Author: Chris Cook
Willow felt Tara's arm go around her shoulders, and she instinctively leant into the embrace, relief and dismay draining all the strength from her body.
"Are you sure he was the one?" Tara asked gently. Willow nodded.
"I can see it," she said, "the power from the rod, it's... it's like a stain. He was the one who used it."
"We shouldn't let our guard down," Tara warned, "but I don't think there's anyone else in the monastery." She paused, and Willow sensed her patience silencing the questions she wanted to ask. She sat down wearily, with Tara kneeling at her side, one arm around her shoulders, the other on her waist.
"It was a rod of command," she explained, "they're... very powerful demons create them for their servants. Using it on someone is... it strips the soul away from a person's life. You're alive, but not really alive, not a, a spiritual life anymore. The wielder can command anything, anything at all, and you can't disobey."
"It could have been used on the whole village?" Tara asked quietly. "To make them leave the gates open, let the Carvers in?" Willow nodded again.
"There wouldn't have been any way they could have fought it," she said bleakly. "A mage might have a chance, but... farmers and shopkeepers, no. The brothers here, too."
"Do you think Shadai created it?"
"I can't be sure," Willow said warily, "no-one knows enough about the rods to identify their creator, just from looking at them. But..." she sighed. "I wouldn't put my money on another demon. Not many are strong enough to make them, the rod is a massive concentration of demonic energy. Interfering with a living soul is almost impossible, even for a Lord of hell. One of the books I read once said it takes a demon a thousand years and a day to create a rod of command."
"But it's gone now?" Tara asked. "The one he used," she added, inclining her head towards the wall.
"Destroyed," Willow said firmly, "the Zann Esu developed spells for each of the three elements to break the magic in demonic weapons. Lightning works best, but cold is good enough. Ember said it's tricky to do with fire." She shrugged. "My staff probably helped, too," she admitted with a weak smile.
"Are you okay?" Tara asked, holding her closer.
"Yeah," Willow said, laying her hand over Tara's forearm reassuringly, "yeah, it was just a bit of a shock, that's all. I mean, we're - sorceresses - we're trained to recognise a rod if we see it, do the spell to break it, but... well, it's been over five hundred years since anyone's even seen one. I guess I never really expected to see one. I could've done without it, actually," she added with a wry laugh.
"Do you want something to eat?" Tara asked. "There were some dried goods in the store rooms that won't have spoiled." Willow paused and considered.
"You know," she said with a shrug, "that doesn't sound too bad. You'd think all this would kind of put a girl off her appetite, wouldn't you?"
"Just because the whole world's out to get us doesn't mean we can't snack," Tara replied with a straight face, managing to get a genuine laugh out of Willow.
"Let's go," she said, stroking Tara's arm, "we'll grab whatever looks good, then we should get back here and see what our late friend has been writing."
"You don't want to wait a while?" Tara asked. "I don't think there's any immediate hurry."
"Nah, I'll be fine," Willow said, as both stood. "Besides, you know me. I'd sooner get stuck into a problem than sit around worrying about it."
"Even when it's an icky demon-infestation problem?" Tara asked with a lop-sided grin.
"I'm incorrigible," Willow replied, taking her hand.
"Well I knew that," Tara said, raising an eyebrow.
"Okay," Willow said, squaring her shoulders as she and Tara entered the corridor outside the apartments again, "let's see what we can see."
"Should we do this the same way as we did with Hydris' room?" Tara asked.
"Pretty much," Willow nodded, pausing momentarily at the doorway before stepping through, "don't touch anything weird-looking, or anything you don't recognise, don't read anything you can't understand..." She shot Tara an amused look. "We're kind of getting experienced at this, aren't we?"
"Evil mage clean-up crew," Tara smiled, "it's a dirty job..." She glanced around the room, her gaze drawn to the fragments of the rod left scattered across the far side of it. "Is that safe?"
