Author: Chris Cook
Willow burst through the doors of the Imperium Hotel onto the street, visible and uncaring of who saw her. All around her was panic anyway, people running for cover. She looked up - the turmoil above the city was increasing, and no longer centred above the hotel.
'Of course not,' thought Willow bitterly, 'she's not here anymore. It's following her.' But try as she might, Willow couldn't see where the storms were coalescing now. The thunderhead above was collapsing violently, tearing itself apart with cyclonic winds now that its core was gone. Pressure waves were lashing out across the sky, tearing through the ranks of black clouds lining up across the city, lightning stabbed the tallest towers again and again. Amid the chaos, there was no way to see where the nexus of the storm was re-forming.
She stopped dead in her tracks, staring around wildly. But Tara wasn't there. The voice had been as soft as snow falling, would have been inaudible above the havoc on the streets, except that it came to Willow’s mind, not her ears. She held on to the memory of the voice like a drowning sailor clinging to a piece of wood. It was there - ever since that night Tara had saved her, and taken care of her, she had felt a sense of, of... she didn't have the words for it. Her world had been more alive. And now she felt it still. Willow closed her eyes and concentrated on nothing but the memory of that angel's voice in her mind. Those few observers watching this strange masked figure gasped as the very air around her rippled. Leaves and sheets of newspaper, blown by the gale, dropped to the pavement as they neared her, and everything around her became still and silent.
Willow opened her eyes. The wind suddenly whipped at her coat again, and the noise of the gale howled in her ears, but she didn’t notice. She glanced quickly around the street - a policeman on a motorcycle was trying to direct traffic, as people took to their cars in blind panic. She sprinted across the street, ignoring the cars that screeched to a halt, horns blaring, and touched his shoulder. He closed his eyes and slumped into her arms, and she carefully let him down to the pavement. She swung her leg over the bike and roared down the street.
"I'm coming baby," she whispered.
Willow followed her instinct, never questioning or doubting it. The thought of Tara led her across the city towards the sprawling mansions of the wealthy and powerful. She steered the bike between cars jammed in traffic, down sidewalks when the cars were too crowded, across the park, keeping to a constant line. Tara was alive. She knew it, and now she just had to find her.
She came at last to a huge, stately mansion surrounded by high stone walls topped with iron spikes. Glancing up, she saw the first hints of the storm clouds beginning to centre overhead. The main gate was closed, but unguarded. Willow took a few steps back, ran, jumped, grabbed the bars and flipped herself up and over the rows of spikes, landing on her feet in the driveway and causing a shower of gravel as she shifted her momentum into the air around her. Her feet crunched in the gravel as she stalked up towards the house's main doors, so she ignored her visibility and concentrated instead of preparing herself for the challenge ahead. The clouds were actually reaching down, towards the roof of the mansion, like a tornado spinning in slow motion. Already the tiles on the roof were beginning to rattle, and every few seconds one would break loose and crash to the ground below.
Willow kicked the doors in, her anger amplifying the blow enough to break the hinges. She stalked through the entrance hall, through another set of doors into a narrow corridor, and came at last to a set of thick double doors, the old wood blackened with age, bound at the edges with iron and brass. She put her hands on the doors - she could feel the magical power seeping through from beyond - and pushed them open.
The room was huge, fifty metres across, reaching up through the mansion's second storey to a great glass dome. The walls were polished marble, white and deep crimson, with recesses containing statues of hooded, robed figures. The floor was a mosaic, composed of miniscule tiles, swirling in geometric patterns to the centre of the chamber. There was a circle of candles, at least a hundred, their flames flickering in the disturbed air. From the perimeter of the circle, sheets of pure magic were rising, rushing into the air from below, stretching skyward. At the very centre stood the woman in white. Her composure was perfectly serene, as always. Her arms were bare, the sleeves cut away, and her dress had been slit by jagged cuts running up both sides to her hips, revealing her legs. On her legs, arms, even her face, were long, flowing markings in blood, cut with delicate care. Instead of running from the wounds, her blood glowed in the cuts, like magma beneath a crust of rock. Her hair was streaming out above her, as if the winds of magic rising around her were a physical force, and when she moved she left a wake in the air, clinging to her, a glittering curtain of light like liquid diamonds. In front of her, kneeling, eyes closed, was Tara.
"Hey, Ice Bitch!" yelled Willow. The woman looked at her for a moment, then smiled without warmth.
