Return to Hellebore Chapter Thirty-Eight


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.

A further search of the armoury proved fruitless in terms of finding the map room, though Tara did find an extra bottle of bramble oil in a cupboard next to a rack of bows and crossbows. Willow checked a couple of the lighter crossbows, but found them too heavy and difficult to carry across country.

"Oh well," she shrugged, slotting a crossbow back into its rack, "it's not like I'm unarmed anyway." With a grin, she unslung her bow from her back and sighted along it at an imaginary enemy, assuming a dramatic battle-ready stance.

"Hmm," Tara nodded approvingly, "I'm definitely seeing the appeal of warrior women in leather... no wonder Amazons get all those stories told about us. Those ice bolts you do," she went on seriously, "do you need to, oh, recharge, or something, after a while?"

"I would eventually," Willow replied, "mainly it's concentration, but elemental magic requires a bit of input from the caster, just to get the spell started. I was actually thinking in case we run into something that's resistant to magic, an imp or something like that... of course, that'd be more your area of expertise than mine... still, I'm glad we've got two bows. Best to be prepared for anything."

"True," Tara nodded, "I think between the two of our bows, my spear, and your staff, we're as ready as we'll be. Although, we might as well take a few extra bowstrings, they won't weigh anything." She tucked the bramble oil into her back and rummaged around in the cupboard again.

"What're those imp things like?" she asked as she was looking. "I thought 'imp' was just, you know, generic. Isn't an imp just a little demon?"

"Usually," Willow said, "in folklore and stuff, yeah, imps are all sorts of things. But there's a specific type of demon called an imp as well. They're tricksters, they pretend to be subservient but they're a lot smarter and craftier than they let on. Usually they wait for some gullible summoner to bind them as menial servants, and then they bide their time and slowly work at breaking the binding without their master noticing it's getting weaker. If they succeed, they're free, and... it gets icky."

"I know I'm going to regret this," Tara said, pulling a couple of spare bowstrings from the back of a shelf, "but, icky how? Otherwise my curiosity is just going to nag at me for days."

"I know the feeling," Willow smiled. "Um, well, typically, an imp that gets free of its binding will kill its former master and... um, cut him up and use the bits to make more imps."

"I was right," Tara grinned, "I didn't want to know." She paused as a thought struck her. "How big are they?"

"Oh, only a few inches tall," Willow said, "and they're very rare, most of the ones that had got loose over the years were called into the Prime Evils' armies during the Reckoning, and got wiped out. I seriously doubt we'll see any, they prefer to skulk around the more lawless cities up north anyway, they're not really wilderness creatures. Why?"

"Do they use all of the bits of the mage?"

"I don't know, I guess they'd make as many imps as they could... I wonder if there is a sort of pecking order? Like, when imps get together, they're all: 'Which bit are you made of?' 'Bicep.' 'You lucky devil, I'm just an elbow'," she said, in a pair of comical voices.

"Heh," Tara chuckled, "just imagine what it'd be like to be the imp made out of the summoner's... um, private parts."

"Oh my gods," Willow gasped, doubling over with laughter, "oh... I hadn't thought of that... gee, it's a wonder men ever risk summoning imps. I mean, being killed and damned is one thing, but to have your genitals wandering around on their own as well... gods, that'd have to be pretty embarrassing for a damned soul."

"Probably all the other damned souls tease them about it," Tara pointed out, doing her best to keep a straight face. Willow shot her a grin, then composed herself.

"Guardhouse, then?" she suggested. "I don't think there's anything bigger than a set of drawers we haven't checked in this building."

"Right," Tara agreed, turning towards the door to the forge, which in turn led out into the courtyard.

"I love how you make me laugh," Willow said as the walked towards the northeast tower, "it's so... I mean, all the horrible stuff we're stuck in the middle of, it sort of gets under my skin, you know? And then you just brighten me right up, and suddenly I feel like me again."

