Abraham peered over the throng of theatre goers as he made his way to the exit. Although the intent had been to leave the theatre quickly, several young women were clustered around his companion, all talking animatedly in an effort to catch his eye. In amongst this, there was also much fan waving and fluttering of eye lashes. The young man tugged at his collar uncomfortably and stood on his tip toes as though he were searching for someone. A few moments later Abraham finally managed to gently push his way through the throng of admirers and extended his hand towards his hapless companion at the centre.
"Please excuse me ladies, but we have an engagement we cannot possibly be late for," he inclined his head towards each of the young ladies in turn before drawing the young man out of their circle.
The two men managed to make their way out of the theatre without further incident apart from one having to pluck several lace handkerchiefs from his person, bestowed on him by his admirers.
The taller of the two, Abraham Van Helsing snatched away one of the handkerchiefs as his companion held it held with a mild look of disgust on his face. He laughed lightly and tucked the finely worked fabric into his own breast pocket as though he had been the lucky man surrounded by admiring young women. His companion however was not a man, but rather his younger sister, Willow.
Throughout the three years since the Van Helsings had permanently moved to London and taken up their new occupation, Willow had donned men's clothing in public. She had very quickly discovered that wearing a pair of breeches and a jacket with a tricorne on her head was immensely more practical than going about town in a dress. As far as the gossips and old matrons were concerned, Willow Van Helsing had become a recluse after being jilted by a suitor and the young lad that accompanied Abraham almost everywhere was a cousin from the country. To save too much confusion however, his name was Will.
"I swear you attract almost twice as many admirers as I," Abraham watched as Willow stuffed a handful of handkerchiefs in the pocket of her coat.
Willow scowled, absently kicking at a loose cobble on the ground, "Well, I received several of what I think were thinly veiled marriage proposals and more than enough wandering hands...I thought young ladies were raised to be decorous and shy?"
"You've become quite a rake, Will," Abraham chuckled, "Who would have thought that you would make such a handsome boy?"
"Well, it's nights like tonight that I feel as though I should go home and pull on a dress, just to remind myself that it is not really me all those women want," Willow replied with an edge of bitterness to her voice.
The siblings were silent for a few blocks, walking through the darkness companionably until they turned into Gordon Square and Abraham finally manage to utter the comment that had been on his mind since the final curtain closed on the play. He glanced across at Willow, her skin pale in the cold night air, her breath misting in front of her.
"You know Will, the actress that portrayed Maria...I thought she resembled...well, a little at least, I thought she resembled..." Abraham paused, unable to say the women in question's name.
Willow knew exactly whom Abraham was referring to but she was spared having to answer immediately as they reached the heavy black door of their home. Abraham opened it for her and waiting just inside the door was their butler, Samuel, a man of indeterminate years with solid grey hair and youthful eyes.
"Good evening," he greeted his employers in his usual formal manner.
"Hello Sam," Abraham was quick to reply before turning his attention back to Willow, prodding gently, "She did look a little like her, didn't she?"
"A little perhaps...I did not dwell on the resemblance at the time," Willow replied smoothly, removing her hat and overcoat and practically throwing both in poor Samuel's arms.
Abraham paused in removing his own coat and spotted her reply for what it was...a lie. He had glanced across at her expression several times during the performance to see tears glistening in her eyes as she stared unwaveringly at the actress in Sherdian's The School for Scandal. It was very clear to him that watching the performance had been an exercise in torture for Willow. Even after three years had passed, Tara was still never far from her thoughts.
Although he should have known better, Abraham could not resist posing his next suggestion in an effort to rekindle Willow's non-existent love life, "You know, I am secure we could secure an introduction if you would like?"
"I do not wish to speak of it," Willow interrupted tersely, once she had managed to banish all thoughts of the look-alike she resumed her usual confident, mildly cheerful demeanour, "I know it is late, but I am not really tired...and with Christopher and Giles patrolling the streets tonight..."
