A Whole New World
By Kirk Baldridge
FEEDBACK: Yes, please. The more the better. After all, the future of this series is depending on it.
DISTRIBUTION: I would prefer if you ask before you take this one. I have no reason to say no, I'd just like to know in advance where it might be going since I have certain potential plans in the future.
SPOILERS: None, really. This is my whole new (and hopefully interesting) take on two existing properties.
CONTENT: Willow/Tara oF/oF
RATING: I'm just going to rate it FR18 to be on the safe side.
DISCLAIMER: I do not own Willow, Tara, or anyone from Charmed. The non-show affiliated characters are all mine, on the other hand, so take that into account before you go and try to borrow them. Or just, you know, ask me.
SUMMARY: A follow up to my last story, EVIL IS AS EVIL DOES, which was a Buffy/Charmed crossover. Willow and Tara end up in the world of Charmed, where Tara is resurrected as a White Lighter. Since their friends in Sunnydale think they're both dead they decide to stay, and start a brand new life for themselves. But while they are trying for normalcy, in New York, a dark force has risen in the underworld to take the place of the very evil they and the Charmed Ones helped to defeat.
NOTE: This is the first of what I envision as a series of Willow and Tara in the Charmed world stories. Of course, that depends on how hard it is to write, how long it takes, and most importantly...what kind of feedback I get.
He was a hunter.
One who liked to prey on the unsuspecting citizens of New York. And he was very good at his work.
He preferred women.
Not that he was adverse to stalking other men, but in his experience they often put up a great deal more resistance than he was usually willing to deal with. So he chased women.
He was on the hunt at the moment. He'd been skulking around outside the Redstone theater, scanning the patrons for signs of wealth, or easy pickings. Either way. So when the two of them came out he knew he'd found his targets.
A blonde and a redhead, talking laughing, all but oblivious to the dark-clad figure now behind them. He followed close enough to study them; keeping a close eye out for any particular weaknesses he could exploit or hidden dangers, such as weapons, he might have to deal with. He also got a good look at their body language. From the way they were leaning into one another as they walked, and how they were holding hands, he pegged them as lovers. He grunted.
Just then he regretted having an appointment to keep. If he had more time he could have enjoyed himself, to teach the lezzies the error of their ways. But he would just have to settle for getting what he came for.
Ahead the two women abruptly turned into an alleyway. When he realized where they were he smirked. He couldn't have planned it any better if he'd tried. He knew these streets like the back of his hand. That particular alley was a dead-end, which meant they would run smack into him if they turned around and he would have them cornered otherwise. He drew a thin, wicked-looking knife from his belt, envisioning all the different things he was going to do to them as he entered the alley...and froze.
The redhead was alone. She was leaning against a dumpster, buffing her nails. He quickly scanned the alley but there wasn't anywhere for the blonde to hide and no doors or windows either. He was so tense and distracted that he failed to notice a shower of blue and white lights behind him. He nearly jumped out of his skin, however, when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He spun around ready to lash out, only to have the knife slapped out of his hand by an unseen force. He gaped at the blonde standing there.
Tara Maclay shook her head. "Boy, are you having a bad night."
Snarling, the man clenched his fists and lunged at her.
"Hey!" Behind him now Willow Rosenberg brought a hand up and the man suddenly found himself unable to move. "Didn't you mother teach you not to hit a lady?"
Tara watched the would-be thief for a few moments then turned to Willow. "Uhm, honey? He's starting to turn blue. I think maybe you should let him go now."
Willow pouted, then sighed. "Okay." She lowered her hand and the man fell face-first to the ground. "You're just lucky she was here."
Tara stepped over him and put an arm around the redhead. "Come on." Using magic in public like this made her kind of nervous. "We'd better go before someone sees us."
"We can't just leave him. What if he tries something like this again? Or worse?"
There was a rather chilling glint in Willow's eye. Tara had seen it before. "What did you have in mind?"
A few minutes later the man staggered out of the alley. Though he didn't fully understand why he was on his way to the nearest police station to confess his every crime. It would be a long night.
Willow and Tara left the alley too, in the opposite direction. The blonde glance over her shoulder. "I have to say..." She smiled. "...that was an inspired idea. I'm definitely going to have to ravish you when we get home."
Willow's breath caught in her throat. "Then why don't we, um, just skip the coffee?" She reached for Tara's hand, only to have the blonde pull away and shake her head. Her eyes widened.
"Sorry, sweety. We promised Kris we'd stop by, remember?"
"No." Willow wilted under the blonde's gaze. "Okay, yes." She kicked at a rock as they rounded a corner. "Stupid decorators."
"How We Got Where We Are"
Willow and Tara had been living in New York for the better part of two months. Initially they stayed at the Halliwells, but after the third demon attack in a week Tara insisted they move.
"We agreed to try and have a normal life, remember?" Tara wiped the smoldering demon remains she, Willow, and Piper were covered in off of her face. "In what way is this normal?"
Piper shrugged. "Seems pretty normal to me." She turned and strode into the kitchen, where Cole and Leo were sitting down to breakfast. "It's your turn to clean up, boys."
Tara took her lover aside and lowered her voice. "Will, I thought we were going to get away from all this. Demons. The fighting. It's a different place, with different people. But the danger is all the same. I want a change."
Before Willow could say anything a lump of oozing demon flesh fell out of her hair and trickled down her face, ending up disturbingly close to her mouth. She swept it aside and frowned. "What'd you have in mind?"
To get as fresh a start as possible they agreed to leave California all together. Willow suggested New York and Tara found the idea intriguing, since both of them had imagined living there at one time or another.
Reluctantly, they borrowed money from the sisters. They had to, since they couldn't exactly go to a bank and get an official loan. After a week of intense searching they found an apartment in their price range. It was small and had no view, but they weren't about to complain. Fortunately it was already furnished, allowing them to also buy some new clothes and other personal things; necessary since everything they used to own was back in Sunnydale.
Still, in spite of the demon attacks, they'd grown quite fond of the Halliwells and their home, and when time came for them to leave neither was in any real hurry. It wasn't like they would be completely out of touch. If something apocalyptic came up and the Charmed Ones needed help, or if they just wanted to visit, Leo or Tara could orb them in a flash.
They day they were to depart Phoebe approached Willow and Tara in the attic. They were having one last look at the Book of Shadows. "Hey guys. I have something for you." She sat a duffel bag on the table. "I know you talked about doing the normal life thing. Which I honestly hope does work out for you." She patted the bag. "Just in case I put some crystals and candles in here, along with some potions and a few spells that might come in handy. And you know you can use the Book any time you need to."
"That's very thoughtful," said Willow. "Thank you." Her fingers grazed Phoebe's as she took the bag, and she saw the other witch tense in an all-too familiar way. "What is it?"
"What did you see?" Tara asked.
Phoebe shook her head. "An old woman in a coffin. And...blood?" She frowned. "How weird. It's like I started to get a premonition and it went away all the sudden. That's never happened to me before."
Tara saw Willow's brow furrow. She recognized the signs of an approaching research session. "Umm, well, I'm sure you'll figure it out. It's time to go, Will."
The redhead started. "Hmm?" She saw Tara holding out her hand. "Oh." She took it. "I'm sorry the others aren't back yet. Would you tell them good-bye for us?"
"No problem," said Phoebe. "Good luck you guys."
As it turned out, their luck was in short supply. Their already limited finances were rapidly dwindling, and the problem was finding jobs where no one would pry too closely into their backgrounds. They didn't officially exist in this world, after all. One afternoon, as they were scouring the classifieds, again, their got their first bit of good fortune in a while.
"Sweety?" Willow walked out of the tiny kitchen with a paper in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. "You like animals. How do you feel about working in a shelter?"
Sitting on the worn old couch, Tara looked up and sighed. "I'd rather not."
"It's so sad to see all the dogs and cats in cages." Tara bit her lip. "And when places like that get too full, they have to put the poor animals to sleep. I'm not sure I could do that."
Willow stroked her lover's cheek and smiled. "My baby is so compassionate. It's one of the many things I love about you."
They began to kiss. Just as it began to get more serious, Cole shimmered into the room. He saw that Willow's hands in the process of undoing the top two of Tara's blouse buttons and smirked. "Am I interrupting something?"
"I think you already know the answer to that," said Tara. She adjusted her clothes. "You could have called, you know."
"Or at least knocked," Willow mumbled. She crossed her own arms over her chest and stuck out her lower lip.
Cole shrugged. "I didn't want anyone to know I was here. Especially Phoebe."
"Why not?" Tara asked. She knew the Charmed Ones trusted the half-demon so she had no reason not to, but he was still acting suspiciously and that put her on-edge. A glance at Willow told her she felt the same way.
