Return to Hellebore Chapter Fifty-Five


Author: Chris Cook
Rating: NC-17
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.

Tara awoke with memories of warm, content dreams, to a warm, content bed. She recognised the feel of Willow in her arms, even before her mind had cleared enough to take stock of her position. The softness beneath her cheek was unmistakeable - she smiled and cuddled up, her head resting on Willow's chest, one arm lazily draped around her waist, the other stretched out, up beneath the pillows, beneath the weight of Willow's head.

She realised, though, that this morning it was Willow who was holding her, gently, reassuringly, one hand on her back, the other in her hair, as if she had fallen asleep while stroking it. Tara couldn't remember exactly when they had succumbed to sleep. They hadn't made love the night before, but a long time had been spent holding each other, whispering comforting words, their hands slowly moving the length of each other's limbs and bodies, their lips pausing now and then to bestow kisses - sharing the moments.

And now Willow was holding her, just as she had found herself once falling into the habit of doing for Willow, from when they first began sleeping in the same bed - she would keep Willow's nightmares at bay, and with her arms around her lover be content in the knowledge that they would both sleep soundly.

'Now she's making sure I sleep soundly,' Tara realised with a warm smile. She knew Willow deeply regretted having upset her, in her panic over the vision she had seen - and as much as she wished she could simply relieve her of that burden, she could hardly have pretended that she had been unaffected by the prospect of a tearful, fearful Willow leaving her, in the belief that it was the only way to keep her safe. She had done her best to soothe Willow, and let her see that her own anxieties were soothed in return, and in time, she knew, the fright would be only a memory.

But for now, it seemed, in her sleep Willow felt the need to make it plain she was here to stay - that her promise last night, despite the ill omens hovering over them, to stay with Tara forever was sincere. Tara would never wish any turmoil on Willow, but her reaction was so sweet, so thoughtful, so... so Willow, that she couldn't help grinning, and tilting her head to place an impish kiss on her breast.

"Mmm... wassat... Tara," Willow mumbled to herself.

"Mmm-hmm," Tara replied, reaching her tongue out to lightly lick the nipple that had been tempting her since her eyes opened.

"Mmm! Oooh... good morning."

"Yup," Tara agreed. Willow giggled sleepily, and her hand in Tara's hair began stroking gently, smoothing the occasional tangle from the night's sleep.

"Sleep well?" Willow asked idly.

"Wonderfully." Tara worked her arms around Willow's waist, and together they rolled onto their sides, embracing one another. With Willow's breasts right in her face, Tara couldn't resist taking a nipple into her mouth and sucking teasingly.

"Mmm... ah yeah..." Willow sighed. She arched her back, offering herself to Tara's lips, her fingers clutching reflexively at Tara's back as her tongue teased its prey to attention, in preparation for a gentle bite that sent shivers down Willow's spine.

"Yesss," she hissed with delight, "goddess... come here and kiss me, beautiful." Tara obediently released Willow's nipple, with a soft, parting nibble, and shifted up the bed to come level with her. Their mouths met, and Tara took full advantage of Willow's enthusiastically inviting kiss, claiming her mouth and exploring the fun to be had playing with her tongue. She held Willow's bottom lip between her teeth as she leaned back a fraction, eliciting an excited gasp.

"So," Willow murmured, gathering her wits, "you woke up frisky, huh?" Tara's lower hand moved down towards Willow's bottom, her fingertips stroking the top of the cleft between her cheeks.

"Didn't you?" she asked.

Willow opened her mouth to answer, then paused, and her smile became a sly grin.

"Wait and see," she said enigmatically. "Fancy a shower before breakfast?"

"I fancy a Willow before breakfast," Tara purred.

"Oh, you'll get one," Willow chuckled. Tara raised an enquiring eyebrow, but whatever Willow had in mind, she apparently didn't intend to explain it. 'I guess I get to find out the fun way,' Tara mused. She leaned in for a kiss, which she had intended to be quick, but which turned out to be quite prolonged, as Willow wound her hands through Tara's hair, held her, and her tongue took the initiative, quickly gaining the upper hand over Tara's and exploring her mouth at her leisure.

"Love you," Tara whispered blissfully when Willow released her.

"Love you too," Willow replied. She gave Tara a quick kiss on the tip of her nose, then snaked a hand down beneath the covers to grab her backside and give a cheeky squeeze, which made Tara jump slightly, and press herself into Willow's embrace.

"Ah-ha," Tara said, regaining her composure, "this is a 'tease Tara' day, is it?"

"It might be," Willow admitted.

"Good. I like those days." Tara slid elegantly to her feet off the side of the bed, catching Willow's hand as it left her waist. She bent down to give it a kiss, then stood upright and turned to the dresser, as Willow sat up on the bed behind her.

As usual the fire had petered out sometime during the night, and there was a mild chill in the air, a hint of the approaching winter in spite of the bright sunlight visible through the window, and streaming in on the opposite side of the room. Tara opened a drawer, intending to wear one of the robes that had been provided for them with the room, then paused as the corner of a garment from her own clothes caught her eye.

'What'll keep me warm better,' she thought to herself with a grin, 'a long, thick robe, or my embarrassingly short black robe and Willow staring at me? No contest there.' She slipped the robe over her shoulders and tied the sash around her waist, deliberately hitching the waist up a little, so that the hem only just reached her thighs. 'As if it's not revealing enough already,' she smiled, 'Tara, you are shameless.'

She forced herself not to look towards the bed as she padded around the room, busying herself replacing the candles that had burned down during the night with new ones, but she could feel Willow's eyes following her every move. She exaggerated the sway of her hips a little, and made a point of leaning forward, rather than simply reaching down, to get the candles mounted low on the wall above the writing desk, and around the dining table. The silk against her upper thighs and bottom, pulling tight as she leant over, was like a caress, but it was the entirely imagined caress of Willow's gaze that went straight to Tara's core, and added to the moist bounty gathering between her legs.

'Oh goddess,' Tara thought to herself, 'she's got to give in soon, doesn't she? I can feel her watching me... oh wow, since when does walking feel this sexy? I can't take this, a few more seconds and I'll be all over her... come on baby, come get me...'

