Return to Hellebore Chapter Eleven


Author: Chris Cook
Rating: NC-17
Copyright: Based on characters from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon and his talented minionators, and Diablo II by Blizzard Entertainment. All original material is copyright 2003 Chris Cook.

Willow woke slowly, for the first time since the destruction of the hospice. She opened one eye and was surprised to see the morning sun already lighting the slits in the shutters. She couldn't remember waking once during the night, and even in the troubled dreams she had grown accustomed to - imp-like demons jumping out of books at her, it had been this time - she vaguely recalled feeling detached from the jumbled images and sounds, as if she knew that it wasn't really happening. She could hazard a fair guess why - Tara was still lying against her, with one arm draped over her, holding her almost protectively.

Willow's other eye opened, and both eyebrows rose, as she noticed exactly where Tara was holding her. Some time during the night she must have shifted position, her hold had become tighter, and the hand that had been hovering about her waist had crept higher and was now cupping her right breast, through the material of her robe which felt thin as air at the moment. Willow's heart hammered in her chest, so hard that she wondered how Tara wasn't woken by it - it was right beneath her palm, after all. She wondered also how she could have woken up without instantly realising how she was being held. Even if it was unconscious on Tara's part, Willow wanted to enjoy every second of it.

She smiled to herself, not wanting to disturb Tara's sleep - or make her move in any way, she admitted. She luxuriated for a while in the heat coming off Tara's hand, and indulged a few fantasies of the fingers lightly covering her breast closing and squeezing. She remembered how Tara's fingers had pressed into her thighs the day before, in the library, and her sleepy imagination showed her herself being moulded by Tara's hands, like a sculpture in clay, with Tara leaving fingerprints embedded in her thighs, her back, her breasts, her bottom, her- Willow had to admit she wasn't quite ready to go there. No-one else had ever touched her there, and Willow knew she needed time to absorb the reality of their mutual attraction - she was almost sure enough to call it love - so that she wouldn't be a flighty bundle of nerves when the time came. 'Well, not all a bundle of nerves... nothing wrong with that in its proper place.' She grinned at herself, and then the humour in her smile was replaced by warm contentment, as she recalled the previous night, and how Tara had seemed to know what she needed. Physical contact, a feeling of safety, the freedom to be vulnerable, tenderness, and stimulation. The fleeting glimpse of Tara she had seen was a release, in a way, for she realised Tara had shown her not just herself, but a glimpse of things to come - she grinned again at the phrase - and though she was only now realising it, the relaxed state she had achieved owed as much to Tara's teasing as it did to her softly-spoken words and gentle embrace. 'I know you want me,' Tara had been telling her, with her actions, 'and I want you too. Now you're tired and afraid, so you should wait, and I promise I'll wait with you.' Willow closed her eyes and sighed happily - she would have to thank Tara for understanding, and making sure their first time was perfect in every way. Briefly she imagined the feelings she had when she had sought release by herself - by way of experimentation, or to relieve the tension that sometimes grew in her - and her mind's eye began to substitute Tara's hand for her own, her palm cupping Willow's mound, her fingers gently circling her clit, or brushing through the folds of her sex- she shut the thought down before it got out of control. For now, she was content to feel Tara's body against hers, and look forward to the time when she would do more than imagine.

Tara stirred in her sleep, and mumbled to herself. Her hand flexed slightly, then closed again, as Tara unconsciously adjusted its position to get a better grip. Willow, still half-submerged in her own private musings, gasped in surprise and delight, and before she realised she was doing it her back was arched, pressing her breast into Tara's hand.

"Mmm," she heard Tara purr, just before her thumb inched inwards a fraction and snuck underneath her palm to stroke over Willow's nipple, which was straining against the fabric of her robe. Willow thus felt every tiny instant of Tara's touch as fully as possible, and the effort it took not to make a sound caused her to press her thighs tightly together and wriggle her hips. She felt a pleasurable shiver creep over her skin, and a distinct warmth grew between her legs - 'Gods, is there no stopping me?' she wondered - but despite keeping her mouth clamped shut, she sensed Tara's sleep fading. She held as still as she could, suddenly afraid to look as if she was enjoying Tara's touch too much - she had been asleep, Willow reasoned, maybe she'd be embarrassed.