"Willow, it is intended to be our night off," Abraham reminded her, "Even the amazing Van Helsing siblings could do with a full night's sleep every so often."
"I know...just...could we train though, even for half an hour or so?" Willow pleaded.
Abraham sighed with mock-suffering, "I am still carrying the bruises from our bout earlier today...but if it will help take your mind off things..."
"It will!" Willow clapped her hands as though she had secured a promise and was not about to let it go.
As she headed towards the library, Abraham paused and looked down at his attire, "You think we should at least change first?"
"No time!" Willow called over her shoulder, already disappearing through the door into the library.
Abraham rolled in his eyes in Samuel's direction but their butler merely shrugged as if he was hardly surprised and proceeded to hang Willow's things on the coat rack.
When Abraham joined Willow in the library she had already pulled forward the book that triggered the door to their training room. As they waited for a small section of the book shelves that lined the walls to slide backwards into a recess behind it, Abraham glanced around at the rest of the handsome oak shelves laden with all manner of finely bound texts.
"I swear the only reason we have a library is to camouflage this door...none of these books has ever actually been read, we could have just as easily made the door behind a fireplace, you know," he commented, knowing the lack of dust on the shelves was entirely due to Nancy's sterling efforts with a duster.
The shelf stopped moving and then with creaking hinges it swung backwards to reveal a set of polished wooden stairs leading downwards in a spiral. The staircase was lit by several lamps burning in brackets set into the wall. Willow moved down first, leaving Abraham to close the door behind them by giving one of the brackets a quick tug.
"I shall choose to ignore your comments about my lack of scholarly learning," Willow replied, her eager footsteps made loud thuds as she bounced down the stairs.
Abraham just grinned at his irrepressible younger sister, watching as she moved ahead of him down the spiralling staircase. They wound around the central pillar no less than three times before the staircase emerged in a particularly large room lit with an assortment of flickering lamps and candles, all faithfully lit by Samuel who had obviously instinctively known that Willow would want to train after returning from the play.
Unlike the house proper, all four walls of the room were undressed stone. It was made to seem even more spacious than it actually was by virtue of the fact that much of it was actually empty, with only padded canvas mats covering the wooden floor. Everything else in the room was pressed against the walls to leave as much room as possible. The wall to the left of the stairwell was laden with more books, although these were of the type that could not be left upstairs where guests might idly peruse them given that they were on topics that might be considered a little odd...vampires, demons and witchcraft...not exactly 'The Castle of Otranto' or 'Robinson Crusoe.' There was some evidence that these books were actually read as several were sitting on a table in front of the shelves, with some even lying open. On the wall directly opposite the bookshelves were several targets, obviously intended for use with a crossbow or anything else that could possibly be fired or thrown. In the centre of each target was a drawing of a fierce creature, while some were drawn with an amount of skill indicating that Willow had painted them, others were little more than crude caricatures, Abraham's work. All bore evidence of significant use, liberally punctured with holes and one even still had an axe buried in its centre.
In this particular night, Willow and Abraham did not head for the books or the targets; instead they were focused on the longest wall which was staring at them as they emerged from the staircase. Running the entire length of the wall were all manner of racks and shelves, each specially adapted to the object it held. There were several upright niches, each containing a metal breastplate. By far the largest amount of space was devoted to weapons racks holding almost anything that could shoot, slice or club a foe to death. Upright racks held both short and long-bore flintlock rifles while smaller racks held pistols, all of which had been specially adapted to fire silver balls as opposed to the standard lead. Several crossbows were housed next to the guns, most were of the lighter variety which were easy to wield in close quarters.
Abraham moved straight to the racks holding the swords; he fingered several of his favourites, from the sabre of his cavalry days to a light, flexible rapier which was often favoured for practise.
"What will you be requiring tonight?" Abraham perused the racks of weapons as one would a market stall looking for a ripe piece of fruit, "How about a rapier...or something a bit heavier? Or shall we forgo all these wonderfully pointy things and go hand to hand?"
