Summary: Willow, seeking power, comes upon a truly dark tome, and makes a fateful choice. Follow-up to "Dark Bargain."

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

Rating: PG-13, for themes.

Time Frame: During "Two to Go," with changes in the timeline to reflect my earlier story "Dark Bargain." (spoilers)

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me ( eilandesq@charter.net ) 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.

Author's Note: Anyone who is used to more mellow stories from me is forewarned: this one is dark. Really, really dark. Don't say I didn't warn you. : - )




BETRAYAL


Part I


Willow released Rack, and the demon magic pusher's husk dropped to the ground with a hollow thump. She spared the corpse only a single contemptuous glance before turning away and contemplating the feelings that the new power coursing through her was causing her to experience. She smiled coldly as she recognized the remnants of her own personal energies that Rack had stolen from her five months before. * He was right: I did taste of strawberries * She dismissed the thought and sighed in contentment as she allowed the stolen power to permeate every part of her body. She felt her senses sharpen, and her earlier fatigue from chasing Xander, Buffy, and the survivors of the Geek Trio vanished. At first, she was inclined to simply resume the chase, but she hesitated: Xander and Buffy were nothing if not resourceful, and they might be able to hold her off long enough for this new power source to be depleted as well. The infusion of dark magic, now reinforced, had intensified Willow's arrogance about her abilities, but she had known Buffy for far too long to dismiss her ability to overcome apparently impossible odds, particularly when she had help. * I need more power. It's out there-I just need to find it *

Willow closed her eyes and reached out with her magical senses, seeking sources of power. The Hellmouth itself screamed out with unimaginable power, but she dismissed that source immediately: the only way to tap it would be to open it, and she would never be able to master it in time to avoid being overwhelmed by the flood of demons that would inevitably emerge as a result of the opening. She sensed several sources of power at some distance, including a rapidly waxing one many miles to the east, but she would have to travel to them to tap them, giving Buffy time to firm up her own defensive preparations. The young witch was becoming frustrated when she sensed the barest whispers of dark magic coming from behind what appeared to be a very powerful warding spell. Willow chuckled as she realized where the emanations were coming from, and what they undoubtedly represented: * Beloved, you really should have been more careful about hiding those. . .or simply had the sense to burn them *

Willow contemplated simply flying to the Summers house, but the challenge of defeating Tara's wards from where she stood was irresistible to her. She closed her eyes again and focused her will on the wards. At first, the wards remained unmoved, and Willow redoubled her efforts, feeling sweat begin to trickle down her brow and back. The silent battle went on for long seconds, and Willow was about to scream in frustration and cease her efforts when there was a bright flash of light, which left two large tomes bound in black hide sitting in front of the witch.

Willow took a moment to let her pulse slow, then knelt in front of the tomes, examining them. She could feel power coming off of them in dark waves that caused her to feel dizzy and exhilarated at the same time. She took a breath, then noted their size: simple study would take her weeks, if not months to learn their secrets. She had absorbed the knowledge in the Magic Box's black magic books with the effect of a few moments, but would that method suffice for tomes as powerful as these? * Only one way to find out * She reached out and placed her hands on the inky black covers of the books, and began once again to concentrate. She felt an instant of primal terror, and it took every bit of her determination to keep from hurling the books away from her and fleeing the room. After a moment, she composed herself, set her jaw, and focused her entire will towards the goal of absorbing the power within the Tomes of the Dalorian Necromancer.

At that moment, Willow Rosenberg-beloved friend to the Slayer and her companions, and tireless defender of the world as she knew it-was irrevocably doomed.

The Tomes were the creation of a powerful fiend who sacrificed its very existence to create a persistent source of evil that would forever threaten the existence of the worlds where the Tomes were placed. It was only through the willing sacrifice of an equally powerful champion of good that the Tomes of the Nemesis were formed, leading to a long-running series of battles that doomed some worlds to lasting darkness, while others merely weathered a periodic flirtation with apocalypse at the hands of the current Necromancer. One of the few saving graces of the ghastly power of the Tomes was that it more often than not sent the would-be adept fleeing to retain whatever sanity they possessed. It wasn't necessarily a matter of how evil the individual was; rather, it was that the fate of whoever finished absorbing the knowledge of the Tomes became very clear to the practitioner before the point of no return was reached, and many blinked, then departed to cleanse themselves of the dark secrets they had already learned. It was only the most power hungry, or mad, or simply desperate individuals (such as the alternate Tara) who chose to go past the point of no return, and were lost. Willow's extraordinary gifts--which had enabled her to absorb in seconds what would take well-trained but less talented witches years to master--bypassed all of the false starts, all of the doubts, all of the sheer horror at what she was learning that any other being navigating the dark works would have experienced, and directed the entire dark power of the Tomes into her mind in the blink of an eye, reducing the volumes to fetid ash as the lights dimmed and a wave of pure evil force blasted forth from her, arousing the stuporous magic addicts in Rack's lobby and causing them to flee from the building in terror without knowing what was causing the reaction.

