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 any of the other Alternate Alternatives stories you may want to wait on this one 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 5: Vendetta
By Kirk Baldridge
Most people would panic if faced with a seven foot tall gray-skinned creature that had bone-like projections jutting out from various spots on its massive body.
But then most people were not Tara Maclay.
The twenty-something year old was a witch. In the last six months or so she had seen and experienced a lot of things much stranger than a Kanos demon.
Tara smiled and waved as she passed the creature. "Evening, Makor."
"Miss Tara." The demon had a booming voice, and bowed his head slightly as he stomped out of the lobby.
For they were in the Hyperion. A hotel in Los Angeles, home to humans and demons alike. All were welcome, and even between mortal and immortal enemies the peace was kept by way of a sanctuary spell, which prevented any kind of violence within the hotel's premises.
Tara was one of the owners. She had been for about two months. It was proving to be a much more difficult and time-consuming task than she ever imagined.
A vampire walked up behind the blonde and grabbed her shoulders. "Hey lady. Mind if I bite you?"
"Please." Tara smiled. "Put me out of my misery."
Willow Rosenberg spun her lover around and kissed her. "No luck, huh?"
"Actually, I got the bills paid. But I'm still trying to find an entertainer for the lounge, and we need to take care of the linen service. I think we need some help, Will. A manager or something."
"Sounds reasonable. But there's that little problem of all the monsters. If this were Sunnydale it might not be a problem, but here? Where do we find someone who wouldn't be freaked out if something with eyes in the wrong place or too many arms walks in, you know?"
Tara nodded. "Yeah. I asked those witches in room 314, but they didn't know anyone."
"We'll figure something out, baby." Willow noticed a box on the counter. "Hey. Is that from Zoo's?"
"The mice? They were just delivered. What did you order mice for anyway?"
"Saritha," Willow replied. "She ran out."
Tara licked her lips. "Oh. Umm, is she going to...?" "You probably shouldn't finish that question," said Willow. She grabbed the box, its contents squeaking. "I'll be back in a few. We can watch that movie you like if you want."
Tara watched her lover take the mice down into the basement, shuddered, then turned to the front desk, gasping when she realized someone was standing there. "Oh. I didn't see you come in."
The curly-haired brunette in the long black dress nodded and smiled. "I get that alot." "Did you want a room?"
"A job, actually. I understand you are in the market for a manager?"
Tara nodded. "As a matter of fact. How did you know?"
"Let's just say I have...connections."
"Okay. Do you have any experience as a manager? Running a hotel isn't easy, believe me."
"I've been told I possess excellent organizational skills. Trust me, Ms. Maclay. I can do this job."
Tara's eyes narrowed. "How did you know my name?"
"It's nothing sinister, I assure you. I make it a point to know everything I can about my prospective employers. I am well aware, for example, that you're a witch and that the co-owner of this place, your girlfriend as a matter of fact, is a vampire."
"And this doesn't bother you? You're familiar with demons and magic?"
The woman's face turned veiny, and hideously demonic. "Very." Tara gasped as she changed back. "I'm sorry if I startled you. That's my real face. I wear this one around, shall we say, mixed company."
"Wow. Uhh, okay. We can try you on a trial basis. What kind of a salary did you have in mind?"
"Oh, I'm sure we'll be able to negotiate something."
Tara held out her hand, and the woman shook it. "Well then, welcome to the team, um..."
"Halfrek. My name is Halfrek, but everyone just calls me Hallie."
Elsewhere in the city, three figures gathered around a table under a single, bare bulb. On the table sat a stack of photographs. Shots of the front and back of the Hyperion as well of many of its occupants, including Willow and Tara, holding hands and even kissing in a few.
"Is that her?"
A steely-eyed young brunette woman in black leather nodded. "Yeah."
"Explain something to me then," said a tall, intense-looking young black man. "You say Red's a vamp? But I saw her out in the sun. How can she do that?"
"I have no idea."
The other occupant of the room, a dirty blonde-haired young man in jeans and a T-shirt, shook his head. "I don't like it. Who knows what else we're up against?"
"You wanna bail? Go right ahead." The woman grabbed one of the photos, of Willow alone. "But this monster is going to die. One way or another. I owe it to her."
The black man nodded. "You pulled my ass out of the fire with those demons, Faith. I'm with you."
"Thanks, G. What about you? In or out?"
"Look. I've got no problem killing vampires or demons. That's what I was trained to do. But there are humans in that hotel too, you know." The blonde man frowned. "I won't risk them."
Faith shrugged her shoulders. "You're the military man, Finn. Didn't they teach you how to come up with a plan of attack to minimize the chance of...civilian casualties?" She tore Willow's picture in two. "As long as this bitch dies, I don't care about anyone else."
Down in the basement Willow watched as Saritha swallowed a mouse whole. Saritha was a demon whose upper body was that of a bronze-scaled humanoid snake, while her lower body extended into a long, thick tail. A forked tongue flicked out of her mouth and licked her lips.
"Delicoussss." Saritha glanced into the box. "One isss left. Do you want it?"
Willow blinked. "Me?"
"You are a vampire. Do you not feed on blood?"
"Thissss rodent issss ssssmall, but you are welcome to it."
Willow shook her head. "I'm fine. Thanks."
"Ssssuit yoursssself." Saritha upended the box and swallowed the last mouse. "I mussst sssay, it isss a welcome change to feed with ssssomeone like you. Mossst people are sssickened by my feeding. I sssupossse it would be different if I wassss not partially human in appearanccce."
The redhead nodded. "I know the feeling."
"Ah, yesss. Perhapsss you have it harder than I. You were onccce human, and are ssseen in a different light than I am. Fortunately, you alsssso have sssomething I will likely never have."
"Love. You have the heart of the witch. You love her and ssshe you. I envy that."
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "I got lucky. Really lucky."
The demon nodded. "Indeed."
When Willow emerged from the basement she saw Tara behind the counter, laughing as she talked to someone the redhead did not recognize. A strange woman. She was on-guard as she approached the duo, for she could feel that something wasn't right about the brunette.
Tara smiled. "Hey, sweety. This is Hallie. Hallie, this is my girlfriend, Willow."
"Nice to meet you," said the newcomer. She held out her hand, waited several seconds and then finally pulled it back when it became obvious the vampire wasn't going to shake.
"Umm, Hallie's going to be our new manager," said Tara. "Assuming you approve, of course."
Willow snarled. "What are you?"
"I can tell you're not human. You aren't a vampire either. Your blood smells...wrong."
Halfrek cleared her throat. "Yes, I am a demon. The particular breed is not really relevant, is it?"
"No, of course not. Excuse us a minute, won't you?" Tara took Willow's arm and led her to the other side of the lobby. "What's the matter with you?"
"What'd I do?"
"That was kind of rude. Why did you snap at her like that?"
"I didn't know if you knew. What she was. It felt like she was hiding something."
Tara crossed her arms. "I hired her, on a trial basis, in part because she's not human. I figured a demon wouldn't be as freaked out by all the weird stuff the two of us seem to get into with frightening regularity." She sighed. "If you really don't like her, I'll ask her to leave. This is your place too. I may have overstepped my bounds by hiring someone without at least discussing it with you first."
"No." Willow shook her head. "It's okay. I'm sorry if I yelled. My head's starting to hurt."
"You do look paler than usual. Come here." Tara touched the redhead's cheek. "Goddess, you're cold. Not room temperature like usual. When's the last time you ate?"
Willow shrugged. "Couple of days."
"That's one of the biggest problems with your condition. You never feel hungry, and by the time your so-called metabolism lets you know there's something wrong it's almost too late." Tara took the redhead's hand. "Hallie? If you could do me a favor and watch the front counter? We're going to be in the office."
Halfrek nodded. "No problem." A few minutes later she heard the bell over the front door chime, and started to raise her head. She smiled. "Welcome to..." Something hit her in the neck and her eyes rolled back in her head as she crumpled silently to the floor, her breathing slowed to almost nothing.
G lowered the pistol he'd just fired. "Damn, Finn. How much tranq did you put in these darts?"
"This stuff was created by Professor Walsh. Even the mega-dose needed to take down most demons and vamps won't have any lasting effects on humans. It's perfectly safe."
"If you say so." G looked around. "You're sure you saw Red and Blondie through the binocs?"
Finn nodded. "They're in the office. We should tell Faith." He took a walkie-talkie out of his vest. "Faith. We've got a confirmed location on your target. Do you want us to move in?"
"No. Stand guard. Knock out Blondie if you have to, but I want Red alert and awake. Understood?"
"Confirmed." Finn heard a commotion over the walkie. "Faith? You okay?"
"Crap! There's something down here! Some kind of...what the hell? Hang on." Faith apparently stopped pressing the send button, so the walkie talkie grew silent. But now they could clearly hear commotion under their feet. In the hotel basement. It had been Faith's idea.
G gripped the butt of his weapon. "What the hell's going on?"
"Must be a demon or something down there." Finn shook his head. "Don't worry. She can handle herself."
"I know that. One of the demons who attacked my crew turned over our truck. Faith, by her lonesome, managed to tip it back on its wheels." G bit his lip. "You know, all this commotion's liable to " He and Finn turned, their guns coming up, as the office door jerked open. "Yeah. That's what I was afraid of."
Willow stepped out in full game-face, with blood on her lips. She looked around, saw Hallie on the ground and then the two men with weapons and jumped to the only reasonable conclusion.
"Somebody better start talking."
Finn shook his head. "Forget it, freak!"
"Riley, no!" G grabbed his partner's hand. All he succeeded in doing was throwing Riley's aim off, and the dart whistled harmlessly past Willow's left ear. She snarled.
"What are you doing?"
"Don't you remember what Faith said? We're not supposed to touch her."
Willow dashed across the room, and grabbed each of the men by their vests. She lifted them off her feet. "You boys don't mind if I touch do you?" She threw them both across the lobby. Finn crashed into a display cabinet on the far wall and G broke a window with his head. They were alive but unconscious, and though she smelled blood she guessed they weren't too badly hurt. "It's okay now."
Tara came out of the office, wide-eyed and pale. She had a bandage on her neck, where Willow had been gently feeding and accidentally cut her when she heard the noise and jerked away. "Goddess! Who are they?" She gazed down at Hallie. "Is she all right?"
"I don't know, and I think so." Willow frowned. "I didn't know they were here. What I heard, sounded like it was coming from " A whistling sound caused her to turn in time to catch an arrow scant inches from her chest. She snapped it and tossed it aside, then turned with a growl to see who'd fired it.
A muscular, brunette woman holding a crossbow in the basement doorway. Her hair was mussed, her skin slick with sweat, and it appeared she'd been cut in several places. "Damn. I missed."
"Who the hell are you?" Willow asked. Something about this woman smelled oddly familiar.
Willow motioned for Tara to get behind her and the blonde complied. "I take it the boy blunders over there are with you?"
Faith glanced at Riley and G. "Unfortunately. You kill them?"
"Not yet. Wanna tell me what you got against me? Or is this just a vampire thing?"
"You killed a friend of mine."
"Possibly. I've killed a lot of people. This friend have a name?"
"Yeah. Amy Madison." Willow hesitated, eyes widening, and seeing this, Faith fired. The bolt struck Willow in the heart and she was flung back by the impact. "Hah!"
Willow lurched back to her feet, the bolt still protuding from her chest. She huffed. "That was rude."
"Huh." Faith lowered her weapon. "First sunlight, now this. What the hell are you?"
Willow jerked the bolt out, and the visible wound almost instantly healed. "I'm only going to say this once. Yes I killed your friend, and I'm sorry. But I was a different creature then. I don't do that anymore. Killing me, even if you could, won't bring her back."
"Maybe not." Faith dropped the crossbow. "Doesn't mean I won't enjoy kicking your ass."
"Be careful," Tara whispered. "Her aura's strong. She's got power, Will."
Faith sneered at her. "Keep out of this, blondie!"
"Hey!" Willow's golden eyes narrowed. "That's my girlfriend you're talking too."
"Oh yeah? Then why don't you come over here and make me shut up?"
Snarling, the redhead charged. Fully aware of her own strength and speed, she was confident she could take the brunette down with one well-placed shot.
Faith stood her ground and waited until the last second to spin on her heel and avoid Willow's punch. Smirking, she caught the redhead's outstretched arm. Before Willow could react she forcibly turned the vampire and drove the hell of her boot into the small of the redhead's back.
Tara blinked. "Whoa."
Willow quickly regained her footing and spun around, her golden eyes narrowed into slits. She had barely even seen Faith move, and that kick was one of the hardest she'd ever felt.
"Aww, poor little freak." The brunette smiled. "Did I hurt you?" She glanced over her shoulder, to see that Riley and G were getting back to their feet. "Count on this vampire. I will figure out a way to kill you." She snapped her fingers. "Come on, boys. Let's get out of here."
Tara watched them leave, then rushed to Willow's side. "You okay?"
"I've been better." The pain in her back was already gone. Willow's pride, on the other hand, still ached. "How in the hell did she do that?"
Tara shook her head. "She was as fast as you. And her strength..."
"Wait." Willow chewed on her lower lip a moment. "No. She couldn't be. Could she?"
"What is it?"
The vampire's face returned to normal. "A Slayer?"
"Slayers. You told me about them. A girl who's as strong as the demons, right?"
Willow nodded. "A new one pops up whenever one dies. The Master killed the last one. I guess this Faith chick must have gotten the call." She growled. "Damn."
"And she was friends with Amy. What are the odds?"
"How did she find us?" Tara asked. "And who were those guys?"
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "Friends of hers I suppose. It's not like a Slayer needs back-up. The one thing I do know is...they'll be back. And everyone here is in danger, because of her." She gasped. "Oh no!"
"She came in through the basement, didn't she?"
Tara nodded. "So?"
"Saritha!" Willow took off for the basement door, Tara right behind her.
Thankfully their demon friend was alive but had been badly injured. There were knife wounds all over her body, leaving a pool of black blood underneath her, and her right arm had been severed.
"Goddess," Tara whispered.
The demon's slitted yellow eyes flutter open. "It isss not asss bad asss it looksss."
"But, your arm?"
Saritha smiled weakly. "What? Thisss?" She wiggled the bloody stump. "My people can heal sssuch woundsss. I will regenerate the entire limb in time, though it will be inconvenient until then."
"Guess you're gonna need some more mice," said Willow.
The demon shook her head. "For thisss? I wasss thinking...guinea pigsss."
Willow and Tara took Saritha upstairs, so she could recuperate in one of the rooms. She'd always refused their offers to do so before, saying it was an unnecessary luxury. But this time she was too weak too argue, especially when Tara pointed out she would have a bathtub to soak in. After checking to make sure Halfrek was okay, which also required giving her the room of her choice as well, they went back to their own.
Tara went to take a shower. Afterwards, as was standing naked in front of the mirror to brush her hair she felt a pair of cool, bare arms wrap around her. She sighed. Even after all this time it still startled her whenever she was faced with the fact that Willow didn't have a reflection. "Hey baby."
The blonde nodded. "Tired."
"Probably because of the blood I took. You'll be better in the morning."
Tara turned in her lover's arms and kissed her. "How about you? How are you dealing?"
"What Faith said. She blames you for what happened to Amy."
"She's right. I did kill her."
Tara shook her head. "It wasn't you, exactly. It was the demon. Your bestial side is no longer in control."
"Maybe. But I'm still not a goody-good like Angel. He had a soul. I don't."
"So what are you saying? You think you deserve to die?"
"I committed the crime and I've never been punished, so maybe I do."
