Act Four

Lightning forked through the clouds as they sped across an overcast dusk sky. The wind had worked itself into a frenzy, whipping between the branches of the lofty oak with a shrill whine. At each jagged flash, the tree appeared more sinister. Its roots had been twisted by the passage of time, but the ancient and sturdy trunk had withstood nature's elements with amazing fortitude.

Tara stood at the base of the oak staring up at the topmost limbs, which quivered with something akin to barely restrained anger. She seemed pitifully small by comparison, like Jack in the presence of his enormous beanstalk. She straightened her shoulders.

"Okay, Tara," she whispered. "Here you are. It's just you versus the Big Bad Tree."

In her hands, she held the printout from the library, together with the album that contained the original photograph. The yard was relatively well illuminated by the porch lights and occasional burst of lightning, but she carried a heavy-duty flashlight nonetheless. Opening the album, she shone the torch upon the appropriate picture and compared it to the replica. It was a faithful reproduction, complete with the ugly countenance snarling from the depths of the tree trunk. Her eyes darted toward the oak, but there was nothing remarkable skulking within the bark. Moving backward, Tara positioned herself at the approximate spot where the photographer had probably been standing at the time the shot was taken.

Squinting into the darkness, she directed the strong beam toward the tree. From this distance, the trunk's appearance was most definitely gnarled and sprinkled with knotholes. With a little imagination, a variety of images might be created from its knobby surface, but certainly nothing that resembled a face. Tara frowned and studied the tintype once more.

"What are you?" she asked doubtfully. "Are you anything? Or do I just want you to be?"

Puffing a disappointed sigh, her eyes drifted toward the oak again. This time, what met her gaze caused her to let out a scream and take a defensive stumble backward. The contorted face was plainly visible and it regarded her with naked loathing. But as she blinked rapidly at the repugnant visage, it seemed to meld into nothingness.

Tara's breath came in short, sharp gasps. "Validation. That's good," she assured herself before adding quietly, "And so's my new heart attack."

WITCH.

The accusation was delivered with an almost tangible malignance. It was as though the mouth of hell had decided to exercise its vocal chords and assume residence in Tara's head. She winced painfully and staggered at the assault, as if she had been physically struck.

The ensuing assertions were no less malevolent.

NO ESCAPE. FOREVER. FAULT. YOUR FAULT. WITCH.

The violent onslaught brought Tara to her knees, and the denouncements only increased in volume and intensity.

PUNISH. TRAP HERE. TRAPPED TOGETHER. DEMON. WITCH. HATE.

Grinding her back teeth, Tara managed to spit out a reply. "Hey we've ... all got ... issues ..."

The defiant challenge was met with a shriek of uncontrollable rage. The wind appeared to echo the sentiment, wailing like an infuriated banshee. Battling the ferocious gusts, Tara struggled to her feet.

"You're mad ... I get it ..." she shouted with all the force she could muster. "But back off!"

The resulting effect was a ripple of energy that radiated from Tara's body, engulfing everything within its radius. The shrill screech vibrated for a brief moment and then all was silence. Fully regaining her equilibrium, Tara took stock of her surroundings, employing caution and a healthy dose of distrust. Her suspicions were not unfounded. Within seconds, a low chuckle could be heard emanating from the oak. It was a thoroughly unsavory sound, spiteful and venomous. Refocusing on the tree trunk, Tara visibly flinched at the malicious expression worn by the inhuman face staring back at her, and when it spoke, it was with a quality not of this world.

"Maclay witch."

"Belastung."

"Thus we are named."

Tara returned the unwavering gaze. "I'm here to destroy you. I thought you might like to know."

The creature chuckled in response. "You are unique among your line, Maclay witch," it told her. "For over a century, none escaped me. As I was entrapped, condemned to remain in this hell for all eternity, so too was your fate."

Tara crossed her arms. "If you're waiting for me to apologize, I think it'll be a little while."

"You are here now," it responded in casual fashion. "You will not leave again. This is sufficient."

"And that's all you want?" queried Tara, a tiny frown creasing her forehead. "Me to stay here?"

"Yes. You will remain," confirmed the Belastung. "Your men will see to it." The tone became almost gleeful in its anticipation. "I expect they will be cruel."

"So you're twisting them, is that it? Donny, my father ..."

If the Belastung had possessed shoulders, they undoubtedly would have been shrugged. "The will of most humans is pitifully weak. It does not take much. A whisper on the breeze, a thought in the ear." A self-satisfied grin materialized. "You would know, Maclay witch – you too have heeded my words."

