Tara Maclay's eyes snapped open, her breath came in short panicked gasps that did not subside until she took notice of her surroundings. She realised she was safe in her own room above the Magic Box. Her eyelids slid closed once more and she settled into a relaxed state of mind, half listening out for the sounds of Ashley playing or Faith practising in the training room directly beneath her bedroom. She heard neither but was not overly concerned, trying to remember whether Faith said she was taking Ashley to the movies as it was Saturday afternoon. Tara opened her eyes once again...was it Saturday afternoon? She glanced across at the clock sitting on the bedside table, it was five in the evening and she wondered why on earth she was in bed at that odd hour. It was when she tried to rise from her pillow a few moments later than she realised why. Her head spun uncontrollably as soon as she lifted it from the pillow and when she reached up to steady herself she found her hand bound in a fresh, white bandage and her arm was bound in a white cast.
"Ash?" she intended it to resonate throughout the apartment but it came out as a mere croak that did not carry past her room.
Tara awkwardly dragged the covers away from her pyjama clad body and swung her legs over the side of her bed. She was trying to stand when Faith rushed into the room a few moments later. The Slayer was at her side in moments, setting down the axe that had been in her hands before she reached out to steady Tara. Faith arms went around her back as she rose unsteadily to her feet.
"Why do I get the feeling I've been doing a lot of this over the past few weeks?" Tara asked weakly as Faith continued to support her.
"Because you have," Faith replied bluntly, "Every time you wake it's the same...disorientated...loss of short-term memory, I'm worried about you T, it's been five weeks since Ashley and the others were taken and a month since Willow went missing in New Zealand..."
"Not exactly easy things to deal with," Tara mumbled, "Can you help me sit down again?"
The sudden flood of awareness almost drove her to her knees; she remembered in crystal clarity that awful early morning battle as she was huddled in the attic with Ashley, Matt and Dawn as the others fought the Society members, then a fight of her own and everything going black as the children were taken from her. Then more recently, Faith returning from New Zealand alone, with no clue as to where Willow had gone. Tara sagged, her shoulders drooping, she felt as though everything had been stripped away, everything she held dear and loved.
"Hey, you've got a text...you didn't hear the alert?" Faith commented, hoping to draw Tara's attention back to reality.
The Slayer picked up Tara's slim-line phone that was sitting in its cradle on her bedside table and passed it across. Tara took it numbly, her fingers barely closing to take a hold of it. However, a change came over her face as she glanced down at the small display screen. She then hurriedly flipped it open to read the message.
Faith's eyebrows lifted at the most animated expression on Tara's face she had seen this past month, "Who's it from?"
Tara wordlessly handed the phone to Faith, watching the Slayer's face as she read the message
Faith noted that the caller name came up as 'Officer Rosenberg' - no doubt Tara had no changed the name since their initial meetings when their relationship had been strictly professional.
Ash & I r ok but need the gang fast, 2648 Grace Road, luv W.
"Can you help me get dressed?" Tara asked, suddenly finding herself capable of standing unaided.
Faith looked on dubiously as Tara crossed the room to stand in front of her wardrobe and began tugging off her pyjamas with some amount of co-ordination. She doubted if it were the same person that had trouble eating her soup just a day earlier. As Tara selected a sports bra and began to awkwardly tug it on, Faith re-read the text...although from the brevity of the message she could not read anything into it.
"You're not seriously planning on just rushing over there are you, T?" Faith demanded as she dropped the phone and moved to help Tara who was struggling to get a tank over her head, "I know Grace Road, it's up in the hills in the middle of frickin nowhere, nothing around for miles save forest...why on earth would Ash and Willow be there..."
"I don't know," Tara said as her head popped through the hole in her tank, "But she needs us!"
"If she were really in trouble then how come she's still got her cell phone?" Faith fetched a pair of jeans and an unironed shirt from a pile on the floor.
"Faith!" Tara growled, snatching the jeans and shirt from Faith, "It's Willow, what more do you need to know?"
"T, I love you...if you trust Willow on this then I'll trust her too," Faith breathed evenly as though this were a difficult admission for her to make.
Faith sighed as Tara finished dressing herself, although she had to button her shirt and tie the laces on her sneakers. She did not mention that while she would check out the address in Willow's text, she had no intention of actually letting Tara come with her.
It was a small band of brave souls that drove to the address in Willow's text several hours later. Faith, Spike and Giles were all present with Xander and Anya deemed unfit to take part. Faith had threatened to tie Tara up to prevent her from coming until she realised there was no knot she could tie that the witch could not magically untie.