"No!" Tara grabbed her lover's shoulders. "Will, listen. Faith has every right to be angry. Neither one of us is in any position to argue that. The problem is, she seems to think revenge will make everything better, when you and I both know she's only digging herself in deeper. Plus if either one of you believes I'm going to just stand by and let her kill you, you're both out of your minds."
Willow growled. "Fine. But I don't think that psycho-babble stuff is going to work on her. She wants to kill me, and she's not going to stop until one of us is...well, cold."
"I'll warm you up, sweety." Tara took her lover's hand and led her to bed.
Riley and G winced as they watched Faith put her fist through a wall. She had torn their place apart in her anger over not killing the vampire, and neither one of them was prepared to go to her and try to calm her down for fear of being the next target. They had to let her rage run its course.
G shook his head. "Lady's got a serious mad-on."
"Can you blame her?" Something in Riley's pocket began to play the National Anthem. "Excuse me." He walked to a corner, out of earshot, and answered the cell-phone. "Hello." His eyes widened. "Oh, it's you. Yes. We did. It was just as you said. No, I'm afraid not. I didn't want to...what? Where?" He nodded. "Okay. And what do you want me to do once I...you're sure? All right." He hung up. "Hey, Gunn?"
The black man turned. "Problem?"
"On the contrary. I have a line on what makes our vamp friend so unkillable. Stay here and keep an eye on Faith. I'll be back in a few."
"No prob." Gunn frowned as he heard Faith destroy something else. "Let's just hope there's still a place left for you to come back to."
An hour or so later, when Riley returned to what remained of their apartment Faith was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the television, watching animated people fighting and drinking a beer. The TV was just about the only thing left intact. "So much for our deposit. Did she run out of steam?"
Gunm shook his head. "I told her there was a Dragonball Z marathon on the Anime network. She's a big fan, and I figured it'd take her mind off things. Where'd you go?"
"To my source." Riley slid a book out of his jacket. It was leather-bound and looked old. "This is like a demon's encyclopedia. It explains how Red survived the sunlight and being staked."
Faith reached over his shoulder and grabbed it. "Give me that!"
"Damn, Faith." Gunn glanced at the TV. "You're fast, girl."
The brunette held the book up. "I'm not a damn librarian, Riley. What's the deal?"
"Did you notice if the vampire was wearing any jewelry? A necklace, a bracelet, anything like that?"
"A big green ring," said Gunn. "Why?"
Riley nodded. "So it's true. The Gem of Amarra."
"The what?" Faith asked.
"It was supposedly just a legend. But the Gem of Amarra is apparently a very real, and powerful, artifact. When worn by a vampire it makes the creature virtually invincible. They're immune to sunlight, holy water, all the stuff you could normally use to hurt or kill one, and a stake through the heart is barely an inconveniance. It seems this gem boosts their already considerable healing abilities, so they recover almost instantly from wounds that might otherwise incapacitate even them. Basically, if you want to kill a vamp wearing the Gem of Amarra you'll have to either decapitate or disintegrate them. That's the only way."
Faith tossed the book aside and crossed her arms. "How the hell does this help us?"
"It's the ring," said Gunn. "We get it off her and she'll die like anyone else right?" Riley nodded. "So we go back with tranq guns blazing. Knock the bitch out, boost the rock, and it's game over."
"No good," Riley replied. "That ring protects her. Even the stuff I've got won't be able to bring her down as long as she has the Gem of Amarra on. To kill her you've got to get it off first, which means we're going to have to do this the old fashioned way." He glanced at Faith, who smirked.
The next morning, Willow went to check on Saritha while Tara headed downstairs to the front counter. She had stopped by Halfrek's room and found it empty.
"Can't blame her for running. First day on the job and she gets attacked."
Several hours later, Tara was working on the computer when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned to find Halfrek standing there with her hands clasped behind her back.
Tara had been keeping an eye on the front door and knew no one was in back. She wondered how Halfrek could have gotten into the lobby without her seeing, yet her she was. "Hey."
"Hi. Am I late?"
"You came back. I'm glad."
Halfrek shrugged her shoulders. "I like it here."
"Like I said, I'm glad." Tara stood up. "I was just going to start making the daily calls. You know, stuff like linen and food delivery? Can you take care of that for me? There's something else I need to do."
"No problem." Halfrek sat down at the computer. "When I'm done with that, I'll start organizing your files. It's a miracle you guys managed to get anything done."
"We didn't," said Tara. "That's our problem." She pointed to a button on the counter. "If you need to get in touch with me for any reason, that's a cyber-ward, a blend of magic and technology, left behind by the people who used to own this place before us. Press that and say my name. It'll alert me anywhere in the hotel."
Halfrek nodded, then got to work.
Tara glanced at her watch. She needed to talk to Willow, and since it was noon she knew where her lover would be. She headed up to the roof.
Willow had her head tilted back and her eyes half-closed, the sun shine down on her face. It was a sort of ritual she had developed since getting the Gem of Amarra.
"Am I bothering you?" Tara asked quietly.
The redhead turned, a smile forming. "Never."
"It's a pity you don't tan." Tara put her arms around the vampire's waist and her chin on her shoulder. "Or freckle for that matter."
Willow turned her face to kiss the blonde. "With my complexion? Are you kidding?"
Tara sighed. "Halfrek came back."
"Did she? I'm surprised."
"I was telling her about the intercom, and something occurred to me."
"About the fight you had with Faith."
"It shouldn't have happened."
Willow frowned. "She didn't give me much choice."
"That's not what I mean. I don't care that you fought her. I'm concerned that you could."
"Don't you remember the Sanctuary spell Wesley and Wini put on this place? It's supposed to stop demons and humans from fighting one another inside the hotel."
Tara moved away from Willow and leaned against the edge of the roof. "The spell should have gone off as soon as you threw the first punch. Or at least when Faith tried to kick you. But it didn't."
"What's that mean? The mojo's worn off?"
Tara nodded. "I checked my books. Apparently a spell of this kind needs periodic reinforcement, but it's been a year or so since they last called on the...beings who cast it."
"I should be able to. Wini kept very detailed summoning records."
"The problem is the entities in question are used to dealing with her and Wesley. They might no be too open to a couple of strangers."
Willow frowned. "I don't believe it."
The redhead pointed. "Look!"
On the roof of the building across the street Faith was waving her arms in an effort to get their attention. Once she saw she had it she blew them a kiss and smiled.
"Bitch is calling me out!"
Willow started for the stairwell, but Tara grabbed her arm. "Wait."
"I don't see her two friends."
"Will, think about it. She's already seen she can't beat you. If she's trying to pick another fight she probably has something up her sleeve."
The redhead nodded. "I hope so." She clenched her fists, and the ring gleamed. "Stay here."
"I can't risk your life again. Stay here, lock the door, and watch out for her boys. Use your magic if you have to but be careful. I don't want anything to happen to you."
Tara kissed her lover and gently stroked her cheek. "Be careful."
"Me?" Willow smirked. "Always."
Faith saw the redhead vanish from the other roof and knew it wouldn't be long. She cracked her knuckles as she waited. Across the street the blonde was still there watching her, and since she had nothing else to do she picked up a rock and threw it. Like a missile it crossed the span between the two buildings, and shattered on a wall mere inches from the blonde's head. She smiled.
Then something hit the stairwell door behind her so hard it tore off its hinges, and Faith was forced to leap out of the way to avoid being crushed. Willow charged onto the roof, in her full demon-face, golden eyes narrowing to angry slits as she snarled. "Slayer!"
"So you know," said the brunette. "I'm not impressed."
Willow gnashed her fangs. "I realize this won't mean much to you, but I'm sorry about your friend."
"You're right, monster. You killed her. Nothing you say matters." Faith slid a stake out of her belt and clenched it in her white-knuckled fist. "It's time for you to die."
The redhead frowned. "What do you think you're doing? You've already seen that won't work."
"What? You mean this thing?" Faith gestured with the stake. "Oh, I know all about that little doo-dad that makes you into some kind of super-vampire." She smiled when the redhead cupped one hand around her ring. "And yeah we can always wail on each other all day until I eventually get worn out and you bite me. But I'm not just muscles wrapped in a really nice package you know. I got a brain. And I know there's a much easier way for me to get you ready for the Dustbuster." She nodded. "Take a look."
Willow glanced across the street and gasped. On the other roof Gunn had backed Tara against the stairwell, and was aiming a pistol at her. The blonde looked scared. "Leave her alone!"
"Okay. Here's the deal, Red. First you take off the ring. Once you're a charcoal briquette I have no reason to be in this damn city, and your girlfriend can go find some new dead body to hump."
"That's it? I die, and this ends?"
Faith shrugged. "Amy was my friend. She's the only reason I'm here."
"You must really have lover her to track me down like this."
The Slayer's cheeks flushed. "What the hell would a soulless monster know about love?"
"Trust me." Willow gazed back at Tara, a half-smile on her face. "I do."
"I told you the stakes," said Faith. "The decision's up to you. Are you gonna take what's coming to you, pay for a crime even you admit you committed..." She too looked at Tara. "Or does an innocent girl who made the mistake of getting involved with a monster have to suffer?"
Willow lowered her head. She didn't see any other choice. As long as Tara was okay, she didn't really care what happened to her. The redhead sighed. "Okay."
"What was that?" Faith cupped a hand behind her ear. "I didn't catch that."
"I'll do it!" Willow hissed. "You want this damn thing so much? You can have it!" She started to take the ring off her finger, until she heard a trigger cock and felt something metallic touch her temple.
Riley put his hand out. "Give it to me."
"What the hell are you doing?" Faith asked. "I've got this."
"I don't want to run the risk of it frying with her," Riley replied. "Or throwing it off the roof before she goes up like a Roman candle."
Faith shook her head. "Who gives a crap about the ring?"
"I do. Or rather, my boss does." Riley smirked. "It's the reason we're all here. We knew this freak had it, but she was too well isolated in Sunnydale. I set you up to go after her because I figured it would take a Slayer to get the damn thing off her in the first place."
Faith's eyes widened. "You sent me that e-mail?" A couple of days after her last contact with Amy she received an anonymous note on her computer telling her Amy had been murdered in Sunnydale. She'd gone there to check and beat the information out of some mousy little bartender.
"That's right." Riley winked. "And you played your part like a loyal little puppy too." He raised the walkie-talkie in his other hand. "Gunn. Change of plan. I'm taking the ring. You got a problem with that?"
"Is the freak gonna fry?" Riley nodded so Gunn could see it. "Then do whatever you want, man."
Riley lowered the walkie and turned his weapon on Faith. "I don't know why but you seem to have some kind of conscience. So I'll give you a choice. Give me that damn ring, now, or else I'll blow the Slayer's head off and tell Gunn to do the same thing to your witch."
Willow growled, and began angrily twirling the ring on her finger.
Tara was furious, at herself.
She'd been so distracted watching Willow and Faith, she didn't notice the other man coming up behind her until
his arm was around her neck. He wasn't choking her but applying just enough pressure to keep her from focusing so she couldn't use magic to free herself.
"Listen up lady. I don't want to hurt you." Gunn released her, backed her up against the stairwell and pointed his gun at her. "But I will, if I have to."
"You wouldn't dare."
"Don't test me. Just be quiet and everything will be fine, understand?"
Tara nodded. "Yeah. I understand. You wanna use me to get Willow to do what you want." She sneered. "That's a dirty trick."
"Yeah, well, so is wearing a ring that makes you nearly invulnerable."
Tara gasped. "You know about the Gem of Amarra?"
"That's right. Faith's here to take that vamp of yours out, and if it means putting a gun to your head to do it, then that's what we're going to do."
Tara crossed her arms. "I understand Faith being here but what's your role in all this? Willow and I haven't done anything to you. Why are you helping her?"
"Faith saved my life. I owe her." Gunn shrugged his shoulders. "Besides, she's just trying to kill a vampire. How could that possibly be considerd a bad thing?"
"Because Willow's not that murderous monster anymore."
Tara nodded with tears in her eyes. "Yes. Says me. I love her. Don't let them do this!"
"Them?" Gunn glanced across the street. Now Riley was there, pointing his gun at Willow. "What the hell? He's supposed to be watching the street." The walkie-talkie in his belt beeped.
"Gunn." It was Riley. "Change of plan. I'm taking the ring. You got a problem with that?"
He stared at Tara, who was pleading with her eyes. Gunn shook his head. "Is the freak gonna fry?" Riley nodded so they could see it. "Then do whatever you want, man."
Tara's face fell. "Bastard."
"Watch your tongue." Gunn, who had let his arm drop, started to raise the gun again.
Tara's eyes narrowed and she gritted her teeth. "Or what?" She reached out with her magic, grabbed the gun, and pointed it right back at him. "I'll shoot you?"
"Am I supposed to be impressed?" He reached for it, but she pulled it away. "Lady, I'm warning you!"
Though it took a high degree of both control and finesse while keeping the gun afloat, Tara managed to pull the trigger. The bullet hit the roof near Gunn's right foot, and he jumped back. She was trying to show off, while also keeping to a long ago vow she'd made to never actually touch a gun.
"No. I'm warning you." Tara jerked the gun out of his reach. "Leave us alone!" She fired again, and he stopped. "I don't want to hurt you. I'm just trying to make you understand. Willow wouldn't hurt anyone who didn't try to hurt her first. Not anymore. She's changed."
Gunn snorted. "Lady, you're talking nonsense. She's a damn vampire."
"She's a monster. A blood-sucking freak of nature."
Tara's cheeks flushed. "Shut up."
"Oh. Touched a nerve, did I? Maybe you're not as okay with her as you think."
"Shut up!" Tara's anger made her lose focus, and control of the gun. It spun in mid-air like a top and went flying off the roof. With it gone there was nothing to stop Gunn.
He lunged forward and grabbed her shoulders, so tightly she winced. "No more games!"
"Fine." Tara looked down at Gunn's feet. "Are those real leather?"
He was obviously confused by the sudden change of subject. "What, my boots? Yeah. So what?"
"Just wondering. Leather's really combustible." Tara smiled. "Incindere!"
Gunn's feet suddenly erupted in flames. He flung himself backwards, howling as his pants were ignited as well, and began to roll around on the roof. When he finally got the flames extinguished he looked around, swearing as he realized Tara was gone.
Riley smiled and took a step back as Faith started toward him, stopping her with a wave of the gun. "Uh uh. You may be fast, but even you can't dodge a bullet at this range."
The Slayer hissed through clenched teeth. "You son of a bitch!"
"What? Did you really think I gave a crap about avenging some witch you think you had the hots for? Give me a break. I was in it for the ring the whole time." Winking at the Slayer Riley turned to Willow. "Speaking of which, it's time for you to make up your mind. What's it going to be? Give me the ring and you're the only one who dies today. Or fight me, and you get the Slayer here and your girlfriend killed."
Willow's face change from human to demon and back again. "How do I know that?"
"That you'll let them live."
Riley shrugged his shoulders. "I give you my word."
"Like that means anything," said Faith.
All three turned as they heard a gunshot from across the street. They saw Tara float Gunn's weapon and Willow smiled when she fired it again to keep him in line.
"That's my girl."
Faith noticed that Riley was distracted. With a snarl of rage she charged him.
"Stupid girl." He pulled the trigger. At the last possible second the Slayer twisted her upper body around so the bullet went in on the outer edge of her rib-cage instead of practically straight through her heart. Even so she was thrown back, blood spurting everywhere, and crumpled to the rooftop half-conscious. "That snarl gives you away every time." A pale, dark-nailed hand clamped down on his gunhand wrist. He smiled at Willow, who appeared to be a hairs-breadth away from snapping it like a twig. "You think I can't still fire? Trust me. I'll get a shot off, even if you manage to break it."
