Author: Chris Cook
"Okay. Let's take a look at where we're going."
The early morning sun was hazy in the distance, hidden behind scattered clouds to the east, but its light glittered off the Kingsway river like a trail of stars left over from the night. Being the only customers in the tavern who had stayed the night, rather than returned home at the waning of the evening, Willow and Tara had the common room to themselves, and had taken a table by a window, looking out over the square and the gently sloping landscape beyond.
Tara had brought one of the copies she had been given of the army's maps, and spread it out on the table while Willow picked a few pieces of fruit from the counter and left a silver on the bar as payment. She set the bowl down on the corner of the map, keeping it from rolling up again, and sat next to Tara.
"We're here," she noted, pointing to the tiny dot marked 'Laban', surrounded by a handful of carefully-inscribed symbols.
"That's us," Tara nodded, "and a day's ride due south..." Her hand brushed Willow's in passing, on its way to point out Kotram, where the monastery and its five surrounding villages were marked.
"We'll reach it today?" Willow asked quietly.
"I think we'd best leave it for tomorrow," Tara said, "we could get there, but it'd be late by the time we arrived - I know it wouldn't make a difference underground, but I don't really want us to go down there at night. We'd be tired, for one thing."
"And some kinds of demons are more powerful at night," Willow added, "whereas I don't think there's any west of the Aranoch desert that prefer the daytime. Even underground, that can make a difference to demons. So where do we spend the night?"
"We've got two choices," Tara said, tracing the routes on the map as she spoke. "Either we head straight for the monastery, on the high ground, and camp on the plateau for the night - there's shallow valleys along there, so we could probably find somewhere out of the way, and make it safe enough to sleep in if we're careful. Then we go straight to the monastery in the morning. We'll have a good view in both directions, the ridge the monastery is on is high enough to overlook the nearer valleys to the west, and we'll be able to see for miles along the plain below the cliff to the east."
"Giving us a good chance of spotting any roving packs of demons well before they get near us," Willow nodded. "What's the other option?"
"If we veer east," Tara said, pointing, "we could come around the northern edge of the cliff, where the plain comes up to reach the plateau. Then we go along the base of the cliff and camp there for the night. This map has several good sites marked."
"And the monastery?" Willow asked.
"We go in through the eastern tunnel," Tara suggested. "Unless something's happened since we were last there we know it's intact and safe, and the fact that the village at the end was pretty much destroyed means it's unlikely any demons will have made a camp there, like they did in the western village when we were on our way through before. We follow the tunnel straight to that locked entrance we found, and go into the catacombs from there. If there's anything in the monastery itself we'll bypass it completely."
"That detour around the edge of the cliff makes the trip longer," Willow noted.
"But safer, I think," Tara pointed out. "Unless something actually comes up to the cliff and looks over the edge, nothing to the west will ever know we're there. And there's a slight rise between the base of the cliff and the plain, running almost as far as the village. We'd be hidden from anything east as well."
"And we can stop now and then and take a peek over the rise to see if there's anything out there," Willow said, "good plan. What about when we approach the ruined village, though? If there's anything in the monastery they'll see us."
"They'd see us just the same if we came in from the west. It's a risk either way."
"What about Anji?" Willow asked. "We can't take her in with us."
"If we spend the night here," Tara said, pointing to a marked site at the base of the cliff, three miles from the monastery atop it, "she'll recognise that as our camp site, provided it's clear to her. Then we ride as far as the rise goes south, continue to the village on foot, and she'll go back and wait for us at the camp. She understands the commands for that."
"You like the 'eastern road'?" Willow said.
"I think it's got more advantages than going west, along the top of the cliff," Tara nodded. "Normally I'd say the high ground is best, but this is an unusual situation - and we're not trying to win a battle, we're trying to avoid one."
"I agree," Willow grin, "besides, you're the only one of us who's really trained for this sort of thing."
"I'm no expert," Tara said, with a shy smile.
"You're good enough for me," Willow said firmly. "Now, what happens if we run into some company of the demonic variety?"
"Well, if what the Duncraig scouts reported holds true, there aren't any highly organised bands roaming the countryside. Probably some will have stayed together, for hunting and protection... do they do that?"
