Willow watched as each member of their rather pathetic little army moved into the positions that Faith had assigned them. As they did, every single one of them turned and gave her a glance that she shivers down her spine. Although no words were exchanged, she knew exactly what each one was thinking...and each was thinking exactly the same thing. Willow could read their expressions almost as though they were speaking out loud to her in furtive, wary voices.
"We don't know what you're capable of, Willow."
"And quite frankly you scare the frickin' bejesus out of us!"
"But whatever you are, and whatever you do...we're counting on you to get us out of this."
It was the final assumption that left her cold and emotionless despite the terror that she knew she ought to feel. Willow could not help but think that the thoughts carried with them an inherent sense of blame, that all of this was her fault and therefore she was obliged to see them through it. She had every right to be just as terrified as any of them, and even less assured of what she might be capable of. While one could know exactly what a crossbow or an axe could do to a man, Willow had no idea what kind of weapons she possessed.
The first salvo against the house came as each of the Scoobies was tensed with the anticipation of impending conflict. Those downstairs with weapons in their hands and Tara and the children tucked upstairs in the attic. An explosion rocked the side of the house, shattering a line of windows inwards. The occupants of the house ducked, sheltering themselves from flying glass fragments with their arms. Willow was the only one who remained completely still, watching the flying glass as though it were inherently fascinating. She did not even flinch when a shard struck her forearm, she merely glanced down to see a thin line of blood welling up from an inch long cut.
Willow continued watching as it welled up to the point where it began to flow down her forearm, to her wrist and over the back of her hand. It dripped on the carpet in a slow, constant rhythm. She lost track of time watching the blood flow.
"Willow! Duck!" someone screamed and Willow's head jerked up to find the shiny blade of an axe almost level with her head.
She ducked, throwing herself to the ground only a moment too soon. She heard the axe sing through the air as it passed mere millimetres from her scalp. Willow hit the ground hard and rolled to face her attacker. She came face to face with a smooth-faced young man, robed in dull brown and armed with a large axe. He could have been any other guy, one of the cops from the precinct even, except for the look of pure fanaticism on his face. As his arm lifted to bring the axe crashing down on her, Willow saw his robes part to reveal what he was wearing underneath. In contrast to the monk-like robe, he was clad in dark, tightly fitted combat gear including top of the line body armour covering his chest. He looked even more like one of the SWAT guys from the precinct.
As Willow stared at the young man, his teeth gritted for the blow, she watched his expression slacken suddenly. He toppled forward to land on top of her, revealing Faith standing over his body with a bloody axe. Willow shoved the dead body aside and took the hand Faith offered her.
"Get it together, Red!" Faith yelled over the noise, "They're everywhere!"
Willow was suddenly aware of the cacophony which surrounded them. Although it had seemed mere seconds between her arm being cut and the axe almost decapitating her, Willow realised that much more time had passed. Everywhere she looked she saw her friends engaged in struggles of their own. Xander was on his back, lying atop shattered glass as a robed figure pressed down on him and fought for control of the axe in Xander's hands. Its blade was perilously close to the young man's neck. In seconds, Faith swept the assailant off Xander with a swift kick to his stomach which sent him rolling off. Her axe came crashing down moments later.
In the midst of shattering glass and frantic shouts, Willow spun to see Anya and Buffy at the base of the stairs. Both blonde's worked their axes as though they were born with them in their hands and Willow noted the bodies that lay around them. She spun again to see Spike go crashing through a window as he grappled with another body, they both fell outside where Willow could no longer see them. Willow saw Giles on the deck, the glass that had once separated it from inside was shattered and she had a clear view. He was loading crossbow bolt and succeeded in plunging it into the chest of an attacker as he scaled the deck.
Willow found herself shoved aside roughly as Buffy went crashing past her, legs and arms wrapped around the back of a man who struggled to try and throw her off. Buffy succeeded in forcing him to the ground where Faith was on hand once again to put an end to him. Buffy leapt to her feet and grinned at Faith for a moment. Even as Willow watched her move back to the stairs to retrieve her fallen axe a light flashed in front of her eyes, directly behind Buffy. Willow was thrown backwards and she tumbled over the couch in the centre of the room to end up upside down with her head planted in the floor. As she untangled her body and climbed back over the couch, dust and smoke filled the air. She looked where Buffy had been standing to find a gaping hole in the side of the house and a huge hole in the floorboards below that went right down to the foundations. Buffy was nowhere in sight. Throughout the room others, both friend and foe, were also picking themselves up from where the explosion had knocked them.
