Author: Chris Cook
An unseasonal fog had moved over the city with the nightfall, and now held the sky firmly in its grasp. Willow frowned. The airfield a hundred metres away was a sea of landing lights, each one creating a sphere of yellow light in the gloom. She raised a pair of binoculars and scanned the ground once more, then hurried back to her car. Tara leaned out of the window.
"It's pretty thick," she said quietly, looking at the hazy silhouettes of the buildings beyond the field, "do you think they got diverted?"
"They're coming," Willow answered, "there's a pair of cars parked beside the big hangar, waiting. I saw someone get out and go into the hangar, then come back out. He probably called the tower to check the flight's progress. They haven't moved since then."
On the tail of her words a soft drone echoed through the air. Willow raised her binoculars again and scanned the sky. There was a faint glow in the clouds to the east.
"Here it is," she whispered to herself. She bent down and leaned through the car window. "Okay now, like we decided. Stay in the car."
"Of course," Tara said. Willow nodded, caught herself, and gave a mock-exasperated sigh.
"And keep the car out of trouble," she added. "I'll do fine."
Tara leaned across and brushed her cheek softly against Willow's masked face.
"See that you do," she said tenderly. "But if you do get in trouble-" she persisted.
"Alright," said Willow with a wink, "if I get in trouble, you have my permission to rescue me. Carefully!"
"As if you could stop me."
Willow stepped back from the car, waved a salute, and vanished in the fog.
The moving glow in the sky resolved itself slowly into the landing lights of a passenger plane, steadily descending as it crossed the bay, nearing the strip of illuminated tarmac. The aircraft dipped lower as it crossed the shoreline, skimming the short stretch of grassland beyond the strip. Its twin engines droned louder as it tilted its nose into the air, all flaps down, and with a final lurch its wheels touched the ground, screeched, spun, and held as the plane taxied to the end of the field. The cars lurking in the shadow of the main hangar moved out to meet it as it turned slowly around and stopped level with the building. A pair of ground crew in dirty overalls pushed a set of steps up to the rear door of the plane as the cars drew to a halt.
The door was swung outwards by a flight attendant, who quickly vanished back inside. For a moment light from inside the plane spilled out, until a hulking silhouette blocked it. The man who descended the steps and walked slowly towards the two waiting cars was a giant, over two metres tall, broad across the shoulders, with a square face set in a permanent frown. The wash from the plane's idling engines rippled his short white hair and tugged at the edge of his suit jacket, but he seemed oblivious to it. A second man, dressed in a similarly expensive suit but of far less intimidating proportions, and with an air of subservience to him, descended from the plane carrying a briefcase, and fell in behind his master.
Two men, impeccably dressed but quite visibly chosen for their brute strength, got out of the lead car and stood waiting for their guest as he approached. They both took a step back to allow him to walk between them. A third suited muscleman got out of the back of the second car and held the door open for its other passenger.
She was tall, made taller by a pair of white high heels, and she held herself in the posture of a queen deigning to meet a commoner. She wore a long coat, lined with grey wolf fur, which flapped in the wind from the propellers, revealing glimpses of a skin-tight white dress beneath, covering her from neck to ankle. Her hair was blonde, so pale as to look silver, tied tightly behind her head. She stalked slowly towards the man waiting for her, and stood her ground proudly in front of him, almost matching his height.
"Lord Westen," she said in a clear, exact accent. She held out a white-gloved hand, palm down. The big man stirred, then slowly knelt and took her hand.
"My Lady," he answered in a formal tone, brushing his lips on her hand.
"You have the items I require?" she said as Westen got back to his feet. He nodded, and waved a hand to his servant, who stepped forward. One of the lady's men took a step closer to him, watching like a hawk. The servant held up the briefcase, facing Westen, and opened it. He reached inside.
"The Disquisitionum Magicarum," he said, producing a battered old leather-bound book, "and the Shard Wyrm blade," he went on, drawing from the case a dagger, its smooth silver blade mounted on a handle of flowing gold set with glittering jewels. He held the two items out, the dagger with its hilt facing the lady. She glanced at them, then nodded to the man who had held the car door for her. He took the book and the blade from Westen and handed them to a man in the car's front passenger seat.
"And your preparations, my Lady," said Westen, "are they complete?" The lady frowned, her icy blue eyes narrowing to slits.
"My preparations are well in hand," she snapped, "as if it is any of your business."
"It is my business," said Westen calmly, squaring his shoulders. "You have pledged a great many things in return for my services, and I am told you have failed to yet secure the crucial element for your ritual. If you should prove unable to fulfil your promises-"
"I will pay my debt to you in full," the lady said calmly, in a voice that chilled the air, "and as such I am under no obligation to endure your insolence. It may be some small amount of time before I can undertake the ritual, but be assured," she took a step closer, staring directly into Westenís eyes, "even now I am beyond your reach. If, in spite of the services you have rendered me, I should feel that your conduct is unworthy, I would not hesitate to still the beating of your heart in a second."