"That's the idea," Tara said warmly. "Solari always liked making jokes when everyone was feeling stressed or exhausted. We'd be in the middle of a training routine, really concentrating, and she'd be directing us, all the trainees, and suddenly she'd say something completely ridiculous, but in a perfectly serious voice. She always said she did it just to see if anyone would get fooled. Heh," she chuckled, remembering, "one time, she told us that if we were up against an enemy behind barricades, we should fit springs to the backs of our arrows, and fire them backwards, so they'd bounce off the trees behind the enemy and get them from behind." Willow shook her head, laughing softly.

"Well, yeah," Tara admitted, "but it did take me a moment to realise she was joking. She just seemed so normal, I was going 'yeah, I can see how that would work, if you compensate in your aim for not having the feathers on the tail of the arrow', and then I stopped and it hit me that it was totally ludicrous. Of course," she added, "making you laugh is its own reward. You just... light up."

They reached the tower, and started checking the doors leading off the first room within it.

"Eponin took herself more seriously," Tara went on, "but she basically taught me the same thing. You can't truly despair, and laugh at the same time, so no matter how desperate the situation gets, if you can joke, you feel better. It may not be rational, and it may not help you, but it works."

"It might help, though," Willow pointed out, "I don't think I'll ever be completely afraid of an imp again. Fear's very disruptive to the concentration you need to do magic, so if you can look a bunch of demons square in the eye, and have this little bit of humour in the back of your mind, to keep you from getting completely afraid of them..." She raised an eyebrow at Tara.

"Good point," Tara conceded, "I never really thought of it. Where does this go?" Willow looked where she was pointing, to a door set in a tiny depression in the floor, with a few steps leading down to it.

"Looks like a cellar, or something," she said, testing the door, standing back as it swung open. Beyond was a low-ceilinged tunnel.

"Another entrance to the catacombs?" she wondered.

"I don't see any stairs," Tara frowned, peering into the gloom, "I think we should check it out. So long as there aren't any junctions we can't get lost, so we can just come back if it doesn't go anywhere useful." She glanced around the room and picked a torch off a rack on the wall.

"Hang on, I'll get the matches," Willow said, reaching for Tara's pack.

"Thanks," Tara said, and stood still while Willow opened the pocket and fished out the matches. She struck one and lit the oilcloth wrapped around the end of the torch, while Willow fixed the cat's-eye amulet around her neck. Tara glanced at her, and grinned at the sight of her eyes. Willow mimed a 'meow', and Tara laughed quietly and turned her attention back to her torch.

"Good torch," she mused, watching the torch burn, brightly but without excess flame, and giving off hardly any smoke.

"Probably treated with magic," Willow observed, "it's a simple bit of fire magic, sort of a 'clean burn' spell." She peered at the base of the torch in Tara's hand. "No manufacturer's mark, but the whole batch probably came from Kurast originally. They make them in bulk and export everywhere, it's sort of standard adventurer's equipment." She waved her hand quickly above the flame.

"Hot," she said. "Some of the fancy ones redirect all the heat into light, they shine like the sun but you can't burn yourself on them. This is just a simple one."

"There are mages who do this?" Tara asked. "Just, sit around all day enchanting torches?"

"Yeah, pretty much. You don't have to be a powerful mage to do a spell like this. That's like the other end of the scale to court mages and all that. Mind you, I'm kind of glad I can look forward to a more interesting career than doing the same enchantment over and over again. But, it's a living," she shrugged. "Pity I'm a cold sorceress, otherwise," she held up a hand, "instant torch, whenever you need it."

"I'm glad you've got the magic you do," Tara said warmly, as she ducked into the tunnel, torch in one hand, spear in the other. "We can always carry around some matches, but being able to cast that chill armour is... well, I can't imagine anything more useful while we're out here on our own."

"Yeah, there is that," Willow conceded. "Lightning sorceresses can create an energy shield, but it's trickier and more exhausting. Like I think I said once, cold is all about defence."

"Yep," Tara nodded.

"Then again," Willow mused, "lightning sorceresses can teleport..."

