Anomalous Zone – Foot of Mountain – Day
Antonia coughed hard as she pushed herself from under a sheet of twisted metal covering her pilot’s chair. Plumes of smoke from bits of burning wreckage swirled around her as she stood on shaky legs. She looked over to where the co-pilot’s chair should have been. Her eyes widened when she realized the whole right side of the ship had been torn away.
“Oh god, oh god, Lex!” she yelled desperately. “LEX!”
“Back here,” came a faint voice.
Relief sprang into her eyes, and she moved in the direction of Lex’s voice. “Keep talking,” she told him.
“I’ll do my best,” he laughed.
Antonia climbed out of the demolished cockpit and over the top of the ship. In the debris behind the ship, she saw Lex lying on his back, still strapped inside the co-pilot’s chair by his seatbelt. A jagged piece of the metal hull stretched across his legs, pinning him in place. She slid down the left wing to the ground and ran to his side. She grabbed his face in both hands and kissed him repeatedly.
“Oh my god, I thought—” she breathed as she pulled back from their embrace. Then she shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. Can you move?”
Lex shook his head. “Not with this chunk of metal on me.” He gave the piece an ineffective push with his hands.
Antonia examined the metal closely, looking underneath it and around it. She picked up a long rod that was relatively unbent and wedged underneath the metal that was pinning Lex in place.
“I think I can lift it enough to give you some clearance,” she said. “Can you crawl out if I do that?”
“If this seatbelt wasn’t holding me in, I could,” Lex said. “But I can’t get it. It must be stuck.”
“I’ll get it,” Antonia said.
She crawled on her hands and knees until she was situated on Lex’s left side but beneath the metal holding him in. She blindly reached around the metal and began groping for the seatbelt’s buckle.
“Not the best time, Toni,” Lex said sternly, mocking Antonia’s earlier remark.
“Funny,” Antonia said from beneath the metal. Lex heard a small grrr from his wife followed by the click of the seatbelt buckle being disengaged. “Got it,” she said before moving out from under the twisted metal.
“Thanks,” Lex said.
“Don’t thank me yet,” she replied. “Now comes the really hard part.” She moved back to the rod she had wedged into place below one end of the metal. “Are you ready?”
“Ready Freddy,” Lex quipped.
Antonia used all her strength to push up on the rod, lifting the jagged metal just a few inches off Lex’s body.
“Go, go!” she yelled, her arms already shaking from the exertion.
Lex squirmed his way along the chair’s back as quickly as he could.
“Hurry!” Antonia urged, knowing that she could hold the metal up for only a few seconds more.
Lex squirmed faster until his legs were finally clear. “I’m out, I’m out!”
With a huge groan, Antonia let go of the rod and allowed the metal to crash down against the seat. She let the momentum carry her to the ground, and she lay there a few seconds to catch her breath. Then she turned over onto her hands and knees and crawled over to Lex. The two took a moment to smile at one another then fell into a grateful hug.
“Happy honeymoon, honey,” Lex joked.
Antonia let out a small chuckle and pulled out of the hug. “Happy honeymoon.”
Lex glanced around the mountainous landscape. “So…where do you think we are?”
Antonia took her own look around. “Well, I know where we were,” she said, “but now…My guess is we’ve just been introduced to the Anomalous Zone.”
“Super,” Lex replied without enthusiasm.
Anomalous Zone – Forest Plain – Same Time
The team moved slowly along the line of trees that edged a wide grassy plain, avoiding the occasional rings of fog that usually signaled a terrain change. Since leaving their downed ship, they had seen a variety of animal life, but none had proved to be a threat. The pterodactyl-like demons had not made a reappearance. Still, the group kept their weapons at the ready as they trudged along in the direction of what might or might not be South Southeast.
The slayers were still going strong, but the other members of the mission team were beginning to show signs of physical exhaustion—the rigors of the lengthy hike pushing them beyond their usual levels of fitness.
As they neared the top of a hill, Jocasta called out to Livia and asked for a break. As Jocasta, James, Applegate, and Dr. Burkle gratefully sank to the ground to rest, Livia motioned for Katherine to keep watch at the rear. Then Livia and Mira walked up the hill to scout ahead.
