Return to Hellebore Chapter Forty-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 2004 Chris Cook.

Willow woke up feeling as good as she ever had in her life, and also with a slight weight on her chest. Opening her eyes she saw the reason for both - Tara, curled up against her side, one arm draped across her waist, and her head pillowed on Willow's bosom. 'Glad she doesn't mind modest-sized pillows,' Willow thought to herself as she gently lifted a hand to stroke Tara's hair. After a short while Tara shifted, and snuggled up a little closer to her.

"Morning," Willow said softly, knowing her lover was awake now.

"Mmm," Tara murmured, pressing her cheek firmly against Willow's breast, "morning... 's it just me, or is the bedding more luxurious than normal?" Her head bobbed up and down as Willow laughed beneath her.

"So I'm a pillow now?" she grinned, ignoring the fact that she had been thinking the same thing a moment earlier.

"Among many other things," Tara quipped, raising her head and shifting upwards to lie against Willow's side, Tara's head resting beside hers on the pillows. "I didn't hear you complaining, did I?"

"Heh, no, I guess you didn't," Willow admitted. "Lovely way to wake up... I seem to be accumulating those recently, and they all involve you being in very close proximity to me."

"Me too," Tara smiled, lightly kissing her lips, "a mutually agreeable arrangement... in the best possible way." She fell silent, staring at Willow.

"What?" Willow smiled.

"Nothing," Tara said, "just looking at you. Something I very much like to do."

"Aw, you're such a sweetie," Willow chuckled, rolling over to wrap her arms around Tara. She giggled when Tara snuck her tongue out and poked the tip of Willow's nose.

"Are you trying for super-cute this morning?" she asked. "'Cause you're doing pretty darned well... actually," she added, with a cheeky grin teasing her lips, "I'm surprised you can even move your tongue, considering the workout it got last night."

"Amazon stamina," Tara said seriously, with just a sparkle of humour in her eyes giving her away, "we're trained to extend the bounds of the physically possible."

"You certainly did that," Willow smiled, "gods, there were times I couldn't believe what was happening to me."

"Yeah?" Tara grinned.

"Yeah," Willow replied, "you do that a lot, you know? Heh, one time you had me coming so hard I was sure I'd turn inside-out." She paused and considered that. "Only not literally, 'cause ick, and you know, I like my insides to stay inside of me... they're called 'internal organs' for a reason... just metaphorically inside-out," she finished.

"Good," Tara laughed, "I'm glad we got that sorted out."

Their laughter was interrupted by the soft ringing of a small bell. Tara blinked in surprise, while Willow lifted her head to look at the door to the stairs.

"What's that?" Tara asked. "Does someone want to come in?"

"I'll see," Willow said, throwing back the covers and crawling to the edge of the bed. She swung her legs to the floor, then leaned back and kissed Tara firmly on the lips.

"Now I'll see," she said, "first things first..." She got up, pulled on a robe and tied it around her waist, and padded over to the door. There was no-one outside, but there were a handful of envelopes on the small table by the door.

"Mail," she explained, holding the letters up for Tara to see as she closed the door behind her. Tara rolled over and crawled slinkily on all fours to the foot of the bed, where Willow sat down, smiling appreciatively at her.

"One for you," she said as Tara stealthily undid the sash around her waist, "that's from Tryptin... another for you, with the Duke's seal... I know what you're doing, you know?" she added as Tara undid her robe and opened it, circling her waist with her arms and laying her head down in her lap.

"I know what I'm doing too," Tara grinned, "keep going."

"You sexy little... oh! One for me," she exclaimed, quickly opening the envelope. Tara snuggled up closer to her, staring up from her position on Willow's thighs.

"It's from Myrreon," Willow said, "he's the Duke's mage... he says I'm welcome to visit his workshop today to discuss studying with him!"

"That was quick," Tara said, slowly edging one hand down from Willow's waist towards her bottom.

"He must've got my letter last night," Willow mused, quickly reading the rest of the page. "Yeah, yeah, formal stuff, blah blah blah... oh, he says he's been doing some work on elemental magic theory he'd like to consult with me about, yay!"

"Consulting is good?" Tara asked, squeezing lightly.

"Well, it means he's not just going to send me off with a bunch of books I've probably read anyway, I'm actually going to learn something, and... and... what're you up to?" she grinned down at Tara.

"Who, me?" Tara said innocently. "Just amusing myself."

"Uh-huh," Willow nodded, "well... mmm," she purred as Tara squeezed her more firmly, "well, how about you and me freshen ourselves up with a nice hot shower? I'm sure there'll be all sorts of ways for you to amuse yourself." She leaned down and gave Tara a squeeze in return, then inched her fingers inwards between her legs. "In fact, I'd quite like to amuse you senseless."

"Only if I get to return the favour," Tara said, sliding her arms up Willow's body as she sat up.

"Always," Willow agreed.

"Well then, let's shower," Tara smiled. Willow shrugged off her robe and stood up, as Tara lithely slid off the bed to her feet.

