Disclaimer: Joss Whedon created the Buffy characters. I created The Adversary.
X X X X X
They met on the streets outside the Bronze. Tara walked out of the club, nervous, distraught, wearing practical clothes and carrying a backpack. Oz stood there with his hands in his pockets, cool, self-controlled, wearing a t-shirt and jeans and carrying a small pouch.
They greeted each other awkwardly. After a few seconds, Tara said, “You ready?”
Oz shrugged. “I guess so. You?” The cool exterior aside, this was a man who wasn’t happy about his current situation, yet was determined to make the best of it.
“I guess so.” Truth be told, Tara didn’t sound all that ready; yet there was a steel in her voice despite its shakiness.
“Do you think you have enough?” he asked, looking at the stuffed backpack.
Tara answered, “Um, you never know what we might run into – I figured I should bring a small bag of components just in case.” Actually, she was carrying enough magical materiel to either stop or outfit a small army. She told him as much.
“No weapons?” he asked archly.
“I wouldn’t know what to do with them,” she said. “And you?”
“I am my best weapon,” was Oz’s response. “That’s what this pouch is for. Anything else would be superfluous.”
“I guess you’re right.” A pause, then she asked, “Any chance --?”
“Of me going berserk and ripping you into tiny shreds? No. That’s what the pouch is for.”
“Good. Because I did bring a few spells along just in case.”
Oz snorted. “That makes it sound like you don’t trust me.”
“Well,” she said, “Seeing what happened the last time we met –“
“Oh, you’re right not to. These herbs are all that’s keeping me from coming after you. The damn problem is that wolves mate for life, and no matter how much I try to get past that there’s always going to be something that thinks of Willow as mine. Even with the herbs, I wouldn’t have any long discussions about your sex life.”
“You’re not a wolf,” Tara said.
He gave her a don’t-be-stupid look. “Yes, I am. It took me a long time to get to that realization, but I am. It is me and I am it, koo koo ka joob.”
“The wolf is part of who you are. ONLY part.”
“This isn’t something you’re an expert at,” Oz said. “I’ve lived with it. Maybe you’ve studied it for a couple of hours. So don’t pretend to know more about me and who I am than I do, alright?”
“I’m not,” Tara said. “All I’m trying to do is help.”
“Alright?” Oz echoed.
“Alright,” Tara said. “Just – just remember, this wasn’t my choice either. Whoever it was kidnapped Willow demanded both of us.”
As they walked down the alley, he said, “You do realize this is probably a trap, right?”
“Do you think I’m stupid?” she said. “Anyone that could – could capture Willow isn’t going to have any problems catching you or me.”
“Unless they caught her off guard,” he said.
Laughing a bit bitterly, Tara said, “That’s not all that much to, to pin our hopes on.”
They got to his van. “Let me put it this way. If we don’t have that to pin our hopes on we’ve got nothing at all.”
“Do you expect to fail?” Tara said.
“No.” Oz’s answer. “Just being realistic.”
They got into his van and drove away.
A few miles down the road, Oz looked at Tara. “You were kind of hysterical on the phone when you called.”
Tara looked at him. “Can you blame me?”
“Not a shot,” Oz said. “It’s just that you weren’t very coherent. What happened?”
“Okay.” Tara took a deep breath. “Well, Willow and I are living in Buffy’s house now –“ she looked at him, seeing if he needed any explanations.
“Protecting Dawn,” Oz said. “Makes sense.”
“Well, one day while Dawn was at school I went out to collect some plant samples for a spell we were planning to try. I came back with a full bag – and she was gone, and our room looked like it had been hit by, by a hurricane. It was trashed and there was a note.” She reached into the bag and pulled it out. “It’s fairy simple, though: ‘We have her. If you want her back, find the wolf and meet us in Santa Carolita. Don’t tell another living soul about this.’ And it’s signed C.C.”
“Who do we know with those initials?” Oz asked.
“Calvin Coolidge?” Tara ventured.
“Since he’s been dead about 65 years, probably not.”
“Since when is death more than a minor inconvenience?” Tara asked. “This is Sunnydale, after all.”
“Do you really think it’s Calvin Coolidge?”
“Me neither.” Oz pulled over to the side of the road. “Give me the note.” He took it and sniffed it. “Are you the only person who’s handled this?”
“No one else has touched it.”
Oz took a good whiff and then coughed himself silly. “Whoever wrote this knew what I’d do,” he said. “There was wolfsbane in the ink.” He threw it to the floor of the van.
As Tara picked it up she said, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Oz said. “They weren’t as good as it as they thought. Two people – besides you – handled that note. One man, one woman, and there’s a very strong hint of magic.”
“The magic’s powerful – but then we’d already figured that out.” He eased the van back onto the road and started again heading towards Santa Carolita. “So did you tell anyone?”
Tara nodded. “Of course. I did EXACTLY what the note said and didn’t mention it to a living soul.” But the hint of the smile on her face told Oz that she’d found some way around it.
He added up the two and two and said, “Spike.”
“Yes. He’s going to clue Giles and the rest of them in – also, keep an eye on Dawn.”
“You trust him?”
Tara nodded her head. “We do.”
“It’s amazing,” Oz commented as he pulled onto the interstate. “Used to be we wouldn’t trust Spike to buy us a pack of gum. Now he’s protecting Dawn.”
“I guess time changes people,” Tara said.
Looking steadily forward, Oz said, “You’re telling me.”
And the van plowed onward.
They stopped off at a Long John Silver and picked up some food; as Tara was biting into her battered fish Oz said, “So, we just drive to Santa Carolita and what happens?” He then sipped a soda.
“Hlld n,” Tara mumbled, then a few seconds later said, “I don’t know. I guess we’ll be given instructions when we get there.”
“Are you planning to play along?”
“Seems, seems safest,” Tara said, eating a fry. “Why?”
“I’ve been thinking,” Oz said. “Why should we let them call the shots?”
“Because they’re the ones who have Willow? I don’t want her hurt.”
Evenly, Oz said, “I don’t either.”
“I know that – I just don’t think we should take the risks.”
