Return to The Artifact Chapter Twenty-One

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.

Within seconds they were both fast asleep, wrapped in each other's arms and blissfully free of haunting nightmares.

Hours later, Tara stirred and opened her eyes to find the room bathed in light. Her girlfriend was still resting peacefully, huddled up against her with her warm weight pinning Tara down. As she took in the sight of Willow sleeping soundly, a contented smile curved Tara's full lips.

Gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. And last night was amazing. God...I never knew.

Tara spent several minutes just staring at Willow. She was in complete adoration of the way light seemed to caress her girlfriend's tousled hair and the peaceful expression on her face. She found herself admiring the delicious curve of Willow's breast and the strong line of her hip and thigh as they possessively clutched her own. And most of all, she marveled that this girl was hers.

The urge to see Willow awake grew too strong for Tara to resist. She leaned her head down and started to lay tiny, sweet kisses along the other girl's mouth, trying to lift her from unconsciousness as tenderly as she knew how.

As she began to wake to the delicious sensation of her girlfriend's gentle kisses, Willow sighed happily, and without opening her eyes she parted her mouth the fraction necessary to capture Tara's lips with her own. After spending a long moment consumed by the leisurely kiss, Willow pulled away and her squinting eyes struggled to open and bring Tara's face into focus.

"Good morning," Willow said huskily. She couldn't help but smile, feeling happy and playful as memories of the night before surfaced; the lovemaking, the talking, the cuddling. She felt lighter than she could remember feeling in a long time. "Mmmm, actually, scratch that. Great morning."

Tara laughed blithely and hugged Willow tighter against her, pushing their naked bodies even closer together. She craned her neck to whisper her reply directly into her girlfriend's delicate ear.

"It was a great night. And a great morning. And now...well, now it's probably more like 'great afternoon'," Tara teased throatily before releasing her hold on the redhead and leaning back to watch the blush spread across her fair skin. She wasn't disappointed as a split second later Willow's face and neck were flush. The redhead couldn't help it. The closer embrace caused their skin to rub together and she had been acutely reminded that she was lying naked in her girlfriend's arms. And when Tara's huskily whispered words hit her ears, she pointedly remembered exactly what they'd done the night before. Naked. Together.

Oh God...and I was doing so well with the controlling myself thing...

Willow tried to collect herself before whispering her reply. Her eyes began to burn with the deep fire of arousal. "Vixen."

Tara could feel Willow's speeding heartbeat, as well as her own as it rushed to keep pace. Heat began rising from everywhere their bodies touched. She knew they were in trouble.

I can't believe I want her again so soon. What's happening to me? It's only been a few hours since the last time, and we can't. We really can't...this time I mean it. It's late and we need to get going. Yep, we need to move. We definitely need to get some clothes on and move away from the bed. Otherwise...there's no way we'll get out of here anytime in the foreseeable future.

"W-we...we r-really should move. I t-take ad-advantage of the light of day," Tara stammered, flustered and frustrated.

Tara's stutter snapped Willow out of a sensual haze.

Oxygen to brain, oxygen to brain. Focus. Tara's right. We're in a temple and there are booby traps and who knows how many other things trying to kill us. Tomb raiding now, smooching with girlfriend later. Yeah, that's the plan. The plan sucks, but that's the plan.

A moment passed and Willow sighed deeply, regretfully acquiescing. "You're right. We should go if we want to make the best of the daylight we still have."

"Right. So we should definitely get up," Tara said, sounding none-too-convinced despite having been the first to say they needed to resume their quest.


"So...let's get up."


"You're not getting up."

"Neither are you."

"I don't want to be the one to get up first."

"Well, neither do I."

"Maybe we should count to three and at three we both get up at the same time," Tara suggested.

"All right. Sounds like a good idea," Willow replied with a smile.

They were both enjoying the laziness and playful banter. Every second spent in each other's arms was a perfect second in their collective book.



"Okay. One. Two. Two and a half. Two and three quarters. Three!"

Neither of them moved an inch, and they were enveloped by the sound of their own laughter.

"This is silly," Tara said a moment later as another giggle surfaced.

"Yeah, it really is," Willow agreed between chuckles. Her look and tone turned serious as she tenderly continued. "But I love the way I can laugh and be silly with you."

Tara felt herself melt from hearing the heartfelt affirmation, and she was elated to know that Willow felt safe enough with her to let the walls down and let go.

"I love you so much, Willow."

"I love you too, baby."

They gazed deeply into each other's eyes, getting lost in passion-filled pools of blue and green. The mood began to change once again to aroused tension, and the same thought crossed their minds simultaneously.

Uh oh.

"It would be a very good idea for us to get up now," Tara said, just a little out of breath.

"Yeah, definitely. It definitely would." Willow answered with difficulty, wondering where her saliva had gone.