"Oh, yeah," Willow said, clearing a few books off the bed to create enough space to sit down. "They're made out of common materials, as a vessel for the demonic magic. Once the magic's gone they revert back to whatever they were made of." She leaned over and picked up a fragment that had landed by the bed. "Huh. Wood," she noted, tossing it over her shoulder.
Tara picked up the chair Willow's staff had knocked over and righted it, sitting in front of the cluttered table. She carefully tilted the inkwell back onto its base without spilling any more ink, and tested the damp papers it had stained.
"I don't think this is more than a few hours old," she said. Willow looked up, surprised.
"He was still alive while we were down in the catacombs?" she wondered.
"Do you think he knew we were coming?" Tara asked with a frown.
"Maybe," Willow admitted with a shrug, "it's hard to tell. Depending on how subservient a mage becomes to a demon, he can develop all sorts of powers. He can't have been that dominated, if he was able to kill himself. Or maybe he really was insane. Demonic power has been known to cause madness sometimes, true madness, I mean, not just the demons-are-good sort of madness. Some scholars think that an insane mind is impossible for demons to properly control. It's all just theory, there's no mortal magic that works like demonic magic, and it doesn't do much good asking a demon how they do it, they're not known for giving honest answers. Hello..." she finished, fishing among the books scattered on the bed.
"Look at this," she said, holding up a medallion, "it's the missing one from the floor of that hall." She peered at it, reading the tiny markings on it.
"One more mystery solved," Tara noted.
"Yeah," Willow said, "but another one to take its place. Why take this, and not one of the others? It's not magical." She turned it over, reading the inscription. "In fact, it's not even relevant."
"What does it say?" Tara asked, turning around in the chair to face Willow.
"'Noble warriors of light, swords raised, in flight,'" she read, "it's part of an old poem about the angels going out to meet the demon armies during the Great Conflict. I didn't read the others, but I wouldn't be surprised if each of the medallions in the floor had a line of the poem. I've seen some designs along those lines in churches and temples. But why would he have taken this particular medallion? Why not the central one, that was bigger, and I got the impression it may have had a tiny bit of holy magic in it. This is just an expensive trinket." She frowned. "I mean, if it had been inscribed with something describing the demons, then maybe it would have some significance... though I'm not sure what."
"Maybe he just needed any one of the medallions?" Tara suggested. "To do a spell on it? Is gold useful in spells?"
"A bit, if you use fire magic," Willow replied, "not as much as bronze, in most cases. If that's right, whatever he was going to do he hadn't done it yet. I can't see even a trace of magic in this... unless it's very, very subtle, and you wouldn't think someone carrying around a rod of control would be that interested in subtlety." She shrugged, and flipped the medallion in the air, catching it and dropping it into a pouch on her belt. "When we get to Duncraig I'll buy some potions and do a full set of detection spells on it, just in case. Probably a waste of time, but you never know." Tara nodded absently and turned back to the table.
"This looks like a diary," she said, reading the spidery writing covering half the page, ending in an illegible scrawl. "It's dated yesterday." Willow put aside the book she had picked up and went to look over Tara's shoulder.
"'My Mistress is coming,'" Tara read, "'tomorrow at noon she comes and she will kill me.'"
"That's today," Willow said with a worried frown.
"It's well past noon," Tara said, "his Mistress? Do you think...?"
"Shadai," Willow said flatly.
"It is possible she was going to force him to summon her?" Tara wondered. "He knew what was going to happen, and knew she'd kill him after the summoning?"
"It could be," Willow said, "if he was in contact with her, he might have glimpsed bits and pieces of her thoughts."
"When she was summoned before, she killed the mage who did it," Tara reminded Willow, who nodded.
"Yeah," she agreed, "yeah, a demon of her power would practically drain any mage who summoned her. He'd be useless to her for days until he recovered... she'd probably consider him a liability more than a servant. Plus there's the whole thing with demons just enjoying killing for its own sake." Tara nodded grimly, and returned her attention to the page.