The two remained still for a moment, their stares locked in mutual hostility. Then the lady turned, her attention suddenly elsewhere. Westen almost flinched, but caught himself when he saw the lady glare at her closest guard.
"We are not alone," she said quickly, "deal with it."
The guard nodded to his two companions, and all three drew flashlights and pistols from their jackets. They encircled the lady, and holding their lights and guns together they swept the ground around them. One spot of light flickered for a moment, but when the guard pulled his trigger the bullet ricocheted harmlessly off the tarmac. The guards moved as one, keeping their perimeter around the lady as she returned to her car, leaving Westen and his servant standing alone. The lady stopped with one hand on her car door, and turned to the leading guard.
"Kill her," she hissed. Then she held a hand up above her, and fixed Westen with a determined stare.
"Let there be light," she said calmly. From her hand a spark of pure daylight shot into the air. It rose far above the group of people until it burst, thirty metres straight up, into a coruscating ball of silver light that lit the airfield like a miniature sun. The lady ducked into her car and closed the door behind her as her three guards spread out.
"There!" one barked. Near the plane's steps a shadow was being cast on the tarmac by the brilliant light, marking the invisible watcher. It flitted away as all three guards opened fire. Westen and his servant, who had turned to board their plane, both ducked under the wing, Westen glaring at the lady's guards, the servantís gaze darting around in panic. The lady's car started and drove calmly away from the gunfire. Two of the guards kept up their fire on the fast-moving shadow as it darted away from the plane towards the hangars. The third holstered his pistol and reached inside the second car, emerging again with a machine gun. He turned and levelled the weapon at the retreating shadow.
The shape on the ground fell flat as a hail of bullets whizzed above it at chest level. Willow appeared, rolling sideways as a second burst of fire struck the ground where she had dropped. Coming to rest on her back, her hand emerged from her coat holding a slim weapon from which flicked the twin vanes of a pistol crossbow. She fired the dart at the guards, vanishing again as it exploded in a cloud of dense smoke. The man with the machine gun fired through the smoke, missing Willow by metres. The other two jumped back into the open doors of their car, slamming them closed as the vehicle lurched into gear. Willow made herself vanish again as the car burst through the smoke. Her shadow darted from side to side as the guards leaned out of the car windows with reloaded pistols and fired at her. The car sped up, chasing her down. Faster than the driver could react to, the shadow changed direction, coming directly for the car. The guard leaning from the left window fired once, the bullet clanging off something in the far distance, before the car was almost on top of the shade. Willow emerged from her invisibility again, rolling sideways and kicking upwards as the car missed her by inches. The guard screamed as her boot smashed into his wrist, aided by the speed his vehicle was moving at.
Willow rolled to her feet as the car screeched around behind her, her gaze darting around. The glowing orb in the sky was starting to lose its brilliance, and the edge of the night was creeping slowly closer. A hundred metres away were the hangars, swathed in darkness, but with the guards' car in between her and them. Willow mentally tossed a coin, between trying to reach the darkness in open ground, or dodge the car and make it to the hangar, as the guards righted their spinning vehicle and accelerated towards her. She was about to vanish again when the roar of a second engine came echoing across the airfield. Willow broke into a sprint as her own car crashed through the wire fence surrounding the field and sped towards her.
Tara shot a look of equal parts relief and desperation at Willow as she leapt through the open passenger door and yanked it closed behind her. Willow elbowed the lever to open the window, reaching her other arm into the folds of her coat to find another crossbow bolt.
"You call this a careful rescue?" she yelled above the engine noise as Tara swerved out of the way of the oncoming car. She snapped a new bolt home into the crossbow and balanced the weapon against the open window.
"You call that doing fine?" retorted Tara. Willow fired the crossbow, then lost her grip on her seat as Tara spun the wheel. As the enemy vehicle swerved to escape the cloud of smoke that threatened to envelop it, Willow found herself lying stunned in Tara's lap. Tara pulled the wheel hard, straightening the car's flight, then found a moment to glance down at Willow.
"I'm not sure this is the best time for snuggles," she said evenly.
"Vixen," answered Willow, pulling herself upright. The other car was behind them again, and bullets were ricocheting off the rear window, which was beginning to crack alarmingly under the impacts.
"Ideas?" asked Tara, swerving from side to side.
"Hangar!" called Willow, twisting around to get at the back seat. Beneath it was a treasure trove of interesting weapons. Tara shrugged and steered the car towards the open front of the nearest hangar, with their pursuers right behind. As they were plunged into darkness beneath the hangar's roof, Willow looked up, startled.
