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 (eilandesq@aol.com) 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.


DARK BARGAIN

Part II


Anya had arrived, and Tara had distributed the talismans among her three friends and muttered an incantation. They felt a sudden jolt, then a subtle warmth as the power of the talismans flowed around them. Anya blinked, then exclaimed, "You're the Nemesis? That means we-" She paled, then muttered, "Damn. . .we've really made a mess of it this time."

Giles raised an eyebrow, then asked, "What do you know about Dalorian Necromancers, Anya?"

Anya shuddered, then replied, "One of my supplicants was a powerful witch who wished to revenge herself on her lover and all around him by becoming the Dalorian Necromancer. There was one already out there, and I told her so. She insisted, so I transported her to the dwelling of the then current one and wished her good luck. . .it wasn't pretty. My supplicant got trashed, the Nemesis showed up about then and killed the Necromancer, and I got the hell out of there. . .that was a little too dark even for my tastes as a vengeance demon."

Tara frowned, then commented, "We need to get to Willow and Xander. . .these talismans won't absorb the full force of the Necromancer's spells, but I'll feel better if they have some protection." The group quietly walked towards the Bronze, and they were about fifty feet away from the front door when Tara and Buffy both shuddered, then stared at the Bronze. Buffy spoke for both of them: "Something's wrong in there."

As one, the four of them ran at the front door of the Bronze: Buffy reached it first and threw the door open before dashing in, and Tara, Giles, and Anya followed right behind her. They beheld a mostly empty Bronze, with three figures visible across the way: Xander, crumpled against a wall and only faintly stirring; Willow, supine and staring upwards in terror, and a figure dressed in black and cloaked in dark energy, reaching for Willow with a hand crackling with crimson fire. It was Tara-the Nemesis-who recovered first and shouted in a voice filled with more power than any of them had heard or even imagined from her: "STOP!!"

The figure stopped, visibly startled, then stood erect and turned to her challenger. Tara locked eyes with her opponent, and a soft, shocked gasp came from deep in her throat, reminding Buffy of the sound she had made when she had seen Riley in the suckhouse with the vampire. Giles also recognized the Necromancer and whispered, "Oh, dear."

Buffy and Anya also recognized their foe, and the former demon and the Slayer had the same reaction:


* Déjà vu *


* * * * *


Tara the Merciless, Dalorian Necromancer and by far the most powerful being native to the Earth she called home, was startled to hear the challenge shouted at her. . .in a very familiar voice. With a touch of trepidation that she had not felt in years, she turned away from her midnight snack and looked over at the light-eyed figure who was clearly the Nemesis, and felt a shock of recognition. The crimson flame faded from her hand, and she stared for several seconds before beginning to laugh in a low, mocking tone. Ignoring Xander and Willow, she walked towards the small group standing near the door, noting the appalled expressions on their faces. She shook her head and commented, "Perhaps this place isn't as promising as I had hoped. . .in my world, I had to defeat the Master and all of his minions to claim the Hellmouth." Her eyes raked contemptuously across the group, and she continued, "But what do I face here? A Slayer-and not a very menacing looking one-a couple of pathetic humans, and a version of myself who was too foolish to learn her lesson about getting involved when her mother died in her arms. . .hardly seems worth the effort to squash all of you. . .but, then again, my dance card is free for tonight." She made a lightning-quick gesture, and a bolt of black flame darted out, heading directly for Buffy's heart.

The Nemesis was already moving her own hands before her foe finished her spell, and the black flame was deflected into a nearby wall, which flickered briefly before returning to normal. The necromancer smiled coldly, then commented, "So. . .you do have a spine under that mousy exterior. . .good. . .all the more fun for me." She uttered a loud, inhuman battle cry, and the fight began in earnest.


* * * * *

Buffy blinked as the lethal spell was deflected, then nodded at Giles and Anya to get Willow and Xander out of there. They nodded back and ran over to the far table as Buffy began stalking the necromancer, looking for an opening to help Tara.