“What risks?” Oz asked. “Think about it. They kidnapped Willow. If it had been Willow they wanted –“
Tara got where Oz was going. “They wouldn’t have bothered telling us. Hmmm.” Then, after thinking a second, she said, “I get what you mean – but then why tell BOTH of us? I, I don’t think there’s anyone out there who could be angry at both you AND me. Our associations, they don’t really overlap.”
Now it was Oz’s turn to think. “There’s Spike. But this isn’t really his style.”
“What about that ex-girlfriend of his? Drusilla? She came back a couple of months ago.”
“She did?” Oz asked. Tara gave him a thirty-second summary. “Interesting, but she’d be more likely to go after Spike. Or Buffy, if –“ He put down the remnants of his sandwich.
“If she was still alive. But, but from all I’ve been told Drusilla’s definitely a few bauds short of a modem. Couldn’t she do this kind of thing just for the hell of it?” She ate the last hush puppy.
Oz nodded. “Yeah. But this is too structured for her. She’s not above a little kidnapping but she’d’ve taken Willow to a factory or an abandoned building or something. Not all the way to Santa Carolita.”
“You’d know her better than I would,” Tara said. “So you’re probably right.” A pause, then, “What if he – or she -- only wants one of us, then?”
“That doesn’t make sense either,” Oz said.
Sighing, Tara said, “No, no, it doesn’t. Unfortunately, that leaves us back where we started. It can’t be someone after Willow. There’s no one we know who hates us both, and if it were only one of us they were after why did they need the other one?”
Oz put the remnants of their meals into the bag they’d come in and put the bag on the floor between them. “So, does this mean you’re willing to play it my way?”
“Why not?” Tara said.
They discussed strategy until they got to the Santa Carolita exit. Once they’d gotten about a mile from the interstate, Oz pulled over to the side of the road, stepped out, and began smelling the air.
“Not worried about wolfsbane?” Tara asked.
“They’d need tons to coat the whole town,” Oz said. “I don’t smell her right now.”
“What’s your radius – as a human, I mean?” Tara asked.
“Depends on the wind – and the surrounding smells. Santa Carolita’s a decent-size town, and it doesn’t look like it gets cleaned that often. Might take us a while.”
Which was apparently the cue for four vampires to emerge from the surrounding darkness.
“On the other hand,” Oz said.
To Oz and Tara’s surprise, the bloodsuckers did not immediately leap to the attack, instead being content to pace slowly, at a distance of about twenty feet.
“You have a spell?” Oz asked her in a whisper as they backed towards the van.
“A quick burst of fire,” Tara said. “But, but the way they’re pacing – I don’t know if it’ll get all of them.”
There was one who was substantially taller than the others; he stayed in back and shouted out, “Come with us.”
“Why?” Oz asked.
“Because if you don’t,” the tall man sneered. “We’ll take you by force. Then we’ll kill that slut Willow. Then we’ll kill you.”
“See?” Oz said mockingly. “Isn’t it better when all the cards are laid out on the table?” To Tara “Be ready when I say now.” She nodded and began chanting quietly.
“So,” and the vampire displayed a surprising sense of humor, “Is you gonna come along quietly, or are we’s gonna have to muss you up?”
“Umm . . . I don’t think so. Not NOW --” and he threw himself to the ground as a jet of flame burst from Tara’s hands, vaporizing two of the vampires.
“You—“ the tall one began, then folded over when Oz dashed forward and socked him in the stomach.
“Gee Rocky, that was fun,” Oz said. The other vampire grabbed him from behind and threw him into the street. Oz growled loudly and rolled to his feet, hair beginning to appear on his face and the back of his hands.
“You –“ the shorter vampire said. “You’re a werewolf.”
Oz growled again. “What gave you the clue?” Then he pounced on the short one and began slugging away.
“Rocky,” meanwhile, had designs on Tara. But having exhausted her fire spell left Tara far short of defenseless. While she wasn’t anywhere near Willow’s league in telekinesis she wasn’t incompetent. Lacking any convenient sticks, Tara leaned back against the van and concentrated her efforts on making sure that Rocky got nowhere.
When all of a sudden he raised an inch in the air, the vampire yelled, “What the --?” Tara didn’t answer; every ounce of her strength was needed to keep him aloft. He must have weighed a good two hundred pounds – thankfully, vampires tended not to run to fat.
On the chance he broke free, Tara readied a quick dust spell – the same one, in fact, she’d used on Oz when he attacked her.
But maybe that wouldn’t be necessary. Oz, in his part-wolf form, was pounding the hell out of the vampire – and only with his fists, no claws, no teeth. The vampire was strong enough to get in a few blows, but they only seemed to focus Oz more. Less than a minute later the vampire was dust and Oz was facing Rocky. “Put him down.”
“I don’t think –“ Tara began.
Oz wheeled on her. “You don’t want to make me mad right now. Put. Him. Down.”
Tara shrugged, lifted him a few feet, and then abruptly dropped him. He stumbled and fell when he hit the ground. Oz shot Tara a look; the witch, for her part, stood there as coolly as she could. As Rocky tried to scramble to his feet, Oz jumped on him and said. “Now. Where’s Willow?” Oz growled.
“In the train station,” the vampire said. “It’s down this street and turn left at the light about a mile.”
“All we needed to hear,” Oz said huskily, and reached for a stake.
Squirming, Rocky tried to get away, but was about to be dusted when Tara yelled, “Hold it!”
Now the look Oz shot her was venomous. “Mind your own business,” he rasped.
Desperately, Tara said, “He, he hasn’t told us WHO has her yet!”
Rocky took advantage of the werewolf’s temporary distraction, threw him off – where he crashed into Tara -- and scrambled to his feet. Then he decided that he was better off getting while the getting was good, and bolted as Tara and Oz untangled themselves.
“Nice going,” Oz muttered as they got to their feet.
“M-me?” Tara asked a touch indignantly. “You, you wanted to kill him without finding out some important stuff.” Nervously, Tara noticed that Oz had not yet reverted to full human.
“And because I didn’t,” Oz said, “He got away.” He slammed his fist into the side of the van, then glared at Tara.
“O-Oz?” Tara said. No answer; instead he walked towards her, ferally. “Oz? Oz?”