Willow was in pain, and she was gradually realizing that she had just made a horrible mistake. The pain distracted her from her thirst for vengeance and power momentarily, and granted her a moment of absolute clarity: she could see what was about to happen to her, and what the likely consequences to everything she had ever known would be. After a timeless moment of sheer horror, she gathered every erg of power that she could muster to prevent that dark fate from taking place.

From Willow's point of view, the experience was much akin to being in a room where the floor was gradually being painted, blocking the doorway and inexorably forcing her back towards a corner with no way of escape. She summoned spirit cleansing magics that would have obliterated most curses or magical infirmities, but the inky blackness kept forcing her to retreat, and before long the part of Willow that was still somewhat akin to who she had been was backed into a corner of her mind, staring into the abyss.

Willow knew that her time had come, and it took only an instant more for her to choose obliteration rather than let the evil force win. She exerted herself once more, causing the advancing darkness to slow briefly, then withdrew all of her resistance, allowing the dark force to rush at her with no apparent barrier in its path. Just before it reached her, Willow wove one last spell and whispered a brief prayer.

The black energy enveloped what was the last vestige of the being who had been Willow Rosenberg; at the same time, it flowed into the spell that Willow had completed as her final conscious act. A few milliseconds later, the spell reached its threshold energy and erupted in an eerily silent burst of crimson fire that vaporized everything in its path.

The force was almost exclusively directed upwards and horizontally, sparing the inhabitants of Sunnydale the indignity of having their pipes and utility lines severed, but every structure within one hundred yards was reduced to dust that came tumbling down with a low roar. Thanks to the hour of the night, and the fact that Rack's customers had fled moments before, the living casualties of the event were limited to insects, pigeons, and a stray kitten that had the misfortune to wander into the area seconds before the spell went off.

It was ten minutes before the majority of the dust had ceased to fall, and five minutes more before the form in the center of the destruction stirred within the shallow crater. She shook her head, and the dust fell away from her body as if repelled by electricity, leaving her nude except for the aura of flickering darkness that now enveloped her. Willow's eyes remained closed as she got to her feet, and she whispered to herself as she stretched. She opened her eyes, and they remained as black and fathomless as they had been before, but with an extra air of malice. She glanced down at herself and noted her nudity, and appeared to consider the situation for a moment before waving a hand and summoning a shimmering black gown that fitted her like a second skin, creating a stark contrast with her pale skin and accentuating the effect of the inky radiance that was coming from her. Other than the faint whisper of the remaining dust falling to the ground, there was absolute silence. Abruptly, Willow turned, surveying the devastation around her, and her only reaction was a very slight smile before she made a casual gesture and vanished in a flash of crimson fire that continued to repel the dust for a moment before giving way and filling in the space where a monstrously powerful being had just been.



* * * * *


When Buffy found Clem and Dawn, they were staring at the cloud of dust that obscured everything in a three block radius. Clem spotted Buffy, nodded at her, then ran off, fear further distorting his features. Buffy looked at Dawn briefly, shook her head in annoyance, and led her back towards the Magic Box, glancing back once at the huge cloud before turning back and urging Dawn along.

When they arrived back at the store, they found Xander sitting on the floor, cradling Anya in his arms as he alternated his attention between the unconscious demon and the visibly shaken Jonathan and Andrew. Buffy ran up to Xander and demanded, "What happened to her? Has Willow been here?" She turned to the survivors of the Geek Trio and added, "Did they do something?"

"Other than shrieking and cowering, no." Buffy took irrational comfort from the note of dark humor in Xander's voice, and waited for him to continue: "Willow hasn't been here, either. Anya just gasped and fainted. As far as I can tell, she's fine; then again, I'm not exactly up on what's normal for a vengeance demon. She's breathing, warm, and not bleeding: I'm guessing she just needs to recover from whatever made her faint."

