Author: Chris Cook
Willow's feet were cold - had slipped near a wrinkle in the blankets sometime during the night, where a soft, chilly breeze was playing over her toes - but she didn't want to move. She was watching Tara sleep. Watching, listening, experiencing with all her senses. Studying her beautiful face, so serene and peaceful, absolutely bereft of worry or sadness in sleep. Hearing the quiet sighing of each breath, even the occasional contented murmur from somewhere within her dreams - every time her ears caught such a sound, Willow couldn't help but smile. In their mutual embrace, Willow felt the constant, gentle rise and fall of her chest as she breathed, warmed as Tara's soft bosom pressed against her own.
'I won't lose you,' she thought, her gaze caressing Tara's features. 'I can't lose you, and I won't let anything take me from you, I promise.'
As if hearing her, Tara's eyes opened, and slid sideways to fix on her.
"Hey," she whispered. Willow searched for her voice, but lost as she was in those eyes, she could only lean closer and brush her lips against Tara's.
"Mmm," Tara sighed, a smile playing on her features, "good way to wake up."
"The best," Willow replied. Tara rolled onto her back, and Willow rested her head down among the blankets, on her chest - and took the opportunity to withdraw her feet from the niggling draft. She smiled and made a tiny sound of joy as Tara's fingers wove through her hair, stroking her.
"We'll have a lot more mornings like this," Tara whispered, with utter certainty.
An hour after dawn Willow and Tara were fed, bathed - as best they could with a washcloth and Willow condensing cold water into a hollow in the rock - and dressed for travelling. Each wore their two charms around a thin leather cord around their necks, and Willow had Marela's amulet tucked beneath the silver clasp on her left wrist, ready at a moment's notice. Tara went outside to pack enough supplies to get them back to a village in Anji's saddlebags, and conceal the rest of their gear as best she could, wrapping their camp packs in a waterproof cloth and half-burying them near the rock face, under the shelter of one of the stunted little trees. She and Willow had agreed that it would be better to travel light on their expedition into the catacombs. Her own pack, straps tightened to make it smaller, sat in the small of her back beneath her quivers, and contained little more than bandages and herbs for treating injuries, unappetising trail rations, and a map of the monastery and its surrounding area.
'For all the good it will be once we're underground,' she thought with a wry smile. With a pat on the nose for Anji, who had stood patiently by while her bags were adjusted, Tara turned back to their tiny cave and ducked inside.
Willow was sitting cross-legged on the stone, her staff across her knees. She was quite ready - her battlegear immaculately arranged, the pouches on her belt evenly spaced, her slim backpack strapped on tightly - but a hesitant frown marred her features, and she didn't look up as Tara came close and knelt beside her. In her hands was the metal disc, the Hellebore key, and she was slowly turning it over and over, her eyes moving across its flawless surface.
"Sweetie," Tara said softly - not a question so much as a quiet reminder of her presence, and the support and love she offered. Willow nodded once, her eyes briefly closing. Tara sat beside her and gently stroked her cheek, brushing lightly through her hair. Willow leant into the touch, taking a deep breath at Tara's caress.
"Are we doing the right thing?" she asked eventually. Tara took a breath and exhaled, marshalling an honest answer.
"I don't know," she admitted, "I think so... by everything I know, I believe we are. That's all we can ever do, the best we can, according to what we know."
"There's so much we don't," Willow noted, though her voice wasn't despondent, simply a statement of fact.
"There always will be," Tara nodded, "the world's too huge and complicated for anyone to know everything."
"So everything we do is just the best we can at the time," Willow continued, "otherwise, we'd never do anything..." She gave a shrug. "Normally it wouldn't bother me, but... Hellebore is awesome, dreadful power. I... I could be holding that power in my hands, right now - the key to it all." She finally looked at Tara, with a rueful smile. "Holding that kind of power has a way of making you think twice."
"No argument there," Tara said, running a playful hand through Willow's hair. "But we need this to get into the lower levels of the catacombs. And if there is power there, then I'd rather it be in your hands than anyone else's." Willow held her gaze for a moment, drawing strength, the nodded.
"First sign of trouble, I'm shattering this thing," she said, standing up.
"Well, maybe not the first sign of trouble," Tara suggested.
"Okay, no, but you know what I mean," Willow said, as they walked outside, "we need it, but we're taking a risk bringing it here. No matter what happens, this disc doesn't leave your or my hands. If I... can't cast at it, for whatever reason, your lightning will do the trick. Or one of the ice arrows." She cocked her head to one side as Tara brought Anji over. "I'm not sure about your fire magic, how hot can you get?"
"I thought you knew that already?" Tara said with an arched eyebrow. Willow grinned, then laughed.
"Okay, I walked into that one," she admitted. Tara helped her up into the saddle, then mounted behind her.
"For the record," she purred, leaning close to Willow's ear, "I can get as hot as you can handle." She gave a quick kiss to the side of her neck, then leaned back. "That goes for arrows, too. It wouldn't be the kind of thing I'd want to do in an enclosed space, but if there's no choice I can do a blast that'll damage that thing."
"Good," Willow said, "we can't lose this, even if that means we have to destroy it and turn back."
"Make sure you keep a hold of it, then," Tara suggested, "I for one don't intend to leave this place until we've settled this. No demon gives my girl nightmares and gets away with it."
Half an hour later they had ridden south, and the ridge on their eastern side had all but petered out. Willow could feel the tension slowly growing in Tara's arms on either side of her, though she continued to hold the reins loosely. With a twitch of the reins she slowed Anji to a walk, and finally to a halt.
"This is it, huh?" Willow asked over her shoulder.
"We walk from here," Tara nodded, giving Willow's waist a comforting squeeze before sliding from the saddle and helping her down. Willow glanced up at the cliff face, where the barest slice of the monastery's wall was just visible at the top, between the jagged outcrops of rock.
"Do you feel anything?" she said in a low voice, almost a whisper.
"For the last half-mile," Tara admitted, "nothing specific, just a... like a bitter taste, an unrest. Like what I felt in the forest last time, before we got ambushed."
"Does it make it difficult to use your senses?" Willow asked, sparing Tara a sympathetic glance before returning her eyes to her surroundings, scanning back and forth along the patchy bushes lining the end of the ridge.
"Perhaps," Tara shrugged, "but I think I'm getting better. I'm more used to it, after last time. I'm pretty sure I won't be accidentally leading us into any more ambushes." She spun her spear deftly over her shoulder, where it slipped into the catches on her harness behind her, and drew her bow.
"Hey," Willow said, turning back to her, "that wasn't your fault, you couldn't have been expected to know, to adapt that quickly, you hadn't even seen a demon a couple of days earlier."
"It's okay," Tara assured her, though she did give a grateful smile, "I didn't mean it the way it sounded."
"Just so long as you're not beating yourself up over it," Willow persisted. Tara reached out to catch her hand, and squeezed it gently.
"I thought you were the nervous one this time," she grinned, "aren't I supposed to be reassuring you?"
"Well," Willow gave a bashful shrug, "yeah... looking after my Tara takes priority over being nervous though." Tara lowered her eyes for a moment, stepping closer to bring her face close to Willow's.
"I love you," she whispered.
"I know baby," Willow smiled, "I love y- what?" Tara had looked up, tense, an alertness in her eyes that Willow recognised.
"East," she whispered, "we're being watched." Her grip on her bow tightened, and Willow gently released her palm to hold her staff in both hands. Tara turned slowly, in a way that suggested she was just idly looking around, not aware of anything from a specific direction.
"Small creatures," she said, "moving towards us... stealthy, quick... scavengers, not hunters."
"I see something," Willow said, trying not to show any overt sign of it, "a bush moved, seven or eight metres, exactly where I'm facing." Tara nodded once.
"Ready?" she whispered.
"Right with you," Willow replied.
Tara spun around, her free arm whipping over her shoulder, an arrow nocked in her bow the moment it was upright. Willow felt the tight sensation of magic ready to be cast in her as she stepped sideways, giving herself a clear field of fire around Tara. Barely a split second later the scrubby undergrowth disgorged a trio of snarling, screeching Carvers, their wiry frames rising from a crawling posture and leaping forward with frightening speed.