From the dark perimeter, Tara could hear voices beginning to rise. Countless numbers of hushed whispers, virtually impossible to understand, but every so often, a snippet could be discerned:

Alone. Pathetic. Worthless. Unloved.

Jaw set with determination, Tara glared scathingly upon the Belastung's smug countenance. "That was a lifetime ago. I don't believe your lies anymore."

"No?" The reply was unmistakably patronizing.

Tara took a step forward. "No."

The Belastung was unimpressed. "You will again."

Slowly, Tara shook her head. "We're never going to find out."

Raising her arms, she readied herself for the spell she was about to cast, but the Belastung simply cackled with amusement. "You are unique, Maclay witch ... and stupid."

Sensing something amiss, Tara slowly began to look over her shoulder. She was greeted by what appeared to be the entire populace of Hope Falls. En masse, they closed in, moving as single entity with fiery torches held high. She allowed her hands to drop to her sides as her bravado evaporated.

"Uh-oh."

——————————

"Uh-oh," grimaced Buffy, wrinkling her nose.

The four remaining residents of the Scoobies' house had decided to spend the evening watching television. Resting her elbows on a pillow, Dawn occupied a space on the floor, lounging comfortably on her stomach. Xander was stretched out in his chair, while Willow had commandeered one-and-a-half couch cushions. On the screen, a very old, badly-preserved, black-and-white movie flickered across the screen.

At Buffy's muted exclamation, she commanded everyone's attention. She was bearing a large bowl containing a mound of something that was slightly brownish in color and thoroughly distasteful in appearance.

"'Uh-oh'?" echoed Willow.

Dawn rolled her eyes. "God, what did you do now?"

Buffy peered disconsolately into the bowl. "I think I sort of broke the popcorn."

"Buff, it's popcorn," Xander explained with magnified patience. "You put it in the microwave and hit 'Popcorn'. Orville couldn't have made it simpler."

"I dunno," returned Buffy dubiously, "but it's this sort of ..." She prodded the contents with a cautious finger, as though they might disintegrate at any second, "...papery browny stuff." She sniffed warily. The action was followed by another nose wrinkle. "This is not butter-flavored goodness."

Willow swung her legs to the floor. "Just throw it away. I'll try my luck with the old radiation box."

"That was our last bag," Buffy admitted ruefully.

The room filled with disappointment at movie snacking opportunities lost, but Xander wasn't about to let the matter end there. Bravely, he held out his hand.

"Well gimme what we got then. I, for one, am not tempting the gods of Movie Night by refusing to sacrifice some 'corn in their name."

With a expression of uncertainty that clearly communicated a 'don't say I didn't warn you' message, Buffy dutifully relinquished the bowl and reclaimed her allotted portion of the couch. She flopped down next to Willow just as Xander popped a fistful of kernels into his mouth.

"Ewww," the girls chorused.

Xander did his level best to chew without actually allowing the stuff to touch his tongue. "You're sayin' it," he mumbled from around a bulging mouthful, "but I'm livin' it."

Anxious to be distracted, Dawn refocused on the television set. "You know," she commented, "I almost sorta feel bad for these guys."

Running rampant, a horde of peasants, all torches and pitchforks, were storming a castle.

"I mean, what've they got?" asked Dawn of nobody in particular. "Straw huts and monsters, and that's about it."

"Plus a healthy dose of pyromania," added Xander, contemplating another fistful of what could only be considered "popcorn" in the most literal of senses.

"Probably not the best mix with the straw hut," Willow observed aloud.

Buffy pondered the possibilities. "I wonder if it really used to be like that. Peasants storming castles all the livelong day."

"Hey," declared Dawn, glancing over her shoulder with rounded eyes, "maybe there are peasants rising up, even as we speak!"

"C'mon," scoffed Xander. He delved deeper into the bowl with a 'what the hell' shrug. "It's the 21st century. Stuff like that doesn't happen any more."

——————————

The bolts of lightning were more prominent now and occurring with increasing frequency as thunder rumbled in the distance As the mob moved closer, every face could be clearly seen, limned by orange torchlight. There was no common denominator, save for the fact that each expression indicated a willingness to gleefully gut Tara for the price of a nickel. The horde was abuzz with muttered accusals, echoing those of the demon itself mere moments before.

Tara whirled back to the tree, only to find that the image had vanished once more. She opened her mouth as though to address the Belastung again, but a voice rang out from the shadows before she had the chance, and Donny made sure that nobody would miss a solitary pearl of his wisdom.