2648 Grace Road was indeed in the middle of nowhere as Faith had commented to Tara earlier that evening. All four of them felt a rather ominous chill descend when the car ground to a halt and they stepped out. Faith paused in front of the rusted wrought iron gate, hefting her axe onto her shoulder. The others assembled close behind her; all wielding weapons of their own save Tara, who had need of none.
Given the location of the house, it appeared that no one had attempted renovations in about a hundred years. Although there was no doubt that it had at one time been a fairly grand residence, it now appeared to be little more than an overgrown shack. All traces of paint had fled from it's exterior, windows were boarded up and those that weren't were devoid of glass. The front door hung off its hinges, wide open...but it was not an inviting picture. There was no trace of life inside or out, no sign of Willow or Ashley.
"Willow! Ash!" Tara was rushing past Faith before the Slayer could make a move to stop her.
"Tara, are you daft?" Faith started after her urgently, "Shut up and stay with us!"
Faith had barely started after Tara when she realised that she was no longer following anyone, the blonde was simply gone. She skidded to a halt, fearing that there was some sort of portal directly in front of her. Behind her Giles and Spike were equally confused.
"Okay, that was unexpected," Spike drawled with unconcealed sarcasm, "What do you expect to happen when you go rushing towards an abandoned building?"
Faith whirled on him to speak out for her friend, "She's distraught, not thinking clearly...you could hardly expect her to do any differently..."
"I could expect her not to get us all killed," Spike growled, "Now what do we do?"
"We go in," Giles suggested simply, moving up to stand beside Faith.
Faith nodded in agreement and took a few steps forward until she was around the spot where Tara had disappeared...nothing happened. She continuing walking and found her path clear all the way to the front door. With each step she expected something to happen, Society goons to rush at her with murder in their eyes or the wizened and powerful Bob to appear before them. She almost willed them to come at her...and was disappointed when she entered the house without a single incident. The only sounds she could hear were Giles' hoarse breaths just over her shoulder and three pairs of footsteps on the wooden floorboards.
Spike sighed in exasperation at the deserted house, "What's the bet that they're not anywhere near here and we're going to spend the next hour wandering around an empty house chasing our own shadows."
Faith paused, axe at the ready in her hands, head cocked to one side as though she sensed something within the bowels of the house.
"No," she whispered, "They're here...and I think they knew we were coming..."
Tara had been running towards the house and then she found herself running straight at a wall...it was as simple as that. She stopped and knew instantly that she had been transported somewhere else, that much was obvious. An eerie golden light lit the room as she spun around to survey her surroundings. Concrete walls stretched in every direction, there were no doors or windows that she could see but the room was saturated with magicks. One obvious source was the floating golden orb in the middle of the room at ceiling height. Directly beneath the orb was a wrong iron bed with an old fashioned feather mattress. Tara did not approach it; instead she closed her eyes, feeling for a way out.
"There's no way out...unless of course you're me," a voice whispered directly in her ear.
Tara spun at the sound of the all too familiar voice, the beginnings of a smile emerging on her face. While the voice had whispered in her ear...the accompanying person was standing on the other side of the room. Tara's smile froze, half-completed when it turned out to be someone quite different from who she was expecting. She knew immediately that it was Willow...but something had happened to the red head she loved, something that made the hairs on the back of Tara's neck stand up as she approached. A few moments later, she realised that she had actually been backing away from her lover as though she could not bear to have her come any closer. There was very little trace of the good-natured redhead she had come to love in such a short space of time. Her hair, her eyes, even every scrap of clothing she wore, it was all black.
Willow did not seem to notice Tara's odd reaction to her presence as she moved to stand in front of her; instead she stared down at Tara's injured hand, not taking her eyes off it, even to look up into Tara's own eyes. She reached Tara's side and gently picked up the cast-covered hand by the wrist. Tara winced at first but moments later the pain was gone. She flexed her fingers experimentally to find everything working perfectly. It was proven when Willow pulled apart the cast and she found her arm as good as new.
"Will..." was all Tara could manage, especially when her lover finally lifted her head, staring directly at her with her disconcerting black gaze.
While Tara could not manage a smile, Willow had no trouble at all. She flashed Tara a dazzling white grin, seemingly quite pleased with her display of control.
"Pesky cast aside," Willow tossed the remnants of Tara's cast to the ground, "Much better..."
"Will, what are you doing?" Tara whispered, her legs turning to jelly at Willow's firm touch on her body after over a month of separation, "This is not the time...we need to..."
Willow responded by biting down hard on Tara's neck and continuing to roam over Tara's body with her hands, cupping her arse to pull their bodies together. She thrust her thigh between Tara's, forcing her lover's legs apart in order to grind against her sex. Tara's eyes closed and her lips parted as a small whimper escaped. She had missed Willow's touch.
