Return to Hellebore Chapter Thirty-Five


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.

Tara awoke gently, feeling quite refreshed. A feeling of warmth in her localised itself to the sensation of Willow's lips touching her cheek, and she smiled, imagining the fond, indulgent expression she was sure she would have been seeing, had there been any light.

"Hey," she whispered, gathering her wits from sleep.

"Morning," Willow replied, straightening as Tara sat up and slid her legs out from beneath the blankets.

"Is it?" she asked.

"I don't think so," Willow said, "I think it's sometime in the night, maybe a couple of hours after midnight."

"How long did I sleep?"

"As long as I could manage." Tara heard Willow taking off her boots, then she was lying down, all the while staying in contact with her, by a hand on her arm, or their thighs touching as she slid over the blankets.

"You looked pretty tired," Willow continued, "so, I thought, best if my Amazon gets a proper rest. Big day tomorrow, more catacombs to explore." Tara chuckled at her unenthusiastic tone. "Oh, hey," Willow said suddenly, "you should take the amulet. It's not like I need it to sleep..." Her hand vanished from Tara's arm for a moment, then she was touching her again, finding her hand and pressing the silver chain and amulet into it.

"I just put it on?" Tara asked, already lifting the chain around her neck.

"Yup, that's the..." Willow paused to yawn, "...idea. Hmm."

"Sleep," Tara said gently, "you've been up a long time."

"Yeah," Willow said indistinctly, "you needed sleep though..."

"I did," Tara replied, "I can tell you let me sleep a long time. It's your turn, so we'll both be fresh tomorrow."

"'Kay," Willow murmured, "made some notes in our journal... might be useful..." She yawned again, and Tara leaned down to kiss her just as she started falling asleep. For a few moments she sat still, just watching Willow and smiling. With the vision the amulet gave her, it almost seemed as if the room was bathed in soft daylight. Tara looked around eventually, evaluating her new sight - Willow's scarlet hair and the red-brown of her leathers may have been unchanged, but in other areas she could tell she was not seeing by normal light. She glanced at the feathers of her arrows, sticking out of the open quiver on her pack, and found their blues and greens showed up only as various shades of grey. However, she consoled herself, the amulet needed no light to see by, and thus none of the small room's details were hidden in shadow.

She moved to the small doorway and peeked outside, familiarising herself with the tunnel now that she could see it, rather than just feel it. Returning to sit beside Willow, she turned her attention to the crypts lining the walls, surprised by their workmanship. Stonework was a rarely-used art among Amazons, and the level of detail in the statues, the realism of the sleeping figures, was quite astonishing. Tara stood again and walked around the perimeter of the room, looking at the faces of the statues, noting the various symbols and decorations. Two of the coffins, judging by their carvings, contained lords of some rank, or so Tara guessed from the coronets and noble garments they were depicted with. The other four in the room were of less nobility, but seemed to be warriors of some note, all with swords held across their chests, shields covering their lower bodies, and either representations of dead foes, or minutely-carved scenes of battle in which the occupants of the coffins were shown wielding swords or halberds against a variety of demons and beasts.

Tara sighed to herself, no longer feeling quite at ease with her surroundings. The stonemasons who had carved the statues of the dead had been skilled at their craft, and at a casual glance it seemed that the old warriors and noblemen were merely sleeping. Or perhaps it was the amulet, she thought, allowing her to see the texture of the rock alone, without the telltale reflection of light that would tell smooth stone from skin. Tara sat down beside Willow and watched her sleep, focusing on the slow rise and fall of her chest. She reached out and, with the utmost care, stroked Willow's cheek with the backs of her fingers, and smiled as Willow sensed it even in her sleep and tilted her head over a fraction, pressing into her hand.

Keeping the still, cold figures of the dead out of her mind, in favour of the very much alive woman beside her, Tara felt warmed herself, and relaxed a little. The journals caught her eye, their own book and Ember's, sitting next to her pack with a pen and inkpot still beside them, and she picked up the book and leafed through the pages, seeing what Willow had written. She found a rough map of the tunnel, with estimates of the distance between the church cellar and the iron gateway, and little markings showing where the crypts started, leading up to the room they were occupying. Tara dipped the pen into the ink and made a few minor corrections to the early part of the map - very minor, she mused, considering that Willow had been effectively blind over that part of the trip. She wondered if the Zann Esu practised some form of tracker training, but thought it more likely - and consistent with what she already knew - that it was just another example of Willow being remarkably perceptive.

