Author: Chris Cook
Willow reaches out a jewelled hand and draws back the curtain to her reserved box. The metal sleeves on her fingers - woven gold, with rubies set like glittering sand-dust over her knuckles and down to her wrist - rasp against the edge of the thick velvet curtain, idly scratching the cloth-of-gold edging as she holds it back and lets it fall closed behind her. Everyone else here has attendants, servants and menials and bought lovers for the evening, but Willow is alone. Those already seated in their boxes and galleries, all around the circular stage, look to Willow's box, one of the few in the lowest tier, closest to the performance space. They know what it means that she is alone tonight.
Whispers take life and travel. The rumours were true, they say. The Queen would never be seen alone, if hers wasn't going to perform. They say, the Dream is going to perform for her Queen.
Willow stands for a moment at the edge of her box, hands on the thin gold balcony rail. It is almost a duty - people of her rank attend as much to be seen as to see. But it is one Willow fulfils without interest. She unclasps the eagle brooch at her neck, lets her the deep red cloak, matching her hair, fall to the floor. Tonight she wears a simple gown, white cloth from her neck down, sheer - it doesn't quite hide her body, slender curves accented with applied gold-dust, sex concealed by red satin, pierced nipples anchoring tissue-thin gold teardrops cupping her breasts.
Others dress to flaunt themselves; Willow lets herself be seen behind gauze, to flaunt her unavailability. Her lover - even absent - is an invisible presence that none here, not even the high-born and beautiful-arrogant, would compete with.
She takes her seat, settling cross-legged, and raises a lazy hand. A grey-robed functionary, fearful of delay, slips through the curtain and delicately places a lead-crystal glass in the waiting hand, gathers up her fallen robe, and leaves without so much as a hint that he, or she - impossible to tell, beneath the robe - is worthy of noticing Willow's presence. Willow gives a faint smile, sure that it will be seen by enough, through opera-glasses and spy-lenses, and make its way back to the office of the manager. No money will change hands, for the use of Willow's box. A smile from her pays for all, in currency more precious than coin - a smile, and the Dream performing. The establishment's name will be spoken in high places for weeks to come.
Willow sips fine wine and affects indifference to the arrivals around and above her, in the other boxes. The high-born predominate: generals, cardinals and abbesses, justices, senators, captains of ships-of-the-line, each with their entourages of fawning sycophants, carefully-outrageous artists making a show of cultural rebellion, sparking controversy in the orbits of the men and women who pay them to do so for the mentions of their names it will bring, silent servants, bonded-slaves or freemen, decorated trophy-wives and husbands in threes and fours, adorning their benefactors like a peacock's feathers. Here and there in the crowd a prosperous plebian-born, moving and talking and standing and breathing in practised imitation of the high-born, never quite able to shrug off the self-awareness of their station, no matter how much coin or trade or slave-force they command. And gaily-coloured men and women making their rounds, offering gentle smiles and coy glances, with boys or girls following in their wake, wearing their colours, carrying notebooks and whispering negotiations with the vassals of those their masters and mistresses exchange a word or a glance with, arranging to whom and for how much their lofty owners will sell their bodies to for the next few hours.
Five minutes, ten, and the theatre fills. The wine is light this evening, and Willow allows her glass to be refilled, her eyes drifting to the stage just below where she sits. Soon, she thinks. Only a moment or two. There are no curtains to ruffle as stagehands dash behind them, but Willow imagines the out-of-sight activity, the bustle of almost-preparedness.
Her concentration is interrupted by a change in the voice of the gathered hundreds. New words are being exchanged, and the amalgam-susurration takes on a note of caution. Scanning the patrons still arriving and taking their seats, Willow finds the pebble dropped in the lake.
'Angelus,' she mouths, as his eyes lock on her. 'Willow,' his lips form in reply. He dares use her name - only the very powerful would do so, rather than choosing a safe pseudonym, 'Queen' or 'Red Lady' or 'Scarletess'; Angelus is one such. Master of the Aurelius, captain of a thousand loyal fighting men, the death of Carthage who left the land salted and the towers fallen and the ships burning at their moorings. He is a feared man, feared by the generals who command him, feared by the businessmen who sell him food and goods for his campaigns and buy their spoils, feared by the courtesans he chooses to share his dining room, or his bed.