"Looks promising, then?" she asked as they headed towards the bathroom.

"Yeah," Willow said without really thinking, still stealing sidelong glances. "Huh? Oh, the mage... yeah, could be. I mean I'll have to see what he's like when we meet, but the tone of the letter is encouraging. Besides, we've been here two days and he hasn't tried to kill either of us, so he's already better than the last one."

After a lengthy and thorough shower - both Willow and Tara went to great lengths not to miss a spot on each other, often re-washing whole areas just to make sure - the women sat down to a light breakfast. Jesye, the elfin young woman who took over from Lissa from midnight to midday, brought up a newspaper with their meal, which Willow glanced over while Tara opened and read the other letters that had arrived earlier.

"I'll be busy this afternoon," she said to Willow, reading the letter from Tryptin, "one of the Duke's generals has come back from the north for a couple of days and they think it'd be a good idea for me to discuss what it's like around the monastery."

"They're sending out a force to round up the demons?" Willow asked.

"I talked with Tryptin about that yesterday, he said at the moment the expeditionary part of the Duke's army is up north dealing with some bandit chieftain from the unclaimed lands beyond the border. Their best guess was that it'd take a couple of weeks to wrap up, and then they'll go about wiping out the demons around Kotram." Tara shrugged and set the letter aside. "I think Tryptin probably set up this meeting, to introduce me to someone of high rank in the Duke's army. It could be useful later on."

"Later on?" Willow asked idly, flipping through the pages of her paper.

"Well, I'm going to have to earn my keep," Tara said, "the usual way for a warrior to do that is by lending their services to the local army as an instructor, if they've got skills better than the average soldier."

"Which you have," Willow grinned.

"It's either that," Tara went on, smiling at the compliment, "or be a mercenary or a bounty hunter. Not a line of work that I'd like to get into."

"Good," Willow said, "I like you safe and sound here with me, not off in some remote wilderness chasing down troublesome packs of demons."

"Me too," Tara agreed, "though, we managed a bit of that anyway..."

"Yeah, but that wasn't on purpose," Willow pointed out. "Besides, I was there to watch your back, not off somewhere else worrying about you all the time." She frowned. "Well, admittedly, I was right there with you worrying about you all the time... but we were together, that's the main thing. Where did this line of thought start?"

"Bounty hunting," Tara reminded her, "not for me."

"Good," Willow said again.

"Good," Tara echoed with a grin. "So, that really just leaves instructing, so far as warrior-type jobs go. Archery, probably. Tryptin probably thought of that, it'll be useful to have met one of the generals beforehand. Not that it won't be useful for him to have some foreknowledge of what things are like down where we were, and I've got a fair idea of the kinds of things a general would want to know. Tryptin probably thought of that too," she grinned, "that'd be like him, planning for everything."

"Tryptin knows you're staying here?" Willow asked, between bites of toast with jam. Tara looked thoughtful.

"It's funny, we haven't actually spoken about it since we were at the castle," she said. "I remember thinking I'd tell him once we got to Duncraig, then we got separated, and I never got around to it when we got back, it was all about what had happened to us. I'll have to tell him next time I see him. He knew I was seriously thinking about staying with you," she added, looking across the table at Willow, "not that I've ever actually considered anything else..." She thought for a moment, and smiled. "He's probably figured it out for himself. I'll make sure I tell him." She picked up the other letter, with the envelope bearing the Duke's seal, and opened it.

"Oh, it's the performance the Duke's going to," she said, "invitation, schedule... 'Lady Tara of the Amazon Nation, and her companion, are reserved a place in the Duke's party to attend the anniversary gala at the Duncraig opera house, the party being scheduled to meet on the steps of the Palace entrance hall at seven o'clock,'" she read. "Do you want to unpack that green dress you wore to the Baron's dinner?"

"Actually I've got another little something you haven't seen yet," Willow grinned, "I thought I might have to look formal now and then so I packed a couple of suitable outfits for dinners and dances and all that. I'll have to see if the laundry can have it pressed in time for tonight... promise not to peek when I unpack it?"

"Promise," Tara smiled, already wondering what Willow had in store for her.

"What about you?" Willow asked. "Ceremonial outfit? Every man in the opera house will be jealous of me, you know. Probably a lot of the women as well."

"Maybe ceremonial dress," Tara said vaguely, "but yesterday Tryptin said it wasn't technically a diplomatic appearance... maybe I'll surprise you."

"Ooh, now I'm going to have trouble keeping my mind on my magic all day," Willow replied. "What time's your meeting with the general?"

"After lunch."

"In that case, do you want to come with me this morning?" Willow asked hopefully.

"I'd like that," Tara said, surprised. "You're sure the mage won't mind?"

"I think it'll be okay," Willow assured her, "I mean, you're a diplomatic guest and all, that's pretty prestigious. Plus you're a mage too, from what I've seen you're up there with the best in terms of spell shaping and channelling, I'm sure he'd like to meet you. From the letter he seems pretty relaxed about the whole thing - some mages get all secretive about their work, but you wouldn't expect that of someone who's agreed to tutor a sorceress who's not part of their order, so I don't think there's anything to worry about. And," she finished with a shy smile, "I'd like it if you would. Not that I want to be all demanding and monopolise all your time or anything but..."

