Return to The Artifact Chapter Twenty-Three

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.

Willow's cry reverberated through the walls and followed the pieces of her breaking heart that desperately searched for her love.

Oh God... NO... NO...God Tara, where are you? The light... it, it just went out for a second... Oh God please where are you baby? I should have lit the flare sooner... I should have kept one lit the whole time... I'm in a temple for God's sake not a fucking haunted house in an amusement park... Stupid, stupid, stupid! And now I've lost her! Tara, God Tara where are you baby? Come back to me, please!

Willow raced down the corridor, her head whipping from side to side, despising the tedious black walls that surrounded her, that gave her no clues as to where Tara might be. On the wall to her right she saw a metal door identical to the previous two but she ignored it and kept running. A moment later she ground to a halt at an entrance on the left wall that led to a passageway. Gingerly she entered the passage, it appeared to lead into a room, exactly like the previous rooms explored. It had the black candle burning on the corner, the torch on the wall and the channel in the ground with the bronze container of black liquid balancing above it.

She felt an urge to break down right there, to close her eyes and will everything away, while at the same time a burning rage seemed to ascend within her, raising from her toes to her head and burning away any reasonable thought in its path. She hurled the flare she was clutching in her left hand forcefully against the furthest wall from her. It struck the hardened earth of the wall and bounced weakly back to fall to the ground with a soft thud that echoed like a lament through the room.

Willow drew her guns in one rapid, enraged movement, ready and wanting to blast everything around her. From the damn candle that didn't shine its light on Tara to the bronze plate on top of a ridge that went nowhere. A primal scream erupted from the redhead as she flung open her arms aiming everywhere all at once before finally fixing her gaze on the bronze plate. Her index fingers twitched, impatient to release the anger, frustration and anxiety that filled her mind, body and soul.

Just as she was about to squeeze her fingers hard on the trigger an image of Tara's lopsided half smile materialized in her mind and the blonde's soft voice resonated in her head.

Will, I trust you, find me.

Willow's arms dropped to rest at her sides and her eyelids closed as her head slumped forward. She tried to center herself by focusing on her breathing for a moment, deep, slow breaths in and out. She opened her eyes, lifted her chin, glanced to the left, then the right as she started a deliberate pace around the room. The silence was weighing heavily on her as she tried to think. Silence validated the reality of Tara's absence. As her steps picked up pace and she became more frantic, she did what she knew best, she babbled out loud.

"Ok, I need to calm down. Me going all psycho on the walls won't bring Tara back. I need to think! Damn it where is she? Where has she gone? Is she all right? Could she be...? Oh no... ok, ok don't panic! Don't even go there... no thinking about it not even a little thought! She's one tough woman. She's fine...she has to be fine... she's Finey Mc Fine. I'd know if something bad happened to her, wouldn't I? Yeah, I'd feel it, I know I'd feel it. So what the hell has happened to her? Was she attacked? Urgh so stupid! Of course she was attacked. She wouldn't just... just walk out on me like this... It's not like she'd left to take a walk because there's sooo much to see around here... FUCK!!!... I don't even know the layout of this damn, fucking place ... It's just rooms and doors and more rooms and more doors and let's not forget rooms and doors and oh yeah, torches..."

Oh God Tara, I'll find you baby, I promise. You'll have to beat me away with an enormous stick if you want to get rid of me. No stupid second rate little temple is going to keep me from you!

The redhead stopped pacing, squared her shoulders and raised her chin. Her green eyes flashed with determination under the flare's light.

"Logical. I need to think rationally and logically about this. Tara has to be somewhere in the close vicinity so, it's reasonable to surmise I am going to find her. End of discussion." With a nod of her head to punctuate the last statement Willow put her left gun back in its holster and walked to the place where the flare burned on the ground. She picked it up purposefully, spun towards the entrance and lifted her right arm pointing her gun straight ahead then marched out of the passage and into the corridor.

Back in the hallway she turned to her left. Hey eyes shifted from side to side trying to take in as many details as possible in the least time she could spare.

