The leaves crunched beneath her feet with each step she took. Although the sound was barely audible it filled her ears like a roar. She paused and crouched behind a partially collapsed crypt, back pressed firmly against the stone in order to hide her body in shadow.
Willing her busy mind into silence Willow concentrated on the other movement in the cemetery, the one she hunted. Her entire body was tense, from the stake balanced perfectly in one palm, to her feet positioned in readiness to attack in a heartbeat. She could not tell if her prey sensed her presence, knowing only too well that the noise it was making could be a deliberate ruse to draw potential prey out and into the open. On the other hand it could indicate that the vampire was newly turned and inexperienced. Willow let out a small sigh; she fervently hoped it was the former. The night had been dreadfully slow with virtually no activity. The only vampires she had seen had been furtive, cowardly shadows in the distance as they dared not venture out into the open.
It had been a slow night. Willow felt the need to dust at least one before returning home to sleep or she would write the night off as a complete waste of time...and she hated to waste time.
The vampire was moving straight towards her and it was at that moment that Willow knew her presence had not been detected. It would be a swift surprise and a quick staking. It was all too easy. Still...it was better than no prey at all.
Like a starving predator rising from an ambush, Willow emerged from the shadows of the crypt and into the moonlight. She knew what movements she ought to be making, a simple lunge forward, driving the stake into the dead heart of the vampire.
Everything went wrong from the moment she faced her prey and found herself staring into a pair of piercing blue eyes. Her forward movement was halted almost to the point where she was driven backwards by her surprise. She stood unsteadily, unable to do anything save stare at the one vampire she could not bring herself to destroy.
Tara's lips were parted slightly in shock, as though she too were surprised by Willow's presence. She remained standing still, making no obvious moves to brace herself for an attack despite the fact that Willow was poised with stake in hand.
"Willow," she whispered, an eternity of emotion and longing injected into just one small word. Her breath caught as she trailed off.
A surge of sudden anger moved through Willow's veins. After everything Tara had done to her, she did not have the right to say her name like that. To say her name as though they were only a heartbeat away from embracing and losing themselves in each other's flesh. Willow refused to allow herself to be distracted by the thought of losing herself in Tara's embrace, a task made all the more difficult by the memory of her encounter in the mirror just a few days previously. Her jaw tightened with determination but she still could not speak or move.
Suddenly she was gripped by an overwhelming internal force that kicked her body into motion. Willow had absolutely no control over her movements as she felt her weight shift forward and into an attacking stance. In one second she was facing Tara and the next she was surging forward with the stake drawn back ready to strike. She whipped her arm forward and the sharpened wood plunged easily into the middle of Tara's chest, almost as though it were being driven home by some instinctive force.
However, as Willow withdrew and waited expectantly for the vampire to revert to dust, she glanced down to notice the bright red blood coating the length of the stake. Through horrified eyes she stared up at Tara and still saw no dust explosion. It was normally so simple, if not exactly clean it was impersonal and emotionless...this however...this was not clean.
Blood bubbled forth in great, gushing quantities from the hole in Tara's chest.
"Tara?" Willow whispered in disbelief. She took one more look at the bloody stake in her hand before flinging it away in disgust.
She sank to her knees in the grass and reached out with both hands in a vain effort to stem the flow of blood from the hole. The eyes that met Willow's were wide with terror as blood began to bubble from her mouth as she took her last few breaths in immense pain.
Willow sat in shock as she felt the struggling heart beat its last. She glanced downwards at her hands. The crimson liquid continued to well between her tightly clenched fingers she willed the hole to close and the heart to beat once more. She continued to stare at the blood, if only to avoid having to look back into the blue eyes that were empty of everything save an accusation.
Willow could hear the words as though Tara were still alive to speak them, I never stopped loving you...when did you stop loving me?
Willow's entire body jerked upright jerked upright and she slammed her head sharply into window at her back, luckily not cracking the pane of glass. As she sat rubbing the back of her head she realised she had fallen asleep on the window seat in her bedroom, the book which she remembered being on her lap had fallen to the floor. Her hands were pale and empty in her lap...although they were unstained by Tara's blood she immediately starting scrubbing them together as though trying to wipe them clean.
"Never," Willow whispered to herself as she wiped her hands on her thighs. "I never stopped loving you."
"You're looking a bit peaky, Will."