They looked away from each other and slowly disentangled themselves. Tara sat up while Willow stood in a rush, intending to find her clothes and get dressed as fast as she could. But as she rose a cloud of dizziness caused her to stumble slightly.

Seeing Willow lose her balance, Tara immediately rose to her knees and grabbed her by the waist to steady her.


"Whoa. Head rush. Stood up too fast." Her reply came via an unsteady voice as she held on to Tara's shoulders with both hands for support.

"Well, you haven't eaten anything in a long time, and this past day or so hasn't exactly been restful," Tara replied as a shiver took over her body. The scare of seeing Willow stagger reminded her of the terror she felt when she'd taken Willow out of the freezing water; the horrifying thought that she'd lost the woman she loved.

Tara calmed down a bit and slowly sat back on her feet without releasing Willow, who was still leaning into the blonde in an attempt to fully regain her balance. For the first time Tara realized what was directly in her line of sight from this position. She blushed bright red and her eyes locked onto her girlfriend's sex. The sight of soft copper curls so close to her face reminded her that there was at least one more thing that she very much wished to try with Willow.

How do I get myself into these things? Why didn't I move or get up? I can smell her...she's delicious, I just know it. I so want to taste her.

Willow had recovered her balance and was about to tell Tara that she could let go of her when she realized that Tara wasn't looking at her face, but was instead focused a lot lower.

What is she...? Oh. OH! She's staring at my - Oh My God.

Willow felt her face flush as her heart started thumping inside her chest. Her nipples hardened and her center instantly flooded. Tara's heated, fiery gaze felt like an intimate caress, like tiny fingers stroking her everywhere.

Mmm, she's so close. Is she leaning closer? Oh God, I bet she can smell me...and, and I haven't taken a bath in ages. But that doesn't seem to be bothering her. Well, we're both bath-deprived...maybe our noses have adapted. Still, I'd so prefer to try that for the first time after a good long the one we took in the river. I want to taste her...not crypt dust.

"Tara?" Willow asked shakily, her voice a little more high pitched than normal.

Tara was shaken from her reverie and looked up a little sheepishly, feeling embarrassed at being caught. Their relationship was still so new, and she wasn't sure what was allowed and what wasn't.


"I'm...uh, feeling a lot more balanced now. Yep, completely balanced. Not an unbalanced bone in my body. And I thought we should, you know, get going. To make the best of whatever daylight's left and all that." She was flustered and covering it badly.

"Right. Right." Tara let go of Willow's waist and quickly got up.

Best that I keep myself away from temptation.

"I was thinking of taking a washcloth with me to freshen up a little in the tunnel of water..." Seeing Tara's expression of alarm, she spoke fast to better explain her idea. "...I mean, you know, just safely park my rear end at the opening stone so I can wash away some of the dust. Oh, and maybe wash some clothes too, since we never know when we'll find water again. I'm not going to get into the water or anything, baby, because it's...brrrr...remember?"

As was often the case when she heard Willow speak, Tara felt a lopsided smile form on her lips. Her girlfriend was just too cute for words sometimes.

"'Remember'? Are you kidding me?" she teased the redhead for her adorable phrasing, but a twinge in her heart told her she'd never forget the struggle Willow had in the tunnel's freezing water. "Seriously, that sounds like a good idea. You go ahead and I'll start packing our things." Tara nodded her head in agreement before continuing. "I think I'll take advantage of the water, too, and freshen up after you're done."

Unless you want me to join you. To wash your back. And your front. Bad Tara. Bad, bad Tara.

For a second Willow looked disappointed by the idea of them taking turns washing themselves instead of being together, but her expression quickly changed to one of relief.

Make up your mind already, Rosenberg. One minute you want to get going, the next you want to get all hot and sweaty with Tara. It's a good thing she's thinking with her head. She only looks in my direction and my brain suddenly lacks the blood flow necessary for coherent thought. I'm pretty sure if we bathe together we won't be getting out of this room today. There will be many opportunities for naked time after we get out of here. Okay, get going. Just don't look anywhere below her neck. And don't stare directly into those eyes...those gorgeous eyes. I'm so far gone. Where's that ice water?

"Ok, then," Willow said. She turned around and made her way to her backpack and picked up the previous night's clothes that still lay scattered on the floor. As she walked she felt a slight sting between her legs; muscles she hadn't even known existed were making their presence felt.

Ok, there's a definite soreness there but it's not completely unpleasant, and I don't think it's going to stop me from doing anything...other than maybe riding a horse or bicycle. I rarely ride bicycles in tombs and riding a horse would be a big no-no anyway, so I'm guessing I'll be just fine.