He slapped her.
Tara said, “Oz!” and readied the same dust spell.
The muttering apparently brought Oz partway back to his senses. Still half- wolfed out, he said, “Look. It’s time we got something straight. I don’t like you and I’m going to have a VERY hard time following your suggestions. Things might run smoother if I were in charge.”
Tara cast the spell anyway, and blew Oz into the street. When he got up, still angry, she said, “That was for the slap. Now, now look, I don’t care about who’s 'in charge.’ If it makes you feel better, if you want to be alpha, fine. The important thing is that we save Willow.”
Oz grumbled, “Agreed.”
“But, but think about this,” Tara said. “I’ll follow your lead, but don’t ever assume that I’m just going to blindly follow your orders. This isn’t a pack. I’m not one of your mates.”
“No,” Oz said. “Willow is. Wolves mate for life.”
Tara shook her head. “We’re not getting into that now. Humans don’t, and if your wolf can’t deal with that, then don’t listen to it. At the very least, don’t, don’t let it run you.”
Scowling, Oz said, “I told you I didn’t want to talk about that.”
“You, you brought the topic up,” Tara said. “Not me.”
“And AGAIN. With the pretending to know what I’m going through.”
“You’ve got it wrong, Oz. I don’t know what you’re going through and honestly – as long as it doesn’t jeopardize Willow – I don’t care. But if you dwell on Willow too long it’s going to cause problems. You know that.”
“I do,” Oz said.
Then followed a minute or so of dead silence. It was as though even the streets themselves recognized the need for a little quiet time, because no cars backfired, no horns honked, no one sang loudly, and no one blared music out their car windows.
Finally, Oz muttered, “Sorry.” He changed back to fully human as he spoke.
The tone in his voice belied his utter sincerity, but as it seemed he was making the effort to be civil, Tara felt it would have been stupid and counterproductive to take umbrage. So she said, “Sorry,” in turn.
Then there was another minute of relative quiet, after which Oz said, “So . . . I suppose we should go to this railroad station.”
“Makes, makes sense.”
So without another word they climbed back into the van and drove down the street that “Rocky” had indicated. Though they couldn’t have missed the train station anyway. It was an edifice, marble-like on the outside; it seemed out of place for both the neighborhood and the town.
It had also clearly been abandoned for the better part of twenty years. The building was surrounded by a fence, and the nearby tracks, except for one, were choked with weeds. “What does your nose tell you?” Tara asked.
“Definitely vampires in there,” Oz said after sniffing the air for a few seconds. “Willow, I can’t say.”
“Let me try.” Oz looked at her quizzically. “Some, sometimes Willow and I, we can talk mind-to-mind. She’s been working on telepathy and she’s a lot better than I am, but I’ve been practicing.”
“And – earlier?” Oz said.
“Like I said, I’m not that good at it. It seems to fade out over distance. But, but if she’s in there –“ she pointed to the slowly decaying building – “We should be close enough.”
“Right. Then, go to it.”
“I am,” Tara said. “Please don’t say anything.” Then she closed her eyes and concentrated on reaching Willow’s mind.
There were no metaphors for what she was doing, at least none she could come up with. But after a timeless period . . .
* Tara? *
The blonde witch nearly sagged in relief. * Willow! * And it was unmistakably her.
* Where are you? *
* Right outside, if you’re in the train station. *
A telepathic sigh. * I think so. At least we came through it. *
* Why haven’t you used your powers to get out? *
* Something’s damping them. I can’t get up enough telekinesis to float a pencil. * After a second: * Are you alone? *
* No. I’ve got Oz with me. *
The mental tone was one of complete shock. * Oz? *
* No time to explain. Anything you can say about who caught you? *
* A group of vampires, led by – * And all of a sudden Willow’s voice vanished and there was a mental noise in Tara’s head like angry cats scratching on a blackboard. * LED BY ME, * a new voice said. It was deep and cultured and masculine. * AND YOU’RE CHEATING. *
* I didn’t realize we were playing a game, * Tara said. * And who are you? *
* I AM THE ADVERSARY. *
* What do you want with us? * Tara demanded.
* WHAT I ALWAYS WANT, * Came the response. * TO TEST YOU. *
* Don’t hurt Willow, * Tara said forcefully.
She heard a mental laugh. * THAT IS ENTIRELY UP TO YOU. * And then the connection snapped and Tara found herself thrown to the ground.
Oz came over. “What happened?” He asked.
“Well, um, classic good-news/bad-news situation,” Tara began. When Oz gave her a “go on” gesture. She said. “The, the good news is that Willow’s okay – at least okay enough to talk to me. And she knows that she at least came through the train station.”
“That is good.” Oz said. “And the bad?”
“Her captor interrupted our conversation.”
“This is a test, apparently,” Tara said. “Our adversary – that’s, that’s what he called himself, the Adversary – told me that much. Also, also said that whether he hurt Willow was up to us.”
“You said he?” Oz asked.
After thinking for a second, Tara nodded. “Yeah. His mental voice came off like that guy from the old 7-Up commercials. And he also wasn’t human.”
“Not human?” Oz frowned.
“No. Definitely not. I’m not sure how I know – but I do.”
Oz seemed thoughtful. “And he called himself the Adversary?”
“I’m not sure yet. Give me a few minutes.” And in the intervening silence Tara tried a couple of other detection spells, with little success. Oz’s muttered “damn” caught Tara’s attention.
“Not yet,” Oz said.
“I tried some other spells – I, I couldn’t detect anything.” Tara seemed very annoyed by this.
“So she’s not inside.”
“No,” Tara clarified. “I mean I couldn’t detect ANYTHING. If I couldn’t see the building I’d have no way of knowing it was even there.”
“Lead to Superman?” Oz asked.
“Pretty much,” Tara said. “Though, though I doubt there’s any kryptonite in there.” She gave a quick smile. Oz raised an eyebrow. She’d caught the reference. Then she said, “So, um, inside?”
“I don’t smell Willow,” Oz said. “But with these people that might not mean anything.”
“How, how about that man and woman you smelled off the note?”
