Return to Hellebore Chapter Thirty-Six


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.

Willow slowly sat down with her back against the parapet. Tara shook herself back to awareness after staring at the bodies for a moment, realised she would be silhouetted against the sky if anything happened to look towards the monastery, and crouched down. She did her best to put the sight of the bodies out of her mind. 'Not now,' she thought, 'later on, then you can be sad for them, be frustrated at the existence of evil, be angry at whatever did this. Not now. Now, think. You're not going to die here, and neither is Willow. That means there's a safe way out. Find it.'

Tara took a deep breath and glanced at Willow. She was staring back across the courtyard, seeing nothing. Tara gently put a hand on her shoulder, which made her start briefly. She glanced at Tara, as if she had been in some private world and was surprised to find anyone sharing it with her, then closed her eyes and laid her head down on Tara's hand.

"What's happening," she said in a small voice, "all this... why is it..." She took a slow breath and turned to Tara. "I-" she began, but as soon as she spoke her voice cracked and she flung her arms around Tara, hugging her fiercely, burying her face in her hair and crying.

Tara automatically soothed her, stroking her hair, her other arm tight and reassuring around her waist. She wanted to tell her everything was alright, that there was no need to fear, but she couldn't lie, so she said the only thing she could.

"I'm here," she whispered, "I've got you... I promise I'll never let go."

"Never?" Willow's voice was that of a child, tiny and frightened by an incomprehensible world.

"Never," Tara repeated. Willow nodded against her shoulder, and her embrace became less desperate, more accepting of comfort than pleading for it.

"Of course, I mean that in the metaphorical sense," Tara said, trying to inject some levity into her voice, and surprisingly succeeding, "it'd be kind of difficult to get around with me wrapped around you all the time." Willow snorted, paused, then giggled.

"I think I'd be willing to put up with a little inconvenience," she said in a wavering voice, which gathered strength as she went on: "and besides, I'd be the envy of all the other sorceresses."

"Before they know it," Tara added, laughing along, "back home they'd be knee deep in sorceresses, all looking for an Amazon of their own." Willow laughed too, and finally relaxed, leaning back against the parapet again.

"Oh..." she said, recovering, "I... I'm sorry, I-"

"Hey," Tara said gently, "remember what you said in the tunnel? I don't need an all-powerful sorceress either. Just you." Willow glanced at her, meeting her gaze, and then took her hand and tenderly kissed the palm.

"So," she said, "we're here... do we get out as fast as we can, or search the place, or... what do we do?"

"I don't think we need to run for it just yet," Tara said, "the gate's solid. I can't imagine a Carver getting through that, can you?"

"No way," Willow said, "I think maybe even their fire magic wouldn't be strong enough. Not without a lot of work, anyway."

"Alright, so we're safe from anything coming through the gate. Do places like this have other entrances?" Willow raised an eyebrow, then frowned in thought.

"Sometimes, a back gate," she said, "we could check, I suppose... but that's usually so people can get out if the gate's attacked, but they've got the tunnel in the catacombs, even if there's just the one that's better than a back gate. You're not thinking of staying here, are you?"

"Not longer than we have to," Tara said, "but I don't think we should leave before we find out what's here. We might find something that'll help us. You think there might be more than one tunnel?"

"There's five villages," Willow said with a shrug. "You're right, we should get our bearings. It's just this place is reminding me of the village... all empty."

"Me too," Tara said, "so the first thing we do is search it and look for any sign at all that any demons have been in here. If we find anything - broken doors, storehouses raided, anything like that - I think we should leave at once. If not, then I think we can take our time, maybe spend the night here and set out again tomorrow."

"Okay," Willow nodded, "okay, it's a plan. Where do we start?"

"Well, we're on the wall," Tara said after a moment's thought, "we might as well check the perimeter. We're pretty high up here, we should be able to get a good view of the countryside as well. Maybe see a route to the river."

They made their way along the wall to the north-west corner. To the south and east, the corners of the monastery were marked by squat, solid stone guardhouses. The other corners, where Willow and Tara stood, and the south-east opposite them, were just wooden platforms set against the walls, enough to give a good vantage point, but little else. Willow looked sadly down from the platform, where a small garden was laid out, vines and vegetables all in rows, in the shadow of a row of old sheds backing onto a stone building.

"That's quite pretty," she said distantly.