She picked up her clothes, holsters, and guns and felt for the pyramid in the pocket of her shorts. She carefully opened the zipper, pulled the pyramid out, and laid it next to her backpack along with her holsters and guns. She picked up a fresh set of clothes and a towel, and with all of that in one arm and the previous day's clothes in the other, she made her way to the entrance of the corridor where their makeshift alarm was still firmly in place.

Tara watched Willow turn to walk away with a wishful look on her face. She drank in the way her girlfriend's muscles rippled with each of her sure steps, and she felt her heart begin to quicken its pace. She closed her eyes and shook her head a little.

Damn. I have to control myself. I'm not some wet-behind-the-ears wannabe raider. I'm a professional and I need to start behaving like one!

And with that thought, the blonde turned away and began to gather her clothes into a pile. She turned to their "bed" and picked up the old sheet that protected the sleeping bag. She folded it quickly and threw it in the direction of her dirty clothes to be washed. All this was done with no more than a glance at the sheet. She knew if she looked at it too long her mind would once again flood with images from the night before, which would of course lead to broken concentration and images of a certain redhead who was just about to start taking her bath. Alone.

Willow reached the suspended hammock and smiled fondly. She carefully removed each object from the netting and placed them all on the floor. Next, she pulled the anchors out of one side of the wall, leaving the other side of the hammock suspended from the far wall, thus creating enough free space for her to pass. She made her way to the particular stone that opened the tunnel and sat down, watching as once again the covering stone slid away and water appeared. She extended her right hand and touched the water, finding it just as chilly as it was when she last swam in it.

Well, shoot. I was hoping it was warmer now somehow. Good thing I retrieved the pyramid when I had the chance. Can't imagine how awful it would have been if I'd decided to test the passage back first instead. Brrr. I guess there aren't many second chances in this temple - you get it the first time or you don't get it. No use thinking about it now. I need to wash the clothes and then myself. I'm thinking really fast bath. No fun turning into a Willowcicle.

In the meantime, Tara had already folded one of the sleeping bags and put it in the redhead's backpack. She was now rubbing her hand over the other sleeping bag - the one she had used to warm Willow -- in order to determine whether it was dry enough to be stored. Finding it fairly dry, she folded it and stuffed it inside her backpack, then looked around to see if there was anything else she could do. Anything at all. Anything to avoid thinking about a certain redhead bathing. Dripping. Wet. Alone. She saw Willow's pile of clothes, both pairs of boots, and the hammock half-suspended from the wall.

I could fold the netting and put away the anchors. Maybe by then Willow will be done and I can go dunk my head, along with various other body parts, in the nice cold water.

Tara picked up the clothes - both used and fresh - and walked to the hammock, careful not to look in the direction of the splashing sounds she heard her girlfriend generate.

Willow had already washed her clothes and squeezed as much water from them as she could, and was now using the washcloth to quickly rinse away as much grime from her body as possible. Her hands were starting to go numb and goose bumps erupted all over her body. After a short moment she began to shiver violently, leading to the immediate decision that her body was as clean as it was going to get.

Oh, goody, now for the fun part. Dunk my head in the water, lather up, dunk again. No way I'm following the third step in the "lather, rinse, repeat" philosophy of hair care today, no sir. Then again, that would be a teeny sacrifice if it meant that afterward I could feel Tara's fingers running through my hair, my clean, dust-free hair. I just love her long fingers.

Smiling at that thought, the redhead closed her eyes and swiftly, like a one-two punch, immersed her head in the water and pulled back out. She hastily lathered her locks with soap, and with a deep breath and a gathering of courage, dunked her head into the freezing water once again. She picked up her small towel and fiercely rubbed it over her body, drying off...and trying to stimulate blood flow. She dressed in the fresh set of clothes - her usual white sports underwear, followed by a deep green top that made her emerald eyes stand out. The ensemble was completed by a pair of simple black shorts. Feeling every bit the tomb raider and ready to return to the quest, Willow called out to her girlfriend, careful not to look in the direction of the still very naked Tara.

Cold water's effect can only last so long...and there's just no way it could ever compete with the hotness of Tara.

"Tara, I'm done."

The blonde sighed in relief, having just finished folding the netting and storing it in her backpack, along with her keys and lock pick.

Right on time, honey. I was running out of things to do.

Tara figured Willow had ample time to get dressed, so she gave herself permission to look in her direction while responding. Before any words left her mouth, she allowed herself a couple of seconds to take in her girlfriend's appearance. A tender smile formed as her eyes fell to Willow's bare feet. They were endearingly vulnerable and in direct contrast with the tough tomb raider aura that Tara felt radiating from Willow. It was a look that combined Willow's powerful, commanding side with one that was far less guarded. And Tara loved them both.

She continued her slow appraisal, and her smile morphed into a playful half-grin when she noticed that Willow had her head turned the other way.

Good to know I'm not the only one struggling to control herself.

"Ok. I guess it's my turn now," the blonde called out.

