Return to The Artifact Chapter Seven

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.

A look of sadness replaced the smile on Willow's face.

I can't believe I'm about to say this; I think we've been losing too much time and we need to hurry. Tara is maybe the best tomb raider in the world and she'd been doing this for years before we ever met, so I know she can take care of herself. She'll be fine, and if she's okay, I'll be able to focus enough so that I don't get myself killed. Yeah, as if I could ever convince myself that I'm not going to be scared to death of something happening to her.

The blonde could almost see the wheels spinning in Willow's head. She could tell she was about to say something serious and Tara was becoming worried.

Maybe she's tired of looking at my face and wants to tell me to stay away from her. Before the blonde could go down that dark path, Willow spoke.

"Tara, I was thinking. We know there's some part of this temple that we need to reach in a specific time, and although we don't know exactly when that time is, there's a chance we're running late. So we probably should try to hurry, just in case." The redhead paused, dreading what she was about to say.

The blonde let out the breath she didn't know she'd been holding.

She's just worried about how to get out of here. Now that's a relief. Jeez, what's wrong with you, Maclay? Your priorities are screwed! She's worried about us starving to death in here because we're losing too much time. Oh yeah, that's so much less important than you annoying her or her feeling disgusted by you. My dorkiness knows no bounds.

The blonde sighed heavily again.

Only when she looked at the troubled redhead did she remember that Willow hadn't finished what she'd started to say. "Willow?" she called softly.

"Hhmm?" She'd been lost in dark thoughts about Tara dying alone somewhere in the bushes, surprised by a trap, without her by her side.

"There's more you wanted to say, right? You wanted to suggest a way for us to save time?"

"Yes." Willow swallowed hard before continuing. "I was thinking maybe we could each go search by ourselves. We're both experienced and perfectly capable of taking care of ourselves. And in the middle of the bushes and the trees, even if we're together, there isn't much that the other could do if we're attacked. We'd be on our own anyway. And if we split up, we'd only have to search half the area we'd need to explore if we stayed together. As they say, "divide and conquer!" So ok, I know the meaning of that saying isn't exactly the one I'm using, but I don't know... it just popped into my head, so..."

She's so amazing. But I think she's actually turning blue, and an unconscious redhead will not help us to move faster. Although Tara loved Willowbabble, she interrupted.

"Willow, breathe."

The redhead took a deep breath and then smiled sheepishly. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I like it when you babble. It's just that it takes longer for you to get to the point and it kind of defeats the whole purpose of us moving faster. I agree that we should split up to find the masks. It'll take us less time this way... I hope," she said with a grin.

I hate the idea of letting you out of my sight in the middle of a jungle full of traps - and the gods know what else - but we really should try to move faster, so I think we should go for it, the blonde thought.

Willow sighed before speaking. "Ok then. I'll search the river and the farthest half of the room, and you'll search the half that's closer to this door. Also we only pick up a mask from its resting place if we see no danger in doing so. If we have even the slightest suspicion of a trap linked to the mask, we mark its location, and we go back there later, together. Agreed?"

"Agreed," the blonde said, smiling. She loved the way Willow always tried to protect her.

"We could meet here again in two hours to see how we're progressing and change our strategy, if need be."

"That sounds like a plan," Tara said. Both of them were silent for a couple of minutes, dreading the moment they would have to part. In the end it was Tara who said the hated words.

"We should separate, then. I think it'll be dark in about three hours, and there's no way we'll be able to find anything then."

"You're right." Willow stopped for a second before adding in a soft voice, "Tara, please be careful. I'd never forgive myself if something bad happened to you."

"I will. And you take care, too. Don't go 'round bumping your head against innocent trees," the blonde said jokingly. As her only response, Willow stuck out her tongue and winked. She took advantage of the light mood and started to walk away, knowing that if she waited much longer she'd lose the courage to leave.

"See you in two hours. Happy Mask Hunting." That was the last thing the redhead said before making a turn and disappearing from Tara's view.

"Please come back to me Willow. I'll be waiting here," Tara whispered quietly, before turning around and entering the woods.

Willow decided she'd first search the river from the shore. It wasn't very deep and she could see its bottom, so she thought it was a good first approach.

I know I should probably leave my favorite part to the end, but I'm really looking forward to swimming a little, and this way I think I can steel myself for the not-so-pleasant forest part. I hope Tara's doing all right.

With the blonde always in the back of her mind, Willow tried to be as focused as possible while scanning the river. Unless it was hidden, a golden mask should be easy to spot in the middle of the stones.

When she was about halfway through, she saw something shine in the middle of the water. She couldn't see what it was exactly, so she dove in to make a more thorough search.

