"Have you warned your student about the folly of reckless behaviour?" Kenji Nakamura asked Giles in a disapproving tone as he watched Willow march towards the circle of black figures.
"Constantly," Giles muttered through gritted teeth as he moved forward to follow his student before she could be surrounded completely by the hostile force.
Ahead of them both, Willow heard nothing of their disapproving words as she continued towards the men. Their violent intentions were confirmed a split second later when, with a blood-thirsty cry, the one directly opposite her launched himself forward. Willow reacted swiftly to his sudden attack so his blade passed above her head as she dived beneath him. She threw herself forward, passing by his body in a diving roll. She hit the ground somewhere just behind him, rolled and stood in one swift movement. If Willow had remained in that same spot for a split second, she would have received a blade straight through her chest but she sensed the warrior behind her recover quickly from his first miss. He had reached the end of his swing and was already spinning, bringing his katana around to thrust it forward. Willow leapt into the air and thrust her feet forwards; the soles of her boots hit the trunk just in front of her at precisely the same moment as the thrusting blade. The point dug into the bark and before its owner could wrench it out, Willow's sword came slashing downwards as her feet returned to the ground. He collapsed with a spray of blood from where his skull had been split open.
Although the duel had been brief, in that short time the rest of Willow's companions had moved to engage their attackers and the small clearing rang out with the sounds of steel upon steel and all the associated cries of combat. Willow had no time to rest on her small victory as already another opponent was moving to take the first man's place. She had expected nothing less and already her body and blade were moving in response to his swings and thrusts.
Willow's grief of the previous day was forgotten as she lost herself to something she could actually understand...violence. A few times during the ensuing melee she lost her concentration, all were moments when she turned to seek out Ayako, needing to confirm that the other woman could hold her own in the fight. Each time Willow found her she was magnificent, matching a black clad warrior's blade perfectly, her strokes even more graceful and deadly than they had been in their practice bout the previous evening.
When one loss of concentration almost resulted in her being gutted by a waikizashi, Willow realised that she could not afford such lapses in the face of the dark-clad warriors. She knew that they possessed skill comparable to that which Kenji and Ayako had displayed the previous evening and it would therefore take every ounce of her own skill and cunning to stay clear of their blades.
Willow faced off against her opponent, giving the black clad warrior nothing short of her full attention. It unnerved her that she could see nothing of his face besides his eyes and they were dark and unflinching. She was momentarily thrown off balance as Kyuzo came crashing between them, grappling with his own opponent. The man opposite her used the opportunity to strike, and Willow was forced to defend herself hastily.
As she moved backwards she caught sight of Kenji from the corner of her eye. Ayako's father was felled by a vicious blow to his head. She gritted her teeth and knew that it was impossible to go to his aid given that the whirling, slashing figure in front of her was intent on plunging his blade into her stomach or dying in the process. However, he did not reckon on Willow's determination, as difficult as the past years of her life had been, the memory of Ayako's beaming smile in response to her awkward proposal filled her with hope...the sort of hope she had not felt for some time.
"I should like that too, Willow-san...very much," the memory of Ayako's quiet words filled Willow's mind and she recovered swiftly, no longer content with defensively blocking her opponents swipes and thrusts.
She pressed forward, her own blade spinning in front of her, her rate of strokes far faster than those of her opponent. Her speed left him dazed and desperate, badly mis-timing his own sword work until he slipped past her following one particularly poor swing. Willow lashed out with her boot and delivered a kick to the small of his back which sent him stumbling forward and further off balance. With a guttural cry, Willow brought the sword downwards in a fierce slashing motion across the man's back. He cried out in pain and sank straight to his knees in front of her. Willow strode past the kneeling man, leaving her own back exposed in front of him even as he struggled to retain his grip on his sword and haul himself to his feet. Before he could do so, Willow spun her sword into a reverse grip and rammed it backwards, past her own body and straight into the chest of her opponent. She released her grip on the hilt and turned, drawing no satisfaction from the sight of her sword protruding from the dark warrior's chest. Reclaiming her grip, she withdrew the blade in one quick movement.
As he crumpled to his knees, eyes already glazing over in death, Willow finally turned to survey the clearing. The earth was littered with black clad bodies, their limbs splayed at awkward angles in death or moving feebly as their lifeblood poured onto the soil beneath them. She watched as Gorobei plunged his katana downwards to end the suffering of one. His brother Kyuzo sat crumpled on the ground, clutching at a wound to his thigh. Giles was still standing, albeit barely. Her mentor was slumped against a tree, his face pale and his chest heaving with exertion. Although Willow had seen no evidence of it herself, she suspected that he had woven some sort of magic to bring an end to some of their foes. She could indeed see two men tangled unnaturally high in the branches of a tree. Upon closer inspection she saw that the branches were thrust through the flesh of their limbs and torsos. Kenji Nakamura was struggling to pull himself to his feet using his nodachi as a prop, blood coating the side of his face from a head wound.
