Vor Hell Dimension – Spire Prisoner Chamber – Continuous
“That’s Imbethit,” Willow said out loud.
“The Assassin Master,” Creed murmured thoughtfully. “You are sure?”
“I’ve seen him before,” Willow said.
“Me too,” Faith added. “He was in charge when they put us in the Arena. Thought we killed him, though.”
“The magic creating the dreamscape might have treated him differently than it did us,” Willow suggested, faint disgust coloring her voice. “When he died in there, it didn’t affect him.”
“You have defeated him before, though?” Creed asked. Giles frowned in thought.
“Not one-on-one,” Willow admitted. “It was different in the Arena. Everything in there was made of magic, so my powers were amplified. And I’ve lost a lot of power since then anyway.”
“Is there a messenger here?” Giles asked quickly.
Creed nodded and gestured to a guard, who approached them.
“Go to the cavern where our people are,” Giles instructed the demon. “Find Ethan Rayne. Ethan Rayne. Bring him here.” The demon nodded and sprinted back up the tunnel.
“What have you got in mind?” Willow asked.
“Something I dearly hoped I’d never have to do again,” Giles muttered. “You can’t help; only Ethan and I can do this. We’ve had experience.”
“With what?” Willow persisted.
“It’s a kind of mental dissection,” Giles said grimly. “When we were young, we used it on minor demons to learn from them. I’m sorry to say, we developed quite an aptitude for it. After Ethan and I went our separate ways, I swore I’d never do such a thing again. It was cruel…vicious.” He gave a disgruntled sigh and glanced at the captive again. “I suppose necessity makes monsters of us all.”
“Giles, if what Imbethit said in the Arena was true, about taking his revenge on the slayers, then that means the Presidium used a huge amount of magic just to help satisfy him. If he’s worth that much to them, who knows what he could tell us?”
Giles nodded sadly.
“If you want my help…” Willow offered.
“No,” Giles said at once. “Ethan and I are best equipped to do this, alone. And in any case, given the strength of your emotions, I’d rather you not be involved with this. I’m not trying to decide for you,” he added quickly, as Willow opened her mouth to protest, “but in this case, it’s just not necessary for you to participate. If it were, as much as it would sadden me, I would admit it.”
“Good,” Willow nodded. “I mean, believe me, I’d rather not, but I don’t want you taking all the risks on your own just to shield the rest of us. We’re all in the fire here together. Sooner or later, we’ve all got to fight.”
“Yes,” Giles agreed. “Yes, sadly that’s quite true.”
Vor Hell Dimension – Council Quarters – Same Time
Mia wandered wearily through the clutter of crates and supplies, passing Andrew, Bonnie and Robin as they chatted in the kitchen area. Mia gave a small wave, then headed for the area where the slayers had set up their makeshift gym, behind an outcrop of rock so as to keep the noise from disturbing those trying to sleep. She drew up short when she saw Kennedy and Kadin sparring. She gave a dejected sigh and sat on a bench, watching them.
Kennedy and Kadin circled one another, catching their breath after an intense exchange of blows. As Kennedy came around, she caught sight of Mia, and her eyes widened. She signaled to Kadin to end the bout and began unwrapping the straps from around her hands. Kadin clapped the slayer’s shoulder in passing, then strode off in search of a new partner.
“Hey,” Kennedy said, approaching Mia.
“Hey,” Mia said tonelessly.
“Mind if I sit?” Kennedy asked.
Mia motioned to the bench beside her, and Kennedy took a seat.
“You okay?” she asked.
Mia glanced at her then sighed again. “No,” she admitted quietly. “No, I’m not okay.”
“Is it about her?” Kennedy asked.
Mia shook her head, then shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “No. Maybe, a bit. Or the other way ’round, or…I don’t know.”
“Sounds serious,” Kennedy said, frowning. “Can I help?”
“I hope so,” Mia replied. She turned to Kennedy and stared at her intently. “You know I love you, right? I want you every waking moment.”
“I know,” Kennedy said automatically. “I…I’m sorry, that must’ve sounded so fake. I know,” she tried again. “I do believe that.”
“I’ve just spent an hour with Kail,” Mia said in the silence that followed. “She’s got a bunch of demons, like her personal guard. I ran them through all the weapons drills, I showed them how to aim and reload, I went over safety, lead shooting, sights, the whole works. Now those demons are going to go out and train more, and then the more will train more, and there’ll be a whole army for all those guns we brought with us. And then…we’re gonna fight a war.”
