Return to Hellebore Chapter Sixty-Two


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.

Chaos was all around Tara, but she barely noticed. The terrible shaking of the floor, the rumbling and thundering from behind the walls, as if the chamber was on the verge of collapsing, the din of metal and stone moving, all swept past her, unacknowledged.

"Willow?!" Tara sobbed, barely keeping herself from panic, "what do I do? Please!"

"I-I... I- ah!" Willow gasped in agony, cutting off whatever she had been trying to say. Her head jerked back, bruising Tara's knuckles against the floor as she kept her head from hitting it, and a fresh flood of tears welled up from her tightly-clenched eyes.

'Oh Goddess,' Tara prayed fervently, 'Athulua mother of Amazons help me, she's my Willow, she's my life! How do I help her? How can I save her?!' Never had Tara felt so helpless, or needed guidance so desperately. A bare second later the ceiling opened like a flower unfurling its petals, straightening atop the walls which slid down out of sight, and for that brief moment Tara wondered if the Goddess Herself had come to her aid. But when she looked up, her gaze passing sightlessly over the panorama of the highlands falling away beneath as the floor rose, she saw only a gathering storm overhead, the clouds circling, darkening.

A sudden movement from Willow caught her off-guard, and she cursed herself for taking her eyes off her even for a second. Before she could react Willow was rising, lifted into the air by some invisible force, her body hanging limply. There was an instant of lucidity, in which her eyes opened and she stared down at Tara, who in turn stared helplessly up at her, then her head was flung back, her limbs stretched to their fullest extent, and a howl welled up from her throat that chilled Tara to the bone.

"Willow!" she yelled, reaching up for her. Suspended in mid-air as she was, only her feet were within Tara's reach - the moment her fingers touched the leather of her boots a sickening shock ran through her, and the next thing she knew she was crashing into the floor, curling up to protect her head as she rolled, finally coming to a halt as her back struck something unmoving.

She looked up, through dazed eyes, to see Willow convulse again, stretching at full length in mid-air, and then to her horror a red stain formed on her stomach, spreading quickly up over her chest, down her hips and legs, darkening the fabric of her battlegear. Some rational part of her mind told her what she was seeing as something she didn't understand - she grabbed that thought and clung to it, desperately seeking escape from the sight of Willow's perfect body before her, apparently in the process of being torn apart.

On the strength of that one rational thought she cleared her mind, putting aside the panic threatening to consume her. 'It's not blood,' she thought - perhaps she only hoped it, but a moment later her hope was borne out, as the red began to drift away from Willow, like a hideous mist being released from within her. Tara's heart leapt absurdly when she saw unbroken skin beneath the tendrils of gory vapour, and the motion beneath that skin of Willow's muscles moving, tensing - she wept at Willow's pain even as she clung to the proof that she still lived.

Staggering to her feet, shaky after her fall, she approached Willow, ducking to keep away from the trails of scarlet fog streaming out of her. Without realising it she reached down and retrieved her spear from where it had come away from her back harness, rather than break as she had tumbled on top of it. Its familiar form and weight in her hands gave her another piece of rationality to cling to.

"Willow," she said, her voice hoarse from sobs she hadn't realised she had cried. Motion caught her eye, all around her, and she spun around, searching for the most immediate threat. The floor - now an open platform far above the highlands - darkened as columns rose up around it, eight of them, their metal points spearing upward, aimed at the heart of the tempest in the skies above. Arcs of raw energy passed between them and the crystal spire, which hung above the platform with no visible means of support, poised above its centre. The lectern beneath the massive crystal had vanished, leaving a golden dais in its place, just large enough for a man to stand on. It was above this dais that the red mist being torn from Willow's body was massing, swirling and billowing, tightening into a denser and denser form.

