Return to Hellebore Chapter Fifty-Seven


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.

Willow walked side by side with Tara up the stairways to Myrreon's tower, hand in hand. She hadn't really admitted to herself how upset her nightmare had made her until they had sat down to breakfast, and Tara had brought her chair around so she could sit beside Willow, knees touching under the table. That contact, not a comforting embrace or a lover's caress, but simply the touch of someone devoted to sharing her life, good and bad, reached Willow so deeply she was reminded how fortunate she was, and gently picked up Tara's hand and kissed it. Tara had smiled, showing the joy it gave her to fill any need Willow had, and from then on had made a point of staying in contact with her whenever possible - brushing up against her side, holding hands, trailing her fingers down her back - just to keep reminding her.

Aside from the brief moments when they would both stop and just smile at each other, they had been busy. Tara had gone over the army reports on the Kotram region, delivered the previous evening, and made a few notes, hoping to speak to one or two of the scouts in person during the day. The news was not good, but not the worst it could have been - according to the reports, which Tara said were those of well-trained, dedicated trackers, the region still had more than its fair share of demons. Carvers were mentioned often, as well as goat-men, wandering undead, and a worrying profusion of blood hawks, quill rats, black worms and other kinds of animals warped by the infection of demonic energy in the land. Tara noted, however, that several scouts had seen signs that there was little order among the demons and beasts. None had seen organised groups of any creature other than the omnipresent Carver tribes, certainly nothing like the clan of goat-men they had broken on their way to the river, and a fair number of demon carcasses had been found, evidence of fighting between the monsters when they chanced to meet each other. Willow, while listening and offering comments, had drawn up a shopping list of spells and equipment that would be useful. Some of the items she decided were worth taking were simple to find - common enchanted scrolls or spell components - but others were rare to some degree, and besides visiting Ocean again to tell her of their plans, Willow hoped she would be able to direct them to an importer whose prices wouldn't be too exorbitant.

She exchanged a puzzled glance with Tara as they climbed the final flight of stairs, hearing and feeling through the soles of their feet a dull rumbling noise, like an orderly avalanche, coming from the workshop. A messenger, who passed them heading downstairs, didn't seem to be in any state of alarm, though.

"Is that some kind of magic?" Tara asked, raising her voice as they neared the workshop door, and the rumbling became loud enough to drown out a normal speaking voice. Willow shrugged and knocked, then - seeing the door had been left ajar - pushed it open and led the way in.

The source of the sound turned out to be the huge orrery, the arms of which were thundering around their axes at frightening speed. For a moment Willow tensed, wondering if the machine had gone haywire and was on the verge of collapse, but then she spotted Ocean, frowning at a notebook but otherwise quite calm, standing off to one side of the room, clear of the whirling steel arms. She and Tara crossed to her, likewise keeping to the edges of the chamber.

"Hi!" Willow called as they neared. Ocean looked up, and, oddly, seemed relieved to see them. She raised a hand and opened her mouth towards the orrery, letting out a wavering hiss. The air around her hand rippled briefly, there was a shuddering clonk from somewhere inside the orrery's mechanism, and it began to slow down, finally coming to rest just as Willow and Tara reached her.

"Is it alright?" Willow asked, tilting her head towards the machine. Ocean signed, faster than usual, her hand flitting rapidly from one position to the next.

"She says she's worried," Willow translated for Tara, "she says... wait, sorry, what was that? Oh, she says the stars are wrong. The stars are wrong?" Ocean nodded, then went on. "She spent the night up on the roof... taking measurements? And something's not right with them. The... what's that one? Line up... alignment? The alignments aren't what they should be." Ocean stopped, and Willow glanced at Tara in confusion, then back at the serpentine apprentice.

"How can the alignments be wrong?" she asked. "I mean... the planets and stars just are, aren't they? We know the laws governing how they move, they can't suddenly change... can they?"

"According to the charts and devices," she translated Ocean's reply, "the stars are correct... their positions are correct. But there's something wrong in them... in them?" She hesitated. "They're in the right place, but they're not right? I don't understand..." Ocean looked thoughtful for a moment, then signed again.

"She says when she reads the stars," Willow said, "she... no instruments? She just feels them. What's that?" Ocean pulled up the sleeve of her robe and ran her hand down her forearm. "Skin? You feel the stars on your skin?"

"You're sensitive to them?" Tara asked. "An extra sense, like sight or hearing?" Ocean nodded.

