Return to Hellebore Chapter Thirty-Four


Author: Chris Cook
Rating: R
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.

"How far have we gone?" Willow asked quietly. She felt they were far enough from the church cellar to relax a little, but without landmarks to guide her she had thoroughly lost track of the distance they had covered in the dry, cool tunnel.

"A quarter of a mile, I think," Tara replied.

"We're heading east, right?"

"Roughly," Tara guessed, "the tunnel's turned a little here and there, but I don't think it's turning far away from where it was heading at the start."

"Do you think we're heading for the monastery?" Willow asked. Tara shrugged, despite the fact that Willow had no way of seeing her.

"We're going in the right direction," she said hesitantly, "this tunnels looks fairly new, though. Not that I'm an expert in tunnels. Or stonework," she added as an afterthought. Willow heard the slight tremble in her voice.

"You okay?"

"Just a bit out of my element," Tara admitted, "I haven't spent much time underground... actually, none. It's very different to what I'm used to. No open spaces... I guess I feel a little, I don't know, enclosed? Normally I'd have a vague sense of the world around me, t-the trees, the animals, everything moving and... living. All I can sense here is the earth, and it's... it's all packed in close around us. Like it's closing in, slowly... it isn't," she hastened to reassure Willow, "the tunnels the same size it was back in the church... it's just me. Comes from living in the trees, I guess. I'll be fine, it's nothing worth bothering about."

"Hey," Willow said gently, "if it upsets you, it's worth bothering about. It is for me, anyway. Come here." Tara hesitated a moment, then gratefully turned into Willow's arms, resting her head on Willow's shoulder.

"It's alright," Willow soothed her, "trust me, I know. The first seven years of my life I lived in a village that had exactly one cellar, and there wasn't even a trapdoor covering it. Then I went to the Order, and the Church city has catacombs like you wouldn't believe. I wasn't exactly a picture of calm composure the first time I was taken down to the vault libraries, even with half a dozen other girls chattering away beside me."

"You're not bothered by this," Tara said quietly, not sensing in Willow the tension she felt in herself.

"Not now," Willow admitted, "but it took time to get used to it." She gently stroked Tara's back through her armour. "I love you," she whispered, "I promise, you're gonna be okay. I won't let anything happen to you."

"Thank you," Tara murmured, "I-I'm sorry, it shouldn't bother me..."

"No, don't be sorry," Willow said, "I don't need you to, to pretend you're some invincible, fearless superwoman. I just need you."

"You've got me," Tara said with complete sincerity.

"I know," Willow murmured, smiling as she rested her cheek on Tara's head, feeling the softness of her hair. "I know." Tara gave her a tender squeeze around the waist, then reluctantly stood back, taking Willow's hand again.

"I think there's something up ahead," she said, her voice firmer than before, "it's not blocking the tunnel, but the air's disturbed. We should keep moving."

"Right," Willow agreed.

"S-so, you got used to the underground?" Tara asked lightly. Willow could tell she was distracting herself from whatever remnant of unease she still felt, and was more than happy to help.

"Oh, yeah, after a while. I mean, I didn't have much choice, all the good stuff is kept in the vault libraries. It's the ground, you see, the city is built on a magical node - Kehjistan's full of them, that's why all the mage orders are based there. The one the Zann Esu found is a convergence of elemental energy, and the Church is in the middle of the city, right on top of the middle of the node's central spiral. Mostly it makes it much easier to draw and control elemental power, though there are a few places in the node that actually disrupt it. We use those for training, if you can cast and hold a spell in the middle of a disruption point, you'll never have any trouble doing it anywhere else. Anyway, the vault libraries are where the Order keeps the most valuable books and artefacts, which are usually the magically active ones, so there's all sorts of protective spells built into the vaults to keep everything safe. Otherwise, you know, all sorts of things might happen. Heh, I once heard a rumour that one of the books on demonology in the vault sanctum - that's where we keep the *really* dangerous stuff - can read its own spells in the right conditions. Eclipses, planetary alignments, that sort of thing. Mind you, that was just a rumour that went around the trainees, it's not like it was one of the tutors telling us that, so maybe someone just made it up. There's powerful stuff down there, though."

"And the node keeps it safe?" Tara asked.