"You're wasting your breath," said Faith. "She's a vampire. What the hell does she care?"
"I'm beginning to ask myself the same thing." Willow released Riley and stepped back, a hand on her ring.
The Slayer frowned. "Figures. You're just like all the others."
"You're wrong," said Willow. "But I don't have time to try and convince you otherwise."
Riley fired his gun in the air, then pointed it back at Faith. "Give me the ring! Now! Or she's dead."
Willow gnashed her teeth. "Fine." She took the Gem of Amarra off her finger, and used the fist she held it in to punch Riley in the stomach. As the ring rolled out of her hand and into his her exposed flesh, of which there was a great deal, began to smoke. It would only take seconds for the sun to consume her.
"Willow!" Tara came charging out of the stairwell. "Hold on!" She gestured. The vampire was lifted into the air, spun around, and flung off the roof. They heard a thud somewhere below.
Riley chuckled. "Well now. That was...unexpected." He nodded. "Thanks for helping me out, blondie. I owe you one." He holstered his weapon, shoved his way past her and left the roof in a hurry.
Tara glanced off the roof, then kneeled beside Faith and checked the Slayer's pulse. It was strong. "You tried to kill my girlfriend. When you wake up you'll probably try again. I should just leave you here. It's lucky for you I'm such a nice girl." She sighed. "Goddess. Willow's going to kill me."
Halfrek stood in the office door, watching the unconscious brunette laying on the couch, her hands bound with strong chains. She turned as Tara and Saritha, whose arm had begun to reform, emerged from the basement, half-dragging the barely conscious Willow to the couch in the lobby. The vampire's cheek, arms and neck appeared to have been very badly burnt, but at least she was still intact.
"So this is a Slayer, huh? I thought she'd be...bigger, somehow."
Saritha slithered over to glare at Faith. "I fought one in Francccce, a cccentury ago. Brutal woman. Sssshe tried to cut my head off, and did put a sssword through my chessst."
Halfrek nodded. "Psychos. All of them."
"You do realizzze, don't you, ssshe can probably hear what you're sssaying?"
Paling, Halfrek backed away a few steps, then spun on her heel and approached Tara, who was gently dabbing at Willow's burns with a wet towel. "How is she?"
"Under the circumstances, pretty well I guess. I mean she'll heal this, it just might take a while. And she's going to need blood." Tara smiled at the expression on Halfrek's face. "Don't worry. Willow told me once most demon blood doesn't taste very good to her. I think you're safe."
"Ssspeaking of sssafe, while I do not mind helping you bring your mate back home I do not underssstand how it isss she came to be in that dumpssster."
Halfrek frowned. "Dumpster? I thought you said you were on a roof?"
"We were," said Tara. "The same guy who shot the Slayer made Willow take off the ring she was wearing which protected her from the sun. I saw she was starting to burn so I reached out with my magic and well..." The blonde blushed. "...kind of threw her off the roof."
"Why?" Saritha asked.
Tara shrugged her shoulders. "I panicked. I should have pulled her into the safety of the stairwell or something, but all I could think about was getting her out of the sun. My power got a little out of control, and she landed in a dumpster in the alley."
"What are the odds of that?" said Halfrek.
"I remember seeing it as I was running between buildings," Tara replied. "I think my subconscious latched on to the image of the dumpster, so that's what the magic had to work with."
"Do you wisssh me to help you get her upssstairsss?" Saritha asked. "Ssso you may feed her in the privacccy of your own room?"
Tara shook her head. "I don't want to put her through any more stress than is absolutely necessary." She held up her arm. "I could use your help with something else though."
The snake demon nodded. She took Tara's arm and gently cut her wrist with her claw. It wasn't an exceptionally deep wound, but given the location it did bleed profusely.
Wincing, Tara let a few drops of blood drop into her lover's mouth, then slowly brought it down until Willow's instincts took over. Though still unconscious the vampire's features turned turned demonic and she grabbed Tara by the wrist and elbow and sank her fangs into her lover's wrist.
Tara gasped. She had never been able to understand why allowing Willow to feed on her felt so good. Her body was beginning to heat up, and she moaned.
Saritha's forked tongue flitted out. She could smell, as well as see, the blonde's growing arousal. She motioned for Halfrek to follow her and slithered over to the counter. "I think we ssshould leave the two of them alone. The intimacccy of the feeding isss not one to be ssshared."
"You're probably right." Halfrek glanced into the office. "But what about the Slayer?"
"Ssshe isss bound. Thossse chainsss are tempered sssteel ssso they are ssstrong. Besssidesss, even a Sssslayer cannot recover from a gunssshot wound ssso quickly." Saritha nodded to the other demon, then slithered back to the dank, familiar darkness of her basement home.
Halfrek chewed on her lower lip as she stared at Faith for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders and vanished in a column of swirling gray smoke and ribbons of faint energy.
Faith jerked awake, roused by the pain in her chest. She could tell that the bullet had gone straight through, and it was already beginning to heal. It still hurt though, and when she tried to sit up the pain erupted so intensely she fell back, gasping, salty hot tears filling her eyes.
That was when the Slayer realized there was a ceiling overhead. She was inside, where she had been on the roof of a building across the street from the Hyperion. Now it appeared she was actually inside the Hyperion itself, if she was any judge of her surroundings. Someone had brought her to the hotel, and it felt like they had treated the gunshot wound. They were actually taking care of her.
"The vampire?" Faith frowned. "No, it had to be the witch. She's too nice for her own good."
Not so nice she hadn't thought to bind her with manacles the Slayer noticed. She tested the metal and found the chains resisted her efforts quite easily. She wouldn't be able to simply break out. Besides, she needed to know if the vampire had survived, and this seemed like the best place to start.
Faith slid off the couch. She hissed as the pain in her chest flared but she still managed to get to her feet. With no chains on her legs she was able to move freely about the office so she started searching for either keys to the manacles or something she could use as a weapon.
"No keys. Figures." There was, however, a large, ornate dagger sitting in a box on the desk along with a stack of musty old books. It appeared someone had been trying to identify it, though from the notes she saw scribbled on a pad nearby without much success. "Wicked." Faith had a thing for daggers. This one in particular felt so right in her hand when she picked it up and twirled it around. The manacles limited her mobility, but she could still tell it was perfectly balanced and had a finely honed, razor-sharp edge.
Faith headed for the door. She wasn't looking for a fight. In fact, every step she took made the pain in her chest that much worse. But she did her best to ignore it, clutching the dagger in her pale, trembling hand and wandered out into the hotel lobby. She heard an odd sound and turned her head.
There she saw the very thing that had brought her to LA in the first place. Willow. The vampire looked like she had been badly burned and lay on a couch, feeding off the outstretched arm of the blonde woman she claimed, as impossible as it was for the Slayer to imagine, to love.
Faith clutched the hilt of the dagger so tightly her knuckles turned white. It would be so easy for her to kill the vampire right now. The only thing really standing between her and vengeance was the witch, and she didn't appear to be in any condition to stop her at the moment.
But then the Slayer's own body betrayed her. She became light-headed. Her chest constricted, making it harder to breath, and the pain of her wound grew to a point even she could no longer ignore. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed with a strangled cry.
This roused Tara. She opened her eyes and saw the Slayer laying face down, a few feet away. Then she felt pain and remembered what was happening. Gently, she pulled Willow's mouth off her wrist and lay the vampire's head back down on the pillow. Willow's lips were red with blood, and her face returned to human. Now, of course, the blonde was weaker, she felt dizzy, and her wrist was throbbing.
"H...Hal..." Tara's eyes fluttered closed, and she slumped onto the couch beside Willow.
The vampire was the next to awaken. She opened her eyes, saw the crystal chandelier overhead, and figured out she was no longer outside or in flames, and was in fact back home. She was laying on the couch in the lobby, and she was not alone. Tara was curled up beside her, asleep.
Willow smelled blood. She saw that the blonde's wrist had been cut, though it was no longer bleeding. She also had a salty taste in her mouth and realized she had recently fed on her lover. Tara only did that when she was hurt or particularly hungry. The redhead gasped. It all came flooding back to her. She'd been on a rooftop, exposed to the sun after losing the Gem of Amarra to that guy she thought was working with Faith. Something, and she had a pretty good idea what, had picked her up and thrown her into a dumpster.
The vampire looked around. It was dark outside. She had apparently been asleep for quite a while, since it was a little past noon when she and Faith met on the roof. Her nose twitched. The strange thing was she smelled blood, only it wasn't coming from Tara. Looking around, the redhead saw a figure laying face-down on the ground a few feet away. She switched to her demon-face and snarled.
Willow slowly approached Faith, wary of deceit. As she got closer she saw the dagger in the Slayer's hand, and recognized it as the one Tara had been trying to identify for the better part of a week. "Sneaky." She kicked it out of Faith's hand and smiled. If the Slayer let her do that she wasn't faking. Faith was really unconscious and, at the moment, totally helpless. "It would be so easy."
Back when she and Xander were working for the Master she had the freedom to kill anybody she wanted at any time. Not only that, but before the Black Luster Ritual she genuinely enjoyed causing pain and fear in her victim before she dispatched them. Now she found the whole thing...distasteful. Sometimes she thought her humanity a distraction at best, and sometimes a serious problem.
After all, Faith had tried to kill her. Given the chance she would do it again. In fact, from the look of things she had intended to do just that. Of course Faith was only trying to avenge a friend. Someone Willow had admittedly killed. A part of her wondered if she didn't really deserve that fate. Wouldn't the world be a better place with one less monster in it? Who would really care?
Willow glanced over her shoulder. Tara was groaning in her sleep. The redhead sighed and her face returned to normal. Her heart didn't beat, and hadn't for a long time, whenever she looked at her lover she could swear it felt it skip. Tara was the only thing that kept her going most days. She often acted as the vampire's conscience, which helped Willow understand that Tara would not want her to kill Faith.
"Lucky, bitch." She grabbed the Slayer's chains and lifted her off her feet. Faith, still unconscious, moaned, and Willow detected the scent of new blood. The vampire licked her lips. Despite her Slayer healing abilities Faith's wound wasn't fully healed yet, and the sudden movement had apparently caused it to start bleeding again. Willow remembered something the Master had once told her. A Slayer's blood was like a fine wine and could strengthen even the lowliest creature. Just smelling it made her mouth water. Her face turned demonic again. She hadn't had hunger like this since the Black Luster Ritual burnt away mosty of her demon side. "What's one little taste gonna hurt? You'll make more." She tore Faith's shirt to get to her bloody bandage.
"Willow!" The vampire turned to Tara sitting up and shaking her head. "Don't. Please."
It was the last word that did it. Willow lost all desire to argue whenever Tara said please. Grunting, the redhead dropped Faith and her face returned to normal.
"Like I said. Lucky."
At Tara's request Willow put Faith in the room next to theirs so she could rest, which the redhead decided also included making sure the Slayer was securely chained to the bedpost. She then went back to their room, climbed into bed beside Tara who was already asleep, and closed her eyes.
The next thing Willow knew, it was sunrise. She became painfully aware of this fact when a ray of light peeked in through the wide-open curtains, which they had never bothed to close because she had the ring, and threatened to set her foot on fire. Luckily she still had her shoes on, and while the skin underneath still began to smoke and it did wake her up, no actual damage was done as she flung herself out of bed.
Tara sat up, awakened by her snarling and cursing. "Will? What is it?"
"This is all because of the damn Slayer! She brought that guy her, and he stole my ring!"
Tara got up and closed the curtains so Willow could relax and sit back down on the bed beside her. "Hey. We'll figure this out. But you have to stay calm. Your burns looks better but you're still not whole. You need rest Will. Once you're better, we'll see about getting the ring back."
"I'll tell you what. Why don't I find the son of a bitch and suck him dry then just for fun rip his head off and pull the ring off his cold, dead finger. How's that for a plan?"
"Well, that's one way to go," said Tara. "Of course there's the little matter of...you know, finding him, and while we're at it, do you really think he's planning to wear it? I mean, he's human, right? What would a human want with something that's only useful to vampires anyway?"
Willow glared at a wall, on the other side of which Faith slept. "I know someone we can ask."
"You think Faith's involved? He shot her Will. Maybe it's just me, but attempted homicide doesn't rate too high on the partnership meter."
"He shot a Slayer. They heal, almost as fast as we do. He'd know that if they're working together."
"Okay. But what's the point? To get close to us? Why? We don't have anything or know anything anybody would want. And they can't believe we'd actually trust Faith after she tried to kill you."
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "Even if she's not in on it, she'd know who the guy is. Where he'll go. She's the best shot we have at finding him and getting the ring back."
"I agree." Tara touched her lover's cheek and smiled. "That's why I wanted to keep her around."
Willow kissed her. "You really are a smart one."
"I know." Tara wrapped her arms around the redhead and they fell back on the bed.
In the next room Faith, newly awakened, had heard almost every word thanks to her enhanced Slayer hearing. It sounded like the witch's motives for saving her weren't as pure as she'd thought.
"Maybe there's hope for you yet, girl."
The Slayer didn't bother trying to break the chains. She knew there was an easier way. She wanted Riley almost as bad as the witch and the vampire. If she played along then sooner or later they'd have to take the chains off and she'd be able to get her revenge--both on Riley, and on Willow.
Faith closed her eyes. Her wound was almost completely healed now.
"Just a little longer. Enjoy it while you can, Finn."
Elsewhere in the city Riley Finn glanced over his shoulder as he heard a door opening behind him. He dropped the ring into his vest pocket and reached for his gun.
"Finn? You in here, man?"
It was Gunn. Riley relaxed. He let his hand fall to his side. "Over here!"
The other man lowered his own weapon. "I lost track. You're pretty fast for a white guy."
"Why did you follow me?"
Gunn frowned. "I'm just trying to figure out what the hell went down on that roof. You shot Faith. I thought you were on our side. What's up?"
"So uncomplicate it, man. I wanna know what you're doing."
Riley started to go for his weapon after all, but Gunn got his up first. "Uh uh. Don't even. You turned on Faith. I wanna hear from your own mouth why you betrayed her. For some craptastically ugly piece of jewelry that don't mean a thing to anyone with a pulse? What's the matter with you?"
"I was ordered to."
"Ordered? By who? Didn't you tell us they washed you out of the army? Or was that a lie too?"
Riley shook his head. "No. They kicked me out because I refused to follow orders and come back to base after my squad got wiped out by some Krevlor demons. They tried to court-martial me, but luckily I had some friends in high places. They got me honorably discharged, and assigned to a top-secret organization being starting, under the auspices of a civilian by the name of Maggie Walsh."
"You mean the Initiative, right? Yeah, you told us about them. But didn't you say they kicked you out too, cause something happened to the lady in charge?"
"That's right. She was killed be her very own creation." Riley smirked. "Me."
"Say what? You killed her? Why?"
"I was told too. Turns out the Initiative was just as weak as the army. Bunch of civilian eggheads trying to find a way to make the demons work for them instead of against them. Walsh was arrogant enough to believe she could create her own race of super-warriors. She tried one experiment on me, made me stronger and tougher, then she moved on to something more ambitious. Creating life out of remnants of creatures she'd been experimenting on for years. One of them, convinced me I was on the wrong side."
"You're working with a demon?" Gunn asked. His weapon wavered. "And it wants the ring?"
Riley nodded. "Now you're catching on." He smiled. "Why don't you join us, Gunn? Side with us, and you might just be able to survive the coming apocalypse. Otherwise..."