"Traps and puzzles... It's all about the frigging puzzles. Every other room we've been in has always had something we had to do to move forward. Some enigma we had to solve. You figure it out and then puff door number one and maybe door number two opens and leads you to even more puzzles. So that's what I have to do. Put the pieces together so I can move forward and find Tara. Ok, but what if going forward in the temple, instead of leading me to Tara, takes me further away from her?"

That thought halted the redhead dead on her tracks. She froze just as the light from her flare illuminated a right turn in the hallway. The raider felt the panic rise again like a slow volcanic eruption, as a tight knot formed in the pit of her stomach. "What if I move forward and some door closes behind me and locks me away from her? Or...or what if I stay here and she's ahead instead? God She might be running out of time while I walk around... babbling... Damn it she could be hurt..."

Images of Tara hurt, dying slowly from bleeding, burning or drowning invaded the redhead's mind in quick succession. The black walls seemed to envelop Willow, as the deep, dark hole of despair tried to consume her. She shook her head and forced her eyes to focus back on the walls, willing the images away. With a clearer head she carefully made her way forward taking the newly illuminated turn to the right.

"Focus damn it, I need to focus... Facts, I need facts. Evidence based conclusions remember? Don't assume anything, facts are your friends. Ok breathe... so what do I know? I've seen rooms and I've seen doors. And every room has the appearance of being the same, the candle, the torch and the plate of black liquid balanced on top of the groove. Every door looks just like the others. The only exception to this has been the second room, which holds the belongings of the dead raiders..."

Willow trailed off as a tiny dawning began nagging at her; the cogs of her mind aligned themselves and began clicking into place.

"Maybe... just maybe... If it was me, I would... I mean it would make sense..."

For the second time the redhead stopped. Only this time it was due to the hope, a small smile began to form on her lips as she turned and bolted as fast as she could towards her destination.

The first thing Tara felt as she woke up from an uneasy sleep was a pounding headache that seemed to squeeze her brain with an iron fist and jumble her thoughts. The second one was a nauseating vertigo that made her want to keep her eyes closed tightly as she tried to use her other senses to comprehend her surroundings. The third was that she couldn't move her arms as she tried to bring her hands up to clutch her throbbing head.

What the ...?

Startled she gingerly opened her eyes only to be met with a hazy, blurred image. Black walls and dark shadows were spinning and swirling around a unworldly, green glow that shone brightly, unmoving in the chaos. The blonde closed her eyes tightly before opening them again wide as she tried to make the world swim back into focus. Slowly things around her began to clear, lines and shapes became more defined as her eyes and brain sharpened. Amid the stomach-churning gyrating world, that assaulted her, remained the soothing motionless green glow that seemed to be calling out to her, evident by the way her eyes were unconsciously drawn to it.

As the blurriness diminished almost completely, so did the green radiance revealing the second piece of the star which hung impossibly still upside down on a square mass protruding from the ceiling. It's green shape standing out brightly in the midst of the whirling bleak darkness all around the raider. And it was so close. Close enough to grab it if she could just extend her arm.

Tara felt her headache subside as she concentrated on the green and tried to reach for the star with her right arm. Nothing happened. She was met with a resistance that she had already forgotten about. It was only then that she snapped out of her revere and turned her head and eyes away from the star to try and understand where she was.

At first she only saw spiralling black shapes that made her nauseated, her pounding headache worsening exponentially and almost making her move her eyes back to the relaxing soft glow of the green piece of the star. Stubborn as she was, Tara kept her eyes firmly averted from the green shape and focused, slowly she began to make out the black shapes around her and she stifled a scream as she came eye to eye with the void orbits of a skull. She turned her head to the other side only to be met with another and another. All around her, wrapped up in a black gooey material from toes to neck there were skeletons.

Tara felt the cold fist of dread grip her heart as she manoeuvred her chin to look at herself and realized that she too was wrapped up in the same viscous black substance that had the skeletons in its grip. Only her head was free. Her arms and legs were restrained by what she could now feel, if she focused enough, was a silky material. She followed down her body with her eyes and as she reached her feet she saw the substance that was wrapped around her came from a black thread that had her hanging upside down from the ceiling.

Oh Goddess...I'm just another skeleton.

Adrenaline shot through her veins, her headache started to abate and thinking became easier. Although everything was still spinning around her, like a bad hangover, questions began to fill her mind as she tensed her muscles against the wrapping looking for fragile points that she could utilize to free herself.

