Chapter Twenty-Four - Goodbye To You

Balor stirred.

It sensed that something was happening, something different, and the thrill of anticipation stirred its blood like nothing had in centuries. How it knew this was unclear, for time had dulled all of the beast's conventional senses. Its skin had toughened and callused to the point where it could not even feel the coarse ropes bound around it and it was nearly blind in its single large eye.

Nevertheless, One-Eyed Balor, the Destroyer, was eager.

Balor was one of the Fomorii, the greatest of its kind. It was a creature of such power that it was worshipped by its own people as a god. Once, it had been a great ruler, leading its people in their eternal conflict with their oppressors, the Tuatha de Danaan, but it seemed that even gods were not immune to time's tender mercies. The monster had lost none of its strength, but now it was so bloated and deformed as to be unable to move under its own power. It had lost none of its anger, its appetite for destruction, but its mind was addled so that it was now without direction, except for that given to it by others.

Balor had become a danger to its own kind and so it had been thrown into a deep pit, from which it could not escape. Still it was worshipped, for its power still held the rest of the Fomorii in awe, but now it was idolised from afar. But there were a few, a rare few, who thought of Balor and saw it as something other than a god and as something more than just a threat. They saw it as a weapon.

And so, every few centuries, Balor would be awakened.

* * *

Willow held Tara in her arms, gently rocking her back and forth.

'It's okay, baby,' she whispered. 'You rest now. Everything's gonna be all right.'

Tara looked up at Willow, her head resting on the smaller woman's shoulder, but her gaze seemed to be reaching out from much farther away. Willow attempted a reassuring smile in return, but there was no warmth behind it. She tried to act big and tough and brave, but she was trembling like a leaf in the breeze. There was no way out. The cavern was crawling with the monsters, the Fomorii. They were all around her, angry at being deceived at hungry for revenge. And Tara, spent and injured, had only Willow to defend her.

Willow raised her hands and muttered a few words in Latin. A hedge of brambles grew up out of the dry ground to form a barrier between the witches and the Fomorii, but it was a futile one for the charging creatures snapped the brambles like toothpicks, barely slowing.

Willow searched her pockets for spell components. She remembered bringing some with her, just in case, but now her pockets were empty. They must have been lost when she had been held captive. In desperation, Willow scooped up a handful of dust off of the floor and flew it high in the air, chanting as she did so. A thick grey cloud swirled into being around them, obscuring them from sight.

'C'mon, Tara,' Willow hissed, 'we've got to move. It's time to be elsewhere.'

And right about now, Willow was really wishing she had worked more on that teleportation spell. As it was, hopefully the darkness would cover them while they made their escape. If they could not see them…

Willow froze. She could hear sniffing and lots of it.

If they couldn't see them then, Willow guessed, the Fomorii would rely on their other senses.

And they weren't the only ones with other sense, Willow thought as she wrinkled her nose. They must have been practically on top of them. She could not see them, but Willow could imagine them standing above her, claws dripping with ichor, rusty swords at the ready.

'I'm sorry,' she whispered to Tara.

'No…' Tara began.

'But, but it's not fair,' Willow continued, cutting Tara off. 'There's so much we've never had a chance to do. So much I wanted to say. And…and…'

'Shh.' Tara reached up and cupped Willow's cheek in her hand. 'You never had to say anything. Not to me.'

A hot tear trickled down Willow's cheek. She wanted to wipe it away before it got Tara's hand yet, but she could not move.

'At least we're together,' Tara continued.

Willow smiled and leaned forward towards where she believed Tara to be, ready to meet her lips with her own for one final kiss.

A hand shoved her roughly to the ground.

'Stay down,' a man ordered. Metal sang and the sound of tearing flesh mingled with harsh death cries.

'What the…'

'They're with me,' a familiar voice explained. 'Can you do something about the lights?'

'Anya?' Willow's mouth fell open in disbelief as she waved away the darkness spell.

'Well I hope you didn't think I was just going to leave you down here, did you?' Anya said indignantly.

'The thought never crossed my mind,' Willow replied.

'Who are you friends?' Tara asked, struggling to sit up. Around her the Tuatha were holding the horde of Fomorii at bay.

'I wouldn't call them friends exactly,' Anya replied. She frowned. 'Actually, I wouldn't call them friends at all. But Giles seems to think we need their help and you know how he gets when someone dares to point out that if you play with fire you're bound to get burned sooner or later. I just hope I'm around to see it because I think I've earned my right to say I've told you so. Or maybe I'd rather be elsewhere if there's going to be, you know, burning and such. What do you think?'

'I think we should withdraw,' one of the Tuatha interrupted. 'Now.'

'Who died and put you in charge?' Anya demanded.

Nuada raised his silver hand.

'Oh,' Anya said. 'Well, I guess there's that.' She turned to Willow. 'He's the king.'

'Really?' Willow asked. 'I m-mean, it's an honour to meet you, your m-majesty. Majesty? Is that right? It's not like I've ever met a king before and, you know, wow and all.'

'We must go,' Nuada repeated patiently.

'Oh,' Willow remarked vaguely. Then she nodded purposefully. 'Yes, of course. Sure. But, there's Tara and, well, I don't really know if she's up to, like, walking just yet.'

'I'll manage,' Tara insisted, but she was having trouble regaining her footing.

'Here,' Nuada said, 'please allow me to assist you.' He scooped Tara up into his arms like a baby. 'Now may we leave?'

'Lead on, your majesty,' Willow replied magnanimously.

Nuada took one step, then stopped. It was as if time had halted. Everyone and everything within the cavern had halted and there was a moment of total silence. Then, as one, they all turned to face the pit and the creature slowly being winched out of it.

Buffy lunged towards her friend, but the Tuatha next to her held her in place. It did not matter. The distance was too far and the time was too short.

'Nuada!' Bres roared. 'Self-styled king! Feel my wrath.'

'Dear Lord,' Giles muttered at the sight of the monster emerging from below the ground. He let fly an arrow, but it bounced off the monster's thick hide.

'Balor,' Nuada whispered in recognition.

'Please no,' Anya begged, falling to one knee. 'Not here. Not now. Not again.'

From across the cavern, Jenny stretched out her hand towards Willow, her mouth open in a silent scream.

Balor opened its single yellowy eye and looked at the red-haired witch.

'Willow!' Tara screamed, her lungs bursting.

Willow's lower lip trembled and she opened her mouth to say something.

And then she was gone.