Tara's arrow caught one full in the chest, igniting just as it punctured the demon's skin - it gave the start of a shriek then pitched sideways, spun by the force of the impact, as its chest tore from within and a fierce glow burned at its throat and mouth from within. The second Carver broke his stride at the fate of his companion, and died instantly as Willow's ice bolt pierced its skull, leaving it to collapse like a puppet with its strings cut.
The third, either unaware or uncaring of the others, never slowed in its dash towards Anji. Willow, staff still aimed at her first target, flung out her left hand, and a mist briefly enshrouded the creature, disappearing in the blink of an eye but leaving its skin blistered and covered in frost. It stumbled blindly, clawing at its eyes, and then, just as Tara aimed a second arrow at it, Anji reared up and kicked out with her forelegs. Her hoof connected soundly with the reeling Carver's head, snapping its neck like a twig and tossing its body back to the ground several feet away.
"I think they were alone," Tara said, glancing around. Her gaze settled on Willow, who was staring at Anji in shock. "Willow?"
"Wha? Nothing," she said, shaking her head, "just a bit of a surprise."
"She's a warhorse," Tara noted calmly, "she can take care of herself."
"So I see," Willow replied - her grip on her staff loosened and she relaxed visibly.
"Are you okay?" Tara asked.
"Horse-induced anxiety isn't making a reappearance?" Tara gently prompted.
"No," Willow shook her head, "no, it was just a surprise, she- well, I hadn't really imagined her... fighting."
"You're okay with her still?" Tara asked, taking a step forward herself, towards Anji who was once more looking placid and patient. Willow squared her shoulders and stepped around Tara, standing right in front of the horse, who dipped her head to let her pat it.
"I'm not afraid," she said firmly. Tara joined her and put a hand on her shoulder.
"Glad to hear it," she murmured, "because I really like going riding with you."
"Me too," Willow grinned. She looked into Anji's brown eyes for a moment, then leant forward and rested her forehead between them.
"Time to send her back to the camp," Tara suggested, smiling at the affectionate gesture.
"Okay," Willow nodded. "You take care of yourself, won't you?" Anji gave a quiet snort in reply, and Willow stepped back from her, letting Tara take her attention.
While Tara spoke briefly to her, repeating 'camp' several times as she did to make sure the horse understood, Willow took a deep breath and walked over to where the second Carver had fallen victim to her ice bolt. Unlike the frost-bitten and mangled remains of the one that had attacked Anji, and the one Tara had shot which was still smoking slightly, the small, misshapen corpse was undamaged save for the head wound. Grimacing, Willow picked a twig off the ground and used it to turn over some of the grimy leather tags tied around the strap of its loincloth, and pry back its lips to see the sharp little teeth behind them.
She stood and gave Anji a wave as the horse trotted past her, gathering speed as she headed north. Tara pulled her arrow from the Carver she had shot, examining it briefly before tossing it aside, then joined Willow where she stood.
"Well, I can tell they haven't eaten well," she said with a shrug, "I'm guessing you can see more than that?"
"I don't play with demon corpses just for fun," Willow said with a wry grin, taking a few steps away from the Carvers now that Tara was with her. "I think they're outcasts - some texts say that Carvers are sometimes driven out of their tribes for various reasons, usually to do with not being useful to the rest of the tribe. Or just that Carvers are vicious little things that don't like anyone and only band together in the first place because they're safer that way, I don't imagine they have much concept of tribal unity. Like you said these ones haven't eaten well, and aside from leaders getting a larger share, most tribes supposedly share their loot evenly - they're bright enough to know they're better off with strong fighters rather than malnourished ones, if they're part of the tribe. And some of the more detailed texts say that Carvers were tokens from battles they've survived, like fingers and bones from their enemies. That one," she pointed to the one she had examined, "had little ties on its belt, but nothing on them. If I had to guess, I'd say its tokens were stripped off when it was exiled."
"So we've got three tribeless Carvers," Tara said, "what does that mean, for us?"
"It might be a good sign," Willow hazarded, as Tara pointed to a trail leading east and took her hand as they walked together. "I don't imagine exiles would stay close to their tribes - there's records of cannibalism among Carvers, so they'd probably consider themselves lucky to be kicked out rather than carved up... sorry," she grinned, as Tara groaned at the unintentional pun.
"So there may not be a tribe around here," Tara concluded, giving Willow a smile.
"Those little critters suggest not," Willow agreed. "They might be from the band we ran into before, up on the highland. When they got tossed out they came down the cliff, figuring that it'd keep them out of their old tribe's hunting ground. It's just a guess, of course."
"Better than nothing," Tara shrugged. "And, sudden fright notwithstanding, a promising start to the day. We've run into demons and come through unscathed."
"Yeah," Willow said evenly, "let's keep doing that. The unscathed part, at any rate."
The overgrown trail to the village was quite deserted, as was the village itself - if anything had inhabited the houses the fire had spared, it had left no trace. The charred timbers and fragments of crossbeams still standing amid the black remains seemed like the crosses of a graveyard. Neither Willow nor Tara spoke as they made their way along the silent road leading to the town hall, and down into its cellar. Pulling the amulet from her wrist clasp and fixing it around her neck, Willow took the lead as they ventured into the darkened tunnel.
Glancing back now and then, Willow wished she had been able to find a similar amulet, or some kind of charm, for Tara, so she could see in the pitch blackness. Her estimation for Marela's kind, and the subtlety of their craft, had risen as she had gone from shop to shop, and discovered just how difficult an effortless transition to lightless sight was. Eventually she had had to concede that there was no way, with the materials available, to duplicate the amulet's effect - Tara had assured her that she would be alright in the darkness, and Willow in turn had stocked up on sunlight scrolls, and taught Tara how to cast them.
As they progressed though, Willow's spirits lifted a fraction - Tara's hand in hers was steady, her footsteps sure and even, not in the least suggestive of someone being led blindly. She offered a silent thanks to whatever Amazon goddess had taught her people how to develop such a gift. The thought of Tara helpless in the dark would have been too much for her to bear.
Further they went, past the gateway where they had found Amalee, deeper into the earth. It was when they were nearing the catacombs proper, but still with a little way to go by Willow's reckoning, that Tara squeezed her hand, making her heart skip a beat.
"Sorry," Tara whispered as Willow calmed herself and turned. "There's a glow up ahead, like torchlight."
For a brief moment Willow felt relief at escaping the darkness, but then she realised that the light Tara had seen could only be a sign of recent activity up ahead, and thus danger. She undid the amulet's thin chain for a moment - after a moment of utter darkness, which did nothing to soothe her spirits, her eyes adjusted and she saw a dim glimmer of yellow light.
"Not good," Tara said softly, as if reading her mind.
"Well we're not dead, so they can't have succeeded yet," Willow said with a calm she didn't entirely feel.
"I don't feel anything besides us moving," Tara whispered, "but the air through the tunnels isn't quite still. I think something has been in here... I'm not sure if it's gone again."
"Well... we go on, I guess," Willow sighed. "You're sure you don't want to take the amulet? You're better at staying quiet than I am, you'd be able to get closer without making a sound...?"
"We shouldn't get separated," Tara reminded her, "I need you." Willow frowned and nodded - the thought of waiting for Tara to scout ahead, blind in the absolute darkness and alone, was not one she would have even considered, had the possible threat been any less dire.
"I just don't like the thought of you being at a disadvantage," she admitted.
"Trust me," Tara said warmly, "I'm not. If anything comes at us, I'll hear it and feel its motion well enough to put an arrow between its eyes with mine closed."
"Make sure you do," Willow said fervently, then checked herself: "if it's evil, I mean, not just anything... just don't get hurt."
"I won't," Tara reassured her. She reached for Willow's hand again - caught it perfectly, even without being able to see it - and onwards they went. The silence in the tunnel was both comforting and stifling, and Willow found herself straining her ears, searching for the tiniest sound that might warn of danger, to the point where she realised she was imagining sounds where there were none.