The next couple of pages were filled with notes, summarising most of what had happened to them since they had been separated from the caravan. Tara nodded as she skimmed over descriptions of the behaviour of the goat-men who had chased them, the Carvers in the village, even the blood hawk they had encountered that morning, though in that case there was little to record, and Willow had confined herself to making a couple of rough sketches, with a note to herself to check its wingspan and markings later against 'foul crows' and 'black raptors', whatever those were. Tara noticed a page number scribbled in the margin beside the entry, and on a hunch opened Ember's journal and flipped through the pages, counting as she went. She found the page marked with a scrap of paper, and spent a few minutes reading about the various types of blood hawks and their relatives, which were numerous and uniformly unpleasant.

Tara went back to Willow's writing and studied what she had been thinking after having recorded as much information as she could. Willow seemed to have been pondering the likelihood of the Carvers and goat-men being under the direction of a single leader - 'Ghoul Lord', she wrote at one point, and afterwards tended to use the abbreviation 'GL' whenever she mentioned the theoretical master demon, though in one paragraph she seemed to be pondering whether their adversary might be something else: 'GL = ghouls, but we saw none, except maybe bump-in-the-night monster' (Tara grinned) 'while Carvers suggest something else (skirmishers, drawn to trouble - not part of retinues). Other options: Liche Lord? Human? Blood Clan goat-men often seen in retinues of GL/Night Lords. Carvers just coincidental? Ghouls are slow, poor fighters (used as shields, permit GL to cast against enemies without being attacked). Maybe goat-men used for speed. Was bump-in-the-night a ghoul or a normal undead? How far from self can GL control & maintain subservient ghouls? Maybe goat-men able to travel further, sent to attack us. From where?'

Tara wondered that too, but had to admit to herself that they didn't have enough information to do anything but guess. Later, perhaps, when they had reached safety - Duncraig, if not sooner - then it would be time to take measures to rid the land of the creatures that plagued it. 'The sooner the better,' Tara thought, remembering the people who she had seen dead in the village. She glanced at Willow. 'But for now, let's just get you and me to safety. Somewhere we can lie down and rest together, and not have to worry about keeping watch through the night.'

A note on its own on the right side of the page caught Tara's eye, two page numbers, underlined. She checked Ember's journal, found at the first one another page marked with a paper, and read. It began with the last few lines of whatever Ember had been writing about previously - 'Viz'Jaq-taar shadow disciplines,' according to the title on the page before. After that, though, the next title was 'Order of Guardians', and Tara saw why Willow had noted it. She gave a half-smile - 'She was right,' she thought, 'Ember really has been everywhere and seen everything' - and read on. There was no reference to 'Kotram', but after a few lines it was clear to Tara that Ember had been writing about the same place they were now somewhere beneath.

'Surrounded by five small townships,' she read, 'the monastery of the Order of Guardians serves as haven, fortress and outpost of law in the upper Kingsway Highlands, which fall largely outside the influence of Duncraig's soldiers.' Tara wondered if Duncraig was less intent on protecting its borders than Shan and Kert had thought, or if Ember had been writing at a time when the city's territory was less expansive, and Kotram and Harthim had been isolated from its rule. She shrugged and read on: 'The Order dates back at least as far as the Second Founding, though the records kept by the brother-scribes indicate they may be even older. Unfortunately I have been unable to find earlier documents during my time in the library, but some elements of the monastery's stonework (particularly the catacombs, though I have not gone below first level - brothers mentioned that lower levels were much larger. Must try to find time to explore) seem to date from earlier, perhaps the third century by the Clan calendar. There isn't much left from that time, I wish I had the chance to study this in further detail. I must remember to tell Xanth, this is just the kind of thing she'd spend weeks on. The Order's main self-assigned function is the preservation of law and peace throughout the territory around the monastery, encompassing the surrounding townships, their farmlands and a substantial stretch of the Highlands. Their warriors are well-trained and well-educated, though they have no mages among them, a peculiarity that seems to have its origin somewhere in their history, and endures through ritual rather than attitude. Certainly I have been made to feel welcome, and in general the brothers seem to hold no prejudice against mages, or indeed anyone. More than can be said for most Zakarum-aligned Orders, sadly.

