Author: Chris Cook
Willow dreamed of being the forest.
She, her sleeping consciousness, stretched for mile upon mile, horizon to horizon, an eternal life in the silent dark. Her body was cocooned in a heart of ancient wood, and within her heart the forest's timeless pulse thudded, patient as the seasons.
She stirred. Something was present that wasn't her. Wood and leaf and moss receded before it, uncoiling from around Willow's form, leaving her gasping and naked and unsure on a bed of hard rock. She opened her eyes.
Dark clouds were swirling towards her - not alive with thunderstorms, but dead with ash. All around her the forest was retreating, in fear, before the advance of the unalive darkness. With the trees' fear coursing through her, Willow stood, shielding her nakedness with trembling arms, and faced the wall of shadows.
A figure appeared, emerged. Clad in darkness, wreathed by it, cocooned as Willow had been by life. Willow wanted to run, to hide in the heart of her forest from this faceless apparition. Yet her hand raised, and reached for the figure, and now the shadows were retreating from her, were uncoiling, revealing blue eyes in the darkness-
Willow woke with a gasp, wrenching at bedsheets that were twisted around her limbs and heavy with sweat. She struggled for a moment, then took a deep breath and slowly disentangled herself, kicking the sheets off the foot of her bed with an exasperated sigh.
Yawning and rubbing sleep from her eyes, Willow stood, swaying a little as she found her balance, and walked to the near wall, her feet padding quietly on the smooth slate of the floor. Three walls of her cluttered, sprawling dwelling were fashioned from brick and timber; the fourth, which Willow leaned against and relaxed as her bare skin pressed against the ancient bark, was the side of an enormous river oak. Willow flexed her hands, and the deep crevices in the old bark seemed to shift slightly, aligning with her fingers. Her breathing calmed, and she straightened, more properly awake.
Picking up her discarded sheets and dumping them in a basket on the way, Willow crossed to the shelves and stone counter that served as her kitchen, and retrieved an apple from a ceramic pot, munching thoughtfully. The crisp bites sounded unusually loud in the dawn stillness, with barely a murmur of noise outside the shuttered windows. Willow moved around the furniture and arcane paraphernalia cluttering her living area and descended a few steps, coming to a doorway. Bracing herself against the morning chill she opened it and ventured outside, into a small, ersatz bay where the river oak's huge roots splayed out on either side of her home, one emerging from the wall on the near side, the other resting over the roof, as if the house had been there first, and the ancient tree grown around it.
No-one was out on the lake so early, affording Willow the privacy to bathe in peace. She gave a quick hiss, an intake of breath, as her toes dipped into the water from the stone steps, then squared her shoulders and took a shallow dive, surfacing a few metres from the shore, flushed red from the sudden cold.
"Will?" a voice sounded from inside her home. Willow shook her head and dragged strands of wet hair from her face, and paddled back to the steps, where she crouched, keeping the waist-deep water over her shoulders.
"I'm in the bath," she called back.
"It's just me," the voice replied. Willow relaxed and stood, crossing her arms across her chest, apparently feeling this was sufficient modesty. A young man in faded leather pants and a loose vest emerged from the doorway, and tossed a rolled up towel to Willow, which she caught one-handed.
"What's up, Xander?" she asked, rubbing her hair somewhat dry. She shot the young man a sly grin. "The lunar alignment rites aren't enough naked Willow for you?"
"Darn, you got me," Xander joked, sitting on the steps above the waterline. His expression grew serious. "Buffy's called a meeting, as soon as you're ready. There's still no word from the Sea Hawk." Willow's face fell.
"Liam's always punctual," she said grimly. Xander politely looked away as she waded to the edge of the steps and climbed out of the water, wrapping the towel around herself.
"I know, and he's two days late now," Xander nodded. "Buffy's worrying herself sick. And the scouting party got back from Devlan late last night." He sighed and shrugged helplessly. "The Horde garrison there has doubled. They're not taking any chances of us gaining a foothold outside the forest."
"That's what," Willow frowned, "eighty Hordesmen?"
"Eighty, and an aerial wing," Xander said. "We don't have the numbers to take the town, let alone hold it."
"Some resistance we are," Willow grumbled. Xander began to nod, then caught himself and offered a smile to the redhead.
"We're doing what we can," he said. "There's a lot of people living free inside our borders, we're sabotaging the Horde where we can, and when you consider what we're up against..."
"We should be doing more," Willow said firmly. "There's a lot more people outside the woods, with the Horde's boot on their necks. They've..." she trailed off, and sighed. "They've got the whole world. And we're just hiding in our forest, and hoping one day we'll be able to actually do something, because at the moment all we can do is-"
"Hope," Xander said quietly. "It's better than giving up." Willow gave him a long stare, then sighed glumly and rested her head on his shoulder.
"You okay?" he asked. "I just ask because generally Buffy's the doom-and-gloom queen, and you're the one who keeps us all chirpy."
"I had a... dream," Willow said softly.
"Not a happy cheerful dream, then," Xander guessed. "Was it frogs?"
"No, I'm better with frogs now," the redhead grinned faintly. "It was... actually I have no idea what it was. Which is kind of ridiculous. What's the good of having prophetic dreams if you can't make sense of them?"
"Was it?" Xander asked. "Prophetic, I mean?"
"It wasn't a normal dream," Willow shrugged. "I know that much. There was something... dark. A person. And a cloud covering the sky, pushing the forest back..." She raised her head and looked around, taking in the hulking roots of the river oak, its massive canopy above, filtering the morning sunlight, and the expanse of the lake with its layer of mist making it seem as if it went on forever.
"I don't feel safe," she said.
"This is your forest," the young man offered.
"The Whispering Woods aren't the only magical power in the world," Willow said quietly. "There's something out there I don't have a defence against."
"Come on," Xander suggested after a moment's thought. "Buffy's waiting."
The rebel settlement - in fact, not much more than a scattered encampment - was a hive of activity by the time Xander and Willow, fully dressed now in warm leggings, a crimson jacket and soft leather boots, made the short walk from the edge of the lake up to the array of groves where most of the buildings had been erected. Some were still in the process of being built: carts and pack animals made a steady procession by the framework of a two-storey hall that was slowly taking shape, while a group of trainee archers were already making use of their range while a barracks was still having its roof put on behind them. Xander ran an expert eye over their form as they aimed for their distant targets, and gave them a wave when he was noticed by their sergeant. Willow looked aimlessly around the storehouses and shelters, with some interest in the trees that continued to grow among and around the buildings, trunks and roots forming parts of their structure, but for the most part her thoughts were elsewhere.
"Xander!" Both looked into the distance, spotting a metre-tall figure sprinting out from behind the settlement's modest smithy, appearing strangely blurred and indistinct as it moved.
"Cecile?" Xander called.
"Willow, you too!" the figure called, puffing as it neared. As it slowed the vagueness of its shape vanished, and it resolved into a miniature woman, waist-height and with pale purple skin. She bent over with her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath.
"Glimmer," she panted. Xander knelt down next to her.
"Are you alright?"
"Fine," she nodded. "Running... Just came from... the other side of the camp. Glimmer needs you."
"We know, we're on our way," Willow said. She took the sprite's hand gently, and strength seemed to return to the exhausted figure.
"Thanks," the woman smiled, no longer seeming fatigued at all. "It's not that - there's been a message, a carrier bird. Glimmer said she needs you both at once, it's an emergency!"
"Want a lift?" Xander offered. Cecile climbed easily onto his back, and he and Willow jogged past the archery range and the half-finished hall, towards a line of trees beyond which a small forest of tents could just be seen.
Xander and Willow, with Cecile behind them, entered one of the tents to find its sole occupant standing at a map table, with her head bowed. Her hands were flat on the table, supporting her; beneath one was a folded piece of paper.
"Glimmer, I... found them," Cecile spoke up, hesitating as her voice broke the heavy silence. The blonde at the table nodded, but didn't look up.
"Thank you Cecile," she said. The sprite gave a fleeting smile, then backed out of the tent and vanished. Xander and Willow shared a wary glance.
"Buffy, what's happened?" Xander asked. The woman, Buffy, held up the folded paper in her hand.
"From the Sea Hawk," she said.
"Is Liam-" Willow began.
"It's not that," Buffy shook her head. She looked up at last, turning a lifeless stare on her two companions. "He couldn't make port in Blackmoor Harbour. The Horde is landing an army."
"What?!" Willow exclaimed.
"That's impossible," Xander protested. He looked at Willow. "Isn't it?"
"The whole bay is within the Woods' sphere," she said, frowning in furious thought. "There's no way a hostile vessel could navigate it, the currents, the shoal waters... they tried a season ago and every ship was smashed and sank before they got within a mile of land..."
"Liam's message says they've got fifteen troopships on the shore," Buffy replied flatly. "Infantry, war engines, everything. He saw it with his own eyes."
"But..." Willow began, they paused. "Give me a moment. It's a long way away, but maybe..."
Xander and Buffy followed as she left the tent and approached a patch of open ground, an expanse of grass on a slope beneath the nearer trees. She unbuttoned her jacket and tossed it aside, leaving her in just a thin, sleeveless cotton shirt, and say cross-legged on the ground, stroking her fingers across the tips of the grass. Her breathing slowed, and the grass around her seemed to shiver.
Slowly the thin blades of grass began to grow, curling around Willow's fingers, reaching up her arms. All around her the greenery thrived, stretching up about her, covering her legs, wrapping tightly around her waist. The strands creeping up her arms gently tugged at her, pulling her back to lie flat as they wove over her shoulders, and reached up her neck; her legs, indistinct beneath the tightly wound grass, straightened. She opened her mouth, and an instant later was covered completely, visible only as a slowly writhing shape beneath the mass of plant life.
Buffy and Xander watched, the blonde somewhat uncomfortably, as the mass slowly stilled, now seeming to be nothing more than an unusually-shaped mound in the grass.
"When she does that..." she began.
"It looks... I don't think I could do it," she shrugged.
"Being swallowed by forest-stuff?" Xander nodded. "Yeah, it's probably something you have to get used to."
After a moment the mound shuddered, and all of a sudden withdrew leaving Willow gasping on the ground, shivering and covered in sweat. Xander and Buffy knelt by her side at once, Xander helping her to her feet, Buffy scooping up her jacket and covering her shoulders with it.
"It's true," Willow panted. "We... I, saw. There's a force inside the Woods' magic, something that's worked its way in. Everything between Blackmoor and the sea is... well, paralysed."
"Blackmoor castle?" Buffy asked sharply. Willow nodded.
"The Horde could march right through the marshlands if they wanted," she added.
"I bet they do," Xander said darkly. With Willow's arm over his shoulder for support they returned inside, where Buffy strode up to the map table and stared bleakly at it.
"There's thousands of people in Blackmoor," Buffy muttered. "If the Horde lays siege to the castle... we have to stop them, somehow."
"Fifteen troop ships," Willow said. "We don't have the strength to defend the castle against an army that size."
"If we called the garrison from Brightmoon," Buffy replied quickly, "every soldier my mother can send-"
"No time," Willow said, gulping down a mouthful of water from a flask Xander handed her. "I felt how far the Horde had moved into the Woods' sphere. They're in the marshes already, half a day from Blackmoor. Brightmoon is three days away."
"Us, then," Xander said. "We get every fighter here and ambush the Horde before they reach the castle. They'll have to go through the fen valleys... Willow, if you're there in person, could you strengthen the forest magic?"
"Probably," Willow nodded.
"We'll catch them in the valleys," Xander went on resolutely. "Box them in, sow some havoc... if we get their vanguard and rearguard on the defensive, you can bog down their whole force, and we can take them apart. Or at least do so much damage that they won't be able to move on Blackmoor without reinforcements." He looked from Willow to Buffy and back again, awaiting their opinions.
"I can do it," Willow ventured.
"If it doesn't work, they'll rout us," Buffy cautioned. "They have the numbers, we don't."
"We can't lose Blackmoor," Xander countered. "If we don't make a fight of it now, we might as well admit defeat."
Buffy looked to Willow, who nodded.
"Decided, then," the blonde agreed. "Xander, rally the troops. We leave in a quarter of an hour."
The young man looked questioningly at Willow, but she gave him a smile and shrugged her arm off his shoulders.
"I'm fine," she said. "Go on." She and Buffy watched him go, then the redhead sat on a bench at the side of the tent and sighed. Buffy gave a last glance at her map, then approached and sat beside Willow.
"You're sure you're okay?" she asked.
"Yeah I just need a moment," Willow said with a quick grin. "I've never pushed that far before. From here all the way to the sea... for a moment, I was all of it."
"It looked... difficult," Buffy said hesitantly. "Painful, even." Willow gave a chuckle and shook her head.
"Exactly the opposite," she grinned, fanning herself. "Oh deary me... But very draining."
"You'll be ready?" Buffy asked.
"If I fall asleep in the saddle on the way, catch me before I hit the ground," Willow joked. "I'll be fine. Five minutes and I'll be good as new."
"Good," Buffy said. "Good... I suppose."
"What?" Willow asked. Buffy gave a helpless shrug.
"We're going to war," she murmured. "The word 'good' just doesn't feel right."
"No argument there," Willow sighed.
The fen valleys were uninviting at the best of times. Sandwiched between the broad Blackmoor marshlands seaward, and the highlands on the other side, they were a stretch of dismal, treacherous swamps scissored by jagged ridges of rock, like huge rows of teeth thrusting into the sky.
Through the widest valley, a mechanised Horde army was slowly closing on the highlands, where Blackmoor castle and its scattered townships waited. First came the scouts, low-built, sleek vehicles whose wide tracks supported them well enough to cross the swamps without falling prey to their camouflaged sink holes. Above them glided scores of tiny flying machines, surveying the foreboding terrain beneath them with ruby red bionic eyes.
Behind them came the bulk of the army: slow, clumsy pathfinders, steadily laying down metre after metre of dull grey steel in their wake as they rolled onward, and on the new road they were building rank after rank of armoured Horde troopers marching in perfect step, malevolent battle tanks, mechanised siege weapons, and hulking dreadnought walkers.
At the heart of the force was a single vehicle that stood out from the rest, a mobile fortified tower rumbling forward on heavy tracks, sporting a heavy cannon turret at its base that slowly covered the terrain, swinging its barrel back and forth above the heads of the elite troopers surrounding it. Atop the tower, slowly surveying the army's progress through the swamplands, stood a lone figure, clad in a long scarlet cloak with bulky Horde armour beneath, yet clearly not of a kind with the machine-like troopers. Strands of blonde hair lay over the figure's armoured shoulders, which bore the rank patches of a Captain; full lips pursed in impatience as soulless black eyes scanned the ranks of soldiers and squadrons of war engines slowly advancing.
A flash in the sky far ahead drew the Captain's attention. She gestured smoothly with one hand, without taking her eyes from the distant vanguard of her force; below her vehicle, a squad of troopers stepped out of formation and sprinted forward, fanning out across the swamplands on either side of the Horde's artificial road. There was another flash up ahead, this time from somewhere on the broken rocky ridge to the right of the valley. The Captain brought a scope to her eyes just in time to see an arrow, coated in blue flame, explode against the shell of one of her scout flyers, sending the tiny machine spiralling down into the marsh.