"'I know what I must do,'" she read, "'just this and I will be free of her at last. I will be free of everything. I have given her pain today, and she feeds on it. She gorges and ignores my thoughts for now. I have this one chance. May the gods forgive my soul and let me find oblivion.' Well, that seems to explain what happened."
"We were lucky," Willow said, leaning against the chair with a hand on Tara's shoulder, "gods, the whole world was lucky..."
"Do you think he could have summoned her, if he hadn't died?" Tara asked. "The way you've talked about it, he'd have had to be an extraordinary mage to do it, wouldn't he?"
"He would," Willow said, the tiredness disappearing from her voice as she latched onto Tara's train of thought and followed it, "he might have been. It's difficult to tell once a person's dead. Magic is in the soul as well as the body. Then again, I'm naturally predisposed to cold magic. There's a theory that some people are predisposed the same way towards demonic magic. In whatever discipline he studied openly, he might have been nothing special, but doing a summoning spell... I didn't get the impression Hydris was that powerful, for that matter, but he tried to summon Shadai, well enough that I could hear her voice for a second. I just don't know." Tara stroked the back of her hand.
"Maybe we owe that man out there our lives," Willow said softly. "He wielded the rod of command, let all those people die... and then he killed himself, and saved us."
"The way he writes, it doesn't sound like he had altruistic motives in mind," Tara commented, "it's more like serving her was a living hell."
"Well, yeah, there is that," Willow nodded, taking a deep breath and steadying herself. "Demons are generally only cooperative as long as they need to be to overpower their summoner. After that... feeding off his pain sounds about right. Jumping off the wall probably would seem like the best option." She and Tara shared a bleak look, then Tara returned her attention to the diary, flipping back through the pages. She gave up after a moment and opened the book to its first page.
"Beginning of the year," she said, as Willow gave her shoulder a squeeze and went back to searching through the other books and papers. "According to this he was in Namon back then."
"North of here, isn't it?" Willow asked.
"Along the river Marien from Duncraig," Tara replied, "that's where the ambassadors were discussing making another detour. Kert's map made it look like a fairly prominent town, the same size as Sorenstad. He lived there..." she read on silently. "He was part of something called the Order of Lightshapers?"
"Oh, yeah," Willow said, her brow furrowing in concentration, "I know that one, we learned all the mage clans and their orders... gods, that was ages ago, let me think... they're part of the Ennead clan, I think. They mostly stay in Kurast... no, I remember, the Lightshapers, they're wanderers, they travel to cities and towns that the clan hasn't had contact with before, stay there until they've learned all they can, then up and move somewhere else."
"What are the Ennead like?" Tara asked, skimming through the text at the same time.
"Pretty decent as mage clans go," Willow said, "not that powerful in military terms, but big on knowledge. They've spent most of their history... well, basically learning and staying out of everyone's way. There's nine orders in the clan, one for each of the nine planets in the sky. The Lightshapers... if I'm remembering this right, it's been ages since I studied clan history, but it fits with them being out here, not back in Kurast... the Lightshapers are supposedly linked to the planet Lorelei, which is the wanderer."
"Which is that?" Tara asked, looking up.
"Her orbit is hugely erratic," Willow explained, "depending on the time, she could be anywhere between the sunward side of Domina and Amica - that's the pair sunwards of us - to the starward side of the Triad, three planets out from Sanctuary."
"Oh, we call that one Zerae," Tara offered.
"After your goddess?"
"Yes. All of the 'old worlds', the ones our priests could see centuries ago, without powerful telescopes, are attached to one of our gods. Zerae travels all over the skies so she can check up on all her devotees, but she always returns to be near her husband Hefaetrus. That's the closest world to the sun."
"We didn't have telescopes handy where I grew up," Willow said, "when I went to the Order I learned all the planets according to the Horadrim cycles. Anyway, Lorelei - Zerae - is the wanderer, and the Lightshapers are modelled after her nature, so they travel around a lot. Does it say anything about them?" Tara returned to her study of the diary.
