Author: Chris Cook
"Hellebore?" Tara asked. "I-it's a plant, isn't it? Jenavria's husband Sothim used to have some in his garden, when I was young and they were taking care of me..."
She looked nervously at Willow, looking for any clues as to the cause of her anxiety. She had been on her way from the general staff offices to the armoury when Willow had appeared, agitated and carrying a heavy book. They now sat on a bench to the side of the vacant training ground, Willow with the book open on her lap, glaring at the woodcut of the disc as if it were being deliberately unhelpful.
"N- yes," she corrected herself, "it's a plant - they used to think it cured madness, though I don't think it's used anymore - but that's not what the story is about. It's... at home, when you were young, did you have any fairy tales that were completely fictional, but everyone knew them anyway?"
"Huh? Um," Tara thought, brows furrowed. "There's these stories for very young children, with talking animals. Fiara the fox, Pela the parrot... children's stories."
"That's Hellebore," Willow said, "every apprentice mage knows it, but everyone knows it's not true - there's never been any evidence, and it's just..." She sighed, and looked at Tara, smiling slightly at her expression of confused concern.
"Might help if I start at the beginning?" she suggested.
"It might," Tara grinned, taking Willow's hand, which had been fidgeting on top of the open book, and stroking her palm soothingly.
"Okay," Willow said, "you remember what I told you about the Mage Wars? Horazon and Bartuc?" Tara nodded. "Okay... There's a story - and I just have to say again, there's no-one in the world who'd think it was any truer than your talking animals - there's a story that goes that Horazon had an apprentice. There's never been any evidence of him having an apprentice, even before the wars began, and a lot of the Vizjerei's records survived or were reconstructed, but that's how the story goes. So, Horazon had an apprentice, called Moac. When Horazon built his Arcane Sanctuary and started doing his experiments on demons, Moac decided he had become tainted, and left him. At first he went to Bartuc, but he saw Bartuc was even worse than Horazon and so he left the Vizjerei clan completely, and travelled far away from them, to prepare."
"For the wars?" Tara asked.
"More than that," Willow replied, "he believed that the angels had deserted the mortal plane, and that Horazon and Bartuc's corruption was the beginning of the end of everything. He thought that the war would envelop every clan and nation, and everyone in the world would eventually be reduced to vessels for demons, which they'd use to launch a final war on the High Heavens. So, the story goes, he fled far away from all the mage clans, to prepare a defence against the end of the world. He called it Hellebore - the more florid stories say he called it that because he believed the world was going mad, and it was the only thing that could save it.
"It was, supposedly - I can't believe I'm saying this like it could be real," Willow said suddenly, shaking her head and grinning in disbelief. Tara offered a supportive grin when she glanced at her.
"It was a tower," Willow resumed, "at the time, mages used towers as a way to focus their magic - like a lens focussing sunlight. Mage towers weren't ordinary buildings though, they had to be made out of specific types of stone, with wood and metal and crystal and all sorts of things built into their structure, all arranged in a certain way. Later they discovered ways of making the structures smaller, or casting minor spells before a large one to have the safe effect. The heart of the Arcane Sanctuary, when it was inhabiting the mortal plane, was supposed to be a tower made of pure marble, absolutely solid. Bartuc's fortress during the mage wars had a tower made of steel and coal, they say - once he died it was destroyed pretty vigorously, and no-one really took the time to make detailed notes on how it was put together.
"Hellebore was supposedly the greatest tower ever built, and completely unlike any other. None of the stories say how Moac learned how to build something like it, just that he did. And the heart of it was something that pretty much every researcher of magic will tell you is thoroughly impossible - Hellebore had the power to completely reflect any magic directed at it from outside, a perfect shield. Once the tower was complete nothing, not demons or the Prime Evils or angels, or possibly even the Power That Is herself, would be able to touch it, or whatever was inside."
"Complete invulnerability," Tara said, with a note of awe in her voice. "Invincibility?"
"Yeah," Willow agreed, "the ability to build a defence like that... nothing would be able to defeat you. And you could just stay inside, and cast whatever spells you wanted at anything outside... it's impossible to fight against. The stories go that Moac built Hellebore as the first fortress against hell, so that when the world collapsed Hellebore would remain free, and from there he could start reclaiming the rest, actually undo the end of the world."
