Return to The Artifact Chapter Sixteen

The Artifact

Author: sabina
Rating: NC-17
Disclaimer: The Buffy the Vampire Slayer series and its characters are the property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. The Tomb Raider videogame is the property of Eidos Interactive and Core Design. This fic is not meant to infringe any copyrights.

Willow quickly reached Tara and engulfed her in a hug from behind. She wrapped her arms around her waist and rested her chin on Tara's shoulder. Tara smiled and pressed back, reveling as always in the feeling of being in her love's arms. They simply stood there for a moment, enjoying the connection. It wasn't long before their bodies started to react to their closeness and the silence thickened with unfulfilled needs and passion.

"So..." the redhead began nervously, knowing that if they remained silent for a couple more seconds she wouldn't be able to resist the allure of Tara's skin. She was equally certain that she'd be powerless to stop her head from leaning and her lips from pressing themselves to every inch of the creamy neck so close to them.

"S-so..." Tara echoed without conviction. She could feel Willow's hot breath on her neck and it made her mouth go dry with need.

Oh God, if we kiss now there's no way we can stop... skeleton or no skeleton. Say something... say something, Tara.

Tara swallowed hard, turned around, and pulled away slightly. She faced Willow and gazed deeply into the emerald eyes she loved so much. She saw fire burning there - the enlarged pupils lost in a dark sea of green, calling out to her - and she willed herself to talk.

"So... I th-think we should start to search this central pillar first."

First, Willow nodded, not yet trusting her voice to sound normal enough to try a verbal reply. But as she saw Tara's lips curve into an amused smile, she couldn't control herself and just had to speak up, even if her voice betrayed her.

"What's so funny?"

"We are. I think that's at least the fifth time one of us said we should go search this room for a possible way out... and we've yet to move an inch."

Willow felt her own lips form a smile as she listened to Tara. She, too, could see the funny and slightly ridiculous side of the situation. She opened her mouth and declared in her most epic voice, "Here we are - the two best tomb raiders in the world. Heroes in the most dangerous of adventurous tales. Women known for their wills of steel and hearts of stone. Focused and cold..."

"...And now we're so distracted that we can't even begin a room search." Willow barely managed to get the last sentence out before both girls started laughing out loud.

They laughed until they were both crying and out of breath. Until they didn't know what they were laughing at anymore. Until all the tension in the room was consumed by their chuckles. It was only then that their giggles quietly subsided and left them looking happily into each other eyes.

It was Tara who broke the silence after a brief moment passed. Even though their fit of laughter had cleared the atmosphere, she knew that if they kept staring into each other's eyes it wouldn't take long for the tension to build again between them, and she didn't know if they were strong enough to resist giving in to it - and their needs - once again.

"So... I think this time we really should go search the room, starting with the column with the Sun clock on top of it. The clock dominates the whole room so it probably has an important role in getting us out of here."

"Ok, so let's split up. You start searching clock-wise, and I'll search in the other direction. We'll meet when we're each half way around the clock, and we can see if either of us has found anything."

You and me searching around the clock? Mmm. I'd prefer us ravishing each other around the clock. Okay, that was a really bad joke. And I so have to stop these lusty thoughts. Skeletons, skeletons... think skeletons.

Tara saw a faint blush spread across Willow's face and she wondered briefly what was coursing through the redhead's mind, but then decided to turn her attention elsewhere.

We've both already been teased beyond what I thought was possible, and I truly don't know how much more I can take. Better not to imagine what's making Willow blush...

Tara nodded her approval of Willow's plan and was the first to move in the direction of the pillar. She stopped for a second when she reached the blue circle drawn on the floor. To get to the pillar she'd have to cross to the other side of the circle, and even though there didn't seem to be anything menacing about the blue drawing, she couldn't be certain the floor wouldn't open up and swallow her as soon as she passed to the other side.

She took a deep breath and leaped over the line, carefully avoiding stepping on it. She waited a second and when nothing happened she relaxed and walked to the column.

When Willow saw that they could step on the inner circle without triggering any traps, she felt relief wash over her. She'd been too distracted by her own amorous thoughts to realize that Tara would be the first to cross the blue line, and before she could prevent the risky maneuver, the blonde made the leap.

Of course she knew that one of them would have to take the jump first and there was no point in trying to convince Tara that she shouldn't put herself at risk like that. Willow knew that if she'd been the first one to reach the line, she too would have jumped without second guessing it; she loved Tara more than her own life and would always face danger first if she could.

