"I cannot express in words how much I hate this place," Willow muttered almost under her breath. Despite her quiet words, the thin air up on the plateau carried her words to each of the five companions standing with her. None protested at her gloomy attitude or her lack of enthusiasm as they could all hazard a guess that standing once again on the battlefield where she died would pain her greatly. They could not fathom the extent of her pain, but they understood that it was there and were determined to support her as best they could.
She wore Willow Van Helsing's black armour atop her hunting clothes; after all, it was just as much her own now. She carried no weapons other than her silver cavalry sabre which was sheathed at her side. Her red hair was unbound and it fell down to her shoulders. Although her words had already made her feelings clear, her green eyes were veiled as they stared out over the plateau and surveyed the field of dead warriors.
Tara stood directly beside her, so close to that their shoulders were almost touching. The vampire was dressed as she ever was in her simple dark skirt, shirt, and her cloak. The hood was pushed back, off her head and settled about her shoulders, covered partially by her hair unbound and flowing around her expressionless face. She carried a simple sword in her hand and wore no scabbard to carry it. Her only response to Willow's muttered statement was to reach out and caress her arm lightly. Enough words had already passed between them.
Giles too wore his everyday clothes, a simple, very travel worn grey suit. He had made one concession for his own protection; he wore a breastplate over his jacket. At his waist he wore a silver sword. Even now, on the cusp of battle, he was frantically scrubbing at his glasses as though they had to be spotless for what was to come.
Faith was resplendently deadly in her scarlet red leather with her hair tightly bound at the nape of her neck. She carried a vast array of weapons about her person. There was a bandolier of firebombs across her chest, several stakes tucked into her belt, a crossbow strapped to her back and a sword at her waist. Faith checked each weapon in turn as though worried she had forgotten something. She continued to twitch nervously until Lara reached out and laid a reassuring hand on her wrist.
Lara had foregone her usual attire of skirts for a white shirt and a pair of leather pants. She wore a leather jacket over a well used breastplate. Her long hair was done in a single, tight braid which fell down her back. She carried a cross bow cradled in her arms, fully loaded and ready to fire at a second's notice. There was a quiver full of bolts on her back and a sword hanging at her waist. Her walking stick was no where in sight.
Only Myles had a slight smile on his face, as though he could not believe his luck in being able to stand on the battlefield, at this time, in the company of warlocks and warriors. He tossed his head, shaking his wayward mop of hair out of his eyes and checked his weapons as Faith had taught him. No doubt Faith had dictated what he would wear; he wore a sturdy, almost brand new breastplate with light, supple leather armour covering his arms and thighs. At his waist was strapped a sword and a bandolier of firebombs were strung across his chest. He also carried a fully loaded revolving crossbow capable of firing five bolts before it had to be reloaded. His nervousness was only evident in the piece of hard candy he sucked, the squelching noises carrying far enough to annoy the entire party...but no one begrudged him the small pleasure.
"Right, we are here," Faith announced helpfully. "What are we supposed to do?"
"Well, for a start we need to find Willow's better half," Giles announced brightly in an effort to muster a little levity to what was a very serious situation. "I do believe he's lying by the dead tree in the centre of the field."
Even as Willow shaded her eyes against the sun and peered into the distance to spot the tree, she heard Faith laugh lightly. She turned with a start and Myles snickered openly. He even went so far as to risk a surreptitious glance in her direction that made it clear that he and Faith were laughing at something other than Giles's poor attempt at a joke.
"What?" Willow snapped as she saw several suspicious glances cast her way. Despite the fact that she was clearly trying to feign innocence, her suddenly bright red cheeks indicated that she at least felt guilty about something.
"Myles is just a little surprised that you can walk today," Faith commented brazenly as the six of them began walking into the centre of the battlefield.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Willow snapped in reply, her cheeks flaming even redder still.
Faith stepped out of line to move next to Willow, having to leap over several bodies in her path as she did so. She threw an arm around Willow's neck and squeezed her tightly, almost knocking her to the ground, "We're just happy for you Will...it was about time you lost your virginity, you were so tightly strung you were about to burst."
"Excuse me!" Willow spluttered, she dragged herself out of Faith's embrace and quickened her pace. However the move was less than smooth as her toe caught on a battle axe protruding from the ground. She stumbled and would have fallen had Faith not caught her by the collar of her shirt. "Bloody hell," Willow continued as she straightened herself, "I certainly do not need enemies when I have a friend like you." However there was a small smile on her face as she said the words, and when she cast a quick glance towards Tara her smile broadened even further. Her cheeks flamed once again at the memory of their shared passion.
"We love you, Will...and the woman you've chosen to be yours," Faith said, she too turned to look in Tara's direction and gave the blonde a brief nod which was returned with an air of gratitude.
The jovial mood dissipated somewhat as the six of them neared the dead tree at the centre of the battlefield. By the time they drew up alongside it, they were once again silent. As she stared at the tree, Willow thought how eerie it was that it had taken on the appearance of the dead warriors who lay clustered around it. Its trunk was pitted and rotten and its few remaining branches looked as though they would fall to the earth at any moment. The bark was peeling off in great strips. The tree had been slowly poisoned by the evil that seeped into the soil from which it had grown. She stared at it a while longer if only to avoid staring at the particular skeleton that had drawn the attention of the rest of her party.
With a sigh, Willow finally moved towards the dark shape lying on the ground. For some reason, the others stepped out of her path until it was she who was left standing in front of Dracula's captain. The fallen body was not like the others on the plateau, where they were little more than twisted heaps of bone and rusted armour; the captain appeared to have been untouched by weather. The black armour he wore shone as if it had been polished the day before. Only his flesh was gone...and his entire head. Willow shivered as she stared at the headless corpse...knowing that a part of it was inside her own body. She steeled herself as though expecting the skull to awaken in some manner now that it was so near its body...but she felt nothing.