"Man, you're out of your mind. Helping someone like Faith's one thing. At least she's human. I don't know what the hell you are." Gunn aimed his weapon at Riley's head.
"So your answers no, then?"
"That's right." Gunn started to squeeze the trigger. "You gonna do something about it?"
Riley shook his head. "Not me."
A long, thick shaft of what appeared to be green bone erupted from Gunn's chest. It brought pieces of his heart out with it and sent blood gushing everywhere. Gunn hung there for a moment, limp, until the shaft withdrew and he crumpled to the ground like a wet sack. He'd been killed in an instant.
The creature standing behind him was a bizarre, freakish thing which looked out of place even in a world where vampires and demons were a fairly common sight. It was a massive, solidly built hybrid, stitched together from a waxy-skinned, long-dead human cadaver, a green-skinned demon with a bone skewer extending from its forearm, and pieces of machinery. Oddly, it was wearing camouflage pants.
"You got it?" The thing's voice was deep, gravelly, and reverberated with a slightly metallic whine.
"Did you doubt me?" Riley held the ring out and the creature took it. "Adam, can I ask you a question?"
Studying the ring, the creature nodded.
"You still haven't told me what you want that thing for. You're not a vampire, so what...?"
Adam raised his head. "It would be best if you did not ask such questions. I will explain it to you, when the time is not." He turned. "Now come. We have much work ahead of us."
Riley glanced down at Gunn, then shrugged his shoulders and followed.
Tara headed upstairs looking for Willow. The redhead had finally come downstairs after Tara and Halfrek went around the hotel and blocked out any entry point for the sun. Tara lost track of her lover once she got busy at the front counter though, and now she was concerned.
She went to check their room, but along the way noticed the door of the room next door was partly open. They had made certain to lock it because that was the room Faith was in.
It was eerily quiet. "Oh no." Tara held her breath as she opened the door. To her relief Willow stood at the foot of the bed, her eyes locked with the Slayer's. They weren't moving, hardly breathing, and didn't acknowledge Tara even when the blonde put a hand on Willow's shoulder. "Will?"
Faith sneered. "It was singing, freak-show. I'm chained to a bed in this dump, with no TV, and I'm starving. What the hell else was I supposed to do?"
"You call that singing? It's a good thing you've got super-powers, cause you're tone deaf."
Tara bit her lip to keep from smiling. "Ironic, to say that to a vampire."
"Are you two a perfect match." Faith arched an eyebrow. "Speaking of, how the hell did someone like you hook up with a bloodsucker, blondie?"
"Someone like me?" Tara asked. "What does that mean?"
Faith shrugged. "You seem pretty normal. You're nice and sweet and all that crap. What could you possibly see in this soulless, reanimated corpse?"
"You wouldn't understand," Tara replied. "And you're not being fair?" "To the monster that killed me friend? Why should I?" Faith strained against her bonds. "I haven't forgotten you know. You can stand there and pretend she's all nice and reformed if you want, but no matter how you slice it the fact remains...your girlfriend murdered Amy."
"I know." Tara sat down on the edge of the bed. She glanced up at Willow. "Give us a few minutes?"
The redhead's eyes narrowed. "Why?"
"I think Faith and I need to have a woman to woman talk. Please."
"Okay. But I'll be right outside." Just as Willow was turning to leave she saw Faith stick her tongue out, and had to resist the urge to throttle the Slayer. She closed the door behind her.
Tara opened her mouth to speak, only to have Faith silence her with a shake of her head. "Save it."
"You're going to do the plaintive speech thing, right? To try and convince me that Red's not the same vamp who killed Amy? Forget it. I don't want to hear that crap."
Tara nodded. "Good. 'cause that's not what I was going to say."
"No. I'm not going to deny what Willow did. See, I was there when she killed Amy."
Faith blinked. "You...what?"
"I was there. At the time, Willow was trying to kill me. Amy just happened to get in the way."
"So why the hell are you with her? Are you mental?"
"Maybe. But that's not the point. I was doing a ritual, just before Willow showed up. It was supposed to cleanse me of the demonhood I'd been raised to believe was part of the women in my family. The trouble is, there wasn't any. It was a lie told for who knows how many generations. Unfortunately the spell had already been cast and the mystical energies it produced had to go somewhere, so they went after Willow. The Black Luster Ritual got into her core and tore her spirit to shreds. It destroyed her bloodlust, leaving her hurt, confused, and without most of the demon that reanimated her. Do you know what that means?"
"There was a vacancy?" Faith offered. The condescension in her voice was dripping.
Tara nodded. "Yes, actually. And into that void flowed part of her humanity which, I guess, had been suppressed for so long by the demon. This may be the physical form, the vampire, who murdered your friend, but the woman within is as much a victim as Amy was. Willow Rosenberg didn't ask to be killed and turned into a blood-sucking monster. And whether you believe it or not she really does feel awful about what she did to your friend." She put a hand on the Slayer's. "What I'm trying to say is, I'm not asking you to forgive Willow. I wouldn't think of it. She did something terrible, and killing her won't bring Amy back. So hate her if you want to, that's your right. But the two of you need to work together on this."
"Your goals are kind of the same. You want to get Riley back for betraying you, right?"
Tara nodded. "And Willow wants her ring. So, here's the deal. You help her get it and she helps you get him. It's a fair exchange don't you think?"
"You want me to help the thing that killed my friend become invulnerable again?"
"It's that, or we leave you chained up here until I'm sure you're no longer a threat to Willow. She won't question my decision, and nobody human who'd care knows you're here."
Faith looked Tara in the eye, studying her expression for a few moments, then grinned. "Damn, blondie. You've got a better a poker face than I gave you credit for."
"So is it a deal?"
"Let me sleep on it, will you?"
Tara stood up. "Okay."
"And can you do me one other favor?" Faith lifted her arm. "Take this damn thing off. It's scraping my wrist and I'm never going to be able to sleep like this anyway." She saw Tara's face change. "What? I'm still chained. It's not like I've got lock picks or anything. I imagine one of you searched me right?" The blonde blushed. "I thought so. I don't feel like running off anyway. I'm still tired from being shot."
"How is it?" Tara asked. "The wound."
"Nearly healed. Some food would definitely help."
Tara unlocked one of Faith's wrists, and saw it was indeed rubbed raw. "I'll bring you something."
"Thanks." The Slayer lay her head back and closed her eyes. Once she was sure Tara was indeed gone she sat up and started to unbutton her shirt. "Yep. Too nice for her own good."
Willow followed Tara downstairs, to the kitchen. She was shaking her head. "Are you kidding me? You actually want me to help her?"
"Yes." The blonde started to make some sandwiches for the Slayer.
"Why in the hell would I..."
"Will, I can't fight, and you can't go out in the daylight as long as you don't have the ring. Faith can do both. And right now, she's your best shot at getting it back."
"She's also my my shot at getting killed. Tara, what makes you think the instant she's free she won't turn around and put a sharp piece of wood through my heart? That'll kill me you know."
Tara nodded. "I also know Faith's not really a bad person. She's just grieving her friend. I'm sure if we give her a chance, she'll do the right thing."
"Better not put money on that, blondie." Faith stood in the kitchen door, clutching a broken chair leg.
Willow snarled. "How'd you get out?" "Thank your girlfriend...and the California criminal justice system." Faith pulled her shirt open enough to show them a pale section of skin between her breasts. "I picked this trick up from a girl in juvie. Hide a lockpick under a fake scar. It'll pass even the most thorough inspection."
"You tricked me," said Tara.
Faith nodded. "And I felt bad about it. Really."
"You wanna go again, Slayer?" Willow switched to her demon-face. "Come on!"
Faith gestured with the makeshift stake. "Better watch it Red, or the next time blondie kisses you it'll be inside one of those cremation urns." She smiled. "Or a dust-buster."
"Wait." Tara touched her lover's arm. "I don't think she's here for a fight right now." She turned to Faith. "That is why you're not attacking, right? You thought about what I said?"
"No, I came down here to kill your girlfriend." Willow snarled, and clenched her fists. Faith frowned. "But then I remembered...that son of a bitch shot me!" The Slayer lowered her stake. "So here's the deal. I'll work with you, blondie. If Red wants to tag along, fine. We find Finn and I kick his ass. After that the vamp and I will finish what we started." She cocked her head. "How's that sound, Red?"
Willow glared at her, then turned to Tara, who nodded. Her face reverted to normal. "Fine."
"Good." Faith put her stake away. "Now, where's the fridge? I'm starving."
Riley sat at a table, gun sitting unobtrusively in his lap, watching men unload a truck loaded with various pieces of metal, computer components, and other electronics. He didn't know what most of it was for but, then again, it also didn't really matter. He paid the men when they were done and closed the door.
Adam emerged from the back room. "Is everything here?"
"Unfortunately no." Riley handed him the clipboard given to him by one of the delivery men. "According to the manifest two containment modules and a compensator were not available. There's an address on here though, for a place that wasn't on your list. We should be able to get the stuff there."
"I must begin construction of the unit at once, and there is no time to wait for another delivery. You shall go to this location and pick up the components yourself."
"Of course." Riley frowned. "But, I don't have any money."
Adam cocked his head. "They have inconvenienced me. I see no reason to exchange currency, do you?"
"Not really." Smiling, Riley headed for the door. "I'll be back in a couple of hours."
Tara was glad they had recently restocked the kitchen, because she had never seen anyone east as much food in one sitting as Faith. The Slayer consumed three big sandwiches, several sausages, a bowl of mashed potatoes and half a cheesecake, and downed it with an entire quart of orance juice.
Faith noticed the blonde staring at her and shrugged her shoulders. "A super-charged Slayer metabolism comes with a price you know." She tore open a bag of chips. "Say, where's dead-girl?"
"I wish you wouldn't say stuff like that. You're just being mean." Tara sat down across from the Slayer. "She's in bed. Without the ring her sleep cycle's been disrupted. She got accustomed to being up in the morning and down at night like me, and now she has to go back to the old way."
"Sucks to be her." Faith propped her feet up on the corner of the table and wolfed down a handful of chips. "So, you come up with a way to find the little doo-dad yet?" Her brow furrowed. "Or better yet, that back-stabbing son of a bitch who stole it?"
"Actually, yes. I was thinking about doing a locator spell. They're traditionally used with a personal item to find an individual, like your Riley. But we don't have anything of his. So I thought maybe I could broaden the scope of the spell enough to find the ring. It's a fairly powerful mystical artifact and it shouldn't be too hard, but I'll need a few more supplies. I don't have everything around here."
Faith went back to the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of soda. "Have fun."
"Do you, umm, maybe want to come with me?" Tara licked her lips. "Normally I'd ask Willow, but..."
"What, do you think you need a bodyguard or something?" Faith snorted. "No, I'm guessing you just don't wanna leave me here alone with your lover-girl. That's smart." She nodded. "Okay. I'll play."
Standing on the other side of the half-open kitchen door, Halfrek made a face and vanished...rematerializing an instant later at one of the room doors. She knocked. It took a couple more insistent tries and several minutes for her to hear someone fumbling around and cursing on the other side.
At length a baggy-eyed, grumpy looked Willow got the door open and glared at her. "What?!"
"Sorry to wake you, I know you need your beauty sleep and all, but you remember that potential threat you told me to keep an eye on? I thought you might want to know it's leaving..."
Halfrek shook her head. "...with your girlfriend."
"What?" Instantly more awake now, Willow pushed past her and charged toward the stairs.
"They're in the kitchen!"
By the time Willow got there, however, Tara and Faith were gone. A note on the table told her where they were going, and when she thought they'd be back. The vampire's face turned turned demonic as she tore the paper apart and snarled angrily. She looked around, her golden eyes smoldering.
Tara didn't have a car since the one she and Willow drove from Sunnydale had since stopped running, and while Faith offered to "borrow" the witch decided it would be better to walk.
"It's only a couple of blocks to Occuls. They should have everything I need."
Faith was immediately drawn to the large display of weapons, mainly knives, near the back of the shop. Several of them reminded her of the dagger of Willow and Tara's, which she recovered and currently had tucked into her belt under her jacket. "Hey, lady."
The brightly dressed, gaudy jwelery wearing proprietor approached her behind the counter.
"Is all this stuff magical?"
"To some degree," Madama Occul replied. "Which is why I chose to display it here, in my magic shop." She put a great deal of emphasis on the next to the last word.
Faith either didn't notice the affront, or didn't seem to care. "And can you tell if something else is magical, just by looking at it?"
"Perhaps. Did you have something particular in mind?"
Faith pulled the dagger out and, after a moment, handed it to the shopkeeper.
"Hmm...impressive. Wonderful craftsmanship. Where on earth did you acquire it?"
"From me." Tara was standing right behind the Slayer, arms crossed, her face pinched and her eyes narrowed. "I was wondering where that got to."
"Hey, blondie. I can explain." Faith gestured. "I was just..."
"I know what you were just. You don't make it easy to trust you, Faith." Tara stepped up to the counter. "She has a point though. Do you know anything about it?"
"Well, I don't recognize the designer," Occul replied. "More research would be required. But from the marking on the hilt, I'd hazard to guess it is a demonbane."
Faith frowned. "A what?"
"A weapon forged by magic, to bring extra pain to demons," said Tara.
Madame Occul nodded. "As a weapon it is of course very sharp, and would no doubt do quite a bit of damage to anyone unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of the blade. However, to demons it will cause what could be referred to as aggravated damage. Above and behind the cutting or stabbing. If you like, think of it as a built in poison that only affects certain kinds of creatures."
Faith took the dagger back and twirled it in her hand. "Excellent."
"Umm, here's what I need." Tara showed her selections to Madame Occul, who nodded.
"I'll put them on your account, dear."
"Thanks. Let's go, Faith."
The Slayer patted the bulge under her jacket and winked at Madame Occul. "Right behind you." Outside she saw a familiar face emerge from a place called TED'S ELECTRONICS across the street. Her eyes narrowed. "Son of a...Tara!" She took off even before the blonde registered her words.
The Slayer ran right out into traffic. A taxi going faster than it should have been had to put on its brakes so hard the tires were screeching and smoking. Faith planted her foot on its bumper and used the momentum to leap into the air, catch the back of an oncoming truck, and flip onto the hood of a limo. It stopped, flinging her once again into the air but she was apparently prepared for this and grabbed a streetlight, slowing herself just enough to land with grace and ease a few feet way from an obviously shocked Riley Finn.
Tara gasped. "Goddess!"
"Boo!" Faith smiled, then reached for Riley.
"Stay the hell away from me, you freak!" He backed away, then turned and ran.
"Come on! I just wanna talk." Faith chased after him. She was faster, but enough of a crowd had gathered thanks to her little stunt that they got in her way. "Move!"
"Faith. Wait!" The Slayer's amazing acrobatics demonstration had stopped even jaded LA drivers in their tracks, allowing Tara to weave her way through the cars and get across the street.
A pair of golden eyes watched her from a storm drain, shielded from the sun by metal grating and quite a lot of concrete. Willow snarled and followed as best she could.
Riley managed to stay one step ahead of Faith, until he made the mistake of ducking into an alley. Not only did she see where he went, but it turned out to be a dead-end. He swore quite loudly, then dropped the bag and pulled the pistol out from under his jacket. As he was turning Faith, hot on his heels, kicked the weapon out of his hand and knocked him for a loop with a right cross. "Bitch!"
"Watch your mouth." Faith kicked him in the face, knocking out one of his teeth. "That looks like it hurts. Then again, so does this!" She drove the heel of her boot into his right palm and he howled in pain as something inside cracked. "You shot me you piece of crap." She bent down and picked up the gun, checked to make sure there was a bullet in the chamber, then pointed it at him. "Maybe I should return the favor."