Tara set her jaw as her dark counterpart started weaving terribly powerful magics and throwing them in her direction. She knew from her studies that even the lesser spells could be lethal if she were caught unprepared, and her initial thought had been to stick with versatile defensive magics while she sized up her foe, unless she needed to defend the others. To her surprise, she found that she was able to anticipate the spell that the necromancer was weaving, and coming up with a counterspell was a rather simple matter. * Mom never mentioned this. . .she stressed the difficulty of anticipation. . .why is this so easy? *

Abruptly, the answer occurred to her: she had come to terms with the fact that the abomination she was dueling with was another version of herself. . .and evil or not, she knew her own mind. Wondering if the reverse was true, she quickly wove a simple attack spell and directed it at the necromancer, who ducked slightly and absorbed the spell with the general defensive aura she had thrown up at the beginning of the fight. Tara smiled coldly. * She doesn't have a clue. . .the arrogant bitch thinks I'm so beneath her that it hasn't even occurred to her that she should be able to anticipate me * She called out, "Buffy, protect the others. . .this won't take long."

Tara the Merciless snarled at the bravado of the Nemesis, then glanced over at the Slayer as she stood guard over her all-too vulnerable friends. * My pathetic counterpart can protect them against my spells, but I can give that Slayer over there other problems * She moved her hands in a complex pattern, and a bright flash filled the room. When the light faded, three Hellhounds were sitting ten feet in front of Buffy, looking confused, then hungry. Tara's eyes widened in concern, but Buffy called out, "We've got these, Tara. . .keep fighting!" Buffy held a hand out and snatched the sword that Giles tossed at her without looking, then began slashing away at the vicious creatures as Giles and Xander moved up beside her, wielding their own weapons.

Tara smiled in relief, then resumed knocking aside the necromancer's spells, using minimal energy and waiting for her to tire. * She had tapped the Hellmouth on her own Earth for power, and it's probably made her a bit lazy. . .she's used to unlimited power and she just doesn't have it here * Her expression turned cold and mocking, causing Buffy to shudder a little as she saw the unfamiliar look on her friend's features, and the Nemesis waved contemptuously as she called out, "You ruled a world with THESE parlor tricks? I guess the goddess was having a bad day when she put your little ball of dirt together." The taunt, while clumsy, hit its mark, and the necromancer snarled and redoubled her efforts. Tara began to feel sweat roll down her back: in spite of her advantages, the alternate Tara was an epic opponent She rode out the furious assault, looking for an opening. . .and there it was. The dark aura surrounding the Dalorian Necromancer was beginning to fade, as the massive amounts of raw energy that she was using for her attack spells started to draw on the last reserves of her power. Tara waited until a large spot on her opponent's torso was visibly unprotected, then carefully wove the most powerful attack spell granted to her by the tomes of the Nemesis and unleashed it at her startled foe.

Tara the Merciless never saw it coming. A brief flash of blue light, and she was sent hurtling thirty feet across the room into a brick wall that cracked upon the impact. She cried out in pain, then slumped to the ground as the last vestiges of her dark aura faded away. She sat there in stunned silence as the Nemesis walked up to her and began chanting a spell that had been first written more than five millennia before. She recognized it instantly and tried to struggle to her feet, but failed as Tara finished the spell and unleashed a burst of green fire at her helpless foe.

The green flame struck Tara the Merciless and outlined her body in a flickering aura for a long moment before being absorbed. Buffy, who had dispatched the Hellhounds with the help of Giles and Xander, walked over and stood at Tara's side, commenting, "Cool-looking spell. . .what did it do?"

Tara closed her eyes for a moment, and Buffy shuddered at the desolate expression on her face as the Nemesis replied, "It's known as the Chains of Malora. . .it binds the Dalorian Necromancer and prevents her from using any of her powers. . .it only is effective when she has already been defeated."

Footsteps came up from behind Tara and Buffy, and Willow threw herself at Tara, hugging her fiercely as she asked, "Anya explained what happened. . .are you all right?"