"So you can just go up onto the roof at night and-" Ocean made a sign, and Willow paused. "What was that?" The apprentice mimed pulling off her robe. "Oh. Oh! Undress..." Willow glanced aside to find Tara watching her with an amused grin as a blush crept up her neck. She gave her a theatrical scowl and returned her attention to Ocean.

"So you can sense the meaning of the stars without any instruments?" she asked. Ocean nodded. "And the instruments say everything is okay, but you feel something wrong?" Again she nodded, then made a quick series of signs.

"Yes," Willow said grimly, "yes, we felt something wrong too. In a dream last night."

"I felt it too," Tara added, "the same as Willow, while she was dreaming."

Ocean pointed quickly at both of them, then made the sign Tara recognised as indicating a question.

"Yep, both of us," Willow confirmed, "do you think-" Ocean made a complex sign.

"What's that?" Willow asked. "Forward... return- you mean an echo?" Her shoulders slumped as she turned to Tara. "She thinks what she felt in the stars and our dreams are the same thing, a sort of echo of something that's going to happen. You think it's Shadai?" she asked Ocean, who nodded and signed quickly.

"Almost certainly," she said with a sigh. "Have you sent a message to the Duke about this?" Ocean made several signs, finishing with a frustrated glare.

"She's already spoken with the Duke about this," Willow told Tara, "he said he doesn't have the manpower to investigate the monastery region immediately. How long?" Ocean signed. "Two weeks," Willow reported glumly.

Tara glanced from Willow to Ocean, then let her gaze drift, settling sightlessly on the big orrery, now still and silent. Ocean looked to Willow, but she held up a hand, asking the apprentice to give Tara a moment with her thoughts. She watched as resolve hardened Tara's features, as uncertainty and anxiety gave way to determination.

"Could we have a moment?" Tara asked. Ocean nodded and went to tend to the orrery, beginning to undo the sealing latches on one of the panels on its base. Willow stayed by Tara's side, patiently waiting as she remained silent a moment longer.

"Two weeks," she said at last.

"Yeah," Willow agreed quietly.

"I mean, I know a bit of the army here," Tara went on, "General Murine, and the officers and enlisted men I've worked with. It's not an inefficient army, and I don't think they campaign for glory or conquest. I get that impression of the Duke as well, from what people have said about him. If they're busy to the north, then they're doing something that needs to be done. And I imagine, if Ocean told the Duke about this, he'd take it seriously. But still..." she sighed.

"I know," Willow nodded, "and you know me, I'm not at my best sitting and waiting. Heh," she gave a lop-sided grin, "some cold sorceress I am. We're supposed to be the patient ones, you know? That's the stereotype, anyway. It's the fire-wielders who rush in without a second thought where angels fear to fly."

"Maybe Ember taught you that too," Tara offered.

"Could be," Willow shrugged. They shared a moment of silence, watching Ocean tinker with the massive machine.

"We can't afford to wait two weeks, can we?" Tara asked eventually.

"There's no way of knowing," Willow admitted, crossing her arms in frustration. "Intuition and instinct - even genuine magical premonition - they're never exact. We don't know what's out there, we don't know exactly what the danger is... it could be that the foundations beneath the monastery were damaged over the centuries, and there's nothing left that has real power. Or it could take months to decipher the magic in them, and begin to rebuild the tower. Plenty of time to send word to Kurast, and get a team of real sorceresses here."

"You're a real sorceress," Tara said gently. Willow paused, and then her lips curved into a grateful smile.

"Okay," she conceded, "but you know what I mean - trained, experienced battle mages. This isn't insecurity talking, but if it came down to a choice between me and Ember, or Prospera, or Symphony - no contest. I've still got a lot to learn."

"I know how you feel," Tara agreed softly, "if Solari were here... or Eponin - she's not the greatest warrior, but I'd say she's the wisest. But they're not here."

"We are," Willow murmured.

"Us," Tara added, "and what they taught us. Ember's talent and training, your Order's knowledge-"

"Solari's skill and Eponin's wisdom," Willow said, giving Tara a faint smile.

"We'll just have to do the best we can," Tara finished, stroking the back of Willow's hand with her thumb. "Try to learn as much as we can, cover as many possibilities as we can see... but in the end, we're the ones who are here. We make the choice." She turned to Willow and took her other hand, holding both gently.

"You understand this better than I do," she said, "Hellebore, Shadai, magic - it's what you've trained for years to deal with. I can't make this choice," she paused, then offered a smile, "the choice I can make is to be with you, whichever path you choose. I know you trust me, so... so please, let me trust you the same. Don't think about the danger, just... just tell me what your heart tells you. Do we go?"

