Chapter Eleven: Strategic Analysis
Standard Disclaimer: I do not own the copyrights to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, X-COM: Enemy Unknown, or Stargate SG-1. All of the above belong to their respective copyright holders.
To all reviewers: Thanks a ton for your feedback! And patience! Hopefully this is the last chapter where we're setting the stage, and the action can begin from the next one. Unfortunately, I'll be traveling a bit, so it may be a few days before I update.
Thorne was hunched over a map when Buffy stepped in.
He looked up. "Thanks for coming. I thought I'd run you through some of the main strategic threats we have first, before your first patrol. So you get the lay of the land, as it were."
"Thanks, uh... Lord Alistair?"
"Call me Alistair. I don't think you would be very comfortable with all the trappings of feudalism, so perhaps it's best if you address me as just another elder." He smiled. "I understand that Summers women tend to have strong democratic orientations."
"Er, yeah. We don't exactly have lords in America. Though the Brits do..."
"People from the British Isles, like Mr. Giles."
"Ah, England!" Thorne's eyes lit up. "I visited it once, a long time ago. They had the most fascinating machines back then." He sighed wistfully. "Manchester, Liverpool, the vast mills processing cotton from the Colonies...."
"Um, when exactly did you visit England?"
"I think it was 1790."
"Aahh.... I think it's changed a bit since then."
"Yes, so Joyce tells me. Wars and revolutions and the like."
"So... can you travel to Earth from here?"
"Not any more," Thorne said sadly. "We could until 1815. Then, well, something changed, and portals from Earth to Elfhome stopped working." He sighed. "The entire younger generation has never seen Earth. Were it not for the memories we bear, they would dismiss it as legend and fantasy."
"So you're really the elves of folklore?"
"Does this mean you have the same weaknesses? Cold iron and all that?"
Thorne's eyebrows shot up. "Trust a Slayer to think of weaknesses first, eh?"
"Yes, we do. And so do you, now. Technically, iron doesn't hurt us. But steel, due to the way it is forged, can cause damage to our bodies. Slow poisoning, mostly; most elves can handle steel weapons for a few minutes if needed. But we use bronze or tin - or aluminium, nowadays - for practically anything that requires mechanical strength. Fortunately, we have fairly large deposits of copper, tin, lead and aluminium easily accessible to us. Also nickel and titanium."
"Most of our swords are made from titanium alloy. Much stronger than steel. However, a few hundred years ago, we could not have forged it."
"Huh. So you developed methods for forging titanium only recently, right?"
"Well," and here Thorne appeared abashed, "technically, we didn't develop the methods. The humans who live north did. Elves... are not particularly inventive."
"Oh... so you basically stole the human techniques."
"I prefer 'copied'." Thorne grinned. "A lot of our 'technology' is based on the inner magical potential of elves. Joyce tells me you have airships in your world that fly without sorcery, and devices that allow a man to float to the ground safely from mid-air without spells." He sighed wistfully.
"They're called parachutes. I could show you what one looks like...."
"Joyce did. We can't get them to work. Oh well...."
"You didn't test your home-made parachutes by dropping an elf, did you?"
"No, we tested them by dropping an egg. Though I can think of a few elves who would make wonderful test subjects." Another wistful sigh.
"Okay... so what did you want to show me?"
"Basically, this." He indicated the map. "To our north lie the mountains. Beyond them are the human villages, and the portals that lead to a couple of human worlds...."
"Can I visit?"
"Not by yourself. Maybe if we go as a group.... I'll see if we can do an official trade delegation or something. It's been a while since we visited anyway." He frowned. "Just remember, um, these humans are not ..... comfortable ...... with Elves to that degree."
"They dislike us?"
..... more of a, shall we say, healthy concern for the welfare of their, um, adolescent population." He coughed. "Some of the more rambunctious Elves have expressed a rather high level of attraction to some of the more, er, graceful humans in the past...."
"Oh, you mean that the Elves who visit go at it like bunnies with the locals. Gotcha. Will avoid bunny-like behavior."
"Quite. Thank you so much for that image. Anyway. The North is not very widespread, and of all the regions it is the safest. The South Continent," he pointed to a smaller landmass separated by water on the map, "is the heart of demon and dark activity. To the East lie the Snowy Highlands, where the Court of Shadow presides; they are far above the plains and lie in snow most of the year, hence the name. To the West lies the Tropical Delta, where no less than ten major rivers drain into the sea. It's a mix of swampy forests and marshy woods. To the south lies Tendral Plain, which is now called the Cursed Lands. About a hundred years ago, demonic forces from the South Continent overran Tendral, killing thousands of Elves. We tried to take the lands back, but failed... now the area is infested with creatures of evil. They occasionally make incursions to the north." He stabbed at the centre of the map. "Here is where we are... the smallest of the provinces, sandwiched between sometime-ally-sometime-rivals to the east and west, a powerless neighbour to the north, and a true enemy to the South."