Muttering to himself – he should have thought of that – Oz gave the air another whiff, this time concentrating on the odors he’d received from the note. “Yeah. They’re there. And –“
“Damn. Damn, damn, damn. Still can’t place the woman. But I know the man. He tried to kill me once – over three years ago. For the bounty. He was a werewolf hunter named Cain. Ten gets you a hundred he was the man who sprinkled wolfsbane on the note.”
“That could be one of the C’s,” Tara said. “But, but he was human, right?”
“Biologically,” Oz said.
Tara got his point. “Still,” she said, “No matter how much he knew his business, he wasn’t a magician . . . right?”
“So he couldn’t have, have pulled this job by himself.”
“No.” Then it hit him. Job. Job. “Did you ever read the book of Job?”
“Yeah,” Tara admitted. “The McClays were heavily into religion – helped, helped keep the women in line. Why?”
“At the beginning of the book, Satan comes to God and basically makes a bet about Job. It’s Satan’s job to test Job, to make him curse god. Kind of a different interpretation of Satan than we usually have, actually.”
Pensively, Tara said, “I don’t get it. Is there a connection here?”
Oz said, “Do you know what Satan means in Hebrew?” Tara shook her head no. “Adversary.”
In disbelief, Tara said, “You don’t think –“
“That we’re dealing with the devil? No. I don’t believe in one overall devil. But the Adversary mentioned in the book of Job could certainly be based on something real. Maybe it’s that we’re dealing with.”
“Or,” Tara said, “This, this is someone cashing in on an old legend. Or they’re crazy.”
“Or they’ve got some other motive,” Oz said. “Either way we’re in for it.”
Tara sighed. “Please, don’t get fatalistic again.”
“And I suppose unbridled optimism is the answer?” Oz replied. “Facing off either against a millennia-old power or a raving loon. Neither fills me with confidence.”
“So . . . are, are you going to cut and run?”
Angrily, Oz said, “Of course not.”
“Then,” Tara said, “Could you PLEASE not act like that? This is hard enough for me as it is.”
“Would’ve thought, you know, an old hand by now,” Oz said. “Like an old shoe for me.”
“Adventure’s not in my nature,” Tara said. “I’m doing this because I have to. I’m, I’m much more comfortable in the background. Research? I’m your person. Ritual spellcasting? I can do that. But, but if I didn’t have all these spells set up, I’d be having a lot of trouble right about now. That dust spell I used on you, way back when? You saw how well that worked. It only slowed you down.”
“Yes,” Oz said. “But I wanted you painfully dead. Still do, actually. I felt it. Believe me.”
“Then please, no more negative comments?” Tara was very carefully ignoring Oz’s open death threat.
“Agreed.” A pause. “Probably wouldn’t say that to Xander, though.”
“Xander’s would be funny,” Tara said. “So, inside next?”
“Yeah. But let’s see what it’s like from the back.”
So they peeled back a section of fence and carefully picked their way through the weed-strewn lot, around towards the rear where passengers had once gotten on trains. “Definitely vampires,” Oz said. “At least a half dozen.” They jumped down onto the tracks, and Tara mentally prepared another spell.
As they walked along the long-abandoned segments of rail, she said, “Anywhere nearby?”
“Hard to tell. We’re not in imminent danger, though.” They clambered onto the platform and began testing the doors. Oz took an experimental sniff and began coughing again. “They do know we’re coming.”
“Wolfsbane?” Tara asked.
Again Tara tried a few detection spells; again, nothing. “Doors are still blocked.”
“Wolfsbane here? That’s well-prepared.”
Thinking for a moment, Tara said, “Can you open the door just an inch? Would, would that hurt you?” Oz said no. “Then I have a spell that might help. When I give the word, open the door.” Oz moved into position; Tara cast the spell on herself and said, “Now.” When the door opened, Tara leaned into it and screamed . . .
But no sound came out. A few seconds later, Tara said, “Okay,” and Oz closed the door again. “Six people – or vampires. They’re mostly near the front, but there’s one close to us.”
“How do you know?” Oz said. “I thought your detection spells weren’t working –“
“They’re not,” Tara said, smiling. “But that was echolocation. Something they hadn’t guarded against.”
“I don’t like those odds,” Oz said. “Is there another way in?”
“That, that’s what I was thinking,” Tara said. “If we could fly we could get in on the second floor.” Oz looked at her, his question obvious. “No,” she said. “I could barely hold the vampire a foot in the air.”
“Can you make a light?” Oz asked.
“Witchfire. One of the first things any witch learns.”
Sighing, Oz said, “Well, if we can’t sneak up on them, we’ll have to blow them away with our first attack. How bright can you make it?”
“As, as the sun, for a few seconds.”
“Good. If you have another damage spell, I’d keep it in mind.”
Whispering, Tara said, “Remember, they probably don’t want to kill us – if this is a test.”
“Not something I’d hang my life on,” Oz said as he opened the door. “On three, two, one . . . “
And daylight exploded inside the train station.
As the light faded to bearable, Oz was already in motion. He jumped the closest vampire and staked it without breaking stride.
Four of the other five (including their old pal Rocky) were staggering about as well; the fifth, though, apparently had been looking the other way; she was charging Oz and clearly had mayhem in mind.
“Tara!” He growled.
The witch heard him, muttered an incantation, and fired another ball of witchfire across the lobby. This one, though, hit the vampire, who slowly began burning. She only had time for an irritated, “Oh, sh—“ before she turned into dust.
The glare partly blinded Oz, but even at that he was far better off than his four opponents, who were still milling about, though they obviously knew someone was after them; one of them even caught Oz a glancing blow in the head before he got staked.
Rocky, unfortunately, showed a half point more brains than his compatriots; he blundered about until he found a door, opened it, and half-fell down a waiting flight of stairs. Oz turned around and glared at Tara, who said, “I didn’t have anything ready. I, I just used up the witchfire on those two spells.” And sure enough the glow in her hand was fading. “I think we’d better follow him,” she added. “You know – before the light goes out.”
It wasn’t out completely, though. After a quick look around – neither of them found anything – they went to the door that led downstairs and cautiously opened it. To be on the safe side, Oz didn’t smell it.