"So this is Moac?" Tara asked, pointing at the luridly-coloured mage in the woodcut.
"Yeah," Willow said, "the robes are a couple of centuries younger than him, and he was old Vizjerei, before they moved into the west, so probably his skin would've been much darker, but yeah, that's who it's meant to be. This is just a fairy tale... but there really aren't any versions of Hellebore that are any more reliable."
"And the disc?" Tara prompted.
"I read a few pages on my way here," Willow explained, "the story says that the disc is a key Moac created, so that only he would be able to wield Hellebore's power. It says he was worried that Bartuc's spies knew what he was doing, so he took the heart of Hellebore, and turned it into a key - without it, the whole tower would be completely useless. According to the story, this," she pointed at the disc on the woodcut, "is the key."
"So unless it's a coincidence, according to this story-"
"The key to the most awesome weapon in the history of the world is in our bedroom, at the bottom of one of my satchels," Willow said dryly.
"Okay," Tara said slowly, "then... is Hellebore real, or isn't it?"
"If it weren't for that damned disc," Willow muttered, then sighed. "All sense and reason says it's complete fiction. If a tower like Hellebore were built, if its shield worked... there's never been any evidence for it. Horazon and Bartuc fought out the Mage Wars, the Vizjerei nearly destroyed themselves, chaos reigned for a while... there was never any all-powerful mage working against the demons. And even if, for some reason, Moac really did build Hellebore, and just decided to sit out the Mage Wars rather than getting involved, you can't build a tower like that without people noticing. Aside from the fact that in all likelihood it would've had to be half a mile tall, and it's kind of hard to hide that much tower - on a purely theoretical level, the kind of power Hellebore was supposed to have, if it worked, would've shown up on the spectral planes like a lighthouse at night. Every mage within hundreds of miles, at least, would feel a, a hole in the world... I don't mean mages trained in detecting powers, I mean any mage at all - you know that ability you have, to sense things around you?" Tara nodded. "Well," Willow continued, "someone with a fraction of your skill would be able to feel a shield like Hellebore's in her sleep."
"And no-one's sensed anything?"
"Not a thing," Willow said, exasperated at the contradiction, "some mages, over the years, even got it into their heads to go looking for Hellebore, trained themselves in the most delicate detection spells, travelled all over Kehjistan and Aranoch and the western kingdoms - there wasn't even a dramatic 'and they were never heard from again,' they just found nothing and gave up. The most likely scenario - aside from this being all make-believe - is that if Moac did exist, he wanted to build Hellebore, but didn't know how. The shield theory is something people have considered now and then, but no-one's ever had even the vaguest clue how to go about building it. According to all the theories on how magic works, it's impossible."
"That's the comforting explanation," Tara said evenly, "but the disc..."
"I know," Willow replied miserably, "it shouldn't exist. Unless the story got it backwards, and Moac made the key, then the tower - but the key is supposed to be the heart of it, if the key is real, then he knew how to make the tower, shield and all. Would he have made the key and not the tower, if he had the power to do it?" Tara nodded thoughtfully.
"And the fact that the disc - the key - was hidden in one of dozens of medallions, and an evil mage took that medallion specifically..." she mused.
"Yup," Willow said flatly, "not an encouraging thought. Either the coincidences are really piling up, or he believed Hellebore was real. I want to go over the notes we made on the books he had in his room, I wonder if he might've been trying to transmute the medallion by magic alone, without a cube to do it for him."
"Is that possible?"
"It's tricky," Willow shrugged, "for most mages, impossible - like trying to swim across the sea, rather than using a boat. But maybe, if you did everything exactly right, and got really lucky... But even then, there'd be no tower to use it in. You can't just hide a half-mile-tall mage tower, if Moac ever built the thing, we'd know..."
"There's an old story - Amazon story time, again," Tara interrupted herself with a wry grin, getting a snort of laughter from Willow, then a grateful smile.
"Thanks," she murmured, resting her head on Tara's shoulder.
"What?" Tara asked.
"Making me laugh," Willow said airily, "in the middle of all these gloomy thoughts." She tilted her head to lightly kiss Tara's skin.