'The map room (ground floor, east) is of particular note, the depiction of the surrounding countryside is both exceedingly beautiful, and accurate enough that the brothers use it to plan their campaigns against the demons that occasionally infest the Highlands. The monastery maintains its own forge and armoury, which is well-equipped. The records of demonic beasts and man-hybrids are extensive, layman's observations for the most part but accurate and perceptive, and afford the brothers an excellent resource in planning their strategies, whether they be defensive or offensive. According to the brother-historian I spoke with yesterday, the monastery has held its own walls since the fall of the old Empire, and has never been taken by an enemy in all that time (though he admitted that there had been times when garrisons from Duncraig had assisted in their defence, most recently in the turmoil that sprung up around the edges of the civil wars on the peninsula).'

Tara frowned as she read, wondering what they might find when they reached the monastery. She allowed that, with bands of demons moving about freely, the villages surrounding the monastery were not defensible, and the brothers would be more likely to make their stand within the monastery itself. But surely there would have been at least some sign of battle? She couldn't imagine an Order of warriors standing idly by while such weak foes as Carvers - dangerous to her and Willow, but nothing to an organised force - roamed around during the daylight. And then there were the bodies in the village... even a non-believer would try to see that they had a decent burial, so for a religious Order to leave them, for creatures to desecrate... 'means they're in no condition to send men to a village barely a mile from their walls,' Tara thought grimly.

She checked the second page number Willow had noted, and found half-way down the page a brief note Ember had written, which by the date - Tara wasn't familiar with the calendar, but she compared the dates on the two entries - was several years later than the first. 'Order of Guardians,' it read, 'during Reckoning, under siege by forces loyal to the Evils. Only a dozen or so brothers remain. Concentrating efforts on rebuilding damaged portions of monastery.' 'Well,' Tara thought, 'that might explain it. How many more brothers could they induct and train since then? Not enough to safeguard the lands around them. Enough to safeguard themselves?' She wasn't even sure of that, but she resolved to be cautious and ready for anything in the morning, when they reached the monastery.

Willow slept soundly and deeply, too tired even for dreams so far as Tara could judge. She felt a pang of regret at having slept so long herself - she could feel, from the way her body felt now compared to her tiredness before she had lain down, that she had been asleep close to eight hours. She reassured herself that it was probably for the best, and that it was far better for Willow to wear herself out a little watching over her in an apparently safe haven underground than for she herself to be tired when her senses and reactions could prove vital. Smiling fondly at Willow, glad at least that her deep slumber kept her safe from bad dreams, Tara waited out the night. Taking into account her guess at how long she had slept, and her best estimate of how long she and Willow had travelled underground - the darkness had seemed to make the time stretch - she figured that it would be best to give Willow six hours sleep, and then hope to reach the monastery and find a passage out of the catacombs during the morning, when the sun was already high. Their experience in the village notwithstanding, Tara felt a lot safer during the day than at night, and if there was danger in the monastery, she felt instinctively that it would be greater in the dark.

Eventually Tara reluctantly decided it was time to wake Willow, for all that she looked ready to sleep through most of the day as well. She had a bite to eat from their supplies while she could see clearly, left some ready for Willow, and finally leaned over her sleeping companion, pressing a kiss to her upturned lips. Willow murmured to herself, moving her lips against Tara's, which Tara found quite enjoyable in itself, then she sensed Willow stirring to consciousness. When she saw Willow's eyes open - grey in the amulet's sight - she began to lean back, but with unexpected vigour for having so recently been sound asleep, Willow's arms went around her waist and pulled her back down, deepening the kiss instead of ending it.

"I thought," Tara said, lifting up for a moment before Willow claimed her mouth again, "you said you," another kiss, "didn't like waking up in the morning?" Willow made a non-committal noise while nibbling on Tara's bottom lip.

"You have this way of making it worthwhile," she admitted when she had finally had her fill of Tara for the moment. "Besides, we don't know how long it'll be before we have another opportunity for proper kissage... best to take advantage of the opportunity when it arises, don't you think?"

"Uh-huh, definitely," Tara agreed, doing her best to ignore her body's demand to stay wrapped around Willow, regardless of the need to get up and get moving. She took a last, long look at Willow, committing her smiling face and tempting form to memory yet again, before removing the amulet and pressing it into Willow's palm.

"Thanks," Willow said, sitting up. "You're okay without it?"