Willow glanced up upon hearing Faith's comment and she frowned, glancing at herself in a hall mirror as they passed it. She noticed the slight red flush to her cheeks that had caught Faith's attention. She stubbornly explained this away by reminding herself of the fact that they had just climbed several flights of stairs to reach Gordon Square's second floor. However, there were other signs aside from the flush, her cheek bones were more prominent than usual and her lips tightly drawn. It was more than simply climbing flights of stairs.
Willow shrugged, unwilling to share even with Faith, "I'm fine...just a little exertion 'tis all." She paused in front of a closed, heavy door and then glanced down the wide but dark corridor ahead. She shivered slightly, especially with the realisation that no one had set foot in the corridor since Abraham had died.
Given the fact that Giles was becoming overly anxious about the skull, Willow had promised to undertake a room by room search of Gordon Square. If not hoping to find the skull itself, then at least some clue as to its whereabouts. Before commencing the task she had not truly appreciated just how many rooms the house actually had. She had begun to get an understanding of the immensity of the task while searching the first floor, although she already knew her own room and Abraham's inside out. The guest bedrooms too were relatively simple and appeared not to hold any secrets. The second floor and attic however, were another story entirely. Although Abraham had spent some time sequestered away in his office, she could remembered very little occasion for venturing up there. She suspected that following her death, her brother had spent even more time in its dark halls. While she suspected she was possibly being foolish, she could swear that she felt a suffocating presence surrounding her on this particular floor. It was a presence that did not remind her of the brother she knew...but she knew it could be the monster her brother had become following her death.
"Well?" Faith prodded in an exasperated tone, she knew that the glazed look in Willow's eyes meant she was not wholly in the corridor with her.
Willow's head jerked slightly in surprise, "What?"
Faith rolled her eyes in an exaggerated fashion. "Are you going to stand out here all day or do you want me to go in and check the room for ghouls and ghosties first?"
"Oh, sorry, I was woolgathering," Willow admitted, managing a half-hearted apologetic grin as though she promised to restore her full attention to the task at hand.
"Not an uncommon occurrence," Faith replied in a tight-lipped, barely audible voice. When Willow flashed her a mildly pained expression she quickly pulled out a smile of her own although there was no hint of an apology. "So...would you like me to open that door for you?"
Faith's pointed suggestion had an intended effect on Willow. She finally stiffened her hunched shoulders and focused on the door as though it led into a pit of daemon hounds as opposed to the innocuous enough room that did lay behind it. The door creaked somewhat and a musty smell emerged from the sealed room, both slightly ominous signs. However, as soon as Willow flicked the light switch, a faint golden glow bathed what was an exceptionally busy little room.
One entire wall was lined with book shelves stacked with thick leather-bound books and papers. A heavy desk made of what appeared to be mahogany took up the space beneath the windows. It was still covered in papers as though whoever had been working there had intended to return.
Willow frowned as she passed beneath the doorway. "I don't remember this room."
"But it's filled with books," Faith observed the obvious. "It's like a miniature Willow-heaven or something to that effect."
Willow crossed the floor and drew one thick book down from a nearby shelf. She held it open to reveal column after column of notations and numbers and for once she appeared to be thinking exactly the same thing as Faith, complete disinterest. "Account ledgers...hardly interesting reading material. I'm not sure without looking through all of them but I suppose they're land-owning records...accounts for whatever one has to take account of when one owns land...and animals. I suppose how many pigs one owns and how much it costs to feed said pig."
"I thought pigs just ate scraps?" Faith was quick to point out the flaw in Willow's hypothetical example but she did not wait for Willow to favour her observation with a reply before moving onto an issue of more significance. "What happened to your family fortune?"
"I do not know for certain...but I think this house must be all that remains," Willow commented, quickly banishing all thoughts of the word 'fortune' from her head. It was the root of all evil in her books, the reason Tara had been forced to marry Edward Walsh. She was personally glad there was no longer a Van Helsing fortune.
"Well, the Van Helsings must have owned a great deal of land judging by the number of books in here," Faith commented as she spun on her heels to take in the book laden shelves. She then stopped spinning and looked at Willow with a reluctant expression. "Please don't tell me we have to look through every single one?"
Willow glanced over her shoulder at Faith as she moved towards the desk and gave a distinct, 'what do you think?' glare. With an exaggerated groan, Faith moved to the nearest shelf and ripped a ledger down as though she imagined she was yanking out the throat of a vampire. She gathered several more and retreated to a rather worn armchair nestled in one corner, afterwards moving only to turn a page or look up and cast a withering glare in Willow's direction.