She picked up her clothes and towel and made her way to the secret pool of water just as Willow left it. Neither woman lifted her gaze from the floor. The blonde chuckled softly, finding it funny - the way they were both driven to distraction by the sight of each other's body. It seemed they had reached a tacit agreement; if they held any hope of making progress on this quest, they would have to avert their eyes this way. At least until they were both dressed.

Willow reached the corridor and lifted her keys, watch, and lock pick from the floor. She made her way to her backpack, put all the items in their correct pockets, and dug out a fresh pair of socks and a couple of rubber bands to tie back her wet hair. She created a secure ponytail, then took time to don the socks before adding her boots. She carefully tied the laces in a double knot, and gathered her wet clothes to hang them from her backpack to dry.

She grabbed her belt and holsters and adjusted them to fit snugly on her waist, just the way she liked them. She revisited her guns - each still encased in hermetic plastic bags - and decided to make sure her ammunition was in good condition, with everything still operable. Anything to keep her from thinking about Tara bathing.

Tara reached the trigger stone and took a deep breath. The memories that rushed to her as she moved to touch it were far from comforting. She shook her head, willing the images to fade, and pressed the stone, watching as the passage opened. The blonde raider cleaned herself and her clothes much in the same fashion as Willow had, as quickly and efficiently as possible without permanently losing sensation in her extremities.

After drying off as best she could, she reached for a clean set of underwear - a grey sports bra and matching panties - and swiftly slid them onto her shivering body. Seconds later she was dressed in a dark blue t-shirt and grey shorts that fit snugly against her body but allowed her to move freely and offered at least some measure of protection from the elements. Finally, she grabbed a rubber band from the pocket of her shorts and gathered her wet hair securely in a ponytail. She felt every inch the tomb raider she was at the beginning of this quest. Only now she didn't feel alone.

Tara smiled happily and made her way to Willow, who was busy checking and apparently re-checking her guns.

"All done," the blonde said, causing her companion to look up.

"Yeah? Me too. Well, obviously, since I took my bath first. But um, I've checked my guns...uh, twice, and I'm ready to go."

"I still have to put my boots on and hang my clothes to dry. Then it's time to eat. And before you ask...yes, Dear, protein balls are once again on the menu."

The redhead grinned. True, like the protein balls themselves, the jokes about them weren't exactly fresh, but their banter never failed to put a smile on her lips. That smile grew as her brain wrapped around the term of endearment. She called me "Dear."

"You go put your boots on, I'll hang your clothes, and we can eat together. Just once, can't we have pancakes?" Willow pouted.

Tara chuckled and turned to get her boots while Willow hung the clothes and the small sheet from her backpack. They finished their respective tasks almost at the same time and sat down against the wall, side by side, shoulders and knees pressed against each other. They each retrieved a protein ball and some water from their respective backpacks.

As they ate, Willow's hand found Tara's and held strong. They looked at each other and smiled, happily sharing the comfortable, loving silence. No words were needed.

They ate slowly, letting their strength replenish, enjoying the calm before the inevitable storm. With breakfast finished, they regretfully let go of each other's hand, stowed their remaining water, and stood.

"Well I guess it's time to get a move on," Willow said with a hint of sadness as she looked around one last time.

"Yeah," Tara replied quietly.

"You know, this is going to sound a little insane since I know we'd eventually die of hunger if we stayed here, but I'm actually sorry we have to leave."

The blonde shook her head. "It doesn't sound insane. I feel the same way. I think it's normal. We had some tough moments but we...uh..." she blushed, "...we also made love for the first time here." And the second...and almost the third. "And for that, this room will always have a special place in my heart."

"Yes, that's it exactly. And what makes it sad is that we'll never come back here. You know? It's not like we can come back on our anniversary and say, 'Hey, this was the place...our place,' and maybe re-enact the whole thing. Okay, not the whole thing. I could do without the almost freezing to death."

Tara felt her heart flutter joyously as it always did when Willow talked of their future together, but closely following that sensation was a shiver traversing her spine from yet another reminder of how close Willow had been to dying.

I'll never forget this place, even if we can never come back. Too many intense memories. Good and bad.

"That's true. But we still have lots of firsts to have; first date, first sunset together, first breakfast in bed together, and oooh! First time together in a real bed." Tara winked at the suddenly flustered redhead.

"Yeah. Lots and lots of firsts." Willow's voice cracked a little as her mind filled with images of them together.

"And seconds. And thirds. And countless more." Tara continued huskily, unable to resist teasing her girlfriend.

I know I promised no more teasing, but we're dressed now, so we should be safe. I think.

Willow had to swallow hard, her mouth again parched. Her body's temperature rose wildly under Tara's smoky gaze.