Oh God... Willow! Where's Willow? Is she all right? Of course she is, I can't even dare to think anything else. She isn't here so she must be all right. I have to find her, I need to find her! Ok, so I have to get out of here first. If I can find out where here is. Ok, so think Tara, what happened? One minute I was listening to Willow's sweet voice and the next I wake up hanging upside down and stuck in some sort of... of cocoon.

Tara felt the binding around her left arm give a little and she pushed harder against it. Putting all her strength behind the push, the wrapping gave way to allow her a little more space as she stretched it thin. She repeated the pushing manoeuvre a few more times until the wrapping tore under the pressure.

Yes! Take that. Now I just have to reach my knife and I'll be going back to my Willow.

With her arm finally free Tara flexed her abdominal muscles and pushed herself upwards as far as possible so her left hand could pull at the binding on her right thigh where her knife was tied. She had just begun to yank the material when she started to hear a rustling sound all around her that appeared to be getting closer. She looked around in search of the source while she desperately pulled harder and harder at the bind weakening it.

At first she couldn't see anything different and she took a moment to look around the room carefully while continuing to pull relentlessly at the silky material. She noticed that the room seemed to have an odd, angular shape, although with the way it was still spinning around her she couldn't say for sure. Then she took in the regular black earth walls. Each of the walls appeared to have a circular hole carved into them, like a giant rabbit hole.

I wonder if that's the way out? Hmmm down the rabbit hole... How Alice of me!

Meanwhile she could still hear the noise, which sounded eerily like the tide coming in. After a long moment she saw them. Spiders of all colours invaded the room, coming from the openings in the walls. They covered the floor and the ceiling like a colourful blanket, but more frightening right now was that they were descending down the thread that was holding her.

"Oh sweet mother of..."

Tara's pulling on her confines became frenzied, like a shark at feeding time, but she felt the cocoon weakening considerably. She felt with just one more tug with her left hand and a push with the right and it would give. Meanwhile the spiders were getting closer and closer and it was very, very clear that she was their target. As they neared her, the blonde had her first good look at them: fist sized hairless green spiders. And she was trapped as effectively as a fly on a spider's web with no weapons and only one arm and her head free to move. Clumsily, from the position she was in and with her spinning vision, she slapped away the first few spiders that tried to come down the cocoon. I was useless, in the end sheer numbers overcame her and they effectively broke through her weakened defences.

She felt the first bite on her neck and almost immediately her strength abated significantly, leaving her muscles in a state where they were no longer able to hold her. Her torso and arm dropped down heavily leaving her once again hanging upside down and facing the glowing green star. She noticed, in a disjointed kind of way, that the spiders seemed to be organized by colours in concentric rings. On the outmost ring there were the red spiders, then the yellow, then the blue and finally right in the centre and surrounding the piece of the star there were the green spiders.

Her headache began to worsen, the pounding in her head practically bruising her brain as she tried to focus, but the pain was making thinking clearly all but impossible while the spinning room gained speed again and revolved wildly around her. She felt light headed as her vision went hazy and started to blur, before she closed her eyes to pass out she saw a massive black form approach her and a voice resonated in her head.

"Not so soon... no you don't... stay with me!"

Willow ran as fast as she could while her brain was in overdrive working through her puzzle quickly.

The diary! They wrote a diary. How could I have been such an idiot? God that should have been the first thing I checked... Ok, so they're dead which means they didn't go far from here... at least they were together and maybe... just maybe they lost each other and then found each other again and they can help me find Tara... or at least something has to have been written, a map or directions for all these damn corridors and rooms...

She ran through the passageway that lead to the room where she and Tara had found the remains of the fallen raiders and where she had seen the blonde for the last time. Wasting no time Willow dropped to her knees next to the discarded diary.

Putting her guns back in their holsters, she picked up the diary with shaking hands. Opening it on the last page she began reading backwards, skimming through the pages trying to find something that could help her. Bits and pieces of text were imprinting themselves on her mind only to be rapidly replaced by the next ones. Until a solitary line, ink blurred and alone between paragraphs, caught her eye and made her heart beat faster with both hope and dread as she read on.

I found my love. Too little too late for my Lady, had perished.