Retracing the path they had taken last time in reverse, they soon reached the chamber where they had found the vault entrance. Just as Willow remembered, it was a marvel of engineering - huge stone blocks, inlaid metals, as if the builders had been under no constraints besides what their imagination dictated. The chamber was still and empty, but torches lines the walls, burned down half their length, but still giving off a strong light. Willow took off the amulet again, finding the sight of so many flames, without being able to see their light, made her feel slightly nauseous for some reason.
"You were right, when we were here before," Tara whispered, her gaze passing over the strange patterns in the walls, the massive jigsaw-like blocks that fit together perfectly, "this place is like nothing I've ever seen." She let out a sigh, then gestured to the torches. "How long have these been burning, do you think?"
"They're slow burning," Willow said, "a bit of weak magic... I'd say they were lit no more than two days ago though. But if they- oh... look."
Tara turned, alarmed at the distant despair she heard in Willow's voice, and saw what had shaken her so. Where the vault entrance had been, neatly set into the floor, now there was a jagged hole, surrounded by dust and debris. Carefully, alert for any movement or sound from within, she approached the hole, sensing Willow close behind her.
On closer inspection it was no less chilling - as if a giant had simply smashed his way through the huge, thick stones, shattering them like sandstone. Tara knelt and picked up one of the larger fragments still scattered around the open maw, finding its sharp edge quite unyielding - even when she put it beneath her boot and ground it against the floor, its thin edges came out unscathed.
"What did this?" she whispered, crouching to examine the hole.
"Demon," Willow said, "something big, I don't know of any natural beast with that kind of strength."
"Was it... what kind of demon?" Tara asked.
"Not pure," Willow said quickly, "I don't feel any trace of magic being exerted here, I think it was just pure physical might. Something massive-" She fell silent as Tara's hand closed around her arm.
"Do you hear something?" she asked. Willow's head whipped around, staring into the shadows, then she calmed herself and listened for a moment.
"I don't have your hearing, remember?" she reminded Tara with a weak grin. "Do you hear something?"
"I do," Tara said grimly. "Very faint... echoing? A large space... how far are we from that main chamber?" Willow quickly pulled her partial map of the catacombs, drawn from memory, from her belt and unrolled it, holding it at an angle to best catch the torchlight.
"Maybe... twenty metres?" she hazarded a guess. "If I've got the dimensions right, it should be just a little way east of here... I might be wrong," she added as Tara stood up, "it was big in there, and we were looking across it from the other side, I might've misjudged the size of it all."
Tara gave a half-grin, as if the notion Willow might have been mistaken was comically amusing, and walked silently - perfectly silently - to the side of the chamber, where an archway led into an unlit room beyond. Willow followed a pace behind, making as little noise as possible, grateful that whoever in the Order had designed the battlegear's boots hadn't gone with a harder sole that would have sounded clearly against the stone floor.
The room was a crypt, with stone sarcophagi arranged in neat lines on either side of a central avenue. Only the first pair were really visible in the glow from the archway, the rest mere shapes in the shadow. Beyond them, though, was another glow - a faint, distant light from beyond the far doorway. Tara glanced at Willow, tilting her head towards the door, and then raised a hand to her neck, miming fixing an amulet. Willow nodded once, trying not to hold her staff too tightly, and breathe evenly in spite of her racing heart. Slowly advancing at Tara's side she put on her amulet, blinking in the sudden non-light as the details of the sarcophagi and the relief frescoes on the walls leapt into view.
The doorway from the crypt led to a balcony, not unlike the one they had stood on when first looking down into the massive heart of the catacombs. Even standing back in the doorway there was no mistaking the vast hall, with its huge pillars, the gaping chasms between them, and the sheer sense of cold, endless space, unsettling after so long in the tunnel, where the distance from one wall to the opposite could be bridged by reaching out both arms.
Tara crouched and approached the balcony's edge, kneeling behind a squat gargoyle carved into the parapet and peering around it, down into the depths. A suppressed shudder went through her, and Willow's blood ran cold for a moment. With a quick wave Tara beckoned her closer, gesturing for her to look. Carefully, Willow leaned out so she could see what Tara saw, and for the second time in that instant she felt a cold thrill of fear run through her.
Shapes were moving on the distant floor of the catacomb, gaunt, slumped forms lurching back and forth, bent under the weight of cracked boulders they were hauling up from a gaping tear in the stone beneath them. Torches lined their way - at such a distance, Willow found it bearable to look at them without removing the amulet - marking a path from the jagged hole to a doorway in the wall far beneath the balcony. Willow saw their purpose at once, and let out a tiny, despairing sigh.
"They're digging," she whispered when she and Tara had retreated to the crypt chamber, "they must be breaking through the levels of the catacombs, trying to get to the deepest level. That'll be where the prize is, whatever it is - the library, the artefacts, whatever they're after."
"What were they?" Tara asked with another mild shudder. "They looked like corpses... are they-"
"Ghouls," Willow said flatly, "undead raised to serve, rather than just to cause havoc. But there must be something else, something controlling them. On their own ghouls cold never do something like this, they're mindless." Tara nodded quickly, then looked across the long, shadowy row of carved stone caskets.
"Her?" she asked after a pause.
"I don't know," Willow admitted, "I think... I hope not. It's difficult to say, lots of demons use ghouls as servants. It'd be easier to command a more intelligent demon, a ghoul lord or a liche would be ideal, and have it control the ghouls, but I just... there's no way to know for sure, without going down there."
"That's what we have to do," Tara said - a statement, not a question. "Can they fight?"
"Ghouls, no, not properly," Willow whispered quickly as they made their way to the shattered vault entrance. "If they're ordered to, or if we cause enough commotion, they'll try to overwhelm us, but they're slow - between your magic and mine we should be able to keep them from getting too close, and if they can't reach us they can't hurt us. But whatever else is down there could be... liches and ghoul lords are both known to use very powerful magic, necromantic and fire. Just- if you see something that looks like more than just another walking corpse-"
"Make sure it doesn't get a chance to attack," Tara finished for her.
"That's the best I can do," Willow admitted, "by the time we know more it'll probably be a bit too busy to stop and make a plan." She crouched and peered down through the hole in the floor.
"What's down there?" Tara asked.
"A big pile of rock," Willow shrugged, "I think we're clear."
"There's a little torchlight. I'll go first."
"Take this," Willow offered, undoing the amulet and handing it to Tara. "You'll be able to see what you're landing on... and... Tara, be... be careful," she finished in a trembling voice. Tara reached up to cup her face gently, stroking her cheek with her thumb.
"Always, love," she whispered. Willow nodded, and Tara stood and slung her bow onto her back beside her spear. With a quick glance beneath her, she turned, lowered herself swiftly down until she was hanging from both hands, then let go. To Willow she seemed to vanish into the shadow, but a split second later there was the tiniest of sounds, leather on stone.
"Your turn," Tara's voice drifted up, barely more than a whisper. Willow leant over the blackness, nodding for Tara to see she had heard her, then began to lower herself, a great deal more gingerly than Tara had done. The edge of the hole scratched her bare midriff and she growled quietly in complaint, then she let herself go the last little way, to hang in the darkness.
"Ready," she heard, and without pausing to be afraid any more she let herself fall.
Her eyes closed instinctively, and for a moment a nightmare of sprawling with a broken leg, unable to escape or properly fight, swept over her. Then she was in Tara's arms, stumbling as her feet hit the uneven rubble beneath her, but safe.
For what seemed like an hour they followed the disturbances in the centuries-old dust on the floor, and the occasional spluttering torch, through chamber after chamber filled with strange, massive pillars and pedestals, stone bridges spanning pools of still black oil, and winding stairways carved out within solid columns. Always down, by stairs and ramps, always peering around corners, pausing to listen for footsteps, or the groans of the walking dead they knew were ahead of them, somewhere.