"Did you think we wouldn't figure it out?"

Tara blinked at her brother with surprise. "How did you—?"

Emerging from the gloom, Brooke took Donny's hand into her own. She grinned smugly in Tara's direction. "You really shouldn't leave your door unlocked." She paused to deliver a reproving 'tut' of her tongue. "Honestly, anyone could just walk on in."

The exchange held little fascination for Donny however, and he continued as though he hadn't been interrupted. "You was dead, Tara, yet here you are." His challenge was direct. "How'd you 'xplain that?"

Faltering, Tara nervously noted the droves of torch-wielding townspeople steadily pressing in and seemed to be working to formulate the least incendiary response possible.

The silence was enough of an answer for Donny however. "Know how I explain it?" He paused for dramatic effect. "Magic. Yeah, you were dead, all right. Dead as can be, rottin' in the ground. Then the darkest kinda evil done pulled you out an' set you back on this earth."

"That's not—!" Tara immediately refuted, but was then forced to admit, "A-Actually, that may be true. But it's not that simple!"

"Sounds all kinds'a simple to me," Donny informed her matter-of-factly.

By now, most members of the approaching crowd had begun to spit furious obscenities in Tara's direction. Their faces were near unrecognizable, and they didn't so much resemble human beings as they did a pack of savage beasts hungry for the kill. The atmosphere was openly antagonistic and Tara fought to stifle her mounting anxiety. An abrupt clap of overhead thunder served only to inflame the animosity and the mutterings grew even more sinister.

Eyes affixed upon the restless mass of bodies, Tara listened as her brother resumed his tirade. "You got the same curse momma had, an' her momma, an' her momma before that. You all got it. It's in your blood, you can't do help yourselves. It chases you down, and it will be in you every day for the rest of your life."

Pulling his hand from Brooke's grasp, Donny scrambled atop a small hillock and gestured for the throng to gather round. The majority complied instantly, ears straining to catch each upbraiding word, expressions rapt with attention. He smiled down upon them, his disciples.

"Thou shall not suffer a witch to live," he proclaimed.

Tara was horrified. "Donny, plea—"

Her entreaty was cut short by a weighty rock whizzing past her left ear. Taken off guard, Tara spun to face the perpetrator and only narrowly managed to dodge the path of another jagged stone. The third, however, made solid contact with her shinbone and she gave a tiny yelp of pain. Missiles of all shapes and sizes were now being hurled toward her at an alarming rate. Thrown off-balance, Tara started to buckle beneath the unremitting onslaught.

Tara had been driven to her knees when it began to happen. Subtle at first – a simple raising of the chin and set of the jaw. But then, as a rock hurtled toward her at lethal speed, her head snapped up and she stared at the projectile. Mere inches away from her temple, it froze, halted in the mid-flight. It didn't fall to the ground, instead dangling motionless as though suspended from an invisible thread.

Gracefully regaining her footing, Tara straightened to an upright position, the faintest shimmering silhouette of white outlining her body against the dark backdrop. Slowly, she pulled her arms close, fingers curling inward as though she were drawing upon a source of power buried deep within. Her eyes, now the color of pale aquamarines, seemed to verge for a moment on a silvery hue, but then sustained their light blue caste. They radiated a carefully restrained wrath.

"Let's not, okay?" she quietly warned.

As the engulfing nimbus grew brighter, the unruly crowd became immobilized, almost as though they had gazed upon the image of Medusa herself and been transformed into living statues. Only the eyes were afforded freedom of movement, darting frantically from side-to-side in their sockets, betraying bewilderment and the hint of panic.

Even Tara herself appeared somewhat stunned by the turn of events. She spared a quick glance at her hands, but wasted little time on the phenomenon. There was a far more important issue to be dealt with and her focus quickly returned to the oak.

"Killing me?" she accused, gesturing to the frozen mob behind her. "What happened to trapping me here forever?"

"A little too far, perhaps," Belastung grudgingly admitted as his visage rematerialized. The expression grew sullen. "You made me angry."

"Get used to it."

With Hope Falls' populace effectively out of commission and posing no threat of interference, Tara closed her eyes and bowed her head in concentration. Her lips moved in a silent chant.

Belastung seemed intrigued. "What do you do, Maclay witch?"

If it expected a response, it was sadly out of luck. Tara ignored the curious query and continued her cantillating. The Belastung pressed its face against the bark, twisting first left and then right in an attempt to hear the invocation. A forked flash of lightning snaked its way from the heavens to the earth, accompanied by a deafening clap of thunder. As if by design, the wind began to whip itself into a fury, seeming to amplify Tara's soft voice.