And so our fate is sealed! This tomb will be ours as it has been for many before us; soon I shall follow my raven's flight into heaven. I can only hope and pray that our last adventure be someone else's salvation and that we won't have died in vain.

Willow accelerated through the pages as she searched desperately for the beginning of that section, her brain running a mile a minute as she pondered the dead raiders words.

"She found her... Yes! Which means that she lost her first, which also means that maybe whatever it is that has happened to us, happened to them... so she might know how or where I can find Tara... But... God... she was too late... her love was dead..." Fear and dread gripped Willow's heart and squeezed painfully making it hard for the redhead to breathe. "And I've been running around this godforsaken temple.... no tomb, banging my head against doors, losing time that I might not have... Oh God... baby... Hang on, please hang on."

Closing her eyes Willow took a deep breath then clenched her teeth tightly as she finally found what she was looking for.

There is a square central room completely surrounded by the main corridor. Branching out from this corridor are eight identical rooms. In each of these rooms lies a part of the key to solving the puzzle that will open the central room doors and allow entrance to the spider's domain.

Starting at the first room you found, light the torch and using it ignite the dark liquid in the bronze plate on top of the ridge in the floor. Once lit, waste no time and run for all you are worth to the next room doing the same then continue forth until all the other rooms have a fire burning in them. But beware you need to be hasty because the fire burns only for a set period of time. As it starts to die down the colour of the flame changes, from blue to purple, from purple to orange, from orange to yellow and from yellow to complete blackness as it flickers out.

Swiftness is your ally, if the fire burns in all of the rooms at the same time then the doors to the central room will open and will remain opened only while the flames continue to blaze.

If you are not speedy enough, you must beware the darkness that falls as the fire dies down; this is the time of the red spider hunters. Silently and surely they attack and abduct their prey.

Having found what she was looking for; Willow closed the diary decisively and tucked it safely in her backpack as she began to race back to the first room.

"I'll be fast enough...I have to be!!"

As the black form came closer, the voice in her head grew in intensity drowning out the world around her and making her head pound until the pain became excruciating.

"You don't have to be in pain. You can leave this place. All you have to do is lift your arm and pick up the green gem."

The otherworldly glow intensified with every word and Tara found herself once again almost hypnotized by the soothing green radiance of the star fragment before her. In opposition to this calming feeling her head was swimming in a hot, painful, stormy sea. Colourful, indistinct shapes, rotating shadows all surrounded her menacingly as she felt the panic begin to form and grow in the pit of her stomach. The claustrophobic feeling of being trapped was becoming more than she could bear.

She breathed deeply and fought to centre her thoughts and focus her eyes.

"Willow..." The blonde weakly whispered, her girlfriend's name like a prayer on her lips.

"Your partner is beyond saving. You can only save yourself. Save yourself." The voice echoed agonizingly in the blonde raider's head. The answer was swift and cruel cutting through the raider's heart.

Willow... Willow... she can't be...! No! No!

"No!" Tara yelled, refusing to believe, refusing to submit.

"You are alone." It thundered inside her mind.

She felt an irritating stinging sensation on her neck and with that her nausea increased. Everything around her was spinning and twisting, expanding and compressing, distorted images of multi-coloured spiders haunted her mind. One moment they were small only to grow up to gigantic proportions in the next.

Standing still amidst the chaos was the green piece of the star. It emanated a peaceful, soothing glow that was calling to Tara's muddled mind like a siren's song, like a piece of heaven in the middle of hell.

The blonde's resolve began to falter as she raised her arm to reach for the star, but just as she was about to touch it, Willow's smiling face popped into her mind's eye. The sweet curve of her lips, the sparkling green eyes, shinning mischievously was all the blonde needed to see for her to know that her heart was safe and she let her arm drop.

"No!" She stated again and she could hear the voice growling painfully in frustration inside her head.

"Why are you fighting it? Why do you fight me? Do you want to die?"

As the voice's frustration grew, its hold on Tara's mind weakened and the fog that muddled her thoughts lifted bit by bit as Willow's image became clearer and clearer.

"I am not alone. I won't leave Willow. Ever!" Feeling stronger Tara once again began pushing against the binding over her right arm with renewed energy.