Finally Tara held up a hand, and moved forward by inches, pausing at every step. Willow listened intently, and picked up the faintest echo of a sound, a thin crunch like a falling boulder heard from far away. Tara reached the next door, a thin archway between two statues - hooded figures with no faces - and gestured for Willow to join her.
"There they are," she whispered, pointing up into the next room. Though dwarfed by the vastness of the main chamber, it was still a huge hall in its own right, with columns stretching higher than the tallest trees, vanishing into the shadows above - the ceiling, high and vaulted, was barely visible, and that only thanks to the light of a concentration of torches from a wide balcony on the far side, at the top of a winding staircase that stood free of the wall. The ghouls were there, on the balcony, staggering in turn through an archway with their burdens of stone, carefully depositing them in a growing heap clear of the arch.
"That must lead out into the main hall," Tara said quietly, ducking back into the darkened room to keep her voice from being overheard. "I don't like that staircase, if anything comes up behind us, it'll only take a few of them to cut us off from escape." She sighed. "'Choose your battlefield wisely'..."
"Solari?" Willow guessed. She glanced back at their ill-lit chamber, and something caught her eye.
"One of Eponin's sayings," Tara said with a faint smile, looking back at the doorway, "Solari would probably tell us to just make the best of what we've got... I suppose we'll have to."
"Maybe not," Willow said, catching Tara's hand and tugging gently, "look."
Tara followed her a few metres into the chamber, and peered at the floor when Willow knelt and ran her hand over the relief designs carved in the stone. In the faint torchlight it was difficult to make out the shapes, but she saw the groove Willow's fingers were following - an unbroken circle.
"Is that...?" she asked.
"I think so," Willow whispered, reaching over her shoulder to rummage in her pack. She drew out the metal key and held it above the design in the floor.
"Exactly the right size," Willow went on, "and I can feel a little magic in this... I think it's a second doorway, like the one above."
"Why didn't they smash it open?" Tara asked. "Why are they tunnelling through from the main hall? We're lower down here, they'd have less to dig through..."
"Maybe not," Willow surmised, "if whatever's ordering those ghouls has some way of knowing where to go, where the chambers and stairways are... their trail from up above didn't deviate once, they must have known which way to go... what if this door is thicker than the one up above? If it's thick enough, maybe it'd be quicker for them to tunnel down beneath it, through the other chambers."
"Maybe," Tara allowed, "either that, or they avoided this doorway for another reason. Could it be trapped?"
"I don't think so," Willow shook her head, "there's no magic here that feels like a set trap... besides, we have the key. We're not breaking in, we'd be opening it the way it was meant to be opened."
"It's a risk," Tara said. Then she hesitated, and looked back at the doorway leading to the next hall. "But so is the other option... there's a chance this will be more to our advantage. If we... let me think. Will opening this make a noise? Will they hear us?"
"I don't know," Willow admitted, "it could be silent, it could be noisy... no way to know."
"Alright," Tara said, "those ghouls aren't coming this way, just moving between that balcony and wherever they're tunnelling at the moment. We're here, they're there, we both want to get here," she gestured to herself as she spoke, sketching a map in the air in front of her. "Ideally we want to avoid them completely, get in and out without them even knowing we're here, but we can't know if that's possible... if not, draw them away."
"Draw them away?" Willow asked.
"You open the door," Tara decided, "if it makes enough noise to alert them, I'll use one of your ice arrows and blast down that stairway to the balcony. That should hold them up long enough for us to get a head start, maybe even bring them up from where they're tunnelling. If the door is silent, we'll try sneaking in and out. With luck they'll never know."
"Okay," Willow nodded, "stand back..." Tara took two steps back as she leant down and fitted the key disc into the circular depression in the floor. For a moment nothing happened - Willow glanced back at Tara, beginning a vague shrug - then she and the square metre of floor she was crouching on simply dropped out of sight, silent as a moving shadow. Tara gasped in shock, then darted forward without a second thought, jumping into the space left in the floor.
She landed heavily, almost on top of Willow, on the floor section which was dropping quickly but steadily through a smooth vertical channel.
"Tara!" Willow breathed. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Tara assured her, "I'm..." She paused, listening. "It's silent," she whispered, "how? This much stone, moving this fast...?"
"Magic?" Willow shrugged. "If this place wasn't powerful we wouldn't need to be here... look!"
"I can't see," Tara whispered - the darkness was intense, enveloping.
"Stone blocks are swinging into the shaft above us," Willow said quietly, "blocking it off... they must be moving out of our way below, and then moving back when we pass. How far down have we gone?"
"I'm not sure," Tara admitted.
"No wonder they didn't want to try to break through this door," Willow said - Tara could hear the faint amazement in her voice. "What was the first floor they went through, a metre? Less than that? We must've gone through fifty metres of solid stone already..."
"See," Tara said, sneaking an arm around Willow's waist and gently squeezing her. "It's just as well we brought the key along."
"I guess..." Willow murmured. She reached out a hand, but pulled back before her fingers touched the wall in front of her, still rushing upwards at quite a pace.
"Gods," she said quietly, "how far down is this thing going to go?" She felt Tara shrug.
"If we're lucky, deeper than those ghouls have been able to tunnel," she replied.
"Hmm..." Willow nodded, then a thought struck her. "...hey, yeah. We might be bypassing them completely."
"I wouldn't get out hopes up," Tara cautioned, "but I'll admit, I won't feel disappointed if we get through today without seeing any more demons, or undead, or anything else."
Their journey came to an abrupt halt that left them both staggering. Willow grabbed both Tara's arms and steadied her as she quickly glanced around.
"Where are we?" Tara asked, her voice quiet but urgent.
"A chamber, it's empty," Willow quickly reported. She glanced up to see the ceiling close above them, the blocks of stone swivelling into place so exactly she would never have suspected they could open at all. A tiny metallic sound from beneath her feet drew her attention - the key had shifted slightly, and was now resting just out of alignment with the circular groove she had fitted it into. She crouched down and picked it up, finding it slightly warm to the touch.
"Strange," she went on, "this isn't like any building I've ever been in, even the Zann Esu vaults."
"The air's moving," Tara said, "I think because of us, the platform coming down... but I'm not sure if it was still before. I can't really feel anything, but I can't be certain."
"You've got your sunlight scrolls?"
"Ready and waiting," Tara replied, idly touching the one tucked in her belt - several spares were in one of her pouches.
"Remember you don't have to warn me if you cast it, I'm not seeing light so I won't be blinded by it."
"I remember," Tara said. Willow could tell she was grinning slightly, just from the sound of her voice.
"Sorry," she sighed, "nervous, you know..."
"I know," Tara said, placing a gentle hand on Willow's arm, "lead on."
"Right. Um... there's three passageways." She looked at each in turn, unable to discern any difference between them. "I'm not sure I haven't got turned around... which way were we facing up above?"
"The main hall was that way," Tara said, extending a finger into what was, for her, pitch blackness. To Willow's eyes, she was pointing directly at one of the three doorways.
"Let's go that way," Willow decided, "and hope Master Moac built his basements symmetrical, and the important stuff is at the centre of it all." Leading Tara by the hand she set off towards the doorway, only to be halted after a couple of steps by a strange, eerie sound.
"What was that?" Tara whispered, instantly falling into a defensive posture, bow in hand, while Willow spun her staff into both hands and scanned the chamber. The sound had been unnatural and unnerving, thin, almost on the edge of hearing but with a strange quality that had made it impossible to ignore.
"I don't..." Willow began, but stopped as the sound came again, closer this time, making her shiver involuntarily. It sounded like some dark thing from deep under the sea, echoing up through the waves... whale-song with a necrotic undercurrent. Willow recoiled as, suddenly, her world went black.
"Willow?" Tara whispered, catching her effortlessly in the dark.
"I can't see," she said, "the amulet's not working any more..."