Cole reached into his duster and pulled out a small leather pouch. "Phoebe said you were having trouble getting your new life going. I had the same problem when I wanted to make a name for my human side. I still have some of the same old contacts, so I pulled some strings." He tossed them the pouch. "That contains everything you need. Driver's licenses. Social security cards. Even birth certificates. There are official computer records too. As far as anyone here knows, Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay are just ordinary citizens."
Tara's eyes widened. "Cole...that's...this is incredible. But why don't you want the sisters to know about any of this?"
"Because, it's also incredibly illegal," said Willow. "Oh, I'm sure it's legit, real enough to stand up in court and all, but I know a little something about hacking. A rewrite of this magnitude is an amazing manipulation of the system, and would probably require tapping into some pretty dark and questionable resources. Of which the sisters would probably not approve."
Cole nodded. "There's a whole 'ends don't always justify the means' discussion Phoebe and I disagree on." He glance at his watch. "Speaking of, I'm supposed to meet her for lunch. I'll see you guys later."
He shimmered before they could thank him again.
Tara sighed. "I guess we got lucky."
"I plan on it!" Willow lunged at the blonde with an exaggerated leer and Tara giggled.
Kris Hunter was their next door neighbor.
They had met her two days after they moved in and she invited them over for coffee. Soon after they learned she had been in the military until recently, and after leaving the service had opened a cyber-cafe. When she told them she was having network problems, but had recently had to fire the guy who did her tech work, Willow offered to lend a hand. Seeing the redhead in action ultimately led Kris to offer her a job, which--after talking it over with Tara--Willow accepted. The money was good and the place was close to home.
Tara had another, unintended, impact. She gave Kris some decorating advice, which convinced the older woman to close for several weeks so she could have the entire place renovated. Meanwhile, Tara found a job of her own at an art gallery, which kept the two of them going until Kris reopened and Willow could start working again herself.
Now, finally, was the big day.
As they approached Kris' place Willow and Tara realized the outside had changed as well. Before it had a simple sign that said The HUB; now the words were illuminated and there was a steaming coffee cup with a flashing @ on it.
Tara blinked. "I like it."
"Me too," said Willow. "Well, we saw. Can we go home now? You..."
"Sweety, we promised Kris we'd make an appearance." Tara could tell her lover wasn't quite convinced. "We do owe her." Various sounds of hesitation followed, still. "Trust me..." She leaned in and kissed Willow's neck, smiling at the redhead's shudder before whispering in her ear. "I intend to make it worth the wait."
Willow licked her lips as she followed Tara inside. "Goddess, I love that woman."
Inside, The HUB looked like a whole new place, which was kind of the point, after all. It was more well lit. It had fresh, bright paint on the walls and ceiling, and what appeared to be far more comfortable, padded chairs situated around the dozen tables, upgraded from eight. Each table had a computer on it, but these were obviously fresh out of the box new--flat screens and wireless connectivity, among other things. All in all it was a step or two above what they used to find at the Expresso Pump in Sunnydale.
There were only four customers at the moment. A wiry, bespectacled man, who they'd seen there before though neither knew his name, typing furiously. Two teen girls sitting side by side, chatting on-line as well as in real life. And an older woman in a business suit, who had a variety of charts and graphs arranged on the table she was referring to periodically as she typed.
"Guess it's going to take a while for business to pick up again," said Tara. "Hardly any one knows they're open yet."
Willow nodded. "I'm working on an online advertising campaign, which--if Kris gives me the go ahead--I intend to send out to every computer in the city. And with any luck, I won't be accused of spamming. This time."
A blue and red-clad figure rose from behind the counter. "Oh, hey guys. I'm glad you made it." It was Jennifer Stone, The HUB's one and only waitress. Only a year or so older than Willow and Tara, Jennifer was nonetheless already a published author of two gothic romance novels. Her books, Talyn Born and Talyn Rising were not exactly best-sellers or anything, but the always perky brunette had enough money saved up they suspected she no longer needed this job. Clearly she had other reasons for staying, and they both presumed it had at least something to do with the owner of the establishment. "You missed the lunch crowd."
"Really?" Willow asked.
The brunette sighed. "No, but it sounds better than holy crap I am bored out of my skull." She motioned for them to have a seat at the counter and, without a word, headed for the mocha machine. "How was the movie?"
"I'll never understand what people see in Scooby Doo," Tara replied. "Though I did think Thelma was cute."
"Really?" Willow asked. "I'm kind of partial to Daphne myself."
Jennifer shook her head as she brought them their usual. "Oh, FYI. Kris was wondering if you could take a look at number four? The explorer's reporting some kind of a spooling error."
"That's pretty common." Willow got up and went to check on the computer.
"Where is the boss lady, anyway?" Tara asked. "Isn't she missing her own grand reopening?"
"Nothing much to miss," said Jennifer. "Actually she's in the store room, taking inventory. You know how she is with details."
Tara nodded. "I think I'll give her a hand. Tell Will for me?"
"Sure thing." Jennifer went back to wiping down the counter, while quietly humming the Xena theme song.
Tara knocked on the door marked EMPLOYEES only, and heard a muffled "Come in, T" from within. She opened the door and slipped inside, a curious expression on her face. "How did you know it was me?"
"Because, you're the only person I know who knocks." Kris Hunter was the very definition of Amazonian. She stood six feet, one inch tall and had a physique many athletes would kill for. Her black hair, previously cut to within a inch or so of her skull, was only now starting to grow out, and would soon become a problem she complained she'd have to deal with. "Hi, Tara."
"Hi. How's it going?"
"Slow. Didn't Jen tell you?"
Tara shrugged. "It's the first day. Give it time."
"Yeah. So where's your other half?"
"Working on the computer. Jennifer said..."
"Oh, number four. Right." Kris licked her lips. "That's a really nice blouse."
Tara blushed. "You're staring at my breasts again, aren't you?"
"Can you blame me? They're so round and full and..."
Willow pushed the storage room door open. "Don't make me poke your eyes out, lady."
"Oh, hey red. Didn't see you there."
"A likely story." Willow put an arm around Tara, who shook her head and smiled. "I fixed the explorer. You shouldn't..." She cleared her throat and Kris' eyes rose to meet her own. "...have any more problems."
Kris nodded. "Thanks."
"I also noticed your network is lagging a little. I'll tweak it in the morning, before you open."
"Okay." Kris wiped her hands on her jeans. "Seriously, guys, thanks for all your help. I don't know where I'd be if you hadn't convinced me to, well, put myself into serious debt if this doesn't work out."
"It will," said Tara. "Trust me."
There was a rush of customers not long after Willow and Tara arrived. So much of one, in fact, that the two of them had to help out by waiting tables because Jennifer was on her own that evening. Kris, complaining in that way she had of not actually being upset, said that if this kept up she might have to hire more servers. Jennifer, right on cue, chimed in that doing so would cut into her tips, and if Kris thought she was going to stand around and let that happen she didn't know her as well as she thought.
Willow and Tara, on their way out the door, waved and smiled. The other women waved back, before quickly returning to the seemingly daily, though clearly friendly, discussion of raises and layoffs.
"You think they're gonna be all over one another in the store room?" the redhead asked.
"Not yet." Tara shook her head. "Jen is interested, believe me, she just tries to hide it. I haven't been able to get a read on Kris."
"That's because she's always shamelessly flirting with you. I swear Tara. If she wasn't so, you know, large and physically intimidating I would probably say something."
Tara patted her lover's arm. "Oh, don't feel tiny and insignificant, Will. Just because Kris is so..."
"I beg you not to finish that sentence," said Willow. She linked her arm with Tara's, and they kissed. "Let's go home. My leg's are killing me. It boggles my mind how Jennifer can do that every night."
As they were walking Tara began to feel a slight tingling in the back of her mind. It sounded almost like bells. She glanced at Willow, who was not acting like she noticed anything out of the ordinary. "Sweety?"
"I think something's wrong."
From the first time they met and started doing magic together Willow knew Tara was more sensitive than she to danger in general and to many forms of magic. While she might have been stronger in terms of raw, magical power such subtle, more helpful on a daily basis, abilities were one of the many, many things she admired about her blonde beauty. And ever since Tara became a White Lighter that capacity had been magnified, which was made the redhead more pensive despite the fact the street was empty and quiet.
"Can you tell from where?"
Tara shook her head. "It's not exactly a directional finder, Will."
"It can be. Remember what Leo said?"
"Yes. But that only comes with years of experience."
"Baby, don't forget. You aren't just a White Lighter. You're a witch too." Willow licked her lips as she considered how to proceed. "Try letting the guardian angel part of you reach out and feel the danger, then use your magic to hone in on it."
Tara nodded. "I'll give it a shot." She closed her eyes. "Whoa."
"What is it?"
"I'm not really sure." Tara turned and pointed. "But I think it's coming from that way."
"You wouldn't be sensing anything if it wasn't important." Willow took her lover's hand. "Let's check it out."
