Return to The Artifact Chapter Twenty-Two

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.

Note: I want to thank my beta reader gabbykat for her help, support and outstanding job on the chapters. She makes my story shine. She also has been this story's champion, always encouraging me to write and not letting me forget about the artifact. So thank you gabs.

I want to thank my beta reader for the first 22 chapters, TKOLove. Without her help and encouragement maybe the artifact wouldn't have been posted. Your work has made this fic a better one, so thank you TKOLove.

Then Tara followed after the reddish glow of the flare and into the passage. The new corridor couldn't be more than twenty meters long. To Tara's comfort she could see the redhead carefully walking in front of her, gun lifted high, head rotating from side to side, cautiously evaluating their surroundings and searching for any hint of danger.

Relax! She knows what she's doing... It's not like it's her first time. She does this for a living. But, so do I... and next time, I'm going first. I hate seeing her throw herself head first into danger.

As they reached the end of the tunnel they entered through the left corner of a coarse and uneven rectangular room. Both raiders edged slowly forward, their eyes were drawn to a flickering light at the furthest corner of the room, as they focused they were amazed to see a lit black candle resting on a bronze plate, its flame burning peacefully and illuminating the room with its light. With careful inspection of their surroundings they noticed a carved channel bisecting the room perpendicular to the entrance, it appeared to be coming from below one wall then disappear under the opposite wall. Exactly halfway between both walls resting on top of the groove there was a second dark bronze plate filled with liquid.

"Now that's weird." Willow whispered after her first fast perusal of the room.

"What? That there is a fire burning in a room where no one has entered for who knows how long or that the light doesn't leave this room and it's dark as night on the corridor? So would you say it's weirder than floating panels, murdering clones or skeletons that appear from the ground?" Tara asked mischievously.

The redhead chuckled in answer.

"If you put it that way I guess that tiny itty bit of fire isn't really that weird. Even if there is so much humidity in the air that it feels like clouds will form on the ceiling and rain will come pouring down on us at any moment." Willow said looking up jokingly searching for the clouds.

The blonde raider looked at the beauty before her and couldn't help the fleeting shiver that ran down her spine at the sight. Willow was on her tiptoes, flaunting the well defined muscles straining in her calves, up her legs, up her thighs and ending at her delectable butt, her mouth watering taut butt. Tara bit her bottom lip between her teeth trying to stop the brain to mouth connection that would undoubtedly send her thoughts tumbling out uncensored.

God baby... If you are looking for humidity, the air is so not the place you need to examine.

Tara shook her head, as she fought to dispel the naughty thoughts and focus on her surroundings "Now the question is: what do we do with it? The fire I mean. Not the.....umm... humidity."

"Hmmm... Maybe we should light up the torch on the wall?" Willow said pointing at the wall behind them.

"What torch?" Tara turned around to look at where the redhead was pointing. "Oh... that torch." She said sheepishly.

"I didn't see it at first either... flickering flame being a big distraction and well dark wood on mud walls makes for great camouflage." Willow explained picking up on her girlfriend's rattled mood. "I only saw it when I was... uh... looking for the... umm... non-existing rain clouds." The redhead explained her face colouring slightly.

Tara smiled bewitched by the slightly flustered redhead.

She is so sweet and lovable, not to mention cute and sexy. And oh God I love her blush and the sparkle in her green orbs... But now probably isn', now definitely isn't a good time to be thinking about that. I mean I didn't even see the torch because I was too busy ogling her butt when I should have been checking the room thoroughly. I need to focus before I miss something that might jump up to bite us on the ass.

"You know, that's sounds like a good idea." The blonde replied after a moment. And then without giving the other girl any chance to protest she walked to the wall and reached her hand to grip the torch.

Willow had a moment of rising panic as she saw Tara reach for the torch. The word "No" was screaming in her mind and threatening to erupt from her mouth at any second. But it never did. Instead Willow took a deep breath, threw the flare away and drew both her guns.

Ok, ok. Calm down you idiot, and breath. She knows what she's doing. She's done this lots and lots and lots of times... just trust her, trust her to know what she's doing... equal partnership, remember?