"As much as I would like be reminded of a childhood spent being wrestled to the ground by my big brother, I think that I would prefer to have a rather large stick in my hands," Willow grinned as she stripped off her evening jacket and threw it with a flourish to one side, it fluttered and landed across the book laden table.
Abraham selected two wooden staffs, each about four feet long, from the rack and tossed one to his sister. Willow caught it deftly and twirled it between both hands before abruptly freezing in a fighting stance, her weight poised on the balls of her feet, staff levelled towards Abraham.
With a long-suffering sigh, Abraham faced off against her with none of the same showiness, he merely settled into position without fuss. His green eyes did not leave hers, waiting and watching for the first move. When it came it was lightning quick but that was to be expected from his sister, she moved as though the staff weighed absolutely nothing in her hands and her feet did not need to touch the ground. Knowing her as well as he did, Abraham knew that his sister was merely human and she had weaknesses as every fighter did.
Her first sweeping attack, bringing the staff around in a horizontal swipe aimed at his chest, had too much force behind it. It was something Willow was prone to do almost every time for a good reason, when you were fighting a demon, you wanted your first strike to be your last. Abraham deftly ducked the sweeping blow, feeling Willow's staff brush his hair as it passed overhead. As she overbalanced at the end of the swing he lunged forward with a jab that was intended to hit her square in the gut but she merely moved from overbalancing into a spin which saw the tip of Abraham's staff come into contact with nothing but air. Using her momentum, she spun completely about to come face to face with Abraham, when she brought the bottom of her staff upwards, he met it with his own. A resounding crack of wood reverberated around the chamber, its intensity indicating that neither sibling was interested in holding back.
Thus began a delicate but brutal dance across the padded mats, a combination of expert footwork and carefully timed strikes. The rapid crack-crack of staff upon staff continued to ring out as Willow and Abraham duelled, using every inch of the space available to them.
While Abraham clearly had the power, Willow was quick and agile, managing to dodge around Abraham's slower blows and dart in with strikes of her own. After receiving several quite painful jabs to his ribs and gut, Abraham decided that he would not hold back and pressed forward with his staff swinging. In blocking her brother's sweeps and thrusts, Willow was driven back towards the wall behind her. Before she could run out of space altogether and be forced to concede, Willow turned and, with barely a pause, ran up the wall behind her. She kicked off from the wall and somersaulted over Abraham's head. While he was already turning when she landed behind him on light feet, he was not fast enough and she was able to deliver several rib cracking blows before finally humiliating him completely by sweeping his feet out from beneath him. Abraham crashed to the mats in a tangle with his staff.
Although her brother was down, Willow planted the heel of her boot in his chest as he tried to rise. With a grunt Abraham fell flat against the floor. A small grin broke out on Willow's face at her rather conclusive victory and she stepped back, indicating that he could haul himself to his feet without receiving further blows.
As soon as the bout was over, Willow's previously clear mind became busy once more, busy with recollections from earlier that evening. She had lied to her brother, the actress in 'The School for Scoundrels' had indeed born more than a passing resemblance to Tara...and she had done nothing other than dwell on her all evening...even when she had been surrounded by the simpering fools vying for her attention.
As he rose to his feet Abraham could see that although Willow was standing just in front of him, she was actually somewhere else. Her eyes were glazed as she stared at some indeterminable spot, not seeing the walls of the chamber at all. There was a tiny crease just between her eyes as though she were struggling with something in her mind.
"I'm sorry, I was just gone for a moment," Willow tossed her staff in the direction of the racks and it clattered to the floor, she was wiping the sweat from her brow when she turned back to face Abraham, "It has been only three years, almost four since I last saw her and the passage of time is already ravaging my memories of her."
"I am sorry," Abraham replied genuinely, "But people forget...even the ones they love the most, it does not mean we loved them any less...just perhaps that it is time to move on..."
