Story by CN Winters and Susan Carr
Written by CN Winters (with additional writing by Chris Cook)
Produced and Directed by CN Winters
Edited by DragonWriter17
Sound by CSR
Art Direction by CN Winters
Artist – CN Winters (with additional art by Chris Cook and David Zahir)
Willow’s Living Room – Night
Willow sat with a photo album on her lap and Rowena curled up on the sofa next to her.
"What happened then?" the blonde watcher asked with a smile.
Willow gave a small chuckle. "Tara opened this tiny window in her dorm, and we were trying to push as much smoke out as we could, but the caldron just wouldn’t stop burning."
"Oh, geez," Rowena chuckled.
"The room was filled with smoke, and the fire alarm went off. Next thing we knew there was a banging on the door and people asking if everything was all right. I rushed to the door, totally forgetting we were sky clad, right?"
Rowena let out a deep laugh as Willow continued.
"At first the security guard didn’t say anything. He looked shocked, but then he asked if everything was okay. I told him everything was fine; we were just doing some chemistry homework. Then I turned to Tara. That was when I saw her in her robe, and I remembered – uh oh – I looked down to see I was still as naked as the day I was born."
"Oh my god," Rowena said, wiping tears from her eyes. "What did you do then?"
Willow started to laugh. "Well, the guard said something like, ‘You two better keep your chemistry in check before you burn the place down,’ and then he walked off with this I-know-what-you-were-up-to smile. I swear, my face went redder than my hair at that point."
Rowena chuckled and leaned over giving Willow a light kiss on the cheek. As she pulled back she noticed that Willow’s smile was gone and that she was frowning instead.
"I know you miss her, Will," Rowena said softly.
"What? Oh, yeah, I do. But…" Willow awkwardly shook her head.
"What?" Rowena asked.
Willow swallowed. "I really shouldn’t talk about her. I mean she’s not coming back, and I’m sure you don’t want to listen to Tara stories."
Rowena took Willow’s photo album from her, and her fingers traced the picture of Willow and Tara together, looking happy, before closing it.
"I want to hear Willow stories, and I know Tara is a part of many of them. I also know you’ve got a huge heart. That being said, I think there’s space enough for both of us – her and me. I don’t expect you to ever stop loving her. All I ask is that you love me, too. I think you can do that."
"I can a-and I do," Willow said sincerely.
"Then see? No problem. Please don’t think you ever have to censor yourself with me, okay?"
"Okay," Willow agreed with a smile and a slight nod. "Now..." she began smiling more deviously. "I told you my most embarrassing story. What’s yours?"
"Mine? I’ve never done anything embarrassing in my life," Rowena replied, trying to hold back a smile.
"Nuh ah," Willow tisked. "I opened up – now it’s your turn."
"As Giles would say, bloody hell," she sighed. "Okay, but this does not leave this room, understand?"
"Cross my heart," Willow said, motioning across her chest.
"When I was at the Watcher’s Academy, we had to take some kind of creativity course, and I chose theater. Don’t laugh, but I was cast as Katherine in the Taming of the Shrew."
Willow began to chuckle but promptly stopped when Rowena cast a disapproving glance. Willow cleared her throat. "Sorry, go on."
"Anyway," Rowena said, annoyed. "We had three performances to do, and I got through the first two with no problem. We were up to the end of the third performance and the ‘Kiss me Kate’ line. That was when William Lettenstein, AKA Petruchio, steps on the front of my costume and rip! I’m standing before a full, laughing auditorium in my bodice and knickers." Rowena began to hide her face.
"Oh boy. Did you run for the wings?" Willow asked.
"It gets worse," Rowena told her.
Rowena started to chuckle. "Oh man, I can’t believe I’m telling anyone this…After that happened, William and I both immediately reached down to get the gown, and we ended up knocking heads."
Willow smiled. "I bet that made them laugh even harder."
"I was told later that, yes, yes it did." Willow looked confused. "See...when we knocked heads, he knocked me out – cold, flat on my back. The only thing I remembered after that was being behind the curtain with an ice pack on my head and the scent of smelling salts."