“It’s hard?” Kennedy said softly.
Mia shook her head. “That’s what scares me…it’s easy,” she said, her voice shaking. “I just…snap into this soldier role, and it’s so easy. I’m worried, Ken. What happens if I forget to snap out of it again?” Mia paused and took a deep breath. “When we were fighting that wickerman, it wasn’t until Janet died that I even realized I was in combat mode. It just came so naturally. All those demons we killed, they were just targets. In my mind, it wasn’t even killing. Just bang, target neutralized, move on to the next.”
“They would never have given up,” Kennedy said. “Brell told us that. They were part of this…Night Cult – they couldn’t surrender, no matter what we did. The Presidium made them into machines.”
“Like me,” Mia said.
“You’re not a machine,” Kennedy insisted.
“I could be,” Mia replied sadly. “I really could. You saw how I lost it out there when Janet –” Mia looked down at her hands. “After that, though, I went into full soldier mode. For a while, until it was over, I just stopped feeling, at all. I don’t want to be like that.”
“You’re not,” Kennedy said, taking Mia firmly by the shoulders. “Have you forgotten who was crying in the van later? And then that night, and the next, and –”
“I know,” Mia said shakily. “But every time it gets easier. She was my best friend, Ken. She and I had been together since I hit the streets, even before Julia. We didn’t party or gossip or whatever, but she and I…she was always there, always. And I’d never have left her, never. If she’d stayed on the streets instead of joining up, I’d have stayed with her. We didn’t even have to discuss it, we never did, we just knew. And now she’s dead, and I had to remind myself when the fighting stopped.”
“You did what you had to do,” Kennedy said. “You helped keep us all alive. It was the right thing to do, Mia.”
“Yeah, it was,” Mia nodded. “But a year ago, I’d never have been able to do it. Even if it’d cost us all, I’d never have been able to get it together like that. It’s easier now than it used to be. In the Arena, when I had to kill Jena…I swear, that hit me harder than Janet, and I didn’t even like Jena. She was a manipulative bitch, but I…I changed. I look in the mirror now, and I don’t even know what I’m seeing anymore.”
“You’re seeing someone who’s strong,” Kennedy told her. “Strong enough to fight when she has to, no matter what.”
Mia shook her head and looked down, away from Kennedy.
“I’m not strong enough,” she whispered.
Kennedy studied her for a moment. “What are you saying?” she asked.
“Look, I know the stakes here,” Mia said. “The Council needs me right now. The other girls in the squad need me. But when this is done…I can’t do this anymore.”
“Well, that’s okay,” Kennedy began. “Giles could put you on regular patrol and –”
“That’s not what I mean. I’m saying I’m done.”
Kennedy looked confused, but then, all at once, realized what Mia was saying. “You’re leaving?” Kennedy asked, shocked. “Just like that, it’s over?” Kennedy asked. “Including us?”
Mia looked at her sadly. “It’s not ‘just like that,'” she insisted. “I swear to you, this is the hardest decision I’ve ever made.”
“You couldn’t have said something?” Kennedy went on. “Not even ‘hey honey, I’m thinking maybe being a slayer isn’t right for me, what do you think?’ Don’t I get a say in this?”
“It’s not like that,” Mia said, shaking her head. “If I stayed, sooner or later I wouldn’t be me anymore. You’d be stuck with this girl who thinks it’s okay to ‘neutralize’ people because they’re ‘targets.’ I can’t take the hurt that comes with being a fighter, not indefinitely. You can. You can take anything.”
“Oh sure!” Kennedy exclaimed angrily. “Beating demons up doesn’t bother me, so getting dumped should be a cinch, right? It doesn’t even leave a bruise.”
“Ken –” Mia tried to say.
“Would it be this easy for you if I hadn’t –” Kennedy began then stopped.
“If you hadn’t what?” Mia asked.
Kennedy met her gaze, then shook her head. “Stupid,” she said to herself before turning back to Mia. “I kissed Kadin.”
Mia swallowed hard. “When?” she said, without inflection.
