Summary: A ritual goes wrong, and Tara is faced with her worst nightmare made real.

Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters portrayed here, they remain the property of their respective owners/creators.

Rating: PG-13, for violence and themes.

Time Frame: A few days after "Crush." (Spoilers!)

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me ( to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.


Part I

"Tara, could I talk to you for a minute?"

Tara looked up from what she was reading and looked over at Anya, who had asked the question. They were alone in the magic shop, the others either being at classes or running errands, and Tara stood and walked over to Anya, replying, "Sure. . .what's up?"

Anya hesitated, then replied, "I've been thinking about this whole thing with Glory. . .Buffy's got enough troubles trying to keep that crazy bitch from getting her claws on Mrs. Summers and Dawn without having to worry about the rest of us, too, and I think I've come up with a solution that could help."

Tara's eyes widened, and she nodded for Anya to continue. The former demon continued, "I know of a summoning ritual that will bring to us talismans that can be enchanted with powerful protective magic. . .enough to let one of us escape from Glory, though it won't help us beat her. Unfortunately, the protective magic will only work for paired lovers, so we can't protect Joyce, Giles, and Dawn this way. . .but at least Buffy will have less targets to worry about."

Tara nodded in comprehension, then asked, "Why didn't you ask Willow?"

Anya winced, then replied, "After the whole troll thing, Willow and I have been a bit edgy around each other. . .and she has rather bad memories of a previous ritual we did together. . .geez, you try just ONCE to get your vengeance demon powers back, and some people will never let you forget it." Tara gave her a suspicious look, and Anya decided to change her tack, "Besides, from what I hear you have a lot more experience than Willow, even though she seems to have more natural aptitude. . .and raw power should be less important than finesse here." She looked anxiously at Tara and asked, "So will you do it?"

Tara hesitated, then remembered Willow bleeding from the nose from the dangerous spell she had risked casting to temporarily get rid of Glory. She looked at Anya and nodded, and the two women began gathering the needed supplies for the ritual.

* * * * *

The spell that Anya had located was quite powerful, yet well within the ability of the two women to cast. If their goal had been to obtain amulets usable against almost any known demon, including true demons of the sort that the Mayor had briefly become, they would have succeeded without much trouble at all. Unfortunately, as Travers had told them, Glory was another order of being altogether; furthermore, their ignorance of the unique connection between Glory, Ben, and the yet unknown third god made the few items that Anya and Tara had managed to collect that were associated with Glory ineffective for their intended purpose.

The energy of the spell was released, but failed to find its intended target. The energy coursed through dimensional barriers, seeking a point to focus. After a timeless moment, it surged into a figure standing in the middle of a pentagram, dark energies already coursing through her from a ritual she was performing. There was a bright flash, and she vanished, leaving behind the grisly remains of the unfortunate souls whose lives had been sacrificed to sustain her power.

In the abandoned mansion that Angel had once called home (and which corresponded to the fortified castle where the figure had been conducting her dark rites), there was a corresponding flash, and a young woman was left standing in the middle of the living room, swaying in momentary shock.

After a moment, the woman seemed to recover, walking out the ajar front door and into the fading twilight. She appeared to be about seventeen years old, of medium height, and slender. She wore a black evening dress that would have been the envy of any designer in the world: it flattered her substantial curves without being showy or tacky. Her long, platinum blonde hair trailed down her shoulders and upper back in a wave, framing a lovely face that was set in a cruel smile. If there was a flaw in her appearance, it was her eyes: black as midnight, without visible pupils. . .inky pools of malice that surveyed the surrounding area with a casual air that spoke of death. She pondered for a moment, then commented out loud, "I don't know what has happened. . .but this place has possibilities." She chuckled low in her throat, then swept regally off the mansion grounds and towards the rest of Sunnydale.

* * * * *

The flash of light faded into darkness, and Anya noticed with disappointment that no amulets had arrived within the circle. "Damn! We must have messed up the ritual somehow, Tara. . .maybe we should get Willow to help us before we try again-" Anya looked over at Tara, and saw a look of complete horror on her face. Frowning in concern, she moved over to Tara and asked, "Are you all right? What's wrong?"

Tara was visibly in shock, and Willow took that moment to walk into the training room where the ritual had been cast, calling out, "Hey, what's going on back here?" She took in the scene, and ran over to Tara, crying, "Tara! What's the matter?" Tara did not immediately answer, and Willow turned on Anya, snarling, "What in the hell do you think you're doing, risking Tara like this-"

"Willow, shut up!"