Damn! I wonder if Tara would find it odd if I politely excused myself in order to plunge into the nice freezing water. Fully dressed, of course, so the effect would last longer.

"Again I gotta say, 'Vixen'," Willow choked, making the blonde chuckle.

"Yeah...but I'm your vixen, honey." The words were accompanied by her 'oughta-be-trademarked-bottled-and-sold-in-finer-retail-outlets' lopsided smile. Every trace of teasing had vanished from her voice.

Willow simply smiled back and took a deep breath, trying to reign in her raging hormones. Feeling calmer and ready to go, she said as much to her girlfriend.

"Right," Tara answered seriously.

They picked up their backpacks and secured them to their bodies. Willow knelt down and grasped the small pyramid, displaying it on the flat of her palm for her girlfriend to see. Tara nodded and spoke quietly.

"Let's see what it can do."

Willow stepped up to the door and drew one of her guns with her left hand while she slid the pyramid into the indentation on the door with her right. A clicking sound echoed when it fell into place, and the door began to open. Willow took a step back and drew her other gun, and Tara shifted her weight, steadying herself for whatever might be waiting behind the door.

As the door opened fully they could see that it guarded a small square room with bare walls and a circular hole in the center of the floor. A few steps leading down were visible around the inside of the opening. Not seeing or sensing an immediate threat, both raiders relaxed a bit. Willow tucked a gun back in its home in her left holster.

"Looks safe for now. No rolling stones or maniacal statues attacking us. That's always a plus. Unless, of course, there's something nastier waiting for us," Willow said with a smile that didn't reach her eyes.

"New room, new puzzle," Tara replied, focused on the circular mystery in the room ahead.

They looked back one last time before walking forward side by side. The door closed behind them with a whisper.

The gun in Willow's right hand stayed firmly pointed at the hole in the floor as they cautiously walked on. Both women looked the room over from top to bottom, trying to assess the kind of danger they might face in this new chamber. The walls, as far as they could see, were just like most walls they'd seen in the temple; made of unremarkable stones, each looking very much like every other one, void of distinctive features. So it was no surprise that they found themselves focusing all their attention on the hole in the floor. What did surprise them was that the stairway spiraling down the opening only included five steps, leaving them no way to get to the bottom, and it appeared to be quite a deadly drop if they took a leap.

"I'd say the only way to go forward is through the hole, but we should check the walls thoroughly first," Tara stated, breaking the silence. She looked at Willow, smiled and shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe we'll find a way to make the staircase grow somehow."

"Yeah. Five steps aren't going to get us far. I'll start on the right..."

"...And I've got the left," Tara finished.

It only took them a few minutes to search their designated walls and meet at the middle.

"There's nothing on the left side."

"Not a thing to the right. Except plenty of familiar, secret-free stones."

"So, on to the steps."

"You got it."

They walked carefully to a side of the gap and looked down. They could see about twenty meters down before their eyes settled on darkness. It appeared that the hole was built with flush bricks and stones, nothing to offer support as they made a descent. They looked at each other, searching each other's eyes for ideas.

"Ok, looking down isn't exactly helping...and I'm so not a fan of the unknown. Well, to explore is to find the unknown, and that's cool and all, but a darker-than-dark hole in the middle of a booby-trapped tomb...that's a whole other matter." Her mind was multitasking. "Oh, I have an idea. I have flares. I could throw one down and we'll be able to see how far down "down" is. Maybe we'll even find more of these stairs," Willow said.

"Good idea. You know, I brought flares too. From the look of the opening, it's pretty obvious we're not going to have a lot of natural light in there. Well, the bright side - no pun intended - is that at least it won't bother us when night falls."

Willow smiled and reached back to pull a flare from a compartment in her pack. When ignited, it cast a warm, reddish light around them.

"Here goes nothing," she said before dropping it in the hole.

Both girls moved forward to follow the falling light with their eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of anything out of the ordinary, any clue to tell them what to do next. But they saw nothing in the few seconds it took for the flare to fall all the way down. It met the ground violently, bounced to a stop, and remained there burning undisturbed.

Afraid to miss a detail, they stood in silence and held their breath, waiting for something to happen in response to the flare. When nothing did, they sighed, half in relief and half in disappointment.

"Well, there aren't any other stairs, and I'd guess it's around fifty meters to the ground, so jumping - at least without a quick-opening parachute and air brakes - probably isn't the best idea. But at least there doesn't seem to be any immediate threat down there. When we eventually get to the ground we should be safe," Tara said calmly.

Willow nodded and then added, "I don't know if we're safe from all threats, but at least the ones that are attracted to shiny bright things. Guess that means we can forget about the dumb skeletons."

Tara chuckled. "And mosquitoes."

"Well, just to be on the safe side I have bug repellent in my bag. You never know when you'll need it." Willow winked.

