The light had been unbearable, filling first her vision, then her mind and finally every pore of her body. This was Willow's first thought as she struggled back to reality...although that little detail was being debated in the fuzz that served as her mind, she wasn't actually sure it was reality she was returning to. Was death a reality? As she began to fell solid ground beneath her body, grit beneath her fingernails and something warm lying in her palm, Willow gradually began to accept that it was a reality of sorts. Although whether it was the one she was supposed to be in, she could not yet tell. She tried to move and managed a spasmodic jerk of all her limbs at once and her fingers tightened around whatever the object was in her palm. That one point of contact felt safe and secure and she seized on it, holding onto the surface as though her life depended on it.
"Okay...mucho ouchness," Willow mumbled, satisfied when her lips moved and sound actually emerged.
Her voice sounded a little odd to her own ears, thick and heavy with something. Although she thought that could perhaps be her brain trying to interpret sound as nothing seemed to be working as it should. All she could remember was the light, there was nothing else at first. Just light...Willow felt her brow furrow and she knew she was trying to get her brain to function again. There had been something else besides the light...darkness? There it was, a creeping, crawling darkness that had taken over her body like a parasite...swarming through her veins...
Willow's body snapped into a sitting position in one awkward jerk, something metallic clattered to the ground and its sound echoed around the room she was in. There were lights and walls but Willow was aware of none of this as her fingers frantically dug at the cuff of her jacket, trying to pull the sleeve up her arm. She drew it back to reveal her pale arm covered in black lines...her veins as black as night. In a panic, Willow examined the backs of her hands, her other arm, and even rolled up her trousers to examine both legs, Covering every inch of visible skin were the same awful black veins that she had found on her arm.
"Not so good..." Willow whispered, "Okay, something freaky is going on...no shit, Willow. Hey, Willow! At least I can remember my own name."
She spoke not out of necessity but to hear something familiar, the sound of her own voice. It calmed her somewhat as it echoed off what she now saw to be sterile looking walls. They were simple, modern, like you would find in any house, complete with bland wallpaper that she recognised from her mother's sewing room. Electric light fittings hung down from the ceiling, throwing the whole room into a comfortable light glow. Willow glanced down and laid eyes on what it was she had been holding in her palm. It was a small sword with a blade of a dull, seemingly unpolished metal. Willow immediately thought it looked like a piece of junk but when she tentatively reached out and placed her palm on the hilt she felt a jolt run through her body. What had previously appeared to be a piece of junk felt alive her in hand. She wrapped her fingers around the hilt and lifted it from the ground. It fit her palm perfectly, as though it were made for her.
"Huh!" Willow exclaimed as she wondered how she ever came to be the owner of a sword, "I don't feel like Xena." So I remember my own name and that I like Xena Warrior Princess... and given the feelings that the thought of Xena's muscular thighs stirred in her gut, Willow's brain added, and I think I'm kinda gay.
She had no qualms whatsoever about using the sword as a tool to lever herself up onto her feet. Once there, she remained in a hunched position to keep her head closer to the ground for a few moments longer. When she became sure that her legs could support her weight, she straightened fully upright. Willow then flexed her creaking body, feeling aching muscles stretch and rusty body parts move for what felt like the first time in years.
There was a plain, ordinary door set into the wall in front of her. Rather than head straight for it, Willow turned around to face the opposite direction. Her jaw dropped. Whereas three walls in the room were taken straight from any house she had ever been in, the fourth was strange beyond measure. It was a dark rock face, although smooth rather than the jagged forms of nature. Instinctively, Willow strode forward and touched the black surface with trembling fingertips. It was cold to the touch, as she expected it to be. Set into the very centre of the polished rock wall, was a door. Its frame was of the same stone as the wall, although cut and dressed rather than merely polished. For some reason Willow recognised the symbols that were inscribed around the door frame, each was deeply cut as though they went to the very heart of the rock. Whereas the door in the wall behind her was closed, this one was fully open. Shafts of light poured into the room that lay beyond, although without moving forward she could make out very little that lay within.
Feeling distinctly uneasy, Willow continued forward into the chamber. As she crossed the room's threshold she felt a sensation akin to a thousand tiny pinpricks all over her skin. The sword in her hand seemed to protest at being taken into the room, although Willow refused to believe that a sword could seem to be aware of its surroundings. The symbols continued into the small chamber, which Willow could now see to be a tomb.