Willow blinked, stunned, and turned to Tara, who had uttered the offending phrase and was now quickly packing her things with a determined expression on her face. She summoned up a little righteous outrage and snapped back, "That's really nice! I'm worried about you because of some crazy ritual that Anya probably dreamed up and-"

Anya seemed about to interrupt, but Tara cut them both off: "Willow, it was a good idea. . .it just went wrong, and we have a big problem. Anya, close up the shop, then come back and join me ." Raising her eyebrow at the unfamiliar snap of authority in Tara's voice, Anya nodded and left the room while Tara continued, "Willow, go get the others. . .tell them to meet me at the Bronze in forty-five minutes. . .with weapons." Willow hesitated, and Tara snapped, "Now, Willow, damn it!"

Willow fled, and she had barely left the room when Tara seemed to collapse on herself for a moment, breathing deeply and looking panicked. She recovered quickly and left the magic shop with Anya, heading directly for her room and a box of artifacts that had remained untouched for three years.

* * * * *

She walked down the alley, confident in her power and fearing nothing. Everything here looked familiar, and yet not. . .people here seemed to be oblivious to the dark power that flowed from this place. . .the power she had tapped using her own evil sorcery to become ever more powerful as time passed. What she had done in her home world, she could do again here. All she needed was some time, and some not so willing volunteers to give their lives for her purposes.

"Well now, what do we have here?" A voice came out of the darkness, and she turned to see the flash of a lighter igniting a cigarette as a figure clad in black leather strode out of the darkness. Spike gave an appraising look to the newcomer and commented, "Well. . .that's a new look for you. . .planning on giving the little redhead a cheap thrill?"

She felt a flash of anger at being addressed so cavalierly, then her eyes narrowed as she recognized the speaker. * Apparently, whoever runs things in this place didn't have the sense to run this irritant out of town. . .how pathetic * She locked eyes with the vampire and replied coldly, "William. . .I have neither the time nor the patience to deal with you right now. . .go away."

Spike bristled at being dismissed, and stormed up to her, grabbing her arm and snarling, "Now see here. . .chip or no bloody chip, I don't have to put up your crap if I don't want to-urk!"

Spike's diatribe was interrupted abruptly by a set of incredibly strong fingers wrapping themselves around his throat and grasping it tightly as he was lifted off of the ground. Spike gurgled, then looked down to see the dead black eyes of his attacker locked with his own. . .the sheer malice in those eyes caused Spike to shudder.

After a moment, the woman casually tossed Spike against the alley wall, stunning him. From his daze, Spike heard her say, "It would be best if I didn't see you again any time soon, William." With that, she turned her back on him and glided into the darkness.

Spike stared after her, then stood up and walked away. Whatever had happened, laying low for a while seemed to be the best solution for staying un-mutilated.

* * * * *

Buffy climbed into Giles' car, and they drove off toward the Bronze, visibly concerned over the urgency in Willow's tone. Apparently, Tara and Anya had attempted a ritual and something had happened that had really spooked Tara. * She's always so damned levelheaded * Buffy thought, shaking her head * What could be so bad that she reacted like this? *

After a few minutes, they pulled into a parking space some distance from the Bronze, then got out and began unloading their weapons. Buffy, checking her crossbow, heard a sound behind her and whirled reflexively, gasping at what she saw.

Tara was standing there, her face set in a determined expression, though her eyes looked haunted. She was wearing a leather vest that left none of her curves to the imagination, and a pair of pants made of some odd fabric that the Slayer didn't recognize: both were white with gold stitching. A bag hung on her right shoulder, and a sheathed dagger was at her belt. Buffy struggled for something to say, and managed to whisper: "Wow. . .new look for you, Tara."

Tara nodded, but didn't reply verbally, and Buffy turned to Giles for help, only to see him staring at the dagger at Tara's belt. . .and the expression on his face was thoroughly appalled. A chill raced down Buffy's spine as she asked, "Giles. . .what's wrong?"

Uncharacteristically, Giles ignored his Slayer's question and continued to stare at Tara for another moment before looking up at the young witch's determined face and whispering, "No. . .not that. . .and not you, Tara."

Buffy saw Giles' face twist into an expression of horror and agitation as Tara's face softened and turned compassionate before she replied evenly, "I'm afraid so, Giles. . .I'm sorry."

Buffy frowned in confusion and frustration and snapped, "Damn it, enough with the cryptic already!" She locked eyes with her Watcher and demanded, "Why is Tara dressed up like the poster girl for the SCA. . .and what has you so spooked?"

Giles blinked, and visibly composed himself in order to continue to perform his duty to Buffy, though the cost that it imposed on him was naked on his face as he quietly replied, "Buffy. . .we have encountered many manifestations of evil magic here on the Hellmouth, and faced grave risks in dealing with them. . .but there is one type of foul sorcery that is so powerful and so evil that every time a new practitioner arises it threatens the very existence of the human race. It is known as Dalorian Necromancy; fortunately, only one being at a time may become an adept in it. . .a new practitioner must either kill the current adept-which has almost never been done-or they must obtain the appropriate tomes after the last practitioner is slain."