Her patience was rewarded as, when she stopped to unload the spent candle ends in the metal bin by the door, she heard Willow's soft footsteps, first barely audible on the carpet, then clearer, on the wood. Her arms went around her waist, and Tara braced herself against the door frame as Willow pressed the full length of her naked form against her back, with only the silk separating them. She nuzzled in Tara's hair, kissing her neck as she leaned over her shoulder.

"Have I told you today," she asked, "that you're the sexiest being ever to walk the earth?"

"Not yet," Tara murmured happily, "not in words, at least..."

"I should have," Willow replied, nibbling Tara's earlobe.

"You just did," Tara managed to say.

"Where did you get this, anyway?" Willow asked, running a fingertip along the inside of the neck of Tara's robe.

"Hmm? Oh... a couple of years ago, just on a whim, really. This sort of thing is... ahhh," she sighed, as Willow wrapped an arm tightly around her waist and held her, "um... pretty standard... for sleepwear at home. It's only in midwinter that it gets really cold..."

"And the incredible sexiness?" Willow prompted. "Or is it just that all Amazon clothing is incredibly sexy? I'll believe that."

"Well... it's kind of funny to think back to," Tara admitted, "some of the girls I was training with would swap stories about boyfriends and girlfriends, and... well, the odd licentious detail here and there. I didn't really contribute much, but I listened in. And, it sounded... comforting, in a way, you know? To have someone think you're sexy, desirable. I got this just to wear at home, sometimes - only in my room, I was too shy to be seen in it by anyone - just because it made me feel sexy." She grinned at the memories. "I liked just wearing it, while I was reading, or doing stretches, or just doing nothing much. I guess it let me imagine someone thinking I was sexy."

"Then it's a very prescient garment," Willow said earnestly, "you are sexy." She gently turned Tara around, and stepped forward into her embrace. Lowering herself slightly, she straddled the thigh between her legs, and Tara grinned at the heat and moisture she felt pressed against her skin.

"That," Willow said, "is from watching you." Tara shook her head in wonder, then leaned down to kiss her. Willow moaned quietly as Tara's mouth caught hers, and brought her hands up between them, cupping Tara's breasts.

"Mmm," she murmured, rubbing her thumbs over Tara's stiff nipples, clearly visible as little peaks beneath the silk. "So when you wore this at home, did it turn you on like this as well?"

"That," Tara said huskily, "is from you, watching me."

"Yeah?" Willow asked.

"Yeah. I can feel your eyes on me." Tara paused in gracing Willow's cheek and jaw with kissed and looked into her eyes. "When you watch me, I... I can feel it. All over, like lying in a bath full of hot water. Touching me everywhere, all at once." Her voice fell to a sultry whisper, as the right words came to her. "When you look at me... your gaze enters me. Parts my folds... delves inside, deep... touches all the secret places that belong only to you. No-one else can even look at me like you do."

Willow was trembling with desire, and when Tara licked open her mouth and tasted her again she hugged her tight, and through their joined lips gave herself so readily that Tara had only to accept her to possess her.

"Goddess," she whispered against Willow's lips, "you're soaking..." The heat against her thigh was intense, the moisture copious enough to trickle across her skin, leaving trails that were hot against the morning's chill.

"Yeah," Willow murmured quickly, "what'cha gonna do about it?" She spared a second to give Tara a teasing grin, then returned herself to her questing mouth. Tara thrust her thigh forward, meeting Willow's rolling hips, making her gasp as her sex pressed against firm muscle.

"I'm going to make love to you," Tara purred, "right here, on this very spot..." One arm held Willow around her waist, while the other hand worked its way down between them, her fingertips sampling Willow's folds, then venturing closer, parting them, nestling in between.

"Right now," she said, straightening two fingers and driving into Willow's core as her other arm pulled her close.

"Gods!" Willow exclaimed. "Oh gods, oh my goddess..." Her hands flew to the back of Tara's head, holding her as she leaned in for a fiery, passionate kiss. Tara thrust again, deeper this time, and Willow's legs trembled. Feeling Tara take her weight with the arm around her, she leaned into her embrace and raised one leg, curling it around Tara's hips, pulling herself onto her thrusting fingers.

"So good," she whispered frantically, between bouts of kissing, "oh goddess so good, that's it, oh that's it, right there, yes!" Tara's outstretched fingers were finding their mark perfectly, sending shocks of excitement and need through her, while her thumb slid through her slick folds, brushing against her clit with every forward stroke her hand made.

"Yes baby," Tara whispered, "I love you Willow, I love you, I've got you-"

Willow realised her meaning as the grip around her waist tightened, and she leant cautiously back, trying to control her body despite the shuddering spasms running through her. Tara drew back her fingers, added a third fingertip to those partway inside Willow, and made sure of her grip around her waist as she lifted her other leg, crossing her ankles behind Tara's back, gripping her waist with her thighs. Her own weight drove her down onto Tara's fingers, as deep as could be, and she let her head fall back and let out a delighted squeal at the sensation of being filled with her lover, at opening her core to her and receiving in return the most exquisite pleasure as Tara's fingers and thumb went to work, inside and out, stroking, pressing, rubbing and circling, teasing and fulfilling.

"Oh Tara," Willow moaned, heaving her hips against her, "oh Tara, that's so, so, so, oh, oh goddess, oh goddess yes, yes! Yes!" With a final abandoned yell she gripped Tara's shoulders, looked up at her as her body convulsed, whispered silent words of love into Tara's gaze as her core clenched and released.

"Oh goddess," she shuddered, gingerly loosening the grip her legs had around Tara's body. Tara supported her until her feet were firmly back on the ground, her soaked fingers drawing a trail of moisture from the apex of Willow's thighs to her hip as she gently withdrew and held her.

"Wow," Willow whispered, "oh, wow... you could tell those girls back in your warrior school a thing or two about sexy... that was... that was-"

"Hmm?" Tara asked gently, kissing Willow's neck and shoulder as she inhaled the scent of her hair.