Tara smiled for a second before becoming serious again. "I guess we're out of options. We'll have to try the stairs."

Willow nodded and walked forward to begin her descent. As soon as she put her weight on the first step, the whole group of stairs began to spiral down, following the contour of the wall. Caught off balance by the unexpected movement, she had no choice but to jump backwards awkwardly. As her feet touched the ground, the extra momentum made it impossible for her to keep her balance. She fell ungracefully to the safely of the room's floor, coming in for an unceremonious landing on her butt.

Tara had been about to step onto the stairs herself. She was caught by surprise and had only enough time to jump back to avoid a collision with Willow. The sudden release of adrenalin made her heart hammer in her chest.

"Um, honey, a little notice would have been nice," Tara teased the redhead on the floor.

"Tell that to the stairs. They could've at least made a warning sound or something instead of just sliding from under my feet. How rude." Willow pointed to the stairs indignantly, then got up and winced as she rubbed her ass. Tara could hear her mumbling quickly under her breath as she moved toward her. "Stupid things with their Magic Carpet complex. 'Look at us, we're steps that fly. Have a nice fall!' Stupid, stupid things."

Tara tried as hard as she could to stifle a smile, knowing she'd fail. She reached to rub her girlfriend's tender butt and couldn't resist teasing her.

"Poor sweetie. Want me to kiss it and make it better?"

Willow looked at Tara, startled by her girlfriend's touch and husky words. Her gaze was met with twinkling blue eyes.

"You're teasing me," she complained half jokingly.

Tara moved in to give her girlfriend a lingering kiss on the lips. "It's not my fault you're absolutely adorable when you're flustered."

"Baby, if you keep this up, I can't be held responsible for my actions." In her heart of hearts, Willow hoped her warning would go unheeded.

Tara saw Willow's pupils dilate and her body began to respond to the look of pure hunger on the redhead's face. She let out a nervous cough and turned to glance at the stairs, which had stopped when Willow fell and were now poised just a bit further down the opening. They looked just as harmless as they had before.

"Well, at least now we know what we have to do," Tara replied in attempt to get her focus back on raiding something other than Willow's body.

Willow breathed deeply, straightened herself, and replied in a light tone. "Yeah, and hey! We don't even have to do the hard work. We just step on and enjoy the ride. It's somewhere between an extreme roller coaster ride and a trip on a malfunctioning escalator."

Tara laughed quietly for a moment before adopting a more somber manner. "So let's do this." Willow nodded. They walked around the opening and positioned themselves next to the stairs.

"I say we count to three and jump down so we touch the steps at the same time."

"Ok. We have to be careful, because as soon as we touch them, swoosh, there they'll go," Willow warned.

"I promise I'll keep my balance," Tara smiled reassuringly. An equally calming smile graced Willow's lips.

"All right, then. Ready?"

At her girlfriend's nod Willow took a deep breath and began counting.



"Ack! What? Don't do that!"

"Sorry, honey, but are we jumping on three or waiting a beat after three, then jumping?"

Willow had to laugh. "Oh, guess it'd be good to have that clear, wouldn't it? We'll go on three. Ready?"

Tara nodded.


At three they jumped in unison. Willow landed on the fourth step as Tara touched down on the second. Just like before, as soon as they were touched, the stairs began their corkscrew motion along the inside of the wall.

For a brief moment Tara had, at best, a tenuous foothold. In a flash, her sense of balance - honed by years of climbing - asserted itself, and she narrowly avoided plummeting to the ground. Willow had less trouble, since she already knew what to expect. She turned back to her girlfriend just in time to see her steady herself.

"Tara, baby, are you ok?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Don't wor -. Willow, what's that?" She interrupted herself and pointed to the wall below and ahead of them.

"What?" The question had barely left her mouth before the answer was profoundly clear.

A long blade protruded from the wall in the direct path of the moving stairs. They watched in disbelief as it began to move back and forth, slicing through the air.

"Uh oh. So much for my theory that we won't have to do a lot here. I so have to start keeping my mouth shut," Willow complained.

"This was starting to get boring anyway," Tara joked before continuing. "Come up here next to me. We'll wait until we're almost in its reach and then jump when it starts swinging forward."

"You won't hear me complaining about 'boring' anytime soon," she replied while climbing the couple of steps that separated her from Tara. Sharing the same step, they turned to face the blade.

The stairs were just wide enough for them to stand side-to-side, shoulders and hips touching. The blade moved ever closer. Willow reached for Tara's hand and gave it a slight squeeze. They exchanged a look of reassurance, and Willow let go of Tara's hand as they again focused on the approaching trap. Their muscles tensed and released with the sound of the blade slashing through the thick air. When the flailing metal was perilously close, they shifted and waited for just the right moment, allowing the blade to begin its movement forward. In a flurry of arms and legs, the women jumped over it.