"Really?" Tara asked, surprised. "Like, just vanish and appear somewhere else?"

"Uh-huh. It's difficult to master, and it only works over short distances, but yeah. Well, a really good sorceress could extend the range, but the energy to do it increases exponentially. The Oracles on the Council are supposed to be able to cover about a quarter of a mile in one go, but that's just rumour, seeing as they don't travel or go into battle. A girl my age would usually only manage fifteen or twenty metres in a single casting, so it's not like I could just zap us to Duncraig anyway."

"We'll manage," Tara said fondly, "besides, if we run out of matches and need a fire, I can always make some."

"Can you do that without using your bow?" Willow asked. "I thought it was all, you know, ritualised."

"It is," Tara admitted, "but it works no matter how hard you pull the bowstring, and it doesn't have to be a proper arrow. So if need be, I can just get a stick and fire it a couple of metres, and it'll catch fire. Or we could get some kindling together, and I could spear it, the sparks would probably be good enough to start a fire."

"Neat," Willow grinned, "you're one versatile Amazon."

"Not as versatile as your magic," Tara admitted, "but I've experimented now and then to find out different ways of using what I can do. Where are we? We must be under the monastery wall." Willow guided Tara's arm, with the torch, closer to the tunnel's wall so Tara could see what she was seeing.

"I think we're in the wall," she said, "this is the same kind of stone. The tunnel must run along inside it."

"Doesn't that weaken it?"

"It's a cliff on the other side, remember? Probably the other walls are solid, but there's no way to approach this wall from the outside so it doesn't matter. There's a door up ahead."

The tunnel ended in another short flight of stairs and a solid oak door, bound with iron brackets. Tara tried the handle, but the door refused to budge.

"It's locked," she said, "did you see a key anywhere back in the guardhouse?"

"No need," Willow said, "let me have a look..." She knelt down and peered at the lock, while Tara held the torch behind her to give her light, realising belatedly, with a sheepish grin, that it was entirely unnecessary.

"I think it's just a simple latch," Willow said, "not like the complex locks you'd get on an outside door. Hang on a moment, I've always wanted to try this." She held out her finger, and a haze of condensation formed and solidified into a long, thin talon. Willow gingerly slid it into the keyhole and wiggled it around.

"I think we have a winner," she said, jerking the icy extension around, "and... yes!" There was a clunk from the other side of the door, and when Willow tried the handle it swung open.

"Where did you learn that?" Tara asked with a mystified grin. "Picking locks isn't part of sorceress training, is it?"

"Not technically," Willow admitted, dissolving the ice, "actually, I picked it up from Ember. She liked having midnight snacks now and then, and the cooks in the training complex tended to keep their cupboards locked when they went to bed... don't tell anyone."

"My lips are sealed," Tara replied with a smile, ducking through the doorway.

"Oh, my," Willow gasped, "I think we've found our map room."

The chamber was none too large, but fashioned with grandeur nonetheless. The walls, floor and ceiling were entirely stone, the ceiling arched like a miniature vault, painted with a convincing representation of a sky, with snow-white clouds building to a nexus at the centre of the ceiling, the focus of the arches from the pillars supporting the walls, where the clouds parted to let the painted light of the heavens shine through. Willow started at the sight of a human figure near her, but sighed and relaxed when she realised it was only a statue of an angel, one of five standing around the room, clothed in flowing robes with their wings folded neatly against their backs.

"Are you okay?" Tara asked, hearing Willow's quiet chuckle at herself. She turned and came face-to-face with another statue.

"They look more real through a cat's eyes," Willow commented, taking the amulet off as Tara lit the thick candles set in steel brackets in the walls. "Wow," she breathed, "it's even better in colour."

The four walls of the chamber, except for the door she and Tara had entered by and another doorway, bricked-up, opposite it, were entirely covered by paintings of the surrounding landscape. Willow recognised the view to the east, which she and Tara had seen from the top of the wall an hour or two ago, reproduced in loving detail on the room's eastern wall. The land stretched off to the mountains on one side, the river on the other, and to the north and south to horizons of rolling hills, with tiny notes, painted like scraps of parchment, giving the names of valleys, streams, villages and outlying farms.

