Author: Chris Cook
Tara woke up slowly, and took a moment to figure out where she was. That wasn't her ceiling above her, and her bedroom had no window to let in the morning sun that was warming her. Not just the sun warming her, she realised with a pleasant start, but the body curled against her. Details flowed into place as the last vestiges of sleep melted away. The Shadow, the daring car chase, coming back to Willow's house... Willow, who was now asleep against her, one arm hugging her waist, one leg slightly bent, resting on top of Tara's, her head cradled on Tara's shoulder. Her girlfriend. Tara basked in the self-inflicted glow for a moment. Her girlfriend, her wonderful, beautiful, smart, crime-fighting sometimes-invisible girlfriend. She almost giggled at the last part, but contained herself, not wanting to wake Willow. A few more memories of the previous night surfaced, making Tara blush furiously at the same time as she grinned like a kitten who'd found the world's entire supply of saucers of milk. 'Did she... and I... really?' she wondered in some amazement. Willow shifted her head.
"Mmm, hey you..." she murmured, blinking slowly. Tara lifted her head from the pillow - not without effort - and returned her gaze.
"Hey you too," she said quietly. The two looked at each other for a long moment. Tara gazed adoringly at Willow, and saw nothing less in return in Willow's eyes. And, she realised, she hadn't even worried herself for a second. Not that she'd ever really been in such a situation, but Tara was well aware that her thoughts tended to be a little defensive, to the point of self-defeating at times. A few days ago, had she guessed what thoughts would run through her mind on waking up next to a beautiful woman, after a night of - another memory surfaced, concerning Tara being quite active and Willow being quite vocally appreciative, and she blushed again - well, Tara might have guessed that she'd worry about what might happen next, whether her affection might not be entirely requited, whether she had imagined more feeling than truly existed, whether, oh, any number of stray, disquieting thoughts. She hadn't. Not a single doubt had raised its head, and when Tara realised how content she felt, how certain she was of what she wanted, how right everything was - well, she just had to kiss the girl again.
"The situation is not good," summarised Willow. She and Tara had finally overcome their mutual tendency to just smooch some more, and were sitting next to each other in the dining room, with the table around them piled high with books, folders of notes, and the remains of breakfast. Having amassed all the information that could possibly be relevant, they set themselves to the task of figuring out exactly what they were dealing with, with only occasional hands on each otherís thighs.
"First, Macauley Westen," said Willow, leafing through a file. "He handed over some powerful magical goods, and took a fair bit of sass in return. According to this, he's among the highest and mightiest of the British nobility, so I don't think he'd be used to being talked to the way he was last night."
"So he's afraid of that woman," suggested Tara, "or maybe he thinks putting up with her is worth whatever he stands to gain?"
"Probably a bit of both," concluded Willow. "He's not a novice with magics, so he can't be unaware of the value of the book, and that knife of his... here it is." She pulled a file from the middle of a stack, causing a mini-landslide of papers.
"The Shard Wyrm blade," she read, "said to be carved from the crystallised heart of a dragon. This file says its existence as more than legend hasn't ever been confirmed. It's said to be a means of safely wielding magic in large quantities. Probably what the Ice Queen wants it for, if she's got a big ritual planned."
"Which is worrying in itself," said Tara. "That spell she cast, I've seen something like it before. Did you see anyone else around her who might have been part of a ritual to cast it?"
"Perhaps there was someone still in the car," Willow mused, "but I don't think so. She seemed to just think it up and do it. I didn't really recognise it, I was always more into forces than elemental stuff like that."
"Th-that's definitely not good," said Tara grimly. "If it's like the spell I know, it normally takes three people to cast just a small one. For something like that, with that duration and intensity, maybe six or even nine casters, and ritual preparations."
"And she just pulled it out of thin air," murmured Willow, "we have got to find out who she is. If she's got that sort of power to burn, and now she's looking for more... I had Harris down at the precinct check the plates of the cars she used, he told me they both belong to Nathaniel Pryce. He's a businessman, very rich, has a small collection of potentially magical books and artefacts, but I've seen him now and then and I don't think he has any talent. If he's involved in this, he's just being used. He could be a good lead, though, and perhaps he knows who the Ice Queen is. I'll pay him a visit today."
