5th February 1778
To say that I have been deliriously happy over the past few weeks would be nothing short of an understatement. I have come to understand what being in love actually means and I would go as far to venture that most women of my class would not understand or indeed ever experience such a wondrous thing. I pity those poor creatures. While many of them spent this afternoon of Captain Van Helsing's birthday at Hagley Park entombed within the drawing room playing bridge, my W and I braved the still lingering winter chill to make our way to Hagley Park's secluded Grecian temple. Quite sheltered there from any prying eyes, we lost ourselves in each other's touch as we have been want to do so often over the past few weeks. I found myself drawn down onto W's lap as she sat with her back against one of the marble pillars, my skirts bunched scandalously high to reveal my white thighs in broad daylight. An unthinkable act for an unmarried woman and yet my W had seen so much more of me that I did not care.
Since that wondrous January night, we have grown bold in our meetings, perhaps too bold. It was proven that afternoon as W and I were ensconced in a lingering kiss. Our world where just the two of us existed was brought crashing in upon us with the sound of a small cough. In a flurry of skirts we separated and stood to find the dashing birthday boy staring up at us from the bottom of the steps. Captain Van Helsing bore not a look of disgusted horror, but rather one of gentle bemusement as we both checked our attire and hair. We had no sooner fixed our garments into place than a whole party of at least a dozen people came traipsing along the path, all young people of our own age who had no doubt sought to take in some of the scenery of Hagley Park even in the cold air. We smiled politely when they exclaimed over our flushed cheeks, thinking that we must be frozen in the winter air and that we should re-join them in the drawing room for a cup of tea to revive ourselves. I knew full well as W glanced over her shoulder when we descended the stairs that we both felt more than revived already.
We settled at the back of the party alongside W's gracious brother and I could not help but admire the young man for what he was. Ridiculously handsome and charming to be sure...but also very much a decent man.
"It was all I could do to outrun the pack and warn you both...I say the picture would have been far less pleasing to their eyes," Abraham nodded to the men and women striding ahead, all of them gossiping harpies and complete prats.
"And the picture was pleasing to your eye?" W snapped in a playful tone, "Abraham, if you indulged in gazing upon Miss Maclay's thighs..."
"I did nothing of the sort...I only meant pleasing in terms of seeing my sister happy and with someone who clearly loves her," he replied, keeping his voice down so that our conversation did not carry ahead to the rest of the group.
He then offered out an arm to each of us and we took it, W planting a small kiss on her brother's cheek. I could not help but wish that all people were of the same ilk as Abraham Van Helsing. Despite the frivolity of the moment and the amusement of our narrow escape, I could not help but dread the many possible endings of our little fairytale...almost all of them disastrously unhappy for W and I. This dread was heightened as Edward Walsh removed himself from the group ahead and politely offered to take me off Abraham's arm. I could do naught in the situation but graciously accept his proffered arm. I cast one desperate look back at W as Edward swept me away from her.
"We've missed your company for much of the day, Miss Maclay," he whispered in a too-sweet voice, "Whatever have you and W been doing all this time?"
My whole body was gripped with a spasm of fear as his fingers dug deep into my arm. I glanced up at his sickly smile and was terrified to think that he might see the truth in my eyes. Even now as I sit here and write these words I can lift the sleeve of my nightgown to reveal the bruises his fingers left on my flesh.
Willow sat up with a start and immediately regretted the sudden movement. She had fallen asleep on her desk with her neck craned at an awkward angle. Now as she straightened up she was instantly reminded that sitting in a chair at her desk was not the ideal sleeping position. She glanced out her tiny window to see that dawn was not far away, the first fingers of light creeping out across the tiny sliver of sky she could see. As she attempted to stretch out the rather painful crook in her neck, she remembered the dream that had kept her sleeping so deeply in her awkward position. Further evidence of this deep sleep was provided by the drool which covered the papers upon which her cheek had lain. As she picked them up to wipe it off with her handkerchief, her eyes fell upon the little diary. Without thinking too much about why she was doing so, Willow picked up the small volume and flicked through the pages to the next unread entry.
To say that I have been deliriously happy...