The floor was a work of art too, a mosaic of tiny square tiles in varying shades of grey, showing the monastery itself. Willow knelt down and traced her finger along the line of the wall depicted beneath her feet, recognising the barracks and storehouses just where she remembered them from above.

"It's beautiful," she murmured.

"It is," Tara agreed. "It shows everything... look, even where the doors are, on either side the map is condensed, so it doesn't skip anything..."

"And the monastery," Willow noted, "oh, look here, this is from before they built the new rooms along the east wall. Look here, this must be where we are." She pointed to a chamber half sunk into the ground, with a stone stairwell leading into it. She glanced up at the walled-off doorway.

"They filled it in and built over the top," Tara said, "so, when Ember was here, this would have been a ground floor building, not underground... I wondered whether she'd gotten it mixed up or something."

"Yeah," Willow said, "hey, do you think it shows the tunnels?" Tara turned to the western wall and peered at the village, which seemed a little more sparsely populated with buildings inside its familiar wooden stockade than she remembered.

"There's something," she said, tracing a line with her fingers, "a sort of shadow on the ground, like the picture is suggesting a tunnel underneath. It heads down, towards the monastery, and fades away... I think that's it." She crossed the room and examined the village to the west.

"Kotram Oriens," she read.

"Imperial language," Willow said from the floor, "it just means 'Kotram east.'"

"There's a tunnel," Tara went on, "or, at least, the same kind of representation... it fades away like the other one."

"So we still don't know where to start," Willow said.

"Maybe..." Tara thought to herself, "can you find the entrance to the catacombs we came up through on the monastery?"

"Nice thinking," Willow grinned, "let's see... drat."


"There's an angel standing on top of it," she said, standing up to face the statue. "The base covers the room the entrance was in."

"Same for the entrance we found over here," Tara noted, "maybe it represents the angels guarding the entrances?"

"Could be," Willow nodded. She paused, and looked carefully at the statue standing in front of her.

"What?" Tara asked.

"She's looking at the village," Willow said, "the tunnel comes up right underneath this statue, and she's looking directly at the village it comes from, that can't be a coincidence."

"This one's looking at the village to the south," Tara commented, following the gaze of the statue beside her. "Each one is guarding a tunnel entrance, and showing where they lead."

"Neat," Willow grinned, "yeah, I remember reading that people used to build things like this. Sort of, symbolism and functionality together."

"This one's looking east," Tara said, standing beside another statue, "right at the eastern village... it's standing on the guardhouse we came from," she added, surprised.

"There must be a trapdoor somewhere," Willow said, "we'll have to search it again."

"This is good, though," Tara said, "if the tunnel takes us to the village, that's a lot of open ground we don't have to cross. Look," she pointed to the bottom of the east wall, where the monastery on the floor was bordered by the cliff, "by the looks of this, we'd have had to go miles north or south to get down onto that plain."

"The catacombs must go deep, to get down to the bottom of the cliff," Willow said thoughtfully. "It could be quite a walk in the dark."

"We've done it before," Tara said confidently, "and if it's like the other tunnel, there'll be a path to follow so we won't get lost. Though just between you and me, I think we should keep track of the way back, just in case. I'm not completely underground-friendly just yet."

"I'll keep notes as we go," Willow promised. "Will we make the river in two days, do you think?" Tara studied the landscape to the east.

"It's a little difficult to say," she said, "there's no solid scale... the artist was very good though, I think the distances are pretty clear. Two days. Two and a half, at most. There's this valley here," she pointed, "if that's safe to pass, definitely two days. Going around it might take longer, on the rises to either side. It looks like there's an old road through the valley, so I think we should follow that unless we see a reason not to. I saw the edge of the forest there from the wall, so if we go through the valley we can sleep there, and we won't be out in the open."

"Good," Willow said.