With her hand firmly closed around the torch Tara paused briefly and glanced back watching her lover carefully to see if she was about to protest. Already steeling herself for the discussion she was sure was about to break when the realisation of what was happening dawned on Willow. Remarkably however, instead of the upset redhead she was expecting to find she saw Willow reaching down for her guns and then calmly and firmly point them at the spot on the wall above the torch. The blonde relaxed and flashed a smile that was as electric as her eyes.

Ok, this is good; she isn't kicking or screaming ... so maybe I was blowing things a little out of proportion. She had the flare and the guns so it made total sense for her to go first... Although I have survived tons of first steps into new rooms all by myself, but I'm not alone anymore. I have to learn to adapt and to release some control... And maybe she is still adjusting too.

"Ready to duck?" Tara asked jokingly as she readied herself to pull the torch out of its iron support.

"I'll have you know I'm a very good ducker. A gold medallist in ducking ducks. I might even try for the Olympic Games next time." Willow said playfully making the other girl chuckle.

"Ok so its safe to say you are ready then! Alright here it goes."

Then without any more warnings Tara pulled the torch out of its supporting ring of iron. They both tensed waiting anxiously for the walls to open up or the ceiling to start descending upon their heads or at the very least a thundering boulder to come crashing from high above. After a long minute where nothing happened, they looked at each other, hesitating briefly to let out the breaths they had been holding, their gazes settled as a low rumble of laughter erupted from both raiders releasing the pent-up nervous tension.

"Now that was both a relief and a disappointment." Tara stated looking at the apparently harmless torch in her hand.

"Yeah..." The redhead nodded in agreement before continuing. "But let's not get bored so soon. There might still be some grand ole trap waiting for us."

"Ok, so I have an unlit torch and there is an extra flamey candle there so I guess we should let the illuminations begin!"

"Ready when you are." The redhead said with a captivating smile before raising her guns again.

Tara walked to the bronze plate on the corner while Willow stayed back warily looking around searching for any possible danger. The blonde leaned the torch down until it made contact with the fire, it ignited almost instantly and once again nothing out of the ordinary happened. Tara looked at Willow and shrugged her shoulders.

"Oh...well I guess this really is just a torch."

"Yeah it appears that it is... But let's not forget the plate with the weird looking liquid in it... now that looks promising. I think we should hold the ‘pity-the-normalcy' party for a couple of minutes more." The redhead replied lowering her guns to the floor and relaxing her stance.

Tara lifted the now burning torch up and walked to stand close to the plate in the middle of the room

"I guess there is only one way to find out for sure. Are you ready honey?" The blonde said looking demurely at her girlfriend.

Willow nodded, licked her lips then raised her guns back up and again tensed her body, ready for what may come. Staying as far away as possible from the bronze plate Tara steadily lowered the burning torch to touch the black liquid. It ignited almost instantly, an electric blue flame slowly started to trickle over the edge of the plate filling the ridge on the floor.

Tara stepped back to stand next to Willow suddenly needing the security that the small action provided. Both raiders watching as the fissure filled with blue fire until it was almost overflowing.

"Well, whoever is throwing this party sure knows how the work the lights." Tara whispered playfully in Willow's ear making the redhead shiver.

"Yeah, I mean all we are missing is the mus..." Willow's breath caught in her throat as she turned to face her girlfriend. Tara's eyes, reflecting the flames, seemed to burn with a flickering blue fire that pulled Willow in like the proverbial moth.

Tara watched as Willow's eyes grew unfocused and felt her heart start to race out of control. She had seen that look enough in the last few days to know what it meant. Love, passion and lust all mixed in a burning blaze that threatened to consume her whole. The blonde swallowed hard, her mouth dry from the intensity, from the anticipation, from the need to have Willow and from the sheer desire that was filling her.

Oh Goddess... give me strength. Its so hard to control myself around her, I just want to ...ok I just want her.