"Primal," Willow finally gasped, "like, like the ocean, just... just pure, and powerful. Oh my gods I love you."

"I know," Tara replied, "that's pure, and powerful." Willow laughed contentedly, pure joy, and turned her head to meet Tara's lips.

"You don't hold back," she whispered in between kisses, "I love that... I love everything about you."

"Why hold back?" Tara grinned.

"Darned right," Willow agreed, "when you take me, baby, I'm well and truly taken... it's amazing."

"You're amazing," Tara murmured, "I love you, my sweet Willow."

"Mmm," Willow purred as Tara tenderly squeezed her waist, "so, how about that shower? I promise Willowy goodness."

"Sold," Tara chuckled, keeping hold of Willow's hand as they parted and moved toward the bathroom.

"You're feeling better?" she asked gently. Willow smiled and nodded.

"Yeah," she said, "yeah, I am... I realised something I'd kind of figured out part-way, in the back of my mind, but I don't think I'd ever really thought it to myself until just now when I was sitting up in bed watching you. And I guess last night was part of it as well, when you took care of me, and made me feel safe in spite of everything that'd happened... you said everything right, and it wasn't just because you were trying to say the right things, it was... it was because you love me."

"I do," Tara smiled.

"I realised it doesn't matter what might happen," Willow went on, giving Tara's hand an affectionate squeeze, her thumb caressing the back, "whatever fate does, it's not up to us, and anything we can't control, well, we can't control. But what is up to us is, is us... how we live our lives, and I realised that that's where we win, where, where fate can't touch us. Every moment we have, is ours, whether it's a moment where we change the future and defy destiny and everything, or, or whether it's just like this, just being together, and being in love and enjoying it."

She and Tara sat on the bench by the tub, and Tara gave her full attention, sensing the import of Willow's words.

"That's what I realised," Willow went on, "that what we have is worth everything, and worth risking everything for, because the moments we have together are ours, and no-one can take them away from us. That I, we, we can live each day and fill it with love, and share it together, not because we're worried it might end, or what might happen next, but just... just because we can. Treasure each moment, not out of fear of losing them, but because..." she fixed Tara with a stare that was full of unwavering devotion, "because every moment with you is a treasure."

Tara returned her stare with equal devotion, lifting her hand to tenderly stroke Willow's cheek.

"For me too," she whispered, leaning in to kiss her. Their mouths opened, sampled each other - there was nothing hurried, and though Tara felt the caress of Willow's lips go straight to her heart and core, and from her lover's trembling knew she was having the same effect, she knew also that their passion would be all the sweeter for being prolonged.

"Love you," Tara whispered as their lips parted.

"Love you," Willow echoed. She leaned back to her for a moment, just long enough to give a teasing nibble to her lower lip, then stood and took one of the thick bathrobes from the wall.

"I'll go order breakfast," she offered, "give you a bit of bathroom private time." Tara nodded, and reached out to tie the sash around Willow's waist as she pulled the robe on.

"I'll have a nice hot shower going by the time you get back," she promised.

"Just how I like my showers," Willow grinned, "hot, steamy, and full of Amazon."

"Don't be long," Tara teased.

Tara swayed out of the bathroom, smiling to herself and idly playing with the sash on her robe. Willow had been more than attentive during their shower - she had take it upon herself to bathe Tara, and every inch of her skin, without exception, was now tingling with the memory of Willow's hands lovingly caressing her. Willow had teased her mercilessly throughout, and Tara was sure, judging by the looks she had noticed from her partner as she had dried herself, that she had plenty more in store.

"Be out in a minute," she had promised, with a gleeful sparkle in her eyes, when Tara had offered to answer a knock at the door.

Jesye did a double-take when Tara opened the door, but to her credit recovered and gave no further hint that Tara's attire was more alluring than usual as she brought in the breakfast tray, and accepted her thanks with a polite nod. Tara was sure she noticed a knowing smirk on the servant's lips as she closed the door on her way out, and stole a glance at herself in the mirror - she giggled at the sight of the blushing, scantily-clad Amazon looking back at her.

"What's funny?" Willow asked, appearing in the bathroom door behind her in a long white robe.

"I think I surprised Jesye," Tara grinned, gesturing at her own robe. Willow laughed lightly.

"Naughty Amazon," she jovially scolded, "giving the servants ideas. Next thing you know she'll be wearing the shortest skirt she can find whenever Zan's around, and he'll never be able to concentrate on his spells then." She sidled up to Tara and put an arm around her, plucking a strawberry off the tray and offering it to Tara's lips.

"And you call yourself shy," she went on, as Tara smiled and bit the tip off the fruit, licking the juice from her lips.

"I am shy," she protested with a grin. "Kind of... sometimes..."

"Yeah, sure," Willow chuckled, biting a tiny piece off the strawberry for herself, "so, about that time you stripped naked and made love to me under a table in a busy marketplace...?"

"Oh, that," Tara said, as if it was a momentary aberration, "well, you know how it is..."

"Uh-huh," Willow grinned knowingly, "I bet you're just putting it on because you know it excites me. To know there's a wild, passionate lover underneath that shy exterior."

"Or maybe I'm a shy girl who's wild and passionate because you excite me," Tara countered.

"Maybe," Willow conceded, "either way... we fit together well, don't we?"

"We do," Tara agreed. "Are you hungry, or...?"

"I'm hungry," Willow said with a mischievous grin, "and I know exactly what I'm going to eat." She untied the sash around Tara's waist and slipped it free of the robe's loops. Staying close to Tara, their bodies brushing together, she slipped behind her and raised the sash to her face, covering her eyes with a little, questioning "Hmm?"

"Mmm," Tara murmured, letting her know it was alright. She felt Willow tie the blindfold, loose but secure enough, then sensed her stand back. 'Admiring her handiwork,' she thought gleefully. Then she was close again, and her lips brushed against Tara's for a moment.

"You like?" Willow whispered - giving her every chance to gracefully change her mind, Tara realised.

"You'd be amazed," she purred in reply, "how heightened the other senses become, when you can't rely on sight."