"This stream runs out of the valley, and all the way down to the river," Tara went on, "we'll take the road at first, and as soon as we reach the stream we'll follow it." She shot Willow a grin. "Roads can get overgrown, but water always knows how to get to the sea."

"Is that an Amazon saying?" Tara raised an eyebrow, then shrugged and smiled.

"I just said it," she pointed out, "so it is now."

"Ah, just another pearl of Tara-wisdom," Willow nodded, "that's good. I like the sound of Amazons in general, of course, but I know I can't go wrong with you."

"Well, don't go too far," Tara said jokingly, "it's not like I'm incapable of getting lost or anything."

"No, but if you do, there's no-one I'd rather be lost with, and that's good enough for me. Shall we go?" She put the amulet back on as Tara went around the room, snuffing out the candles.

"Let's get to the end of this adventure," Tara agreed, taking Willow's arm as they left the map room.

The entrance to the catacombs proved to be, rather than a hatch in the floor, a small door identical to the cupboards alongside it, but which instead opened to the top of a narrow spiral staircase that seemed to go down forever. After heading back to the barracks for whatever supplies they could find that were light and useful - some dried food, a second waterskin, and some rags to serve as extra bedding in case they had to sleep on hard ground - Willow and Tara ventured back underground.

"You're not getting dizzy are you?" Willow asked, as she led the way down, moving slowly and keeping Tara's hand in hers. Tara had picked up a pair of torches, but decided not to use them unless it proved necessary. In the darkness of the spiral stairwell she was relying mostly on Willow's guidance.

"Actually, no," she said, seeming surprised, "I guess dizziness is partly visual."

"Good," Willow nodded. "I'm dizzy," she added in a grumpy undertone.

"I'll kiss you better once we're at the bottom," Tara promised.

"You've got yourself a deal," Willow grinned, squeezing Tara's hand.

The stairwell continued down quite a way, but eventually they reached a tall chamber, like a church hall, whose walls were composed of strangely-shaped geometric stones, interlocking in a complex pattern. Willow bent down to examine the floor.

"Here's our path," she said, "these flagstones are laid out on top of the old stone floor, it's pretty clear. This must be more of the old Imperial architecture. Weird."

"I believe I made you a promise," Tara said quietly, gently tugging Willow back to her feet.

"You did too," Willow agreed, "better keep it then, Amazon honour is at stake."

"An Amazon always," Tara began, lightly brushing her lips over Willow's, "keeps," she made contact again for an instant, nibbling Willow's lower lip, "her promises."

"Mmm," Willow replied, as Tara kissed her properly and deeply. She closed her eyes and luxuriated in the feeling of Tara exploring her mouth, casually, carefree and completely assured of her acceptance. Tara worked her lips against Willow's, opening her mouth wide. Her tongue touched Willow's, then stroked along it, again and again, making Willow's legs tremble.

When Tara finally pulled back, gently taking Willow's lip between her teeth for a moment before ending the kiss, Willow wondered for a moment whether her amulet had stopped working, before she realised she'd forgotten to open her eyes.

"Is your dizziness cured?" Tara asked innocently.

"Replaced with a whole different kind of dizziness," Willow said, snuggling up to Tara's side, feeling the need to postpone the next leg of their journey, if only for a few seconds, to bask in Tara's affection.

"Poor Willow," Tara said, stroking her hair, "there's only one cure for *that* kind of dizziness... but unfortunately, this isn't exactly the place for it."

"The place for what?" Willow asked seductively, feeling suddenly unaccountably playful, "for you to tear this leather off me? Run your hands all over me?"

"I was thinking another kiss would do the trick," Tara purred in her ear, "just, not on the lips..."

"Aaah," Willow sighed, "oh yeah... you're right, this isn't exactly the place... these old catacombs sometimes amplify sound when they echo, and the way you make me moan, everything for miles around will hear me."

"Later," Tara promised.

"Later," Willow agreed. She led Tara along the path made by the flagstones, which led through several chambers, Tara holding her staff, with an arm looped around her elbow, while she recorded the turns they took in their journal.

