In a room located not far from where the Super Slayer had been incarcerated, Xander, Dawn and Kennedy sat at a small table, each holding Uno cards. Xander and Dawn peered at the discarded pile in front of them and then furtively scrutinized their hands. Kennedy had gathered her cards into a single stack and was tapping them with some irritation on the wooden surface, eyes transfixed upon the open doorway and her mind obviously not on the game. Indeed, she seemed to be ignoring the playing field altogether, except in the most abstract fashion.
Across the room, Hannah was seated at a separate table, chin cradled in her palm as she worked away at a crossword puzzle, occasionally tapping the end of a pencil against her teeth and more frequently glancing toward Kennedy, diligently noting the Slayer's mounting lack of patience.
With a challenging air, Dawn threw a red seven atop a green seven and then looked suspiciously at Xander. He met her gaze evenly and, mustering all the decisiveness of a general ordering troops into combat, dispatched a red three. His eye narrowed as he regarded the teenager with a 'that's right, you're goin' down' expression before both turned expectantly to Kennedy. They waited for a moment, anticipating a play but none was forthcoming. Pointedly, Xander cleared his throat but still there was no reaction.
"Unless they dramatically changed the rules of Uno," commented the carpenter, "I think the object of the game is to actually get rid of your cards."
He tilted his head and waited for a response. It came in the form of an even more irritated tapping of cards.
"Kennedy?" queried Dawn hesitantly. "It's sorta your turn?"
Eyes glued to the door, Kennedy selected a random card and pitched it toward the middle of the table. It skidded to a halt in front of Xander, whereupon both he and Dawn inspected it with skepticism. It was a yellow two.
Xander leaned forward on his elbows. "Ahh, Uno," he began wistfully. "The game of many complex and mysterious rules. Rules such as 'same color' and 'same number'." Retrieving the errant card, he offered to Kennedy. "Of which a yellow two is neither."
Without looking, the Slayer reached out and snatched it away, stuffing it into her hand before haphazardly choosing another. This time, it was a blue six. With an exasperated sigh, Xander opened his mouth to speak but never got the chance as Kennedy, pushing herself back from the edge of the table, tossed her cards to one side. The action clearly indicated that the Slayer was done playing.
"This is stupid," she snapped.
"No, you can't quit now!" protested Dawn. "I'm about to throw down two 'Draw Four's on Xander!"
Xander was in agreement. "Yeah, it's—" He paused as Dawn's statement penetrated his consciousness. "You know I hate that," he accused with a frown at the teenager, who simply treated him to a smile. With a dismissive wave, the carpenter turned toward Kennedy. "What else can we do? It's better than sitting here doing nothing."
Kennedy's lips were tight. "We should be in there."
Her eyes narrowed as she got to her feet and strode purposefully for the door but Hannah swiftly barred her exit.
"Rupert's handling it," the blonde sharply informed Kennedy, putting herself between the Slayer and her intended path of departure.
Kennedy glowered darkly at Hannah. "What's he doing, reading her to death?"
The response was calm but determined. "Kennedy. He's handling it."
Clearly not in the mood to be pacified, the Slayer retorted, "If he was 'handling' it, then we'd have answers already."
"And we do," assured the blonde, her voice laced with authority. "As I told you, we now know that there are at least fifty girls, no more than 10 or 15 of whom are approximately as powerful as those that invaded this morning." She met Kennedy's incriminating glare with a level expression.
"Yeah," huffed the brunette, "and that took you how long to get?"
"These things require a delicate touch," sighed Hannah.
Kennedy's hands curled into tight fists. "I'll give her a delicate touch all right, right in her fu—"
The appearance of Giles in the doorway cut short the Slayer's threat. His face was weary, stress seeming to pour from every furrow; the Watcher looked to have aged several years in a short period of time. Stepping to one side, Kennedy and Hannah gave him space to fully enter the room as Xander and Dawn abandoned their card game and hurried forward.
"Anything?" asked Xander anxiously.