"The vaults are built at the centre of the node," Willow explained, "not just on top of it, but actually in the centre, horizontally and vertically. Except the very centre, there's one chamber that no-one but the Council Seers are allowed into, right in the middle of the vaults. But around that, in the vault libraries, the node's power sustains the protective spells. See, for a protective spell to work, it has to expend energy - if you've got, say, a little magical gizmo like a, a rune wheel, that is set up to cast a spell when it's turned, then a protective spell to stop that working has to have as much power as the wheel does. They cancel each other out. A really good protective spell can cancel exactly the magic that's within it, so it doesn't need any more power - a crude one just dampens down everything indiscriminately, that needs a lot more power - but even so, you always need at least as much power as you're trying to stop. So normally, you cast a protective spell and put as much power as you can into it, and it keeps going until it runs out. Assuming whatever's within it doesn't run out of power first. Some of the stuff in the vault sanctum dates back to the Sin Wars, and it's still active, so it's not looking like we can relax the spells around them anytime soon." She heard Tara chuckle.

"Anyway, the node feeds elemental power directly into the spells cast within it. It's really tricky to do, though, whoever first cast some of those spells was a genius, but basically they'll keep going until the node itself is exhausted."

"How long is that?" Tara asked.

"Best guess, the end of time," Willow replied. "Nodes aren't just deposits of magic, like iron that you mine out of a mountain. They're places where magic collects. Whenever a spell is cast, the energy behind it doesn't just get used up, it transmutes into a different form. Like, if you cast a fireball, you take elemental fire energy - primal energy - and turn it into actual heat. So, over the whole of the world, the total amount of actual heat increases. But the world doesn't let itself get unbalanced, so an infinitesimal amount of heat, over the whole world, transmutes back into elemental heat to balance the scales."

"And that energy collects in nodes?" Tara added.

"Yep," Willow said, "in the case of elemental energy it collects in the node beneath the Order's city, and flows slowly back out into the rest of the world from there. There's nodes for all kinds of energy - elemental, prime, druidic, alchemical transmutation energy, astrological, even necromantic, which must be a fun place," she added with a wry grin.

"Even demonic?" Tara asked.

"Ah, that's the problem," Willow smiled. "Not much gets past you, does it?"

"I do my best to keep up," Tara said shyly.

"You do a lot better than just keep up," Willow said sincerely. "No, there aren't nodes for demonic energy. There are places where it's strengthened, but they're artificial, created by demonologists, or by the demons themselves during the Sin Wars. See, demonic energy isn't a part of Sanctuary. It comes from the burning hells, and when demons use energy, particularly when they cast powerful spells, but even just by existing, they unbalance the world."

"But there's quite a few demons living here," Tara pointed out, "we seem to have a knack for running into them..."

"Yeah," Willow agreed ruefully.

"So, the world is being damaged all the time?"

"Yes and no," Willow said, "yes, they unbalance the world just by existing, but no, we're not on an inevitable slide to the whole place falling apart. Holy magic balances the scales. Everything has its opposite, so when a demon casts a spell, the damage that does to the world is undone by a mage using holy magic. Like you, for example," she added, squeezing Tara's hand.

"Me?" Tara asked, surprised.

"The power you cast comes from your gods," Willow said, "that's holy magic."

"I... well, yes," Tara corrected herself, "I just never really thought of myself as a mage, that's all."

"There's a lot more magic around that most people realise," Willow said. "I mean, most warriors who train really hard could be considered mages. When they concentrate, and become faster or stronger than you'd think possible, they're using a tiny amount of prime magic. I'm sure you do, even though you don't realise it. Craftsmen who can do work so delicate it's almost impossible to see, athletes who push themselves beyond what a body should be capable of. Blacksmiths often have a little fire magic to them. Mostly it's prime magic that gets used without people realising it, seeing as it's really just the energy of being alive, and it's kind of instinctive to tap into it, if you really try. But no-one's really cut off from any of the energies in the world. There's people who are more attuned to it, like me with cold, and I think you're probably a lot more attuned to prime energy than most people. Maybe even druidic energy, with all that ability to sense the natural world you have."

"I'm a druid now?" Tara asked, with a slight note of incredulity creeping into her voice. Willow could imagine her lop-sided smile.

"You're many things," she said, "and incidentally, I'm in love with all of them." She felt Tara lift her hand, and her lips press against her palm.