"Flyers evasive," she commanded in a strong, steady voice, as more arrows appeared, scattering the swarm of flying machines. "Pathfinders shield, artillery salvo at thirty degrees, range five short to five two-"
"Rearguard under attack!" a mechanical voice interrupted her from her tower's communicator.
"Defensive formation!" she barked, spinning around to peer into the distance behind her army, where more streaks of blue fire were lighting the sky, these forming shallow arcs that fell into the tail of her army. Around her command tank the heavy siege weapons were extending support legs to take their weight from their tracks, and slowly swinging their huge barrels towards the ridge the fire was coming from, while the ranks of troopers spread around them, readying for an assault from any direction.
A chorus of sirens drew the Captain's attention back to her immediate surroundings. On either side of the roadway the troopers, and the scout tanks that had ventured onto the marsh, were sinking into the dark, thick ooze. Even as she watched ridges of rock were vanishing under the marsh, swallowing troops and tanks that had been relying on them for stability. Several squads of troopers were already gone, or buried so deeply they had no chance of freeing themselves; a scout tank gunning its engines managed to free one track, but the other remained stuck fast, and it slewed around into its escort troopers, smashing several of them into the murk, their armour cracking to reveal the remnants of living men inside them.
The siege cannons fired with a staccato booming like a thunderhead, and the Captain turned to watch their shells burst on the distant ridge, while still gesturing to her troopers to pull back to the safety of the roadway. She faltered though, when after two eruptions of fire and mud in the distance the third shell seemed to vanish without a trace into the jagged rocks, and then another, and another - the crashing detonations continued to wash back over the army, as if the shells had landed, but there was no trace.
"Flyers down to half strength," the Captain's communicator reported neutrally. "Evasive action ineffective. Cannot track incoming fire-" A deafening crunch from nearby drowned out the rest of the report, as one of the siege tanks began to sink through the road into the mire; the Captain stared at it in furious disbelief, then movement from beneath the tank's neighbour caught her attention, and her eyes widened as she saw vines and roots rising up through the steel lattice of the road surface, winding tightly around the metal, slowly buckling and crushing it.
"Artillery, fire on heat signatures!" she yelled over the din as another section of roadway began to collapse. She drew a sleek sword from a scabbard on her back and aimed it at the vines, sending them shrinking back out of sight beneath the marsh before they could finish wrecking another length of road.
"They're targeting the archers!" Willow warned from her vantage point on the rocky height above the army's main force, seeing the siege tanks turning their barrels. "Buffy, drop the illusion, hit the tanks now!"
"Damn it," the blonde grimaced, "thought that'd have 'em confused longer." She withdrew the hand she had been holding out towards the end of the valley, and the ridge which had seemed immune to the tanks' shells shimmered and vanished, revealing a row of craters where the artillery bombardment had landed. On the opposite side of the valley several dozen rangers, Xander leading them, came into view as the illusion covering them faded, and realising their danger they scattered before the first tanks had finished aiming at them.
"Get some distance," Buffy warned Willow. "They're going to see right where this came from." The redhead nodded and sprinted away, pausing now and then to press her hands to the rocks beneath her, sending new waves of plant life up to assault the Horde's road, dragging down troopers and vehicles as the surface steadily weakened. Buffy watched her go, wiping sweat from her brow, then turned her attention to the army beneath her.
"I hate illusions," she muttered. "This is much more my style."
Abandoning her hiding place she stood up on top of the ridge, arm outstretched towards the largest concentration of tanks. Light seemed to bend around her, colours formed in the air out of nowhere, streaming into a sphere in her palm that grew bright white, almost bursting with energy. Buffy shut her eyes against the intense light, which for a second seemed to bleach out even the sunlight, then she released its power in a beam that leapt from her palm into the heart of the Horde armour, slicing straight through a siege tank and into the side of a pathfinder.
Willow, now a hundred metres away along the ridge, ducked instinctively as the tank erupted in a fierce ball of flame, and kept her head down as a second explosion sounded after the first. Looking around cautiously she saw Buffy scrambling down the far side of the ridge, clear of the impacts of the light guns which had been turned on her the moment she revealed herself. In the valley the siege tank she had hit had been near vaporised, reduced to scattered debris, blackened and twisted as they sank slowly into the swamp. The mechanised road-layer had fared little better, torn open from side to side, its inner workings scorched beyond recognition, and behind it a battle tank had been destroyed too, probably from some piece of flaming shrapnel tearing into its fuel or ammunition - it was a wreck, its rear torn apart leaving the shell of the front useless and burning fiercely, keeping back the troopers trying to advance towards the source of this new threat. A dozen or more had had less luck: having been close to the exploding vehicles, they were scattered about the scene of devastation in pieces, circuits and hydraulic muscles mingled with scraps of flesh.
An explosion from nearby caught her attention: the Horde Captain's command tank had levelled the main cannon beneath its tower and blasted away a chunk of the valley side, raining debris down onto Buffy as she sprinted along out of sight beyond the top of the ridge. The redhead let out a relieved breath as she saw the blonde emerge unharmed from the cloud of rock dust, and turned her attention back to the battle. In spite of the faltering surface beneath them, more and more of the Horde's heavy vehicles were bringing their guns to bear on their ambushers, firing scattered salvos at the ridges in an effort to force them into the open.
"Buffy, the cloud!" she called over her shoulder.
"Not yet!" the blonde shouted back.
"We have to, now!" Willow insisted. "They've got too many big guns! Cloak me!" She saw Buffy toss her head in frustration, then nod and raise a hand towards her, and she braced herself against the pins-and-needles sensation that washed over her. Light warped around her, hiding her from view, and in the space of a second everything around her was darkness, and what sight she had was magic alone.
A spike of pure light leapt up behind her from the incandescent outline that was Buffy, a signal to the other rebels to press home their assault. Willow moved as quickly as she could, over ground she could see only by its magical aura, thin and ephemeral on the rocky ridges, more intense but blurred in the marshes below. None of the Horde troopers scrambling over the few remaining outcrops of rock in the swamp seemed to see her as she moved past them, the footprints in her wake too subtle to be seen in the confusion of battle, and quickly oozing back into the marsh in any case.
A reverberating crash signalled another salvo of fire from the Horde tanks, and Willow drew to a halt, less that twenty metres from the command Tank, almost at the edge of the steel roadway. She could feel the sensation on her skin weakening, as light began to force itself back through the distortion Buffy had placed about her; wasting no time she knelt down and plunged both arms elbow-deep into the bog, chanting under her breath.
The Horde Captain swore as another laser-like blast of energy from Buffy devastated a trio of dreadnoughts, throwing the troops sheltering behind their armour into disarray. She hammered a command into her cannon's controls, then swung her sword at a shower of arrows raining in from where the rearguard had been, dispelling the blue fire clinging to them so that they clattered harmlessly off the armour of the troopers they hit. She turned to check her cannon's aim, but an instant before she could fire the swamp around her army erupted, ejecting a miasma of thick dust and cloying gas into the air. The Captain swore as her visibility was cut in half, and aimed her sword where Buffy had been, creating a magical whirlwind that began dispelling the dense vapours blinding her army.
Momentarily exhausted, Willow crouched in the shelter of a piece of tank debris, the last of Buffy's cloaking spell gone, but safe for the moment as the Hordesmen stumbled about in confusion, firing randomly into the fog, which baffled even the enhanced vision of their red-tinted artificial eyes. She cautiously poked her head up to take in the scene, and caught sight of the Captain, still working to dispel the clouds of vapour.
"That's not dark magic," she muttered, her brow furrowing. A glint of light drew her eyes back to ground level - safely concealed by the fog from mundane sight, Buffy had ventured closer, safely crossing the swamps that, thanks to Willow's reinforcing magic, the Horde tanks were finding too treacherous to venture into.
The blonde fired quick, lethal bursts of light, faster now that she was closer to her targets, blasting apart tanks and troopers with deadly efficiency. Magic-tipped arrows from Xander's rangers were falling ahead and behind, but as planned they kept their fire clear of the very centre, where they knew their two sorceresses would be. Stumbling in a confused panic, unsure where their attackers were, or even where they were, the Horde were being whittled down.
Willow saw Buffy turn her attention to the command tank, sending a beam of light straight down the barrel of its cannon. The Captain clutched the top of her tower as something inside the vehicle detonated, nearly throwing her from the vehicle. She glared around, caught between anger and panic, and to Willow's surprise their eyes locked, the Captain somehow piercing the miasma of fog to find the redhead. She lifted a hand and drew her hood back, peering as if entranced by the sight of the forest sorceress crouching behind the debris of one of her tanks.
Willow tensed to run at the first sign of attack, but the Captain seemed caught, her sword lowered at her side. With her heart hammering, inwardly raging at herself to run or fight, the redhead stood up, never taking her eyes from the blonde Captain. Her eyes watered with the effort of not blinking - she felt that, if she looked away even for an instant, they would be a rebel and a Horde soldier again, but for now they were something else...
A brilliant point of light caught Willow's eye, breaking the spell - she whipped her head around to see Buffy drawing power for a second blast, this one aimed to shear off the top of the command tank, surely obliterating it and the Captain in an instant.
"Buffy no!" she yelled instinctively. The Captain looked away from her, realising her danger. She hit a control, bringing petal-like panels of armour up around herself, but Willow knew they would do no good. Without thinking she thrust her right arm, still caked with mud from her last exertion, back into the ground, and a huge mass of plant life erupted through the roadway beneath the side of the Captain's tank.
Willow watched in slow motion. The vehicle, already damaged, tilted and then broke, spilling fuel as the tower tore free of its mounts and toppled sideways. Buffy's blast caught the edge of the tower, slicing through the half-deployed armour plates, missing the Captain by inches. Droplets of white-hot liquid metal showered down into the stricken body of the tank, catching the ruptured fuel tank and engulfing it in flame, as the wrecked tower crashed into the swamp.
"Willow get the hell down!" Willow looked up to see Buffy at her side, and wondered how the blonde had moved so fast. Then she realised that she herself had moved too - she had been running, in clear sight of the nearer vehicles, towards the wrecked tower, which was slowly sinking into the mire. She struggled free of Buffy, then paused a moment to conjure up another, smaller, torrent of airborne dust and vapour, shielding them from sight for a moment, before resuming her dash towards the fallen tower.
"Just destroy their damned road and let's go!" Buffy insisted, staying by Willow's side. "The cloud's dispersing, we haven't got much time- What are you doing?"
"Help me would you?" Willow shouted, reaching the tower and hauling at a piece of bent metal, managing to shift it a little. Buffy stared at her incredulously for a second, then pitched in, and between them they managed to slide the jagged chunk of debris out of the way, revealing what remained of the top of the tower. The Captain was still inside, face down in the murky water that now half-filled what had been her command post.
"Okay she's dead, now can we... Willow?" Buffy asked, as Willow lifted the blonde out of her would-be grave.
"We have to keep her alive," Willow insisted. Buffy stared at her, then shook her head.
"You get crazier every day," she sighed, helping Willow lift the unconscious Captain and standing guard while the redhead checked her breathing.
"She's alive. Help me get her out of here."
Buffy cast her gaze skyward for a moment, then closed her eyes and put a hand on Willow's shoulder, and on the Captain's arm. Willow gasped, and Buffy grimaced in pain, as a cloak enveloped the three of them.
"Move, it won't last long!" Buffy snapped, getting her shoulder beneath one of the Captain's arms. Between them they carried the blonde slumped between them, moving quickly across the marsh which seemed to solidify beneath their feet just long enough for them to pass.
"I thought you couldn't do that again so quickly," Willow said warily.
"I probably shouldn't have," Buffy replied without looking at her. "But you're intent on getting this person," the word came heavy with irony, "out of here alive, and I'm damned if I can think of another way to get clear of the fighting in one piece. Just make sure when we get home you've got a good explanation for this."
On the other side of the world, while Blackmoor fell into evening darkness, it should have been broad daylight, but as it had been for decades here, the sky was a dull, unchanging red. No stars ever shone at night, and even the sun, when it was in the sky, was reduced to a sickly orange glow; factories and towers belched fire and thick smoke into the sky around the clock, turning the air and water and land into a desolation as bleak as the fortress that dominated it. Those of the land's inhabitants who remained, corralled into decaying villages and forced to work in the mines and foundries, called it the Fright Zone: a vast industrial bastion, sprawling for miles in every direction, consuming metal and soil and water and air like some voracious, titanic parasite, slowly eating the world it had sunk its claws into.
At the heart of the Fright Zone stood the Citadel Prime, the heart of Horde power. Above tiers and tiers of cells and barracks and torture chambers was the Citadel's imperial tower, a cathedral in praise of power. Within it, in the throne room, huge bones stood like columns, melded with oily black metal, welded and carved with endless repetitions of the Horde's winged skull standard. The cavernous chamber, sealed off from the world outside, was lit only by the pools of oozing lava flanking its marble floor, casting a bloody glow over its inhabitants.
Two of them, a fierce-looking woman with unbound black hair, and a hulking bestial creature nearly twice her size, approached the throne at the far end of the hall. Between them was a short, middle-aged man outfitted in expensive seaman's clothes, and looking like he would very much rather not be there. The beast man's heavy claw on his shoulder kept him in place, however, as they neared the throne, though he couldn't help but glance at the blackened, shrivelled shapes hanging from thick iron poles protruding from the lava pools - waist-deep, so as not to die too quickly.
"Master," the beast rumbled, slurring slightly as its thick lips moved over large, carnivorous teeth. Torches on either side of the throne dais flickered to life, casting their light on the form seated at the heart of the Fright Zone. His face, such as was visible beneath the segmented iron mask he wore, twisted into a semblance of a grin, revealing razor-sharp teeth.
"H-Hordak," the man stammered, as the Horde master's red eyes fixed on him.
"First Mate Swen, of the Sea Hawk," the iron-faced creature said flatly.
"Yes Master," the beast replied. It gave what it may have intended to be a reassuring nudge to the man's shoulder, thrusting him forward.
"M-my Lord," the sailor said, flinching from the sound of his own voice. "My Captain h-has betrayed the Horde."
"What?" Hordak leaned forward, pinning the trembling man with a glare.
"It's true my Lord!" he insisted. "He's been in communication with the rebels, and he's met them in person, when he lands at Blackmoor Harbour-"
"How long has this been going on?" Hordak demanded.
"F-for... I've been aware for... seven months, my Lord," the traitor replied, shrinking under the Horde master's fierce crimson gaze. "Forgive me my Lord, I didn't dare, until now... if he'd found me-"
"I see," Hordak said slowly. "And now...?"
"Wh-when we stood off Blackmoor Harbour, and saw the force landing there... Captain Liam sent a message to the rebels, then approached the paymaster of the Horde army, offering to carry messages. I think he hoped to learn the Force Captain's plans, but... we got a message, at nightfall, to be brought here... Captain Liam ordered a course set for the Ice Coast, and I knew he meant to switch sides permanently... I waited for full dark, then stole a sky sailer and-"
"And came here," Hordak finished for him. "You might have simply joined the army at Blackmoor... but if I may guess your mind, you hoped you would be rewarded for your information? And Hordak himself has access to far greater riches than a simple army paymaster."
