"Would you get that stupid look of your face!" Buffy hissed, glaring at Willow from the corner of her eye even as she remained alert to their surroundings.
"I haven't got a stupid look on my face!" Willow snapped back, although as soon as she had finished speaking a little half smile crept back on to her face creating the look of someone who was definitely somewhere else.
"Whatever," Buffy muttered sullenly, she looked around and couldn't quiet suppress a shiver, "What is it with cemeteries being permanently all dark and spooky?"
Earlier that evening, while Willow had been happily playing monopoly with Tara and Ashley, Buffy had taken a call from a man claiming to be something called a guardian. While this in itself was enough to weird Buffy out, his request that he absolutely had to meet with her and her partner. The detectives working on the 'Circle Murders' to use the label the papers had given the killings. Although not normally given over to flights of fancy, when it came to this particular case, Buffy was trying very hard not to allow her scepticism and disbelief get in the way of what really mattered...finding out what the hell was going on. The man had requested that they meet n Restfield cemetery, in a crypt of all places. To make matters worse, Willow was in 'luuurve' and could think about nothing except the blonde witch.
"What?" Willow looked around as though she was finally aware of where she was.
As she looked around her eyes even opened slightly in surprise, and Buffy was about to cuff her over the head for being such a doofus...all in a world of her own. However Willow had been paying attention without seeming too, a trait that annoyed Buffy immensely.
"We've missed the correct crypt Buff, he said 'Ashcroft' didn't he...that was a few crypts ago..."
Buffy just stared at Willow as they made an about turn, a look of exasperation and bewilderment written plainly on her face.
"How do you do that?" Buffy demanded.
"Do what?" Willow asked even as she shone her flashlight up at the nearest crypt to read 'Greaves'...not the right one.
"Float along completely wrapped up in yourself and still manage to be more observant that me!" Buffy folded her arms in a huff.
"For your information," Willow began sternly, "I was not wrapped up in my own world...and everyone knows I'm the brains of this operation...and you're the brawn, now if you'd be so good as to kick the door down..." the beam of torch light fell on the deeply chiselled name in the next crypt...'Ashcroft.'
"Gee thanks," Buffy muttered sarcastically even as she positioned herself in front of the door.
"You know you love it," Willow drew her gun from it's holster inside her jacket, she had never liked the feel of the cold metal in her hands...the knowledge that someone could die as a result of its power.
Even as Buffy was about to kick the door down and Willow was positioned ready to cover the pair of them...the door swung inwards sharply. Willow pointed her gun at the shape in the darkness but it as she did it spoke in a very angry tone.
"For fuck's sake get inside the both of you!" a man's voice hissed, ushering them in with a furious motion of his arm.
Willow and Buffy moved quickly inside, and the door ground shut behind them. It was musty inside and predictably smelt of death and decay. Their contact was illuminated by the beam of Willow's torch, it revealed him to be a somewhat handsome man, probably in his late twenties or early thirties. However, his face had an unhealthy pinched look to it, his hair lank and stringy about his face as though he hadn't bothered to groom it for weeks. His eyes darted back and forth between the two detectives like some sort of terrified rodent. Finally his eyes came to rest on the barrel of Willow's gun, which was still pointed in his direction.
"Is that really necessary?" he asked in a tone that immediately made Willow feel guilty, she holstered the weapon.
"Flashlight out as well!" he demanded.
As they were shrouded in darkness, Willow and Buffy felt decidedly uncomfortable, while the man obviously decided it was much better and he could talk freely...albeit in a voice that hissed from between his teeth.
"I think I had the misfortune of making contact with the two stupidest detectives in the world!" he snapped, "I could hear you a mile off bickering like a pair of fish wives! And the door? Pray tell me why on earth you needed to kick the door down?"
"Cos I like kicking doors down," Buffy retorted sulkily, "Now do you have something to tell us or did you just ask us to meet you hear for the sheer good fun of it?"
"Buff," Willow whispered in her warning voice, "We're glad yo asked to speak to us...any help you can give us will be greatly appreciated...Mr?"
"My name is Mike...Mike Appleby..."
"Appleby? Are you related to..." Willow began, the name rung a bell.