Tara wanted to look away, but horrified fascination had her in its grip. The first solid mass to form, at the centre of the cloud, was a skull, its jaw open in a silent howl even as it coalesced into being. The spine and ribcage followed, then hips, arms, legs, until a complete skeleton floated in mid-air, its pose mirroring Willow's exactly. Concentrations of vapour solidified into flesh - heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, then delicate webs of nerves, masses of muscle and tissue. Tara's stomach heaved as she recognised the shape of the thighs and hips, the curve of the waist, the firm breasts, the shoulders and arms, even the face, for all that it glistened crimson, skinless and horrific. The last trails of mist left Willow and settled over her macabre double, forming its smooth, pale skin, its scarlet hair - it was Willow in every detail, every swell and curve Tara had ever kissed and touched reproduced in the naked form hanging lifeless in the air before her.

Before she could comprehend what she had witnessed the two Willows fell, puppets with their strings suddenly cut. Tara's body reacted before her mind could, catching her Willow while the other tumbled onto the dais, landing in a bruising, crumpled heap. Tara stared helplessly at it, even as she carefully lay the woman in her arms on the floor, automatically smoothing away the hair that had fallen over her eyes as her head had been tossed around. Some instinct drew Tara's attention back to her, so that when she opened her eyes, Tara was already meeting her gaze. Her confusion vanished, for a moment, as she saw Willow's beautiful green eyes staring at her.

"Wh-wha..." she whispered. Tara opened her mouth, but couldn't find the words to reply. She stared at Willow, helplessly and lovingly, then turned her gaze on the naked, unconscious form lying sprawled a few metres away. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Willow's head turn, then her body stiffened and her legs began to work, pushing her feebly away from the dais.

"No," Willow murmured, "no, no, no no no..." Tara looked back at her and understood, from the feel of her body tense with horror, the despair in her eyes, the voice she remembered hearing before, concealing a dread that came straight from the soul: 'When the Horadrim wrote the Book of Foes, which we still use, they called it Shadai'. She gently stroked Willow's cheek then, as the sorceress turned and reached for her staff, she stood up, marched to the dais, and raised her spear.

No force could have kept her from hesitating. What lay beneath her was identical to Willow, down to the last hair on her head, down to the pale freckles dusted across her chest, the deft, delicate fingers, the slender, toned legs, the nipples hardening in the cold air, the slow rise and fall of her chest, the expressive lips, parted just a fraction. Tara stared down at her, the shaft in her hands weighing her down like lead. For a moment she wondered, but then... there was something missing. Every sense Tara had told her that the woman lying at her feet was Willow, and yet she wasn't... A fragment of memory surfaced, of herself holding a tearful Willow, reassuring her against the memory of a frightful vision: 'I know with all my heart, you won't hurt me.' This... creature, this thing wrapped in Willow's form... Tara realised she was afraid of it.

She aimed her spear down at its heart and thrust. A cry escaped her as the spear halted before reaching its mark - so quickly she hadn't even seen it, the other Willow's arm had lifted, and was holding the spear by the blade, the point just on the verge of piercing her chest. Tara pushed with all her strength, and the weapon slipped down, just a fraction. Then it was as if she was pushing against a boulder - blood welled between the slender fingers as the false Willow tightened her grip slightly, then her hand began to move outwards, driving Tara's spear back inch by inch, against every ounce of power she could muster from her arms.

'Goddess Zerae help me!' Tara prayed, as the creature's head lifted from the gold surface beneath it, turning towards her with closed eyes. But there was no reply - no lightning from above, no surge of power.

The naked Willow opened its eyes, and Tara stared into hell. Willow's description came back to her, and she had to admit it was accurate - hatred for purity, for innocence, eye sockets full of crimson hellfire, blazing red, drifting out across her face like fumes. Whatever lingering doubt Tara had harboured, whatever hesitation on seeing the form the creature had taken, vanished.

"Hello Tara," Shadai whispered, in a breathy, sultry voice, so sweet it was sickly, seeming smooth and glistening in the same way as would be a wet, bloated corpse. The corners of its mouth turned up in a parody of Willow's playful amusement, turned instead to cruelty, and delight in it.