"Mmmhey," Tara said in a voice thick with sleep, her lips tickling the nape of Willow's neck.

"Hey," Willow echoed.

"Sleep well?" Tara asked.

"Best sleep in ages," said Willow cheerfully. "You?"

"Yep," Tara said with a yawn, "I-I had good dreams."

"I noticed," Willow said, stroking the back of Tara's hand. Tara froze solid for a second, then jerked her hand away and rolled onto her back. Willow quickly rolled over, tangling the blankets between them and ending up half on-top of Tara.

"I-I'm sorry," Tara said, her face turning red, "I-I d-didn't realise... I must've... wh-while I was asleep-"

"Hey," Willow interrupted her, "it's not a problem!"

"'Cause you know I'd never- I mean, without asking," Tara went on.

"Tara," Willow said, getting her attention, "it's fine. It's more than fine! I promise you," she leant forward and brushed her lips lightly over Tara's, "you can touch me anywhere you want..."

Tara let out a slow breath, tickling Willow's lips, as her hands crept around her waist. Willow closed her eyes as Tara kissed her, revelling in the softness of her lips, the way she lifted her head off the pillows, pressing their mouths together, only to lie back a moment later, maintaining the most feather-light contact as her tongue teased Willow's lips. 'How does she do that?' Willow wondered to herself, letting her jaw open for Tara as she recaptured Willow's lips fully, 'how is she so shy and tentative that I want to hold her and kiss her forever, and then so bold that I can barely stop from ripping my clothes off for her?' She imagined just that, and moaned out loud into Tara's mouth, her hands busily wrenching away the tangled blankets between them.

She felt Tara's hands firm against her back - her naked back, she realised, her robe had ridden up so far that it covered only her chest and shoulders. She arched her back, feeling her stomach naked against Tara's, and her lips curled into a smile, still open a fraction to continue the ongoing kiss that she had no intention of ending prematurely. For a moment Tara's lips were still, and when Willow opened her eyes she saw Tara staring at her as if in wonder. Then she squealed in surprise and delight as Tara rose up beneath her, gathering Willow up with the strength that had surprised her yesterday and rolling her effortlessly onto her back. Willow's eyes widened as she took in her new position, lying beneath Tara, who straddled her hips on her knees as she leant down to kiss her fiercely, almost possessively.

'Ah, there's my bold Tara,' Willow thought gleefully, as Tara's kisses moved from her lips down to her neck, which she teased and tickled with her soft lips. Willow let out a sigh that became a high-pitched moan as she felt Tara's tongue press firmly against her skin, trailing all the way from her neck up to the pliant skin beneath her chin. Tara lifted herself up off Willow a fraction and stared into her eyes. Willow imagined what she must look like, wide-eyed, rapid breathing, flushed cheeks and wet lips.

"Anywhere?" Tara asked in a sultry whisper. Willow's breath caught in her throat. Was she suggesting...? She hadn't thought Tara would be so ambitious so soon, and she had to admit she was caught by surprise. But was the fact that she was surprised enough to warrant asking Tara to take it slowly, if she wanted to move things along a little faster? Willow knew the answer to that, and nodded once, quickly. Tara smiled and kissed her again, on the lips for a moment, then ducking down to one side to suck her earlobe, and run the tip of her tongue around the edge of her ear, making Willow shiver and whimper in delight. Tara pulled back again. Willow noticed with a start that she could feel Tara's breasts touching hers through their nightwear - she could only imagine what a luscious sight they would be, Tara's ample, perfect breasts hanging down as she held herself just high enough that they swayed slightly against Willow. She had to imagine, because she couldn't tear her eyes away from Tara's.

"Even..." Tara began, and trailed off, watching Willow's reaction. Willow tried to breath steadily, but it seemed she was rapidly losing control of her own body.

"Even... in front of the Baron and all his noblemen?" Tara asked. Willow's eyebrows collided in an expression of pure confusion.

"Wha?" she asked incoherently.

"You did say 'anywhere'," Tara replied with a perfectly straight face. Willow stared at her for a second, her mind trying to regain a grip on things, then she abruptly burst out laughing. Tara joined her, alternately laughing and kissing Willow, until they had both regained some semblance of composure.