"Yeah," Tara agreed quietly. She took Willow's hand and they moved on, along the northern wall. The roof of the monastery's largest building met the wall just beneath the level of the walkway, and continued most of its length. Half-way along there was a large skylight, and Willow peered through it.

"Looks like barracks," she said. "Beds and cupboards... nothing out of place."

"There's a stairwell up ahead," Tara pointed out, "we'll check inside."

"Okay," Willow agreed. She glanced out across the wall, to where a second village lay, two miles from the one they had arrived at. "I've got to start carrying a telescope," she said flatly.

"It's too close to the western village," Tara said, "I don't think it's safe. Same goes for the one further down the south road, the Carvers must've gone past it on their way up towards us. They wouldn't have left it alone, or gone near it if it was defended." Willow nodded.

"So that leaves two?" she asked.

"Uh-huh," Tara said, "out to the east somewhere. If there's a tunnel, we might be able to cover some ground that way without being seen. If the villages look deserted. We'll have to be careful."

The stairwell led down to a small patch of ground up against the bulk of the north-east guardhouse, home to a pair of dilapidated bee hives that seemed to have been long empty. The guardhouse was likewise empty, the sturdy door unlocked, so they entered the barracks by a side door.

Within there was no sign of disturbance. The long hall of beds Willow had looked into was on the first floor, and Tara counted thirty-two beds out of fifty neatly made, the others bare with their sheets and blankets stored away in closets beside them. The occasional book and candle on the bedside tables were the only sign of the former inhabitants.

He lower floor contained kitchens, the stoves cold, the pots and pans all washed and hanging from hooks on the walls. The store rooms nearby were full of supplies, their shelves packed with dried foods, sacks of grain and flour, tins containing spices and seasonings. One was full of heavy sacks and barrels, divided up into five stacks, which Willow guessed were the supplies sent up from the five villages for safe-keeping. There was a ledger on a wooden pedestal just inside the door, and Willow flipped through the pages until she found the receipt of the delivery they had read about in the village's record-book. Lining all the previous pages were thousands of similar entries, deliveries and collections, but only two more lines came after it - flour from the south-west village, and a sack of grain delivered to the south-east, and then the pages were empty.

At the end of the building's central corridor was another stairwell leading down into the catacombs, and opposite it a doorway leading out into an alley between the barracks and the back of the building Willow and Tara had first emerged from. Willow poked her head around the corner, finding the garden she had seen from the wall, then followed Tara back inside. As well as the stairwell they had come up through, they found another, leading straight down rather than circular, and a large room where piles of old books lay, gathering dust.

"Library?" Tara guessed.

"Probably a store room for the library," Willow said, "places like this usually have reading tables in the proper libraries, so the monks can study their texts and make new copies of them. There's nothing here but shelves." She blew a cloud of dust off the spines of a stack of books, shoves haphazardly on a shelf, and sneezed quietly.

"Okay?" Tara asked.

"Yeah," Willow grinned, "but my sense of knowledge-girl-ness is acting up. Disorganised shelves sort of call to me, 'come here, catalogue us.' Not exactly the right time, though."

They walked back into the main courtyard and crossed it, arriving in front of an impressive-looking building fashioned something like a church.

"The old keep," Willow suggested, "I bet the real library's in here." Inside they found a handful of offices, bare and apparently little used, and as Willow had predicted, the library proper. Lit by skylights, the chamber contained rows of books covering the walls of two storeys, with ladders on wheels that ran along brass railings secured to the shelves. Tara glanced at one of the books open on a table, and found it to be a half-finished volume of prayers, with colourful borders and illustrations painstakingly copied from the original sitting on a display stand a few feet away. Beside the open book, a row of pens and ink pots lay, as if the owner had just stepped out for a moment. Tara picked up a pen and studied the tip, noticing that it had been cleaned of ink before it had been left.

"And all the pots are closed," Willow noted, watching Tara, "whoever was doing this didn't run out in a hurry. I mean, if you're racing to defend your home, you don't stop to close your ink pots first, do you? And look at this," she gestured around the library. "Gold leaf on the crosses, and those medallions look like solid silver. If demons had been in here, they'd have torn the place apart. What are we dealing with here, obsessively tidy evil?" Tara stifled a laugh and shrugged.