Willow found herself walking forward, through the room and the struggling bodies around her until she found herself poised at the hole in the side of the house. She glanced out into the early dawn light to see a familiar but most unwelcome sight standing some distance from the house, just on the edge of the forest. Although it was still quite dark and the figure was robed, its face hidden beneath a cowl, she knew exactly who it was....it was Bob. Without a further thought, Willow scrambled down the rubble and made her way to the ground. Almost immediately shapes came rushing at her from all sides, robed and hooded shapes that moved swiftly in the darkness, each carrying a shiny weapon that she knew could tear her open instantly. The thought of dying did not sit well with Willow at all, but she was all too aware of the fact that her hands were empty. Willow had no known arsenal of magic tricks to call on and she felt the cold grasp of fear take hold of her limbs.
With fear flooding her body and threatening to immobilise her, Willow suddenly found the strength to fight all of it down. She suppressed it with an angry and violent thought, and lashed out at the men who surrounded her. The emotions she felt on the inside, were reflected outwards and an invisible force hit each of them like a brick wall. Willow looked down at the bodies and couldn't tell whether she'd killed them or merely knocked them out. What she did know however, was that she didn't care and her fear had dissipated.
"Well done, Willow," Bob commented in a slow drawl, applauding her with a gentle clapping of his hands.
Willow shivered as the sound of that voice grated down her spine. Almost involuntarily, she kept walking towards the robed man, still partially concealed by darkness. She felt strong, felt the magicks running beneath her skin, behind her eyeballs, throughout her body. Their potential was limitless...her potential was limitless. The magicks were straining against her body, fighting to be released. It was almost painful trying to keep them under control and Willow felt a line of sweat form across her forehead.
"That was nothing," Willow replied to Bob's earlier congratulatory remark in a gravely voice, "Tell your thugs to withdraw and get the hell away from us or I'll show you what I'm really capable of!"
Bob's thin lips curled up into an anticipatory smile, "That is something I would very much like to see...show me."
Willow let out an angry growl, annoyed and frustrated at the fact she would now be playing straight into his hands by unleashing anything. However, she could not stand by and do nothing while her friends struggled around her. She dragged up a memory from her first meeting with Bob, they had be too late to save the Gibson girl and the uniformed officers accompanying her had been roasted alive by a single word from Bob's lips. Willow remembered that word, she raised her hand and hissed it from between gritted teeth.
There was a massive eruption of fire and light from Willow's palm and a ball of liquid fire engulfed Bob from head to toe. An elated Willow stood and watched the old man burn.
Tara wasn't sure if the trembling was originating from within her own body or one of the smaller ones pressed up against her. She stood with her arms wrapped securely around her daughter and Dawn and Matt were slightly behind her. She glanced over her shoulder to see the young man shielding a pale and trembling Dawn with his own arms. She felt Ashley move in her own arms and glanced down to see her staring up at her Mom with a confident expression.
"Don't be so scared, mommy," Ashley whispered, "Willow won't let anything happen to us."
It was then that Tara realised she was indeed the one who was doing all the trembling. Ashley was gripping her forearm in an effort to help her mother. Tara felt horror at the thought she should show such fear in front of children she was supposed to be protecting. This helped the tremors to subside and she managed to lean down and deposit a small kiss on Ashley's forehead.
"I'm not scared, Ash, sweetie," Tara managed to keep the tremors from appearing in her voice, "And yes, Willow would never let anything happen to us."
She wished that she could have strengthened her voice with a little more conviction but she could not. The thought of a completely untrained witch trying to stand up to someone who was obviously in full control of their magical abilities was hardly confidence inspiring. When it was her lover in question...it was nothing short of terrifying.