The returning nod was jaded and deeply fatigued. "I believe we now have as much information as she is going to be able to give us. There are—"
As he surveyed the room and noted its inhabitants, a frown appeared on Giles' features and he turned to the others with some confusion. "Where's Buffy?"
Using extreme caution, Buffy walked the narrow and near-deserted streets of Trillium's warehouse district. The towering buildings with which the area was lined cast an oppressive gloom and she moved with great care, all senses on high alert. Her body stiffened as sounds of destruction assaulted her ears – wooden crates being smashed, steel drums being overturned and the noise of objects being hurled violently to the ground. Turning quickly, she moved back the way she had just come, soon reaching an intersection. She paused, looking back and forth, obviously uncertain as to what path she should take. Frowning, she took a step to the right and then heard the splintering of glass from behind. Rapidly whirling, she sprinted in the opposite direction and found herself before an abandoned warehouse, its door, surrounded by slivered wood, slowly swaying on one rickety hinge.
The building's interior was dark, although shafts of bright sunrays penetrating through skylights set into the vaulted ceiling did afford some illumination. Buffy entered the structure warily, drinking in the sight of devastation with a heavy sigh. The place had been thoroughly ransacked; no corner had escaped investigation and no possible hiding place had been left untouched.
At the now familiar sounds of wanton destruction emanating from outside, Buffy raised her eyes from the pillaged floor and noticed a metal staircase that led to a second level catwalk where a window had been efficiently shattered, leaving wicked shards dangling from the frame. Swiftly moving into action, she took the steps two-at-a-time until she reached the opening. Looking down, she took stock of the height from there to the ground and without hesitation, leapt through the fragmented glass.
Landing securely on her feet, Buffy instantly surveyed her surroundings. She was in a back alley with only one other building entrance anywhere nearby. The door to this structure had been demolished in its entirety, kicked so savagely that even the framework barely maintained its precarious hold on the masonry. The blonde Slayer dashed inside and quickly appraised the interior damage, but it was much like the other warehouse – very little worthy of note save for the total devastation. With a frown, Buffy strained her ears and eyes for any telltale noises or signs of movement, but could discern nothing.
High in the rafters, with body tensed and unmoving, a crouched figure keeping close to the shadows watched Buffy move toward the exit. The blonde Slayer paused for a moment and then ruefully shook her head before leaving the apparently abandoned building.
The unfinished game of Uno now having been abandoned by all players, the room's inhabitants were listening intently to Giles.
"She doesn't know much about the upper workings," he admitted before adding, "Not terribly surprising, I suppose. She owes her allegiance to Robespierre, and it is unwavering, but she's simply a soldier."
"Was she brainwashed?" asked Dawn. "I mean how did he get so many Slayers?"
The Watcher removed his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. "I suspect a certain amount of manipulation and brainwashing perhaps, but mostly, I believe he simply appealed to each of them in some way. The promise of working together to make the world a safer, better place."
"Familiar pitch," Xander stated with more than a touch of cynicism.
This earned the carpenter Giles' attention, but the older man appeared to have no appropriate response. Instead, his eyes adopted a faraway expression as flashes of remembrance swam into view – a balled fist lashing out, a girl's neck snapping to one side by way of a heftily-delivered blow, the sharp gleam of a well-honed metal object. The Watcher shook his head slightly as if to clear the images and began to polish his glasses with a crumpled handkerchief fished from his trouser pocket.
"Okay, so what now?" demanded an impatient Kennedy.
Clearing his throat, Giles focused upon the Slayer and then swept through the group. "Even she isn't aware of their headquarters location," he continued. "When they are dispatched, the girls arrive and leave courtesy of portals. Most of their Slayers exist entirely within the facility, never leaving. Tara has uncovered a spell that will enable us, with Ruth's help, to, in the vernacular, 'bring the fight to them'."
This announcement obviously made Dawn nervous. "But what about ... I mean, they kicked our butt. And Hannah said there's, like, a thousand of them."
Hannah regarded the teenager with a gentle smirk. "I'm pretty sure the number I gave was significantly below that."