But that was just it... she couldn't. They were tomb raiders. Their lives were always going to be at risk and that was just the way things would be. She couldn't always protect the woman she loved and she'd have to accept that. They were together as equals, and shared dangers were part of the deal.

Willow sighed deeply before she crossed the blue line.

Within seconds the girls had embarked on a concentrated search of every nuance of the pillar.

They looked at, touched, and pressed every point they could reach in the column without finding any clue about how to move forward in the temple, and after a long while they met on the opposite side from where they'd started.

They knew without having to ask that neither of them had found anything; the disappointment in both sets of eyes instantly gave away the fruitlessness of the search. And for a long moment they just stood silently gazing into each other eyes, trying to draw strength from their love and their connection. But at the same time they knew to keep their distance - the pull was so strong they could easily become lost in each other.

After a while, merely gazing into each other eyes proved to be too much a temptation to their yearning bodies and hearts, and they started to feel a mounting need to throw themselves into one another's welcoming arms and never let go. It was then that Tara's brain sprung into action and reminded her of what happened the last time she'd forgotten the whole world and gave herself to Willow.

As images of a skeleton attacking them invaded her mind, Tara sighed and against her heart's wishes, she tore her eyes away from Willow's and broke the connection. This startled Willow out of her Tara-induced haze.

Tara? What... ? Oh, yeah. Skeletons. Stupid, sword-wielding, menacing, psycho-killer thingies... with the worst timing in the world. I so hate skeletons.

Willow indulged in her own deep sigh before speaking in a calm tone.

"Well, I guess we should search the walls of this room, then."

Tara looked up when she heard Willow's voice and was met by a pair of understanding green gems. She relaxed under the warm gaze and smiled before answering.

"Yeah, I think that's a good plan."

"Ok. Let's get going. You start on the right side of the door and I'll take the left."

Before walking to the door, Tara simply nodded and flashed one of her lopsided grins that melted the other girl's heart. Willow followed Tara's lead and soon they were both engrossed in searching the wall for anything out of the ordinary.

Once again they touched, pushed, and pulled at almost every brick in their reach, paying special attention to the ones that were scarred by vertically engraved lines. They took their time to analyze them, to run their fingers all around the depressions, pressing at every spot... but still they found nothing useful to get them out of the room. After quite a while they met half way around the room.

"Any luck?" the blonde asked without much hope. She was sure that if Willow had found anything interesting she'd have told her the second she found it. Her silence during the whole search could only mean one thing.

Willow shook her head from side to side in frustration before speaking.

"No, no luck at all. No movable bricks, no disguised handles, no hidden messages. Just a big ol' pile of nothing. Or actually, a big ol' pillar of bricks. Plain, ordinary, no-fun, trap-free bricks..."

Willow's babbling brought a huge smile to Tara's face and suddenly the blonde felt her spirits lift and her heart swell with love for the woman in front of her.

God, she's so cute. We're trapped with no way out in sight, we've spent hours searching the walls and we still have no clue about how to get out of here... and I've never felt happier in my whole life.

A slow, adoring smile curved Tara's lips and stopped the redhead's babble, making her realize that she'd been rambling on about bricks. Willow got a sheepish look on her face and began to apologize.

"I'm sorry. I was just babbling on and on about bricks... and I so didn't mean to start a dissertation on masonry... it's just that sometimes I start talking and words keep pouring out of my mouth like a train without brakes that just passes every single station and never takes the chance to stop and I'm doing it now again, aren't I?"

By then Tara's grin had turned into a full-blown, ear-to-ear smile and she made no effort to stop the words that slipped past her lips.

"I think it's cute. I love the way you babble. I love you."

Willow felt herself blush and at the same time she was deeply moved by the fierce love behind Tara's words.

Tara had seen the spread of crimson and the startled look on Willow's face when she'd simply commented on loving Willow's babble... and loving Willow... and it crushed her heart to once again see just how low the redhead's self-esteem was.

She searched for the right words to make her partner believe - to tell the woman in front of her just how much she meant to her - but she found none adequate to express the feelings in her heart. So she gave up on words, pulled Willow to her and kissed her softly, lovingly. A simple brushing of lips that said more than any words ever could.

Their kiss ended but Tara continued to hold on tightly, with Willow's head nestled in her neck and their hearts beating together.