"Giles...can we please begin?" Willow asked in a small voice. She had to fight hard to keep her tone from trembling, especially now when she wanted to appear calm and unnerved by what was about to happen for her own sake as well as that of her friends...and Tara.
She turned to face Giles and saw him nod almost imperceptibly. Willow then looked at each of her friends in turn. Faith appeared unconcerned but Willow could see the way her hand gripped the hilt of her sword so tightly the flesh had turned white. Close at her side, Lara stood with her weight on her good leg. There was a hint of hidden pain on her face but Willow knew she would not ask for help from anyone. The smile was gone from Myles's face, replaced by an openly worried expression - he was not afraid to lay his feelings bare before his companions. His body twitched as though he was about to move forward to grasp her hand...or possibly even embrace her but he remained rooted to the spot. Willow understood. They all knew that the embraces should be saved for later...when it was all over.
Finally, she turned to Tara and found her lover practically standing toe to toe with her. Neither gave any thought to onlookers when they fell into an immediate embrace. Willow searched out and found Tara's lips and the two shared a brief but intense kiss. Their breath mingled as though through it they could share their strength and hope for the morrow. When the kiss ended, Willow was not ready to let go and she clung to Tara longer than was necessary.
However, even Tara's embrace could not shelter Willow from the sudden chill that descended over the plateau. She felt the darkness descend before she saw it. She drew back and glanced worriedly at Tara who was staring skyward, watching the weather change. Dark, almost lack storm clouds were rolling in, low to the horizon. Gradually the sun's rays disappeared from the plateau altogether.
When Tara lowered her chin Willow could see that her usually bright sapphire gaze was now a stormy, fathomless grey that mirrored the weather, "Tara?" she asked even though any question was redundant.
"I am afraid we have run out of time," Tara answered as the storm clouds completely obscured the sun and threw them all into semi-darkness even though it was still early afternoon.
"Son of a bitch!" Faith snapped in frustration, concisely summing up everyone's thoughts at the unfortunate change in the weather.
"Giles...for god's sake get started!" Willow ordered as she drew away from Tara altogether...but not before giving the blonde's hand one last squeeze.
Willow found herself unable to draw her eyes away from Tara even as she and the others moved to form a rather pathetic battle line of four facing in the direction of the path leading up to Covasna. Finally, with one last tight smile she wrenched her gaze away from her lover and stared down at the far less pleasant sight of the Captain's skeleton. She then glanced up towards Giles who had taken up position by his booted feet and he nodded tightly as he readied himself to begin.
Meanwhile Faith glanced to either side to see herself standing in a line with Tara, Myles and Lara. As she heard Giles's voice begin to speak in soft tones behind her, she felt tense and cold. The four of them passed the time in silent anticipation, checking over their weapons yet again, loading crossbows and tightening straps and bootlaces.
The time passed all too quickly. It almost seemed as though one moment their small group was alone on the plateau and the next, there were hundreds of dark shapes advancing towards them. Of course it did not happen in quite that fashion. The path leading to Covasna was narrow and the vampires were forced to ascend to the plateau in a thin trickle. However their numbers steadily increased and spread out like a disease at the edges of Covasna until it became clear that Dracula had been able to assemble a formidable host indeed in a short time.
"There's quite a few of them," said Myles worriedly.
He drew unimpressed looks from his companions for his unnecessary comment. They could all count, and they all knew that the odds were at least ten to one...suicidal odds. As the vast host of screaming vampires surged towards them, Faith, Lara and Myles tensed with their weapons poised. Myles and Lara with crossbows loaded and Faith with a lit firebomb in each hand. Suddenly the wave of vampires were halted in their tracks and left straining against some sort of invisible barrier that kept them from reaching their prey.
Faith quickly realised that the fuses on her firebombs were about to burn down and she tossed both aside before they could explode in her hands. "Great!" she muttered at the waste. She then turned to see that Tara was the source of the mysterious shield. The blonde vampire had her arm outstretched, palm towards the host of vampires as she whispered incomprehensible words. The strain of the task was already evident on her face with her eyes narrowed in pain and concentration. "I don't suppose you can keep that up until Giles is done de-skulling Will?" she asked hopefully.
It took some effort for Tara to shake her head and reply, "I will not be able to hold them back for long...minutes...at the most..."
Faith nodded, wishing there was some way she could support Tara but she knew full well she would need all her strength for the battle that was to come. She looked towards the straining, snarling vampires and narrowed her eyes as she saw a tall figure walk to the front. Although she had never had the privilege of meeting him previously, Faith knew it to be none other than Dracula. She scoffed derisively; he wore the sort of armour better suited to the parade ground than the battlefield. His haughty expression indicated that he expected Tara to fade quickly. She turned back to Tara, the blonde's eyes were now closed and all colour had drained from her lips. Faith crossed to her side and seized the hand that Tara did not have stretched towards their foe.
"Can you use me?" Faith asked urgently.
"I would prefer...not to," Tara gasped.
Faith remembered all too well the horrible filth that had flooded her body when Tara used her to heel Willow at Covasna all those months ago but she brushed those thoughts aside, "I insist!"
Tara nodded slightly and Faith felt an immediate drain on her strength. Coupled with what was going out of her body, she felt a darkness with the intangible essence of tar pass from Tara's body to her own, radiating out through her body, into her limbs and head. Her body began to sag from exhaustion and after what felt like only a few seconds Tara released her hand. Faith opened her eyes and found herself kneeling on the ground taking in great gasps of air. She glanced up at Tara to find the strain on her face less evident. However she felt so weak she had to have Lara help her back to her feet, she sagged against her lover as she tried to stand on weak legs.
"That was brave...but exceptionally foolish," Lara growled. "When they come at us, what are you going to do, spit at them?"
