Night had long since descended and a definite chill had crept into the air, but neither of these things bothered the figure hunched in the shadows of a large oak. In fact, he preferred the night...and the chill he did not feel in the slightest.
Marcus folded his arms across his thin chest, bared by the open shirt he wore, and glanced out towards the seemingly inconsequential cemetery in the middle of nowhere. He felt like uttering a small grunt of disgust but it was pointless, it was exactly the same thing he had done every night for the past two months...and in that time nothing had changed. He did not mind the night or the cold, what he did mind was the boredom.
Watch the cemetery, he thought to himself, repeating the orders he had be given, She may visit...and she may not...and I would have wasted all this time staring at a graveyard. I can think of better ways to spend my immortality. Marcus turned his gaze away from the church...it irritated him if he stared at it too long. He then slumped back against the tree at his back with a sullen expression on his face. Still, he supposed he could hardly complain when he was so far down the hierarchy...his superiors would have no qualms destroying him and simply choosing another lackey to watch the cemetery.
Marcus had no way of knowing that at least one of the nights during his tenure in Hampshire would be interesting, just as he had no way of knowing that it would be his last.
There was almost no warning, just the distant hooting of a startled owl. Marcus glanced up only to see a dark shape swooping from the tree above. He barely had time to think about uttering a scream before a blade flashed in the darkness and severed his head. His watch was effectively ended.
With Dracula's lone guardian now mere particles drifting in the wind, Tara reluctantly turned her attention to the small garden of headstones nestled in the unkempt grass. As she walked forward, she could already see the particular one she sought. Tara paused just short of the headstone for it was the coffin that lay beneath it that she was there to examine. With her stomach crawling, Tara began to murmur the spell that would carve the earth from Willow's grave for the second time.
Rupert Giles barely had to wait a second after rapping his knuckles on the great black door of Gordon Square. His arm was still raised when it swung inwards to reveal the smiling face of young Myles Cavendish. Despite the continual threat of violence from the creatures of the night and the instability of his housemates, living at Gordon Square appeared to agree with the young man if his beaming smile was anything to go by. Giles did however frown with concern as Myles immediately opened the door wide to usher him inside.
"Security is a bit lax, Mr Cavendish!" Giles commented sternly. "Especially in times such as these."
"I assure you it is not, Mr Giles sir," Myles replied quickly, shifting slightly so that Giles could see the crossbow strapped to his back. "I had you in my sights from the moment you turned into Gordon Square!"
At that moment Faith emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray laden with bread and cheese, she snorted slightly as Myles swung the crossbow into his hands and aimed it at a point beyond Giles to show his skill, "You need fear ending up with a bolt in your forehead, Giles, not unless you were as wide as you are tall...we're still working on Myles's aim."
Myles looked slightly offended but he shrugged it off affably and re-shouldered his crossbow. He did take a special interest in the bread and cheese on Faith's tray as he followed her into the parlour. Giles hung his own coat on the rack by the door and joined them. The Van Helsing's taste in furnishings never failed to amuse him, even at a time when he could draw little amusement from other sources; he found the black and white contrasts decidedly odd and stark. They were definitely more a reflection of the middle-aged Abraham Van Helsing than either sibling in their impetuous youth.
Curled in one corner of a large black sofa was a rather pale and drawn Willow. Giles noted the manner in which Faith sat protectively at her side as she set the tray down in front of them both. Myles swooped immediately, seizing a sizeable wedge of cheese and a hunk of bread before returning to his post at the window with the crossbow balanced on his lap.
"How are you keeping?" Giles asked the redhead with an attempt at a warm smile on his face. The question sounded empty and formulaic to his ears.
"Aside from the fact I've recently learned I have a demonic skull lurking inside of me...I'm peachy," Willow replied, playing with a loose strand of wool on the robe she wore. She reluctantly accepted a soft piece of bread from Faith but did not make any attempt to eat it.
"It's only a theory..." Giles began hopefully.