"We should use one of the sunlight-" Tara broke off as glow permeated the chamber, throwing its unseen architecture into sudden detail - a circular chamber filled with columns and squat, boxy stone forms that looked like oversized coffins laid out on the floor. The light was cold, a pale blue imitation of moonlight, but somehow darker, and dangerous. Tara spun around, searching for its source, and fell back a step, hearing Willow gasp beside her, as a shape emerged through the far wall.
At its heart was a human form, a skeleton, without legs or hips, simply the trailing spine, like a tail. Its thin arms spread out to either side, and the skull lolled lifelessly to one side before tilting over, its empty sockets seeming to fix on the two women staring at it. The light it cast was from a strange aura, sheets of billowing vapour that wafted from its bones, like a slow, cold fire.
"Wraith!" Willow whispered, her hand closing around Tara's arm as the apparition floated slowly towards them. "Don't let it touch you!" Tara instantly drew an arrow and fitted it to her bowstring.
"Don't shoot!" Willow warned. "Don't use any magic, none at all!"
With a sudden, alarming burst of speed the wraith lunged towards them, reaching for them with a bone claw. They dived in opposite directions, each keeping their distance as the skull turned one way and the other, as if trying to make up its mind which target to chase.
"It feeds on magic," Willow called, circling around the chamber's wall as her voice drew the creature's attention, "magic won't hurt it, and if you cast at it, or if it touches you, it'll start feeding on your energy!"
"What's it like with plain old brute force?" Tara asked as Willow skipped sideways, avoiding another clumsy lunge from the wraith which ended up floating half-way through the wall before it turned to follow her.
"Be my guest," Willow said, glancing behind herself as she backed away. Tara raised her bow - it felt odd not to be calling on power, but she resisted the temptation - and aimed at the creature's head.
"Get behind something," she warned. Willow dashed backwards and dived behind one of the stone coffins, and Tara let her arrow fly. It pierced the wraith's jaw and flew straight through it, clattering off the wall and whirring away in the opposite direction to Willow. The wraith turned smoothly to face Tara, the damage to its jaw and neck seeming to be of little bother to it.
"Arrows won't be much use, then," she muttered to herself, swinging her bow behind her back and replacing it with her spear. She swung the weapon once around herself, feeling the familiar shape and weight, and advanced on the wraith.
"Be careful!" Willow cried as she neared.
"I promise, love," she replied, her eyes never leaving the ghostly form closing on her. Again it lunged, but Tara was ready for it, rolling the other way, well clear of its claws, and swinging the spear's blade in an arc across its outstretched arms. She felt the tiniest hint of contact through her grip on the shaft, and one of the wraith's bony forearms floated free of its elbow, the bones seeming weightless as they slowly evaporated. The strange blue fire billowed at the passage of Tara's blade through it, but as the wraith turned its eerie sheath of ghost-light remained intact, even maintaining its shape around the damaged arm, as if the bones of its forearm and claw were still present.
"Try breaking the ribcage," Willow called, rising from behind her shelter and circling around behind the wraith, holding her staff like a fighting weapon. Tara made a feint to the left, then darted back right as the creature reached for her. She took a step forward and swung her spear downward, aiming to shatter its shoulders and ribs, but in a sudden burst of speed it veered away from her, the tilted skull seeming to watch her warily.
"Careful," Tara warned, as the wraith backed away from her, towards Willow. It paused, began to advance again, then wafted sideways, wrapping its arms tightly around itself as it passed through one of the chamber's thick pillars. Tara sidestepped to be ready when it emerged from the other side, but it never did - only she and Willow remained, the light in the chamber slowly ebbing away.
"Where is it?" Tara hissed, circling warily, spear at the ready.
"I don't... watch out," Willow warned, as the eerie light, which had almost vanished, began to intensify again. Tara spun around, checking every wall and every column for a sign of the wraith.
"It's an old one," she heard Willow say as they both edged away from the pillars, into the centre of the chamber, "probably been here for centuries at least... the longer they stay on the mortal plane the more aware they become of their surroundings, the more able to react and perceive threats and prey..."
"Let's make sure we're the former, not the latter," Tara said grimly.
"Right with you," Willow murmured, "if we- watch out!"
Tara's head snapped around at Willow's exclamation, and seeing her staring down she followed her gaze, starting back in shock. Blue flame was billowing up from the floor beneath her, the clouds of luminescent vapour rising all around her. Tara's eyes darted from side to side as she tried to keep clear of the light, and not overbalance as it appeared behind her as well. The empty-eyed skull rose slowly through the stone floor, staring up at her as the wraith's arms emerged, reaching out to either side, trying to block her escape.
With a shout of effort Tara leapt backwards, lifting her legs as high as she could from a standing start. She felt a strange coldness in her right foot, and the wraith lunged at her, fortunately reaching only the shaft of her spear, which its single claw passed through without effect. As Tara landed she stumbled and fell backwards - her leg was going numb, and suddenly she could barely move it. She looked up at the wraith, now closing in on her, towering over her-
-and through its transparent body she saw Willow charging forwards, adjusting her grip to swing her staff like a poleaxe, over her head and down into the apparition. The blunt wood passed through the creature's head like the sharpest blade, tearing through its skull and spine like tissue paper. The wraith reared back, gave one last, mournful scream as its skeleton broke apart, then there were only fragments, evaporating into nothing as the blue light dimmed and vanished.
"Tara! Tara?" Willow was crouching at her side in an instant, with her hands on Tara's shoulders, gentle and firm.
"I- I'm okay," Tara said, taking a shuddering breath as the sudden wash of adrenaline took its toll. "I'm okay... my leg's cold, it touched me-"
"You'll be okay," Willow said quickly, "it's gone, it only weakens while the wraith it alive to feed... you're fine. Can you feel anything?" She touched Tara's leg tentatively.
"Your hand on my thigh... you bet I can," Tara replied with a hopeful grin. Willow let out a short bark of relieved laughter, then sniffed back a sob and hugged her.
"You're fine," she said again, "give it a couple of minutes, you'll be fine... that's how you help someone who's been touched, you banish the wraith, and it only took a second, just enough for a bit of a chill, nothing permanent."
"I can move it again," Tara whispered as Willow paused for breath, "the feeling's coming back..."
"Give it a moment," Willow said, "just rest a moment. I can see again... I mean, the amulet's working. The wraith must've been leeching the power out of it, but it's working fine now." Tara nodded, and reached behind herself to unhook her bow from its place on her back - her fall had shoved it to an odd angle, with one end wedged in a crack in the floor.
"Is it okay?" Willow asked, as Tara held it up and ran her hands along its length.
"Fine," she said, "no damage... hey," she looked to Willow, seeming to catch her gaze even in the dark, "thank you."
"Huh? Oh," Willow blushed and looked down, "it was nothing... no, I mean it was you, it was everything, but... I just did what I could."
"You did," Tara smiled, "thank you." She lifted a hand to Willow's chin, touched just the tip of a finger to it, and guided her down to meet her lips in a gentle kiss. Willow gave a little sigh of pleasure and lost herself completely in Tara's lips.
"You were amazing," Tara whispered when she finally ended the kiss.
"Well, y'know," Willow said bashfully, "anyway, I didn't think I hit it that hard... must've caught it off-guard. There's a school of thought that says physical weapons don't really affect them either, it's the intent behind the weapon that does it. Like, what actually damages them is your subconscious, believing that you're damaging it when you strike." She gave a little chuckle. "My subconscious was kind of raging there."
"You were amazing," Tara said again, this time patiently, as if it was a simple fact she was going to keep repeating until Willow admitted it. They shared a laugh, then Willow sat down next to Tara, stroking her thigh.
"Definitely getting the feeling back," Tara murmured.
"Good," Willow said firmly. "Want something to eat? I could use a snack... just rations, but hey, adventurers deep in hostile catacombs can't be choosers."
"Thanks," Tara said, reaching behind herself to unhook her water gourd from her belt.
"It probably wasn't after us specifically," Willow said idly, "the wraith, I mean... it would've been here hundreds of years. They tend to turn up in old, abandoned magical places, as they decay... catacombs, graveyards, stone circles, that kind of thing. You know, if nothing else, I've suddenly got a lot more respect for whoever went out and got the wraith bone in your bow."
