Author: Chris Cook
Willow drove as fast as she dared through the streets of New York. People were swarming out of the buildings, but few were taking to their cars - most simply stood and stared at the chaos in the skies above them. Tara held on to the side of the car door to keep herself upright as they veered around parked and abandoned vehicles. Her gaze never left the book she was studying.
"Three blocks," reported Willow. Up ahead, outlined against the violent sky, she could see the shape of the Imperium Hotel. Nathaniel Pryce owned the top floor of the modern sky-scraper, and Willow was not at all surprised to see that the gathering thunderhead at the centre of the storm was positioned directly above the tower.
"Hell," exclaimed Tara, flipping pages rapidly, "did we bring athelas?"
"I think so," said Willow, "every spell component I've got is in the case in the trunk. It's a sort of emergency supply. You know, 'open in case of end of the world'." Willow took a quick glance at the woman beside her, and was relieved to see a smile break through her grimness.
"Okay, good," Tara continued, "I think I've got it figured out. This is going to be the most powerful binding spell I've ever cast. Actually the most powerful anything I've ever cast. Find the Ice Queen, and when I'm ready down here throw the powder on her. I'll be concentrating on you, so when I cast the spell will go to you, conduct through the powder, and bind her."
"How long do you need?" asked Willow, bringing the car to a screeching halt, half-parked in front of the Imperium. Tara clambered into the back seat and started laying out the beginnings of a ritual on a slim oak board they had taken from Willow's library.
"Probably about three weeks," Tara muttered to herself. She crushed a dry leaf in her fist and let the fragments fall on the board. A circle briefly glowed on its varnished surface.
"Okay, it's started,” she went on, "if I can't do it in ten minutes, I can't do it at all. Take this." She thrust a small pouch, full of grey powder, into Willow's hands. "That's the stuff. As soon as the spell begins this will start vibrating like crazy, that's when you throw it."
"Gotcha," said Willow, wrapping her mask around her face and reaching for her hat. Tara grabbed her arm and stopped her. She leaned over to Willow, pulled the mask down, and kissed her.
"Take care of yourself," Tara whispered. Willow nodded, breathless for a moment. Then Tara returned to her preparations, Willow replaced her mask, took her hat, and left the car.
The Imperium Hotel towered over her as she looked up, and beyond it a tower of bristling lightning and thunder reaching up into the heavens. Willow took a deep breath, concentrated on clouding the sight of the people around her, and strode through the open doors of the hotel. Inside, businessmen and other influential citizens were in a panic, haranguing their aides and each other with demands to know what was going on. Willow ignored them all and went straight to the elevators. One was waiting at the ground floor, but as Willow neared it a man darted out of the crowd and entered it. Willow let her shroud drop just enough to concentrate for a second on enhancing her strength, tossing the man out of the elevator before he could push any buttons. By the time he rolled over to look back, she was invisible again, and the doors were closing.
The elevator took her to the highest public floor of the building, but refused to go any higher. Willow glared at a slot, intended for a key, next to the button for the top floor. Glancing about for other options, she noticed a trap door in the ceiling of the elevator, and leapt at it. One hand punched the door open, allowing the other to grip the edge of the hole. Willow got a good grip with both hands and hauled herself up.
The top of the elevator shaft wasn't far away, and there was only one closed set of doors above her. Willow tested her grip on the thick steel cables supporting the elevator, and clambered up to it. She swung across and balanced on the thin ledge, jamming the heels of her boots into the corners to keep herself steady. She wedged her fingers into the rubber seal between the doors and pried them open a few inches. Beyond were several men, armed with machine guns, staring right at her.
"Aw nuts," she said as they saw the doors move and raised their weapons. She let the doors slam closed again and spun to one side of the ledge, as a hail of bullets punched holes in the centre of the doors. She let herself fall backwards, stretching out to catch the elevator cables, as the gunfire widened to perforate the entire width of the doors. The firing stopped, and there was a moment of silence as Willow swung wildly across the elevator shaft. She caught hold of an electrical cable welded to the far side of the shaft and steadied herself.
The first of the armed men opened the elevator doors and swung his machine gun around to cover the space beyond. He barely had time to look down before Willow, gripping the bottom of the ledge, swung up and kicked him in the face. She vanished as she landed, and was gone in the instant it took the other men to aim at her. Two of them fired anyway, killing the unconscious guard before he had even collapsed. The force of the bullets pushed him back towards the open elevator shaft. He began to fall, snagged on his weapon which was wrenched out of his hand by an unseen force, then toppled over the edge.