"I know it's there, Giles," Willow interrupted in a firm voice that would brook no nonsense.
Giles nodded uncomfortably and changed the subject slightly, "I understand Tara has gone to Hampshire?"
At the mention of the blonde vampire's name, Giles saw a slight flush creep across Willow's cheeks. Just as he raised his eyebrows in surprise, she turned her head. It was not a particularly effective tactic as he could still see the curve of one very pink cheek. Giles did not know quite what to make of this new realisation, had they been in another situation at a less perilous time he supposed he might have been happy for the young woman. As it was, he worried that it would cause unnecessary difficulties throughout what was to come...despite the fact that it was hardly surprising. Even he had to admit that Willow and Tara belonged together; it was just that Willow had come to that realisation at an unfortunate time. Giles helped himself to a wedge of cheese and took a seat on a black ottoman.
"She has gone to examine my coffin," Willow finally replied, her cheeks had lost some of their pink glow as she turned to face Giles.
"Ewww," Myles announced from his position at the window, "Will you not be all mouldy and wormy?"
Myles's face quickly lost its mock grimace beneath the combined disapproving stares of Faith and Giles. Willow however smirked slightly, pleased to have the heavy air hanging in her parlour dissipated by a brief moment of levity.
"It's alright Myles...there's nothing in the coffin, at least not any bones anyway. Tara ground them to dust to create my new body and that's why we believe the skull is inside me," Willow commented, surprised at how easily the admission flowed from her lips.
Myles's grimace returned quickly, along with a hint of fascination, "Okay...that is decidedly worse than either mould or worms."
Faith coughed loudly, "Myles, stop talking for heaven's sake."
"I was just saying..." Myles turned his attention back to the window for a brief moment before his curiosity got the better of him and he turned back to Willow. "I mean, you have to destroy the skull...how is it going to come out?"
"That's the real question," Willow commented, turning away from Myles to stare directly at Giles who was sitting rather stiffly on his ottoman.
"Myles...window!" Faith barked.
Myles turned around swiftly and pressed his face to the window with concentration enough to convince Faith he was done asking questions. In the wake of Myles's innocent curiosity the room was filled only with tense silence. It remained that way for several minutes until Willow sat up a little straighter, she then leant forward and replaced the uneaten hunk of bread Faith had given her earlier back on the tray.
"I think we should continue with our plans, we have the skull, we take it to Covasna and use Giles's destruction spell to undo its evil once and for all," Willow announced confidently, ignoring the look of horror that passed quickly over Faith's face.
"And I say there's no way in hell that we would keep to that plan!" Faith spluttered as she leapt to her feet, "It's a bloody suicide mission and I won't stand for it!"
"Faith..." Willow tried to interrupt her friend but her voice came out broken and soft.
If Faith had heard Willow at all, she ignored her and turned to Giles, continuing in an adamant, angry tone, "Tell her she's being bloody ridiculous and you'll refuse..."
"Faith!" This time Willow also rose to her feet, her gaze shining with a fierce determination. Faith paused mid sentence and acknowledged Willow with an angry glare. The redhead continued, "If I'm willing to risk it then that should be the end of it."
Obviously Willow's argument was less than convincing as Faith continued, "Giles please tell her she's not going to go through with her hair brained scheme! Tell her the spell will kill her!" she protested as she whirled back to face Giles.
"I'm sorry Faith but it's my decision...regardless of what Giles says," Willow nodded towards the warlock who had a nervous expression on his face as he was forced to face the two strong-willed women.
"Giles?" Faith repeated insistently as though the old warlock was her last hope for reason.
Giles shifted his posture uncomfortably, he was staring at Willow who was still looking stubbornly at the floor, "I honestly cannot say what effect the spell will have on Willow...it was designed to destroy the skull..."
"But not while it was inside someone!" Faith gasped in horror, flabbergasted that he was not instantly refuting Willow's decision.