Separated by the width of the stage, Angelus lifts his head to Willow, questioning. She gives a nod, satisfying him and challenging him at once. While on the surface she tells him yes, her lover will perform - a confirmation which raises gasps and nervous chatter from the audience, as news spreads from those studying her - her eyes tell a different story. They say, I know who you've brought here, Angelus. She won't outshine my Dream. Willow doesn't fear Angelus, either his ire now, or the vengeful wrath she expects later.
Angelus glares, and is distracted by an ill-timed remark from one of his entourage. He snarls and dashes his glass in the man's face, leaving him reeling and bleeding from a slashed cheek. The man knows better than to protest - he gasps silently, and Willow chuckles to herself, watching the studied indifference of the rest of Angelus' lackeys and hangers-on, each brutally reminded of the potential consequences of a wrongly-placed word or look.
Functionaries move semi-invisibly in Angelus' box, ignored by all. Two lift the injured man and help him stagger out, another clears up the remnants of the broken glass, a fourth uses a cloth to clear the spilt wine. Willow imagines dialogue for them. Whoops, the Master's smashed another face in, that's the third one tonight. He'll need more flunkeys at this rate, send someone down to the shop to see if they have any in stock. Look at the mess he's made of the serving table, what we need here is a good doily! Honestly, the state of the gentry nowadays…
Willow grins - she knows the insolence that lurks beneath the polite fear of those in the service of the powerful. It amuses her to think how ignorant Angelus and his like are of their empires of slaves and vassals - they think of them as servile machines, but the slave knows his master for a boorish oaf. Willow has bought men and women cast off from Angelus' stable, and spent evenings listening to their tales.
Light signals the beginning of the entertainment - the nobles settle in their seats, stern glances silence conversations, confidence-men and expensive whores suspend their trade as magnesium flares burst into life, jetting into the tumultuous night sky like dying suns in miniature. The pre-seeded clouds take their cue, silently rumbling sheet lightning from horizon to horizon, lighting the stage like so many strobes, cold and white.
Two more flares burst on the stage, and when the brilliant light fades she is there. A common trick, Willow knows, simply a concealed trapdoor opening and closing while the white-hot flame burned too brightly to look at - but effective. A gasp passes through the audience, then a whisper, contagious: Her! The rumours have prepared their palette for her, better than sheer surprise could have.
She stands still, calm and composed - no theatrics, no playing to the crowd. She never acknowledges the eyes on her, and they love her all the more for it. Death Dream, they whisper to each other; only Willow whispers her lover's name, 'Tara.'
She is beautiful - a dream, truly. Her golden hair is tonight woven into a single braid, swaying like a tiger's tail down to her hips and tipped with a steel-and-sapphire ornament in the shape of a spear-point. Her attire is new - even to Willow, who acquiesced to Tara's whim to keep it secret, even from her, until this evening, this time. Blue-tinted steel crosses her shoulders, reaching down, spreading to cover the centre of her breasts, leaving teasing swells on either side, and her cleavage too, bare. The armour-brassiere narrows as it dips, thinning to a single chain descending from each breast over Tara's stomach, reaching to the tips of a steel plate hiding her sex. She turns, surveying the stage as if seeing it for the first time. Behind her the twin metal arcs from her shoulders merge into one between her shoulderblades, and another thin chain from the steel vee's nadir descends between her firm buttocks.
It is a calculated appearance - performers have worn less, but only because they do not understand why they are watched. Willow knows Tara knows - she will have directed this attire's fashioning herself, working with the artisans Willow bought her for months, perfecting. The thin strips of metal and chain seem so poised - they do not move, and Willow doubts they will, but to look at the Death Dream seems a woman on the edge of a cliff, where the slightest motion could, maybe, perhaps, see her coverings slip out of place. Willow smiles knowingly. The audience will pant and point like hunter dogs sensing their prey almost within reach - she knows so many of them will for weeks be kissing and fucking and masturbating with her lover's image in their minds. The knowledge tickles her.