"You're a sly, cunning, vixen-y tease," Willow murmured, when they had finally calmed down, and Tara was resting on top of her, her face nestled into the side of Willow's neck.

"I can't help it," Tara said - she didn't bother moving back, so Willow felt her lips move against her skin - "you're so much fun to tease." Willow chuckled to herself. A small part of her regretted the pause in their passion, but she realised that it was for the best. She loved the feeling of abandoning her senses that she got when she and Tara kissed, but sooner or later they would reach a point where neither of them would be capable of restraining themselves, and Willow wanted that to be at a time when they both wholly wanted to go further. Apparently, she mused, Tara agreed. Lying here, relaxed, with Tara's body comfortingly resting on top of her, Willow felt closer to her than she ever had.

'I love her,' Willow thought. It wasn't a new realisation, so much as confirmation, a decree that Willow now accepted, and set in stone in her mind. She loved Tara's kindness, her gentle nature, her fascination with the world and its ways, her boundless patience; she loved the way Tara understood her, without words, the way she was always exactly what Willow needed, whether it be a friendly ear, a shoulder to cry on, a joyful companion or a passionate woman with an inexhaustible hunger for Willow; she loved her spirit, which her tutors in the Zann Esu would have described as a healer's, someone who does what she can to make the people around her whole, for no reason other than that their happiness gives her a contentment that no selfish pursuit could encompass; and she loved the warrior that she knew lived in Tara, despite Tara's own doubts on the matter, the fierce heart that she kept so well in check, that only emerged in the heat of passion. Just the thought of the untamed, sexual hunger she held within her soul made Willow want nothing more than to give herself to Tara completely, to hold nothing back from her, deny her nothing.

"What're you thinking about?" Tara purred at her side.

"You," Willow murmured.

"What about me?"

"You're perfect," Willow said quietly.

"Mmm, no I'm not," Tara said lazily.

"Yes you are," Willow insisted, "you're beautiful and funny and wise, and..."

"I'm not much of a warrior," Tara said.

"You're exactly as much of a warrior as I need," Willow replied. "You're kind, and sexy and-"

"Y-you think I'm sexy?" Tara asked.

"Why do you think you got a sorceress wrapped around you yesterday?"

"Y-you fell off the ladder," Tara reminded her.

"And did I complain?" Willow countered. "Let's see, sexy, and passionate, and-"

"I'm pretty sure I snore," Tara said.

"I like your snoring, it's cute," Willow said, "will you give up? You're perfect because I say so."

"You don't have to say that," Tara said quietly, propping herself up on one elbow to look at Willow.

"Hey, come on," Willow said gently, "it's true. I'm not pretending you're some sort of supergirl, or something impossible... you're... if I'd ever had dreams this good, you're everything I'd have dreamed you'd be." Tara swallowed, and her eyes were suddenly glistening with tears.

"Oh Willow," she breathed, "I don't know what to say... I... no-one's ever said anything like that to me before." Willow carefully rolled Tara off of her, so that they ended up side by side, arms around each other's waists. She kissed the warm tears off Tara's cheeks, slightly worried to see her crying, but reassured by the brilliant smile on her lips.

"You feel better?" she asked. Tara nodded.

"I-I feel... blessed," she said quietly. Willow beamed.

"Then that's how I'm gonna make you feel every day," Willow promised.

"You already do," Tara admitted, "you always have." Now it was Willow's turn to feel her eyes filling with tears. She blinked them away and kissed Tara firmly on the lips, savouring the taste of her mouth. Tara responded, unhurried and without frenzy, but with a quiet passion that made Willow tremble. She imagined she could detect a faint taste of the fiery, lusty Tara, biding her time, waiting for her moment. When she finally let their lips part, after a momentary hesitation while Tara's mouth closed around Willow's lip and sucked it with agonising sweetness, Willow hugged her tightly and kissed Tara's neck, then pressed her face against the warmth of Tara's skin and breathed the scent of her hair, spread across the pillow like golden silk.

"Hey, wait a minute," she said suddenly, "how come no-one ever said nice things to you?"