"I meant go around the hangar!" she protested.
"This works too," said Tara, concentrating on seeing where she was going. A shape loomed out of the darkness at her, and she pulled the car around in a skidding turn, narrowly missing a parked biplane. She ignored the resounding crash as their pursuers took its wing off trying to follow her. Running parallel to the back wall, she looked for an opening between parked planes that would lead back out to the front. She spotted a gap and jerked hard on the wheel, scraping paint off both sides of the car as it clipped the wings of planes on one side and then the other.
"Who taught you to drive?" protested Willow, landing back in her seat with a thump, cradling a long steel crossbow loaded with a bulbous-tipped dart.
"Oh, you know," said Tara with forced nonchalance, "Keystone Kops movies." They shot back out into the night, followed by the other car, its bonnet battered by impacts.
"Go along the runway," Willow said, "give me five seconds without turning!" Tara nodded and steered the car onto the stretch of tarmac. She glanced over at Willow, who was leaning half out of her window, aiming at their pursuers.
"Come on," she muttered to herself, laying her head down against her shoulder, sighting along the barrel of the crossbow. Tara looked back at the other car, which was gaining on them, then ahead.
"Willow," she said, with a note of warning.
"Steady!" shouted back Willow. She lined up the other car, made a hasty guess at elevation, and eased her finger towards the trigger.
"Willow!" shouted Tara again, in rising panic.
Willow fired. For a moment she remained perfectly calm, ignoring the wind whipping at her hair and the bullets smacking holes in the tarmac behind her. She watched the bolt fly straight and true through the air, land on the bonnet of the other car, and splatter thick black paint over their entire windshield.
"Do not shoot at my girlfriend!" she yelled in triumph.
"What?" Willow was about to turn when the tail of the DC3 flashed by her, going backwards. She bolted back into her seat to see the rest of the plane, taxiing along the runway, directly ahead of them.
"Turn!" she and Tara both yelled. Willow grabbed the wheel and hauled on it at the same time as Tara, their combined force jamming the car's steering as far as it would go. The car made a rapid right turn on two wheels directly behind the spinning propeller, scraped its roof on the underside of the fuselage, and shot out from underneath into clear space on the other side. Both of them looked back, between shock and amazement, to see their pursuers skid towards the plane, unable to see where they were going. The man leaning out of the side window sent one last burst of gunfire towards them before he turned and saw the plane's wing rushing towards him. He yelled at the driver, who veered away to the left, but too late. The propeller clipped the car's roof, its tip digging into the metal like a knife in butter, flipping the vehicle off its wheels. The man leaning out was thrown to the ground as the car rolled in the air above him, crashing down on his other side and coming to a slow, grinding halt a few metres further on.
"That was-" Tara began slowly, steering the car across the stretch of grass separating the airstrip from the far gate.
"Pretty cool," finished Willow, tossing the crossbow to the back seat.
"I was going to say 'close'," said Tara. Willow shot her a sly grin.
"Nah," she retorted, "happens to me all the time." She took off her hat and mask and let her hair down.
"Willow," said Tara after a moment.
"What y-you... I... girlfriend?" she blurted out at last. Willow looked blank for a moment, then her eyes widened.
"Oh, no, I mean," she said quickly, starting to lean towards Tara but stopping herself, "I didn't mean it like that, I, no wait, I don't mean that I wouldn't, if you wanted, I mean that's what I thought a little after, you know, before, at the house. But I didn't mean it as if I'm just deciding it for you, or anything, it's up to you totally, I just- well you know, heat of the moment, and plus I was kind of worried that whole time about you, not that you were doing anything wrong, you were great! Real hero stuff. And I just sort of said it without thinking, cause you know, them being bad guys, and me being the crime-fighter and protecting you and all. 'Cause we protector-of-the-innocent people have to do that, you know, say something punchy after we save the day, I think it's a rule or something." She glanced at Tara with a hopeful smile.
"But," she went on, "I don't mean I was just saying it. 'Cause I wasn't, I meant it. Not in a claiming-you-as-my-own sense, y'know, just, if you wanted to, then... I do." Tara pulled the car over to the side of the road and stopped the engine. Silence reigned for a moment.
"Y-you do?" she said at last. Willow nodded quickly. Tara turned to her and tried to speak, but couldn't find her voice.
"If you want to," Willow said, trying to fill the silence. "I mean, if not, it's okay, I promise not to be all broody night stalker or anything-" Tara gave up trying to find her voice, and just grabbed Willow's shoulders and pulled her into a full, passionate and very long kiss instead.
It was only several minutes later, when police sirens echoed down the empty streets from the direction of the airfield, that the car pulled slowly back onto the road and headed home.