Although the attic door was closed and barred with a chest of drawers, the sounds of the battle raging below could be clearly heard through the walls. No specific sound could be made out save for the ring of steel upon steel and garbled shouts that could have come from anyone. All these sounds were drowned out when a huge explosion rocked the entire house, every nail in the attic threatened to jar loose and the kids instinctively clung tightly to Tara.
The blonde ducked her head as shards of glass from the attic's windows went flying through the air. She felt several shards strike the exposed flesh on the backs of he hands and more grazed her scalp. Dawn let out a piercing scream directly in her ear. Moments later all four of them were thrown to the ground as first the door and then the chest of drawers behind it were reduced to splinters of wood. The destruction of their barrier threw up a cloud of dust that took time to dissipate. Before it had cleared, Tara had hauled herself to her feet, placing herself between the kids and whatever was about to come through the door. She steeled herself by reaching inside and drawing upon all the reserves of strength she possessed. Her lips formed a spell, words barely audible. As the words filled the air, her fingers crackled with unspent energy screaming to be released, it physically manifested itself in a light blue finger dancing across her fingertips. When the first shadow emerged in the gloom and debris of the shattered doorway Tara drew back her arm and threw a fireball squarely in the centre. The shape let out a sharp cry and fell backwards down the stairs. Tara heard a series of thuds as though the body had struck others making their way up the stairs. It was some moments before they could resume their progress up towards their prey. The next two practically flung themselves through the breach. Tara reacted quickly, throwing two more fireballs, but the second figure fell so close his outstretched hand was almost touching her foot. She didn't even have time to think as she threw the next, so when the brown robed man waved it aside with a flick of his wrist it took a few moments for Tara to register that he was still standing in front of her.
Mr Brown yelled out in fury as the first Society member through the opening he created came flying back out almost as soon as he had entered. His limp body cascaded into the others crowding the narrow stairway causing a struggle with entangled limbs. He was finally thrown clear, back down the stairs and the attack pressed forward.
"Don't harm the seals you fools!" he cried, knowing full well they would not be able to get past the witch who stood guard behind the door.
Mr Brown was already slightly wary, whoever it was had shown themselves to possess some magicks and he guessed that it would be the Maclay girl. His dry tongue ran across his chapped lips in anticipation of the glory that was his. When his Master had graciously allowed him to be the one to kill her, Mr Brown knew that this was his chance to move higher in the ranks of the Society. He was trembling with anticipation when he moved forward to take the place of the two imbeciles who had preceded him.
Predictably, the girl cast another ball of crackling blue fire which he easily cast aside and sent it smashing into the already damaged wall. He was happy with the surprise etched on her soot streaked face, clearly she had been expecting more thugs with axes to throw themselves at her. He looked behind her to see all three of the seals gathered neatly together for him to collect. There was a teenage boy with a defiant expression on his face as he sheltered a teenage girl and a smaller girl who also appeared defiant; in fact, her teeth were bared at him. Mr Brown merely smiled back at the little girl who was the splitting image of her mother.
"Get out of here you foul wretch!" the young woman hissed, "These children are under my protection and you will die trying to take them from me!"
"No, no, I don't think so, Miss Maclay," Mr Brown replied, shaking his head evenly, "Can't you hear the sounds of your friends dying downstairs?"
Tara tried to keep the apprehension from her face. This slimy, toad-like little man knew not only her name but her deepest fears. These cult-like thugs would seek to kill every last person she cared about, her family, her daughter and her lover. She knew instantly that there would be no pleading for her life or those of the children. They would stop at nothing to destroy the seal. Tara knew that the tiny attic was a battleground and she it's only defender. It was definitely not a time to give into fear.
Tara refused to answer his baiting and instead cast her second spell, "Nox nebulus!"
As the words crept from her throat they were accompanied by a dark mist. It issued forth from her throat and crossed the room in a steady stream to wrap itself around her opponents head. The darkness thickened about his face as though it was a blanket. He stumbled and tried to clutch at the mist that was choking him but he was grasping at nothing.