She glances at her lover's feet, and wonders. Tara wears steel-rimmed leather, clasped tight below her knees and encasing her to her toes, but the work-of-art boots are a departure from her usual style - they hold her heels high, but the toes are flat on the ground, to a rounded point. It has been years since Willow has seen Tara perform - publicly or privately - without dancing on boots fashioned to perfect ballet-toe points, sharp enough to spear through solid oak. Whenever her lover, in a whimsical moment, has asked what it is about her that Willow finds most attractive - most erotic, most captivating - it is the way she balances, always poised, perfect. Few can move as she does, and none so easily. Willow wonders why, tonight, she has foregone her usual style. And she notices Tara's gloves, too - like her boots, steel-wrapped leather, from elbow to fingertip, but in each palm there is a steel disc, small enough that she can still close her hand without impediment, yet solid and unbending.
Willow thinks, there's a surprise coming. At that moment, for an imperceptible instant, Tara's eyes find hers, and they share a communication, instant and silent, unseen by any of the spectators. Tara says, yes, love. You'll see, soon. Willow takes a sip of wine and settles in.
A second pair of blinding bright flares - Tara faces away, as if by chance, though certainly carefully choreographed - and another figure is there. Showy, Willow thinks, having already guessed who would perform alongside her love tonight.
Her costume reveals more. White leather straps spread web-like from ivory rings, bright against her deeply tanned skin. They criss-cross her torso, hiding little - a central ring, a halo around her navel with its silk-thin umbilical snaking out, slipped beneath a vertical strap and pulled tight. That strap travels her cleavage, another two branch out, beneath her arms. Between the three a silver-wire cage, five shaped strands of metal across her breasts, the topmost passing through her nipples, the others cupping from beneath. Leather around her neck, splitting and reforming at smaller rings. A single strap between her legs, thin, and her thick labia bulge either side of it, sporting silver ornaments. Her hair, the colour of rich, dark chocolate, is tight against her head, woven into a silver sunburst ornament that surmounts her like an aureole.
Angelus looks on proudly, Willow notes with a quick glance. Faith is his: his bodyguard-captain, his prized possession, his whore, and heir-apparent. Willow conceals a wry grin, finding it distasteful to humiliate him so callously by showing amusement at his woman's unsubtlety. Spectators leer and smile hunter's smiles at her as-good-as-nakedness. They'll remember my Dream, Willow thinks, keeping her thoughts from her face for form's sake.
Faith wears the same boots and gloves as Tara - hers white leather and silver, but identical in design. Willow wonders, and does not trouble herself at not knowing. She will soon enough, her love has told her.
The two performers are back-to-back, and turn to acknowledge each other. They clasp hands quickly and lean in, sharing a pair of phantom kisses, one in the air an inch from each cheek, dictated by ritual. That done they stalk together, lithe on their high boots, just beyond arm's reach of each other.
The last players on the stage arrive. No fanfare entrance for them, simply a gaping doorway, and they stumble on, pushed by a press of bodies, the last herded by the door swinging closed behind them. Willow knows some of their faces, has never seen others. Murmurs pass around the audience, gleeful vindictiveness at an enemy on show, anxiety masked by callous laughs for those in the crowd who think, there but for the grace of God. The newcomers move in a disorderly formation, spreading cautiously, afraid of being alone yet mistrustful of those alongside them. Criminals, enemies of the state, prisoners of war, men and women fallen out of favour with a powerful senator or justice or man of God. They are each of them naked, and each carries a weapon: swords, war-sickles, talon-edged nets, spears and pole-arms, whips glistening with pain oils.
The identities of the two performers pass among them, from those who know their faces from their former lives. The Death Dream, they whisper in fear, and Javelin or Faith. Willow allows herself a smile at the scowl on Angelus' face. His woman hasn't earned the name-silence yet - few do, so thoroughly that a condemned will not break it. On other nights, Willow has even heard her own name spoken on the stage, by those with nothing left to lose. But not Tara, never Tara. The honour of Willow's lover is beyond even the desperation of the damned.
There is a sound akin to a hundred swords being drawn, and the stage blossoms like some metal-forged origami work. The floor segments and folds, breaking into platforms and paths and junctions, vanishing between them. Beneath the stage, the maze-like remains of the smooth floor, a bed of needles wait like a deadly crop. Each five metres high, thin as a spider's silk at its tip, widening only to the breadth of a wrist at their base, deep in the shadows. Razor-sharp, none more than a foot from its neighbour. Willow discerns a spiral-fractal pattern in the lethal needle-tips, guessing at the arrays of spikes hidden beneath what flooring remains atop them - no body could contort enough to fall between the points without being impaled. The walking-dead shy away from the edges of the floor-plates left beneath them, acutely aware that a fall now means death, fast or slow.