"I do not wish to forget!" Willow interrupted a fierce whisper, "She was so exceptionally kind and good...so beautiful and I loved her...I love her still, Abraham, and the passing years are not diminishing my pain, only increasing it as I forget. I cannot remember her scent when I pressed my nose close to her skin...only that I think that it was the most wonderful scent I had ever known...I cannot remember the taste of her lips and her flesh, I know only that they were sweet."
Willow felt the dreaded tears burn at her eyeballs but she set her lips stoically, she did not wish to cry. Crying was a luxury that belonged to the past; she had a new life now and a new purpose. There was no place for tears in the life of a demon hunter.
"Yet overriding all of that...all my actual memories of her is the awful thought that something that has her body, her memories, is still out there," Willow said it in a whisper as though she hardly even wanted to admit it to herself, "I've spent three years killing vampires...and every night I go out, every shape I see in the darkness, I expect to see the thing that looks like her."
"You're scared that you will not be able to destroy it?" Abraham asked, turning his back on Willow and crossing to the racks so she could not see the uneasy expression on his face.
Abraham replaced his own staff and then retrieved Willow's fallen one, when he turned around she was still standing in the same spot with an anguished expression on her face.
"Yes," Willow whispered, "And no...mostly I worry that if I do see the demon then that image will completely and irreversibly replace all those I have of Tara, and she will be gone for good."
Abraham could not deny that Willow's fear made sense, he could think of nothing to say except the truly banal, "You may never see the demon."
While Willow had often hoped that would be the case, she knew in her very bones that it would be foolish indeed to believe it would be true. There were other forces at work in her life, forces which she did not understand but she knew them to be influencing the way she lived her life, the choices she made...and ultimately those forces would bring her into contact with the demon she feared above all others.
She did not tell Abraham this; it would only cause him to worry. Instead Willow made a mental note to broach the subject with Giles when she felt ready. The old gentleman seemed to have an answer for everything...even if she sometimes could not stand his regimented routine and constant pressure to keep learning about her foe. Willow had never wanted to read books...all she wanted to do was kill demons.
While Willow had been engaged in thought, Abraham had returned to stand close to her, he reached out and cupped her cheek, "Close your eyes, Will."
To humour her brother, Willow sighed and slowly slid her eyelids closed over her burning eyeballs. The ensuing darkness was empty and barren, just like her dreams of late. The only thing that kept her from opening her eyes as quickly as she closed them was the reassuring contact of Abraham's calloused palm and fingers.
"She's still there. Dig a little and push aside the last three years as though they never happened...remember Hagley Park, the Grecian summerhouse in the grounds...and how you loved it so. I knew whenever I couldn't find you; you would be with Tara in that summer house..."
"We sought privacy for a very good reason," Willow added, cheeks colouring as she remembered the day Abraham had interrupted them.
"Because you loved her...and more than anything in the world you wanted to be alone with her, this beautiful woman whose face fills your thoughts..."
Abraham's voice was immensely soothing and Willow found herself slipping back to the hours she had spent with Tara in that summerhouse. They reclined in the shade, cut off from the world by the boughs of leafy green trees that surrounded them. She remembered holding Tara close against her body, as though wrapping her arms as tightly as possible would be enough to keep them together no matter what. Tara was laughing in response to a comment Willow had made, her entire body shaking with mirth in Willow's arms. When Willow opened her eyes she realised that she was smiling.
"Much better," Abraham nodded, satisfied with his efforts, he withdrew his hand and stretched his entire body in a catlike movement, "I think you've managed to exhaust me yet again, my pillow is calling me."
"It is late," Willow replied, although she still strangely did not feel tired.
Willow followed her brother upstairs, passing back through the bookcase and absently closing it behind her. They continued upstairs to the second floor where Willow stopped just outside her door with the smile on her face growing slightly wider.
"White roses," Willow whispered.
Abraham paused at the door to his own room, "What was that, Will?"