"Poor baby," Willow said sympathetically.
Rowena smiled. "Needless to say that was my first, and last, try at theater…unless, of course, if you count Andrew’s Halloween extravaganza this past year."
"Come on," Willow said, "you have to admit that was fun. Being someone else can be, I don’t know, freeing in a way. A-And you play a damn good, sexy Mrs. Peacock. Fooled the slayers," Willow commended with a chuckle.
Rowena gave Willow an appreciative look. "Maybe the trick is just not playing the shrew anymore," Rowena said as she put the album on the coffee table and worked her way to sit on Willow’s lap, facing her.
Willow reached for the light beside them and turned it out putting the room in darkness. "I couldn’t agree more," she whispered.
Sheol Hell Dimension – Moments Later
The Flayer stared at his enemy. Their fortress was a giant hive, towering a mile into the storm-swept sky, almost five miles across at its base. Before it stood legion upon legion of demons, creatures of sinew and muscle, and beside them ethereal wraiths, scarcely able to be seen.
Visible only as shimmers of light, thousands of spindly mages stood among the ranks, their cloaks and vestigial wings whipping in the whirlwinds they summoned around themselves, the talons on their clawed feet dug into the stone beneath them for purchase.
From their combined castings rose a shield, which the Flayer’s army now hammered at. The vanguard was barely a hundred yards from the line held by the Sheol mages. They were advancing step by step in spite of the impassable barrier that waited for them, in spite of the maelstrom of steel and stone and magic that tore at them. Bolts and blades and globes of eldritch fire and ice were hurled from the Sheol regiments, by bow-wielding demons and arcane war engines and by giants who lifted great boulders, charged with magic, and sent them flying from within the shield to tear at the Flayer’s forces through their steady advance. Column upon column of Presidium demons stretched to the horizon, but as yet the magic and projectiles they sent against the shield did not breach it.
A mile further back, the Flayer stood on the highest level of an armored howdah, mounted on the back of a giant insectoid Klendath demon. He turned his eyes skyward, where a dark thunderhead was building above him, the forefront of the brooding clouds stretching to the edge of the shield around the enemy fortress and army. With a satisfied grimace he turned slightly, to where his minions waited behind him, and fixed Imbethit with a glance.
"Now," he said. The demon nodded.
In an instant, all through the Sheol lines, demons of all kinds – hulking bodyguards and slight apprentice mages, nameless scribes and faceless functionaries, decorated warlords and menial troopers – leapt at their mages.
Their skins dissolved as they attacked, revealing the distorted visages of Imbethit’s assassins as they plunged blades into their masters’ backs, bludgeoned them with maces and morningstars, or choked the life out of them with their bare claws. Deprived of so many of its architects, the magical shield, which had seemed so impenetrable, flickered and failed.
With a great roar, the Flayer’s forces charged. Foot soldiers crashed against the startled wall of defenders, throwing themselves heedlessly on their swords and spears to breach their line. Huge lance-heads of demons on reptilian mounts leapt into the fray with swords and axes flashing. Klendath demons thundered forward, spewing fire into the panicking ranks opposing them, crushing their charred corpses underfoot.
Out of the black clouds came flight upon flight of savage, serpentine beasts, beating their ragged wings for more speed as they dove at their prey. Streaking through the sky above them came the titanic blasts of magic that the Flayer’s mages, who had seemed to impotent before, now unleashed against the unprotected fortress walls.
Presidium Citadel – Imperium Chamber – Same time
Unlike so much of the Citadel, the chamber at its summit was dancing with light, ethereal tides and eddies that washed to and fro like mists, as if the very fabric of reality was billowing in a breeze. At its center was the originator of the unearthly ripples in reality, the greatest and darkest of the Presidium – huge, godlike, surrounded by an aura of shadow – the Unmaker.
The Lover approached the creature, gently reached into the shadows around it, and laid her hands against its hidden form. Slowly she leaned forward, resting her head against its chest, and the shadows began to envelop her too.
"It has begun," she whispered, as she submerged. "After so long…Earth beckons us."
End of Teaser
Onto Act One