Author: Chris Cook
By midday Willow had emptied one wall of books and begun on the second. Eight books lay in a neat stack by the windows. Willow was still absorbed in the shelves when Tara noticed the shadows outside had reached their shortest point, but she was happy to leave the books alone for a while when Tara suggested they break for lunch. They emerged from the mage's rooms to find the guards handing their duties over to their replacements, and one of the departing guards promised to send someone up from the kitchen with enough food for everyone. Willow and Tara ate in the antechamber, sending the leftover meal from the day before back to the kitchens to be disposed of, thus freeing the small table for their own meal. It was only a small surface, intended for letters and such when no-one was in the rooms to receive them, and sitting on either side of it, Willow and Tara's knees tended to rest against each other beneath the table. Neither minded at all.
"S-so, do you have any theories?" Tara asked between bites.
"Well, it's definitely a summoning circle on the floor," Willow said, "I've read plenty of descriptions of them. Not pictures, of course, if you drew one on a page it'd still have some of the same power as if it was done properly, but there are key features that I recognise. And from that it's obvious that whatever Hydris was doing, he didn't get to set it in motion before he was disturbed."
"Hmm?" Tara asked.
"Summoning circles vanish once they're used," Willow explained. "And he can't have gotten very far in empowering the circle, or it wouldn't have been possible to disturb the pattern the way he did - when he ran after the girl, I suppose. The texts I've read say that once a circle incantation gets properly underway, the circle is difficult to destroy, it sort of has a life of its own. The smoke the girl smelt was probably part of the initial incantation to wake the circle. We were lucky there, if he'd been further into the summoning, even if he'd been disturbed, whatever he was trying to summon might have been able to complete the ritual from the other end."
"Why would anyone summon a demon?" Tara wondered aloud.
"Power," Willow said flatly. "Magic is all about drawing power from outside yourself, and shaping it into the effect you want. There all sorts of sources of power - your gods and goddesses, for example. Mine is cold, which is one of the primals - fire, cold and lightning represent the three primal elements that the world is built on. The cold before creation, the fire of the world's birth, and the lightning energy that binds it all together. There's elements in alchemy too - you know, earth, fire, air, water, everyone knows those ones - they're what the world is made of, but the primals are what the world was made by."
"You can control that kind of force?" Tara asked, wide-eyed.
"Yeah, the Esu witches didn't mess around when they chose a discipline to follow," Willow quipped. "Well, it wasn't really about how effective they are. They wanted to avoid the kind of corruption that the other clans were experiencing. The primal elements existed before good and evil, so they can't be influenced by either one. Whether a sorceress is good or evil is her choice, she can't be influenced through her magic... Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked. What was I saying? Oh, demons... Demons can draw power from within themselves. They're the opposite of angels, angels have the power of creation, demons have the power of destruction. The theory is that you summon a demon, bind it to your will, and hey presto, you've got a source of power that never runs dry. Of course it's destructive power, but no-one complains because people who summon demons are usually doing it because they want to destroy something or other."
"But it doesn't work like that," Tara observed, seeing where Willow was going.
"Nope," she agreed, "that's just the theory. Most of the demonology texts spell it out like that, but that's not surprising seeing as most of them were created by demons or their allies to lure people into summoning them... See, the binding has to be done by the mage. If it fails, the demon is set loose. And the demon has its own power to challenge the binding, while the mage has only whatever power he can draw from around himself. In the end, the demon always wins."
"Don't they realise that?" Tara asked. "The mages, I mean?"
"Some of them," Willow allowed, "some of the time. Mostly either they don't know, or they don't care. They convince themselves that they can hold the binding, that they won't be overpowered, or that they can banish their demon before it turns on them. I can't figure out that circle, though," she added, glancing at the door to the study.
"What about it?"
"I can't see anything around it that looks like a binding circle," Willow said, "either he was going to draw it while the ritual was going on, which is risky, or he wasn't going to use one... that's just plain stupid. Even the kind of people who summon demons know you can't trust them. I don't know. I'll have another look at it, try to work it out, then we'll get rid of it. I don't think there's any power left in it, but I'd like it gone anyway."