They left the library - Willow with some reluctance, though Tara suspected she was playing it up for comical effect, to keep both their spirits up. Through a side door they came to another building backing onto the south wall, containing a forge and, behind an iron-bound door that was nonetheless unlocked, a small armoury. Tara ran a speculative eye across the rows of halberds, short swords and crossbows lines up neatly against the walls.

"It looks fully-stocked," she said with a puzzled frown, "they didn't take any weapons?"

"I'm not liking this," Willow said grimly. Tara took her hand reassuringly.

"Do you want to see if we can find the tunnel out?" she asked. Willow shook her head.

"I just mean in general," she explained, "I like things I can understand. Even if they're not good, like Carvers attacking the caravan, at least I can figure out why it happened, what they want, what to do about it. This is just," she shrugged, "none of it makes any sense. Something comes through here, kills the villagers and leaves the villages open for Carvers to wander in, kills the brothers outside the monastery but doesn't come inside... I don't get it."

"I don't either," Tara said gently, "we just have to do our best. And I know the moment all this can be figured out, you will."

"I hope so," Willow said uncertainly.

"I know so," Tara replied. Together they walked along the narrow alley between the library building and the south wall, and came to another small garden, this one just empty soil, apparently waiting for planting. To one side was the back of a circular building, like a low tower, that Tara had noticed when they first looked out over the courtyard.

"What is that?" she wondered.

"The decorations are more religiously significant than on the other buildings," Willow observed, "I'd guess it's where the brothers did their praying."

They entered by a side door and found the interior of the building hollow, just a round space with benches arranged in a circle beneath the low domed roof. Old, thick candles hung in iron rings supported by thin chains from the ceiling, and near the main door a censer hung on a hook. The decorations on the walls were what caught Tara's attention - from within, the building's circular wall was divided by stone columns into flat segments, two occupied with doors, two blank, the other six painted with beautifully detailed representations of fantastic scenes.

"Creation," Willow said, pointing to the wall directly to the right of the main door, which showed light streaming from beneath a shimmering archway, forming mountains and rivers as it flowed out.

"I've seen places like this before," Willow explained, "each panel is part of the history of the world. The edited highlights version," she added with a grin, "otherwise they'd need a few more walls. That one's the Crystal Arch in the centre of heaven. On one side there's all of us, heaven, the world, the burning hells, the whole lot. On the other side there's the Power That Is. According to the Zakarum legend, the gates in the Arch opened to create the world, so that Her power could take material form and shape the world and all the planes around it." She turned to the next panel, where an army of angels was sweeping down out of the sky to meet a rising tide of dark, malformed creatures.

"The Great Conflict," she went on, "in which the Lords of hell collectively lost their temper and waged war on heaven. The Lord of Destruction actually set foot in heaven itself before the Archangel Tyrael led a counterattack that drove the demons back to hell. And then," she turned to the next panel, where an army of men was marching towards a force of demons and monsters.

"The Sin Wars," she said with a grimace, "which is what happened when the Lords of hell lost the Great Conflict. The Lesser Evils decided the Prime Evils weren't capable of leading hell to victory, so they joined forces and exiled them to the mortal realm. Up until then everyone had pretty much ignored us."

"It looks terrible," Tara said quietly. In the background of the painting the sky was black, streaked with blood-red clouds, and the lands and cities in the distance were burning.

"The histories from that time are myths and legends," Willow observed, "but even if half of what they say is pure exaggeration, it was still about as bad as it's possible to get, short of completely destroying Sanctuary and everything living in it. The leaders of the armies of humanity were the first of the Horadrim mages. They learned how to wield magic, and used it to fight back against the Prime Evils and the armies they raised. That's when hybrid demons were created, by the way," she added.

"There's an angel," Tara pointed out, "is it?" Willow nodded.

"Tyrael again," she said, "he defied the command of the Power That Is and joined in the war against the demons here. Some legends say he gave the Horadrim the magic to defeat the three Prime Evils. Of course, some legends say that the Horadrim would've got them anyway, and Tyrael's intervention actually prevented the Prime Evils from being banished properly."

"Which is it?"

"I guess both sides have a point," Willow said with a thoughtful expression, "on the one hand, Tyrael helped the Horadrim end the Sin Wars and bring peace to Sanctuary. On the other hand, the Prime Evils were contained here, not banished back to hell, which is why they rose up again during the Reckoning. The Zann Esu always believed that we'd only be rid of them once we defeated them ourselves, without being helped."