"Faith, no!" Tara came running into the alley out of breath. She'd barely been able to keep up with them, and she still got the feeling neither of them was really trying. "You can't."
"Oh yes," said the Slayer. "I most certainly can." She wrapped a finger around the trigger.
Tara shook her head. "Killing demons is one thing. It's what you were born for. But murdering a human being in cold blood? That's not you."
"How the hell would you know?"
"I can just tell." Tara smiled. "I have a way with people."
Faith laughed and turned the gun toward a certainy area below Riley's belt. "Oh please."
Just then a manhole cover burst into the air, flying at an angle where it just missed the Slayer. She lost her grip on the weapon and Riley rolled away. Holding his injured hand to his chest he got back to his feet, and was about to go for the bag he'd been carrying when a fully vamp-faced Willow, cloaked by the shadows of the buildings on either side, rose from the sewer between him and his target and tackled Faith before the Slayer could say or do a thing. He considered his options, then turned and ran for the exit.
Tara started to go after Riley, then she heard Willow roar and turned as Faith punched her lover in the stomach and sent the vampire flying. Willow landed on top of a dumpster and rolled back to her feet, hissing angrily. Tara shook her head. "Will you two please knock it off?" She sighed when they ignored her. "I said..." The blonde used her power to catch them as they were leaping at one another, and physically separated them. "...knock it off! This is ridiculous." She put them down. "Faith, you can get back on your own. I'm going to go back through the tunnels with Willow, all right?"
Faith shrugged her shoulders. "Whatever."
"Why did you do that?"
Tara was walking a few steps behind Willow with her arms crossed, alternating between staring at her lover and watching the water for signs of movement. The last times the two of them were in a sewer they were attacked by an aquatic creature that prowled the sewers. Of course that was back in Sunnydale, but she had no reason to think such demonic beasts weren't present in LA as well.
The vampire shrugged her shoulders and mumbled something Tara could not understand. "What?"
Willow stopped, and gritted her teeth. "I said...it was an accident."
"An accident?" Tara frowned. You burst up out of the sewer and went right after Faith. How, exactly, can that be considered an accident?"
"I thought she was attacking you. You were chasing her and I heard you yell. Then I heard someone fighting and I guess I just..." Willow snarled. "I was worried about you."
Tara sighed, and put her hand on the redhead's. "And I appreciate the sentiment sweety. But you can't go beating up on people you don't like, just because you think I'm in trouble. We had Riley. Did you notice? We might have even gotten the ring back if you didn't have such a temper."
"Yeah, I know. I'll work on it." Willow kicked a rock into the water. "In the meantime, can you please ask her to go the hell away?"
"She's a Slayer. I'm a vampire. Every instinct tells me either to kill her before she kills me or run."
"Try, would you?" Tara asked. "For me."
Willow gazed into her lover's eyes and felt her resolve just melt away. "Yeah." They started walking again, hand in hand this time. "But you'd better give her the puppy-dog eyes too or this is just gonna happen again. I'm telling you Tara, that girl is trouble."
When they got back to the hotel Saritha was waiting for them in the basement, and she seemed anxious. "It isss good you have returned. There isss a problem."
"Faith?" Willow asked, her tone indicating she would not be surprised at the answer.
Saritha nodded. "Ssshe isss arguing with your asssissstant." "Halfrek?" said Tara. "About what?"
"I am uncccertain, but I believe it may have sssomething to do with the Ssslayer'sss jussst learning ssshe wasss a demon. Ssshe did not ssseem to be pleasssed with the fact ssshe could hide it."
"Damn it." Tara rushed up the stairs.
Willow was hot on her heels, and and was shaking her head. "See?"
They arrived in the lobby in time to see Faith punching at Halfrek, only the demon vanished. The Slayer twirled around and threw a letter opener she was holding. As Halfrek rematerialized, sitting on the counter, the blade hit her in the chest and she tumbled back behind the counter, hitting the floor with a thump.
Faith saw them coming and nodded. "Hey guys."
"You killed her!" Tara cried. "Why? She wasn't hurting anybody."
"No," the Slayer replied. "But I also didn't kill her either."
Willow frowned. "We just saw you."
"Really?" Faith glanced over her shoulder. Halfrek stood up and pulled the letter opener out of her chest. There wasn't even any blood. "Then I think you better get your eyes checked, vampire."
"Halfrek? You're all right?" Tara asked.
The demon nodded. "I'm fine. It's not that easy to kill me."
"You let her try?"
"I told her it wouldn't work. I also bet her she couldn't react that fast. Guess I lost."
Faith pulled some money out of her pocket and gave them to the demon. "You remember what I said?"
"Yes, yes. Black leather, Old Spice, and Jack Daniels." Shaking her head, Halfrek vanished.
Willow frowned. "Old Spice?"
"I like it," the Slayer replied. "You got a problem with that?"
"We heard you two were fighting," said Tara.
Faith shrugged. "I saw her real face and kind of lost it. But I don't have anything against demons, as long as they haven't hurt anybody I care about."
Willow started to say something, but Tara put a hand on her arm. "Faith..."
"Don't expect me to apologize for the truth blondie. And don't start thinking she and I are ever gonna be friends or anything either. I'll work with her 'cause I don't wanna fight with you. I don't have to like it, or her." Faith slid a TED'S ELECTRONICS bag down the counter towards them. "Meantime, I found this in the alley. Seems our man Finn was doing a little shopping."
"What is it?"
"No clue. All this computer crap gives me a headache."
"I'll see what I can figure out," said Tara. "Will, Faith, you two better go to nuetral corners for now."
The vampire nodded and went into the office. The Slayer headed upstairs.
Tara spent several hours looking through various books and on the Internet. But none of the components, alone or as part of various other systems, were unique enough to give her any clue about what Riley planned to do with them. She finally stopped when Willow came to get her for dinner, during which she didn't get much eating done since had to act as a sort of buffer between her lover and Faith.
"You're acting like children again."
Afterwards, Faith went to the lounge to watch the big-screen TV. According to the Slayer there was a marathon of something called Xena she was interested in. Tara knew the show, and commented to Willow that she thought the co-star of the show was rather cute. Willow sat down to watch too, albeit on the other side of the room from Faith, and after the first episode got up to find the blonde behind the counter.
"You're right. She is."
Down in the basement Saritha sat coiled in her nest of sheets, listening to the program. Her reptilian vision did not allow her to see the images on the screen clearly, but she nonetheless enjoyed the same show as Faith. Right in the middle of one of her favorite episodes she heard something metal scraping against metal. It was the sound of someone opening the sewer entrance grate.
Curious, the snake-demon got up to investigate. She was able to navigate the almost pitch-black basement with ease because her eyes, while not as acute in some ways as those of her hosts, were able to peer into the infrared spectrum and act like nightvision goggles far better than even Willow's. So when she saw the huge shape moving around in the darkness she recoiled, hissing, for she sensed its menace from afar. A moment later a casual blow, which she tried her best to avoid, sent her flying across the room.
In the room above, Willow lifted her head. Her eyes narrowed. "Did you hear that?"
"What?" Tara asked.
"It sounded like...I'm not sure." The vampire stood up. "Saritha. I think she's in trouble."
The blonde joined her. "Let's go check."
"I'll stay here," said Faith. She wasn't particularly, or at all really, concerned about the snake-demon. She had to admit though, to herself at least, Saritha was one of the most pleasant and surprisingly intelligent creatures she'd ever met. Better than many humans.
Willow and Tara were nearly to the basement door when it opened. They held back, both assuming it was going to be Saritha coming up to tell them everything was all right.
Instead, Adam emerged.
They didn't know it had such a name, of course. All they saw was a human/demon/machine creature with a bone skewer jutting out of its arm. It looked around the lobby and caught sight of them. They stared at one another for a few long, uncomfortable moments, then it smiled.
Tara stepped forward, clearing her throat as she glanced nervously over her shoulder at Willow. "Um...hi?" This being was perhaps the strangest she'd met since leaving home, which was quite a feat considering all the demons and alternate reality dopplegangers and killer robots she'd encountered. But as strange as it was she wasn't in any position to judge the thing for being different. "Can we help you?"
"Perhaps. I was informed you are in possession of my belongings, and I would like them back."
Tara shook her head. "What are you talking about?"
Adam scanned his surroundings, and through the window of the office detected the components Riley failed to bring back to him. "Target located. Initiating retreival protocol."
"Hey!" Willow snarled. "Where do you think you're going?"
"I have no time to waste with you now, vampire." Adam barely acknowledged her as she stomped forward. "Stay out of my way. For your own sake."
Willow's face turned demonic. "Hold it right there, pal."
Tara gestured, and the office door slammed closed. It locked too.
"Foolish. That will not stop me." Something came flying through the air at him, but without even looking Adam caught the dagger and kept on walking. "Nor you, Slayer."
Faith stepped out of the lounge and cracked her knuckles. "You wanna make a bet?"
"Children. You do not begin to comprehend my power. No human, or demon, has ever been as awake and aware as I am. My power is greater than any you have faced before. And because I am so far beyond all of you I have no reason to lower myself to physical combat. Leave me."
"Yeah. Like that's gonna happen." Willow charged at Adam, pummeling his side and midsection with blow after vicious blow. The impacts made her knuckles throb yet he wasn't even flinching. "Come on!" She was hitting him as hard as she could. "Don't ignore me!"
Adam stopped, grabbed the vampire's hair and jerked her head back. He looked her in the eye and then sunk the demonbane dagger hilt-deep into her stomach. "Very well."
"Willow!" Tara felt more scared than she had in a long time. "No!"
Faith leaped at Adam from the other side. He caught her in mid-air, his demon hand clamping around her throat with the bone skewer extended just enough to graze her chin. If he'd brought it out all the way it would have gone right up into her brain. "I should kill you." He punched her in the face, knocking her out with a single blow. "But I may yet have a use for you." He threw Willow and Faith into the office through the plate glass window then put a fist through the door itself and ripped it off its hinges.
Tara sensed Willow and Faith were alive, just unconscious. She watched Adam walk in and take the electronics and other components they'd salvaged from Riley. So it was working with Riley? Faith had told them about some government organization he used to work for and she wondered if this was one of its other projects. Whatever it was she sensed no magic coming from it at all, suggesting it was either more machine than human and demon, or else it was just far beyond anything she had ever imagined.
Adam returned, and walked right up to Tara. She stared up at him, waiting to see if he was planning to strike her down as he had done the others, and knowing there was nothing she could do to stop him. Instead, he touched his chest and ejected a CD from a drive that opened in the metal plate there. Without a word he handed it to her then did an abrupt about face and went back down into the basement.
Tara watched him go, speechless.
Willow opened her eyes to see Halfrek's face uncomfortably close to her own. She snarled, both at her and the dull throbbing in her skull, and the demon sat back.
"Hey. So you are alive."
Willow tried to sit up, but her stomach exploded in pain. "Unnh. What happened?" "You got stabbed." Halfrek nodded at the newly blood-soaked bandage wrapped around the vampire's waist. "I'm not entirely sure why it hasn't healed yet, but it looks painful."
"Tara!" Willow remembered the robot/demon creature now, and the last thing she saw before passing out was it advancing on her girlfriend. "Where is she? Is she all right?"
"She's fine. She went to check on Faith." Halfrek smiled. "What exactly happened here? The lobby's a mess, and it looks like you and the Slayer both got the crap kicked out of you."
Willow nodded. "We did." She lay her head back. "Tara didn't tell you the story?" "She did. I just wanted to hear your side of it."
Willow told her what she remembered. "How's Saritha? It came up through the basement, so I figured..."
"She's out of it. Poor thing barely recovered from having her arm chopped off and now this." Halfrek shook her head. "She's probably leave if she had any place else to go."
"So would I," said Willow. "Did Tara say anything about how long this is going to last?" She poked at her wound and winced when, not surprisingly, the pain flared.
"Not really. She said the dagger was a demonbane though, and those things are pretty nasty."
Willow groaned. "Tell me about it."
Tara returned a few minutes later and sat down beside the redhead. Halfrek left. "How are you?"
"I've been better." Willow's nose twitched. She smelled blood, and not her own, but there were no open wounds on Tara's body. She lifted her head. "What's...?"
"Oh." The blonde turned to the bedside table and picked up a glass of blood. "Diana, Missy and Carmen donated this when they found out you'd been hurt." She smiled. "I think they like you." The triplets, as Willow called them even though they weren't actually related and only kind of looked alike, were occupants of the hotel. All three of them had been imprisoned by Warren Meers, the robot-building slave master who Willow and Tara had defeated, and asked to live at the Hyperion after the couple took over.
Willow downed the contents of the glass in seconds, and luxuriously licked her lips. Though she no longer had the hunger, nothing except perhaps making love to Tara made her feel quite as good as fresh, warm human blood, and she reveled in any opportunity to imbibe. "Delicious."
Tara stuck out her lower lip. "Really?"
"Not as tasty as yours of course," Willow quickly amended. "They're a little young, after all."
Tara sighed. "Will, you know the thing that attacked you and Faith?"
"As soon as you were down it grabbed Riley's stuff."
"That's what it came for?"
Tara nodded. "It stopped to talk to me and it gave me this." She took the CD from her shirt pocket. "Before you ask, yes...I already took a look. Part of it is technical schematics about things I can barely understand, though the specific details about Adam are interesting. And, kind of disturbing."
"That, umm, creature you fought. He was named Adam by his creator. Maggie Walsh. She was apparently some scientist working for a government agency, and built Adam from remnants of the strongest humans, demons, and electronic components she could find. Unfortunately her creation woke up and murdered her, brought the whole place down around their ears and then just disappeared."
"Until now. So, he's working with Riley? You said he took the stuff?"
Tara nodded. "From what I read, Riley used to be a part of the Initiative too. That's the place this Dr. Walsh was working when she built Adam. He quit. I guess they're working together."
"But what do they want with the Gem of Amarra? There's no vampire in him is there?"
Tara shrugged her shoulders. "I also can't find any mention of who his human side was either, but I do know the demon part of him is Polgara. They're supposed to be really strong and tough and have a bone skewer that shoots out of their forearm." She tapped the disc. "According to this some his electronic components will, among other things, allow him to absorb virtually any energy directed at him. He has strength and speed said to exceed that of every known demon, and plenty of built-in, adapatable weaponry as well."
"In other words, he's the perfect killing machine."
"Afraid so." Tara touched the redhead's cheek. "It's no wonder you and Faith had such a hard time. You were not at all prepared to deal with a creature like that. Assuming anyone ever could be."
Willow frowned. "You make him sound unbeatable."
"So do the bluerprints. He's got an enhanced uranium core for a power source, Will."
"He can run pretty much forever. He was designed to continue to grow and adapt, even long after the people he was supposed to be fighting for were gone."
Willow sighed. "And I suppose you've told all this to your new best friend already."
"You mean Faith? No, she's sleeping. I figured I'd fill her in once she woke up and you've had a chance to rest. I know the blood hasn't started to take effect yet, but you'd be..." Tara smiled when she realized that somewhere in the last few minutes Willow's eyes had closed. "Sleep well, sweety." She leaned in and kissed the redhead lightly on the lips, then turned and slipped quietly out of the room.
The blood made Willow stronger, and though her wound had not yet completely healed she got out of bed. She went looking for Tara and found the blonde in the kitchen, unfortunately, with Faith.
"Hey, it's the pincushion." The Slayer was eating a hamburger. "How's the gut?"