"Oh, no," Tara said, "I didn't mean it like that... just, no-one's ever cared for me and, and wanted me, the way you do, a-as much as you do. B-but plenty of people at home used to tell me I was kind, and gentle. And a few times, when we wore ceremonial dress, I overheard some of the, um, more forward girls making... appreciative comments, when they thought I couldn't hear them."

"Oh they did, did they?" Willow teased. "So, do I have to worry about some Amazon warrior back home who won't like me making a move on her girl?" She was joking, but a tiny part of Willow pleaded to be reassured that Tara was hers alone, that there wasn't some part of Tara she couldn't reach, and couldn't give herself to. Tara must have sensed it, because she leant back a fraction, enough to look Willow in the eye as her hand held her cheek, gently brushing her skin with her thumb.

"There's never been anyone but you," she said. "No-one else has ever touched me the way you have... a-and," her voice dropped to a whisper, "when we're ready... wh-when it's time... I-I don't want anyone but you to ever touch me the way you will."

Willow was utterly speechless. She honestly didn't know whether to be flattered, or aroused, or gratified, or what. All she could think of was 'I am in love'. She almost said it - in truth, the only thing that held her back was the irrational fear that, if she were to acknowledge this perfect dream, it would vanish and she'd wake up to find the world as it had been before Tara, before every moment, even those they spent apart, felt better because Tara existed. She recognised how ludicrous that fear was, and set her mind to dispelling it as promptly as she could. She knew she could - when she told Tara she loved her, it would be with all her heart, without even the tiniest trace of doubt or irrational anxiety. She would be perfect, for Tara. And, gods-dammit, she would be it soon.

"What about you?" Tara asked. "Any fellow sorceresses waiting for you to return?" She made no effort to hide her playful, teasing smile from Willow, who decided Tara shouldn't have a monopoly on teasing.

"Oh, I'm sure they'll get along without me," she said airily. "One less pair of hands in the big sorceress grope-fests, who'll notice?" Tara laughed out loud.

"You're the first," Willow admitted quietly, when Tara looked at her again. "I... I never felt this way until you." Tara suddenly couldn't meet her stare, her eyes darting away to glance at Willow's lips, and hair, and her own hand still stroking Willow's cheek.

"I h-hope I'm worthy of you," she said shyly. Willow covered Tara's hand with her own, and ducked a little, catching Tara's downcast eyes.

"You so are," she promised, "every minute... the way you make me feel, it isn't something you have to, to work for. It's a gift, that you give me." Tara smiled a little.

"Th-this is so new," she said, "I-I feel like... like I have to earn this."

"You do," Willow assured her, "by being... you, by being Tara." Tara smiled, and her mouth opened as if she was trying to think of something to say, but couldn't.

"You say the sweetest things," she murmured eventually. Willow grinned and kissed her, just briefly. Tara sighed.

"Unfortunately," she went on, "being me means I have to get up. Amazon stuff to do..." Willow let out a heartfelt groan and let her head flop down onto the pillow.

"Me too," she said wryly, "I need to tell the Baron what we found yesterday."

"Do you want me to come with you?" Tara asked. "I-I could find some time, between meetings-"

"I'll be fine," Willow promised her. "You do your Amazon stuff, and I'll do my sorceress stuff, and we'll be back together at the dinner."

"You remembered," Tara observed.

"As if I'd forget a date with you," Willow smiled. Tara kissed the tip of her nose, then reluctantly lifted the blankets on her side of the bed and got up. Willow's eyes followed her around the room as she picked up her long robe from the floor where she had dropped it, draped it over the back of a chair, and ran her fingers through her hair, straightening out a few tangles. In the strong morning sun peeking through the shutters, Willow took a good, long look at Tara, barely dressed in the sleepwear she had glimpsed the night before. At first, she was fascinated by Tara's legs - not too thin, not too muscled, with exactly the right kind of curves along her thighs and calves. Then Willow's eyes moved up to Tara's bottom, neatly clad in her briefs, which were skimpier than Willow had realised by moonlight. Willow's heart rate increased markedly as Tara bent over to peer at herself in the mirror, unconsciously displaying her rear to Willow in a most enticing manner. Willow imagined taking hold of her cheeks, squeezing them, lazily trailing her fingers down the cleft between them, dragging down the thin underwear... 'Look at me,' she mused to herself, 'getting all turned on just by staring at a girl's butt. I'm turning into a man.' She noticed Tara's eyes, in the mirror, had settled on her.