Giles shrugged sadly, "No...but than again I am not about to refuse to perform the spell, I have seen what Dracula's army is capable of and I swore never to let it scour the earth again...if Willow is willing to risk the spell..." his voice trailed off as he was unable to finish.
Willow finally looked up and she nodded towards Giles in thanks. The warlock however did not look pleased that he had sided with her and he was unable to hold her gaze. He nibbled on his wedge of cheese with little enthusiasm. She turned her attention back to Faith who had by now turned a nasty shade of green.
"You do not have to accompany me, Faith," Willow announced quietly, "But I will be leaving to begin my journey to Covasna tomorrow night and your presence would greatly bolster my spirits."
Faith looked wounded for a moment before straightening her back and thrusting her chin forward defiantly, "I think you're being exceptionally foolish, more so ...I normally would not condone any of your foolish actions and I certainly do not condone this one...but I would not be anywhere else other than at your side." As Willow smiled and nodded gratefully in response Faith marched forward and seized her elbow. "And now you are going back to bed, the least I can do is see you start out in good health...even if you're not in your right mind!"
With a last glance over her should towards Giles, Willow was lead out of the room by Faith. No doubt the brunette would try once more to try and talk Willow out of her plans...and Giles knew that she would fail. Once Willow had set her mind to something...she was unflappable in her resolve. He sighed again and crammed the remainder of his wedge of cheese into his mouth. He swallowed and it grated against his throat as though it were sand.
It was only then that Giles remembered that Myles had been in the room throughout the whole conversation. He turned to see that the young man was still at his post, still with his eyes fixed on a distant point outside. Giles could see his reflection however, and he clearly saw the gleam of tears in the young man's eyes. It was easy to dismiss the young man's concerns but he obviously had a great depth of feeling for Willow, he just could not express himself as vehemently as Faith.
"Myles, you can rest too...no doubt you will need all your strength for the journey to Covasna," Giles said quietly. The young man turned with a suddenly hopeful look in his eyes and Giles nodded to confirm that he had in fact just given him permission to make the journey to Covasna. "I'll take over the watch."
Myles beamed as he left the window and pressed the crossbow into Giles's waiting hands, "Thank you very much, Mr Giles. You will not regret this I assure you!"
"We're not going on a picnic, Myles," Giles cautioned him.
The smile disappeared from the young man's face to be replaced by a serious expression that made him seem older, "The last visit to Covasna was certainly no picnic...and I believe I acquitted myself admirably."
"That you did, Myles," Giles replied with a warm smile, "That you did."
Before he left the room, Myles helped himself to the bulk of the bread and cheese remaining on the tray. With his departure Giles was left alone in the room, he set the crossbow aside as he possessed other, more effective, means of attack.
He suddenly wished he had not sent Myles away so quickly, the room was all too empty and he had the strange longing for company. Giles turned his attention to the two portraits hanging above the black fireplace; one of course was of Willow Van Helsing, and the other, Abraham. It saddened the old warlock to stare at Van Helsing as a young man with his smooth, strong jaw-line and vibrant thatch of red hair. His green eyes had not danced as merrily as they did in the painting in the years following Willow's death. Until he laid eyes on the painting, Giles had immense difficulty remembering Abraham as a young man. The memories he had were mostly of the bitter, twisted old man who had been unable to let go of his vengeance.
Two paintings, the faces of two siblings, tortured and forever changed by their connection to the underworld and its denizens. At that moment Giles swore that he would do everything in his power to see Willow safely through the coming days. He would find a way to safely destroy the skull, no matter the cost to himself. He folded himself onto one of the black sofas and found it decidedly comfortable despite its appearance.
Almost three hours passed, Giles found himself drifting in and out of a sort of sleep in which he dreamt mostly of the skull. Although he considered himself fully alert and aware of his surroundings, apparently that was not the case.
The warlock felt his heart almost leap out of his chest at the sudden interruption. Now wide awake he placed his hand on his chest before turning to see Tara standing in the shadows next to the window, once again wearing her cloak. She drew the hood back as she stepped forward into the gas light.
