DISCLAIMER:I do not own any of these characters. I think by now we all know who actually does.
SPOILERS: If you haven't read Alternate Alternatives and Alternate Alternatives 2 and 3, you may want to hold off on this story and read them first. Otherwise, you'll be totally lost.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Continuity is out the window. This story takes place in an alternate version of the already alternate world presented to use in the episodes THE WISH and DOPPLEGANDLAND. Some people and situations will be very familiar while others will seem to come out of left field. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Alternate Alternatives 4: Union of Dark Souls
By Kirk Baldridge
Tara Maclay was having a really bad day.
It had certainly started out pleasant enough. She and her girlfriend, the vampiric Willow Rosenberg, decided to go to the movies. Or rather they went to the abandoned movie theater on Main Street, where they managed to get one of the projectors working. From the archives they selected LOVE STORY for Tara, and then EMBRACE OF THE VAMPIRE, an ironic choice, for Willow. They missed most of the second move though, as partway through the first nude scene the two of them started making out.
Afterwards they walked out of the theater, hand in hand, only to find themselves surrounded. A half dozen mean and angry-looking vampires emerged from the shadows. It wasn't the first time anything like this has happened to them, but that didn't make the experience any more appealing.
Willow frowned. "Max? What the hell are you doing?"
The apparent leader of the vampires was a tall, bald, ugly one-eyed vampire. He snorted.
"You know this guy?" Tara asked.
"Unfortunately. He used to work for the Master, but he was kicked out of the family a couple of years ago after he failed to bring back my puppy, Angel."
Max rubbed his face. "Yeah. And you tore out my eye, bitch!"
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "It wasn't personal. I just did what I was told."
"Yeah, well, you're not such hot stuff without the big guy backing you up. I owe you, Red!"
"So go ahead and try to collect." Willow shifted to her demon-face. "I'm ready!"
"Think I will." Max glanced at Tara and licked his lips. "Maybe I'll keep you alive though. So you can watch what my boys and I do to your little friend there."
Tara winced. Willow roared and charged the bigger vampire. She barely got three steps before two of the other vampires grabbed her arms, stopping her in her tracks. She struggled, but together they managed to hold on to the redhead as Max walked up and cupped her chin.
"You've got a pretty face, you know that? It's almost a shame to ruin it." Max pulled a stake from his belt. "But, I always say...an eye for an eye." He ran his fingers through her hair and jerked her head back. "Or maybe I ought to just kill you now and be done with it. What do you think?"
"Do it! Prove you're a big man!"
Max shrugged. "Okay!" He drove the stake into Willow's heart, and she gasped. "I didn't really feel like listening to your whining all night anyway."
The other vampires laughed. The two holding the redhead loosened their grips.
Willow snarled. "You idiots have no idea who you're messing with!" She drove her elbows into the stomachs of the vampires on either side of her, doubling them over, then grabbed their hair and slammed their faces together with bone-crunching force. As they went down she pulled the stake out of her chest and threw it at Max, who was smart enough to run. It pierced his heart and he turned to dust. "Does anyone else still wanna play? Or can we just call it a night for a change?" She nodded as the other vampires wisely ran away.
"You idiots have no idea who you're messing with?" Tara shook her head. "What was that?"
Willow shrugged her shoulders as her face returned to normal. "It's true."
"I'm so glad you're wearing that thing," Tara said, motioning to the Gem of Amarra. "Otherwise I'd be a lot more worried whenever things like this happen...which, by the way, seems to be more and more frequent. Willow, what is going on? Why is everybody after us recently?"
"I don't know, baby. But I don't think it's us they're after. I think it's me."
"Maybe because I used to work for the Master? It's why William and Drusilla were here."
Tara sighed. "So what can we do about it?"
"We need answers. And in this town, you know what that means."
Willy glanced up when the front door of the bar opened, and paled when he realized it was Willow and Tara. He was just thankful it was the middle of the day. With the sun up the only other bodies there were a few humans and a harmless Naoth demon. He still didn't look happy.
"Are you crazy? Do you have any idea how many monsters in this town are after you, Red? I can't afford to have my place trashed again."
"Take it easy. It's noon. There won't be any vampires to worry about for hours yet."
"You're a vampire."
"Yeah, but you don't have to worry about me." Willow sneered. "Unless, of course, you piss me off."
Willy held up his hands and backed away, out of range. "What do I look like, a fool? I'm curious about one thing though. Like you said, it's noon. How come you're not, you know, on fire?"
"That's for me to know, and you to never, ever ask about again."
"Okay, okay. I can take a hint." "Since when?"
"Hey, gimme a break, will you?. I got paying customers to take care of. Let's get on with it."
Willow nodded. "You said someone was after me? Who? And why?"
"You really have to ask? You've been raising all kinds of hell around here lately. Most of the other vamps didn't much like you before, when you were working for the Master. Now word is you're killing your own, and there's a growing 'get her so she doesn't get us' mentality going on."
"So it's just the vampires then?"
Willy shook his head. "Not even close. Most of the demons are after you too. They blame you for closing the Hellmouth down, canceling all their bad vibes, and for killing the Mayor."
"That wasn't me!"
Tara cleared her throat. "Well, technically..."
Willow silenced her with a glare. "So is there a bounty on my head? Is that it?"
"Not yet. But I'm pretty sure they're working up to it. My advice is you and blondie might want to think about an extended vacation somewhere. Get out of Dodge if you know what I mean."
"Seldom if ever," said Willow. She stood up. "Thanks Willy." She motioned to Tara, and the two of them walked out of the bar together. "That certainly explains things, doesn't it?"
Tara nodded. "What do we do?"
"I think Willy's right. Sunnydale isn't the safest place in the world for us right now." Willow frowned. "Which is all my fault. I'm sorry you had to get wrapped up in this, Tara."
Tara put an arm around the vampire. "I'm not." They kissed, and she sighed. "So where would we go?"
"If we decided to leave. Where would we go? And more importantly, how?"
"I don't know the where yet, exactly." Willow looked around. "But how. That's easy." She put her fist through the driver's side window of the first car they came to. "See?"
"You want us to steal a car?"
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "Why not? The owner's not going to need it."
"Yeah, but..." Then Tara thought about her life the last couple of weeks. She was living in an abandoned house in a strange city, wearing someone else's clothes and sleeping with a vampire who'd tried to kill her not all that long ago. Literally not long, like a week before. "Okay. But what about keys?"
Willow slid down into the floorboard of the car and ripped out a handful of wires. "I saw Xander do this once. I think I remember...ah. There it is." She connected several wires together. "He once hotwired a car so it would run down this group of nuns, and...never mind." Death, destruction, and pain--physical or otherwise--meant very little to her. She sometimes found herself doing or saying things that bothered Tara, like now. She stopped talking and finished her task and the cars engine roared to life. "Get in!"
Tara climbed into the seat beside her. "Where are we going?"
"I don't know. We'll know it when we get there though."
"Can we stop by the house on the way?" Tara asked. "I have a few things I want to pick up."
The car was a convertible, so it wasn't long before they decided to put the top down.
As she drove, Willow turned her face to the sun and basked. Tara saw this. "You enjoy it, don't you?"
"Not having to hide from the sun anymore. Did you miss it? The light? The warmth?"
Willow shook her head. "I didn't used to think so but yeah...I have." She held up her hand. "It's just too bad I can't tan. I never realized how pale I am."
"Hey, at least you don't burn either." They both laughed, then Tara lay her head back. In the seat behind her were two bags; containing their clothes, some of the books from the Magic Box, and Amy's laptop. Everything else, in the house or the shop, she had cloaked within protective barriers. "So, any idea where we're going yet? Or do you just want to drive until we're out of gas?"
Willow glanced at the gauge. "We have three fourths of a tank, so I don't think we have to worry about that for a while. But to answer your question, I was thinking about LA."
"There are other vampires and demons there too so it's not like I'm going to stick out too much, but it's nothing like Sunnydale either. There're no Hellmouth, for example, and there are more humans than anything else. Plus, I hear the supernatural community as a whole is more...subdued. As long as you don't get in each other's way or go after the same person on a hunt, it's pretty much live and let live. So to speak."
"Do you have any friends there?" Tara asked. "Where are we going to stay when we get there?"
Willow snarled. "Hey! I don't have all the answers, okay? If you have a better idea, let me hear it. Otherwise, let me drive in peace, would you?"
Tara was stung by her lover's tone, but also worried. "Will? Are you okay?"
"Something's wrong." Tara noticed strange fluctuations in the redhead's aura. "What is it?"
"My head's pounding, and my stomach feels like it's tied in knots." Willow snarled. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't take it out on you. It's not your fault."
Tara bit her lip. "Actually, it might just be."
"What?" "It sounds like you're hungry. I know you used to just grab the first person you met and quench your thirst. But I screwed that up when the Black Luster Ritual wiped out your bloodlust. You don't feed very often because you're never really hungry, and how long has it been since you ate?" Willow shrugged her shoulders. "Couple of days."