"My name is Miranda," she said softly, her voice echoing through the chamber on the wave of the magic she was feeding on, "though perhaps you might think Prospero more appropriate, under the circumstances. Do you still wish to challenge me, now that you know what I am?"
Willow drew both pistol crossbows from her coat and aimed them directly at the woman's head.
"Lady," she said, "I've known what you are since I first laid eyes on you. Let. Her. Go." In response, the woman drew a knife - the Shard Wyrm - from behind herself and gazed at the unearthly light reflecting from its silver blade. Ripples of energy began to rise from the ground, passing through Tara and the woman as if they were ghosts.
"If you hurt her," yelled Willow, "I'll see you burn in every hell there is!" The woman looked at her with an expression of contempt.
"You have no idea what I am doing. Be silent." She flipped the knife over in her hand, aiming it at her neck. The pulses of energy were becoming more rapid, and every time one passed through her, the knife in her hand flickered, and for an instant seemed to be made of blood-red crystal. She slowly brought the point to her, and began to slice through the material of her dress, until she had opened it from her neck to the centre of her chest. Willow watched in horrified fascination as she gripped the blade with both hands, aiming at her own heart. The pulses of energy were almost continuous now, and the blade was pure crystal, casting a savage red light that throbbed as if it were alive.
The woman thrust the blade into her body. It cut with no blood, only a line of pure red light around the blade. When she reached the hilt she released her nearest hand and continued to push with the other. When that touched her skin she moved it, bracing her palm against the end of the knife. With a final shove the blade vanished completely. Her alabaster skin sealed behind it, with no trace of a wound. The diamond light rippling around her blazed suddenly, unfurling like a cape in the hurricane of magic, turning dark red and glittering like a sea of rubies. From her legs, arms, back and head it flowed up into the air as she walked around Tara, watching Willow’s stunned expression.
"Now," she said, "I shall begin. You may watch, if you wish. There is no way for you to alter what will now happen. Watch as the dead rise."
Willow staggered as faces began to appear in the sheets of magic bursting like a volcano from the floor, wretched, twisted faces, souls in pain. The magic began to bend inwards, and Willow swore she could hear the screaming of the souls increase in pitch as an invisible force drew them towards the woman. Lightning crackled in the storm clouds above, twisting and lashing continuously in the sky. Slowly the column of souls bent, ever lower, until at last they touched the woman.
The chamber exploded. The glass dome ruptured outwards, letting in the fury of the storm. The marble blocks lining the walls cracked and shattered, spraying dust and debris over the mosaic floor. Huge chunks of stone and brick swirled up into the sky, leaving the remnants of the chamber at the centre of the gaping crater in the mansion. The river of souls was flowing quickly now, too fast for Willow to even see the faces within it. It stretched from the ground, through Tara, into the woman. She grinned icily.
"Now do you understand?" she said. "The souls I have taken were merely a tool, a device to fuel this ritual, my ascension. Every one of the billions of souls, from every ethereal plane, is being drawn into me. Their power is becoming my power. Billions upon billions, stretching back to the dawn of time. All mine. And it will not end there. I am becoming all heavens and all hells. Every destiny will end in me. Every human being on the face of the earth will be mine, for the rest of time. For who can resist death? And beyond death, there will no longer be judgement, punishment, reward or peace. Only me."
She stalked around Tara, standing directly in front of Willow. The river of souls curved around Tara's still, kneeling form, passing through her back now and emerging through her chest, to remain centred on the woman. Willow aimed both crossbows at the V-shaped split in her dress and fired at her heart. The bolts burned out of the air inches from her skin. She paid no attention to them.
"Even you will be mine," the woman hissed at Willow. "I could kill you now, but there is no need. You cannot cheat death, and I will be patient. Eventually age and time will hunt you down, and you will lay your weary, wrinkled head down and die. And I will have you. Consider that, when you think back on your arrogance in challenging me."
She turned her back on Willow and walked away from her. The souls continued to curve through Tara and into the woman’s body.
"Your friend here," she said, looking at Willow over her shoulder, "will be spared, if you can call it that. Communion with the afterlife requires a certain degree of innocence, and I am sure you would be quick to point out I have little of that. The union I have created between myself and the ethereal planes is ultimate, so it requires perfect purity. Hers. When the ritual is complete her soul will simply cease to exist. Perhaps you will take some comfort in that. I care not."