Mr Brown stumbled wildly about the room like a man in a drunken stupor. He crashed into the bunk beds, the wall and would have tumbled backwards down the stairs if not for one of his lackeys holding him up. Even as he was suffocating, Mr Brown was furious enough to tear himself from the arms of the man attempting to help him and move forward once more. He searched out blindly with his hands, hoping to lay a hand on that wretched woman so he could strangle her. Instead all he met was her fist planted squarely in the middle of his face. The blow was not particularly hard but it was enough to send him reeling back once more into the arms of his lackey. This time he managed to hiss a desperate dissipation spell even as the foul stuff flowed down his throat. Like a veil being lifted, the mist rose. Before he could take a breath he collapsed to the ground and vomited copious amounts of black sludge, gasping breaths between retches. His shoulders heaving, he glared up at the young woman looking down on him. Her fist was still tightly balled. Mr Brown wiped the last of the foul substance from the corner of his mouth and stood on shaky legs. He tried to give the appearance of weakness just before lashing out with his next spell. He was not about to let himself be defeated by this puny woman.
"Protego!" Tara gasped out just as the Toad's consuming spell slammed into her body.
She forced her shielding spell forward, further away from her own body and the children even as she felt its evil begin to eat into her flesh. It was terrifying to watch the skin disappear from her fingertips as the vorare spell consumed everything within its circular reach. Tara appeared to physically shove it forward with her arms, although in actual fact it had nothing to do with physical strength. It was an invisible battle, witch and warlock trying to gain the upper hand over one another.
"R-retro...ago," Tara gasped, the effort the reversing spell called for was almost too much for her.
When Mr Brown found himself facing his own spell cast back in his face his skin went white with terror. He threw up a hasty shield but the vorare spell sheared through the invisible barrier and straight through his left arm. It continued on to take the head off the man standing behind him and he toppled down the stairs on top of his other cronies. Mr Brown stared at the stump, the wound neatly cauterized by the spell and the arm nowhere to be seen. Although the pain was so intense he felt like screaming, he calmly advanced on the exhausted young witch, correctly guessing that fighting off his spell and reflecting it had virtually sapped all of her strength. He looked into her glazed eyes and he knew he was right. He slapped her across the cheek with a vicious backhand and she fell to the floor.
"Mom!" the child made a move for her mother, throwing her arms across in a vain effort to protect her.
"Get back, Ashley," Tara whispered urgently, "Get back all of you!"
Mr Brown watched as Tara pushed her back roughly and out of his reach. He lunged forward with his arm and jerked her into a kneeling position. He felt a perverse satisfaction as his spindly fingers closed on the young woman's chin and jaw. He jerked her head upwards in a vicious yank, forcing her to meet his gaze. His grip tightened, squeezing as hard as he could.
"You took my arm," his hissed, teeth gritted against the pain.
"It should have been your life," Tara replied awkwardly as his fingers squeezed her lips into a shape barely capable of uttering a sound.
"I will take yours instead," he nodded feverishly as he spoke, unable to keep his face from reflecting the excitement he felt within, "And you will die knowing that I will deliver these children straight to my master and in turn they will die and the Seal will be broken!"
"Like hell they will!" Tara hissed as she made a sudden movement forward with the last of her flagging strength.
Mr Brown felt a single, sharp, searing pain in his middle before he felt nothing at all. He glanced down to see the young woman's hand thrust against his belly. She withdrew her hand moments later and he saw a large, jagged shard of glass protruding from his stomach. He grunted in surprise at the foreign object and his grip on Tara's chin weakened and she fell away from him. With his remaining arm, he reached down and tried to remove the glass from his body. The shard was covered in blood, both his own and from the woman's hand where she had grasped it tightly. His weakening fingers continued to slip as he strove to get a grip. It was almost comical save for the fact that he felt his strength ebbing away. His body swayed as his vision started to dull and he stumbled around the small space like a drunkard. Mr Brown felt his foot catch on broken floorboards and he went crashing onto his back.
As he struggled to lift himself up on his elbows he had some satisfaction in seeing the young woman unable to rise to her own feet. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she slumped backwards, lost in unconsciousness or death...he hoped very much that it was the latter. The children were left defenceless and Mr Brown managed a smile as he saw several of his cohorts rush into the room.
He died feeling that he had served his Master well.
Any elation Willow felt at seeing that bastard burn quickly dissipated as she watched the flames lick harmlessly around his body. He was actually smiling through the flames and moments later they disappeared altogether with nothing to feed on. Willow was once again facing her nemesis.