The two slayers stopped beside a boulder jutting out from the tree line. Mira leaned the Scythe against the huge rock and gave her arms a good stretch. Livia readjusted the strap on her blaster rifle and then swung it back over her shoulder.
When they glanced down the far side of the hill, they saw more of the same type of landscape they had been through, although it was dotted with the familiar pockets of eerie mist. At the end of the slope was a solid bay of fog, which obscured any view beyond that point.
“Guess we won’t be gettin’ by a fog trip this time,” Mira commented.
“Guess not,” Livia agreed. “Last time I was here, the mist rings were fairly quiet. It was the area between the rings that was full of demons and monsters. This time around it’s been…different. Everything seems more…I don’t know…in flux.”
“Do you think it’s because of the expansion, the lack of containment?”
Mira nodded at the fog bank before them. “What do you think’s in there?”
Livia shook her head. “Don’t have a clue. I really don’t. Whatever it is, it probably won’t be good.”
Mira looked off into the distance, a frown of worry on her face. Livia noticed Mira’s expression and gave her friend a nudge.
“But it’s nothing we can’t handle, right?” Livia said with a grin.
Mira didn’t return Livia’s smile; she just dropped her gaze to the ground, shrugging uncertainly. “I don’t know,” she said. “This whole mission…it feels so…final.” She looked up and met Livia’s eyes but only for a moment. “And I’m actually scared—really scared.”
“Hey,” Livia said, softening her tone and reaching out to touch Mira’s arm. “We’re gonna get through this. You’ll see.”
Mira shook her head desperately. “You don’t know that,” she said in a near panic. “This could be it, this could really be it, and you wouldn’t know it, none of us would know it, and-and…I’m not ready…I’m not ready.”
Livia took a step closer and tried to get Mira to look at her, but she wouldn’t. “Mira, what is it?” she asked with concern. “What’s going on? This isn’t like you.”
When Mira finally glanced up, she looked right into Livia’s eyes. The two stared for the longest time, their breaths quickening in the intensity of the moment. Then Mira swallowed hard and said in a choked voice, “I don’t want to go…Not without knowing…” She trailed off but didn’t stop her stare.
“Without knowing what?” Livia asked in a whisper.
Mira didn’t answer; instead, she dropped her gaze briefly to Livia’s lips and then started to lean in for a kiss. Livia matched Mira’s movements, slowly leaning forward until their lips were only a few inches apart.
“Hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
Instantly, Livia and Mira shot apart from each other and looked in the direction of the voice. They saw Applegate standing a few yards from them, breathing hard from his trek up the hill to where they were.
“Uh, no,” Livia hurried to say.
“No, nothing at all,” Mira chimed in.
Both slayers busied themselves with reclaiming their weapons, but Applegate didn’t seem concerned with whatever moment he may have interrupted. He held up his empty water bottle.
“I’m all out,” he said. “Does either of you still have—AAAAAAAUGH!”
Applegate screamed when a huge pair of jaws closed around his mid-section and snatched him off the ground. As huge wings lifted him into the air, stake-sized teeth dug greedily into his flesh.
Livia and Mira lunged after Applegate, but they were too late. They could only watch as a huge red dragon carried the pilot a few hundred feet in the air.
Livia powered up her blaster and swept its sights toward the dragon. When she saw what was in the sky above them, she stopped and lowered her weapon. “Holy mother of—” she began.
By now the rest of the team had joined them on the hilltop, and they huddled around the boulder, their gazes fixed on the sky. The light was nearly blotted out by a horde of dragons circling low above the clearing, their scaly skin every color of the rainbow. Huge bat-wings made a deep rumble with each flap. One of the creatures spewed a flaming cloud from its mouth directly at the boulder, sending the team tumbling down the far side of the hill toward the fog bank.
As James got to his feet, something crashed to the grass a short distance from him. He yelped and then grimaced when he saw that it was Captain Applegate’s upper torso, or what was left of it.
“What do we do?” James yelled frantically. “First pterodactyls, now dragons? What do we do?!!”
Katherine pulled her sword and unconsciously took up position in front of Jocasta. Scythe at the ready, Mira stood back to back with Livia as she began peppering blaster fire among the dragons.