Around the corner and down the next block they found a woman's purse laying on the ground in front of the half locked BAY BOOKS. As the two witches approached they could hear the sound of a struggle in a nearby alley. This was something they had become very familiar with back in Sunnydale. But here it was more likely a regular mugging, like they'd foiled earlier.
"Should we call the police?" Tara whispered.
Willow shook her head. "It would take them too long to get here. I guess it's up to us."
They started into the alley, only to see a column of flame erupting in the darkness. They heard a scream and screeching, and then a dark, furry shape swooped past them and vanished into the night sky. For most people this might have been enough to send them running but it just made the two of them even more curious. Cautiously, they entered the alley.
Inside a small, dark figure in a long brown coat was hunched over, breathing heavily. Tara cleared her throat and the figure turned, revealing a worn, wrinkly woman's face. She had an unremarkable face with a nose slightly too large, silver-gray hair tied in a bun, and bright blue eyes that bespoke a wealth of experience. Her mouth crinkled into a tired grin.
"Are you all right?" Tara asked.
"Not really." The woman patted her hip. "Arthritis is acting up something fierce and I'm having a hard time catching my breath. But other than that, no worse than usual. Why do you ask?"
"We saw something," said Willow. "Some kind of an explosion. And, a..."
Tara thought about the creature that had passed them. "...a bat?"
"A bat you say?" The woman chuckled. "Well child, I've lived in this city for a very long time and I have to tell you, I have seen every manner of creature. Bats are no exception. Fairly certain I would have noticed an explosion, however." She touched her forehead. "My mind plays tricks on me you see. Can't always trust it. But fire? That's something you don't soon forget." She blinked. "Speaking of, where are my manners?" She held out her hand. "My name is Madison. Madison Rayne."
Tara shook hands with the woman. "Nice to meet you. I'm Tara Maclay. This is Willow Rosenberg."
"Rosenberg?" Madison clucked her tongue. "I knew a Rosenberg back in the old neighborhood. Fine tailor, that one. Any relation?"
"Somehow I doubt..." Willow's eyes widened. "Wait, did you say your last name was Rayne?"
"Indeed. Is something wrong?"
The redhead realized that both Tara and Madison were looking at her oddly. "No, it's just...I used to know someone with that name."
Madison nodded. "Not someone you're fond of, I take it?"
"Not particularly. But at least I don't have to worry about you guys being related."
"How can you be so certain?"
Tara put an arm around the redhead. "Trust us."
"As you say."
"Do you need any help getting home?" Tara asked.
Madison shook her head. "No, thank you, child. My apartment is just around the corner. Above my shop. AVALON. Feel free to stop by for a visit sometime. If you like to read, that is."
"We do," said Tara. "And maybe we will. Thank you. Good-bye. And have a good evening."
"I can but try. Good evening to you." Once she was sure they were gone Madison relaxed. Her shoulders slumped, her face turned ashen, and she groaned with each step as she stumbled out of the alley.
A block or so away, Tara noticed that Willow's expression had not changed. "What is it?"
"There's something very strange about that woman."
"Who, Madison? You're probably wigged because of her name."
Willow shook her head. "It's not just that. Though that is an awfully big coincidence, don't you think? No, what I was referring to..." Her eyes widened. "I just realized. Didn't you sense it?"
"The magic, you mean? In the alley? Of course I did."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
Tara shrugged her shoulders. "She's probably a witch. They're more common here than in Sunnydale."
"Don't you think it's worth exploring? Except for the sisters, we haven't met any other witches since coming here."
"Isn't that the point?" Tara sighed. "I thought we were trying to have something resembling a normal life for a change. Let's not go looking for monsters. If our luck holds, I'm sure they'll find us on their own soon enough."
Down in the underworld the Queen lounged in a pool of warm blood, dozing while being tended to by several of her more beautiful and nubile servants. She glanced up as a bat flew into the room, her initial disinterest becoming concern and then annoyance as it quickly transformed into a dark-haired young man who immediately knelt beside her.
"Rolan. I can't help noticing you're alone. And conspicuously empty-handed. Where is Thomas?"
"Dead, my Queen."
"I see." She arched an eyebrow. "And, the sentinel?"
"Escaped. We have failed, my Queen."
"How disappointing. First you send those demons against the Charmed Ones without my consent, and worse fail to kill the witches. And now this?" She stood up. "This is unacceptable, Rolan."
"I have no excuse, my Queen."
"Nor would I be inclined to hear it, if you did." The Queen gestured. "Leave us." As one the others bowed and backed out of the room. Naked and dripping blood, she stepped out of the tub and approached Rolan, who did not look at her. "Rise."
He did so instantly. "My Queen."
"You have served me well for two centuries, Rolan. A pity it must end this way."
He seemed neither surprised nor concerned by her obvious intent. "May I say...it has been a pleasure, my Queen."
"Of course." With an expressionless face the Queen drove her hand into Rolan's chest and clutched his heart. "What was given..." She began to squeeze. He shuddered. "...is now retrieved." His heart imploded and with it his body. It was a cleaner, and much more satisfying, way for her to dispatch an unruly follower than a wooden stake through the heart. "Back to work. The alignment will be upon us soon. Tell me, servant. Can your abilities make contact with another realm, if you are given enough...encouragement?"
Out of the shadows walked the Seer. Killed by the Source, resurrected by the Queen. "Perhaps. Whom did you have in mind?"
"My most loyal and capable child. As we were driven from the underworld, he was driven from me and this world." She smiled. "But given the importance of what is to come, I think it's time he returned home."
Later in the evening, Tara was finishing up in the bathroom when she felt a tingling sensation again. Not nearly as strong as before, but closer and more consistent. Which likely meant...
She opened the bathroom door and peeked out into the bedroom. It was mostly dark but with moonlight peeking through the curtains she was still able to make out the bed. She could see Willow thrashing around, the sheets tangled around her ankles. She was still asleep, but apparently in the throes of a violent nightmare.
Tara shut off the bathroom light and stepped out into the bedroom. That was when she felt it; magic pulsing off the redhead in waves. Willow was projecting in her sleep. With her emotions and powers running wild as a result of whatever she was dreaming, it could easily get worse. If it escalated too far she might even inadvertently become dangerous.
"I'm coming, Will."
Tara took another step toward the bed, only to be struck in the side of the head. Fortunately for her it was only a pillow. But as she looked the blonde realized it wasn't alone. Within a ten-foot radius around Willow and the bed anything under a pound or so was being levitated; bobbing up and down or spinning and twirling, apparently with a mind of its own. Navigating the makeshift obstacle course was not all that difficult. She did get a few bumps and bruises from some of the larger, sharper objects, but nothing that would have even required a Band-Aid. She climbed in the bed beside Willow and touched the redhead's glistening brow.
"Sweety. You're burning up!"
Tara turned on a bedside lamp and gently shook Willow's shoulders but she didn't stir so she shook harder. When that didn't work she took a deep breath and lightly slapped the redhead. Still no response. At least, not from Willow. To her surprise everything that had been floating was suddenly deprived of its invisible support and plunged to the floor.
"Oh baby. You heard me. On some level, you were responding to me, didn't you?"
Whatever was happening was clearly magical so there wasn't any point in calling an ambulance. She considered calling the Charmed Ones but it was late and it wasn't like there was much they could really do anyway. They didn't know Willow or her powers like she did. She sighed. They couldn't help. Willow needed her. And she would do whatever was necessary.
"I'm coming sweety." Laying down beside Willow, Tara put her hand on the redhead's and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath and began to focus all of her mind and magic on the task at hand.
What she planning was light-years beyond anything they had tried before. The two of them were closer than anyone realized. Ever since their encounter with Glory a deeper connection existed between them, and with a little effort they were able to speak to one another across distances, without actually using their magic. Willow could communicate telepathically with her friends, but the way their minds could actually link was far more intense and intimate. And this, of course, would be something even further.
Instead of merely touching Willow's mind, peering in to see her thoughts and memories and, occasionally, fantasies Tara had still unanswered questions about, she was going to try and enter her consciousness all the way. Find her regardless of whether she was lost or hiding, and bring her back. There was always a chance something could go wrong; she could get lost herself, and if Willow's mind collapsed or if she lost control of her powers, it would mean Tara would suffer as well. But for Willow's sake, she was willing to risk it. She would have walked naked and alone through the very gates of hell to save the woman she loved if need be.
Tara concentrated on one particular image she knew meant as much to Willow as it did to her. An image which hopefully would help guide her through whatever mental defenses Willow might have waiting for her. She heard mewling. A little black and white shape started rubbing against her right ankle. She smiled. It was Miss Kitty Fantastico; the cute kitten she and Willow adopted from the pound. Tragically she had been killed in a crossbow accident by Dawn shortly after the two of them moved into the Summer's home, but for a few short months it was almost as if she and Willow had a child together. "Hello there. It's nice to see you."
"Can you show me where Willow is?"
"Meow." Miss Kitty padded over to a door and pawed at it.