"M-my Lord," the traitor said haltingly. "I only thought... I wasn't sure who I could trust-"
"Indeed," the Horde master cut him off. "What was this message, then, that the Sea Hawk's Captain hoped to keep from the Horde?"
"A-a battle, my Lord." The man gulped, then steeled himself and continued: "The Blackmoor army came under attack, in an ambush. The rebels... captured the Force Captain."
"What?" Hordak bellowed. The man shrunk back, bumping into the hulking beast man behind him, which seemed unnerved itself by its master's anger.
"The Rebellion captured the Blackmoor army's Captain?" Hordak demanded. "You're sure of this?"
"Yes my Lord!" the traitor said pleadingly. Hordak's eyes blazed for a moment, then dimmed.
"Grizzlor," he said quietly. "Summon the Shadow Weaver to my throne room. Then take a squadron of Vultures with full crew, and find the Sea Hawk. Return only when that blasted ship has been burned out of the sky!"
"Yes Master," the beast nodded, stepping back then turning and lumbering out of the throne room. Hordak leaned back in his throne, studying the bones decorating its arm for a moment.
"You," he said at last. "First Mate Swen... You served for seven months on a vessel you knew to be disloyal to the Horde. But much time might have been lost had you not been in a position to deliver this news now... Do I offer you reward, or punishment? What manner of reward would you seek?"
"My Lord, I..." the traitor hesitated.
"Perhaps Faith," Hordak grinned slyly, indicating with a clawed finger the woman standing beside the sailor. He looked at her, and couldn't help his gaze lingering on her body, of which her armour concealed little.
"She has certain... appetites," Hordak went on. "I'm sure you could satisfy her... Would you consider this a suitable reward for your loyalty to the Horde?" The traitor seemed paralysed by indecision; Faith, evidently feeling he could use some help, licked her lips and drew a sharp fingernail up her abdomen, slitting open the purple gauze that stretched beneath the metallic winged skull covering her breasts.
"Say yes," she purred.
"Y-yes," the man echoed.
"Good," Hordak smiled. "Faith... you may satisfy your appetite with this... traitor." Swen turned to look at Hordak, suddenly fearful at the edge on the last word, but already Faith was advancing on him, taking him in her arms, opening her mouth, which stretched out of her face, becoming a feline muzzle, with sharp, vicious fangs.
Hordak watched with a modicum of enthusiasm as the woman tore out the traitor's throat, crouching over him as he fell and digging her snout into the wound, snarling and chomping as arterial blood gushed over her face and chest. Then he stood, sensing an unseen presence in the shadows behind his throne.
"Shadow Weaver," he said quietly, with absolutely no affection. A pair of glowing yellow eyes opened to slits in the darkness.
"Hordak," a damaged voice rasped in reply.
"Let's dispense with you pretending you were not aware of this," the Horde master growled.
"I would have informed you at the proper time," the voice replied. Its owner emerged into the fiery half-light of the throne room, revealing itself as a female form in a flowing crimson dress, which trailed loosely on the ground as the Shadow Weaver floated. A matching cowl covered her head, and the lower half of her face - what remained was wreathed in ghostly shadows, leaving her glittering eyes, and the pale, dry hands half-hidden by her trailing sleeves, the only evidence of the being within.
"The proper time," Hordak muttered, circling the hovering witch. "That would have been as soon as those rebel scum took my Force Captain!" The throne room shook in sympathy with its master's anger. Unheeded, Faith retreated warily, evidently deciding that the now-dead remains of Swen were not sufficient incentive to remain in Hordak's presence.
"It was at your insistence that she led the Blackmoor force," the Shadow Weaver hissed, unmoved by the fury facing her.
"Do not seek to pass on the blame for this!" Hordak replied heatedly. "She is the perfect Force Captain - she can only have been overcome by magic. If you'd trained her in witchcraft half as well as I had in command, this would never have happened! But that would never do, would it," he sneered. "The power within her may have eclipsed you... I've often wondered whether you've kept her from realising her gifts simply to maintain your own position."
"If I were you," the witch rasped pointedly, "I would be far more worried about that power falling into the wrong hands. The enchantments on her are strong... but so are the energies of the Whispering Woods. If the shadow on her were broken..." She stared levelly at Hordak, watching him restrain his fury with visible effort.
"Is that possible?" he snarled at last.
"I have been tracing her," the Shadow Weaver replied. "She was taken first to Blackmoor, then deeper into the Woods, beyond my reach. There, it is... possible."
"Damn you, witch," Hordak muttered darkly.
"If I am to be damned for this, it will not be alone." The veiled threat hung in the air between them for a moment.
"Go in person," Hordak commanded eventually. "Faith will assume command of the Blackmoor offensive. She will have full autonomy... but the moment Force Captain Tara is recovered, you will take charge of her, and see to it that nothing turns her from her loyalty to me."
"It will be done," the Shadow Weaver rasped.
"Those words preserve your miserable life," Hordak warned. "See that they do not prove untrue."
Xander looked up, peering into the starlight as something high in the sky moved across it.
"Buffy, your mom's here," he noted. Buffy, sitting against a tree outside her tent, looked up from the scrolls she was immersed in by the light of a torch.
"Mom!" she exclaimed, smiling widely for the first time that day. An older woman with a clear resemblance to the slender blonde glided easily down to the grassy clearing, her expansive white-feathered wings folding behind her back as she touched down. Buffy rushed to her, and the winged woman welcomed her in a warm embrace.
"Highness," Xander said, standing smartly to attention.
"Oh please Xander," she shook her head, releasing Buffy. "I'm sure you don't call my daughter 'highness' and she is a princess..."
"Mom..." Buffy complained.
"Sorry," Xander grinned. "Joy. It's good to see you."
"Both of you too," Joy nodded.
"Willow's on her way," Buffy said. "She had to stay at Blackmoor a while, to reinforce the magic in the marshes. We only delayed the Horde, they'll try again, so..." She stopped and gave a helpless shrug.
"I saw a horse nearing from up high, that must be her," Joy noted. "I came as soon as I got word. We haven't had word of any other Horde advances, so I left only a skeleton garrison on the castle. They'll be here by sundown tomorrow."
"That's fast," Xander noted.
"We know what it's like to lose allies," Joy said sombrely. "Never again." She hesitated, then dropped her eyes to the ground.
"Did you lose anyone today?" she asked quietly. Buffy and Xander exchanged a glance.
"Darius," Xander replied. "One of my rangers. Shrapnel from a cannon shot - they were firing blindly, but with artillery..." He sighed. "He, uh... he had a daughter, Kristala. She'd be better off not staying here-"
"She'll have a home in Brightmoon," Joy promised. "And the Horde?"
"We did our best," Xander went on, glad of the change of topic. "Like Buffy said, we could only delay them - the ambush was effective, for the most part, but we just don't have the numbers or weapons to really press home an attack like that. Surprise is really all we've got. We did some damage, but we had to pull out or they'd have regrouped and gone on the offensive, and then..."
"Blackmoor sent scouts to find out what the Horde's doing now," Buffy added. "Willow should be bringing news from them. And then there's the prisoner."
"Prisoner?" Joy echoed.
"The Force Captain," Buffy said, frowning. "We-" She was interrupted by hoof beats from the hard ground on the other side of the tent, and all three looked up. A moment later Willow's voice sounded from inside.
"Hello?" She appeared at the tent's back entrance, carrying a long satchel over her shoulder. "Oh, there you are- Joy, hi! Buffy, the Captain, is she-"
"Under guard, restrained, unconscious... in your place, like you asked," the blonde replied. "What's the word from Blackmoor's scouts?"
"From what they saw the Horde's repairing their road-layers," Willow said, as the four of them moved back inside the tent. "And more troops and tanks have come up from the coast. I did what I could with magic to slow them down through the marshes, but that'll just slow them down a bit - they'll still make it through. Best guess, two days. Three at most."
"My soldiers will be joining you by then," Joy offered. "Blackmoor's defences are good - we can make a stand."
"We'll sort it out in the morning," Buffy nodded. "Now, you want to explain to us why we've got a Horde Captain sleeping off a headache in your house?"
"Buffy-" Xander began.
"Because I don't remember agreeing to take that risk!" Buffy went on. "Willow, you know what the Horde's like with its officers - if they learn that we have her they'll burn the Whispering Woods from horizon to horizon. Assuming she doesn't suicide as soon as she gets the chance. And it's not as if there's any chance of learning anything from her, she'd die first."
"Buffy please," Willow said. "This is... look, I can't say how exactly, but this is important. There's something about her that's different, the power she was using today, and if I can just figure it out..." She sighed heavily. "I know you don't like the I-don't-know-why-but-trust-me line, but... I have to see her. I have to... reach her somehow." She raised her hands to stall Buffy's response.
"No I don't know why, or how, or what it means, but... Buffy, this is important. I know it's a risk, but we need to take it."
"This isn't a game, Will," Buffy warned. "The Horde-"
"Buffy, I know!" Willow insisted. "Okay, I haven't lived out there under them like you and Xander, but I'm not an idiot, I know what they'll do. But something inside me is telling me to do this. As a sorceress, I'm telling you, this matters." She took a deep breath.
"You two can overrule me," she offered quietly. Buffy looked at Xander.
"Nuh-uh," he shook his head. "I don't understand sorcery, but I know not to argue with it."
"Looks like the Captain stays," Buffy allowed, with poor grace. "But be careful. Hordesmen aren't... like us, Will. She's dangerous."
"She can't use magic," Willow shook her head, swinging down her satchel and reaching into it. "Not at my level, in any case - not without this." She drew the Force Captain's sword out and laid it flat on the table.
"She gets her power from the sword?" Xander wondered.
"Everything I saw her do was channelled through this," Willow nodded. "I can still feel something inside it. I'll need time to work on it - I sensed what I could on the ride back here, but this is really different to anything I've studied before. I need to check my books. And see what our guest can tell me, if anything." She fixed Buffy with a look. "I want you to keep the sword, for now. So long as it's not close to its owner, she won't be able to draw on its power, I'm sure of that."
"That doesn't make her helpless," Buffy warned, taking the sword. She looked around, and went on, uncomfortably. "Willow, this isn't Buffy being pessimistic, this is Buffy worried for her friend who she loves like a sister... just... be careful, okay?"
Willow entered her home and took a moment to survey her visitor. Relieved of her heavy armour, with just the soft leather bodysuit she had been wearing beneath the metal, she seemed far younger. She was lying on a backless couch, her head propped up against the armrest at one end with a pillow, and her wrists secured beneath the couch with leather-lined steel cuffs.
Willow nodded at the ranger who was keeping watch on the unconscious woman, and waited until he closed the door behind him. Then she approached the blonde, studying her closely.
'Fit,' she mused, her eyes tracing the subtle but noticeable curves of the muscles in her arms and legs. 'Well-nourished... If she was a Horde slave once, it was a long time ago.' Her eyes settled on a bruise just below the woman's hip, on top of her bare leg and spreading a little to her inner thigh. She frowned, and surveyed the blonde for other injuries, thinking back on the violent demise of her command tank.
'Doesn't look like she's any older than me. She's lucky to be alive.' Willow gave a quiet sigh, letting her eyes roam over the woman's face, which looked very different without the angry scowl it had worn earlier. 'Come to think of it, so am I, all in all.'
She moved to a nearby desk, laden with vials and gourds, and sat down, slowly measuring out quantities of liquid into a dish.
"I know you're awake, by the way," she said over her shoulder after a moment. She allowed herself a faint grin at hearing the slightest intake of breath, a sign of surprise, quickly stifled.
"You're a witch," the Captain said carefully.
"I am," Willow agreed, swirling the liquids together until the result glowed a faint blue. "In fact, hereabouts I'm pretty much the witch."
"The floramagus," the Captain concluded. "You're the one they talk about. The reason the Woods fights the Horde, scrambles our navigation systems, sabotages our vehicles-"
"No," Willow said, turning back to her guest. "No, the Woods do that. They know what the Horde is - what you do to this world, and every living thing on it." She paused, and shrugged. "I help. On the matter of you and your Horde, I happen to agree with the Woods. I'm Willow."
"Willow," the blonde said, as if testing the word.
"And you are?" Willow prompted.
"Force Captain Tara, Special Directorate, Sunder Command."
"That's a mouthful," Willow said evenly. "Mind if I just call you 'Tara'?" The Captain remained silent.
"Well Tara," Willow went on undaunted, "you're a prisoner of the Great Rebellion, and before you get all creative and try escaping, you should know that yes, I am the 'floramagus' - which is a pretty awkward term don't you think, I prefer 'sorceress', that sounds neat - and all those stories about what I can do are pretty much true. Especially right here - we're on a concentration of forest power here, so even if you had your magic sword, which you don't and won't, there's not a lot you could do to improve your situation."
"Where's my sword?" Tara asked sharply.
"I've had it for as long as I can remember," the blonde frowned. "It's... uncomfortable to be separated from it." Willow picked up the bowl she had been working on, dragged a stool over beside Tara's couch, and sat next to her.
"I know we're probably seeming fairly tame, as captors, compared with what happens to rebels who get taken to the Fright Zone," she said mildly, "but under the circumstances, I'm really not bothered by you being uncomfortable. Sorry, but there you go." She pulled over another stool nearby and set the bowl on it.
"And what does that do?" Tara asked, glancing at the bowl. "Truth potion? A hallucinogenic?"
"Wow, you do hang out with some fun people," Willow shook her head. "It's to help your injury heal. If you want it, of course. If you don't believe me, that's okay, you and your ouchies can become properly acquainted." Tara stared at her for a long moment, during which Willow found herself drawn to the woman's eyes. She remembered them being black, but - she told herself - she hadn't really gotten a good look. Seen closer, Tara's eyes were blue, clear, deep blue, but obscured by inky swells of darkness that seemed to slowly move, or seep, across her eyes like clouds.
"I drink it?" Tara asked eventually.
"Hmm? Oh," Willow looked away. "Not unless it's the inside of your stomach that's bruised. Here-" She dipped her fingers in the softly-glowing oil and reached out to touch Tara's thigh, rubbing as lightly as she could in a slow spiral.
"Does it hurt?" she asked.
"Not really," Tara shook her head. "I've been injured before. This isn't bad."
"Uh-huh," Willow replied neutrally, shifting a little closer.
"I thought you weren't bothered by me being uncomfortable," Tara said, fixing Willow with a testing stare.
"Healing your bruise won't endanger my friends," Willow replied tartly. "Don't be difficult."
"Does that really do anything?" Tara asked.
"The oil helps," Willow said dryly. "The patterns I'm tracing are healing spirals, they'll sort of encourage your body to heal itself, and dull the pain until you do." She gave Tara a sharp glance. "But it's fairly reliant on the patient not being obstinate and subconsciously telling her body to ignore what I'm doing, so if that's the case, I might as well just stop. Your call," she finished airily.
"I'm sorry," Tara admitted. "Don't stop." Willow nodded, and concentrated on her task for a moment.
"That's better," she said, half to herself. "The pain's gone?"
"Yes," Tara said quietly.
"I'm suppressing it," the redhead explained. "After a while the spell will become self-repeating. It'll last a day or so, long enough for the worst of the bruise to heal."