If Willow felt Faith's annoyed gaze burning a hole in the back of her head, she did not feel the need to respond in any way. She faced the one wall that was not obscured by furniture of any kind and found it plastered from floorboard to ceiling with all manner of paper. Two large maps took up much of the centre of the room; there was one large map of England and next to that a smaller scale map of Europe. Both maps were covered in a series of notations in Abraham's writing and bright red scraps of fabric in different locations. Radiating out from the maps were more notes written on scraps of paper and newspaper cuttings.
Willow scanned several of Abraham's notes and realised almost immediately what the purpose behind the wall was... it was his search for Tara. She knew if she took the time to read each note and clipping, she would be able to map out his entire obsession, from the year of her own death to the year he finally caught Tara and imprisoned her. Tentatively she reached up and laid her fingers on one yellowed clipping, a sensationalised account of the brutal murder of an entire family in Dover which made a great deal of the savage neck wounds found on the victims.
Unwilling to face such similar accounts, Willow drew her gaze away from the wall and turned her attention to the desk. She could almost see her brother seated behind its great bulk, working feverishly as he sought to unravel the whereabouts of his sister's killer.
She moved close enough to reach out and touch it. Tentatively, she ran her hands over the smooth wooden lines of the chair tucked neatly against the desk. As she grasped it and tugged it backwards she wondered how many times her brother had repeated the same motion. Willow folded herself into the chair and stared at the ledger that lay squarely in the middle of the desk in front of her. Glittering in embossed gilt letters on the front was the name, 'Van Helsing.' She tentatively reached out and traced each letter of the name. She felt strange when realising that although she felt as if she was staring at her own name, she in fact wasn't. Her name was Willow Rosenberg. It was the name given to her by a family she had never really belonged to...and even less since they had disowned her after her violent outburst.
Willow took up a nearby pen and opened a fresh jar of ink, still useable after however long it had sat on her brother's desk. She then drew a sheet of paper in front of her and sat staring at its creamy emptiness for a few moments before making her next move. Dipping her pen in the ink she wrote in a firm hand, Willow Van Helsing. The letters flowed effortlessly into words and together they made up the complete picture, a picture of the life she had once lived.
Directly beneath that name, she wrote another, Willow Rosenberg. As she wrote she found the flow of her pen stunted and awkward, as though she did not feel right in writing that name. Willow pursed her lips together for a moment and then on a whim wrote a third name, Willow Van Rosenberg. She smirked a little as she read it. It was distinctly odd...and yet was she herself not an odd individual?
When Faith eventually moved from the armchair in the corner, the sound brought Willow back to reality. Willow straightened slightly and realised that she had filled the entire page in front of her with Willow Van Rosenberg over and over. With a slight embarrassed flush to her cheeks she crumpled the page. She then sighed wearily and swivelled in the chair to watch Faith replace several books and seize several more with no more enthusiasm than before.
As though she sensed Willow staring at her she turned and was unsurprised when her instinct was proven right.
"Having a laugh at my expense?" Faith asked with an arched eyebrow.
Willow blinked a few times as though she was not really looking at Faith at all. Rather than reply, she hastily stood from her chair and crossed the room to stand directly in front of Faith. Without offering the other woman any explanation, she reached out gave one of the ledgers a sharp tug. Both women had to take a leap backwards to avoid the section of bookshelf which swung outwards.
"Just how many of those things are there in this house?" Faith dumped her latest pile of ledgers unceremoniously on the floor and examined the newly revealed opening with interest.
The opening was almost half the size of the passage leading from Gordon Square's library to the training room. When fully opened it was revealed that it did not lead to another passageway at all, but rather a solid, black door with a brass handle and large knob in the centre...a safe.
Faith let out an excited breath, "It's an obvious guess...but where else in this house would you keep an exceptionally dangerous object that you dare not let fall into anyone else's hands? A slight problem given that we don't have any clue as to the combination...Will?"
Willow did not seem surprised in the slightest to find a safe behind the hidden door. She merely cocked her head for a moment as though she were thinking, "As a matter of fact..."
As she made to move in front of the safe, Faith stepped aside to make room. Without fully thinking about what she was doing, Willow twirled the large brass knob back and forth, each time stopping on a select number. At the floor turn she heard an audible click and then glanced over her shoulder to see Faith standing directly behind her wearing a rather impressed expression.
"Do I even want to ask you how the bloody hell you knew that?"
Willow shrugged, "Abraham told me once...although he handled everything to do with money he felt it important for me to know what it was and chose something that would be easy to remember. The combination was our butler's...Samuel's birthday."