Even through her jeans Tara could feel Willow's touch arousing her all too quickly, a part of her wanted Willow moving inside her and yet she remained aware of just where they were and what they were supposed to be doing. Ashley was in danger and it seemed all Willow could think about was making love. Tara's eyes remained closed even as one of Willow's hands travelled beneath her shirt and bra to cup her breast and the other worked at the buttons on her jeans. She lost herself in the touch of her lover.
Growing frustrated at the clothing that separated her from Tara's skin, Willow claimed Tara's lips in a savage kiss and brought both hands to the front of Tara's shirt, she ripped open both her shirt and t-shirt with one tug. Willow nudged aside the sports bra Tara wore to bare both of her breasts, smiling with genuine delight as she did so. A whimper escaped Tara's lips as she felt Willow's tongue on her tender flesh, exploring her budding nipple.
While continuing her ministrations on Tara's breasts with her tongue, Willow forced one hand beneath the half open fly of Tara's jeans,
It was at that point that Tara came to her senses; her eyes opened...Willow wasn't thinking about making love...she wanted to fuck her, plain and simple. Everything from the complete lack of tenderness to the urgent manner in which she pawed aside Tara's clothing. While their coupling in the forest the night before the attack had been just as urgent, there had been tenderness and a connection that gave that urgency a sense of beauty. Any traces of that beauty were gone and Tara knew she couldn't give in as this was not the woman she loved.
Tara physically put her hands on Willow and shoved her backwards. Surprised by the sudden act, Willow stumbled and tripped over her own feet before she fell to the ground. With Willow's weight no longer pressing her against the wall, Tara moved away from it and took several quick steps further away from Willow.
Making no move to get up at first, Willow stared up at Tara with the expression of a petulant child thwarted in a game.
"I want you!" Willow growled, slapping the ground impatiently.
"I want you too, Willow," Tara said slowly, "but not now...later, when we're out of here and everyone is safe."
Willow growled again and this time she did get to her feet, although not in the conventional manner. She practically levitated back into a standing position, seeming to expend no effort to do so. Tara whispered a spell to bind her lover but watched hopelessly as it was brushed aside as though it were a gust of air.
"Nothing's gonna work on me, Tara," Willow chided, "I've always had more power than you and now I know how to use every bit of it, you might say I've reached my full potential."
"How?" Tara breathed.
"I've had a little help," Willow admitted with a shrug, "But mostly I'm just fucking powerful...almost a god really."
"You're not a god, Willow," Tara had backed away from her to the point where she now felt the iron railings of the bed behind her, she know knew exactly why it was there, "You're just a scared little girl..."
Willow flew forward, her body slamming into Tara's with an intensity that knocked the blonde backwards and down onto the bed. Tara hit the mattress hard, hard enough to feel the springs dig into her back. Willow's face was poised inches from her own, the weight of her body pinning her down.
"Who's scared now, Tara?" Willow demanded in disgust, "You always were scared...scared of what I could be, and you never gave yourself up to me as you should, never worshipped me as I deserved!"
With those insanely passionate words, Willow forced Tara's legs open with her thigh and bared her breasts with several urgent tugs. She then began to devour them with her tongue, her hand driving beneath Tara's jeans and underwear to find what she sought. She moved without compassion, not caring that she was hurting her lover. She laughed as Tara cried out when she roughly entered her.
"You're mine, Tara" Willow whispered in her ear as she moved against her.
Summoning every ounce of strength within her, Tara took advantage of a distracted Willow to wrap her up in air and throw her backwards, off her body and several feet away from her. As soon as the weight was gone, she scrambled backwards off the bed, tugging her shirt over her chest.
"Come on, Tara," Willow breathed hoarsely, her need etched on her face, "Just one last fuck for old times sake...since you're probably not going to want to let me anywhere near you after what I have to do next."
"W-Willow...y-you don't have to do anything save get us the hell out of here...along with the kids," Tara took several more steps backward but Willow moved in time with her, not allowing the gap between them to close.
At the mention of the children a small, rather pleased smile crossed Willow's face and she tilted her head to one side as if remembering a fond memory. The smile and the complete lack of concern drove a stake into Tara's heart, she knew that her Willow was gone; this was a monster that stood in front of her. It wore Willow's body, it had the same lithe curves and that same pointy little chin but the thing that had tried to rape her was not Willow.
A small sob escaped Tara's throat, "Where are the c-children?"
Willow chuckled, "Well, let's just say little Dawnie and Matt won't be joining us today, Ashley will most definitely be joining us however..."