"I get it," Tara interrupted, "things are better when I'm around you. For me too, and I'd love to come along."

"Yay!" Willow exclaimed, bouncing out of her chair, the few remains of her breakfast forgotten. Tara finished hers and followed Willow to the writing desk, where she had stored her study paraphernalia the previous evening after unpacking it all - notebooks, a handful of esoteric-looking instruments, and a set of coloured inks which Willow had explained as her system for taking notes - green for spell theory, blue for energy theory, red for applications, black for casting instructions, and purple for 'everything else'.

"Anything I should know?" Tara asked. "I don't want to accidentally offend him, or anything-"

"Nah, you'll be fine," Willow said, "I mean, you're naturally polite and courteous and wonderful to be around, who could complain about that? Just, you know, be yourself. Don't worry if he seems a bit odd, court mages in places like this sometimes get a bit eccentric."

"Uh-huh," Tara said, glancing at Willow's coloured inks.

"It's just from working on their research for so long," Willow went on, oblivious to Tara's fond smile, "in a city this big all the mundane magic - minor enchantments, that sort of thing - would be done by younger mages, lower down in their orders. Unless there's a really serious war going - which there hasn't been here in ages - the Duke's personal mage is probably free to pursue whatever line of research he wants, and not worry too much about what the outside world is up to."

Willow's assurances notwithstanding, Tara found herself slightly nervous as they followed Jesye through the Palace towards the mage's tower, almost on the opposite side from the smaller tower containing their room. The young servant had been quiet initially, but by the time they had reached the base of the tower and begun their ascent, she and Willow were chattering amiably to each other, with Tara a step behind listening in. Willow had been curious when Jesye referred to their room as the 'Princess tower', and Jesye was in the process of explaining.

"After Princess Marindi, who's now the Duchess," she was saying, "back when the Duke was courting her - this was ten years ago, but one of the older servants told me - he had the tower added to the Palace for her to stay in when she visited. Her brother's the Prince of Kartand, off to the west, used to be a great realm, but they say there was a war a century ago, and they lost nearly all their land. It's said to be a nice place now though, my father took my mother there for their anniversary last year, said the mountains are beautiful. Anyway," she paused for breath, "the Duke called in every master craftsman in the city and they built the tower - he told them, make it perfect."

"No wonder the Princess married him," Willow grinned, glancing back at Tara, who gave her a smile and nodded.

"They say the Duke's private rooms are finer," Jesye went on, "and the Lion Star's royal cabin, of course. I haven't seen either, only attendants of five years' good service get assigned to the royal apartments, or go with the Duke and Duchess when they travel, but from what they say... oh, here we are," she said, as they finally reached the top of yet another flight of stairs, which led to a landing curving around the inner rooms of the tower, with the outer wall on the other side. There was one door, made of old, thick wood bound in iron, and a watery-looking blue-white crystal mounted in a small metal frame bolted to the wall next to it. Tara had the odd feeling it was watching them.

"Master Myrreon's workshop," she said, indicating the lone door. Willow thanked her and rapped the brass knocker on the door. She stood next to Tara, taking her hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze.

"Don't worry," she whispered.

"Thanks," Tara whispered back. Willow's hand in hers made all the difference - she felt her spirits lift as they waited. Willow smiled at her, her other hand fidgeting with her staff. After a short pause, during which Tara became aware of a constant, steady clanking from beyond the door, just on the edge of hearing, footsteps grew nearer, and the door opened.

"Hello?" said the man who looked out into the corridor. He was young, twenty-five perhaps, with short black hair and dark eyes. His features were handsome, though markedly different to any Tara had seen before, and she could see Willow's attention fix on him in curiosity as well - his skin was a flawless pale tone, slightly more gold than pink, his nose didn't stand out very far, and his eyes were thin and spaced a little wider than was usual for the people of Westmarch, giving him a reserved, philosophical look.

"Um, I'm Willow," Willow said, stepping forward, bringing Tara with her, "I got your letter this morning?"

"Oh, of course," the man said, "the sorceress, yes. Thank you," he said to Jesye with a courteous nod. She bowed quickly and turned back towards the stairs.

"I'm Zan," the man said as Willow and Tara, "Master Myrreon is in here, somewhere, come in, please."

"This is Tara," Willow said, stepping up to the doorway as Zan stood aside, "my partner, we're travelling together."

"Welcome," Zan said.