They were suddenly standing in a hallway in Buffy's house, outside the bedroom Tara and Willow had shared. "Okay." She put a hand on the knob, only to get a jolt. "Ow!" Subconsciously, Willow was still trying to stop her. "Will? Honey it's me. I'm here to help you Will, but you have to let me in. Please." Nothing happened. "I don't want to lose you, Will. Please. I love you!"
After a moment, the bedroom door swung open. Tara bit her lip and walked inside...only instead of the bedroom she'd been expecting, she and Miss Kitty were now on the dance floor of the Bronze. She looked around. "Will?" It was dark and quiet. Miss Kitty began to clean her paw. "If you're trying to tell me something, I don't understand."
"So, blondie's not little miss perfect after all, huh? That's a shocker."
Tara froze. She would never forget that voice as long as she lived. Even after all this time it still occasionally haunted her own nightmares. The blonde turned and glared at the red-clad figure coming down the stairs from an upper level.
Glory smirked as she strode out onto the dance floor. "Hey there, lover." She winked. "Miss me?"
"Y-You can't be here." Tara nonetheless backed away. "You're not real. You're a figment of Willow's imagination."
"Not exactly sweetcheeks. I really am here. A little bit of Glorificus has been bouncing around in here for a while now." Glory shrugged. "Your lover-girl stuck her metaphysical fingers in the mind of a god. You don't think that's gonna leave a mark?"
"Whatever. I'm not here for you anyway." Tara turned her back on Glory, who pouted. "Willow! You don't have to hide baby. I'm not going to hurt you. And I promise, I won't let anybody else hurt you either."
Glory was suddenly standing at Tara's side and whispered in her ear. "But that's the problem, blondie. You're the one who hurt her already. By leaving her, not once but twice. First you ran out on her and then you died. She doesn't want to risk losing you again." She snapped her fingers and everything around them changed. "Which is what makes this such a nightmare."
Now they were standing in Buffy's backyard. Buffy herself was there, talking to Xander. Tara recognized the scene, their clothes and even the time of day, because it was one of the last clear moments of her previous life. She gasped. "Oh, Willow, no. It's not your fault. You don't have to do this. You're not responsible for my death."
Right on cue Warren came stomping through the gate. Buffy and Xander turned to face him and listened to his rant. But as he raised his pistol he transformed into Willow. "Of course I am. I'm the reason we were in the bedroom that day. Me and my stupid need to do magic all the time. It might as well as have been me who pulled the trigger."
"No, Will. I love you. We both chose to be in the bedroom that day. And it wasn't you. It was Warren who killed me."
"Yeah." A skinless, yet disturbingly still animated Warren appeared beside Tara. "And she took care of me, didn't she? So why don't you just let her finish what she came here to do?"
Tara shook her head. "Don't give in to this, Will. Don't let it destroy you."
"Lighten up." Glory grabbed one of Tara's arms. "It's her mind." Warren grabbed the other. "She can to destroy it if she wants to."
When Tara resisted, Buffy and Xander grabbed her too. Tara screamed. "Willow!"
The redhead blinked and turned her way. "T-Tara?"
"I'm here to help you, Will. I love you. Please, don't leave me like this." Tara couldn't fight all four of them. They began to drag her away. "Will please. I love you, Will! I love you!"
"Tara?" Willow's eyes narrowed. "No! Not again." She raised her hands. "NO!" Invisible waves of force knocked the quartet aside and gently brought Tara to the redhead. "Tara? Baby? Is it really you?"
"It's me. Goddess, Willow, I'm sorry. I never realized how much you were still hurting. Why didn't you ever say anything?"
The redhead shrugged. "I guess I didn't want to burden you."
"That's what I'm here for, Will. Talk to me. Trust me. I'll help you." Tara touched her forehead to Willow's. "I love you."
"I love you too."
They both jerked awake in bed, soaked in sweat and clinging to one another.
When Willow finally caught her breath she smiled weakly. "Thank you."
"Any time," said the blonde.
Kris's computer problem turned out to be more serious than Willow had anticipated. She called Tara to explain she'd probably be busy most of the morning, but would try to meet her for lunch.
Since Tara herself had the day off she decided to run a few errands. She returned movies to the video store, bought groceries, took care of the bills that needed to be paid in person and went for a checkup at the dentist. After lunch, which Willow barely had time for, she gathered clothes and took the hamper down to the basement, only to find the washers and dryer already in use. The only laundromat in the neighborhood was at least two blocks away but she didn't feel like waiting around.
Once the washing machine was going Tara searched her purse, only to discover she hadn't brought anything to read. Sighing, she headed for an empty chair in front of a window. A sign across the street caught her eye. "Avalon?" It took her a moment to recall where she had heard that name before, besides it's obvious mythological connotations. "Oh. Madison Rayne." The strange woman they'd met in an alley had said she ran a bookstore. Which was just what Tara needed right now. "I've got time."
While Tara was waiting to cross the street she studied the building; an old, three-story brownstone. The bottom floor was entirely made up of the bookstore. The top floor windows appeared to be boarded over but she could see curtains hanging in one of the windows on the second. It dawned on her that Madison had said she lived above her shop.
It was the middle of the afternoon so Tara wasn't too surprised the place was empty. She was even less so when she saw a few of the titles on the well-organized shelves. Many of them were all older, leather-bound volumes, though there was not a more of dust to be seen. Tara noticed a trend. There were no magazines, no DVD's or computer games, no coffee. Just books, and nothing modern, at least from what she had seen. She wasn't complaining though. She enjoyed literature from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
But while there were plenty of books, there didn't seem to be anyone watching them. Admittedly, there was little threat of thieves. While many of these books were doubtless extremely valuable, in certain markets at least, there were plenty of other stores in the vicinity offering easier and more tempting, targets. Still, Tara was curious and a little concerned as she approached the counter. It had an old-fashioned bell on it, and when she rang it the sound echoed to every corner of the store. Moments later, a door she hadn't noticed before opened behind the counter. As it did she felt a swell of magic, so intense it nearly bowled her over. Gasping, she slumped forward, grabbing at the edge of the counter for support as Madison Rayne emerged.
The older woman's eyes widened when she saw Tara. "My dear." She closed the door behind her. "Are you all right?"
"I-I think so." Tara already felt better. "I just got a little dizzy for a second there."
"Maybe you should sit down." Madison gestured to a chair. "Can I get you something? Tea, perhaps?"
Tara sat. "No, thank you. I really am fine."
"As you say." Madison cocked her head. "Excuse me, but have we met? You seem oddly familiar."
"The other night. In the alley? With the fire and the bat."
Madison blinked. "Oh, how silly of me." She clasped her hands behind her back. "So, what can I do for you, young lady?"
"I'm doing laundry across the street, and I was looking for something to read while I wait."
"You're more than welcome to look around," said Madison. "But I'm afraid my collection is rather...eclectic. I don't believe I have anything that has even been printed in the last half century or so."
Tara nodded. "I noticed. That's okay. I love old books." On one hand she was, of course, curious about what she'd sensed, but on the other it was really none of her business if Madison was a witch or not. Still it wouldn't hurt to test the waters. "Speaking of, you don't happen to have a copy of Moloch's Compendium or Raiden's Rites, do you?" Both were rare, mystical texts, in her reality at least, and if anything like them existed here only a witch or other magically inclined being would know about them.
Madison's face betrayed the faintest hint of something akin to recognition. It was so fleeting, in fact, that Tara would have missed it if she had not been staring at the other woman in hopes of just such a reaction.
"I'm afraid I'm not familiar with those particular titles."
Tara shrugged her shoulders. "That's all right. I didn't really expect you too. Do you, um, have anything by Symera Kye?" A mostly unknown, nineteenth century author, Kye's work were sought after by many Wiccans. She had been searching for the books for a number of years, but so far had not found a single one of them.
"Symera Kye?" Madison blinked. "As a matter of fact, I believe I do have one of her later works." She glanced over her shoulder. "Let me see, nineteenth century fiction if I'm not mistaken...ah hah."
Once she had the book in her hands Tara considered the irony of having to travel to a whole different world to find this book. She reached for her purse. "So, umm, how much?"
"I don't get much call for that sort of book. Which is a pity. She is a very good writer." Madison clucked her tongue. "And, you were trying to help me out last night. How does twenty five dollars sound?"
Tara quickly calculated how much money she had on her, and how much she still needed for the laundry. "I only have fifteen."
Madison stare at her for a moment, then smiled. "That's fine."
Tara handed her the money, all the while shooting glances toward the door through which Madison had appeared. Was the magic she sensed from Madison herself, or something in the other room?
"Is there something else I can help you with, dear?"
Tara started. Madison was watching her somewhat more suspiciously now. The blonde shook her head. "Um, no. Thank you." She patted the book. "I have been looking for this for a long time."
"I'm glad I could help."