“You said –”
“I lied,” Kennedy admitted. “Well, not exactly. I didn’t ‘sleep with Kadin.’ And that’s what you asked.” Kennedy looked away. “I’m sorry. It was stupid, and lying to you like that was a crappy thing to do.” She gave a bitter laugh and turned back to Mia. “Guess you’re smart to be leaving. I wouldn’t want to stay with me either.” She was surprised by Mia’s hand, gently stroking her cheek. “What?” Kennedy asked.
“I could forgive you,” Mia said quietly. “But this isn’t about you and me. Not like that. If it was just us, I’d stay with you. I absolutely would, regardless of what you just said.”
“Even now?” Kennedy asked.
“Even now,” Mia nodded. “As long as you wanted me.”
“I do!” Kennedy insisted.
“I know,” Mia nodded again. “But I have to do this. And I didn’t want to leave it until after. If something happened –”
“Don’t,” Kennedy said.
“I’m a soldier,” Mia said plainly. “And soldiers die sometimes.” Kennedy began shaking her head. “Ken, please, just listen. If something happened, I didn’t want to leave you messed up. I didn’t want you thinking that what hasn’t been right between us lately was your fault –”
“It was,” Kennedy interrupted.
“I was drifting,” Mia said quietly. “I think you knew, deep down. You told me once you were worried. I was getting colder, and I knew it, too, and I was worried you’d leave me. I knew you were right to worry, but I couldn’t see a way out.” She gave a little smile. “Now I can.”
“No,” Kennedy said. “No, don’t try to make this all your fault. You deserve better than that.”
“Okay,” Mia agreed. “We both handled things badly. And yeah, you hurt me just like I hurt you. I’m forgiving you, Ken, for all of it. When I go, I want to remember what was good between us. And it was really good.”
Kennedy swallowed, seeming on the verge of tears. “There’s no other way?” she asked.
Mia shook her head. “There’s no other way,” she replied. “Ken, will you promise me one thing?” Kennedy nodded. “When this is over, if I’m wavering, promise me you’ll remind me why I’m doing this. It’s going to be tough here, and when it’s done, it’s probably going to be damned tempting to just crawl into your arms and never leave. I know how hard it’ll be. I know it’ll hurt, but I need you to make sure I go. That’s the only way I’ll know I’ll never hurt you again.”
“You trust me?” Kennedy asked. “After what I did?”
“We’re only human,” Mia sighed. “I trust that when you say ‘I promise,’ it’s going to get done.”
“I promise,” Kennedy managed to say. Mia nodded, tears already glistening on her cheeks. “What do we do now?” Kennedy asked.
“Now…” Mia hesitated. “Now I want to sleep. No lying awake trying to work out what to do. I know now. So I just want to sleep.”
“Well, we’ve been up nearly two days,” Kennedy chuckled weakly. “Can I…hold you?”
“I’d like that.” Mia smiled. “Very much.”
Vor Hell Dimension – Spire Prisoner Chamber – Later
Ethan scattered some dust in a circle painted on the cave floor and frowned as it danced briefly on the stone before settling.
“You know,” he said to Willow, who stood near where he crouched, “I’m actually glad you’re not doing this.”
“No, I’ll be off sight-seeing,” she replied.
“Don’t joke,” Ethan warned, making Willow frown. “The Styxies Iron Maiden is no spell you want to be getting involved in. I won’t preach like Ripper does. All I’ll say is magic’s magic, and what matters is how you use it, so long as it doesn’t end up using you. But this is going to be bloody unpleasant.”
“Are you sure you want to do it?” Willow asked.
“No, I’m not,” Ethan scowled. “But Ripper’s right, it’s got to be done. I’m not really happy with the idea of staying here any longer than we have to, and if this tin can,” he gestured towards Imbethit, “knows anything resembling critical information, I’ll be the first, and might I say best, to wallop him into a more cooperative shape. No, I just wish I didn’t have to personally do this.”
“You don’t,” Giles said, emerging from the tunnel behind them. His hooded bodyguards followed in his wake. “I’m not ordering you to do this, as if you’ve ever obeyed an order in your life anyway.” Jeff, Dawn and Rowena shortly followed.
“Yes, but if you do it without me,” Ethan said, “you’re going to get yourself killed, and a lot of good that’ll do us. Gloat if you must, but even I know you’re the horse glue that holds this team of wannabe world savers together.” Ethan made another scattering of dust. “We’ll be ready to begin soon, so somebody’d better get Creed in here.”