"You could tell it wasn't hurting?" Tara guessed.
"Mostly it's plants I'm good with," Willow shrugged. "Me and the Whispering Woods, we're... well, a very small pea in a very large pod. But there's a common energy to all living things. And of course people are living things... even if they are Hordesmen," she finished in a mutter.
"We're people, just like you," Tara said quickly.
"People maybe, like us, no," Willow shook her head. "And I wouldn't repeat that around anyone else here if I were you. I'm one of the lucky ones, I grew up here, safe. Most of the others came from outside the Woods."
"They came to live here?" Tara asked.
"They came here because the Horde conquered their homelands," Willow shot back. "Because they were herded out of their homes, their villages were burned to the ground, and they were put in enclosures like animals, and forced to work themselves to death in mines."
"That's rebel propaganda-" Tara began, defensively.
"I've seen it," Willow insisted, not raising her voice, but silencing Tara nonetheless with a stern look. "Seeing as you were faking unconsciousness, did you sneak a peek at our chief ranger before they put you in here?"
"Xander," Tara said quietly, nodding.
"He lived in a village called Devlan," Willow went on. "He was a farmer's son. The Horde came to Devlan, led by a Force Captain, probably just like you. They said they were assuming control of the area, to 'introduce stability', and 'reduce border tensions' with the neighbouring towns they'd already conquered. There was nothing of value to the Horde there. Only farmers. Horde slave transports landed, and they just herded the whole village aboard. Everyone - children, the old, the sick. Not many got away." She stopped circling her fingertip on Tara's thigh, and clenched both fists in her lap.
"A few of the men managed to break away, when the Hordesmen opened the enclosures to move the people onto the slave ships. They fought Horde troopers with their bare hands, just so a few of the children could get away in the confusion. Xander and his sister were the last to get out, but they were spotted, and his sister shielded him from the blasts when the troopers opened fire." She swallowed, and continued with some difficulty. "When he got here, he was still carrying her, even though... she was gone. Twelve years old..."
She let out a quick breath, then looked back at Tara, almost sadly.
"I'm not trying to shock you into admitting you're wrong," she said, calmly resuming tracing spirals on the woman's thigh. "I know you won't. I'm just... making it plain, that there's no point in you explaining how Horde domination is in the best interests of Etheria." She snorted derisively, and settled into a brooding silence.
"I-I'm sorry," Tara said, meekly. "That I said... I won't talk about it any more." Willow looked up at her, gazing intently.
"It bothers you," she said, "doesn't it?" Tara shook her head.
"Of course not," she replied, looking away.
"Look me in the eye," Willow challenged. Tara remained still for a moment, indecisive, then met Willow's gaze.
"I don't," she began, and stopped. She took a breath. Willow waited a moment, then raised an enquiring eyebrow. Tara fixed her with a defiant stare, opened her mouth, then thought again and looked away.
"I... don't know why it does," she said softly, her eyes downcast. Willow continued to stare at her, frowning deeply in thought.
"You feel differently than you used to," she said - a statement, not a question. Tara squared her jaw, then gave a single nod. Willow dropped her gaze to her fingertip, still circling slowly on Tara's thigh, then looked into the still oil in the bowl.
"Can I ask you about this?" she said suddenly. Tara huffed a breath.
"I'm your prisoner, you don't have to ask permission," she muttered, though there seemed to be more discomfort than hostility in her voice.
"If you say no, I won't," Willow replied calmly. Tara didn't lift her gaze.
"Go ahead," she allowed.
"You've led missions before," Willow said. "Attacks, conquests..."
"You've overseen slave raids?"
"Resettlement- yes," Tara nodded, abandoning the retort half-way through.
"Taken prisoners to the Fright Zone?" Willow persisted.
"Condemned prisoners, who you knew-"
"Yes!" Tara shouted. "Alright? Yes, I gave the orders that sent hundreds of men and women to be turned into Horde troopers, to be cut up and armoured and have their brains butchered and rebuilt as machines, and then I-I accepted them back into my command w-when the only humane thing-" She stopped, choking back the words that were suddenly rising out of her as if on their own.
"Tara?" Willow asked quietly. She stopped her slow spirals, and lay her hand flat on Tara's leg, gently.
"The only humane thing," Tara resumed, closing her eyes, "would have been to let what was left of them die." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I o-ordered that done."
"I think there's something wrong with you," Willow said thoughtfully.
"Thank you, so I'd gathered," Tara spat back, shooting a deadly glare at the sorceress.
"No!" Willow said quickly, lifting her hand from Tara's thigh. "No, I didn't mean it like that, I promise... Please. Before today, none of that bothered you?"
"It's- it was my duty," the blonde said sullenly, though the tension in her body eased somewhat. "I never liked it, given the choice of course I wouldn't have... As I saw it, everything I did was necessary. They had to be done, for the Horde."
"And now?" Willow prompted.
"Now," Tara sighed, finally letting Willow see her eyes again, "I don't see... why they were necessary. I don't know what the Horde could possibly be, that would justify th-the... atrocities..." Tara's gaze faltered, and Willow looked down, so that the blonde wouldn't have to feel her scrutiny.
"Apart from you, does the Horde have any magic users?" she asked. "I know there are mercenaries and Xenians with magical abilities, but are there other actual sorceresses? People who can manipulate magical power, as well as just use it? Did anyone like that ever spend time with you?" Tara gave her a wary sidelong glance, and she continued quickly: "Don't give me names, or powers or anything, this isn't an interrogation... if you want to, just tell me what you can without anything strategically worthwhile." Tara lifted her head, and her face softened again to the expression she had worn before Willow had unintentionally angered her.
"One," she said. "Shadow Weaver. Hordak's personal witch. She's tutored me in magic."
"Hordak's personal witch tutored you?" Willow repeated, wide-eyed. "We're talking about the Hordak? Metal face, deity complex, the top dog of the entire Horde on Etheria?"
"I'm his protégé," Tara nodded. "He taught me strategy, tactics, hand-to-hand combat..."
"Who are you?" Willow asked, amazed.
"I'm Tara," Tara shrugged. "I know what you mean - both of them have paid me far more attention than any other officer. I don't know why, unless it's my magic. I don't know of anyone who can cast magic like me, except for Shadow Weaver. The Horde's captured other sorceresses, but they..." she swallowed, and gave Willow a sorrowful look, "they died. They wouldn't join the Horde."
"No," Willow agreed quietly. She leaned forward. "This Shadow Weaver, she's spent a lot of time around you? Teaching you magic?" Tara nodded to both questions.
"Has she ever done spells with you, or around you, when you didn't know their purpose?" Willow persisted.
"Yes," Tara replied. "That's how it always was. She uses magic constantly - never explains what she's doing, only what I need to know to learn."
"Some way to learn," Willow muttered. She reached out and touched Tara's cheek, meeting her surprised stare when she looked up.
"I think she's been enchanting you," Willow said seriously.
"Enchanting- you mean controlling me?" Tara asked incredulously.
"No, that's virtually impossible," Willow shook her head, dropping her hands into her lap. "Frankly, this should be to, but it's all I can think of. Look, magic, for sorceresses like you and me, it's a source of energy - no good or evil, but it's moulded by us, by passing through our beings when we use it. The magic you were using today wasn't... well, it wasn't the kind of magic I'd have expected a Horde officer to be capable of. Not someone who could do the things they made you do, it wasn't dark like that."
"Made me do?" Tara asked.
"I think, somehow, this Shadow Weaver person found a way to... to cloak part of you, for want of a better word," Willow said, with a little shrug. "The part that knows good from evil, and would choose good, the part that's horrified at what you've done for the Horde - that part of you has been suppressed all this time. That's how you could cast magic without darkening it, you're not evil, but you've been... I suppose, channelled, into not being able to see the wrong you've done." She again resumed drawing spirals on Tara's thigh, slower than before.
"But..." Tara shook her head, looking away, "I've always been loyal to the Horde... The things I said... what I feel now, I've never felt that before in my entire life."
"Shadow Weaver has been 'teaching' you all that time?" Willow asked. Tara looked at her, startled by the realisation.
"All that time," she agreed, her voice a mix of wonder and fear. "Since I was a baby. My first memory is being with her... I don't even remember my mother and father. Just her." Her gaze drifted, then she fixed Willow with a stare that was almost pleading.
"I don't want to go back," she said, her voice shaking with emotion suddenly being set free. "I don't want to be the person I was until today. Willow?" Tears trickled slowly down her cheeks. "Help me?"
"I will," Willow promised, stroking Tara's face with her free hand, wiping her tears away. "You're safe here, I promise. They won't get to you. You won't have to be like that, ever again."
"The army," Tara said, "my army... did you stop it?"
"We held them off," Willow said soothingly. "They won't be able to advance for a couple of days, and we have allies who'll be ready by then. Without you they won't be able to manipulate the forest magic anymore - that's why they wanted you, I'll bet, to affect natural magics the way a dark witch can't. They won't be able to get any more ships into the bay, or move into the deep forest, where we are."
"I'm so sorry," Tara cried quietly. "I brought them here-"
"No," Willow shook her head, leaning closer. "Not you. You've... you're as much a victim as the people they turn into troopers. But you're free now."
"I, should..." Tara began, her eyes flitting across Willow's face, closer to her own than ever before. She swallowed and composed herself.
"I should give you their orders of battle," she said. "Even if they send a new Captain to replace me, it might help for you to know..."
"In the morning," Willow nodded. "Buf- Glimmer and Xander will still be here, and they're the ones who should hear it. I'm not much of a tactician, it'd just go in one ear and out the other."
"Alright," Tara said. She looked curiously at Willow.
"Buffglimmer?" she asked.
"Huh- oh," Willow smiled at herself. "Glimmer."
"Princess Glimmer, from Brightmoon?" Tara asked.
"My best friend," Willow nodded. "Well, co-best friend, her and Xander. But I've known her longer. We call her 'Buffy', it's from when we were younger... You know Brightmoon follows the forest way with names?" Tara shook her head.
"I only ever learned about the Queendom's army and defences," she said, regret touching her voice. "Nothing else." Willow nodded, and shifted from her stool to the edge of the couch Tara was lying on, perching beside her.
"It's the forest way to give children a childhood name," she explained, "and then, when they're starting to become adults, they choose a name for adulthood. Something appropriate for who we are, and who we're hoping we'll become."
"The Princess is a photomancer," Tara noted.
"Hence 'Glimmer'," Willow continued.
"And 'Willow' for a forest sorceress," Tara guessed.
"Right," Willow smiled. "I was raised by the forest people, the Twiggets... sprites, you know?" Tara nodded. "My mother was a refugee, she fled into the forest while she was carrying me. She was hurt... they couldn't help her, and she died giving birth to me." She smiled sadly, and Tara saw loss in her eyes, but one she had long ago become accustomed to.
"The Twiggets promised her, if she didn't make it, that they'd take care of me," the redhead went on. "And they did. I learned all about the Whispering Woods, went with them from one end to the other and back again, every year during the migrations... and I learned how to hear the forest, and talk to it."
"You can talk to the trees?" Tara asked, her eyes widening.
"Well, that might not be the best word," Willow grinned. "They can't talk like us... of course, from their point of view, we can't talk like them. But there's a way of becoming... sympathetic to their rhythms, and the patterns in their lives. In harmony with the forest, I suppose. It's sort of like meeting them half-way - it's not how they communicate, and it's not how we do, but it's a way I can reach the forest and be a part of it, a little. Enough to do what I do, anyway."
"The Horde intelligence on you says you control the forest flora," Tara said. "But it's not like that, exactly, is it?"
"No, it isn't," Willow replied, smiling at Tara's perceptiveness. "It's a meeting between me and the forest - I become aware of the Whispering Woods, and the Woods becomes aware of me, and of what I experience, as a person. Like I said, we're so different - the forest can't easily perceive something like people, we're just... too fast, too variable. The forest sees seasons like we see the hands on a clock, it sees whole species migrating as single entities, it sees..." She trailed off, lost in thought.
"It's difficult to explain?" Tara asked.
"It's beautiful," Willow smiled. "But that's just a word... It's impossible to really explain. But that's beside the point anyway," she went on, "what I was saying is that I don't control the forest, I just provide a perspective it can use to act - to heal, or sense, or fight a threat. I suppose the simplest way to explain it is that the Whispering Woods is my ally - though, again, human terms aren't quite right. In some ways we're so distant, when we're not sharing we're barely aware of each other, except as abstractions, but when we're together, it's, well," she blushed a little and looked away, "so intimate... like lovers almost." A grin crept onto her face, which she fought to suppress.
Tara blushed too, and spoke hesitantly to break the silence.
"H-how... did you, um, come to Brightmoon?" she asked. "You said you and the Princess were friends from childhood?"
"Oh," Willow nodded, smiling broadly again now that the subject was less intimate, "the Twiggets brought me to the Queendom when I was eight - about when I grew taller than most of them, and they decided I needed to be around my own kind. More than usual, I mean - they knew about me in Brightmoon, and I'd been close to it, and met people from there with the Twiggets. The Queen's prime minister sort of informally adopted me, and I got to know Buffy... Glimmer," she corrected herself.
"What was your name, before 'Willow'?" Tara asked. Willow sighed and rolled her eyes.
"What?" Tara asked.
"Razz," Willow said heavily.
"Razz," Tara repeated, grinning.
"It's Twigget for 'red'," Willow explained. "They don't have red hair, so that kind of stood out about me. But the first tree I learned to talk to was a willow, so that's the name I chose when I was old enough."
"Razz," Tara said again, biting the corner of her lip.
"Don't make me regret telling you," Willow mock-scolded her. "It took me long enough to train Buffy not to call me that all the time."
"But you still call her Buffy," Tara chuckled.
"Well of course," Willow replied, as if there was no contradiction at all. "That's different."
"It's funny," Willow grinned. "Besides she's very serious a lot of the time. It'd take a lot for her to admit it, but she likes being teased, being... childish, I guess. Playing around. It's not something any of us really get to do a lot." She and Tara shared a silent moment, Tara looking down at the floor, Willow's gaze drifting from her clouded eyes to cover her features, lingering on her lips, and her neck, where a strand of golden hair was resting on her pale, smooth skin.
"I never missed having friends," Tara said at last, quietly, unknowingly bringing Willow out of her reverie. "I never thought about having friends."
"I'm sorry," Willow sighed. "But if it makes it any better... you've got one now." She looked at Tara with a hesitant, hopeful smile. Tara returned the look, with dawning happiness on her face.
"It does," she said.
"It does?" Willow asked.
"Make it better," Tara smiled. Willow grinned widely, and let her free hand touch Tara's arm, giving it a warm squeeze, and afterwards she didn't break the contact.
"There wasn't anyone...?" she prompted gently. Tara shook her head.
"No-one," she replied. "Everyone below me in rank - and being Hordak's protégé, that meant practically everyone, whatever their actual rank was - was afraid of me, that's just how it is in the Horde. Officers are expected to want power, to fight for it, and as a commander, the only way to control officers beneath is by fear. A commander who can't dominate her subordinates deserves to be deposed." She sighed. "To be honest, there was no-one I'd have considered in any case, even without rank. Too cruel, too ruthless... like I was."