Their collision wasn't anybody's fault, really, more a consequence of the lack of space available. They bumped each other upon landing, which sent Tara off to hit the wall hard while Willow landed precariously, with only one foot on a step, the other dangling dangerously over the void below.

Willow was on the verge of losing her fight for balance when Tara's arms shot out and grabbed her by the waist, pulling her to the relative safety of the moving steps. They continued to fall backwards, sitting down heavily, and stayed that way; hearts beating a mile a minute. Tara held Willow close to her, and they watched in silence as the menacing blade retreated into the wall.

"Well, that could have gone better," Willow said, still struggling to catch her breath.

"I'm thinking we need to work on our flight patterns," Tara retorted.

They shared a warm look and laugh, a release of nervous energy to be sure. Tara climbed a couple of steps to stay behind Willow and they both turned their attention to the path the steps had yet to navigate. A couple of revolutions later, another object jutted out of the wall.

"Here we go," Tara muttered under her breath.

"Yep, round two."

Two vertical rows of flame throwers - separated by about half a meter - stuck out from the wall and began spewing fire. First, the front row discharged. When it stopped, the second row commenced and continued to shoot flames until the front row fired up again. Only then did the second group die down. Then it started all over again.

Willow and Tara watched the blazing rows soar up and die down a few times, studying the pattern as the stairs approached the trap. Willow turned to Tara.

"Well, we're going to have to wait until the first row stops burping nasties at us, then move forward and stay in the space between the rows until the second one finishes. Then we should be able to go forward again."

Tara nodded. "Yeah, kinda like I did in the room where we found the piece of the star."

"Absolutely. Only this time, the ground is, or rather the steps are, moving. We'll have to keep moving backwards in order to stay in the same place. Hmm, that means we'll have to choose very know, when to move forward. We don't want to find ourselves out of steps to climb."

"I'll have to agree with you there, honey." Tara contemplated something in silence before speaking again. "I think we should both be on the last step and climb back from there. As soon as it's clear, we move forward and pass the first row of flame throwers. That should leave us with the maximum steps to climb up while we wait for the second row to shut off."

"Sounds like a plan to me."

They climbed down to the last step and waited, standing shoulder-to-shoulder. As they approached the flames, Tara's hand reached for her girlfriend's, making Willow feel warm inside. Meanwhile, the ambient heat was getting intense. When they reached the fire, the first row was still erupting, so they climbed backwards...up one step, then another and another, until the flames ceased. When the first row of flames died out they resumed their position on the last step. Just as they were about to reach the second wall of flames, they heard the first one gearing up to fire off again.

Tara could feel their palms slide against each other. Whether it was a byproduct of the heat or nervousness she couldn't tell.

What do we have to be nervous about? We're between two walls of fire, the stairs are moving out from beneath our feet, and below us a thirty meter fall awaits. No sweat.

They were forced to repeat the Fire Avoidance Dance so many times that Willow could feel her heart slamming against her ribcage.

Come on, come on. Why aren't you shutting down, stupid thing? Time to shut down, self-destruct, go to sleep or...something. Anything. Running out of stairs and stamina here.

They climbed back to the top step and were contemplating their ever-shrinking options - like taking another step backward in hopes of grabbing the steps with their hands while their feet dangled helplessly, all the while praying their fingers wouldn't be too badly burned from the almost certainly futile maneuver - when the flame throwers in front of them abruptly stopped working.

Not wasting any time they climbed down the steps to move out of reach of the flame throwers. As they stood on the last step, each women looked the other over, making sure they'd gotten through the experience unscathed. Both were reassured when they met each other's smiling eyes.

"Ok, so now I know what a steak feels like, or what it would feel like if it could dodge flames and hop off the grill. That is, if it could feel anything, because obviously, the lack of a nervous system kind of prevents the...that." Willow's scattered babble ended as her voice was choked off by her embarrassment.

Tara smiled at her girlfriend. "It's okay, sweetie," she said compassionately, "that was a little too close for my taste, too." She gave Willow's hand a slight squeeze and let go.

Restlessness set in as they stood on the steps for another two rotations without anything out of the ordinary happening. They focused their attention on the wall again, hoping to be prepared for the next trap, but it was in vain. A stone block - half as long as the perimeter of the hole, as wide as the steps, and about two meters high - emerged just as they were passing it, pushing the raiders from the stairs. Instinct lead Tara's right hand to find Willow's left as they fell, and their free hands grabbed desperately for the edge of the block. They stayed that way for a moment; hanging, clutching each other's hand, breathing shallowly, calculating their next move.

Through tacit understanding, they let go of their clasped hands and hoisted themselves up, finding brief respite while seated side-by-side on the stone. They again held hands and took a look around.