The blonde could almost hear the wheels in Willow's head begin to spin and she knew that her partner needed time to think. So she held on and waited.

She thinks I'm cute... she loves the way I babble... she loves me. How did I ever get this lucky? To have this angel of a girlfriend. Okay, wait. Did I just think 'girlfriend?' Things have been happening so fast that we haven't had the chance to talk about us yet. Well, actually we haven't talked about much at all yet. There's so much about her that I don't know. And yet it's like I've known her all my life. Where do we go from here? I know I want forever. To go to sleep every night in her arms, to feel her heartbeat next to mine, to wake up with a kiss from her lips. But what does Tara want? So ok, we've hinted that this won't be just a 'one-night' kind of thing. Or a 'one-temple-kind-of-thing', because, let's face it, at the pace we're going there's no way we'll be sated after just one night. Hmm, ok brain, let's try and not think about Tara and me hot and naked together. I said don't think. Stop it! I have to talk to Tara. But maybe now's not the best time. We're in the middle of a search. Maybe when we stop to eat.

With her mind made up Willow sadly lifted her head from its resting place and faced the warm blue orbs in front of her. "I love you, too," she said meaningfully before she leaned in to give Tara a quick peck on the lips.

Then she pulled away and resumed talking with a much more playful tone.

"We should continue our search. We still have to probe at every little place on that blue circle. And I have a good feeling about that. It couldn't have a more interesting form... I, uh... I kind of like curvy forms. And hey, as far as colors go it couldn't be better. Blue's my favorite color in the whole world. It's the color of the sky, of the ocean on sunny days... and of my love's eyes."

Tara couldn't help but blush and smile, her voice carrying her happiness with it.

"I'm a little partial to green myself, but I guess blue's ok."

This time it was Willow's turn to blush. She quickly tried to hide her embarrassment.

"Shall we go?"

Tara nodded, and this time they walked together to the blue line imprinted on the floor. They looked intently at the line for a while, then walked all around the circle, carefully searching for some hint of how to solve the puzzle. Again, nothing stood out.

When they were out of options, Willow looked up at Tara, silently asking for permission to step on the line. When the blonde nodded the redhead dropped her foot on the line and shifted her weight to press on the circle. She tensed, readying herself to face anything that might come her way.

When nothing happened she looked at Tara who was gazing intently back at her, and then as of one mind they both looked up in time to see the shadow cast by the obelisk as it moved until it read half past nine.

For a couple of seconds neither of them budged, afraid that the shadow movement had been just a trick of light or a practical joke from their hopeful brains. But when they slowly looked at each other it was as if a spell was broken. With complete elation and abandon, they threw themselves into each other's arms and held on tight. Willow began to bounce up and down like a little kid, pulling Tara with her in a crazy happy-dance while chanting over and over again:

"The shadow moved! The shadow moved!"

Tara couldn't help but smile at Willow's childlike enthusiasm and she couldn't resist joining Willow in her celebration. They danced together until the seriousness of the situation settled in.

And then it was Willow who tried to speak.

"I'm sorry... I'm not really sure what came over me... I..."

Sensing where this was going, Tara brought her hands up, cupped Willow's cheeks and mashed their lips together, effectively swallowing whatever it was her partner was going to say next.

After a moment Tara ended the kiss and faced the slightly dazed green-eyed girl in front of her.

"You have nothing to be sorry about. I love you, " she stated simply. Honestly.

When she saw Willow's face break into a bright smile she knew it was enough.

Tara sensed the atmosphere around them as it once again became thick with unfulfilled needs and desires. She dropped her hands and took a step back, not trusting herself to resist the strong pull she always felt toward Willow. A pull she knew she could not deny if she kept staring into the mesmerizing dark green depths before her.

"Well... n-now that we have a lead we should probably follow it."

Willow had been stunned when Tara pulled away. Her whole body had desperately craved the feel of those ruby lips upon her own, but she rapidly came to understand Tara's motivations, and she willed herself to answer. Even if every cell in her body rebelled against her own words.

"Yeah, I guess so."

Note to self: next time you come across any skeletons, kill them. Don't even stop to ask questions. Just kill them. Ok, so maybe there's a tiny flaw in my plan, what with skeletons already being dead and all. Or are they undead? Can dead things move?! Ah, screw it! Concentrate on the clock.

