Willow wandered down the deserted street, the only sound aside from the random flashes of thunder and lightening and the blowing wind being her own footfalls. Every time the thunder cracked, she flinched, sudden loud noises in a nearly silent environment doing little to calm her down. At least she managed to find humor in the fact that the situation made her recall a snippet of information she had recalled her psychology teacher say as a joke. It was offbeat, but she had to admit that it was also amusing. It was also her only means of maintaining calm in a situation rapidly losing any semblance of a credible reason for her to do so.
Walking up to an abandoned house, her steps began to falter. Something in the back of her mind was telling her not to go inside, lest she find herself in danger. Then she recalled than in this strange backwards world, danger was around every corner. And in any case, she had faced down much worse horrors in the past few months in her role as Sailor Moon. Nothing in that house could frighten her.
That belief was immediately shattered upon seeing the carnage evident inside the house. No. That wasn't correct. "Carnage" didn't even begin to describe how to describe the scene she saw inside.
The entryway was strewn with dead bodies in various poses and states of decomposition, all of them expressing on their faces extreme fear and terror; the entire group quite literally scared to death. At the far end of the room, Willow recognized someone. Eyes widening, she made her way over to the body as quickly and carefully as she could and knelt down beside the young woman's glazed eyes.
"Oh, Amy," she said, moving to close her eyes. "What happened to you? What happened to all of you?"
A bloodcurdling cackle filled the room, almost in response to the question. Willow followed it to the backyard of the house, looking up at the sundeck attached to the house's second floor to find a familiar figure perched upon it like a vulture.
Buffy cocked her head at the question. "Look at the little birdie bird. Making noise, but no one home to hear you."
Willow's heart began to beat faster in proportion to her growing fear. "Buffy, what are you talking about? What's going on?"
In response to her query, Buffy leaped off the railing to the ground, shoulder rolling towards Willow as she did so and, in one fluid motion, delivered a roundhouse kick to Willow's head, sending her flying through the air into the fence nearby. The rotted wood broke instantly, causing the redhead's body to fly into the next yard.
Willow brought herself to her feet in time to see Buffy step through the hole in the fence, a lecherous grin on her face. At this point, Willow was way past worry and into full blown wig mode.
"Stupid little chickie, crawling out of your nest all by yourself."
Any sort of response from Willow was stymied by the sound of an approaching car and, several seconds later, a series of gunshots. Willow turned towards the commotion, then turned back to find Buffy leaping over the fence on the opposite side of the yard and take off at a sprinting run down the street. Her strength failed her then, and she lapsed into unconsciousness.
"Is she alright?"
"She's lucid. We should be grateful for that. We're lucky to have found her before any serious harm could have come to her."
"We're glad that Jupiter didn't have the chance to do her any permanent harm. She was always the most hotheaded of us."
Willow was aware of the conversation, she couldn't put faces to the voices. It concerned her, however, that they were talking about the Sailor Soldiers openly, and referring to Buffy by her Soldier name. Hadn't Luna made it clear to them the importance of keeping their lives as Soldiers a secret from anyone who might use that knowledge inappropriately?
She opened her eyes to find herself on a stretcher, hooked up to some makeshift medical equipment that beeped in slow steady rhythms, clearly showing her status as among the living, even if her body clearly didn't feel the same way.
Willow quickly found herself besieged by a trio of individuals: a mid twenties balding African American male, a slightly younger male in doctor's scrubs and a mid thirties woman with all the standard police attachments, who was, at this very moment staring down at her with thinly disguised anger.
"You're lucky to be alive, Willow," the female said. "You should have known better than to wander out beyond our protective shield." Willow's silence clearly annoyed her. "I can't believe how foolish you were."
"Calm down, Kate," the African American said. "No harm was done. We got Willow back safe and sound, and Jenny's already reinforced our mystical barrier. There's no chance of an attack now. Everything's worked out all right in the end.
Kate's expression didn't falter, and she moved to leave the room. "She still should have known better."
The African American watched her leave, then turned to his companion. "OK, Ben. Help me get her up."
The pair unhooked Willow from the machine and helped her to her feet. After Ben left to deal with the other patients in the room, the African American took Willow's hand. "You had us all worried, Willow. I might not agree with Kate's attitude, but she does have a point. You never should have gone out on your own."
Willow was clearly flustered, and had no qualms about making it known. "What do you mean? What's going on here? Who are you?"