One of the dragons dove towards the two slayers, and Mira’s grip tensed in anticipation. At the last moment, though, something blue and glowing struck the dragon full in the chest. It roared a horrible, ear-splitting screech and fell haphazardly into the forest. There was a crunching noise as trees buckled under its weight, and a moment later a cloud of dust.
Nearby, Jocasta was lowering her hands.
“Nice,” Livia complimented.
“You know, you guys may be vampire slayers,” Jocasta said with a grin, “but I’m the dragon slayer.”
“You’ll have lots of work, then,” Katherine shouted.
Several more of the dragons were swooping down towards the clearing. Jocasta sent another blast skyward, but it missed. Katherine stuck her sword into the belly of one of the creatures. It released a painful bellow and flew away, the sword still sticking out of its stomach.
“It took my sword,” Katherine said incredulously. She pointed, but no one was looking. Livia and Mira were busy with their own dragons.
When one landed behind Livia, she whipped around with her blaster. However, before she could get off a shot, the dragon snapped its tail into her, sending her hurtling several yards away into a rocky area. During the impact with the ground, she lost her grip on the blaster, and it clattered away upon the scattering of rocks.
Pressing its advantage, the dragon pounced, trying to snap her up in one bite. Livia caught its jaws and held them open. For a beat, Livia grimaced from the effort. Then her eyes widened, and she rolled out of the way just in time to avoid a fiery blast from the dragon’s throat.
Nearby, another dragon was sending a stream of fire directly at Mira. With no cover and nowhere to run, she held up the Scythe in front of her in a defensive gesture, and the fire harmlessly deflected off of it. Mira blinked and glanced at her weapon incredulously. It wasn’t even singed, and neither was the hand that held it.
Courtesy of the Scythe-deflected flames, James’s pants caught on fire. He squealed and then hit the ground in a roll. He kept repeating “Stop, drop, and roll!” over and over, as if giving himself frenzied instructions.
Katherine, now weaponless, magically deflected the next dragon with a quick shield then punched it in the head as it flew past her. This had little effect, and Katherine avoided its sharp talons by mere inches.
“Katie!” Jocasta screamed in alarm when the dragon made a quick turn and headed back for Katherine. Jocasta’s eyes glowed intensely as she let another magical bolt fly—a much bigger one than she had earlier loosed against the first dragon. This blast hit the dragon in a massive sizzling explosion.
When she saw that the attacking dragon had been taken out, Katherine’s face relaxed in relief, but then she looked back at Jocasta. The redhead’s eyes were shiny black, and she had an angrily exultant expression on her face. Katherine instantly frowned in worry.
When the dragon that Jocasta had hit fell to the ground, it nearly crushed Livia as she was scrambling to regain her blaster. Livia dove out of the way in time, but when she turned over onto her back, she looked up into the sky at the cloud of dragons still above them. As she watched, the remaining dragons turned as one and streaked downwards toward the mission team.
“Everybody scatter! Head for the fog!” Livia screamed to the others. Then she used her magic to TK her blaster into her hand and jumped to her feet.
Katherine and Jocasta started moving toward one side of the mist while James headed for another.
Mira stayed put and glanced over at Livia. “No, we can’t!” she shouted. “We’ll never find each other again!”
“You want to face that?” Livia asked, pointing skyward.
The smoke from the ever-expanding portion of the surrounding area that was on fire was starting to make things difficult to see. Somewhere nearby, they heard Katherine yelling, “Wait! Where’s Dr. Burkle? Has anyone seen Burkle?”
“We have to stay and fight,” Mira said, brandishing the Scythe.
Then something in the smoke caught Mira’s attention. It was a female shape, but it wasn’t Dr. Burkle. It was Aurora, leaning on a burning tree.
Aurora shook her head calmly. “It’s not time yet,” she called.
Mira’s brow furrowed. She turned back to Livia. “Okay. You’re the boss.”
“Go!” Livia ordered, and they both ran off in opposite directions.
As Mira headed for her side of the fog bank, she heard Livia shout, “I’ll find you!” Then everything disappeared into the smoke and fog.
Watchers Council – Giles’s Office – Same Time
Looking grim, Veronica took a seat in front of Sebastian’s desk. Willowgram was shimmering above her holographic base.