Willow took a deep breath to calm her heated body and brain, and only then did she resume talking.

"So one of us should probably step on the line a few times to see what happens. Maybe there's some kind of pattern that we have to figure out. Or maybe... maybe we'll just have to step on the line over and over again for some door to open up. Ok, so that would be too easy. Probably won't happen. But sometimes these traps are kind of stupid anyway, so... uhm, I'm babbling again. So I'm going to shut up now and just step on the stupid line."

Tara knew that she was smiling like an idiot again, but she just couldn't help it.

She's so cute... God... I wish I could strip her naked and make love to her right now, right here on the line. And make that shadow spin like crazy with every stroke of my tongue and my fingers on and in her, all over her. Right, Tara, and that's going to happen before or after getting sliced up by a skeleton and bleeding to death?

The blonde refocused on the task at hand just in time to see that the clock now read fifteen minutes past three.

"Okay, five o'clock, half past nine, and now fifteen past three. So far I can't see any pattern. Maybe I should press the line a few times so we'll have a few numbers to work with," Willow suggested.

When she received her answer in the form of an approving nod from the blonde, Willow stepped on the line again. And again... and again.

Half past eight.

Fifteen minutes to five.

Twelve o'clock.

After stepping on the line a few times, Willow stopped and looked at Tara. Her frustration was evident in her words and tone.

"I still don't see a connection. Why can't I see a connection? Not that I would know what to do with a connection anyway. It's not like we have some modern lock here that opens after inserting the proper code number. Heck, we don't even have a door, let alone a lock..."

"Well, I don't see a connection either. But maybe we're missing the point. You want to know what I think?"

After seeing Willow nod, Tara continued.

"I think we're both tired and frustrated and we're trying too hard. We've been searching for hours. I think it's time to stop, sit down, and eat. Talk about other things, let our brains work on the information without us pressing them. What do you think?"

As soon as she heard Tara talk about food, Willow's stomach decided to make itself heard loud and clear. She was surprised to feel just how hungry she really was, and she quickly agreed with Tara's suggestion.

"I guess you're right. I'm pretty hungry. Funny how I hadn't realized it until you mentioned food. Even though my brain doesn't think protein balls really qualify as 'food,' my stomach obviously disagrees."

They laughed a little as they walked toward the wall, sat down side by side, and took the protein balls out of their backpacks.

Ok this is it. We're eating. Yep, even though it's only protein balls this definitely qualifies as eating, and we certainly aren't searching at the moment, and I'd said... er... thought... that I'd ask Tara to be my girlfriend while we relaxed and ate. So why am I thinking about this instead of doing it? Why, this very second, aren't I asking her to be my girlfriend? Oh boy... maybe I should rehearse it a little first in my head. Tara...

"So... what do you want to talk about?"

The silence had become a little oppressive to Tara, especially since she could see that Willow was deep in thought. She wanted to hear the other girl's voice and assure herself that everything was still all right with the redhead.

Ok... so much for rehearsing. It's now or never... Oh God.

Willow took a deep breath to steel herself, turned her head to gaze at Tara's eyes, and began to speak... nervously.

"Actually, there was one thing I wanted to talk to you about. I probably should have brought this up before... but things have been happening so fast... with the traps... the skeletons... the clock. And I don't know why I'm mentioning the clock when we'd agreed not to talk about the clock... and it's the last thing I care about at this second... and actually what I wanted to ask you has nothing to do with any of that... Tara, do you want to be my girlfriend?"

After blurting out her question, Willow stood speechless for a second, unable to meet the blonde's eyes as she chastised herself for her tirade.

Real smooth. Babbling about traps is just so romantic. Jeez, I knew I should have rehearsed it. But maybe I can again. At least to try and tell her how deeply I love her... and how completely I'm already hers...

Tara had been surprised and a little afraid when Willow declared that she wanted to talk to her about something, and those feelings only increased as the redhead's nervous babble escalated. But as she heard the other girl's question, Tara felt a surge of happiness so strong that she was almost certain she'd pass out from it. She opened her mouth to answer Willow, to tell her that she would love to be her girlfriend... but try as she might, no sound would come out of her mouth.

Great. As if it wasn't enough to stutter, now I can't speak! I would think it's kind of funny if it were happening at some other time. But not now, please!

Tara's inner struggle was cut short as Willow resumed talking, and she once again focused on the redhead's words, Willow's voice carrying the intensity of her feelings.