Tara was struggling to process this information, clearly concerned for all three of the children but Ashley in particular. She implored the Willow-thing with her eyes, searching for any remaining traces of humanity in the hope that it could somehow be persuaded to help her find her daughter.
"Please take me to Ashley," Tara asked desperately, "I need to see her..."
The Willow-thing cocked it's head to one side as though it was enjoying this display of motherly-love and more importantly the pain that the separation was obviously causing Tara.
"I can take you to your daughter...and your friends," it nodded happily, seemingly having forgotten her thwarted rape attempt as it moved onto a more exciting topic.
Tara screamed as the floor fell away from beneath her feet, she went hurtling downwards at a speed that was surely to result in her instant death. However, as another floor rushed up to meet her she found herself standing as though she had never moved. Dizzy and disorientated, Tara collapsed to her knees. She knelt, breathing heavily for a few seconds, her eyes adjusting to the harsh, bluish light in the room. Someone was calling her name...Faith.
Tara glanced upwards and her spirits sank further to see the rest of the gang up against the far wall of the chamber, all restrained by robe-clad Society thugs. The bluish light that lit the room came from at least a dozen orbs floating near the roof. Other than the orbs, the only other feature to note was the elaborately drawn chalk circle near Willow's feet. Tara instantly recognised it for what it was.
She looked back to her friends, Spike hardly needed restraining; he looked as though he needed a hospital slumped and unconscious in the arms of his captor. Faith and Giles still fought, Faith had to be clubbed savagely over the head at the sight of Willow dragging Tara into the room. Even as drops of blood trailed down the side of her face she pulled against her captors grip like a savage dog straining to break free of a leash complete with savage snarling.
"Stop!" Willow growled as one thug moved to deliver a debilitating blow to Faith's head, he paused mid-swing, "I want her conscious to see this...then you can do whatever you like with her."
Willow motioned a lackey forward with a jerk of her head and he took Tara from her arms, although he hardly needed to do more than seize her firmly by the arm. Tara was led numbly to one side of the room, hardly even caring that the shreds of her ripped shirt were barely hanging on her torso. Faith glanced from Tara and then back to Willow, eyeing the now raven haired woman with barely concealed anger.
"What the fuck have you done, Willow?" she demanded.
Willow stared at Faith as though looking at something rather insignificant and did not reply; instead she turned and made a 'come hither' motion in the direction of one of an adjacent door. The door swung inwards to admit the papery faced old man they had come to know as Bob; however his appearance was not what prodded Tara out of her stupor. The blonde's captor now had to use both hands to restrain her as she surged forward in an attempt to reach the small figure in Bob's grasp.
Ashley immediately made to run towards her mother but Bob seized her by the scruff of her neck, hauling her backwards and off her feet. She kicked uselessly at the air as he held her a few feet off the ground.
"Ash, sweetie are you okay?" Tara asked, still struggling with both arms pinned awkwardly behind her back
The only sound a terrified Ashley could manage was a small sob but she bravely nodded her head.
Willow turned to the figure behind her, balanced on his outstretched palms was the sword she had liberated from the cave in New Zealand. Where the metal had been dull and lifeless before she found it, it now gleamed brilliantly even in the dimly lit chamber. When Willow reached down to pick it up, her fingers wrapping around the hilt in a claw-like motion, it shone even brighter. It seemed to sing as she lifted it from the outstretched palms, holding it out before her for all to see.
"It's a shame that something so beautiful has to be sullied by the blood of a mortal," Willow commented as she ran her thumb the length of the blade.
Her gaze transferred from the blade to Ashley Maclay, who was standing in front of her without flinching. Just a few tears rolled down her small face and she sniffed them back defiantly. Willow smiled at the girl but it was not meant to be reassuring. It was a smile of anticipation...of utter delight at what was about to happen.
While Ashley remained quite still, staring up at Willow, others in the room were less than calm. Faith's angry roars filled the chamber, the Slayer now requiring two thugs to restrain her but even they were showing signs of not being able to maintain their hold on her for much longer. Even Giles was now pinned to the ground by four men in order to prevent him from rushing to the little girl's side.
"Don't you do anything to that kid you fucking psycho!" Faith screamed, lashing out as a third Society goon attempted to stop her from kicking free.