Willow grins openly - the manager's staff will take note, and be pleased - as Faith and Tara move, abandoning the safety of the narrow walkway left beneath them by the retraction of the stage. Their boots, steel-soled beneath their toes, allow them to balance on the needles, to walk safely across them, fluid motion lending them balance.
The condemned watch them, fearful - their weapons seem an insufficient advantage now, even to those who deluded themselves into thinking this a fair contest at first.
Faith goes left, Tara right. They slow, and each lean forward, crouching with the steel-plated palms of their gloves balanced on spikes. Tara's eyes lock with Faith's, but at the same time her mouth moves slightly, a smile seen by and meant only for Willow herself.
Willow favours Tara with a long, ardent look, then turns her attention to the condemned, anticipating their slaughter.
The two killers stalk their prey, each in their own manner. Faith is fast and brutal, darting forward, challenging her opponents to face her or flee. One stands his ground while the others run, a middle-aged man - once a Prefect, before making the wrong alliance, letting a word be whispered in the wrong ear. He is tall and strong, and the way he holds his barbed spear shows knowledge of its use.
He thrusts into Faith's charge, a sound tactic were he not so hopelessly outmatched. She leaps and parts her legs, allowing the point aimed at her stomach to instead whisper between her thighs. In mid-air, reaching behind herself, she grabs and pulls the spear-tip, jerking the man off balance. Her leap carries her into him as he stumbled forward, off the safety of solid ground. As his feet fail to find purchase and the spines of the arena floor pierce his calves, Faith catches his head between her legs, tossing her own head back, giving the watchers a savage smile as he howls his pain into her almost-bare cunt. She twists her hips, the scream is cut off with a crack of bone, and when she walks away his body falls lifeless and sinks slowly onto the dozen points beneath it.
Tara is calmer, more patient. She doesn't charge or threaten, but instead simply strides with raptor grace around the group of damned, as if knowing they will come to her in time. She is right: one of those fleeing Faith's onslaught, a lanky man, a face Willow recognises from the senate floor, finds himself face to face with the blonde, and essays a slash at her with his sickle in panic. Tara doesn't seem to even see him - her eyes, at that moment, are wandering aimlessly around the edge of the arena, as if she is appreciating the inlaid patterns in the walls. Some of the audience gasp - they haven't seen her fight before.
She leans back, arching, her palms finding a pair of spikes to balance upon while the nobleman's blade slices above her. Too quickly to avoid she kicks upwards, one foot knocking the sickle high into the air, the other reaching further to crack against the man's jaw, stunning him. It seems as if she will simply let her opponent fall and be pierced through as she completes her lazy handstand, but instead of raising her legs high she rocks her hips to counterbalance herself and catches the falling man, her ankles beneath his shoulders. The victim stares down for a second, at the razor tips inches from him, then looks at Tara, and at last Tara meets his gaze. It lasts only an instant, then the falling sickle buries itself in his back. His last act is to drop her eyes from Tara's gaze and stare at the bloody point emerging from his pale chest. This intervention done, Tara lets him go, and he completes his interrupted fall onto the bed of needles.
Willow passes an expert eye over the crowd as Tara pivots languidly to her feet, amused by what she sees. In the time it has taken Tara to allow her first to die, Faith has killed three, and each of their deaths was provocatively lustful, split-second mock-sex acts with the struggling victims. Yet Tara is the one they watch. Their eyes stray to Faith while Tara takes her time, but when she held her once-noble victim for the falling blade all eyes were on her. Willow sees artists among the entourages, sketching furiously. It is well-known, and strictly enforced, that the Death Dream allows no recording of her performances - she is never captured, not on film or crystal or stream of data or the mind of a recording empath. I am the Lord thy God, she quotes from the old ways, when asked why she will suffer no duplication of herself beyond the revered art of a brush or a charcoal stick. Thou shalt have no other god before me.