"All of the things that I am are in love with you, too," Tara said warmly. Willow felt a tremendous urge to hug her and kiss her endlessly, but acknowledged - reluctantly - that this was neither the time nor the place.

"Druid, huh?" Tara asked, humour lightening her voice.

"You never know," Willow said.

"So, does that mean I should dance naked under the stars during a full moon?" Willow blushed, glad of the darkness to hide it.

"I'm not sure if you have to," she said, "but, you know, if you want to, I'm up for some moonlight dancing."

"I'll keep that in mind," Tara promised. Willow shivered involuntarily, trying to put the image Tara's low purr conjured out of her mind. A few steps later Tara halted.

"What's up?" Willow asked.

"I've found what's disturbing the air flow," Tara said with a grim voice, "there's an iron gate. Here." She guided Willow's hands forward, and Willow felt the shape of a barred gate blocking the tunnel. She set to work examining it, running her hands across all its surfaces, and as far as she could reach on the other side.

"Can you feel a latch?" Tara asked. "A bolt? Lock? Anything?"

"Nothing," Willow grumbled, "that doesn't make sense, if this tunnel was for people to escape through, surely it wouldn't be made so they'd have to wait to be let in. What if they were followed?"

"Maybe it's normally left open," Tara mused unhappily.

"But the doorway in the cellar wasn't sealed," Willow frowned, "if people came through here, they'd seal both gates..."

"I could try to blast it open," Tara said, audibly unhappy with the option, "I could hit it from pretty far down the tunnel. If it did weaken it and cause a cave-in, it probably wouldn't reach us, this looks fairly solid..."

"Maybe," Willow mused, leaning against the gate and trying to come up with something better, "or I could try to ice it up and shatter it... iron's pretty good at holding magic, though, it could be a bit risky to judge the amount of power... properly..."

"What?" Tara asked as Willow trailed off.

"I wonder," Willow said to herself, "what if there is an opening mechanism, but we just can't see it?"

"A lever or something?" Tara wondered. "We might have missed it in the dark, could you get a match from my pack?"

"No, an enemy could have torches, they'd see a lever," Willow went on, "but if it were magic... iron holds magic, you could do a simple locking spell with a trigger, and it'd last years before you'd need to re-cast it."

"Do you think a village that size would have a mage?" Tara asked. "Wait, the monastery might..."

"Or they could have paid a travelling mage to do it for them," Willow said quickly, flown with enthusiasm, "it's the kind of thing some mages make a living from, just doing simple things for small towns and so on... hold this?" Tara felt Willow's staff against her hand, and held it while Willow opened a pouch on her belt.

"What are you doing?" Tara asked curiously.

"I've got a scroll with an imbued spell," Willow explained, "it'll let me see any active magic around here. Normally I'd be able to sense it anyway - I wasn't worried about traps, I'd feel anything destructive from a mile off - but a locking spell, a good one, could be subtle enough that it'd need almost no power while it was idle... here it is." Tara heard the faith sound of Willow unrolling one of her tiny scrolls.

"Do you need a match?" she asked. "To read it, I mean?"

"No need," Willow said, "these are all set to cast, I just have to say the coda word while I'm touching the scroll. I memorised them all ages ago... ahem... 'allamaraine'."

For a moment Tara saw Willow's face lit by a glow coming from the scroll. The letters on it blazed briefly with their own tiny lights, then seemed to consume themselves, leaving the scroll blank in their wake. After a moment the last trace of writing was gone, and the tunnel was plunged into darkness once more.

"Did it work?" Tara asked.

"Yeah," Willow said, "I can feel it... now, let's see if... here!" Tara felt her reach out, and there was a tiny scraping sound, as she traced her fingertip over the stone of the tunnel's wall. Tara jumped slightly as the gate behind her swung open with a groan.

"Wow," she said, "nice work."

"Yup, we make quite the team, huh?" Willow replied as they stepped through the open gate. "Not that it was anything much, just a simple spell... hey!"

"What?" Tara asked, suddenly alert, though Willow's voice had sounded more surprised than alarmed.

"Your pack's glowing," Willow said.

"It is?" Tara looked over her shoulder, but couldn't see anything.

"No, I mean... any magical power, I see it as light. I can see you, I can see your spear and your bow, my staff-"

"My bow's magic?" Tara asked, surprised.