"If you want something done properly, do it yourself?" Tara quipped.

"Yeah, pretty much," Willow laughed, "though I think the old Esu witches were given to more dramatic language. All about prophecy and destiny, but that's what it boils down to. Anyway, after the Sin Wars, we have... a door." She skipped the section of wall containing the side door, and moved on to the next, which showed a great city of temples and towers, basking under the setting sun.

"We're probably supposed to ignore the door," she went on, "unless it's some weird metaphor or something. That's the old Empire before it went into decline. The Sin Wars united all the peoples of Sanctuary, and they got a long way before it all degenerated into politics and civil wars, and we ended up back at the familiar, frustrating level we're at now. There was probably one of those temples on this very spot back then."

"And now all that's left is the catacombs," Tara mused.

"Yeah," Willow nodded, "this is why the Vizjerei philosophers call free will a two-edged sword. We're free to achieve anything we want, and free to make a mess of it too. Speaking of making a mess," she turned to face the fifth panel, which showed towers standing over a bleak landscape, and the sky torn by fire and lightning.

"The Mage Wars," Willow said, "the Vizjerei clan split and almost destroyed itself. This was about the time the Zann Esu formed, and went into self-imposed exile. You can see why."

"What were they fighting over?"

"There were two brothers," Willow explained, "Horazon and Bartuc, the most powerful of the Vizjerei of the time, maybe the most powerful of all time. Both of them were worried that the Sin Wars hadn't finished properly, and that they'd have to face the Prime Evils again. Horazon wanted to use force to bind lesser demons to his will, so he could study them and find out how to defeat them, and eventually how to defeat the Prime Evils. He built a huge fortress called the Arcane Sanctuary, which was supposed to exist partly in the world, and partly in the ethereal planes. He did experiments there, summoning demons and binding them, testing out ways of controlling and banishing them.

"Bartuc got impatient, and according to some of the legends, envious of his brother's achievements, as Horazon never let him enter the Arcane Sanctuary. He decided that, seeing as the Lesser Evils had exiled the Prime Evils, it would be easier to make an alliance with them."

"And the demons got control of him?" Tara guessed.

"More or less," Willow said, "but they were manipulating Horazon as well, somehow. Both of them rallied their supporters and the Vizjerei started fighting each other... not really their finest hour, collectively. The Esu witches went into exile, and none of the other clans were strong enough to get involved without getting wiped out. All the Vizjerei factions accused each other of being in league with demons, most of the panicked and started haphazard research into summoning and banishing and got corrupted themselves... the whole clan structure more or less collapsed. Meanwhile everyone who wasn't a mage was busy just trying like hell to stay alive, what with magic flying around as the factions tried to destroy each other."

"How did it end?" Tara asked.

"Horazon killed Bartuc," Willow said. "Everyone thought Bartuc would win, he had more power, he had huge armies of demons following him, and Horazon's allies were deserting him. Bartuc used his power to enter the Arcane Sanctuary, and he and Horazon fought. In the end, Bartuc was dead, and Horazon vanished. The surviving Vizjerei picked themselves up and started again, with new laws forbidding any summoning of demons, for any reason. That's when they created the Viz-Jaq'taar order, the Mage Slayers, to enforce the laws."

"Are they mages as well?"

"No," Willow said, "no-one knows that much about them, but supposedly they don't use any magic at all, so they're impossible to corrupt. They're supposed to have developed other skills that let them defeat mages, though they're pretty secretive about what they are." Together they turned to the next panel, which was largely blank, with only a few patches of detail, and sketched lines extending out from those.

"Not finished yet," Willow observed quietly, "these sorts of paintings are usually done a tiny little bit at a time, they take years to complete. I guess one day someone'll finish this one."

"What's it supposed to be?"

"The Reckoning," Willow said, pointing to two dark outlines, "look, those must be two of the Prime Evils. The third one's just being sketched in, you can see some of the lines." She shivered looking at the painting. The vaguely-drawn figures had only a few patches of detail on them, including their eyes, so that they glared hatefully out of half-finished faces.

"Diablo, Lord of Terror," Willow said, indicating the figure on the left, which was sketched as being bulky and bestial. One half of a pair of curved horns had been painted, and a third horn on its forehead, straight and glowing, had only a few details painted onto it, and was largely just a blotch of bright red. Tara took in the vague shapes of claws and spines.