"Ok, so I know I'm kind of messing up all the relationship rules. I kissed you before our first date, I told you I loved you before we were even in a relationship, and now I'm asking you to be my girlfriend after knowing you for so little time. But the thing is... I... I've never felt this strongly for anyone. Before you came into my life I was like one of those old mobile phones with a black and white monitor... and... ok... uhm... that really wasn't one the most romantic metaphor I could have, please, forget the phone thing. The truth, Tara, is that you make me see the world in color. When I'm with you everything is bright and beautiful. You hold my hand and I feel like I could do anything. You close your arms around me and it's like nothing bad can touch me. I've never felt safer than when I'm in your arms. And when you kiss me, ohh, it's like my lips were meant only to kiss you. And I want to know... I need to know... that I'll have that in my life when we get out of here."

Tara felt choked with emotion and didn't bother to try to speak, since she knew she'd not be able to form proper words. Instead, she leaned forward, wrapped her hands around Willow's neck, and pulled her into a deep, passionate kiss. The redhead instantly responded by snaking her arms around Tara's shoulders and bringing their bodies even closer together while their lips and tongues slid in concert for a long moment.

In the end it was Willow who pulled away from their kiss. She needed to hear Tara's verbal response. Even if the kiss had already given her Tara's answer, she wanted to hear the words.

Tara had been completely caught up in their kiss, and she was surprised to feel Willow pull away. Her confusion didn't last long. As soon as her eyes met the questioning emerald spheres in front of her, she knew what she had to do, she just prayed for her voice to work this time.

"I'd love to be your girlfriend," the blonde stated in a happy tone, her eyes never leaving the green orbs in front of her.

Willow's face completely lit up and her lips curved in an ecstatic grin. This time it was she who claimed the other girl's mouth in a searing kiss.

They could feel their bodies start to respond to the heated caress, so they both pulled away. They knew that if they kept going their brains would be too clouded - stopping would no longer be an option.

"My girlfriend..." Willow whispered softly, reverently, looking deep down into the azure eyes in front of her.

"Yours... always," Tara answered back, and she leaned in again to kiss Willow. This time it was slow, their passion barely contained as they gave themselves to the soft caress.

Once again they pulled away when the simple kiss was not enough and the need to slip their hands underneath each other's clothes and caress the soft skin beneath became almost too much for them to bear. They pulled away breathlessly, the sexual tension between them so strong that it was taking all of their will power not to give in to it.

It took a couple of minutes before the silence was broken between them. They needed time to cool their heated bodies and calm their racing hearts. Then Willow finally spoke. Trying to somehow change the mood to a lighter one, she stated with a whiny voice, "Stupid skeletons... why can't they just stay dead?"

Tara nervously laughed at the other girl's failed attempt at making fun of their situation. She was more inclined to cry from the frustration of their passionate embraces that were always cut short than to laugh at it. And she could hear in Willow's tone that the redhead, too, was having a hard time trying to find the humor in the situation.

Definitely, this isn't funny. So very unfunny. Willow just asked me to be her girlfriend and I'm so hot and so wet for her...and in dire need of some serious loving... and I can't do a thing about it because skeletons pop up from the floor. Not a whole lot of fair going on here.

"Willow, don't you think it's weird that there's a trap here that's set to trigger when we try to make love?"

The redhead was startled by the question. She'd once again become lost in a hazy moment, concentrating only on trying to cool down a little more.

"Hmm... I... I've faced other traps that had weird triggers. None of the... uh... sexual variety of course, since you'll be my first... but weird things all the same."

"Weird triggers? What was the oddest trap you ever found? Before the sk-skeletons, I mean."

Should I tell her? It's not like it was weird-weird, more like a little strange... but it's ridiculous enough, that's for sure. Maybe I can say that I don't remember. No. I can't lie to Tara... ever. And she's my girlfriend. My girlfriend. I love the sound of that. And hey, if you're going to tell something ridiculous about yourself who better to hear it than your beloved girlfriend? Besides, we probably could use a couple of laughs to release a bit of tension.