Unable to resist the look that she was seeing in Tara's eyes, Willow walked closer to her girlfriend, moving until they were so close their eyes couldn't focus on each other's faces. Each breath they took teased the other's lips and senses, as slowly and tenderly the redhead lifted her right hand, to softly cup the blonde's chin and lovingly pulled Tara's mouth to meet hers.

The blonde closed her eyes and opened her mouth slightly, relishing the pressure of her girlfriend's lips against hers, the feel of Willow's tongue softly flickering against her lips was creating a stirring tingle deep within her. Wanting to lose herself in Willow's unique flavour Tara pushed her tongue to enter the honeyed depths of her girlfriend's mouth. Willow let out a soft gasp at the sweet invasion and brought her tongue up to stroke the length of the blonde's muscle, at the same time she slipped one hand beneath Tara's shirt making the blonde moan.

The blonde dropped the torch she still held in her hand to bring both her hands down to Willow's butt, palms and fingers splayed wide trying to touch as much of Willow as she could.

It was the loud clang of the torch as it hit the floor, discarded, that pierced through Willow's haze and made her realize where they were. She pulled back from their kiss regretfully, her breathing running out of control, her voice sounding just a little too low.

"Baby..." The word both an apology and a request for help.

Tara sighed unhappily and then without opening her eyes licked her lips.

"Willowlips." She whispered throatily. Then she sighed and opened her eyes, turning dark blue pools to the redhead. "I know. Big bad temple. We have to go work but, I want you to know, I would spend every second of the day kissing you if I could."

All day. Everyday!

The redhead swallowed hard feeling the beat of her calming heart begin to pick up pace again.

"You... me... and tons and tons of kisses. That's definitely a date." Willow said dazed.

Gosh. One would think that spending almost all night making love would satisfy me... at least for the day. But no... It's almost worse than it was before... Probably because now I know what it feels like... Or maybe hormones are taking their revenge for my repressed teen years. Ok, you impatient hormones, it's a promise: me, Tara, a bed or maybe a couch or a floor and lots and lots of kisses. Unfortunately we just have to get out of here first.

"I'll hold you to that, sweetie." Tara said winking at the redhead. Then she shook her head and smiled ruefully at her flustered girlfriend. "But first things first." She took a deep breath. "Ok, we need to focus."

"Yeah." The redhead agreed. "But hum... honey... it would help if you let go of my butt. Not that I don't love your hands there but it does make focusing on anything else a bit of a challenge."

Tara smiled her half smile that melted Willow's heart and made breathing seem like a random activity to the redhead and answered. "Well I am not the only one whose hands have wandered."

Willow sheepishly pulled her hands out from beneath Tara's shirt making the blonde sigh unhappily. The blonde gave one last fond squeeze to Willow's butt making the redhead gasp and blush before letting go.

Willow cleared her throat, stepped away from the other girl and looked around focusing for a second on the mysterious blue flame.

"Ok, so now what do we do? Do we wait here to see if anything else happens? Or do we go out to the corridor and search further along it?" The redhead asked.

Looking around Tara took a moment to contemplate her girlfriend's question.

"Hum... I think we've done all we can here. So I vote for us to move along." She paused a moment before throwing the question back at the redhead. "What do you think?"

"Yeah, the moving along part has my vote too." Willow nodded and drew her guns.

Tara picked the torch up from the floor and began walking back to the corridor that had lead them into the room. Willow waited a few seconds and then followed closely behind, her guns lifted high and ready to shoot down any threat.

Tara looked slyly over her shoulder and saw the tense set of the redhead's shoulders and neck and the way her eyes darted everywhere looking for any possible danger. Her posture radiated a coiled strength that for a moment mesmerized the blonde. She realized that she felt completely safe, knowing without a doubt that no matter what lay ahead of them Willow would be there to fight it with her.

The blonde smiled and took the final step that put her in the corridor. As soon as she entered the passageway the burning torch in her hand extinguished with a soft hiss, almost as if it had suddenly been plunged into water, leaving her in complete darkness. She turned back to caution the redhead so that she would have time to draw a flare but she never had the chance, without warning Willow smacked right into her, front against front.