"Oh?" She could hear the grin she knew was quirking up the corners of Willow's mouth. "How heightened is that?" A flick of Willow's tongue on her lips, then she moved, nudged aside the robe, which had fallen half-open across Tara's chest, and her tongue was on her nipple instead. Tara wanted to answer, but could only manage an aroused whimper as Willow skilfully teased her nipples, moving left and right, back and forth, licking each to attention, and sending waves of pleasure coruscating from the little nubs deep into her body.

"I think you like my tongue," Willow murmured happily. Tara nodded, gasping for breath as her heart hammered in her chest. "Thought so," Willow went on, "lips, nipples... breasts..." She paused for a moment, licking Tara's cleavage thoroughly. "Stomach," her insatiable tongue danced across Tara's skin, dipping briefly into her navel in passing. Then the touches ceased, Tara felt Willow stand back, and she stood there, chest heaving, shuddering with arousal, desperate.

"All sorts of places you like my tongue," Willow commented, "but... I think there's somewhere you really want me... somewhere special you want- you need to feel me lick you. Isn't there?"

"Uh-huh," Tara managed, arousal clouding her mind.

"Show me," Willow whispered, "show me where you want me to taste." Tara felt Willow briefly touch her hand, and extended her trembling fingers, bringing them hesitantly to the apex of her legs.

"Here," she sighed, gingerly touching her clit - even that slight, momentary contact made her body plead for more, such that it was willpower alone that let her pull back her fingers. 'She's touching herself,' she realised, all her senses fixed on Willow, 'her scent... watching me, and touching herself, oh goddess...'

"Where else?" Willow asked lightly.

'Oh goddess,' Tara thought desperately, 'oh my Willow goddess, don't you know what you're doing to me? How tortuous it is to feel my fingers there, and have to pull back?' Her fingertips brushed, as gently as she could, against the folds of her sex, gathering some of the copious moisture gracing her.

"Here," she said in a whisper, trying with all her might to ignore her body's pleas for immediate satisfaction. She felt a tremor in her senses, a slight brush of air against her as Willow moved her arm, and then caught a hint of her scent, closer. 'Tasting herself,' she realised, 'oh goddess, oh please baby, let me taste you, anything for you...'

"And...?" Willow prompted silkily.

'She knows,' Tara decided giddily, 'she knows exactly what's happening inside me, she knows what I'm feeling... I'm torturing myself for her, tormenting myself... she knows, she's wet...' With only her determination to please Willow keeping her from falling to her knees and ravaging herself, she lowered her hand, until her fingertip rested in her entrance, and then, very deliberately, very slowly, finding a perverse pleasure in denying herself any more, drove it to the hilt within herself.

"H... h-here," she gasped, barely keeping her balance on legs that suddenly seemed to be made of jelly. Willow's arms were around her in an instant, holding her steady, holding her close, securely but not for an instant breaking the aura she had cast over her.

"Good, baby," she whispered in Tara's ear, "so good... that was difficult, wasn't it? You need, don't you baby? So much... but you did it, for me..."

"Yes," Tara nodded, her breathing deep and rapid. Willow touched her arm gently, signalling her to withdraw from herself, and with a shudder that almost made her stumble, she drew her finger, now soaked, from her sex.

"May I?" Willow asked. Tara lifted her hand, and felt Willow lean forwards to take the digit into her mouth as soon as possible, where she lavished the attention of her tongue on it, licking and sucking as it if were the sole object of her desire. At the same time Tara scented Willow, felt her fingertip touch her lips, and eagerly accepted the offered finger, satisfying a hunger far deeper than mere physical need as she devoured the sweet juices from it.

"I promise baby," Willow purred once she released Tara's finger, and withdrew her own, "you'll get everything you want... here," her finger caressed Tara's clit briefly, drawing a deep moan from her, "here," lower, between her nether lips, teasing, "and here," she gifted Tara with a momentary venture into her passage, the penetration brief and shallow, but promising so much more. That tiny caress made Tara cling to Willow, all composure deserting her, leaving her sobbing with arousal.

"Your body's so hungry," Willow cooed, "hmm, can't have you falling over... you need something to hold onto," her tongue teased Tara's earlobe, and her next words came hot and breathy, whispered, "while I eat you up." She let Tara steady herself, then led her by the hand to where Tara knew the doors to the balcony were. Tara hesitated as she heard the doors open, and the breeze from outside flutter the edges of her short robe.

"We're high up," Willow said reassuringly, "there's no towers nearby, no-one'll see... you don't have to." The last was said so kindly, so compassionately, without even the slightest hint of reproach or disappointment, that Tara's heart swelled with love. She had given Willow's hand a gentle squeeze and taken a step forward even before she remembered, from when she had glanced out on the balcony previously, that Willow was quite right - they would be tiny specks to anyone looking up from even the nearest vantage point.

The morning sun was warm on her face, her arms and legs, and where it snuck in the open from of Tara's robe, completely banishing the chill from the gentle breeze sweeping across the city's rooftops. Her robe fluttered again as the wind caught it and tugged at it.

"Make sure that doesn't blow away," Willow said, with a smile in her voice, "it looks too good for you to lose it."

"Better put it someplace safe, then," Tara said with a surge of boldness, the sunlight and the breeze, nature on her skin, putting her entirely at ease. Picturing Willow's appreciative stare in her mind, she casually shrugged the robe from her shoulders, caught it in one hand, and tossed it back behind her into the bedroom. Tilting her head towards where she knew Willow was standing, she stood tall, chin up, hands on her waist, hips provocatively forward, naked before her lover and the morning sun.

"You look... oh my goddess," Willow said in a hushed, awed voice. "Beautiful, proud... powerful... perfect..."


"You're... magnificent."

"I'll have to take your word for it," Tara grinned, touching a finger to her blindfold.

"D-do you want to take it off?" Willow offered. Tara shook her head.

"Leave it," she said, "I like it... besides," she added, her tone completely devoid of humour, "I have to wear something..." Willow's laugh was music to her ears.