"Yeah, okay," Dawn dismissed, "but there may as well be, right? I mean, only three attacked us, and we couldn't ... A-And Hazel and everyone else ..." Her strained voice trailed away and Xander hastened to make the teenager feel better.
"Hey, no worries Dawnster," he told her, throwing a comforting arm around her shoulder. "Will's workin' on something now, right?" He looked to Giles who nodded affirmatively. "There, see? D'you really think she's gonna let you down?"
"Glad we have something, else pressure? Pretty much crippling," came a wry comment from the doorway.
Every eye in the room turned toward the entrance where Willow was now standing.
Replacing his glasses, Giles considered the witch with a serious expression. "Can you do it?"
Willow smiled nervily. "Banish the extra power?" She took a deep breath. "I think so." The others moved aside as the redhead entered the room. "There's— It's like there's more than one of them. In their body. What you were telling me, about how Judith started acting after Hazel ... a-and the voice thing?"
"Way freaky," agreed Dawn with a shudder. "Like someone talking into a really crappy microphone. It sounded like—"
"Like there's more than one of them talking?" concluded Willow, nodding at Dawn's confirmation. "Right. So. That observation in mind, and a theory or two ... What I— Well, 'we', Tara-and-me we— We're gonna go into the Super Slayer's mind and see if we can't sort of ... yank out the extra stuff. The other personalities." She smiled with enforced perkiness.
With a narrowed glance, Xander regarded the group with a mounting sense of unease. "Okay, is this sounding really, really dangerous to anyone else? I've seen way too many episodes of 'Star Trek' to think poking around in someone's brain leads to anything but 50-plus minutes of personal reflection and the tantalizing offer of a cheerful new life as a vegetable."
"Vegetable?" repeated Dawn in a tight, high-pitched voice. "Vegetables are bad. All leafy and gross." She shook her head for emphasis. "Just say no to vegetables."
Taking a step toward Willow, Giles' expression betrayed his anxiety. "This is incredibly dangerous to both you and Tara. Are you sure you're up to the task?"
Hannah's tone was also infused with concern. "Not to mention that we're talking about a small army of these other Slayers. We don't even know if it's possible on one yet."
"Well that's why I figured we'd do a test run." The witch jerked her head toward the exit and thus the hallway, ostensibly indicating the interrogation room. "We'll have to go carefully at first, find out exactly what we need to do." She turned abruptly as Tara entered the room and her smile became more confident. "But if it works, I think we can just ... juice it up and hit 'em all at once."
"We think we can do it without frying their brains too," added Tara hopefully, "which is ... sort of a plus. If we're gonna rehabilitate them or ... whatever you do with ex-bad guys."
Willow's smile quickly turned into a smirk. "Big yay for rehabilitation."
"Great," Xander proclaimed in a tone that indicated he didn't find the proposition particularly great at all. "We can work out group therapy for whoever's left after the big clash." His eye affixed intently on the two witches. "But call me kooky, I'm a little more worried about your minds in the frying pan."
Willow nodded just once but with great enthusiasm. "Equally supportive of not doing that. But there's this ... Ever since the scythe spell, I've had that sort of connection to all the Slayers. I-I think if I use that, let it be a sort of ... of path to untangle the base personality and powers from the one's she's taken."
She widened her eyes and waited for some type of consensus, but received little in response save worried expressions. She shared a brief glance with Tara and then turned to the remainder of the room.
"I think we can do this," she reassured in all seriousness. "With Tara helping to keep us centered ..." She hesitated and then continued with more firmness. "We can do this." She smiled at Tara, who instantly reciprocated the gesture with a positive nod.
Xander and Dawn fidgeted uncomfortably, apparently far from satisfied with the plan. However any lingering doubts Giles may have harbored were swallowed and his expression was nothing but supportive and confident. "What will you need?"
"We have everything," Tara replied. "I just finished the last of the preparations, so we can do this whenever ... but the sooner the better."
Hands thrust deep into his pockets, Xander shuffled forward and stood in front of Willow. The face that gazed up at him glowed with purpose and resolve.
"I hate this," he muttered darkly.