It was only by their flawless sense of equilibrium that neither one of them fell. Tara pulled her left foot back and shifted her weight to absorb her girlfriend's momentum while the redhead moved her right foot forward. It was like a well choreographed move. Two dance partners so used to each other that they flowed together without a thought, in perfect synchronization. They stood unmoving, face to face, their warm breaths gently caressing each other's faces, teasing them with a proximity that they could sense but couldn't see.

"So I guess there is something strange with the torch after all." Tara whispered.

"What happened?" The redhead asked a bit breathlessly fighting the urge to move her face forward against Tara's.

The blonde looped both her arms around the redhead's waist almost unconsciously. It was both for support and because she simply couldn't be this close to the redhead and not hold her.

"The torch went out without any warning, no flickering light, nothing. It was like the light belonged to this room and couldn't be taken away."

Willow put the guns, that she held tightly in her hands, back into their holsters and then responded to Tara by putting her hands around her neck, savoring the silken touch of the skin she was brushing beneath her palms.

"Hum... actually now that I think about it I stopped seeing you as soon as you stepped out of the room. Which was kinda weird because the light should have still be spilling into the room. Losing a visual on you made me speed up my pace to catch up with you and well made me catch up with you a lot sooner than I had thought. And this sort of led to us ermmm crashing."

"Hmmm, sweetie now that I think about it I couldn't see into the corridor before entering it."

Willow shook her head for a moment before remembering that Tara couldn't see her.

"I couldn't either." The redhead answered embarrassed.

It's dark you dork. You can't see her so, duh, logically she can't see you either. Or anything else for that matter... There could be all kinds of bad things popping out silently from the walls and waiting to attack you right this moment...right now. And now. And now. So what are we doing still here? Ok, I'll admit it. I'm enjoying this, Tara and me. Together. Alone. In the dark. Touching.

"So maybe the torch is meant to stay in the room..." came a low husky whisper from the blonde.

Talking about the room, what are you still doing out here in the dark? Waiting to get killed? Forget about the fact that it feels great to hold Willow like this. That it feels sexy as hell. Knees crossing each other, her leg following mine like we are dancing. Her hand caressing my neck making me...oh good god... Forget it... just forget it.

"Probably..." The redhead answered distracted by her feelings and torn between expressing the need to get back to the room or at the very least light another flare and wanting to stay right where they were.

"We should probably...ummm head back into the room and maybe search it a little better." Tara said hesitantly.


They let go of each other at the same time and both nervously drew a flare illuminating the corridor and each other. They looked longingly at each other then smiled sheepishly and stepped back into the room carrying the extinguished torch with them. They instantly spotted the still burning flare casting a reddish low glow on the ground.

"Well, at least the flare is still burning and the mystical blue flame is still going strong." Willow said cheerfully before adding thoughtfully. "Although that's kinda weird considering that I couldn't see its light on the passage... there must be an easy explanation for that, maybe my eyes weren't adapted enough to the darkness?"

"I don't know about the blue flame but as far as the flare goes I would guess it's our eyes that just couldn't see it. After all before we came into the room it was burning perfectly fine in the corridor so I don't see why it shouldn't be illuminating it now."

"Well that's a huge relief... I have a feeling we're gonna have our hands full not only with the wacky torches but also with the cheerful blue flame. No need for the flares to rebel against us too."

Tara grinned at her girlfriend and was just about to start joking about wild flares when she caught herself and forced her facial muscles to relax.

What is it with me and idiotic smiles lately?! And what the hell am I doing wasting so much time? At this pace we'll be old and wrinkled before we get out of here.

"Yeah, let's hope that at least the flares won't play any tricks on us." The blonde said seriously. "So we should try lighting the torch and search the room again? And maybe search the walls too." She added after a moment.

Willow caught the change of expression on Tara's face and she replied in kind by adopting a neutral expression herself.

"All right." She replied soberly.