Tara tucked the book under her arm and cleared her throat. "I should, umm, get back to my clothes."
"Good-bye, then. Enjoy the book."
"I will. Thank you."
Madison watched Tara cross the parking lot, sunlight shining on the blonde's face, and breathed a sigh of relief.
Down in the underworld the Queen was feasting on the neck of a previously very vocal teenage girl. The mousy blonde had cried and whined and begged for her life, right up until the last drop of her life was drained away. Her now pale arms, which had been slapping ineffectually at the Queen's chest, dropped limply to her sides. Her eyes remained wide open in frozen horror.
The Queen shrugged the girl's body off her lap. Her pleasure was fleeting, and she sighed. While her hunger was satiated, for the moment, her frustration was growing. She hadn't heard from the Seer for almost an entire day and the demon had so far ignored her summons. Unfortunately, patience would not have been one of the Queen's virtues, even assuming she had any. She was just about to order one of her followers to bring the Seer to her, kicking and screaming if need be, when she heard the throne room doors creak open.
In came the Seer, her head bowed respectfully. "My liege..."
"Excellent. Send him it at once."
The Seer bowed and backed out of the room. The utter subservience would have seemed out of character to anyone who knew her before, but then again she was no longer the demon she had once been.
Ancient necromantic magics, known only to the vampires, had allowed the Queen to resurrect the Seer. It was one of the things she had taken with her with they were exiled by the Source centuries before. But while her mind and memories were intact the Seer's formidable will and indeed her renewed existence had been bound to the Queen's; if anything ever happened to the Queen it would mean the end of the Seer as well. It was the surest way to ascertain her loyalty, and give the Queen ready access to the Seer's unique abilities.
They were changed as well. No longer did she receive unsettelingly graphic and intense visions of the future. Instead, through her link with the Queen, she was able to hone in on and communicate with virtually any evil entity known to either of them. It was a taxing experience, especially if the one she was attempting to contact was very far away, but her exhaustion and pain were irrelevant to the Queen. Only her service mattered and so far she continued to be of use, which kept her alive.
The Queen smiled as a black-clad figure came striding majestically into the throne room.
Willow and Tara met for dinner and a movie, after which they went immediately home to work on some 'inspirations' they got from love scenes in the film. Some time later, with a sheet draped across their otherwise nude bodies, the blonde reached for the book she'd bought at Madison's, to show the redhead.
"...a first edition, too."
"That's great." Willow was as enthused about the find as Tara. "So what was the shop like?"
"It was nice, actually. She had a lot of older books. We should definitely go back there. You'd love it." Tara sighed. "So would Giles. I'll bet we would ever get him out of there."
Willow rested her chin on the blonde's shoulder. "Feeling homesick, baby?"
"A little. What do you suppose they're doing right now?"
The redhead glanced at a clock. "Buffy's probably patrolling with Xander. Dawn's at home..." She made air-quotes. "...doing homework..."
"Which is, of course, code for talking to Kit on the phone," said Tara. "And Anya?"
"Had I not reduced the Magic Box to a smoldering pile of rubble I'd say she was counting her money, doing that silly dance..."
Tara smiled. "Oh yes, the dance of capitalist superiority. You know, I always thought she was so cute when she..." The blonde stopped in mid-sentence, at the odd look Willow was giving her. "What?"
"I beg you, for the sake of all that is holy, not to finish that sentence. I'm very fragile emotionally."
"Oh, I know. You're a regular basket-case." Tara snuggled up against the redhead. "All kidding aside? It's okay, Will. You did bad things, yes, and you're never going to be able to forget the damage you caused, or the people you hurt."
"You mean killed, don't you?"
Tara nodded. "Them too. You won't forget, and shouldn't. But sooner or later, you are going to have to forgive yourself, Will."
"Yeah, but see...that's just it, Tara. I don't feel bad about all of it. Like Warren? I killed the bastard and I'm glad. He took you from me. From the world. And Rack?" Willow shook her head. "Trust me the world's a better place without him. I don't feel bad that either of them is dead." After a moment, she sighed. "The problem is, what I do feel bad about, is that I don't feel bad about not feeling bad. There's a part of me that enjoyed it, Tara. Not just killing them. All of it. The violence. The power. I was connected to that darkness on a deep down level, and I can still feel it in the back of my mind. Rumbling around. Just waiting to get out again."
"I know. We all have that inside us, Will."
"Of course I do. I'm no saint. You think I haven't had bad thoughts, Willow? Sometimes, I look around at all the damage vampires and demons are causing and wonder if it wouldn't be better to just wipe every last one of them out. End the fight once and for all, you know? The world, as a beautiful redhead once said, would be a much better place."
Willow didn't smile. "Maybe. The difference is you've thought about it, I actually tried to do it. I tried to destroy the world, Tara. And I came a whole frilly heck of a lot closer than Adam or Glory or any of those other monsters we hate so much. Thanks to me the world was literally on the brink of destruction. If Xander had not come along when he did..."
"That's all in the past. You can't undo what has already happened, Will. We have to look forward. Our life is here now."
"I know. You're right." The redhead closed her eyes. "You're always right."
"And don't you forget it, missy."
Willow smiled, and Tara did too. "Have I told you lately how much I love you?"
"Told. And shown."
"Well, I always was good at show and tell." Willow wiggled her eyebrows. "Wanna see?"
Tara squealed as the redhead dove under the covers.
Early the next morning Tara was awakened by the phone. It was her boss, at the art gallery, asking if she could cover one of the other worker's shift. After trying and failing, twice, to rouse Willow she finally decided to leave the redhead a note telling her where she was going, and asking of she wanted to meet for lunch at Kris's.
Willow was disappointed by the lack of early morning snuggles when she woke up and saw the note. She had the day off herself and planned to spend as much of it as possible in bed with Tara. As she was getting dressed the redhead noticed the book Tara had shown her on the trunk at the foot of the bed, and it gave her an idea.
She wanted to see Avalon anyway. "Maybe I can find more of Symera's books for Tara."
After breakfast Willow headed out; along the way her mind wandering to thoughts of Sunnydale. Back there it was unusual for any of them to walk anywhere alone, even in the daytime, and while New York did have its share of mundane dangers as a general rule she didn't have to worry about being followed or attacked by ghosts, demons, or vamps wearing really heavy sunblock.
What Tara didn't know, and probably wouldn't understand if she did, was that part of her missed it. A very small part, to be sure. Hardly a blip on the mental radar, really. But there was indeed a part of the redhead that enjoyed defending the innocent, fighting evil, and facing at least one apocalypse on a yearly basis. This life was quiet and safe and easy, and just a teeny bit boring.
Ultimately, though, Willow didn't mind. She had Tara back. Nothing else mattered.
As soon as she walked into Avalon the redhead extended her senses, both magical and mental, as wide as she could in hopes of detecting the powerful mystical energy Tara had told her about. She was nowhere near as receptive as her lover but if Madison was up to something she was going to be as ready for it as possible. She was somewhat nervous and definently on-edge as a result, which was why when a hand came down on her shoulder she nearly jumped out of her skin.
"I'm sorry, dear." Madison smiled. "Did I frighten you?"
Willow licked her lips. "It's okay. I hear stopping your heart once and a while is good for the circulation."
"I see." Madison clasped her hands behind her back. "Is there something I can help you with?"
The redhead quickly realized that the quick-wit tactics she'd picked up from Xander were useless on this woman. "I hope so. My girlfriend Tara was in here yesterday and she bought a Kymera Skye book. I was wondering if you had anymore?"
"Afraid not. To be perfectly honest I was a little surprised I had that one. Most of my clientele prefers much older volumes."
"I understand. A friend of mine in Sunn...back where I used to live, couldn't get by without stacks of musty old books around him."
Madison was still apparently not amused. "I see. Is there anything else?"
"Not really. But would you mind if I looked around?"
"Feel free, dear. If you need any help, just let me know." Madison inclined her head and walked away.
Unnoticed by either woman thick gray smoke began to pour out of an air vent in a wall on the far side of the store. It swirled and churned with a clear mind of its own, deliberately turning away from areas full of sunlight shining through the numerous bay windows. At length it found one of the few shadowed sections of the store and began to coalesce, into a humanoid form.
A tall, thin man in black clothes, wearing a long black cape that swooped majestically behind him as he gazed around with his glittering golden eyes. Eerily handsome, he had straight black hair and waxy, pale skin. He moved in a slow, graceful manner, his head darting from side to side as he made a point of avoiding the beams of sunlight while gliding toward Madison.
To her credit the woman seemed to become aware of his presence despite the fact he was moving in complete silence. Even so, by the time she turned he was within striking distance, though he made no move to attack her. "Foul creature! How did you get in here?"
"It's a public place, dear lady." He held up his hand, eyes swirling, and she froze. "But you needn't worry. I mean you no harm. I'm only here to ask you a few questions. I'm sure you already know what about."