"M-me too," Tara admitted, "you know, I keep worrying that I'll forget it's there, and walk right into it or something." She shrugged and cast a shy smile at Willow.
"Then that's the first thing we do," Willow promised, "no more circle."
Willow made good on her promise the moment she and Tara had finished lunch. She spent a moment examining the pattern from all angles, then shrugged to Tara and took a step back from it. With one hand she created and aimed a billowing stream of condensation, which soaked the circle and blurred the intricate runes that had been painstakingly formed by the tiny trails of sand.
"That should do it," Willow said. Tara was relieved, and could see that Willow was too - she had a spring in her step that had been absent before as she retrieved a broom from the antechamber and began sweeping the wet sand into a pile.
"You know- ow!" she exclaimed suddenly. Tara started, suddenly fearful that something had gone wrong, but Willow shot her a quick look to reassure her, and picked up a tiny stone from the floor, where she had trodden on it. She examined it, moving to the window for better light.
"Take a look at this," she said. Tara did, and saw the pebble was in fact a tiny pyramid, its four miniscule faces each carved with a single rune.
"I think we've found our binding circle," Willow said triumphantly. She dropped the carved pebble into Tara's palm and began sifting through the pile of sand she had created, which was beginning to dry out. She found more stones, each only the size of the tip of her little finger - cubes, balls, more pyramids, each with a handful of runes carved on it.
"Must've been underneath the sand," Willow guessed, "I haven't heard of that, but then again I'm not really the expert on all things demonic and dumb-to-experiment-with... Some of these are runes of power, though." She sorted through the collection of stones, examining each one before placing it on the desk.
"Power, power," she murmured as she identified each one, "something to do with location, this one's to reinforce the spell, this one I don't know, maybe some sort of astrological siphon though... whoa, this is interesting."
Tara peered at the stone between Willow's fingers. It was a tiny disc, smooth on one side, with a single rune on the other.
"What is it?" she asked.
"It's an old form of writing, from Kehjistan before they invented the Khejan alphabet. I think it says 'Hydris', or something phonetically similar. He customised the spell to himself. What was someone that bright doing with demons?"
"It's difficult to do?" Tara asked.
"It's... well, elegant," Willow said, "most rituals have been done for centuries, with dozens of mages studying them and perfecting them in a generic form. To break down a ritual and alter it so it's optimised for a particular caster is... well, it's a hell of a lot of work, but if you do it right it makes it easier, and better."
"I-I got the impression summoners didn't have too much power of their own," Tara said, "th-that they were looking for a quick way to gain power."
"That's almost always true," Willow said. "I guess we've found an exception, though. Can you see another one of these around somewhere?" Tara sorted through the small pile of stones, while Willow checked the sand and the centre of the room to make sure she hadn't missed any. She found another sphere, but no more discs.
"Why?" Tara asked.
"Just a hunch," Willow said, "I thought maybe if he altered the ritual to himself, he might have done the same for the demon he was trying to reach. That'd be the most efficient way - instead of a 'mage binding demon' spell, he'd have an optimised 'Hydris binding insert-name-here' spell. Strange... if he had the ability to do half of it, it shouldn't have been difficult to do the rest." She shrugged.
"Maybe he was in a hurry?" Tara suggested.
"Or just nuts," Willow said, "the chasing people with knives episode doesn't sound like someone in their right mind. Demonology can do that. Oh well..."
She put the sand and the rune stones beside the books she had chosen as being dangerous, quickly checked the smaller bookcases - all inconsequential volumes, she found - and then went back to work on the second wall of shelves, Tara replacing the safe books on the first as she did. She did the top first, then turned the ladder over to Willow once she had filled all the shelves that were out of reach from the floor.
"Is there anyone else here you're supposed to study with?" Tara asked after a while.
"No, Hydris was it," Willow said, talking and reading at the same time. "Kingsport isn't really a place where mages make their homes. Too commercial, I think. Ember's notebook had a lot about all the shipping trade that passes through the port, apparently even the towns out here are caught up in it. Mages don't like too much business going on around them, as a rule. They prefer... oh, you know, quiet towers where they can stargaze and collect rare art, without running into merchants and labourers whenever they have to go out to get some supplies. I suppose I didn't really expect too much from the mages in the city. Hydris probably wouldn't have lived here, if it weren't for the position - being mage to a noble court is pretty prestigious."