"Come here," Willow chuckled, leading her forward another step. Tara knew, from memory, that she was quite safe on the high balcony - the parapet, stone with wrought-iron topping it, was such that it would be impossible to fall over it, short of making a running vault. Willow halted her, and with a gentle hand on her back had her lean forwards. Guided by Willow, her outstretched arms found the parapet's topmost railing, her fingers closing around the smooth, strong iron.

"Hold on baby," Willow whispered in her ear, "I'm gonna take you for a ride."

Tara felt her crouch down beneath her, breaths of hot air welling up against her breasts, her stomach, her waist, lower. Willow's hands touched her thighs, then flattened, fingers spread, her arms against Tara's skin as she curled her forearms around her legs, holding her tightly as her lips neared their goal.

"Do you know what it's like," she whispered reverently, "to taste a goddess?"

"I know," Tara sighed, anticipation building as she felt Willow's breath caress the curls of soaked hair on her mound, "I know exactly..." At the merest encouragement from Willow she moved her feet, spreading her legs wide, opening herself to her lover. She imagined how she appeared to Willow, naked, wanton, vulnerable, her whole body pleading to be touched, a wild animal to be tamed. Trickles of her juices drew paths down the insides of her thighs.

The touch of Willow's lips on her sex was like a bolt from the heavens, electrifying Tara, a revelation that what she had taken for need was just a pale imitation of what was now in her, yearning for satisfaction. She bent her knees, rolled her hips, pressed herself into Willow's willing mouth, her grip like iron on the railing, the muscles in her arms and legs flexing powerfully as she writhed in Willow's loving embrace of her centre.

Willow gave her exactly what she so desperately needed - no preamble, no teasing now, but sensation heaped upon sensation, her lips and tongue everywhere on Tara's most intimate secret, devouring her. Ecstatic moans welled up in Tara's throat, entirely without volition, escaping as she drew deep, laboured breaths that shuddered her whole body. Willow seemed to possess her more completely with every passing moment, her head tilted back, mouth open wide against her mound, tongue outstretched, within her.

"Oh yes!" Tara wailed, "Oh goddess yes! Yes baby, yes, yes, just like that baby, deeper, more, oh goddess..." Her mind was a whirl of pleasure as Willow satisfied every plea she voiced, her mouth fire over Tara's sex.

She felt, amid the haze of passion, Willow's hand moving, a finger touching her lips, bathing in her arousal. She couldn't help a surprised intake of breath when she felt the fingertip venture farther back, between her cheeks, brushing over the untested little delight hidden there. Willow paused, her mouth still working furiously, but her hand steady.

"Ahhh," Tara gasped, unable to form words, but when she thrust herself back, towards Willow's questioning touch, her invitation was clear enough. Slippery with the juice of Tara's own lust, Willow entered her easily, her single digit nestling within her, wriggling in its new playground, as she eagerly lapped up the river of arousal flooding from Tara into her mouth.

"Goddess!" Tara exclaimed, somehow finding speech again, "oh goddess! I'm coming! I'm coming baby! Oh goddess I'm coming, I'm coming, taste me baby, oh goddess taste me!" Willow blissfully complied, sparing not a single drop as she clung to Tara's bucking hips, swaying beneath her to keep her lips firmly spread beneath her core. Tara, hyper-aware of every sensation, felt Willow's free hand vanish from her thigh, and knew its destination as she felt Willow's own moans, humming against her skin, change from arousal to climax. Her channel gushed anew at the mere thought.

Slowly, with many a shuddering aftershock, the bounty of which Willow diligently gathered with the feather-soft caresses of her lips, Tara sank blissfully to the balcony floor, the smooth wood cool beneath her flushed, sweating skin. A hand bearing Willow's scent gently lifted the silk sash from her eyes, and the first thing Tara saw as she blinked in the sunlight was Willow smiling at her, her gaze carrying a message as clear as if it were written on a page - unfathomable gratitude, simply for allowing her to please her lover so. Tara gently cupped her face, and kissed her as softly and tenderly as she knew how.

When Willow and Tara finally sat down to breakfast, after a second, brief shower to freshen up, the tea was no longer piping hot, but neither minded. They sampled the fruits and sweetbread, glancing now and then at each other with knowing smiles.

"I was thinking I'd visit the university today," Willow said, buttering a slice of bread, "you know, meet the mages they've got working on the problem with Shadai, see if they've uncovered anything new. There might be some detail that turns out to be important, you never know. I can't really say 'hey, a necromancer warned me something nasty is going to happen,' but it won't seem odd if I ask around, just to keep up to date with whatever they've figured out so far."

"I don't have to be at the barracks until the afternoon, I'll come with you?" Willow grinned and nodded. "Do you still want to visit Amalee?"

"Yeah," Willow smiled, "I'd like that."

"Well, I could drop by Brydan's house this morning, and catch up with you at the university. If they're not busy we could have lunch with them."

"That'd be good," Willow agreed, "how about this, I'll go up to Myrreon's tower and let Ocean know what's going on - not the specifics, just that we're worried something might be going to happen - and she can tell me who to talk to at the university, that'll save some time. And you can go check with Brydan at the same time, and we'll meet outside the university."

"Okay," Tara nodded. "Do you think she'll be able to help?"

"Ocean? Maybe. She's an apprentice, but Myrreon's said she's very capable in her own right. I think if she were apprenticed to your average mage she'd have finished by now, it's just that Myrreon's got so much to teach her. And astronomy as a magic is pretty specialised, I've learned a bit about it, but really if you don't do it you don't know it - that's what they say, anyway. She might be able to see some sign I'd miss."

"She knows about Shadai?"

"Myrreon said she'd have all the information she needed, if anything happened while he was away. I'll make sure she knows everything that might be useful. Not that we know this is because of Shadai, but... well, it'd be a pretty big coincidence. And if it is something else, that we don't know anything of... there's no way to prepare for something you don't know about."

"Might as well prepare for what we can," Tara agreed. "I'll talk to the ranking officer at the barracks this afternoon, and see if I can get a look at the reports from their scouts down to the south. And anything that's happened to the north as well - you said Myrreon was called to examine something magical there?"