"Looks like," Willow said, "not as much as the spear... gods, that's one fine piece of work... your pack as well." Tara felt Willow lean closer behind her. "What've you got in the left one of these two little pockets, underneath the main strap?" she asked.

"Left pocket..." Tara hesitated, "I don't know, unless I've picked something up... oh, no, I remember, it's the amulet, isn't it? Marela's amulet?" She felt Willow undo the pocket and reach into it.

"That's it all right," Willow said, "it's not just decorative."

"What does it do?" Tara asked.

"I don't know," Willow admitted, "I can't see anything harmful in it... I don't think she'd have given you anything dangerous anyway."

"No, I don't think so," Tara agreed.

"Well, I could set up a test series, try to narrow it down, but that'd be tricky in the dark. All things being equal, it's probably best to just put it on and see what it does." Tara felt a light surge of protectiveness in her, but she calmed herself at once, remembering the kindness she had sensed in Marela during the afternoon she had spent with the cat woman.

"Do you want me to try it?" she asked nonetheless.

"I'll do it," Willow said easily, "I'm sure it's harmless, but just in case, I've had lots of training at nullifying magic. Okay, let's see what you do... wow."

"What?" Tara asked. She held Willow's hand tightly, and was reassured to feel a calm squeeze in return.

"I can see," Willow said, "it's a bit strange, but I can see... there's no light down here, is there?"

"Nothing," Tara said, "I'm just sensing the air currents, I can't see a thing."

"I can see red," Willow said, "and grey... not other colours though. You look kind of bright pink... heh, so do I," she laughed, and the sound of her amusement did a lot to help Tara relax.

"How far can you see?" she asked.

"Pretty far," Willow said, "I guess, as far as I could if it was daylight down here... the tunnel turns a bit up ahead. You're not missing much, it's pretty plain. Hang on." Tara felt Willow reach out towards the wall again, and heard the gate close behind them.

"I'd like to see a Carver get through that," Willow said triumphantly.

"It's locked again?"

"Yup. Unless they know where to touch the wall, and what rune to trace, they're not getting that gate to open again. Wow, this is pretty neat. Oh, do you want it? The amulet, I mean."

"You keep it," Tara said, "I can sense the space well enough to walk around. It's better if you can see and I can sense, rather than me seeing and you having to rely on me."

"I don't mind relying on you one bit," Willow said fondly as they walked on, "but I see your point. Once we get back above ground I'm going to have a serious look at this amulet, this is a really good piece of enchanting. Marela must've really liked you. Of course," she added, "I can see her point." Willow glanced at Tara, and noticed a pronounced flush in her cheeks - her temporary night-vision, limited though it was in terms of colour, seemed to pick up every detail.

"Well," Tara said hesitantly, "I suppose if she's still in Kingsport next time we visit, I owe her that rub behind the ears she wanted."

"So long as it's just a rub behind the ears," Willow smiled. She winked, then remembered Tara couldn't see her, and squeezed her hand instead to let her know she was joking.

"Don't worry," Tara smiled back, once she had felt Willow's gesture, "I'm saving all the good stuff for you."

"Darn right," Willow nodded, leaning over to give Tara a kiss on the cheek. "Heh, you're cute when you blush in cat-vision. Course, you're cute anyway, I guess it's not that much of a revelation... huh? Oh."


"The spell just wore off," Willow said.

"The amulet wore out?" Tara asked with a frown.

"No, no, the magic sense spell," Willow explained, "the one I read from the scroll. They only last a little while, you can't get that much power into a scroll that size. Oh well, I've got another couple if we need them. At least it's less distracting now," she finished, more or less to herself.

"How so?" Tara asked.

"Oh," Willow said, grinning at herself, "well... I could see the magic in everything, not just the gate spell. It was a little overwhelming. My staff was this sort of jet black... hole in space, sort of thing. Probably something to do with how it undoes hostile spells, I've never really looked at it using that sight spell before. Your bow was this tingly red all along its length, like there were rubies glittering inside it. As for your spear, hoo boy," Willow laughed, "like looking into the sun, almost, except blue-white rather than yellow. I think whoever made that would be on a level with the Zann Esu for lightning mastery."

"Really?" Tara asked sceptically.