"Enjoying the view?" Tara asked with a smile.

"Well, you know," Willow said hastily, "I've got a whole day to get through. So, I was thinking, best to make sure I get a good look while I can."

"Aren't you worried you're going to be distracted all day?" Tara asked, mock-serious.

"Oh, no," Willow grinned back at her, "I'll have plenty to keep me occupied."

"Oh, okay then." Willow was surprised for a second at how easily Tara dropped the subject - she had been expecting another prolonged bout of teasing - but then Tara straightened up, turned around, and did a full-body stretch and yawn, closing her eyes and reaching her arms up above her head, almost touching the ceiling, then slowly reaching back behind herself with an innocent expression, as if she were doing nothing more than waking herself up after a good sleep. Willow's mouth went dry as Tara's top was first lifted up, revealing the bottom of her generous breasts, then drawn tight across her chest so the fabric stretched against her skin, with the peaks of her nipples clearly visible beneath it. 'Okay,' Willow thought, imagining even her thoughts to be speaking in a strained squeak, 'that confirms it, I'm a breast gal.'

Tara flashed her a quick, innocent smile, then crossed to the shutters and levered them open, letting the sunlight properly enter the room. Her skin took on a wonderfully healthy glow, and her hair blazed in the light like molten gold. With her back to Willow, she stretched again, this time pushing her palms into the small of her back as she arched her body. As the stretch made the muscles in her legs and backside grow taut, she hooked a finger from each hand into the waistband of her briefs and pulled them up, stretching the fabric as tight as it would go across her bottom. 'Still a breast gal,' Willow thought, barely able to keep her hand from creeping between her legs, 'but only just.'

"I love the morning sun," Tara purred, seemingly to herself. 'Alright,' Willow thought, 'two can play that game.' She kept an eye on Tara, making sure she didn't turn around while she was wriggling underneath the blankets, then she swung her legs off the side of the bed and stood up, smoothing her short black robe down.

"Um, can I put my panties in with your washing?" she asked innocently. "It's just, I was wearing them all day yesterday, a-and no-one will notice if I'm in just my long skirt when I go back to my room." Tara glanced at Willow over her shoulder, with more than a slight spark of interest in her eyes, and nodded towards the basket on the floor, containing her clothes to be cleaned in the castle's laundry. Tara's eyes slammed wide open and her jaw dropped when she saw Willow smile in thanks and casually toss her underwear into the basket.

Willow crossed the room and slipped past Tara, bathing in the golden morning light, and very much aware of Tara's wide eyes fixed on her. She began a full-body stretch, just like Tara had done, but curtailed it when she felt the hem of the robe lift up to the tops of her thighs. 'Chicken,' she thought, but on turning around and stepping around Tara, she saw she had achieved the desired effect - Tara's expression was one of pure shock, and her chest was rising and falling quite distractingly with her sudden rapid breathing.

"Um, I-I should go bathe," Tara said after a moment, "I-I'll make sure there's some water on the fire for you, if you want to go as well, a-after I'm done."

"Thanks," Willow said brightly, inwardly glowing at Tara's flustered reaction. She was caught completely by surprise when Tara's hand caught her around the waist, pulled her back a step, and spun her around into Tara's arms. Before she had even consciously realised what was happening her mouth had opened to let Tara kiss her, and she was feeling her body go weak as Tara's lips covered hers, and her tongue danced between them. Willow's knees actually gave up, and she let herself settle into Tara's embrace, trusting Tara to keep her from falling. All her attention was on the kiss when, to her shock and absolute delight, she felt Tara's thigh nudge between her legs. Willow's hips pressed forward of their own accord, and then, just as quickly as it had happened, she was being gently lowered to the bed, and Tara was smiling sweetly at her.

"I-I'll be back in a few minutes," she said.

"Okay," Willow squeaked, as Tara pulled on her robe and slipped out, closing the door behind her. Willow slowly became aware of a familiar, overly-moist feeling between her legs. 'Damn' she thought, grinning ear to ear, 'she got me.'