"I've had worse." Willow smiled slightly upon she noticing Faith's face was bruised, and certain movements did seem to cause her to wince slightly.
Faith leaned back in the chair. "T's been telling me about this Adam character. We know how strong he is. Have you had any luck finding a weak spot on the freak?"
Tara nodded. "One in particular. The uranium core is his power source. Without it, he dies."
"Are you kidding? The thing is buried deep inside his chest right? Under flesh, bone and metal? Not to mention that to get a shot at it, we'd have to get right in the face of something that already kicked my ass without breaking a sweat. And I'm the Slayer. We're overmatched, T."
"I really, you have no idea how much, hate to say this," said Willow. "But the Slayer's right." Faith smiled. "He's stronger than us. He's faster. And he didn't even flinch when we hit him."
Tara looked stunned. "That's it? You're both just giving up?"
"What choice do we have?" Faith asked. "You're the one who told us how tough it is."
"If it were just a matter of fighting Adam maybe I'd agree with you," said Tara. "But there's more on that disc he gave us than specs on Adam himself. There are graphs, very specific time-tables, and a map indicating where he's going to be tonight." She sighed. "And also, what he wants with the ring."
Willow's eyes widened. "Oh?"
"Do tell." Faith was interested too, albeit for different reasons than the vampire.
"Apparently, the Gem of Amarra is one of a special trinity of mystical artifacts, which can be combined into an even more powerful item. Adam is trying to recreate it."
"Why?" Willow asked. "What does it do?"
"I'm not sure. The disc doesn't contain specifics about the united artifact. But according to the blueprints Adam is building a device that harnesses powerful energy. My guess is he's either going to somehow use it to cause, or contain, the magics needed to create the artifact in question."
"Let me see if I've got this straight," said Faith. "Robo-freak is putting together three magic whatevers to create something even worse. And he wants us to know this why? For that matter, why did he tell us all about himself in the first place? Isn't he afraid we're going to show up and stop him?"
Tara shook her head. "No. I really don't think he is. You saw how powerful he is already. I think he's planning to become even stronger and he wants us there to try and stop him so he can prove it. Think about it. In one night he builds a super-weapon, kills the Slayer, and takes out the Gem's previous weilder. That's bound to give him some kind of demon credit all at once, don't you think?"
Willow moved too much, and winced as her stomach flared with pain. "It's a trap." Tara and Faith nodded. "Then the real question is, do we walk into it or not?"
"No," said Faith. "I say the question is, do we still a car or take a bus?"
"What are you talking about?" Willow asked.
"Getting the hell out of Dodge, fang-face. Weren't you listening to blondie? It's over."
Tara frowned. "So you're just going to run away?"
"Of course she is." Willow snarled. "She's just a coward."
Tara stood up. "Faith, we have to stop him. The thing he's planning to build, whatever it is...it's been lost, no, it's been hidden away, for centuries. We're the only ones who know Adam even exists. Which means we are the only ones who can stop him. We can't just take off."
"You got a better idea?" Faith poked the blonde's forehead. "Hello. Is anybody in there? Think, T! We can't stop this guy as it is. Now you tell us he's planning to make himself even stronger? You'd have to be out of your mind to go up against an unstoppable killing machine."
Willow nodded. "Coward. The last Slayer had the guts to walk all alone into the Master's lair, and she took on a whole bunch of vamps single-handedly. She died fighting impossible odds. She wasn't afraid to give her life for a cause she believed in. Obviously, you are."
Before the vampire could react Faith lunged, grabbed her, and pinned her up against a wall. Willow cried out as her stomach erupted in pain. "Listen to yourself. You're whipped, you know that? And you're delusional. How the hell could a pathetic freak like you ever kill a wonderful woman like Amy?"
"You want me to say I'm sorry? Again? Would it make a difference?" Willow's face turned demonic. "Because I am. Yes, I killed her. I gotta live with it too. You hate me. Fine. You can't forgive me? I understand. And if you're looking for a fight don't let the big hole in my stomach fool you, I'm ready to go. But right now we've got to deal with something bigger than you and me. Tara says we have to stop Adam. I agree. If it means we die fighting him, so be it. I've died once already so it's no big deal to me." Her face turned human again. "Thing is, this time Tara is going to be at risk too." She sighed. "And as much as it pains me to admit it, she'd have a better chance of making it through this if both of us are there to back her up."
Tara put a hand on Faith's shoulder. "It's up to you whether you help us or not. But please let Willow go. You're hurting her, and I need her as healthy as possible if my plan's going to work."
"You have a plan?" Faith asked. "What is it?"
"Let her go and I'll tell you." Tara stepped back, and waited to see what the Slayer was going to do. She was also preparing to use her magic to intervene, in case Faith chose poorly.
After a few moment, the Slayer seemed to make up her mind. She let Willow go and backed off. "Fine. Clearly the two of you are insane." She crossed her arms. "There's going to be a throw-down with Adam? I owe that freak a pounding or two. If you really have a way to stop him, I'm in."
"Good." Tara sat down on the counter. "While I was trying to figure out what Adam is planning to create, I came across a spell. It's tricky, but if it works it should give one of you the power to stop him."
"So what's the problem?" Faith asked. "Red's in no condition. Boost me up."
Willow snarled. "Hey! I can still kick your ass!"
Before they could start fighting again, Tara used her magic to grab two towels out of a drawer. She rolled them up and stuffed one in each of the women's mouths. "Honestly. You're like children." She leaned forward. "Faith, I know you're not going to like this, but I think it has to be Willow. The spell I have in mind merges the essence of several individuals into a new whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts."
"Sounds wicked. What's the neg?"
"The spell has to be like for like. That means if you were the recipient, we'd have to use humans. But even if we blended the essences of every single human in this hotel their combined power might not be enough. Willow, on the other hand, is a demon. Demons start off at a much higher power level than humans. Even a Slayer. If it was a group of Slayers then yes, maybe. Do you understand?"
Faith nodded. "Five by five here, blondie. Catch is, Red's hurt. Isn't that a hitch in your brilliant plan? Boost her all you want, she's still going to be playing injured and that's never good."
"Actually it shouldn't be an issue. The spell will compensate for her injury. While she's enhanced she'll be on a different plane of sorts." Tara licked her lips as she turned to Willow. "Of course when it's over and the spell has worn off, you might have to face some consequences."
The redhead shrugged her shoulders. "So what do we do?"
"First thing's first," Tara replied. "We're going to need some donors."
Willow and Tara had helped out nearly everyone currently in the hotel at one time or another, and the demonic tenants were usually more than willing to return the favor.
Tara collected a sample of blood from Halfrek, Saritha, Makor, two Archon demons named Lotor and Vanek, a Chaos demon who'd never given his name, and even that reclusive Sythian demon on the second floor who they'd only seen once since he'd come to stay with them. She combined it all into a vial and performed the ritual, while explaining what was going to happen to Willow and Faith.
"As soon as you drink this all the demons who are taking part will fall unconscious, and a large portion of their essences will be transferred to you. You'll have the combined strength and speed of seven demons in addition to your own natural abilities. There's also the matter of their powers."
"I get their powers?" Willow asked.
Tara nodded. "Anything one of them can do you'll be able to while this spell is in effect. Except that you'll do a much stronger version of the same power."
"Excellent." Willow knew Chaos and Sythian demons had a wide range of physical and mystical abilties she had always been curious about. "Hey." Something else occured to her. "Tara, will I still be...me?"
"You said I get their essences, right? Does that include their memories too? Am I going to be so involved in all the conflicting mental stuff I can't do anything against Adam?"
Tara opened her mouth, apparently to respond, then just as quickly closed it again and looked down at the book in her lap. "I-I don't know. There are no records of anyone having performed this spell correctly. Or of anyone in screwing it up either. It exists, and I know how to do it. That's all."
Faith smirked. "So, fang-girl could end up in flames or something? I like that."
"There's actually another potential problem too," said Tara, ignoring the Slayer's prodding. "Will, I can't be sure how long the power is going to last. You should be more than strong enough to beat Adam but there's a chance it also give out in the middle of your fight..."
"...which would suck," said Willow.
Faith shrugged her shoulders. "Not for me."
"I suggest you wait until the last possible moment to drink the blood," Tara said. "To maximize the time you are in control of all the extra power."
Faith leaned forward in her seat, sneering. "And what the hell will I be doing while wonder-girl here is mopping the floor with the patchwork monster?"
"Willow's going to have her hands full with the spell and Adam," Tara replied. "So it'll be up to us to keep Riley and anyone else he has with him, away from her."
"So what you're saying is, we're the clean-up crew?" Faith asked, clearly not happy about the idea.
Tara sighed. "I wouldn't have put it that way but, yes, basically. We are."
"Whatever." The Slayer cracked her knuckles. "I still owe that backstabber a face full of knuckles. Long as I get to hit something, I really don't give a damn."
"Good. Then I suggest we all get some rest. According to the disc, Adam's going to be at this warehouse on the pier at midnight. That's gives us...eight hours."
Willow decided she needed a shower. As the redhead emerged, naked, from the bathroom Tara, who was laying on the bed, noticed the vampire's wound was gone.
"Hey. You're healed."
"Only externally. I still feel like I'm torn up inside. That knife..." Willow touched her stomach. "Speaking of, do you think it's a good idea to let Faith keep it?"
"She is the Slayer," said Tara. "As long as she doesn't try to use it on you, or anyone else here, we might as well let her have it. That'd be easier than trying to take it away from her."
"I suppose." Willow smiled and crawled onto the bed and nuzzled the blonde's neck. "It occurs to me, we've got a couple of hours before we have to get ready."
"Mmm." Tara put her arms around the redhead and pulled her close. "Well, I certainly don't need magic to know what you're thinking." They kissed. "But are you sure you're up to this?"
"Yes ma'am." Willow started to undo the buttons of Tara's shirt, with her teeth.
In the next room, Faith groaned and slid off the bed. "Unbelievable. They're at it again." Her mind was racing as she headed for the door. Halfrek happened to be passing by in the hall and she caught the demon's shoulder. "Are they always like this?"
Halfrek smiled. She could clearly hear the sounds coming from Willow and Tara's bedroom. There was also an unmistakable flush on Faith's face. "I haven't been here much long than you so I can't say for sure, but as near as I can tell...yes. Like it or not, they're very happy together."
"The way they go at it, I'm surprised they have energy left to do anything else." Faith shook her head. "Look, I'm going nuts just sitting around here. I need to be doing something." She glanced over her shoulder at a particularly loud, throaty cry from Tara. "Do me a favor, would you? If they ever come up for air tell them I went on ahead to scout the place where Adam's supposed to be tonight. I'll meet them there."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Halfrek asked. "He might be waiting for you."
"Yeah." Faith nodded. "But if we meet him on his terms without having at least some idea of what we're walking into, we're as good as dead anyway. This way, it's my move."
"Good luck Slayer." The strangest part, Halfrek thought to herself as Faith left, was that some part of her really meant it. She looked back at Willow and Tara's door, then disappeared.
Adam was sitting in front of a computer, but wasn't typing. A USB cable from the console was plugged into the side of his head, and as his eyes moved across the screen words and images formed, disappeared, and rearranged themselves. He smiled slightly as he heard footsteps.
"Let me guess. Company's coming?"
Some time later Willow and Tara came downstairs to see Halfrek hard at work on the computer. The lobby was otherwise empty, which surprised the blonde.
"Have you seen Faith? We were supposed to go over our plan, but she didn't answer the door."
"That's because she's not here," Halfrek replied. "She said she was heading over to the place you guys are going to try and figure out what you're going to be up against."
Tara frowned. "What?"
"I know. It sounded crazy to me too."
"Didn't you say anything? Hallie, she's going to get herself killed. You should have stopped her."
"Are you kidding? She's a Slayer."
Willow nodded. "She's right. I couldn't have stopped Faith if I'd been down here, and I doubt you could either. It was her decision to make."
"You're both loving this, aren't you?" Tara asked. "Get a Slayer out of the way without breaking a sweat?"
"Or a nail," said Halfrek. She paled at the expression on the blonde's face. "It was a joke."
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "What's the big deal? She dies and another is called. It's not like the world will be without a hero for very long. Let's just hope the next one's got a better attittude."
Tara gritted her teeth. "Listen to yourself! Faith is a human being. And whether you like it or not, she's also my friend. Faith's trying to prove something, and we have to save her from herself." She started toward the door. "It's time to go. The sun's down. Did you bring the blood?"
Willow put a hand in her breast pocket and felt the vial. "Right here."
"Good. Come on." Tara paused at the door. "Hallie, if we don't come back...the deed to the hotel, it's in the safe in the office. You'll have to find some other way to get it out though. I use magic to lock and unlock it so there's not an actual combination, but if you have to..."
Halfrek nodded. "I understand."
"You trust her?" Willow asked once they were outside.
Tara shrugged her shoulders. "Why not? She's done nothing except help us so far."
"I used to think you were so naive," said Willow. "But now, I realize it's something else. You have a sense about people and I don't mean with the magic. You don't trust people implicitly, you give them the benefit of the doubt until they prove themselves unworthy. I just can't do that. My instinct tells me everyone is a potential risk. Since losing my demon I can't always tell good and bad apart the way I used to, so now whenever I have doubts I use the only moral compass I have, or need, anymore." She smiled. "You."
Tara blushed. "That's so sweet. I appreciate you saying that Will. But I'm not the smartest person in the world. I don't always know what to do."
"Maybe not. At least whenever I follow your lead, I can be sure I'm on the right side."
The warehouse on pier 17 was where Adam's disc said he would be that evening, not that they actually believed it was all that trustworthy. They had nothing else to go on. Wary of a possible ambush by Riley, or Adam for that matter, Willow took the lead as they approached the structure.
"I don't see Faith," said Tara. "But there are two entrances. Do we go in the front or the back?"
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "Does it really make any difference? One way or another I'm sure they already know we're here."
Tara arbitrarily chose the rear entrance. There were no windows and nothing around for any to be hiding behind or inside. As they got closer she noticed something sticking in the door. "The demonbane?" The knife Faith took with her. "Goddess. They must have gotten her. She may be..."
"You care?" Willow asked. Tara nodded. "Then we'll find her. If she's alive, we'll help her. If not, then you'll cry and I'll..." She stopped herself in mid-sentence when she saw the expression on Tara's face. "Sorry." She took the knife and handed it to the blonde. "Stay close."
"Right behind you." Soon after entering the warehouse Tara began to feel very uncomfortable. There was magic all around them, but it was unlike anything she had ever sensed before. It felt older somehow, primal almost, and not at all the cold, mechanical near void she noticed around Adam. "Will."
"Something's not right. I think we'd better get out of here."
The redhead frowned. "What about Faith?"
"I want to help her, but I don't like this place, Willow. Something very bad is happening here."
Willow nodded. "Fine by me." They turned to leave, just as a metal plate slide into place over the door they had just entered. Similar plates covered the windows. They were trapped. "On second thought, maybe we should hang around a while." He face turned demonic. "Seeing as he went to all the trouble of decorating."
"Oh Goddess, it was a trap." Tara put her hand on Willow's shoulder. "The potion."
"Right." The redhead reached into her pockey and pulled out the vial, then a pale human hand with metal digging into its knuckles grabbed her wrist. She looked up into the face of Riley Finn, whose body had been converted to a half-machine state. One of his eyes was red and mechanical now. "Son of a..."
Riley took the vial with his other hand and tossed it away. At least they didn't hear it break. Then he backhanded the vampire and she went flying headlong into a stack of crates on the far side of the warehouse. The human side of his face was completely unreadable as he turned in Tara's direction. "Take her."