"Really," Willow confirmed, "that spear is a work of art."

"I-I didn't realise how precious it was," Tara said softly, "Solari just... you know, gave it to me, told me to look after it. I mean, I knew it was ancient and important, but she never mentioned anything like this..."

"I can think of someone a lot more precious," Willow said gently, "I bet she thought so too." She watched Tara blush again, and smile widely.

"Y-you said you could see me?" Tara asked after a moment. "With the spell, I mean... is there really power in me?"

"Everyone has power of some sort," Willow said, "even if it's just prime magic that's making them a living thing. You're... there were all these flows of energy, prime magic, a-and what I think was holy magic, and others as well. All flowing through you, a-and harmonising like..." She hesitated, then leant close to Tara, lowering her voice despite the fact they were completely alone in the tunnel.

"It was the second most beautiful thing I've ever seen," she whispered in Tara's ear.

"Wh-what's the first?" Tara asked, smiling.

"You, silly," Willow grinned. "Just... you. No spell-vision or anything, just you."

"Oh..." Willow saw Tara's mouth open to speak, but that tiny sigh was all that emerged. She remained still as Tara turned to face her and slowly closed the distance between her lips and Willow's. The kiss was gentle, tender and silent, yet it stirred such a rush of desire in Willow that she had serious doubts about her ability to stand upright were it not for Tara's arms around her. Both their mouths opened just a fraction, enough to taste each other, but there was no frenzied motion, no tongues surging between their lips, simply the kiss itself. Willow felt her pulse racing, her skin warming, and her centre moistening as love and need bloomed out of her heart.

"Ah," she sighed when Tara finally finished the kiss with a final, tiny suckle on her lip, and leaned back. "Ah... oh... oh, wow..."

"I love you," Tara whispered.

"I know," Willow said emphatically, "oh gods, Tara, I know... I feel it right down to the bottom of my soul, I love you so much... Oh... ooh!" She shivered and shook her head. "Gods, you are a fantastic kisser, you know that?"

"I'm only as good as the woman I kiss," Tara replied with a grin.

"I'm that good?" Willow asked disbelievingly.

"Uh-huh," Tara replied softly.

"Um... well then..." Willow faltered, "I guess... yep. Okay, uh, we should keep going? Um, keep moving, I mean, walking along the tunnel, not keep going in other things which wouldn't really be the most useful of things we could be doing at the moment, even though I'd really love to kiss you for the next, oh, three days or so non-stop... not really the best place to be doing it... so?"

"You're babbling," Tara said fondly.

"I know," Willow replied, "I could stop myself, but you look so adorable watching me... I guess I've kind of taken to doing it on purpose." Tara took her hand and gripped it warmly.

"Lead the way, cat's-eyes," she said. Willow blinked in surprise, then remembered that Tara couldn't see like she could at the moment. She had become somewhat accustomed to Tara having the superior senses, and it was an odd feeling to have the situation reversed. Though, she mused as they walked along side-by-side, for a woman walking in pitch blackness, Tara still appeared to have a considerable degree of perception. Willow noticed her stepping deftly over the gaps left by occasional missing flagstones, and wondered how she was doing it - or if she even realised she was.

"I was wondering," Tara said after a moment, startling Willow out of her own thoughts, "did you actually understand what those creatures were saying, or was it just types of sounds, things like that?"

"Oh, no, they have a language," Willow said, "most demons do, even the really animalistic ones can usually understand one or other of the demon languages, even if they can't speak themselves. Makes them easier to command, I guess. There's seven basic languages used in hell, one for each of the Evils, and hybrids usually inherit the language of their creator. It's all hierarchical. Carvers, so far as anyone knows, were created by servants of the Lord of Terror, so they speak his language. Well, a really crude version of it."

"And you can speak that?" Tara wondered.

"I can't speak it," Willow said, "humans don't have the vocal range... if I had to communicate with a Carver I could probably approximate it well enough to be understood. Not that there's any circumstances where I'd want to say much besides 'have an ice bolt', but you know. The Order teaches us to understand the demon languages though, in case we ever need to. Traditionally, most demons - the smart ones - tend to assume that their languages are impossible for humans to understand, so they aren't very guarded in using them."

"You know all seven languages?" Tara asked, impressed.