Within a few strokes, she'd covered the distance between the shore and the place where she'd seen the object. She stopped above that spot for just for a moment, simply maintaining her head above the water, and in doing so could see that it was indeed a golden mask. Then she breathed deeply and dived straight down.

When she was near the mask she saw that it was the fish-shaped one.

I think it's safe enough to take it out of here; it seems to be just laying here. What do I do? Pick it up now or come back here with Tara later? I can see the appeal of that last option... Tara completely soaked with her clothes clinging tightly to her body, highlighting her luscious and full figure, her breasts straining against the fabric of her blouse, her nipples hardened from the cold... Ugh! First, take your mind out of the gutter, and second... Hello! You're under water! Please make a decision before you drown!

Willow would have sighed if she weren't under water. She picked up the mask and waited for a couple of seconds, her whole body tense and ready to react if she sensed a threat. When nothing happened, she swam back to the surface. All the years she spent as a diving and swimming athlete showed... she wasn't even out of breath. She stayed in the center of the river for a moment longer before swimming to the shore and getting out.

One down, three to go. I doubt there's another one in the river. With so many places to hide those little things, why would anyone make it easy and hide two in the same place? It's not likely, and I don't see one popping out at me, so I'd better get into the woods and start looking there. I wonder what Tara's doing right now.

The redhead twisted her shirt, trying to dry it a little, and then started walking to the door through which she and Tara had entered a few hours before.

The least I can do is try to establish a search method. I'll start near the door and then move in the direction of the other door. If I don't get lost I should be just fine.

When she got to the door she turned to her right and entered the woods.

The thick vegetation immediately enveloped her. If she didn't know better - that she'd just stepped into a room - she'd have thought she was lost in the heart of forest.

Oh man, I really don't like to wander around in places where I can't see the danger coming, but I guess I don't have a choice. I'll just have to be careful not to trip on any roots or fall down some freakish pit full of spikes.

She drew her guns and started walking carefully. Old trees dominated the scenery with their big branches and odd forms, many of them twisted or bent in unusual positions.

Maybe it's a reminder to the adventurers who dare to come in here that these aren't normal trees. They're mystical or maybe even sacred. Anything goes in here, and I'd better not forget that.

As Willow went deeper into the woods she started to see odd flowers - big and yellow, with red stripes. They were beautiful, and she decided to investigate. As she stared at one of the flowers, it began spinning in a hypnotic fashion, and she felt herself being pulled closer, as if she were in a trance.

Her vision became blurry and her feet suddenly weighed a ton. She was being drained... and she didn't care.

It's so beautiful. All that yellow mingling with red... it's just so enchanting that I need to get closer. I've never seen anything this breathtakingly beautiful before.

Just as that thought crossed her mind, her fuzzy brain managed to evoke a picture through the fog in which the redhead was immersed. Willow saw a beautiful face with two incredible eyes - two blue gems the color of the ocean - calling out to her. She heard an angel's voice - "Please... come back to me!" - begging her to snap out of it. And she was found again.

She aimed at the flower and shot it mercilessly. As the first bullet connected, a loud shriek emanated from the flower and it gyrated even faster, but its hypnotic effect was completely lost on the redhead. She'd found her focus again in the form of two cobalt orbs and no mere flower could ever compete with that. So she just kept shooting it until it was detached from the earth.

Willow approached the fallen flower and looked down at what was left of it.

Remember the part about you - stupid psycho flower - being the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen? Well forget that! Tara's the most stunning, breathtaking, gorgeous sight in the world, and there's no way I'm going to die and leave her trapped in here because of an orange plant. You hear me? To me you're not yellow or red; you're a disgusting orange! All right, so now I'm trying to insult a dead flower. Maybe my brain isn't quite back to proper functioning yet. Although the part about Tara's true. She sighed as she thought about the blonde and then resumed her task.

After the encounter with the hypno-flower, the redhead moved even more carefully than before. She saw more of the yellow blossoms but she avoided going near them.

She tried not to touch anything suspicious while at the same time searching thoroughly the area that was hers to explore. She kept her guard always high, and her guns ready to fire.

Since the freaky flower episode, bright-colored plants really make me uneasy, so red bushes and blue fruits and leaves are definitely high on my "Things Not To Touch" list.

The redhead had been wandering in the woods for about an hour without succeeding in finding any other masks, but also without falling into any other traps, and without getting herself lost. She'd made sure of the latter by returning to the river periodically, just to be certain she still knew where she was.

Just as she was starting to think she wasn't going to find she was nearing the end of her searching zone... she abruptly reached an opening in the middle of the woods where there were no trees or bushes. In the middle of that clearing was a platform surrounded by a huge rift on all sides. On the platform lay a golden mask.