"I'll be fine," Faith replied grumpily, jerking her arm free of Lara's grip, "Besides, I would much rather have them over there for as long as possible...especially with the spell in progress." Faith turned to check on Willow and Giles and what she saw caused her mouth to open in shock. "Bloody hell...is that supposed to be happening?"
With Giles continuing to mutter his spell with his eyes tightly shut, Willow knelt at the side of the skeleton. Both her hands were frozen to the chest of the corpse and crawling slowly up her arms was an inky blackness. She was bowed over with her head lowered to the ground so Faith could not see whether she was in pain. As the darkness passed up over her hands and lower arms it left behind it something like armour covering Willow's akin. Where her hands had once been bare, they were now covered to the elbow with elaborate, gauntlets of black steel. The same happened as the substance passed up over her arms and chest, radiating outwards as it created a perfectly moulded breastplate completely different to the one Willow had already been wearing. All this occurred in just a few seconds. Faith realised what was happening, at the same time as Willow changed, the skeleton she held disappeared...it was being absorbed into her body. The armour that now covered half of her body was that of Dracula's captain.
"No, I don't think that's supposed to happen," Lara commented in tight voice.
Suddenly Willow's head snapped back to reveal a pained expression on her twisted features. Her mouth was open as though she was trying to cry out. Eventually a low moan tore from her throat before it became a loud scream that morphed into a name, "Tara!"
As soon as she heard Willow cry her name Tara lost all semblance of control over the spell in her mind and on her lips. The shield holding the vampires at bay wavered for an instant before disappearing entirely with a brief flash.
As Tara turned her attention to Willow, Faith, Myles and Lara gasped collectively as dozens of vampires were released and began streaming towards them. Faith immediately lit two firebombs while Lara and Myles lifted their crossbows and aimed.
Willow's entire body felt cold beneath the strange, black armour that now encased her entire body. With the pain slowly diminishing she looked up to find Giles kneeling in front of her. The warlock looked as though he was about to fall over but for some strange reason she did not feel compelled to call to him and see if he was okay. Oddly calm, she stood and surveyed the battlefield in which she stood. Tara was running towards her with a terrified expression that was at odds with her usually stoic countenance but she couldn't muster the emotion to care about her either. Instead she stared down at her body and clenched her armoured first, even in just that simple movement she felt powerful. She reached for the sword strapped to her waist and drew it with a steely hiss. With merely a glance, she strode past Tara and the rest of her friends, straight towards the oncoming vampire army. As they came closer she felt the corners of her lips tug upwards in a broad grin of anticipation.
There was a resounding crash as Willow slammed into the first wave of vampires, rendering several headless with one stroke of her sword. She continued to cut a wide swath through the oncoming vampires, in less than a minute, at least a dozen had fallen before her blade. Just as her blood was boiling with the rage of combat, Willow suddenly found herself without a single foe standing in front of her; rather, the vampires had created a ring around her. None would step closer even as she taunted them with swings of her sword. However, a few moments later the circle parted slightly to admit a single combatant to enter. Willow once again found her smile as she saw it was none other than Dracula himself.
"I believe you left our last duel a little prematurely," Dracula announced, trying to circle her slowly.
Willow refused to face him as he walked around her, she kept staring straight ahead with a mocking grin on her face, "This duel will end a little differently I promise you."
"It could all end now if you were to hand over the skull," Dracula suggested.
Willow laughed lightly as she finally turned to face him as she uttered her revelation, "Why don't you come and take it!" She spread her arms out wide as though offering herself, "It's standing right in front of you!"
Dracula's face fell slightly before he was able to regain his composure and refit his mask of marble calm, "That's impossible..." he whispered.
Willow lifted her sword, pointing it directly at him, "If it's impossible then leave now! Be gone! You and your horde of filth and scum!"
With that she sprang forward with a guttural yell, Dracula barely had time to lift his sword in defence before she was on him. Their blades met and stuck fast with both straining to press forward, eyes locked in a brutal stare.
Across the battlefield, Willow's companions were still fighting for their lives. Lara stood, reloading and firing her crossbow as fast as possible. In a broad circle around her she had created a miniature dust cloud from the vampires she had destroyed. Faith and Myles had unleashed a deadly hail of firebombs, setting several vampires alight almost immediately. A side effect had been the creation of a wall of fire directly in front of them that the vampires could not cross. They were forced to go around, effectively splitting their force in half. With her supply of firebombs exhausted, Faith drew a stake in each hand and engaged the vampires in hand to hand combat. The first several went down quickly as she cut through their attacks with superior speed and skill. However, in the midst of the chaos she came face to face with an incredibly pale vampire, grinning at her from beneath his thatch of pointy blonde hair. He had a thin sword in one hand and a long knife in the other. Faith paused indecisively as she weighed up her options, trying to assess what she was up against before she made her attack. She tossed both stakes aside and drew her sword in a quick motion.
"Hello there, sweet thing," he drawled, twirling his knife on the tips of his fingers. "Name's William the Bloody...and you would be?"
"Your slayer," Faith replied abruptly.
She darted forward, having decided that he also would possess a certain speed in the way he fought. His first move proved her correct as he stepped nimbly aside and brushed her blade off with his own. Faith was forced to step backwards as he followed up with a thrust with his knife. The point of the blade scraped against her red leather corset before she moved out of range. She tried to take advantage of his off-balanced pose but he recovered too quickly, stepping away from her back-handed swing. They traded several more blows before Faith felt her earlier exhaustion begin to set in once more. She knew with a certainty that she did not tire so easily and yet the drain on her strength reserves had left her dangerously weak. Faith could only hope that it did not show in her movements or on her face. However it was too late, somehow he knew she was tired. Whether it was the tightness of her jaw or her increasingly slow sword play, he knew. A series of almost perfect strokes drove her to her knees and she was forced to suffer the indignity of having her sword dashed from her grip. He placed the heel of his boot on her chest and thrust, shoving her backwards. Faith hit the ground with a dull thud and found herself unable to move.