"Yes...Josh is my brother...and Hugh was my nephew."
He was speaking of the tiny infant that had been discovered in his nursery...Willow remembered her brief glance at the sobbing parents, she couldn't understand even of part of their utter desolation but she knew it must be terrible.
"I'm so sorry for your loss," Willow said sincerely, "But can you help us?"
He laughed, a bitter sound in the darkness, "No one can help you...or me for that matter, I'm already dead...I failed the little guy..."
"Everyone always blames themselves when something like this happens Mike," Willow said softly, "But there's nothing you could have done..."
"It was my job to do something...I was his guardian...it was my job to keep him safe, keep those bastards away from him."
"Mike?" Buffy asked slowly, as though she were not entirely sure if the guy was in his right mind.
He laughed again, "Sorry, I asked you here to explain and instead I'm talking gibberish...this case goes a lot further than you realise...it's much more than a serial killer or killers that need to be found and stopped like any other..." he voice became a little calmer, more measured, "I hope I don't alarm you by saying the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance of the case you're trying to solve."
"The fate of the world?" Buffy asked dubiously, even so, a chill crept into her bones.
"Please listen, I don't know how much time we have and it's important that you know...as much as I can tell you anyway because I don't understand everything..." the detectives heard him draw in a deep breath in the darkness as though preparing himself for some sort of ordeal, "Sometime in the late 18th century builders stumbled upon strange stone carvings in the earth they were excavating. They did not know it but a powerful force was entombed within the space behind the carvings. Being very superstitious rural folk they did however know that something was not right and indeed it wasn't, for inadvertently they weakened the seals that held it. The priest they called into bless the site refused to enter it at all and it fell upon a local coven to reseal the tomb. They used the most powerful spell they knew...one that sealed the tomb with each of their life-forces...seven people for seven seals on the tomb...as long as their lines continued, the seals would remain unbroken. The force that lay within the tomb was therefore held at bay by the most delicate and yet strongest of powers...human life. As the members of the original coven died, a descendant was chosen to take their place and with each descendant, a second person, a guardian was mystically appointed to watch over them...keep them safe from harm. So this continued for over two hundred years without wavering...it seemed as though the seals would remain unbroken...the demon god forever entombed in his human prison. This was the scenario that met me when I was chosen to be Hugh's guardian..."
"Okay, this is all completely bonkers but I'm going to play along with it," Buffy began, "Did you answer an ad in the paper that said 'Guardian wanted' or something?"
In the darkness both Mike and Willow were giving Buffy a 'look' that said she really ought to stop opening her mouth.
"From what I have gathered the guardian that is chosen is always someone close to the seal...I do not understand how it works fully...it is as if they are born to it. The members of the coven who instructed me were not very forthcoming with answers to my more probing questions. One day I was at walking home from work and was quietly drawn aside by two very nice but, well I thought, mentally deranged old ladies...I was told all this and didn't believe a word of it at first..."
"But?" Willow asked quietly.
There was a brief glow within the crypt and both Willow and Buffy gasped as a small ball of fire danced above the palm of Mike's hand. His face was illuminated and for that moment he looked fierce and strong, as though he were a force to be reckoned with. However, this lasted only momentarily before his face collapsed under what seemed to be a strain and he appeared very, very tired.
"It seems as though things that go bump in the night really exist," Mike replied quietly.
"Okay, so you're one of seven guardians...do you know who the other six are?"
"No idea...there are no connections of any kind, each guardian is watched over by a separate coven..."
"Seven seals, seven guardians and seven covens?" Willow's mind worked furiously, trying to take all of this in and at the same time process it into some sort of manageable collection from which she could draw conclusions and find solutions. She tried to approach it as if it were a maths problem.
"So what happened?" Buffy asked, "Where did you slip up?"
The glow was suddenly snuffed and they slipped into darkness once more,
"Complacency," Mike whispered in a broken voice, "I thought that it was really cool to have magical powers but they didn't mean anything...it was as though I was something really cool but I never thought that I would actually have anything to do with them. I would go through my life watching over Hugh and nothing would ever happen...I was so wrong. I should have seen the signs, heeded the coven's warning and yet it was too late...I arrived at Josh and Amy's house too late that morning...I saw you two enter, so many police cars surrounding the house and I knew I had failed in my task."