Someone grabbed the blonde from behind. Dark-skinned arms, with mechanical components similar to Riley's she realized. Tara glanced over her shoulder and saw Gunn, the man who'd been working with Riley and Faith. He had also become some sort of half-robot monster. "Where's Faith?"
"Right here." Gunn turned so the blonde could see Adam, standing on a catwalk high above. He was holding the, Tara hoped only, unconscious body of the Slayer by her collar. "Foolish child thought she could defeat my all on her own. Much like the two of you." Riley stepped up beside Gunn and Tara. He was holding Willow easily in his arms in spite of the fact she was obviously struggling. "I calculated a seventy three percent likelihood you would respond to the fictitious data on the disc I gave you with such eagerness."
Tara frowned. What do you mean, fictitious? It was all a lie?"
"Not the technical specifications about myself, no. I needed that to be authentic. And obviously this location is correct as well. But the intention listed for the Gem of Amarra?" Adam shook his head. "A fallacy. One designed to compel the three of you to act more hastily than you might otherwise."
"To get you here." Adam tossed Faith off the catwalk, and the Slayer crashed down on the hard concrete floor a few feet away from them. "You are to bear witness to a most momentous occasion. The return of an entity which has not been seen in this world for millennia."
"You knew, didn't you?" Tara asked. "About us. Our plans. How?"
Adam nodded. "Indeed I did. The Union spell was an interesting idea, I'll admit. One I might have had a difficult time preparing a proper defense against, if not for a little...inside help." He turned his head and Halfrek appeared beside him. "Isn't that right, my dear?"
The demon smirked.
Adam had Riley and Gunn bind Willow, Tara and Faith with chains while he and Halfrek came downstairs. They did the vampire and Slayer first, giving the witch a chance to mutter a spell under her breath. The manacles didn't clamp securely around her wrists, and while they were locked she would be able to easily slip her hands free any time she chose. Now was not that time, however.
Tara sneered as Adam and Halfrek approached. Willow was struggling but Riley held her still, and Faith had yet to awaken. "Why? I thought you were our friend."
The demon shrugged her shoulders. "It's nothing personal. I just did what I was told. My boss D'Hoffryn got his orders and he told me to come do come here and listen to Adam. Adam then told me to get close to you guys, so I could let him know if you came up with anything."
Willow frowned. "Wait, how can someone order D'Hoffryn around? The Master told us about him. He's one of the upper level demons. Who has authority over a guy like that?"
"Someone far beyond your limited understanding," Adam replied. "Speaking of your Master, he's considered an elder among vampires, is he not?"
"He was," said Willow.
Adam nodded. "Before his passing at the hands of the previous Slayer, did he ever happen to speak to you about the origin of your race? What do you know of vampire history?"
The question took Willow by surprise. She'd come expecting a fight, not a history lesson, and found it difficult reorganizing her thoughts to remember one of the Master's early lectures. "Just that this world used to belong to the true demons a long time ago. They were huge, incalculably powerful creatures, who somehow lost their hold on our reality." She was reminding herself and explaining it to Tara at the same time, though she suspected Adam already knew it all. "One of the last ones tried to hold on. It failed, but before leaving managed to merge a part of itself with a human and created the very first vampire."
"Succinct, but accurate. I'm assuming then your Master never told you this first vampire's name?"
"I didn't know it had one," Willow replied. "So I guess not."
Adam leaned close to the redhead and whispered, just loud enough for Tara to hear too. "Amarra." He smiled at the almost identical expressions on both their faces. "Didn't you give any thought to wondering who the ring was named for?" He shook his head and clasped his hands behind his back. "Amarra was a witch, essentially, and quite a powerful one at that, and while she did take pleasure in the departure of the demons her heart and soul had long since been bound to evil. When the demon made its offer of power she accepted without hesitation. She became the very first what you would call vampires, though her abilities were far beyond what measly remnants a diluted descendant like the Master gleaned. The demon part of her found it was not without weakness, however. Sunlight burned her flesh, for one. Amarra she set out to test the limits of her humanoid nature, spawning a number of, by your standards at least, incredibly powerful offspring called Turok-Hans. Primordial vampires, you might say. In her children these weakness were magnified, not only could they be killed by the sun but wood through the heart and fire. Despite her immortality and other powers Amarra felt concern for her own well-being in a world which every day seemed to become more hostile toward non-humans, so..."
"...she created the ring to protect herself," Tara offered.
Adam nodded. "Correct, except that it wasn't a ring at the time. Rather it was in the form of a necklace. Amarra never removed it, and from that day forth believed herself indestructible. Which, for a time, she was. She ruled a significant segment of the ancient world with the Turok-Hans, who were utterly devoted to their sire and obeyed her every word without question. In time she realized the same wasn't true of those that followed, however. Each subsequent generation of vampires was more distant from Amarra, and her influence, and some secretly coveted that which made her immune. A terrible war raged, enveloping and destroying entire continents before its end. In the chaos Amarra lost her gem and retreated from the battlefield. Centuries later the gem turned up, now crafted into a ring by unknown hands, but was again lost soon after. This has happened time and again throughout history, with none of the vampires who stumble across the ring managing to hold onto it for any length of time. There's a rumor among your kind that it is searching for its one true mistress."
Faith sat up. "Fascinating." Tara wondered how long the Slayer had been awake. "But I flunked history. What the hell does any of this have to do with anything?"
"How can you possibly know any of that?" Willow asked. "Even the Master didn't." She glanced at Tara. "I asked him once. He said he had no idea who the first vampire really was."
"Your Master was not as old and knowledgeable as mine," said Halfrek. "And certainly not as his."
Adam nodded. "I was given the information I just recounted to you, by the one being in this reality aged enough to have actually been there."
"Who are you..." Willow's eyes widened. "Oh hell."
"Been there," said a voice behind the redhead. "Done that." A brown-haired young woman in jeans and a sweater leaned over her shoulder. "You see, I've moved on now."
Tara gasped. "A-Amy?"
"That's Amy?" Faith asked. She'd never seen a picture of her online friend. "I thought she was dead."
Willow shook her head. "She is. Trust me. That is not Amy."
"Then who is it?" said Tara. Whoever the woman was, she felt dizzy just being in her presence. She was walking darkness. Pure evil the likes of which the witch had never encountered before and never wanted to again. It made her skin crawl, and she felt like she needed to throw up.
"You can call me the First," 'Amy' replied. "All my friends do."
"As in the First Evil," said Halfrek. "Just in case you're wondering. An entity beyond all others. It was around in the millennia before Amarra or the Old Ones, and will still be here long after this world is a smoldering ruin. It's power is unrivaled, and it is the only thing D'Hoffryn would ever call master."
'Amy' put her hand to her chest. "Please. You're making me blush."
Tara frowned. "Why does it look..."
"...like Amy?" It finished, as if knowing the blonde's thoughts. "Given the circumstances, I thought your friend's face would be appropriate."
"The First has the ability to take on the appearance of any deceased being," said Adam. "It wore the guise of my creator, Maggie Walsh, when it came to me. It told about Amarra and how, after centuries of searching, it finally found the lost Vampire Matriarch and wanted my help in resurrecting her."
"Why?" Faith asked. "If it's the big bad to end all big bad's, why does it need anybody? Hell, for that matter, why does it even bother with this Amarra chick?" 'Amy' stepped forward and tried to slap the Slayer but her hand went right through her. "Oh."
"Noncorporeal," Tara realized. "It can't do anything on its own."
"Correct," said Adam. "I had Amarra removed from the stone prison which had entombed her for centuries, and arranged to have her brought here." An electronically guided pulley system overhead whirred to life and began to lower a huge chunk of rock, along with a device that appeared to have been made out of some of the things Riley had taken from TED's. "Meanwhile, Mr. Finn went about arranging to get the Slayer and your vampire together in the hopes of reducing her to dust particles, so he could take the ring."
In one sudden moment of clarity, Tara understand. "That's what this was all about? You're releasing Amarra, and plan to have the ring that makes her invulnerable waiting for her."
"Yes, although it was also an interesting exercise. I was curious to see how all the parties involved with react. I will admit I did not anticipate the vampire and the Slayer joining forces."
'Amy' transformed into the Master, and Willow hissed. "That's my child. Never doing what you expect."
"There's another reason too," said Halfrek. "When Amarra wakes up she's going to be famished. A Slayer and an exceptional young witch should be a tasty treat, don't you agree?"
The Master licked his lips. "Quite. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it."
"We must begin." Adam gestured to Riley and Gunn. "Watch them. Remember, no one dies. However, if any of them get out of hand, feel free to discipline them however you wish." He turned and pressed a button on the side of his creation. It hummed to life, and a sphere of energy formed at the point of what Tara began to realize was a suspiciously gun-shaped instrument. "The atomizer is on-line."
"How long will it take?" Halfrek asked.
Adam was silent for a moment as he calculated. "Assuming the power flow remains constant and the process is not interrupted...approximately sixteen point four minutes."
"Good. As long as the First is pleased, I'll be well rewarded for my services." Halfrek frowned. "Of course, if it fails, well, I doubt I'll be long for this reality."
"D'Hoffryn sounds like a harsh master," said Adam. "I would like very much to meet him, when this is over." He pushed another button and the stone cocoon was instantly enveloped in fiery energies. "Now that the process has begun I must keep a close eye on these readings. Should it become unstable..."
"Better that than what D'Hoffryn'll do to me," said Halfrek.
The First turned its back on them and crouched in front of Tara. As it did so it transformed into a young blonde woman the witch did not recognize, but Willow did. It was the last Slayer who Master had died killing. Her name was Buffy...something. "It's ironic."
"What?" Tara asked, scared to death being so close to the entity.
"You two." She nodded at Willow. "Together. I am a part of so many different realities. Everywhere there's evil there exists a piece of my essence, smoldering within the breast of every living thing with or without a soul. And while many things tend to be different one remains annoyingly constant. You always find each other. Sometimes it happens sooner, others it takes far longer, and the circumstances are often as varied as they are similar. But as much as I have often tried to prevent it you always wind up together, and invariably..." She smiled. "...except for a couple of notable anomalies, your actions usually end up thwarting my plans."
Tara frowned. "How is that ironic?"
"That fate plays such games with your spirits. Drawn to one another, only to be torn apart time and again. Every reality I have been to has the two of you ultimately wrenched apart. Not by the inevitability of the limited mortal lifespan either. Never have I seen you live out the total of your lives together. Something always seems to come along, often delightfully violent and bloody, to take one from the other. I have seen vampiric versions of each of you turned to dust, magic consuming you, her doing magic that destroys her entire world, and one where you are shot right in front of her eyes." 'Buffy' smiled. "Oh, I do so love being me."
Tara once again felt like she was going to be sick. "Willow."
"I'm right here baby." Willow gasped as the First was suddenly by her side, only now it looked like Xander. Her best friend back in her human days. He was the one who turned her. "You're not him."
"Yes I am. It's me Will." Xander moved as if to stroke her hair, frowning when she jerked her head away. "What happened to you? You were once a great beast. A predator. You served me so well, and now look at you. Bending to the will of a mortal? You would choose her over me?"
Willow stared into her sire's eyes and sneered right back and him. "Yes!"
"So be it." 'Xander' stood up. "I've had enough of this. My attention is needed elsewhere. But I shall return once Amarra is up and about." He blew Willow a kiss, then his body collapsed in on itself and disappeared with an odd popping sound and a flash of light.
"I thought she'd never leave." Faith rolled backwards, spun around like a break-dancer, and swept-kicked Gunn's legs out from under him. As he went down she came up. "Move it, Red!"
Snarling, the vampire's face changed and she tackled Riley. Taken completely by surprise he was staggered and unable to prevent her from wildly punching him in the head and chest.
Tara blinked. They were actually working together. Or at least they weren't actively trying to kill one another at the moment. That was progress.
"What the hell are you waiting for blondie?" Faith ducked under a rather clumsy punch from Gunn. "Now's your chance. Find the damn potion while we keep these guys busy."
"She's right. Go!" Willow grunted as Riley punched her in the stomach. "We'll cover you!"
Tara got to her feet. If the two of them were on the same page who was she to argue? She slipped her hands out of the manacles, then whispered a spell to release Willow and Faith's as well. "I'm on it!" She went running in the direction she had last seen the vial.
Adam and Halfrek, who were busy with the machine, could no longer ignore the commotion behind them. They turned as Gunn was throwing Faith into a wall. Willow had climbed onto Riley's back, thrown her legs around his waist and was viciously pounding on his half-metal skull.
The cyber-demonoid frowned. "Fools."
"Shouldn't we stop them?" Halfrek asked. "What if the Slayer and the vampire win?"
"They will not."
"How can you be so sure?"
"My creations are too strong. I made certain of it." Adam shook his head. "Even if they do, it doesn't matter. As long as they are focused on one another they will be unable to stop us. Once Amarra awakens nothing these little insects do will matter any longer." Past the combatants he noticed a blonde-haired figure moving into the mostly empty packing crates on the other side of the warehouse. He frowned.
"What is it?" Halfrek asked. His body-language seemed suddenly different, worried almost, which in turn made her very nervous. As far as she could tell, nothing bothered this guy.
"The witch. You said she had created a potion for the vampire, to make her stronger?"
Halfrek nodded. "A lot stronger. Why?"
"Because, I believe she is attempting to retrieve it." Adam pointed. "Deal with her. I must remain here."
"Right." Halfrek disappeared.
Tara was having no luck. There was not much room to move around among the crates, and even less light to see by. She knew she was running out of time. "Damn it!"
"Tsk tsk tsk." Tara looked up. Halfrek was peering down at her from atop a stack of crates. "Such language from someone who like to think she's a good girl." Her face turned fully demonic. "It's over. Give up now, and maybe I can convince Adam to go easy on you."
Tara frowned. "Meaning what, he'll kill me quickly?" She held up her hand and waves of invisible force battered Halfrek--first knocking the surprised demon off the crates then knocking them over on her. The blonde slumped to her hands and knees, momentarily drained. "Goddess." Down low she saw a glint of something near one of the fallen crates, and was crawling toward it when Halfrek reappeared in front of her
The demon was seething. "You'll regret that!" She grabbed Tara by the belt and jerked her off her feet. "Did you really think you had a chance against me? I'm over a thousand years old! I have seen whole countries rise and fall time and again. I've started wars, famines and mass riots around the world, and all before breakfast. What could a weak, pathetic little nothing like you ever hope to do to a demon like me?"
Tara slipped her hands behind her back while shrugging her shoulders. "You really want to know?"
"Yes." Halfrek brought the witch's face close to her own. "Tell me."
"I'll do better than that. I'll show you." Tara grabbed Halfrek's shoulder, and sank the demonbane dagger into her chest so hard the tip of the blade almost came out the demon's back. She wasn't sure if it hit Halfrek's heart, or if she even had one, but immediately the demon's body reacted. Her eyes went wide and her arms fell limply to her sides, allowing Tara to easily get away. She fell to her knees. "Believe it or not I am sorry." She was just glad she had had the foresight to cloak the dagger with magic after Willow gave it to her.
Halfrek's eyes were glassy as she coughed up blood. "Bitch." She made one last, half-hearted attempt to grab at Tara, then convulsed violently and fell, the dagger sticking obscenely out of her chest.
The blonde sighed. "Good-bye, Hallie." Returning to her search, it didn't take her long to find the vial since her fight with Halfrek had jostled so many of the crates. Clutching it tightly in her hand she was beaming as she went back to see how Willow and Faith were doing.