"Bye, bye poppet," William said with immense satisfaction, lifting the sword in preparation to plunge it into Faith's chest.
Faith met his cruel, gloating gaze with a brave refusal to utter a single plea for mercy. It would be an honourable death on the battlefield...although she did have to suppress an iota of regret that it was such a foul, unworthy vampire who had finally bested her. She was prepared for the end when a surprised look suddenly passed across the face of the vampire standing above her. There was a pause as he simply stared at Faith without bringing his sword down. Then his body exploded to reveal Myles Cavendish with the stake he had just thrust through his back still clutched in his hand. He grinned momentarily and then reached down to help Faith to her feet. The brunette's grip was so firm she almost toppled the young man over as she rose.
"Thanks, Myles," Faith nodded, although she barely had time to recover before several more vampires surrounded them both. "How about I pay you back for that right now?"
"That would be nice!" Myles yelped as the nearest vampire slashed in his direction with a wickedly large knife.
Throughout her friend's struggle with the lesser vampires, Willow continued to fight Dracula. It was no mere replay of the fight in the cemetery but something new and terrifyingly fierce. Whereas earlier it had been Dracula, lord of vampires against Willow Van Helsing, they now fought as equals - both powerful in their own right. They used a massive space for their combat. As they danced across the battlefield, other vampires hastily cleared a path without making the slightest move to interfere.
Willow felt none of the fear or exhaustion that had so hampered her during their last meeting, she felt nothing but exhilaration. Each time their swords clashed she felt another surge of excitement through her own body, and one of fear through his. Each strike or thrust that he made, she blocked or countered with a superior one of her own. Many times she ducked inside his guard and the tip of her sword sliced into his clothing or even his dead flesh.
"We do not need to fight, Willow Van Helsing," Dracula sounded almost as though he were pleading. "Take your treacherous lovers place at my side and together we can raise my army!"
"You seek to talk only because you know I am stronger!" Willow snorted derisively as she surged forward and their blades rang together once more.
"Yes...you are stronger than I," Dracula admitted freely as he stumbled backwards. "But we are also the same...you feel the power do you not?"
Willow did not reply to Dracula but in her mind she could not deny that she did feel an immensely dark power coursing through her every vein. Although she did not fully understand what had happened to her to interrupt Giles's spell, she knew that somehow the captain's essence that had remained at Covasna had been absorbed by the skull inside her body. It terrified and excited her to realise that she herself was quite possibly becoming Dracula's captain. A part of her knew that she had to end all of this before she was corrupted to the point where she could fight against it no longer. She seized upon the image of Tara in her mind, faint though it was, and pressed forward another attack. Her sword whirled in a blur of motion that no human could have hoped to withstand. Dracula was pressed backwards, faltering with each step to the point where his expression became one of panic. Suddenly he found the sword he held stripped from his fingers; it flew up into the air before Willow's caught it in her iron fist.
Weaponless, he sank to his knees in the dirt in front of her as though in surrender. However the haughty defiance on his face said otherwise. With a sharp tug at her gut, Willow knew he expected her not to kill him...but to join with him.
"Your days of cruelty are finally at an end, Vlad," Willow whispered, her voice grating like gravel against her throat.
"You will not be able to resist it, Willow Van Helsing!" Dracula roared even as he was forced to his knees. "You will feel the call to lead the army and everything that you have fought to stop will come to pass! It will be you who lays waste to the nations at the head of my army! You will be responsible for the slaughter of millions!"
As his words rang inside her head Willow brought up both swords and with a violent scissor-like motion she severed Dracula's head. The head, complete with its long, lustrous black hair, flew through the air for several metres before it exploded. Still kneeling in front of her, the body followed suit just a split second later. Willow lifted both her swords in the air and let out a primeval roar that sounded out around the battlefield, letting all know what had just come to pass. Dracula had been destroyed.
The remaining vampires uttered a collective groan upon the destruction of their lord and master; many turned and ran almost immediately. Faith glanced up from dispatching her latest foe and felt a wild surge of hope as she saw Willow standing alone in the cloud of dust that had once been Dracula. She saw the fleeing vampires and even dared to hope that all of the remaining vampires would flee. However at least a dozen seemed either determined to avenge their leader's death or were too stupid to realise that he had been destroyed. Faith only had time to sigh with exhaustion before facing her next opponent. She gave the short, tubby vampire a look of contempt and ducked beneath his swing, feeling the blade of his sword swish past only a hairsbreadth from her scalp. She then brought the stake in her fist up, through his guard and straight into his chest. When she turned to search out her next target she saw Myles lying on the ground several metres away from her and Lara. He was desperately trying to block the sword of a vampire standing above him, intent on ending the young man's life. With a grunt of effort, she forced herself to sprint the short distance, tackling the vampire around the waist just as he was about to skewer Myles. As the vampire thudded to the ground, she landed atop him and drove her stake downwards. When his body exploded out from beneath her, she hit the ground. Faith lay on her stomach with vampire dust clogging her mouth and nose. She snorted and coughed in an effort to clear her airways before dragging her exhausted body back to her feet. Myles was also picking himself up, fumbling in the dust for his sword.
"Bloody hell, Myles!" Faith snapped seizing the young man by his collar and dragging him out from beneath the reach of the two vampires. "I told you to stay in line!"
"What line?" Myles yelped, glancing at Lara who was nearing the end of her supply of silver bolts and then back to Faith. "There are three of us!" In the melee he could not see Tara or Giles and Willow appeared to be a law unto herself with no thought for the safety of her friends as she chased down fleeing vampires.
"Well, it's better than no line at all!" Faith fired back as she narrowly avoided a swing aimed at her chest. She spun as the sword brushed past, splitting the topmost layer of her red leather. As she turned around to face her attackers, the second vampire brought his mace crashing downwards. It smashed into her hand and sheared her stake in half. She was left with her bloody hand holding a rather pathetic looking splinter.