"Yeah," Willow said, "some evidence that the raiders had a mage on their side. He didn't give me all the details, just mentioned it in passing - I don't think it was demonic though. Then again, we haven't had the best luck with mortal mages either," she added with a wry smile. "I think if he suspected it might be something to do with us, he'd have told me. Still, best to be on the safe side."

"True. And they might have found something else, after they sent the messenger to summon Myrreon."

"Would a scout travel that fast?" Willow wondered.

"They can move pretty fast," Tara noted, "I've seen the stables here, they've got proper warhorses, bred for generations. We don't use them at home, but we know about them - they can carry a man in full plate armour into battle, without suffering from the weight. So a scout, in light armour with no excess baggage, they'd barely notice it. The sergeant I work with said that, at a gentle pace, they could send a scout from here to Kingsport in six days. If it's an emergency, and the scout has remounts, faster." She raised an impressed eyebrow.

"Six days?" Willow said in surprise.

"They're powerful horses," Tara smiled. "Like I said we don't have them at home, but the islands are pretty small compared to Westmarch. Here, being able to get news to and from a battlefield that quickly could win a war. Anyway, it's possible there might be more news from the north, so I'll ask. I'm not sure exactly how much standing I have in the chain of command, technically I'm just an instructor, not a real officer, but I'll find out what I can. I wish Tryptin were around."

"Isn't he?" Willow asked.

"Oh, sorry," Tara said, "I forgot... I was going to tell you last night, but-"

"You were too busy lifting me from despair to happiness," Willow said fondly.

"He came by the barracks yesterday afternoon to let me know he'd be away for a few days - that diplomatic excursion he mentioned at the opera. Most of the emissaries are around the city somewhere, but I don't really know any of them well."

"I was going to suggest we talk to him," Willow mused.

"He'll be back in a few days, we'll see what he has to say then," Tara said. "I don't think there'll be any problems with the officers at the barracks though."

"Right," Willow said, draining her teacup, "let's get ready then."

Tara hurried up to the main gate of the university, spotting Willow from across the road, easily recognisable in her distinctive emerald battlegear. The university - the 'Royal College of Mages', as the carved stone above the gateway proclaimed - was not far from the barracks, and its main quadrangle rose up above the surrounding buildings like the walls of a keep, with only the tower behind it, a dizzying spire that compared well to the Palace's mage tower, rivalling it for dominance of the city skyline. The gates were wide open, and the guards posted at either side of the archway into the quad were clearly ceremonial, as they made no effort to check the tide of traffic in and out. In the brief time it took for her to cross the road, Tara saw apprentices with books bundled under both arms, scurrying along as if late for something; workmen carrying crates or bundles of tools, some heavy-set labourers pushing carts loaded with wood or sacks, others clearly craftsmen of the highest order, with young apprentices of their own following in their wake, carrying their scrolls and jewelled tool cases; an artist still in his painting smock, dappled with spots of colour, carrying a blank canvas under one arm and talking excitedly with a man in long, flowing grey robes; a pair of mages, tall and proud, arrayed in robes of rich blue with gold and scarlet patterns stitched into them, looking for all the world exactly like great wizards from a book of fairy tales; the tail end of a sporting team, in mud-stained uniforms, talking and laughing as they returned to the quad from some nearby field; even a cat, a tall male with a headdress like a turban, carrying an odd globe made of steel rings bolted together, glancing now and then at a scholar beside him who was talking more or less to himself.

Willow was waiting in an alcove just inside the gate, leaning on her staff and idly watching the various passers-by. Her face lit up as she spied Tara coming towards her, and she hurried out to meet her in front of the gate.

"Hi," she grinned. Tara gave her a quick kiss, then took Willow's offered hand as they turned and went back through the gate.

"Were you waiting long?" she asked.

"A few minutes," Willow said, "nothing much. Just watching the crowd, I think it must be just before the start of classes or something, there can't be this many people wandering around all the time. How's Brydan? Are we going to see Amalee?"

"I was lucky, I just got there as he was picking up something from the house," Tara said, "Joma's had their baby."

"She has?" Willow exclaimed. "Oh gods, that's wonderful! It is, isn't it? Is she-"

"She's fine, the baby's fine," Tara assured her, "it was early this morning, Brydan was there, he said the hospital has sleeping quarters, so the family can stay close, he and Amalee spent the night there, but he didn't end up getting any sleep."

"So can we go see them?" Willow asked.

"He said they'd like that, we'll meet them for lunch. Joma's still resting, but Brydan said they'd all go down to the hospital's garden and have lunch there, and he said we're welcome to join them. He said Amalee would love to see us. I got directions to the hospital, it's a little way south of here."

"That's so great," Willow smiled, "aw..." She grinned, and sniffed happily. "I'm just a big softy."

"A big softy in a sexy outfit," Tara noted. "How come?"

"Hmm? Oh," Willow said, glancing down at her attire, "Ocean suggested it, so I went back to our room and changed just before I came here. She said - well, signed, but I'm getting better at reading what she says - she said the academics are a bit, well, I guess cloistered is the word, so it'd be good if they could look at me and see 'sorceress' written in big letters, rather than just looking like your everyday non-magical girl."

"Good idea, magical girl," Tara agreed, "am I dressed okay?" She wore her usual light leather armour, though without any work to do before lunch she had left her weapons at the Palace.

"Sure," Willow said, "you look great. A sexy warrior woman," she grinned, "just the thing a sorceress should have."

Tara followed Willow around the university from office to office, talking as they went from one place to another but remaining silent while Willow spoke to the various mages she was directed to. The university was spectacular in its own way, a maze of ivy-clad cloisters, ornate old buildings and delicate spires, with dozens of tiny offices and workshops crowded together, all full of bizarre and arcane devices and magical experiments. As for the denizens, though - Tara didn't know whether it was just bad luck that they were sent to these particular offices, or something more widespread, but 'condescending' was a word that kept creeping into her mind while she listened to mage after mage lecture Willow on his findings concerning Shadai and the predicament of getting her banished from her ethereal plane.