Giles paused, and Buffy nodded for him to continue: "The last known Dalorian Necromancer perished about three years ago, and the Council has not heard any rumor or hint that a new one has arisen. . .from what Willow told us, and from the appearance of Tara, I would assume that the ritual that Tara and Anya attempted inadvertently summoned a Dalorian Necromancer from a parallel world. . .we are all in very great danger."

Tara nodded, her face clouded with shame, and Buffy looked at both of them and asked, "OK. . .I get the idea: very nasty adept of black magic is setting up shop in Sunnydale. . .but what does that have to do with Tara?"

Giles sighed, and looked at Tara bleakly for a moment before replying, "As long as Dalorian Necromancy has existed, the ability to counter it has also existed. A sorcerous adept with substantial ability can study the counterspells needed to diminish the threat of the Dalorian Necromancer, leaving him or her open to destruction. As with their foe, only one person can wield the counter-magics at one time. . .that person is known as the Nemesis." Giles pointed at the dagger at Tara's belt, and whispered, "That dagger was forged by a great mage connected with the Council of Watchers more than a millennium ago and presented to the Nemesis of the time. . .it has passed down to all who followed in the position ever since."

Tara nodded, and elaborated, "My mother was the last Nemesis. . .she trained me as her apprentice, then took me with her to New York when she had to face the last Dalorian Necromancer. . .she died in my arms, after begging me to swear to follow her example. . .I did."

Buffy blinked, and tears appeared in her eyes as she stepped forward without thinking about it and hugged Tara. After a moment, she stepped back and saw the fatalistic look in Tara's eyes, and she understood why Giles had looked so upset. She set her jaw and snapped, "Damn it, Tara. . .what happened to your mom was terrible. . .but you have way more support than she did, and you have to know we'll stick by you, no matter what it takes."

Tara smiled at Buffy, and the Slayer felt the warmth from Tara give her an irrational sense of comfort as the young witch replied, "I know, Buffy. . .I'm not trying to commit suicide here, and having you guys with me means a lot. . .but I have responsibilities, too. . .if I die tonight, you have to find someone to be the next Nemesis, either to deal with this Dalorian Necromancer or to prepare for the next one." She reached out and clasped Buffy's shoulder as she concluded, "I hope I can count on you for that."

Buffy nodded and responded bluntly, "Damned right you could. . .but it isn't going to come to that." She glanced around, then asked, "Where's Anya? Willow said you had asked her to come with you."

The Nemesis frowned, then replied, "I gave her a list of items to bring from the Magic Shop. . .you are all very vulnerable to the Necromancer's magic, and a talisman or two will buy you important seconds should things go badly. She should be here any minute."

Buffy and Giles nodded, then waited along with Tara, still adjusting to the determined figure in front of them who was so different from the shy young witch they had come to know and love over the past year.

* * * * *

Xander sat quietly, taking in the surroundings of the newly rebuilt Bronze and wondering what the big emergency was. He saw a couple of familiar faces and nodded to them before noticing Willow coming towards him with a frown on her face. He stood and called out, "Hey, Willow," and smiled at her as she walked up: he was not prepared for the outburst he received in reply.

"Damn it, Xander! Your ex-demon snugglebunny talked Tara into doing some weird ritual, and now Tara's acting all freaked out about something. . .she actually told me to shut up! I'm really, really mad at Anya this time, and I don't mind letting you know it!"

Xander blinked, and sifted through Willow's outraged outburst to extract the most incongruous bit of information: "Tara told you to shut up?"

Willow's first impulse was to snap at Xander for picking out the unimportant part of what she had said, but she abruptly realized that Xander had hit on the crux of what was bothering her. . .she had seen Tara emotionally upset before, but not in this way, and the look of raw determination that she had seen on her girlfriend's face was unprecedented. She blinked and sank into a chair next to Xander, whispering, "I'm scared, Xander. . .I've never seen her like this. Something is really wrong."

Xander reached out and squeezed Willow's shoulder, and replied soothingly, "The others will be here soon, and Tara will let us know what's wrong, or she wouldn't have wanted us all here. . .meanwhile, I'll get us some drinks and let you calm down a little. . .with some of the spells you've been throwing around lately, I don't want you zipping where you should be zapping and sending me on a one way trip to the La Brea Tar Pits."

Willow laughed involuntarily, and relaxed visibly as Xander brought them drinks and they talked about more trivial matters for a while. Abruptly, both noticed that all conversation had ceased in the Bronze other than their own, and they looked up. Both of them blinked with surprise at what they saw.