"That's it. Pull over."
"I said pull the car over. Now. Please."
It was that last word that did it. Willow would have walked through fire and captured the moon if Tara asked her to please do so. She cut off several other cars in her effort to get over to the shoulder. She ignored the horns and curse words thrown her, and instead turned to Tara.
The blonde was busy rolling up her sleeve. She offered one delicate arm to Willow. "Here."
"You want me to feed?"
"All I ask is that you leave me enough to stay alive. And, preferably, conscious. But yes. I want you to feed. You need to replenish your strength." Tara smiled. "So go ahead. For me?"
Willow shifted to her demon-face. "You're sure?"
"Positive. Do it."
Willow brought the blonde's arm to her mouth and licked it, smiling when Tara let out a gasp, then she sank her fangs into one of Tara's veins and started to drink.
Tara dug her fingers into long red hair and let out a low, throaty moan.
Unlike typical vampires, or even a souled anomaly like Angel, the lack of bloodlust left Willow in total control of her faculties. She knew exactly how much blood Tara had in her body, how much she was taking and how much the blonde could safely afford to lose. The second her hunger was sated and the pain had gone away, she took her mouth off Tara's arm and licked the puncture marks until they stopped bleeding.
Willow looked up to see how Tara was doing. Her cheeks were flushed and her breathing seemed to be coming more rapidly than usual. "Are you okay?"
"F-Fine. Just a little...light-headed. How about you?"
"Better. Thanks to you." Willow licked her lips clean and then lightly kissed her lover. "Rest now."
Tara lay her head back and closed her eyes. She was soon asleep.
Willow gently grasped the blonde's shoulder, and shook her until she stirred. As soon as Tara's eyes opened the redhead sat back and smiled.
Tara sat up and yawned. "Evening?" It was indeed dark outside. They were parked in front of a building, but there were no lights on the street so she could not make it out. "What time is it?"
Willow glanced at the clock on the dashboard. "Seven forty-five."
"I've been asleep all day?" The redhead nodded, and Tara put a hand on her rumbling stomach. "It's no wonder I'm so hungry."
"That's from the blood loss. Here." Willow reached into the back seat and grabbed a bulging bag. "I wasn't really sure what you liked, so I got a little bit of everything."
"Thanks." Tara tore into the burgers, eating nearly three before she felt better. She washed it all down with a big bottle of orange juice. "So, where are we?"
Willow nodded toward the multi-story building looming in the shadows nearby. "This is the Hyperion. This guy at the fast food place told me it has really nice rooms."
"A hotel? How can we afford that? You don't have any money, do you?"
Tara frowned. "Wait. If you don't have any money, how'd you get this food? Will, you didn't..."
"No." Willow knew exactly what she was thinking. "Of course not. I mean, I thought about it. But it turns out the guy in the drive-thru, the one who told me about this place, isn't a guy at all. He's a Shio demon. They look human except for a long, curly tail, which most of them hide in their pants."
"I'm not touching that line," said Tara. "Anyway, this Hyperion? They allow...umm...?"
The redhead nodded. "As soon as he realized I was a vampire, Toth--that's the Shio demon--he gave me the food for free. Said he always liked vampires. Anyway, he told me this hotel caters to all kinds of clientele. Everyone's welcome as long as they don't try to eat the other guests."
"Okay." Tara slid out of the car and stretched, then started up the sidewalk toward the hotel. Willow grabbed the bags out of the back seat and followed her into the lobby.
There were two people standing behind the counter. A tall, wiry man in slacks and a buttoned-up white shirt that practically screamed for a tie, and a smaller, attractive, floral-print wearing younger woman. Both had brown hair and were wearing glasses that appeared to have been designed to match.
The woman looked up from a computer screen. "I'm sorry. I didn't hear you come in." She smiled. "Welcome to the Hyperion. My name's Winifred Burke, but everyone calls me Wini." She gestured to the man standing behind her. "This is my husband, Wesley Pryce. How can we help you?"
As they were talking, he reached down under the counter and pulled out a large white crystal. "Be careful, dear." Part of it was glowing. "One of them is a vampire."
"That would be me," Willow hissed. "And I was told it wouldn't be a problem."
Wini shook her head. "Oh, it's not. Believe me. We don't discriminate here. Just so long as you don't try to hurt any of the other guests, I'm sure we'll get along swimmingly."
Tara put a hand to her forehead. She could sense magic. Some powerful castings had been done in this hotel, or else a very strong spell was currently at work.
"Rooms are fifty dollars a night. Food--which isn't much of a concern for you I'm sure," he said to Willow, who frowned. "...is extra. So is entertainment." He nodded toward the red curtain at the back of the lobby. "Our lounge is a two drink minimum. Just in case you're interested."
"Toth sent me," said Willow. He assured her his name carried some weight at the hotel.
"I see." Wesley took off his glasses and rubbed his forehead. "Honey, you've got to make him stop referring the charity cases to us. We should have some standards."
Wini shook her head. "Oh hush." She smiled at Willow and Tara. "Don't worry. He acts all crusty, but inside he's really a big softy." She handed Tara a key marked 221. "Second floor. On your right. Oh, I should warn you about the couple in the room above you. They're Kalrathi demons. Whenever they go at it, which is a couple of nights a week, they sometimes gets kind of loud. Just a word of warning."
"Thanks," said Tara. "We really appreciate this."
As it turned out the room wasn't much to look at but it had a bed and a bathroom, and right now that was all Tara really cared about. She took the bags from Willow and tossed them on the bed, then noticed that the redhead was still standing in the hallway, staring at the doorway.
"This is the first time I've been to a hotel since I became a vampire." "So?"
"These rooms belong to those people downstairs, not us. What if I need an invitation?"
"Then I'll invite you. In fact, I'll do it right now." Tara grabbed Willow's hand and pulled her across the threshold and into the room. "See? You're fine. This is our room." She put the emphasis on our.
Willow cupped Tara's cheeks. "Well, in that case.."
For a change, it was Willow who needed a rest afterwards.
As she lay there and watched her lover sleep it occurred to Tara that Willow hadn't slept much in the last several days. Since getting the Gem of Amarra she had altered her sleeping patterns, waking during the day and resting at night, so the two of them could spend more time together.
Because she was a vampire Willow could, and often did, go for quite some time with no sleep at all, but sooner or later even she crashed. And when that happened she slept deep and hard. The kind of sleep which often opened hidden doors in her psyche that led to violent thrashing and screams.
Tara knew, from experience, that she wouldn't be able to get much sleep herself during such a night. Plus it was painful for her to be near her lover when she got like that, so she slid out of bed and went downstairs to the lobby where she found she was not the only one awake.
Wini was sitting on the counter, talking to...a demon. He was tall and lanky, with green skin, red eyes, and a pair of stubby red horns on his forehead. The dark blue leisure suit seemed oddly appropriate. All eyes turned to Tara as she slowly approached them, looking from Wini to the demon and back again.
"Hi," said the bespectacled brunette. "Lorne, I'd like you to meet...I'm sorry. I didn't get your name."
"Okay. Tara." Wini gestured to the demon. "This is Lorne. He's our entertainment director."
Tara shook the demon's hand when he offered it. His grip was firm and his leathery skin quite warm. "It's n-nice to meet you."
"You too." Lorne looked at his watch. "I'd love to stay and chat but I have a dinner engagement. Ta." He waved to them both and walked right out the front door.
"Won't he be noticed?" Tara asked.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," Wini replied. "Lorne's got an aura about him. People never seem to notice his skin or his horns. And those who do usually kind of forget afterward. Or they chalk it up to their imagination, or a bad dream. It's really quite a trick. Frankly I wish I could do it."
Tara blinked. "What about us?" "It doesn't work on people like us. I suppose because we already know about demons." Wini slid off the counter and looked up at the blonde. "I'm sorry, again. Did you need something?"
"Not really. I'm just not tired. I slept most of the day."
"I'd offer you something. But I'm afraid the kitchen's closed for the evening."
"That's not necessary. Thank you for offering though."
"I can at least offer you a seat." Wini pulled out one of the stools in front of the counter for Tara, then sat down on one beside her. "So, what's on your mind?"
"It's not the Kalrathi is it? I told Wesley they were too loud..."
Tara shook her head. "No, no. I swear to you, everything is just fine. We love it here."
"Sorry. After all this time I still get a little insecure. I guess it comes with the territory."
"What territory?" Tara paused. "If you don't mind my asking."
"I don't. But it's kind of a weird story."
"I'll make you a deal," said Tara. "I'll tell you mine, if you tell me yours."
Tara told Wini about Sunnydale, though she left out a few key details for personal or security reasons. Meeting Willow. Amy. Dracula. William. Drusilla. The other Willow. The Key.
"Do you miss it?" Wini asked.
"The powers of this Key. What was that like?"
"It's hard to explain," said Tara. "The words invigorating and terrifying come to mind."
"Sounds like you've had a busy few weeks."