"A simple trick," Bob offered comment, "I'm quite sure you could do it too, Willow..."
The word was barely off his lips when Willow saw a sheet of flame fill her vision. Her lips did not even have time to part with the beginnings of a scream when the flaming heat engulfed her. Willow felt the flames nip at her exposed skin and she glanced down to see her clothing blackening and burning away. Although Willow felt as though she were trapped in an awful nightmare for an age, a fraction of a second later the flames vanished as though sucked into a vacuum around her body. She was left standing in her smoking, smouldering clothes. She lifted her right hand to find the skin scorched off the back of it.
Bob clucked his tongue as though she were a child who had discovered that fire burns, "The fire is very real isn't it...especially if your reactions are a tad slow..."
While the sensation of being on fire had unnerved her slightly, it gave Willow a feeling of invulnerability. She was anything but slow with her next movements as she glanced over her shoulder at the rubble from the lakehouse. Bringing her hands forward in a throwing motion, several rocks lifted themselves from the ground and went hurtling towards Bob. No sooner had he finished his words than the first stone struck him square in the chest. He grunted was knocked backwards but did not fall. Willow found the rocks she had thrown suddenly turned on her. Instinctively, she dived to the ground, relying on her physical abilities rather than magical. One rock struck a hard, glancing blow on her shoulder and a second grazed her forehead. Willow rolled, momentarily dazed. She dragged herself to her hands and knees and felt the warmth of blood flowing down the side of her head. From the corner of her eye she saw Bob advancing towards her, each step confident.
She remembered destroying the vampires that had attacked Tara and drew the balls of fire back to her finger tips again. She watched the orb as it spun lazily above her hand in perfect control and a split second later she hurled it through the air. A second and third followed immediately after and Willow watched as all three went hurtling towards the robed figure. One soared inches above his skull-like head, while the other two he caught in each hand. He threw both at the same time and Willow cried out, covering her head with her hands.
"Miss!" Willow yelled desperately.
A strong gust of wind swept between the duelling pair and sent both fireballs off course, one crashing into the earth not a metre away from Willow. It left a trail of scorched and blackened earth. The second smashed into the topmost point of the lakehouse. Willow watched as the roof crumbled inwards directly above the attic and she felt a stab of horror. Tara and the kids were in the attic. It was all she could do to hope that they were safe. She knew this had to end soon, or none of them were going to leave this place alive.
The wind continued to whip about the pair. Willow stood, her hair covering her face as she gathered the invisible force to her. She recognised the affinity with elements that her abilities gave her. When she tamed the wind, she felt an ecstatic rush of power to her head as she sent it towards Bob. He was swept up and she watched his stick-like body soar through the air, windmilling several times before he crashed into a tree. His body flopped to the ground at the tree's base. Willow staggered to her feet and advanced.
"Cremo!" she yelled once more, hoping that he was too weak to fend off the fire attack a second time.
Bob's motionless body and the tree burst into flames at the same instant. The heat was so intense Willow had to move backwards or wilt beneath the flames. She stood, watching the spot where he had fallen intently. However, as she watched, she saw the burning tree seem to uproot itself. Her eyes opened in surprise as the mighty pine came crashing directly towards her. She tried to brush it aside as though it were a mere stick but instantly felt completely sapped of her strength. She realised it was too large and had to resort to running once again. She dived just as burning branches fell all around her.
As she scrambled further away, Willow felt an intense heat on her leg. She glanced down to see her jeans on fire. She dropped to the ground and rolled to put it out, batting down the last smouldering embers with the palm of her hand moments later. No sooner had she raised her head than she was struck by a flying branch, it slammed into her chest even as she tried to bring her arms up to protect herself. It continued to strike her over and over as though swung by an invisible hand. Willow curled up into a ball on the ground, hands over her head, legs tucked up to her check in an effort to present as small a target as possible. She had tried swatting the branch aside and shielding herself but her efforts were meagre at best, merely cushioning the blows instead of deflecting them altogether.