The man's expression softened slightly. "Jupiter must have roughened you up more than we thought." He held out his other hand. "Charles Gunn."
Willow took the offered hand and shook it. "So...what's going on here? Where are we?"
Gunn's expression darkened. "You really don't have any idea, Willow?"
Willow shook her head, and Gunn led her out of the room and onto a gangplank overlooking a vast cavern, filled with a large assortment of people; most of them were malnourished and in poor health. Those few who appeared relatively healthy still bore marks of being part of a conflict, from deep wounds to missing limbs.
And mingling among them...no, it couldn't be.
Willow was surprised to find four older women among the injured, walking among them distributing food, medicine and good wishes. All four of them wore the uniform of the Sailor Soldiers; one an ethereal thin woman holding a forked staff with a skirt and bow in purple and boots trimmed in black, another an well muscled African American with short dark hair holding the arm of a platinum blonde and who appeared to be their leader, a woman whose uniform, like her hair, was trimmed in dark green. She was holding an ornate staff with a gem at the top, which Willow could feel was giving off tremendous power, but at the same time causing the strength of the woman who wielded it to sag every so often, resorting to using it as a walking stick.
Though Willow did not know the others, it was this one she recognized immediately. "Miss Calendar?"
"Say hello, Willow," Gunn's voice came from behind her. "Say hello to the last of humanity."
The rain began to come down as she had left, but Buffy didn't let it bother her. Few things did since her change. One of them was failure. The Empress did not enjoy failure in her subjects, especially those in whom she had placed a great deal of her trust. And in a court composed of a majority of backstabbers seeking to attain and maintain their level of standing by any means necessary, the Empress favored her most of all for her honesty and brutality.
She soon arrived at the fortress that the Dark Kingdom had made in the town of Sunnydale shortly after the Empress had made her escape from her imprisonment, a large part of the city walled off with its nucleus the remains of the former high school. Many of the creatures she passed along the way had once been human, their humanity and souls burned away and now twisted into the motley army serving the Empress in all things.
Making her way to the Empress' throne room, she tried to calm her nerves, not wanting to appear flustered in the presence of her mistress. Arriving in the room, she saw a number of her leader's chosen warriors in conference. And on the throne at the end of the room, the powerful figure of Metallia, Queen of the Dark Kingdom and Empress of Earth.
She brought her head up and smiled faintly. "Ah, Elizabeth. How nice of you to return to us. I trust your mission was a success?"
The warriors discussing their business fell silent, and Metallia got to her feet, her hand extended towards Buffy. An invisible hand closed around her throat as the words left them. Metallia's face, once kind and pleasant, had now twisted into a snarling rage, made more fearful by the whiteness of her skin and the deadness of her eyes, eyes which now shone a dark crimson. "I tell you, Elizabeth. If you have allowed that coven to join the insurgency..."
"No, my lady," Buffy choked out. "The coven has been slaughtered. But.."
Metallia lowered her hand, and Buffy found herself hitting the floor. "But?"
Buffy gasped for air, and then described in detail to Metallia her encounter with Willow, and by the time she had finished, the demon queen was incensed. "And you, the most ruthless of you converts, you, who pride yourself a huntress without equal, allowed yourself to run in fear from these people? You could not defeat a simple group of rabble infesting our great kingdom like a cancer?"
Buffy stammered for an explanation. "I...I thought the advantages of retreat were more advantageous. There is an opportunity to re-evaluate and reorganize..."
Buffy's words came to a half as Metallia once again raised her hand, only this time blue arcs of lightning emerged form her fingertips, coursing all over the small blonde's body. She howled in pain. "Please...my lady! Have pity!"
"Pity?" Metallia spat, her face clouded in anger. "Pity is for the weak, my dear Elizabeth. Pity is for the emotionally crippled." She continued her assault, failing to relent in her attack. Buffy's howls soon slipped to sharp cries, then to moans, then to whimpers and finally, she fell silent, her body twitching in reflex as the last of the lightning played over her now charred body.
"You are both, and I am neither."
Lowering her arm, she turned to those discussing matters some distance away. "Let that be a lesson to you. I do not tolerate failure in my men. By the next sunset, the insurgency will fall, or you will all join her." She moved to sit down on her throne, all pretense of continuing the discussion over.
"Leave me now. And take that with you."