Tara leaned on the counter. "Now then, a deals a deal. How about you?"
"Okay. What do you want to know?"
"For starters, how long have you and Wesley owned this place?"
"About five years. We met at a scientific conference in New York. I was introducing a quantum equation, which I theorized held the potential for exploration of parallel realities. My theory was, to say the least, unpopular. The other scientists thought I was a joke. They laughed me off the stage and my grant money was rescinded. I thought my life's work for ruined, until I met Wesley."
"So, you're both scientists?"
Wini shook her head. "I was a grad student at the time. That's why no one else would listen to me. Wesley was a Watcher at the time, and he...."
"I'm sorry. A what?"
"Watchers are really stuffy, mostly British people who train young women called Slayers to fight vampires and demons." Wini could see from the look in Tara's eyes that the blonde had no idea what she was talking about. "It's a long, boring story, and it doesn't really matter anymore since he got kicked out. Anyway, at the time Wes said I was a topic of interest among the members of the Council. The Watcher's Council if you...never mind. Then Wes found out what they wanted my invention for. There was this other dimension called Pylea, and they wanted to go there because it was supposed to house some kind of fountain of immortality or something. They had tortured an innocent demon, a creature who escaped from this other world, to find this stuff out. Wes broke him out and quit the Watchers the very same day. He brought the demon back here."
Tara glanced toward the front door. "Lorne?"
"Yes. Lorne was so grateful for our help that he agreed to help us start a new life. He put us in touch with a man who lent us the money to buy this place. Together the three of us made it a haven for humans and demons. All are welcome, and all are safe thanks to the Sanctuary spell."
Tara slapped her hand on the counter, then blushed when Wini stared at her, wide-eyed. "Sorry. I'd been sensing something since we got here. I just couldn't put my finger on it. A Sanctuary spell? So it protects the entire hotel, including the individual rooms?"
Wini shook her head. "Not that individual rooms. Some demons, and humans for that matter, can get kind of rough, in their personal...well, you know. But in public areas like the lobby and the halls, no violence of any kind can happen. Not between demons and humans, demons and demons, or even humans and humans."
"Wow. Sounds like this is a great place to live."
"I'm glad I'm not in Sunnydale," said Wini. "I've heard nasty things about Hellmouths. You're just lucky you guys got out of there in one piece." She nodded toward the stairs. "Say, just out of curiosity, how did you end
up with a vampire? I mean, it looks like you two are really happy together."
Tara hadn't told her about the Black Luster Ritual. Willow didn't want anyone to know. "We are. And I just chalk it up to fate. I was where I was meant to be that day."
"I know the feeling."
"Speaking of Willow, I'd better get back to bed. She doesn't always sleep too well, and if she wakes up and finds me gone..."
"I understand. Have a nice night. See you in the morning!" Wini waved until Tara was out of sight, then turned as Wesley strode out of the office. "You heard?"
He nodded. "I did." "And?"
"I'll have to ask Lorne when he gets back. But maybe."
"And you believe her?"
It was the next morning and Tara was just coming out of the bathroom, having taken a shower.
"I'm sorry. What?"
Willow, sitting cross-legged on the bed, repeated her question.
"I said, do you believe her?"
Tara, who had told the redhead about her conversation with Wini, shrugged her shoulders.
"It sounds a little far-fetched to me."
Tara frowned. "How can you say that? Will, you're a vampire whose got her human conscience back, I'm a witch who had an energy version of herself inside her, and we just fought your evil twin from an alternate reality. Is any of what Wini said really that hard to believe?"
"When you put it that way, not really." Willow slid off the bed. "You know, that Sanctuary spell you were talking about...maybe that explains the bad vibes I've been picking up on since we got here."
"Since when do you get vibes? I thought I was the witch."
"You are." Willow grinned. "And a pretty one at that." She pulled the blonde closer and kissed her. "Since you're out, I'm going to go take a shower now."
"Wait. What did you mean? About the vibes?"
The redhead shrugged her way out of her clothes. "Just a feeling."
"Look, if you really don't like it here, we can always go someplace else."
"I doubt it. We don't have any money, remember?"
Tara nodded. "I know, but..." "Don't worry about it. I'm sure everything's fine." Willow kissed her again and went into the bathroom.
Tara chewed on her lower lip as she was getting dressed. Then she knocked on the bathroom door. "Willow, I'm going to head downstairs and see if I can find something to eat, okay?"
"Okay. I'll see you down there!"
In the lobby Wini and Wesley were talking to Lorne, as well as a young woman Tara didn't recognize. She had a long mane of shiny black hair, and was wearing a tight red dress. When they heard her coming the quartet glanced up at the stairs, though only Wini smiled.
"Sorry," said Tara. "Am I interrupting something?"
"Not at all," Wini replied. "Please come down. Since you're here, allow me to introduce you two." She gestured to the young woman. "This is...an associate of ours. April, meet Tara."
The blonde held out her hand. "Nice to see you."
"It is...nice to...be seen." April took Tara's hand and pumped it uniformly, three times.
Before she left go Tara noted the woman's skin was unusually smooth, and while it was not as responsive to the surrounding temperature as Willow's it did not feel exactly normal either. "So, umm, how do you happen to know Wini and Wesley?"
"They work...on a...limited basis...for my...boss." April's words were oddly stilted.
Tara then noticed of something else. April had no aura. All living things, as well as many vampires and demons, had some kind of aura. Even if it was dull and vague. As a matter of fact, when she expanded her senses she could not sense anything from April at all. Her mind was not only closed to her it seemed nonexistent, and she was not able feel the beating of her heart or the rise and fall of her chest.
"Forgive me for being indelicate, but...what are you?"
April cocked her head. "Excuse me?"
While they were talking, Lorne moved behind Tara. When he thought the blonde wasn't looking he clamped one hand over her mouth and used the other to pin her hands to her sides.
Wesley nodded and dug into his jacket pocket, coming out with a loaded syringe.
Tara's eyes widened. In desperation she bit down hard on Lorne's hand, causing him to scream and momentarily let go of her mouth. "Liber Ego!" A pulse of energy from her body knocked the demon away, and bowled over his two accomplices as well. Wini and Wesley both hit the ground several feet away, the latter losing his hold on the syringe, which slid to a stop by April's feet. She just stared at it.
"What are you waiting for?" Lorne asked. "Get her! You know what he'll do if you fail!"
April blinked. "Yes." She stepped over the syringe and came at Tara, her hands outstretched.
Tara took a step back and screamed. "WILLOW!"
The redhead had just zipped up her pants and was reaching for her shirt when she heard Tara scream.
Any concerns about her being half naked were subsequently banished from her mind, as she practically tore the door off its hinges on her way out. She knocked over a scaly-skinned demon, who had stepped out of his room to check on the noise, and never stopped until she reached the second floor landing.
Tara was laying face down on the lobby floor at the feet of a dark-haired woman Willow did not recognize. She did see Wini, Wesley, and a green demon she imagined was Lorne. They did not seem to be trying to do anything to help the blonde. The vampire snarled. "Tara!"
All eyes turned her way.
"Get the hell away from her!" Willow shifted to her demon-face. "Or I'll kill you all!"
Lorne frowned. "Oh great. Deal with this, would you? We'll take care of the girl."
"What should...I do?" April asked.
Wesley handed her a stake. "Here's an idea. Try shoving this in her heart. Think you can do that?"
Wesley and Lorne then kneeled down to pick up Tara.
The vampire roared. She grabbed the railing and flung herself off the second floor landing, coming down easily in the middle of the lobby. "Leave her alone!"
April stepped in front of her, a blank expression on her face. She wasn't even blinking.
"Who the hell are you?"
"I am...April. I have...been ordered...to terminate...you now."
Willow sneered. "Is that right?"
"Too bad, little girl. It's almost a shame to mess up that pretty face."
"What do...you mean?"
Willow hauled off and hit April in the face as hard as she could. She knew the blow would probably kill the girl, but she was more concerned about Tara right now. Not some stranger.
April's head jerked around so violently that something in her neck cracked. She didn't even lose a step however, and showed no signs of pain as she grabbed her head and twisted it back into place.
Willow hissed. "What are you?"
"None of...your business. And that...was not...very nice." April backhanded Willow. The blow sent her flying the length of the lobby. She landed in a heap halfway up the staircase and groaned.
Willow lifted her head. Behind April she saw the front door was wide open. Wesley, Wini and Lorne were long gone, and they had taken Tara with them. "No!" She leaped to her feet, only to find her April in her way again. "I'm warning you! Move! Now!"
"I do...not think...so." April grabbed Willow, spun her around, and drove the stake into her heart. "There. I have... fulfilled my...programming. I should...return to...the master...now."
Willow staggered back, then grabbed the end of the stake as April was turning her back on her. "Don't leave yet, bitch!" She jerked it free. "We're just getting started!"
"Intriguing." April eyed the redhead. "I detect no heartbeat or oxygen exchange. My records indicate this means you are a vampire. Yet according to my files, a stake through the heart should be the proper deterrent for such an entity. Why then have you not been reduced to separate molecular particles?"