“We’ve lost contact with the mission team,” Veronica informed him.
“Yes, I’ve just heard,” he said, nodding toward Willowgram.
“Should we send another team?” Veronica asked.
Sebastian shook his head. “There isn’t enough time. We’ll just have to have faith. They’re the best. If they can’t do it, then…” He trailed off, not wanting to finish that thought.
After a moment of introspective silence, Sebastian finally spoke up. “So, shall we discuss the Slayer Service Bill? Travers is likely to force the Council back into session tomorrow.”
“If there is a tomorrow,” Veronica mumbled pessimistically. She sighed and said, “Unless we can come up some kind of strategy, he’s going to get it passed.”
“I don’t think things are quite that certain,” Sebastian said.
Veronica sighed again. “Even if the mission team succeeds, I wonder what sort of world they’ll be saving if Travers and his cronies get their way.” She leaned onto the desk and looked at the chairman intently, “We have to do something, Sebastian.”
“Jo said something to me before she left that got me thinking.”
“Which was?” she asked when he didn’t continue.
“How could my ancestors let this happen?”
“For one thing, they’re ancestors, meaning they’re dead,” she said dryly. “I think we’ve got ourselves to blame for the current mess.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Sebastian said. “There had to have been some kind of safeguards put in place to prevent these kinds of actions.”
“Maybe, but there’s not much a dead person can do to help us now,” she said.
“Not necessarily,” he replied.
“Thinking of raising the dead? Because Sebastian, I gotta tell you—”
“Good lord, no,” he said immediately with a short laugh before turning serious. “I mean policy; procedures.” Sebastian leaned closer. “In the first five years my great-grandmother held this post she achieved this,” he said, motioning around him. “Not just the walls that surround us, but all of it. Security implementations, voting procedures…everything. Elizabeth Giles took the foundation her father built and created a palace on it, designed with the sole purpose to save humanity.”
“I love it when you’re melodramatic,” Veronica teased.
Sebastian blushed. “Point is, I’m having difficulty believing that a woman who thought so far ahead of her time wouldn’t have thought that something like this might happen someday…a-and I doubt highly that she wouldn’t have prepared for it…somehow, someway.”
Before Veronica could respond, Willowgram interrupted. “Actually, um, excuse me, but I might have a possible answer for that.” When Sebastian and Veronica looked her way, she went on. “But I’ve never been officially asked.” She gave them a hopeful grin.
Anomalous Zone – Fog Bank – Same Time
Livia ran into the fog blindly firing the blaster behind her. As soon as she was lost in the mist, she cut to her right and made a zig-zagging path deeper into the bank.
As she slowed her pace, she began to see more than just fog. Interspersed in the wisps of water vapor were tendrils of bluish white energy undulating in the air. She eyed them with caution and moved out of their reach as she continued into the fog.
She stopped short when her path was blocked by an intense nexus of the glowing tendrils. They swirled into a whirlpool-like display that flattened before her like a circular window. When the mists cleared, she could see that it was indeed a window—a window into another world. It was a dimly lit place, but she could make out what appeared to be heavy-duty equipment. It was a physical plant or a factory or a military complex of some kind.
Suddenly, a figure came into view. It—or rather she—was running at the window, headed straight for the portal as if she meant to jump through it. Livia took a step back and drew her weapon. When the figure skidded to a halt in front of the dimensional window, Livia’s eyes grew wide.
On the other side of the portal was a near replica of herself. The female figure had dark brown, shoulder-length wavy hair, dark brown eyes, full lips and a slightly dimpled chin, the toned body of a slayer. It was like looking in a mirror—a freaky mirror, but a mirror nonetheless.
Livia lowered her weapon and drew near to the transparent opening. Her eyes settled on her replica’s bleeding right arm, where a tribal tattoo could be seen encircling the woman’s bicep. As if recognizing the design, Livia raised her hand to reach through the opening and touch her twin’s arm. But before she could, the eddies of the energy tendrils began to swirl once again, clouding the opening. Both brunettes instantly stepped back from the portal, but stood watching until the last threads of the anomaly had vanished.