* * * * *

She walked up to the door of the dance club; glancing up, she saw that the name was still the same-"The Bronze." In her world, this place had been the center of operations for the local vampire leader, who was imaginatively named "The Master." For her to tap the Hellmouth, she had needed to displace him, and it had been no easy task. The Master had his own dark powers along with being a formidable vampire, and he had gathered several powerful lieutenants along with a horde of minions. Still, he had lacked imagination and finesse. . .all of that power, and he had only succeeded in controlling Sunnydale itself and a bit of the surrounding area, though the entire world had been somewhat corrupted by the wide open Hellmouth. It had taken two months, and she had been wounded sorely on several occasions, but when it was finished, The Master was dust, the Bronze and every other building in a quarter mile radius had been reduced to their foundations, and The Master's followers were all slain or scattered to the winds. . .except one, who she had claimed as her own, to rule by her side as her consort. * All roads seem to lead to this place. . .so be it *

She concentrated for a moment, and her body began to flicker with an eerie black light, causing her pale skin to seem even paler and her eyes even darker. She smiled coldly and entered the club. The bouncer at the door started to ask for the cover charge, but he got a good look at her and shuddered and withdrew. She glided silently into the Bronze, and all near her gave way and were shocked into fearful silence at the sight of her. Enjoying the reaction, she looked around the room, seeking possible threats or points of interest. . .and then her eyes spotted the two figures at a corner table. Her eyes narrowed in recognition, and the corners of her mouth turned up. * Some things never change. . .those two are together even here, in a very different place from the one I subdued. Oh well, what I have done once I can do again. . .and with much less interference * She strode toward the table, silence blooming around her like poison dissolving in water, and the sudden lack of sound caused the two at the table to look up and at her, and they both blinked as she reached the table and stood there, looking at them with an air of dreadful majesty. After a moment, the dark-haired young man blinked again and managed a concise comment:

"Hey, Tara. . .different look for you. . .what's up?"

* * * * *

Xander waited for Tara to answer, but she remained silent. He turned to Willow to see how she was reacting, and was shocked to see a look of complete terror on her face. He frowned, then asked, "Hey. . .Will, I know it's a new look for her, but there's no need to get all panicky about it. . .you just need to get used to it."

Willow blinked, and her voice was very small as she replied, "Xander. . .that isn't Tara."

Xander stared at his best friend, then looked back at the new arrival, taking in the slightly different features, the deathly black eyes staring directly at him, and the eerie dark aura flickering around her. Instinctively, he stood up and stood between the apparition and Willow, then asked bluntly, "What do you want?"

The woman looked at him for a moment, then began laughing. Xander shuddered at the sound: Tara's laugh was always sweet and genuine. . .this creature seemed to be enjoying some evil secret. She locked eyes with Xander and replied, "Want? Why, I want to rule this place, of course. . .and eventually through it, this world. . .though these things take time, of course, and a lot of help. Can't make an omelet without breaking a few souls, after all." She reached out and stroked Xander's arm as she continued, "So you defend her here, too. . .even though you both remain human. In my world, I offered her escape if you would willingly rule by my side." She glanced behind Xander and raised an eyebrow as she studied Willow for a moment before concluding, "A shame I can't offer you the same courtesy here. . .I sense her power, and I can use that to gain a true foothold here. . .a pity she won't survive the experience."

Xander acted instinctively, throwing a punch at the monster that looked so much like a dear friend. Willow gasped as not-Tara blocked the punch with a casual gesture, then seized him by his shirt. The dark figure laughed, then commented, "Yes. . .that was your reaction there, too. I was willing to take the time to convince you then-" She paused, and allowed her eyes to drift over him lasciviously before locking eyes with him again and continuing, "-but there just isn't time right now. I'll just have to deal with your little friend here and deal with any. . .damage later." With a negligent gesture, she tossed Xander twenty feet into a wall, stunning him into semi-consciousness.

Willow screamed, and instinctively began casting a spell that would have ignited the wispy clothing of the dark figure moving towards her. Her target laughed and gestured casually: Willow was knocked to the floor, disrupting the spell and painfully bruising her right shoulder. She lay there in shock as not-Tara moved over to her and crouched next to her, whispering: "My, aren't we a brave little soul. . .you're much more interesting than that vapid undead bitch I ran out of town. . .shame I can't keep you around for entertainment value alone. . .but you're just too valuable to me dead. . .sorry." Willow's eyes widened as her tormentor began muttering an incantation and stretching a hand crackling with crimson fire toward Willow's heart.

. . .to be continued

As always, comments are welcomed and desired