"I'll be fine," Tara assured her, "you need it more. There's rations there if you're hungry." Willow kissed her cheek briefly, then reached over to where Tara had left the food and waterskin. Tara noticed, and was grateful, that Willow was deliberately staying in contact with her all the while, with a hand on her thigh as she leaned over, and leaning back against Tara as she ate, with Tara's arms loosely around her shoulders.

"Getting low on water," Willow commented to herself, and Tara saw a faint blue glow as Willow condensed more out of the air. It lasted a little longer than when she had done it out in the wilderness, and Tara had a moment to see the outlines of Willow's hands and face in the glow.

"The air's dry down here," Willow explained, before Tara could ask, "it takes a little longer to draw the same amount of water out of it."

"Is it more difficult?" Tara asked. "There's probably a well in the monastery, you don't have to keep doing that..."

"It's not a problem," Willow said lightly, "it's just a matter of time, not effort. Besides, I'm not sure I trust the ground water around here. Get too many demons around and their energy starts affecting things."

"They poison the water?"

"Sometimes on purpose," Willow said, "the smart ones, anyway. Sometimes it's just by upsetting nature's balances. I don't know if there's that many demons around, but it's best not to take chances."

"The water we bathed in, in the valley," Tara said, with a worried note in her voice.

"It was fine," Willow said, "I'd have seen any leakage of demonic power."

"I thought it was okay," Tara said, "safe to drink, I mean, not that we did... I didn't realise it could be magically poisoned though."

"I think you probably would have felt it if the water was bad," Willow said, stroking Tara's arm, "magic and nature aren't separate things."

"Good," Tara replied, "I was just wondering, you know. I'd like not to be poisoned too many times while we're out here," she added with a laugh. She was pleased to hear Willow laugh along with her, genuinely, not a forced laugh.

"Drink?" Willow asked, offering Tara the waterskin.

"No thanks, I had some earlier," Tara said, dropping to a covert murmur, "just between you and me, I hope we get above ground and find a bathroom soon."

"Me too," Willow returned, also whispering, "let's make that priority one." They shared a giggle, then Willow gathered up the blankets and helped Tara with her pack.

"Do we have everything?" Tara asked, slightly annoyed at herself for not doing more to prepare when she could still see.

"Pack, bow, spear, staff, blankets, satchel," Willow said to herself, "that's the lot. Shall we?" Tara felt Willow offer her elbow, and looped her arm through it.

After a hundred metres more of walking along the tunnel, which Willow reported was no more interesting than the part they had already traversed, she and Tara encountered the first junction, more a crossroads as another tunnel intersected with theirs, stretching off as far as Willow could see left and right.

"We should keep on the main tunnel, I think," Willow commented, "it's larger, I think the turn-offs are just to reach more tombs. We're more likely to reach the surface this way."

Tara agreed, feeling little in the way of air currents from the other passageways. They continued on their way, passing more and more passages on either side, and even a couple of stairwells, leading only downwards.

"How big do you think these catacombs are?" Tara wondered.

"Could be pretty expansive," Willow said thoughtfully, "you read the entries in Ember's journal?"

"Uh-huh," Tara replied, "do you know if she did ever go down below the first level of catacombs?"

"I don't think so," Willow said with a shrug Tara felt through their linked arms, "at least, if she did she probably would have written about it somewhere, and I didn't find anything except that other note at the end, about the siege during the Reckoning."

"The first level would be how deep underground, from the monastery?"

"Right below it," Willow said, "mostly cellars and stuff, a few crypts. Assuming the place is built along the same lines as the ones in Kurast. The architecture varies, but the layout is usually pretty similar."

"I think we're deeper down," Tara said, "I mean, I've been a little disorientated since we went underground, but I don't think we've gone upwards enough to be right underneath the monastery, especially with it on the hill. We're probably in one of the lower levels."

"I haven't seen any stairways going up yet," Willow mused, "but this tunnel does kind of look like the main thoroughfare... and if the villagers were supposed to come along here, it would've been built so that they wouldn't get lost. I think this'll probably lead us to the stairway sooner or later. Oh, hey, did you feel that?"

"I felt something," Tara said, frowning to herself, "sort of a... like a breeze, but not..."

"Magical field," Willow said, "the library vaults back at the Order are full of them."

"What does it mean?" Tara asked, slowing her pace.