Willow stared into her eyes for a long time, so open to Tara's scrutiny that she felt she could almost see the whirlwind of thought in her mind, as she weighed what she knew, what she believed, the risks of every action or inaction she could imagine. She knew when Willow had made her decision - something in her changed, was made stronger, as she chose a path to follow and felt free to pursue it, with all her skill and intellect.

"We go," she said, her voice quiet but steady. Tara nodded once, then slowly drew Willow to her and hugged her, resting her head on her shoulder and breathing in the aroma of her freshly-washed hair.

Willow luxuriated in the embrace for a long moment, drawing strength from Tara's resolve, her boundless trust, even the gentle, loving strokes of Tara's fingers through her hair. For a moment her eyes met Ocean's across the workshop - the snake woman was watching them with an almost wistful smile, though when she noticed Willow's glance she turned away with a bashful expression that, had she not had scales, would surely have been accompanied by a blush. Willow smiled to herself and closed her eyes, a barely audible sigh welling up in her throat as Tara held her.

At some unspoken signal, each sensing the other had received what she needed from their embrace, they both lifted their heads and stepped back.

"We go," Tara echoed Willow's earlier decision, squeezing her hands for emphasis.

"Yup," Willow agreed, with a grin that was part nervous tension, part relief.

"Alright," Tara said. "We've got our mission, let's work out how we do it."

"Amazon training coming to the fore?" Willow asked with a grin. Tara chuckled, then shrugged.

"Might as well," she admitted, "alright then, our pride - you and me - has a task to achieve. When a pride goes into battle, on any kind of mission, they must know three things. Their own strengths and weaknesses; those of the enemy; exactly what they must do to achieve victory."

"Good thinking," Willow agreed, leading the way to one of the less-cluttered tables, where she and Tara sat next to each other. Willow found a blank piece of paper, then turned in her seat and gestured for Ocean to join them.

"Yes, we're going," she answered after Ocean signed a question. She nodded and signed again, hesitantly.

"She says should she come with us," Willow said, slightly surprised, turning to Tara, who stared at the apprentice, assessing her.

"You know what we encountered last time we went to the monastery," she said, "if you went by yourself, could you make it?" Ocean bit her lip momentarily, then dropped her gaze and shook her head. Willow and Tara shared a glance, then Willow leaned towards Ocean.

"I think you should stay here," she said kindly, "where we're going... Tara's a trained warrior, I'm a trained battle mage, even if we're both young it's something we're prepared for, as much as we can be. It wouldn't be easy for you... and there's so much you can do to help us here. This isn't just about us, it involves all of Duncraig, the Vizjerei, the university - here, you've got all of them at your fingertips. We'll be gone for a while, so if anything happens - more signs, new information, anything - you'll be the one who can tell people what's happening."

Ocean nodded, betraying a glum expression for a moment, then she set her jaw and sat down, taking a quill and paper of her own. She signed, one-handed, to Willow.

"That'd be best," Willow agreed, turning to Tara, "she'll record everything we plan, so she and the Duke can take us into account, if they need to take action while we're away."

"Good idea," Tara nodded, "well then... what are we trying to achieve? We have a demon trying to gain control of the remains of Hellebore. How do we stop her?"

"We can't attack Shadai," Willow said, making notes as she spoke, "so long as she's in the ethereal realm, there's no way to physically reach her, and my magic can't harm her either. The mages at the university - despite their attitude," she added with a sardonic grin, "are doing their best to reach and banish her from her ethereal plane. So long as she remains there, there's nothing we can do that will help their efforts."

"If she doesn't remain there?" Tara asked. Ocean looked grim.

"Then... well, the up side is that we can attack her then," Willow said with a forced smile, "the down side is that it'll be about the most difficult thing we could try to do. A banishing spell isn't an option. Am I right in thinking there's no Amazon magic equivalent of banishing?"

"None that I know of," Tara said.

"And we know I can't banish her one-on-one. The spell would be a mental battle, and she's already defeated me - it'd be easier a second time, because she knows my mind from the first. Even putting aside my reluctance to try, it just wouldn't work. That leaves banishing the old-fashioned way."

"Destroy her physically?" Tara asked.

"Yup. Destroy the body, and the spirit can't remain on the mortal plane."

"What are our chances of doing that?"