Giles thought that she appeared slightly dishevelled, although considering this was Tara, dishevelled merely meant that her clothing was rumpled and a few strands of her hair were out of place. He could tell that she was feeling the strain of having travelled a fair distance in a short amount of time, her shoulders sagged slightly and she chose to sit on the edge of one of the sofas. Despite her exhaustion, she remained sitting upright with a straight back as though she felt uncomfortable to be sitting at all.
"Gordon Square was being watched...as one would have expected," Tara announced quietly, she brushed the folds of her cloak and a great deal of dust fell to the floor. "It is being watched no longer."
"How many were there?" Giles asked.
"Five...but only one caused me any real difficulty," Tara shrugged before she continued, "Tomorrow night there will no doubt be more. If we are going to leave, then we must leave soon."
"Our suspicions have been confirmed?" Giles asked even though the question wasn't necessary. He turned back to stare at Willow's portrait, as though fixing the young woman squarely in his mind.
"Yes...I found nothing physically save an empty coffin and one of Dracula's lowliest bottom-feeders watching over the cemetery," Tara too stared at the portrait, a wistful expression passed over her serene features, as though she would rather prefer to be staring at the woman herself. After a moments silence between the two of them, she was prompted to continue revealing her findings as Giles turned to face her. "It was difficult to say the least...but I did manage to pick up a faint residue in the coffin itself, the residue of something so foul it made me sick to my stomach."
"The skull," Giles added unnecessarily, "It was there."
Tara cast her eyes to the roof, as though she could see through the ceiling and into the room where Willow no doubt lay sleeping, "And now it is here."
Giles studied Tara as she tilted her head upwards, he could not read her expression but he knew her discovery pained her greatly. It was a useless observation. Tara was in love with Willow, how could it not pain her? He gave her just a few moments out of respect for the emotions that were no doubt coursing through her mind before pressing on with their urgent business.
"The skull is an object of immense dark magic...do you think it odd that Willow has not felt any effects from its power?" Giles asked.
"She says she has not...and I would of course take her word for that. Why however, I cannot say," Tara shook her head. "It troubles me to no end...and also especially the fact that it took you so long to concoct the destruction spell in the first place. How much longer will it take you to write one that takes into account the location of the skull?"
Giles looked guilty and it took Tara just a moment to realise that the warlock had absolutely no intention of writing a new spell to take into account the fact that it was inside Willow. She shivered. "You mean to take her to...Covasna?" she could barely choke out the name of the place, "And perform the spell regardless? Giles how could you..."
"You know I would not take her anywhere or do anything to her without her consent," Giles said quickly. "Willow has made the decision to leave tomorrow night...and I have supported that decision."
"Willow," Tara whispered, her body finally sagging to the point where she slumped back in her seat. "What effect will the spell have on her, Giles?"
"I honestly do not know, Tara," Giles admitted, "But I will do my best to try and modify the spell within reason...however I am fearful that any slight change will render the spell impotent and ruin our past sacrifices...you must understand."
"I...understand," the simple words sounded as though they were forced out with great difficulty. Tara had to pause and draw a breath before continuing just as reluctantly. "She has already given her life once for the skull...I know she would do it again in an instant."
"And we will do everything in our power to ensure she survives this time around..." Giles's voice slowly faded, Tara had stopped paying attention to him. She had risen to her feet and was moving towards the door. He knew she intended to go to Willow. It was what he would do...had he ever felt so strongly about someone. A small sigh of reluctance escaped his lips; he paused with his mouth open for a few seconds as though thinking better of his words. "I realise you don't want to leave Willow at this time," Giles began quietly.
The words had no sooner left his mouth, than Tara's attention instantly refocused on Giles. She turned and interrupted in a curt tone, "You are right, I do not want to leave Willow."