A small smiled crossed Willow's face as she met his gaze, "She smelt like white roses."
As Willow slept that night, her dreams returned and she dreamt of those same white roses. In her dream she held one in her hand, a single bloom with its petals only just unfolding from their bud-like state...
Willow brought the rose up to her nose and inhaled, letting the intoxicating scent invigorate her entire body, she felt the smooth petals tickle her nostrils and she laughed lightly. She turned to the naked body laid out beside her and began trailing the rose over the pale stomach. Its owner gasped as it tickled, Willow glanced up to the woman's face and her smile broadened.
Splayed back against the pillows, Tara watched as her lover trailed the rose over her naked body, teasingly circling both mounds of her breasts before concentrating on her pink nipple. She watched the redhead move over her body, her own flesh naked and pale in the dim light of the room.
As Willow brushed one of Tara's nipples lightly with the flower she could see it engorge and harden. She could not resist ducking her head to take the generous parcel of flesh into her mouth. Above her, she heard Tara let out a breathy moan and intensified her efforts, working over the budding nipple until it was angry and red. She then followed the same path that the flower had traced earlier, down over Tara's stomach, past her navel and to the apex of Tara's thighs.
Willow tossed the flower to on side; it was forgotten as she found the real scent she sought, deep, mysterious and musky. She inhaled once again, although this time it was the golden hairs covering Tara's mound which tickled her nostrils and this time she did not laugh. Instead she used gentle fingers to spread open the folds of Tara's sex, the aroma hit her with its intensity and she felt almost giddy as she dipped down to finally taste her.
"No, Will," Tara whispered quietly, sitting up so she could reach out and take Willow by the chin, drawing her away from her goal. A frustrated Willow returned her calm gaze, searching for answers in Tara's stare as she continued speaking, "You cannot...you need to move on with your life."
"I am moving on with my life!" Willow protested, her annoyance giving way to anger as Tara continued to hold her at bay, "I kill demons for a living...and I am bloody good at it"
"That's not what I meant, Willow, and you know it," Tara replied sadly, "Your feelings for me are still holding you back from all that you can be in this life...someone as passionate as you are needs to be able to love again."
"But I love you," Willow nuzzled against Tara's hand which now cupped her cheek.
"I know you do, darling...but a dream cannot give you what you need."
"Okay, are you really telling me this...or is this just my sex starved subconscious?" Willow commented dubiously, she was positive that dreams were supposed to at least grant the fulfilment of some of your desires...not deny you outright.
"Do you really need there to be a difference?" Tara answered Willow's question with a cryptic one of her own, "The message is the same either way...you need to live your life."
Willow was adamant in her final reply, "There will never be anyone else for me...not ever."
When Willow woke there was no moment of groggy disorientation as she shook off the bonds of sleep. Instead she immediately rose and swung her legs over the side of the bed. When she stood she felt the cool temperature hit her naked body but she did not rush to cover herself with clothes. She padded across the floor to her large mirror and examined the reflection she found there. As often as she had seen her own reflection as she arranged her hair or attended to other matters of her toilet, she had never really stopped to examine the changes that the past few years had brought about in her body. Although she had been naturally blessed with creamy pale skin, she was even whiter now as a result of sleeping during the day...just like her prey. The freckles that had for so long covered the bridge of her nose had faded into nothingness. The lack of colour in her skin made her green eyes and vibrant red hair stand out all the more. Willow ran her fingers through the strands, where once they had been long enough to reach the small of her back, they were no cropped just above her shoulders like a man's. Her hair could be clubbed back out of her way with little fuss.
The biggest changes however, had taken place with her body. While Willow had been an active young lady, there had always been a comfortable, well-rounded feel about her hips and thighs, desirable features in a well-bred young lady of course. Any trace of that had now disappeared as Willow ran her hands over her taut stomach and down over her lean flanks. When she flexed her arm the well-toned muscles rippled beneath her skin in a menacing fashion, as though hinting at the danger that could be unleashed.