Willow nodded, then turned to Jeff. “Jeff, how are you feeling?” she asked.
“I got a couple of hours rest,” Jeff said. “Not sleep exactly, but lying down in a horizontal position and not worrying constantly. That’s like sleep, right?”
“Probably the best we’ll get for a while,” Willow admitted ruefully. “Did Giles tell you what’s up?”
“I got the idea,” he nodded, looking at the captive demon surrounded by guards. “That’s him, huh?”
“That’s him,” Willow said. “Don’t worry, he’s bound by more spells than my private diary, he’s not getting out of here. But getting into his mind and learning anything is going to be very, very difficult.”
“You want me to assist?” Jeff asked.
“No,” Willow said quickly. “No one but Giles and Ethan are going to have any part in this ritual. I want you to do everything you can to tune your prescience to what’s happening here. If you can see ahead to what Imbethit is going to say, it may not be necessary to persist with the entire ritual. And if anything goes wrong, you might be able to see it beforehand and prevent things from getting that far.”
“Isn’t that something of a temporal paradox?” Rowena asked.
“The timeline is a lot more resilient than the makers of Star Trek would have us believe,” Jeff said.
“Strange but true,” Willow agreed. “Dawn, if anything does happen, I want you standing by to stop the ritual, and to help Giles and Ethan recover if necessary. I won’t be here, so I’m trusting you two, okay?”
“You got it,” Dawn nodded. “Where are you going?”
“That’s why I asked them to bring you,” Willow said, glancing at Rowena. “There’s a chance we might get a leg-up in finding the Citadel if we go to the battlefield where our friends captured Imbethit. According to their scouts, Imbethit and his bodyguard arrived via a portal, a powerful one, that they think came from the Citadel itself.”
“We’re going to track it down from the portal residue?” Rowena asked.
“That’s the idea,” Willow nodded.
“Isn’t that slightly incredibly dangerous?” Dawn asked.
“I hope not,” Willow replied. “Creed knows where Imbethit was headed after teleporting, and it’s still too soon for him to have arrived there. And their creepy Coven girl hasn’t detected any unusual disturbances in the Force, so…by the looks of things, it seems that the Presidium doesn’t know that their Assassin Master is missing yet. Their portal was in the middle of nowhere, and there are no hostile demons nearby. I’ve been going over this with Creed and Brighid…I think there’s a really good chance that we could portal a small group straight to the site, without drawing anyone’s attention.”
“Get in, get info, get out,” Rowena summed up.
“That’s the plan,” Willow confirmed. She looked at Jeff and Dawn, who both looked worried. “Guys, it’ll be okay,” she insisted. “We’ll be ready to leave at the first sign of trouble. And we’ll be taking these two,” she gestured at the two icy Undines, standing patiently in the shadows at the edge of the chamber. “You guys know how much ass an Undine can kick, right? And, like us, they’re not native to this dimension, so that should make us pretty difficult to detect.”
“Be careful, Willow,” Dawn said, reaching forward to hold her hands. “Uh, you too, Ro,” she added sheepishly, glancing at Rowena, who chuckled and patted her shoulder.
“We will,” Willow said. “This is what we came here for, to take the fight to them. If they had opened a portal on Earth, we’d already be sending a team to study it. We can’t pass up this opportunity.”
Vor Hell Dimension – Presidium Citadel – Panopticon – Later
The Lover stood at the center of a desolate landscape, its shapes and muted colors bleeding from the walls of her chamber. She waited patiently, until a glimmer of light appeared in mid-air, expanded and became an oily, glistening portal. An icy Undine stepped through, head held high. Willow and Rowena followed, looking far more cautious and wearing the Council’s survival gear. When the other Undine came through, the portal closed.
The Lover smiled, then turned around, causing the landscape to rush around her. After a short, dizzying flight, the illusion settled again, miles from the portal, revealing a regiment of demons hidden in a deep crevasse.
“Hear me,” the Lover said quietly, as the Panopticon closed in on the demons’ leader, a strange-looking creature with a smooth, almost metallic skin.
“Highness,” she replied.
“They have come,” the Lover told her servant. “Bring the witch to me. Do not under any circumstances harm her. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Highness,” the demon nodded. “And the others?”
“Do as you wish with them, but accomplish your mission first.”