He received a solid thump beneath his jaw for his troubles and went sprawling backwards, seconds later Faith had shrugged one arm free and used it to smash the nose of the man who retained his grip, his hood slipped back and he slumped against the wall behind him. Faith's bid to reach Ashley did not last any longer, even as she begun to move forward to the girl she found all her limbs frozen in mid air. Her eyes burning with intensity, Faith glared at Willow as she struggled. If looks could kill then Willow would have been eviscerated on the spot...as it was, she calmly walked a little closer to Ashley, ignoring Faith's continued shouts. Eventually she made a silencing motion with her hand and when Faith opened her mouth to scream again, no sound emerged. Mute and frozen on the spot, Faith was forced to look on as Willow stood with the sword poised above Ashley's head. Tears escaped from the corners of the Slayer's eyes.
"W-Willow," Tara had remained silent in her struggles until that point, her blue eyes brimming with unshed tears that no doubt burnt fiercely, "Willow please, it's Ashley...she's not a seal or anything threatening, she's just Ashley, you don't need to do this."
Willow did not look across at Tara; instead she drew the sword back behind her in preparation to drive it forwards.
"Willow!" Tara cried, now pulling against the man who held her.
"Enough, it ends," Willow whispered, driving the blade forward.
At that precise moment the floating globes of light vanished and threw the entire chamber into pitch darkness. There were few sounds besides a limp scream from Tara and the tortured sound of sharp steel sliding in and then out of soft flesh. There was the soft thump of a body hitting the ground and sharp sobs from Tara. A single org re-formed directly above Willow's head, it's blue light throwing most of her face into shadow as she glanced down at the small body at her feet and then to the sword in her hands.
"Well now," Willow whispered, staring at the blood on her blade, "That was a bit of an anti-climax."
Following the awful scene they had witnessed, the four remaining captives were ushered rather mutely into a bare concrete room, Faith having to remain frozen throughout the move and Spike being somewhat revived if still a little groggy. The slayer's eyes spoke of the violence she wanted to unleash. With the heavy door slammed shut behind them, Faith's bonds were released and she immediately threw herself against the door, slamming her entire body against it repeatedly, crying out in rage with each collision. Giles and Spike stared at her futile effort, although Spike made one aborted attempt to restrain her and received a sharp jab in the gut for his trouble.
"Faith, it's solid steel...I think perhaps Tara would have more chance of getting us out," Giles said quietly, even as Faith continued to slam herself against the metal, a jarring noise echoing around the room with each contact.
Giles glanced from Faith to see Tara. The blonde had immediately retreated to a far corner of the room and was curled up into a tight ball, hugging her knees against her chest. Her face betrayed absolutely nothing save an awful blankness, her eyes were empty. Moving carefully and slowly, Giles crossed the floor to hunker down beside her. When he reached out to touch her cheek she jerked her head away at the contact.
"Can you get us out of here?" Giles asked quietly, his voice barely above a whisper.
There was no response from the blonde for almost a minute, just as Giles thought she was not going to respond at all she shook her head sightly.
"She's blocking me," was all she said her voice tight and forced though gritted teeth.
Giles sank back against the wall behind him beside Tara and glanced up at Faith and Spike. Faith was still pounding on the door, although she had begun using her fists rather as opposed to her entire body. With each strike of hard flesh against metal, Giles noticed that Tara jumped slightly as though the noise upset her.
"Faith, please stop," he said in a commanding tone.
His voice broke through to the pissed off Slayer only long enough for her to spin around and shout at Giles, "You sit there like a dummy if you want...I'm letting them know I'm not going down without a fight...they're going to have to come in here and..."
Faith paused when she saw the effect her harsh voice was having on Tara, still curled up tightly but now shaking slightly. She un-balled her fists and let them fall to her side, her shoulders slumped slightly.
"We all feel the same way, Faith." Giles said quietly.
Faith just nodded in response for she could not open her mouth for fear of letting out the sob she knew was building up in her throat. She collapsed back against the wall of the cell, her emotions clearly running high even if she were too upset and exhausted to put them into words. Her arms folded tightly across her chest as though to contain her sorrow. The four remained in silence for several minutes, Tara continuing to sit motionless in the corner although now allowing Giles to at least touch her shoulder awkwardly, Spike slowly paced the length of the small room liked a caged animal.
Faith finally uncrossed her arms and straightened up from her position leaning against the wall.
"With Ashley dead...that means the Seals are all destroyed," Faith breathed, "So where is this big bad, the Lord of Darkness that we failed to keep all locked up? I wanna at least get a piece of it before they kill me..."
Spike stopped pacing, "I would never go down without a fight...are they going to give us to this big bad or something?"
Faith shrugged, "I dunno, depends what form it takes...it could very well be hungry after all this time asleep..."
"We've already met her," Giles interrupted in a whisper as he examined a cracked lense in his glasses, he glanced up at his companions
"Willow is the Lord of Darkness," Tara finally spoke in a bland, toneless voice, "as she has been all along."