"It depends," Willow admitted, "if she's newly-summoned... you remember I mentioned demons are weak just after they've manifested? It takes time for their energy to settle into the mortal form, so at first they're vulnerable to energetic disharmony - which is a fancy way of saying they're not as tough as they'd be otherwise. It's relative to how powerful the demon is. Something like Shadai... if we caught her within moments of being summoned..." she paused and frowned in thought.

"Perhaps," she said at last, "my ice, your fire and lightning. You can cast something like that lightning bolt you used to break the goat-men's herd-stone, again?"

"The power comes from my gods," Tara said, "it's essentially limitless, but a warrior can only call on so much. It depends on how sure she is of her cause, how pure her motives are, how focused she is on the task at hand. I think... against Shadai, I could probably manage a strike slightly more powerful." She glanced at Willow and gave a wry grin. "Given your history with her, I'd be very highly motivated." Willow returned her smile.

"There's that benefit to fighting demons," she agreed. "And I'll throw in all the ice I can manage. On the defensive that wouldn't count for much, but demons are always strongest when they attack - I doubt I could make a chill armour last any longer than last time. But if we were both to attack her together, at the same time..."

"We've got a chance?" Tara asked.

"I won't lie," Willow said grimly, "not a great chance. But if Shadai manifests, it's our only chance - once she overcomes the initial weakness, it'd take far more power than we have to stop her. And that's on her own - if she gains control of the Hellebore catacombs, and works out how to rebuild the tower... forget it. But if we catch her early, there's a chance." Tara looked intently at Willow.

"If we take that chance," she said, her voice gentle, "do you believe we'll manage?"

Willow returned her stare, captured by her eyes for a moment, then nodded. She lifted a hand and tapped her temple lightly.

"In here, it's a chance," she said. Then her hand covered her heart. "Here... I believe."

"Me too," Tara said softly. A movement from Ocean surprised her slightly - for a moment, she had been aware only of Willow - but she smiled as the apprentice gave a thumbs-up.

"That's if she manifests," Willow said, giving a nod in acknowledgement of Ocean's support. "Since she escaped from the hospice she's tried twice to be summoned, and failed both times. Admittedly Hydris was unlucky to be discovered doing his ritual, but the mage in the monastery had all the privacy and time he needed, and she couldn't bend him to her will enough to stop him taking his own life before summoning her. And even Hydris chose a bad moment to try to summon her, with two armed guards standing right behind him."

"Is that sort of... instability, something we could expect if she's found a new servant?" Tara wondered.

"Could be," Willow nodded, "I mean, obviously anyone who's dabbling in demonology isn't going to win an award for being well-adjusted to begin with, but it could be that there's something more to it. So far as I know, no demon has ever existed in an ethereal plane before, so it might be affecting her, interfering with her mind somehow, making it difficult for her to properly wield whatever power she still has there."

"Meaning it won't be easy for her to get herself summoned," Tara surmised, "so she may not manage it."

"At least, not yet," Willow agreed, "she's phenomenally powerful - if she did manifest, every mage within a hundred miles would feel it. Probably like the dream we had, but constant, and it wouldn't be just us." She paused and frowned. "I don't suppose any other mages have felt anything?" she asked Ocean, who shook her head.

"The university's envoy was with the Duke this morning when she told him about the stars," Willow translated her signing, "he didn't mention anything. Okay, so we can safely assume she's still lurking on her ethereal plane. But perhaps she's not planning on staying there, there has to be some reason we felt what we did. My bet is that she plans on getting herself summoned again, and the monastery will be the place she'll aim for."

"Why not somewhere else?" Tara wondered.

"That's a possibility," Willow conceded, "but remember she'll be vulnerable when she's summoned - to us, only for a little while, but to the Duke's battle mages - and believe me, whatever they're doing up north, they'll scramble to deal with Shadai if she's discovered - to them, she's one big target. Her best hope to survive would be to gain power as quickly as possible, in a place where she won't be disturbed for as long as possible. That means she'll want to manifest in the monastery, or somewhere in the catacombs. That'll give her a head start on uncovering whatever secrets are in the ruins, and all the demons in the surrounding area will slow down any force sent to attack her."

"So that's one goal," Tara said, "if we find a mage under her control, stop him from summoning her. If there's no other way...?" She left the questioning hanging.

"We'll have to see what options we have, if the situation arises," Willow replied, "there may be other ways. Depending on how powerful the mage is, we may be able to subdue him and neutralise his powers. I don't want to take unnecessary risks, but if we get the drop on him - basically, if he's unconscious I can take the time to do a cold elemental spell to bind his power. And we can destroy whatever components he may have to help a summoning. But if it looks like the only way..." she hesitated, then sighed. "If there's no other way, I'll kill him."