"Usually," Willow nodded, "at least if they encounter others of the same kind, most demons are more likely to band together than fight. Only a very powerful master can stop infighting among different kinds of demons - Shadai could, but only if she were already here. From the ethereal plane her ability to control lesser demons must be weaker than if she'd manifested - it'd be more suggestion, really, rather than control. Even if she is able to reach far enough to influence other demons, if a bunch of goat-men ran into a tribe of Carvers I'm pretty sure their instincts would just take over and they'd try to kill each other."
"Good," Tara said, "so basically, we're dealing with belligerent predators, not soldiers."
"Predators are better?" Willow asked.
"For our purposes, yes," Tara grinned wryly. "If we run into a lone demon and kill it it's far less likely that any others will realise it's missing. They'll be hunting for food, not patrolling, which means we've got a better chance of avoiding being seen. And if one group does realise there's humans around, they won't send word to any others."
"You're right," Willow agreed, "but remember there's Shadai herself - whatever she's planning she won't want us interfering."
"All the more reason to go unnoticed," Tara pointed out. "Aside from anyone serving her directly, could she use other demons, the goat-men and Carvers? If we run into them, will she know?" Willow frowned in thought.
"It's possible," she said, "to what extent I don't know... the ethereal realm throws it all into doubt. There's creatures native to the realms, but Shadai isn't, so it's impossible to be sure what affect that will have on her exactly. If I had to guess - which I guess I do," she added with a shrug and a smile, "I'd say she won't be able to focus, if you get what I mean... if we run into a lone demon and kill it quickly, she won't know. If we run into a whole tribe and spend half a day with them chasing us, she could pick up on their awareness of us. Like you said, going unnoticed is good."
"If any of those blood hawk things show up, I should try to shoot them down?" Tara asked.
"That'd be my bet," Willow replied. "I'll use what spells I've got to try to give us some early warning of concentrations of demons, so we can avoid or ambush them, depending on how many there are. If we do it right, I think we could make it - all we need to worry about are the catacombs. Whatever Shadai's managed to bind to her service, human or demon, that's where they'll be."
"Close quarters," Tara mused, "between your magic and mine, I don't think we have to worry about being outnumbered down there."
"Some of those vaults we saw were pretty expansive," Willow pointed out, "it wouldn't be that different to fighting on open ground."
"We'll have to do our best to stick to tunnels and smaller chambers," Tara said, "we'll have the advantage there, over groups of demons at any rate. If we run into something individually powerful, like a demon champion, or a mage..." she shrugged.
"That's not unlikely," Willow said gloomily. Tara nodded, then squared her shoulders.
"We'll deal with it if it happens," she said firmly, "no-one gives my baby nightmares and gets away with it." Willow gave a chuckle, and leant over to rest her forehead against Tara's.
"Time to go?" she asked.
"Time to go," Tara replied. Willow leant back, but Tara quickly reached out and caught her around the waist, gently keeping her from getting up.
"I know this is difficult," she whispered, "I haven't seen what you've seen, I haven't stood face to face with a demon like Shadai... I can't know what it's like the way you do. But I know she scares you more than anything else, and I can see how incredibly brave you are, to go out there." She leant forward and pressed a gentle, tender kiss to Willow's lips.
"I'm with you all the way," she said.
Willow found that, if she kept her eyes on the horizon ahead, she wasn't bothered at all by the speed she and Tara were riding at. To reach the point where the river plain came up to meet the highlands they had had to leave the road, and though the ground was good, its dips and curves made it far more difficult for Willow to ignore the fact that she was astride a very tall, very powerful horse.
On the uneven ground, Anji had seemed to want to adopt a slightly quicker pace than she had on the road, and with Willow's rueful agreement Tara had let her. Hedges and occasional trees flashed by on either side as they followed a wide trail - Willow found that whenever she looked, the reminder of their speed made her far more anxious than she thought she should be, rationally speaking. Ahead, though, the view was quite bearable, as the trail snaked this way and that, and the rest of the scenery slowly slid to one side or the other, out of sight and comfortably out of mind.
"Feeling okay?" Tara asked, raising her voice slightly to overcome the sound of Anji's hooves thundering along the packed earth.