"Tara, get back!" Willow's voice - Willow's real voice - called. Tara obeyed at once, without thinking, wrenching her spear from the demon's hand and retreating, forcing down the bile and sobs that rose in her throat at the sight of the thing. Shadai rose to her feet and took a step forward, crossing one leg in front of the other like a seductress on the prowl, while her hands flexed, fingers curled viciously inward. Then she vanished in a storm of ice, and Tara turned to see Willow, on her knees, staff in hand, bombarding the demon with magic. Her face was set in grim determination - no joy in what she was doing, in the lethal fury she was conjuring, but no hesitation, no remorse.

Tara ran to her side and turned to see Shadai step out of the cloud of savage magic, unscathed. She tilted her head slightly, fixed Willow with a grin and licked her lips. Then she turned away from them, stepped back up onto the dais and lifted her arms high. Patterns of darkness reached from her fingertips into the crystal suspended above her, and the storm above the tower churned and raged. Tendrils of dark power leapt between the eight columns surrounding the platform, singing distorted notes as they coiled and writhed.

Willow rose to her feet, staggering slightly, and let loose another volley of magic, a storm of ice shards, freezing mist, and at its heart a blast of pure cold, screaming through the air, thundering into the demon with the force of a tidal wave. She simply glanced over her shoulder, smiled again, and turned back to her work. Cutting off her bombardment Willow shouted inarticulately in frustration.

"What's wrong?" Tara asked, her hand on Willow's arm to calm her, "is she too strong already?"

"She's-" Willow began, then fell back to her knees as the fury seemed to leave her slightly, "she's me, she's... that, that thing was inside me, it can just- damn!" She fired a thick lance of ice at the demon, which vanished into her back without a trace.

"My magic can't hurt it," Willow said through gritted teeth, "every spell, every form of magic I'm capable of casting, she knows it, she can dismantle it without even thinking! Gods, how could I have been to stupid! How could I let it-"

"Willow!" Tara half-shouted half-pleaded. Willow shook her head, then closed her eyes so tightly they watered.

"I can't hurt it," she said in a trembling voice, "I can't even scratch it."

A crackling blast tore out from the dais, sending both women to their knees beneath the bombardment of harsh sound. Looking up, they saw Shadai laughing as lines of red appeared across her back. One by one the strips of her flesh peeled off her back, stretching out and upwards, the skin tearing away from the muscle beneath as dozens of grisly strands reached for the crystal spire suspended above her, wrapping around it. With blood running down her legs Shadai lifted into the air, hanging from the heart of the tower, and as she did she let loose a scream, climax and agony combined. The whole tower shook at her voice - the energy arcing from its columns grew angry and red, the subtle vibrations running through the massive stone edifice changed, becoming deeper, more primal - even the stone itself darkened, its edges no longer smooth, but now jagged, sharp to the touch.

"I can," Tara growled, rising to her feet. Ignoring Willow's cry from behind her she strode towards the dais and swung her spear with all her might, burying the blade in the demon's back, severing the gory strands of flesh that held her aloft. But instead of falling she simply hung in the air, and the severed ends of skin reached for each other and, joining, wove themselves together again.

Shadai reached behind herself, closed her slim hand around the spear and pulled it free of her body, the sickening sound it made the only sign of its passage - her face gave no indication of pain as she looked over her shoulder. Even as the spear came free the torn flesh of the demon's back reached into the gash and sealed itself.

"Want to play rough?" she purred, as the strands of skin flexed to turn her around, to face her opponent properly. Her skin stretched, pulling tight across her breasts and stomach as her feet settled to the floor, and she took a step forward, keeping pace with Tara as she slowly backed away.