"It is the same thing?" Tara asked, taking a sip of water and handing the gourd to Willow. "I wondered, at the name."
"That'd be it," Willow said, "I've got a few fragments for rituals. There's spells you can do - not against the wraith itself, cause they wouldn't work, but... around it, I suppose you'd say - that pull the bones properly into the mortal plane when one gets banished. Otherwise they just fade back to the plane they come from. Hunting a wraith is not an easy task, so I've heard."
"I believe it," Tara said fervently.
"To get pieces big enough to work into a bow," Willow went on, "that's not an easy task, even for someone who does this kind of thing regularly. Find one with bones long enough, which usually means long, dangerous claws, then banish it without damaging the bits you want to use..."
"A lot of trouble to go to," Tara observed, "but, it does make a good bow. Our best craftsmen and women gather their own materials, even the dangerous ones. We think very highly of them."
"They deserve it," Willow shuddered, "the sound that thing made... that's going to haunt me for a while. Forgive the pun."
"Forgiven," Tara chuckled. "I'll just have to make sure your mind's on other things when we go to bed, so you won't have nightmares."
Willow paused. With her cat's-eye sight restored she had been leading Tara by the hand - not that it was strictly necessary, with her keen senses, but there was no reason not to, and she hadn't even bothered to try to think of a reason not to hold Tara's hand. They had steadily made their way deeper into the catacombs - inwards and downwards, following Willow's belief that the 'treasure', whatever it was, that the huge underground concealed would be at its lowest point. Subtle hints in the architecture made her think she was right - the design of the chambers seemed somehow to be pointing in the direction they were going, just like the halls and rooms of a grand palace, all designed with the knowledge that the throne room was the heart of the complex.
Now she forced herself to be perfectly still, perfectly silent, while Tara took a deep, quiet breath and concentrated. Willow imagined what she was feeling - 'seeing' by the air brushing against her skin, slowly building up an image of the forms and spaces ahead of them.
"I think that 'bypass the bad guys' plan isn't going to work out," Tara whispered at last. Willow's shoulders slumped, then she gave a quick sigh and let resolve tighten her jaw.
"Ghouls?" she asked.
"I think so," Tara replied, "the motions are... they feel slow and, and ungainly... they feel like those things looked, you know? Lurching dead things... I'm pretty sure."
"Well, odds are they don't know we're down here, so we've got surprise on our side-"
She broke off, flinching back against the wall, as a tremendous crash echoed through the corridor, like a thunderbolt, its echoes bounding around from one wall to another, slowly fading away. Tara had her bow aimed in an instant, the arrowhead wavering this way and that, searching for a target.
"What the hell was that?" she whispered.
"I have no idea," Willow whispered in reply.
"It came from up ahead."
"That wasn't a ghoul... unless it's a dozen of them with a battering ram..." She paused, and drew a shuddering breath. "I'm thinking, all things being equal..."
"...something trying to break in," Tara finished.
"Damn... they smashed their way down here anyway." Willow frowned and let out an exasperated breath. "I guess having the key doesn't really make any difference."
"Maybe it does," Tara suggested, "if they're still smashing, they haven't got in yet. Maybe we can drive them away before they do."
"You're right," Willow said, "you're right, I'm guessing the worst... okay, this is what we're here for. What now?"
"Get closer," Tara said quickly, "try to get a look at what we're facing before it sees us. Then make a plan, then carry it out."
"Okay... what if they see us first?"
"Then..." Tara shrugged, "hit them as hard and fast as we can, and don't let up until we win, or they force us to retreat. They're almost certain to have the advantage of numbers, and you're probably right about there being something controlling those ghouls - that means something smart. Giving them time to think once the fighting starts is only going to help them." She paused, and turned in the dark to face Willow. "What can you tell me about ghouls?"
"Ghouls? Oh, um... aim for the head, or neck. Damage won't affect them, they don't use their brain, but if the head is separated from the body, or completely destroyed, it'll break the spell that animates them. Oh, also," she paused and cringed as another crash echoed through the catacombs. "Gods almighty... um, ghouls move by animating the remains of the body's muscles, there's no motive magical force as such to keep them moving like there is with skeletons, so if you hit them in the legs or arms it'll affect them just like you'd expect with a living body. They don't feel pain though, or fear, they won't run or be driven back."
"What do you think our chances are?" Tara asked with a wry grin. "The odds of us not ending up scampering away with our tails between our legs?"
"If it's just ghouls, I think we're good," Willow said after a moment's thought, "they're strong, but their bodies are fragile, easily damaged... against whatever else it down there, I just don't know. If I can identify something I'll try to tell you anything I can, but we'll probably be fighting by then."
"I'll keep an ear out for you," Tara nodded. "Alright, let's stick to our plan."
"Okay," Willow agreed, "hit them fast and press our advantage for all its worth."
"Spoken like an Amazon," Tara said with a grin.
They proceeded side by side, Willow guiding Tara through the narrow passageways, while Tara reached forward with her senses, searching for the elusive traces of movement she could feel in the air. At last her grip on Willow's hand tightened, and they drew to a halt at a corner.
"Ghouls, I'm sure," Tara whispered, "but not all of them..."
"We'll have to go through them," Willow replied, "I don't think there's another way forward, none of the turn-offs we've passed looked likely."
"Alright," Tara said. Her hand drew back, caressing Willow's palm for a moment before leaving it, then she reached into her belt and drew out the tiny scroll tucked there, gripping her bow loosely in her other hand.
"You open fire, I'll make some light and join you," she murmured.
"Ready," Willow nodded, "remember the light will last about ten minutes."
"Okay, on three," Tara said. "One... two..." she leaned towards Willow and pressed a kiss to her cheek. "I love you."
"Love you too," Willow smiled.
They both leapt around the corner, Tara already reciting from memory the words of the scroll's spell, Willow aiming her staff, ready for whatever foe she would see. Twenty metres away, cramped into the narrow passage, a pack of ghouls paused in their methodical marching, the nearer ones turning as their crude thoughts alerted them to the danger behind them.
Willow felt the light magic catch and work beside her, but her concentration was on her own power as bolt after bolt of ice screamed from her staff and tore through the ghouls. Her first shots, moulded into thin, spinning blades, scythed the heads from the nearest undead, then she switched to thicker spikes which punched through their chests even as they began to topple over, bursting through them and smashing into those behind them.
"Go, go!" Tara shouted as she fitted an arrow to her bow. Her first shot struck its target with a rush of flame, scorching several ghouls at once, leaving their heads and chests blackened, their eyes useless. They fumbled blindly, getting in the way of their comrades. Willow and Tara advanced side by side, firing blast after blast of fire and ice into the pack, sending ghoul after ghoul crumpling to the floor.
Willow paused to take stock of their situation, and saw a shattered hole in the side of the corridor, just where the closest undead had been standing. As she watched a ghoul patiently emerged from it, turning ponderously before one of Tara's arrows burst through its neck, sending its half-rotted head clattering away as its body fell.
"Get closer," she called to Tara over the noise of the fire blasts, and the ghouls' agitated, inarticulate groaning. "Get to that hole in the wall, I can seal that!" She added her ice bolts to Tara's arrows as they advanced, cutting further into the ghoul ranks, and decapitating the occasional appearance from the hole. Once they reached it Willow aimed her staff into the crudely-bored tunnel, which curved slightly upward, and let loose a stream of icy vapour that condensed into a solid wall a few metres in.
"That'll hold them a minute or two," she said, "can you cover me for a quick ritual?"
"If reinforcements don't show up," Tara replied, letting another arrow fly. Willow knelt down, laid her staff by her side, and with both hands quickly drew supplies from her belt pouches. Ducking unconsciously at each detonation from Tara's arrows, she laid out seven rune stones in a circle, opened a tiny vial of sand and tapped it out in lines between the stones, forming a seven-pointed star. She undid a second, smaller vial and upended it, dropping a single shard of glowing blue ice at the centre of the pattern.