Even as Willow scanned the first few sentences she realised that she knew exactly what happened in the entry. From the Grecian temple, to the writer's white thighs (which caused Willow's heart to race) and the interruption of the two women's kissing...it was written exactly as it had played out in her dream and she realised that she had dreamt everything from the perspective of 'W.' She remembered the feel of the blonde woman's lips on her own. She lifted her fingertips and distinctly remembered the feel of the silky white skin on the woman's thighs. The one thing that was missing was the woman's face, try as she might, Willow could not remember what she looked like...only that she had been completely intoxicating.
Willow immediately set the little book down. As if events surrounding it had not be weird enough already, it managed to surprise her yet again. She eyed it for a few moments as though she expected it to speak to her before rising to her feet and turning to scan the heavily laden bookshelves behind her. She found the volume she had been thinking of and settled herself back in her chair with the book propped up on the desk.
When Faith arrived at work a good hour later that morning, she found Willow completely ensconced in the book, so much so that the red-head did not even look up when her friend entered her office.
Unperturbed by Willow's lack of greeting, Faith smiled broadly, "Ah, now that's a pretty sight. I've been coming in here lately to find you involved in odd pastimes like drawing...now you're back to reading, it's comforting."
Willow glanced up with surprise clearly registering on her face as she slammed the book shut, "Hello...errr, how long have you been there? Not long I hope because I was just doing some important research and was quite caught up...I'm sorry if I ignored you...reading and all, you know me..."
Faith made herself a perch on Willow's desk, something of a feat considering the amount of material that covered the desk. Willow reached out and snatched a few of her more valuable items before Faith sat on them and in doing so, she let the book in front of her slip from her grasp. Faith was quick to seize the volume up, flipping it over to read the cover before Willow could reach out and stop her.
"A Treatise on Reincarnation?" Faith read in an amused tone, "What are you planning on coming back as?"
Willow stood so she was in a better position to snatch the book back off Faith, once it was safely back in her hands she turned and deposited it back in its spot on the shelf as though she had no intention of reading further. She faced Faith with a thoughtful expression on her face.
"Not coming back so much as...already returned..." Willow began awkwardly; she paused before continuing, "Faith, do you believe in it at all...in reincarnation I mean. I've studied extensively and come across a lot of seemingly unexplainable things in my time here but I've never felt so strange about anything in my life...I honestly think I'm losing my mind and it's all because of that stupid diary you found. You know what; I think I'll blame you for bringing it back with you."
Faith arched her eyebrows, "You do sound odder than usual Willow...and not your customary scatty, intellectual oddness either...I think you need some fresh air...and what the hell is up with your hair, have you been sleeping on your desk again?"
Willow avoided answering Faith's question but she did reach up both hands and drag them through the tangled red strands on her head in a perfunctory manner. Faith just shook her head at the complete hopelessness of the woman standing in front of her as an amused smile played across her lips.
"Faith, will you come to Hampshire with me?" Willow asked suddenly.
The smile faded from Faith's lips and her brow furrowed as though she were trying to work out exactly what was going on in her friend's head, "Hampshire? Willow, why would I want to go to bloody Hampshire?"
Willow stood on the other side of her desk, leaning forward with both hands resting on the edge in an attempt to create a semblance of authority...of which of course she had none.
"Because this is important to the museum," she insisted.
"Important to the museum or important to you?" Faith asked in an accusatory tone.
Willow buckled slightly under Faith's tone but her answer was just as firm, "Okay, I need these answers for my own sanity...but I have a feeling that they go much wider. Someone needs me to get to the bottom of that diary and for that I need to go to Hampshire and get to the bottom of 'W Van Helsing,' there's something important here Faith, and I have the feeling it's going to affect us all."
Faith folded her arms and pursed her lips in a thoughtful manner, "You're not one to act an instincts Will...you act on facts, which is why I will come with you...you're acting so strangely I'm afraid you'll run off to Hampshire by yourself."
"I could," Willow insisted, lifting her chin defiantly, "There's nothing I should worry about in Hampshire anyway."
"Not ordinarily," Faith grinned, "But I'm sure you'll mange to find some element of trouble wherever you go...okay, when do we leave?"
Impatient to at least start unravelling the mystery, Willow dragged Faith to the train station that very morning. Both women travelled light with just a small bag between them and an innocuous looking case concealing a small arsenal of Faith's weapons. The journey into the heart of Hampshire was uneventful, Willow promptly buried herself in a book and Faith fell asleep before the train had even left London. She did not wake until Willow prodded her awake at their destination some hours later. The redhead was somewhat miffed to see that Faith sprang into action with her attire and hair as perfect as they had been when she boarded the train.