"What about the coven?"
"All dead..." Mike continued.
"We would've heard about seven murders like that....we haven't..." Willow was searching her brain for other reports and she was coming up blank.
"You don't look hard enough," Mike replied quietly, "You need to look further..."
"Okay, okay," Buffy sounded frustrated in the dark, "Too many questions, if these seal people are killed now," Buffy stopped as though she wondered whether it would appropriate to make fun of the word play before she thought better of it, "...then wouldn't a new person just take their place like has always happened?"
Mike shook his head, "The ritual...the symbols...haven't you figured out what they mean yet?"
"We have someone working on it," Willow's mind immediately shifted to Tara and she wondered if she was getting the blonde into something that could potentially threaten her life. Her first instinct was to call Tara and tell her to put as much distance between them as possible. Mike' eyebrows raised thoughtfully, as though he had not expected the two detectives to be so open to the idea of solving crimes by other means.
"Firstly, the breaking of the seals requires the death of the seal itself...but in a manner that makes it impossible for the responsibility to pass to the next descendant."
"The symbols...the hellebore..." Willow mused, "The inverted banishing symbols?"
"Precisely," Mike nodded.
Buffy spoke up after listening to the incomprehensible conversation between her partner and the guardian, "You two are both mental!"
Suddenly there was an eerie sound in the night...like a horn but not. It chilled all three of them to the bone and there was a scuffling as Mike stood and moved to the door.
"They've found us!" he hissed, "You've got to go, I'll try and deal with them. You have to stop them...stop the rituals and the killing of the seals! Go!"
The three of them emerged from the tomb into the night air beyond and both detectives gasped as they saw they were completely surrounded by several shadowy figures which they couldn't make out...but for some reason knew they were in trouble. Behind them, Mike screamed once and they whirled around just in time to see him being yanked up by the scruff of his neck. He disappeared atop the crypt and moments later there were a few brief sounds of struggle...and then another scream which was all too abruptly cut off. A black shape fell in front of the two detectives, they both gasped in horror to see a headless corpse, no doubt as to who it was. Moving hastily away from the crypt, they kept their eyes trained on the dark shape standing above them. Expecting at any second that it would snatch them up and deal with them in the same manner as Mike.
"Buffy..." the slow intonation of Willow's speech betrayed her utter bewilderment, "What the fuck is that?"
"You mean what the fuck are those?" Buffy yelped as several more figures emerged from the shadows, she hastily withdrew her sidearm from the holster inside her jacket.
They were helpless, surrounded and stalked from above. Just as Willow reached inside her coat for her gun, another shadow burst onto the scene, although moving with the graceful ferocity of a cat rather than the deliberate menacing favoured by evil doers. As the figure moved, moonlight revealed a young woman, her curves accentuated by form fitting leather. Dark hair fanned out around her. In a series of blinding moved she blocked the clumsy attacks of the nearest villain. While he was shaking his head in a daze, she withdrew a sharp stake from her jacket and rammed it into his chest. With a strangled cry, he burst into a million dusty particles. The dark haired woman then bounded carelessly over to where Willow and Buffy were standing aghast.
"Faith," Willow identified Tara's flatmate in a bland voice, for some reason she wasn't surprised - an alter-ego as a monster fighting superhero suited the curvaceous brunette.
"Those, to answer your question, are vampires. Honestly, I can never understand why the cops in this town can't open their eyes to what is going on at night," She muttered the last comment almost to herself before winking at Willow suggestively, "Hey Red, who's your partner with the sexy arse?"
"The name's Buffy!" Buffy snapped angrily in return before her face relaxed into a smile of appreciation, "I do have a rather nice arse though, thank you for noticing."
"Slayer!" a guttural growl reminded them that they were not alone.
Faith withdrew two more stakes from her jacket, prompting Buffy to ask incredulously, "What else have you got hidden in there?"
Faith winked at the blonde cop, "I'll show you later," to which Buffy was struck uncharacteristically speechless, "but right now we've got business to attend to."