"I can give you about a minute," Tara warned. Willow glanced up, seeing the numbers of ghouls looked to have increased, though Tara's arrows were still keeping them back, blasting down the forerunners with each shot.
"It'll be enough," she replied, turning her attention back to her ritual. She stretched her fingers then passed her hand over the star several times, letting tiny trails of ice form from her fingers and crystallise into the lines of sand.
"Bust through this wall," she muttered, giving the pattern a final burst of ice. The star-shape, now composed entirely of ice, frozen around the sand, cracked and broke, and the single shard of blue ice melted. The liquid raced across the floor, seeming to double in volume, then double again, and again as it flowed up the wall, around the edges of the hold battered through the stone. Already starting to freeze at its edges, the glowing water spread across the gap and covered it, solidifying in second into an icy barrier.
"Done," she said, grabbing her staff and standing back up beside Tara, once more sending her ice bolts flying into the ghouls alongside her arrows. "If something attacks that with fire magic, it'll hold for at least fifteen minutes."
"If they don't have fire magic?" Tara asked, aiming a shot between two burning ghouls to decapitate one behind them.
"Then they'll still be here next year," Willow replied with a grin. Tara gave a short bark of laughter.
"There's more coming from behind them," she went on.
"I know," Willow said, "our back's covered now."
"Let's move on," Tara nodded. She concentrated fully on her work, producing more intense blasts of flame from each shot - strange grey shapes that billowed in the air, to Willow's sight - and Willow in turn mustered more powerful shards of ice, cutting through the ghouls like a breeze through a cornfield.
"Forward," Tara said, "don't let up."
They advanced once more side by side, ice and fire clearing their way. After a few minutes' work they could see, through the remaining bodies arrayed before them, the reinforcements crawling out of a square hole in the floor. While Tara continued picking off every ghoul as it advanced, Willow concentrated her magic on the source of the newcomers, sending more spinning blades down near floor-level, sending those already standing reeling as their feet were cut from beneath them, and destroying each new ghoul as it appeared, their headless bodies disappearing back into the darkness beneath the floor.
"What do we do?" Tara asked once they had cleared the corridor. She aimed her bow down the hole, which was the top of a steep, narrow staircase, and fired a pair of arrows that caused havoc among the dim shapes visible at the bottom, sending them reeling.
"I could seal them in," Willow mused, "but I kind of think-" She was cut off by another deafening crash, this one most definitely originating from the chamber below them.
"Correction, I definitely think down there is where we want to be."
"The light spell will follow me, right?" Tara asked. "If I jump down there, it'll be lit up like it is up here?"
"Yep, but you can't just- look, I know they fell pretty easily up here, but you could be surrounded down there, I've been warned plenty of times not to underestimate ghouls just because they're fragile. Get a real crowd of them and they can overwhelm anyone."
"The two of us, back to back?" Tara suggested. "If it comes to the worst we can retreat back up here." Willow glanced down the hole - the ghouls were staggering back towards the base of the stairs - and sighed.
"Okay," she nodded, "I'll clear a little space for us - and once we're down there, use a couple of those ice arrows if there's enough room. We have to wipe them out as fast as we can."
Tara loosed an arrow, then reached out and held Willow's hand in a firm grip.
"We'll be fine," she said, "I feel good, and you... you're amazing." Willow spared the time for a quick, grateful smile, blushing at the compliment, then turned her attention to the stairway.
"Stand back when this drops," she advised, cupping her hands together. An icy glow shone between her fingers, and as she spread her hands a ball of jagged frost floated between them, its cracked surface revealing hints of a writhing sphere of blue-white energy within. Tara sent one last fire arrow down the stairway then took a step back, while Willow stepped forward in her place, holding the straining orb over the gap.
"Catch, ghoulies," she murmured, then dropped the sphere and darted back. There was a crystal-clear 'crack' from the darkened stairway, then a burst of light and noise that made both women flinch. Shards of ice flew up out of the hole in the floor, several of the larger ones burying themselves in the ceiling.
"Go!" Willow yelled in the sudden quiet that followed the blast. Tara reacted instantly, bounding forward without hesitation. Willow descended the stairs, two at a time, behind her, eyes darting from side to side as she landed on the floor below. She glimpsed ghouls, some torn apart, some merely knocked from their feet, scattered around on a mosaic-like floor, with the walls of the room distant behind them. Tara wasted no time - two fire arrows felled a pair of nearby ghouls, then she drew one of Willow's ice arrows, its arrowhead glinting coldly as she fit it to her bow, and fired through the gap.
Willow turned away as the blast sent ghouls flying in all directions, shielding herself from the sudden burst of light before she realised that she wouldn't have seen it in any case. But in turning she found that, instead of a wall, the chamber extended back behind the stairway as well.
"Oh fuck," she whispered as a massive shape reared up. It stood five metres tall, hunched over to fit beneath the ceiling, and its muscles were thick as ancient oak trunks, beneath a skin scarred and pitted by age and violence. Atop its massive shoulders a tiny head fixed her with beady, red eyes, and its brows furrowed in rage. With the shifting of mammoth muscles it lifted its arm, drawing back the weapon clutched in its giant hand for a crushing blow.
"Look out!" Willow screamed, leaping for Tara, pushing her out of the way. The weapon crashed down inches from her - her stomach turned as she realised it was a rotted corpse, wrapped head to toe in chain to give it weight and strength - and pulverised the flagstones where she had stood a moment before. The demon bellowed in anger and lifted its grotesque flail for another strike.
"What the hell is that?" Tara yelled, regaining her balance and turning around.
"Urdar!" Willow said above the noise of the creature's roaring. She turned and blasted the nearest ghouls with a hail of ice shards, clearing space for herself and Tara to back away from the beast. "Ice arrows, now! I'll shield us!"
Again Tara betrayed no hesitation - Willow felt a moment of pride at that - as she reached for another of the special arrows and fitted it to her bowstring. Willow put a hand on her shoulder, where it wouldn't interfere with her shot, and held as tightly as she dared while the power of her chill armour wrapped around both of them. Tara fired as soon as the icy mist enveloped her, and an instant later the arrowhead burst into flame, then detonated in an icy blast, as it struck the Urdar in the centre of its massive chest.
Willow and Tara were both tossed back by the force of the blast, but the chill armour kept them from being harmed by the wall of frost that hammered at them. Willow wrapped her other arm, staff still clutched in hand, tightly around Tara's waist as they hit the floor and tumbled backwards, her mind fixed only on not letting go, not leaving Tara vulnerable to the blast. She felt an impact from behind, something being knocked over as they rolled to a halt, then she was shaking her head, trying to clear her mind as Tara sat up, lifting her bow to aim it more or less towards the huge demon.
"Wait," Willow called, rubbing her eyes to clear them as she stared through the film of mist. The Urdar was still standing, its tiny eyes blinking in confusion. Its chest had been absolutely torn apart - its massive ribs bent outwards at strange angles, their ends blown off, and beneath them its lungs were in tatters. It looked down at itself, raised a hand to touch the broken tip of one of its ribs, then its bulbous heart, leaking black blood from a dozen tears, shuddered its last and was still. With a dying groan the huge creature toppled over backwards, cracking the floor as it crashed down.
"Willow," Tara warned, turning and firing behind them - Willow glanced back to see the remaining ghouls, still slowly recovering from the blast that had killed the Urdar, now stagger as Tara's arrow struck one of them and exploded. She scrambled to her feet, giving Tara space to draw and fire as swiftly as she could, and looked back across the fallen corpse of the Urdar.
Beyond it was a wasted, withered shell of a man, clad in dirt-encrusted old robes that were unravelled at the edges, and worn through across the shoulders so that it hung on the few remaining strands of fabric, revealing the rotted flesh beneath. The creature was staring in disbelief at the dead monster, then his gaze lifted and he fixed Willow with a hateful scowl.
"Ghoul lord!" Willow warned. "Stay behind me, I'll take him, you keep the ghouls off my back!"