Madison's eyelids were half-closed, as she gently swayed from side to side as if in a daze. "The Sigil."
"I-I can't. I won't."
He silenced her attempts at protest or resisting with another wave of his hand. "You can. You must. You have no choice."
Willow stepped out from behind a bookshelf behind them. "Hey, tall dark and hypnotic! The lady said..." Her eyes widened. "...you?"
The vampire turned to face her. "Do I know you?"
"As a matter of fact. My name's Willow?" Off his blank expression she cleared her throat. "Willow Rosenberg?" Still no response. She crossed her arms and sighed. "I'm a friend of Buffy Summers?"
"The Slayer?" Now he looked as surprised as she had moments before. "How can that be?"
"I was just about to ask you the same question. What're you doing in this neck of the multiverse, Dracula?"
Snarling, the vampire launched himself at the redhead, who countered by stepping back into the sunlight. He hesitated, knowing he would not be able to reach her without risking injury. "I am not here for you. Begone."
He gestured at Willow, who shook her head. "Sorry. Buffy told me all about your wanna-be Jedi mind tricks. I'm ready for you."
"Is that a fact?" Dracula smirked. His eyes began to swirl again. "You are putty in my hands, witch."
"First of all, eww. And secondly? Save your thrall for somebody else, pal. My heart's already been taken."
Dracula's eyes narrowed. "Ah, yes. Of course." Right before Willow's eyes he changed, into Tara. "This better?" 'She' spread her arms. "Give us a kiss, lover."
Willow's control faltered. Even though she knew, consciously, this could not be Tara an unfortunately large part of her subconscious was not so certain. She quickly became disoriented, and vulnerable. She froze.
"Now, stand aside." 'Tara' turned back into Dracula. "I have work to do."
As the vampire turned back, Madison rose from behind the counter. "You shouldn't let your mind wander, beast!" She held up a large wooden cross and Dracula recoiled, hissing. "Dracula, eh? I guess you aren't as strong as they say."
"I had you once, Sentinel. I can do it again."
Madison shook her head. "Not now that I am ready for you. You've lost the element of surprise, leech."
Willow felt her own wits returning. "I think you'd better get out of here, Count."
"You too? I must be slipping."
"Pretty soon...you're going to be burning!" Willow brought her own hand up, intending to fling the vampire at--and hopefully through--one of the nearby plate glass windows. Only nothing happened. She tried again. "My powers!"
Dracula sneered. "I go, for now. I was ill-prepared. When next we meet, Sentinel, you would be wise to simply give me what I want." He turned to mist and flowed away, through the same air vent he had emerged from.
Willow stared at her hands. "My powers?"
"Are fine," said Madison. "Don't you know anything about vampires? They're immune to witch powers."
"They are? Really?" Willow frowned. "I guess I still have things to learn about this world."
Madison didn't even react to these words, though it was clear she had heard. "It appears we were both harboring secrets, child. A witch? And one at least partially familiar with vampires it seems."
"And who, or what, are you? Dracula called you a Sentinel?"
"It's a long story. One I would be happy to recount for you, later." Madison put a hand to her forehead. "For now, I am tired. Would you be so kind as to please come back tomorrow? I will tell you everything you wish to know."
Willow hesitated. Clearly the shopkeeper was more than she appeared, but if she was an enemy of Dracula's she probably was not all bad. "All right. But you'd better not skip town or anything. We have ways of tracking you, you know."
"Yes yes, fine." Madison waved her off. "Good night Miss Rosenberg." Once the redhead was gone, she turned and shuffled toward the door at the back of the shop. Along the way she clutched at her chest. "No. Not yet."
Tara walked out of the bathroom, holding a partially soaked towel around her still glistening body.
"How is that possible?"
Willow, sprawled out on the bed wearing only a flimsy negligee, shrugged her shoulders. "Magic. Not a lot is know about Dracula. The vamp, I mean. There's no catalogue of the true extent of his powers."
Tara went over to the dresser and let her towel drop to the floor. "Maybe it's not him?"
"I met the guy, Tara. It's hard to forget being up close with a literary legend. Believe me, it's Dracula."
"I'm sure it is. That's not what I meant. What if it's not 'our' Dracula? What if he's the legendary vampire from this reality?"
"I thought about that." Willow rested her arm under her head. "But he knows Buffy, by name and as the Slayer. He has to be the same one we met in Sunnydale." She sighed. "Question is, how did he get here? And more importantly, why?"
Tara lay down on the bed beside her lover. "Like you said...magic. Even if he isn't able to do it himself, it wouldn't be too hard to find someone in Sunnydale to help him jump across dimensions. I'd like to know what he wants with Madison. You said she wasn't surprised to see him? As a vampire, I mean?" The redhead nodded. "Is she is a witch, do you think?"
"No. I didn't sense that kind of magic when I was there. Did you?"
"Not really." Tara sighed. "We can ask her tomorrow, I guess."
Willow nodded. "Yeah. But there's someplace else I think we should go first."
The next morning Willow and Tara orbed into the attic of Halliwell manor. They'd already called, as well as knocked on both the front and back doors, without response. But they really needed access to the Book of Shadows, and had been assured by the sisters that they could use it any time they wanted.
"Hello?" Tara went to check out the rest of the house, while Willow headed straight for the Book. She returned a few minutes later. "The place is in pretty good shape. I don't think they've been attacked. They must just be out."
"That's a relief," said the redhead. "Come look at this."
Tara leaned over her lover's shoulder to read. "What? Oh, Vampires." She scanned the page. "Huh. The more things change..."
"I know. Sunlight, holy water, garlic. You can still kill them with stakes. But Madison was right too. They are immune to witch powers. So if we run into him again we can't zap Dracula directly. Piper can't blow him up or freeze him either."
"Hey. It says here they have a Queen. And if you kill the vampire Queen..."
"...all her offspring die with her," said Willow. "That's good to know."
"It would certainly makes things easier wouldn't it?" Tara continued reading. "Nothing in there about reflections, or the invitation. But I guess those are not as likely to come up, are they?"
"Probably not." Willow sighed. "So we can use potions, spells, things like that. But it looks like our best bet is doing things the old fashioned way. A good old piece of wood through the heart."
Tara frowned. "Great. More vampire hunting. Just what I wanted to do with our evenings."
"Baby, I'm not suggesting we start patrolling or anything. I just want us to be prepared in case we run across Dracula or his Queen. That's not too much to ask, is it?"
"Not really." Tara sighed. "I don't want to complain. It's just...things were supposed to be different here, you know?"
"Blame the fickle finger of fate, baby."
Tara nodded. "What about those other words you said Dracula mentioned? Sigil and, umm..."
"...Sentinel? I'll check." Willow thumbed through the book some more. "Hey, check it out. It says a Sentinel is a non-mystical protector, who is chosen by an unspecified magical force and imbued, by it apparently, with the power necessary to protect them both. Sentinels are human and always aligned with the forces of good. That's a plus."
"So we can safely say Madison is on our side?" Tara asked. "What is she the protector of?"
Willow shook her head. "There are no specific listings. Nor would I expected there to be. It would kind of defeat the purpose. There's really no way to know, short of asking her."
"Then let's go ask," said Tara. She held out her hand and Willow took it. "Ready?"
Even as they orbed out, two other women shimmered in. Tall and beautiful, muscular, silver eyed twins, wearing slinky black leather. One bent down and put her hand on the floor, then snarled.
"Damn it. We just missed them. I told you we were wasting too much time on the astral plane!"
"Relax, sister. They will come to see things our way, in the end."
"How can you be so certain?"
The other woman smirked. "She has foreseen it."
Willow and Tara orbed into the alley behind Avalon then, arm in arm, walked around to the front. Inside they found the place empty except for Madison, who was dozing in a chair behind the counter.
"Ahem." When the older woman didn't stir Willow slammed her hand down on the bell. It rang so loudly Madison jerked awake and nearly fell out of her seat. "Busy?"
Tara shook her head. "Will."
"Goodness. You startled me, dearie."
"That was the idea."
Tara stepped forward. "That's enough, Willow. You're being rude." She turned to Madison. "Are you...all right? You look pale."
"That is a discussion best suited for another time." Madison cocked her head. "I understand why you might be suspicious of me, young lady, but I would appreciate a modicum of civility in my place of business, if you don't mind."
Willow, sensing she might have crossed a line somewhere, glance at Tara, who nodded. She sighed. "Sorry."
"It's all right." Madison motioned toward two stools. "As I say, I understand how this might look." She watched them closely as they sat. "I'm guessing yesterday's events were not spectacular or unusual for the two of you?"
"You mean vampires?" Tara asked. "We've had some experience with them in the past. Unfortunately. From what Willow was telling me about the way you confronted Dracula, so have you."