Thanks to the organisation's connections, there was a small two seated carriage drawn by a rather placid looking grey horse waiting for them when they alighted at the station. Faith glanced around, quite used to being in the middle of nowhere and turned to Willow who was struggling with a rather unwieldy map.
"Know where we're going?" she asked.
"I think so," was Willow's less than convincing reply as she squinted to try and read the map in the fast dimming light of early evening.
Faith groaned loudly as Willow moved towards the carriage without retrieving any of their luggage from the platform. The redhead did not look up from the map until the horse tethered to their carriage emitted a rather disgusted snort. She gave a sharp, surprised squeal, dropped the map and stumbled back a few steps to put more distance between herself and the horse which was eyeing her as though it wanted to take a bite out of her arm. As if sensing this, Willow folded her arms tightly across her chest and kept the horse in her sights (not that he was going anywhere).
"I take it I'll be driving then," Faith announced as she breezed past Willow and deposited their bags behind the seats, she then moved to stroke the horses' forehead as though to taunt Willow further.
Without taking her eyes off the horse, Willow clambered up into the carriage and seated herself stiffly on the padded seat. Faith mounted the carriage a few moments later and untied the reins. She glanced across at Willow and grinned contentedly before she urged the horse forward with an exuberantly loud cry of encouragement. Willow was thrown back against the seat as the horse sensed Faith's enthusiasm and obviously felt spurred to move as fast as possible. With Faith perched forward in the seat gripping the reins like someone possessed, Willow was forced to hang on for dear life.
Luckily for Willow the horse had slowed eventually and she managed to give Faith directions to the church in a barely tremulous voice, maintaining some semblance of dignity. When the carriage eventually clattered to a halt at the gates to the church ground, Willow glanced across at the church. It was unremarkable, just a tiny parish church like so many others that dotted the English landscape. There was a tiny steeple atop its slanted tile roof and narrow arched windows that pierced its walls. Both women climbed down from the carriage, Faith stopping long enough to open her weapons case and retrieve her favourite weapons, a sword and dagger which she belted around her waist.
The sun had almost disappeared completely as they picked their way through the small graveyard that surrounded the church, just a few fading rays illuminating their path.
"Two field trips in a week Will, you'll be ruining your reputation soon," Faith grinned across at Willow as she opened the heavy oak door, its hinges protested with a loud screech at being disturbed.
"For a good reason," Willow muttered, "You drag me off to a warehouse that's being staked out by a particularly nasty demon that I have to save you from...and then if I remember rightly two years before that you lured me to that house in Shepherd's Bush with the promise of an untouched library. There was no library and a whole family of violent, restless spirits!"
Faith shrugged, "It's good for you to get out."
Willow pulled a face behind Faith's back as she led the way inside. The air inside the church was heavy with age and musty with disuse. While it did not appear to be totally abandoned, its days of being full of worshipers were long behind it. Everything bore a thin layer of dust; no one had walked down the aisle nor sat on the pews for some time. Willow glanced down at her footprints in the dust and felt a chill run down her spine, suppose there was a good reason for the lack of parishioners? She felt icy cold fingers on the back of her neck and squealed loudly, her scream echoing around the vaulted ceiling.
"Will," it was Faith, a broad grin on her face, "We're in a church, we couldn't possibly be in any less danger...you know, you really ought to try going once in a while."
Willow frowned disbelievingly as her friend slipped past her towards the pulpit, "You go to church?"
"Of course," Faith glanced back over her shoulder, "With everything I see in my line of work...well, let's just say it gives me a sense of peace."
Willow stopped walking and studied Faith's back as she too stopped just in line with the front pew and stared up at the stained glass window. Willow glanced upwards too, grimy and dull though it was; it was still beautiful in the fading light. While Faith's words were definitely not an admission of weakness, it had still come as a surprise to Willow to realise that there was something she hadn't known about her friend. For a moment it caused her to take stock of how well she really knew the other woman and she was somewhat saddened to admit that she did not know her as well as she would have liked.
"Faith, I'm sorry..." she said quietly, hardly daring to disturb the other woman's brief peaceful respite.
She crossed the distance between them to Faith's side, feeling somewhat closer to her due to their physical proximity.
"What have you gone and done now?" was Faith's immediate response.
"I just meant I'm sorry for not being as good a friend as I could be...I mean, I watch you leave for dark destinations unknown and all I'm really interested in is whether you come back with books...it just seems a bit..."