"And the others?" she asked. Willow pointed to the other clear figure, on the right, which was thinner and taller then the first. Four horns adorned its narrow, angular head, two pointing up, two downward and curling around the thin jaw. The eyes and forehead had been painted in, showing yellow eyes brooding under pale, sickly-looking skin covering the brows. One arm was almost complete, showing more of the unearthly skin tone, as well as long, bony talons ending in razor-sharp nails.

"That's probably Mephisto," Willow guessed, "the Lord of Hatred. He corrupted the leaders of the Zakarum church, and nearly destroyed it. The church is still rebuilding. Luckily - if you can call it that - all the corrupt members were killed during the fighting, so what's left of them aren't a danger." She shook her head. "Hell of a way to reform the system. That last one must be Baal, then. Lord of Destruction."

The third figure, looming over the other two, was defined only in the vaguest terms, a few sketched lines here and there to mark the position of head and shoulders. Only the eyes had been painted, a pair of black slits with tiny trails of blue and grey in them, like an oil slick.

"Why do they all have the eyes painted?" Tara wondered. "It's kind of creepy."

"It is, isn't it?" Willow agreed, peering at the work in progress. "I don't know if it's the same down here, but further north they always start paintings of religious figures - angels and demons - with the eyes. I'm not sure why, it's just the way it's always been done. Superstition." Tara glanced at Willow slyly.

"And your theory?" she asked.

"What makes you think I have a theory?" Willow replied. Tara raised an eyebrow. "Okay, yes, well, I think it's to do with depicting figures of supernatural power. The eyes are the link between an angel or a demon's true form, which they inhabit in heaven or hell respectively, and their physical form which they assume when they're summoned or manifested here in Sanctuary. I think the reason for painting the eyes first is that otherwise you're depicting a supernatural form without a link to its true self, which might be viewed as blasphemous, or disrespectful or something."

"Interesting," Tara observed.

"That's not based on solid evidence," Willow cautioned, "just, you know, guessing. I don't like not knowing the answers to things, so even if I don't have a clue, I like to try to find a theory that fits the facts, even if it is just guesswork."

"I've noticed that about you," Tara said with a smile. "Actually, when I draw people the first part I do in detail is the eyes."


"It's an old habit," Tara went on, "I used to think if I could get the eyes right, everything else would just sort of fall into place." She shrugged. "It seems to work."

"It does," Willow agreed.

"Why are there two blank walls?" Tara wondered.

"I guess, in case any more world-changing events happen, and they need space to paint them."

"Does that mean," Tara glanced at the various panels, "the history of the world is three-quarters over?"

"Not necessarily," Willow said, wandering around the worship hall, inspecting various details. "The Empire rose to power less than a hundred years after the end of the Sin Wars, and the Mage Wars happened right afterward the fall of the Empire. Then it was centuries until the Reckoning. On an earth-shaking global scale, nothing much happened between them, so no painting. Then again," she shrugged, "maybe if they get two more paintings done and then, I don't know, a new sun appears, or there's a huge flood or something, they'll just start on a new set of walls. They did that in Kurast, you know. The Zakarum church's baptistery doors were cast bronze with a dozen panels on each one, all showing the church's history. Holy wars, mainly," she added with a scowl. "Once it was finished, they waited until they'd accumulated enough extra history, and cast up a new set of doors for the cloister outside. Of course the whole place was demolished during the Reckoning. I'm not sure if they're rebuilding it now, or trying something different."

She walked from painting to painting, studying them vaguely as she talked.

"Of course, it's possible that this Order really does think there's only two great events left in the whole history of the world," she went on. "A lot of the Zakarum sects have fairly elaborate prophetic writings. Some more accurate than others, of course - the monks of Khanduras are said to have predicted the Mage Wars. Then again, there's a sect way up-river in Kehjistan that used to believe the world was going to end in fifty years, two hundred years ago. Ember told me about them. They had this strict warrior culture, preparing for the battle at the end of the world, and then it didn't happen."

"What did they do?"

"Well, all things considered, I suppose they took it fairly well," Willow said. "They're farmers now. The central coven of the Zakarum believe that in the end the Crystal Arch will open again, and the Power That Is will bring all the faithful to Herself. Most demons believe that one day the Great Conflict will resume, and they'll storm heaven and get through the Arch, and become the Power themselves. Armageddon, they call it. Do Amazons have any prophecies?"