"...beastia di despero, beastia di vastatio, diutius ibidem..."

The Belastung chuckled with the same sort of unaffected yet amused ridicule typically reserved for yappy little dogs, convinced of their own worth in fending off intruders.

"Destroy me, Maclay witch?"

Tara paid the taunt no heed and remained steadfast in her chanting. Overhead, the storm clouds rolled across a violently churning sky that sparked with released energy.

"I shall savor breaking you like no other," the Belastung promised. "And make no mistake, broken you shall be."

Tara disregarded the ominous message, never missing a beat in the midst of her incantation.

"...lues di terra, lues di aetas, per meus mos ego evinco vos..."

The face of the Belastung twitched within its wooden cell. "There is no escape for you save death, and yet even in this you are defiant. You forget – I know you."

"...beastia di despero..."

"I have known you since before you were born," it growled. "Every secret you hide, even from yourself."

"...lues di aetas..."

"Every hope you dare not foster. Every fear still buried in your heart."

Tara's recital gathered strength, her voice becoming more insistent and more desperate with every uttered syllable.

"...diutius ibidem..."

A crooked fork of lightning briefly illuminated the image of the enraged Belastung. "Maclay witch, I am in everything you say. Everything you do."

"...lues di terra..."

"Yesterday."

"...lues di aetas..."

"Today."

"...per meus mos..."

"Tomorrow."

Tara's eyelids snapped open as the wind lifted her hair. Her fingers jerked and then involuntarily splayed apart. The enveloping white glow became blinding in its brilliance.

"...ego evinco vos get out of my life!"

It was as though Tara had called upon the very heavens themselves. An ear-shattering thunderbolt rocked the area and the ground quaked beneath the force. All the townspeople, Donny included, were terrified – or as terrified as could possibly be displayed when the only form of expression was restricted solely to movement of the eyes. Even the Belastung was visibly shaken.

"What is—?" it asked anxiously.

Tara's hair continued to whip about her shoulders. "Your time is done," she stated flatly. "You don't know me any more."

She closed her eyes again and took a deep breath. Trapped in a wave of panic, the Belastung began to search for a way out. Its face rapidly disappeared and then reappeared at varying locations around the trunk of the oak. With each new re-emergence, it thrashed frantically against the surface from within, straining to break free. The bark stretched like a rubber mask from the immense pressure, but held fast. Mouth gaped wide in mute horror, the Belastung was all too aware that the frenzied efforts were doomed to end in failure. There was no escape.

With the opening of Tara's eyes, the Belastung's vocal chords were restored. It bellowed in agony and outrage, just as a fork of lightning struck the topmost branch. The deadly shaft and its devastating trail of electrical fire journeyed swiftly downward, as though its path were predetermined. Tara raised a protective hand against the debris, but otherwise didn't flinch, not even when the primal howls of desperation began to issue from the oak's core.

As the anguished shrieks grew weaker, finally fading from existence, the storm took its leave of Hope Falls, carrying with it the thunder and the lightning and the violent wind. An aura of tranquility settled over the area and, one by one, the local inhabitants realized they were no longer bound by paralysis. They exchanged guarded looks of confusion and uncertainty. Many of them appeared to be on the brink of losing consciousness.

No longer sporting a glowing outline, Tara sagged and looked like she wanted little more than to crawl into bed and sleep for the next 72-hours or so. Even exhaustion couldn't dampen her spirits however, and she turned to the recuperating crowd with a broad smile. Her gaze immediately sought and found her brother, and she managed to muster the energy to stand straighter. "It's over now."

Donny regarded her with confusion, seeming not to understand.

"Belastung. The- The demon, in the tree?" clarified Tara. "It was his fault. Revenge. All these years he's been ... been poisoning you and daddy. Everyone. Making you think that we were dangerous, and evil, but—"

She took a step forward, her eyes brimming with expectations of a fresh start, a new connection. But then Donny backed away, and the hopeful expression died.

Scanning the faces of the townspeople, Tara found nothing but more of the same. Although not a one again attempted to lash out at her, either verbally or physically, it was obvious the yearning to do so remained in full force.

Her gaze returned to Donny. If at all possible, he exhibited more fear than anyone – and more hatred.

Tara didn't again try to reach out.

In stony silence, the men and women of Hope Falls began to file back to their homes. Tara made no attempt to stop them. Donny was the last to depart. Tara also allowed him to leave without protest. She stood alone in front of the old family dwelling and watched the flickering torchlights become absorbed into the night, as the tree continued to burn brightly in the background.