The silence was broken by Dawn asking, "Anya's a vengeance demon again?"

Xander and Buffy exchanged long-suffering looks, then the Slayer turned back to her visibly nervous sister and replied, "She's helping us for now: once we help Willow, we'll deal with the Anya situation-preferably without apocalyptic consequences." Dawn nodded, and Buffy went into the back room of the store and retrieved a wet washcloth and a glass of water, which she handed to Xander. He smiled and placed the washcloth on Anya's forehead. Minutes passed, while Dawn fidgeted and Buffy became increasingly frustrated. Jonathan began fidgeting, and eventually Buffy turned on him and snapped, "Jonathan, I really don't want to put up with any more of your crap right now. Sit down and stay quiet."

"Well, I don't really want to die, and-believe it or not-I don't want you to get killed trying to protect me. In case you've forgotten, I've stuck my neck out twice now to help save you when Warren and his pet monkey over here wanted you dead. Anya's out, and neither of you can read that damned book-let me try. What is there to lose?" Jonathan locked eyes with the angry Slayer, fear warring with determination on his face. He saw her face soften, but there was still doubt there, and he added in a more gentle tone: "I don't want to kill Willow, but stopping her from killing any of us sounds like a really good plan." He blinked, then looked down for a moment before looking back up at her and concluding quietly, "Let me help, Buffy."

Buffy blinked, sighed, then turned to Xander, who frowned for a moment before nodding. Buffy turned back to Jonathan, who was standing at attention, ignoring the angry glare from Andrew. She nodded once at him, then carried the book over to him and ordered, "Work over at the table: let us know if you need any materials." Jonathan nodded, and turned to go over to the table, only to be stopped in his tracks by Buffy's menacing conclusion: "Jonathan, if you cross me one more time, and Willow doesn't kill you-I will. Don't doubt it."

Jonathan looked back at Buffy and met her eyes again before nodding and sitting down at the table, reaching for a pencil and notepad. Buffy shook her head, then turned back to see Anya stirring, and quickly moved across the room and knelt next to the reviving vengeance demon. She waited for Anya's eyelids to begin fluttering, then called out, "Anya, are you all right?"

Anya's eyes snapped open, and she abruptly stood up, her eyes darting about wildly. She visibly paused to compose herself, then turned back to Buffy with an expression that made the Slayer involuntarily take a step back. She had seen Anya afraid, angry, and in any number of other emotional states, but she had never seen the demon in a state of sheer horror. Anya shook her head and whispered, "No, I'm not. None of us are. We're going to need help, and the only person who could help us. . .is dead."

Buffy and Xander looked at each other in confusion, then back to Anya, and Xander broke the brief silence by stating, "Anya, you're not making any sense. What are you talking about?"

"Me."

A brief flicker of red light accompanied the monosyllable, and everyone present slowly turned to the front door. Willow stood there, dressed in glittering black and cloaked in flickering darkness. It took only an instant for Buffy and Xander to recognize the visual effects and make the connection to what Anya had just said, and Buffy was completely unable to prevent the cry of anguish that burst out of her as she stared at what had been her best friend.

Willow noted the reaction and smiled coldly, looking over the visibly horrified occupants of the room before walking forward, her bearing that of a queen surveying her realm. She stopped a few feet in front of Buffy and commented, "A funny thing happened to me after you left me with that truck. . .I found these nifty books that Tara had hidden away, and they had all sorts of dark secrets that were just perfect for my plans." The Dalorian Necromancer smiled again, then added, "Oh, she had some other books hidden away-I think she meant to use them to train her successor as the Nemesis. Pity she never got around to that. Oh well, they made a nice little pile of ashes."

Willow looked around the room, seeing four horrified expressions and two confused and terrified ones. She chuckled low in her throat, then concluded, "So, since stopping me is no longer an option, I just gotta ask-what are you going to do now, Slayer?"

Buffy locked eyes with Willow, giving her the glare that had sent rooms full of vampires into blind flight, that had stopped ten foot tall demons in their tracks. . .and saw absolutely no reaction in the inky black eyes of the Dalorian Necromancer. She held her face absolutely still, but in the depths of her mind, the answer to Willow's question echoed quietly:

* Hell if I know *



. . .to be continued



As before, comments are welcome and desired.