"Hello..." Tara said, but trailed off as she and Willow went through the door into the chamber beyond. It was round, occupying the whole centre of the tower, and rose three storeys to a wooden-beamed ceiling, with sturdy wooden stairs and landings winding their way around the outer wall to reach the floors above. The perimeter of the room was a crowded mess of bookshelves, desks laden with interesting glassware and metal objects, racks of scrolls and parchments, iron-bound trunks, crates, bits of timber and metal, and all manner of devices. Off to one side was something that looked like a free-standing candelabra, except that instead of candles it had a translucent sphere composed of shifting, wavering colours; on a desk a wooden contraption, a framework containing countless tiny cogs, gears and ratchets, had been partially disassembled; from one of the landings hung something which looked like a pair of falcon's wings, constructed from parchment stretched over a wooden frame.

What rendered Willow and Tara both speechless was the construction in the centre of the workshop, which was a massive model of the heavens, fashioned in brass and steel, with a huge bronze sun in the centre and around it, on graceful metal arms containing intricate, moving systems of levers and gears, all the planets, each with its proper moons, marked with silver detailing over metals of every hue imaginable. The whole structure was in motion, the planets moving through their orbits around the sun, all their various moons in turn orbiting their planets, and most of the huge arms, which spanned much of the considerable width of the workshop, slowly bending at joints along their lengths as sections extended and retracted, keeping their planets at their proper distance from the sun while avoiding any collisions with other arms as they swung past each other. The noise Tara had heard earlier was coming mainly from the huge base of the construct, where massive gears clanked around, powering it all.

"Master?" Zan called. There was a clunk from inside the huge orrery's base, and a middle-ages man in long robes crawled out from within it and got to his feet, dusting himself off as he looked around. To Tara he seemed to be the embodiment of the wizards she had imagined from hearing stories in her childhood - the white hair and beard framing a kindly-looking face, the robes decorated with arcane symbols, even the pair of half-moon glasses perched on his nose.

"Hello?" he said, noticing Willow, Tara and Zan standing at the edge of the workshop. He made his way across, bending to keep clear of the planets overhead, and once he reached them he drew himself up to his full height, smiling uncertainly.

"The Zann Esu sorceress, Master," Zan said.

"Hmm? Oh, the sorceress, of course." He beamed at Willow and Tara, looked confused for a moment, then settled his gaze on Willow.

"You're Miss Willow?" he asked, evidently judging by her attire - she was wearing one of her Zann Esu robes, while Tara was wearing a skirt and tunic.

"Yes," Willow replied, "this is Tara, she's an Amazon, she knows a lot about spell shaping..."

"An Amazon?" the mage said, surprised. "Oh yes, we've got Amazons here at the moment, haven't we... you do, what was it, fire? Battle spells using weapon as channels?"

"Yes," Tara said, relaxing somewhat, "fire and lightning, in my case."

"Lightning, I see," the mage nodded, "fascinating really, the focus of holy magic into a prime shell... oh, forgive me, I haven't introduced myself. Myrreon of the Vizjerei, at your service. This is Zan, my assistant, and this-" he turned to the empty room. "Oh," he said sounding disappointed, "where's she got to?"

"The university, Master," Zan said patiently, "you sent her to deliver your schematics to the professor of arithmancy?"

"Of course, of course," Myrreon said, "my apprentice, Ocean... she should be back soon. And I'm to teach you, am I?" he asked Willow. "Both of you?" he added, glancing at Tara.

"Um, just me," Willow explained.

"I'm just... you know, interested," Tara added. "I'm just here for today."

"Oh well," Myrreon said, "I hope we can talk later, I'm curious about Amazon magic, I think there's some interesting subtleties involved in the theory, it might be quite useful to some of the work I'm doing... well, Miss Willow," he turned his attention back to her, "I understand you won't be staying quite long enough to be an apprentice, as such - of course I've got one already... well, two, though I think Zan is quite close to being a mage in his own right... how about I just show you what I'm doing, and if you're interested I'll see if I can convey the theory behind it. I often find it useful to explain what I'm doing, you know," he said, leading the way to one of the less cluttered desks, "seems to make it easier to line all my thoughts up and make sense of them, there's an old saying, you know, 'if you want to understand something, try explaining it to someone else', I think that's quite true. You'll want to duck."

"Wha?" Willow said, as Tara grabbed her waist and pulled her down into a crouch. A small planet whirred overhead on the end of a particularly complicated arm that seemed to be composed entirely of interlocking gears, with only a few struts to keep it from falling to pieces.

"Erratic orbit," Myrreon went on, ducking the planet without looking, "nothing to be done about it, I'm afraid. Caught me a nasty bump on the head the first time I set the whole system moving, but you get used to keeping out of its way. That was Lorelei, by the way. I mean, we could tilt the whole thing so it didn't come out so close to head level, but according to the measurements if we did that then Titanis's orbit would pass right through the first floor landing."

"Is it... it's going backwards, isn't it?" Willow asked, frowning in thought as she studied the orrery's motions.

"Yes!" Myrreon exclaimed happily. "Yes, it is - you'd be surprised how few people spot that. Yes, I'm running it backwards at about a year a minute, it's come up with some interesting alignments, Zan's taking note of them and we've been comparing them to historical records... you know of astrological parallel?"

"You mean, the planets controlling our destiny?" Willow asked sceptically.