——————————

ring-rin—

Hello?

Hey.

Hey, you! I've been waiting for you to call! Are you...?

Tara's footsteps echoed as she made a final check of the house, walking from room to room. Each area had been practically stripped bare, save for some of the more bulky items of furniture. Nothing personal remained.

I'm back in Helena. In the hotel. Still no mints.

Aww, my poor mintless Tara. I'll make sure there's one lovingly placed on your pillow by the time you get home. And if you're very good, it'll even be Andes.

You spoil me.

Not nearly enough.

I can't wait to see it. And you.

This time tomorrow! So, was it...? How was it?

Tara hesitated for a moment outside the Quiet Room. Then she turned the handle, throwing the door open wide before walking away.

It was ... necessary.

Sorta vague on the opinion there, baby.

I'm, uhm, still sort of vague on it myself. It's a lot to digest. It's all been very ... intense.

Yeah, I kinda gathered that. A-About last night ...

That was you, huh? That's what I figured.

Well, technically it was you.

The good people of Hope Falls sort of ... got together to express themselves.

Tara entered the diner for the last time. The former atmosphere of fear and suspicion had, for the most part, dwindled to only fear. Behind the counter, Peggy took a step backward, obviously wanting to keep a safe distance between herself and the customer who was now coming through the door.

There were torches and everything. It was all very B-movie.

Huh. That answers that question. So were you burned at the stake? Cuz I hate that.

No. Oh, but they did try to stone me.

Fans of the classics. Grr. Stupid peasants. You're okay, though?

Just fine. What about you? I'm really sorry about the power suck.

Baby, you can suck me any time. Which, wow, not how I wanted that to sound.

But I didn't hurt you?

Tara walked down Main Street, a brown carrier bag for take-out labeled "P&S Diner" in her hand. Upon reaching the truck, she opened the cab and through the window, spied a small girl with blonde pigtails regarding her curiously. The bright blue eyes were unafraid and the little one wiggled her fingers in friendly greeting. The child didn't look too much different than Tara had herself a lifetime ago and with a smile, she returned the wave. The girl's expression registered sudden surprise as she was swept up into the arms of her mother. The woman cradled her daughter protectively, treating Tara to a hostile glare as she hurried away. Tara deposited her paper bag on the seat and climbed in after it.

Nope! Surprised, sure. Scared, you betcha. But I just got sort of ... limp and non-movey for a little bit. The gang was there, though. They took care of me. Mostly I was just going nuts out of my head worrying about you. There I am, floppin' around, demanding airlifts and that Buffy run really fast to go help you. "It's only 2000 miles! You call yourself a Slayer? You're no Slayer!" I calmed down pretty quick, though. I could just sort of ... of feel you were okay. A-And you are, right? Okay?

The bright sun lent a glimmer of gold to Tara's hair as she stood, two small flower arrangements in her arms, looking down with a sorrowful smile. The pair of marble headstones were side-by-side, almost touching. The name on one read, "Emma Leah Maclay." The other: "Donald Joseph Landers, Sr."

Yeah. I really am. There's a lot to take in, and there's still some stuff I'm not sure about. Resurrection stuff. I still have questions and everything, and some of them are sort of unpleasant, but it's like ... I think it's time I stopped worrying so much about why I'm back, and ... and finally just enjoy the fact that I am.

Tara ...

Maybe when I see you, we can talk about it?

I'd like that. I'd really, really like that.

Me too.

... So! Did you get me a souvenir?

After securing the boxes with a length of stout rope, Tara lifted the tailgate until she heard the satisfying click of closure. Moving to the front of the truck, she climbed in and took a few seconds to make sure she had everything she wanted. Next to her was the photograph album. Her fingers brushed across the dull leather and lingered for a moment.

I sort of got us a souvenir.

"Us" is one of my favorite words. Oh, but if you do happen to find one? I'd really like a t-shirt that says, "My girlfriend went back to her craphole home town to confront her past and get stoned, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt."

I think I saw one of those at the airport.

Hey, it's my lucky day. And with that yawn, I'm thinkin' it should be the end of yours. Get some sleep, missy. That's an order.

Yes ma'am.

I'll see you tomorrow. I can't wait to see you tomorrow. But I'm glad you did this.

So am I. But you know, Will?

Tara turned the key in the ignition. Through the back window of the truck, the house and charred ruins of an ancient oak gradually receded further and further into the distance as she drove down the gravel road.

I think it's time I came home.