The blows ceased a minute later and left Willow lying in her small ball, feeling hollowness in her gut. As she uncurled her body and rolled over onto her back, Willow saw Bob slowly emerge from the surrounding haze. As he came closer, his battered body and tired face made him seem more human for a moment. Although this moment was quickly lost in Willow's anger, she first thought she recognised something extremely familiar in the shape of his jaw, in the way he was smiling. The thoughts were like the smoke that surrounded the pair of them, tantalisingly close, but completely unable to be grasped. She lifted her chin defiantly as he approached.
"Impressive, especially given your lack of training and complete lack of focus," Bob began in a thin voice, he sounded tired, "I think with more of both you would not have lost your strength so quickly."
"I've had training," Willow growled back in what was almost a lie, her sessions with Tara hardly countered as more than meditation, "And I still have strength!"
Bob chuckled lightly, "Your condition would say otherwise...and I know much more than you think, I know you, I know those around you..."
"Who are you?" Willow interrupted, sick of his patronising, cryptic banter.
"I told you, my name is Bob," he smiled benevolently.
"I know what your damn name is, Bob!" Willow emphasised the syllable and its ordinariness with her tone, "Who the fuck are you and why are you doing this...all to release some big bad who will probably kill you too? Do you want to destroy the world?"
Bob walked in a wide arc around Willow. She noted that he was moving slowly in an effort to conceal the fact that he was limping
"Temper, Willow," his voice grated in his throat, "I would not speak so to someone who holds your future in the palm of his hand."
Willow laughed, a dry sound that hurt her throat and sounded as though it came from someone else all together. She remembered laughing with Buffy, or Tara, and that sound she remembered sounded nothing like what now came from her throat.
"I would not...leave me alive," Willow managed to gasp between hacking coughs as she dragged herself up onto her hands and knees.
With her next cough she felt a metallic tang in her mouth and realised she was coughing up blood. She drew her hand across her mouth, keeping a defiant gaze on her enemy who was also struggling to stand. Willow watched as he tottered on stick-like legs, his ravaged cloak falling in tatters over his body. If it was possible, he looked like even more of a corpse. She knew that all it would take was one last attack, a fireball to burn him to cinders, an object to crush him...anything at all. Willow supposed that even a simple physical strike would send him flailing but she couldn't lift her body from the ground let alone swing a punch. Her eyes narrowed as she watched him, fingers clenched as she fervently wished to plant her fist into his skeletal jaw.
"I know, Willow," Bob spoke softly, a small smile creasing his leathery face even further, "The time will come when you will know where your true places lies, to those whom your allegiance should be given. Of course you will come to me...I am your family."
Willow fought to keep the anxiety from her face, "I know my place...and I know my family, in what world could you entice me to betray them?"
He took a step forward and Willow flopped onto her back, scrambling backwards in a desperate, crab-like manner. His advance stopped before he came within Willow's immediate vicinity and she realised that he was afraid that she still had something left to strike out with. She took a small measure of hope from this, the knowledge that she had come very close to defeating him...although given her defeat, this measure of hope was very small indeed.
"In my world of course," Bob rasped, "This is, after all, my world in which we fight and I have set all the rules including those governing your powers. You may have mustered a semblance of control but know that ultimately, I gave them to you."
Willow blinked uncomprehendingly, she knew that Guardians were given their magicks by the power of the same spell that had sealed off the evil, it was just the way it happened. She had never had reason to doubt that was not the origin of her own powers. She immediately though that Bob was lying in an effort to ruin her last shreds of confidence. However, Willow remembered that night she had been given her powers, the terrible monster that had killed the coven of women supposed to be responsible for her training. She remembered the icy evil that had crept through her bones...and she realised she could still feel it.
"Yes," Bob read the transparent look of horror that passed across her face, his voice rose above its raspy whisper as he grew excited, "Your powers which were bestowed by that annoying seal, they were corrupted by the Society. There isn't an ounce of goodness running through your veins Willow Rosenberg, and it is only a matter of time until the darkness overwhelms you...forcing you to acknowledge that it is where your true nature lies!"
Willow wished she could scream and denounce his words for the lies that they were but she found her grip on consciousness retreating fast. She slumped backwards and her back fell to the soft earth beneath her. As her vision faded to black she felt an overwhelming sense of despair at the thought of never seeing Tara again.