"Uhm... there was this one time... I was searching for a lost sacred urn and I found a trap that was triggered by someone touching water. Ok, you have to understand that I'd been locked inside a temple for five days - running, jumping, and getting all kinds of dirty and sweaty - when I finally saw water. Probably don't have to tell you how badly I needed a bath. I mean crypt dust is just... yucky. Anyway, I jumped into the water head first and came back up to start undressing so I could wash myself and my clothes properly. Well, turns out that wasn't one of my brightest ideas. Just when I was stripped down to my underwear, a few gigantic - I'm talking seriously steroidal here - beetles appeared out of nowhere and attacked me. I had only time enough time to grab my guns and start running in circles... clad in my matching, pink soaked panties and bra."

By the end of her anecdote Willow was laughing hard, lost in the memory and how ridiculous she must have looked running in circles, dressed only in her underwear while she tried to get away from giant bugs in an ancient crypt.

Tara on the other hand had almost choked on the protein ball she'd been eating while listening to Willow's story. Images of what Willow described filled her head and she had to gulp down quite a lot of water just to cool herself off.

Willow running around in only in her soaked bra and panties?! Oh God, I'd have given anything to see that. Her breasts... her firm belly... her perfectly shaped legs... her... oh god... soaked panties. I can so relate to soaked panties... definitely. Ugh! Focus on the humor in the story and try to get images of a nearly-naked Willow out of your head.

After a moment, Tara started laughing too, even though she wasn't sure exactly why. It was a release for the tension if nothing else. When the chuckles died a long moment later, they were both feeling more at ease and relaxed.

They sat there in silence for a long time staring at the room in front of them.

Girlfriends. I'm Willow's girlfriend and she's mine. Wow. I'll get to hold her while we fade off to sleep, wake up with her, have breakfast with her, talk to her, kiss her, make love to her. Hmm, better abandon that train of thought for now. Trap, remember? Think of something else. Uhm, I was hungry but this protein ball is as tasteless as ever.

Ok, Rosenberg, try to focus on the trap again and take your mind off the fact that you can't really touch your girlfriend. Skeletons. Grrrrrr... Ok, I'll be logical here. We have a large Sun clock with an obelisk, a blue line, and one, two... twelve marks on the wall. And every time someone steps on the blue circle the shadow cast by the obelisk moves. So the clock and the blue line are obviously related. But what are we missing? Are we stepping on the wrong spot? Even if we are stepping on the wrong place how can we discover the right one? If only that clock talked. Talked? Wait... wait a minute. What if the clock is trying to tell us something? Maybe the time it reads indicates some sort of direction... like press the circle at nine o'clock. But how do we know where nine o'clock is on the circle? It all depends on how you look at it. Hey. Hey! Maybe that's what the marks on the walls are for...there are twelve just like the marks on the other clock.

After a long moment Willow called out for the blonde in an excited voice.



"Have you noticed that there are exactly twelve vertical marks on the walls?"

The blonde quickly counted the marks on the wall and verified the number.

"Yeah, yeah, you're right. Twelve marks... twelve hours. All things in this room seem to revolve around the clock. Even the room itself is circular. But how does that help us?"

"I was just thinking. What if the circle and the marks on the wall are some sort of representation of a clock? Maybe the clock in the middle of the room is playing a little game of 'Simon Says' with us. Ok, more like 'Funky Old Egyptian Sun Clock Says,' but that's beside the point. What do you think?"

Tara thought for a moment and considered Willow's idea before answering.

"You think we have to follow the clock's orders? Like pressing the blue circle in the right places? Using the marks in the wall as guides?"

Willow felt like bouncing up and down when Tara caught on to exactly what she'd been thinking. She loved how intelligent her girlfriend was and it meant that her suggestion at least made some sense.

"Exactly! So what do you think?"

"I think it might work... and I think we should give it a try," the blonde answered in a calm voice, trying not to sound overly excited in case Willow's idea failed.

"Ok then. Since all the marks are the same, the first thing we'll have to do is find where twelve o'clock is. We assume that one of the marks is twelve o'clock and then we press the spot on the circle according to that assumption. For example, if we want to press on five o'clock, we'll count five marks from the one that we assumed is twelve o'clock and then step on the circle on that place. If that doesn't work we'll try again, assuming another position for twelve o'clock."

Willow stopped and looked at Tara's eyes. She wanted to see if Tara was following, if she, herself, was being too confusing and needed to explain things a little better, or if she was over explaining and her girlfriend was getting annoyed with her. She was reassured when she saw that the blue eyes she adored were full of love and amusement. So maybe she was over-helping a bit, but the blonde wasn't offended by it and seemed to be enjoying the explanation, so at Tara's approving nod, the redhead continued.