"Long story." Willow sneered. "Hey. Know what I just figured out?" She grabbed one of April's arms and before she could do or say anything to stop it, twisted until it came off in a shower of sparks and ruined metal. "You're a damn robot!" She tossed the still twitching limb aside.
April shuddered. "Error...external damage..." Sparks shot out of her stump. "...internal damage..."
"Would you please shut up?!" Willow threw her arms around April's head and jerked it around until she was able to tear it off as she had done the robot's arm. Her body continued to move, arms and legs thrashing wildly until it finally lost its balance and fell over. "That's better."
But it wasn't. A quick check outside told her that Lorne and the others were long gone.
"Tara." Tears poured down the redhead's pale cheeks. "I'm sorry." She fell to her knees. "I'm sorry I couldn't save you. I tried. Damn it!" She threw April's head across the lobby. "What am I supposed to do now Tara? LA's a big city. I don't know it like I did Sunnydale. How am I supposed to find you?"
April's eyes popped open. "Perhaps I could be of assistance?"
Willow glared at the robot's disembodied head. "Shut up! Didn't I kill you already?"
"My functions have been hampered. They have not ceased entirely."
"I can fix that." Willow glanced at the door. "Do you know what's going on?"
"I know many things. Could you elaborate your inquiry?"
Willow frowned. "Do you know why those...people, have taken Tara?"
After a moment, when the robot did not elaborate, Willow growled. "Tell me!"
"Because, she is on the list."
"My boss calls it his shopping list. Clients come to my boss with orders, and my boss uses this list to fill those orders. In this case a witch of your Tara's approximate age and skill was desired. When it was determined that the operatives in this establishment had acquired such a subject I was dispatched to retrieve her."
"I knew there was something wrong with this place. It's a damn meat market! That little bitch Wini is dead when I get ahold of her. Her hubby too. And that demon..." Willow snarled. "Hey. This boss of yours. You know who he is, right? Do you know where he is?"
"Of course. How else could I take the witch back to him?"
"Take me to him!"
Willow frowned. "Why not?"
"I am too badly damaged."
"Are you playing games with me, tinkertoy? 'cause if you are..." Willow bent down and picked up April's head. "I don't think you're going to like the one I have in mind next."
"I assure you, I do not intend any deception. The command you gave was for me to take you to my boss. While I am willing to do so, since I have no programming to the contrary, I cannot 'take' you to my boss because in order for me to do so would require use of my body. Which is no longer functional."
Willow stared at the robot for a moment, trying to decide if she was being funny or evasive. Then, it occurred to her what exactly April was misinterpreting. She shook her head. "No, you don't have to carry me there. I just want to find this boss of yours so I can rescue Tara. I want you to show me how to find him."
"Oh. You wish my guidance?"
"That's it exactly."
"Ah. Then yes. I will assist you. Having fulfilled, however indirectly, the assignment I was sent here to perform, my programming requires I now return to my boss. Seeing as I am unable to do so under my own power, it would be necessary for me to seek alternate means of transportation. You will suffice."
Willow smirked. "The wonders of technology."
Tara woke to a pounding headache and a raw, sore throat that made it somewhat painful to breath. She sat up and tried to look around, but it was too dark to see anything.
Instead she thought about what happened at the Hyperion. Wini, Wesley, and the demon Lorne had stood by and watched as that woman, April, attacked her. She'd tried to defended herself with magic, but April didn't even slow down before grabbing her by the throat. Now she was really confused.
"Goddess. What's going on?"
Something moved in the darkness next to her. She heard heavy breathing, and a loud hiss.
Tara blinked. The voice was feminine, but raspy. "I'm sorry, what?"
"You ssspoke of a goddesssss. I wasss jussst wondering which one?"
"I only know one. In my religion."
"Are you human?"
Tara nodded, though it occurred to her that whoever she was talking to probably couldn't see her. "Yes." Then the other's words crystallized in her mind. "You're, umm, not?"
She could hear further movement to her right and then a pair of wide, slitted golden eyes opened. They were so bright they practically glowed. "No."
Tara trembled. "Oh." She wasn't sure what to do or say next.
"I am." A young, frightened woman's voice, coming from her left. "Human, I mean. I'm Dawn."
"Hi. I'm Tara."
The golden-eyed being blinked. "I am Sssaritha."
"What's going on?" Tara asked. "Do either of you know what we're doing here?" "No," said Dawn. "I-I was at a club. I met this couple, they invited me back to their place. When I refused one of them injected me with something. Next thing I know I'm waking up here."
Tara nodded, and then turned in Saritha's direction. "And you?"
"I wasss hunting. Thisss demon I'd never ssseen before attacked me. I fought him but he sssurprisssed me, and I was ssstruck from behind. Now, I am in a cage."
Tara frowned. "A cage?" She felt around in the dark. Sure enough there were metal bars on all sides of her and a metal plate on top and beneath. "Oh."
"What of you?" Saritha asked. "How did you come to be here?"
Tara told them about Wini, Wesley and what had happened at the Hyperion.
"They don't sound like the couple who grabbed me," said Dawn.
"But this demon you dessscribed, the one called Lorne, could be the sssame one I fought. Green ssskin and red hornsss, yesss. That sssoundsss right." Saritha snarled. "I have heard both of your ssstoriesss before. Many of the othersss sssaid they sssuffered sssimilarly."
"Others?" Tara asked. "There are other girls here?"
"Not anymore. We are the lassst. They come every ssso often and take one or more away."
Dawn sobbed. "So we're next?"
"It would ssseem that way. I am unable to break thessse bars."
"How long have you two been here?" Tara asked.
"Three days," Dawn replied. "I just want to go home. Why is this happening?"
"Calm yourssself child! Panic doesss no one any good." The eyes turned to Tara. "I have been here for almossst a week now. And before you asssk, yesss. I have tried to essscape."
"Do you know who's behind this?" Tara asked. "Or what they want with us?"
"No. I ssseee them only when they are bringing in or removing another girl. It'sss alwaysss the sssame man. His fassse never shows emotion. He never ssspeaksss, and will not anssswer any quessstionsss."
"They don't feed you?" Tara asked.
"Not ssso far. Normally, that would not be a problem, as my people can go ssseveral monthssss without food if need be. But I was already fasssting prior to the hunt. Sssoon I may not be able to control it any longer, and I will be forced to kill any warm body I can find."
Tara and Dawn both took a deep breath, and hoped she didn't mean them.
"I've been too scared to be hungry," said Dawn. "But now that you mention it, I'm starving."
Tara lay her head against the bars and sighed. "Willow." She whispered. "Help me, love. Please."
Willow was becoming very frustrated, to say the least, with April.
The robot's speech patterns were less stilted, but she still acted like a machine and took everything literally. So Willow had to constantly remind herself to ask her questions directly the first time, or else it would take several tries for her to get the answers she wanted.
Another complication was that she knew she couldn't walk around in broad daylight with a talking woman's head without drawing unwanted attention to herself. So she found a bag, and put April in it. As a result she was not able to see where Willow was going, which made it difficult to direct her.
After ending up a dead-end alley, for the third time, Willow finally lost her temper. She pulled April's head out of the bag and threw her against the nearest wall, then caught her on the rebound and growled in her face. "Listen, tin-lady! Do you think we're playing games here? Where is Tara?!"
"I assure you, I am not attempting to mislead you. I have no direction sense without my body. If only you would carry me in a manner which would allow me to view our surroundings I would be able to get the both of us to our mutual destination with maximum haste and minimal agitation."
Willow glared at April for a moment, gnashing her teeth. "Fine! But one more wrong turn, and I'll just finish the job and take my chances looking for Tara on my own!"
"I understand." April smiled as Willow tucked her into the crook of her arm, so she could see without too many people seeing her. Her bright eyes scanned a restaurant. "That address. I have reoriented myself. Return to street, and turn left. You will then need to go two point four blocks..."
Willow followed the robot's instructions, much clearer this time. She ignored the occasional pointed finger or whisper, but snarled angrily when someone stepped in her way.
An overweight, unevenly tanned balding man in shorts, with an obviously expensive camera around his neck. He bent down to get a closer look at April, who blinked. "What the hell is that?"
Willow considered where they were and what LA was known for. "A prop, for a movie. Like it?"
"It's creepy." He took a picture and smiled. "Cool."
April pouted as he wobbled away. "Is that true? Am I creepy?"
"You're a disembodied head that talks," said Willow. "Of course you're creepy."
April's brow furrowed. "But you are a vampire. An animated corpse. Is that not creepy?"
"Sure. But we weren't talking about me." Willow sneered. "Now get on with it. Where to now?"
"Wait. According to my ocular sensors, it is daylight."
"You are a vampire. Why then have you not spontaneously combusted?"
Willow growled. "Shut up!"
"Very well. Around this next corner and to the right, and we will be within sight of our destination."