"Shallow...single-minded?" Faith finished quickly but moments later she glanced across at Willow with an appreciative smile, "I like you just the way you are Willow, don't try and change for anyone."
"But..." Willow began.
Faith was quick to cut her off, "Enough with the sentimental stuff Willow or I'll start to worry that you do have a thing for me...haven't you got something you came here to do?"
Willow felt a hot flush creep into her cheeks and she nodded quickly, moving to a small stack of registers that were neatly placed in an alcove to one side. She ran her figures over their handsomely bound leather spines and was dismayed when she saw her fingertips blacken with a layer of dust. Withdrawing her handkerchief from her coat pocket, she spent a good minute dusting the half a dozen volumes until she was satisfied that she had discharged her self-imposed duty. After stuffing her dirty handkerchief back into her pocket, she selected a volume tucked in the middle of the shelf. Carrying it solemnly, she deposited it on the pulpit next to the worn bible.
"Better you than me," Faith quipped as she lent over Willow's shoulder to see the cramped rows of records, each one undecipherable to her untrained eye.
Willow pursed her lips thoughtfully as she scanned the dates of births and deaths recorded in the parish register, there were a good number of Van Helsings scattered throughout.
"Our dear friend Abe was born in 1754..." Willow whispered as she quickly scanned the dates, "Here he is, christened on 24th May 1754, Abraham Theodore Van Helsing, son of Pieter and Marianne..."
"Why so many Van Helsing's?" Faith reached out and traced her finger down the list; indeed, there were several more christenings for the same family.
Willow shrugged, "Infant mortality was high...sickly infants were christened as soon as possible..." she too ran her finger down the page and read out the entry each time she came to 'Van Helsing, "a daughter 15th October 1755, died four days later, son born and died 24th August 1757 , son born and died 5th January 1759, daughter born 6th October 1760...there's no date of death but no name either..."
"Is that strange?" Faith asked.
"Not really, it could simply be that she too was expected to die and they did not name her at the time of her christening...it appears though that she must have lived," Willow continued scanning downwards and directly beneath the entry for the unnamed daughter was another 'Van Helsing', "Marianne Van Helsing, died 6th October."
Beneath that entry were no further entries for Van Helsing until several pages later where 'Pieter Van Helsing' was listed as having passed away in 1775.
"So Abe had a sister?" Faith stated as Willow closed the heavy volume, "But without a name we can't even speculate whether she was the 'W Van Helsing' that deposited the diary?"
"Right," Willow replied, her gruff voice betraying her disappointment.
As they exited the church almost half an hour later, (Willow having paused to give the books another, more thorough dusting) Willow ran through the facts she'd stored in her head about the Van Helsings. She already knew as much as was written about Abe's professional life but the small snippets of his personal life she had gleamed added little overall. He had a sister and they were left orphaned when Abe had been a young man of 21 and his sister barely 15...still she knew the family had money so neither would have suffered for lack of options, Abraham for choices with his career and his sister for suitable marriage prospects.
"I'm sorry I dragged you all this way for almost nothing," Willow told Faith as they made their way through the church's small graveyard with only a weak moonlight to guide them back to the carriage, "If Giles hadn't been so insistent on my following up this lead I wouldn't have bothered...I cannot see any relevance to my Vlad Tepes research, if there was the smallest hint I would follow it up but..."
"It's okay you don't have to justify yourself to me, I know you Will, you'd sniff out any research trail...but I don't understand why Giles was so insistent?" Faith asked as she picked her way between the weathered headstones.
"I have no idea..." Willow began a split second before Faith's hand shot hand and grabbed her arm, sharp nails digging into her skin even through her jacket, "What the hell..."
Willow spun in Faith's grip and made to snatch her arm away but there was something on her friend's face that made her freeze. She watched as Faith's free hand moved to the hilt of her sword and gripped it with white knuckles.
"Will, get behind me," Faith hissed in a low voice.
When Faith used that tone Willow knew she should do exactly as told, she scrambled behind her and in doing so saw exactly what was between them and the carriage. She had an extremely unpleasant flashback to a dark warehouse and a stinking creature pinning her to the ground, gobs of salvia dripping over her face as a mouth full of barred fangs grinned down at her.
"Faith...it's a -it's a - it's a..." Willow stammered, unable to force the relevant words out.