There was nothing odd about the stairway – nothing that twenty-odd years of disrepair couldn't explain. It did seem strangely free of the debris and dust that had seemed to cloak the rest of the station, though. Tara noticed it first, and said, “If, if we needed the proof that this was the right way to go –“
“Or that it’s a trap,” Oz said.
“True,” Tara said as they reached the bottom of the stairs. “Let me check . . . nope. I can’t cast a detection spell. Even here.”
Oz risked an experimental hearty whiff. Above twenty years of dust, rats, and – rancid socks? – There was a definite scent. One vampire above all – Rocky, Oz presumed. Also Cain, the woman, and slight, but reassuringly, Willow.
And something else. Something he couldn’t place. Presumably the Adversary.
But none of them – except the rats – were anywhere nearby. In the fading light, Oz turned to Tara and said, “Definitely caught Willow this time.”
“So she’s here?” Tara almost sagged in relief.
“Or she was,” Oz said. “Still, a good sign. Also, no bad guys near. How’s your light?”
“Almost gone,” Tara said. “But I still have the echolocation spell.”
“We might need it,” Oz said.
They walked out into the hallway area. Rusting lockers and custodial equipment greeted them. “Explains the sock smell,” Oz said. There was nothing in the area that could have been of any use – even the wooden handles of the mops were rotted through. The rest had been ransacked a dozen times over. There was only one door out, and it was off to their left. “Can you get by on the echolocation?”
“I think so,” Tara said.
“Good. Then maybe you should extinguish it. Don’t want to warn ‘em we’re coming.”
“Good idea,” Tara said, and the light winked out. “There’s still a little left,” she whispered. “If we need it.”
Oz nodded, then realized Tara couldn’t see him and said, “Good to know. Where are we going?”
A few seconds later, Tara said, “A couple of doorways; the hallway goes on about forty feet.” Examination of the doorways revealed the remnants of a bathroom and what had to have been a lunch area, judging from the busted refrigerator. But no vampire, werewolf hunter, or mysterious demon.
“Anything else?” Oz asked.
“No,” Tara said. “I think it’s, it’s time to check for trap doors.”
A few more sniffs and Oz could detect the stench of the sewers. “Yeah.”
It was at the far end of the hallway. Tara revived the dim witchfire long enough for them to climb down the ladder and then they stood there in the damp passageway.
There was no doubt about which way to go. The sewer line ended fifteen feet past the ladder.
After they walked a few hundred feet, Tara asked, “Do you think we’re clear of the station building?”
“Yeah,” Oz replied. “Why?”
“I want to try something.” Feeling for it, she pulled an ankh out of her pouch and searched for Willow’s presence.
It was revealed to her as a red trail, blaring like a neon sign. She said a quick invocation and grabbed Oz’s hand. “See that?” She whispered.
“Stevie Wonder could see it,” was Oz’s answer.
“Well, once, once we were out of the range of the building, I thought I should try another detection spell. This one worked.”
“Perhaps . . . too well?” Oz asked.
“Of course it’s a trap,” Tara said. “But what choice do we have? I can’t walk through walls and werewolves can’t burrow.”
“I told you not to tell me what I could and couldn’t do,” Oz said, but his response was almost automatic by this point. “You’re right. Let’s go.”
They resumed marching.
It was less than ten minutes of walking – somewhere under half a mile – that the red trail abruptly ended, a bit back from the wall. By probing the area Oz discovered a concrete platform, which was easily big enough for both of them to stand on. First Oz jumped up onto it, then Tara. There was an obvious door there, which Oz tried to pull open and failed. They combined their strength, put their shoulders into it as hard as they could, and still failed.
Oz backed up a short distance – did he dare assume half-wolf form, with the one who stole his mate so close? – and tried ramming it.
All he got from that was a smashed shoulder. Another try, same result.
As he went back for a third attempt, Tara reinvoked the witchfire and said, “Hold on.” Oz stopped and watched as the witch took a handful of some kind of powder from her bag, then dimmed the light again. “Have you moved?” she asked. “Hold on a second and try not to sneeze, then . . .”
“Hold it—“ Oz began, then started coughing as Tara blew the dust into his face. “What was that?” he demanded.
“Osdon root,” Tara said. “Gives you a thirty-second burst of strength. I, I don’t know any unlocking spells.”
Oz channeled his irritation into his next charge and the door blew off its hinges. Then he stood there for a few seconds before he said, “What are you waiting for?”
“For, for the powder to wear off,” Tara said.
“Smart woman,” Oz muttered. “Next time warn me.”
“There won’t be a next time,” Tara said. “That was it for the powder.”
Oz stopped. “That’s not what I meant.”
But then Tara was past him and they were both inside an underground room, which from Oz’s brief glimpse had to have been a fallout shelter. “Anyone who bought one of these things wasted their money,” he commented. “Any sign of that trail?”
“No,” Tara said. “And –“ she said a couple more incantations – “the other detection spells aren’t working. Kind of a clue in itself.” She grabbed Oz’s arm and pointed it off towards one of the corners of the room. “The ladder’s over there.”
Jerking his arm away, Oz said, “Don’t touch me again.”
“Sorry,” Tara said. “It must be hard.”
Again, Oz stopped. “That’s not the problem,” he said. “I could take anyone else touching me. ANYONE else. But you – you’re the thief. The cuckold. When I told you I was taking these herbs to suppress my anger, did you NOT believe me?”
“I did. But, but the thing is, you have to know that’s not the way it was.”
“My brain knows. My brain realizes that I left Willow. My brain knows that that was, effectively, breaking up. But my brain isn’t in control. I told you earlier I wanted you painfully dead. I do. I’m not a male chauvinist. Willow knows that. Everyone knows that. But it boils down to the country music cliché: You stole my woman.”
“I know, I know. Wolves mate for life. You’ve made that, that, that very, very clear. But is that it? I mean, Didn’t Xander, quote unquote, ‘steal your woman’ too?” It was odd, arguing in whispers in the dark.
“Xander bowed and scraped. And I wasn’t fully integrated then.”