Willow looked. At the end of the block was an innocuous, five-story warehouse, with a very large satellite dish on top. She frowned. "That's it? That's where your boss lives?"
"Yes. He chose it for its anonymity. The primitive exterior belies the advancement of the interior."
Willow couldn't see any guards. It didn't even have a chain link fence. "What about security? Is this guy can do a robot like you, he must have protection of some kind set up."
April remained silent.
"What? Lost your voice all the sudden?"
"No. My programming will not allow me to violate the nature of the security system. That is one of my primary functions. I can give you no further information."
Willow nodded. "Then I guess I don't need you anymore."
"Does this mean you are now planning to cease my operations?"
Again, Willow nodded. "You tried to kill me. You helped those creeps kidnap my girlfriend. I can't just stand by and let you get away with that." She applied pressure to both sides of April's head.
The robot winced as her skull caved in, then her eyeballs sank into their sockets and sparks flew out of her ears and mouth. Flames engulfed her head, melting the flesh away to reveal a sleek metal endoskeleton. Willow threw the smoldering mass into a trash can and wiped her hands on her pants.
"Help me, love. Please."
Willow jerked her head up and looked around. That was Tara's voice, only it was in her mind. Magic. Tara could make their minds touch if she really tried. But it was no simple casting. It took an awful lot of concentration, and Willow could not feel her presence like she normally did. Which meant Tara probably wasn't really trying to call out to her, and likely didn't even realize she'd done it.
"I'm coming, baby. Just hang on." The redhead leaped several feet straight up, to grab on to the bottom rung of a ladder. She ascended the fire-escape in no time flat, darted across the rooftop, and without a moments hesitation flung herself across the gap between one building and the next.
Tara held her hand out and a floating ball of light formed just above her palm. It grew brighter still until she was able to see the metal bars of her cage. There was no visible lock, and she couldn't even tell how it opened. Which meant using magic to free herself more difficult. She counted seventeen other cages in the room, but all of them were empty except one on either side of her.
To the left sat a trembling brunette, about fifteen or sixteen years old. She was wearing blue jeans and a red top that was several sizes too small for her ample chest.
"Dawn?" The girl nodded, but said nothing. "It's okay. We'll find a way out of this." Tara then looked to her right, and her eyes widened. "Saritha?"
A long, lithe creature with bronze-colored scales, the demoness had the lower body of a snake and the torso of a female humanoid. Her mouth flickered into a fang-baring smile. "Yesss."
"I-It's good to m-meet you both," said Tara. After everything she had been through recently she wasn't scared of Saritha's appearance, though it did startle her somewhat. "Now, umm, first thing's first." She dropped her hand but the light continued to float. "Can either of you see any kind of lock on these cages?"
"Why?" Saritha asked.
"If I can figure out how they open, I may be able to magic my way out and then free you both."
The demoness shook her head. "You are wasssting your time. They open from the top. But I have heard beeping whenever they bring in sssomeone new or take sssomeone out. The locksss are electronic, and even if you could sssee them your magic would be of little ussse."
Tara sighed. "Damn."
"It was a nice thought," said Dawn. She stared at them for a moment.
Saritha hissed. "What is it?"
"I don't understand why I'm here. I can understand someone wanting a witch, or a...whatever you are. But I'm just a girl. I'm a sixteen year old high school student, who didn't do anything to anyone. Why would these people want to put me in a cage?" Dawn started to cry again. "Why is this happening?"
"Look, Dawn, I know you're scared. I am too. But panicking won't get us anywhere. We're going to have to work together if we want to get out of this." Tara smiled. "Okay?"
The teenager wiped her eyes and nodded. "Okay."
"You have a way with wordsss," said Saritha. "But do you actually have a plan?"
Tara shook her head. "Didn't you hear what I said to Dawn? It's not just me. We have to come up with a plan. All three of us. Can you handle that? Can you be a team player?"
"It isss not in my nature," the demoness replied. "For the sssake of our freedom though, I will try."
Dawn grabbed the bars and leaned closer. "So what do you want us to do?"
"Let's examine the room," said Tara. "Maybe there's something here that can help us. A ring of keys. A phone. A crowbar. Something. Everybody look around."
"By the way, who's Willow?" Dawn asked. She was looking, and talking at the same time.
"I heard you mention Willow a little while ago. Is she your girlfriend?"
Tara nodded. "Yes."
"Do you think she knows you're missing? Would she call the police?"
"I'm sure she knows, and is out searching for me right now. But no, Willow would never go to the police. She is the type who likes to do this sort of thing on her own."
"Then I would not asssume ssshe isss of any ussse to usss," said Saritha. "If the people who keep usss here were ssstrong enough to capture me, your mate would have no chanccce at all."
Tara smiled. "Oh, you'd be surprised."
Willow stood on the edge of a rooftop, overlooking the top of the warehouse.
It had no roof access, merely a skylight. On the plus side, that meant she was not likely to encounter any guards until she got down into the building itself, and by then she would have a better idea of the buildings layout and its security. So with a snarl she leaped off the roof and sailed across the void, did a flip in mid-air, and landed on the roof of the warehouse in a crouch, her body tensed like a steel coil.
"This is almost too easy." Willow walked over to the skylight and looked down into a fancy office. Behind a big wooden desk was a bank of video monitors, though she could not tell what was on them. There was no one sitting at the desk itself, but she wasn't able to see the rest of the room. She considered using caution, and subtlety, then decided against it and plunged right down through the skylight instead.
Shards of wood and glass rained around the vampire as she landed in the office, ready for a fight. To her dismay it was empty, there was no sign or Tara or whoever had abducted her. She growled. It was quiet. A little too quiet, to echo the cliche. No alarms. No guards rushing in with guns drawn. It made no sense, and she didn't like it when things made no sense. That usually meant trouble.
Then Willow heard a voice. A lovely, familiar voice. She turned to face the bank of video monitors. On one she saw Tara sitting in a metal cage between a girl she didn't know and a demon. "Baby!" She leaped over the desk and neared the monitor so she could hear what the blonde was saying.
"I'm sure she knows, and is out searching for me right now. But no, Willow would never go to the police. She is the type who likes to do this sort of thing on her own."
The vampire nodded. "And I'm close, baby. I'll find you soon." She turned away from the monitors. It was a good sized building and there was no telling where the room on the monitor actually was. Her best chance would be to find someone--a guard, or better yet April's boss--and force them to show her the way. For a moment she almost regretted crushing the robot's head, then she remembered how much April annoyed her and decided her guidance would not have been worth the additional frustration. "I promise."
"You shouldn't make promises you can't keep."
Willow snarled. The man's voice was coming from somewhere above her. A speaker in the ceiling. She glanced over her shoulder at the monitors. One showed her, looking over her shoulder. So he had cameras too. Wherever he was, he was probably watching her every move. "Where is Tara?"
"Don't play games with me, or..."
"Or nothing. Do you honestly believe you have any leverage? This is my home. You're in my world, leech. I call the shots here. You're just an unwelcome intruder."
Willow's face turned demonic. "Enough games! Let's get on with this!"
"Have it your way."
The office door opened and a man entered. He was average, in height and build, with unremarkable features and slicked-back brown hair. He was dressed all in black, including sunglasses.
"Let me guess," said Willow. "You're the big boss?"
"Something like that." He strode confidently into the room.
"Where's Tara?" Willow moved toward him, gauging his movements and watching for an attack.
"Who? Oh, the blonde. She's downstairs. In the basement. When we're done here, maybe I'll pay her a visit." His smile sent chills down her spine. "Bet she's a screamer."
Growling, it was Willow who attacked. She lunged at the man, hoping to catch him off-guard. One fist balled up to punch him square in the face. Such a blow could have dented concrete.
Except he caught her hand in his, his arm easily absorbing the impact without moving. He smiled. "Not bad." He punched her with the other hand. The blow broke something in her face and sent her flying across the room. "Not good enough though." She crashed into the bank of monitors and was swallowed by sparks. "Come on. I know you can take more than that, little leech."
Willow burst out of the electrical shower, her clothes smoldering. "I should have known."
He cocked his head. "Known what?"
"You're another damn robot, aren't you?"
"What gave me away?"
Willow cracked her nose to set the broken bones and licked the blood from her lips. "Those jackhammer blows of yours. You're even stronger than the girl."
"By the way. I take your presence here to mean poor little April won't be rejoining my team?"
The redhead nodded. "She's been deactivated. Permanently."
"A pity. I liked that design. Oh well. I can always build another one. Or six."
Willow noticed the robot's mouth wasn't moving. She'd been conversing with the man's voice from that speaker overhead the whole time and only now realized it. "Hey! What are you, scared? Why don't you come out and face me yourself, instead of sending your tinker-toys to do your dirty work?"
"Because I prefer not to soil my hands, thank you very much."
One of Willow's eyes were starting to swell shut, and though her nose had stopped hurting the split lip was still bleeding. She ignored it all. Her pain wasn't important. Finding Tara was. But if she kept this up, sooner or later it was likely the robot would manage to kill her, and that would mean she had have failed Tara. She could only think of one way to get around her problem. "Coward. Fine! I beat one of your robots already. Beating another this one can't possibly be that much harder."