Before either vampire could take advantage of her almost weaponless state, Myles leapt forward one more and parried a blow that was aimed at Faith's neck. His next thrust went straight into the vampire's heart only seconds before he was slammed aside by the flat of the remaining vampire's sword striking his forehead. Dazed, he dropped his own sword and fell to the ground.
Before the vampire could kill Myles, Faith stepped over his fallen body in a protective stance. She shoved him away from Myles with several powerful jabs to his chin and finally a backhanded blow which sent him spinning to the ground. He had only managed to struggle to his knees when Faith rammed the remaining splinter of her stake through his chest. However, no sooner had he exploded in a cloud of dust she felt an insistent tug at her ankle. She tried to shake off whatever it was only to have what felt like a vice like grip tighten around her lower leg. When she looked down she was staggered to see bony fingers digging into her leg.
"Holy hell!" she gasped, almost immediately realising that the fingers were very much attached to an equally fleshless body.
One of the long dead warriors was rising from its slumber in a chilling fashion that left her uncharacteristically frozen in a state of shock. She watched as its torso rose from the ground first, before almost dragging the skull up with it. The skull was tilted backwards at an impossible angle before it slowly righted itself. Faith found herself staring into empty eye sockets but she felt a chill go down her spine as she knew it was looking at her, it saw her and the terror in her eyes. She was finally jarred back into action when the hand that was not digging into her leg began to rise, clutched in its fingers was a well rusted but lethally spiked mace. Without wasting another second staring at the skeleton warrior, Faith drew her sabre with a steely hiss and brought it crashing down on the arm holding her. The bones splintered with a sickening crack and its grip went slack. Faith then brought her booted foot crashing down on the gape-eyed skull, smashing it instantly and grinding the fragments into the earth.
In a surge of anger, Faith stabbed her toe at the broken bones and sent fragments of skull flying; she looked up only to have her fears confirmed. In every direction she turned, the warriors were rising from their slumber in various states of dismemberment and decay. Even in the midst of the horror, Faith spied one positive aspect. The warriors in their skeletal state obviously made no distinction between human and vampire, they attacked both.
The time for standing and staring was over, Faith was forced to dash forward and extricate Myles from a headlock before a rusty dagger could be drawn across his throat. Although the young man's face had gone a deathly white; he swallowed awkwardly and adjusted his grip on his sword in a determined fashion.
"We have to stay together!" Faith barked, she seized Myles by his shirt sleeve and dragged him back towards the dead tree at the centre of the battlefield where she could see Lara reloading her crossbow. Seconds later the museum director sent the bolt flying into the chest of a vampire. "Lara! We've got a slightly bigger problem!"
Faith drew up beside her lover and shoved Myles behind them both. Lara could hardly failed to miss the bodies on the ground stirring, even though few had managed to drag themselves fully upright as of yet. All across the battlefield, thousands of corpses were coming to life, rising up out of the dust in which they had lain for hundreds of years. Slowly they pulled their shattered and mangled limbs together, bony limbs reached out for long rusted weapons. Faith hardly needed to weigh up the situation, if even a few hundred of the warriors arose, their little band would be overrun in a matter of minutes.
"Why the hell is this happening?" Lara turned to Faith with a desperate expression in her eyes. "Dracula is dead...he did not have time to mutter a word of the resurrection spell, this should not be happening!"
Faith held Lara's gaze for a moment, she saw behind the grime, fresh blood and wildly askew hair, the face of the woman she loved. If today was going to be her last, then she could think of no other person she would rather have at her side. She saw Lara recognise the expression in her eyes and she reached out. The two women clasped their bloody hands together for a moment, saying everything that needed to be said in that one touch. Their hands fell apart and Lara dashed her crossbow and empty quiver to the ground to draw her sword.
"Myles, be a gentleman and hand me that mace," Lara said, indicating a rusty weapon lying close to the outstretched hand of a dead warrior.
As Myles wrapped his fingers around its shaft, the bony fingers of its former owner tried to claim in back. They seized his wrist in a vice like grip as he yelped and tried to yank his hand away. It went limp only when Lara brought her sword crashing down on the skeleton's forearm, shattering its bones. Breathing a sigh of relief, Myles snatched up the mace and handed it quickly to her. She accepted it with a grin of thanks and, with sword and mace in hand, turned to hack open the skull of a warrior struggling to rise from the earth.
"I know exactly why this is happening," Faith whispered, she felt sick to her stomach as she slowly turned around and saw Willow...or rather the shape that had once been Willow. The armour had now completely consumed her body, melding to her legs, arms, chest in a gross exaggeration of a human body. Only Willow's head was bare...but it was so obviously still the face of her friend that Faith was able to feel that there was hope yet. Her red hair had turned black, as had her eyes...and yet everything else was still Willow. With one last glance over her shoulder at Lara and Myles, Faith surged across the space that separated her from Willow. As she ran she caught sight of Tara and Giles, the blonde vampire desperately trying to revive the stricken warlock while at the same time desperately attempting to fight off the new threat in the form of Dracula's army. She could see the vampire's strength was flagging but it was all she could do to continue towards Willow. Faith felt another surge of hope when she saw Willow reached out and wrap her gauntleted fist around the face of one of the warriors. She smashed the skull by merely closing her armoured fist.
"Will!" Faith ran towards her friend, knowing that they would stand a far greater chance of survival if she could keep their small band together.
She approached Willow and in one awful moment realised that the expression on her face was not one of welcome. Willow's sword flashed, catching her off guard. Faith was knocked off her feet even as she blocked the blow. As she crashed to the earth she lay in a state of pain and shock, a part of her expected Willow to finish the job...and a part of her expected Willow to help her to her feet. Neither happened as Faith tried groggily to pick herself up. She was forced to swat a blurry skeleton warrior away with the flat of her sword and her shoulder protested with the movement. With some element of relief she saw its skull toppled from its shoulders and she was able to struggle back to her feet.