Willow ran two steps, leapt over the souls streaming through the air, and lashed out with all her force in a kick aimed straight at the woman's head. The woman raised a hand, almost lazily, freezing Willow in mid-air. For a moment she hung there, unable to move, then the woman flicked her hand. Willow shot away from her, crashing into the remains of the marble wall twenty metres away. It took all her concentration to shift away the massive force of the impact, to avoid shattering her bones. She fell to the floor, dazed, only to be caught by an invisible force and dragged towards the circle, towards Tara and the woman. She slid to a halt in front of them.
"Do you still not understand?" said the woman, looking almost incredulous. "I have planned this ritual my entire life. Do you think I would permit you to disrupt it like some rogue piece on a chess board? You are a pawn, nothing more. You have moved as I wished, when I wished. I arranged for you to be distracted by this girl, to waste time protecting her from me, while I went about my business sure in the knowledge that you would bring her to me when I required her. Whatever preparations you might have made to face me now, you left undone. Your part in this is over. The pawn cannot attack the queen. There is no power in you, in her, in this world that can rival me."
Willow gazed at Tara. She was perfectly still, her expression serene, at peace. Her chest was rising and falling slowly, as if she was in a deep, restful sleep. She had never looked to beautiful to Willow. The woman came to a halt directly behind her, and gently placed her hands on either side of Tara’s head, her fingers brushing against the sides of her face.
"Tara," gasped Willow. The souls were flowing through her like an inverted waterfall, so fast as to be a mere river of light, any details indistinguishable.
"It nears completion," said the woman. She smiled thinly at Willow. "If you have any last words for her, speak them now."
"Tara," whispered Willow, staring at her closed eyes, "I love you."
Tara's eyes opened.
She blinked once, as if clearing away the remnants of sleep, then looked straight at Willow. Seeing her fallen on the ground before her, she leant forward, reaching out to hold her. Tara moved to kneel beside Willow, gathering her into her arms. Willow simply stared at her.
The river of souls did not move with her. When Tara moved the souls suddenly struck the woman behind her with their full force. She screamed abruptly, the curtains of blood light streaming behind her shattering into a million tiny filaments that thrashed around like reeds in a storm. Tara jumped at her scream, clutching Willow tight. Her fright brought Willow out of her near-trance, and she pulled Tara away from the circle. Together they scrambled to the edge of the room, only then stopping to look back.
The woman was floating above the ground, at the centre of a cloud of souls that whipped around her like a swarm of wasps. The strands of magic flowing from her body were stretched tight, pulled out around her like an aura, slipping out of her as the light seeped out from beneath her skin. In an instant the ruby-red was gone from them, revealing again the cold diamond light shining from her. She threw her head back and howled as more and more souls escaped her, swarming around, tearing at the power flowing from her. Light streamed out of her mouth, flying up into the thunderous sky like a beacon.
Lightning flashed down the connection, blinding Willow and Tara. There was a deafening crack, then silence. When the two women finally blinked away the ghostly images in their eyes, they saw the centre of the mosaic floor burned black by the discharge. There was nothing else left. Willow let out a shuddering breath, and began crying softly in Tara's arms.
"Shh," Tara whispered automatically, "it's alright. It's over." Willow wrapped her arms around Tara and kissed her hard on the lips. When she drew back Tara moved with her, keeping their lips together. Finally they ended the kiss.
"Tara-" began Willow.
"I know," said Tara instantly, "I heard you. I love you Willow. I love you."
Overhead, the storm was retreating, leaving the sun to warm the city again.
"Life is only half-way in our hands-"
The patrons of the Hurricane Club fell silent, abandoning even their lively discussion of the lightning storm two days ago. Tonight, no-one was talking during the songs.
"-years have passed while I was making plans."
Tara was wearing her simple, elegant white gown, not the cold white of ice, but the glow of pure light. Her voice was strong and sure, giving the melody a life of its own.
"And I could never find the words,
Her audience, which included several regulars, all felt that she was on rare form tonight. Those of a musical persuasion compared her to the conductor of a symphony, so immersed in the music that it became part of her. Those of less cultured experience simply concluded that they hadn't heard anything like it.
But she sang only for one person, who sat near the stage, resting her elbows on the table and her chin on her folded palms, gazing at her endlessly with deep emerald eyes.
"But now I know I shouldn't care,
And Tara gazed back at her, and sang with all her heart.
"Oh, what a feeling..."