"Not really," Tara replied, "not fate-of-the-world kinds of prophecies. Zerae gives visions now and then, but they're vague. They're all written down by her priests and priestesses. Some of them are clear, once you know what it is they're talking about, the ones that have already happened. The priests study all the unfulfilled prophecies, and all the history they can get their hands on, trying to figure out what they might mean. None of them have ever been about the ultimate end of the world, though. They're just, you know, enemies coming, times of peace and prosperity, heroes showing up in times of danger."

"The Zann Esu Oracles are like that," Willow nodded, "they're recording prophecies all the time, but only the really big ones are solid enough to plan for. They saw the Reckoning coming centuries away, but hey, all three Prime Evils rising at once. That sort of thing probably stands out pretty plainly on the fortune-telling horizon, or however they see things."

"What do they foresee now?" Tara wondered.

"Oh, the usual," Willow shrugged, "there's still evil in the world, so the Zann Esu are still needed. Nothing so solid as the Reckoning, just, you know, general evil. Like we're stuck in the middle of," she added with a pout. "Where it's all going, they're not sure. Supposedly they see bits and pieces of everything, but there's apparently a lot of history happening, so it's not easy to sort it all out." She paused, and glanced at Tara. "What do you think? Just you personally, I mean?" Tara shrugged and put an arm around Willow's waist.

"I think we make our own fate," she said. "I think there's tides and forces at work that can move history in ways that can be foreseen, but that doesn't mean things have to go that way. If you stand against the tide... well, probably you'll end up being carried along by it," she grinned, "but, you know, maybe in a slightly different direction than if you'd just given in to it. Or maybe you'll change everything." She looked at Willow, who was smiling at her. "What about you?"

"Oh," Willow said, thinking, "well... I never really thought about prophecy and fate, apart from in the theoretical sense. I mean, no-one's ever told me," she adopted a deep voice, "'You, Willow, shall do so-and-so at this time, and such-and-such will happen,' so I never really gave it much thought," she finished in her own voice. She cocked her head as a thought occurred to her.

"Than again," she went on, "that house you told me about down on the edge of the lake? Waking up together in the sunlight, bathing in the lake, picnics in the gardens, making love by the fire..." She grinned at Tara. "That's a future I can believe in." Tara returned her smile, and gently touched their lips together.

"Me too," she whispered. After a moment simply enjoying each other's presence, Tara gave Willow's waist a squeeze and looked around.

"Are we done here?"

Willow looked around here and there, looking for anything significant. She had half-turned towards the main door when she noticed something, and peered at the floor.


"There's a piece missing," Willow said, crouching down. The centre of the hall, which all the benches faced, featured a mosaic of angels circling the Crystal Arch, and in amongst the miniscule coloured tiles were two dozen golden medallions, each set solidly in the floor. Willow ran her finger along the edge of a vacant indentation, where a single one of the medallions was missing.

"The demons did get in here?" Tara asked.

"I don't know," Willow said slowly, "it's... I mean, obviously someone's taken the gold, you can see here where the tiles on the edge are chipped. Probably used a knife to pry it loose, but... well, why stop at one?" She gestured around. "There's plenty more, and none of them have been touched." She glanced upward. "And that cross up there looks gold-plated, and all you'd have to do to get it would be drag one of these benches over and stand on top of it." She stood up and inspected the hanging ornament above them. "It's not even melded with the chain it's on, it's just hanging on a hook."

"Not a demon then," Tara mused, "but someone has been in here."

"Yeah," Willow said with a frown. She and Tara went through the hall's front door, returning to the main courtyard. Tara glanced around, making a note of the buildings they had already searched.

"Just storerooms and sheds," she said vaguely, "and those rooms at the end. They look newer than the rest of the buildings." Willow followed her gaze to the small one-storey buildings up against the eastern wall.

"I've seen that kind of thing before," she said, "some of these monasteries and temples get a lot of scholars passing through, studying the old texts and so on. The more tolerant Orders put them up in little apartments of their own, rather than make them live with the monks or priests or whoever maintains the place. Monks are usually up an hour before dawn to pray and stuff like that, and scholars value their sleep."

"A scholar," Tara said thoughtfully, "maybe a mage... with magic the brothers didn't know about and couldn't fight?"