"In point of fact, the other night in the alley when we met? That was only my third encounter with them. As I understand it, until very recently vampires had been banished from the underworld. A few months ago, however, something changed. I'm not sure what. But it appears they have regained some measure of their former glory, and it falls to me to stop the Queen from achieving her goal."
"Because you're a Sentinel?" Willow asked.
Madison's eyes widened ever-so-slightly, though she covered it quickly and nodded. "I see you are well-informed. And correct. As such I am tasked with keeping it from the clutches of the soulless ones."
"What?" Tara asked. "What do you protect?"
"It is called the Sigil," Madison replied. "Or at least that is what I have gleaned from our...discussions. All I knew at first was that it was a very old, very powerful thing that appeared out of nowhere." She smiled at their curious expressions. "Perhaps it would be better if I started from the beginning of the story, rather than the end?" For a moment she was silent, pensive, then she took a deep breath and continued. "It was...oh my, thirty years ago. I was not much older than the two of you, not long out of college, and rather anxious to make my mark on the world. I had such grand plans, I thought. I planned to be a healer, though of the mind, not the body." She sighed. "Then, I had an accident. My car rolled into the river and I nearly drowned. Then I was surrounded by this bright white light, and I was sure I was dead." She shook her head. "But it wasn't the famed tunnel. It was the Sigil. It spoke to me, in my mind. It said I was on the brink of death and I had to make a choice. I could go on to my final reward, or it could save me. I wanted to live so I agreed."
"And you became a Sentinel that day," said Tara.
Madison nodded. "It said I would be its eyes and ears in the world, as well as its protector. In exchange it would grant me the power to help in ways I could never have imagined."
"What is it, exactly?" Willow asked. "The Sigil? And what do the vampires want with it?"
"As I understand it the Sigil is energy. Pure magical energy. It has consciousness but no physical form, so no ability to interact with the world around it or defend itself. That's why it uses Sentinels. With so small effort it can bond itself to a living being, fusing a portion of their essences in order to hide and to anchor itself in a specific location. And it apparently takes on some of their personality traits in the process. I have spent more than one evening in heated discussions with it over how I should react to a given situation." She smiled. "It had some things to say about the two of you."
"Nothing bad I hope," said Tara.
Madison chuckled. "On the contrary. The Sigil has encountered witches, but never one with your potential, Miss Rosenberg. And, we're both aware of why the current situation warrants the attention of a White Lighter." She smiled at the way Tara reacted. "Please. Assure the Elders we have no intention of letting it fall back into the hands of the vampires."
"Back?" Willow asked. "When did they have it before?"
"I won't try to explain the Sigil's origins to you. It tried once but I simply could not fathom what it was showing me. What it did make clear was that at a time when men were still living in caves and had yet to discover fire, it was drawn to our world and bound to a powerful demonic entity that would eventually come to be recognized as the original vampire."
Tara's eyes widened. "The first vampire? I've always wondered about that."
"It was a vile, hideous creature," Madison continued. "Evil beyond measure. Feeding on man and animal and demon alike. With the Sigil as its heart it strode freely through shadow and light, unstoppable, for centuries. Finally a group of human and demonic magic users banded together in order to strip it of its stolen power and finally destroy the beast once and for all."
"But what happened to the Sigil?" asked Willow.
"Predictably, with their common foe vanquished the humans demons quickly reverted to their old ways. Everyone wanted the power for their own purposes and when it became clear they could share fighting broke out. In all the confusion the Sigil escaped, wandering freely until it was once again drawn into servitude by a mystical force. This time it was White Lighters battling minions of the Source, who accidentally captured the Sigil, though they freed it immediately once they realized it was intelligent. But by this time the Sigil had become aware of how vulnerable it was, and soon after came up with the idea of a Sentinel. It didn't coin the phrase, of course, but it did realize that bonding willingly with a host would make it easier on both of them. It also developed a further way to keep itself safe, by arranging it so whenever a Sentinel dies it is instantly freed and transported to its next would-be protector. If they refuse, it moves on yet again."
"And this is why the vampires are after you?" Tara asked. "They want the power of the Sigil back?"
"I suppose so. Their motivations are something of a mystery."
"But why send Dracula?" said Willow. "Why not have a couple of thugs knock you around and just take it? No offense."
"None taken," Madison replied. "And in answer to your question, it doesn't work that way. The Sigil can't be stolen. It is mostly noncorporeal anyway, and no one but the Sentinel may actually touch it. In order for it to pass to someone else, except in death of course, it would have to be freely given. They can't take it from me. I think they were hoping to 'convince' me to part with it."
Tara nodded. "Which does explain why they'd send Dracula. He's pretty good at the whole convincing thing."
"It also means he'll be back," said Willow. "And probably not alone."
The Queen sat back in her throne, chin resting in her hand, as her newest convert drained the life from one of her friends, thus sealing her role forever as a vampire. Normally this was an activity she savored, as the corruption and destruction of innocence was the main reason her people even existed, but at the moment she was distracted.
"Enough!" At once the girl dropped her meal and lowered her head. "Take her away. Convert her if you wish but leave my sight at once." The newest vampire bowed, slung the half-conscious blonde over her shoulder and backed quickly out of the room. Just as the doors closed behind her they suddenly flew open again, and her two guards came tumbling into the room in flames.
Through the cloud of their ashes strode Dracula. "I told them not to touch me."
Unperturbed, the Queen slowly rose. "At last. Do you have it?"
"Afraid not. There were...unexpected complications."
Snarling, the Queen flew across the room and grabbed Dracula by the hair. Even he wouldn't dare push her away. "I don't believe this! I would expect such excuses from my other offspring, but YOU?!"
"Please my Queen. Not an excuse. An explanation." When she didn't immediately strike him down anyway he continued. "The Sentinel was not alone. She was being protected, by a witch."
"So?!" The Queen recoiled. "Was it a Charmed One?"
"No. It was, however, a witch I have met before. Though in truth I barely remembered her."
The Queen's eyes narrowed. "How can that be? You have not been here for centuries. No witch could live that long."
"Indeed. This witch is from the other reality, my Queen. She is an associate of the Slayer's, and has apparently followed me."
"This Slayer. A mortal mystically augmented for the sole purpose of killing our kind?" He nodded. "And now you are saying one who is allied with her has come to our world after you? Perhaps she has come as well?"
"My thoughts exactly."
"Which means the Sentinel may have summoned them both, with the intent of stopping us."
Again, Dracula nodded. "What is your desire, my Queen? I was taken by surprise before. If you wish it, I can go back and..."
"No. Oh, you're going back all right, but I clearly can't trust any of you to do this on your own."
"My Queen. You can't be thinking of risking yourself."
She spun around and grabbed him by the neck. He didn't even struggle as she lifted him off his feet. "Are you telling me what to do? I created you and never forget, I can also destroy you!" She casually tossed him aside. "Besides, we both know your concern isn't for me but yourself. If I die you do as well."
Dracula rose. "You know me well, my Queen."
"Of course I do." She stroked his cheek, then twirled around and dropped her robes. "Come. I feel...tense."
"A vampire slayer, you say?"
Madison handed Willow and Tara cups of tea, then sat across the table from them with her own.
"No, we haven't anything like that I'm aware of. Except, perhaps, the Charmed Ones."
"You know about the Charmed Ones?" Tara asked.
"I've heard of them. Prophesized witches and all that. I've never met them."
"We have," said Willow. "They're the ones who brought Tara here."
"Extraordinary. And as a reward for defeating the Source, the Elders made you a White Lighter?"
Tara nodded. "I'm still trying to figure out exactly what it all means."
Willow cleared her throat. "You seem remarkably well-informed for someone who isn't even really a witch."
"I have my ways," Madison replied. "The Sigil, for example, has been around a very long time and knows things about the world I wager even the Elders aren't aware of. And while I may not have encountered vampires until recently, I have met some witches and more than a few demons who were interested in the Sigil for one reason or another."
"This is fascinating. My goodness." Tara looked down at her watch, then out a window into what she realized was growing darkness. "We've been at this all day, Will. And we still have to help Kris."
"The cyber-poetry reading is tonight, remember?"
"It's okay. I'm actually feeling rather wearied myself anyway." Madison started to stand up, only to stumble forward and grasp the edge of the counter to support herself. "Oh my."
Tara noticed a dramatic drop in the brightness in the older woman's aura, which already looked splotchy, and confirmed what she'd suspected the first time they'd met. Madison was very ill. "What's wrong?"
"M-My...heart." Madison's skin had grown waxy, and she was sweating profusely. "I need...my pills."
Willow saw her pointing toward a bottle on the far end of the counter. As she picked it up she saw movement out of the corner of her eye and turned toward the front door of the store. An exquisitely beautiful woman with long, straight black hair, in a low-cut red dress which highlighted her every luscious curve. "Here you go." She handed the pills to Madison and motioned to Tara. "Look." She licked her lips. "I know I'm not as good at it as you, baby, but..."