In the arena, there is a momentary sensation at a flamboyant execution: Faith has captured an opponent's sword, and uses it to split her open from neck to crotch. The audience watches in horror and guilty fascination as blood and entrails spill and catch on the spine floor, hanging like decorations as the fading woman finally topples over. Tara pays no notice to the gore, or the roar of the crowd. She chooses a dark-haired, olive-skinned beauty as her next, and with a slow glance sends her backing away until her retreat is cut off, with only the field of spines behind her.
Her raven opponent flings her weapon, a thin net strung between weighted steel talons. It is a clumsy throw, Tara could jump it or duck it and leave her opponent unarmed against her. She chooses neither. She plants her feet wide and leans down beneath the net's flying edge, but leaves a hand raised to snag it, risking injury as the talons swing in to strike her. But they miss - she whips the net around, controlling the multiple momenta to perfection, and in the same moment her adversary feels the elation at surely having inflicted a wounding blow, Tara stands unharmed, and the net is closing around the dark-haired woman herself. She screams, first in shock, then in pain as a dozen heavy talons wrap around her body and pierce her flesh. Tara is upon her as she loses her balance - to deliver a killing blow, the audience at first think. Willow suspects otherwise, and smiles at herself when she sees the struggling pair still in a new configuration: Tara upright, holding the centre of the net in one hand, braced against the weight of the woman caught in it, her ankle crushed under Tara's boot, the rest of her body held out above the spikes.
It is a moment of beautiful cruelty. Willow watches the dark woman's eyes as she realises the futility of her position - as she struggles the net's talons dig deeper into her body, agonisingly piercing muscle and organs. But where they do not dig in, they falter, drawing shallow gashes across her skin and letting her slip ever closer to her death on the arena's razor floor.
The dying woman screams weakly for a moment, as the rise and fall of her chest slowly tears open her modest breasts against the hooks. Willow watches Tara watch her. Her eyes are calm and kind, patient. After a few agonising seconds more, the victim makes her choice, and with a painful twist tears free of enough hooks to fall free and spear herself through. Tara lets her go, smiling in understated pride as the fallen woman's body slowly slides down the half-dozen or so shafts impaling her.
Knowing Tara will not hurry, Willow takes another moment to observe the crowd, her eyes leaving Tara only as they might to study a work she had created. Many are rapt, caught by lust or admiration or fear, or a mixture. Some openly horrified, either at the brutality, or seeing it emerge from such a serene beauty - they are for the most part guests of patrons, and will not return, though only the very foolish will voice their disquiet in public. Willow spots the Duchess, widow of the first man Tara killed, staring inscrutably at her former husband's executioner. She wonders, her eyes slowly returning to her beloved, whether it is in rage or gratitude, or even jealousy. She catches a glimpse of Angelus in passing, and enjoys his conflict - proud of his woman's efforts, bitter that they are being overshadowed. He has leaned forward in his seat, and Willow sees Faith notice this, and obey the command she is sure has been issued.
Her curiosity is short-lived. Tara is stalking her latest, and probably last, victim of the night, a compact young man whose cowardice is making him poor sport, and thus - Willow is sure - whom Tara is taking special care to make a memorable spectacle of. On the other side of the arena Faith scoops up a pair of dropped blades, and flings them at the duo. Willow knows Tara better than to fear for her - she drops flat on the bed of spikes, hands and feet keeping her safely suspended less than an inch from their tips - but her would-be victim is not so skilful, and falls with his neck torn open and gushing bright arterial blood.
Willow gasps quietly as realisation spreads through her. Her hand drops to her lap, and her metal-sleeved finger rasps against her sex through the thin layers of fabric. The insult Faith has paid Tara is unmistakeable, and retribution cannot be waived. The redhead strokes herself, her chest rising and falling in excitement, like lust. Now Tara is going to fight - not perform, but truly fight.
The stagehands waste no time. The scattered platforms and walkways remaining in place flip and slide out of view, toppling the few remaining condemned to their deaths. Their passing is ignored - all eyes are on Faith, who remains upright, defiant, and Tara, balancing prone, waiting. Faith shoots a glance at her owner, seeking the formality of his blessing on the challenge he himself set in motion. A murmur passes through the crowd as Angelus raises a hand, his jewelled index finger held high. Faith's eyes turn back on Tara, staring violence toward her. She remains still, and doesn't have to look to Willow - the redhead would never deny her love anything. Willow's gold-clad raised finger signals her champion's acceptance of the challenge.