Tara momentarily considered ignoring Giles's as yet unspoken request and making her way to Willow. They had so little time and she wanted more than anything to hold the small redhead in her arms as tightly as possible, for as long as possible...she hoped somehow that would be enough to stop time in its tracks.
Yet she knew that expression on Giles's face...and she also knew that he would not be asking if it was not urgent. She knew without him asking her anything that to refuse would mean risking everything...especially Willow's already endangered life.
"What do you want me to do, Giles?" Tara asked quietly, reluctantly.
"Tara, you know I cannot compel you to do anything..." Giles sensed that reluctance and appeared apologetic.
She was not impressed by his attempt at explanation and she turned on him with her arms folded stubbornly across her chest. "Do not play that card with me Giles," she reproached him sternly. "You know full well I have done everything you have ever asked of me...and more, though it has cost me dearly to do so."
Giles was momentarily taken aback before he bristled with a slight anger. "You speak as though you have had no free choice in your actions."
"Have I?" Tara began angrily. However she did not follow up her angry retort. She bit her lip to silence herself and waved her hand to cut Giles off before he could say anything further. "Now is not the time for arguing, just tell me what you want me to do?"
"Go to Hagley Park," Giles announce resolutely, his head nodding slightly as he did so.
Hagley Park. Just the name of the place was enough to bring a small, sad smile to Tara's lips...even at such a trying hour. She had spent her happiest days at the Van Helsing's country home, surrounding by green meadows and thick copses of birch and oak trees. Even now, so many years removed from that time in her life, she could summon almost every detail, every smell and sound. The day's bread baking in the kitchen, the clattering of hooves upon the cobbles as Abraham charged into the stable-yard upon his mount and most of all. Willow's laughter as she led her on a merry chase through the halls...and Willow's cries as she lay naked beneath or above her in any number of less than ladylike positions. The sad smile had disappeared by the time Tara was ready to speak. "I understand that you do not want our foes to gather the slightest inclination that we have the skull but to seek to mislead them into believing the skull is at Hagley Park...do you honestly think it would be foremost in Dracula's mind?"
"Without a doubt...he is well aware of the significance that Hagley Park held for Abraham and Willow," Giles replied firmly, "But if you would rather I sent Faith so you can remain here with Willow..."
"Giles stop," Tara interrupted. "I have already made my decision...if there is even the slightest possibility that such a ruse will keep Willow safer, then I will go." And Willow needs her best friend more than ever, I cannot ask Faith to place herself in such danger. As fearless and awesome as she was, Tara still considered Faith a mere mortal, with a mortal's insufficient strength.
"Do not take any chances..." Giles began.
Tara cut him short once again, "Giles, please do not lecture me...with Willow expecting me to return safely to her, I will use the utmost caution."
Tara paused just beyond the parlour; she crossed the short distance to the bottom of Gordon Square's main staircase. Tentatively she placed her hand on the banister as though she would ascend the stairs. However she did not. She knew full well that she could ascend and make her way down the hall to Willow's room where she would find the redhead peacefully asleep...or possibly wide awake and waiting for her.
"You will tell Willow...that I shall not be far behind?" Tara asked over her shoulder. "And..." She paused again, wanting to be able to tell Willow more. However she felt odd at the thought of having Giles relay her most personal sentiments and she shook her head softly, "Just tell her that, please."
"Certainly," Giles assured her.
Even after Giles's promise, Tara continued to pause until, with a slight sigh of frustration, she turned and made her way back out into the night air.
As desperately as she wanted to see Willow, she knew she would not be able to leave her side if she so much as gave her a single glance that evening. Tara understood the importance of the task Giles had given to her, it was imperative that the small group were able to leave London without being noticed. With any luck, Dracula's minions would follow her west to Hampshire. She did not for a moment consider the danger inherent in her task.
The Thames was shrouded in a murky mist, adding to the gloom of night. Very few ships would have dared to depart at such a godforsaken hour of the morning but in such conditions but one small vessel was currently being loaded. Nervous sailors carried bulky, strangely shaped luggage aboard and stowed it carefully, as though they expected awful retribution if they were to treat it carelessly. The ship's passengers, all wearing dark clothing and hats, were also nervous.