Tara nodded. Since being reborn in this world as a White Lighter she had found auras even easier to read than before, and this woman did not have one. In her experience only soulless creatures had no auras. "You're right. She's a vampire."
Meanwhile, thick gray smoke began gushing through an air vent behind the witches. It coalesced into Dracula, who bared his fangs in a sneer as the three women backed away. "Not just a. The."
The Queen bared her own fangs in a leer as she examined the witches with what could literally be described as hunger. "My my don't you two look...tasty?" She glanced at Dracula. "Which one is she?"
"The redhead, my Queen."
"Queen?" said Tara. "Well, this is on honor."
The Queen wrinkled her nose. Her leer became, like Dracula's, a sneer. "A White Lighter? What is your part in this?"
"I think that's obvious." Tara put her arm around Willow.
"Ah, I see. A pity. I'd have though the Elders would have put a stop to witch, White Lighter relations by now." The Queen shook her head. "I have business here that does not concern either of you. Or this Slayer Dracula has told me about. Leave now, and keep her away from me, and I may be generous enough to let you all live."
'She thinks Buffy's here,' Tara said in Willow's mind. 'Can we use that somehow?'
'Give me a minute.'
Presumably taking their silence as acknowledgment the Queen glided toward Madison. The Sentinel did her best to appear strong in the face of danger, but given the fact she could barely stand it wasn't too convincing a performance and the Queen was neither fooled nor oblivious. "If I'm mistaken, human hearts aren't supposed to beat like that. You are in bad shape, aren't you?" She clucked her tongue. "My. I guess the strain of being a Sentinel is too much for you. I can always take the burden off your wrinkled shoulders if you like."
Madison stared the vampire Queen right in the eye. "Bite me."
"Ooh, what a nice idea." The Queen licked her lips. "A pity I can't accommodate you. Not yet at least." She grabbed Madison by the wrist and with very little effort twisted it until it cracked. The Sentinel screamed. "Where is the Sigil?!"
"What...difference does it...make?" Tears streamed down Madison's face. "You can't...touch it. And if you kill me..."
"Death is the least thing you should be worried about right now." The Queen pulled Madison over the counter and dropped her in a crumpled heap at her feet. "Believe me."
Tara stepped forward. "Stop it! Leave her alone!"
"And why exactly would I want to do that?" The Queen tangled her fingers in Madison's hair and jerked her head back. "When the alternative is so much more fun?"
"Because you'll never find out where the Sigil is, otherwise," said Willow.
The Queen shrugged Madison aside and stalked toward them. "You have it? Give it to me."
"You're torturing the wrong lady anyway," Willow continued. "Madison's not the Sentinel anymore."
"Then who is?"
"The Slayer," said Tara. "That why she's here. She's the one you're going to have to deal with."
Dracula snarled. "The White Lighter is lying." He cocked his head. "And she's not very good at it."
"The Slayer isn't here at all is she?" the Queen asked. "Nice try." She winked at Tara. "Remind me to eat you first when this is over." She spun to face Madison. "Enough games, Sentinel! Where is the Sigil?! Tell me, now!"
Clutching her injured arm to her chest Madison lurched toward the door at the back of the store. "I'll show you, for all the good it does." With the last of her waning strength she flung the door open, then collapsed.
Golden light flooded out into the main room. Within the void of indescribably brightness a shape could just be seen. It was vaguely diamond-like, spinning in slow circles while emitting occasional, faint pulses.
Dracula and the Queen stepped back, no doubt fearing it was something like sunlight. But while they both sensed the awesome power coming from it they were not harmed, and in fact felt invigorated.
"Remarkable. I must have it." The Queen gestured. "Dracula, convince her."
"Yes, my Queen."
Madison shook her head, coughing painfully as she laughed. "You're...too late." With that, she lay still.
All at once the brightness of the Sigil increased tenfold, and in an instant it seemed to implode.
"NO!" The Queen shrieked. "I'll have to start the search all over again!" In the next moment the Sigil rematerialized, floating a scant few inches above the ground, between Willow and Tara. "Or not."
Willow and Tara felt the pressure in their minds at the same time. A pulse which accompanied every thunderous word, seemingly coming from everywhere around them at once.
"I am the Sigil of the Soulless. Wanderer of the planes. I ask you to be my new Sentinel."
"Both of us?" Tara replied.
"Yes. While I have only had individual Sentinels before now, I sense something special in the two of you. Separately you are interesting, but together...you are ideal. Help me, and I will do the same for you."
"How?" Willow asked.
"I have examined your essences and your souls. I understand the true nature of your characters. I have seen your strengths and I know your weaknesses." Two shadowy figures appeared before them. Neither was recognizable except that they were human and, clearly, feminine. "Agree to be my Sentinel and I promise you these concerns can be resolved."
They were on the astral plane, Willow and Tara realized. They could see eachother, the ground, shadows and lights moving around them, and whatever it was the Sigil was trying to show them.
"We don't want you to change us," said Tara. "And we can make the decision without you promising us a reward."
"I mean no disrespect. And it would not necessarily be a dramatic change. You would be the better for it."
"That's not your decision to make," said Willow. "It's ours. And we like ourselves just the way we are."
"No, you don't. That is what I am trying to tell you. Observe." Overhead lights suddenly illuminated the two shadowy figures.
Willow and Tara gasped.
The Queen had looked on in confused silence as Willow and Tara fell to their knees on either side of the Sigil. She could feel the power which was flowing off it in waves, and now their eyelids were fluttering wildly.
"It's communicating with them. It may be choosing one of them to be its new Sentinel. Once that is done you will 'convince' her to hand it over to me." She smiled. "As a reward, you may have both witches to do what you please."
"Actually Highness, I had something else in mind." Dracula grabbed the Queen from behind and tossed her across the room. She crashed into a towering wooden bookshelf and the whole thing crashed down on top of her. "I might not be able to kill you, but once I have the power of the Sigil even you will not be able to question my superiority." He moved toward the witches, who were oblivious to his approach. It would be a simple enough matter to take the Sigil from them.
The Queen rose, shrugging off hundreds of pounds of broken wood and books as if they were nothing. She was furious at herself as much as him. She'd been expecting his betrayal eventually, but the timing surprised even her. Snarling, she looked around, and saw Dracula just about to grab the Sigil itself. "NO! You fool! Don't..."
Dracula's hands never actually touched the surface of the Sigil, if the mystical energy matrix could even truly be said to have a surface at all. It crackled savagely, like thousands of electrical lines being dropped into water at once, and then the Sigil swelled with an inner light that flooded the entire store, momentarily blinding them all. Which was probably for the best, since that way they did not have to see the world around them folding in on itself in a way that would have driven most people instantly, irrevocably mad.
The Queen, being furthest from the explosion, was the first to awaken. Her skin was tingling, a sensation not unlike standing in the sun almost to the point of combusting. She stood up slowly, hesitantly, perplexed by her surroundings. They were no longer in the bookstore, but on a flat black plane of apparent nothingness. Dracula was laying flat on his back some distance away, unconscious but at least she could still sense the life-force she had given him. There was so sign of the Sigil, or Willow and Tara.
Then she heard someone giggling behind her, and turned.
A hand slapped her, sending the vampire Queen flying head over heels. She hit an invisible wall and slid to the ground, stunned.
Willow giggled again. "That was fun." She had straight, jet-black hair, and solid black eyes. Her clothes were all black too. "You wanna have a go, baby?"
Tara sidled up behind her, laying an arm around the raven-haired witches shoulders. "Don't mind if I do." Her brow furrowed, her eyes became golden and fangs peeked out of her mouth. In an incredible burst of speed she leapt the distance between them and the Queen and grabbed the other vampire by the throat, lifting her off the ground with one hand. "Say bye bye, bitch!"
"No, this can't be. What are you?!" The Queen shrieked in agony as her throat was torn out in one tremendous bite. She burst into flames and dissolved. An instant later so did Dracula. Far away, down in the underworld, every one of the other vampires spontaneously combusted as well. The Seer, who had been trying out the Queen's throne, grew wide-eyed before she exploded as well.
Willow strode over to her vampiric lover, who was licking her still bloody lips, and kissed her hungrily. "Mmm...delicious."
"Yes." Tara threw her arms around the dark witch's neck. "You are."
They made out for several minutes before finally stepping apart and looking around.
Tara's face reverted to normal. "So, how do we get out of here?"
"I've got it covered." Willow cracked her knuckles. "I never liked the astral plane anyway." She gestured and a jagged rip appeared in the very air itself; through which they could clearly see Madison's bookshop. "After you."
"Oh, you're such a gentlewoman." Tara stepped through the tear.
Willow followed. "Watch your mouth." The dimensional tear sealed behind them with a loud pop.
Once they were gone, there was a rippling across the area, and two other bodies appeared. Willow and Tara, the normal versions, laying side by side and alive, but very much unconscious.
TO BE CONTINUED...