Willow felt a smile forming on her lips as she carefully approached the hole surrounding the place where the mask rested. When she was near enough to do it, she looked into the abyss. It seemed to be bottomless, deep enough for all light to be lost in it.

It's too far for me or for Tara to be able to jump and reach the platform. There has to be another way.

She started to circle the hole and soon found what she was looking for - a small pillar with hieroglyphs inscribed in it. On top of that pillar there was an indentation shaped in the form of a hand. She felt tempted just for a second to try it with her own.

This seems kind of self-explanatory. This hole has the form of a hand and I have my hand right here with me, so why not give it a try? Maybe because trying to make this thing work without reading the instructions just because you're too curious to wait for the help of the person that can, in fact, read it... is just plain stupid. I have to wait for Tara to decipher what it says in here, and then together we can work this out.

Just thinking about the blonde brought a smile to her lips and made her forget all about her urge to try to get the mask alone.

So, I just have to make sure that I know how to come back here, and then I can move on.

Willow took a spool of cotton thread out of her backpack and started unwinding it. She tied one end to a tree near the opening, and carefully started walking in the general direction of the river, making sure not to break the thread.

I always knew there was a reason - other than the need to sew something - for me to carry this thread around.

When she got to the river she put the spool down in the middle of the path. This way she'd be sure not to miss it when she came back.

She then returned to the woods and searched until the two hours were up, but found nothing more. Willow then returned to the path near the river and ran to the door, eager to be back with Tara.

I can't wait to see her. I wonder how her search went.

Just as Tara saw Willow make the turn and disappear from her sight, she felt herself start to get cold.

Maybe that's because my blood isn't being pumped through my veins, since Willow took my heart with her. Hmm... that kind of sounds corny. I guess I should work on my pick-up lines, Tara joked to herself.

She was trying to distract herself from the fact that the woman she couldn't stop thinking about had just gone away to face all kinds of unknown dangers. That she hadn't stopped her was driving her crazy.

She sighed deeply and entered the woods.

Like Willow, Tara decided to start near the wall and move closer to the center.

She stepped inside the woods and couldn't help but be amazed at the profusion of trees and other plants. The vegetation was luxurious; flowers bloomed everywhere, and bushes were filled with exotic fruits in an explosion of color. Blue, green, red, orange, and yellow mingling perfectly. It was one of the most beautiful sights Tara had ever seen.

Get a grip, Tara. As far as you know, the sole purpose of this beautiful scenery is to distract you and make you fall into some deadly trap. You can't forget that you're not in the middle of the Amazonian jungle. You're inside a temple, looking for golden masks.

The blonde moved carefully, trying to avoid gazing at the stunning plants, but at the same time wanting to get a look at everything in order to make sure she didn't miss the masks.

After searching for about half an hour without any result, she entered a different zone of the woods. The bright colors had all been replaced by greens. It was a much less dazzling sight but also a less offensive and threatening one.

As she walked around, she felt a great peace fill her completely, and she started to let her guard down. She heard birds singing happily in the trees, and felt a warm breeze caress her skin. She was getting more and more comfortable by the second, and her mission's urgency started to fade.

After a while, she began to forget who she was and why she'd come to this place to begin with. She felt a strong sense of belonging linking her to these old trees and bushes, and she knew that if she wanted to, she could hide there forever and never be found. She felt free of all burdens and worries, and she started running and jumping around like a happy child without a care in the world. Her soft, humming voice joined the singing birds and the whistling wind. It was a melody she felt could fill her days until the end of time.

After a while, her erratic walking lead her to a big tree and she felt strangely drawn to it. She felt her heart and soul trying to tell her foggy brain that something wasn't right.

I feel like I'm forgetting something really important. And why do I feel lured by this tree? Is there something special about it? What is it that I'm missing? What is this tree?

Protected by the tree's shadow, Tara sensed something was wrong. She could feel her mind fighting back the haze that was restraining it.

I remember now. This is a Willow tree.

"Willow." The name came from her lips like a whispered desire and it broke through the mist. It was only a tiny fissure, but it was enough to let her see two pleading emerald eyes burning right into her heart.

"Willow," she said, louder this time. And she broke free. All her memories rushed back to her mind; their first meeting, and each moment of the previous two days. Every single bittersweet second she'd shared with the redhead who'd managed to capture her heart and her soul.

The blonde looked around her, but somehow her surroundings didn't seem so entrancing anymore. She saw only a bunch of green plants.

I think the spell was broken. Thank you for being the ray that shone through the darkness. Thank you, my green-eyed angel. Tara smiled warmly, sending all her love and trust to Willow.