Just another inch... God... I just need it to give another inch and I'll be free to find my Willow!

The blonde felt something move over her and with effort looked up in time to see about a dozen spiders descending over her trapping cocoon. They touched the sensitive skin of her neck and then all she could feel were the stings as their fangs pierced her, bite after bite in close succession. Tara slammed her eyes shut as the pain in her head quadrupled; it felt like an iron clamp was closing painfully around her head with each word. The voice reverberated excruciatingly inside her mind, attacking her from the inside out, destroying her will and blurring Willow's image.

"You came into this world alone and if you don't reach for the gem you'll leave it alone."

"And I call myself puzzle girl... All the rooms are the same, all those doors without a lever to open them, the flame that runs in the groove in the floor and disappears under the wall... My god this is like some kind of... its like one giant electrical circuit that just needs me to push the switches for the flame to burn continually from one room to the next, until all are lit... making the doors open. And... simply the rooms are the switches!"

The redhead berated herself as she ran as fast as she could. A moment later Willow reached the first room she and Tara had explored she plucked the torch from its supports on the wall, lit it and then ignited the bronze plate in the middle of the room. She stayed in the room only long enough to see the black liquid burst into a blue flame and the fire spread to the ridge in the floor before running out and down the corridor into the next room. She repeated the same movements almost mechanically in each room, her legs moving as fast as they could down the corridor, making the turns without thinking while the wheels of her mind turned frantically.

So I light up all the rooms and then the doors open, that's straightforward enough, but then what will happen? Think Willow... ok so the diary said something about spiders and that kinda makes sense... I killed a spider in the room where Tara went missing, so there are definitely spiders involved... God, maybe I should have read the diary further... but then what if something happens to Tara while I am reading and yeah, I get there all fine and dandy only to find her... and that so wouldn't be a good thing... in fact that would be a worse than bad thing and God Tara, Baby...stay strong I'm coming... ok deep breath... I can't lose anymore time. Urgh... get a grip Rosenberg... For God sake I've raided dozens of temples damn it I can handle this alone. I have to handle it.

As Willow reached the second to last room and lit the bronze plate she noticed that the flame was taking on a purplish tint. Her heart started beating like the firing of a machine gun and it spurned her into action as she sped out of the room and into the final one. There she skidded to the wall picked up the last torch with trembling fingers and lit the last bronze plate. It burst to life with an orange flame that turned yellowish almost immediately; the redhead sprinted out of the room heading for the nearest door to the central room. She rounded the corridor just in time to see the iron door start to come down, beginning to seal the entrance to the room. Panicking her raider instincts kicked in and she dive rolled to go through the disappearing space just before the door crashed behind her securely.

"Damn. That was close." She breathed deeply, bent over, a hand on each thigh, trying to calm her racing heart before focusing on her surroundings.

She began to analyse her environment, it was a round corridor, resembling a cylinder, cut into the earth, which continued straight ahead for as far as she could see before being swallowed by darkness. On the wall to her right there were two torches burning steadily side-by-side while on the left wall there was a lever.

Willow picked up one of the torches and held it in the same hand that still held her flare.

Spiders don't like fire much... so this might come in handy but I'm not gonna relying too much on this thing cos you know trick you once shame on them, trick you twice shame on you.

Then she walked to the left wall and with a deep breath pushed the lever. It activated the door the redhead entered from and she watched as the iron door slid up seemingly effortless and without making a sound.

Wouldn't it have been that much easier if there had been one of these on the outside? But nooo... we couldn't have that. Well, at least if we can't go forward... we have a way back.

Still holding the torch and flare in one hand, the redhead raised the other with her gun firmly pointed then carefully advanced scanning all around her for danger. She noticed channels dug in the earth of the walls like dilating rings that constricted as they ended. As far as she could see down the corridor there were three of those rings separated by about a twelve meters from one to the next.

As she stopped to investigate the first channel she saw them. Red spiders, like the one she had previously killed. Lots of them moving slowly towards her from all sides, the floor, the ceiling, the walls, she was completely surrounded the only way to go was forward and fast!