Tara dropped her flare in the opposite corner from where the first one was burning, ignoring them, both raiders walked side by side, stepping carefully over the ridge where the liquid smouldered with a low flame, until they reached the plate where a candle burned steadily. Willow, wanting to be as careful as possible lifted her flare in one hand and her gun in the other while Tara reached her torch down and lit it. The touch burst to life, illuminating their way to the walls where they began searching in their usual manner, of opposite directions. Silently probing the dirt that coated the walls, scrutinizing everything for any clue as to what they were supposed to do next.

Damn. What happened? What did I do? Did I do something? Think, think. Tara was all with the happy, smiling face and then boom the smile was gone. But I don't think I did anything... I mean I didn't even open my mouth. Yep I'm positive I didn't move, not a muscle. So it wasn't me. Yay. But her smile is still gone so that's not good. I want the smile back. But what if she doesn't want to smile and I make it worse?!

After a few minutes they met on the other side of the room. Although it seemed fairly obvious that neither of them had found anything Tara still turned to ask and that's when she realized that Willow was frowning, apparently deep in thought.

"Honey, why are you frowning?" The blonde asked worried.

"Because you're not smiling." Willow answered distractedly.


As she heard the blonde's puzzled exclamation Willow became aware of what she had said and blushed, embarrassed.

"I mean you were smiling a minute ago and then you just stopped smiling... You know almost frowning but not quite and I was worried that I had done something wrong but I just couldn't remember doing anything, right or wrong, at the moment you stopped smiling..." By then Willow just had to stop because number one she was gonna need to breathe soon and number two because the smile she was babbling about had just began forming on her girlfriend's lips.

God, she looks so cute all flustered and awkward. So who cares if I have the most idiotic smile in the world plastered on my face? It's not like there is anyone here beside Willow to see it. Although she is the only one that matters anyway and I'll smile like this forever if she wants me too... But right now... smiling or not smiling we have to start to move faster if she is gonna see this smile in daylight.

"Oh, sweetie you didn't do anything wrong." Tara said... with a smirk. Then she became serious again. "I was just worried that we might be moving too slowly or that I might miss something important because I wasn't paying enough attention. I mean I didn't even see the torch on the wall. What if I miss something dangerous next time?"

Oh yeah, and I worry that you'll look at me and think who is this smiling idiot and what am I doing with her?

"Oh!" Willow said surprised.

Ok, so I didn't see that one coming. But it didn't have anything to do with me so one point for me... or is it no points against me? Ah, never mind. Who's keeping count anyway? Ok focus, think... is Tara right? Are we moving too slowly? So, ok sometimes I get a little lost looking at her, the way she moves... or listening to her ....the melodic tones of her voice and oh... laughing with her... I love to hear her laugh... Oh God... Tara is so right! I usually move pretty quickly... Well, at least on the quests. And now I'm acting like a hormonal teenager. I mean, like how I think a teenager with hormones running loose probably acts, since my hormones were completely dead to the world when I was a teenager.

"I think you're right. We're moving much too slowly." The redhead stated flatly after a minute.

Tara felt a twinge of regret at seeing Willow getting back to full tomb raider mode while at the same time she was flooded by a wave of relief. This was normal and she knew how to deal with it. Her and another raider in a temple, searching for the same thing and helping each other... until it was time to reach for the big prize and then all bets were off and it was each one for themselves

Except it won't be like that with Willow. We're in this together until the end. God, when will I stop reacting to everything like it's a black and white situation? Raider versus lover. Focused versus happy. Why can't I be both at the same time? Baby steps I guess. Baby steps.

"So we should move forward and move quickly. I think maybe leave the torch here, because it doesn't work in the passage anyway, and we search the rest of the corridors outside. The fire seems stable, in a ‘not too dangerous to burn the tomb down kinda way', so I don't think there is a lot more for us to do here, at least not right now." Tara said looking at the redhead with a hint of self-consciousness.

"I agree. Let's leave the torch on the supporting irons and go." Willow replied calmly.

The blonde walked to the wall next to the supporting iron where she put her torch securely in place. The redhead waited next to her girlfriend making one last check of the room, studying again the channel in the ground where the fire still burned blue, then looking to the place where it disappeared under the wall, and trying to find anything that they might have missed. When she was satisfied that they had done all that they could she turned her head in the blonde's direction.