However, nowhere could Willow see Ayako, she scoured the clearing with her eyes for the raven-haired woman but she was not there. Still holding her sword in one bloody hand, Willow started moving in a wide circle, searching the surrounding forest. She grew increasingly anxious by the second, especially as Ayako did not return her urgent shouts.
"Ayako!" Willow could hear the fear in her own voice, she spun and surveyed her companions, all were now looking towards her, "Has anyone seen her?"
Now Kenji realised his daughter was missing and he too wore a look of concern much the same as Willow. Although all five of them searched for her, it was Willow who found her first. The Japanese girl lay on her back a short way into the forest, propped up slightly by a tree root at her back. Even as Willow scrambled to her side, she could see the dampness covering the front of Ayako's blue kimono. Lying less than a metre from her was the limp form of one of their attackers, the point of Ayako's waikizashi protruding from the middle of his back.
As Willow drew closer a small cry escaped her throat at the sight of the wound. Ayako's torso had been sliced open diagonally, from shoulder to stomach; it was nothing short of a miracle that the girl still breathed.
She breathed, and her eyes were open and focused on Willow.
Willow finally let her bloody sword fall to the earth as she collapsed to the ground at Ayako's side, already struggling to tear strips from the clothing she wore in order to create makeshift bandages to staunch the flow of blood from Ayako's terrible wound. Even as she was struggling to tear the fabric, the Japanese girl laid a bloody hand atop her own.
Following those short words, Ayako closed her eyes, as though it had taxed her greatly to say them. Willow panicked, thinking she was dead, until the hand holding the hilt of her katana moved towards her with small, jerky movements.
"Ayako..." Willow whispered.
"Take it," she whispered.
Willow gently received the bloody katana from Ayako's limp hand, feeling as though she should be doing something to help her instead of mutely kneeling by her side.
Ayako's eyes opened once more and she was able to lift her hand to Willow's cheek. Her fingers were already cold but there was a small smile on her face.
"I should have protected you," Willow had to admit brokenly.
"Do not think that!" Ayako whispered fiercely, "I know I fought well...it is a good death,"
Willow struggled to maintain her emotions and hold back the words she truly wished to say, No death is a good death, "I have never known anyone braver."
"I love you," Ayako's words were even less than a whisper, spoken as her hand fell from Willow's cheek limply to her side and her eyes slid closed.
Hot tears burned Willow's eyes and a sob lay trapped in her throat as she watched Ayako's chest rise and fall. She did not repeat the motion again, having breathed her last. Willow bowed her head; it was too late for her to say those simple words for Ayako to hear even though she knew in her heart that she had loved her as much as her heart would allow her to.
No longer able to stand the sight of the Japanese woman's ruined body, Willow awkwardly scrambled backwards just as she heard Kenji's anguished cries somewhere just behind her. She sat at a distance and watched through her tears as he collapsed beside the body of his daughter. Willow felt strong arms lifting her, dragging her to her feet and gently turning her around. She was facing Giles and he was speaking but she could not make out his words. Without replying she pressed the bloody katana she held into one of his hands and wrenched away from him. She stumbled into the forest, desperately needing to put all the blood and death behind her, if only for a short time.
As physically and mentally exhausted as they were, Giles and Willow could allow no time to rest upon their return from Aokigahara. The Van Amstel's captain had already delayed his departure by several days in order to wait for them and he could wait no longer. Willow barely had a moment to say goodbye to the woman who had brought her so much confusion and yet so much hope in just a short space of time.
Kenji had carried his daughter's body back to Nagasaki, carefully wrapped and laid across his lap as he rode. Willow was now standing by the body, removed from the horse's back and laid out gently on a small cart. As she stood, her hands limply at her sides, she lamented the pointlessness of the young woman's death. Willow now knew that the men who attacked them in the clearing were of a profession known as ninja, warriors who took contracts for payment. It had wrenched Willow's heart all the more to know that the man who killed Ayako did so for nothing more than money. Although there was no trace of exactly who had hired them, Willow was willing to bet her fortune on it being the same person or persons who had taken the skull from its resting place.
As hot tears slid down her face, Willow found she had absolutely nothing to say in farewell. For someone who was used to speaking her mind, and often, it made the situation all the more unbearable. Small sobs were shaking her shoulders by the time she sensed another presence at her side, moments later a firm hand went to her shoulder. Thinking it was Giles; she reached up and touched it briefly with her own hand. It was not until some minutes later, when there were no more tears to fall that she finally turned away from the body and faced the man who comforted her.