Below them, about half way down the hole, something akin to a crude sidewalk had been formed by a ring of stone that slid out from the wall. It ran along half the perimeter of the hole, and at its end was attached a metal ladder leading further down.

"Well, that's different." Tara stated.

"Yeah, I guess no more moving stairs for us." Willow stopped for a second before adding, "I think we should get going, though. This sliding thing is making me kind of nervous. What slides out might just as easily slide back in, and it's still a long way down..."

"Good point. Let's go."

Willow got up quickly and Tara followed. Moving carefully, they traversed the walkway and reached the ladder. Willow again took the lead and began descending, with Tara close behind.

"Why do you always go first?" the blonde questioned.

"'Cause I have the guns, I guess. You know, extra protection as we enter a new place. Actually, it's because I appreciate the view," Willow said playfully while looking up and making a show of ogling her girlfriend's firm butt. It made Tara squirm and heat rise through her neck and face.

"Payback's a bitch, honey. Just wait until we're going up," Tara answered with mock innocence.

Willow swallowed hard and kept on moving.

Half way down, the stone bricks gave way to hard black dirt and the humidity began rising.

"Um, Willow, sweetie? Maybe we'll have a use for that bug spray of yours after all."

"I knew you'd see the wisdom of my ways. One can never go wrong with pest repellant," she replied jokingly before turning serious. "But I'm not sure it's bugs we're likely to deal with here. This place has worms and snakes written all over it."

"No sense worrying about it now, we're almost down. Besides, if we find any big snakes I'll protect you," Tara said playfully. But the look in her eyes betrayed the lightness of her tone. She would always protect this woman.

Willow stopped her descent and concentrated on her girlfriend, needing to respond sincerely.

"You really are my heroine."

Volumes were spoken without another word being said, and the women resumed the journey down. A moment later they'd finished descending the length of the twenty-meter ladder and were standing next to the burning flare. In front of them was a single corridor, its end devoured by darkness.

A quick look told them that the corridor was made of the same hard black dirt that the final part of the hole had been.

"At least it's a change from the bricks," Tara muttered.

"Excellent! No brick searching this time." Willow drew her right gun and reached into her backpack for another flare. Seeing the arched eyebrow and questioning look being cast in her direction, Willow began explaining her actions in a rush.

"I thought we could leave the first one burning here at the base of the hole, kind of like a signal light. You know, just in case we need to run back here really fast, the ladder would be easier to spot. But maybe that's silly. In fact..."

"No. That's actually a really good idea," Tara interrupted, then smiled and went on. "But I'd like to cast my official vote that nothing sends us running back here really fast."

"I'm with you there. And for goodness' sake, don't leave any hanging chads. No good ever comes of that."

"You got it." Tara giggled. "For now, how about we just walk forward?"

Willow nodded in agreement and they took off, with Willow in the front with the flare in her left hand and her gun firmly clutched in her right. Tara stayed a couple of steps back and to Willow's less-protected, left side, ready to react the moment she sensed a threat.

The corridor wasn't long. In short order they reached its end and were left standing in the middle of a new passageway, perpendicular to the first one.

"Do we go left or right?" Tara asked, not even considering the idea of each woman taking a different direction.

There's no way I'm letting her out of my sight so soon.

Willow sighed quietly, relieved that Tara hadn't suggested they separate in order to speed up the search.

I feel so much better having Tara with me. And I...I don't feel any less of a tomb raider for it.

"Let's go left. Doesn't matter how we start, we'll probably end up searching both sides anyway." Tara nodded and they turned left.

They walked about twenty paces without seeing anything even remotely remarkable, but the corridor hooked to the right and they saw that just a few feet ahead was a closed metal door on the right wall.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the first piece of the puzzle," Tara mumbled.

"Yeah. Now let's just hope it's like one of those good jigsaw ones where all the colors and shapes match the drawing on the box. Although it's not as if someone gave us the box to guide us, so it really doesn't matter."

Tara marveled at the way Willow's mind worked. As her only response, she smiled.

They walked to the door to examine it, looking for an obvious way to open it, or even a lock that would give them some idea of what the key would look like. They searched the door and surrounding wall but found nothing. It was a plain, smooth metal door surrounded with earth so hard that there was no way to dig around it. At least not with the tools they had.

"There must be a lever somewhere," Tara said after they searched the door thoroughly.

"Right. So now we just have to find it."

"Let's go."

They stepped away from the door and resumed walking down the corridor. Half a minute later they found an entrance to a yet another passage, this time on the left wall.

"Do you want to search this now?" Willow asked Tara as they stopped next to the entryway.

"We might as well take a look. Maybe we'll find a lever or something in there," the blonde answered.

"All right then," Willow nodded. She walked right into the new passageway.

"One of these days you're going to let me go first," Tara grumbled under her breath.

Continue to The Artifact Chapter Twenty-Three

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