After a respectful nod to the Lover, the leader gestured to her troops, sending squads of demons marching both ways along the crevasse. More clambered up towards the surface, and a team of slender creatures raced into the sky, their wings blurring like an insect’s.
Vor Hell Dimension – Gehenna Wasteland – Same Time
“It’s not far,” Willow told Rowena cheerfully. “Brighid showed me an image of the area, and I recognize the landmarks. Come on,” she added to the Undines, setting off across the gray, barren plain.
“It looks like Earth,” Rowena observed. “Not a nice spot for a holiday, granted, but…I don’t know, I guess I was expecting fire and brimstone.”
“The dimension this used to be was close to Earth,” Willow explained. “It’s the farther-out ones that are all lakes of fire and upside-down pentagrams. They were all much more closely linked to Earth originally,” she went on, “before the demons got cast out. You know the vampire lore, the last demon mixing blood before being banished?”
“I read it,” Rowena nodded. “I guess I just never really believed it until now. I mean theoretically, sure, other dimensions with demons living in them, it all used to be one big world, fine. But actually being here, seeing the soil, the sky, the trees…” She glanced at the twisted, barren trunks that dotted the landscape. “It’s a reality shock. Like spotting a cameraman on The Amazing Race.”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” Willow chuckled.
“Thanks for bringing me, by the way,” Rowena said.
“Thanks for coming,” Willow replied. “Wandering around Hell in small groups isn’t everyone’s idea of fun.”
“When you sent for me, Andrew was just mentioning a dramatic reading of Dune as a way to pass the time,” Rowena deadpanned, her lack of enthusiasm clearly evident.
“Original or Lynch?” Willow asked.
“How would I know? Sci-fi’s never really been my thing. So…thanks. You gave me a great excuse to leave. I’m still surprised you asked me, though. You were a bit skittish for a while there. About me going out on missions, I mean. And I don’t blame you. I’m the same way every time you go out and do something daredevilish.”
“Shadow shook me up,” Willow nodded soberly. “And the nightmares. I got scared of all the what-might-happens. But hey, you’re a watcher, and I’ve known Giles long enough to know what that means.”
“A formal demeanor with an underlying rebellious streak?” Rowena joked.
“Yeah, something like that.” Willow laughed. “Plus, there’s no one better qualified to help me cast all the spells we’ve got to get through. On my own, it’d take twice as long, and I’m not up for dawdling out here. Speaking of which, we’re here.”
“We are?” Rowena said, looking around. The area seemed utterly devoid of points of interest.
“Yep, I recognize it,” Willow said. “And I can feel the residual magic from the portal. It was a strong one, wow.” Willow shook her head to clear it. “Okay, first things first, I need to do a magic field topography ritual.”
“Blessed oils coming up,” Rowena said, setting her backpack down and opening it.
Vor Hell Dimension – Spire Prisoner Chamber – Later
As Creed, Jeff and Dawn stood nearby, Giles and Ethan slowly circled the chained Imbethit, chanting steadily.
“Jeff?” Dawn asked quietly.
“Looks okay,” he replied, eyes shut. “There’s a whole lot of power flying around, but nothing’s going wrong.”
Dawn nodded and looked again at Ethan and Giles. “They’ve been going for an hour,” Dawn muttered. “He hasn’t moved.”
“He can’t,” Jeff replied. “Not with those chains on. Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. I can’t see the details, but nothing’s going to go wrong. I’m pretty sure I can see the whole ritual, start to finish. It’s difficult to zero in, but he’s definitely going to say something.”
When the chanting ended, a split-second flash of power arced from Giles’s outstretched palm to Ethan’s, then vanished again. A moment later, it reappeared, flickering in and out of being. Slowly, the two men came to a halt and guided the strand of power towards the captive demon between them. They braced themselves, then let it touch him.
Immediately, the beam of magic split into thousands of tiny filaments, playing all over Imbethit’s body, striking sparks off his armor. Eerily, there was no sound at all, aside from the breathing of the humans and demons in the chamber.
“Contact,” Ethan said, grimacing.
“Contact,” Giles echoed.
“Con…tact,” Imbethit rasped after a tense pause.
“Where is the Citadel?” Giles asked.
“I do…not know,” the demon replied.
“Truth,” Ethan reported.
“The location you arrived at,” Giles went on, “is it dangerous? Are there Presidium forces nearby?”