"Okay," Tara replied, her voice steady. Willow took a step forward, hearing another one of Tara's arrows explode behind her, and raised her staff in an obvious challenge to the withered creature.
"Come on," she muttered, "what've you got? No more muscleman to do your fighting for you."
The ghoul lord opened its mouth, emitting a deathly rattle, and raised a thin arm covered in parchment-dry skin. Its claws bristled with power, then a fireball screamed towards Willow.
"Nuh-uh!" she yelled, swinging her staff like a club. A burst of ice leapt from its tip, intercepting the fireball and freezing it in a heartbeat. The lump of ice, frozen in the shape of the flame it had engulfed, fell to the floor and smashed between them.
"My turn," Willow snarled, whirling her staff. Ice formed around both ends, taking the shape of two razor-edged discs, which flew from the staff one after the other, curving through the air with a howl. The ghoul lord released a jet of flame at one, melting it, but the remaining disc came at it from the other side, slicing its arm off in a shower of dust. Tiny tongues of flame licked from the stump extending from its shoulder, which the twisted mage pointed at Willow, as if to cast another spell.
Whether or not it could have, it never found out - Willow pointed her staff directly at it and released a hail of ice bolts, punching through its wasted body in a dozen places. Under the hail of missiles it simply fell to pieces, its flesh breaking apart, showering down like ash as its bones clattered to the floor. Willow took the barest moment to sigh in relief, then turned, staff raised, to see how Tara was doing.
"Do you need- oh," she finished with a sheepish grin, finding Tara standing calmly behind her, bow lowered. What remained of the ghouls was scattered to the corners of the room - only she and Willow were still standing. Willow slowly undid the amulet around her neck and glanced around, taking in the colours as they returned to her.
"That was the demon in charge?" Tara asked, inclining her head towards the remains of the ghoul lord.
"That would be it," Willow agreed, turning back. "Human once, decades ago... maybe centuries." She walked over and nudged at one of the fallen bones with the end of her staff - it was so brittle it broke as it rolled over.
"They make deals with pure demons," she went on, "longevity in exchange for their service." She shivered.
"It doesn't seem like a worthwhile kind of life," Tara commented, coming up behind Willow. "I much prefer the one I've got."
She took Willow gently by the hand and turned her around, stroking an errant strand of hair aside from her face. Willow was tense, her shoulders tight, a worried frown creasing her lovely features. Tara smiled slightly, then leaned forward and touched her lips to Willow's.
"It's done," she whispered, "it's over." Willow took a quick, startled breath, then let it out in a long sigh, the warm air caressing Tara's lips. She moved the last fraction needed to capture her mouth, and in an instant Tara was responding as she kissed her passionately, wildly, relief and exultation fuelling a sudden, ardent need to claim Tara, to give herself in return, to immediately reclaim the bliss that anxiety and fear had held back since the morning.
"Goddess," she whispered, releasing Tara's lips just for an instant. She took a breath, and tasted the stale air of the catacombs, warring with the lingering taste of Tara's mouth.
"Hmm," she murmured, reluctantly leaning back from the temptation of resuming the kiss, "we should, you know... wait until later."
"I'm not sure I care," Tara admitted with a dazed smile, "my goddess you can kiss..." She chuckled to herself.
"I promise more once we're out of here," Willow replied impishly.
"Done," Tara nodded, "you're right, this isn't the place to linger... and frankly, much more of your lips and I'd be out of my armour before I realised it."
"You're not the only one," Willow admitted.
"Let's do what we came to do and get out of here," Tara suggested. Willow nodded and looked around, nothing the details of the room she had ignored during the brief battle.
"Pretty obvious what that ghoul lord and his friend were up to," she noted, pointing at a patch of floor where the tiles had been smashed in. Beneath was solid stone, with a texture that looked like granite when Willow knelt down close to it. Tiny fractures ran through it, but it had held up well to the hammering it had been given.
"Willow," Tara called, taking a few steps to stand by the back wall of the chamber. Willow joined her there and examined the pattern carved into it, laid out around a circular groove.
"I guess this is it," she said, drawing the key from her pack. Tara nodded and watched as Willow fitted the metal into its groove, turning it slowly until it stuck. She slowly lowered her hands, leaving the key set in the wall, immobile.
"Is something supposed to happen?" Willow asked after a moment's silence. As if on cue there was a metallic clank from somewhere behind the wall, and the key began to rotate. A grinding noise from behind Willow and Tara got their attention - they turned to see the damaged section of floor rising up, a thick, square column of stone that reached the ceiling, and continued as the blocks there slid out of its way. As the column continued to rise the stone gave way to black metal, then strange green crystals. At last, after what seemed like fifty metres of column had risen past them, the end lifted out of the floor, a perfect crystal prism, its diamond point aimed downward. It settled into the ceiling as, beneath it, a lectern rose to take its place, made from black marble inlaid with geometric patterns in pure silver. Atop it sat a book, old, thick, bound in dark red leather, with bronze bindings at its corners.
"That must be it," Willow whispered in the sudden stillness as the chamber's moving parts settled. "Moac's journal... my gods, it's real... even after all this, I didn't quite believe it..."
"Do we take it or destroy it?" Tara asked warily, approaching it. She ran a gloved finger along the spine, picking up a thin layer of dust, and looked back to Willow.
"Gods," Willow said again, shaking her head, "I don't know... it's just a book, but... if it's true... the power it could lead to..." She trailed off as a tiny sound caught her attention, and turned to stare, puzzled, at the key, which was still slowly turning in its socket.
"What's it-" she began to say, then staggered as a violent tremor shook the room. Suddenly the underground stillness was filled with a deafening wall of sound, the rumbling of stone shifting, the squeals of metal moving against metal, the rushing of floods of liquid through tight channels. The floor shook, tossing Willow to her knees.
"Tara!" she called, turning and reaching out. Tara was on her side, having fallen, but she quickly got to her hands and knees and scrambled across the shaking floor, reaching for Willow's hand.
"What's happening?" she cried, as a fresh wave of sound buffeted them both. Willow opened her mouth to answer, then convulsed as a shock of pain passed through her.
"Gods!" she cried, tears streaming down her face. Her legs collapsed beneath her and she fell painfully to the floor, jerking as her body writhed in uncontrollable spasms. Somehow she managed to force a flailing arm towards Tara, her hand painfully unclenching from a tight fist.
"Willow!" Tara screamed, scrambling to her side, "Willow!" Willow stared frantically up at her, then her eyes closed and she let out a primal howl of pain. At the same moment a huge force pressed both of them down onto the floor, Tara lying helplessly over Willow's convulsing body, as the whole world, it seemed, shook beneath them.
"It's her," Willow sobbed between gasping breaths, "it's her, she's here, she's here-" Tara struggled against the weight pressing her down, holding Willow's head to keep her from hitting it on the floor.
"I'll take care of you baby," she yelled over the din, "I'll protect you, just tell me what to do! Where is she?"
"Me," Willow groaned, "she's inside me..."
For half a mile in every direction from the Kotram monastery great fissures opened up in the ground. Birds and animals ran for their lives as boulders cracked, streams of scalding-hot water burst from the ground, steam vents jetted into the air. In the abandoned villages wood splintered and stones toppled as the buildings collapsed in on themselves, while in the monastery itself the mighty walls and parapets trembled and cracked. The dome of the chapel broke apart, stone crashing down onto the pews beneath, smashing them to pieces. The inner wall of the two-storey dormitory building fell, taking the roof with it, leaving only the side built into the outer wall standing.
A titanic blast erupted from the ground beneath, sending earth and stone rocketing in every direction. The monastery, massive, aged battlements and all, collapsed inwards, reduced in seconds to rubble and debris, as from beneath the ground a new form thrust into the light. Huge columns thundered upwards, reaching into the sky, great masses of stone, veined with crystal and steel, rose up, the huge segments sliding against each other, locking into place one after another, forming the base from which even taller forms emerged. From the ruins of the monastery, like a giant machine building itself, the ancient tower of Hellebore rose.