"Yeah. The one for the Lord of Lies is pretty tricky to get the hang of, seeing as the whole idea behind it is saying one thing and meaning another, but yeah, I got it eventually. Language training is one of the first things a girl learns with the Zann Esu, as soon as she's deemed fit to be taught about demons in general. We start out with Khejan, if you don't know it already, and pretty much everyone knows Westlin even if it's not their native language. After that we go on to a sort of generalised structural training, which is all about how to recognise parts of language, concepts and relations and stuff. Knowing that makes it much easier to pick up a specific language."

"I wondered how you learned High Amazonian so quickly," Tara said.

"Pretty much," Willow grinned. "Once you've got the hang of demon languages, nothing humans come up with seems that difficult." She squeezed Tara's hand tenderly. "It's one of the most beautiful I've learned, though." She was even more glad of her newly-acquired sight when she saw Tara's smile.

"So," Tara said after a pause, "what were they saying?"

"Oh, pretty much what you'd expect. There were two old ones arguing over who should lead them. It's not often you get them in the same tribe, but it happens sometimes - possibly they learned about humans taking apprentices, and sometimes do it themselves, though it's anyone's guess as to why. Maybe it's just mindless mimicry. The challenger thought the leader was foolish - that's bad for a Carver, they don't care about courage at all, but being smart is all that keeps them from being wiped out mostly, so a leader who gets his followers killed isn't likely to last very long. They don't really have a concept of the greater good, except that they know they can't fight people on their own. I think they might have attacked Harthim, or maybe a smaller town south of here, but wherever it was they got driven back and ran away."

"Good," Tara said.

"The challenger said it was the leader's fault, that they shouldn't have tried to attack a strong town. The leader said it was the challenger's fault, and that he wasn't smart enough. That pretty much started the fight, after that it was just a bunch of swearing. Demons have a lot of really elaborate curses, by the way. Some of the stuff they yelled at each other when they were fighting was about as eloquent as a Carver can get. I guess it tells you a lot about them that what they do best is swear." Tara chuckled in agreement, then had a thought.

"Did they say anything about what happened to the village? This one, I mean, not Harthim."

"Nothing useful," Willow said ruefully, "I really don't think it was Carvers that did it though. I can't see them moving the bodies, or attacking in the first place for that matter. Probably it was finding the place empty and all the people dead that got them ambitious enough to try to attack Harthim in the first place."

"I wonder what did happen," Tara mused.

"I don't know," Willow replied, "but I'm not letting my guard down anytime soon, I'll tell you that."

"Me neither," Tara agreed. "Are the walls more irregular ahead? The air's disturbed."

"Tombs," Willow said briefly, "we're coming up to proper catacombs. I'm guessing this will lead beneath the monastery. Some of those old places have pretty impressive earthworks buried beneath them."

"We're still about half a mile away," Tara guessed.

"These look new," Willow said, glancing at the shelves cut into the rock on either side of them as they walked on. Each contained a body, most wrapped in layers of thick cloth, some with iron or stone masks covering their heads. A rare one now and then would be contained in an elaborate stone coffin, some with scenes of battle and angels worked into them, others with life-sized depictions of sleeping warriors, swords in hand, presumably to represent the deceased.

"Hold on a moment," Willow asked, crouching down as Tara stopped beside her to read the inscription on the side of a particularly elaborate coffin.

"'Macharius, brother-lieutenant of the Order of Guardians'," she read, translating from the old Imperial language, not spoken in centuries but still traditionally used in religious documents and memorials, "'died the eighth day of Montaht, year of the Archangel fifteen-thirty-six.' That's the Zakarum calendar, that's... twenty years ago, the Reckoning."

"He was a warrior," Tara guessed. Willow studied the engraving, which showed a grim-looking man, his face marred by a scar running down his left cheek.

"Looks like," she said, "the sculpture has him in full plate armour. Possibly the armour he wore, or maybe just traditional for burial statues of warriors of his Order, it's pretty elaborate for a lieutenant. Sword and shield..." She peered closer. "There are little figures of dead demons carved around the edge of the coffin lid. Carvers, goat-men, skeletons, liches..."

"His enemies," Tara said, "he died fighting demons."

"You're probably right," Willow mused, "by the looks of things, he didn't make it easy for them either. Rest well," she added respectfully. Tara nodded, and they continued further into the catacombs.