Despite all the changes that had taken place, Willow was still very much a woman and the dream had brought that little fact screaming to the forefront of her mind. As she ran her hands over her erect nipples, she wondered why her subconscious had suddenly decided to remind her of her physical needs and the fact that she had not shared her bed with another woman since Tara. Willow sighed and quickly moved to cover herself up instead of moodily dwelling on a fact which she did not want to have to address.
The clothes she pulled on had changed somewhat over the years too as she had developed and refined a costume in response to the requirements involved in her line of work. The breeches she pulled on were black-dyed doe skin, being warm for the cold night air but suppler than the leather preferred by Christopher Croft. They fit her legs closely, leaving little fabric to be snagged as she climbed walls or moved through forest. The black boots she pulled on up over the breeches were of the finest leather and reached just below her knees. She then tugged on one of her many black shirts, it lacked the full sleeves that were in fashion as Willow had quickly realised that too much fabric on the arms hindered the free flowing movement necessary to stay alive when duelling with a demon. Atop this she fastened a breastplate and a smaller backplate that had been moulded perfectly to fit her shape, their black lacquer coatings pitted and scratched with the scars of countless duels. Around her waist she strapped her sword and daggers, weapons which had become as familiar as her own two arms. The London Streets in December were bitingly cold, so she tugged on a thick leather coat, lined with black sable it was warm without being heavy. Intricate black embroidery trailed down the coat, from its high neck that brushed against her jawline, down over the lapels and to the hem. The pockets sewn into the lining of her coat could contain all the additional tricks of the trade, stakes, spare bolts when she carried a crossbow and any number of Giles' little inventions - the exploding fire bomb being her favourite. Finally she pulled on a pair of leather gloves that would kept her grip sure even in the winter air.
Willow wasted no time in checking her outfit in the mirror before she headed out into the night air, choosing to use her window as an exit rather than risk disturbing Abraham. She clambered over the sill and down onto the ledge from where she could safely drop to the ground below. Her booted feet hit without a sound and she was running off into the night without a pause.
Trouble never took long to find Willow Van Helsing, possibly because she always sought out the darkest streets, the most notorious demon haunts where even a lowlife would not venture once sun had set. Her reputation amongst the creatures of the night had grown to the point that only the newest or the stupidest actually threatened her as though she were potential prey, the rest had learnt not to be so bold when it came to viewing Willow Van Helsing as a potential meal.
The vampire that found Willow on this particular evening was a combination of both new and stupid...and also drunk, if the half empty bottle in his hand was anything to go by. As he approached on bandy, unsteady legs, Willow idly wondered if it were even possible for vampires to become intoxicated.
"You might want to put that bottle down, demon!" Willow threw back the folds of her coat so he could see the hilts of her sword and dagger, "It would be unsporting if you were disadvantaged in any way."
The vampire scowled and answered Willow by dashing the base of his bottle against the wall behind him; it shattered to leave him holding its neck like a jagged weapon. He jabbed it towards Willow who easily avoided it and every single desperate swing or jab that followed. She was growing a little bored when her foot suddenly slipped on a pile of rotting garbage beneath her. Although she did not fall to the ground, she was caught off guard for just a moment. It was long enough for the vampire to strike. Willow had little time to move as the bottle swept towards her throat. She managed to duck but she was not quite fast enough, rather than pass harmlessly over her head, a jagged edge of glass sliced into her forehead.
The vampire cackled jubilantly but could not take advantage of his wounding Willow; he realised seconds later that he had merely angered her and hastened his demise. As Willow drew her silver sword, he dashed the bottle to the ground and pointed a trembling finger in her direction.
"Your vampire slaying days are almost at an end, human!" he spat.
"Oh, pray tell me why is that?" Willow arched an eyebrow, hardly worried.
"You can kill two or three of us at a time..."
"Try ten!" Willow growled.
