Story by Chris Cook
Written by Chris Cook
Directed by Chris Cook and CN Winters
Produced by Chris Cook and CN Winters
Edited by Libbi
Sound by CSR
Art Direction by Chris Cook
Artists: Chris Cook, David Zahir, Libbi, Humaira, Sarah and Robert Kidman
Citadel – Panopticon
"Who are you?" Willow asked warily. "No, wait… you’re the Lover, I presume?"
"You presume correctly," the Lover said mildly.
She glanced at her two servants, who immediately released their grip on Willow’s arms and left the chamber. Willow watched them leave then turned her glare on the Lover, while rubbing her bruised upper arms.
"Your slayer commander gave you a description of me," the Lover continued. "I recall it was quite lurid. I trust you are not disappointed?"
"Is that what you’re going to do to me?" Willow asked, ignoring the Lover’s question. "Put me in a Chrysalid, send a demon back in my place? Not very convincing – ‘Oh’," she gave a chirpy parody of her own voice, "‘no biggie, I gave the Presidium the slip, escaped from their fortress, and here I am.’ I bet that won’t raise any questions at all." The Lover favored her with a thin smile.
"No," she said after a moment’s silence. "I have not had you brought here to follow in her footsteps. The Citadel is not a place for such indignities. And I have no further need for a Changeling among your friends. They are of no concern to the Presidium, none at all."
"Oh, okay," Willow nodded. "So you’re just one of those villains who likes to have somebody around to gloat to?"
"Again, no," the Lover replied, walking slowly around Willow. "Willow Rosenberg…you have taken the life of one of us. You owe us a debt. It is time for you to pay."
"I take it you’re not talking Mastercard or Visa," Willow muttered.
"No, I am not," the Lover shook her head slightly – if Willow’s flippancy displeased her, she gave no indication of it. "The cost will be your life."
"You’re lying," Willow said boldly.
"I do not lie," the Lover snarled.
"If you wanted me dead," Willow persisted, "you’d have had your goon squad do it or your Changeling, or you’d have sent assassins – not waited for me to practically land on your doorstep. Unless you are the gloating type – in which case you lied about that," she added with a grim smile. "Can’t have it both ways, missy."
"You misunderstand," the Lover told her sharply. "Observe."
The walls of the Panopticon bled color which floated into the center of the chamber and formed into a shape, a figure – the Engineer, roaring in anger and pain, locked in the magical bonds of his own machine, burning from within. Willow recoiled from the sudden noise and fury in front of her, almost backing into the Lover behind her. She waved a hand vaguely and the image froze, becoming cold and icy, almost colorless.
"You do not understand what you have done," the Lover said. "This is not a mere death. One of us…fell to you. Our destiny is marred by your touch, Willow Rosenberg. Until we have reclaimed that which you stole from us, we will never take our rightful place."
"I stole?" Willow asked, confused.
"Power," the Lover said simply. "The most primal power imaginable, from which all else is derived – the ability to decide one’s own fate. You took that from us. Never before, never, has the Presidium lost control of its destiny. But you took it from us. When you killed the Engineer, for one brief moment, you mastered us – you swept aside our plans, our efforts, the progress of centuries…you changed the world we had crafted into your own. For an instant – a single moment in time. But it is enough. And now, it must be undone."
"By killing me?" Willow asked, crossing her arms.
"Yes," the Lover replied. "But not any death would do. To negate what you have done, there must be balance – and when you, a mere child, stood against the Presidium in all its might, and prevailed, however momentary your victory was, the power of destiny you gained was immense. For us to regain that power, we must do more than simply kill you."
She stood back and gestured to the shadows. Willow saw movement from the corner of her eye, and spun to see another creature approaching her – tall, pallid, the angles of its face oddly asexual, and moving with an odd delicacy, like a bird of prey shifting on its claws. Its arms were metal rather than flesh, bizarre, intricate assemblages of tiny rods and gears, ending in a bristling array of blades, spikes, saws, drills and hooks.
Willow began to back away from it, but at a gesture from the Lover she halted, struggling against an invisible force that held her in place. Sweat formed on her brow as the newcomer raised one of its ‘hands’. It brought the mass of torture instruments near her, close enough to touch. To her surprise, all it did was brush the edge of her sleeve without even leaving a mark.