"Too late, though," she smiled, "I am Hellebore now. And you, without your precious gods and goddesses-"

Tara struck again, and this time Shadai simply held up a hand to block the blade, grinning slightly as the metal sunk a fraction into her flesh before stopping. She pushed the spear end away, almost idly. A blast of ice from Willow rocketed into the side of her head, but she ignored it. More strands were unfurling from her back, reaching for the huge columns surrounding the tower's crown, stretching out far above her so that, slowly, she was gaining the appearance of a spider settled in the heart of a grisly web of her own skin.

"A weak, mortal thing," she laughed, standing proudly in front of Tara, "so fragile..."

"Tara!" Willow yelled.

"I can't cast!" Tara shouted in reply, shivering under Shadai's amused scrutiny.

"It's the shield," Willow yelled, "the tower's magic! We're cut off, the gods can't reach us!"

"Two helpless flies," Shadai sang, "caught in a web... who shall I bleed first? You..." she snarled, suddenly fierce, glaring furiously at Tara, "you, bringer of light... I've dreamed of your suffering for so long..."

"Tara!" Willow screamed, blasting Shadai with another barrage of magic, which had as little effect as the last. The demon spread her arms, baring her naked chest at Tara, and with an eruption of blood from their centres, her breasts and stomach disgorged the razor-sharp claws of bone Willow had once described, writhing on the ends of chains that streamed endlessly from Shadai's body. The trio weaved through the air like sharks scenting blood, then as one leapt at Tara, who spun her spear desperately.

Willow screamed, terrified, as she watched Tara's blade strike one of the bone talons aside, the spear then spinning around, catching the chain behind a second, dragging it away from its intended target... but the third, the lowest, stretching from Shadai's navel, now dripping with blood, evaded Tara's defences and leapt at her body. Willow's breath caught as it reached her - she wondered how she could go on, after seeing the claw burst through the back of Tara's leather armour, revealing the gory wound beneath, the demon holding her aloft as her life drained out of her.

But it never happened. The claw struck Tara's stomach and rebounded, catching Shadai so off-guard that she staggered, supported by her flesh-web, as the chains reaching from her flailed wildly. Tara fell back a step, one hand going to her stomach, covering the smooth, unmarked leather. She looked down, then back at the demon.

With a bestial snarl Shadai struck again, all three chains this time lunging at Tara, two for her chest, the third aimed right between her eyes. Again they failed - she jerked her head back as the tendril whipped at her face, but there wasn't even a scratch on her as she blinked in confusion. The chains retracted, making Shadai's body shudder as they slammed back within her, and she strode forwards, drawing back a hand and lashing forward with her nails, which suddenly were sharp as knives. At the moment in which they would have slashed Tara's face the demon screamed and jerked her arm back, as if she had hit an immovable barrier.

"You can't, can you?" Tara said, understanding dawning on her face. She took a step forward, ignoring the chains which whipped out again, and again rebounded off her without causing a scratch.

"I will tear you apart!" Shadai screamed, in a blind fury. "I will kill you!"

"You can't hurt me!" Tara shouted back. "Look at yourself! Whatever sick, twisted excuse for a soul you have, you kept it in my love for so long... you've got her form, her body- you're shaped by her!"

"What-" the demon growled, faltering.

"She can't hurt me," Tara said levelly, meeting its hellish stare for the first time, "so neither can you."

"No!" Shadai lashed out with every weapon at her disposal, her claws raining blows down on Tara, the chains snaking out of her body striking again and again, like snakes biting at their prey. But every blow came to nothing - for all the rage in the demon, her body refused to answer when she willed it to kill Tara.

"I can kill her," Shadai snarled, the claws on their chains lifting as if scenting the air, turning towards Willow. Tara smashed them out of the air with a single swing of her spear.

"Not unless you can get through me," she said, placing herself directly between Willow and the demon wearing her form, "and I don't think you can."