"Nakamura-san," Willow whispered, surprised to find it was not Giles after all, but Ayako's father.
The man had not spoken to her throughout the arduous journey back to Nagasaki. Willow had tried to catch his eye several times but always he had turned away. Now he stood face to face with her, unshed tears shining in his dark eyes. In his hands he held Ayako's daishö, both the katana and waikizashi scoured clean of blood save for the dark red stain on the once white lacings at the top of the katana's scabbard. With trembling hands, Kenji held the katana out towards Willow and motioned for her to take it.
Willow's own hands shook as she reached for the weapon, only realising Kenji's intentions when it was lying in the palm of her hands. He meant her to have it.
"It was what she wanted," Kenji murmured awkwardly, "The katana will return to England with you, and the waikizashi will remain here in Japan with her family."
"But the pair are a daishö," Willow protested weakly, trying to offer the sword back to Ayako's father.
He would have none of it, his own hands folded atop hers, forcing her to grip the katana's scabbard firmly. Then he pushed gently until she was holding the weapon against her chest. When he dropped his hands, Willow continued to cradle it against her chest as though she never intended to let it go.
"I do not know you well, Willow Van Helsing," Kenji continued quietly, "To me you seem a reckless and arrogant warrior...but you possess true skill, and my daughter loved you...and that is more than enough for me to entrust you with this katana."
Willow ducked her head awkwardly, biting her lip as she replied, "And I loved your daughter."
When she lifted her head once more, she felt as though she had been given a second chance to say the words Ayako did not have time to hear before she died and a great weight lifted from her heart. There was a further moment of silence between them, no longer awkward but companionable in their shared grief. It was not until several minutes later that Kenji uttered a small grunt, as though he thought perhaps he had shown enough emotion in the presence of a foreigner...even one who loved his daughter.
"I wish you well in your travels and your quest...and if ever you shall need it, the Nakamura family will come to your aid."
Following his words, Kenji bowed low and Willow followed suit. When she straightened once more, he had already turned on his heels and was walking away, motioning the cart driver to move forward as well. Willow watched as the shrouded form of Ayako's body drew further and further away from her. She wanted to run after the cart as though the whole tragedy had just been a mistake and the young Japanese woman was still alive. Willow would find her just as vibrant as she had been the day they met only a few short weeks ago. It had all been so abrupt and unfair Willow felt it had to be unreal. Surely the fates could not be so cruel as to strip Ayako from her as well as Tara. She bowed her head, eyes closed, it was all very real. In her sadness, Willow thought that perhaps she was not meant to have the love she craved and her life was destined to be brutal and lonely.
If that was truly the way of things, Willow hoped her life would be short.
It was only the ringing of the ship's bell that brought her out of her thoughts and back to reality. She turned to see Giles motioning her aboard the Van Amstel even as the sailors waited to draw back the gangplank. Willow quickly broke into a run, as though suddenly eager to leave Japan behind. However, as soon as her boots were resting on the wood of the deck, she felt a sudden urge to return. The urge was still there a moment later when Giles crossed to stand beside her; he put his hand on her shoulder as though he knew what she was thinking.
"We will return one day Willow, we will visit her tomb and pay her the respect she deserves," Giles said quietly.
"She deserves more than respect," Willow replied sadly.
The two stood in silence as the ropes were cast off from the dock and the anchor wound up. All too soon, Dejima was only a cluster of buildings on the horizon with the city of Nagasaki lying behind it. The Van Amstel's sails quickly picked up in the wind and she was headed back to sea and towards home.
Even though Giles could see that Willow was exhausted and needed nothing more than the bunk in her cabin, he knew that they could afford very little time for rest over the coming months if they were to avoid the resurrection of Dracula's army at Covasna...although for all he knew, they would be weeks too late. He very much doubted that himself, Christopher, Abraham and Willow would be enough to stop even a fraction of the thousands of foe that would be up against them.
"Willow, there are discussions that need to be had," Giles saw her look up to meet his gaze, her expression already defeated, ‘We must have our plans in place...and more training, yes, definitely more training..."
"I just want to go home, Giles," Willow managed to whisper, "I miss my brother."
Abraham Van Helsing stretched wearily and glanced to see that a small stack of books still remained on the trolley beside him. When he had told his army friends that he was resigning to become a librarian, he did not think that there would be any truth to his statement. However, after agreeing with Giles to take over his duties at Montagu house, he had discovered that the library did have other patrons besides their small group and there was work to be done clearing up after them. With over a year now spent reshelving books and learning more about classification systems than he ever cared to know, Abraham had well and truly decided that he did not want to be a librarian.