Tara shook her head silently, and Willow's eyes widened in concern. There was a harsh laugh, and all eyes turned on the bloody and helpless figure sitting on the floor. The inky black eyes of Tara the Merciless looked over the small group of people who were now watching her with horror and disgust, then she laughed again and commented, "Well. . .this place is different, isn't it? The forces of good seem to be a bit more robust here. Tara, your friends seem to be quite loyal to you. . .how will they feel when they find out you're a demon?"

Tara blinked, then her eyes teared up as she realized what part of the appalling cost of her family's deceptions had been in another place. Buffy spoke for them all as she replied, "Uh. . .hate to tell you, but that whole demon thing was a load of crap your father was pulling to keep you under control. . .you were never a demon."

The necromancer blinked, then laughed as she replied, "Really? Well, that's kind of funny, really. . .it just means I actually had a justification for torturing all of them to death. . .go figure."

Tara turned pale, and her dark reflection laughed at the reaction and taunted, "So did you tell them what it means to be a Dalorian Necromancer, dear? Blood sacrifice, torture of small children, endless human misery of all kinds. . .and that's just the fun part." She watched as the Nemesis blinked, then delivered the crowning blow: "How interesting that someone with your face could do such things. . .isn't it?"

The necromancer saw the loathing that crossed all of the other faces in the room, and she felt a tingle of power: she might be helpless, but she could still inflict pain on these meddlers. She looked at her opponents and taunted, "So. . .which one of you is willing to kill the monster who looks like your friend? Is it you, Slayer?" Buffy's eyes flashed anger, then she looked away. The dark eyes moved on to Xander, and she commented, "Not you, I think. . .you always did have a soft spot for a pretty face." She glanced next at Willow, and the protective and loving way she was holding the Nemesis told her all she needed to know: "Or you, witch. . .will you end the existence of your lover's mirror image?" Willow shuddered, and her eyes teared up as her face twisted in shame. The eyes moved on to the others, and she saw no enthusiasm for her death in any of them, except a brief glimmer of malice in the eyes of the dark-haired girl standing next to Xander. She was about to laugh again when she saw a flash of motion and felt a sharp pain in her chest.

She glanced downward and saw that the dagger of the Nemesis had been buried in her black heart, and she gasped as she looked up and saw the eyes of her counterpart blazing with hatred as she gave the blade a final twist before withdrawing it and stepping back. As her world darkened the last thing she saw was Tara turning her back on her, leaving her alone to perish.

The figure of the Dalorian Necromancer slumped, and at once the body was consumed in crimson flames that reduced it to ashes without harming the surrounding area. The observers blinked, and Willow was the first one to recover and to turn to where Tara was standing, facing away from them with the dagger still clenched in her hand. Willow walked up behind her, calling out in a quavering voice, "Tara?"

Tara turned back to her lover and looked at her with dead eyes and a desolate expression for a moment before dropping the knife and whispering, "Leave me alone." She ran out, and Willow was about to follow when Buffy's hand fell on her shoulder and the Slayer quietly said, "Willow, don't."

Willow almost snapped at Buffy, then regained a measure of her composure before she responded, "Damn it, Buffy. . .I can't just let her run off like that. . .she's really screwed up right now."

Buffy nodded, then replied, "I know. . .and at any other time you'd be the best one to help her, Willow. . .but this time, I think I might have a better shot at getting through to her than anyone else."

Willow thought for a moment, then nodded, and Buffy departed, leaving the remaining friends to look around the battle zone and shudder at the close call they had just had.


* * * * *


Tara flung the door to her room open and walked in, throwing herself on her bed and burying her face in her hands. She desperately wanted to cry, but her grief remained bottled up behind the mass of guilt and remorse over what she had experienced in the last hour. She heard footsteps and snarled, "Go away!"

Tara felt another burst of remorse for lashing out at someone who had to be a friend, but the only reaction from the visitor was to approach and sit on the bed next to her. Tara looked up and saw Buffy watching her with an expression of compassion and love on her face as she replied, "No, Tara. . .I'm not leaving you alone to deal with this. . .I know better than anyone just how bad an idea that is."

Tara flushed, then turned away from Buffy, whispering, "I don't see how you can stand to be near me. . .near a monster."