"Will Hydris's clan send a new mage?" Tara asked.
"Once they hear what's happened, I guess so. They'll probably send a team to investigate, and have one of them stay on with the Baron when they're finished. That's what the Order does. The Zann Esu were pretty much completely isolationist until the Reckoning, so there aren't any ancient traditions of how sorceresses get chosen for court appointments. We basically stole all those practices from the Vizjerei."
"So," Tara went on, "nothing to do until Duncraig?"
"No-one to meet," Willow clarified, "but that just means more time to spend with you." She blushed, and glanced over her shoulder. Tara smiled fondly at her, which seemed to reassure her she hadn't assumed too much.
"You promised to teach me how to use a bow," Willow reminded her, returning her attention to the books, but with a wide smile now adorning her face.
"I haven't forgotten," Tara promised. She was pleased beyond words that Willow was looking forward to being with her, even if it wasn't very much of a surprise. She had also noticed the playful tone in Willow's voice when she reminded Tara of her promise, and that set her mind working.
The next time Willow finished with a half-dozen books and called for Tara to take them to the 'safe' pile, Tara balanced the books in one hand, used her other hand to gently draw the back of Willow's skirt aside, revealing the back of her thigh, and quickly placed a kiss there. She heard Willow's startled intake of breath, but she immediately turned, and felt Willow's gaze on her back as she crossed the room and added the books to the newest of the stacks forming there. She picked up several of the morning's books from their pile and headed to return them to their shelves, and as she did so, she was sure she caught a glimpse of a wicked smile on Willow's face as she quickly turned back to her work.
She repeated her teasing kiss when next Willow had some books for her, and this time glanced over her shoulder as she walked away. She was just quick enough to see Willow notice her looking and turn away, hiding her excited grin. Next time she collected some books, she leant down a little and gave Willow a playful nip on the sensitive skin on the back of her knee. She was sure she heard the beginning of a moan, quickly hushed, but otherwise Willow continued the pretence that she was absorbed in her reading. After that she returned to kisses for a couple of trips, but she noticed with a sly grin that Willow had taken to handing her one book at a time, rather than waiting for an armful to be finished with.
Tara continued her game through the afternoon, pausing only to bring in a candelabra from outside when the waning light on the castle walls beyond the windows no longer lit the room enough to read by. For the most part she restrained herself to brief kisses, on the side or back of the thigh revealed by the slit in Willow's skirt. Now and then, in the interests of keeping Willow guessing, Tara told herself, she would vary her technique. She once drew the skirt across far enough to kiss Willow's other thigh, on the side the skirt wasn't slit, so that for an instant both her legs were revealed almost as high as they went. When Willow started on the final, top shelf, and moved up a step on the ladder, Tara gently grazed her teeth over the back of Willow's knees, or touched the skin there with the tip of her tongue. All the while she was conscious of the increased speed of Willow's breathing, and the breathy tone her voice took on whenever she told Tara she had finished with another book.
Tara began to pay close attention to how many books Willow had left, and escalated her teasing. When Willow finished with the bulky Vizjerei histories, Tara leant up and left a kiss just a little further towards the inside of her thigh than she had previously. When the scrolls were done, she bent down to press her open lips to Willow's calf for a second, just above the top of the soft boots she was wearing. At last there was only a small stack of map-books to go, and as Willow was positioned directly in front of them, Tara couldn't see exactly how many of them there were. On the first, she rubbed her cheek gently against Willow's thigh before quickly kissing it and withdrawing. On the second she kissed the back of her knee again, this time trailing a finger up her calf as she did so. On the third, she started at Willow's knee, and slowly drew her tongue up along the length of Willow's thigh, stopping just before she would have had to get the skirt out of the way completely. She felt the shudder that ran through Willow, and her own legs were feeling more than a little shaky, but she composed herself and managed to give off an air of benign indifference as she carried the book over to the stacks, sure Willow was watching her all the way.
"Last one," Willow said - she did her best to sound nonchalant, but Tara could hear the anticipation she was trying to hide. She set her face in a perfectly neutral expression, and walked across to Willow, who had come down a step on the ladder, still facing the shelves.