"The story goes," Tara went on, "that a wizard, long ago, built a chariot that could fly, so he could reach the heavens and meet the gods face to face, and discover the secrets of life. He prepared for his journey for years, perfecting the chariot and his magic, making sure everything was right, then one day he was ready. He got into his chariot and it lifted off the ground, and he soared high above the land, into the sky. And as he rose he saw the light of heaven ahead of him, but then... then he looked down." A faint smile touched Tara's lips. "He looked down, and saw the whole world laid out beneath him, the green plains, the deep blue oceans, white-peaked mountains, the vast jungles, the deserts... everything, all at once. And it was so beautiful that he turned around and took his chariot back down, and when he landed he took it apart, and never built it again, for he knew that, while he lived, the world was his home, and the reason we live on it," she lifted a hand to gently stroke Willow's hair, "is because this is where we can find happiness. Heaven isn't for the living."
"There's a reason we are what we are," Willow murmured.
"There is," Tara agreed, "and, sometimes we have to accept that. If the wizard had reached heaven, he'd have lost everything that could have truly given him joy."
"So... he realised his chariot was something mortals weren't meant to have," Willow concluded.
"What if Moac did built Hellebore," Tara suggested, "then realised what a terrible power it was, and took the key out of it so that it could never be used?" Willow gave this careful thought.
"Yeah," she said eventually, "if you suppose Hellebore existed, that does make sense... that explanation in the story, about Moac fearing Bartuc's spies, just doesn't hold, Moac would've been too powerful for spies to steal his secrets anyway... but then, there would still be a tower. Even without the key-"
"Without the key, how powerful would the tower have been?"
"Defenceless. If it really is the heart of the tower, then its shield would be useless... but if it was destroyed the key is useless, it can't do anything on its own, so why would Shadai be looking for it?"
"Damn," Tara said, "it doesn't work either way. If Hellebore still exists someone would've found it, or if it was destroyed there'd be nothing to find... I don't suppose Shadai might be wrong? Might she think Hellebore exists, when actually it doesn't?"
"Powerful demons are masters of lies," Willow said grimly, "it's almost impossible to deceive them. Like trying to out-fence a master swordsman - you can beat them with other weapons, but they'll always win when it comes to swords. If Shadai really is looking for Hellebore, no matter how unlikely it is, my money's on there being something to find." She sighed. "Just not the tower... so what?"
They sat in silent contemplation for a while, Tara stroking Willow's hair, Willow resting on her shoulder, her hand idly tracing circles on Tara's thigh. After a few moments Tara frowned, as if turning over a thought in her mind and examining it from all angles.
"Willow," she said eventually, "a tower like Hellebore... it'd have been huge, right?"
"Massive," Willow replied, "people make jokes about mages and their towers - male mages, anyway - but there's some truth to it. If you want to increase the amount of magic a structure can harness, you either make it better, or you make it bigger. Both, if you're talking about the kind of power Hellebore was supposed to have."
"And they're built like normal buildings," Tara went on, "magical construction, but the same basic rules, right? Stairs, supporting columns, arches, that kind of thing?"
"Probably," Willow said, turning to look at Tara, interested in seeing where she was going with her line of thought, "I mean, it's possible to make a tower supported entirely by magic, but you wouldn't want to have too many spells going at once - better to just build it the traditional way, and only use magic when you have to. Hellebore would've been magically constructed, of course, to reach the size it must've been, but it probably would have been kind of traditional. Wider at the bottom than the top, staircases, supporting beams and columns, that kind of thing."
"Foundations?" Tara asked sharply. "Cellars?"
"Probably," Willow replied, "they usually... oh, I see!" she exclaimed. "What if the foundations still exist! Yeah, it's possible, some of the old towers that got destroyed in the wars were excavated, and their cellars were still intact, just sealed. The Vizjerei recovered a lot of the knowledge they'd lost during the fighting by studying the remains... oh hell. Oh that psychotic hell-bitch, that's it! She's looking for the foundations of Hellebore!"
"I was kind of thinking she'd found them," Tara said.
"Huh?" Willow's brow furrowed in confusion. "Where?"
"Where the key was hidden," Tara suggested, "where there was a lock, shaped like a ring, just like the key. Where Shadai was planning on having herself summoned."