"He - I don't see anywhere where it says his name - he seemed to be ostracised from the others of his order. Or perhaps he just thought he was... 'they deny me my rightful place among the shaper-magi'... 'they should have consulted me before making such a decision,' something about exchanging knowledge with a Vizjerei mage." She read bits and pieces over the course of a few pages. "He seems to have thought all his fellow mages were only interested in ancient history... ah, here: 'dusty old fools with their dusty old books.'"
"And he was more ambitious?" Willow guessed. "I wonder how he ended up in the Ennead, it doesn't sound like he'd have been their type. I'm not sure how they choose their apprentices, the Zann Esu really haven't dealt with them that much."
"Here's something," Tara noted, "have you ever heard of a book called the Black Tome?"
"Black Tome?" Willow said to herself. "There's been a couple of books called that... the Order's actually got one in the vault libraries supposedly written by a servant of Azmodan, one of the Lesser Evils. What does he write about it?"
"Um, 'the paths have been revealed to me, in the pages of this tome my destiny is charted'... he kind of goes on like that for a bit. It sounds like he found it, and thought it would lead him to something important."
"Yeah, demons and insanity," Willow muttered darkly, "if it was important to him, maybe it's around here somewhere... I don't suppose there's a description?" She got up off the bed and started picking up the books scattered across the floor, checking their spines.
"I don't see anything like that," Tara said, "just references to the secrets in it... spells, sources of power..."
"This might be it," Willow said, "it's black, at least." She held up a book bound in cracked black leather.
"Might it be dangerous?" Tara wondered.
"I don't think so," Willow said, sitting back down with it, "there's very few books powerful enough to be dangerous without help. You have to read their spells aloud, or pour blood on the pages, stuff like that. I can't feel anything that powerful in here." She dusted off the black cover and studied it.
"No title," she observed, "let's see..." She opened it and leafed through a few pages. "Oh, I think I've heard of this. There was a Black Tome found briefly during the Reckoning, and then lost again somewhere in Khanduras. If this is it, it's a record of the places of power for all the significant demonic mages in the last few hundred years. I guess that makes sense, if you were insane and wanted to get involved in demonology, that'd be a pretty useful find."
"What should we do with it?" Tara asked. Willow looked up and thought for a moment.
"I think we should take it with us," she said, "one, it could be useful to figure out what was going on here, and two, if we get this to the Zann Esu it'll help track down a lot of potentially dangerous artefacts and so on." She leafed through the pages. "Oh, gods, that's ugly. Why would anyone worship that?" She looked up again. "It doesn't say what, specifically, he was interested in, does it?" Tara turned back and searched through the next few pages.
"He went on a journey," she said, "on a boat... left his order, went downriver and then on a merchant ship bound form Lut Gholein... but he got off before it reached there. Somewhere in the Tamoe mountains..."
"The Kingsport-Lut Gholein shipping lines run off the coast of the southern Tamoe ranges," Willow offered.
"'The living darkness guides my footsteps,'" Tara read, "'I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that tomorrow I shall cross the threshold of the broken circle, and the power of the storm casters will be mine.' What does that mean?"
"He was going to summon a storm caster," Willow said, snapping her fingers as the pieces fell into place, "they're a kind of creature created by one of the factions during the Mage Wars, and then they all got cast into hell after they turned on their creators."
"Why would anyone want one?"
"For a mage jealous of his fellow mages, and not above using demonic forces to get what he wanted, it'd be tempting," Willow explained, checking books and piling them beside the bed as she searched for something. "Storm casters were created to disable enemy mages, they can latch onto any mage and drain his power. The mages who created them made them a bit too smart though, and they learned to feed off the magic that was supposed to be keeping them under control. If this guy thought he could summon one back from hell and control it, maybe he was going to use it to seize control of his order."
"Using the rod of command to control it?" Tara wondered.
"No," Willow said, "no, it wouldn't work on a demon, even an artificial one like a storm caster. Besides, if he had a rod, he wouldn't have needed anything else to help him." She sat back on her heels and looked around. "I don't see any texts on storm casters, not even anything that might be vaguely relevant to them. What does he say next?"