She charged the mechanical man, who punched her again--only this time with enough force to almost crack her ribs as it sunk into her chest. She slumped forward, groaning, and he finished it by driving an elbow down into the vampire's skull. The blow drove her face into the carpet, and she lay still.
When Tara's light dwindled out she asked Saritha and Dawn if they wanted her to cast it again. They said not for a while, as they both wanted to try and get some sleep. She complied with their request, but since she wasn't tired she went back to running her hands across the roof of her cage.
One area was noticeably warmer than the others. She guessed that was where the locking mechanism was, but it didn't really mattter since she couldn't think of any way to magic open an electronic lock. Electricity might work to short the system out, but that was a more powerful spell than she was prepared to try, especially since she was stting in a cage made of an electrically conductive substance.
Tara sighed. While she wasn't usually one to give up easily, the situation seemed hopeless. If someone came in she might be able to cast a spell of some sort on them directly, but otherwise under the circumstances her magic was about as useful as--and all at once her train of thought was derailed, by the overhead lights being turned on. It momentarily blinded her, and from the hissing she guessed it had woken Saritha too.
The cage room door opened and black-clad, dark-haired man strode in. "Afternoon ladies. Got a new roommate for you." He was dragging a redheaded woman behind him. "A shame she's not better company, but I guess getting beaten down kind of takes the fun out of a person." He tapped something into the keypad on the cage across from them and the top unlatched, then he tossed her inside and slammed the lid closed.
Dawn grabbed desperately at his hand as he walked by. "Wait! Let me go. I'll do anything you want. I swear. Just let me out of here, please."
"Sorry kid. That's not my department. But I'll be sure to rely your offer to the boss." He shrugged her hand away and walked out of the room, leaving the lights on for a change.
Tara leaned closer to the bars. "Willow?" The redhead wasn't moving. "Goddess, Willow!"
"It isss too late for her," said Saritha. "Ssshe hasss no heartbeat. Ssshe isss dead."
Willow's eyes popped open. "So what else is new?" She sat up. "I've been dead for a long time."
"A vampire?" Saritha asked. "I ssshould have recognizzzed the ssscent."
"Your girlfriend's a vampire?" said Dawn. "That must make necking a bitch."
Tara smiled. "Are you all right?"
"Not really." Willow's face was swollen and bloody. "But I'll heal. What about you? Did they hurt you?"
"I'm okay. I've been in good company." Tara held out her hands. "Will, meet Saritha and Dawn. Ladies, this is my girlfriend, Willow."
Dawn waved. "Hi."
"Ssshe isss the one who you sssaid could sssave usss? Ssshe isss asss trapped asss usss now."
"I needed to find Tara," said Willow. "And this was the fastest way."
Tara frowned. "You let yourself get captured?"
"I figured whoever was behind all this would put me with you. Guess I figured right."
"Thisss vampire isss insssane," said Saritha. "How do you propossse to help your mate now? You cannot get out of your cage anymore than we can ours. What good hasss finding her done either of you?"
Willow smiled and reached into her boot to pull out a small leather pouch. "I brought this. In case you needed a little magical assist." She tossed the pouch to Tara, who found inside it several glass vials full of colored powder and one of a clear liquid. "Anything useful there?"
The blonde read the labels on the vials, and recognized them from the Magic Box. Each substance by itself was nothing special--one created a bright but harmless flash of light, one caused uncontrollable itching when it came in contact with the skin, and the third gave off a low level heat when poured in water--but if mixed together right, and in conjunction with the proper spell, it could be just what they needed.
Tara smiled. "I think so." She poured the contents of three of the vials into the pouch and tied it off. "Here." She tossed it to Willow. "Take this too." She tossed the redhead the vial of clear liquid. "When I tell you to, douse the pouch and then put it on top of the cage. But be careful. That's holy water."
Willow snarled. "What are you up to?"
"I haven't been able to open any of our cages open because I can't see their locks. I can see yours, but my magic isn't much use against technology." Tara folded her legs under her and put her hands in her lap. "This should work, but you might want to get as far away from the lock as you can."
"Are you going to do what I think you're going to do?" Willow asked.
Tara smiled. "Probably." She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and began a chant. After a few minutes Saritha and Dawn both felt the air around her start to warm, and crackle with electricty. "Now!"
Willow poured the holy water onto the pouch. She hissed angrily as some of it splashed on her hand and caused her skin to sizzle, but she nonetheless finished her task. She then slid her arm between the bars and threw it on to the top of the cage. "How's that?"
"It isss not clossse enough," said Saritha. "If ssshe isss indeed doing what I now think ssshe isss." The demoness opened her mouth and shot out a thick, forked tongue which struck the side of the bubbling, smoldering pouch. It slid a few inches further, to actually touch the electronic lock. She recoiled her tongue.
Dawn shook her head. "Doesn't that hurt?"
"Yesss," said Saritha. Her brow furrowed as Tara grew silent. "I jussst hope it wasss worth it."
The blonde's eyes flew open, her pupils glowing. "Carbo Flagrare Nunc!"
Willow curled up into as tight a ball as possible, in the far corner of the cage. She wrapped her arms around her head and closed her eyes as the sizzling pouch swelled up like a balloon and exploded. Everyone in the room was struck by at least some of the hot water, though not enough to do any real damage to anyone except the readhead. Given her position the vampire got the least of it, yet had burns on her arms.
Tara, seeing this, winced. "Sorry. I didn't think..."
"Don't worry about it," said Willow. "I'll live." She smirked. "Figuratively speaking, of course."
"Did it work?" Dawn asked. "Can you get out now?"
Willow checked, by experimentally pushing the top of the cage. When it moved freely she shoved it the rest of way open. "Looks like it." Though she was obviously in a great deal of pain, she climbed out and staggered toward the blonde's cage. "What do I do now?"
"Sssmasssh it," said Saritha. "Dessstroy the lock. It ssshould open automatically."
Tara nodded. "She's right. It worked with yours. Go ahead and try."
"Okay." Willow crushed the electronic lock. It sparked and then something in Tara's cage clicked. From there it was a simple matter of opening the top and helping Tara out. They embraced.
Dawn's cheeks flushed as she watched them kiss. Then she cleared her throat. "Umm, I hate to interrupt, but can you please get us the hell out of here?"
"Yesss." Saritha's scaly body was anxiously shifting back and forth. "Pleassse."
Willow broke open their cages as well. Tara helped Dawn out, while Saritha's body uncoiled and shot her out of the cage all on her own. She spread her arms and took a deep breath. "Ahh, sssweet freedom. It hasss been far too long." Her golden eyes glinted as she turned to Willow. "My thanksss, vampire."
The vampire put an arm around Tara. "I didn't exactly do it for you. But you're welcome."
"Can we go now?" Dawn asked. "Please? I really just want to go home."
Willow insisted on taking the lead as they left the cage room, but since she was having a hard time walking they convinced her to stay with Tara while Saritha went first. Dawn, being the youngest and most vulnerable, walked in the middle. She had her arms wrapped around herself and was trembling.
"Do you know where you're going?"
"I can sssmell tracesss of humansss thisss way." Saritha slithered around a corner, and when they caught up they discovered her standing in front of an elevator. "I think thisss isss the way."
"Well done," said Tara. "Dawn. Push that button, will you?" There was only one, and it went up. "I guess we must have been down in the basement or something."
Dawn reached around Saritha and pushed the button. It lit up. "Where is everybody?"
"The kid's right." said Willow. "This is way too easy. I saw security monitors in that office on the top floor. The guy who runs this place has every room wired. He should know every move we make."
There was a chime, and the elevator doors slid open. Dawn turned to go in, and a black-gloved hand reached out and clamped over her face. She let out a muffled scream as the dark-haired man who had brought Willow into the cage room easily lifted her off her feet with one hand. "You're right Red. He does. Now, all three of you come in here nice and slow. No sudden moves or I snap her neck like a twig."
Willow snarled. "He will too. He's stronger than he looks."
"I would asssume ssso," said Saritha. "From hisss ssscent, I would peg him asss a robot."
"Just like April." Willow realized Tara was gaping at her. "You didn't know?"
The blonde shook her head. "No. But it explains a lot. Like why my magic didn't have any effect on her."
"Enough talk!" He stepped back into the elevator. Dawn hung limply in his hand. She had apparently decided not to fight him, as if she could. "Get in here." They did as he ordered. Both Willow and Saritha snarled at him, but he was clearly neither impressed or intimidated. He did smile slightly as the elevator started to rise. "You should be honored. Very few people ever get a chance to see meet the boss in person."
"Remind me to bite hisss head off," said Saritha. "It isss how my people sssay thank you."