"Agreed," Tara said quietly, her face grim.

"It's not something I want to do," Willow said, staring blankly at the table in front of her, "but if there's no other way..."

"We'll make sure to find another way if there is one," Tara said, taking her hand, "but if there isn't, this is something we may have to do."

"You don't have to-" Willow began.

"We're in this together," Tara cut her off, "whatever dark places we have to go into, I'm with you. Please don't ask me to let you do this alone."

Willow looked up at her, studied her gaze, then nodded once, squeezing her hand.

"Alright," Tara said gently, "that's decided. What about Hellebore itself?"

"Well, we won't know for sure until we're there," Willow said, relieved to be back onto a subject more palatable to her, "really, all we can decide now is that whatever Shadai wants, we stop her from getting it."

"What might there be?" Tara asked. "The catacombs themselves?"

"They could be valuable," Willow explained, "even though the tower's gone, the foundations are still a part of it - if she controlled them, and mastered whatever magic is still in them, it could make her very powerful, more even than she is naturally. Even if there's not enough left to show how the original shield spell was created, she might get part-way there." She glanced at Ocean, who had gestured for her attention, then made a sign.

"Yeah," she agreed, "good point - there may be journals, or parts of a library. It wouldn't be unusual, in the underground parts of a structure that size. If Moac wrote anything that he didn't destroy later, or was destroyed with the tower, it'd be down there somewhere. Shadai may be hoping for that. In which case, we have to stop her getting that knowledge."

"How?" Tara asked. "Keep it from her, or destroy it?" Willow considered this for a moment.

"I'll admit I'm not really big on the idea of 'knowledge we were not meant to have'," she said, "as a Zann Esu, I'd say the best place for anything of real power we find down there - Moac's journal, for instance - would be in the Zann Esu vault libraries. No demon or their servant ever set foot in there, and there's already a lot they'd want, so I'd say it's not a foolish risk to think we could take a book and keep it from eventually falling into Shadai's claws. That said..." she let out a sigh, "...I'd definitely rather destroy whatever's there than let her have it. If, when we get there, it looks like we can't safely bring whatever we find back here, I'm willing to reduce the whole library to icy vapour."

"Sensible," Tara agreed.

"That's a last resort," Willow added quickly, "I'll send a letter to Kurast tonight, and another to Lut Gholein - that's slightly closer, and there's a Zann Esu embassy there - so we'll have sorceresses here in... say four weeks?" She looked to Ocean, who nodded. "Even if we find the complete plan for the Hellebore tower, I'll feel safe if they're in the hands of the Order."

"And anything we can't deliver safely?" Tara asked. "If there's too many books for us to carry? And the foundations themselves?"

"Destroy them," Willow said flatly, "we're agreed we can't afford to take our time here?" Both Tara and Ocean nodded. "Well," Willow grinned wryly, "that rules out leaving half a library to go back and pick up later."

"Can you destroy the catacombs?" Tara asked. "Not that I'm doubting your magic-"

"I know what you mean," Willow smiled, "it's a bit bigger than a goat-lord. Not in a straight-forward attack, no, but if we can get inside them I can enchant parts of the structure, and that'll let me cast magic directly into it once we're at a safe distance - miles away. I can handle a fair amount of structural weakening, but it may take as little as turning a few supporting pillars to ice, and the whole thing will cave in and demolish itself."

"There's our goals, then," Tara summed up, "prevent Shadai from being summoned, do our best to banish her if she is, and either take and hold or destroy anything that remains of Hellebore."

"Sounds good to me," Willow agreed. "I'll start mapping out as much of the catacombs as we saw - the lower levels that we saw from the balcony, I can remember them pretty well. We can add to that as we go. Then," she gave Tara a grin, "I'll do some damage to the funds the Order gave me for travelling expenses, and stock up on everything we might need. Can you point me to the best suppliers?" she asked Ocean, who signed a reply.

"Thanks - she'll come with me," she told Tara.

"What kinds of things will you buy?" Tara asked.

"Depends what's available," Willow said, "magic isn't really a production industry, so I'll just have to see what's in stock. But probably light spells, anything that can sense demons or danger, some extra rune stones if I can find them, and spell components to help with enchanting and collapsing the catacombs. Oh, I had a thought- can you use your fire magic to make an arrow light just as it hits its target, rather than mid-air?"