Willow tugged the simple worker's cap lower over her head, but it would not come down far enough to cover her ears, only the tips were protected from the brisk chill. She envied Giles's woollen sailor's cap as she spied him standing near the gangplank, authority in his voice as he directed the sailors. Willow lifted her hands to her face and blew on them lightly to warm them before putting them back into the pockets of the thick coat she wore, buttoned up to her chin. Myles was standing beside her, bouncing nervously on the balls of his feet, also wearing a coat and cap.
"Myles, for god's sake stop that, you're making me nervous," Willow snapped, thrusting her freezing hands into her pockets as she watched another bag of what she knew to be weapons carried aboard and stowed on deck.
"Sorry," Myles squeaked, he retrieved a stick of hard candy from his pocket. After brushing a few stray hairs off the sticky candy, he put it in his mouth. The resulting sucking and crunching noises were just as annoying as his fidgeting and Willow ordered him to board the ship and do his best to keep out of the path of the busy sailors.
She then turned her attention towards Faith who was overseeing the loading of their crates of firebombs. Willow looked at the number of crates such had brought with her and wondered just how many people or objects Faith was intending to firebomb. The brunette did not trust the sailors to carry the temperamental glass orbs and she obviously intended to carry them aboard herself.
All in all, their preparations moved swiftly, but not so swiftly that their haste would draw undue attention to their small party. Willow cocked her head slightly at the distant sound of a carriage crossing the cobbles. Her heart beat a little wilder when she realised it was not drawing away, but coming nearer. Sure enough, out of the gloom emerged a small covered carriage drawn by two dark mares. She breathed a sigh of relief that was shared by everyone else as she recognised a carriage belonging to the British museum.
The driver drew to a halt near Faith, who cradled her firebombs protectively as the horses pawed the ground, impatient to be in a warm stable and out of the night air. He leapt down from his seat to open the door, but his passenger pre-empted him as she opened her own door and stepped out onto the cobbles. It was none other than Lara Croft herself, wearing a long leather coat that covered her completely save her head and hands. One hand held tightly to her cane which she used to help herself down the carriage steps.
"Just when I was beginning to think you wouldn't come and see me off," Faith smiled broadly at her lover. She left her precious cargo to cross the distance between her and Lara and ignored the fact that she was in public as she swept the other woman into a firm embrace. They shared a brief kiss before Faith set her down once more.
"Who said anything about seeing you off," Lara replied quietly, lifting her eyebrows.
Faith's smile vanished quickly when Lara's driver moved around to the back of the carriage and smartly removed two small bags from the luggage compartment. An eager sailor immediately came forward to claim the bags with the intention of taking them aboard the ship.
He was intercepted by Faith who snatched both bags from the driver with an indignant expression on her face, "Where the hell do you think you're going?" she snapped at her lover, leaving the embarrassed sailor unsure as to whether or not he should take the bags.
"I'm tired of staying behind while the rest of you go flitting off to Europe, I've decided to join you," Lara replied quite calmly. She snatched one of her bag from a dumbfounded Faith and handed it to the sailor. She nodded that he should take the other one. Carefully, as though worried Faith would bite his hand off, he took the remaining bag from Faith's grasp. He then gratefully scurried away from the two women. Willow, Giles and Myles however were not as discreet as they looked on with interest as their friends faced each other.
"You've decided...you've decided?" Faith repeated loudly as Lara's words began to sink in. She glanced across at Giles who was giving her a stern glance and she lowered her voice to a quiet but intense hiss. "I don't care what you've decided...there is no way in hell you're coming with us! And for your information we are not 'flitting' off to Europe, we're on a mission to save the known world."
"It was a figure of speech," Lara shrugged, still apparently completely unperturbed by Faith's reaction to her intentions. "Who do you think is financing this 'mission' of yours? I mean to ensure firsthand that my money will be well spent."