Willow closed the door of her bedroom behind her and leant on it, calming herself. The short, and intentionally cold, bath she had had in the private room in the Amazon quarters had done little to soothe the warmth building up inside her. She had to admit that the experience of walking through the castle with no underwear hadn't helped - she knew she looked perfectly normal in her long skirt and tunic, but she kept imagining the sly smiles Tara had kept giving her as they had eaten breakfast. And the feel of Tara's arms around her as they hugged goodbye for the day. And the way Tara's fingers had kept brushing over the back of her neck when she had insisted she comb Willow's hair. And, she had to admit, everything about Tara.

She quickly crossed to her room's window and closed the shutters - unlike the rooms the Amazons had been given, Willow's quarters were level with the walkway on the castle's far wall, ten metres away, and she had no desire to have an inquisitive guard looking in at her just now. She pulled her tunic over her head and tossed it aside, then undid her belt and the cord in the waist of her skirt, letting both fall to the floor. One hand went instinctively towards her sex, but stopped, her fingers resting on her mound, a hair's breadth from their destination, as Willow caught sight of herself in the mirror over the dressing table. She wondered for a moment what happened to the studious, innocent-looking sorceress she had been just... 'Gods,' she thought, 'just a few days ago. Five days. And now look at me just thinking of her.' From the mirror, an unrestrained, wanton version of herself stared back at her, eyes half-closed, mouth open, lips wet from running her tongue over them, pausing in the middle of taking in a deep breath, with her back arched and her breasts thrust proudly forward, one hand resting its fingers on the soft skin of her cleavage, her bra pulled down to reveal herself - she hadn't even realised she was doing that - the other hand reaching down, fingers amid the short red curls of hair, aimed with no uncertainty directly at her sex.

In her mind's eye, Tara was standing behind her, staring at her in the mirror, reaching around her body to touch where Willow's hands were. Willow closed her eyes and imagined it was Tara's hand that now moved to cover her breast, delicately brushing across her nipple then taking it between thumb and forefinger and squeezing lightly, twisting gently from side to side, teasing until the tiny peak was so hard it was maddening. She imagined Tara's hand now moving further down to cup her mound in her palm, her fingers passing by on either side of her clit to rest on the warm, wet folds of her sex. With a shuddering breath she gently drew her fingers up between her lips, one by one, just her fingertips teasing the entrance to herself, then rising up towards the bundle of nerves which was screaming for attention as she steadfastly avoided it. Willow knew that, in her current state, it wouldn't take her long to achieve release, but seeing as her responsibilities didn't allow her to stay in her bedroom all day, she decided it was for the best, and resolved to make her short bout of self-indulgence a memorable one.

Her intentions were overruled by her body's demands, though, when for no reason she was quite aware of the image of Tara, naked, flashed across her mind, and she imagined herself licking and sucking the nipples she had only seen as glimpses beneath thin clothing. That simple thought made her open her eyes, just for a moment to orient herself, then take two steps and collapse onto her bed, rolling onto her back with her left hand squeezing one breast and then the other, and her right trapped between her thighs, which she clenched together with all the strength she could muster. She revelled in the somehow delightful sensation of her thighs pressing against each other, as her fingers, trapped as they were, wriggled in an attempt to satisfy her. She managed to manoeuvre the tip of a finger in between her lips, inside herself, then without conscious thought she somehow managed to bend her thumb underneath her palm to press on her clit, rubbing hard and fast. Her legs jolted, parted, her finger plunged into her wet sex as deep as it could, and she thrashed her head to one side and bit her pillow to keep from screaming Tara's name aloud.

She lay still for a moment, breathing in heavy gasps and keeping her hands still. 'I think I set some sort of speed record,' she thought with a grin, which made her laugh a little until she managed to catch her breath and extract her hand from between her legs. She slowly sat up and looked down at herself - the traces of wetness on her inner thighs, the slowly fading marks where her fingers had pressed into her breasts. She had to laugh when she noticed she still had her boots on. 'Just as well I didn't have underwear on,' she mused as she stood up gingerly and crossed to the basin to clean herself up. It was, she decided, going to be a long day.

Willow found herself - fully clothed - again in the Baron's study, glancing between the Baron, who was just putting down a thick volume he had been reading, and his advisor, who was as always deep in the middle of writing something.