"I've been thinking about the ritual she mentioned," said Tara, "you said she'd promised this Westen a lot in return for his help?" Willow nodded. "Well, I was thinking, that means it must be something that'll give her a lot of power, directly. A-and that doesn't quite fit with what the Codex Nocturnus is supposed to be about. I mean, it's full of all sorts of incantations and descriptions of the ethereal planes, but basically it's about the afterlife. If a very powerful witch used it, you'd think it would be to talk to the dead, or something like that."
"Maybe she needs information," suggested Willow, "something only a dead person knows?"
"But from what you heard, it sounded like the ritual was, well, the big deal. If she were using it to get information, to find out, oh, I don't know, where a powerful magical volume was hidden, or an ancient artefact, well, it could go wrong. Even though no-one's really done it in decades, there's plenty of reliable records from earlier that suggest that communicating with a, a soul if you like, someone who's part of an ethereal plane, is kind of subjective. The thoughts you hear might get altered by your own thoughts, or subtle shifts in the spells, or- well, all sorts of things."
"And Westen seemed to imply that if the Ice Queen didn't live up to her end of the bargain he'd come after her," offered Willow.
"Exactly," went on Tara. "Now, even if I were as powerful as she seems to be, I wouldn't trust my life to being able to do a spell like that without anything getting distorted. Unless she's just really arrogant, and thinks she won't fail."
"She's arrogant as the day is long, would be my assessment," said Willow, "but I don't think she's stupid. I think if she's certain she'll succeed, we can't count on her fouling it up. It's up to us to stop her. Whatever she's doing. What about Westen's book, the Magicarum?"
"I read everything that looked relevant," said Tara, pushing away a stack of volumes, "but nothing conclusive. It's more a scholarly work on magic than a book of power in itself. She probably wants it to help her use the Codex properly. Or maybe..." Tara stopped for a moment, and tapped her fingers on the table as she thought.
"Maybe," she went on, "it's because she's going to do something new with the Codex. I mean, spells and rituals aren't set in stone, they're just ways of formalising magic, to make it safer and easier. But no-one really knows what the basic elements of magic are, or how all the powers in the world are connected. Maybe she wanted the Disquisitionum Magicarum to help her sort of unravel the Codex, to get at the raw powers inside the rituals it describes... in which case, we haven't got a chance of figuring out what she's going to do."
"In that case," said Willow, "a practical approach would be best. Find her, get the books and mystic daggers and whatever else she's got away from her, and stop her doing whatever she's doing. I don't know of any way to bind a witch as powerful as she seems to be. Do you think it can be done?"
"Not easily," said Tara with a frown, "but I'll see what I can find. If there's a way, your library should have it. But it'll be dangerous, you'll have to get close. And I-I think she'll probably be able to resist your hypnosis."
"I'll take care of her," Willow said confidently, "Ive got a few tricks up my sleeve."
"Willow," said Tara. Her voice was soft, but the seriousness of her tone got Willow's attention.
"Be careful," Tara said to her, staring into her eyes. "She's powerful, and there's too much we don't know about her. And I- Willow, I don't want to lose you. Not after I just found you... not ever," she finished with a determined stare. Willow leant across to Tara, taking both her hands, letting her forehead rest against Tara's as their eyes closed.
"You won't," she whispered, "I promise." Tara nodded, and they drew apart just enough to see each other clearly. Tara's eyes were moist, but she smiled the most radiant smile Willow had ever seen.
Without warning the room was plunged into darkness. Willow and Tara both jumped at the suddenness of it, and stared at the window which a moment ago had let in the sunlight from the garden. Now it was dark as night. Slowly, Willow got up and walked to the window, with Tara behind her, still gripping her hand firmly. The garden, the house's driveway, and the shapes of the buildings beyond the wall were all shrouded in blackness, lit no more brightly than at midnight on a new moon.
The sky, though, was not dark. Dark, angry clouds were swirling overhead, driven by fierce winds that pushed them towards the centre of the city, where they crashed together and rose in a mighty tower of storms, miles high. Forks of lightning flashed between the banks of storm clouds, their sudden, violent discharges tinged an unearthly purple.
"Oh Goddess," whispered Tara, "it's started."