"Been better," Willow replied, "but could be worse. No problem." It helped her to hear Tara's voice, with its carefully reined-in joy. She could hear - could feel, the way Tara held her, strong but not at all tense - how much she was enjoying the ride. Intellectually, she herself could see what the appeal would be, the thrill of their speed, much like the way she had been enjoying their progress the day before, on the road proper. But hearing Tara's voice, alive with excitement, gave Willow a measure of real understanding - for a moment, she felt exhilarated too.
Tara switched the reins to one hand for a moment, offering a comforting caress over Willow's exposed side, then she took the reins firmly in both hands again, and leaned forward to speak close to Willow's ear.
"Do you trust me?" she asked.
"Of course," Willow said, wondering. She felt a quick kiss just below her ear, then Tara leaned forward in the saddle, her leather-clad breasts pressing close against Willow's back.
"Hold tight," she said.
"Why...?" Willow asked, keeping her eyes fixed ahead. Her hands nevertheless firmly gripped the saddle ahead of her, and between their hold and Tara's arms to either side of her, she felt at least confident that her falling was quite unlikely.
"Trust me," Tara replied, with audible eagerness in her voice.
'What's she up to-' Willow began to wonder, before her thoughts were cut off by Tara gently tugging on the reins, turning Anji off the trail and into a neighbouring field. The ground was firm enough, and empty, the harvest having passed already for whatever crop had basked here during the summer - all that remained was acre after acre of bare soil, with grass sprouting here and there, and the hedges and low wooden fences marking the boundaries between one field and the next.
'Okay, don't panic, Tara's got me, I'm perfectly safe,' Willow silently recited to herself.
"What're we..." Willow began, then trailed off as she saw a hedge ahead of them, approaching at speed. Tara leaned forward more, her body intimately pressed against Willow's back, almost hugging her but for her forearms, still holding the reins.
"Hold tight," she whispered in Willow's ear, urging Anji on to a full-speed charge.
"Eep!" Willow squeaked as the horse's muscles bunched and she launched herself into the air. For a moment it seemed to Willow as though they had taken to the sky, left the ground far behind - the wind still whipped at her hair and gusted against her eyes, their motion was unchecked, but there were no hoof beats, no contact with the ground. Then Anji made a perfect landing, galloping along without breaking stride in the least.
"Ah!" Willow exclaimed, letting go a breath she had held since the jump. Making up for lost time she took two deep breaths in quick succession, then craned her neck around to see Tara, still close behind her.
"What do you think?" she smiled.
'What do I think?' Willow wondered madly. 'That was... was...' The tight knot of tension in her unwound, letting her feel the emotions bound up in it. 'That was...'
"Wow!" she yelled, startling herself. Tara's smile broadened, relief added to exhilaration.
"I didn't scare you?" she asked, almost sheepishly now that the excitement was abating a little.
"I... no," Willow shook her head, "no, startled maybe, not scared... wow!" She looked around, suddenly feeling a tremendous sense of vitality at seeing the world rushing by, no matter where she looked. Unbidden, laughter welled up out of her, laughter filled with joy and exhilaration.
"Can we do it again?" she laughed.
"What do you say, girl?" Tara asked, looking past Willow at Anji's alert ears and streaming mane. "Shall we give her another thrill?" The horse seemed eager coming up to the next hedge, and again Willow laughed as they leapt over it, this time expecting and fully enjoying the moment when their ties to the earth and everything on it were, for a brief instant, forgotten.
After three more jumps Tara steered Anji back to the trail, and she resumed her comfortable gallop towards the distant river plain. Willow, still trembling with excitement, twisted around and reached behind her to embrace Tara as best she could and, when she leaned forward, kissed her passionately. Tara merely opened her mouth and let Willow assault her senses with her lips and tongue, fumbling with the reins to free one hand, to return Willow's half-embrace. Willow felt like she could keep kissing forever - the energy in her body surged as her lips moved against Tara's, their tongues caressed each other, and at last, when they finally opened their eyes and parted, the naked desire in Tara's stare made her squirm in the saddle.
"Feeling better, then?" Tara asked breathlessly.
"I feel..." Willow began, staring around blissfully at the speeding landscape, "I feel like I can fly! Thank you. How did you know?"
"Just going with my instincts," Tara shrugged bashfully.
"You've got good instincts," Willow said, tightening the arm she had managed to get around Tara's waist. "Great instincts. Especially when it comes to me."