"What the hell!" Faith demanded of her friend, seeing Willow still standing in front of her.
Willow's response was to advance forward with her sword raised towards Faith as though about to attack. Faith couldn't believe that it was about to happen until, at the last moment, she was actually force to block Willow as she attacked her. From there, Faith was in a desperate struggle for her life, fighting against a friend who appeared to be on a different plain of reality altogether.
In the awful moments that had passed since Willow's transformation, Tara had been operating in a mechanical fashion. Even as she sent fireballs smashing into the chests of vampires in all directions, she could not get Willow's blank expression out of her mind. It was an expression that had been devoid of emotion and recognition as she walked past her and straight towards the oncoming vampires. Although Tara had lost sight of Willow in the melee, she knew that she was out there laying waste to everything in her path.
She fought her way back to the tree and found Giles crumpled over next to what remained of the Captain's skeleton, just a few rags and a deep impression in the earth. His face was blanched white and his breathing was shallow. Tara threw herself down next to the warlock and lightly shook him by the shoulders. There was no response. She heard a rasping of bones behind her and barely had time to glance up before something flashed at her and she was sent crashing backwards, she hit the earth with a dull thud and felt a surge of heat radiating out from her forehead. A few moments later her vision was obscured by freely flowing blood. She lashed out at the warrior that stood above her, clutching a bloody sword in its hand. A spell of air sent him flying into the tree where the force of impact shattered what remained of the tree's trunk, bringing it crashing to the earth.
Tara desperately turned her attention back to the unconscious man lying in front of her, "Giles, Giles please..."
She watched as first Giles's lips moved slightly, then gradually his eyes opened. He blinked several times but when lifted a hand to his face to search for his glasses they were not there.
"Giles...Giles," Tara continued to shake him gently even as he regained consciousness, "The army is waking because of Willow...you have to perform the destruction spell before it's too late!" She then helped Giles into a sitting position whether he was ready for it or not. "I'm sorry your glasses were broken..."
Giles turned to look at her, saw the desperation on her face and then determinedly tried to stand under his own power. "I don't need them for this anyway...where is Willow?" he gasped as he heaved himself to his feet by leaning heavily on Tara's shoulder.
He saw the look on Tara's face when she indicated a direction and he immediately knew that it something was terribly amiss. When he turned he thought he saw Faith fighting some monstrous vampire...but he quickly saw he was wrong. It was not a vampire at all but Willow, her body completely consumed by the armour of Dracula's captain. She fought Faith with an almost completely blank expression, as though she had no idea that the woman desperately trying to avoid ending up on the point of her sword was in fact her dearest friend. Both he and Tara gasped as Willow slipped inside Faith's sword thrust and delivered a powerful backhanded blow. Faith barely had enough time to regain her balance to try and block the blow. Although she got her sword up in time, Willow's strike was too powerful; it knocked her sword aside and slashed across her shoulder. Faith's sword clattered to the ground only a second before she toppled to the ground.
"The spell, Giles!" Tara yelled, already surging forward to where Willow was poised over Faith, about to finish her off. "The spell!"
Tara could not keep her attention focused on Giles any longer. She had to trust that the warlock was still capable of performing the magic necessary despite his exhaustion. She only had eyes for Willow.
Before Willow could plunge the sword downwards into Faith's body, Tara knocked her sword arm aside. Willow immediately let out a grunt of frustration and made instead to swing at Tara. Placing herself directly in the path of the sword, Tara stepped close enough to Willow to be able to reach out and seize her chin in a firm grip. She forced Willow to stare at her, to meet her gaze directly. Even as Willow's sword arm slackened and she did not follow through on the swing that would have buried her sword in her waist, she did not allow her gaze to waver.
She searched Willow's face, despite the armour cocooning her body, it was still very much Willow. There was more than a hint of recognition in her eyes even though the emerald green that Tara loved appeared to have been leeched from them completely, leaving two soulless white orbs with pricks of black at the centre.
"Willow keep looking at me!" Tara demanded harshly, knowing that if she faltered Willow would once again try to strike her down. Behind her she heard Giles begin to utter the destruction spell; she felt a surge of power through her own body as he summoned the very power inherent in the battlefield. It was a filthy evil force and yet it was stronger than she could have imagined. It flowed up from the very earth beneath their feet, flooding their bodies with a taint so strong it made Tara want to retch. She saw Willow's entire face slacken and for a moment flecks of green returned to her gaze. "Will...please stay with me!"
"I'm here," Willow's voice sounded like a thousand booming voices and yet beneath them all Tara could still distinguish the small one that belonged to her lover.
Even though Willow knew full well that in reality she was still standing on the battlefield, she felt as though she was somewhere else altogether. A place far removed from the chaos going on around them with the warriors rising from their slumber, it was a place where she and Tara existed alone. She tried to draw Tara further into that place where she knew they would both be safe but Tara's fingers immediately dug even more fiercely into her chin and her face contorted as though she were struggling against something.
"Willow! For god's sake stay with me...feel your feet on the ground, feel my touch!" Tara insisted.
"But..." Willow tried to open her mouth but no sound emerged other than a tortured groan. Instead she tried to speak through her mind and she found the words flowed more easily, We should leave! she thought desperately, We should leave and go somewhere safe...Tara please come with me...away from all of this pain!
You don't understand Will, Tara's voice replied in her mind but her voice was distant, as though she was being drawn away, If you leave then the demon inside you will win...you'll be trapped within your own body... Tara's voice faded until Willow had to strain to hear her, ...friends will die...fail...