"It's not all bad. The Seelie do everything they can to purge the southern enemy. The Unseelie, however, are more... pragmatic."
"They ally with the evil creatures?"
"Not exactly. Call it a considered neutrality. Mab is of the view that anything that the Seelie hate so fiercely is not necessarily an enemy to the Winter Fae." He shrugged. "Be that as it may, the Winterfae who despise the creatures of evil prefer to make their way to the Autumn Lands, where at least we have no truce with demonkind."
"Do the demons keep a truce with the Court of Winter?"
"Apparently. There have been no significant incursions on the Snowy Highlands." He looked up at her, his expression neutral.
Something wasn't right, thought Buffy. "Demons aren't that disciplined. They wouldn't co-operate so without quarreling....."
"So, even if one group of demons agreed to leave the Unseelie alone, others would not." She paused. "In fact, a whole bunch of demon groups dislike each other. Werewolves wouldn't get along with Polgara demons, Fyarls and Horzaks would rather attack each other than humans - or elves - and that's not even considering the new demon races native to this dimension...."
"Red Caps and goblins, for example. They don't play well with Ereshutai."
"Bunch of spiky blind demons that think goblins are tasty snacks."
"That would explain the not playing well bit."
"Absolutely. Yet we have seen neither goblin nor Ereshutai raids on the Highlands."
"And vampires.... they don't really get along too well with each other. The master vamps really hate each other, so - unless we're talking of sires and childes - they'd be too busy fighting for dominance. There just can't be a unified force of vampires agreeing as one not to attack the Unseelie - and even if there was, no way the other demons would play along."
"Exactly my thought."
"Huh. So, what's happening is impossible.... unless...." Buffy felt a chill go down her spine.
"Unless there's something holding them back." She paused.
"A powerful Unseelie weapon."
"No. It's not a weapon..."
Thorne's eyebrows went up. "What then?"
"Even if it was a weapon, there would still be attacks. Unsuccessful ones, but attacks nonetheless. When I was the Slayer in Sunnydale, vampires knew I was patrolling.... but it didn't stop them from trying to take me out. Even though they knew I'd dusted the Master." She sat down. "It's all about status, hierarchy, with them. They'll attack anything that resists them. And if it's a weapon... they'll attack it all the more. Because they'd be terrified of any such weapon.... because they'd fear the day when it could be used against them."
"But wouldn't they hold back out of self-preservation?"
"Some vampires just want to see the world burn. They don't care if they fall in the process. And the more powerful Masters are used to thinking of themselves as unkillable.... they wouldn't stop because of a weapon of the Unseelie."
Thorne looked troubled. "The weapon could be a powerful spell or a holy relic generating a barrier. Something blocking them from entering the Highlands physically."
"Then what about the incorporeal demons? Ghosts, banshees?"
"Even they have not attacked the Highlands.... I see your point. But if not Unseelie weapons, what could it be?"
"If the demons were attacking and failing, it would be a weapon. If they aren't even bothering to attack... it means something's preventing them from doing so. Controlling them." She paused. "In Sunnydale, whenever we had a time of peace and calm, it was because a more powerful enemy was gathering his forces. The Master restrained his children from going overboard and drawing Mayor Wilkins' attention. Richard Wilkins kept the demons from going completely out of control because it would be bad for business. Glory... the demons stopped chasing humans for sport because she had a whole bunch of them hunting for the Key." Another pause. "Your quiet over the Snowy Highlands? That's not an Unseelie Weapon. That's because the demons have been commanded not to assault the Unseelie by something that's so powerful, they're more afraid of it than of anything else. So afraid that they wouldn't even see beating Mab as worth the risk."
"But if they beat Mab..." Thorne paused. "They would be saying they were more powerful than her."
"And if they're leaving Mab alone, it means that whatever it is that's got them in thrall... is more powerful than Mab. So powerful that even those who think they can beat the Queen of the Shadow Court don't dare challenge it." She paused. "And whatever it is, it's thinking strategically."
"It's not attacking or trespassing on the Highlands. Just probing your lands - and that too, with very small forces. And it isn't hurling troops at the Seelie, either. Just probing and testing."
Thorne turned pale. "Gathering intelligence. Building up its forces.... before an all-out assault."
"Yes." Buffy nodded. "Mr. Thorne, somewhere in the south, you're up against a Big Bad."