"The monastery? The catacombs beneath it..."
"Is it possible?" Tara asked.
"The architecture..." Willow said, thinking aloud, "Imperial style, that's what they would have used during the mage wars... the background magic, blanketing everything... the lock sealing off the lower levels... oh gods damn it!"
"What?" Tara was surprised at the bitterness in Willow's voice, almost as if she were blaming herself.
"I was right there! Me, trained for almost two-thirds of my life in magic, learned everything I could from the Zann Esu libraries, tutored by the best sorceress in the world... I walked right past it! I was looking down into the foundations of the most powerful mage tower ever built and I didn't even know it!"
"It's not your fault," Tara said, turning to face Willow, holding her shoulders gently, "no-one found it for centuries, remember? You said Ember had been there, in the monastery, and she didn't feel anything - she didn't even look underground. Probably everyone else who's seen down there thought the same thing you did, so it's not like there were any clues you missed." Willow stared at her for a moment, then relaxed.
"You're right," she admitted, "you're right... just- oh gods, I was that close... I can't help being a bit frustrated at that."
"Just so long as you don't take it out on yourself," Tara noted tenderly. Willow smiled adoringly at her.
"Gods you're amazing," she said, "no matter what, you take such good care of me..."
"Of course," Tara said, slightly bashful, "you're my Willow, remember? I'll always take care of you."
"I love you," Willow murmured, leaning in briefly to touch her lips to Tara's. "I love being your Willow."
"I know," Tara smiled, "I promise you always will be... just like I'll always be your Tara." They leant close for a moment, foreheads touching, each warmed by the other's presence.
"So what do we do?" Willow asked at last. She felt Tara take a deep breath, steeling herself.
"I think we have one big advantage," Tara said.
"Well, look at it like this," Tara explained, "we could grab a horse and rush off to the monastery, but then what? We need to know more. I've asked for whatever information the city's scouts have collected about the monastery and the lands around it, the officers here have to check with the Duke's advisers, but they said that's just a formality given my position, and they'll deliver the reports to our room as soon as they're ready. So we'll know everything we can about what's out there, except for one thing - what's underneath the monastery. So, I think we should find out everything we can about Hellebore. The university's library must have more about it, mustn't they?"
"Nothing reliable," Willow frowned, "probably just some journals from eccentric mages who believed in it, and more fairy tales like this one." She patted the book on her lap.
"That's why you're the big advantage," Tara grinned, "that woodcut of the key confirms that there's some grains of truth in these stories - maybe there've been authentic descriptions, passed down as stories over time, maybe there used to be drawings of the tower, or parts of it," she shrugged and smiled wryly, "maybe after it happened Moac got drunk one night and told the whole story to a wandering bard, who knows? I'm willing to bet that somewhere in those books is a lot of information that could help us. We just have to sort through the fiction and find the facts, and that," she kissed Willow's cheek, "that's where you shine like no-one else in the world."
"With your help," Willow quickly pointed out.
"You've got it," Tara replied without hesitation.
"Okay," Willow said, a resolute expression forming on her features, "okay... Ocean. She needs to know this - she knows everything Myrreon knows, which is everything I could tell him. And she'll know who we can talk to at the university."
"Should we be careful?" Tara asked.
"At the moment," Willow said with a sigh, "probably. You trust me-"
"Always," Tara said quietly. Willow paused and put an arm around her waist, gently hugging her.
"You trust me," she repeated, "Ocean trusts me because Myrreon trusted me... aside from them, so far as anyone in this city knows I'm just some apprentice from halfway around the world. The mages working on locating and banishing Shadai from her ethereal plane would've been told it was Myrreon who spoke for the validity of the information they were given, not me - we agreed his word carried a lot more weight with the university, where he's known personally, than just the reputation of the Zann Esu. Without him here to back me up..." she gave a helpless shrug.
"We can't get the city's mages behind us with our word alone," Tara concluded. "What about the disc, the key? Would it help prove anything?"