"One of us will press the circle on the hours and the other one on the minutes. I'm guessing we'll have to make pressure on the hours first, but if by chance this particular clock wants the minutes to be specified first, that'll make it a lot harder to locate twelve o'clock. I mean we'll be guessing that it's the hours and then it's the minutes, and so we'll be guessing wrong and making wrong assumptions based on those guesses and..."

Seeing that Willow was becoming more and more distressed by the second, Tara leaned in and kissed her, stopping her nervous babble and making her forget whatever it was that she was going to say. Tara pulled away after a few seconds and gazed deeply into the emerald eyes in front of her.

"Willow... don't worry. We'll try pressing the hours first and if that doesn't work we'll try stepping on the minutes first. We'll be careful and we won't give up until we've tested every hypothesis. We won't assume anything as truth until we've tried all our options."

Willow smiled at her girlfriend, marveling at how well Tara could read her and always managed to calm her down. After a moment they both felt the tension once again building between them, so they looked away from each other.

"Ok then, if you're done with that absolutely awful protein ball, we could go and deal with that clock. I'm starting to get tired of seeing it in front of me. Stupid egocentric thing. Even the room has a circular form so that if you're sitting against the wall you'll be looking at the column on the center... and guess what's on top of that column? The clock, " the redhead said mockingly.

With a shared giggle, they quickly stood, picked their backpacks up, and securely wrapped them around their respective shoulders. Then they looked at the clock at the same time. It read exactly twelve o'clock.

"So, Tara, on which mark would you like to start?"

"Well, I think the most logical place for the twelve o'clock mark to be, is the mark right in front of the door through which we entered. And even though this is a trap in a temple, anything can happen, and 'logical' isn't always the right answer, I still think we should start there."

"Yeah, I think you're right."

They walked to the spot in the circle right in front of the mark they'd chosen, then stopped and looked at each other.

"Well, this is it. I guess I'll step on it, then," the redhead said before dropping her weight on the line. For a second, neither one of them breathed. They could only stand motionless, waiting for what would happen next. Suddenly they heard the loud clang of a bell and the women let go of their collective breath in the form a very long sigh.

They locked eyes and beamed at each other, still almost afraid of moving. Finally, the trap appeared to be resolved.

"Uhm... honey, the clock now reads half past nine. Maybe you should step off of the line and go to the nine o'clock spot. After you're there, I'll press on the thirty minute mark," Tara whispered softly.

"Ok, you got it. Oh, and by the way, nice hunch on the twelve o'clock, baby. Uhm, Tara?"

"Yeah?" Tara responded quietly, her heart melting at the way Willow had just called her 'baby.'

"Why are we whispering?"

The blonde chuckled softly before answering.

"I have no idea. We want to move as carefully as possible so we don't miss anything...and I guess the whispering goes hand-in-hand with the stealthy kind of movement."

Willow chuckled a little as she made her way to the nine o'clock mark, stopping short of stepping on the line to recount the marks and make sure she'd be stepping on the correct spot.

As she dropped her weight on the line, they waited for a moment to see if the obelisk's shadow would move. When it didn't, they both sighed with relief and laughed nervously as Tara made her way to take her place on the line. When she did, the now familiar loud clang could be heard. Once again they locked their gazes and smiled widely. They were now sure that they'd figured out the solution to the puzzle, and they knew they'd be out of the room in no time.

They followed the clock instructions again and again and finally on the fifth time they heard a very loud noise behind them. They looked just in time to see a rectangular part of the wall sliding back and to the side, revealing a passage to another room.

Carefully, they stepped out of the circle and smiled at each other before putting on their game faces and tensing. Willow drew her guns and stepped first across the threshold, closely followed by Tara.

As soon as they'd moved to the other room, the passage behind them closed tightly, leaving them, as usual, trapped in the new chamber.

The room where the tomb raiders found themselves was completely empty; a square chamber with bare stonewalls. Across the room there was corridor - one meter wide and three meters long - that ended at a metal door. On the right side of that door there was a visible indentation on the wall that they both thought probably functioned as a lock. But there wasn't any sign of the key or of where a key could be hidden.

Neither one of them said anything until Tara's voice pierced the silence.

"Another room... another puzzle."

Continue to The Artifact Chapter Eighteen

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