Anomalous Zone – Fog Bank – Same Time
In another part of the fog bank, Katherine wove her way through mist-bound trees, the screeches of dragons receding into the background. When she turned around, though, Jocasta was no longer behind her.
She made a frantic 360 but couldn’t see Jocasta anywhere. She called Jocasta’s name again and started off in one direction, only to change her mind and head off in another direction.
Anomalous Zone – Base Camp – Bio-Pod – Hours Later
With the initial wave of the Zone’s expansion now past them, the gale-like conditions had calmed somewhat, and the base camp team was now attempting to re-establish communications.
“Can you hear me now?” Anya said into her headset mic. She adjusted a knob on the transmitter a micro-fraction. “Can you hear me now?” Another tiny adjustment. “Can you hear me now?” Still another. “Can you hear me now?”
“Arggh!” Finola blurted, covering her ears with hands. “I can’t take anymore!”
“Anya, why don’t you take a break?” Cooper suggested. “It doesn’t look like that thing’s going to work any time soon.”
She swiveled in her chair. “You don’t know that. I’ve only tried seventy-nine different settings so far. I’ve got at least nine hun—”
“’At’s it,” Finola growled. “I’m outta here.”
As Finola stomped out of the bio-pod, Cooper was right behind her. When they saw what was outside, however, they both immediately stopped in their tracks. Clawing and rooting through the remains of their storage pod were two large demons that looked like a cross between a wolverine and a rhinoceros.
“Jaysus!” Finola said under her breath. She scanned the area but didn’t see any more of the creatures. “Just two of ’em. What do you think?” she asked Cooper.
“Let’s go back inside,” he whispered. “Maybe they’ll just go away.”
“Jam on your egg,” Finola snorted. “They’re demons! They’ll sniff us out sooner or later.”
“Later’s better,” Cooper pointed out. “It’ll give us time to come up with a plan.”
Finola rolled her eyes but complied as they both quietly slipped back inside the bio-pod.
Watchers Council – Giles’s Office – Same Time
Sebastian, Veronica, and Willowgram were deep into their strategizing. As Willowgram went through the plan a final time, Sebastian leaned back in his chair and let out a long breath, shaking his head in the process.
“Willow, can you put those files in order as I make my address?” he asked.
The hologram nodded knowingly. “Yep, can do…I can even do pictures to bring the point home.”
“This will be a fine line to walk,” he noted.
“Especially since the Chairman himself will be walking that line,” Veronica pointed out. “But it’s one you’re born to walk, Seb… literally.”
Willowgram shrugged and held out her hands in a helpless gesture. “It’s all up to you now, but we’ll back you up.”
Sebastian eyed Veronica with uncertainty.
“You can do this,” Veronica told him firmly. He still looked uncertain, so she took his face in her hands. “I believe in you.” She leaned down and planted a soft kiss on his lips, which caught him slightly off guard. She pulled back, but once he had found his bearings, he pulled her closer and kissed her soundly.
“Ahem,” Willowgram said, clearing her throat after a few moments.
Both of them pulled back, a bit embarrassed.
“I better go tell Velika what you found out,” she said as a way of excusing herself.
Sebastian only managed a weak nod.
Anomalous Zone – Fog Bank – Same Time
“Katie!” Jocasta called out in a distressed voice, but she got no response. “Katie, please…”
After hours of fruitless searching, she now had real fear in her eyes, and her breathing was very rapid. She put both hands to her head and scanned the fog-laden forest.
“Okay, okay,” she said in a deliberate attempt to calm herself. “Just think. Think!” Suddenly, she got a ‘eureka’ look on her face. “Oh, oh! The Tinkerbelle spell!”
Jocasta examined her surroundings until she found a flat patch of ground. She swept it clear of all debris, then used a stick to draw a circle in the dirt. She sat cross-legged in the circle, closed her eyes, and went through a series of breathing exercises to focus her energies.
“Okay, calm the mind, visualize that which is sought, then speak the words,” she reminded herself.
She let out a long, slow breath, then began to chant softly to herself. After a few moments, she spoke a final line and opened her eyes. Hovering before her eyes was a marble-sized ball of glowing light. Jocasta smiled and got to her feet.
“Find her for me, Tinkerbelle,” she told the floating ball.