“No,” Imbethit said. “All…dead.”
“Truth,” Ethan confirmed again.
“Does the Presidium know you’ve been captured?” Giles asked.
“Do not…know…” the demon said with difficulty.
“Speculate,” Giles insisted.
“No…reason…the Presidium…would know…yet,” Imbethit replied.
“Is this base in danger?” Giles asked.
“Yes,” Imbethit hissed. The demons in the chamber looked at each other warily.
“Truth.” Ethan said, looking nervously at Giles.
“How?” Giles went on. “What is the nature of the threat?”
“Six legions…of bound Galas fighters,” Imbethit said. “My assassins lead them…they have mages and stoneborers…”
“Where?” Creed barked.
“Where?” Giles echoed.
“Surface,” Imbethit replied. “Tunneling into the second gallery…on all sides.”
“Get Kail and Crom!” Creed ordered. “I want five hundred warriors ready to hit the catacombs, immediately!” One of his guards dashed from the chamber to carry out the order.
“Four legions…through the largest…” Imbethit went on. “Two others…through smaller tunnels…to divert attention…”
“Truth,” Ethan reported.
“A good plan,” Creed admitted grudgingly. “But now that we know, we shall destroy them. The second gallery has many secret passageways. We shall make them victims of their own scheme.”
“It’ll work,” Jeff said quietly, his brow creased in concentration. “I think it’ll work…they’ll stop the attack.”
“You know, that is getting so creepy,” Dawn told him.
Vor Hell Dimension – Spire Command Center – Moments Later
“I see lots of demons in a big hurry,” Faith said as she passed Creed on his way out. “What’s up?”
“Your mages are proving useful,” the demon replied. “Our captive has revealed an attack being attempted against us. We shall ambush them and destroy their forces piece by piece before they set foot in this place.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Faith said. “Need any slayers?”
“I would welcome you by my side,” Creed told her, “but this is not the time. Many of my people remain cautious about humans, especially slayers. They tolerate your presence here, but in battle, emotions run high. I do not wish to risk them drawing your blood, or that of your troops. In time, this will no longer be a concern.”
“Hope so,” Faith shrugged. “I don’t want to be just sitting around while you do all the work. You’ve got enough people to handle it yourself?”
“We have,” Creed rumbled. “Five hundred amass now, and a thousand more will follow us. The first will disrupt and confuse, and in the chaos our second wave will strike and destroy. Our mages are readying their magics now.”
“Watch your back, big guy,” Faith said.
“I shall be wise in battle,” the demon said solemnly. “I shall return before long with the heads of those who would destroy us all.”
“That’s the spirit.” Faith grinned.
Vor Hell Dimension – Gehenna Wasteland – Later
“I’m getting nothing,” Willow complained. “I know the portal came from the Citadel. I can feel the magic protecting its origin point…it’s very strong. From what Brighid and Creed said, there’s nowhere else the Presidium would shield like that…but therein lies the problem. It’s very well-shielded. It’s raw power, rather than subtlety, although there’s plenty of that, too.”
“You want to head back?” Rowena asked, massaging Willow’s shoulders as she sat dejectedly at the center of a circle drawn in the dirt.
“Maybe,” Willow nodded. “I guess we could try coming back with the rest of the Coven, but that might be pushing our luck at not getting noticed. Let’s try a Ravennan Invocation and then call it a day, okay? Is your jacket still uncomfortable?”
“It’s getting better with wear,” Rowena said, picking out runestones from her pack and handing them to Willow.
Suddenly, a distant, muffled thump from above the clouds caused both of them to look sharply at the sky.
“What was that?” Rowena whispered.
“I don’t know,” Willow replied, also whispering. “Some kind of thunder, maybe…” She looked around the desolate landscape, frowning. “Call the portal.”
“You see something?” Rowena asked.
Willow touched her hand and muttered an incantation. “Just a hunch. Call it,” she added.
Rowena retrieved a pouch from her belt, spread a small quantity of black dust on the ground, then carefully lit it aflame.
“Five,” Willow whispered, “four, three, t – Oh hell.”
“What?” Rowena asked, following Willow’s gaze towards the sky.
Her eyes widened as she saw a trail of blue fire bursting through the cloud layer, plummeting down towards them. It impacted the ground a few hundred yards away, silently, then seemed to seethe for a moment. Then it gave a deafening, resonant bass thrum and, a split-second later, exploded, sending a colossal wave of power rippling through the surrounding terrain.