"If we ever come back here when it's safe," Willow said as they entered the third chamber, "we have got to come down here with a whole bunch of torches. The construction down here is amazing."

"How so?" Tara asked.

"It's... the walls are made of these hugs blocks, all jagged like pieces of a jigsaw, and there's no mortar or anything, they just fit together perfectly. There's columns like massive tree trunks, metals laid into the stone... the magic's stronger down here, I could feel it growing as we went down the stairs. There's brackets for torches here and there, and basins of lamp oil, it must be wonderful when it's all lit up."

They finally came to a junction where, on one side, a tunnel of more modern construction led out of the ancient chambers. Willow paused for a moment in the centre of the last chamber, crouching down to study the floor.

"There's a pattern in the tiles," she said, "maybe a mosaic, I can see red tiles here and there. I think the middle is the entrance to a lower level, there's similarities to Vizjerei temples I've seen, they'd tend to have a staircase below a floor decorated like this. Gods, this place is huge... how far down have we come?"

"I think we're well below the level of the plain," Tara guessed.

"There's a depression in the centre stone," Willow said, "a ring... it might be a magical lock, I can feel a very subtle emanation from it. I wonder if the brothers had a key for it? Or even knew it opened?"

"What do you think is down there?" Willow sat back on her heels, resting her head on Tara's shoulder as she crouched next to her.

"Maybe a vault," she guessed, "a safe place to keep whatever treasures the owner of the building up above had. It could even be a library, the Imperial system placed great value on knowledge. They'd go to extraordinary lengths to make books that would last for centuries, for their most important secrets, and keep them locked in vaults, all enchanted to keep them from decaying. A lot of the books in the Order's library vaults are Imperial, still in perfect condition."

"There's no way to open it without a key?" Tara asked.

"The stone's too heavy," Willow said, standing up and leading the way to the catacomb tunnel. "The old architecture was big on mechanical design, you know, I bet if you used the key that whole stone would just swing out of the way, as if it didn't weigh anything at all. They used counterweights and stuff. Not really my area of expertise, but I've seen some of their constructions, still working. Mind your head," she added, as they passed through the low archway. Fortunately the tunnel beyond was larger.

"The Chancellor's palace in Gotunberg-Sallna is constructed around part of the old city walls that were built by the Empire," Willow went on, "the gates are twenty feet high, huge iron things that never rust, and when they're locked you couldn't budge them with an elephant. But when they unlock this whole system of weights comes into play, and you can swing them open with one hand. I've only seen them from the outside, but Ember's actually been into the palace, and seen them work."

"This Empire sounds like a golden age," Tara observed.

"In many ways it was," Willow agreed, "it was the last time all the western kingdoms were united. The security and stability they had gave them the opportunity to develop the arts and sciences, without the scholars having to take time off to earn a living. They came up with some pretty amazing things. And of course the mage clans all blossomed during the Imperial era, that was when the old Horadrim developed from a group of warrior mages into a proper system of study and learning, and they started really figuring out how magic worked. Before that, during the Sin Wars, they pretty much just did it by trial and error, and any power that worked they flung into battle as quickly as they could. There's some records of achievements that the Empire made, in all sorts of fields, that no-one has any idea how to duplicate nowadays. Like Exhibit A behind us, of course. If you went up to an architect, even one with a mage helping him out, and asked him for a set of catacombs twenty levels deep, built into solid rock, with chambers the size they have here, he'd look at you like you were nuts." She sighed. "Pity it all collapsed," she went on, "the way the histories make it sound, it was a great time."

"That can happen, when adversity pushes people together," Tara said thoughtfully, "they get along because they have to, but when the threat is gone, it's only so long before they go back to how they used to be, worried about their own territory, their own interests. Back home, we learn not to take our unity for granted - for most of our history we've had to remain united to survive against the slaver fleets and pirates, but we're taught that true unity has to come from within. If it's imposed from the outside, it only lasts while the outside force lasts."