"Tara, please," Willow hissed frantically, "it won't last, she'll revert to herself eventually-"

"Perhaps I can't kill you, now," Shadai said, suddenly going from rage to laughter - once more her expression was a parody of Willow, this time the delight she showed when she had figured out a difficult problem.

"I can't," she said, raising her arms, "but they can..."

All around the tower's summit, energy spread from the black columns, merging into upright pools of crimson darkness between them. The centre of each pool opened, each showing a different scene, forests, grasslands, a ruined village, a rocky slope, a low cavern - each a glimpse into a different area, and in each one brutal, demonic forms suddenly turned towards the tower, their eyes lighting up a savage red. Carvers, goat-men, undead, ghouls, hissing blood hawks, chittering bone-armoured spiders, writhing, maggot-like creatures - every manner of demon and corrupted beast, all turned, feeling the call of their new mistress in their black hearts. The portals shifted constantly, revealing more and more, rising from every dark corner and forsaken grotto in the highlands, dozens, hundreds.

"The first of my legions," Shadai sighed, "come to me, my children... come to me." She turned her burning gaze on Willow and Tara, smiling triumphantly.

"Perhaps," she whispered gleefully, "when you are no longer recognisable as this body's lover," she dug a nail into her breast, drawing blood, "then you will beg me for death, and I will be able to oblige." She dug her other fingers into her flesh, gasping in apparent pleasure as blood flowed down her chest. With her other hand she reached towards one of the portals and beckoned. On the far side of it, a pack of goat-men were nearing the threshold.

"I need you now Willow," Tara whispered quickly, turning to Willow and staring into her eyes, "I need you. Your pure power." Willow's expression turned from incomprehension to horror, even as she staggered unsteadily to her feet.

"No," she shook her head, "no, it'll kill you, I can't do that, I can't-"

"We have to finish this now, love," Tara said, leaning in to rest her forehead against Willow's, "now or never. I know you can do this. I know you won't hurt me." She quickly kissed Willow, her mouth opening Willow's lips, her tongue tasting her, then she straightened and turned back towards the demon.

"You're my goddess, Willow," she said aloud, "be my goddess now."

"I love you," Willow cried, tears streaming down her face even as she raised her hand. As she watched Tara raise her spear she felt the familiar tingle of magic within her, and concentrated on letting it flow freely, ignoring all the training and practice that screamed at her to form a spell to control the power. Her fingers felt cold, there was the tiniest spark of ice, then like a dam bursting the power leapt from her, a wild, uncontrolled rush of primal cold, washing towards Tara with the deadly force of an avalanche.

Pain assailed Tara from every angle, freezing, biting pain like a thousand needles piercing her, sucking the heat and the life from her, turning her flesh to ice. She gritted her teeth and held her spear, forcing herself to ignore everything but the focus, the form in her mind of the spell she wanted, by which the incredible power bombarding her would be shaped, wielded. She felt as if her limbs would crack and shatter as she moved.

'Please,' she prayed, 'please don't let it end like this...'

Willow felt a surge of sick panic as sudden familiarity ran through her - she had lived this moment before, in her vision. The 'standing stones', the great columns rising around them, the patterns of strange light in the air between them, the portals through which, even now, the first demons were emerging onto the tower - but all this was merely background, just as it had been before, immaterial and inconsequential. All she could focus on was Tara, at the heart of the terrible storm of cold she had brought to life.

'You're killing her,' her mind raged at her, 'stop it! Stop it!'

Tara felt a sick realisation as her body slowed, the energy of her life ebbing away into the tide of heartless ice that wrapped stiflingly around her.

'It's not working... you're dying...'

She turned painfully to Willow, determined to have one last glimpse of her to take into the next life. At the sight of her, she realised what she was doing.

'Goddess damn you,' she railed at herself, 'trust her! Stop trying to fight the power, it's her! You're doing this, you're killing yourself! You have to trust her!'

Willow met Tara's gaze through the ice storm, and realised what she was doing.

'Trust her! Don't try to hold the power back from her, she can't wield it if it's not free! Trust her!'