The greenish light flashed once; then the ball began bobbing its way through the trees. Jocasta quickly followed.
As she rounded a rocky outcropping, she found the glowing ball behaving erratically. It bobbed a few feet off to her right; then it retreated and headed off to the left, where Jocasta could see an ominous gathering of energy tendrils swirling into a dimensional portal. Tinkerbelle darted back and forth in a confused manner until it finally exploded in a poof of light before the growing portal.
Jocasta looked to her right and saw only more mist-ridden trees. She turned to her left and frowned worriedly at the dimensional window. After a moment of thought, she approached the portal. She leaned close but the energies were too murky to be seen through. Jocasta looked around the area as if trying to come up with a solution.
Her eyes lit up when she saw a thick vine creeping down the side of a nearby tree. She lifted the vine from the ground and pulled it away from the trunk. She gave it a series of hefty yanks to test its strength. Satisfied, she took the end of the vine in one hand and stepped back to the portal. Tightening her grip on her impromptu safety line, Jocasta hesitantly passed her hand into the portal.
She left it there for only a few seconds before yanking it out. She examined her hand and found it unaffected. She repeated the process, leaving her hand in for a longer period this time, and once again found her hand unchanged by its emersion in the dimensional window. After steeling herself for the plunge, Jocasta stuck her whole head into the portal.
Inside The Portal – Continuous
Jocasta blinked a moment to adjust to the transition, then took in her surroundings. Her head was protruding from a small portal hovering high in one corner of a room. It was a dorm room, and by its dated appearance, it was an old one, late twentieth century at least. The room was cluttered with boxes, and the bed was but a bare mattress. Someone was either moving in or moving out. When the door opened and a young woman entered carrying a large, heavy box, Jocasta surmised it was the former.
When the woman set the box down, Jocasta could finally see her features clearly—long dark blonde hair, gentle blue eyes, earthy garb—she was the spitting image of Katherine. But she couldn’t be, could she?
“Oh my god,” Jocasta mouthed silently as she continued to watch, still unnoticed by the room’s resident.
The blonde looked at the boxes surrounding her as if deciding which to open first, but her expression quickly saddened, and she began to cry in earnest.
Suddenly, the door flew open, startling both the girl and Jocasta. When the blonde turned to see who had burst into the room, Jocasta’s eyes grew wide at the sight. It was a furious, black-eyed, black-haired version of Jocasta herself.
“W-W-Willow!” the blonde stammered in fear. “W-W-What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to take you home,” Willow calmly informed her. Then she flung out her hand, releasing a magical bolt that lashed around the blonde and dragged her over until she was just a few inches from Willow’s face. With her black eyes glowing menacingly, she told her, “You’re mine, Tara Maclay, and I’m never going to let you go.”
“Oh, god…no…” Jocasta blurted aloud as she looked on in horror at an alternate-universe version of her own great-great grandmother.
Jocasta gasped in fear when Dark Willow’s head shot up and pointed obsidian eyes directly at her. Jocasta jerked herself out of the portal.
Anomalous Zone – Fog Bank – Continuous
When Jocasta returned to the foggy forest of the Anomalous Zone, she stepped away from the swirling portal and sighed in relief when she noticed it shrinking and dissipating.
While the window was still large enough to climb through, however, Willow’s black-veined face abruptly came into view, up close and personal. An evil grin danced on her lips.
“I seeeee you,” she sing-songed from the portal.
Jocasta backtracked as fast as she could, tripping over a log, never taking her eyes off the image before her. Just as Dark Willow started to reach through the portal, the window closed in on itself.
“Oh god, oh god…” Jocasta repeated over and over, her hand over her heart as she nearly hyperventilated.
Anomalous Zone – Fog Bank – Same Time
Katherine called Jocasta’s name for the thousandth time before finally stopping in front of a large tree. She seemed close to tears and completely at a loss as to what to do. Suddenly, a voice called to her from above.
“So how’s everything looking down there?”
At the sound of the voice, Katherine’s gaze shot up to the tree towering above her. Her mouth dropped open at the sight. There, sitting upon the lowest bough, was a figure she had seen only in digital images and in a single real photograph.
It was Tara Maclay.
End of Act Four