"I know what it is you bloody idiot," Faith drew her sword in one swift stroke, the blade rasping against the scabbard in a familiar sound that meant business.
Willow's eyes did not leave the Atramen as it moved closer to the two women. It was almost identical to the one they faced in the warehouse although she had seen that one go up in flames. If anything though, this one was even larger with muscles rippling beneath its skin. As Faith moved in front of her, sword at the ready, Willow caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She felt weak at the knees when she turned to see a second spiky headed demon, its massive white eyes shining in the moonlight, huge grin barred as though it were laughing at them.
"Ah...Faith! There's two of them!" Willow squeaked as she reached out and grabbed Faith's arm, dragging her around to face the second Atramen which was approaching from the opposite direction. She made a mental note to amend her paper where she had stated that Atramen never worked in pairs...citing personal experience as her reference.
"Bloody hell," Faith hissed, her knuckles white on the hilts of her sword and dagger, "I don't suppose there's any point in saying I'll take this one if you get the other?"
"What?" Willow yelped, clutching at Faith's arm desperately, "What am I going to do to it? Bore it to death with the collected works of Aeschylus?"
"It'd work for me!" Faith hissed through gritted teeth, she was constantly moving and watching their foes despite Willow's awkward weight on her arm, "Here take this."
Willow found the hilt of Faith's dagger pressed into her hand; she glanced down at the foot long weapon, completely unaccustomed to its weight. She stared at it as one would stare at an unwanted appendage, "What am I supposed to do with this?"
"I should think it obvious," Faith was already occupied with the closest Atramen as it stalked her, poised to strike, "If they get anywhere near you, stick it into them!"
That was the only good advice Faith had to offer before the Atramen leapt directly towards her with all its astonishing speed and strength. She roughly shoved Willow to one side, safely out of the creature's path, even as she weaved beneath its strike. A clawed foot narrowly missed her head but she did not dwell on narrow escapes, instead spinning to face the Atramen as it landed. The creature did not pause for a second, its feet barely touched the ground before it darted to one side to avoid Faith's sword plunging into the middle of its back. Faith lunged forward, missing by a hair and the demon caught her extended wrist in a vice like grip. Her arm was twisted awkwardly but she managed to hold onto her sword and bring her elbow backwards to catch the creature sharply in the stomach. It merely grunted and did not release her from its hold, instead snaring her in an even more dangerous position as its other arm locked around her neck. Faith struggled even as the creature drew her backwards against its body. With a grunt of supreme effort torn from her throat, Faith lurched forward and threw the demon up over her back and crashing to the ground in front of her. With each breath coming short and fast, she too did not pause for an instant; with the creature on its back in front of her she changed her grip on her sword and plunged it downwards. The sword sank into nothing but earth as the Atramen rolled aside. A mere split second later it was standing once more and they began another round, each trying to catch the other off guard, each looking for an opening to tear a mortal wound in the other.
Faith's frantic bout with the Atramen had lasted mere seconds; meanwhile, Willow was rising from the damp grass where Faith's shove had sent her flying. Even as she rose to her feet, using a nearby headstone to steady herself, she saw the second Atramen slip behind a headstone of a huge winged angel. She watched for it to emerge from the other side but it did not, Willow risked a quick glance over her shoulder to see Faith grappling with her own foe. Even before she laid eyes on her friend, she knew she was alone. Her gaze jerked back to face the winged angel headstone, the serene gaze of the celestial creature seeming to mock her in her terror. She lifted the dagger so it was clearly visible out in front of her, hoping the demon would at least perceive her as something of a threat. Any hope of that was ruined by the manner in which the blade trembled violently as a result of the spasms of fear that gripped her entire body. The ridiculous situation did not escape Willow's attention; she was alone facing a powerful demon that Faith with all her skills and seeming fearlessness struggled to defeat. She clearly remembered setting alight the Atramen at the warehouse but despite the matches she had tucked safely in her pocket, there was no conveniently placed oil lamp to create a flammable missile. She half-heartedly wondered whether flinging individual matches at the creature would do any good.
