past the hellmouth. If they had had just one month, it would have been tough. It was a near enough thing as it was. They figured out we couldn't be killed fast enough by putting holes in us, so they were making these guns with explosive bullets, ones as big as your fist. They had a lot of them already, but they were all big and heavy, or meant to be attached to vehicles." He pointed at a family portrait still hanging on a wall. "Now those critters had heart, but bleed 'em a little and those hearts have nothing to pump."

"Us demons, we're just tougher stuff. We gotta loose flesh before we start slowing down." Mrak shoved himself into the indirect starlight of moonless night. The stump end of his right leg was cracked and bleeding, and his left hip was a mass of scar tissue. Scraps of dried flesh dangled from the mangled hip, and skin had never closed over the lost appendage's root. White bone gleamed in the center of the socket. "I'm pretty slow, lately. Rats are more my speed, nowadays." "Now their elite soldiers, they were tough. They'd jump into a horde, take our leaders prisoner, and shoot their way out, calling in warlight from gunships as they went." "You're only, what, four, five? You've seen guns, you haven't seen lasers. They had this way to throw sunlight at you, and they had it up on an airplane, it could hit you from a hundred miles off. CrackPhumph. CrackPhumph. Made a noise when it hit flesh like a pool of gasoline lighting. Get hit with one of those squarely, and you just came apart in flames. Good thing they only had two of them. We sent flights of dragons up and finally got 'em." "And the nukes! The Old Ones never dreamed of such destruction! Once they figured out how badly off they were, they clobbered the hellmouth with them. And those were small ones! Dug such a hole. About one an hour for weeks. Once you were through, you had to run like hell to get out of the blast range before the next one came in. Finally, they had trench run out to where the ocean got in, and drowned it. But by then we could open up a gate anywhere we needed to. It was over for them. Just a few of them left, where they were billions. When the Old Ones came through and pulled the human's satellites out of the sky, they knew their time was done, after that they just hid. They used fireworks to celebrate victories, we had ours too. They had a settlement up there too, I'm not kidding you. That one made meteors for days after our spells tore it apart."

"Are they all dead?"

The wrecked demon looked at him like he'd grown a second head. "No. Hell no. There were billions of them. Only a few million now, and scattered all over. Hard to find. But they're not extinct. And the ones that are left are dangerous. Hunting them's a challenge. Not one on one, so much, but they cooperate. You get one in front of you, that means there's two at your back. The only one's left now are the sneaky ones, the careful, capable ones." "You'll never have sweeter meat than human, but you've got to work hard for it now." He flexed his arms, and flipped himself onto the rump he had left. "I'm stickin' with rats."

Not quite silence filled the gap in conversation, the sound of crickets and a light breeze.

"I think they're going to throw old Shalmakel out. I came out here to tell you that. She can't work fast enough for them, and she's making trouble over how much food they give her."

"And I'd care why?"

"She used to be your mate."

Mrak settled back on his haunch. "If they get ready to do it, ask her if she can live on rats. If she doesn't tear your head off." Mrak looked K'tal up and down. "Can you tell her the way through the traps well enough I don't find her dead?"

"Yeah."

"Then tell her she can come live with me. I need a better conversation partner than the one I had." He tilted over, holding his ruined, one-eyed face close to the child. "That one doesn't come around much anymore."

"That one, has been invited to stand watch with his father. He's been teaching me things. Things you have to have two legs to show people."

Crack! And K'tal was in the corner holding his arms around his head. He knew he should have known better than to say that in reach of the old demon. He still had pride and two arms.

"You watch your mouth! I taught your father what he knows!"

K'tal uncurled from the corner he was suddenly in and raised and aching head. "I am sorry, lord. That was disrespectful." He turned his face to the floor.

Mrak's soured mood seemed to fade. "If you can get her to come to me. I'll tell you where you can find a human."

K'tal looked up. Disbelief covered his features.

"I will. A tasty young lady. Living alone. Don't know quite how she's managed to make it this long."

K'tal thought that sounded really interesting, and when he led the withered demoness to her onetime paramour, directions were whispered in his ear, and he left thinking how proud his father would be when he brought home some trophy. Maybe a leg.

Now Shalmakel had had no patience for may years, but her recent fall in status was such that she put up with many interruptions in her seduction of the ruined male. Particularly annoying was the form of the rudeness, short sharp barks of laughter, and inexplicable smiles.

Finally, she was driven to ask in her sharpest voice. "What has you so pleased?! You're in constant pain, you can't move well at all, and may well freeze this winter? And I'd already be pleasuring you if you weren't so distracted. What's going on?"

Mrak though about what he should and shouldn't tell her, and eventually told her everything. He just didn't have a lot to loose.

"He was always pestering me about the war, and humans, and such, how things were like. Why were humans the best prey. I told him where to find a human. In the subways and tunnels in the ruins to the south. Should take him a week to get there, if nothing gets him first. I told him right where she makes her lair."

"Mrakralnik! What did you do that for! She'll kill him in a breath! No fun for anyone."

"Yes but the father will never know what happened to the son. My joy is found in that. When Tsahlnik threw me out and ate my leg, that child's father owed me. He did nothing. He just watched Tsahl blast away at me with that damned gun. So then I owed him! Debt paid!" He laughed long at his wickedness. "I'm still the meanest son of a bitch I know!"

Grayed eyes clouded further. "The dark haired one is the one to the south, right?"

"Yes. The beast named Faith. Wouldn't do to point him at the other one. The Buffy bitch might make him talk first, and come investigating."

"I hear Faith wasn't much more than a beast before we got here. She'll grill his liver, wipe the grease from her chin with her arm, and lick it off. I can just about see it now. Now, sleep by me, dear one." He smiled one last time that night, and patted the tattered couch in the ruined family room. "And dream of this."

"It wouldn't have to take her more than a second, but we can hope the Slayer just might decide to take her time."