"That's it," Myrreon said, reaching the desk and rummaging around for a scroll, "of course it's highly suspect, all that nonsense about Forma being in the north quarter so everyone born in the first week of the month will meet a tall dark stranger, or whatever... we've got some interesting evidence, though, that on a larger scale their might be some correlation between the movements of the heavens and the waxing and waning of earthly powers. Ah, here it is." He handed a scroll to Willow.

"Elemental power calculations," he said, "when I got your letter I thought you'd be the person to ask about this, I'm not much of an elemental mage myself - a few cantrips, really, nothing more - I've always been more drawn to the mechanics of the world, the laws governing it. Would you mind taking a look at those? They're to do with multi-planar elemental convergences, to try to explain some of the anomalies I'm trying to get to the bottom of. Zan will help you," he went on, turning to his assistant, "would you explain the work I've been doing on convergence and dissonance? Oh, I almost forgot," he turned back to Willow, "I understand you had a run-in with a rather nasty bit of magic down south, something about a renegade from the Ennead order trying to conduct a summoning in the old monastery? The Duke asked me to look into it, see what might be done, would you mind explaining it to me later? This afternoon?"

"Of course," Willow nodded.

"Good, good," Myrreon said, nodding to himself as well, "well then, you and Zan can start on that scroll, and if I may," he looked to Tara, "I'd quite like to learn a bit more about Amazon magic, did I mention before I was curious about it? If it's no trouble, of course?"

"No, that's fine," Tara said happily. She gave Willow's hand a squeeze, and they shared a brief smile before Willow sat down next to Zan, who had unrolled the scroll over the desk. Myrreon wandered off to another of his work tables, this one piled high with books, and an assortment of arcane devices stacked in a precarious heap, and Tara followed him.

"Um, sorry if this seems impolite," Willow said hesitantly to Zan as they worked through the magical equations written in Myrreon's elegant, flowing handwriting, "but I'm curious - I'm always curious, pretty much, but specifically - I haven't ever seen anyone like you. I'm just... well, curious, like I said." Zan gave her a polite smile.

"Most people here assume I'm from Kehjistan, somewhere in the east," he said.

"Yeah, I can see why," Willow said, "I travelled pretty far up the Argentek river with my sponsor in the Zann Esu, and the people up there were similar, in some ways."

"Similar skin tones," Zan agreed, with an enigmatic little grin, "on my way west I passed as a native of those areas now and then. But I'm not from there."

"On your way west," Willow echoed, "from further east? I don't know anyone who's been further than the shores of the Sea of Light, past the mountain ranges... beyond that all anyone knows is rumours and old stories, just..."

"Wild stories," Zan nodded, "I know, I've heard them. Myrreon and Ocean know all about me, but to most people I just say I'm from Ureh, just this side of the mountains. Even with all the foreign traders who put into the docks here, that's still remote enough that no-one knows much about it, and no-one asks questions."

"How come?" Willow asked. "I mean, you don't have to explain, I was just wondering... sorry, I'll shut up now."

"That's alright," Zan said gently, "I don't mind. I'm not a fugitive or anything, I just... it was a long, difficult journey coming west, and I didn't make it without good reason. I don't really want to dwell on what I left behind. Some of the wild tales aren't so wild... I wish they were."

"I'm sorry," Willow said again, "I didn't mean to pry."

"It's alright," Zan assured her, "you've given no offence, I promise, and if you still feel you have, then consider it forgiven. After all," he chuckled, "if we weren't curious, we wouldn't be mages, would we?"

"I guess not," Willow returned his smile, then turned her attention back to the scroll. "This is a planar phase equation, isn't it? I studied some of the original Horadric scrolls on these when I was in Kurast once."

"Master Myrreon's been working on them for a while, on and off," Zan said, "between other pursuits. It's fortunate you're here, actually, the parts of the equations that deal with elemental magic have been giving us some trouble."

"It's a tricky branch of magic," Willow replied, "especially if you're used to other kinds. I mean, we start when we're seven, and it's the first and only magic a sorceress learns, and it still takes years to get the hang of it. And decades to really master it."

"I don't have the knack at all," Zan admitted, "I can do some secondary elemental spells, manipulation - earth, fire, wind, water, that kind - but primal elements, your fire and ice and lightning, they're completely beyond me. I think it might actually be a bit of a drawback, when I work on the theory behind primal fire magic I keep expecting it to behave like the fire magic I'm used to. But it's so much more powerful, and the rules seem completely different."

"Well, I'll see what I can figure out from this," Willow said, peering at the intricate equations. "I do cold magic rather than fire, but the theory is the same, and my sponsor in the Order was a fire sorceress... let's see..."

She and Zan worked on the scroll for a few minutes, him explaining the more esoteric theoretical aspects of the calculations, Willow making notes on the elemental magic aspects, until the workshop door creaked open and a tall figure in a dark green cloak and hood came in, carrying a pair of books. Zan turned and nodded for Willow to join him as he got up and moved to greet the new arrival - a woman, Willow guessed, from the way she moved, even concealed by her clothing the feminine sway of her hips and grace of her steps was obvious, almost exaggerated in fact.