At first Willow didn't believe Tara's words, she convinced herself that it was something else speaking with Tara's voice. However she saw Tara standing in front of her, she felt her fingernails digging painfully into the flesh of her face and she knew she spoke the truth. Although she had no idea how to do it, Willow concentrated all her energy on the physical reality of her existence, on her feet standing on the ground. With a gut wrenching scream she forced herself back to reality...as painful as it was. She sagged almost immediately, nearly crushed by the weight of the pain that coursed through her body. Tara was forced to use both arms to keep her upright, effectively cradling Willow against her body.
"It...hurts!" Willow whispered, gasping for breath, "Please tell Giles to stop!"
Even though she was in no pain, Tara let out a cry of her own in tandem with Willow's. She felt her lover's pain and it was killing her to be able to do nothing to relieve it.
"I can't Will..." Tara replied.
As Giles's words intensified in her ears, Willow felt as though she were being ripped apart. There were points of pain throughout her entire body, as though something inside her was straining to get out. Willow glanced down at the skin on the back of her hand and her eyes widened in horror as several small wounds were violently torn in her skin as something was expelled from within. A split second later Tara released her with a cry and she was thrown against the ground, also writhing in pain as though the same tearing sensation occurred throughout her body. Giles's words and Tara's screams were all she could hear in her ears...both built to a crescendo even as she tried to force her eyes to open. She had to wipe something moist and sticky from her eyes before she could see and she quickly realised it was blood from the tiny wounds covering her face. Through her blood-clouded gaze she saw a whirling vortex hovering between her and Tara, and Giles. At the centre of it swirled the now fully intact skull and something else Willow could not recognise, a dark shape with a life of its own that seemed to be struggling against the sides of the vortex in an effort to escape.
She saw Giles, his face dripping with sweat. He was gradually forced to one knee beneath the weight of the magicks he now wielded but somehow the words continued to leave his lips. Willow tried to lift her body, to reach out to him to offer some sort of strength but it was all she could do to keep her eyes open. His voice built to a crescendo and then abruptly cut off.
In the almost deathly silence that followed, Willow could hear her own hoarse breathing and the blood pounding in her head. The skull and the dark form continued to revolve in the vortex. For the first time now she was able to make out something in the shadows of the form, something that looked like a disturbing approximation of Tara's features. However her attention was drawn to Giles who was now staring at her with a blank expression on his face, he remained kneeling for a second more before he toppled forward, face first into the ground.
Suddenly the vortex imploded before her eyes, the skull and the dark Tara-form were crushed in on themselves in an instant. For a brief moment, the entire vortex was a mere dot in the sky. Then, without warning, it exploded outwards with a deafening boom.
Willow was crushed flat against the earth as though she had been hit with a train. Everything went dark and she finally found a welcome relief from the pain.
"For heaven's sake Rosenberg, wake up!"
With the insistent voice shouting at her repeatedly, Willow forced her eyes to open, if only to see who it was long enough to tell them to shut up and let her sleep. Her eyes stung painfully as she prised the lids open and she steeled herself to be blinded by light, however there was only the dim, yellow light of dusk as it was chased from the sky above her and she found she could open them easily. Her view of the sky was then obscured by the thoroughly dishevelled and dirty visage of Faith Winters. As her vision came into full focus she decided, not unkindly, her that friend had definitely seen better days. Her hair had all but escaped its restraints and hung lank and grimy about her face. There was more dried blood and dirt on her face than there was skin showing. Fresh blood still seeped from a nasty wound slashed her collarbone and down to her left shoulder that had been forceful enough to tear her leather armour. Willow tried to sit but found not an ounce of strength in her muscles.
"Welcome back," Faith said gently.
Faith reached out and brushed a clump of her hair from her eyes. If anything, Willow thought her friend's movements were a little tentative, as though she were afraid to reach out and touch her for some reason. Willow found she was able to feel all of her limbs if not move them and she was gratified to realise that they were all still attached and appeared to function, albeit not very well. Her right hand twitched and she felt her fingers relax from their hold on a weapon of sorts. With a little effort she found herself able to lift the hand from the ground. When she lifted the hand within her field of vision she was shocked to find her skin covered in black scales that were steadily flaking off in large chunks. Willow yelped out of shock and found a sudden burst of strength, enough to rise into a sitting position and begin scraping frantically at the scales. She soon discovered that they fell off easily to reveal her normal, unblemished skin lying beneath.
"What the hell happened?" Willow sagged slightly after her initial display of strength but she was in no danger of falling when Faith moved quickly to support her with her uninjured arm. She scanned the battlefield in front of her and saw that nothing much had changed from the moment she and her companions had stepped out onto it the previous afternoon. Piles of rusty armour lay heaped at irregular intervals...only now they were without the bones that had previously given them shape.
"I do believe our bony friends turned to dust," Faith commented absently.
Gradually everything began to come back to Willow. She remembered the shock of the armour melding to her body...and their desperate fight against Dracula's hoard of vampires. Willow let out a small breath as she remembered seeing his head roll from his shoulders and the look on his face before his body exploded. Then it was all a blur, the interminable cold she had felt...and the increasingly numbness of both feeling and emotion as she became detached from her companions around her.
Willow saw Lara squatting over something in distance, her dark hair hanging unbound and her head lowered. Willow's look became increasingly furtive when she realised she could not find her other companions. "Where is everyone?"
"It was a good fight..." it was all Faith could whisper, the brunette's head dropped too and Willow thought she looked as though she were about to collapse.
Willow's eyes opened wide as she remembered the violent explosion of light and shadow that had been the last thing she remembered. Tara had been lying directly beside her after struggling so desperately to keep her focused on reality. She remembered the shadowy form that had been destroyed in the vortex along with the skull...she remembered Tara's face twisted in immense pain.
"Tara?" Willow gasped as she stared intently at Faith.
With some effort, the brunette nodded over her shoulder with an expression that was supposed to be a smile...but she could not even force one onto her tired features, "I need to see to the others, will you be alright?"