Wherever you are, my love, I'm right there by your side. Even if you don't feel the same way... I don't care. I just want you to be happy. Be safe! Please... come back to me!

In that moment a piercing and harsh sound broke the silence that enveloped her. Gunshots.

"Willow?!" Tara screamed.

For a moment she panicked, thinking that the redhead could be dead or lost, fighting something horrendous without her by her side.

But then Tara listened to her own heart and it was beating strongly in her chest... and she knew that the redhead was fine.

"You are my heart Willow. If you ever get hurt, I'll know it because my heart will bleed. And if you die before I do you'll only have to wait a few seconds for me to join you and escort you to heaven, because I'm sure my heart will be shattered inside me," Tara swore to the Willow tree.

So for starters this is a strong, heavy statement. I think if I tell this to the 'real' Willow, she'll be running to the hills before I even finish. Heck, it's not often that a couple of days after meeting a person she tells you she wants to follow you everywhere... even in death. I think I just gave 'harassing' a whole new dimension. And second, since when do I feel like the heroine of one of Shakespeare's tragedies? She could try to joke about the way she expressed it, but she couldn't deny the truth.

She was hopelessly in love. And it was true and it was forever.

Tara took a moment to compose herself, then decided to resume her search. She had a fair idea about her location, and it didn't take her long to get back to the place where she'd stopped her exploration.

She'd been walking for a while when suddenly the ground gave way beneath her feet and she felt herself falling. For a moment, time froze and she felt like everything was moving in slow motion; the boards covering the trap broke into little pieces that seemed to be floating, and she was slowly sinking into the ground.

She tried to jump away but couldn't. The point where the device had been built to crash was exactly above the middle of a huge hole, and she hadn't leverage enough to make it to safe ground.

When her leap fell short, failing to take her to solid land, a single thought made it to her mind before time resumed its usual pace and she started to fall hard and fast.

Willow is going to kill me!

Then a split second later her heart and mind rebelled against letting go without putting up a fight. Several thoughts played through her mind instantaneously.

NO! I will not leave Willow alone here to die. I will not give up this easily. I've been in difficult situations before and I've always managed to survive. I'm falling near a wall; there has to be something I can grab on to. Preferably before I'm falling so fast that I break my arms in ten places trying to get a hold.

She quickly looked down and spotted a protrusion in a rock. It wasn't large, but it was worth giving it a shot. She extended her hands and as she passed right in front of it, she grabbed the rock and prepared herself for the gigantic push her arm muscles were about to receive. It took about a tenth of a second as her full weight downed on her biceps. The pain was almost unbearable for a moment and only years of climbing experience made it possible for her to hold on to the rock and not fall down.

I did it. I'm still alive! Yay! Go me! And I'm doing as well as anyone could be, trapped with nowhere to go, half way down a huge hole, barely hanging from a rock, and with her arms hurting like hell.

She stayed still for a minute, afraid of falling down if she moved, and she was starting to get overwhelmed by the pain coursing through her. She began to panic, when she suddenly saw Willow right in front of her, the redhead's emerald eyes sparkling with trust. Then she heard her sweet voice.

I believe in you Tara. You can make it. Come back to me.

And then the image was gone, but that was all it took for Tara to find her strength again.

Ok, so this isn't exactly a picnic, but it could be worse. I could be walking naked through downtown.

Tara couldn't help but smile and roll her eyes at the stupidity of that last thought.

It seems that my quirky sense of humor's still working, though I can't really decide whether that's a good thing or bad, Tara thought mockingly. She felt more relaxed somehow, and she decided it was time to look for a way out of there.

As she looked down, she saw that at the bottom of the hole there was an abundance of menacing spikes ready to impale her if she should fall. She swallowed hard and averted her eyes from the awaiting barbs. But the necessity to find a fast way out of her predicament made her continue to search. This time she noticed that the wall had more outcroppings like the one she was grabbing, and also that further down, near the spikes and behind her, there seemed to be a hole in the wall.

She let the information she'd gathered sink in for a minute before coming up with a plan.

Hmm... My arms are sore but maybe, just maybe, I can let myself go, grab the next rock, and continue to do that until I'm at the same level as the hole down there. If I'm lucky, there'll be a way out of here from that cavern.

She waited another moment to weigh her options before starting her journey down.

This is the point of no return. If I start to go down, there's no way I can come back up. The stones are too far apart for me to be able to climb up. So if I get trapped down there, that's it. On the other hand, there's nothing for me here, and if I stay here too long my arms are going to give out anyway and I'm going to fall down to the spikes.