"We'll see what Ocean thinks, but I'm not sure," Willow said warily, "I mean, on its own merits it's nothing special, just a bit of metal with an interesting inner composition. A decent mage could make something like it, given the metals to work with. Even with the similarity to the picture, it's... it's just so unlikely. I know, if I'd found something like this, without seeing where it came from, and knowing Shadai's mage was studying it, I'd probably think it was just a fake. A hoax, you know - they happen now and then." She paused, and let out a sigh.
"I really wish it was," she went on, "you know? Just something a mage made after reading the story, to... to sell to a rare artefact dealer, or something like that. And everything else it just coincidence..."
"Do you think it might be?" Tara asked. Willow thought, then shook her head sadly.
"Nope," she said firmly, "too much coincidence... a mage at the university might be sceptical, but... you were there. We saw the mage's room, his journal, we saw the underground... and I feel it, you know? I don't know why, but I just know. This is the real thing..."
"I think so too," Tara agreed, "I certainly don't think we should just do nothing, and hope for the best." She flashed Willow a lop-sided grin. "Solari used to tell her pupils that there's only so much good fortune in the world, and if you want it, the best thing to do is go out and get it."
"Sounds good," Willow noted.
"I always thought so," Tara nodded. "Should we go see Ocean now?"
"You don't have anything that needs doing here?" Willow asked.
"No, I've talked to the people I needed to talk to. I was just going to use the archery range until you finished at the university."
"Let's go there first," Willow said, standing up, "we'll get everything they've got on Hellebore - fairy tales, myths, legends, whatever there is - and then we can go back to the Palace, and read in Myrreon's workshop. If Ocean allows it, we'll use his library as well, there might be something there that the university doesn't have. He's the kind who collects odd, eccentric books from here and there."
"You must feel right at home working with him," Tara grinned, standing up and walking at Willow's side.
"He reminds me a bit of Ember," she said, "sort of like an older, more sedate version of her. I guess you could say she collects odd, eccentric experiences."
"I got that impression," Tara noted.
"Drat," Willow grinned, "just wait'll she finds out I've been spreading rumours about her."
"At least they're good rumours," Tara laughed. "I think I'd like her. Do you think we might meet her someday?"
"Certainly, eventually," Willow shrugged, "once I've visited everywhere I'm supposed to visit and learned everything I can, I go back to the Order to be given my colours as a sorceress. At the moment I'm still technically a student - sort of a 'student with honours', so far as the people here are concerned."
"Does your Order let outsiders visit their city?" Tara asked hopefully.
"I'd never go anywhere you couldn't," Willow said firmly, "not that I think there's many places in the world you couldn't go... heh," she chuckled to herself.
"I was just remembering," Willow explained, "you remember back in Kingsport, the morning after we met? When I woke up - you were still asleep - I guess in that case you wouldn't remember specifically - anyway, when I woke up I started thinking about you, just curious at first, kind of wondering what I thought of you, and before I knew it I was weighing up how to make a statement to the Zann Esu Council to have them give permission for you to be with me in the city."
"They'd decide whether to let me stay?" Tara asked.
"They'd let you," Willow said, "I mean, people are allowed to visit, so long as they're with a guide to look after them, but I was thinking if I went back and spent time there studying, whether you'd be allowed to come and go freely, to visit me, if you wanted... first morning. Kind of premature, huh?"
"I guess some part of you knew I'd want to be there with you," Tara smiled.
"Yeah, the part that was smitten from the moment I laid eyes on you," Willow replied. They nodded in acknowledgement of the guard posted at the barracks gate and turned down the street towards the university entrance.
"Anyway," Willow said again, "where were we? Oh, yeah... so, yes, one day I guess I'll go back to the Order, briefly, to 'graduate', and of course you can come with me. The Order doesn't really get involved with personal lives, just so long as it doesn't adversely affect the purity of our magic, which you don't. And then, I'm sure Ember will be there."
"Good," Tara nodded, "I'd like to meet her. The way you've talk about her, I know how close you are to her, which shows how much she cares about you. I'd like to meet the woman who took such good care of my Willow."
"I'll make sure you do," Willow promised. "You remind me of her, too, come to think of it."
"I do?" Tara asked, pleased that Willow thought so.
"Oh yeah," Willow replied, "just like her... I know I can trust you with anything."