Even as Willow nodded hastily, she was already turning her entire body in the direction Faith had indicated. She felt Faith leave her side and began an awkward crawl towards a dark outline that lay on the ground several metres from her. Her movements became increasingly frantic the closer she came. It was undoubtedly Tara; the vampire was lying on her back with her blonde hair fanning out around her. Her eyes were closed and her face peaceful...as though in death.
"No, no, no..." Willow whispered, her voice choking with tears, "Tara...please open your eyes dearest!"
She scrambled across the ground on her knees and elbows, ignoring rusty weapons and scraps of armour until she was practically lying atop Tara. Willow was close enough to see the gentle but evident rise and fall of Tara's chest. She let out an undignified snort of relief which quickly became a coughing fit that added snot to the mix of undesirable substances clinging to her face. Her grimy fingers reached out to stroke Tara's skin, she was surprised to find it unblemished and clean despite the chaos of battle Tara had just lived through. However it was a small thought that paled in comparison to the knowledge that Tara was alive.
The blonde's eyelashes began to flutter at Willow's touch. When the cloudy but still brilliant eyes finally looked up her, she allowed herself a grin of relief. Tara's mouth worked but she said nothing at first, Willow continued to stroke her cheek and it was now, with the knowledge that Tara was going to be alright, that she realised several things about the blonde were decidedly odd. Her hair, which had once been pale verging on white, was now a luscious golden colour. It eerily reminded Willow of the colour it had been during Tara's lifetime. There were also two spots on colour on Tara's normally marble white cheeks. Willow gently lent down to deposit a kiss on Tara's nose and the colour intensified. Finally, Tara smiled...and Willow could see no trace of the fangs which so physically marked her as a vampire.
"Tara?" Willow whispered in awe, trying to fathom what had possibly happened to bring about such changes. "I know asking how you feel is a ridiculous question...but how do you feel?"
Tara felt the cold earth at her back, her entire body felt as though it had been thrown from a great height but all of this seemed insignificant next to the fact that it was Willow's gorgeous visage that filled her vision. Tara turned her head slightly, apart from Willow's face there was absolutely nothing she recognised.
"What on earth is happening?" Tara whispered, experiencing the decidedly unpleasant sensation of waking up with absolutely no knowledge of where she was or how she had got there. She propped herself up on her elbows and then felt a strong grip assisting her. She looked around wildly for a few moments, seeing nothing but horror in every direction until her eyes fell upon Willow once again.
"Oh god, Will!" Tara cried as she threw herself forward into Willow's waiting arms. She found the very breath being squeezed from her lungs in return but she did not care, she merely tightened her grasp and did the same to Willow. As a result, when she drew back slightly after several minutes, Willow's face was flushed pink from a lack of oxygen and she was sure her own was just the same. Tara ran her fingers over Willow's decidedly dirty face and down over the twisted and torn clothing she wore. "Will...my god, whatever happened to you...whatever happened to us? Where are we?"
Tara had so many questions that were tumbling over one another and yet Willow's mouth worked soundlessly as she was unable to answer even one of them. She knew exactly what had happened and where they were, but it was the fact that Tara did not, that left her speechless. It was almost as though...
"Willow...w-where are we?" Tara repeated in Willow's silence, her huge eyes pleading.
...Tara had been returned to the person she once was.
"I am so sorry for everything I did," Tara continued in a whisper, oblivious to the expression of realisation dawning on Willow's face.
As she spoke the words she of course had no way of knowing that Willow would subconsciously interpret her apology as having a far wider reach than she herself intended. She did not know that her last hundred years had been spent as a vampire and that during that time she had both betrayed and murdered her love. Willow was shaking as she reached out towards Tara once again.
Oblivious to the whirl of thoughts cascading through Willow's head, Tara allowed the redhead to draw her even closer. She tilted her head so her lips lay pressed against Willow's ear. "Please tell me it is not too late to change my mind and choose you over Edward Walsh?"
Willow felt fresh tears sear her eyes. She drew away from Tara in one swift movement and stood on her unsteady legs. Everything came down to that choice...the choice Tara had had to make. It had determined the course of their lives...it had determined that they would be end up at Covasna in the aftermath of the final battle. Willow saw Faith and Lara embracing over a fallen form she recognised to be Giles. She searched but could see no sign of Myles in the debris and it was all she could do to hope the young man was crouched in a hole somewhere, shaken but alive.
"Myles?" she had intended it as a shout, but it came out a mere whisper that hardly carried past her and Tara.
"W-Willow?" Tara probed in a worried voice. She too had risen to her feet. With one hand she reached out and brushed against Willow's arm in an effort to attract her lover's attention once again.
Willow's shirt was torn, Tara touched her bare skin. At the touch, the stricken redhead wrenched her gaze away from her friends and back to Tara. She could do nothing but stare for a moment. It was not the Tara who had walked onto the battlefield...it was the Tara who had walked out on her almost one hundred years earlier. She finally answered her question,
"No," Willow whispered, shaking her head slowly as she said it. "Tara...it is not too late..." I would not consider a hundred years too late...not now, not after everything we've been through...
Tara held out her arms as if seeking to seal her promise with an embrace. Willow held back before finally allowing herself to sink into Tara's embrace, Willow lost herself to great gulping sobs that left her whole body racked and trembling. However the more violently her body shook, the more Tara intensified her embrace.
Although it was difficult for Willow to acknowledge...even in her head, she realised that it was over. Dracula and the skull had both been destroyed after hundreds of years of struggle, after so many sacrifices. Even though she did not know the full extent of what had happened, Willow knew that their victory had come at a huge cost. It was a cost that she would eventually have to face and yet at that moment Willow wanted to rest, comforted by the solid realisation that she was safe in Tara's innocent arms.
So Tara held her. In the end, everything had returned to as it was at the beginning in 1777 with two young women alone in a stable...
However, this time Willow knew that there was no way in hell she was going to let Tara go...