“Well, I can’t bow, I can’t scrape, and the timing was horrible. And, and, I’m a little tired of being apologetic for something that isn’t my fault. You have problems with me? That’s fine. I, I can deal. But I did nothing wrong, and I’m not going to step lightly around you because part of you thinks I did. And if your wolf can’t deal with it –“
“Yes?” Oz said, a note of warning in his voice.
Tara spoke very carefully. “Then your wolf can go to hell.”
Oz didn’t trust himself to respond to that. He took two deep, measured breaths, then said, “We’d better get going.”
If Oz was going to ignore it, so could Tara. “I agree.”
They climbed the ladder and found the expected metal hatch at the top.
This time, fortunately, there were no worries about having to shoulder anything open: the hatch already was, and there was a dim light flickering somewhere nearby. It was good enough to move around by, if not catch all the details of the scenery.
They were in what looked to have been a storeroom at one point, though it had been abandoned a lot more recently than the train station. Pausing at the door, they heard voices:
“Where the hell are they?” a woman said angrily.
“Hey, don’t look at me,” a man’s voice said. “If it wasn’t for this piece of crap they’d have been here by now.” There was the sound of a slap. “You promised me a shot at that damned werewolf.” That was Cain, all right.
“I was promised –“ the woman began.
A smooth, deep male voice responded, “My dear Ms. Madison, I was the one who made the promises. Did you seriously expect these two to just offer themselves up?” Ms. MADISON? Oz strained his hearing.
“With your powers –“ the woman began. No, this was not Amy Madison.
Unfortunately, that meant things were far worse – this was Catherine Madison. Oz had never had the displeasure, but Willow had given him a blow- by-blow of their encounter with the crazy witch. Very, very quietly, Oz retreated to the back of the room. When Tara, puzzled, followed him, Oz gave her the thirty-second rundown.
“That’s the other C,” Tara said. “And, and the other voice –“
“The being who interrupted your telepathy?”
Tara nodded. “The Adversary.”
The Adversary said, “That wouldn’t be playing by the rules.”
“Screw the rules,” Cain said.
“Never. The rules are what make the game fun.” Three voices – the final one recognizably “Rocky’s” -- all protested, only to be silenced when the Adversary added, “Besides, the delays are almost over. They’re here.” Oz and Tara shot each other worried looks. “I DO know you’re here,” the Adversary called out. “And, just to make certain –“ The door to the fallout shelter slammed shut behind them.
“I think that’s our cue,” Oz said.
Tara gulped and said, “Okay then, here goes . . .”
They went through the open doorway and found themselves on the back of a stage, in the middle of a rather ornate auditorium. Rocky, Cain and some woman Oz presumed was Catherine Madison stood at the edge of the stage, while a handsome man in a black suit sat in the first row of the audience.
Willow sat next to him, bound, gagged and blindfolded.
The werewolf hunter and the mad witch started towards them, only to be brought to a halt when the Adversary said, “Hold!”
“This is getting monotonous,” Catherine said.
“You knew the way we were going to play this when you joined, Ms. Madison,” the Adversary said. “If you want to kill them, we still have to follow the formalities.”
“We, we’re not going to follow anything,” Tara said, “until we know Willow’s okay.”
“Exactly,” Oz said.
The Adversary stood and made a slight bow. “I would expect nothing less,” he said as he turned and pulled Willow’s gag down.
“Tara? You found me.”
“Fair is fair,” Tara said.
“Are you okay?” Oz said.
“As much as any kidnap victim,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
It wasn’t a hostile question. Oz said, “I knew you were in trouble.”
For a second Willow smiled, then said, “Still, the two of you working together –“
“You don’t know the half of it,” Tara said simultaneous with Oz’s “Never again.” They looked at each other, and then back at Willow.
“Anyway—“ she began, but then The Adversary put the gag back into place.
“Now then,” he said. “Are you satisfied that she’s alright?”
Oz and Tara both nodded.
“Good.” And after a second: “NOW you can kill them.”
Oz and Tara barely dove out of the way of Catherine Madison’s lightning bolt. So did Rocky, who yelped and said, “Watch it!”
“Stay out of the way, vampire,” Madison said. “These two are ours.”
As Tara and Oz ran off, Cain said, “Watch it yourself, Madison. I get the furball. You get the dyke.”
Madison glared at the werewolf hunter. “Don’t use that word again or you’re next.”
Cain blinked, then unlimbered a tranquilizer rifle and took off.
“Okay,” Tara said, “What do we do now?”
“Stay alive. Any spells you have –“
“I’m nowhere near her league.” Oz sniffed the air and began coughing again.
“They’re over here!” They heard Cain yell.
As they dodged into a side room, Tara said, “I have an idea.” She brought out a gold liquid and said, “stick out your hand.” When oz did Tara hurriedly dumped the fluid onto both their hands. “Shake my hand.”
“No.” Oz jerked it away.
“Do, do you want to get out of this alive?” Tara said. Oz nodded. “Then SHAKE. You can kill me later.”
Reluctantly, Oz clasped Tara’s hand and Tara muttered an incantation to Janus.
When he pulled his hand back . . .
It looked different. It looked . . . feminine?
“What the hell?” he asked, then looked at Tara and saw . . . himself. “You didn’t.”
Right then Cain and Catherine Madison appeared around the corner. “I did. Run.”
At first Oz had no idea why she’d done that; he figured it out when they hit the main lobby and they split up.
Catherine Madison followed HIM.
He dodged a couple of bolts as he sprinted up the grand stairway on the right, while Tara avoided a couple of tranquilizer darts as she ran up the one on the left.
Okay, there had to be some advantage he could take from this. Madison would be expecting a magical attack.
So he’d have to get physical.
Around the next corner, he skidded to a stop and crouched. When the witch followed a few seconds later, he jumped on top of her and started punching as hard as he could, striving VERY hard not to let the wolf come out. This was not the time to go berserk.
Once, twice, he caught Madison in the face, trying his best to keep his hand over her mouth. But then, immediately after he slammed her head into the still-carpeted floor, she gestured and he was sent flying through the air.
He landed with a thump on a walkway overlooking the lobby; a moment afterward, Tara (in his body) came racing through the doorway, followed almost immediately by a charred and irritated werewolf hunter. “I don’t know how you became immune to wolfsbane,” he said, putting down the tranquilizer rifle and pulling out a pistol, “But nothing’s gonna save you from the silver.”