"You seemed so tense," Tara said, grinning her lop-sided grin, "I thought... I hoped the excitement would open you up to the experience."
"You were right," Willow smiled, genuine gratitude in her voice, "I mean, I don't know about riding solo, but with you behind me... I feel good now. Better than good. That was amazing!" She kissed Tara again, carefree and intimate, feeling a kind of privacy in the miles of unoccupied fields surrounding them.
"Mmm," Tara purred when they parted, "so... now that I've got you excited, what do I do with you?"
"Seeing as you're so good at opening me up to new experiences," Willow grinned gleefully, "I'd say you can do whatever you want with me... how long until we stop for lunch?"
"A little further," Tara said. "I was wondering though... did you ever wonder what it'd be like to make love on horseback?"
"Me? Heh, up until now I never thought anything about being on horseback- really?" Her surprise turned to desire as Tara continued to subject her to her aroused scrutiny. "You wanna try?" she grinned slyly.
"If you do," Tara nodded slightly, "you bet I do... turn back around." Willow obediently adjusted herself in the saddle, facing forwards once more.
"You like it now?" Tara breathed in her ear. "The speed, the power... no more fear?"
"Nuh-uh," Willow shook her head, "I like it."
"Hold the reins," Tara offered, bringing her hands to Willow's, "don't worry, she knows where we're going, just hold them loose, like this... that's good."
"Oh, that's good," Willow smiled in reply, as Tara's arms circled her torso and her hands flattened on her stomach, stroking back and forth rhythmically, matching the tempo of the hooves beneath them. She glanced back, meeting Tara's gaze, biting her lip partly from anticipation, partly just from the pleasure of Tara's caresses.
"Look ahead," Tara prompted, "look at the road... everything moving so fast... look at the sky all around you."
Willow obediently turned her gaze back to the expansive vista surrounding them. For a few miles the trail followed the shallow peak of a rise between the fields, so that nothing obstructed the view in every direction of the land stretching out to the distant horizon. Tara's hands moved lower; Willow's head tilted back, her gaze reaching into the sky. The exhilaration she felt as Tara moved lower, one hand cupping her mound through the fabric of her skirt, was unparalleled.
"Mmmyeah," she smiled, as she felt Tara loosen her belt and slip her hand inside it. Her other hand moved back up, teasing the edge of her top, brushing against the undersides of her breasts.
At the same moment Willow felt Tara's questing fingers slide down to her sex, index and middle finger either side of her eager clit, squeezing slightly, and Tara's lips against the side of her neck, kissing and licking and nuzzling as she slowly caressed her elsewhere.
"I love you," Willow murmured, as Tara's now-moist fingers danced across her aroused sex, causing her body to shudder with every heartbeat. She turned again, seeking Tara's lips, and sighed lovingly as Tara gifted her with a deep, intense kiss. When she drew back, Willow couldn't keep herself from moaning at the sight of her - warm, loving, sexy, her grin promising endless pleasures.
"I love... that s- smile," she gasped, finding it a great effort even to speak - Tara's fingers between her legs were exercising all their skill, and Willow felt light as air, as if the pounding of her heart, and the horse's hooves beneath them, might be enough to life her into the sky.
"What smile is that?" Tara teased, leaning back down to lick Willow's earlobe.
"Th-that smile," Willow managed, "the one that's... like... oh goddess!" she exclaimed as Tara's forefinger slipped teasingly into her. Held securely in Tara's arms, her body rocked back and forth as they galloped headlong.
"Yes?" Tara purred. Willow gulped down a breath and tried to speak.
"Like... like you're... tying me up with... silk ribbons... kissing me everywhere... except where I most want you t-to... kiss... mmm..." Her head fell back, resting on Tara's shoulder as she whispered to her, raising her voice just enough to be heard over the thudding of Anji's hooves.
"A-and... teasing... until I... I'm gasping... pleading for y-you... to make love to me... that smile... t-the one that... that says I-I'm yours..."
Tara's free hand worked its way beneath Willow's top, firmly gripping at her breasts, her nails scraping light trails over her skin, while beneath, making Willow's hands clench painfully tight on the reins, she reached into her and brought forth her first release, with a playful ease that promised it wouldn't be her last.