"You're not now," Willow assured her. Tara smiled faintly, facing unpleasant memories inside.
"What about you?" she asked, looking up. "Is there anyone you're... well..." Willow frowned in confusion for a second.
"Oh," she said, realising, "oh, no... Not that there aren't nice people around here, but I guess I'm just too picky, or wrapped up in my magic perhaps. Buffy and Xander are my friends, the Twiggets are, well, Twiggets - their lives run differently to humans, so far as intimacy and courtship, and besides they're tiny... not that I'm size-ist or anything, but when I picture my dream girl, she's kind of my height, rather then waist-height - and that's verging close to dirty joke territory," she admitted with a chuckle.
"I wasn't going to say anything," Tara grinned.
"No, but when you've been around Xander a while, you get into the habit of avoiding obvious lead-in lines for jokes like that," Willow laughed. "He's great, but he just loves seeing my face go red." She stifled a burst of giggles.
"I have a 'dream girl'," Tara said, her gaze shifting from Willow to stare into space. "Not that I ever really thought like that... There have been times when I've dreamed of someone gentle. No-one specifically, just 'a someone', if you get what I mean." Willow nodded, and Tara smiled faintly and went on: "When I woke up after a dream like that, there'd be a moment, half-awake... Looking back, it's the closest I'd ever come to how I am now, here with you. Before it faded, I'd touch... um..." she broke off, as if suddenly aware of Willow again, and blushed hotly.
"Touch what?" Willow asked, causing Tara to duck her head in embarrassment. "A... Oh! Oh, righty, that's okay, no elaboration necessary... I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked, I was just being a spaz and not getting what you meant... Sorry. It's okay, no problem whatsoever, you know. I-I do too," she finished in a hurry, blushing herself as her ears caught up with her mouth and realised what she'd said.
"It's a-alright," Tara said hesitantly. "I-it's natural..."
"Yep, perfectly normal," Willow nodded. "Just some weird-o quirk of psychology that everyone feels uncomfortable talking about it."
"Uh-huh," Tara said, managing to smile at herself a little. She looked up, and seeing Willow's gaze averted, and took a moment to stare at her, studying the line of her jaw, her lips pursed in an attempt not to giggle, the short red hair falling across the side of her face. A look of longing passed across her face.
"What do you think about?" she asked softly.
"What do I think about?" Willow echoed.
"When you... you know," Tara explained, glancing away hesitantly as Willow's eyes fixed on her. "I told you mine, after all..."
"Your- oh," Willow smiled and blushed. "Dream girl... I don't know, I guess it's just a phrase people use, I don't really..." She looked down, accidentally ending up looking at her hand, still slowly circling on Tara's thigh, caressing more than drawing a magical sign. She seemed fascinated by the sight, and opened her mouth to speak, letting the silence drag on as she organised the emotions crossing her features.
"Honestly," she said, "what I think of is just the... physical side of it. I concentrate on myself, and magic..."
"Magic?" Tara asked gingerly, not wanting to dispel the velvet blanket that seemed to have settled over the two of them.
"Magic," Willow nodded, squaring her shoulders and trying to sound nonchalant, in spite of the rallying blush. "Forest magic is all about joining with the forest, which can be mental or spiritual or... physical. Ever since I learned to interact with the forest it's been a part of my life, so when I was old enough that... ah, self-love, became a part of me, the forest was part of that, too."
"You...?" Tara breathed. Willow glanced up at her, with some trepidation, and seemed to find a measure of confidence in the blonde's entranced expression.
"Be honest," she said, the corners of her mouth turning up in a grin. "If you'd been so comfortable with a magic all your life... wouldn't you try?" Tara couldn't help her blush, but she made no move to hide it this time.
"I guess I would," she admitted. "Don't tell anyone."
"Your secret is safe with me," Willow giggled. "You neither... I don't want Xander making lewd comments whenever I do a spell," she added, leaning conspiratorially close.
"It's a deal," Tara smiled. "W-w... what's it like?" Willow's eyes widened, caught off-guard by the intimate question. She broke contact with Tara's stare, only to find herself looking at the blonde's lips. She took a deep breath, and leaned back, reaching down with the hand that had been on Tara's arm. Thin creepers wound up through the cracks in the floorboards, reaching for the sorceress's hand, and wrapping themselves around them. Willow lifted her arm again, showing Tara - it seemed like her hand was covered with a glove of living flora, of soft petals and fronds that undulated slowly. Tara's mouth dropped open in surprise, then she bit her lip as her imagination worked.
"Beats bare hands," Willow said, dropping her hand and letting the plant-life disentangle and sink back beneath the floor. Tara nodded automatically; Willow shifted her weight on the couch, settling herself.
"I-I suppose," Tara said, in a shaking voice, "the prospect of being... with someone... isn't so..."
"Oh, it's not like that at all," Willow shook her head. "That's... me, in a way. I mean, obviously not me, in the sense that I don't have leaves and so forth, but... I don't have anything to compare it to, in that sense, but I think, to be with someone, and... to be as close to someone..." her eyes unfocused as she spoke, "...to touch them, and let them touch, to... to be that open, to have that connection, with a person..."
"Yes," Tara breathed.
"With someone who makes your heart beat faster, just by looking at you... to have them touch you... must be so incredible..."
"Ohhh," Tara moaned, closing her eyes.
"What?" Willow asked, returning to reality somewhat, realising that her lips were bare inches from Tara's, and her hand had moved down the inside of Tara's thigh, caressing her, and with the urging of Tara's rocking hips was perilously close to touching-
"Oh my gods!" Willow exclaimed, snatching her hand back and sitting up straight. "Oh my- I'm so sorry! I had no idea, I..."
"Willow, please," Tara whimpered, leaning up as far as she could.
"Tara, I-" Willow began, visibly distressed.
"I didn't mean-"
"I do mean," Tara said.
"Whuh?" Willow replied, utterly baffled.
"Kiss me?" Tara asked.
"What? Kiss? You? Me?" Willow asked in quick succession. 'Kiss me,' Tara's voice echoed in her ears, as the image of herself and Tara locked in a heated embrace filled her mind, 'Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me...'
"Willow?" Tara breathed, staring at the flustered sorceress. Willow returned her gaze, mouth hanging open, eyes wide. For a long moment the two of them were utterly motionless, trapped by each other's stares - then Tara mouthed 'please', and Willow fell on her, kissing her fiercely, the intensity of her sudden passion matched only by the fervour with which Tara craned her neck up, meeting her lips, drinking in her kisses as fast as they were offered.
"Mmm," Tara suddenly groaned, shaking her head. Willow pulled back at once.
"What on Etheria are we doing?" Tara asked. "Oh gods I... I want you..."
"You want...?" Willow hesitated.
"Oh, yes," Tara breathed heavily. Willow leaned in again, enough for Tara to capture her lips the moment they were close enough.
"Mmmmwait," Willow managed to gasp, in between kisses that she was as much responsible for as the blonde beneath her.
"Willow?" Tara panted. "What... did I-?"
"No, just..." Willow shook her head, breathing heavily herself. She kissed Tara again, then tilted her head, pressing her lips to Tara's cheek.
"Just... a moment," she murmured between kisses. Steeling herself she sat up and leaned sideways, reaching beneath the couch for the cuffs binding Tara's arms.
"Willow, you... don't have to," Tara said, as quick as she could between gulps of air.
"I'm still a prisoner... a Horde Captain-" The click of the cuffs opening cut her off.
"Tara," Willow breathed, leaning back over her, "no... you're not."
"It's part of who I am," Tara said sadly, seeming suddenly spent.
"Who you were," Willow insisted. "Who they made you." She sat back, drawing Tara up by the shoulders, helping her sit. They ended up face to face, foreheads resting against each other.
"Show me the person you are," Willow asked. Tara gazed at her, and slowly brought a hand to her cheek, stroking the sorceress's skin as lightly and gently as if she were made of the finest porcelain.
"When you said 'beautiful' is just a word," the blonde whispered, breathing into Willow's lips, "now, I understand..."
Willow dreamed of being in darkness.
It was comforting, at first - close around her, but nurturing, soothing. She let herself be held, and abandoned worries and cares and thoughts. She listened to her heartbeat, lulled by the steady rhythm, growing slower, smoother, quieter.
She stirred. Suddenly the darkness was too close, too confining. She fought against it, but it held her tightly, not letting go. She tried to scream, but there was nothing around her to carry sound, no air to breathe except the dark, which left a sickly sweet taste in her mouth as she involuntarily inhaled it.
Willow struggled with all her strength, thrashing from side to side in a vain effort to escape the force that covered her, and was slowly consuming her. She cried in fear and impotent rage as it seeped through her skin, and began to settle inside her, slowing her struggles.
She was trapped inside her own body, forced into compliance as her mind raged.
Willow woke with a gasp, clutching with one hand at the bedsheets, the other wrapping firmly around the waist of the woman nestled beside her. She blinked in the dark, fearful for a moment that the nightmare had found a way out of her dreams and had enveloped her in reality, but then she felt Tara's hand stroking her brow, and slowly her eyes adjusted to the faint blue moonlight of the very early morning filtering through the windows into her home.
"Willow?" Tara asked, holding her gently. "Are you alright?"
"I... yes," Willow said automatically, steadying her breathing.
"You looked like you were having a bad dream," the blonde said. "I thought, maybe I should wake you?"
"Thank you," Willow sighed, relaxing her tense muscles, settling into Tara's embrace. "I'm alright... I have odd dreams sometimes, it's part of the magic. Nothing to worry about."
"Are you sure?" Tara prompted gently. "You seemed so afraid... I was getting scared," she finished, with a self-effacing chuckle.
"I'm fine," Willow assured her. "And I didn't mean to upset you..."
"No, you didn't," Tara assured her in turn, "it was just... We don't really have to go in circles apologising to each other, do we?"
"I guess not," Willow laughed, feeling pleasant warmth seeping back into her body. She sighed again, peacefully this time, and rested her head on Tara's shoulder.
"How are you feeling?" she asked quietly, after a moment listening to her and Tara's breathing.
"Never better," Tara whispered, hugging the redhead to herself.
"It's only the first time that-" Willow began.
"I know," Tara cut her off, with her smile audible in her voice, "you told me already... and it was only for a moment. It was worth it." Her voice took on a dreamy quality. "You, inside me... inside me..." Her voice trailed off into a satisfied murmur.
"Mmm," Willow agreed, shifting her body to snuggle closer to Tara.
"Willow?" Tara asked.
"Yuh?" Willow mumbled.
"If you're not too sleepy, do you think we could... um, again?"
"Mmm-hmm," Willow smiled, kissing Tara's shoulder. "Definitely..."
"Mmmmmm," Tara purred, as Willow's lips slowly descended.
Afterwards Willow slept soundly the rest of the night, and when she woke sunlight was streaming through the windows. She felt Tara moving beside her, realising that was what had woken her, and turned to see the blonde sitting up, sliding her legs out from beneath the covers.
"Morning," she murmured, admiring Tara's naked form. Tara turned, Willow's gaze travelled up from her abdomen and chest, up her neck, settling on her face... where her eyes were pitch black, staring emotionlessly down at Willow from beneath frowning brows.
"Tar-" Willow managed to get out, before the back of Tara's clenched fist cracked across her temple. The sorceress's head slumped sideways on her pillow, and Tara quickly stood and assessed her surroundings. She started towards her clothes, which lay discarded in a trail leading from the couch to the bed, but before she had gathered up more than her boots a knock sounded at the front door.
"Will, you decent?" Xander's voice called. Tara hesitated for a second, then as the door handle began to turn she turned and ran, snatching a cloak off a hook on the wall as she reached the back door and shouldered it open, taking the steps at a run and not breaking stride as she reached the end of the small stone extension and dived into the clear lake, vanishing beneath the mist-wreathed water just as a clatter of an overturning chair and a yell of dismay sounded from inside the house.
Xander dipped a thick cloth in a bucket of slowly melting crushed ice, and then pressed it gingerly against Willow's temple. The sorceress winced involuntarily, but accepted the care, while beside her she sunk her fingers a little deeper into the ground.
Buffy appeared, vaulting over the river oak's huge sprawling roots. She skidded to a halt and sank to her knees at the sight of Willow lying on the ground in front of her house, with Xander's cloak rolled up beneath her head as a makeshift pillow.
"I just heard," she said, glancing between the two of them. "Willow, are you-"
"I'm fine," the redhead muttered. "Well, not 'fine', obviously, but nothing I can't recover from... ouch, though."
"Xander?" Buffy asked. "The prisoner?"
"The rangers are going after her," he said grimly. "But it looks like she swam - she could have a decent lead before we get riders across to the other side of the lake."
"How did she do it?" Buffy asked Willow. The sorceress glanced up at her, steeling herself, then closed her eyes.
"I let her go," she said glumly.
"Well- you what?!" Buffy exclaimed. "What do you mean you let her go?"
"I don't mean to escape," Willow replied, "just... They had her under a spell, some kind of enchantment, Buffy - she's not like them, she's not Horde! We talked what felt like half the night, and she's..." She paused, lost for words.
"Wait, what enchantment?" Buffy asked guardedly.
"The Horde has a witch, attached to Hordak - Tara told me-"
"Her name's Tara," Willow continued. "She told me that this witch had been doing spells on her for as long as she could remember. That's why there was something unusual about her, I could sense it - she's not evil, Buffy, she's like us! But they've got her under this curse that keeps her from seeing what the Horde is..."
"Wait, wait..." Buffy shook her head. "She convinced you she was under a spell, so you let her go?"
"She didn't convince me," Willow retorted hotly, "and no, I didn't let her go then, it was... look, there was..."
"What?" Xander asked, confused.
"She's not evil," Willow said resolutely. "I know that."
"Will, she just clobbered you and escaped," Xander pointed out, as gently as he could. "What other explanation is there, besides her going back to the Horde?"
"I don't know," Willow said stubbornly. "Maybe... her eyes were black!" she exclaimed suddenly, sitting up and startling both Xander and Buffy.
"Will," Xander warned, placing a hand on her shoulder.
"No I'm okay," she shook him off. "Forest healing and all that. Her eyes were black! And last night, when we talked, they were sort of blue-black. The curse must have come back, she can't help what she did..."
She looked at Xander and Buffy, wary at seeing the concern in their faces mingle with sadness, and perhaps even pity.
"Will," Buffy said carefully, "what if she just... changed her eye colour? You and I could, easily - if she's got any magic at all of her own, she could do it."
"But why?" Willow asked plaintively, grasping her hands together.
"To make you think she'd been cursed," Buffy replied heavily. "So you'd trust her, give her a chance to escape..." She scowled and thumped the ground beneath her. "Damn it Will, how could you do that?! We had her, and... you just let her go? What were you thinking?!"
"I trusted her!" Willow protested.
"She's Horde!" Buffy shot back. "They lie, they manipulate, they- Will I know you've never lived under them, but you know what they're like-"
"I know!" Willow shouted. "I'm... sorry. That's... all I've got. I'm sorry."
Buffy's anger drained away as she watched the redhead's hands wringing in her lap, but her expression remained resolute, and closed-off.
"I'll tell my mother what's happened," she said, standing up. Willow nodded, and kept her own gaze on her hands as Buffy turned and left.