Librarian's assistant Theel dodged around the end of his desk, seeing Willow approaching with Tara behind her, and hurried to meet her half-way across the giant mosaic Seal of Sorcery, around which the university's library shelves stretched like a sunburst. She had the copy of Tales of Heroes and Wizards in her hand, and over her shoulder was slung an empty, voluminous bag she had bought at one of the handful of tiny shops clustered near the university gate which catered to students, full of satchels, blank journals and spellbooks, inks, pens, quills, lenses, geometric instruments and all manner of academic paraphernalia.
"I-is there a problem?" he asked nervously. "I checked with the junior who flagged that book for your attention, but he was quite certain that the specifications matched-"
"It's fine," Willow said, "it was exactly what we were looking for."
"Oh," Theel said, relieved. "Oh?" he said again, a curious frown appearing once his anxiety had departed. "It was a book of myths, wasn't it? I mean... children's tales?"
"Yes, it was," Willow replied, "one of the stories concerned a, a project we're involved in. We'd like to continue our research."
"We?" Theel asked, glancing over Willow's shoulder at Tara, who still had her bow on her back. The guards at the gate had protested, politely, that weapons weren't allowed inside the grounds, except as authorised equipment - Tara had offered to drop it off at the Palace and hurry back, but Willow had intervened and successfully argued that the bow was a 'cultural artefact', which seemed permissible.
"My partner, Tara," Willow said, stepping aside to let Theel see her, "she's an Amazon specialist in prime elemental and holy magic."
"Ah!" Theel said, seemingly relieved to hear the warrior in his library was a fellow mage, "I'm sorry," he went on to Willow, "I took her for a bodyguard, you see..."
"Sorceresses don't need bodyguards," Willow replied politely, sharing an amused grin with Tara.
"No, so I'd heard," Theel said, half to himself, "um, a pleasure to meet you miss Tara... what was it you wanted?" he finished to Willow.
"Hellebore," she said, "myths, legends, fairy tales, bardic stories - the works." Theel opened his mouth to voice a question, then caught himself and turned towards one of the index shelves, beckoning for Willow and Tara to follow.
"Anything about Moac," Willow continued, keeping pace with him, "any fictional or semi-fictional accounts of the Mage Wars, relevant equivalent myths and legends from foreign sources... do you have a copy of Tawlikora's 'The Great Tower'?"
"I believe we do," Theel said, pulling out a long drawer from its shelf and flicking through the cards inside.
"She was a Zakarum priestess," Willow explained quietly to Tara, "she spent her last years searching for Hellebore. She never found it, but she left a detailed account of her search - travelling, and researching in every library she could get access to. One of my tutors in arcane lore once mentioned her scholarly technique was impeccable, apart from the fact that it was based on 'complete fiction'."
"There could be something valuable in it," Tara suggested. Willow nodded, and turned back to Theel.
"Folklore section, for the most part," he said, his voice steadier now than he was on familiar ground, "though the Tawlikora is in texts for students - I believe the clan scholars use is as an example for technique." Willow stifled a grin, and heard Tara chuckle softly beside her. "Will you be borrowing those, or reading them here?"
Theel gave Willow a handful of reference cards and made some notes on a pad he kept in his pocket, then called two junior assistants and set them to work, reciting codes and shelf numbers in a rapid-fire series of orders that sent them scurrying. Scarcely five minutes later Willow and Tara were loading almost two dozen books into their bag.
"Lucky we got a big bag," Tara noted, heaving a heavily-bound 'Myths of the Early Vizjerei' onto the table. "Are we going to be able to carry all this?"
"Oh, sure," Willow said airily, "I'm an experienced book-hauler from way back. When I research something, it darn well gets researched." She gave Tara a grin. Between them they managed to get the bulging bag back to the Palace, though not without Tara taking it part of the way, to give Willow's protesting shoulder a rest.
They were surprised to see Lissa hurrying towards them across the Sunward Garden, half-way from the entrance hall to Myrreon's tower.
"Good afternoon Miss Willow, Miss Tara," she said, giving a quick bow, then gesturing at the bag over Tara's shoulder, "can I be of any help?"
"Can you go on ahead to the tower?" Willow asked Tara. "I'd like to grab a fresh book from our room - it's sort of a tradition, I always start a new book when I start researching something new."