Kettle drums ring a harsh pulse over the stage - somewhere, hidden in the wings, bio-empaths are fixing their inner eyes on the combatants' hearts, and the drums will be stilled only when one of the two beats is likewise silenced. Faith takes deep breaths, readying herself, stalking. She moves easily over the spikes, her eyes never leaving Tara. Tara, in turn, pushes herself into a lazy handstand, and arches over onto her feet, poised still, balancing perfectly upright on the two needle-tips beneath the soles of her boots.
Willow is calm, the rest of the crowd, frenzied. Even Angelus sits forward in his seat, his powerful gaze set on the arena. He knows the stakes, and Willow thinks him brave enough to count the risk worthwhile. Tara could fall - the victory would be worth more to Angelus than an entire campaign, in prestige worth more than any captured spoils of war. The other spectators are far more mercenary in their excitement - their bloodlust, their common, base lust at seeing a thing of beauty destroyed, will serve them no matter who triumphs, for both Faith and Tara are legends. Tara is widely reckoned more proficient, more elegant - more controlling of herself, and her victims. Faith is wild and careless, but gains advantage both from the killing rage that drives her, and from the cocktail of stimulants and aphrodisiacs her umbilical is pumping through her body. Tara has always refused the fighting drugs, preferring to keep her mind and body her own. There have often been predictions that this would be the choice that dooms her; perhaps tonight, the spectators think, not daring to whisper it.
Willow is calm, because she knows Tara cannot be taken from her. Faith will die; or Tara, and Willow has measured the steps to the balcony rail in front of her, and the short fall to her own death beneath. Whether she will be joining her beloved in afterlife or oblivion, she doesn't know, but she will join her.
The two circle each other, two hungry tigresses with no prey between them, reconciled to the prospect of cannibalism. Faith waits longer than her impetuous nature would seem to suggest, yet eventually she makes the first move - the silver strands crossing her chest spring open, but for the topmost which hold her breasts steady, leaving her with razor-sharp spines protecting the sides of her torso. Tara betrays no surprise. Faith's hands reach to the ornament wound through her hair and bisect it, letting her brunette mane fall freely, and coming away with two half-moon blades in her grasp; again Tara remains impassive, but for a flicker of emotion which only Willow knows her well enough to see. She is pensive, re-assessing her options - Faith is threatening, and the blonde is not sure whether or not the threat is too great.
Willow surprises herself with a pang of guilt, that it was she who consented to the challenge. She comforts herself with the knowledge that Tara would never, never, turn her back on her fate. Nor would she love Willow for sheltering her - that would be to stop her being Tara. And yet, Willow is anxious, and would beg forgiveness, if Tara were standing before her.
Faith attacks, quickly, savagely - blades swinging, up, up, left, right, kick, right, forcing Tara back. Their speed is extraordinary, moving across the field of spikes like mist dancing on a lake. Tara retreats, evades, blocks now and then, using her armoured palms as tiny shields, calculating each motion to precision - half an inch here or there, and Faith would tear her hands to shreds. Willow strains to keep her composure, knowing the thrill running through Tara's body, so alike passion as to be indistinguishable. The others watch a duel, but Willow sees something akin to masturbation - Tara using the threat of death as a tool to bring herself to climax.
Tara's usual strategy would be to kick, to use the points of her toes to wound, but she has little opportunity, with balance so precarious, and her favourite target area on Faith's body guarded by her ersatz armour. She isn't retreating as a prelude to attack, she is retreating because she must.
Willow's sex tightens in animal fear, beyond her capacity to intellectualise. Faith is too fast - the drugs allow her to push her muscles further, faster, and it is too fast. Tara, dodging a kick and a slash at once, misses a step, and almost falls - slamming her palm onto a spike to steady herself, one leg dangling between the razor points, a thin red gash on her thigh from one of them.
Willow can almost feel the points piercing her, sending her to Tara.
Tara whips her head around, as if to blindly shield herself, turning away from her attacker in a moment of panic. Faith's glee is cut short as the tip of Tara's braid, encased in sapphire-dotted steel, slashes at her face, forcing her to turn away for an instant. She is proud, too proud to mar her beauty even for the few moments it would take to repair herself later.