"Willow," Zan said, "this is Ocean, Master Myrreon's apprentice. Ocean, this is Willow, she's the sorceress who'll be working with us for a while."

The woman handed her books to Zan, reached up with gloved hands and drew back her hood, giving Willow the second notable surprise of her day. In form she was entirely human, the dimensions and shape of her face no different to any other woman, though particularly elegant, beautiful in an aristocratic way, framed by long black hair that was drawn back into a tight braid. What was startling about her was that every inch of her skin was glistening viridian scales, shining like mother-of-pearl, and her eyes too were those of a serpent. She politely ignored Willow's surprise, nodding in greeting before making a brief sign-gesture with one hand.

"She's pleased to meet you," Zan translated.

"Um, thanks," Willow managed, "me too... hi." She smiled and extended a hand, which Ocean shook - her grip was gentle, yet with a suggestion of strength behind it, carefully controlled.

"Master?" Zan called. "Ocean's back."

"What? Oh, good!" Myrreon got up from his desk, where he and Tara had been deep in discussion, and she had now and then been demonstrating motions, as if drawing a bow. She followed him across the workshop floor, ducking beneath the arm holding the innermost planet of the orrery, which extended down further than the others to accommodate extra gearing.

"My apprentice," Myrreon said to Tara, "Ocean, this is Tara, she's... I'm sorry," he said, turning to Tara, "I forgot to ask, is it Lady Tara, or...? I'm afraid I don't know the proper form of address for an Amazon."

"Just 'Tara'," Tara said with a smile, "hello." She shook Ocean's hand, having had the advantage of seeing her as she neared to take in her unusual appearance.

"She's Willow's partner," Myrreon went on, glancing at the books Zan was carrying, "what've you got there?" Ocean made a complex gesture. "Oh, the Horadric Astronomica... both volumes? Excellent, well, we'll see what we can see with the telescope tonight, and make some adjustments to the orrery tomorrow if we have the time. Of, excuse me," he said to Willow, "if I could borrow Zan for a moment, I've been jotting down a couple of notes while your lovely partner was explaining her magic, I think they may help with that scroll you've been looking at."

All four of them followed him back to his cluttered desk, where he made a couple of additional notes to a piece of paper and peered at it in thought. Willow had to pause for a moment, to duck around the orrery, and when she caught up and stood next to Tara, something among the piled devices on the desk began to emit a low chiming sound.

"Hmm, what's that," Myrreon said absently, "it's not midday yet, is the sunlight clock running early again?"

"No, it's over there Master," Zan said, pointing to another table, "I took it apart to fix the photoreactive pentagram, remember?"

"Oh, yes," Myrreon nodded, "in that case... help me with this, would you?" With Zan's help he lifted a large wire framework decorated with crystals off the desk and set it on the floor, then began digging through the pile of smaller artefacts and devices, handing them to Zan or Ocean, who put them on shelves or other tables.

"Ah, it's... oh my word," he said, audibly surprised, "that is unusual." He reached into the pile and drew out a small box, barely three inches from edge to edge, decorated with gold patterns over a lacquered black finish.

"It's the cube?" Zan asked, with some slight disbelief.

"What's that?" Tara asked Willow.

"It's a Horadric Cube, isn't it?" Willow asked Myrreon. "I've seen one, in the Zann Esu vaults, and drawings of them of course..."

"Yes," Myrreon said, "a transmutarium, commonly called a Horadric Cube. I acquired it from my old master a few years ago, when he retired."

"It's a relic from the Sin Wars," Willow whispered to Tara, "the old Horadrim mages fashioned them to perform very powerful magic, transmutation - turning one thing into another. Not just changing things, but literally remaking them, they could turn, oh, anything, soil into metal, rainwater into potions-"

"Provided one knew the correct alignments to fix into the cube," Myrreon nodded, "which, sadly, are largely lost to the mists of time. I've been working with this one on and off since I got it, but transmutation is a very complicated art - I mean, the magic alone, to do it as a spell, takes years to learn, just for simple spells. Working out how to configure the cube to access its full range of spells... well, the possible configurations are in the millions, and reverse-analysing the magic is a very tedious, difficult procedure."

Willow took a step forward and leant over the desk, peering closely at the small device, which looked like nothing more powerful than a puzzle box. The chiming sound it was emitting increased, gaining additional harmonics.

"So why is it doing that?" Zan asked, as he, Ocean and Tara also drew closer to look at the cube.

"Objects that have been transmuted by a cube retain a, a signature of sorts. It's reacting to that," Myrreon said, picking it up. He held it close to Willow, and again its pitch increased - he drew it back, and the chiming calmed.

"It's reacting to you, my dear," he said, puzzled.

"Me?" Willow said. "I haven't been transmuted! I would've noticed, surely..."