Oz got up and he and Tara backed into each other. “So, any more brilliant ideas?”
Oz looked down at the lobby forty feet below and said, “I’m thinking no.”
“Then hold on. This, this is going to take some timing . . .”
“Stay out of the way, witch,” Cain said. “I don’t want to clip you with this bullet.”
“No problem,” Madison said, and flattened herself against the wall. “And you, get over here.” Oz found himself being jerked towards the witch. “I’ll take care of you in a second.”
Tara did the best bob and weave she could for a few seconds. As Cain raised the pistol, she suddenly threw herself on the ground. Cain aimed carefully and fired . . .
Right as Tara jerked his arm upwards and to the left.
The bullet missed Oz by a fraction of an inch and plunged into Catherine Madison’s shoulder. She howled in pain.
Oz felt the paralysis that had gripped him vanish, and he turned to the shrieking witch and rammed her head into the marble wall, twice. She went down.
By this point, Cain had figured out that something was up. He looked at Tara and said, “You can’t do magic.”
Tara said, “Yes I can.” Then with a flick of her hand she took he gun away from Cain and tossed it down to the lobby. The werewolf hunter tried to grab it as it sailed away and almost fell over.
This let Oz slam Cain’s head into the railing until he stopped whining about it. Then he backed away, coughing and wheezing, and gestured to Tara to examine the man’s body.
Tara knew what he meant, and immediately sought out and bagged all the anti- werewolf material she could find, then threw a handful of powder on it and muttered an incantation. “Teleportation spell,” she explained. “Strongest I could handle. It, it shouldn’t give you any more trouble.” Then she picked up the tranq rifle and said, “So . . . what now?”
“Switch our bodies back. NOW.” Oz said forcefully.
“Right.” She poured the gold liquid on their hands again, they shook, she evoked Janus and finally Oz looked like himself again.
“That was unpleasant,” Oz said.
“If, if you’d prefer me to let them kill us next time –“ Tara began.
Sighing, Oz said, “Never mind. Let’s tie these two up.”
But as they bent down, the Adversary’s voice boomed from somewhere below, “COME BACK TO THE AUDITORIUM.”
Assuming that if he could hear the Adversary then the reverse was also true, Oz called out, “We’re not leaving them here to wake up and try killing us again.”
“THEY WILL NOT BE AN ISSUE,” the Adversary said, and the unconscious bodies of Cain and Catherine Madison vanished. “THEY FAILED.”
“We don’t like your game,” Oz said – and just as suddenly, he and Tara found themselves back on the stage. Rocky was nowhere in sight, and oddly Tara was still carrying the tranquilizer rifle.
Voice lowered, The Adversary said, “It doesn’t matter if you like the game. You still have to play it.”
“We, we passed your test,” Tara said.
“No,” their enemy boomed. “Cain and Catherine Madison failed theirs. So, what to do next . . .”
“If we cursed God,” Oz said evenly, “Would it help?”
A bit startled, the Adversary laughed and said, “Wrong stakes, wrong test.”
Oz said, “Worth a shot.”
The Adversary bowed his head slightly. “So it was. No, your first test is – ah, I have it. There are some herbs in your bloodstream right now. I think I’ll get rid of them.”
And Oz could feel his control starting to slip. “Run,” he told Tara. “You don’t want to be around when – when –“ he cut off and fell to the floor.
When he got up, he was wolf.
Oz roared towards Tara.
Nervously, knowing she’d only get one shot, Tara took the tranquilizer rifle she was carrying and fired it.
It hit the werewolf in his shoulder and Oz went down.
“Well,” said the Adversary. “THAT was anticlimactic.” Willow squirmed irritably in her seat until the Adversary touched her on the head and she fell asleep.
“I’m, I’m sorry to have spoiled your fun,” Tara said. “Would you have liked it better if he’d ripped me into convenient bite-sized chunks?”
The Adversary shrugged and stood up. “It’s not a matter of liking, little deer. It’s just that my plans called for him to chase you around the theatre for the next fifteen minutes or so before he regained control, or you knocked him unconscious, or he killed you.”
“I only used what was provided,” Tara said defensively. “That’s not cheating.”
“No. No, it isn’t,” he mused. “So you passed the test, but he never had the chance to prove himself. This will never do.”
As the Adversary thought, Tara said, “And, and Willow had better not be hurt.”
The demon laughed. “So, the deer has fangs.”
“I’m not stupid,” Tara said. “You can probably kill me without breaking a sweat –“
Voice conversational, the Adversary said, “That, my dear, is a sizeable understatement. If you and Oz had broken Willow free, teamed up with Cain and Catherine Madison, called in a platoon of United States Marines, and contacted Superman with your special signal-watch, I STILL would not have to break a sweat. With a snap of my fingers I could teleport you to the surface of the moon.”
Tara’s eyes widened, but she said, as firmly as she could, “Still.”
“Still.” The demon jumped onto the stage and faced Tara directly. “You know who I am, then?”
“The Adversary. The one mentioned in the Bible. Or someone who THINKS he is.”
“Job is fiction, deer. I am real.” All pretense of humanity was gone now. “I have always been. Before your race even existed I tested your distant ancestors. Do not tell me who I THINK I am. I am your Adversary.”
“Then, then, then . . .” Tara stuttered, “I want a different game.”
Again, the Adversary laughed. “Then you’ll get a different game.” He snapped his fingers –
And Tara suddenly found herself in a dimly lit cave. From around her, the demon’s voice boomed, “In a few moments, a passageway will open in the cave wall. Follow it to the end and you’ll find two doors. Inside one of them will be Willow. Inside the other will be a ravenous carnivorous beast.”
“So it’s a coin flip then?” Tara asked.
“You will be given a sign,” the Adversary said. And then there was silence.
* * * * *
Oz felt a slap on his face. “Wake up, wolf,” an unfamiliar voice said. He got up to find himself on the stage floor, with the Adversary standing over him. “Good.”
“What happened?” Oz asked. Willow was asleep in one of the seats.
“I removed the herbs from your system that controlled your change,” the demon said. “You became a werewolf, and the witch shot you with the rifle.”