The elevator stopped on the fifth floor and the doors hissed open. The robot motioned for Saritha to go first. A nod to Willow and Tara indicated it was their turn next. He followed, after putting Dawn down so she could walk on her own. They were now in the office where he and Willow had fought earlier. To the redhead's surprise it had been almost entirely rebuilt--a brand new skylight, no glass or other debris on the immaculately clean carpet and desk, even the video monitors had been replaced. Yet it had only been an hour or so.
"Impressive, isn't it?" A man was sitting in the huge plush chair behind the desk. He was flanked by Lorne on his left, and Wini and Wesley on the right. "I know some great contractors." He looked exactly like the robot, except that he was not so well dressed--jeans and a TREK RULES shirt--and his brown hair was all unkempt. "They work for nothing and never complain. Right, C-W?"
"Yes sir," said the robot.
Willow growled. "Who the hell are you, little man?"
"I'll give you the MTV news version. My name's Warren. I'm a procurer. When someone needs a special kind of woman, for sacrifices or rituals or whatever, they come to me. The tougher or more unique their order, the more I charge. It's as simple as that, and it's why three of you are here."
Warren laced his fingers together and nodded. "You were an unexpected bonus. True, vampires are pretty much a dime a dozen, but I'm sure I can find someone willing to pay good money to watch you turned to dust if nothing else." He smiled. "In case you're wondering, I've been monitoring your great escape. I'm impressed. I wondered if the witch's power would be enough to get you out. I'm so pleased my associates brought her to my attention." His laptop beeped, and he tapped something on the keyboard. "Uh oh. C-W? Looks like that man in Boston is backing out on our arrangement. He doesn't want a fifteen year old virgin after all."
"You want me to take care of it, boss?"
"Go right ahead." The robot grabbed Dawn, who screamed, and before Willow or Saritha could even make a move in his direction he jerked her head around until the force snapped her neck. She gurgled and shuddered one last time and then fell to the ground, still twitching, at his feet. He smirked.
Tara paled. She put a hand to her mouth as she fought the urge to retch. "Goddess."
Now Willow and Saritha did move. Both came at the robot from different directions, but if he was concerned it certainly didn't show on his face. He just stood there, watching.
Warren gestured. "Wesley."
The bespectacled man on his right drew a large, strange-looking rifle from behind his back and fired twice. Red darts shot out; one striking Willow in the chest and the other Saritha's neck. Both demons stopped in their tracks and stood there, unable to move anything but their eyes.
"Confused?" Warren asked. "Allow me to explain. That's a paralytic agent my associate designed. It's tailored to work on nonhuman phsyiologies. Demons and the like. If we were to use it on a human it would cause...well, let's just say they'd be begging for death before it was all said and done." He smiled. "Oh, but don't worry. It'll wear off in a few minutes. Plenty of time." Again, he gestured. "You're up, Wini."
Wesley's wife nodded and kneeled down to open the small case at her feet. From inside she took out two silver metal pins in the shape of W's. She pressed one to Willow's forehead, and the vampire hissed as she felt the back heating up to bond itself to her skin. The same thing happened to Saritha.
Tara started toward the woman, only to have C-W step in her way. She backed away. If he really was a robot she would have to rethink her magical strategy. Most of the spells she would normally consider using--to confuse or distract--probably wouldn't work well, if at all, on an automaton. The fact he was a machine though, led her to the idea of using some sort of electrical attack. Only without the power of the Key she couldn't simply throw around lightning bolts anymore. She'd have to think of another way.
"Those are neural inhibitors," said Warren. "Wini designed the basic circuitry, but I put them into productivity. I like to use them on my more...aggressive guests." He held up a small remote control. "On the lowest setting they simply resrict your physical movements and quelch any violent tendencies that might come up." He smirked. "On the other end of the scale they can instantaneously and totally override your own nuerological impulses. In other words, I can make you do what whatever he want." He pushed a button, and both Willow and Saritha felt white-hot knives of pain shoot down their spines. "There. All set."
"Why in Gaia's name are you doing this?" Tara asked. "For money? Is that it?"
Warren shook his head. "No, no. For a lot of money. Do you have any idea how much a docile Vyperian demon, or a witch of your level, are worth on the open market? The sale of you two alone will more than make up for any losses I've accrued the last few days, including repairing the office and that worthless April 'bot. Honestly I don't know why I bothered keeping her in service so long." He nodded at Willow. "By the way I wanted to thank you for saving me the time and trouble of finishing her off myself. She was the first 'bot I ever designed, but I abandoned the whole production line once I realized she had serious flaws in her logic program. Since you made it here, and this is supposed to be a secret location, I'm guessing you took advantage of one of the loopholes. Good thing she was the last one. Oh well. C-W's a much better model, aren't you?"
Warren then cleared his throat and spoke into a microphone on the back of the remote. "Vyperian. Do you hear me?" Saritha nodded. "Good. By now you must be getting awfully hungry." Again, she nodded. "If you want, you're welcome to feast on, well...let's say the girl. There's nothing wrong with carrion."
Saritha slithered forward and grabbed one of Dawn's arms.
"Vampire," said Warren. "Why don't you join her?"
Willow kneeled beside Dawn and jerked her head back to expose her throat.
"No!" Tara tried to get to the girl, but C-W again got in her way. "Don't!" She turned away and closed her eyes as they sank their fangs into Dawn's lifeless, but still warm, flesh.
By the time they were finished, half of Dawn's body looked deflated from blood loss, and the other half was all but stripped of flesh and muscle. Warren waited until the demons had had their fill before he called them off and had C-W direct them into a corner, then turned to Tara.
The blonde was pale, her eyes red from having been crying, and queasy. She had already thrown up once, though Warren got Lorne to clean it up. When she realized Warren was staring at her with hunger in his eyes she felt the urge to vomit all over again. "You are sick. You're worse than any monster."
"Oh? And why is that?"
Tara nodded at Willow and Saritha. "They don't have any choice. They are what they are. But you...you're human. More or less. You made the conscious decision to be this way. And not only that, you get a kick out of it. What's wrong with you? Do you really hate women this much?"
Warren smirked. It was all he seemed to do. "Yes." He stood up. "Well that's not entirely true. I'll admit, there's one thing I do enjoy women for. But after it's over I realize none of them are really worth it. Which is why I built April in the first place. She never whined or complained, or demanded satisfaction."
"Which I doubt you could give her anyway." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Tara knew they were a mistake. Warren was, at best, a misogynist. At worst he was a psychopath. Either way he wouldn't respond well to a woman talking like that. She took a deep breath as he slowly approached her.
"You've got a real mouth on you, witch. Lucky for me, the sorcerer I'm selling you to just wanted you alive. His specifications didn't say anything about your being intact." He grabbed her arm. "We'll see how loud you are after I have C-W rip your tongue out."
Tara shuddered. He wasn't kidding, she could tell by his aura. "Why don't you do it?"
"I-I misspoke before." Tara was getting very nervous. One wrong word and he would probably go from torturing her to killing her, without breaking a sweat. "Y-You are...a m-man." She stopped and took a deep breath to get her stutter under control. "If someone's going to rip my tongue out, I want it to be you."
Warren stroked her hair. "Is that right?"
"Sure." Tara closed her eyes as he leaned closer. She had an idea, but it would require concentration and perfect timing, neither of which she was likely to get if he was pawing her.
"I think you're full of crap."
Tara blinked. "What?"
"You're trying to trick me, aren't you?" Warren stepped back. "Manipulate me, like all those other bitches. I can hear it in your voice. You're hoping to...what? Distract me until your girlfriend wakes up? Face it, goldilocks. It's not going to happen!" He took out the remote and waved it in her face. "As long as I've got this, your vampire will only be listening to one voice. Mine!"
"I know," said Tara. She held out her hand. "Venire Ad Ego!"
Warren gasped as the remote flew out of his hand and into Tara's. "What? No! C-W!"
Tara flicked the off switch. "I don't think so."
C-W barely got two steps before Willow grabbed his left arm, and Saritha grabbed his right. He sneered. "What do you think you're doing? Let me go!"
"Sssay, vampire." Saritha looked at Willow. "Wanna make a wisssh?"
Willow smiled and jerked C-W's arm up behind his back to twist his shoulder in an impossible angle as she was pulling. Saritha did the same, only in the opposite direction with the other arm. The robot's body, not designed to be moved in such a manner, cracked. Sparks came flying out of his shoulders as his arms were torn off. He didn't make a sound, though his face was contorted in what looked like pain.
Warren's face fell. "No! C-W!"
"Give me that!" Warren grabbed for the remote.
Tara stopped laughing and slapped him across the face.
"Bitch!" He slapped her to the ground, and the remote went sliding across the floor.
Roaring like a wild beast, Willow came charging across the room at Warren. As she got her hands on his throat her body jerked and she suddenly stopped in her tracks. He pulled away, gasping for air.
Tara turned her head. Wini had picked up the remote and reactivated it. She shrugged her shoulders. "Sorry. We have too much invested in this to let it get trashed."
Wesley put his arm around his wife. "Those are the breaks."