"That is not why you are coming," Faith replied tartly.
"No, it is not," Lara admitted, cocking her head to one side as she smiled at her lover.
"You are coming because you stupidly believe that you can be of some use to us!" Faith cried in exasperation, resorting to blatantly cruel tactics to avoid seeing Lara join them. The small smile on Lara's face only made her feel as though she were being petulant and foolish when her intentions had far more serious consequences. "You cannot run let alone fight...god Lara, would you make me go into battle with my concern for your safety outweighing all other concerns?" Faith's voice caught slightly as she blinked back tears of frustration.
Lara seemed unconcerned at Faith's words, hurtful though they may have been. She reached out and tenderly stroked her lover's chin. "I was fighting demons while you still had your hair done in braids and dolls on your lap...and regardless of my infirmity I can still outshoot you. Faith, I love you dearly but it simply comes down to the fact that I am the Director of the British Museum and I have decided that I will be going on this mission."
With that obviously to be taken as the final word on the matter, Lara determinedly strode past Faith, only using her cane sparingly as she moved towards the gangplank.
Almost completely red in the face, Faith watched as Lara walked straight past her. She took a few steps in Lara's wake but stopped short of physically restraining her, "I do not care if you are the Director of the bloody British Museum, you can fire me for all I care...but I do care that you are my lover, and as your lover I beg you not to come!"
There was an awkward silence in the air following Faith's outburst, only broken by the sound of candy crunching in Myles's mouth. Lara did not look back as she boarded the ship and disappeared into the main cabin. Faith finally gave up staring after her lover in expectance of a reply and turned her attention back to her firebombs. When she eventually carried them aboard she did so with such careless abandon that all looked on in horror until they were safely stowed.
Willow felt a measure of Faith's pain but she also sympathised with Lara. She suspected that although the Director had every intention of assisting with their mission to the best of her considerable abilities, her agenda was simply being with Faith...no matter where in the world she was going. With a slight sigh, Willow glanced around at the almost empty dock. Now that most of their luggage was loaded, there was very little reason for her to remain standing on dry ground other than to keep watch for Tara. She reluctantly moved towards the small ship. Her footsteps sounded hollow as she trudged up the gangplank, all the while keeping a firm grip on the single strand of knotted rope that served as a thoroughly inadequate railing. Once on board she hardly felt safer as she felt the ship sway ever so slightly beneath her. With a shudder she remembered the disaster that had been her last Channel crossing. They were still moored on the Thames; Willow hated to think what it would be like once their small craft reached the Channel.
To take her mind off the imminent journey, Willow divided her time between watching the remainder of their luggage get tossed aboard by the crew and staring out into the early morning darkness. At any moment she expected a slender shape to emerge, with blonde hair framing a beautiful face...Tara promised she would return. Willow sighed as the last of the luggage was on deck, she knew that Tara had verbally promised no such thing and yet she had felt it go unspoken between them. The scraping of the gangplank as it was drawn onto the ship caused her to search out Giles. She did not have to look further than the other side of the deck, he was standing watching her.
"She is coming isn't she, Giles?" Willow asked insistently.
Giles tugged his woollen sailors cap down over his ears and turned away slightly so Willow could not see the guilty look that passed across his face, "Wherever you are, Tara will never be far away."
Willow missed his expression as she lent over the gunwale and stared at the river ahead but she did manage a tight-lipped smile in response to Giles's uncharacteristically emotional answer. Her eyes were veiled as she stared into the murky darkness, "Well, she should bloody well be on the boat with the rest of us." She then lifted her gaze to the night sky where not a single star shone down on them. "I can't stand the thought of her being alone in the dark."
"Tara will be fine, she is a creature of the night after all," Giles reminded her quietly.
Willow tightened her grip on the railing in front of her. She held on under her fingers were white and numb with cold before finally thrusting them back into the pockets of her coat. The intense burning sensation as feeling returned reminded her that she was very much alive.