The vampire had wrapped her chains around Riley's neck and was choking him with them. Apparently, whatever Adam had done to him did not removed his need to breathe, for his human eye was bulging out of his head and he was wildly clutching at the chain. Though she suspected he was as strong as Willow, Tara could tell her lover had leverage over the half-mechanical man and was wearing him down.
Faith, on the other hand, wasn't doing so well. Gunn was casually deflecting nearly half of her punches with his mechanical arm, and just seemed to shrug off the rest. He barely ever managed to hit her in return, but whenever he did get a blow in the Slayer was clearly rocked by it and took a moment to recover. The two of them appeared to Tara to be just about equal in strength, though Faith was faster.
The blonde glanced over at Adam. His machine, whatever it was, had already removed enough of the rock that a vaguely human shape was beginning to form. Tara didn't know what would happen if Amarra actually woke up, but she also wasn't about to stand around waiting to find out either. "Willow!" She threw the vial as hard as she could, then without waiting to see if the redhead caught it or not charged at Adam. As she did so she chanted a spell she hoped would help protect her from the cyber-demonoid.
Adam turned seconds before Tara would have been upon him and extended his bone skewer. He held his arm at waist level so she would be impaled on it. Instead it broke, as it struck a rippling barrier which rose between him and the witch. He cocked his head. "Interesting."
"Broke your arm," said Tara. She hadn't been sure it would work.
Adam nodded. "Got another." Several mechanical components on his arm shifted, snapping into place to form a twin-barreled weapon. He pointed it at her.
Tara's eyes widened and she raised her barrier again.
His weapon began unleashing a volley of thin bolts of crimson light. The first several dissipated on her barrier, but he noted that each impact caused her to wince and reduced the energy output of her magic a little more. "The game is over, witch. You are merely postponing the inevitable."
Sobbing, Tara fell to her knees. Her magic dissolved. Her head felt like it was going to explode. She just could not fight him anymore. "N-No."
"No?" Adam was confused. Was the witch delirious? "No, what?"
"Not...postponing." Tara raised her head, her tear-filled eyes focused on the cyber-demonoid. "The word you're looking for, is distracting."
Something hit Adam in the back so hard he was knocked into his atomizer. The beam went straight up in the air and burned a hole in the ceiling as it was falling over. Once it finally hit the ground there was a minor explosion, which engulfed the cyber-demonoid in fire. He rose from them, only slightly charred, slapped out a few licks of flames on his pants, and sneered at the figure standing beside Tara.
Willow looked like she'd been run through a ringer. Her clothes were torn, she was bruised and bloody, but her eyes were cold and black and her vampiric features twisted in an angry sneer.
Tara blinked. "Will?"
Willow spoke between growls. "Go...help...Faith."
Tara glanced over her shoulder. The Slayer was down on one knee, trying her best to fend off blows from Gunn and not always succeeding. "But..."
"Go," said Willow. "I'll be fine." She cracked her knuckles. "I may look like crap, but I feel great."
Tara squeezed her lover's arm, then turned and ran.
Adam crossed his arms as Willow approached. "I'm disappointed."
"In what? Pretend I care."
"After all the talk about this wondrous potion of yours, I was expecting something more...dramatic. Glowing or floating, perhaps. You look exactly the same."
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "Don't you know the old saying?" She punched Adam so suddenly he never saw it coming and he stumbled back, clearly shocked. "Looks can be deceiving."
As a witch Tara had learned to see things beyond the normal human limitations of vision. One look at Willow's aura revealed just how much her lover had changed.
Normally a vampire's aura was cold, pale blues and greens, with somewhat brighter remnants of their humanity lingering around the fringes. After the Black Luster Ritual Willow's showed more vibrant colors and activity but nothing compared to a normal human's, and she could easily be recognized as a vampire, or at least a non-human, by anyone capable of perceiving magic or auras specifically.
It was on fire now. Bright reds, yellows, flares of orange and green, with black spikes. Tara sensed at least a bit of each of the demons who had contributed to the spell surging within Willow. Oddly, in some places where she generally had the strongest coloring of her own were notably dark, empty spaces.
Tara smiled. "It worked. By the Goddess, it actually worked!" On the way to help Faith the witch saw Riley. Her girlfriend had literally ripped his head off and thrown it somewhere else. She closed her eyes for a moment, and bent down in a pool of blood to pick up the chains Willow had been choking him with. She twirled them over her head as she approached Faith and Gunn, who was throttling the Slayer. "Hey! Ugly!"
Whether he was responding to her words or her voice Gunn turned his half-mechanical head, just as Tara threw the chains as hard as she could. While she had the strength she did not have the aim, they missed Gunn by quite a large margin and he seemed to find this amusing enough to turn away from Faith. She nodded. She hadn't planned to hurt him, of course, just distract him. And it appeared to have worked.
"Come and get me! I dare you!" Past Gunn, who was staring at her, Tara saw Faith crawling toward Halfrek, who was laying nearby. Then Gunn started moving again, toward her. "Uh oh." She knew it was pointless to try and use magic to defend herself. That fight with Adam had pretty much drained her. "Faith? If you've got any bright ideas, now would be a good time."
The Slayer rose behind Gunn, brandishing the demonbane. "Okay." She used both hands to drive the dagger into the back of Gunn's skull. He froze, his human wide and glassy, then his arms slumped to his sides and he fell flat on his face, in a growing pool of his own blood. "Damn. He's got a hard head."
"Are you okay?" Tara asked.
"Five by five..as long as you don't count all the bruises, the dislocated shoulder and the internal bleeding." Faith clutched her side as she chuckled. Her face was puffing up with bruises. "How about you, blondie? You look like you're about to pass out." Tara nodded. "I am. But not yet. I have to make sure Willow's okay."
They both turned to look.
Adam punched at Willow, again and again, but each time the vampire effortlessly ducked and twisted out of the way. Her movements were almost a blur to the cyber-demonoid, who was quickly becoming frustrated and angry with his inability to strike his target.
"Stand still, damn you!"
Willow smirked. "All right." She stopped, and realizing this might be his only chance Adam swung his demonic fist straight into the vampire's face. At the very last second she reached up and grabbed his wrist, and to his great surprise he could not move his arm any further.
Adam's brow furrowed. She wasn't even straining to hold him still, which meant she had to actually be stronger than him. He extended the plasma cutter he'd fired at Tara earlier. Mystically enhanced or not he knew there was no way she could withstand such a blast at this range.
Willow realized it too. With one hand and little effort she angled his arm so the only thing he would be able to shoot was the ceiling, yet he still continued to struggle until she drove her other fist through metal and bone and flesh deep into his chest. Deep within his body she blindly felt around and found his uranium powered 'heart'. He punched her repeatedly, desperately in the face with his free hand, but what little damage he caused wasn't nearly
enough to stop her from squeezing until at last the containment pod shattered.
Adam froze. His power core was destroyed and his entire body went limp, falling into Willow's arms. Covered in his blood and other fluids the vampire snarled victoriously, then pulled her hand out and tossed her opponent's now lifeless corpse aside. It landed, ironically enough, face-down across the top of the very stone 'coffin' he had been trying to open, which was also soon soaked in his ichor.
Willow's face returned to normal. She heard Tara coming and held up her blood-soaked hand. "Better wait until I have a chance to get cleaned up, baby."
The blonde pouted. "Okay. But Goddess, you were incredible."
"I gotta admit, I'm impressed Red." Faith crossed her arms. "That was some nice work."
"Thanks." Willow clenched and unclenched her fists. "I still feel it. The power. It's inside me, Tara. How long is this going to last?"
"I don't know. Could be minutes. Or hours. There's no way to tell." Tara turned to Faith. "You're complimenting her now. Does this mean you won't try to kill Willow anymore?"
The Slayer shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. I still can't stand being around you Red. You're a vampire and something deep-down inside says I'm supposed to kill you." She frowned. "I'll never forgive you for what you did to Amy either." Willow nodded. "But Tara says you're okay, and I know from experience you aren't like any other vampire I've ever met. So, what the hell, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. Just don't make me regret it. Or I'll have to come back here and kick your ass."
"Deal." Willow's eyes narrowed. "Speaking of something deep-down inside, do you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Tara asked.
Faith shook her head. "I don't hear anything."
"It sounds like...a woman's voice, whispering in my ear," said Willow.
"What is she saying?" Tara knew her lover wasn't imagining things. She was beginning to sense an old, powerful presence. Not the First either, but something nearly as primal.
Willow shook her head. "I can't understand it. But I feel like...I want to answer it. Help her."
"Uhh, Red?" Faith's eyes widened as she pointed. "Maybe that wasn't such a good idea."
Willow and Tara both turned. Adam's blood was being absorbed by the stone, which was showing jagged cracks all over its surface. Something within was exerting a great deal of pressure.
"Oh hell," said the redhead. "Amarra."
Tara paled. "We failed. She's waking up anyway."
A hand burst out of the top of the stone, knocking Adam to the floor. It was thin, with tatters of weathered gray flesh stretched over bare bone and worn tendons. The fingers had dagger-like claws, dulled by age or lack of use, that curved into a fist as they withdrew. Then the stone exploded.
Tara and Faith both backed away, more to avoid the flying shrapnel than out of fear. Willow stood still, and she seemed to be transfixed on the hideous creature rising before her.
It was humanoid, but it was once human that had been long ago. Now it was little more than a skeleton, with the remnants of desiccated flesh and musculature still showing in places. Patches of hair, of an unidentifiable color, still hung off its otherwise naked skull. Part of its face appeared to have caved in, but the one feature that was so unmistakably 'alive' in the creature were its eyes. Bright, piercing pools of gold, flecked with bronze that peered out from under it's ridge brow. When it opened its mouth they saw fangs.
The thing's voice was hoarse, barely intelligible, in fact, and Tara shuddered when she heard it. It made her skin crawl. She noticed that Faith was just staring blankly at it though, not moving and barely breathing, while Willow was actually moving slowly towards it. "No!"
Amarra, or what was left of her, cupped Willow's cheek. The redhead's eyes fluttered closed and she threw her head back, exposing her neck. "You are...one of mine?"
"I'm a vampire," Willow acknowledged. She felt light-headed. It was hard to think straight. She knew she should be fighting, but something inside told her to obey this creature's every word.
Amarra turned her head. Her eyes met Faith's and the Slayer's jaw went slack. She shuffled forward, without so much as a single word of protest, and the creature slipped her finger's into the brunette's hair. "And you? Are you one of mine as well?"
"Hell no!" Faith was scared and confused. She wanted to resist, to lash out at the creature, but her body seemed to be ignoring her. "I'm not...one of...I'm not a..." She shook her head.
Amarra jerked the Slayer's head back and sank her fangs into her neck. Faith moaned. Her arms remained at her sides but her hands were spastically clenching to every beat of her heart.
Tara gasped. "Faith!" She started forward, then froze. A woman's voice echoed a strange pressure she felt in the back of her mind, and recognized as some form of telepathy.
"She will not die by my hand."
Amarra stopped feeding on Faith, who was obviously weaker but very much alive, and released her. Licking her blood-stained lips, with a long and sinuous tongue Tara was sure she hadn't had before, the creature then grabbed Willow and proceeded to feed on her as well.
Tara paled. "NO!"
Willow felt both blood and power being drained from her body. The essence of the other demons was going to Amarra, and there was nothing she could do about it.
"Willow!" Tara cupped a hand and whispered. A shimmering ball of energy took shape, which she threw it at the skeletal creature. "Dissolvo!"
It struck Amarra, knocking her away from Willow and back into the shadows under the staircase. The redhead's eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed.
"Goddess!" Tara rushed to her lover's side. Like Faith Willow was conscious but was not moving or responding to the blonde's words or touch. "Willow? Don't do this to me. Wake up! Please!"
"Interesting. A mortal, a witch no less, with feelings for one of my children? Things must have changed greatly since I went away." Amarra emerged from the shadows, looking completely different. She was human again, with porcelain smooth, slightly pale skin, flowing black hair which reached the small of her back and a beautiful face, including a lightly pointed nose and pouting lips. She was also naked, displaying a magnificently toned body with full breasts which bounced with each step she took. "How long?"
Now it was Tara's turn to be transfixed. Her breath caught in her throat. "W-What?"
"How long has it been?" Amarra asked. "How long was I asleep?"
"I'm not sure," said the blonde. "But the year is...two thousand and four."
Amarra arched an eyebrow. "So many centuries." She shook her head. "Such a shame those shaman who did this to me are long dead, or I would feast on their still beating hearts."
Tara licked her lips. "Shamans?"
"Human magic users, jealous of my power. They sought to eradicate my children and I, and lucked upon a spell which allowed them to draw upon my very essence. Weakening me in the process they crafted a living weapon, a girl, giving her strength and endurance to rival that of my oldest offpsiring."
"The Slayer," said Tara. "So, Faith is a part of you too?"
Amarra nodded. "I sense remnants of myself within these two. Yet this one..." She gestured at Willow. "...is not whole. The fragment of me within her is muted. Replaced by..." She turned. "...you? Your essence fills part of the void within her. Her spirit continues to draw upon yours for its strength. Intriguing." She smiled, which for some reason made Tara blush. "That must have been some spell you cast."
"You know? About the Black Luster Ritual?"
"If that's what you call it. I can taste the magic in her blood. And others as well. Many demons have contributed to the strength I feel within me now. I have regained some of my power but not all." Amarra raised her head. "I've some time before the sun rises." She smiled. "I would like to see what I can of this new world of yours, before it becomes neccessary for me to sleep again, and then I shall take stock of my children. They are legion, I sense it, and once they know I am here, they will flock to me." She winked at Tara and her body dissolved into a thick gray mist, which was carried away on wind suddenly flowing through the warehouse.
Tara sank to her knees and cradled Willow's head in her lap. "What have we done?"
"So she just...left?" Willow asked. She and Faith had recovered from Amarra's attack, and in fact were confused by why they were still alive.
Tara nodded. "It's like she was barely interested in us at all."
"Guess we dodged a bullet," said Faith. "Not too wild about finding out I'm part monster though."
"Distantly," Tara assured her. "And just think, it's what gives you your powers."
Willow frowned. "So, does this mean we're related?"
"Not really," said Tara. "The closest analogy would be something like second or third cousins, a bunch of times removed. I don't think you have to worry about holding any family reunions." "Except that great-grandma's out there somewhere," said Faith. "And you know she's going to pop her ugly head up sooner or later. They always do."
Tara felt her cheeks reddening. "Actually, she's not really all that ugly anymore."
"Anyway, I gotta jet." Faith stood up and stretched. "Believe it or not, I've got a life to get back to in Boston. It's been fun ladies, but let's never do this again."
Willow nodded. "I know I'll be happier if you never, ever come back."
"Would you two please stop?" Tara embraced Faith, who seemed surprised. "Take care of yourself okay? Write to us. Well, to me, anyway. Let me know how it's going."
"Will do." Faith glared at Willow, who stared right back at her. "You'd better watch out for her Red or I'll come back here and kick your ass."
The vampire put an arm around Tara. "Then I'll just have to make sure you don't have a reason."
"Later." Faith started toward the door, until something on the floor caught her eye. "I'll be damned."
"What's wrong?" Tara asked.
The Slayer bent down and picked something up. "Guess what I found." She threw it to Willow.
Tara smiled as Willow put it on. "Amarra never even knew it was here. You know, I almost feel bad for her. She spends thousands of years locked in stone, was this close to being invulnerable again, and then she just walks off and leaves it behind. Goddess, will she be pissed if she ever finds out."
Unnoticed by the trio, a figure up on the catwalk was listening to every word they said.
Amy Madison grinned.
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