Tara fought hard to focus on her lovers image. Even through the agonising pain and piercing voice that thundered in her head, through the vertigo and rising nausea twisting her stomach she persevered to concentrate. She twisted and thrashed in her cocoon with as much strength as she could muster in her weakened state instinctively rebelling against the constriction and the invasion of her mind. There was a low tearing noise as some of the fibbers of the abused cocoon over her right arm started to give making space for her arm to move.

Just as she tried to reach for her knife she felt another bite on her neck that robbed her of what little strength she had left. Her head sagged backwards, extending her neck, as the effort to keep it upright became too much to bear. She noticed distantly that she could no longer feel the spiders running over her body and hazily realised that those she could see were converging at one of the doors that led out of the room. She would have tried to figure it out and had some kind of logical thought about it if her head didn't hurt so much.

At the same time the voice in her head took on a soothing tone, like soft cotton filling her head.

"Your partner has moved along without you. If you pick the gem up you'll be with her in a minute. All you need to do is reach for it and pick it up. Just pick it up."

The voice dribbled in her mind like sweet honey, seductive, soothing, sticky. As warm now as it had been harsh before. Tara felt the pull to give in. God she was tired, so very drained and it was so hard to fight. She couldn't actually remember why she was still fighting.

God Willow... I just want my Willow.

"Your love is waiting for you... Just pick the gem up and you'll be in her arms in a second. You'll be back in her wonderful arms."

But still Tara seemed able to resist, there was a little voice whispering in the back of her mind, a memory of Willow's luscious, voice, low but insistent and totally refusing to be denied.

I'll be here to love you and hold you and support you. I'm yours and only yours!

"She would never leave me." Tara whispered, the truth of that statement penetrated the fog that clouded her mind and gave her a sudden burst of energy.

"She wouldn't leave me behind. You're lying." She shouted at the voice as she reached for her knife and cut the fibres of her cocoon from her thigh to her shoulder.

She heard a wordless scream of joy that she couldn't quite place but that made her heart swell and begin to beat faster. Then the voice growled painfully in her head drowning everything else out as her legs and feet slid from the tattered binding and she began to fall to the floor.

Willow swallowed hard and dropped the torch low to the ground at the same time she turned her head from side to side trying to follow the spiders' progression. As the flame accidentally touched the dug cleft it ignited making a protective ring of fire in front of the redhead and halting the spiders' movement.

As the fire erupted in front of the redhead she jumped backwards surprised and in an unconscious protective movement lifted her gun more firmly in front of her, tensing, waiting for something else to happen. When after a moment nothing did Willow relaxed her stance. Then she smiled a tight lipped smile seeing that none of the spiders had come through the fire and that they were all waiting at a respectable distance from the flames.

"So that's how it works. Take that you arachnids!"

Without losing time the redhead jumped through the burning ring and ran as fast as she could to escape the red spiders that were chasing her. As she reached the next circle she jumped over the channel and at the same time angled her torch to ignite the ring. She took a moment to look back and watch as most of the red spiders became trapped between the twin burning fires. She spared a small satisfied smile for a job well done.

When she looked forward again the corridor was a mass of yellow spiders moving hastily towards her and wasting no time she started running again to avoid them while she moved the torch all around her body.

"What is it with this room and colour?" she mumbled while she ignited another loop of fire, this time trapping most of the yellow spiders.

She kept running forward to see the now familiar vision of a menacing wave of colour on legs approaching her on the form of blue spiders. Unimpressed Willow propelled herself forward without losing a step, brandishing the torch as a protective shield until she reached the next enlarged circumference of the corridor and lit it.

She squinted her eyes to spot the next threat and was not disappointed as a second later she saw it. This new wave comprised of a huge number of green spiders that covered the walls, the ground and the ceiling. Willow bent her neck so that her head was a little lower and spun the torch in circles in front of her while she kept on running as fast as she could while avoiding being bitten. She felt spiders being crushed beneath her soles and jumped left and right to evade their attacks. The sight of the ridge on the walls was a very welcome one, the sheer number of the green spiders threatened to overwhelm the redhead. With a surge of energy Willow touched the torch to the ground and breathed a sigh of relief as the ring ignited.