Much of the remainder of his time had been completely occupied with his actual occupation and to say that he and Christopher Croft had been busy was an understatement. Over the past few months they had noticed a dramatic increase in the number of demons, both vampires and a myriad of other kinds, stalking the streets of London. That in itself was bad enough, but it was made worse by the fact that they were venturing into the well-populated areas, close to the homes of decent, working Londoners with children instead of their usual isolated haunts.
As their numbers and boldness increased, so too did the danger he and Christopher faced. Just two months ago Christopher had been pounced upon by no less than five vampires and wounded severely. He had remained in London hospital for several weeks before being discharged a great deal surlier than he had been before he went in. He remained unable to participate in patrols fully, leaving Abraham to stalk the streets alone most nights.
Even when he ventured out alone, it was not himself Abraham feared for, it was Willow. He had received no word since a brief note Willow had scribbled and sent back to him from the Caribbean many months earlier. When he resumed shelving the books from his small trolley, it was with a worried countenance. As much as he trusted Giles and his skills, nothing would satisfy his worries until she was safely back in England.
He heard the main library door swing open, the slightly screeching hinges reminding him that they needed oiling. With the last book stowed safely in its place, he was of a mind to tell whomever it was the library was closing early today. He would therefore be able to go home to Gordon Square and spend a pleasant afternoon embedding his axe in a practice target. However, as he made to move his trolley, he was engulfed by a miniature hurricane, the force of which knocked him backwards into the shelves behind him. A pair of arms wrapped themselves very firmly around his chest and a small head nestled beneath his chin in a familiar manner.
"Abraham," the person breathed the word, as though she could not quite believe that she was saying it to his face at long last.
Abraham immediately realised it had been much too long since he had heard his name said in that particular voice...his sister was home.
"I take it you missed me," was all he could say for fear of tears choking his voice; he stroked her hair gently with a shaking hand.
It was only when Abraham glanced down that he realised something had changed. While the roots of Willow's unbound hair were a familiar red, the strands that tumbled over her shoulders were a dirty black. He gently prised her out of his grip and held her at arm's length; he noticed she was crying, tracks of salty tears staining her grimy cheeks. She had obviously not bothered to wash or change her attire before coming to find him and still wore a loose white shirt and stained breeches. He also noticed the strange sword hanging from her belt.
"My dear sister...what happened to you in Japan?" he said as he reached up to run a lock of her hair through his fingers.
Willow dashed away her latest tears and threw herself back into her brother's arms, "Many things, Abraham...many things."
Indeed, much had happened to her and more than anything she wanted to tell Abraham about the sights she had seen during her travels and most of all, she wanted to tell him about Ayako. However she knew she could wait just a little longer until they were both back at Gordon Square and she could truly feel that she was home.
"Who on earth did that to your hair?" Abraham said in an effort to lighten the mood.
He felt and heard Willow chuckle slightly, "Giles...you know there are no redheads in Japan."
"Really?" Abraham asked, his incredulous tone obviously feigned.
Willow finally drew herself from her brother's arms and studied him at length, checking him for wounds or signs of improper eating while she had been absent. She frowned at a recently healed gash on his jaw line and pinched his cheeks to confirm what her eyes told her.
"You haven't been eating properly!" she scolded with a slight sigh.
He reached out and cupped her hollow cheek in return, "Neither have you."
"Well, I've been living on salt pork and hardtack for months...what's your excuse?" Willow snapped back, knowing that their household cook made excellent meals.
"I've been...busy," Abraham admitted reluctantly, hardly wanting to laden Willow with his worries at the very moment of her return, "Demon and vampire activity has increased probably four-fold in just the past few months."
"That's understandable," another voice joined them.
Abraham looked up to see Giles striding into his library, he was no less presentable than Willow in his travel stained garments...although his hair was still the same steely grey. Before he spoke further, his gaze immediately swept his library from floor to ceiling as though to confirm that Abraham had been performing his task adequately in his absence. Seemingly satisfied, Giles crossed the floor to take Abraham's hand in a firm grasp, the two men stood awkward as though they might embrace before stepping back from one another.
"Welcome home, Giles," Abraham said as he placed his arm protectively around Willow's shoulders, drawing her small body close to him as though he feared Giles might take her away from him once more, "Why is it understandable?"
"Dracula has the skull," Giles replied succinctly, "Our demon friends have no doubt learnt of this great victory and are stepping up their activities as they anticipate his return to power."
Abraham drew in a deep breath and hugged Willow a little tighter, "What does that mean for us?"
Before Giles could reply, Willow interrupted in a resigned voice, "It means, big brother, that we're going to Covasna...where we will stop Dracula...or die horribly violent deaths."