She tossed a stake each to Willow and Buffy before turning her full attention to the encroaching vamps. Faith flung herself forwards before launching upwards in a apread-eagled double kick which send two of them flying. Meanwhile, Buffy looked at the pointy stick in her hand, then to a posse of vamps which were advancing on her and Willow and then she finally looked in desperation to Willow. Faith was single-handedly fighting off three, having just dispatched one with a swift jab of her stake.
"What are we supposed to do with these?" Buffy assumed a defensive stance, holding the stake out in front of her as though its mere presence would be enough to ward them off, her other hand held firm to her sidearm, finger tensing on the trigger, "Can't we just shoot them?"
"Haven't you ever watched a horror movie," Willow snapped impatiently, brandishing her own stake in a more convincing imitation of Faith, "You have to stake them through the heart, or sprinkle them with holy water."
"Well we don't have any holy water!" Buffy snapped back.
Willow yelped and ducked as a fist came crashing towards her. Instead of her head, the vamp's fist collided with the tomb behind her, sending chunks of masonry flying.
"Ow!" the nerdy looking vampire shook its fist, "You're gonna pay for that!"
Her turned quickly, too quickly for Willow and snatched her wrist, in twisting it he forced Willow to drop her stake.
"Stake him with it you moron!" Willow yelled at Buffy as she furiously grappled with her attacker, who, as vampires are want to do, was trying to sink its teeth into her neck.
"Right!" Buffy said determinedly, she pounced, her arm making a stabbing motion for the vamp's back.
However, as she did it lashed out with one hand and sent Buffy sprawling into the dirt, all the while keeping one hand on Willow. As soon as Buffy tried to regain her feet, another vamp pinned her to the ground .There was no time for Willow to react to help her partner as she found herself being slammed back against the earth. Even as she fell Willow remembered all the sessions she and Buffy had spent wrestling and shifted her body slightly so she could get her knee between their bodies. With a sharp upwards movement she drove her knee into its stomach and it went sailing over her head as her back hit the earth. Willow leapt to her feet and had little time before another was grabbing her from behind, both elbows were twisted back, pinned by unnatural strength. She struggled angrily and grimaced in disgust as it licked her neck.
"Inflamatus!" cried an all too familiar voice behind the vamp.
Without further warning, it staggered to its feet and away from Willow with a surprised look on its face just as flames spurted from his mouth. He was being consumed from within by fire. With one last cry, he exploded in the same manner as the one staked by Faith.
Willow coughed and spluttered as she was showered in particles of coarse dust. Not exactly the circumstances in which she hoped to see Tara next.
"Are you okay?" three simple words were enough to revive Willow from a state of shock.
Willow blinked enough dust from her eyes to be able to open them. She almost smiled when she saw the concern written starkly across Tara's face.
"Great!" she piped much too enthusiastically, as though Tara's appearance had turned the evening into a jolly good party rather than the terrifying experience it actually was. She blinked again and came to her senses, remembering that Buffy was in mortal danger. However, when she found Buffy she saw that she was back on her feet, double teaming the vampire with the aid of tall man using a rather clumsy but well honed fighting style. Buffy grabbed the vampires arms, immobilising it while he staked it firmly in the chest.
"It's alright," Tara said firmly, "It's Giles."
Willow recognised the older gentleman and nodded hastily although she couldn't help but wonder What are we? Willow wondered, looking sideways at the mysterious blonde she had grown to be so attached to.
Buffy and Giles had no time to gloat over their success as another one snarled in for the kill. Another one pounced on Willow and Tara, sending Willow flying to the ground first. Luckily she fell right next to her stake she had lost earlier, her fingers curled around it and she held on tight.
"These things are like rabbits!" Willow muttered as she shook her head and looked around for Tara, her eyes opened wide when she saw the vampire strike her with a savagely balled fist, catching the blonde beneath her jaw.
"Oh god...Tara!" Willow saw the blonde fall heavily to the ground.