"Will," Xander began hesitantly.
"I heard her," Willow muttered. "You don't have to say it too."
"No, it's not that," Xander said gently. "Will... you know she's just afraid, right? That Captain could have... could have killed you. The thought of losing you, it's... it's terrifying to her. That's all. She's not angry with you, it's just-"
"She should be," Willow interrupted him. "She's right."
"Will..." Xander began.
"I'm okay," the sorceress said, before he could continue. "You should be with your rangers. They'll need you leading them."
"You're sure?" Xander asked, hesitating to stand. Willow nodded, and pushed herself to her feet, disappearing into her home by the time Xander had stood and turned to her.
Inside and alone, Willow sobbed silently, clutching the back of a chair for support. She let herself cry for a moment, then gasped for air, forcing herself to calm. She looked around, and automatically went and picked up the stool Xander had accidentally knocked over. She imagined the scene, as he saw it - her asleep, or unconscious... or worse, and her prisoner escaped. She glanced at the couch Tara had lain on, and her eyes filled with pain.
Moving slowly, as if her body was too heavy for her, she crossed the room and sat on the couch. She leaned down and picked up Tara's heavy leather vest, turning it over in her hands. With sudden anger she tore the rank patches from the shoulders, then she subsided in sorrow, hugging the garment to herself and taking long, laboured breaths to fight off tears.
The sun had climbed high in the sky, shining down on Blackmoor castle, a stately fortress of heavy grey stone, dominating the stretch of farmland between the marshes and the dense Whispering Woods. Pennants were flapping in the breeze from its turrets - black and red, warning of danger. The tiny figures of soldiers could be seen on the battlements, waiting.
Faith slowly surveyed the scene through a telescope, standing on one of the last of the marsh's rock outcrops. Beside her a gruesome-looking creature, red-skinned and wiry, glistening like a sea creature, its face dominated by huge yellow eyes and a circular mouth brimming with rows of sharklike teeth, divided its attention between her, and the column of Horde battle tanks slowly rumbling across the roadway laid down over the marsh behind them.
"Good defences," Faith said at last, to herself. "Fields of fire all round..."
"Our troops are prepaaared," the creature by her side said, in a nasal, buzzing voice. "A daaawn assault tomorrow-"
"No," Faith said, without looking. "My troops aren't going to be wasted 'pacifying' a border town. Infantry and mobile armour to defensive formations around the siege tanks. Bring them in range, then smash that castle and everyone in it to dust."
"Non-combaaaatant casualty estimates will haaave to be revised-"
"Leave the bookkeeping to someone who cares," Faith shrugged. "They're all rebels anyway. 'Non-combatants'," she scoffed, snapping the telescope closed. She raised an eyebrow as she noticed her lieutenant listening to something from his earpiece.
"Report," she demanded.
"Flank scouts haaave recovered... Force Captain Tara!" the creature relayed, its eyes widening even more in surprise.
"Really? Rebels... I'd have cut her head off the moment I caught her." Faith laughed to herself. "Let's see what the perfect officer has to say for herself, bring her-"
"Shaaadow Weaver's orders are for Captaaain Taaara to be brought to her, should she be found."
Faith rounded on the creature and gave a roar like an enraged lion, sending it skittering back in fear, squealing: "Her orders, Captaaain!" Faith snarled, a dangerous rumble welling up from her throat. Her eyes blazed yellow for a moment, the pupils narrowed to vertical slits, then her anger seemed to subside.
"Her orders," she nodded. "Speed Captain Tara on her way to the harbour. And you," she fixed the cowering creature with a fierce glare, "get out of my sight, before I decide a meal of Xenian flesh is worth Shadow Weaver's anger when she hears you're dead."
On the far side of the marshes was Blackmoor Harbour, where once fishermen and traders had put in to sell their wares, sheltered from the full force of the Great Ocean by the jagged ridges encircling the bay from north and south. A small township had once been here, but no more - the buildings were charred rubble, the piers and warehouses burned, the few stone wharves smashed.
Horde troopships lay off the shore, low grey forms in the water, the huge deployment deck of each one slung between two sleek hulls. One was at shore, offloading Horde troopers from the ramp extending from the deck, out ahead of its prows - the others were moored further out, their decks empty save the handful of troopers manning their turrets.
A lone vessel was moored among them, smaller than the troopships, but undoubtedly deadlier - every deck, and especially the ship's single outrigger hull, facing the shore, bore cannon turrets, racks of missiles, and at both the prow and stern torpedo tubes projected from the otherwise featureless hull. While the other vessels were unpainted metal, decorated only by a single crimson Horde emblem on their prows, the warship was by contrast blood red from stem to stern, with only the gleaming silver of its folded solar sails standing out.
A squadron of three skimmers, two one-man scouts and a larger vehicle between them, appeared from the scrubby marsh trees inland, and climbed to pass over the heads of the reinforcements slowly marching off the beach. They made straight for the warship, the larger skimmer touching down on its forward deck, guided by patterns of blue light that appeared for it and vanished as soon as it had landed, while the other two circled slowly above.
The Shadow Weaver appeared on deck, emerging from the warship's streamlined bridge complex. Tara, still with the cloak she had taken from Willow's house wrapped tightly around herself, dismounted the skimmer and walked quickly to her. The skimmer lifted off, and with its escorts headed back to shore, as Tara and the red-clad witch vanished into the warship.
"Here," the Shadow Weaver rasped, extending a claw-like hand towards a hatchway. Tara ducked inside, finding the cabin's floor, walls and ceiling entirely clad in polished black stone. She stood at the centre of the small chamber and waited while Shadow Weaver hovered in behind her and gestured at the door, which closed itself and vanished seamlessly into the wall.
"What did you experience?" the witch asked.
"I was captured and taken to Blackmoor, then further into the Whispering Woods," Tara replied, her eyes fixed on the wall in front of her. "I awoke as the party carrying me was leaving the castle, but feigned unconsciousness - I observed Blackmoor's defences-"
"Later," Shadow Weaver interrupted. "Intelligence on the Rebellion is of lesser priority. I require you to tell me what happened to you. Especially any magic performed on you." Tara nodded obediently.
"At the Rebellion encampment I was taken to a house belonging to their witch," she said. "She arrived during the night. She talked to me, and..." she frowned, "I found... my reactions were... unusual."
"I can't account for the things I said," Tara explained slowly. "They were wrong, but... I felt as if they were right. I felt... as if I were different." Her frown deepened, and she glanced at the pair of glowing eyes watching her from beneath the witch's shadowed cowl.
"She said I'd been enchanted," the blonde said, questioningly. "She said you'd-"
"Be silent," Shadow Weaver interrupted her again, this time raising a hand. Tara paused, and remained still as a dark mist emerged from the witch's palm, wafting out to encircle the blonde. Shadow Weaver watched as the dark cloud closed in around Tara and soaked into her, wafting into her nostrils and mouth, seeping through the surface of her skin and her eyes.
"You are under no enchantment here," the witch hissed. "That was a rebel lie. What you experienced was the result of their witch using her powers on you, to alter your perceptions. This you know to be true."
"Yes," Tara said quietly. The witch dropped her hand, and Tara blinked, as if waking.
"While you were under the rebel witch's spell," Shadow Weaver continued, "did you say or do anything of significance?"
"I... was made to denounce the Horde," Tara said, her voice angry and ashamed at once. "I told her about myself, and about you, and Hordak. And I was... intimate... with her," she finished, her voice dropping to a whisper.
"I see," Shadow Weaver rasped. "I will examine you now. To see what damage may be undone," she added, her voice becoming on a disturbing parody of caring.
Tara nodded, and undid the sash around her waist, a strip of material torn from the bottom of the cloak. She shrugged off the garment and stood upright, naked but for her boots, unaffected by Shadow Weaver's scrutiny.
"This will be uncomfortable," the witch warned her, raising a claw to her chest. Tara nodded, and waited patiently. Quiet chanting emerged from behind the cloth covering Shadow Weaver's lower face; her claw shimmered and darkened, taking on the consistency of thick oil. Without warning the witch punched her blackened claw between Tara's breasts, the extremity somehow passing through Tara's skin without breaking it. Tara gasped in pain, and clenched her fists, trembling slightly with the effort of remaining motionless.
"I see," the witch said thoughtfully. Slowly she moved her arm down, dragging her viscous, spectral claw down from Tara's chest into her stomach. The blonde grimaced and swallowed, looking like she might be sick, but forced herself to be still.
"Here," Shadow Weaver murmured, reaching down, her wrist vanishing into the blonde's waist, reaching into her core from within. "This... rebel witch, took this?"
"Yes," Tara choked out, clenching her eyes shut.
The Shadow Weaver abruptly withdrew her hand, and Tara collapsed to the deck, supporting herself with one hand while grasping at her stomach with the other. The witch observed her silently, then turned and gestured at the fallen cloak, which lifted off the deck and draped itself over the shivering blonde's form.
"You will be well soon," she said calmly. "Ready yourself for battle and report to the bridge in one hour. You will join the force advancing on Blackmoor, and lead it to this Rebellion encampment once the castle has been subdued."
Tara wrapped the cloak around herself and stood shakily.
"I understand," she said.
"Good," Shadow Weaver nodded. "But... one last thing. Your sword...?" Tara's eyes dropped to the deck.
"They have it," she replied.
"I see," the witch nodded again. "They cannot use its power. But it would be... prudent, to recover it. I trust you will take this into consideration, when planning your assault into the Woods."
"Yes Shadow Weaver," Tara said promptly.
"Good," Shadow Weaver rasped. "Quarters have been prepared for you. Leave now."
The door appeared and swung open, allowing Tara to leave the witch to her thoughts. For a long moment she remained motionless, her yellow eyes casting a sickly glow on the black wall in front of her. Then she raised both hands and conjured a vapour that sank into the stone. A moment later it cleared to a mirror finish, which in turn gave way to an image of the Fright Zone, and Hordak.
"Well?" the Horde leader grunted.
"We have recovered her," Shadow Weaver said.
"And her sword?"
"Recovered also," the witch said, with only the slightest of pauses. "The enchantment on Captain Tara remains unbroken. But from what she has told me, I believe it weakened, during the night."
"Weakened?" Hordak demanded.
"The Whispering Woods are strong," Shadow Weaver replied carefully. "Strongest under darkness, when the day's energy is released. My enchantment did not fail, but it seems likely that it was... nullified, temporarily."
"I see," Hordak snarled grimly. "And now?"
"She is ours again," the witch said quickly. "But... there are new circumstances. There is the possibility of a bond between her and a rebel witch she spoke of, most likely the floramagus."
"They were together," Shadow Weaver explained, "her maidenhead is gone." The response from Hordak was immediate and violent: the segmented steel plates of his face shifted into an enraged visage, his right arm contorted, sprouting barbed tendrils and wicked blades, and he brought the weapon-arm crashing down on something out of Shadow Weaver's view. There was a sickly crunch, and when Hordak straightened his arm dripped blood.
"Find her!" he commanded. "Find the witch. I want Tara herself to kill this... animal." Shadow Weaver's glowing eyes narrowed.
"There are... risks," she cautioned. "The bond between them could weaken the enchantment again, under the proper circumstances-"
"Then see that those circumstances do not arise," Hordak replied with forced patience. "In your infinite wisdom," he continued, sneering, "can Captain Tara be relied upon in battle?"
"Yes," Shadow Weaver nodded. "With proper precautions. But-"
"Then see to it that she meets this forest bitch, and takes her severed head as a trophy! You have something to add?"
"An... alternative," the witch said, cautious in the face of Hordak's anger.
"My power can sustain, and with study extend, the enchantments Captain Tara placed on this harbour and the marshes, to counteract the forest's disruptive energies. In light of this, and her... vulnerability... she may no longer be essential."
"You would kill her?" Hordak bellowed. "You?!"
"If she were turned..." the witch warned. "You and I both know the full measure of the power contained in her sword..."
"I know it," Hordak snarled, "and it will be mine to command!"
"If Tara wielded that power against us," Shadow Weaver went on, "we would not just be losing seventeen years of preparation. Our grip on Etheria could be in danger." Hordak leaned closer, his image looming large on the wall in front of his witch.
"Listen carefully, you soulless hag," he said. "Besides myself, Tara is more important than anyone else on this pitiful world -including you! If you harm her in any way, I will know of it, and I will see to it that you endure every torment it is in my power to inflict upon you! Do you understand?!"
Shadow Weaver hovered back from the wall slightly, stared for a dangerous moment, then dipped her head.
"I understand," she intoned.
"Apply whatever spells to her you think prudent," Hordak rumbled. "I want Tara in command of her army. This victory must be hers."
Xander found Willow alone in a grove of trees near her house, standing with Tara's sword on the ground in front of her.
"Hey," he announced himself. Willow nodded, but never took her eyes from the sword.
"That's hers," Xander added, standing next to the sorceress.
"I got it back from Buffy before she left for Blackmoor," she replied, reaching down and picking it up in both hands, one around the grip, the other beneath the blade, carefully balancing it. She drew it closer to herself, hesitated, then sat cross-legged and laid it across her knees.
"It's part of her, somehow," she said quietly, running a fingertip along the flat of the blade, skirting the black gem set into it just above the guard. "It feels like her. Like the Tara who was there in the night, before... she changed back."
"You're sure she told the truth?" Xander asked gently, sitting beside her. "About being enchanted?"
"I think..." Willow hesitated, then shook her head in dismay.
"How would I know," she sighed. "It's not like I'm a specialist at this kind of thing, I know plants for crying out loud."
"You can do much more than that," Xander said. "I've seen you - you connect with everything, the forest, people... honestly, sometimes it seems like you can see the whole world."
"I can do a little," Willow shook her head again. "Sense things, see hidden patterns... It's difficult with people though. Even when they're willing, just to sort out all the feelings and thoughts... If she was consciously projecting what she wanted me to believe, and hiding the truth..."
"But you don't believe that," Xander offered quietly.
"I don't want to," Willow admitted, "that's for sure. I... with her, it was..." She finally looked at Xander, revealing weary, hopeless eyes.
"I love her," she whispered.
"You... her?" Xander managed through his surprise.
"I fell in love with... it might've all been a lie. Just to get me to untie her, and-" she broke off, suddenly scowling in anger.
"She wouldn't do that, would she?" she tried again, as Xander put an arm around her shoulders. "If it wasn't... she'd have gone as soon as I let her go, right? Not stayed, and..."
"What?" Xander asked. "When did you let her go?"
"During the night," Willow replied morosely.
"And she didn't go until morning... what did she do?" Willow heaved a defeated sigh.
"We slept together," she said flatly.
"Uh-huh," Xander nodded. Willow took a glance at him, and sighed again.
"Xander, we slept together. You know... in the sense of not actually sleeping? Doing a lot of things that weren't sleeping?" Xander's eyes widened.
"Oh!" he exclaimed. "Oh, you... and she... right. Okay, got it. So... you and she, really...?"
"Yes Xander, really," Willow muttered. "I'm pretty sure I didn't just dream it."
"So she's... your first...?"
"Uh-huh," Willow nodded. "And now she's probably half-way to the Fright Zone, where she'll go back to leading death squads and... and... Xander?" she finished, finally breaking down and sobbing. She clutched Tara's sword to herself as Xander hugged her close and stroked her hair as she cried.