"Traditions of the Vizjerei," the Baron explained, closing the book and leaving it on the side of his desk. "Seeing as I will be judge at Hydris's trial, I should know how his clan would handle such a matter, and what affect their ways may have on our local laws. No matter. The, um, steps you advised in your note yesterday have been undertaken, the materials destroyed as per your instructions, and the books you selected sealed in the vault beneath the castle. Now, if you please, what did you discover?" Willow took a deep breath and began.

"The mage was conducting a demonic ritual. My opinion is that he intended to summon a demon, but I should advise you that not all elements of the ritual were entirely familiar, from the texts I've read, so it's possible I'm mistaken on that. I'm sure that he intended to make contact of some sort with a demon, and I think it's very likely he was disturbed before he managed to do so."

"I see," the Baron said gravely, "well, we can be thankful for that. Would this ritual have affected Hydris in any way? Made him more prone to violent acts, such as the attack on the maid?"

"Possibly," Willow allowed, "but I have to emphasise that, in my opinion, he prepared the ritual in full knowledge of what he was doing. If he was unusually violent when he was disturbed, it was an effect of the ritual, not the cause of it."

"Yes, I understand. I'm told he has shown no signs of remorse since I last saw him, when he was quite uncommunicative. I don't doubt your judgement, Miss Willow, I merely ask to be thorough. I suppose that confirms most of what we suspected already - we suffered during the Reckoning, and it is still the case that when someone here thinks of 'black magic', demons come instantly to mind. My father held the throne then, until he fell in battle against the creatures laying siege to us. I hoped when it was over, and word came that the Reckoning had been won, that we had seen the last of their kind. Tell me, if you have discovered it - what demon was it that Hydris sought to bring here? There are several that are known to us, the leaders of the armies that fought us then."

"Its name in Westlin is Shadai," Willow said.

"Hrm," the Baron grunted, "not one of those that were banished from here. Do you have any idea why he would choose that particular demon?" Willow hesitated, then sighed and nodded.

"Shadai was summoned several months ago, in Entsteig," she explained. "I was there. I had a... a small part in banishing it. If it's just... coincidence that this happened now, while I'm here, then I can't think of any other reason why it would be this demon. It's not one that is easily summoned, a-and the texts that speak of it, um, wouldn't be tempting to a summoner."

"Vicious brute, is it?" the Baron asked. Willow nodded.

"That's one way of saying it, sir," she agreed. "During the Sin War, the Horadrim texts say that Shadai was a captain in the armies of Mephisto, the Lord of Hatred. She rebelled - apparently thought he was weak - a-and led her army north into Scosglen. She... she killed everything, the texts say. Not just people, but animals, plants, even the earth, she made the ground sick, a-and it took generations for anything to grow again there. When the ancestors of the Horadrim finally banished her, there was nothing left. The only people who live there now are settlers who came centuries later, from the tribes to the west of there."

"I see," said the Baron again. "Did she fight in the Reckoning?"

"No," said Willow, "no-one knows why. Um, some of the texts say that the Prime Evils never forgave Shadai for rebelling against Mephisto. I-it's possible they refused to summon her when they brought their armies here."

"That's telling in itself," the Baron mused, "they brought every other kind of abomination to plague us, no matter how foul or murderous."

"Yes sir," Willow said, grateful she had been just a child at the time, and it had all happened far away. The Baron looked glum, then stood and bowed to Willow.

"Well, I thank you for your help," he said, "you have been invaluable in this difficult time. I shall make sure your Order is aware of the service you have rendered."

"Thank you sir," Willow said automatically.

"And I'll see you at the dinner tonight? If, er, you and the Lady Tara wish to attend together," he said, seeming suddenly a little hesitant in his words, "I'll see that you're seated next to each other."

"Th-that's most kind of you," Willow said, smiling. She had noticed the Baron being quite generous in his treatment of her and Tara, when it must be obvious to him that they were, well, intimate. She wouldn't have expected it of a western nobleman, where attitudes were fairly archaic, but she wasn't about to question good fortune.

"Good, good," the Baron said distractedly, resuming his seat and opening the book of Vizjerei customs again. Willow bowed and left, silently agreeing with him - it was indeed very good.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Thirteen

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