Willow circled the grave where the Atramen lurked, all the while her own hoarse breaths drowned out the sound of the struggle going on behind her between Faith and the demon. It was taunting her, it knew full well how scared she was, it could probably smell her fear. Matters were not helped with a sharp cry of pain from behind her from Faith. Willow did not dare take her eyes off the demon in front of her. She knew the moment she did it would leap on her and tear her arms off with one savage pull. As much as she feared for her friend, she needed the use of her arms more. When the attack came it was as swift as Willow had expected but she was still not prepared for it. The demon's feet slammed into her chest and sent her flying back several metres, luckily landing on a patch of grass instead of a headstone. Even though she felt like her chest was about to collapse, Willow rolled just as a fist came crashing down into the earth where her head had been moments before. She scrambled to her feet as the agile creature leapt back into a standing position, snarling as she ducked behind a large stone cross. Rather than go around the stone to get to Willow, the Atramen simply smashed straight through it with one swing of its fist. Willow was showered with fragments of the cross as she scrambled backwards. She reached down and retrieved one of the larger fragments, hurling it at the demon's head with a grunt of effort. The stone found its mark, breaking off several of the spike's protruding from the demon's head. Even as it howled in pain, Willow darted forward, blood pounding with adrenalin, and made to plunge the dagger straight into its chest. She came close before her wrist was seized and twisted; the dagger fell from her grasp. Before she realised what was happening her throat was ensnared by a huge fist and her feet were off the ground. As she struggled for a breath, Willow's fingers frantically worked to release herself from the grip around her neck but it was vice-like. As she began to see spots at the edge of her vision, she found herself flying, thrown backwards by the creature. This time she did strike a headstone, it caught her across the back and she was in intense pain as she fell to the ground. Willow struggled to stand but an awkward crawl on her hands and knees was the most she could manage. She glanced upwards in time to see Faith in the distance as she fought. Willow's mouth opened in shock as she saw the Atramen move beneath her swinging sword and ram its outstretched clawed fingers into her side. She saw Faith fall like a sack of potatoes into an unmoving heap on the ground.
"Not good," Willow whispered, fingers digging into the earth beneath her as she struggled to find the strength to stand.
She heaved herself up and managed a groggy sort of stumble before she realised that both Atramen now had her as their sole target. Weapon-less and half-concussed, Willow watched them moved towards her, a pair of deadly demons poised to strike a final blow on the helpless researcher.
Even as Willow resisted the urge to squeeze her eyes shut and wait for the end, she felt her hair whipped about her face by a sudden gust of wind. Both Atramen froze as though they had seen something behind Willow in the darkness, if anything she thought they were afraid. Willow lost sight of them moments later as an even stronger gust of wind threw her back to the ground. With a grunt Willow hit the earth, wiping any last reserves of strength she had with impact. Even on the ground she was aware of another figure moving besides the two demons. As she struggled to lift her head, she caught glimpses of a dark shape moving to stand between herself and the demons.
"Cremo!" the ethereal shape yelled in a terrible, infuriated voice.
The voice rang deafeningly in a dazed Willow's ears. She glanced up at that moment to see a dark cloak billowing like mist around a shadowy figure. Blonde hair flew, rendered almost silver in the moonlight. The figure moved, seemingly a part of the night until a violent burst of light came from first one outstretched hand and then the other in rapid succession. Although the sudden intense light burnt Willow's eyes and the heat seared her skin, she could not tear her gaze away. The flying balls of fire slammed into both Atramen even as they made to flee. She stared transfixed as they fell to the ground between the headstones, writhing in agony, mouths bared in silent screams until all movement ceased and they were merely burning husks on the ground.
Willow's first instinct was to run but she found standing hard enough. Only with both hands gripping the headstone in front of her could she drag herself onto her feet. Even then she found her knees could hardly support her weight. Faith's dagger was lying several feet away but she no sooner could have dived for it than she could have made fireballs shoot out of her own hands. In fact, she could do absolutely nothing save stand on her shaking legs as the dark figure approached. It stepped into the weak firelight of the burning bodies and Willow's jaw dropped as she saw the pale fire illuminated in front of her. The fire cast a flickering glow onto the marble white skin of the woman who had haunted her dreams these past months. Her white blonde hair fell loose, down over her black riding cloak, the hood back and settled over her shoulders. Beneath the coat Willow could see a little of high collared black dress which swirled as she walked towards her. The strangest element of the whole picture was the tiny smile on her face, just the barest hint of a lopsided curve of her gorgeous lips. Lips that Willow lost herself in until they opened and the woman spoke.
"One wonders why you do not find a new line of work Willow Rosenberg; it would seem that you are not cut out for demon fighting," gone were the harsh tones in which she had utter the single word moments before, her voice was soft and melodious.