"Something you're carrying, most likely," Myrreon said, "your staff, perhaps? Was it made for you, or were you given it? Does it have any unusual properties?"

"This?" Willow said, glancing at her plain wooden staff. "Um, my sponsor in the Order gave it to me, it was one of hers I think... but it's not powerful, I mean it seems to have a knack for energy control, but pretty much any sorceress would have a staff with some kind of magical ability imbued into it. Besides, it wouldn't fit in that little thing."

"Oh, the cube's dimensions are variable, if you know how to work it," Myrreon said. Willow shrugged, stood back and handed her staff to Tara, then took a step closer to the desk again. The cube reacted just as it had before.

"Not the staff, then," she said. Over the next couple of minutes she patiently emptied the pouches on her belt, passing each tiny scroll, vial or charm to Tara, who put them into a bag Ocean handed her. She finished divesting herself of all her usual equipment, and glared at the cube, as if it were doing this on purpose.

"Well it's not my robes," she complained patting the other empty pouches on her belt, "and I don't have any other... oh, wait," she said, reaching into a pocket, "I thought I'd got everything... oh, this." She held up the medallion she and Tara had found in the monastery.

"That?" Tara wondered. Willow held it closer to the cube, which chimed more shrilly.

"Interesting," Myrreon said, "may I?" Willow handed him the gold disc and he peered at it intently. "Mmm, some religious significance, but no particular markings that would indicate magical properties, where did you get it?"

"The Kotram monastery," Willow said, "the renegade mage there had taken it from the chapel... what is it?"

"I don't know," the old mage said, "I would guess... camouflage? Something important that's been transmuted to keep it from being found, perhaps. That mage, he died, didn't he? The Duke said he was dead, is that right?"

"Yes," Willow said, "he took his own life just before we arrived. He... from what he wrote, it looks like the demon he was serving drove him insane."

"Ah," Myrreon nodded sadly, "yes, dreadful business... but I suppose, given that, there's no obvious danger in seeing what this might contain."

"You don't think it might be dangerous?" Tara asked, gently putting a protective hand around Willow's arm.

"I doubt it," Myrreon said, "the fact that the cube is resonating means that the object, whatever it used to be, was originally transmuted by another Horadric Cube, and the cubes were built with all kinds of safeguards to keep them from being used by demons, or humans under the sway of demons. I don't think this would pose us any threat... we might get an idea about what was going on down south, though, if we knew what that poor wretch was trying to find. Ocean, pay attention, this won't be something you see often. Zan, have a nullification spell ready, just to be on the safe side. Now then..."

With Willow, Tara and Zan watching from a few paces away, and Ocean watching attentively from the side of the desk, Myrreon began methodically dismantling the cube. Muttering under his breath he traced his fingers over its surface, sometimes following the gold patterns set into it, sometimes completely different. With every pattern he traced a piece of the cube would slide out, and the chiming melody coming from it would change. Finally there was only the edges of the cube, a hollow frame, with tiny puzzle-like pieces surrounding it on the desk.

"Well, that's the easy part done," Myrreon said. He delicately opened the frame, bending back the tiny hinges at each corner to lay it out flat, and placed the medallion in the centre of it. Then he closed the frame back around it, lifting each edge into place and latching it back into the shape of a cube. The pieces of the cube sparkled dimly, and the chiming slowly faded to silence. The medallion never moved, exactly, but somehow by the time the cube's frame was back in place, it was suspended in the exact centre, and seemed a good deal smaller, not as if it had shrunk, but more as if it were being seen from some distance away.

"How's it doing that?" Willow wondered.

"Good, isn't it?" Myrreon chuckled to himself. "You see, the cube's edges have a certain inherent dimensional component to them, so as you close the cube, whatever is inside it becomes subverted from the mortal plane, and exists in a parallel plane created within the cube's phase space."

"Sorry, what was that again?" Tara asked.

"The outside of it is smaller than the inside," Willow translated.

"Is that possible?"

"Well," Willow shrugged, "five minutes ago I'd have said no. I've never actually seen one of these in action."

"Few people have," Myrreon said, "Ocean, would you get my notebook, the one with the cube formulae? Thank you." The snake woman crossed to a bookshelf and drew out a slim volume, opening it as she returned and placing it on the desk in front of Myrreon.

"Now, what we want to do is reverse the existing transmutation," he explained, "fortunately that's a fairly simple configuration... you see, changing one thing into another requires that the cube be configured, given instructions if you like, to define what it is that is being put into it, and what it must be turned into. An that's quite a bit more complicated than asking for a magic sword, you have to..." he paused, and flipped through the pages, "ah, here we are... you have to define virtually every particle and energy state, which is no easy thing. Fortunately, once a transmutation has occurred, it... Zan, could you fetch my magnifying glass? Yes, once a transmutation has occurred, the form or the original components remains suspended within the particulate composition of the final product, sort of like a, a blueprint in the core of it. All we have to do is set the cube to unwind that blueprint and apply it back to the subject, and the spell will, in effect, undo itself. At least," he glanced back with a smile, "that's the theory, I've only ever managed it with very simple objects that I've managed to transmute here in the first place, so this could be tricky..."