Tara immediately tried to pull herself up but her movements were sluggish, she was dazed and disorientated from the blow. The vampire reached down and seized a handful of her beautiful blonde hair, jerking her head up much too quick. Willow saw Tara grimace in pain and felt her anger surging through her like some kind of barely restrained force. She looked down at the stake in her hand and tossed it aside like the useless piece of wood it was.
"Get away from her you filth!" Willow yelled.
Willow couldn't explain what happened next, she balled her fingers up into a tight fist, her skin felt as though it were on fire. Everything was so hot and she knew exactly what she wanted to burn.
"Burn you bastard!"
The vampire suddenly burst into flames directly above Tara. It collapsed into ash and fell in a fine layer of sparks all over the blonde. Willow squeaked in fright, moving as fast as she could to Tara's side. She dropped to her knees to extinguish any sparks that clung to Tara's clothing. She rolled Tara over in a panic, running her hands over Tara's face repeatedly for no other reason than the fact that she was panicking.
"Oh god, are you alright? The...thing, the vampire had you and then he was on fire and he...he poofed! He poofed all over you and I thought...oh god I thought you were hurt...." full on panic babble mode set in.
Tara, to her credit, realised this despite the fact that she was the one who ought to be in a state of shock. She seized both of Willow's hands in her own and held them own sweaty palms.
"Will...Willow!" she half shouted, trying to snap the redhead out of her frightened stupor.
"I thought you were hurt...and I was so worried..." Willow blinked as Tara's words and the feeling of both her hands being held finally registered.
Tara stared at Willow evenly, trying to keep her own fear from registering anywhere on her face. She slowly let go of Willow's hands and the redhead immediately stared down at them. Tara watched the intent look on Willow's face as she studied her hands, clenching and unclenching her fists a few times before lifting her gaze back to Tara. Almost absently she brushed a layer of ash from Tara's jacket.
As Willow pulled her hand away and she looked down at her grubby hand...her mind dwelled on what it had been. That monster...then what she had done...the fire...coming from her...her mind...Where did that come from?
Willow finally realised she was right in Tara's face, completely invading her space. Slowly she sat back on her haunches, still staring at her hands.
Tara gingerly sat up, all the while she could not take her eyes off Willow. The red head sat on the damp grass completely oblivious to what was going on around her. After a few moments, she looked up at Tara and the blonde could not restrain a slight gasp. Her blue eyes glistened in the weak light as she stared at Willow.
Willow was confused, Tara was staring at her as though she had suddenly turned green...which maybe she had for all Willow knew.
"Tara?" Willow asked softly, "W-what is it?"
"Oh god Will..." Tara reached forward to lay her hand over Willow's warm cheek, her thumb ran gently beneath Willow's eyes...her deep, black eyes.
"What's wrong?" Willow was scared by the look on Tara's face.
"Who are you?" Tara asked, her voice choking slightly.
"Okay, you're really starting to scare me...what's going on?"
Tara remembered the spell...she remembered how the spell had repelled Willow because there was something inside her. Tonight that something had shown itself...and Willow seemed to have no idea. She drew back, her hand reluctantly leaving Willow's skin as she moved to stand up. Faith was quickly at Tara's side, helping her to her feet. Willow couldn't help but feel like a leper as she watched everyone move away from her with wary eyes.
Buffy came running up, her chest heaving, dust coating her suit. She took one look at Willow and almost fell over.
"Holy fuck Willow!" she exclaimed, "What's with the eyes of the damned look?"
Subtlety had never been one of Buffy's strong points.
"What?" Willow asked in shock.
The red head touched her temples as though somehow she could feel what had happened. She didn't need to see them however, there was still a very clear picture in her mind of the night her eyes had turned black in the bathroom mirror.
"My eyes are black aren't they?" she whispered.
Faith and Tara both wouldn't stop staring, Willow noticed with a sinking heart that Faith's hand was resting on the blonde's sleeve...for reassurance or protection...or maybe both.
"Okay..." Buffy was looking around at everyone as though she expected extra heads to be sprouting, she looked at the two strangers and then back to Willow who was sitting on the ground in a daze. Her partner shook her head as though she was trying to shake something off. When she looked up at Buffy her eyes were still in the process of fading from black back to green, Buffy stared in horror, "What the fuck is going on here?"