Tara heard a sudden intake of breath, then heard the snap of command in the Slayer's voice as she ordered, "Tara, look at me." Exhausted, Tara lacked the force of will to resist, and she sat up and looked at Buffy, whose eyes were visibly angry, though her expression remained compassionate.

Buffy took a deep breath to compose herself, then continued, "Tara. . .you've been helping us out since before I met you. . .you saved Willow from the Gentlemen, figured out that Faith had pulled the body switch on me, helped Willow save us from Glory just a few weeks back, not to mention generally being one of us and treating Dawn as if she were your own little sister. . .oh, and making Willow happier than I've ever seen her. . .did a monster do all that?"

Tara shook her head involuntarily, then responded, "Buffy. . .you don't understand. . .when my mother died, and I checked to make sure the Dalorian Necromancer was dead. . .I found his books. I could have abandoned my oath to my mother and become the new Dalorian Necromancer. . .and I was tempted, Buffy. I didn't want to die the way my mother did, and for a moment I thought of embracing the darkness. . .the decision I arrived at after a minute's consideration was the difference between me and that. . .thing. . .I just killed. Whatever darkness made her decide the other way. . .that darkness is in me, Buffy."

Buffy looked at her friend for a long moment, then nodded and replied, "Yes, Tara, it is." The young witch flinched at Buffy's words, but the Slayer continued without pausing: "And the darkness that made D'Hoffryn decide that Willow might be a good candidate to be a vengeance demon is in her, too. Giles. . .they didn't call him Ripper when he was younger just because it sounded cool, you know. Xander. . .I could tell you a few stories about Xander, and why do you think every demon hottie that hits this town makes a beeline for him, anyway? Even the alternate you, for God's sake. . . and do I even need to go into MY dark side? Willow has to have told you all the stories, and I've got some ones I've kept to myself because I haven't wanted to scare all of you. . ." Buffy reached out and grasped Tara's shoulders as she continued, "Tara. . .you thought all along that you had a dark side, and only recently found out that it wasn't because of some demon inside you waiting to get out. . .well, guess what? You do have a dark side, and it's human, just like the rest of ours are. . .welcome to the club."

Tara laughed involuntarily, and Buffy smiled back at her and continued, "Tara, I think that darkness in us serves a purpose. . .it reminds us what we're fighting and makes us keep our guard up. . .without it, I think it would be hard to really understand what we're up against." She closed her eyes for a moment, thinking of the early days she had known Riley and his sense of naivete about fighting evil, and how unprepared he had been for his betrayal by Professor Walsh and the Initiative. She blinked, then continued, "The point is. . .you were tempted, but you came through and did what you believed was right. We'd all be dead now if you hadn't. You did good. . .and we're all proud of you."

Tara blinked, and a hint of tears appeared. Buffy noted the change and squeezed Tara's shoulders before continuing, "Tara. . .after I sent Angel to Hell, I felt like a miserable failure. My weakness had caused everyone I knew and loved horrible pain, and condemned the man I loved to what I thought was an eternity of torture because I hadn't had the strength to kill the thing that wore his face. I ran away, thinking that was the best thing I could do for everyone. . .when I was just making things harder on them. I'm grateful every day of my life that they chose to forgive me and take me back. I'm not going to let you make the same mistake I did. . .we'll all be here for you, and if you end up having to go after one of these monsters again, we'll help you deal with that too. . .that's the way we do things, and that's that."

Tara looked into Buffy's eyes, seeing the love and support there, and the dam broke. The young witch started sobbing, and Buffy quickly drew her close, supporting her as her body shook, then relaxed as Tara succumbed to complete exhaustion. Buffy sighed, then glanced up at the doorway, where Willow stood silently, watching her best friend comfort the love of her life. Buffy smiled softly, then sighed as Willow pulled up a chair next to the bed and waited. Tara wasn't out of the woods yet, but neither Buffy nor Willow intended to leave her alone until she was. . .after the crises of the last few months, sitting up with a sick friend was a blessed return to normalcy.



As always, comments are welcomed and desired