She shuddered as she realised the long oblong shape on the platform in front of her was a coffin. Its lid was ajar. Her mind screamed at her to leave the tomb but something compelled her forward, she had to look in the coffin. Willow's trembling legs carried her to the platform and she reached out to grip the sides in case she felt the urge to turn and run. She made her next movement as quickly as possible, jerking herself forward so she could peer over the coffin's lid. It was empty.
Willow breathed a sigh of relief, she didn't know if she fully expected to see something contained within or not. She just knew that there was absolutely nothing in the black stone coffin, not even a lining. Her fingers instinctively reached out to touch the smooth stone at the base. As the stone came into contact with the pads of her fingers she remembered something further...although could not be certain whether it was truth or just some strange fiction her imagination had concocted. Willow remembered being in the coffin, she remembered being sealed up within that plain stone box. With her eyes closed she could see everything in a dim haze. She was thrashing against some unseen force, struggling to get out of the coffin because she knew exactly what was about to happen. There were faces staring down at her, seven of them...all bar one wearing cold, impassive expressions. Focused in grim determination. The final face, belonging to that of a young blonde woman, was wet with tears. Willow felt an eerie familiarity at the memory of her features. She concentrated harder to dredge up the memory of another face, one similar to the first. Blonde hair, blue eyes...a beautiful woman by any stretch of the imagination. There was a family resemblance to the face peering down into the coffin, but no more. As the lid of the coffin ground closed, the faces gradually disappeared. The last thing Willow remembered seeing before the darkness came was the woman's face as she wept.
Unnerved, Willow withdrew her fingers from the base of the coffin and dashed out of the tomb, heart thumping wildly as she did. Emerging back into the light Willow skidded to a halt. The empty room in which she had woken was now filled with half a dozen people. Five of them were non-descript men and women clad in drab brown robes...the sixth was something else altogether. Although Willow was repulsed by his appearance, the familiarity was there again. She knew this pale and wizened man standing before her and she knew him well.
"We're so very glad you could join us, Willow."
He extended his crab-like hand for her to grasp...and with a moment's hesitation, she did.
As soon as Tara's eyes opened onto the world she knew something was not right. Even as it took her time to put her finger on exactly what it was, she felt sick to her stomach. Where her heart should have been, there was nothing but a gaping hole...and it hurt like hell. Tara let out a shallow breath and closed her eyes. Everything was slowly coming back to her in bits and pieces. She felt as though pain and terror were fragments in a puzzle. Although it was a puzzle she did not want to complete, she needed the answers more.
There had been a terrible battle at dawn. Tara remembered a last desperate moment of eye contact with Willow before it was just her and the children. Then they had come for the children, the first were easily defeated but a warlock had fought against her with magicks to the point of collapse. Tara felt pain beneath the cast covering her right hand and arm and remembered she had cut her palm as she plunged a shard of glass into his belly. Then there was nothing until Willow and Faith had pulled her from the rubble of the attic...just her alone. The children were gone. Matt, Dawn...and Ashley.
With her memories flooding back, Tara's eyes opened and she sat up too fast. Her body protested with spasms of pain and an awful dizziness that left her disorientated in a spinning room. In moments the movement was halted as a strong arm slid around her back to support her. Faith's concerned visage floated into view. Solid as a rock, dependable Faith.
The slayer found Tara an extra pillow and lowered her back down, paying extra attention to fluffing the pillows in a most un-Faith-like manner. If Tara did not already sense something was wrong then the look on Faith's face as she stepped back and folded her arms, said it all. Tara had always been able to read Faith's emotion and now barely concealed guilt and sadness were reflected in equal amounts. Knowing something had gone wrong, she fought to keep her voice steady.
"Y-you're b-back," Tara stammered over the obvious statement.
Faith managed an abrupt nod, "I've been travelling non-stop for the past three days and you're damn lucky I managed to have a shower at the airport. It wasn't pretty smell."
"For my sake I hope you managed to get Willow to take one too, there's no way I'm wrapping my arms around a stinky girlfriend."
Tara's voice was so breezy it was clearly forced. As she peered over Faith's shoulder she already knew that her red-haired lover was not there. At that point she already knew that something had happened to Willow, but she needed the words to confirm it.
"You'd wrap your arms around Willow no matter how badly she reeked," Faith replied honestly, Hell, I'd wrap my arms around Willow if she were here!