"Well this one wonders who the bloody heck you are!" Willow was quick to retort, her anger serving to mask her fear almost completely.
The blonde woman arched an eyebrow reproachfully and Willow instantly regretted her bad manners, whoever or whatever she was, this woman had saved her life for a second time and she deserved more than heated demands for answers...even though there were answers that Willow desperately wanted.
"Who I am is not important," she spoke softly as she moved, circling Willow while keeping her piercing gaze fixed on her, "You should be asking who she is."
She moved her gaze away from Willow, seemingly to gaze at a small marble headstone at her feet. Warily, Willow too circled around to stand so she could read the gravestone, all the while keeping a respectable distance between herself and the pale woman. She managed to drag her eyes away from her eerily beautiful visage to stare at the grave marker that commanded the woman's attention. The analyst in Willow immediately noted that where most headstones in the cemetery were heavily scarred by the ravages of time and weather, this particular marker could have been placed just yesterday. The words there were etched deeply in the white rock. Momentarily forgetting the woman that stood at her side, Willow was gripped by the sudden urge to be closer to the grave. She knelt on the well-tended grass and reached out to trace the words with her fingers as she read them aloud in an audibly trembling voice.
"W-Willow..." her voice choked on the word as though she had never uttered it before even though it was her own name, she swallowed before continuing, "Willow Van Helsing...born on the sixth of October 1760, died on the seventh of June 1785...tu fui, ego eris."
A soft voice spoke behind her to translate even though Willow knew exactly what it said, "What you are, I was. What I am, you will be."
A shiver crawled slowly up Willow's spine as she heard the translation, she did not know whether it was the words or the manner in which it was said that troubled her the most.
"We all die," Willow replied matter-of-factly as she straightened up and took a few steps backwards, away from the grave.
"Yes we do," the blonde woman turned to face Willow but kept her head turned to face the grave for a few moments longer, "But I think that you alone could interpret that particular inscription on that particular grave in a different way."
She eventually drew her gaze away from the stone and turned to face Willow, her expression betraying very little and certainly giving no hint as to what she meant with her cryptic words.
"What do you mean by that?" Willow demanded, once more forgetting that she had not even thanked the woman, "You can start by explaining everything...who you are for a start, why the hell you're following me around..."
"You did not come here to find those answers, the answers you are looking for lie at your feet...I thought you would realise their importance by how desperately he wants to keep you from them."
"Who's 'he'?" Willow felt as though she were sinking in quicksand, the harder she tried to get out, the deeper she sank, she turned her attention back to the grave and said in a frustrated voice, "It's the grave of Willow Van Helsing...although I cannot be certain, it would seem that she was the 'W. Van Helsing' who deposited the diary at Tirgsor, and the dates would seem to agree, she died in 1785, the same year as the diary was deposited."
As he voice trailed off, Willow's frustration seemed to ebb and her mind lingered over the dates etched on the headstone. She felt a cloak of sadness settle on her shoulders as she re-read them in her head.
"She was not yet 25 when she died," Willow whispered, thinking of her own 25 years and imagining them cut short for some unknown reason, "Do you know how she died?"
Willow tore her gaze away from the headstone and forced herself to meet the gaze of the strange woman that she still knew virtually nothing about. The fact that Willow suspected her to be a vampire lingered uneasily at the back of her mind and she still half expected the beautiful features to twist into savagery moments before ripping her throat out. However, it was hard to dwell on thoughts of this nature in the face of the woman's unearthly beauty and the barely suppressed desire Willow felt for her. She did not know whether to run screaming or throw herself in the woman's arms...vampire or not. When she searched the blue eyes, shining brightly in the moonlight, she found a detectable hint of sadness and knowledge which made Willow think that she did know the answer to her question. Her head tipped forward, blonde hair falling forward over her face. Willow did not know what to think, while her head told her this woman could be a dangerous demon, her heart told her she was a woman who lived and grieved.
"Do you know how Willow Van Helsing died?" Willow repeated in a soft voice and without any trace of her earlier anger and frustration.
"I do," was the quiet response, "And not a day has gone by that I do not wish to die for what I did..."
Willow frowned before asking, "You had a hand in it?"
The woman did not respond in any way, Willow could see no movement from her head that would indicate a confirmation or denial. Instead, almost a minute later she raised her head and gave Willow a long level look that seemed to bore a hole straight through to her soul.