Only now did Oz notice that Tara was nowhere to be seen. “And you killed her for that?” he asked.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you, wolf?” the Adversary asked. “Never mind, I can see the answer in your eyes. Do you know who I am?”
Oz nodded. “The Adversary. The great tester. Either the original or a reasonable facsimile.”
“The original,” the demon said. “And now I have a test for you.” With a snap of his fingers, a scene appeared in the air in front of Oz. Tara, in a cave. “Within minutes, she will be released from the cavern and will stand in front of two doors. Behind one of them –“ another snap of his fingers and Willow disappeared – “ will be Ms. Rosenberg, behind the other will be a ravenous beast. You will be able to watch her make her selection – and you will know which room contains which choice. Further, you can TELL her which one to select.”
Oz eyed the demon warily. “I assume there’s some catch.”
“It would not be a test without a catch,” the Adversary said. “Either you tell Tara truly, and she rescues the witch, then that’s it. Game’s over, everyone goes home. Only they go home together, their love stronger than ever, and you go home alone, knowing that Willow will never again love you. Or . . . ?”
“Or you can point her, falsely, towards the beast. Whereupon she will be devoured . . . but Willow will be made to believe that Tara betrayed her and that you performed a last-minute rescue. And slowly but surely, she will once again belong to you.”
“That’s my choice?” Oz asked.
“Either/or, wolf. You have ten seconds to make your decision.”
The Adversary snapped his fingers, and without preamble, Oz found himself on a stone balcony about twenty feet above two doors. The knowledge of where Willow was came into his mind, unbidden, and five seconds later Tara walked into the room, looked up, and saw him.
Without hesitation Oz pointed to the door on the right, and Tara walked to that door and opened it.
And so, dear reader, I leave you this question:
What emerged from that portal?
The lady, or the tiger?
It took Oz ten seconds to have the following dialogue with himself:
I have the chance now to have Willow back. Free and clear. No worries. No complications. Tara gone forever and Willow and I will be happy
I have that chance. Should I take it?
Willow is my mate. She is MINE. She belongs to me. Tara stole her from me.
Listen to me. I sound like a Neanderthal. Or a Klingon. Willow didn’t leave me, I left her. Why should I have been surprised that she found someone else? Especially after the way I left.
But she’s still MINE!
It shouldn’t even be worth a second thought. Why would I deliberately kill an innocent woman?
Because she’s not innocent and I don’t like her.
Do I have to like her to not want her dead? I don’t like Don King either but I wouldn’t kill him.
Don King never screwed us over.
Have you seen some of those later Tyson fights?
I suppose you DO like Tara, then?
No. I don’t like her much at all. I leave to protect Willow and I come back and find out she’s taken my protection and thrown it in my face.
Then you want Tara dead and Willow back?
Of course. Part of me does. But –
No buts. This is the way to do it.
And then the dialogue ended, but the dichotomy did not.
He was wolf. Wolves didn’t allow those who stole their mates to live.
He was human. Humans didn’t much like those who’d taken their place in someone else’s affections either.
So the choice was clear.
Pick the beast.
Let Tara die.
Both wolf AND human agreed, here.
Dammit, Oz was NOT an either/or.
He was not wolf.
He was not human.
He was OZ. He was a whole being.
And he was greater than the sum of his parts.
* * * * *
Tara opened the door . . .
And Willow stumbled out and collapsed into her arms.
Though he was twenty feet up, Oz vaulted over the edge of the railing and landed on the cavern floor. He stood there quietly for a second until Willow said, “Oz,” and smiled.
She walked over and gave him a hug. “Thanks.”
He hugged back. “Not a problem. Really.” She gave him the look she always had – the look that said, “I know better, but I’m not going to embarrass you—“ and smiled again.
Tara came up and looked at him quizzically. “That was it?” she asked. “I, I mean, I was expecting it to be a major problem.”
“It was.” Oz said. At Tara and Willow’s looks of confusion, he pointed to his head and said. “In here. The Adversary made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
“And . . .” Willow prompted gently.
“I refused it.”
“INDEED YOU DID,” The Adversary’s voice boomed. “CONGRATULATIONS.”
Then all three of them found themselves back in the abandoned theatre. Rocky was nowhere to be seen, but The Adversary was still sitting in the front row. In a more normal tone of voice, the demon said, “You’ve won. You may go.”
“THAT was the test?” Willow asked.
“Indeed,” the Adversary said. “Would Oz be able to rise above himself? Above his own desires? And the answer, thankfully for all of you, was yes.”
“So what, what about the rest of us?” Tara demanded.
“You were there solely to irritate Oz. Willow was, of course, the bait.”
Tara put two and two together faster than Willow did. “So, so you deliberately put him with the one person on the planet he couldn’t stand, and, and then offered him Willow if he’d what? Tell me to open the wrong door?”
The Adversary nodded. “You have it, deer. But he passed the test.”
“So, what does he get for passing?” Willow asked.
“His life. His conscience. A greater self-awareness.”
“That’s it?” Tara asked.
And Oz – who hadn’t spoken since they’d returned to the theatre – said, “That’s enough.”
“Are you sure?” Willow said.
“I’m sure,” Oz nodded. “The two of you – belong together, now. I don’t know if part of me will ever fully come to grips with that – but the rest of me can. I love you, Willow. I always will. And I don’t think you can the same for me.”
“Yes, I can.” Willow said. “Not –“
“Not in any way that matters to me,” Oz said. “You care about me, you like me, you’re fond of me. That is love, in its way. But not how you love her. Your first thoughts were of her. You were startled I came. Grateful, yes. But startled. You expected her to save you. Not me.” Then he turned and looked at the Adversary. “But don’t expect me to be grateful, you son of a bitch.”
“They never are, wolf.” The Adversary sighed dramatically. “And on that note –“ he snapped his fingers and suddenly all three of them found themselves standing near Oz’s van.
“Well, that was anticlimactic,” Oz muttered.
“Did, did you think we were going to be able to fight him?” Tara asked.
“I’d had hopes,” Willow said fiercely.
And Oz, looking at Willow, said, “Me too.”