"F-Faith,' Tara whispered, trying to catch the Slayer's eye, "W-where's Willow?"
Faith knew Tara was trying to look at her but she determinedly avoided her friend's gaze and fixed her own on a distant point outside the window.
"Willow's gone," her lips barely moved as she said the words.
Tara's response was angry and immediate, "Why would you say something like that? I'd know if Willow was dead and she's not, she's still alive!"
Tara sat up and wrapped icy fingers around Faith's wrist as the Slayer tried to set her straight, "T, stop...I don't know what happened, she disappeared..."
"Why the fuck did you leave her, Faith?" Tara demanded hoarsely, lifting her uninjured arm and pounding it on Faith's chest, "You know exactly what she's been through, she n-needed you..."
As Tara's voice disintegrated into staccato sobbing Faith trapped her balled up fist in her own hand and folded her into a fierce embrace. She stroked the blonde's hair and held her trembling shoulders. Tara's pain brought back all too clearly the expression of terror and helplessness on Willow's face before she had disappeared. Faith remembered trying to pry the sword from Willow's grip and her obvious failure when she woke up alone. At that moment, lying alone in the cave with just her headlamp separating her from the darkness all around, she realised for the first time in her life that Slayer's felt fear. Every instinct had screamed at her to get the hell out of that tomb and back above ground but she had searched those tunnels for Willow to the point of almost losing herself. It was not until her second and last battery was dying, that she allowed herself to leave. Despite all she had done, Faith still felt as though she had failed Tara.
"We've lost them all," Tara whispered brokenly.
Faith drew back slightly, "What do you mean?"
Tara let out a shaky breath, "Spike returned already, he could not follow them...the children are lost, and now Willow is too."
Things couldn't get much worse.
"Where do we go from here?" Faith was only asking herself, she knew full well that Tara looked to her for direction and leadership.
The Slayer felt completely and utterly defeated, she had nothing to offer. Her shoulders slumped as she sat on the corner of Tara's hospital bed.
Meanwhile, as she brought herself under control, Tara allowed herself to feel a slight measure of hope, it was miniscule, but it was hope nevertheless. Even though Detective Willow Rosenberg had not long been in her life, she felt as though she knew her...and it went without saying that she trusted her with her life. Despite all that Willow had been through during the past weeks, Tara knew the kind of brave, selfless woman that she was. She knew Willow was not dead, and that meant wherever she was, she would find a way to come back to her.
"We wait," Tara reached out and brushed weak fingers against the side of Faith's face, "We wait for Willow to find herself...and then she'll come for us."
"I'd give anything for my PSP."
"Uh, hello, earth to Matt...wouldn't you rather get the hell out of here!"
Matt glanced up at Dawn from where he was splayed on a leather couch. He sighed at the stern expression she had fixed on her face and tilted his head backwards so he didn't have to look at her any longer. She was beginning to act far too bossy for his liking...too much like his older sister, and he didn't want a single reminder of that bitch. The three of them, Matt, Dawn and Ashley had been cooped up in one part of what they suspected was a very large house. Matt remembered seeing very little as he was thrown over the back of someone's shoulder and brought into the house after having spent an indeterminate amount of time with the two girls in the back of a windowless van. The whole trip had merged into one indescribable blur with Dawn and Ashley crying, and something very close to sobs coming from his own throat...although he would never admit it.
All three of them had been dumped rather unceremoniously into the small suite of rooms in which they remained nearly four weeks later. There was a living room with a couch, which doubled as Matt's bed, and no TV. Off to one side was a smaller room contained two beds where the girls slept. A tiny bathroom completed the suite. Their only window was set high into the wall in the living room, Matt had lifted himself to peer out once but all he saw was a featureless concrete courtyard. As it turned out they were let out into that courtyard every few days for an hour or so. Each child was beginning to realise just what it was like to be in prison. There was precious little to do other than read the stack of Reader's digest books or play one of two board games, chess or backgammon...and none of the three actually knew how to play backgammon.
"Yes!" Matt growled back, "Of course I bloody well want to get out of here."
The tone in his voice caused both Dawn and Ashley to look up at him from where they were seated on the floor playing chess. Ashley had a small stack of Dawn's pieces on the carpet near her knee, while Dawn had one lonely pawn of Ashley's.