"Lots of stuff about the broken circle," Tara replied.
"A place where it's easier to summon," Willow interjected, "there's a few hidden here and there."
"There's records of spells and rituals he did, you might want to look over them later... some of this definitely falls into the 'don't read out loud' category," she added, with a wry grin over her shoulder at Willow.
"You know, I don't think he got his storm caster," Willow frowned, "it doesn't fit. I don't think there's any way one of them could create a rod of command, no matter how much power it soaked up, rods need pure demonic energy..."
"'My life is over,'" Tara read out, "'I cannot say how I erred, but my trap has snared a prey far greater than I could control. How could this happen? It is impossible, yet I reached her, and now she holds me in her palm, and drives me onward.'" Willow stood and came up behind Tara again, looking over her shoulder.
"It's her," she whispered, "he made contact with Shadai."
"By accident?" Tara asked.
"Like he said, it should be impossible," Willow replied, "but if it happened... I'm starting to see how this all comes together. He went to summon a minor demon, and somehow made contact with Shadai instead. She made him serve her, created the rod for him so he'd be able to do her will... and made him come here. The Tamoe ranges are a long way away..." she stared off into space. "He was practically heading right for me. And he must've commanded the goat-men and the other demons here-"
"I thought you said a rod wouldn't work on demons?" Tara asked.
"He wouldn't need it," Willow replied, "they'd have seen him as being under her command, and obeyed him. Hybrids are almost incapable of defying true demons, even if they're working through a mortal servant."
"So he came here," Tara summarised, "with the goat-men following him? Or here already?"
"Maybe a few were already around," Willow guessed, "and he could've gathered more as he travelled."
"He killed everyone in the monastery and the villages," Tara went on, "and then... stayed here researching something, while the goat-men went out to look for us?"
"Well, me," Willow corrected.
"Us," Tara insisted, "nothing is getting to you without facing me." She looked up and Willow and gave her hand a protective squeeze. Willow opened her mouth to say something, but couldn't.
"So," Tara resumed, "the plan was to bring us here... capture us, or maybe just drive us here, for the mage to command with his rod. And then, summon Shadai?"
She might've expected me to attack her the same way I did before," Willow guessed, holding Tara's hand tight, "and then she'd defeat me, gain my power... and there'd be a major demon loose with elemental magic."
"Only her plan failed," Tara pointed out. "Her servant's dead, the rod's been destroyed, there's no-one left to summon her."
"We were lucky," Willow said again.
"We'd have found a way," Tara said, "even if things had gone differently. I promise you Willow, I would not have let that happen to you. We'd have found a way to escape." Willow sighed, and at Tara's urging sat gently on her lap.
"Willow," she said softly, "there's a single rule at the core of all Amazon belief. I love you completely, and I know you love me just as much. That means that together we can defy any force set against us. All we need to do is believe, completely believe, in our love. I do, Willow. Amazon lore says that love like ours can defy armies, demons, even gods. I truly believe that."
"I..." Willow started, her voice trembling, "I do too... gods know everything I've ever learned goes against it, a-and says this is just, just wishful thinking, in the face of the kind of power a demon like Shadai can wield... but I believe you." She looked at Tara, her eyes full of tears. "Why is that?" she asked, with a faith smile.
"You know why," Tara whispered, catching the tears with her lips as they rolled silently down Willow's cheeks.
"I love you," Willow said.
"That's why," Tara replied. She tightened her hug, then let Willow go and stood up after her.
"Do we know what we needed to know from here?" she asked. Willow looked around.
"I think so," she said, "most of these books are copies of old manuscripts, the Zann Esu has copies as well. Maybe even the court mage in Duncraig, he might have quite a library. I should make a note of which books are here, which pages have been removed and marked... otherwise I think we're done."
"Should we take this?" Tara asked, closing the diary. Willow frowned at it, then sighed.
"We probably should," she said, "the Ennead will want it when they find out what happened, assuming they don't know already. And ickiness aside, I'd actually like to go through it in detail myself, once we're somewhere safe. Might find something significant, you never know."