"It's not really on purpose," Willow said, as they walked through a wood-panelled corridor, after listening to an old mage with a bristling red beard drone on about some esoteric aspect of ethereal planes that went right over Tara's head. "See, there's basically two types of mages. There's the ones who are apprenticed into the mage clans, study in libraries, learn huge five-syllable names for everything, and spend months researching some tiny aspect of something no-one's ever heard of, just because no-one's ever done it before. Then there's the ones who live in mud huts, or yurts, or whatever, and can only read and write a bit, and learn magic from the tribe's shaman, who learned it from the shaman before him, who learned it from the one before him, and so on. Academic and practical magic, if you like. The academic mages don't really think the practical mages are that bright, and the practical ones think the academics are... well, a pack of idiots who don't know what magic is really about."

"But you're one of the academic ones," Tara pointed out, "not that you underestimate natural magic, I know, but... to these people, you'd be one of their kind of mage, wouldn't you?" She paused and frowned. "It's not because you're a woman, is it?"

"No," Willow shook her head, "no... maybe a little, some of them, but not in the sense of an, an institutionalised opinion, no. No, see the thing is that the practical mages, the ones in the yurts, have this tendency - which really annoys the academics - to be really good within their particular realm of expertise. Usually battle magic, seeing as you're more often under threat from attackers in a yurt than a university. Most of these people haven't faced anything scarier than a hostile grants committee," she chuckled.

"Anyway, that sort of thing bothers your average academic mage, so he says to himself, 'okay,'" she adopted a comically formal, clipped accent, "'so these guys can hold off half an army, but I bet they don't know the proper names of the three hundred and thirty-three dimensional planes.' They get into the habit of thinking of battle magic as being, sort of, layman's magic, compared to theirs - like the difference between making a sculpture, and just hitting a rock with a hammer and chisel."

"And your order is noted for battle magic," Tara nodded dryly.

"Yeah," Willow went on, "we're as academic as they come, but we've spent our whole history putting all that academic skill into refining battle magic, to the point where an experienced veteran sorceress can take down a greater demon in seconds. Word gets around of that kind of power, so yeah, I think they're looking at me and thinking," her comic-academic accent came into play again, "'oh, a sorceress, just humour her, maybe she'll be able to learn real magic one day.'"

"I'm sorry," Tara said, walking closer alongside Willow and putting a comforting arm around her shoulders. She smiled gratefully at Tara.

"It's okay," she said, "I know it's just that they don't know better. The people who count are the ones like Myrreon, mages who've been around and seen the world for themselves. And you know, this actually isn't a drawback, aside from the attitude," she grinned, "the last two we've talked to deliberately explained the most complicated lines of research they were working on, to try to confuse me."

"And you got every word," Tara smiled.

"Well, not every word," Willow admitted, "say what you like about them, these guys are on top of their game when it comes to theoretical magic. But I'm getting what I was hoping to get. Whatever the hell-bitch does, we'll be as ready as we can be for it."

"Good," Tara said. "Don't let them get to you, huh?"

"I won't," Willow grinned.

The Professor of Applied Ethereality, when they managed to see him between classes, proved to be more accommodating, and willing to share his knowledge with Willow as a fellow scholar. He was an odd little man, bald and barely tall enough to come up to Tara's shoulder, with a pair of glasses on a delicate chain around his neck, though he never seemed to use them. He spoke in a series of clipped sentences, as if he was summarising a longer version of his speech going on inside his head, and between his frequent and seemingly-random changes of subject, and his heavy use of technical terms Tara had never before encountered, even in her discussions on magic with Willow, she ended up nodding politely whenever he glanced at her, and hoping Willow was getting some of it. She wondered how his students ever managed to keep up.

"I got most of it," Willow said after they left the university, on their way to the Sisters of Grace hospital, where Joma was staying. "Well, some of it, and enough that I know what to look up later. He reminds me of some of the older sorceresses back home, the real specialists - you need years of experience before you can start learning from them."

"You got what you wanted, though?" Tara asked.

"Yeah, pretty much. I'll go back this afternoon, there's a couple of other people Ocean said I should talk to, but he was the most important - he's the one she said would be in charge of tracking down Shadai and figuring out how to get rid of her. Based on what he told me, I'll be able to come up with a couple of cold spells that might be useful if things turn ugly. There's that benefit, cold is the best of the primal elements if you're trying to disrupt an ethereal transition. I won't be able to send her back to hell, but if she somehow tries to break out of her current hidey-hole, I'll have a better than average change of keeping her from coming here. Assuming whatever happens, we're in the middle of it. That does seem to be the trend," she added with a dry smile.

"So we'll be as prepared as we can be?" Tara asked.


"Can't ask for better than that. You could really understand all that? What's a 'sub-ether wave bridge'?"

"I've got a pretty good idea," Willow said.

"I feel like I need to go back to school," Tara admitted with a grin.

"No way," Willow said vehemently, though she tempered it with a smile. "He was just using a bunch of obscure terms, and plus he's a specialist, this kind of thing is his life's work. But you know what, you've got... you're wise, I really mean that."

"Yeah?" Tara said, flattered, and touched that Willow would think to reassure her, even though she certainly knew Tara wouldn't be upset if she missed the meaning of magic she had never been trained for.

"Yeah," Willow said firmly. "Ember once told me there's knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge you can teach yourself, but wisdom you can't, you have to let the world teach it to you. And it's not always easy to learn what the world teaches you - that's a gift. And you've got it. I really mean that."

"Thanks," Tara smiled, leaning over to kiss Willow's cheek fondly.

The hospital wasn't far from the back gate of the university, and once Willow and Tara reached the nearest main road they saw it, an elegant three-storey structure of grey stone and marble columns, with a chapel beside it, obviously run by the same order of Sisters. The entry foyer was two storeys tall, with a pair of staircases, one coming down each side of the room, and a tall, beautiful statue of a robed goddess holding a book in one arm and cradling a child in the other. A young woman in a white habit was sitting at a desk off to one side of the statue, and - after a moment of surprise at seeing Willow in her sorceress garb - she directed them to a waiting room on the first floor, where a nurse in turn showed them to Joma's room.