"Matt..." Dawn began in the same stern tone she had used earlier.
With a frustrated sigh, Matt sat up and swung his legs off the couch and onto the floor. He put his head in his hands.
"I know, I know...we can't afford to get angry...I've seen the same movies you have and I know exactly what happens when people are cooped up for too long, but I'm starting to think they had no say in whether they went crazy or not," he let out a breath after his speech and rubbed his stomach, "When's dinner anyway, I think they're kinda late today."
Dawn glanced at her watch and then the small slot on the door that had slid open for three sandwiches and juice boxes at lunchtime and had remained closed since, "They are late...I'm beginning to think something's up."
Matt moved to the edge of the couch, "Do you think it's time...time for you know what?"
Dawn glared at Matt for a second and then cast a furtive glance in Ashley's direction as though she feared the girl would overhear something to upset her. Rather than be upset, the youngest member of the trio rolled her eyes in annoyance.
"I know exactly what you guys are talking about so go ahead and say it," Ashley announced firmly, she let out a sigh when neither of the two teenagers spoke, "You think it might be time to kill us."
Both teenagers appeared exceedingly uncomfortable with the mention of what they had been trying to forget for the past month of their captivity. Ashley merely folded her small arms looked resolutely determined to remain calm. Although beneath the surface she was terrified and longed for the comforting embrace of her mother.
"They might not want to kill us anymore," Dawn offered hopefully, "I mean, it's been this long so perhaps..."
"No," Matt muttered grimly, "They need to kill us...and they will."
"Matt!" Dawn exclaimed, scooting across the chessboard to Ashley's side where she folded the younger girl into her arms, "You needn't say it at all!"
The tiny chess pieces were scattered across the carpet, the game forgotten.
"Why not!" Matt cried, leaping to his feet, "It's the truth...and it's all my fucking sisters fault! I hope she rots in hell!"
Dawn felt Ashley's body tremble in her arms at the sound of Matt's angry words and she smoothed her hair gently, trying to maintain her own crumbling fašade even as his words rang in her ears. She knew full well the young man had been struggling to deal with his sister's betrayal from the moment he had overhead the adults talking about it downstairs. He now took to pacing the floor in front of the couch, a moment interrupted as the door swung open to admit more of the brown robed minions who they had all come to loath. Matt's eyes narrowed at the sight of them. Without warning he surged forward at them, fire in his eyes.
"You fucking murderers!" Matt yelled, "I'm gonna..."
His forward movement was arrested abruptly as a familiar face moved through the doorway. He froze before a small smile curled the corners of his mouth. Behind him, both Dawn and Ashley rose to their feet, smiles of their own on their faces. Ashley tore her way out of Dawn's grasp and before she could be stopped, ran across the floor to the figure standing in the doorway.
"Stop!" a single curt word sliced the air.
Ashley could not move, she had been running and suddenly her limbs would no longer work. She was frozen to a single spot, a metre short of the figure she had been running to embrace. With confusion showing clearly on her face she stared at the woman just in front of her and realised that a change had come over her.
"W-Willow?" she asked quietly, a small tremor creeping into her voice, "Willow, what has happened to you?"
The woman she addressed as Willow stared back down at her and Ashley shivered. Her skin was translucent, clearly revealing the black veins that thumped beneath it. They had spread across her face, raised and distorted to completely ruin what had once been beautiful to Ashley's eyes. Willow's own eyes were no longer the emerald green that Ashley remembered so well. She searched in vain for some hint of Willow in those twin black orbs boring a hole into her, but she found absolutely none. There was only a rock-like coldness that sent a terrible chill down her spine. Her once lustrous red hair was no longer. Instead stringy midnight locks framed her white face, falling down over the shoulders of her black leather coat. The coat fell down to the floor, obscuring most of Willow's body but Ashley could still tell her friend had lost too much weight since she had seen her last.
By now both Dawn and Matt were beginning to wonder what the hell had going on. They too had been moving towards Willow but had stopped at the sight of her strange behaviour, completely unlike the friendly detective they had come to know. Her appearance and the fact that she made no move to help them made all three children start to think that something was exceptionally wrong.
"Hello kids," Willow smiled but it was not friendly.
"Officer Rosenberg?" Matt bravely took a few more steps forward, "Have you come to get us out of here?
Willow's head cocked to one side before she replied cryptically, "In a manner of speaking, yes."