"I'm never gonna see her again," the sorceress mumbled between sobs.
"Will..." Xander shook his head. "I wish... there was something I could say..."
"Not your fault," Willow muttered.
"She was really..." Xander began, pausing when he had no idea what to say.
"She was... when she was inside me," Willow cried, oblivious to Xander's sudden blush, "it was so... perfect... and after, lying beside her, I felt like... like I'd been asleep all my life, and I suddenly woke up and saw what my world really was..."
There was a sound, small but carrying - a tiny crystal crack, like the first break in a huge glass under incredible pressure, about to shatter. Willow snuffled back her sobs and opened her eyes, straightening. Her tears had fallen on Tara's sword, were still on the blade, and a single drop had fallen on the black gem. Instead of rolling slowly off, the teardrop had somehow coloured the stone - bright blue shone through the thin sheen of moisture, and as Willow and Xander watched, confused and intrigued, the colour spread like cracks in glass, reaching along lines of weakness in the darkness, branching again and again.
"Are you doing that?" Xander asked.
"Not me," Willow replied. She held up the sword carefully, staring at the gem. What had been impenetrable obsidian was now a sky-blue sapphire, so pure that they both could see straight through it, through the heart of the sword, to the tree branches and the sky above them. Yet it wasn't anything like glass - it was solid, dense, containing an intensity of colour that made it seem almost to glow.
"Is it dangerous?" Xander wondered.
"I don't think so," Willow said carefully. "It's... what I can sense of it, it's like it was before, only..."
"Free," Willow whispered to herself. They both turned as they heard something in the distance, and stood as shouts and a general commotion became evident.
"Willow!" Queen Joy called from above, swooping down into the glade. "Xander, there you are - my daughter needs you at Blackmoor!"
"What's going on?" Xander asked, as he and Willow jogged beside Joy as she led them back to the encampment. Men and women were running back and forth, carrying bundles of weapons and arrows, and a squad of Joy's soldiers was rounding up horses and leading them out towards the main forest trail leading south along the lakeshore.
"The Horde attacked," Joy explained. "I was flying ahead of my column, and I saw a rider from Blackmoor coming this way. I sent my soldiers on as fast as they could go."
"Damn it," Willow cursed. "I was sure they wouldn't be ready to assault-"
"Not an assault," Joy shook her head. "They're shelling the castle, the town... everything. I saw the smoke from up high, they're destroying the whole settlement. The rider said they're evacuating, but there's no order, and the Horde is closing in."
"I'll get the rangers ready," Xander offered.
"How long can Blackmoor hold out?" Willow asked, turning to Joy. The Queen shook her head, helplessly.
"We'll go anyway," Willow decided. "We can protect survivors... if there are any. Get them to the safety of the Woods... We have to go."
The sun was westering as Willow and Xander rode up the back of the ridge overlooking the Blackmoor farmlands. They had been able to see the plume of smoke for miles, and hear the reports of the Horde artillery, but the view as they crested the ridge, with Joy landing beside them, was something else entirely.
Blackmoor castle was a wreck - reduced to the last remnants of its former glory, a battered foundation of thick, ancient stone, which the Horde guns continued to pound mercilessly, patiently blasting inch after inch of stone to dust. The walls and towers which had once stood atop the foundations lay scattered where they had fallen, in huge, irregular chunks of rock that had crushed anything beneath them as they fell, forming a vast circle of devastation. Stretching around the remains of the castle, Blackmoor town was a smouldering sea of charred wood, pockmarked with craters. As far as the eye could see on either side, the surrounding farmland was ablaze, huge curtains of flame leaping into the air, higher than the tallest tower that had once stood over them.
"Gods," Willow gasped, sickened and awestruck. "Xander... what do we do?"
"I... there," he pointed, having needed a moment to steady himself.
"That's my vanguard," Joy said. Soldiers were moving among the remains of the town, forming a tenuous battle line. Dark forms were advancing from the southern slopes, Horde troopers marching into the devastation, hacking and blasting at the defenders. Here and there battle tanks were trundling forward in support of them, and lumbering dreadnoughts, but there were several burned-out wrecks blocking former streets, where the Brightmoon soldiers had halted their advance. North of the town, with the handful of defenders standing between them and the Horde advance, scattered groups of men, women, and children were moving as quickly as they could up the rugged, rock-strewn slopes towards the edge of the Whispering Woods.
"Why aren't they shelling the town?" Xander asked rhetorically. "They're still hitting the castle ruins, there's no-one-" On the heels of his words a brilliant beam shot out of the massive, half-broken stoneworks and tore into one of the columns of troopers advancing through the remains of the southern farmlands. Three Horde tanks, steadily moving ahead of the foot soldiers, were blasted apart in quick succession, sending shrapnel screaming through the troopers behind them, leaving the survivors to negotiate the flaming wrecks in their path.
"That's my girl," Joy said with pride.
"How long can those walls hold?" Willow asked, as another round of shells burst against the castle's remains.
"Not long," Xander replied.
"My troops will reinforce the vanguard," Joy said, turning and signalling to the riders who had followed Willow and Xander from the rebel encampment. "We only need to keep the Horde back long enough for the refugees to get clear."
"What if they turn the heavy guns on the town?" Xander asked.
"We'll manage," Joy replied grimly. "It's a large area to shell, and we'll be scattered pretty wide. We'll need your rangers to keep them from mounting a proper advance."
"Flank, hit and run, disrupt," Xander nodded. "Can do."
"I'll get to Buffy," Willow decided. "She'll need my help."
"That's going into the fire, Will," Xander warned quietly, as Joy took to the skies again, soaring above her soldiers as they advanced on either side.
"Whatever they did to the Woods' magic, it's as weak as it was when they were coming through the fen valley," Willow replied quickly. "I need to be close to them to do any good. And Buffy can't hold out there forever."
"Right," Xander agreed reluctantly. "Just... come back, okay?"
"You too," the sorceress nodded. Something made them look down into the battlefield that had been Blackmoor.
"The guns," Xander realised after a moment. "They've stopped." Willow stared into the distance, where she could just make out the row of Horde siege tanks. They weren't moving, but their wide-mouthed cannons were nonetheless silent.
"Why did they stop?" she wondered aloud.
"Out of shells?" Xander guessed.
"We should be so lucky," Willow joked grimly. "Let's go... before they change their minds."
Buffy risked a glance above the top of the foundation she was crouched behind, peering with puzzlement through the wafting rock-dust in the air as the booming of the Horde heavy guns faded away.
"Your funeral," she shrugged, holding her hands cupped to draw together another concentration of energy. She was in the process of raising her hands to release it, when she heard a low growl emanating from the ruins behind her.
"I hear princesses taste real good..." a rumbling, purring voice followed.
Buffy spun around and unleashed the blast, but in the instant of bright illumination she saw her ambusher dart clear, flitting between the huge chunks of stone littering the former courtyard as her beam sliced into the ground.
"Good shot," the voice mocked her. A shape flashed past a gap between boulders; Buffy let fly a bolt of light, which again missed its target by inches, boring harmlessly into a pile of rubble.
"Not so good," the voice returned. "Takes time to build up a really good blast? That's a pity. You might have lived otherwise."
"That's a big boast, for someone who's hiding," Buffy shot back, feeling far less confident that she hoped she sounded.
"Look behind you, princess..."
Buffy whirled around, finding her attacker poised on top of a piece of broken stonework, running her forefinger over her lips. The blonde mage ran her eyes over the Hordeswoman's revealing costume, and gave a contemptuous snort.
"If that get-up is supposed to be distracting to me," she scoffed, "you're wide of the mark on so many counts."
"Mmm, I don't care what you like," Faith grinned, showing her long, sharp teeth. "I have this rule: want, take... eat."
"Interesting philosophy," Buffy sneered. "Very enlightened. Right up there with 'fire bad, trees pretty'."
"You know what it's like to be eaten alive?" Faith asked, leaning forward, poised like a cat.
"You know what it's like to fry?!" Buffy snarled in reply, whipping her hand up and sending a bolt of light into Faith's perch. But she had already launched herself to the ground, her body warping in mid-fall, her segmented armour changing shape with her, and gleaming black paws, instead of hands, hit the rough soil. What looked up at Buffy was no longer human, but a meld of a woman and a lean, muscled panther, black as night, and displaying its impressive jaws.
"I guess one of us is going to have our question answered," the Faith-cat rumbled, tensing to leap. Buffy took a step back, then as the big cat lunged for her she turned and vanished completely, as if the air had simply swallowed her. Faith twisted in mid-air, reaching out with her legs, but failed to find anything, and rolled uncomfortably as she landed.
"Clever meat," she muttered, springing to her feet. She raised her muzzle and sniffed the air, her eyes half-closing as she caught a scent.
"Oh, you smell good, meat," she purred, loping off in pursuit of her invisible prey.
Willow crouched low, hearing the rhythmic clanking of a Horde vehicle just on the other side of the half-toppled wall she was behind. She put her hand to the ground, steadying herself, and drawing some measure of comfort from the contact with the forest magic, however fleeting it was through the layers of debris and dead soil left by the bombardment.
From nearby came a series of shouts, battle-cries, and the answering monotone challenges of the Horde troopers to surrender or die. Willow heard the telltale double-blast of one of the rangers' armour-piercing arrows, then shivered as the Horde tank gun bellowed in reply. There were no screams when the shell burst, though - the sorceress let out a sigh, then braced herself and ran forward, alongside the skirmish developing in the street, crouching low to avoid being seen as much as possible.
She sought shelter between the ruins of two stone buildings, and emerged on the other side into a street that was, for the moment, empty. Willow looked around, affected by the eerie stillness, while sounds of battle drifted overhead, yells and screams and the clash of swords and report of guns all half-heard, distant.
Over the tops of what remained of the opposite row of buildings, the last standing remnants of Blackmoor castle loomed. Indeed, Willow was so close now that a huge chunk of fallen masonry, evidently blasted off one of the castle's towers in the first moments of the bombardment, had half-buried itself in the street a few metres further on. She approached it, drawn despite herself, reaching out and tracing the edge on it where smooth, finished stonework became jagged debris.
A faint sound alerted her, and she sprinted the few metres to the opposite side of the road and crouched low behind the charred remains of a wall. Looking down the street she saw a shape emerge from the dust haze, with the sun behind it - sleek, armoured, it slowly became more distinct, the black tank treads stained with churned-up soil, the grey armour plating, blaster turrets and the squat barrel of it main cannon, and above that the command tower. Last to emerge, as her silhouette eclipsed the setting sun behind her, was Tara, once more in Horde uniform, with a flowing black cloak over her shoulders, and a diamond-shaped gem fixed to her tunic above her heart, pure black to match her eyes.
Willow almost started forward, but caught herself in time, and watched, fearful and entranced as her once-lover stared dispassionately over the ruins of the town, her tank advancing steadily through the blasted street, with a platoon of Horde troopers marching in step behind it.
Willow's heart leapt into her mouth as Tara suddenly stood up straighter, and raised a hand. Her tower tank, and the troopers behind it, came to a halt at once, waiting motionless for her next order. She looked around slowly, then tapped a control on the parapet, and the tower slowly sank into the body of the vehicle, segment by segment, the encircling armour retracting too, allowing Tara to step lightly off her platform as it drew level with the tank's upper hull. She leapt quickly to the ground and walked forward, until she was exactly between Willow and her Horde platoon.
Then she turned her head slightly, and looked directly at Willow.
Willow spun around behind her wall, pressing her back to it, breathing quickly. She pressed a hand to her chest, managing to calm herself, and slowly leaned over, peering around the edge of her hiding place. Tara was still standing there, still staring straight at her. The Force Captain raised a hand, and beckoned, just once.
Willow leaned back, out of sight, and glanced the other way. There was a gap between the ruined buildings, large enough for her to make it to the next street, and perhaps escape. She looked up at the broken walls of Blackmoor in the distance... and stood upright, turning to face Tara.
The Captain held up a hand, stilling the troopers who had drawn their blasters at the sight of Willow. The two women slowly closed the distance between each other, meeting in front of the broken boulder in the middle of the street.
"D-do you... remember me?" Willow asked. She kept instinctively looking away from Tara's black eyes, but forced herself to meet her stare.
"Of course," Tara replied. "And I remember what you did to me."
"I didn't- they did this to you!" Willow insisted. "Shadow Weaver, and Hordak, they put this spell on you, made you... don't you remember how you felt? About all the things they made you do?"
"I remember what you made me feel," Tara accused, taking a step forward.
"No," Willow shook her head, standing firm. "You felt that - the real you, the one they've kept locked up inside you all these years."
"You can't affect me," Tara said calmly, lifting a hand to touch the gem on her chest. "I'm protected from your magic now."
"That's not protecting you, it's controlling you!" Willow pleaded. "Fight it! I know you're in there. The Tara I knew... fell in love with, is in there. You're stronger than anything they do to you!"
"The Tara you knew," Tara said mockingly, "is gone. Forever. I hope you enjoyed her while you could. Oh yes, I remember that," she sneered. "Tell me, if I were to take you back to the Fright Zone, and use you, now and then... would you like that?" Willow shook her head in horror.
"Are you sure?" Tara asked. "Perhaps, if I close my eyes..." She did so, and for a moment she looked exactly like the Tara Willow desperately wanted to see.
"Then," she whispered, "you could have me to your heart's content..." She bit her lip, feigning pleasure, then opened her black eyes again, causing Willow to fall back a step in revulsion.
"Is that a fair price, for serving the Horde?" Tara asked. Willow's face twisted in grief and anger, and she quickly pulled free the cloth-wrapped bundle strapped to her back, discarding the wrappings to reveal Tara's own sword.
"You'd prefer it to be violent?" Tara grinned coldly. "Well, it'll be my first time... but how difficult can it be, really?"
"If the Tara I love is gone," Willow growled through her tears, "then I'll be damned if I let you keep abusing her memory!"
Tara's expression didn't change. She moved forward, backing Willow up against the fallen boulder, until the sword-point was at her throat.
"You're so weak," she muttered, disappointedly. Willow recoiled, lifted the sword high above her head as if to strike, gave a tortured scream, and collapsed, plunging the sword into the ground in front of Tara's feet.
Tara watched dispassionately as the sorceress slumped down, kneeling in front of her, both hands clenched around the sword's grip, her head sunk between her arms, sobbing. She reached down and carefully pried Willow's fingers off the sword, then pulled it free of the ground. She shrugged off her cloak and used it to clean the dirt off the blade, while Willow, deprived of its support, slumped forward, clutching at Tara's legs. The Captain tossed her cloak away, and jerked her knee, kicking Willow back onto the ground. She lay unmoving, sobbing.
"Look at me," Tara commanded, nudging Willow's head with her toe. Willow opened her eyes without thinking - all the fight had gone from her, and she merely stared up at Tara as the blonde crouched down over her and raised her sword.
"Beg for your life," she said quietly, tensing to strike.