"Probably nothing," Willow said, "it wasn't recent, I could tell that, I don't think anyone but a mage would've felt a thing. Just goes to show you're special, doesn't it?" Tara grinned despite herself. "It's probably just a relic," Willow went on, seriously, "a lot of catacombs and tombs have them, mostly from having the ground sanctified at some point. If the person doing the sanctification is a holy mage, that can leave a trace that takes hundreds of years to fade."

"What does it do?"

"Demons don't like it," Willow explained, as they resumed their earlier pace, "sacred ground won't stop them outright, but it'll give them something to think about. That's part of the reason people go to the town church when they're in trouble. Of course, usually the church is the strongest building anyway, but being on holy ground helps. Carvers would hesitate to cross the boundary. Stronger demons like goat-men wouldn't care particularly, but in a close fight it could tip the scales. You know, if they don't fight quite as hard as they would normally, it can be enough for them to be driven off."

"It makes sense," Tara supposed, "after all, there is a monastery up there."

"Yeah, although Ember said they didn't have any mages," Willow mused. "Maybe they did centuries ago. Or maybe it's left over from something earlier. Maybe I used to be an older church or something, and the monastery was built on top of the old crypts, and they got expanded into catacombs. Some of the temples in Kurast have more than a dozen different layers of architecture underneath them, from older buildings being destroyed and rebuilt. I think there's another stairwell up ahead."

"Going up?" Tara asked, as Willow picked up their pace.

"Going up," Willow happily confirmed, "and hey, look at this... oh, sorry," she corrected herself sheepishly, "um, the paving stones, they're laid out in a different pattern past the stairwell. That must be deliberate, so you can follow the tunnel either way. Just stay on the path the stones show you, and you can go from the stairs all the way through the catacombs to the village tunnel without getting lost."

"Is there a chamber up ahead?" Tara asked. "I think I can feel lots of space..."

"Can't quite make it out," Willow said, "the next archway's only a few metres, you want to take a look?"

"Well you're the one who'd be taking a look," Tara reminded her with a grin. She tugged gently on Willow's elbow, and together they walked to the archway. Tara had a sense of a great space, maybe a cavern - the air was moving naturally, not confined by tight passageways and low arches.

"What is it?" she asked, when Willow remained silent.

"See for yourself," Willow replied in an odd voice, a combination of surprise and awe. Tara felt Willow touch her hand, giving her the amulet, and wondered what was so interesting that Willow would forego her sight - even if just for a moment - just so that Tara could take a look. When she closed the amulet's chain around her neck, it took her a moment to realise that it was working properly, and that her sense of perspective hadn't been distorted.

The archway she and Willow were standing in opened onto a wide balcony, paved with huge stone tiles, each one two metres across, and bordered on either side by thick, square pillars that stretched up to support a ceiling almost ten metres above the floor. Beyond the balcony was the real surprise - beyond a stone railing decorated with gargoyles and angelic figures, massive pillars descended deep into the earth, and between them lay chasms fifty metres deep, the floors below distant and tiny. With Willow's hand in hers Tara slowly approached the railing, staring out across the stone landscape. To either side of her, barely a metre from where she stood, two of the great pillars loomed, their surfaces carved with ancient representations of gods, angels, heroes and beasts. The carvings ran as far as Tara could see - beyond that they blurred into a soft texture covering the stonework, on every pillar she could make out. At irregular intervals their surfaces were broken by archways from which bridges spanned the distances between them, and here and there supporting beams, great masses of stone, angled out into the ground.

"Gods and goddesses," Tara whispered, "who built this?" She peered to either side, trying to find the edge of the great man-made cavern, but the wall curved around, denying her a clear point of reference. Here and there were more balconies, some connected by stairways to passages inside the pillars. She guessed the whole chamber, if it was circular as the wall suggested, was five hundred metres across - larger than any single structure she had ever seen besides her home. And that had been made of wood, built among the trees that had stood for centuries, while this place had been carved out of solid rock, every stone fashioned and moved into place. The engineering, the craftsmanship, the sheer scale of the construction was staggering. She leaned toward the rail a little, careful not to move too far from Willow, who without her sight was holding on to her arm a little tighter than she had before. The floor, fifty metres down, was decorated with ornate archways and statues of all description. The bases of the pillars were all surrounded by tiny moats - tiny from Tara's vantage point, though she guessed they were each half a metre across - filled with still water, or perhaps, she thought as she peered at the shade and reflection, oil of some sort. There were pits here and there, surrounded by railings and spanned by stepped bridges, full of more of the black liquid. Some of the pits were empty and seemed to stretch down forever, so that Tara expected to see the glow of lava and hear the hissing of the fire hydras that legend said lived at the centre of the world. That was missing, though - the monumental structure was still and silent.