At the same instant the choice was made in both of them: Willow gave herself over completely to pouring her energy into Tara, and Tara accepted the terrible, lethal force without fear. In that instant the storm vanished, the pain vanished - Tara remained, clad in a shimmering veil of light, all the colours at the heart of the purest crystal. She turned to Shadai, ignoring the goat-men stepping through the portals, turning their maddened eyes on the display of power taking place before them. The demon faced her, frowning slightly, biting her lip - just like Willow, faced with an unexpected question.

The aura of frost cloaking Tara surged, flowed over her body, concentrating in her chest, then her arm, her hand - finally, her spear. It was encased in ice, giving it weight, power beyond any mortal weapon. Icy barbs and edges formed on its blade, the shaft thickened, merged with Tara's gloved hand, became one with her as a frozen gauntlet wrapped around her forearm.

Shadai withdrew her claws from her flesh, pointing a blood-soaked talon at the awed demons circling the centre of the tower's summit, afraid to approach the unearthly duel.

"My children-" she began, as Tara thrust at her.

The spear sliced cleanly through her chest, impaling her, bursting from her flayed back. The ice cladding the weapon spread, though - rather than following the metal on its path through the demon's body it pierced her and reached out beneath her skin, tearing through her from within. Shadai let out a terrible yell, as if in spite of her self-inflicted mutilation she had never felt pain before, as all over her body her skin split, the gushes of blood turning cold and icy even as they began to flow from her. Through her wounds, through the layers of frozen blood and flesh consuming her, a savage crimson light shone, fighting the tide of pure blue-white ice - fighting, but losing.

She faced Tara's impassive gaze and screamed, bellowed in rage, her teeth lengthening to vicious fangs, her tongue stretching, tearing gashes in itself as it thrashed from side to side. The ice was within her now, in her heart, quelling the fire, and slowly it reached up, through her shoulders, into her face. Her skin cracked, began to fall off in glittering flakes that broke as they hit the golden dais beneath her, the flesh revealed in turn hardening, solidifying her enraged mask. Her scarlet hair turned black, then ice-white, the slender shafts cracking and breaking free as she gave a last, desperate struggle against the immobilising cold. Last of all her eyes, the burning furies of hellfire, darkened, grew cold, as the last vapours of hatred escaped from their sockets. Then she was still and silent - she, Tara, Willow, the surrounding demon creatures, all paralysed in fear and wonder.

Haltingly, without her usual grace, Tara stepped back, wrenching her spear free of its sheath in the demon's chest. A last flicker of crimson billowed from the gaping wound, then died, and all of a sudden hundreds of cracks were running through the icy body. It ruptured in a shattering explosion, blasting shards of frozen flesh and bone in all directions, even as the goat-men howled and burned, their bodies erupting from within in storms of ash and flame. In the portals, still shifting from scene to scene of the surrounding land, every demon that had turned towards the ancient tower, whose gaze had filled with Shadai's hateful blood-red, reared back and burned from within, their bodies tearing apart as if refusing to host their souls any longer.

Tara was aware of none of this - all she felt was Willow's hand closing on her arm, and the familiar, reassuring shiver of a chill armour cloaking her, protecting them both from the hail of shrapnel ice. She turned, staring into Willow's eyes, tried to open her mouth to speak, tried to reach out to her, but her body suddenly wouldn't answer. Her legs collapsed from beneath her, and Willow caught her as she fell.

"Tara! Tara?" Willow pleaded, landing heavily on the floor as she cradled Tara's head in her lap.

"'m okay," Tara said in a tired, slurred voice. Willow gasped in relief, even as she felt the tower shake beneath them, and her heart lurched again. She looked up - the great crystal was cracking, raining shards of itself from the wounds where Shadai's flesh had merged with it. Around them the huge columns were wavering, tiny streams of dust floating around them attesting to the turmoil inside them. Another tremor shook the tower, and from beneath came a low, terrible groaning, as of metal being twisted and tortured.