Willow and Rowena ducked as the energy washed over them, then struggled to their feet, fighting against the sudden gale that whipped past them.
“What the hell was that?” Rowena shouted.
“I don’t know!” Willow shouted back. “But it’s killed all the magic around here!”
“What?” Rowena yelped.
“I can feel it!” Willow explained. “I couldn’t even float a pencil if I tried! We’ve got to get away from it!” Rowena grabbed Willow’s hand as they and the Undines scrambled over the rough terrain, casting backward glances at the menacing glow of the roiling core of the spell, still churning where it had landed.
Reaching a rise, Willow drew up short at what she saw, stumbling as she did. Dozens of creatures were now visible, slowly advancing towards them.
“I think we’ve been noticed!” Rowena shouted. “Are you all right?” She supported Willow, who was suddenly having trouble staying on her feet.
“They’re trying to bind me!” she yelled. “It’s hard to move!”
“Thorough bastards,” Rowena muttered. She pulled Willow’s arm over her shoulders and tried to help her walk. “Come on, that wave didn’t extend much further, if we can –” She broke off as another descending bolt of magic emerged from the clouds, plummeting towards the surface directly ahead of them.
“This way!” Rowena shouted, pointing to one side as they ducked down behind a rise, taking shelter from the new wave of energy and its deafening tone.
“Ro!” Willow yelled above the din. “You go that way!”
Rowena’s face whipped toward Willow, deep panic in her eyes. “What about you?!” she asked, horrified.
“They’re coming after me!” Willow replied. “I’ll lead them away!”
“No!” Rowena protested, her voice nearly breaking. “We’ll get out of this, Willow, you can’t –”
“We can’t cast a portal with those things going off around us!” Willow insisted. “And we can’t fight those things, there’s just too many! Ro, it’s me they want. They’re not even trying to bind you! You can get away!”
“I’m not leaving you!” Rowena yelled.
“They won’t kill me!” Willow shouted back.
“How do you know?!” Rowena asked.
“If they wanted to kill me,” Willow said in a lower voice, “then that first spell would’ve just vaporized us.” She shrugged.
“I won’t leave you!” Rowena protested again.
“You have to,” Willow replied with certainty. “They will kill you.”
Willow raised her hand, showing Rowena the thin silver ring she was holding.
“Ro, I put a tinkerbell in it!” Willow explained quickly. “You can come back and find me, wherever they take me! It might even be the Citadel!”
“If they take you there –” Rowena began.
“You’ve got a whole army of slayers and demons!” Willow interrupted her. “You have to get this to Giles and the others, Ro! Promise me!”
“Will, no!” Rowena pleaded.
With her hands shaking, Willow took Rowena’s hand and slipped the ring onto her finger.
“Ro, you know you have to do this! If we all get captured, who’s going to come after us?! Go!” Willow insisted.
“I love you!” Rowena said through tears, taking a step back from Willow.
“I love you too. Now get out of here!” She turned swiftly to the Undines. “Get her far enough away for a portal! Do whatever it takes!”
“We are here for you,” the two Undines said in unison, their voices somehow carrying over the whirlwind.
“She is me!” Willow shouted at them. “Protect her! That’s what I need now!”
“As you wish,” the Undines replied.
They moved towards Rowena, who was still hesitating to move any further away. One of them gently took her by the shoulders, then, all of a sudden, giving her no time to react, the icy creature stepped into her, its body flowing around her, leaving her stunned and covered in icy armor. The other stood by her side, its hands lengthening to become two long, sharp blades.
“For Necksa, we do this,” it said.
“I will find you!” Rowena shouted, as she took a step back. Her icy covering moved effortlessly
“I know, sweetie!” Willow smiled.
Rowena nodded helplessly, then turned and sprinted away. The Undine surrounding her made her faster and stronger as she leapt from rock to rock, with the other Undine following at her heels.
“All righty,” Willow muttered, turning and staring out at the squads of demons advancing towards her. “Let’s see if we can lead you guys on a bit of a chase.”
Moving with difficulty, she clambered down from the rise and began stumbling off in the opposite direction from Rowena, towards where a third bolt was streaking down out of the clouds.
End of Act Three