The vampire merely cackled once again, "Try thousands!"
Willow paused, her eyes narrowed, "What do you mean by thousands you slimy little blood rat?"
"It's upon us!" the vampire seemed so immensely pleased that he was practically dancing on the spot, his wiry legs doing an awkward jig, "The Covasna Resurrection...our master has found it and he will again reclaim his power!"
Willow immediately recognised the word 'Covasna' but she could not remember from. She sighed when she realised it was probably from her reading...she could already hear Giles saying 'I told you so.' Surging forward, she swept the vampire back against the wall behind it and held her sword to its throat.
"I never thought that I would say this to a demon," Willow muttered to herself before demanding, "Continue talking!"
"What are you going to do if I talk?" the vampire inquired, Willow's sword already started to dig into his dead flesh, "Spare me?"
"Don't be bloody stupid," Willow growled, "I'll chop your head off faster."
Even as she said it Willow groaned inwardly, she knew she was not cut out for interrogating demons and her lack of experience at doing it showed. She preferred the hunt and the kill and left all other business up to Christopher and Abraham. Seeing as she was not about to get anything out of a creature that she would never ever spare, Willow pressed her razor sharp blade forward. Slowly but surely, the blade sliced through skin, muscle and bone as the vampire writhed in her grip. Before her blade had passed all the way through the creature's neck, it exploded into dust, showering Willow from head to toe.
"Great!" Willow spat out a mouthful of foul tasting grit and glanced down to see her favourite coat covered in a layer of dust.
She did not linger looking for more prey, instead she turned and began the long trek towards Montagu House even as blood trickled down the side of her face. Something told her that she needed to consult Giles as soon as possible.
"I don't usually take notice of their manic ravings," Willow paused to blow gently on her tea; Giles had made it too hot. "But this one had such fervour in his eyes it almost scared...well, not quite scared, it worried me. Do you have any idea what he was referring to with the 'Covasna Resurrection?' It is familiar but I cannot place it..."
Willow had returned from her hunt and proceeded directly to Montagu House where she had woken Giles from his short slumber. He had not long been home after patrolling the streets with Christopher. Far from being annoyed, the librarian had simply pulled on a robe, made tea for them both and was now perched alertly on the corner of his desk in his office. Willow was still running on adrenaline from her hunt, she paced the floor and constantly kept twirling her dagger in her fingers.
Yes, Willow," Giles replied with a grave sigh, "I do indeed know what he is referring to and if this proves to be more than ideal underworld gossip, then I fear that we may be about to face the greatest challenge this small organisation has ever known...and stop looking so hopeful...this is not a game, it is a challenge which may very well see all of us dead."
Despite Giles warning, Willow continued to wear an expression that was not unlike that of a cat that had learnt the location of a very large barrel of cream, "So this Covasna thing...what is it?"
"It is not a 'thing' Willow, it is a place...once upon a time it was completely unknown, an untouched wilderness, now however it is a particularly evil spot where I would not care to venture again."
Giles crossed to the shelves holding the over-sized books in his collection and withdrew an exceptionally large volume which he almost seemed to have difficultly in lifting. He deposited it on his desk with a loud thud, rattling everything else on it. Willow finally ceased her pacing and stood on the other side of the desk, watching as he turned massive pages covered in maps of Europe. He finally stopped on a particular page and stabbed his finger on a small plateau high in a mountainous region of Transylvania, a principality of Austria.
"Covasna?" Willow asked, seeing no name marked on the map, as Giles nodded she studied the map harder, a small frown marring her features, "The name is familiar to me...why is that?"
Giles rolled his eyes, "If you had read 'An account of the life of Vlad Tepes' as I instructed you..."
"I did read it!" Willow interrupted suddenly, in her excitement she stabbed her dagger downwards into Giles's desk where it stood embedded in the wood, "Covasna...there was an enormous battle there...his last army was defeated there by a German Prince in 1476..."