With a running leap she jumped over the circle and entered an octagonal room. For a second she felt disoriented with the change of scenery and the corridor ending abruptly and without warning. She looked around taking in the earth walls, and the skeletons hanging upside down from the ceiling. Their everlasting grins seemingly mocking her and Willow felt a cold dread start at the pit of her stomach. Until she heard her girlfriend's sweet voice piercing the silence and her head whipped to the side to see the most welcome sight. Tara was talking and moving - she was alive.

Willow felt a scream of joy rise from the deepest recesses of her to escape her lips as she sprinted to her lover. As she rapidly neared her girlfriend she noticed two things, first that there were giant spiders standing right beneath the blonde and second that whatever was holding Tara upside down wouldn't do it for much longer and she would fall right in the middle of the giant furry spiders. Willow held her gun tighter in her right hand and squeezed the trigger repeatedly more interested in scaring the spiders away and catching Tara than in her aim being true. Gratefully, she heard a low whine as the spiders scurried away trying to escape the bullets and she put her gun back in its holster to have that hand free. She reached Tara just in time to catch her as she slid down from the cocoon completely.

Tara felt a pair of strong arms catching her, a human pair; a pair that had become as familiar to her as her own heart beat. She felt herself being lifted and turned, she felt Willow righting her in her arms. The blonde gazed up at her lover and grinned groggily at her, feeling safe despite the still spinning world around her. She was safe, Willow had her, the redhead was back in the centre of her world again.

"You're here." Tara said in a slurred, tired voice gazing unfocused at the redhead's eyes. She wrapped her arms around Willow before letting her head fall to her girlfriend's shoulder and closing her eyes abandoning herself to the redheads care.

Willow's eyes widened in worry as she heard the drowsiness in the blonde's voice and felt the way Tara was sagging in her arms, completely boneless.

"Tara, baby, look at me, please." Oh God... oh god... What's wrong with her? Am I too late? Oh, please, please God I can't be too late!

Instinctively, hearing the frantic worry in Willow's voice, Tara made the effort to open her eyes, having to close them a second later because it made the nausea and vertigo that still plagued her worsen.

"It hurts." Tara whined and burrowed her head on Willow's neck, relishing the comfort and warmth.

"What hurts, baby? What happened?" Willow asked a bit reassured by the strength in Tara's voice.

"My head... it hurts. Spiders and the bites... and more bites and everything is spinning. And it spins and it spins and it makes me sick. Make it stop spinning." The blonde mumbled against the other girl's neck.

Ok, ok... spiders and bites so poison... but... but what kind of poison? Poison - antidote. That's it! I just have to find the antidote and she'll be ok. Ermmm... And how the hell do I find the antidote? God damn it... why don't these temples come with wireless? Ok, focus, no breaking down now, focus... no antidote... So what do I know about poisoning? Think. Think. Hmm... Ok, ok, I know... first stop the person from absorbing more of the poison... Stupid idea. Hello she was bitten. Ok, what else? Oh, keep them hydrated... ok, ok, that I can do, I have water right here. And maybe I should try to keep her awake too...

Suddenly there was a change in the lighting of the room and Willow looked at her torch to see that its flame had taken a deep orange glow. Alarmed she looked back to see that the ring of flames at the end of the corridor from where she had come had also changed colour.

"Oh shit... Tara baby we need to go, ok? Hang on tight to me!" The redhead said hurriedly while she started running down one of the other corridors with her girlfriend awkwardly draped half in her arms and half running. Willow held the still burning torch and flare extended in front of them, while her other arm held Tara as best she could.

"Ok." Tara answered sleepily while she snuggled further into Willow's embrace and closed her eyes tightly; shutting out the world that now besides spinning was also bouncing.

The torch had turned from orange to purple by the time they had reached the end of the tunnel and moved towards the lever and what Willow hoped was safety. The flame turned to blue just as she pushed the lever and the door slid open. Grasping Tara to her, they ran though the door then turned quickly as they heard it slide closed behind them just as the flame died down. And they were left bathed only in the flare's red light.

Willow sighed deeply in relief but didn't relax she was looking everywhere at once to make sure there were no spiders ready to attack them. Then she walked a few steps along the corridor until she reached the entrance to one of the rooms and walked in cradling the precious bundle in her arms.

"Tara baby? Tara you need to wake up." She started by whispering but realising that she was getting nowhere with the blonde she began to raise her voice.