"Why?" Willow asked, her voice scratchy and broken. Tara blinked, frowned in thought... hesitated. Above her, a single teardrop welled up out of the clear gem in her sword, and rolled down the blade, over the guard, and onto her hand. She felt it on her skin, and lowered her sword slowly, looking at her hand in puzzlement. She brought it up to her face, and carefully touched the drop of moisture on her finger. Staring at it as if hypnotised, she caught the drop on the thumb of her other hand, and brought it to her lips.
To Willow, it seemed as if all other sound faded away, and Tara's slow breathing was the only thing in the world. The blonde looked into the gem in her sword, and as she did the sunlight seemed to reflect from it for an instant, casting a blue glow into her eyes. The blackness there swelled up, darker and darker until her eyes seemed like two pits into void... but the clear blue light shone, and slowly an answering glow emerged from within Tara's eyes. In tiny shafts of brilliance at first, pinpricks in the dark, then wider, more and more, until finally the blackness melted out of her eyes onto her cheeks, and evaporated into the air.
"I was... so lost," she whispered, turning her blue eyes on Willow.
"Tara," the sorceress mouthed, hardly daring to breathe. A tiny crack drew their attention to the gem on Tara's chest - it had split down the middle, and even as they watched it fell away from her tunic, breaking again and again until it was nothing but dust. Tara watched it, then looked again at Willow.
"Oh my gods!" she exclaimed suddenly, lunging down to embrace Willow, holding her tightly and crying into her hair.
"I'm so sorry," she sobbed, "so sorry... so sorry..."
"Tara," Willow replied, her voice stronger, as her arms went around Tara and she held on as if her life depended on it. Tara's gasps for air between sobs turned into kisses on Willow's neck, and her lips blazed a path up to Willow's, where they met and opened and kissed so deeply that Willow felt as if her soul was being sucked out of her body.
"Mmm," she moaned, as her lips and Tara's met again and again, "Tara... it's real... you're... please?" Tara paused and held Willow tightly, breathing heavily against her neck.
"You set me free," she whispered. "I understand everything now..."
"Everything?" Willow asked, confused. Tara nodded, then straightened up, and gazed right into Willow's eyes. Willow found herself lost in Tara's eyes - untainted by darkness, they were more beautiful than human eyes ever had a right to be.
"Willow," Tara said, her voice filled with elation, "there's so much... more than I ever dreamed..." The rumble of an explosion rippled across the sky, and Tara glanced up, then along the street at the distant Horde troopers.
"Willow," she said, her voice perfectly calm, "can you contact the rest of your army?"
"Yes," Willow nodded, frowning in bemusement. "Why-"
"Tell them to pull back," Tara explained. "Disengage from the Horde."
"What?" Willow sat upright, staring at Tara in confusion.
"Please," Tara said, turning to face her again. "Trust me?"
Willow gazed into her eyes once more, and nodded. Tara helped her to her feet, and guided her to the side of the street, behind cover, where she rummaged among the pouches lining the back of her belt, and produced a thin wooden rod, like a matchstick with no head. She held it to her mouth, whispered beneath her breath, then planted it firmly in the ground.
A trail of sparks shot up into the sky from the wood, climbing up above the ruins, high, up towards the clouds. When it seemed on the verge of disappearing it burst into a brilliant green sphere that flashed in the sky and faded, then again a burst of green, and again.
"That's it," Willow nodded, as the lights faded from the sky. "They'll fall back... Tara why? There might still be people on the slopes, if the Horde advances-"
"They won't," Tara said firmly. She gently urged Willow down, beneath the shelter of a stone fireplace, its chimney shorn off, then stood upright and strode back into the street, her face set with grim determination. She reached the fallen boulder and climbed its jagged side, standing tall atop it, head raised high, staring into the darkening sky above. Willow stared too, and gasped in surprise as the clouds, now visible only in the amber sunset lighting their edges, began to move, swirling faster and faster in a whirlpool miles high, suddenly flashing with lightning in their hearts, centred directly over Tara.
The clouds opened, forming a tunnel in the sky, crackling with energy. Tara raised her sword, and a bolt of brilliant white light leapt from its tip upwards, reaching into the maelstrom above. The moment it touched the arcing lightning there was a tremendous flash, the full might of the sudden storm leapt along the path Tara had created, striking her with tremendous force. There was a thunderous blast of air and sound, and a light brighter than the sun. Willow had to bury her head between her arms, covering her ears and squeezing her eyes shut - when she looked again the great stone Tara had stood on was in pieces, fractured and glowing red-hot where it had shattered.
There was a woman standing where the stone had been, where the lightning had struck. Tall, statuesque, blonde hair spilling down her back to her waist, over a deep red cape, and holding Tara's sword in her hand. She turned, looked straight at Willow - and Willow gasped in shock again, for it was Tara, transformed. She was clad in gold and white, an angelic raiment that perfectly complimented her flawless, gleaming body, and in both form and face she was older than she had been, now in the full flower of womanhood - but her features, and most of all her eyes, were unmistakeable.
Willow stared, her mouth hanging open in surprise and awe, her heart hammering in her chest. The angelic Tara gave her a smile, and she found herself returning it, while a feeling of familiarity spread through her. She smiled wide, as she realised that on some level, she had always known this was in Tara's heart.
The angel-Tara held Willow's gaze for a moment longer, her eyes yearning to stay on her forever, then she forced herself to turn, and face the Horde troopers. Faced with the loss of their commander, and the appearance of the new figure whom they did not recognise, they were aiming their blasters again. Tara took off in a sprint, deflecting the first few blaster shots with her sword, and reached the shelter of the dormant tower tank. The Horde troopers began advancing; she glanced at them, then sheathed her sword on her back and gripped the tank's track with both hands. With a mighty heave she lifted the massive vehicle into the air, spun it around once, then let it fly towards the Hordesmen, watching as it tumbled end over end in the air, landed with a crash, and decimated the advancing troopers as it rolled through them, tearing itself to pieces in the process.
Tara ran towards the nearest building and leapt up, reaching the top of a damaged stone spire in one jump. Beneath her, in the remains of the town, the Horde army was advancing, in the wake of the retreating rebels. Now the empty red eyes of the Horde troopers, and the barrels of a dozen tanks, turned towards her.
The nearest battle tank fired, and she leapt off the spire towards it, sending the damaged stones toppling behind her. She caught the shell in mid-air, and she and it fell to the ground spinning. Her boots tossed up a cloud of dust as she landed, instantly halting her spin, and she hurled the shell overarm into a nearby tank squadron, blasting apart her target, and the vehicles around it as shrapnel scythed through their armour and into their stores of ammunition.
Dozens of Horde troopers advanced on her, firing ceaselessly; she danced left and right, dodging their blasts, deflecting them back, toppling trooper after trooper. With a sudden burst of speed she was among them, tearing the edge of her sword through their armour as if it were paper, leaping through them, punching and kicking with force that shattered her targets and sent their remains crashing to the ground metres away.
Willow broke from her cover and ran towards the remains of the castle, pausing as she climbed the broken remains of the battlements to look back. Explosions and flying debris marked Tara's path through the Horde army - there was a colossal crash, and Willow saw a battle tank come hurtling out into a courtyard, crashing through a half-wrecked building which collapsed in its wake, bursting out the other side, and smashing into a trio of dreadnoughts, one of which was too slow to avoid it, and was torn to shreds as the mangled mass of steel hit it.
Tara in her all angelic glory appeared in its wake, racing towards the two remaining dreadnoughts. They both fired the heavy blasters in their arms, but too slowly to catch their lightning-fast target - before they had finished their first salvo she was upon them, grabbing one dreadnought's arm in both hands and wrenching it upwards, so that it fired its final shot through its own head. Willow gasped as the other one turned behind her, opening its heavy claws as it loomed atop her - but an instant later she had leapt up, straight through its body, soaring high while the stricken machine toppled dead to the ground.
Willow whirled around at the sound of an agonised scream. She leapt over the remains of the wall and raced around part of the keep still standing, finding Buffy splayed on the ground, clawing at the stone rubble beneath her, while a huge, armoured panther held her leg in its jaws, slowly biting deeper. Willow didn't hesitate - she dropped to her knees and pushed both hands into the ground, ignoring the scratches from the debris, and a tangle of vines burst up beneath the attacking animal, gripping it tightly. It released Buffy's leg in shock, twisting and clawing at the tendrils holding it, then Buffy rolled over and, with a yell of exertion, let fly a blast of light into its back, sending it flying away. It landed heavily on top of a broken wall, and rolled off the other side.
Willow ran to Buffy's side, helping her up. She was cut and bleeding in a dozen places, but her leg was the worst - she winced at her first attempt to put weight on it, and leant on Willow instead.
"Oh... hi Will," she grinned, slightly dazed. "Was that you distracted her? Good timing..."
"Long story," Willow said, ducking under her arm to support her. "Short version, Tara's good."
"No kidding?" Buffy said. "You sure?"
"I'm sure," Willow nodded. There was a titanic blast from beyond the town, and a fireball rose up into the sky, from roughly where the Horde siege tanks had been.
"That's her taking out the Horde army," Willow added. Buffy considered this as they staggered through the ruins.
"Well, that's handy," she said at last, apparently unable to quite come to terms with this new development.
Willow and Buffy looked up, staggering back as they saw Faith perched atop a half-fallen archway.
"I saw you get blasted!" Willow protested.
"Yeah," Faith grinned, "your little friend there was a bit worn out, it seems. Just gave me a little scratch," she added, leaning over so that Willow and Buffy could see the scorched patch of flesh on her back, where her fur and skin had burned away, revealing muscle.
"I was just enjoying my meal, too," she purred.
"You'll go hungry then," came a crystal-clear voice from behind them. Willow and Buffy turned, Faith looked up in surprise.
Tara was standing on the edge of the shattered battlement, glowing against the evening sky, staring down at the trio. Her eyes held infinite kindness and compassion as she gazed at Willow and Buffy - then, as she lifted her gaze to Faith, they hardened into implacable resolve.
"What the hell are you?" Faith growled, starting to change into her animal form again. Tara lifted her chin.
"I am She-Ra," she pronounced.
"Whoever you are, you're dead!" Faith roared, leaping over Willow and Buffy's head. She was a panther again by the time she reached She-Ra, claws outstretched, but the angel caught her forelegs and swung her around, hurling her with bone-jarring force into a wall, which collapsed around her. Faith shook off the debris, seeming more enraged than hurt, and leapt at She-Ra again, avoiding her grasp this time and sending them both toppling to the ground. Faith swung herself atop She-Ra and lunged at her throat, only to find her jaws held open. She roared and flexed her muscles, but couldn't budge She-Ra's grip on her muzzle.
With no warning she changed again, becoming human. She-Ra lost her grip, and Faith used her momentary surprise to close her thighs around She-Ra's arm, wrenching it sideways, intending to break it. Instead She-Ra twisted her body over, hurling Faith into the air, and flipping to her feet just as her opponent was crashing back to the ground in a tangle of half-changing limbs.
Faith scuttled back, seeking high ground, turning to face She-Ra on the top of the ruined battlement. With a snarl she settled into a half-human, half-beast form, and as She-Ra advanced on her, she gripped a chunk of fallen stone, lifted herself up on her hind legs, and threw the rock at Willow and Buffy. She-Ra leapt between it and them, shielding them with her body - the boulder crashed into her back and thudded to the ground, and by the time she had looked back, Faith was gone.
"Damn," She-Ra muttered, standing upright.
"Buffy needs help," Willow said. She-Ra nodded, and picked Buffy up with little apparent effort.
"Okay," Buffy said as they started back towards the edge of the ruins, "hi, then. Willow?"
"This is She-Ra," Willow shrugged. "She's Tara, kind of. It's a-"
"Long story, right," Buffy nodded. She-Ra chuckled, and gave Willow a smile that was pure Tara.
Deep in the Fright Zone, Hordak watched dispassionately as, chained in a pit beneath him, Faith struggled against her bonds. A crackling discharge of electricity surged through the pit, tearing a tormented scream from her throat, and casting an eerie glow on her master's steel face.
"She did not have the power to prevail," the Shadow Weaver rasped, emerging from the dark behind Hordak.
"She failed, she suffers," he replied without taking his eyes off the struggling woman. "It is proper." Another surge of power passed through her prison, assailing her brutally in the seconds it took to dissipate. Hordak nodded in satisfaction, and turned to his witch.
"I am, however, surprised that you returned," he growled. "She-Ra! You know what this means? Why should I not have you killed for this outrage?!"
"Because should you try, you'll find I am no easier to kill now than I was the first time you did it," Shadow Weaver spat back. "That cost you greatly."
"I am no stranger to hardship," Hordak glared. "Given your utter failure-"
"And," the witch interrupted, "I assure you there is no way for you to dispose of me quickly enough that I will not be able to inform Horde Prime of today's events. You refused to kill Tara, when you knew the risk she posed."
"You dare threaten me?" Hordak snarled.
"In this, as in all things, we are partners," Shadow Weaver replied. "We would both die... or, if we maintain our 'partnership', we both live."
"Partners," Hordak hissed. "The power of She-Ra nearly destroyed me once! I was a fool to believe your promises to tame it."
"All is not lost," Shadow Weaver said calmly.
"Your enchantments have failed," Hordak accused. "Tara is lost to us, her path into the Whispering Woods is closed to us, and above all the Rebellion has the greatest power on this world!"
"That power may be regained!" Shadow Weaver insisted. "Tara is lost... but she is not the only one who may wield the sword of She-Ra." Hordak blinked in surprise, then glanced back at the pit, where Faith was enduring her torture.
"She cannot," he frowned. "You said so yourself. That scheme was a failure."
"She could never have awoken She-Ra's power," Shadow Weaver replied. "But now that it is alive again, there is a chance that Tara's twin - imperfect as she is - can wrest the power from her. And wield it for us."
Hordak stared thoughtfully at Faith, as another wave of pain washed over her, burning her skin where it touched.
"Perhaps," he allowed. "But never forget... allies we may be, but there will be a reckoning for what you have cost me. Perhaps Faith will capture and wield the power of She-Ra, and you will think Tara's loss of no consequence. But I will not forget. One day, you will know my anger."
"One day," Shadow Weaver agreed calmly. "We shall see."
Willow found Tara sitting on the steps behind her house, staring at the reflected starlight in the lake.
"Glimmer?" the blonde asked.
"She'll be fine," Willow said, sitting next to her and taking her hand. "It'll take a while to heal fully, but she'll be good as new eventually. You're you again," she added.
"I'm me," Tara agreed. "She-Ra is... something else. Being her is incredible, but... I want to be me. For you." She glanced down at her reflection in the water. "If you still-"
"Don't even finish saying it," Willow said emphatically. "Tara... you never left my heart, and I loved you from the moment I first saw who you really are."
"I feel like I'm only just starting to find out who I really am," Tara admitted.
"Can we find out together?" Willow offered. Tara looked up at her, smiling radiantly.
"I love you," she whispered. "That's who I am. The rest..." she nodded, "yes, we'll find out together."
Until next time...
"Hi there! It's me, Dawnie. Did you find where I was hiding today? If not, take another look:
"In today's adventure, it seemed like Willow had lost Tara forever. But she believed in Tara's goodness, no matter what, and in the end that was what saved Tara from Shadow Weaver's enchantments, and brought her and Willow back together. I'll see you all next time, bye now!"