"Tara! Willow!" Amalee leapt from her position beside her aunt's bed and threw her arms around both of them. They hugged her warmly, exchanging a smile over the top of her head before turning their attention to the room's other occupants.

"I've got a brother," Amalee proclaimed, taking each of them by the hand and leading them to the bed. Brydan, who was sitting beside his wife's bed with her hand in his, stood briefly to greet them, then returned his attention to Joma, stroking her hair. She looked a little tired, but otherwise well, and in her arms, nestled in a pale blue blanket, was a tiny baby, staring at her with wide, adoring eyes.

"William Taran," Brydan said proudly, as Willow and Tara leaned over, and Joma sat up.

"He's inquisitive," she said fondly, "he takes after his father. That, and he likes playing with my hair," she added wryly, as a tiny hand emerged from the blanket and grabbed a handful, tugging gently. Brydan chuckled.

"You're doing well?" Joma asked. "We think of you often, you know."

"Thank you," Tara said with a soft blush.

"Pretty well," Willow added. "Mages and warriors have eventful lives, but all things considered... yeah," she smiled at Tara, "we're good." William Taran burbled happily, which distracted Willow completely. She hesitantly reached out a hand, and the baby took hold of her fingertip in his tiny fingers, waggling it back and forth with an expression of rapt fascination. Looking between the baby and Willow, Tara wondered if she had ever seen anything so cute in her entire life.

They made their way down to the space behind the hospital, a small expanse of carefully cultivated greenery with a large vegetable garden. Brydan never left Joma's side, supporting her as she walked, though she didn't seem to need his hand beneath her arm at all - she humoured him, though, and Willow and Tara frequently exchanged a glance or a smile at seeing the affection between the couple. For the most part, though, their attention was occupied by Amalee, who talked almost non-stop about her classes at the school of the sciences. Geometry was fascinating, she said, which got a proud smile from Brydan.

He had brought food for lunch, and they sat and ate in the garden courtyard, with the tall hospital buildings keeping out the noise of the city around them, so that only the bubbling of the garden's ornamental fountain, and the occasional birdcall, disturbed the peace. Listening to Amalee talk, or Brydan and Joma when the young girl let them get a word in, warmed by the sunlight and the company of friends, and most of all by Willow beside her, Tara felt her suppressed worries over their future, and whatever might be in store, ebb away. When she happened to glance at Willow just as Willow turned to her, they shared a moment of clarity, and Tara knew Willow felt the same - enjoying the moment, treasuring what life offered, trusting their love against whatever fate had in store, good or bad.

Having reluctantly parted with Tara for the afternoon - after a tender, prolonged kiss that drew more than a couple of stares from passing students, despite herself and Tara being discreetly tucked away in a shady corner of the main quadrangle - Willow watched her head out of the main gate and turned her attention towards wringing the last drops of potentially-helpful information from the university's scholars.

It was as she was crossing the marble floor of the quadrangle's main hall that a young mage, a harried-looking man in the robes of a Vizjerei acolyte, hurried up to her with a book tucked beneath his arm.

"Willow of the Zann Esu?" he asked.


"I thought so, I mean, you don't see many sorceresses around, but I thought I should ask-" He caught himself and started again. "Jaronymes Theel, librarian's assistant. My master heard you were in the university, and sent me to find you. You sent a request to us? A description of an artefact?"

"An- oh! Yes," Willow said, "you've found something?"

"After a fashion," Theel said, looking slightly embarrassed for some reason, "one of our junior research assistants turned this up, I know it's nothing useful but it matched the description, so we decided we'd better let you know. Um, here?" He offered the book. "You can borrow that, if you want, I'll fill in the paperwork later. We'll keep looking, of course, if anything else turns up we'll send a messenger. Um... is that okay?"

"Yes, of course," Willow said, "thank you." Theel nodded and turned away, hurrying off somewhere else with the look of a good-natured man with too many tiny tasks to do. Willow smiled - faintly reminded of herself, in her book-worm days in the Zann Esu libraries, when she'd frequently been scurrying back and forth between archives searching for half a dozen rare books at once - and turned over the book in her hands.

"Huh?" she said out loud. The book was thick, leather-bound with thin, ornamental brass corners on the covers, and embossed in gold leaf was the title 'Tales of Heroes and Wizards'. Willow opened the book and read the title page, which confirmed her suspicion - it was an anthology of dozens fanciful fairy tales, the kind of thing that she had read when she was a young girl, albeit with a more expensive binding. But, when she checked the top of the bookmark sticking out of it pages, it showed there was no mistake - 'Willow, Zann Esu, Palace c/o Myrreon, Royal Mage - artefact search, gold disc,' and a serial number, presumably to look up the letter Myrreon had drafted and sent to the library after they had transmuted the medallion from the monastery, and ended up with the strange, functionless ring.

Willow opened the book at the bookmark, and frowned in confusion. One page was text, the middle of a story, but the facing page was an illustration, from a woodcut printed in three colours, black, red and blue. A wizard - in something like the Vizjerei's turinash 'spirit-robes', which tended to lend their colourful, symbol-adorned look to every illustration of a wizard in a children's story - was standing on a plain, in front of a huge tower, impossibly tall and massive. His arms were raised, and floating above his upturned palms was a circle. Willow peered at it - the woodcut was of high quality, and she could just make out the lines etched into the disc's surface, the different metals joined together, beneath a sheath of seamless gold flowing up from the bottom of the circle, half-covering it. Barring a stunning coincidence, it was intended to be the very disc that was now sitting at the bottom of one of her satchels, back in the bedroom.

"What the heck?" she muttered to herself, turning back the pages to find the title of the particular story. Other illustrations went past - a group of evil goblins, caricatures drawn by someone who had obviously never seen a carver, or similar creatures, and a noble-looking knight in stylised, impractical armour wielding a huge sword with its entire blade covered in mystical-looking runes that were actually nothing but crescents and stars arranged in patterns. It was fantasy, fiction, beyond belief - yet the ring had been too exact for Willow to dismiss.

Her fingers halted the fluttering pages as she saw a title in large, bold letters, and she opened the page.

"Hellebore," she read, her voice edged with disbelief.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Fifty-Seven

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