"There!" yelled one of the men, aiming at a shadow on the opposite wall of the corridor. Willow, holding the machine gun, faded into view just long enough to smash its butt into his forehead. The other guards opened fire, but the corridor was empty again, and their bullets only tore up the far wall. A hail of gunfire answered them, and they ducked to the ground, taking what cover they could behind doorframes and side tables. In the time it took them to realise the invisible gun wasn't aiming for them, three of the electric lights had been smashed by bullets. The remaining pair quickly followed, plunging the corridor into total darkness. There was a muffled sound, and the thump of a body hitting the carpeted floor. One of the remaining guards fired briefly, illuminating the scene with the strobe-light from his gun's muzzle flashes. Another man was on the ground, unconscious. A dark shape was next to the firing man, just for a second, then it vanished and the firing stopped. All that remained was the terrified gasping of the last guard. With a sharp smack and a thump, it became the slow breathing of unconsciousness.
Willow took a moment to concentrate, then kicked in the door at the far end of the hall. There was a man inside, sitting at a large antique desk. Willow recognised him as Pryce. He was alone and unarmed, so she allowed herself to become visible. He leapt to his feet at the sight of her.
"What's the meaning of this!" he barked. "Who are-"
"Shut up," said Willow, grabbing him by the neck and slamming him back into his chair. "Where is she?"
"I don't know what you're-"
"Where is she?!" Willow yelled right into his face. Pryce's eyes darted one of the other doors leading from his office. Willow released him and headed for it.
"You'll regret this!" Pryce yelled after her, his voice shrill. "When she rewards me for my help, I'll be-" Willow yanked open the door and slammed it behind her, cutting Pryce off.
She was waiting there. Her coat was draped over a chair that had, along with all the other furniture in the room, been pushed up against the walls. She was kneeling within a small circle drawn in red powder on the polished floor. She wore only the tight white dress - her hands and feet were bare, and her silver hair fell around her shoulders. She looked up at Willow with infinite, cold calm.
"I expected you sooner," she said. Willow levelled a pistol crossbow at her, with her other hand concealed within her coat, feeling the weight of the satchel of powder on her belt.
"Traffic was a bitch," she replied, staring down the sight of the crossbow.
"Bravado," said the woman icily, "quite unnecessary. I am quite aware of your abilities, so you need not put on a show of heroics to impress me. And I must assume, given the display I have caused outside, that you are not unaware of the extent of my powers. Surely you cannot hope to match me."
"Who says I have to?" said Willow, keeping her weapon level. "I heard you last night. You don't have everything you need for your ritual. You can put on a show for the people outside, but we both know you're going to fail." It was a calculated risk - Willow had no way of knowing whether the woman had acquired whatever it was she needed since then, but she had to keep her talking.
"I presume you heard all that was said last night," the woman went on airily, "so no doubt you have drawn some shallow conclusions from that, and now believe you can stop me from attaining any power over you. You are quite mistaken."
"Don't bet on it," retorted Willow, pacing around the perimeter of the circle. The woman remained kneeling at the centre, tilting her head to keep Willow in view.
"You refer to your brief dalliance with dark magic," she replied, quite unfazed, "I imagine you felt quite powerful. Particularly when you killed that man. I know very much about you, you see. What you were, and what you have become. An interesting power you have developed, passive yet effective. I imagine your experiences have left you with quite a distaste for more… forceful magics."
"Bet your life?" taunted Willow.
"Oh, I am sure there are circumstances in which you might feel justified in taking a life. Once you have tasted that power, the temptation always remains." She dropped her gaze back to the floor, as Willow passed behind her.
"I know all about killing," she went on, "I have made quite a study of it. But unlike you I never let petty notions of revenge or justice taint my judgement. I have killed eighteen people with magic, every one of them carefully chosen, meticulously studied. They were all powerful, some as powerful as you. Their powers are now mine."
"You're lying," said Willow instantly. 'Come on,' she thought. The satchel on her belt remained steadfastly inert.
"You say that merely to reassure yourself. You know nothing. Their deaths were slow, carefully prepared and, aha, executed." She allowed herself a cold smile. "And when they died, their souls and all the powers within them were not allowed to merely vanish into the ether. They were contained. Within me."
The woman stood up slowly, brushing her hands down her sides to straighten invisible wrinkles in her dress.
"You may go now," she said, turning to Willow, "I have no need of you. And the spell you are waiting for will not eventuate." Willow's blood ran cold.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she bluffed.
"Of course you do," the woman replied, "your friend outside, the witch. She is gone now."
Willow fired. The crossbow bolt whipped through the woman as if she were mist, and thudded into the opposite wall. She turned to look at it, then back to Willow.
"How decisive," she commented without feeling. Willow stared at her, then swore and kicked at the dust on the floor. As the circle broke, the image of the woman vanished. Willow hurled her empty crossbow at the vacant space where she had been, then spun around and ran to a window. Yanking it open she leaned out, peering down at the street below. The car was gone. Tara was gone.