Her arm shot out towards Matt, fingers curled inwards as though she were squeezing something between them. Before he knew quite what was happening Matt found himself lifted a foot into the air. As he glanced down in bewilderment, Willow made a savage 'come here' gesture. Matt's whole body moved swiftly through the air and in seconds he found himself hovering in front of Willow, her fingers squeezing his throat. Before either of the girls could get an inkling of was about to happen, Willow muttered a single word under her breath and Matt went flying backwards. Before he could slam into the wall he screamed once and his entire body vanished in an explosion of white light. Seconds later there was nothing to say the young man had even been in the room at all save an indentation on the couch where he had lain moments earlier.
Ashley and Dawn were struck speechless; their faces twin masks of horror at the sudden end to their companion. When Dawn realised that Willow's gaze had shifted to her, she scrambled behind the couch. Although the look of terror on her face said that she knew it wasn't going to stop Willow from doing to her exactly what she had done to Matt.
"Willow, stop this!" Dawn cried in desperation, "I don't know what the hell has come over you but this isn't you!"
Willow made a sweeping gesture with her arm and the couch flew to one side, smashing partially through the wall and embedding itself there. As the dust swirled, she lifted Dawn as effortlessly as she had lifted Matt and summoned her.
As Willow held her by the throat, Dawn tried to struggle but found her limbs would not work. Out of the corner of her eye she could just see Ashley, still rooted to the same spot with tears running down her pale cheeks. Dawn turned her attention back to the creature that had once been Willow and tried to reason with it.
"You can't kill us like this...the ritual..." Dawn began, referring to the carefully drawn circles that had marked the other murders.
"Ah yes, the ritual," Willow breathed, "An elaborate sham no less, turns out that it was never the seals that were keeping the Darkness at bay...the killings were merely a ruse."
"A ruse for what?" Dawn spluttered, trying to engage Willow in conversation and keep her talking in the vain hope that she would realise what she was doing.
Willow blinked once, slowly, and replied in a quite voice, "My dear Dawnie, I suppose I can tell you since you're about to leave us."
With that she drew Dawn closer, close enough to whisper in her ear. No one else in the room could hear the words passed between the two women. As Willow's lips moved, Dawn's eyes widened, almost bulging out of their sockets. Her lip trembled as her face drained completely of all colour. Whatever words passed between them, it was clear they were not easy to hear. Finished, Willow held Dawn at arms length. She regarded her closely as one would look at an insect about to be squashed.
"Goodbye, Dawnie," she whispered through a toothy smile, "Say hi to Matt for me."
"Willow, no!" Dawn screamed but it was all she had time to say before Willow threw her backwards.
A split second later Dawn disappeared amidst the same golden light that had claimed Matt. One moment she was there...and then her body was gone. Her shrill scream was cut off abruptly.
Her body disappeared and Willow was left standing in the room with the two henchmen on either side of her and little Ashley standing to one side. The girl was sobbing openly, her blue eyes already red-rimmed. She was shaking her head slowly as though she refused to believe what she had just witnessed.
Willow moved the few steps it took to reach Ashley's side and hunkered down slightly so she could look her in the eye. Ashley tried to shrink away from the woman but of course she could not move any part of her body save her head. So while her chin tilted to the side and she managed to turn her face away, the rest of her body remained rooted to that one spot. She felt icy cold fingers wrap around her chin and wrench her gaze forwards even as she struggled against the grip.
With it being clear that she would be forced to look at the woman standing in front of her, Ashley tried defiantly to hold back her tears. She succeeded only after a lengthy sniff which left her nose rather sore. Willow seemed to find it funny and a small smile played with her cracked, white lips.
"Are you going to kill me too?" Ashley asked quietly, her voice breaking only at the end.
Willow shook her head slowly, "No Ash...I need to keep you close."
"Why?" Ashley did not like the sound of Willow's voice, it scared her to no end.
Willow smirked, as though anticipating something gloriously fun to come, "I'm keeping you close so that when your Mommy comes...which she will of course, I'll have something to hurt her with..."
"Me," Ashley whispered in disbelief, "Why would you want to hurt my Mom?"
Willow's smirk broke into outright laughter. It was the laughter of a small child who had been given far too many toys all at once.
"Because it's wrong," Willow whispered.
From the tone of her voice, Ashley knew that this Willow didn't think it was very wrong at all...