"Yes, why?"

"Remember the Arreat ice crystal I tossed at the goat-lord, and you ignited just as it was right in front of him?" Willow grinned.

"Oh yeah," Tara replied, "you don't forget a blast that big in a hurry."

"Well, what if you had an arrow with the arrowhead made of that ice?" Willow suggested. "You fire it, use your magic to have it catch fire just as it hits, then-"

"Boom," Tara nodded, "good idea. Can you get ice in the right shape?"

"I've still got a couple of crystals myself," Willow said, "but what I'll do is try to find someone who can sell me some more, and sculpt them with my own magic. That way we've both got some, if we need them."

"A rough shape will be alright," Tara said, "it doesn't have to be perfect, especially if we're underground, and at close quarters. How big would the blast be?"

"I'll try for about the same amount of power as the one you saw."

"Okay, if we're careful we can use them without being caught in the blast ourselves. I'll go to the barracks and see what I can get from there. I should be allowed copies of whatever maps they have of the area, they'll be very detailed. And I'll see what I can arrange for transportation."

"You mean horses, don't you?" Willow said with a pained expression.

"We're going up against a demon and you're worried about horses?" Tara teased.

"Well, that's different," Willow grinned despite herself, "I'm trained for demons... okay, if we must, we must. Wait, what happens when we get to the monastery? We can't take a horse into the catacombs, and it'll be too dangerous to leave it outside-"

"A warhorse will be able to keep out of trouble," Tara said, "they're trained to defend themselves. And nothing will be able to catch one on open ground."

"Okay, nervous again," Willow admitted with a grin.

"I'll make sure we get a gentle one," Tara promised, "okay?"

"Okay," Willow sighed. "I'll get started mapping what I can remember of the catacombs, and then start drafting a letter and a report for the Zann Esu."

"I need to find Galt," Tara said, pushing back her chair and standing, "he can be trusted with this. Can you make a copy of your report for Tryptin?" Willow nodded, standing too. Ocean remained seated, pulling out a fresh sheet of paper and beginning to write.

"I'll tell Galt what's going on in detail, between that and your report Tryptin will know everything that's going on."

"Good idea," Willow agreed, "he'll be useful, whatever happens."

"Plus he's still technically my superior," Tara pointed out with a smile, "if I'm going to go charging off into the wilderness, I should at least let him know why."

"Will you come straight back?" Willow asked.

"I'll visit the barracks," Tara said, "see what maps I can get, and whether any of the officers can be of any use to us. A couple of extra quivers wouldn't go amiss either, they make good arrows here. Meet you for lunch?"

"You bet," Willow smiled, "I'll have time to get a start on shopping for supplies, so I'll meet you at midday. That tavern near the barracks? The food was good."

"I'll see you there," Tara promised. She glanced at Ocean, who was absorbed in her writing, then pulled Willow into her embrace and kissed her deeply. Willow's lips opened at once, giving herself to the kiss with relish, a quiet moan passing from her mouth into Tara's.

Tara, reluctantly, ended the kiss and stepped back, a satisfied smile tugging at the corners of her lips. Willow's tongue snuck out to lick her lips before she opened her eyes again.

"Midday," she whispered breathlessly.

"Midday," Tara purred.

At midday precisely - according to the ornate clock set into the tavern's fašade - Tara spotted Willow crossing the street towards her. She met Tara's gaze and waved, waiting only as long as was necessary to allow a coach to go past before picking up her pace, jogging to Tara's side, leaning to kiss her even as she stood up from the outdoors table she had been waiting at.

"Mmm," she murmured, "I don't know if the food's going to taste that good now, compared to you." Tara grinned and offered her elbow, which Willow looped her arm through as they went inside. The tavern was less crowded than the last time they had visited, no doubt due to the lack of off-duty soldiers, with so many out of town. Willow, trusting Tara to pick something tasty for her, went to claim a table facing the street, while Tara got the innkeeper's attention and gave their orders.

"How did you go?" she asked as she sat opposite Willow, her legs stretching out to rub up against those opposite beneath the cosy little table for two.

"Pretty good," Willow replied, leaning on her elbows as she slipped off one of her low boots and stroked her bare foot up and down Tara's calf, "it looks like no-one's got any morphic crystals to spare at the moment, but that's not so bad, we can do without them. I've got Arreat ice, light and sensing scrolls, a couple of runes fixed to detect enchantments - traps, that sort of thing - oh, and Ocean called in a favour with a dealer she knows, and got us a pair of annulment charms." She produced a pair of carved wooden discs on thin leather straps, each roughly the size and shape of a coin, with intricate runes inscribed on both their faces.