He shrugged. "I hate that we always have to ..." Pausing, he looked from side to side as though in search of something elusive and then sighed heavily. "You know, just once I'd like to save the world in a way that's fun and easy. Like, 'You can divert this apocalypse by playing twenty straight hours of "Dynasty Warriors".' Then the only thing we have to worry about is a bathroom break."
"Maybe next year," she offered brightly.
Smiling sadly in response to her optimism, he agreed, "Maybe."
On impulse, Xander scooped up Willow in an all-compassing hug, which she didn't hesitate to return. For a moment, she simply enjoyed the comforting embrace, then glanced over to see Dawn and Tara engaged in an identical display of affection.
"I love you," the teenager declared in a thick voice.
Tara smoothed Dawn's hair. "I love you too, sweetie. We'll be fine, don't worry."
With a final rib-crunching squeeze, Xander released Willow and made his way to the table where, shoulders hunched, he busied himself with gathering the scattered Uno cards. The redhead watched him for second and then turned to Kennedy who, though obviously very concerned, managed to hide it efficiently beneath a resolute mask.
"You better make it back," the Slayer commanded. She looked to Tara, whose embrace with Dawn had also come to an end, although the teenager continued to hover nearby. "Both of you," Kennedy instructed firmly. "Either one of you gets all lost or dies or something, I'm so gonna kick your ass."
"Yes ma'am," Willow agreed with exaggerated seriousness as the Slayer wrapped her in a brief but intense hug. Kennedy then returned her focus to Tara, treating the blonde to a sincere albeit fleeting smile. Turning her back on both women, she did not meet the eyes of either again.
"Good luck, girls," was Hannah's earnest wish.
"I know you can do this," the Watcher urged.
Willow smiled sunnily. "Then what the heck are we all so worried for?"
Wrapping an arm around Willow's shoulders, Giles extended the other for Tara and she happily accepted the fleeting moment of security being offered. He held them both for several heartbeats before releasing them with a warm smile.
He was rewarded with matching expressions, although Willow's was watery around the edges. Nonetheless, she maintained her composure and joined Xander at the table, where the cards he had been gathering now lay forgotten on the surface.
"I got next game?" she asked. The carpenter smirked and nodded his agreement.
"I've got two Draw Fours to play on Xander," Dawn announced proudly.
"Oo, he hates that."
Dawn nodded emphatically as her face broke into a beaming grin.
Willow moved toward Tara who was already waiting by the doorway. The redhead hesitated and then turned back to the room. "Once we start, disturbing would be bad. But if we're not out in a few hours ..."
She allowed the implication trail away and glanced to Tara for support.
"We'll be back soon," the blonde guaranteed with authority.
Waggling her fingers in a farewell wave, the redhead made her exit, closely followed by Tara. Those left behind stared at each other for a moment and then began to mill aimlessly about, apparently not in the frame of mind to do very much of anything.
Opening the door to her sanctum, Willow stood to one side, allowing Tara to enter first. The blonde went immediately to the books that littered the long table at the opposite end of the room and finding the one she needed, flipped quickly to a certain page. Swiftly scanning the text to verify her facts, she turned to look at Willow who had now closed the door, providing the pair with necessary privacy. The redhead nodded at Tara's raised eyebrow and both approached the center of the room where the circle of sand had earlier been drawn. Although the glowing ring was no longer visible, each woman seemed to instinctively be aware of its perimeter. From opposite arcs, their eyes locked and with simultaneous steps, they crossed its boundaries.
Situating themselves comfortably across from each other, Tara extended her hands toward Willow. The redhead hesitated in her apprehension, regarding the outstretched fingers and then the blonde's soft blue eyes. A tiny tendril of fear invaded Willow's features, but Tara simply smiled gently, her infinitely patient expression making a statement that needed no voice – 'trust me'. With a deep breath, Willow reached out and placed her hands lightly upon Tara's upturned palms. An involuntary shudder coursed through their bodies at the connection and their eyes instinctively closed. It seemed as though a sudden flash enveloped the room and everything contained within.