Giles was so surprised he ignored Willow's defilement of his desk, "How is it that you remember the date?"
Willow shrugged with a teasing smile, "I am not as stupid as I look."
"I am very well aware of that, Willow," Giles sighed dramatically, "You could be a brilliant scholar if only you put your mind to it."
"Well, I prefer killing things with pointy objects," Willow announced decisively, "Anyway, back to this place...Covasna. So Dracula was defeated, his once blood-thirsty army slaughtered...I remember thinking the book was a little light on detail about that particularly event."
"For good reason," Giles continued, "Dracula did not possess just an army; he possessed an army that could not be defeated..."
"But the book said..."
"Yes, he was eventually defeated...but only because a powerful warlock discovered the secret at great personal cost, it was he who went to this German Prince and convinced him that the army could be defeated if Dracula's captain was killed...you see the captain was the key, Dracula had used him to bind the whole army together, into one unstoppable force that ravaged the land for years...the men in that army could be wounded with ordinarily fatal blows but they would continue to fight...severed limbs grew back, men fought without heads..."
"Great!" Willow interjected enthusiastically.
"It wasn't so great for those who were killed," Giles continued solemnly.
Willow immediately wiped the expression from her face, "So someone killed the captain?"
"Yes," Giles nodded, 'The Prince, one of the bravest and most just men that has ever walked the face of the Earth, Conrad the Bold...he severed the captain's head following an epic duel during which he pushed himself beyond the limits of exhaustion. Even with their captain's death, the Wallachian army fought on for three days until the last of them were slaughtered. The warlock had the prince take the severed head of the captain back with him to Germany, firstly so that the populace could see that Vlad's reign of terror was well and truly over...and secondly because he knew that if Dracula ever managed to reunite the head with the body, the captain and his army would rise anew from the dust of Covasna. He tried to regain it of course...until the warlock finally took it to the ends of the earth...where it has remained for over three hundred years."
Willow was momentarily struck speechless, that was at least until he brain process all the information Giles had just related. She immediately frowned as she came to her conclusion, "So...the resurrection of which that toady spoke this evening...he meant that Dracula had found the skull and was going resurrect his army?"
"I do not see how he could possibly have found the skull...perhaps he has not and is merely attempting to draw its location out into the open...even so, I cannot take the change that it will fall into his hands. I must confirm for myself that the skull is as safe as it was the day I last saw it."
Willow was once again struck speechless, this time for almost a full minute as her mind chewed over this latest startling revelation. She looked back and forth between the map and Giles, studying his face for the slightest hint that he was jesting with her.
"Giles...this battle was fought in 1476...I do not see how it would be possible..."
"I am indeed the warlock of the tale, Willow," Giles nodded serenely, smiling slightly at her rather desperate attempt to understand the secret he had just revealed to her, "I was younger then, just as handsome of course...but now I am over four hundred years old...my longevity a side effect of the power I wield."
"But Giles, I've known you for three years and I have never seen you perform an act of magic," Willow raised her eyebrows hopefully as though Giles might show her something.
"Willow, magic must never ever be used for trivial matters...each expenditure comes at great personal cost...even so..."
Giles lifted his hand to the gash just above Willow's eyebrow. Willow winced at the gentle contact on the open wound but seconds later she felt her skin grow suddenly taut and hot. When Giles let his hand fall, the stinging pain was gone. She touched her forehead and felt nothing but smooth, unblemished skin there. Even as she stared incredulously at Giles, he appeared to be distracted already, his mind elsewhere.
"Do you suffer from sea sickness, Willow?" Giles enquired suddenly, he plucked Willow's dagger from his desk and held it towards her, hilt first.
Willow withdrew her hand from feeling the skin at her forehead and reclaimed her dagger. She slid it back into the sheath at her side.
"I think not...although of course to date I have only ever sailed across the channel," Willow replied, pleased that she could now frown without pain, "Why?"
"Because you and I, are going to Nippon."