Anji's enthusiasm for her morning galloping brought them to the edge of the river plain just before midday, slightly earlier than Tara had expected, allowing a leisurely lunch. Willow made sandwiches from their packed bread, and tomatoes and lettuce she had bought from the tavern in Laban, and Tara had laughed lightly as she had apologised for not being able to take the time to prepare anything more elaborate.
"They're lovely," she said, through her first mouthful, "besides," she went on after swallowing, "I know where I can find a very tasty dessert."
"Don't be too greedy," Willow grinned back, "we can't stop long, and I need my dessert too."
Both were very satisfied on that score by the time Tara called Anji over from her idle grazing, and they once more took to the saddle, descending into the shadow of the cliff to their right as they followed its base. As the afternoon wore on the trail became rougher until it petered out completely, and the sun dipped further towards the western horizon, casting a greater and greater shadow over the land around the two travellers.
Twice during the afternoon they stopped, the first time for Willow to scratch a pattern in the soil and read from one of her scrolls, giving her a momentary awareness of living things around herself. She had had to exercise some self-control not to stare at Tara, who took on a radiant aura while the spell held - when she turned her attention elsewhere, the subtle degradation of the grasslands and woods was plain, increasing in the direction they were headed. But there were, at least, no great concentrations of the sickly malaise nearby, such as would indicate a gathering of demons.
The second time they paused in their journey was at a stream fed by a trickle coming over the cliff - once Willow had found the water pure they had refilled the waterskin they had used, and let Anji drink to her heart's content. Tara's map noted a path to the top of the cliff nearby, and Willow had reluctantly stayed down below with Anji while Tara had found the winding path and clambered to the top, to take in the lie of the land as best she could.
It was barely a few minutes before she returned, puffing from the effort of climbing up and down, but otherwise untroubled. Nonetheless Willow hugged her warmly, relieved simply to be within sight of her again. Understanding, Tara had returned the hug and stroked Willow's hair lovingly until she had finally released her and stepped back.
"I can't see the monastery," she said as they prepared to move on, "there's a haze today, but I saw pretty far. There's been a fire in one of the valleys to the south-west, I saw the burned trees on the top of the rise, and there's still a little smoke. Days old, though, I'm sure it's not more recent than that."
"Random destruction," Willow nodded grimly, "that's demons for you."
"I didn't see anything nearby though," Tara said, with a lift in her voice as she switched to the good news, "I think our path's clear down here. It was a bit more difficult to see straight across the highlands, but it looked pretty empty as well. Some birds far off to the west, but too far to see whether they were natural, or blood hawks. I'm sure they didn't see me, whatever they were. I'll keep an eye on the skies, though."
"Alright," Willow nodded again, "let's go, then?"
"Let's," Tara agreed, taking Willow's hand and whistling Anji over to them.
"How're you feeling down here?" she asked impishly, giving Willow's bottom a gentle squeeze as they waited for the horse to amble towards them.
"You should know," Willow shot back with a sly grin, "you've taken every opportunity today to feel it. Fine... a bit sore, but not so bad as yesterday."
"By the time we get back it'll be as if you were born in the saddle," Tara smiled.
"Yeah? Sounds like a tricky kind of operation," Willow quipped. With Tara's help she got astride Anji, and smiled as Tara mounted behind her.
"Remind me to explain 'figure of speech' to you sometime," Tara replied with a grin, twitching the reins to get them moving.
"My problem," Willow said, tilting her head to one side, "is that I've always got my mind on 'figure of Amazon'. Other figures just don't get a look in."
"I'm not sure that's a problem I want to fix," Tara mused.
"It doesn't matter, you couldn't 'fix' it if you tried," Willow grinned over her shoulder. "Everything you do has exactly the opposite effect - I just fall more and more in love with you."
"You're not the only one," Tara murmured, pressing a kiss to the back of Willow's neck. "Oh, hey - you just said 'fall' without blinking."
"I did," Willow noted, "there you go, you've done the impossible. I can ride a horse without a second thought. Must be all that special encouragement you give me, I'm really starting to enjoy being in the saddle."
"My plan all along," Tara joked.
"Ah, is that right..." Willow shrugged. "So now that it's worked, does that mean you won't need to ravish me up here anymore?"
"Just you wait," Tara promised, releasing the reins with one hand to stroke Willow's waist, "on our way back, the moment we're on safe ground, I'll show you what 'ravish' really means."