Frequently referring to his notes, Myrreon slowly rebuilt the sides of the cube from the pieces scattered over the desk. Willow took a step closer to peer at the patterns on the reassembled cube, finding as she had suspected they were different than they had been - the mage was putting the pieces into different positions.

"The transmutation is controlled by how you assemble the cube?" she guessed.

"Yes, that's right," Myrreon nodded, still working, "and as you can see, there's a hundred and fifty pieces, each of them potentially taking any position on any of the six faces of the cube, so the permutations alone are incredibly extensive."

"That's..." Willow's brow furrowed in thought, "that's a lot... a big lot... five point seven to... drat... power of five hundred and fifty... something?" Ocean gestured briefly.

"She says you're pretty close," Zan translated. "She's got a mathematical mind like no-one I've ever known." He gave her a brief smile, which she returned, and Willow was struck by how human it made her seem, despite her serpentine appearance.

"And that's just the combinations," Myrreon went on, "it also depends on which order the pieces are put in, which orientation they have... according to the texts I've read, the remaining pieces of a partially completed cube have been known to alter their shape and surface detail, though I've never managed to achieve that effect. Luckily, as I said, reversing a transmutation is relatively simple."

He worked patiently for a while longer, then finally stood back, with the small box intact in the centre of the desk.

"Now what?" Willow asked.

"Hmm? Oh," the mage said, reaching out, "of course... we activate it, and... well, see what happens." He touched the centre of the upper face of the cube, then stood back with a satisfied expression. There was a low chiming, then the top of the cube lifted up, parts of it sliding out of the base, rising in a star-shape. When the extruded segment reached the top of its travel it rotated around and sunk back into place, ninety degrees away from its original position, but once more in the form of a cube. For a moment, Willow had thought she glimpsed tiny crystals and geometric structures of light through the gaps in the faces.

"And there we have it," Myrreon said triumphantly, stepping forward. He opened the top of the cube as if it were just a box, and folded the sides down to reveal a gleaming gold ring, slightly larger across than the cube had been, despite having been contained within it a moment ago. It was flat like a disc, about an inch wide from its outer edge to the inner, five inches across in all, and completely featureless.

"What is it?" Tara and Willow both said at once. Myrreon picked it up and peered at it.

"Well, I was rather hoping you would be able to tell me," he said, "it doesn't correspond to anything you saw at the monastery?" At their blank looks, he looked to Zan, who shrugged, and Ocean, who took a quick look at it, gestured, and headed towards a nearby bookshelf.

"Well, my apprentice will see if she can find any mention of something like this in one of the Vizjerei catalogues of artefacts and relics, but I must say I don't think it'll be there - it doesn't seem magical at all, and I'm normally quite sensitive to magical auras, unless this has some kind of magic too subtle to detect. Well," he said, handing the flattened ring to Willow, "we'll do what analyses we can on it this afternoon, you might be interested in observing the spells for compositional determination, I don't have cause to use them very often. And of course you must tell me as much as you know about what happened at the monastery... but you know, I rather think this might be a red herring."

Willow looked sceptically at the disc.

"It's a what?"

"Hmm? Oh, figure of speech," Myrreon explained, "something that seems important but is actually irrelevant to the matter at hand. The renegade was, as you say, insane, he may have felt something vital to whatever devilry he was up to was concealed in that medallion, when in fact it was... this." He peered again at the disc. "Quite plain, isn't it? Looks a bit like one of those weapons, what are they called? They use them on the eastern shore of the Sea of Light, twirl them around their fingers and let them loose, they fly quite a way..."

"Chakra," Zan offered.

"Yes, that's it," Myrreon agreed, "it's not a weapon, I'm sure, at least not a magical one, there's certainly not the kind of power in it you'd need to generate a destructive force. Odd. Oh well," he clapped his hands together, "shall we order up lunch?"

Tara said her goodbyes after lunch, thanking Myrreon for his time and interest, saying a few words to Zan and Ocean, and giving Willow a kiss before she left the tower and headed back to their room. She found Lissa in her usual waiting room on the floor below, leafing idly through a newspaper.

"I could use some local knowledge," she explained when the attendant asked if she could be of service. "I've got an appointment later this afternoon, but there's enough time to go out before then. Willow and I will be in the Duke's party going to the opera house tonight..."

"I know Miss," Lissa said, "I'll be along with the other servants, if you need anything."

"Oh? Good, thank you," Tara smiled, "but what I need is... well, all I've got for formal occasions is my armour, the ceremonial set, and this isn't really that kind of occasion anyway, but the other dresses I brought are more, well, everyday clothes. I was wondering, would you know anywhere I could get a, well," she gave a shy smile, "something nice to wear? I-I'd like to look good for Willow tonight."

"That shouldn't be a problem for you, Miss," Lissa said, "if you don't mind me saying so... and I think I know just the place."

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Fifty

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