They looked at each other seriously and then Tara cracked her trademark lopsided smile that this time looked positively feral.

"Let's go." The blonde said fierily as she quirked an eyebrow.

Willow nodded wordlessly, momentarily dazed by the blistering sexiness of her girlfriend, then shaking out of her revere she drew her gun with her right hand while she held the flare securely on her left.

Illuminated by the reddish glow of the flare they walked carefully out of the room. Willow in front with her gun arm pointed forward, her finger tense on the trigger. Tara moving behind a little to the redhead's left, her eyes searching the shadows for any trace of danger. Their footsteps echoing on the bare walls filled the silence between them.

They stepped out of one corridor and into another then turning left they resumed their search of the passage. A few moments later they found a door on the wall to their right which seemed to be identical to the previous one they encountered. There were no locks, no handles, nothing. It was just a plain metal door with no obvious way to open it.

"It looks just like the other one." Willow said quietly moving the flare closer to the door to investigate it.

"Yeah, it does." Tara agreed before adding. "But I think we should still search it completely. You know, just in case."

"Yeah. No trusting appearances."

Willow lowered her gun and Tara moved forward as they probed and searched every inch of the door. After a minute they finished without finding anything worthy of note.

"Well, I guess this time, what you see is what you get." The redhead whispered, conscious of the way every sound rebounded on the walls and seemed to be amplified.

"Sometimes it is." Tara whispered back.

Without any further comment they resumed their exploration and moved forward in the corridor. A couple of strides later Willow came to an abrupt halt, almost making the other girl stumble, she then turned back to her girlfriend.

"Do you think we should be searching the walls too?"

"Hum... I think we should leave that as a last resort. The walls look pretty much all the same and there's still a lot of corridor to search." Tara answered thoughtfully.

"I guess you're right. Hopefully there's something more interesting for us to do than to be investigating dirt." Willow agreed a little sheepishly and then began walking forward again.

Tara spared an amused smile to herself at the adorable way the redhead could go from being completely normal to getting all flustered over something.

They had walked a few meters forward, ever watchful for pitfalls or dangers, when they inadvertently found an entrance to a new corridor on the wall to their left. They came to a stop right in front of the new passageway and Willow looked at Tara and tilted her head sideways questioningly. As an answer the blonde simply raised an eyebrow and nodded, that was enough for the redhead to turn and stride into the passageway.

It was a careful but short journey through the passage and soon they had entered a new room. On the face of it the room was much like the last one down to every detail. From the black candle burning on a bronze plate in the furthest corner of the room to the ridge in the floor with the other bronze plate balanced on it half way between the walls to the torch hanging on the wall, everything was the same.

"I'm starting to sense a pattern here." Tara said a little sarcastically. And then she walked resolutely to the wall from where the torch was hanging and picked it up from its supporting structures.

Willow's lips twitched in an amused smile at her girlfriend's comment. Then as she saw where Tara was going her right hand closed a little more tightly on the gun and she aimed just to the side of her girlfriend. She knew exactly what the blonde intended to do and she wasn't quite as worried as she was the last time they had done this but still the redhead wasn't willing to take any chances with the other girl's safety. It was only when Tara picked up the torch and nothing happened that Willow let go of the breath she didn't even realise she was holding.

After retrieving the torch from the wall Tara made her way to the bronze plate on the corner where she angled the torch down and lit it. Then she walked to the bronze plate balancing on the ridge and ignited it too. Tara and Willow stepped back to watch as the seemingly blue fire trickled down to the ridge and filled it. Suddenly the room was bathed in a lot more light than before, Tara was mesmerized as she watched as the ridge became completely filled with the light. She was jolted from her trance as she heard Willow's slightly high pitched call.


The blonde turned hurriedly, worried that something had happened.

"What? What's wrong Will?"

"There's a bag over there." Willow answered while pointing with her gun in the general direction of the corner on the other side of the entrance.