"That'sss a good idea." Saritha rose behind the couple. "Let'sss ssstart with you." She grabbed Wesley's head and broke his neck, then slapped the remote out of Wini's. "Now you."
Warren heard hissing and turned, just as Willow slapped him hard enough to knock him off his feet. It was only then he noticed that neither the vampire or the demoness were wearing the inhibitors anymore. They'd apparently torn them off after Tara deactivated the control, and were just pretending. He laughed, though he didn't sound too happy. "I knew it! I was right! Human or not, you're all just manipulative bitches!"
"Screw this," said Lorne. "Warren, boobala, I love you and all. But I quit!" He ran out of the office.
Tara watched him go, nodding. "Smart guy." She heard Wini scream as Saritha sunk her fangs into the brunette's neck. "Don't, Saritha. Don't kill her. There's been too much blood already."
The demoness let Wini go. She crawled over to Wesley and sobbed over his body.
"What about him?" Willow asked, pointing at Warren.
Tara smiled. "Oh, I know just what to do with him. Trust me."
Warren screamed and slammed his fists against the bars of the cage Willow and Saritha had thrown him into. A still sobbing Wini lay curled in a fetal position in another.
"You bitches! Let me out of here! You can't do this to me! Let me out!"
"Are you sssure I can't kill him?" Saritha asked. "Would anyone here really mind?"
Willow shook her head. "I wouldn't. Maybe that's just me."
"I know how you both feel," said Tara. "I mean, just think about poor Dawn." Both demons were crestfallen over what they had done to the girl's body. She assured them it wasn't their fault, that they were being influenced by an outside force, but that did little to appease their guilt. "That's why I want to do this. No offense, but this spell will make him suffer a lot more than anything you guys could dream of. The penance malediction is very old and very dangerous even when it's done correctly. Normally I wouldn't try it. But these are special circumstances, and I've never been quite so anxious to perform any magic before."
"What doesss it do again?" Saritha asked. "I am ssstill not sssure I underssstand."
Tara sighed. Trying to explain such a spell to two people who knew nothing about magic was no easy task. Even an experienced witch might have a hard time understanding it. The penance malediction was one of the spells she learned about from Amy, though the other witch warned her never to cast it unless she was absolutely certain she was prepared to accept the potential consequences.
"Basically, it digs into the depths of the victim's psyche and roots out their deepest, darkest fears. In this case, I am tailoring it to call upon the spirits of all the women Warren has hurt. He'll see their faces, hear their screams, feel their blood all over him, and all at once. Over and over again. By the time the police get here to pick him and Wini up he'll probably be out of his mind. But I don't have a problem with that."
Willow put an arm around her girlfriend and smiled. "Me neither."
"Okay. Here goes." Tara clasped her hands above her and began to chant.
Neither Willow nor Saritha recognized the language. They watched and waited.
Warren's eyes widened. "Hey. Hey! What are you doing?" He grabbed his head. "Stop it!" He screamed. "Stop! It hurts! It's too much!" Tears flowed down his face. "No! Stop it! Make them stop!"
Smoky, etheral figures appeared, and swirled in tight circles around Tara. They looked vaguely human, but were twisted, almost demonic mockeries of women. They moaned and wailed and cried, until as one they flowed away from Tara and entered Warren's cage. He shrieked and swatted at them, but his hands passed futiley through their insubstantial forms. "Stop it! God, please! Somebody, help me! Help me!"
Tara's eyes opened, and she backed away. "W-Wha...what's going on?"
"It's your spell, isn't it?" Willow asked.
"No." Tara paled. "It's not supposed to happen like this. I-I don't understand."
"I think I do," said Saritha. "You sssaid your ssspell called upon the ssspiritsss of hisss victimsss. Who knowsss how many he hasss done thisss to in the passt? Hundredsss...maybe thousssandsss."
Tara gasped. "Oh Goddess. You're right. They're seeking revenge. Oh Goddess. What have I done?"
Warren finally stopped screaming, as he fell over on his side, mouth wide open and drooling. Blood seeped out of his eyes, nose and ears. His body convulsed a few more times and then was still, though they could see he was still breathing. His wide-open eyes were glassy, his breathing shallow.
One by one the spirits floated past Tara.
She could feel their warmth as they were released into eternity.
"You're welcome." Tara sighed. She felt exhausted, light-headed, and somehow deeply satisfied as she fell back into Willow's waiting arms. "Oh. Guess this means we win."
When Tara awoke she was confused, particularly because she didn't recall going to sleep to begin with. The last thing she did remember was talking to Willow in that warehouse basement, and now she was...where? She opened her eyes, surprised to find herself laying on a couch in the Hyperion lobby.
"Willow?" She sat up and looked around. "Where are you? Willow?"
The redhead rose from behind the counter, holding a book. "Take it easy. I'm right here."
"Sorry." Tara stood up. "I guess I've got abandonment issues." She approached the counter. "Did you carry me all the way back here?"
"Of course. You aren't that heavy." Willow rotated one of her shoulders and winced.
Tara playfully swatted at her. "But why here?" Of all the places in LA?"
"Because there really aren't that many places in LA for us. I'm a vampire. How many other hotels do you think I could walk around in with no reflection and a tendency to get all bumpy when I'm mad without having the cops or the government or somebody come crashing in on me?"
"Okay. I see your point."
"Besides, I've been looking into an investment opportunity we can't pass up." "What are you talking about?" Willow spread her arms. "This place. I found all of Wesley and Wini's official documents and records, and they have a clause in their contract which stipulates that if they forfeit on the lease a secondary source can step in and take over ownership. Since he's dead and she's probably going to be in jail for long time, I'm pretty sure they will be forfeiting on the lease this month. We can grab it."
"What, us? Run this place?"
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "Why not? It can't possibly be that hard. Wesley and Wini were thorough. They listed everything--the people who sell them their food and linen, all that official hotel stuff, it's on a computer in the office. So we'll have to work at it. We're fast learners."
"I admit, it is an intriguing idea," said Tara. "But even if we wanted to, we can't. We don't have anywhere near the kind of capitol that would be required. We're broke, remember?"
"An easy fix." Willow grabbed Warren's laptop, which was sitting on the counter, and turned it so Tara could the screen full of numbers and figures. "With this."
"What are you talking about?" "I'll admit, I don't remember a lot about computers since I died." Willow frowned. "But from what I've been able to piece together, Warren has been funneling money into a private account for Wini and Wesley. A lot of money for the last couple of years, probably payments for all the women they've helped him sell." She pushed the laptop closer to Tara. "Now can't you use this thing to grab the rest of Warren's money, and whatever he's given to them, and funnel it all into a separate, private account for our use only?"
Tara's eyes widened. "Umm, you do realize that's just a little bit illegal, don't you?"
"Of course I do. But so are kidnapping, murder, and probably a hundred other things we don't know about. Think of it as blood-money. Which we can put to good use."
"We'll use it to really make this place into what Wini and Wesley pretended it was. A safe haven, for human and demon alike. And you told me it's protected by a Sanctuary spell, right? So even if we are not here, no one will be able to hurt anyone else. And it's all because of their money. Don't you see?"
Tara nodded. "I do. You make a lot of sense."
Out of the corner of her eye Willow saw movement. It was Saritha slipping quietly out from the basement. "Do me a favor, would you? At least give it some thought before you say no, okay? Now, excuse me a second. There's a little something I need to take care of." She approached the demoness.
"It issss done, assss we agreed. I arranged it sssso Warren and the woman will bear the resssponsssibility. I had to burn Dawn'sss body to hide any sssign of our presssence. And I anonymousssly alerted the authoritiesss. They should have no trouble finding the proof their criminal jussstice sssyssstem requiresss."
Willow nodded. "Good. Thanks."
"It wasss the leassst I could do for you. I owe you and your mate an honor-debt. One I intend with every fiber of my being to fulfill, in time, regardless of the cossst." Saritha bowed, at least as could be expected from someone who had no waist to speak of, and slithered away in the opposite direction.
Willow went back to Tara. "Have you made up your mind yet?"
"Better." The blonde hit a final key, and smiled. "I just finished setting up an account for us. We won't be able to access it for a couple days for security purposes, but that's okay. I want to study this system anyway, and see how I can make the transfers without anyone at the bank getting suspicious."
"How much money are we talking about?"
Tara's eyes widened. "Whoa. Three point six million."
"Looks like the slavery business was good for them this year."
"That years over. It's our turn now." Willow smiled. "I say we go upstairs and celebrate."
Tara smiled. "Right behind you."
Back in Sunnydale, Willy the bartender was knocked across his own bar by a blow he never even saw coming. It left a big bruise down one side of his face.
"Okay, okay. I'll tell you. LA. I hear they've found a new home somewhere in LA."
"Then that's where I'll start."
Willy stood up, clutching his face. "Hey!" He watched the tall, muscular brunette in the tight black leather stop, but she did not turn around. "Who the hell are you, lady?"
After a moment she glanced over her shoulder and flashed him a smile. "Call me...Faith."
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