"Probably the oldest graves are right beneath the monastery," Willow thought aloud, "and they expanded outwards over the centuries. Order of Guardians, huh? Makes sense, before the rise of the western kingdoms places like monasteries were havens for villagers from miles around. The religious orders were the only groups with enough influence and money to build such big stone buildings, so they made them like fortresses, and whenever there was trouble everyone would get inside the monastery, or the abbey or whatever they had."

"Hence the tunnels," Tara added.

"Yeah," Willow agreed, "the tunnel itself looks older than the graves, probably it was dug sometime long ago, before the Reckoning definitely. Orders like this often build huge catacombs to bury their dead. They say the Zakarum cathedral in Kurast city last expanded its catacombs five hundred years ago, and they still haven't filled them up. And they've been involved in just about every holy war there's been," she added, "they were kind of zealous until the reformations began a hundred years ago. Are you okay?"

"Fine," said Tara, "why?"

"Just wondering," Willow said, "you know, with not liking being underground... I thought maybe the place turning into a giant graveyard might not be helping things."

"Oh," Tara smiled, "no, I'm fine... it's actually comforting in a way. This is a, a warrior place. They believed in good over evil, and stood up to defend the people who relied on them. I guess it feels a little more familiar, now we know the people who built it had that in common with us."

"Okay," Willow said, happy to see Tara more at ease. Personally she could have done without the profusion of graves, but it wasn't anything she hadn't seen before - the tunnels leading to the Zann Esu vault libraries were home to their share of tombs of sorceresses from ages past.

A short while later she gently drew Tara to a halt, noticing a small archway carved in the rock on one side. Crouching and peering inside, she found it to be a room containing several graves, each in its own shelf in the walls, all of them more elaborate than those in the tunnel.

"Must be some more notable people," she said to Tara, "what time is it, do you think?"

"I think, maybe near sunset," Tara guessed.

"Do you think we should get some rest?" Willow asked. "It doesn't look like anyone's been along this tunnel recently, but if it did we'd be as safe in here as anywhere. We can't be far from the monastery now, and just between you and me, I'd rather it be daylight when we get there."

"Yeah," Tara agreed, "okay." Willow helped Tara inside the small room, and guided her as she felt the limits of the walls. As it turned out, it was just wide enough for Tara to lie down without her head or feet bumping the walls. Willow helped her unpack the blankets, and insisted she rest first.

"You barely got any sleep last night," she said, "and you've been on your feet since then. Don't worry, I'll wake you and get some sleep myself."

"Alright," Tara allowed.

"I'm going to put a sentry spell out in the tunnel," Willow said, selecting the necessary runes from her pouches, "I'll just be a moment, okay?"

"Okay," Tara smiled. Willow could see Tara was a little anxious at letting her out of her sight - or rather, her senses.

"Tell you what," she suggested, "if you think you can risk hearing my singing, I'll sing a song for you so you can hear me until I'm done."

"I'd like that," Tara said with a gentle smile.

"Okay, but just remember, you're the one with the singing voice. Don't say I didn't warn you."

Despite her warnings, Tara found Willow's voice soothingly gentle as lilted along the simple notes of her song. She lay down and listened as Willow sang softly, just loud enough for her voice to carry back to Tara.

"A lonely minstrel girl was she,
Of face and voice most heavenly,
And when she sang my heart did sway,
Until the day she went away.

"To save my heart from being torn,
I left the town where I was born,
Through places strange and far away,
I followed on my minstrel's way.

"Though my days were hard and long,
Each night I heard my minstrel's song,
'Cross mountains high and valleys low,
It showed to me the way to go."

Tara heard and sensed Willow approach her, and smiled as she felt her hair being stroked.

"That's pretty," she murmured.

"Just don't ask me to sing anything difficult," Willow chuckled. Tara smiled and settled down to sleep. "It's supposed to be 'A lonely minstrel boy was he'," Willow added, "but I like this version better."

"Mmm," Tara agreed sleepily. Willow sat by her, gently stroking her fingers through her hair, and the last thing Tara heard before she slipped into sleep was Willow singing:

"At last I found my minstrel girl,
Who held my heart and all my joy,
And seeing my heart's empty space,
She gave me hers to take its place."

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Thirty-Six

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