"The Shaper," the Lover said from behind Willow. "Each of us, over the long centuries, has found a specialty – a calling, you might say. A particular facet of our cause to which he is especially suited, to which he is gifted. The Shaper is an artist of flesh. Under his blades, skin, muscle, sinew and bone become a canvas that he may work into any form imaginable. He can destroy a body utterly, rendering it to grotesque ruin, and yet not a twitch of a nerve, or the fall of a drop of blood, will ever escape his notice."
The Lover reached over Willow’s shoulder and rested a hand on her cheek, turning her around effortlessly. Willow glanced down nervously at the Shaper’s vicious arms as they appeared at her sides, stroking her arms up and down. Then the Lover’s hand gripped her more firmly, bringing her eyes up as she leaned forward to face her.
"This will be done to you," she said calmly, brushing Willow’s cheek as if to soothe her trembling. "It is necessary to encompass your ultimate defeat – the triumph of our will over yours. Of course your suffering will not be merely physical. Your consciousness, your thoughts, will be likewise dissected. Piece by piece, memory by memory, you will be unmade from within, until your mind is as blank and featureless as it was in your mother’s womb when the first tiny jolts of electricity passed through your developing synapses. This will be the unmaking of the person that is Willow Rosenberg. It is to be my task."
"Lucky you," Willow said, with false bravado that didn’t hide the fear in her voice.
"Yes indeed," the Lover smiled faintly. "And there will be one more among us who will attend to you. Your soul, you see, must be unmade as well. It is a rare thing, the ability to destroy a soul – few possess the art, and most of those can employ it only haphazardly. Only one being can achieve the annihilation we require. By the time you are brought into His presence, you will be physically and mentally unable to perceive Him, in any manner. For which you should be grateful. He is our Lord. He is the Unmaker. He will finish the task of erasing your touch from our destiny." She stood upright again, and Willow stumbled free as the Shaper released its grip on her and backed into the shadows, vanishing.
"Okay," she said, doing her best to keep her voice level. "You guys sure take being pissed off seriously."
"We can afford no less," the Lover said tersely. "Our destiny requires it."
"Oh sure, I understand," Willow nodded. "I’m sure otherwise, when you ruled the Earth, people would keep teasing you about losing the Engineer. ‘Hey guys, wasn’t there one more of you before? Oh, wait, he got his butt kicked, didn’t he?’ People can be so cruel," she finished with a fake smile.
"Your incessant flippancy will not serve you," the Lover said.
"I’ll keep at it just the same," Willow shrugged.
"If that is your wish," the Lover replied, seemingly unconcerned. "Our destiny is not one of mere conquest. The barbaric struggle for temporal power is no concern of ours – a game for imbeciles, for only they would hold the reward to have any meaning."
"Funny you should say that," Willow frowned. "I could swear I saw a conquering army around here somewhere. Or was that just my imagination?"
"Man does not live by bread alone," the Lover replied, arching an eyebrow. "But nor does he live without bread. The most enlightened creature must still eat, just as does the crudest animal. Similarly, conquest is among our pursuits – but it is not our destiny. Merely a necessary precondition."
"So why don’t you tell me what this great destiny of yours is?" Willow asked. "You’re obviously dying to."
"I am doing so out of courtesy to you," the Lover said sternly. "Though you cannot choose to alter your doom now, you may at least appreciate the reason for it."
She strode in front of Willow and stared down at her haughtily.
"There will come a time," she said quietly, almost reverently, "when the Presidium rules all – every hell, the Earth, and the high heavens beyond. The entire great sphere of creation will be ours to shape and reshape as we wish. And reshape it we will. We are no mere conquerors – we shall remake existence in the image we please. In all of creation, from the greatest civilization to the merest speck, the rise and fall of empires and the orbits of particles around their nuclei, all will be as we ordain." She smiled, and for once her smile was of genuine pleasure.
"And unlike the ‘Powers’ you place so much worth in," she went on, "we will not hoard our good fortune and cast the scraps from our table down to be fought over for our pleasure. The new creation will be perfect – at last, after a millennia of broken dreams and shattered idealism, after all the leaders and visionaries who have fallen, their hopes dashed by harsh reality…we will succeed where all others have failed. We will put an end to evil…forever."
For a moment she and Willow were silent, and motionless. Then the Lover spoke again.
"Now tell me," she said, stepping forward to stand directly in front of Willow, "is that not worth your sacrifice?"
Cut to black.
End of Teaser
Onto Act One