Instead of handing Tara a book, Willow turned around on the ladder, looking down at her with a victorious grin.
"Actually," she admitted, "we're out of books."
"You know," Tara said with a smile, "it's not nice to fool a simple Amazon girl like that."
"Oh no?" Willow replied, taking a further step down the ladder. "And what might this simple Amazon girl do now that she knows her innocent trust has been taken advantage of?"
Tara took a step forward, which left barely an inch between her face and Willow's chest as she stared up at her.
"Well," she whispered, "maybe she'll go out and sulk in the gardens?"
"That's no fun," Willow said, taking one more step down, her thighs touching Tara's hips as she did so. "I think she should stay here, and let me make it up to her."
"Are you sure?" Tara asked with a teasing grin. "You know what Amazons are like with honour... it might take a lot of making up." She took another half-step forward, pressing Willow against the ladder. Willow's grin broadened into a wide smile. Before Tara knew what was happening, Willow had shook her leg free of her skirt and raised it around Tara's waist, using it to hold Tara there while her hands gripped the sides of the ladder.
"I'll be thorough," she promised. Quick as a flash she leant down and kissed Tara, pressing her open lips against Tara's mouth, while her tongue sought entry. Tara opened her mouth at once, and pressed back, their tongues duelling in a private frenzy of pent-up desire. Willow had to keep one hand on the ladder to help herself balance, but the other pressed against Tara's back, drawing her as close as she could be. Tara wished she had chosen a thinner tunic, nevertheless feeling every motion of Willow's hand as if it were lighting a trail of fire on her skin. She quickly returned the favour, snaking both her arms around Willow's waist, between her back and the rungs of the ladder, firmly stroking the smooth curves of her body.
Willow moaned loudly without breaking the kiss, which sent a bolt of desire through Tara the like of which she was quite sure she'd never felt before. She wrapped one arm around Willow's waist, making her arch her back so that every inch of their bodies was pressed together, while her other hand reached the back of Willow's head, her fingers tangling themselves in Willow's hair. Willow adjusted the leg she had clamped around Tara, pressing her thigh against Tara's side, rubbing it seductively up and down between her waist and her hip. Tara let out a little aroused cry, and lost all her concentration for a moment, opening her lips wide and letting Willow's tongue claim her mouth unopposed.
The kiss continued for a moment, until Tara drew the hand on Willow's back down over her hips, and then up underneath the bare leg wrapped around her side. Willow tore her lips away and threw her head back - if not for Tara's restraining hand, she would have fetched herself a nasty bump on the ladder.
"Tara!" she exclaimed, just managing to keep her voice down to a husky growl, so as not to alert the guards two doors away. "Gods," she breathed, gazing back down into Tara's eyes. Tara could see the desire in her eyes - she knew it well enough from having felt it build in herself all afternoon.
"Willow," she whispered, at once a declaration and a plea. Willow shifted her hips, sitting on the ladder's closest step, and lifted her other leg up around Tara, her skirt bunching around her right thigh as her ankles hooked around each other in the small of Tara's back. They kissed again, and again, pressing their open lips together in between quick gasps for air, both losing themselves in the sensations as their lips became wet, and their tongues stroked sensuously along each other's lengths. Tara drew her fingers out of Willow's hair and traced a path down her back, tantalisingly close to her bottom as she passed over her hips. Finally she had both hands beneath Willow's thighs, her palms pressing firmly up against Willow's legs, her fingers curling inward, rubbing against her inner thighs. Willow let go of the ladder, trusting Tara not to let her fall off, and wrapped both arms around Tara's waist, stroking up and down her back. She quickly began to broaden the trails she was exploring with her hands, coming in at Tara's sides, her thumbs just beginning to reach the sides of Tara's breasts. Tara's breathing, between kisses, became increasingly ragged. She started letting out little cries with each breath, mingling with the moaning that Willow was giving voice to with increasing volume.