"Not bad, huh?" Willow said wryly. "I bet Ember'll wish she'd found time to check down below the first level of catacombs. She'll go nuts when I tell her." Tara shook her head, then quickly took off the amulet and handed it back to Willow.

"You sure?" Willow asked. "I don't mind being in the dark a little."

"No, I'm fine," Tara said. She felt Willow's arms move, and the slight relaxation in her as her sight returned.

"If I had to guess, I'd say the brothers were a little late in their estimates. This has got to be second century work, the height of the old Empire."

"How could an empire that could build this fall?" Tara wondered.

"Oh, the usual," Willow said with a shrug, "people getting too attached to power, forgetting what they were supposed to be doing with all that wealth and influence. Fighting amongst themselves. Then the mage wars, of course, but the Empire was in decline even before they started. But this has got to be second century work. Gods, I wish we had time to explore it, I'd love to know which Emperor build this. I can't believe no-one knows about this place, there's barely any structures like this in Kurast, and they've been studied so much there're more books written about them than stones used to build them." She gently led Tara back to the archway, and from there to the stairwell, which seemed positively cramped in comparison.

"What was it?" Tara asked. "I mean... it looked like a whole city."

"Maybe it was once," Willow said. "Not underground, but maybe there used to be an Imperial city above us, and this is all that's left."

"All?" Tara asked incredulously.

"The histories say all the Imperial capitals were like that. Twenty miles across, walls as high as cliffs, towers so tall they reached the clouds..." she trailed off with a shrug as they started climbing the stairs. "There's probably some exaggeration at work. Maybe not as much as people generally think, though. But yeah, the Empire built big, tall and deep. They had the best mages working with them too, it's not surprising there's a magical field down here. Probably just keeping the place intact. The weight of those pillars..." she whistled quietly.

"But what was it?" Tara repeated. "It can't just be their version of cellar?"

"Actually, it probably was," Willow replied. "The buildings that survived in Kurast are on that scale. The Zakarum library is in a temple that used to be an Imperial palace, and that's almost three miles wide, thirty storeys tall... it's pretty impressive."

"Wow," Tara breathed. "And the brothers in the monastery just... use it as catacombs?"

"They probably just left it alone," Willow guessed. "Maybe whoever built the monastery used stone from the ruins up above. But there's no way they could've taken stone out of a vault like that. Not without collapsing the whole thing... or maybe the magic holding it together made it too difficult to take apart anyway, so they just left it. I wonder if they've mapped it?"

"They must have," Tara said, "I mean, they'd... surely they wouldn't live up above and just ignore something like that?"

"They might," Willow said vaguely, "they'd know a few levels of it, to use as store rooms and so on, but as for the rest, there's probably no reason for anyone to go down there. I suppose it's not such an amazing thing if you're used to it. I mean, if you father and his father and his father knew there was a big vault beneath the monastery, and no-one really thought about it, you wouldn't either. It's just... there. Heh, when I was a kid we had a sheepdog on the farm that knew something like thirty different words. Dad would call out to it, telling it where to run, where to guide the sheep, and I just figured that's the way things are. And then I went to the Order, and some of the girls I met were born in cities, and had never seen a dog answer to anything except its own name."

"I suppose," Tara allowed. "Actually, I kind of wish we had time to explore it as well. The stonework, and the scale of it all... it's magnificent."

"Maybe we'll come back here," Willow said, "demon infestations come and go. Once Duncraig finds out about this they'll probably form an expeditionary force and hunt down the Carvers, burn out their lairs. In a couple of years' time, this whole place might be safe again, and we'll be able to take a proper look around next time we pass through." She paused. "What happened to you not liking the underground?"

"That vault hardly counts as an enclosed space," Tara said with a wry grin, "I've seen towns smaller than that."

Willow hadn't noticed any change in the light as they climbed the stairwell, but as they neared the top she felt Tara's hand in hers relax its grip, and noticed her steps on the stairs becoming even surer than they had been. She peered up at the doorway at the top of the stairs, noticing its style was far more everyday, more like a building, than the arches of the two floors of further catacombs they had already passed on their way up.