"How do they work?" Tara asked, taking the one Willow offered and studying it.

"You wear it," Willow said, "necklace, bracelet, anklet, around your waist, however you like - so long as it's worn somehow it's in effect. They'll last about three days, they block magic being cast against the wearer. Not a lot, charms only have a relatively weak power, but every little bit helps."

"Useful," Tara agreed. "I spoke to the captain at the barracks, by the way."

"Do we have maps?" Willow asked.

"Better," Tara smiled, "he's going to allow my commission to apply in the field, for the duration of our journey. It seems they're keen to have someone take a closer look at the monastery, what with all the demon activity around there, but all their best scouts are up north."

"So what does that mean?"

"We get maps, equipment, a horse, all free of charge - I'll be acting as an official army scout, so the army pays for any supplies I need. That doesn't extend to magic," she shrugged, "but food, equipment, all covered."

"Great!" Willow grinned. "Don't worry about the magic, Ocean's put in a good word for me with some of the suppliers she knows, the Order's funds will cover what we need from them. So... does this mean you get paid?"

"Fifteen crowns a day," Tara nodded, "plus the worth of whatever information I bring back. There's a bounty on demons, too, but I think we can do without that - I don't really want to have to carry demon heads around with us as proof."

"Urk," Willow grimaced, "yeah... but still, not bad, not bad at all. I guess I can see how some people make a living doing this kind of thing."

"I'll pass," Tara chuckled, "I don't mind getting paid when we're going anyway, but I'm not looking to take this up full-time."

"No argument here," Willow grinned. "Hmm... I see you're finding other ways to indulge your adventurous spirit?" Tara had shed her boots, and was stroking her toes high up the back of Willow's calves.

"Uh-huh," Tara smiled, "no payment needed here... there are times when 'adventure' is its own reward."

"I've always found it very rewarding," Willow agreed. "So... wait, did you say 'horse', singular?"

"I had a look in the stables," Tara explained, continuing her idly caresses, "I picked out a horse. She's a big warhorse, used to men in plate armour - she'll carry both of us easily, and our packs. I thought you'd be happier that way than on a horse of your own."

"You thought right," Willow said with a relieved sigh, "so, two days hard riding, and I get to snuggle up to you the whole way? This trip is looking better all the time."

They paused for a moment as a serving boy appeared with two plates - pastries for Tara, and a mildly spicy stew for Willow - though beneath the table, safely out of sight, they continued to gently touch and tease throughout.

"So, this horse," Willow began as they began their meal, "she's a nice horse, right?"

"She's called Anji," Tara said, "she's very quiet and gentle. If you can spare the time, you should come by the stables, to say hello to her. Once you get used to her, I'm sure you'll adore her."

"Okay," Willow conceded grudgingly, "are you busy this afternoon?"

"No, nothing pressing."

"Come with me? I've got some more shops to check out. And I'd like to see Gelt again."

"I thought you decided he'd told you all he could?" Tara asked.

"Yeah, I think so," she agreed, "but I think we should let him know what we're planning - maybe not every detail, but enough to be useful to him. I have no idea what abilities he has, or connections, but if Ember trusts him, maybe he, or someone he knows - his priesthood, if he's in contact with them - will be able to help, even if it's not directly. And then," she gave Tara a smile, "I'm going to make dinner for you."

"Really?" Tara said, surprised and delighted.

"Well, we're going to be stuck with trail rations until we get back, so I thought I'd treat you to my vegetables and cream sauce while we've got the Palace kitchens at our disposal."

"I'd love that," Tara beamed, "thank you."

"Hey," Willow said bashfully, "only the best for my Tara."

Knocking on the door to Gelt's first-floor rooms produced no result, but just as Willow turned to Tara, a confused frown furrowing her brow, the lady from the shop below appeared at the foot of the staircase.

"Hello dear, looking for Mister Gelt?" she asked. "Oh, and you've brought a friend! Hello."

"Hi," Tara said, slightly taken aback by the woman's boundless enthusiasm for something so mundane as a greeting.

"Hello, yes," Willow said, "I mean, yes, we're looking for Mister Gelt... is he out?"

"Went off this morning," the lady replied, "couldn't get a word of explanation out of him - he's a good tenant though, so I can't say as I mind if he keeps to himself. Some sort of druidic thing, is it? I imagine so."