When she decided beyond a doubt that the only way to go was down, she paused for another second to contemplate the whole operation.

It was a difficult maneuver. If she were too fast or too slow to grab the next stone, she'd miss it. Of course she had another just below, but the further she fell, the faster she'd be moving, making it harder for her to hold on and not slip.

Actually, considering how my first fall was way too long for my own good and my arms are hurting so bad, I really don't think I'll be able to grab the second stone if I miss the first one. So this seems to be a 'do or die' kind of deal.

Tara breathed deeply, let go of the stone she was holding, and grabbed the next one.

She stopped just for a second before repeating the process, and she did it again and again until she was sure she couldn't make it any further. Fortunately, by the time she was completely drained, she was level with the cavern and only a jump away from reaching her goal. It would be an easy jump... if she weren't so utterly fatigued. Her hands were bruised and bleeding from the impact with the stones, and she could barely move her arms - which were sore and stiff from the pressure constantly being placed on them.

She willed herself to ignore the pain for a couple of seconds more. She could afford to feel sorry for herself after she safely reached the cavern's entrance, but now was just not the time.

She thought of Willow once more. Give me strength, Willow. Lift my body now as you always lift my heart and spirit. And with the redhead's name on her lips like a promise, and on her mind like a prayer, she called on all the strength left inside her body and made one last jump.

She saw the spikes pass beneath her and in a second it was over. She landed hard on the safety of the platform near the entrance to the cavern, her legs crumpling beneath her as she twisted, sending her butt-first to the floor.

She just sat there awkwardly for a moment, feeling for the first time the true pain in her arms as her circulation was reestablished. Tara was thankful for the pain, for it offered proof that she was indeed alive.

After a long moment she decided she should try to regain some strength and after that, bandage her bruised hands. She still had to find a way out, and the better she was feeling, the more her chances of getting out improved. She'd also have to deal with the whole, 'hide your wounds so it doesn't look so bad' thing in case she did get out of this abyss. She'd tell Willow about the 'hole incident' of course, but there was no need to worry her further by showing the redhead just how close she'd been to not making it.

So Tara took a protein ball out of her backpack and ate every last bit of it, following it up with a vitamin complex and a fair amount of water. She was starting to feel better, so she retrieved the isopropyl alcohol from her pack and poured it liberally on her hands to clean the cuts. She winced when she felt the stinging sensation, but continued on, selecting some bandages and tying them around her hands. After a little while, she was satisfied with her work and feeling much better.

She rested a couple of minutes more before she got up to search the cavern. She couldn't see a thing, so she lit a flare.

With the new illumination, she saw a golden object lying on the ground of the cavern; the rabbit mask. She felt tempted to laugh out loud when she saw it there. It was a sign that she'd be able to get out. There was no way the mask would have been concealed in a location from which there was no exit.

And I probably came in through the roughest entrance. At least I hope so, because I don't think I can go through something like this again in the next few minutes.

Tara put the mask in her bag and continued to walk to the end of the cavern. At its end there was a small, circular hole about waist-high. The blonde bent down to look through it and saw that the tunnel was bended up apparently heading for the surface.

Couldn't this thing be a little bigger? Now, in addition to my bruised and scraped hands, I'm going to have bruised knees and elbows. Great! When I get out of here I can start to practice my in-line skating skills... I'm already hurt in all the right places, so why not?

Now that she was sure she was going to survive, the blonde was indulging herself in all kinds of complaints. She remembered to look at her watch for the first time since she'd fallen down, and found that she had half an hour until her meeting with Willow.

I'll have to hurry, then. I can't just leave such a lovely lady waiting. And well, she is a redhead, so it's probably a good idea not to piss her off. She smiled to herself and entered the tunnel.

She started crawling to the surface. As she moved, dirt started to fall from above, the roof of the tunnel raining debris. Her vision blurred and she felt the sting as dirt entered her eyes. Out of reflex she rubbed them, which only made the situation worse. It quickly became nearly unbearable, and it took all of her remaining will power not to freak out completely in the middle of the narrow tunnel. Her arm muscles were exhausted and tender, she couldn't use her hands, had to crawl on her elbows, and could feel her knees and elbows being cut and bruised by little stones that covered the passage. Still, she kept it together and continued her progress.

Small movements, Tara. Left, right, left, right. Focus on moving. That'll get me back to Willow. Mmm... Willow! Left! Right! Left! Right!

It took her nearly the entire thirty minutes to reach the surface.

As soon as she was out of the hole and on her feet, she took off running without caring about traps or anything else. All she cared about was reaching Willow.

She managed to get to the door with one minute to spare.

Continue to The Artifact Chapter Nine

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