"Daylight?" she asked.

"Yeah," Tara replied, "I can see."

"I don't see any difference," Willow said, "this thing must replace normal vision rather than add to it." They emerged into a stone room decorated with a handful of statues, monks and saints carved in traditional styles. Though Willow couldn't see sunlight or shadows, the tall glass windows lining one wall obviously looked out onto open ground.

"Morning," Tara said, "four hours after sunrise, maybe. I- yipes!"

"What?" Willow asked, alarmed that Tara had started when their gazes met.

"Your eyes," Tara said, overcoming her surprise and peering at Willow, fascinated.

"What?" Willow said again, smiling slightly, out of relief rather than any understanding of what was going on.

"Th-they look like cat's eyes," Tara said, "I mean, proper cat's eyes... vertical slits, the patterns..."

"You're kidding!" Willow protested. Automatically she reached around her neck and undid the amulet's chain. Colour and sunlight returned with a blinding glare, and she squinted for a moment.

"Are you okay?" Tara asked, her arms around Willow protectively.

"Yeah," Willow said quickly, "yeah... just... you know, when you wake up in a dark room and open the shutters and see the sunlight? Like that..." She blinked a few more times until her eyes adjusted to the light. "Now?" she asked, opening her eyes wide for Tara to see.

"Normal," Tara said. "Can I...?" She motioned for the amulet. Willow nodded and handed it to her, watching her eyes closely as she put it on. The instant Tara's hands disappeared behind her neck to join the ends of the chain, the colours in her eyes flowed into a new form, the pupil stretching up and down to form a tall slit, the subtle patterns in each iris shifting, widening, stretching almost from edge to edge of her eyes. It all took barely a second, and when it was done Tara's eyes were still her own, still the marvellous blue Willow saw in her dreams, yet they were as feline as those of a house cat.

"Wow," Willow breathed, "wow, that's... I thought it was just a sensory spell, but this it... I don't even know how that's done, it must be an entirely different branch of magic... some sort of druidic morphic flux, but I've never heard of anything so subtle..."

"How do I look?" Tara joked.

"You look..." Willow hesitated, trying to find the words, "you look... exotic," she finished with an appreciative smile. Tara smiled shyly and took off the amulet again, allowing Willow to study her eyes as they shifted instantly back to their usual human forms.

"Back to plain old me," she said with a lop-sided smile.

"There's nothing plain about you," Willow said, and on a whim she caught Tara around the waist and pulled her close. "You're the woman I love, and your eyes are absolutely... breathtaking," she finished in a whisper, realising just how true that was as she stared into them.

"In fact," she added, "the only reason I even liked the way you looked was that they were still your eyes. Same storm-blue, same deep, soulful gaze... I wouldn't have it any other way."

"I believe you," Tara murmured, with a smile of pure adoration.

"Good," Willow replied firmly, "'cause if you didn't I'd have to tell you over and over how beautiful you are, and make love to you over and over until you believe it. Of course," she added in an undertone, "I might do that anyway."

"And you call me perfect," Tara said, trailing a finger across Willow's cheek. They stayed like that, embracing and smiling at each other, for a long moment, then Tara blinked and glanced at the door on the far side of the room.

"Come on," she said, reluctantly disengaging from Willow, "let's see what we're up against today."

"Right," Willow agreed, though her smile remained firmly on her lips.

The door opened onto a short corridor, with sunlight streaming through an open archway at the end of it. Beyond that was what seemed to be the monastery's central courtyard, with gothic-style buildings on either side, north and south. To the east a row of smaller, more modern buildings backed onto the high stone wall, while to the west the courtyard extended right to the wall, in the centre of which was a gatehouse with a huge wooden doorway, thick and impenetrable. Curtains fluttered in the windows of the buildings, pennants flapped from poles on the walls, but there was not a soul in sight.

"Oh not again," Willow complained, before looking surprised at herself and suppressing her annoyance.

"This isn't like the village," Tara said, "the gate's closed and barred..." Keeping Willow's hand in hers she hurried across the courtyard to the gatehouse, climbing the stairs up to the battlement. She drew up short as she reached the top and looked out over the wall. "Oh damn," she muttered.

Willow stood level with her and looked out at the ground in front of the monastery, where a few dozen bodies, torn and bloody, in stained robes, lay scattered across the road leading to the gate.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Thirty-Seven

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