"That might have been true once," Willow finally replied to Giles, "But everything has changed now."
Giles waited for a moment as though expecting Willow to elaborate on her cryptic sentence. She did not however, and eventually he left her alone by the railing.
Willow remained watching the shore as the gangplank was slowly drawn up, the moorings thrown off and the ship slowly began to move out into the middle of the river. Tara never came.
Seated upon his throne, Dracula heard a rasping of hinges and he watched the great doors at the far end of his hall swing inwards, through the slight gap entered one lone figure. Dracula snorted immediately, he recognised the figure even though that end of the hall was shrouded in darkness. He knew that whip-thin body anywhere...it was William.
He had an inkling of what William had come to tell him before the fool even opened his mouth. Dracula tightened his grip on the arms of his throne, trying to prevent himself from rising to his feet and tearing the messenger a new mouth in his throat.
"I have disturbing news, my Lord," William murmured as he lowered himself to one knee in front of Dracula's throne. He went down grudgingly, as though it was not an action that came easily to him.
"All your news at present has been disturbing, William," Dracula commented in a bland tone, "You came to me not two hours hence and assured me the skull was at Hagley Park! I am expecting you to tell me that you have the skull in your possession!"
William swallowed awkwardly, "Maclay was sighted near the former Van Helsing home, that raised suspicions...but I have just gleaned from wharf rats that a small party matching the descriptions of our foes left the docks the day before yesterday," William announced in a slow voice, as though he was fearful of the reaction his news would provoke. "It would seem that somehow, they have found the skull."
"How do we know that is not a ruse and the skull is in actual fact with Maclay?" Dracula asked, his voice trembling with rage as he drummed his fingers on the arms of his thrones.
"She is alone...our sightings from the wharf match the descriptions of their entire party, including the old warlock," William replied in an impertinent tone, already rising to his feet instead of remaining on his knees in the presence of his Master. "They obviously have it...and have sought to leave for Covasna to destroy it without arousing our suspicions!"
Dracula laughed unexpectedly. It was a throaty demented sound. William frowned as he knelt before the throne, rightly wondering if his Master were losing control.
"All these years spent searching desperately for the skull...and in the end all we had to do was wait for the path to be revealed to us," he cackled.
"Little good it will do us if they destroy the skull," William commented bitterly, almost under his breath.
William glanced up, knowing full well that Dracula had overheard him. He would not however grovel; he kept his square chin thrust defiantly upwards and waited on the decision of his Master.
"Assemble the hordes...we ride now!" Dracula commanded immediately, his booming voice at odds with his relaxed posture upon his throne.
"Now my Lord?" William clarified nervously, his composure wavering somewhat beneath the fearsome gaze of Dracula, it was maniacal in its intensity.
"Now!" Dracula repeated. "As many as can be mustered, we ride for Covasna!"
As William turned his back to him and walked out of the great hall, Dracula had to suppress the urge to smite the vampire in one fell blow. He channelled his anger into a single clenched fist held before him and vowed that neither Willow Van Helsing, nor Tara Maclay, would leave the field of Covasna - either alive or undead.
He then turned to his left and saw, illuminated in the faint flickering of torchlight, his suit of armour. With a nostalgic smile he lifted himself from his throne and slowly made his way towards it. The closer he came, the more of its intricate detail he was able to pick out. It was a magnificent work of craftsmanship, black steel worked by master armourers who had been turned and pressed into service for him alone. He lifted his fingers towards it and ran them over the inlaid gold and silver designs which were traced out over the entire breastplate. They trailed outwards, over the shoulder guards and continuing to the gauntlets. The helmet was a fearsome creation, wrought into the likeness of the demon that was mounted above his throne.
Dracula remembered the last time he had worn it, riding at the head of his army. He smiled, he would wear it again...and again he would ride at the head of his horde of undead warriors, a great torrent that would sweep Europe clean of the unworthy...starting with the pathetic band of fools who sought to destroy the skull.