"If only the Empire had had some Amazons," Willow mused, "they might still be around."

"I think that was before our time," Tara chuckled. "And anyway, that's just a rule of thumb, it doesn't always apply. For instance, if you and I were somehow both being chased around the wilderness by demons, separately, and ran into each other, well..."

"You've got that right," Willow nodded with a grin. "Adversity or not, I know true love at first sight when it hits me."

"First sight?" Tara asked.

"Uh-huh," Willow agreed, "it may have taken me a while to get up the courage to make a move... or even admit to myself I wanted to... but hey, when you turned up in my wagon, it was like something inside me shifted, like... oh, like my soul had rearranged itself into a new shape that needed you to be complete. I never really knew what love and passion and, and need were, until then."

"Oh Willow," Tara said warmly, "that's beautiful... I think, back then, all I could think about was what it'd be like to touch you, just to... to touch your skin, to feel you on my fingertips."

"I remember you seemed a bit overwhelmed," Willow said, "though, hey, I wasn't exactly miss calm-and-collected myself, as I recall. All that soul stuff I said, that's what I know now, back then I didn't have a clue... all I knew was that you were something completely new, that... my life had never included anything or anyone like you. Actually, even that's probably a bit too eloquent, I think the best my brain was offering me back then was 'wow'."

"We were thinking alike, then," Tara smiled. "And you're still completely 'wow', you know. You always will be."

"You too, my Tara," Willow murmured, raising Tara's hand to her lips.

"Hey, there's a door up ahead," Willow said, perking up after a long stretch of walking through the monotonous tunnel, punctuated by the occasional yawn now that the afternoon, up above ground, was turning into evening.

"We can't be at the village yet," Tara said.

"No, I mean to one side," Willow said, "like another little crypt..." Tara heard the creaking of old hinges, and Willow led her inside.

"I think we've found our home for the night," she said. Tara felt Willow press the amulet into her palm, and she put it on, looking around the small room. It was not unlike the room they had spent the previous night in, with heavy stone tombs lining the walls, but a dry stone floor, enough space on the ground to stretch out, and, she noted, the door was sturdy, and could be locked with a pair of steel bolts from the inside.

"Why would a crypt have a lock on the inside?" she wondered, handing the amulet back to Willow.

"Probably so people could do exactly what we're doing," she guessed, "hole up and stay out of trouble. Maybe in case an enemy got into the catacombs, you could duck in here and stay safe until friends arrived."

"Willow," Tara began, with a thought forming in her mind, "how secure do you think that door is?"

"Oh, pretty good," she replied, "the bolts are solid, I can't see any rust... they go into the stone, and that's definitely solid. The door's nice and thick, and it doesn't look like it's been damaged... I don't see any sign that anything's been in here."

"I think we should both sleep," Tara said. "That way we'll both be fresh tomorrow, we'll be able to get half-way to the river without exhausting ourselves. I don't think we'll be in any danger... and," she admitted, "it's been too long since I slept with you in my arms. I'd like the chance to do that." She felt Willow press against her side and hug her.

"I'd love that," she whispered, "I really would. A-and, I can't tell you how, how wonderful it is, to know it means so much to you."

"You mean everything to me," Tara said softly. "You know I wouldn't suggest it if I didn't think we'd be safe-"

"I know," Willow said. "Let's do it. We'll be out in the middle of nowhere tomorrow night, so, yeah, I think, let's not let this opportunity go to waste."

"Thank you," Tara said fondly.

"Thank me?" Willow laughed quietly. "Are you kidding? I get to go to sleep with my lovely Amazon holding me, that's about as close to bliss as I could hope for, given the circumstances. It'd be pretty close to bliss in any circumstances," she added softly.

"Do you want me to unpack the blankets?" Tara asked.

"No, I'll get them, it's no trouble," Willow said. "It's a pity we can't light a torch... actually," she went on thoughtfully, "what if we stuffed some rags into the edges of the door? It's a pretty tight fit anyway, and if we just lit a candle, it'd be enough for us both to see, and there wouldn't be any sign of light outside."