Faith shook her head in bewilderment, "I still cannot get over the fact that you speak of such past times as though you were there."
"I was there, Faith," Willow reminded her friend in a matter-of-fact tone as she reached for the safe's handle.
Pausing for a moment to get a grip on the large brass lever, Willow then yanked it downwards and with Faith's help, pulled the heavy door outwards.
The sight in front of them caused both women to gasp; even Faith was struck silent for almost a minute before she was able to reply. Beside her she heard Willow utter a loud sniff.
"I don't see the skull," Faith announced slowly.
However, what she and Willow were looking at was the safe's interior jammed full with solid gold sovereigns. Faith reached in and withdrew one to examine it more closely; it was nothing short of real. She heard Willow sniff again as she ran her thumb over its solid surface before looking back into the safe. While there was no telling exactly how much money was inside, it was safe to assume that it was a great deal.
Willow sniffed loudly and it was only when Faith turned to suggest that Willow find her handkerchief that she noticed the other woman was actually crying. Thick tears rolled down her cheeks despite her obvious efforts to stem the flow by sniffing and dashing them away with her fist. Faith tossed the sovereign to the floor and reached out for Willow, laying a hand on her back in what was supposed to be a soothing manner.
"Okay, Will, the discovery of money is not supposed to be a sad occasion," Faith pointed out in what she hoped was a helpful tone.
"What good is it?" Willow whispered in a broken voice.
'Well...it's money, it's good for a lot of things," Faith stated the obvious with a slight shrug.
"It won't help us find the skull," Willow straightened from her crouching position to stand, she'd managed to contain her brief bout of crying but her eyes were red-rimmed and her shoulder slumped as though she were about to give up on something
"It has to help though, right?" Faith prompted tentatively, she tried to inject an element of enthusiasm into her voice, "Let's forget this for an hour or so, what do you say we head down to the training room...I've a new crossbow bolt I've been dying to try out."
"Pass," Willow said as she paused wiping away her tears to stifle a weary yawn. "I might retire for the evening."
The two women left the second floor together, before parting company to go in their separate directions, Faith turned to Willow and took her gently by the shoulder so she could not turn away. She saw all too clearly the pain in her eyes and knew that something other than the skull was eating away at her from the inside.
"Are you sure you're okay, Will?" she asked gently.
Willow managed a small smile that completely contradicted her drawn face, "I am fine...honestly."
Willow parted ways as her friend moved downstairs and she to her bedroom. She hated having to lie to Faith, but did not want to have to admit what had really set her off at the sight of the money in her safe.
It was a harsh reminder that all the money in the world was not going to bring her what she wanted most of all...Tara.
She sat on the edge of her bed for all of half a minute before realising that she had absolutely no desire to sleep. With a renewed purpose she stood and crossed to her wardrobe, stripping items of clothing as she moved. When she was down to her underwear, she pulled out her hunting clothes. On went her dark breeches and shirt, battered breastplate and finally a jacket to keep the cold night air at bay.
Willow finished her outfit with a select compliment of weapons, just a few stakes and the silver sabre which had come to be her weapon of choice even though she couldn't help but feel a slight pang of loss for her katana every time her fingers wrapped around its plain, unadorned hilt.
She elected to use the window as her exit point as per usual. While she knew that Faith would already be in the training room, filling an unfortunate target dummy with new holes, there was no telling where Myles would be. The young man was sure to try and stop her leaving the house or even worse, beg to be taken along. Willow preferred hunting alone.
The night was cool and Willow lightly jogged the distance to an almost abandoned cemetery that she hoped would be rife with demonic activity. She had barely worked up a sweat upon arrival at the giant and ominous wrought gates that heralded the entrance to the dark area. Her excitement however was well stoked as she discreetly drew a stake from within her jacket. This feeling increased with each step that took her further into the cemetery, further towards danger and the sense of really being alive.
She did not need to wait long to find her first vampire of the evening, he found her. Willow heard the leaves and twigs crunching beneath his feet before he drew near enough to touch her but she allowed him to think that he had taken her completely by surprised. As his fingers were about to close on the back of her neck, Willow whipped around
Willow paused, for a few awful seconds she was unable to bring herself to drive the take into the vampire's chest. Her mind insistently repeated images from her dream, images of stabbing Tara's still beating heart and the gushing blood that followed.