"What? Where?" The blonde exclaimed a little ungracefully as she turned to look at where her girlfriend was pointing. At first glance all she saw was the same earth that made the wall, floor and ceiling but then as her eyes recovered from the dancing brightness of the bewitching light and adapted to the more subdued illumination of the rest of the room she finally saw it. A simple black bag covered with what was probably centuries old dirt, lying forgotten in the corner, waiting for an owner that would never come back to retrieve it.

"Huh... Do you see it?" The redhead asked tentatively almost as if she was afraid that her eyes were deceiving her.

"Ah... Yes, I'm seeing it." Tara answered just as hesitantly in her response as the redhead had been in her question.

They could both count on the fingers of one hand, and still have fingers to spare, how many times they had found proof of any previous explorers' presence in other temples they had searched. Those old crypts had their way of making any remainder of organic matter disappear. Most of the time there wasn't anything magical or mystical about it, it was just the work of many different bacteria and fungi finding adequate nutrients, expanding their numbers and breaking everything down to the basics until there wasn't anything left.

"What do you think is inside? Do you think it's a trap? It could be some kind of built in bomb... You know, open it up and BOOM?" Willow asked excitedly for an instant forgetting her resolution of going back to acting as she had in the beginning of the quest.

"Hum... I don't think it is a trap. At least not one that will blow up in our faces but I guess there's only one way to know for sure..." Tara answered trying to hide a smile at her girlfriend's obvious enthusiasm.

I just love it when she gets all excited like this... Her face lights up, her eyes sparkle... her whole being radiates with power... I could spend all day just looking at her... This is why I should probably be looking somewhere else.

Willow glanced at Tara, hoping for her approval and seeing the other girl nod, she grinned and approached the bag with her girlfriend in tow. As they stopped next to the bag Willow put her gun back in its holster, sank to her knees and brought the flare closer to the bag allowing them to better see what they were about to examine. The bag was made of strong black leather and it looked a lot like a box with a bottom, four sides and a lid that had two simple metal fastenings that keep it tightly closed. There were a couple of straps of leather that were sewn to the back of the bag enabling someone to carry it across their shoulders.

They both observed the bag carefully. Tara from above, intensely, almost as if she was waiting for the bag to move and attack them while they were distracted. And Willow from her closer perspective, clearing some of the dust that had gathered on the leather and cautiously investigating the buckles trying to ascertain if there was some explosive devise or any other trap connected to the fastenings.

Noticing the flare begin to die Willow decided she needed both hands to better search the leather bag in font of her so she threw the flare away. Wanting to save resources where possible she decided the light from the torch was enough to see by so there was no need for another flare so soon. The thought of saving resources sent Willow's active mind reeling.

Who knows what will happen next? If we have to stay down here for long we really are going to need the flares... Although I seriously hope not...I want to get out of here with be with Tara...

She steeled her thoughts and returned to her task.

After a few long minutes of searching without actually opening the bag the redhead turned around and looked up at Tara easily meeting the blue eyes that shone intensely amidst the shadows hiding the blonde's face.

"Well, I'm pretty certain that this was someone's backpack and that it isn't a trap. There doesn't seem to be any kind of device connected to the opening of the bag and there is a figure of a bird carefully imprinted on one side that probably marks its owner." Willow related neutrally.

Tara felt a slight pang of loss at the redhead's cold tone but rapidly shook her head and forced herself to reply to the other girl.

Get a grip... First you want her to be cold so you don't get distracted. Then when she is cold your feelings are hurt and you miss the bubbly, happy, excited girl. Make up your mind already, Tara.

"Then I guess all that's left to do is open it..." The blonde said a lot more calmly than she felt. Her muscles were already tensing up, getting ready to jump into action, ready to pull the redhead out of harm's way in a split second at the first sign of danger.


Willow turned around to face the bag, took one deep breath and then with firm hands unbuckled first, then the second of the fastenings. She lifted the lid away to open the bag fully. When nothing happened she let out a long breath and turned her head around to smile at her girlfriend.

"So far, so good..."

Tara sighed, as the bag was opened, expelling the breath she was holding and letting go of some of the pent up tension. Still on guard she eyed the bag carefully as she answered Willow's smile with her lopsided smile. She wasn't about to take any chances with her girlfriend's safety.