"Someone who might want something other than just to loot the place," Willow added. Tara returned her spear to its place on her back, and readied her bow, while Willow aimed her staff at the silent buildings. Together they walked closer, keeping close to each other. They reached the doorway leading in to the apartments without any sign of life from within.

"We're not being paranoid, are we?" Willow asked quietly.

"Normally," Tara replied, "or after three days of being chased by demons and finding deserted villages?"

"Good point," Willow conceded.

"I don't sense anything inside," Tara said, "but we shouldn't take any chances." Willow nodded.

"Stay beside me," she said, laying her free hand on Tara's shoulder. A fine blue mist enveloped both of them. "So long as we're in physical contact I can keep us both shielded," Willow went on, "it'll stop and arrow or a sword. If there's magic I'll increase the chill, it might be a bit disorienting but it should hold."

"Okay," Tara said, "ready?"

"Ready," Willow confirmed.

There were four separate apartments inside, and the first three were empty, containing nothing more than a bare wooden bed, a trunk of sheets, and a table and chair positioned underneath trapdoors in the ceiling, to let the light in. Willow and Tara edged along the corridor to the final door.

"Either this is it," Willow murmured, "or we're making fools of ourselves."

"If we are," Tara suggested, "at least there's no-one here to see us."

"True," Willow said. Tara held up her bow hand, with three fingers raised. She counted down, and together she and Willow rounded the edge of the door, her arrow and Willow's staff pointed into the room beyond.

It was empty, but had obviously been occupied. Books lay scattered across the bed and floor, most of them open, some with pages torn out and spread out in seemingly random patterns across the floorboards. A pile of tangled blankets in the corner indicated where the previous occupant might have slept. The ceiling trapdoor was open, with a ladder leaning against it, and the sunlight shone down on the table. More books were piled high on it, as well as papers and charts, and a single volume lay open next to a fallen pen and inkwell, which had stained the papers beneath and dripped onto the floor. There was also a black rod, like a sceptre, resting against the chair, and Willow froze when she saw it.

"What?" asked Tara in a whisper, her eyes darting around the room, taking everything in.

"That rod," Willow said in a hoarse voice, "don't touch it. Don't even go near it." She stepped around Tara and held her staff in both hands, as if she meant to strike someone with it.

"Willow?" Tara asked.

"Stay back," Willow warned, "I have to destroy it."

"Willow," Tara said again, concern in her voice. Willow glanced back at her.

"It's all right," she said, "I'm okay, but I have to do this." Tara studied Willow's features, looking for an explanation for her sudden odd behaviour. She saw none, but was reassured by what she did see - her Willow. She nodded, and Willow turned back to the table, readying her staff.

She whispered beneath her breath, a strange language that Tara only caught a few syllables of, and didn't understand at all. The colour and grain of her staff faded, the wood seemingly turning to something like metal, with hints of a dark, rough blackness beneath it. Willow braced herself, and without warning swung her staff. It met the rod half-way along its length, and with a great crack shattered it. Willow jumped back as the end of her swing caught the chair and sent it crashing into the wall.

"Willow?" Tara asked urgently.

"I'm okay," Willow said automatically. She turned back to Tara, and took two steps to stand against her, her free arm going around her waist and her head resting on her shoulder. "I'm okay."

"We should check the roof," Tara suggested gently. Willow nodded against her shoulder, then steeled herself and stood ready again, staff in hand. She let Tara climb the ladder first, so she could keep a hand on her ankle as she climbed up after her, forming a new chill armour around them both. Tara noticed it was a great deal stronger than the one she had cast before, but she could tell just by the tension she saw in Willow's body how anxious the sight of the sceptre had made her. She was curious, but knew Willow would tell her when they had time.

The trapdoor led onto the roof, which was just a step down from the top of the eastern wall, lower than the other three walls of the monastery, as the ground dropped sharply away beneath it, making it impossible to approach from outside. Tara looked around, straining her senses, but she found no trace of a presence.

"No," Willow said, "he has to be here somewhere."

"Who?" Tara asked, her eyes scanning the monastery buildings.

"The man who used that rod," Willow insisted, "anyone who would use something like that would never give it up, he couldn't! They bond with the wielder, the only way to be free of it would be..." she trailed off, and slowly walked to the parapet, leaning cautiously over.

"There he is," she said quietly. Tara looked also, and saw a mangled, broken figure on the rocks far below.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Thirty-Eight

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