Pride costs her her life.
Tara's hand crosses Faith's stomach, lightning-fast, gripping, pulling the umbilical from her body. A whip of metal, two feet of flexible steel, is wrenched free of her body, the tiny sub-channels branching off it cutting her navel as they are torn free, belching floods of stims, hallucinogens, combat aphrodisiacs that spill uselessly into the air. Faith howls in agony, pitches over backwards - Tara could kill her in an instant, a simple kick would topple her. She lets the brunette live a moment longer.
Tara stands and steps back, letting the audience see Angelus's champion, spewing blood and bile from her mouth, whimpering, grasping spastically at the trailing umbilical. Fifteen years of dependency on the heightening drugs invisibly wrack her now, making her retch even when her stomach has nothing to give, staining her eyes with blood as vessels burst. Tara lets it go on - it seems cruel, but Willow knows better. She is simply allowing Faith's body to torture itself, neither helping nor hindering now that the damage is done.
Faith is too proficient to die that way, though - at last her hand closed around the whipping cord, and she clutches it to her navel desperately, like a starving child seeking her mother's milk. Slowly the length snakes back inside her, rediscovering and refilling her body of its own accord. The shaking subsides, the blue tinge to Faith's skin fades as she finds her lungs at her command once more… she stands as much as she can, her balance too damaged to lift both hands without falling. She faces Tara.
Her blades have fallen - she is unarmed, and more than that, she is spent. Her survival was the first strike to overwhelm Tara, and when that failed she died. As befitting her status and reputation, she meets her death bravely.
Having allowed Faith this measure of respect, Tara wastes no time. A leaping kick proves to be a decoy for a swipe on the landing, knocking the brunette's lets from beneath her. Faith falls backwards, arms flung upward to find a spike to brace herself against - one does, one misses, and spears itself through the wrist. Willow sees the drugs take effect, slow now that their dispenser has been damaged - the moment of agony on Faith's face, then the euphoria that masks it.
Tara is atop her, pushing down. In a desperate gambit, unwilling to accept inevitable defeat, Faith bends her legs beneath herself, freeing her good hand to reach for Tara's neck. The blonde allows it - Faith can't quite reach far enough to crush her windpipe, and can only close it. Tara's face remains benevolent as Faith tries to suffocate her, and her hands remain on Faith's shoulders, slowly pushing her down.
That slow descent is all the motion they give, for a long moment - that and the heaving of Faith's chest as she hyperventilates. Tara isn't breathing, content to wait out Faith's attempt to choke her. She is rewarded when Faith relents, and in childish spite digs her fingernails into the blonde's shoulder and cuts her. Tara, breathing deeply once more, glances quickly at the superficial wounds, then leaves one hand on Faith's shoulder, takes Faith's hand in her other, and calmly impales her forearm.
Faith cries - tears streak her face, washing away the traces of blood she spat up. Tara leans closer to her and whispers, and Willow, intimately familiar with her lips, reads the words, it's alright, don't be afraid.
The blonde shifts her grip, one hand around Faith's neck, the other palm flat on her forehead, as if giving a benediction. Faith stares up at her, lost in her eyes - perhaps seeing into them for the first time.
Her eyes close. Tara looks up, and finds Willow. They connect.
A quick, brutal shove. Bone breaks, flesh parts.
The drums fall silent.
Tara stands, still fixed on Willow. The body that had been Faith remains motionless, bent backwards, one spike through each forearm, and the last, driven through the base of her skull, glinting crimson between her full lips.
Willow gives the most imperceptible of sighs. Later there will be business to attend to. Faith's body to be treated, preserved against decay and added to Tara's garden at home, a statuesque monument to this moment. In its shadow, most likely, Tara will tenderly cut a shallow gash in Willow's thigh, and dig her nails into her shoulder, so that they wear their scars together.
Angelus is gone - Faith's master left once the result of her challenge became obvious. No doubt he will exact some revenge upon Willow's household, and more blood will be spilled than that of a single performer.
But in this moment, Willow and Tara have only one thought, one acknowledgement of their shared life, not we or us, but I - I am alive.