So engrossed were they both with the discovery of the bag that they never noticed the change in the light illuminating them, it was beginning to take on a more purplish tinge.

The redhead drew one of her guns and carefully leaned over the bag to look inside. The first thing that she saw was a metallic bottle that had obviously once been full of water but was now empty, banged up and rusted. It was resting on a blanket that like the bottle had seen better days. It looked like it had probably been white once but now it was liberally splashed with brown and yellowish stains.

Unable to see anything beyond the blanket Willow reached down and carefully picked up both the bottle and blanket. As she pulled them away from the bag a small stack of books tied by a thin rope fell from the folded blanket and came to rest at the redhead's knees. Willow gently put the blanket and bottle down before shakily reaching for the fallen books. She reverently picked them up fearing that her touch might damage them somehow.

Unnoticed by both, an orange tinge surrounded them as they investigated the books.

"Look Tara. Books. Lots of books... well, a few... maybe more than a couple but less than lots. So I was right the second time. Ah, there is a book about the legend of Shamia... no... three books about the legend of Shamia..." The redhead sat back and turned to Tara excitedly only to be met with amused indulgent blue eyes.

"I guess now I know why I couldn't find anything about Shamia in the libraries. All books about her end up lost in her temple." The blonde said with a twinkle in her eyes making the other girl chuckle. Hearing Willow laugh always warmed Tara's heart and the blonde smiled at her girlfriend happily before questioning a little more seriously.

"Are all the books about Shamia?"

"Hmm don't know... give me a second. Yes I think they are... no wait..." The redhead fussed a little with the books to answer before finding something completely different. "This one is a diary." She said, eagerly, both eyebrows shooting high on her forehead as she opened the book, feeling the brown leather cover warm beneath her hands almost as if the book was getting used to being handled by humans again.

"A diary?" Tara asked surprised.

"Yeah. Do you want me to read what it says out loud?" The redhead asked enthusiastically.

Feeling quite curious herself to know more about the explorers that had come before them and, well, the complete inability to say no to Willow when faced with those shining bright green eyes and excited demeanour Tara sat down, smiled her brightest smile and nodded. And of course that was all the incentive the redhead needed.

Yellow light illuminated the pages as Willow started reading.

"This is the diary of Henrietta Smith and Lady Raven...

"Oh... So that explains the bird on the bag..." Willow interrupted her reading to say.

Tara sighed loudly, mock seriousness making the redhead smile and say, "All right, all right, I get it. Less talking, more reading."

Willow happily continued her recital ...written in the year of grace of 18... by Henrietta Smith known by everyone as Henry Smith, Lady Raven's guardian. Herein I write my true name, the name my mother gave me just as she was dying, hoping that whomever finds it lives in a gentler and more accepting time than my own. I digress, for now it matters not because my Lady, my one true Love is dead and soon I am to follow her. Together in death as we were in life. My only regret is not being able to gaze at her eyes while my own close one final time.

Just as Willow finished reading the concluding sentence the torch, the candle and the fire in the ridge all hissed out leaving them both in complete darkness.

"Oh... That's so not fair..." The redhead said pouting not remembering that the effect would be lost on her girlfriend since she wouldn't be able to see her expression.

When only silence greeted her, the redhead felt a shiver of fear run down her spine. She hastily dropped the diary to reach back with both her hands to simultaneously light a flare and draw her gun. The room was suddenly bathed in a reddish glow that highlighted the fact that there was no one else there besides her.

Willow frantically turned around searching for some sign of the blonde's presence and almost instinctively shot down a red spider the size of her fist that had been moving steadily and quite unnoticed towards her. Seeing that the blonde wasn't anywhere in the room Willow ran to the main corridor only to be met with the same eerie silence, disturbing darkness and no trace of Tara's presence.

And it was then that she felt it grow inside of her, the complete and utter panic, the devastating pain of her loss and she couldn't control the wail that ripped from her breaking heart and exploded through her mouth, shattering the deafening silence.


Continue to The Artifact Chapter Twenty-Four

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