After her bold start, Tara could scarcely believe what was happening. She had spent the morning dreaming about kissing Willow's thigh, a simple act which she found incredibly erotic by itself - she hadn't really thought, until the moment came, that she would actually go through with it. Her teasing of Willow had gone ahead in a daze of delight, but never - not that morning, not the night of the dinner when she had first seen Willow, nor any other time she had allowed herself to fantasise about touching her - never had she imagined such a monumental, intimate and above all unrestrained embrace. Her hands seemed to have minds of their own, gently stroking and squeezing Willow's thighs, her mouth returned Willow's kisses with a passionate frenzy she would never have guessed she was capable of, and when she thought she felt a distinct warmth between Willow's legs, pressed against her belly through the fabric of her tunic, she wondered if this was when she would pass out.
She never found out whether she would lose consciousness, but her heart nearly leapt out of her chest when she heard a loud banging from the door behind them. She opened her eyes, staring straight into Willow's equally wide-eyed stare for a split second, before Willow jolted in surprise and lost her seat on the ladder. Tara staggered backwards slightly, but kept her balance as Willow's hands clutched her back, so she ended up in the middle of the room, her arms supporting Willow, whose four limbs were wrapped around her and who was clinging like a shocked limpet.
"Lady? Miss Willow?" came the voice of one of the guards from beyond the door. "Is everything okay, ma'am? We heard raised voices."
Tara managed to close her lips and draw back from the motionless kiss she was sharing with Willow, who for her part simply stared, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
"Miss Willow? Lady Tara?" came the guard's voice again, this time more than a little anxious.
"We're fine!" Willow yelled suddenly, her voice notably higher than usual. "Everything's fine! Thank you! Don't come in, we're cleaning up the ritual! Thanks!"
"Very well ma'am," came the guard's voice, after a moment's pause in which neither Willow nor Tara dared breathe. "Sorry to disturb you. See, I told you, it's just magic goings-on..." the voice trailed off, evidently addressed to the second guard, and audible to Willow and Tara only because of the dead silence in the room.
For a moment both Willow and Tara remained silent, listening to the sound of the antechamber's door being closed. Then Tara bit her tongue, Willow gnawed on her bottom lip, and they both burst into a fit of giggles.
"Um, you can put me down now," Willow managed to squeak between laughs. Tara let her thighs slide out of her grip, and Willow gently returned to the floor, keeping her arms casually looped around Tara's waist. Tara stared at her, falling in love with her mischievous grin. Though the intense passion of the moment had been swept away, now that the shock was wearing off she was barely able to keep herself from giggling again at the absurdity of the situation.
"You're strong," Willow observed, her voice slightly dreamy. Tara blushed and looked down.
"Yeah, w-well," she said, "I'm an Amazon, you know."
"I had kind of linked the strength thing with being all stern and intimidating. This is like... best of both worlds," Willow finished with a wink, which made Tara giggle again.
"Um, w-we should finish up here," Tara said after taking a deep breath to steady herself.
"I'll help," Willow offered, darting towards the piles of books that needed to be returned to the shelves she had been checking. Between them they managed to have everything back in its place, aside from the three more books that had gone on the 'evil' stack, in record time. Willow had to climb the ladder again to replace the volumes on the top shelves, and Tara took the chance to plant a quick kiss on the outside of her thigh, receiving a brilliant smile from Willow in return. Otherwise, though, they contained themselves.
It was as Tara was leaning down to pick up the last pair of books that she noticed something half-hidden under the bottom of the skirting board, where it didn't quite reach the floor. She handed the books to Willow and crouched down, nudging the tiny object out of hiding with the tip of her finger.
"Willow?" she called. She picked up the tiny stone disc and glanced at it, seeing the lone rune on its face, before handing it to Willow.
"How did it get over here?" Willow wondered.
"Maybe," Tara thought aloud, "if they were in the circle, when he kicked the sand it got knocked away. I-is it the demon rune?" She looked over her shoulder, and saw that Willow's face had paled.
"Yes," she said, her voice hoarse. Tara was on her feet and gently holding Willow's arms by the elbows as she continued to stare at the rune, her breath coming in short gasps.
"Willow, what's wrong?" Tara asked, almost afraid to raise her voice louder than a whisper.
"I-it's the name," Willow said, "th-the... demon's n-name. I-I've seen it."
"You've seen the name before?" Tara asked gently. Willow shook her head.
"The demon," she said, her voice flat and thick with buried emotion, "I've seen the demon."