When the flare faded, Tara and Willow were walking through complete, absolute darkness. The area surrounding them on all sides was featureless, and despite the fact that they could easily see each other, there were no light sources to be found anywhere within the all-pervading gloom.
"Huh," commented Willow with some dissatisfaction. "This is pretty disappointingly stereotypical."
"We should've packed a flashlight," added Tara thoughtfully.
"Luminaire," was Willow's response. She waited expectantly but nothing at all remarkable happened. "Oh," she said after a moment with no reaction. "That's probably not good."
Squinting, Tara continued to move forward. "I think there's someone down there," she murmured and then called out, "Hello?"
There was no welcoming greeting and Tara looked to Willow quizzically as the redhead came alongside. She also peered intently into the murk and confirmed the blonde's suspicions. There did indeed appear to be two figures loitering some distance away. With a shared glance, both witches set out toward the indistinct forms.
As Willow and Tara continued their journey, apparitions began to materialize to the side and slightly behind the couple – reflections undergoing a constant change while continuing to echo the motions of the two women. Neither noticed the shifting shades that followed their every movement – to the left of Willow and to the right of Tara – but they occupied some plane of existence just the same. The mirror images seemed to adhere to no logical pattern of emergence and came in rapid bursts, somewhat like a flipbook. Each frame afforded dominance for only the single blink of an eye.
A joyous Willow dressed in white, holding aloft the newly-signed ketubah; a Willow with blood smearing her hands and dress; a tiny tearful Willow clutching a broken crayon; a vampiric Willow with wicked fangs; a beaming Willow, delighted at the trio of pencils that floated and twirled in the air before her; an aged Willow, alone and abandoned, hobbling with the aid of a cane; Willow as a young mother, lovingly cradling an infant within her arms; a Willow of younger years, nose buried deep in a book as a canvas satchel bounced upon her shoulder.
A small Tara who cast fearful looks behind with every step; a soft-eyed Tara blowing a puff of powder from her palm; a Tara with twisted features and forked tongue; a Tara who danced elegantly in time to music only she could hear; a weeping Tara child whose face bore angry bruises; an ancient Tara who remained youthful in form and features; a delighted Tara who proudly displayed a gold band on the ring finger of her left hand.
The two witches moved closer to the shadowy images directly ahead, even as those images themselves moved closer to the two witches. As the shades that followed them, unseen and unnoticed, evaporated on each side, Willow and Tara realized they were standing in front of a mirror.
Tara blinked for a moment, as did her reflection. "Well. That's ... interesting."
Willow seemed less enchanted with the revelation. "I wish we could see something," she murmured.
Her wish was instantly granted. The area became flooded with light, revealing that the pair was in the middle of labyrinth composed entirely of mirrors. Flinching at the burst of sudden illumination, both women surveyed their surroundings with some bewilderment. At every turn, their eyes met with reflected duplicates. Some were distorted images – gigantic heads supported upon tiny bodies or vice versa – and some were normal in appearance. Some showed the two standing side-by-side, while others framed only a separate Willow or a separate Tara. Some flickered with tableaux from the past and still others seemed to be playing scenes from some as yet indefinable future. The assault upon the senses was disturbing and confusing. Both witches spun in constant circles until they were dizzy, trying to regain their bearings. It was a well-nigh impossible task.
Willow forced herself stop reeling. "Okay," she breathed, "remind me to never, ever go in a funhouse again."
Tara's whirling also came to a halt. "Yeah. I think someone forgot the 'fun' part." She shook the fog from her brain as she steadied herself. "We need to focus, remember why we're here."
Willow nodded as her forehead creased with concentration. "Right. Right. Focus." She glanced to the side and caught sight of her reflection once more. Her eyes opened wide. "Oh god, is my butt really that big?"
The redhead twisted slightly, desperately peering over her shoulder for a better view and apparently hoping that the mirror was of the distortion variety. Unfortunately, it appeared to be of the common and garden type and she grimaced.
Helplessly amused, Tara nevertheless suppressed her smirk. "Focus?" she reminded.
"Super Slayer," affirmed Willow, dragging her eyes away from the distressing image. "I'm focused."