"Okay," Tara nodded, gratefully sharing the bag's weight with Lissa, who took one handle while she held onto the other. Willow smiled at the attendant, half-turned towards the guest wing, then turned back and quickly kissed Tara on the lips. Smiling, she hurried off.
"How did you know we were back already?" Tara asked Lissa, who had politely looked the other way.
"All part of being an attendant, Miss," she said.
"Does every guest get looked after like this?" Tara asked, mildly amazed. "There aren't that many servants in the Palace, are there?"
"Oh, no Miss," Lissa explained, "but you've got special status, as an ambassador."
"I'm an ambassador?" Tara mused. "Well, yes, technically I suppose I am... Tryptin's done all the work, though, I'm not sure I feel like a proper ambassador."
"If I may say, Miss," Lissa ventured, "you're a fine ambassador for your people. If Amazons are all like you, I'd be pleased to have more of you visit."
"Thank you," Tara grinned, "that's very kind... you know, you've been very good to both of us, me and Willow. Very thoughtful, I want you to know I appreciate it, Willow as well."
"My pleasure Miss," Lissa said with a bashful smile, "when time comes for you to move on, I'll miss you."
"We'll be sure to look you up when we visit again," Tara promised. Lissa smiled warmly, looking genuinely pleased at the prospect.
Barely moments after Tara and Lissa had arrived at Myrreon's workshop and been let in by Ocean, the attendant staying only long enough to help Tara with the books, Willow arrived, slightly flushed from going up and down stairs at speed, with her writing case and a fresh journal in hand.
"Hi," she said to Tara, dropping the journal on the table Tara had put the book bag on. "Give me a minute?" she added to Ocean, her manner far more casual and friendly than when she had first met the strange-looking snake woman. She then paused, and looked properly at her.
"Um," she began, "the outfit...?" Ocean gave a quick grin, and made a sign. Tara, who had no way of understanding her replies short of getting her to write them down, hadn't commented on the woman's attire when she had arrived at the tower - instead of her usual robes, she was wearing a pair of thin, silky squares of black fabric, one tied around her hips as a skirt, the other across her chest, tied behind her neck and lower behind her back.
"What did she say?" Tara asked, as Willow undid the latch on her case and laid out her inks and quills.
"'For the stars'," Willow translated, "or at least, I think that's what she said... I'm getting better at her signs. She mentioned this morning that she'd be up all night tonight - some kind of astronomy, I guess."
"Dressed like that?" Tara wondered.
"Maybe she's going to try to seduce a constellation?" Willow quipped. "I'll fill her in on what we know, and see about using Myrreon's library."
"I'll get started," Tara nodded, pulling Tales of Heroes and Wizards towards herself.
Tara awoke frightened, and it took her a moment to gather her thoughts and realise why. She had vague memories of her dreaming - images of home, of Willow, interspersed with towers and fairy-tale wizards and unlikely-looking knights in armour, which was no surprise given that she and Willow had worked well into the evening, poring over their borrowed collection of books, as well as those Ocean had looked up in Myrreon's library and brought, until dusk called her to the tower's roof to pursue her own work with the night sky. But the last thing she remembered from her dreams-
Willow, nestled in Tara's arms, stirred in her sleep, and mumbled something quiet and plaintive. Lifting her hand to stroke Willow's hair, Tara realised what she had felt, the same thing she felt now - sorrow, the need to comfort, to provide the love Willow needed to banish her bad dreams: above all else, the knowledge that something was not right. Now, awake, she knew how to soothe Willow, but in her dream she had felt helpless, weak, tiny against something great and heartless.
"Tara," Willow murmured, the slight motions of her arms becoming more fitful.
"I'm here baby," Tara cooed to her, trying not to be disturbed by the rising sense of anxiety - she told herself there was no reason for it, but something beyond reason was touching her mind, stirring fears.
"Tara," Willow said, louder, her voice frightened. Her head tossed sideways and her eyes flew open, sightless for a moment before she fixed on Tara, just visible in the light from the few candles that still burned in their bedroom.
"It's alright," Tara said gently, "I've got you. It was just a dream."