"Hmm? Awwwww why? Nooo to early Will!"

If the moment wasn't so serious the redhead would have grinned, charmed by the cuteness of a sleepy Tara, as it was all that she could do was give her girlfriend a worried smile, a loving hug and shake her awake gently before place her on the floor, against the wall, in the corner furthest from the entrance to the room.

The blonde moaned in protest and cautiously opened her eyes only to be soothed by the image of her girlfriend kneeling by her side. If she focused only on Willow, on her vibrant green eyes and the gentle worried look on her beautiful face then the rest of the world seemed to slow its gyrating motions, almost to the point where things were standing still again. Her headache too she noticed was starting to abate and her thoughts were becoming less muddled. With a lazy smile Tara watched Willow.

Hi there honey. Oh... oh I have my voice back...hmmm... its so good to be back to being the only one in my head again. What was that... that thing anyway? There were only spiders there... well and skeletons. Hmm... whatever it was... it was just so... wrong... Hmmm my Willow...

"Thank you." The blonde whispered with a smile as the redhead rummaged through her backpack.

Willow looked up when she heard Tara's soft whisper and smiled back at her, relief washing over her at the more focused look on the blue orbs gazing back at her. As she stared deep into the blonde's eyes the feelings that she had kept bottled up for the sake of focusing on finding Tara started to rise back up with a vengeance.

"You're welcome, baby." She whispered back hoarsely, her voice dripping with emotion. She dropped the blanket, the bottles of water and the protein balls that she had picked up from the bag on the floor next to the blonde. Then Willow wrapped Tara tightly in her arms before bringing her hands up to cup her face and gaze deeply into her eyes. The redhead felt tears well in her eyes and slowly moved forward to kiss her girlfriend's forehead, moving lovingly to her eyelids, her nose, her cheeks, her chin and then finally moving up to kiss Tara firmly in the mouth.

Tara basked in Willow's love, like a flower basking in the Sun's light. The redhead's warm skin and soft lips caressed her, gently chasing the fog away, making the spiders seem like a bad dream. And when the redhead touched her lips to Tara's, the blonde tasted the salty tears that mingled in their kiss and she wrapped her arms around the redhead's neck, opening her mouth to deepen the kiss wanting all of their hurts and worries to melt, burned away by their love.

They kissed for a long moment, deeply, slowly, thoroughly, reassuring themselves that they were both there, safe and in each other's arms before Willow pulled away. Tara whimpered at the lose but the redhead didn't go far, she just moved back slightly so she was able to gaze at those blue gems that she loved so much.

"God...Tara... I'm so sorry baby... the... the torch went down and I lit up a flare and then you weren't here and I didn't know where to look for you and I ran and ran...and I... I felt so lost with out you and I didn't know what to do and I need you so much and then... God Tara I thought I'd lost you." Willow felt the tears form in her eyes and begin to spill down her cheeks as panic began to fill her, the dread from those moments coming back to her in waves.

Tara felt her heart constricting at the anguish in her girlfriend's voice and words and she brought her hands down from the redhead's neck to her shoulders to rub them soothingly.

"Shhh... It's ok, baby, I'm ok." Tara said gently.

Willow sniffed and let out a small sigh as her tears continued to flow. She hugged Tara tightly to her, breathing in her scent and basking in her warmth, this small act of reaffirming that her girlfriend was here and safe, calmed the redhead. She pulled back enough to look at Tara as she smiled self-consciously and softly spoke.

"God... Look at me... here I am whining when you were the one that was hurt... with the spiders and the poison and God... How selfish can I be?"

The blonde moved her hands up to the redhead's jaw and pulled her in for a soft kiss, just a gentle brush of lips but enough to convey Tara's love and stop the redhead's self deprecating babble. Then she pulled away but kept her thumbs in place stroking the redhead's skin.

"You found me baby." She whispered with all the conviction, seriousness and love she could get into those four words.

Willow breathed deeply and stared into the amazing eyes of her girlfriend and saw the truth and love that shone there. Then she gathered her words and vowed.

"I will always find you." as she slowly closed her eyes and joined her forehead to Tara's.

Continue to The Artifact Chapter Twenty-Five

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