"Can't wait," Willow sighed happily.
They reached the area the map marked as a safe camp site just as the edges of the clouds above began to redden in the sunset. A dried-up creek bed led through a narrow defile between fallen boulders, the remnant of some ancient rockslide. Willow and Tara dismounted and went through on foot, Willow leading Anji by her reins, Tara just ahead, alert for any sign of danger, with her spear held in a deceptively casual grip. Through the rocks was a narrow clearing, walled in on one side by the cliff, overgrown with grasses. A smooth trail had been eroded down the cliff face, showing where water had once flowed, but whatever stream had fed the creek had obviously dried up long ago - plants clung to ledges where the water had trickled down, their roots clinging firmly to the layers of dirt that had built up there.
"Over here," Tara pointed. Behind one of several small, stunted trees growing beside the cliff was a small cave, almost to small to bear the name. It led only a few metres into the rock, just above head height until the last metre where it narrowed to its end, but it was dry, shielded from the elements by the hunched-over tree at its mouth, and a layer of earth had settled over time over its stone floor, though little grass had taken root there.
"From a Duke's guest room, to a plain bed in a tavern, to this," Willow said with a wry smile. "You know, I think we're travelling in the wrong direction."
"We've slept in worse," Tara pointed out, even as she shared a sympathetic sigh with Willow. "At least we'll be out of the wind. And there's enough room outside for Anji."
"What do you think of the place?" Willow asked, taking a glance around the small clearing. "Defensively, I mean?"
"Promising," Tara replied, "I can't see any sign of people or demons having been here recently. We can climb up to the top of these boulders if we need to see out, and it's pretty flat around here, so from there we'll be able to see anything coming pretty far off. But I doubt we'll be found, I don't think anything more than a few small animals comes in here."
"It's not obvious from the outside," Willow agreed, "I didn't really see anything until you pointed it out."
"Not much to see from the outside," Tara nodded. "Not much to see, period. But it'll do for the night."
"I'll set up a couple of spells," Willow said, as she and Tara unloaded their bags from Anji's saddle. "These boulders will actually help, I'm pretty sure I can set up a sympathetic harmony with a couple of rune stones, which'll make the boulders themselves part of a perimeter spell. If anything demonic or hybrid breaks the perimeter we'll feel like someone splashed cold water on us. Not the most pleasant way to wake up, if it happens at night, but better safe than sorry."
"Do you think we'll both be able to sleep?" Tara asked. Willow gave it serious thought.
"I'd like to," she said, "I suppose, if it's safe... how confident are you that this place is off the beaten track, that nothing'll turn up during the night?"
"Confident enough to suggest it," Tara offered.
"I think we're covered from the magical side of things," Willow said, "all things considered... I think we could. You don't think it's too much of a risk?"
"I think it's a very small risk," Tara shrugged, "I think the worst that can happen is that we'll be woken up in the middle of the night and have to either check the camp, or fight something. But with your magic I don't think we'll be caught off guard, which is the important thing. And... I'd feel better if we slept together."
"Me too," Willow agreed.
"Not only because you always make me feel better," Tara smiled, "also, we'll both be well rested tomorrow. I don't think we should go into the catacombs on half a night's sleep, and with one of us having just stayed up to keep watch. And I..." she paused and grinned sheepishly. "I want to fall asleep with you tonight, and wake up tomorrow with you cuddled up against me."
"You've got it," Willow promised.
"I guess I'm nervous," Tara admitted, "under the circumstances, I suppose it's sensible to be apprehensive, but only to a point."
"I know what you mean," Willow said, putting her arms around Tara's waist, "I know I'm way more nervous than you... I think, if the first thing I'm aware of tomorrow is your arms around me, and I open my eyes to see you smiling at me, I'll feel like I could take on anything in the world. I think that'll be a good, positive attitude to take into a difficult day."
"And I just love sleeping with you," Tara added.
"And I just love sleeping with you," Willow echoed, "in every sense of the phrase." She leaned forward to bring her lips to Tara's, and gave her a slow, satisfying kiss, taking her time in tasting her lover's mouth, teasingly flicking her tongue out once, then again, to make contact with Tara's.
"Mmm," Tara sighed as their lips parted, "just remember... we're supposed to be actually sleeping tonight." Willow grinned, then couldn't keep herself from laughing.