"Okay," Tara agreed, "I'll unpack the rags, you put them around the door. Make sure you don't miss any spots."

"I won't," Willow promised, "there's candles all over the walls, we'll just light one, that should do." She set to shoving the rags Tara handed her into the cracks between the door and its stone frame, as solidly as she could. When she was satisfied with her work she selected a few candles from one of the old iron brackets around the walls, and wedged one upright in the gap between two flagstones, leaving the others in case the first ran down quickly. Tara had already retrieved the matches, and handed her one. She lit the candle and took off the amulet, smiling as her eyes slowly adjusted to the low, warm light.

"This is nice," she said as Tara unpacked some rations for dinner, "you know, if it weren't for the fact that we're in catacombs in the middle of a dangerous wilderness, it'd be downright romantic. Candlelight dinner, a tight, cozy sleeping bag..." She leaned across and kissed Tara gently.

"Mmm," Tara agreed, "forget the wilderness, it is romantic." Willow smiled, and they both leaned back against a wall, munching their bland rations. "Mind you, the food could do with a bit of improvement," Tara noted.

"Yeah," Willow nodded, "traveller's rations just don't compare to a good hot meal. A nice salad on the side, crispy golden potatoes, and something with a little bit of spice... yummy."

"Something with cream sauce," Tara suggested, "doesn't matter what it is... just finishing the meal, and breaking bits of bread off a roll, mopping up the sauce with it..." She smiled at herself. "We really need to get to a decent restaurant."

"They say you can get anything in Duncraig," Willow commented, "magic, arts, crafts, all sorts of things... foods from all over the world."

"Mmm," Tara murmured dreamily, "third thing we do when we get there, have a good, hot meal."

"Third thing?" Willow asked.

"Yep," Tara replied. "First thing: make love until the sun comes up. Second thing: sleep until noon. Third thing: food."

"Fourth thing," Willow offered, "see 'first thing'." Tara smiled, immeasurably glad of the tiny flicker of the candle that let her see Willow's playful grin.

"First thing is going to be getting a lot of use," she said in a low murmur.

"Yay," Willow said, "my favourite thing in the whole world... my Amazon..." Tara put an arm around her shoulders and stroked her hair fondly. "And I'm your sorceress," Willow went on happily, "all yours, all of me... head to toe..." She gave a yawn and finished her ration.

"Tired?" Tara asked gently.

"Mmm-hmm," Willow nodded, "I don't think I realised it until my body heard about the prospect of a good night's sleep."

"Me too," Tara agreed, "though, if the situation were different, I think I'd be finding a bit more energy... the candlelight, holding my lovely Willow in my arms after so long..."

"It's only been two and a half days since we were at the lake," Willow pointed out, taking off her boots. "You're just insatiable. Lucky me," she finished, smiling over her shoulder at Tara, who was setting their torches and matches to one side of their makeshift bed, within reach if need be.

With everything prepared for the night's sleep, and a magic circle around the edge of the room just in case, Willow tucked Tara beneath the blankets and used a tiny trickle of cold to extinguish the candle. Putting on the amulet again she removed the rags from around the door, to let in a small draft to keep their air fresh, then nestled in next to Tara, smiling as she felt Tara's arm go over her waist, and her body mould itself perfectly into Tara behind her. Suddenly, it was as if nothing had ever gone wrong, and they were back in their wagon, safe and secure.

"I love you," she whispered over her shoulder. "You know that, don't you."

"I know it, and you remind me every day," Tara smiled back. "I love you, my Willow. Sleep sound. I've got you."

"Mmm," Willow murmured quietly, "lovely..." She gently stroked the back of Tara's hand. "You too... sweet dreams..."

"You never give me any other kind," Tara whispered, laying her head down. Willow joined her, and before long both were sleeping soundly, the fright and worries of their journey soothed by each other's warm presence, so that they both slept contentedly, safe from bad dreams, though the night.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Forty (Rated NC-17)

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