"Uh, I guess," Willow hazarded, sparing Tara a glance - she nodded almost imperceptibly, so that Willow knew she had also noted Gelt's assumed identity as a druid. 'Good choice,' Willow surmised privately, 'no-one knows much about druids or their ways, but they're generally given a bit of respect and not bothered too much.'

"He did say you might come round," the lady went on as they descended the stairs and followed her into her cramped shop, "left a letter for you, in fact - well, strange thing about that actually, he said to me you might have a woman with you, an Amazon - you are an Amazon, aren't you dear? I assumed, you see, what with the armour..."

"Yes," Tara said, after a slight pause to see if the woman was actually waiting for an answer, or just drawing breath.

"I thought so," she nodded to herself, "let's see, where did I put it? Ah, here it is!" She fished out a large brown envelope from a drawer in her sales desk, which was stuffed full of receipts and invoices, and handed it to Willow.

"I wondered why he said only if you were together," she frowned, "it's a bit strange, isn't it?"

"Thank you. Well, you know druids," Willow said vaguely.

"Yes, of course," the lady agreed, accepting this as an explanation in itself. She sat back down behind her desk and busied herself with her papers as Willow and Tara said their goodbyes and returned to the street outside.

"Only if we're together?" Tara wondered. "Why?"

"Only one way to find out," Willow shrugged, slipping a finger beneath the envelope's flap and opening it. She produced a folded note, then, feeling more weight in the envelope, tipped into her palm a pair of tiny white ornaments that had been inside it.

"What might you be?" she said to herself, poking the tiny objects with a fingertip. Tara took the note from her hand and opened it.

"'It takes a brave soul to make the future her own,'" she read, "'if you and your loved one have chosen to stand firm, perhaps you may have the courage to avert what I fear may come to pass. Take these, and both wear them, so that you need not fear the grave's touch.'"

"Charms," Willow muttered, "they're some kind of charms... I've never seen any like these before. But they must protect against tainted wounds - it makes sense," she lowered her voice, "a necromancer would know all about how to prevent that kind of sickness from taking hold."

"But why only give them to us if we're together?" Tara wondered. "If you'd decided to go on your own, after what you'd seen in your vision... to try to keep me out of danger..."

"He's taking a risk giving these to us," Willow guessed, "they're proof of what he is... I guess he thinks that, if we're together, our chances of succeeding are worth him taking this risk."

"I see," Tara nodded, "that's encouraging, actually."

"Yeah, it is," Willow agreed as they set off, back towards the 'magic marketplace' near the university, "and I'm sure there's nothing else like these charms in the whole city... definitely valuable to have." She glanced at Tara beside her. "I'm glad I won't have to worry about every little scratch," she confessed, "one scare was enough."

"For me too," she smiled.

With an air of formality Willow laid Tara's plate in front of her, then sat down with her own next to her. With no major events happening in the Palace the kitchens were quite sedate - a handful of servants and a pair of apprentices worked the ovens on the other side of the vast culinary workroom, but they were sufficiently distant that the table where Willow and Tara sat, tucked away beside one of the doors to the huge larders, was private enough for dinner - cosy even, with the warmth of the kitchen, and the appetising smells wafting around.

Willow smiled as she watched Tara take a deep breath, sampling the aroma of her creation, then picked up her own fork and began the meal as Tara took the first bite.

"Mmm," she murmured approvingly, "mmm..." she swallowed, "lovely. You were right, cooking is like magic. You've got a talent for them both."

"I'm glad you like it," Willow grinned, "I should do this more often."

"Maybe you could teach me?" Tara offered. "If you're willing to put in some hard work, that is... I may not be the most promising student you could ask for." She gave a sheepish grin and took another bite.

"I'll give it my best shot," Willow smiled warmly, "I mean, we know you've got the creativity, it'd just be a matter of steering it in the right direction... I'd like that," she added. "I'd forgotten how relaxing this is for me."

"Well-timed," Tara observed. Willow nodded her agreement - despite the playful banter they had indulged in during the afternoon, neither could deny the tension they both felt was only increasing. Tara reached out and gently placed her hand over Willow's on the table.

"It'll be okay," she said softly, "I know you've got what it takes to do what we have to do. And I'll be with you, always. I love you Willow. No matter what happens, I won't let anything part us."

"I love you," Willow whispered. "I believe you. I can't help being nervous, but I- deep down, where it counts, I believe you. We'll make it."

"We'll make it," Tara echoed.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Fifty-Nine

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