Sensing an opportunity in his opponent's hesitation, the vampire's arm darted out and caught her across the throat. Willow went flying backwards, struggling for a breath. She landed hard across a headstone, further knocking the wind out of her body and the stake from her hand. There was no time to recover as the vampire picked himself up and seized her by the shoulders. As he bared his fangs and lowered them towards her neck she lashed out with her heel, driving it downwards hard onto his foot. While it did very little, it was enough for Willow to find enough room to swing her arm. Her balled fist caught him across the jaw with enough momentum to jerk his whole body sideways. Willow brought both hands upwards and then outwards to rip his fingers from her neck. With a guttural roar she slammed her head into against the space just above his nose in a perfectly timed move that sent him reeling backwards. She followed up the Liverpool Kiss by smashing the flat of her foot into his chest.
As he fell to the ground, there was no longer any hesitation on Willow's part. She leapt onto his fallen form and drove the stake home with another savage yell. A few moments later the vampire exploded into a small cloud of dust, just as he should. Willow crouched over the spot where the body had been for a moment and realised in the calm that her heart was beating so quickly she was in danger of passing out. After drawing a few deep breaths, she was able to stand once more and scan the cemetery for her next target.
As Willow hoped, her flurry of activity in chasing down the vampire had drawn out several more. While most had managed to make their escape into the darkness while Willow was occupied, two remained. One was clearly incapacitated; his leg was jammed out at an odd angle as though it had been broken. He was terribly thin as though he had not eaten for some time. Willow was hardly surprised, if she could walk up to him to stake him, then she hardly expected him to be able to run to catch his food.
The staking was somewhat reluctant; she hated to think of herself as putting the vampire out of its misery. Even so, once she plunged the stake into his chest as he cowered on the ground in front of her she felt another surge of triumph flow through her veins.
The second vampire who lingered in the cemetery had been more than capable of fleeing the scene, she had however chosen to remain and fight. As Willow stared at the dark-haired, blue-eyed vampire, she realised that they were probably both as bored as the other.
"You fight well," she said simply, her voice low and husky.
Willow was not impressed that she had found a talkative vampire; she did not offer up a reply and instead moved into an attacking stance. A split second later she surged forward with both her body and her blade. The vampire was forced to block hastily or be gutted by Willow's silver sword.
As they began to trade blows, the female vampire obviously realised that Willow was in no mood for friendly conversation. With talking off the agenda, she proved to be a formidable opponent, far more so than Willow's first two kills of the evening.
Together they danced across a wide area of the cemetery, using headstones and trees alike as obstacles and points of leverage from which to try and gain the upper hand over the other.
With a small measure of exhaustion beginning to set in, Willow momentarily losing track of her footing and caught her foot on a gnarled tree root. She stumbled awkwardly and was forced to take desperate action to block the downward blow that followed as the vampire tried to take advantage of the moment. The vampire let out a savage roar as she sensed victory but her enthusiasm was her undoing. Willow saw the blow coming a long way off, the vampire was aiming to take her head off but she drew her arm back further than was necessary.
Still slightly off balance, Willow moved low and ducked beneath the swing of the vampire's sword to bring her own weapon upwards in a deadly arc. Barely missing a beat, Willow split the vampire open from crotch to neck. She fell back writhing in pain and collapsed to the ground.
Even as the vampire exploded into dust at her feet, Willow felt as though there were eyes on her back. She spun sharply as the dust settled around her feet to scan the shadows behind her. With her eyes narrowed and the stake clenched tightly in her fist, she prepared herself for another attack.
There was nothing behind her save trees bare of leaves and the lonely crypts and gravestones of the long-forgotten dead. Willow made to take a few steps forward but dismissed the feeling as her excited mind playing tricks on her. Tucking the stake back into the inside of her jacket, she turned towards home, counting three dustings as a very respectable total for the night.
For once Willow's instincts had let her down, deep within the shadows at her back a figure stood and watched her intently...just as he had watched her hunt and destroy the three vampires. A small smile creased his face; he had enjoyed his observations immensely. Willow Van Helsing was indeed as formidable as ever and he could look forward to their meeting after all this time.
Dracula pushed aside his coat and felt the reassuring hilt of the sword he wore at his waist. He knew if he had a heart beat, it would be quickening in response to his excitement. With the smile still fixed on his face, he shifted into his misty form to travel the short distance that separated him from Willow. When he reformed directly in front of her he was rewarded with the expression of blatant shock on her face. He also dared to think that there might be a little fear mixed in as well.
When he spoke the tone of his voice was as if he were seeing an old friend for the first time in many years, "Willow Van Helsing."