The two enjoyed a teasing, rambling conversation over an early dinner, making sure they had their camp made and their backpacks ready for the next day's expedition before the sunlight finally vanished from the sky. Before seeking the comfort of the small cave, Willow climbed up the side of one of the boulders, peering out into the gloom beyond before turning her gaze south, where, hidden by the cliff's curving edge, the monastery waited. She half expected to see some sign of the malevolence the place had taken in her mind - dark clouds gathering overhead, or the glow of savage firelight - but the night seemed as calm as any other. With a quiet sigh she climbed back down, and gave Anji a final pat before joining Tara in the tiny cave.
"Do you want a robe to sleep in?" Tara asked. Willow thought for a moment, then shook her head.
"Let's just put on all the blankets we've got," she said, "I want to feel you against me. If we get roused and I have to fight a demon naked, so be it."
"That makes two of us," Tara said, with a smile just visible by the hesitant moonlight from outside. Despite her nerves, Willow couldn't help but cast several lingering, admiring glances at Tara as she undressed, despite being able to see so little. What she could see, the edges of curves highlighted by silver moonlight, was more than beautiful. Quickly disrobing and folding her clothes, she pulled their extra blankets across the bedroll Tara had laid out, and looked up as Tara knelt beside her and lay down.
"It's going to be a chilly night," she noted, pulling the blankets tight around them both. Willow nodded, already feeling the cold of the evening touching her exposed face.
"Darned demons," she said quietly, "why can't they wait to threaten the world during the summer?" Tara's arms went around her, and she held her close, her hands stroking up and down Willow's back in soothing motions. Despite herself, Willow couldn't help but feel tense as they lay silently, with just a single night now between them and the dangers of the catacombs.
"We'll be okay," Tara whispered, as if reading her thoughts.
"I know," Willow grinned, letting out a breath, "just... heh, nothing you don't know already. Pre-adventure jitters."
"Anything I can do?" Tara asked quietly. Willow was silent for a moment, then spoke again.
"Tell me about our house?" she asked. "The one you mentioned, by the lake... that we'll live in when we go home to the islands. Please?" Tara nodded, her forehead brushing against Willow's, and raised a hand to gently stroke her hair.
"There's a little pond," she whispered, "sort of a tiny lake, with wild flowers growing around it, and a row of young trees, between it and the rest of the big lake on one side. I learned to swim in that little lake, and spent days learning the names of all the flowers around it. Even in winter it never gets very cold, you can always go out in the evening and lie on the grass and look up at the stars, or watch the moonlight on the water.
"The house is just next to that, you literally step out of the back door and you're among the flowers. There's four rooms - the dining room is the largest, with a stone fireplace and chimney, and a big, old lounge opposite it with lots of cushions all over it, so comfortable you could easily just fall asleep on it. Then there's the kitchen, and from there you go out the back to the lake. The bathroom is off the bedroom, there's a big old bed in there, made from sturdy, solid beams of wood, with a thick mattress and lovely soft blankets and pillows... There's a little fireplace there, using the same chimney as the dining room, and you can have just a tiny fire going and the whole room is beautifully warm."
"Mmm," Willow murmured sleepily, "sounds lovely... cosy..."
"I was thinking, when we finally get there, we'll have a couple of additions made. I'd like an outdoors deck, facing the lake on one side... with light wooden screens so we can open them and eat our breakfast out there, and be warmed by the morning sun... or, you know, if we closed the screens, our little lake would really be quite private... the house below it, the deck on one side, and the trees growing to the other side... no-one would be able to see in... we could get up to all sorts of things..."
"Mmm-mmm," Willow chuckled.
"And," Tara went on, "I thought, also, one more room... for you, a library. With lots of shelves for all the books you'll collect, and a big desk you can cover with experiments and papers and all kinds of things... and a couch, where you can sit and read your ancient tomes of arcane wisdom... and I can come in and lie on the couch, with my head in your lap, and watch that lovely, intense expression you get when you're reading..."
Tara paused, and felt the regular rhythm of Willow's chest moving against hers, her breathing the slow, sedate pattern of sleep. She leaned up just enough to brush her lips against Willow's forehead, then settled down, embraced by Willow and embracing her in turn, both comfortable in their little cocoon of warmth amid the dark wilderness.