"Okay," Tara nodded, "we'll take it."
"The Black Tome as well," Willow added, "the Order could learn a lot from studying it. Help me check through the others quickly, just to make sure there's nothing apart from the the mage wrote himself. You'd recognise his handwriting?"
"Yep," Tara said. She started going through the books, reading the titles to Willow who noted them in their journal, then stacking them in a corner.
"What do you think we should do next?" Willow asked, while she flipped through the pages of an old copy of a Vizjerei text on demons, matching the missing pages to those torn out and left on the floor.
"When I read that passage you found in Ember's journal," Tara said, handing Willow any pages that looked to be the right size to have come from the damaged book, "she mentioned a map room in the monastery showing the whole area. It might be useful if we could find that. We still have two days' travel to the river, and I'd like to see where we're going in detail."
"Two-twenty, two-twenty-one..." Willow counted under her breath, noting the page number, "yeah, okay," she continued out loud, "she said it was... ground floor east? That's here, isn't it? These rooms?"
"There's no decoration here," Tara said thoughtfully, "but these are recent... what if when Ember was here, these apartments hadn't been built yet? What would be the east-most building then?"
"Um, the armoury," Willow suggested, "or maybe the guardhouse in the northeast tower, that had an adjoining room that was up against the eastern wall, that'd be pretty close."
"Alright, we'll check both of those. It's probably attached to the guardhouse though, I don't think there were any decent-sized rooms we didn't check around the armoury, and I can't imagine anyone painting a map of the whole region on the wall in a closet." Willow grinned.
"So, we find the map, and see what the land looks like between here and the river," Tara went on. "If we can find the entrance to the tunnel leading to the eastern village we'll use that, that'll cut out a mile of travelling over exposed terrain, and we won't have to go around the edge of the cliff we're on. From what I saw there's forests and low valleys beyond the village, so we won't have to worry about being spotted from miles away."
"We'll have to make sure we find the right tunnel," Willow warned, making a final note in the journal and putting the other book aside, "the one from the western village came up facing south, and the passage in the catacombs twisted and turned around a fair bit. I don't think we should just guess which way to go."
"How many entrances to the catacombs did we find?" Tara asked.
"I counted four," Willow said, "including the one we used. There's probably more around though, plus trapdoors and stuff."
"The passage we followed was marked, wasn't it?" Tara went on. "You said the paving stones had been set like a path."
"Uh-huh," Willow nodded, "so if we know which entrance to use, and the passage is marked the same way, we won't get lost in the catacombs."
"I don't suppose there'd be any plans of the monastery back in the library?" Tara asked. Willow sighed.
"Maybe," she said warily, "but I wouldn't count on it. Maybe the recent additions might have plans, but the other parts would be hundreds of years old, and they don't typically keep building records from that far back. At least, not in the churches I've seen."
"Maybe the map room might show something," Tara mused, "anyway, we'll check the library again if we have to."
"Should we stay here tonight, or set off?" Willow asked.
"If we have to travel above ground, we should do it in the day," Tara said, "maybe we wouldn't be spotted at night..."
"But maybe we would," Willow finished, nodding, "Carvers prefer moving around at night if they have a choice."
"And during the day we'd have a better chance of defending ourselves. But if we find the tunnel to the east, I think we should start into it, and try to find a room like the one we spent last night in. We can sleep half-way, and come up above ground during the daylight tomorrow."
"It's a plan," Willow nodded, grinning at Tara. "Add one more to the billions of reasons I'm glad you're here with me."
"Wouldn't want to be anywhere but with you," Tara smiled back. "And hey, this way when I finally get back to the islands, I can tell Solari I've been on a genuine adventure."
"Don't forget you'll have me with you," Willow said, "you can show her me and go 'and look what I found.'"
"I haven't forgotten," Tara said, picking up the last pile of books and bringing it over to Willow. "You're unforgettable. Remember?" Willow did her best to conceal a giggle, and busied herself with the books.