"No," Willow mumbled, shaking her head. There was something in her stare that frightened Tara, an echo of the hopeless, desperate Willow she had found the day before, curled up on their bed with her tears drying on her cheeks. She couldn't help but be affected by the memory, the reminder, and she gently hugged Willow tighter, needing to feel the reassuring warmth of her embrace. Willow returned the hug, her arms pressing on Tara's back, holding her close.
"What's the matter, love?" Tara asked softly.
"I... I felt-" Willow said haltingly. "It was like a dream," she said nervously after a pause, "more vivid than usual... no, it's nothing, probably from thinking about Shadai all day, I... I felt like I was back there, in the hospice. Where she was."
"What did you feel?" Tara asked carefully. Willow frowned in confusion, but seeing the sincerity in Tara's eyes, she took a breath, and spoke.
"Despair," she said, "I felt like... like I'd lost my way, and instead of doing good, of achieving anything, all I could do was wander, and never find myself again. Th-that was what it was like to be there, actually in her presence. I felt like I'd lost something that I could never get back - that I'd never be able to be truly content again." She sniffed quietly, and offered Tara a half-smile. "It was only when I met you," she admitted, "that I felt like I could be truly happy again."
"I felt it too," Tara said, her voice shaky. Willow stared at her, which gave her time to recover from the chill that had gone through her as she had heard Willow describe the exact feeling that had seeped into her dreams.
"That's... are you sure?" Willow asked eventually. "I-I don't mean... on, baby, you're frightened," she realised, hugging Tara close to her, stroking her back and her hair.
"I'm okay now," Tara said, though she was intensely grateful for Willow's comforting, "I just... it didn't feel like a dream."
"Tara," Willow whispered, "I-I'm worried... gods know I don't want to, to jump at shadows, or anything, but... I'm worried this isn't just coincidence."
"It's her?" Tara asked, calming herself.
"She's gaining power," Willow said in a tiny voice, "I think... I don't know how, I just... I'm worried she's moving, that something's coming, something's going to happen... I don't think we're safe." She sniffed again, then began crying, slowly sobbing, burying her face in Tara's hair.
"It's alright," Tara said automatically, "I'll make it alright, somehow... I promise..." Willow caught her breath, and looked up at Tara.
"I don't know what to do," she admitted. Tara pulled her a fraction closer, and gently kissed her forehead.
"What would Ember do?" Tara suggested.
"There's a belief among Amazon warriors," she explained, "that the people who teach us, who mould us, guide us on our way, never leave us. There's a part of them inside us, in everything we learn from them, all the knowledge and wisdom they give us because they care about us - because they love us. If Ember were here, she'd be the first person we'd go to for help, right?"
"Right," Willow nodded.
"Well, then," Tara said with a tentative smile, "what would she say? What would she do?" Willow thought, then a grin touched her lips, and she let out a tiny laugh.
"She'd kick Shadai's butt," she chuckled wanly. "I don't know how, but somehow... if something threatened her, she'd take it on, head to head. Gods, Tara, I wish I could, but I can't banish a demon, I know she can defeat me... besides, I can't even get at her, she's locked away wherever she is..."
"But we know what she wants," Tara said meaningfully.
"Hellebore," Willow murmured to herself, "you mean... you mean go there? Get there before whoever she's got serving her?"
"Could we do it?" Tara asked. "What she's trying to gain, could we destroy it, or make it safe from her?"
"I... I guess," Willow said hesitantly, "if we got there while she was still trapped in the ether... But gods, it'd be dangerous, if she realised we were trying to stop her she'd do everything she could to-"
"I've got my bow and my spear," Tara said, "I've got all the skill and guile Solari could teach me, I've got the gods and goddesses of the Amazons giving me strength..." She gently stroked Willow's cheek. "And most important of all, I've got you."
"You've got me," Willow said. "You... you want to do this?"
"Yes," Tara nodded, "yes, if this is what we have to do, then this is what I'll do. I promise you Willow, I won't let her touch you. Not even if it means I have to go out there and destroy the catacombs myself."
"Tomorrow," Willow whispered, "we can plan tomorrow, prepare... both of us," she stressed. Tara nodded. "Hold me?" Willow asked quietly. Tara held her tight, caressing her and gently kissing her, soothing her body and spirit.
"I love you," she murmured, as she felt Willow relax, "I won't let go of you. Not ever."