"We have to get out of here!" Willow insisted. "Come on! Tara, please!" With all the strength she could muster from her aching body, and with whatever help Tara could force from her exhausted muscles, they clung to each other and staggered upright. Willow guided them towards the nearest portal, staring fearfully down as they neared the edge of the tower - the highlands were a dizzying mile below, bathed in the darkness of the tempestuous sky.

"Ready?" she gasped, feeling Tara stagger in her arms. "Ready... please baby... now!"

From somewhere Tara found the strength to push herself forwards, and the two of them half-jumped half-fell through the whirling threshold of the portal. They landed on hard, dusty soil - Willow sobbed with relief as she felt it, even as she and Tara collapsed in a heap. A roll of thunder rippled over the highlands, drawing both their gazes. High above them, standing atop the cliff, Hellebore was dying, its death-throes echoed in the storm above it. The huge segmented foundations of the tower shuddered and moved, but with none of the mechanical grace with which it had risen. Steel beams strained against stone monoliths, scoring deep gouges into them even as they buckled; columns began to slide down into the earth before clearing the cross-beams fixed into them, tearing them free of their mountings; a huge metal helix spun off its axis, its curved tip smashing through stone blocks as it missed its track. At the pinnacle of the tower the eight columns ringing it began to slowly swing downwards, but without harmony, one moving too quickly, one apparently unable to move at all, a third shuddering, its motion coming in stops and starts. Finally one, then another, then all four on the northern side of the tower crumbled and came apart, sending huge fragments of granite and black steel showering down, smashing into the sides of the tower as they spun and tumbled.

The great crystal spire crowning Hellebore trembled and began to tip over, as it the loss of the four columns had taken its equilibrium with it. It angled over as if to fall, then suddenly whatever force held it suspended failed, and it smashed down into the top of the tower, the point of the crystal burrowing through the stone even as it exploded from the impact. An eerie green light shone from within the tower, casting shadows as fragments of falling debris and the whirling of failing mechanisms passed through the rays it shone onto the surrounding landscape. The tower began to bore its way back into the ground, its outer segments spinning slowly, like a drill tunnelling into the earth, but even as it did so a massive burst of burning oil erupted from its base, followed by a huge mass of stone and steel that tore upwards through the descending structure. The whole mile-high edifice began to disintegrate, rock falling free, metal twisting and snapping, collapsing in a rain of debris, and then the ground erupted, spreading outwards from the base of the tower itself, the cliff face exploding outwards, showering fragments of stone over the plain below.

Tara, finding some reserve of strength, dragged an exhausted Willow behind an old, moss-encrusted boulder, shielding her with her own body as the debris rained around them, stroking her hair tenderly as destruction tore through the landscape. Willow clung to her, and she to Willow, two frightened children caught out in a storm. Finally the sound and fury subsided, and a shocked silence descended on the land.

Tara was the first to look up, with Willow following a second later, feeling her movement. Where the monastery, and then the tower had stood, for almost half a mile in every direction, the cliff face and highland had vanished, leaving in its place a vast crater full of stone, soil, fragments of trees and boulders split apart. Of the tower or its foundations, nothing remained.

"Holy Power That Is," Willow whispered, "that... the..." She gulped down a breath and turned to Tara. "Are you alright?"

"I'm alright," Tara breathed, still having trouble comprehending the scale of the devastation she was witness to. She in turn met Willow's worried gaze.

"You?" she asked.

"I'm... I'm alright," Willow said, as if surprised. Tara rolled onto her back, exhausted, bringing Willow with her so that she ended up resting on top of her. Willow gave a weary, incredulous smile as she stared into Tara's eyes, let out a huge sigh, then looked up once more at the massive crater.

"Take that, bitch," she said dazedly, before letting her head fall onto Tara's chest.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Sixty-Four

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