"I do not think I should give you the answers you seek today Willow...just some advice, take what you have learnt here and dwell on it...in time, you will come to understand and realise how you fit into the puzzle."
"But I haven't learnt anything here...and what puzzle?" Willow asked urgently, she desperately wanted to stay with the woman, even if only to stand in silence with her, her proximity somehow felt natural, "At least tell me who you are and where I might find you again?"
"Will?" another voice sounded out in the darkness and Willow was instantly reminded of Faith, she had left her lying unconscious on the ground while she traded empty words with this cryptic and insufferable woman in front of her.
Willow spun to see Faith gingerly dragging herself to her feet almost a dozen feet away, while she wanted to run to her friend's side immediately, she also did not want to let the blonde woman out of her sight.
"I need those answers..." Willow begun to ask as she turned back after seeing Faith was standing on her own two feet...but her question was never finished as the woman was gone, "Bloody hell!"
"Willow?" Faith's voice was just over her shoulder now as she approached her from behind.
With a last desperate search of the scene in front of her, Willow turned back to Faith. She was genuinely relieved to find her friend seemingly okay...apart from her torn and bloody thigh, a dark stain coating the lower half of her torso and a series of bloody teeth marks in her neck. Willow reached out to support her as she swayed a little unsteadily from loss of blood.
"Faith?" Willow set her down gently atop a nearby headstone before taking off her jacket and immediately setting about ripping strips from the bottom of her shirt to use as bandages.
Faith winced as she lifted her leg for Willow to bind but said through gritted teeth, "It's just a flesh wound...nothing a few stitches won't fix...and I'm sure I could do with a few more scars."
"Sorry," Willow said as she heard a sharp intake of breath when she tied the strip of fabric off firmly, "What about your side...there's a lot of blood."
Faith reached down to lift up her own shirt and Willow could not help but utter her own gasp when she saw the deep, ragged gash in Faith's side. Blood was still flowing from the ugly wound and Willow moved quickly to staunch it before Faith lost any more...and she was also in a hurry to cover up the horrible sight lest she faint
"Sorry," Willow apologised weakly as she heard a full-throated groan this time.
"Just wrap the bloody thing up tightly!" Faith snapped, "I'll live as long as you don't faint...bloody hell Rosenberg...remind me never to go anywhere with you again!"
"Sorry...I didn't realise..."
"Stop saying you're sorry...and what happened anyway, last thing I remember those bastards were still roaming around, I may have sliced the arm off one but I'm sure he could've done enough damage...what did you do Willow?"
"Well..." Willow tied off the improvised bandage, knowing full well that she could hardly tell Faith a flame wielding woman, who she suspected was a vampire, had torched the two demons, "I don't know really, one minute they were here...the next they were gone...providence really, maybe they had somewhere better to be?"
"Providence indeed," Faith muttered grimly, "Hurry up and help me to my feet, that shit hole of a village we passed a mile back has to have a doctor of some sort...although I think you'll have to drive..."
"Are you sure you can't..." Willow began weakly as she glanced in the distance to where the grey horse was still tethered to their carriage, seemingly oblivious to the battle in the graveyard.
"Will, I'm at death's door here..." Faith muttered weakly.
"Okay," Willow nodded resolutely as she helped Faith to her feet, "He's a nice horse I'm sure...and it's not far to go...I can do this."
Even as Willow helped Faith from the cemetery, she risked one last glance back. All she saw was the squat little church surrounded by headstones, all seeming to shine in the moonlight. The blonde woman was wiped from her mind as she concentrated on getting help for Faith, if her friend lived, there would be plenty of time for her to dwell on what had taken place in the cemetery.
Willow did not glance upwards, if she had, she would have seen the shadowy figure crouched on the ridgepole of the church watching her still. A slight breeze had begun to kick up, Tara's cloak swirled around her body slightly and her hair stroked the tears that fell on her pale cheeks. It had been difficult to conceal the agony she felt at being so close to Willow, to be so close and not able to reach out and fold her into a fierce embrace had been nothing short of torture. She remembered catching a few strands of her vibrant red hair for a second as she knelt in front of the tombstone and glanced down now at the one strand of hair she still held. With a sigh, Tara let it fall from her fingers. It fell for a moment before being swept off into the darkness by the wind. Tara turned her attention back to the two figures below and watched until Willow had managed to coax the horses back towards the village. Then she was gone.