Once again, the two women began to move cautiously through the maze of mirrors, Willow sighing as she caught one final discouraging glimpse of her retreating rear end. Reaching an intersection, they turned a corner and stopped short. As far as the eye could see, a series of flickering images displayed a vast array of differing scenarios. Willow and Tara glanced briefly at one another before centering solely upon the rapidly animated reflections. They appeared to be visual memories taken from life, but not Tara's life and not Willow's life – not even one life.
The image of the captured Super Slayer was easy to identify as she sat upon the grass and threw a ball for a small dog to retrieve, smiling with delight as the pup bounded toward her. The other fleeting passages from past times were of unrecognizable figures. A willowy blonde who led the field as she sprinted toward the finish line – a strikingly attractive dark-haired girl who stood proud in her traditional Cherokee Tear Dress – a young redhead blowing out the candles on a birthday cake – and an even younger brunette who twirled a baton on stage with supreme ability.
As though caught in an infinite loop, the foreign images of the girls played through a cycle of captured memories before each ended in a terrifying final moment. The two mirrors closest to the witches displayed flashes of a brutal battle between the girls and a glistening, hairless hound-like creature lacking eyes; the two farthest away showed nothing but the Super Slayer's twisted, mirthless grin and a glowing fist.
The reflections moved at a giddying pace, leaving in their wake impressions of stolen innocence. Willow's jaw became set in a tight line and Tara's eyes glinted with sadness at what might have been.
"Do you think we can save them?" Tara asked, although her voice indicated that she already guessed at the answer.
Regretfully, Willow shook her head. "I don't think so. There's nothing left of them, you know? Their bodies are completely gone. It's all just ... trapped thoughts and power now. They should've already moved on."
Swallowing hard, Tara nodded and turned to Willow, her tone firm. "What do you think then? Smash the mirrors?"
Willow arched an eyebrow. "Wow, I don't wanna even think how many years of bad luck this is gonna net us."
"I guess we'll have to take that chance," replied the blonde with authority.
Moving in unison, both witches took a step forward, to all appearances intending to do the job by hand. They got no further than that step, however, before the echoes of a deep and menacing chuckle seemed to reverberate from everywhere and nowhere. The two women stopped short, searching for the origin of the sound, and their actions brought forth another burst of restrained chortling. The second outburst appeared to pinpoint the source with more accuracy, and Tara and Willow turned back toward the intersection, peering warily down the corridor that had been their initial port of entry into the labyrinth. For a moment, they could discern nothing and then they spied movement within the rows of mirrors.
Strolling slowly, as though he had all the time in the world, came the image of Robespierre. Walking within the mirrors, he glided from one to the other with a smooth gait. Tara's breath caught in her throat in recognition of the fleeting glimpse and she squinted down the hallway seeking a physical presence, but there was no solid figure to be seen – no tangible form to cast a reflection. Involuntarily, she took a step backward as Willow shuffled protectively closer to her side.
As Robspierre's stride took him from one mirror to the next, his likeness suddenly became that of Madrigan. The transformation was swift and fluid – the shift so polished and skillful that it was impossible to determine whether the morph was real or simply a trick of the mind.
Pausing for a moment in his relentless onward journey, Madrigan chuckled again. It was a rich and robust sound. Willow looked uncertainly to Tara, who seemed frozen into immobility and unable to react. The redhead's gaze returned to the mage and she watched apprehensively as Madrigan approached the last section of mirrors. His hands were clasped casually behind his back as he sauntered along, cowl pulled over his head and a smile on his face. With only two mirrors remaining to be traversed, he favored the two waiting women with a broad and rather pleasant grin. Then, with no more effort than it would take to step down from a train, the mage simply made a suave transition from mirror to hallway.
Although he radiated power and malice, there was an underlying trace of genuine amusement and even some delight as he faced them. Willow and Tara exchanged uncomfortable looks at his proximity but stood their ground. Seeming to find this display of bravado entirely endearing, Madrigan beamed at both of them as he gallantly inclined his head in greeting.
"Miss Rosenberg. Miss Maclay. Welcome."