Willow awoke to find herself tangled amidst downy soft sheets. As she peered through her eyelashes she saw the harsh glare of sunlight. With one hand she stripped away the sheets to let the warmth pour onto her naked body. She stretched out fully and a sigh of pure delight escaped her lips. As she lay contentedly in the sun her arm flopped out from her body and probed at the empty expanse of bed next to her, searching for the warm and equally naked body that she knew she ought to find. When her fingers touched nothing but sun-warmed cloth, Willow finally opened her eyes. She confirmed that she was in the bed alone and sat up, furrowing her brow as she searched her bedroom. It was exactly the same as she had left it...although why she had left it at all, Willow could not remember. There was nothing pressing weighing on her mind that she had to do today, not that she knew what day of the week it was let alone her schedule, and she decided to curl back up into a little ball in the sunshine.
Moments later, Willow heard the sound of soft footsteps padding across the floor of her room and a small smile crossed her face. Keeping her eyes closed, she stretched out towards the sound with her hand.
"There you are," she whispered, "Come back to bed, baby."
Fingers touched her own, just the tips at first before Willow found herself grasping an icy cold fingers and then an entire hand. Strange, Tara's fingers were always warm. Willow opened her eyes and found herself staring into the parched white features of Bob...
Willow sat up with a huge start and her forehead smashed straight into something hard and unmoveable. She groaned and flopped backwards, thankfully finding something supporting her back. After she had angrily rubbed her head for a few seconds she opened her eyes to find herself staring out of a car window with a foreign countryside rolling by outside. Willow's eyes drifted across the flat, brown expanse of grassland, bordered in the distance by a long range of cragged, snow-capped mountains. Only long lines of wire fences and flocks of sheep broke the monotonous beauty of the country.
Willow's gaze then shifted to the straight stretch of road that lay before the vehicle in which she rode, before finally looking across at Faith perched in the driver's seat. She glared in response to Faith's smirk and tried to stretch in her seat. Her eyes fell back onto the road for a few seconds and then widened in horror.
"Faith, for fuck's sake you're on the wrong side of the road!" Willow yelped in a mortified voice when she saw they were indeed driving on the left.
Willow's outburst merely caused Faith's smirk to break into outright laughter before she replied, "Not if I'm in New Zealand...which I am. Nice to see you were able to forget the twelve hour flight where we were sandwiched between a man who snored like a freight train and that six year old child who kept kicking me!"
"Oh," Willow muttered absently, "Of course...no wonder there are lots of sheep everywhere."
Faith wiped the smile from her face and replaced it with a slightly more sensitive expression, "Have a drink of water, you look like shit. There's half a chicken sandwich somewhere around here too..."
Faith fished around in the pile of candy wrappers and water bottles littering the space between their seats and fished out a half eaten sandwich, thankfully re-wrapped. She passed it across to Willow who was already taking a huge gulp of water.
Wiping her lips, Willow pulled down the sun visor above her head and glanced in the tiny mirror. Faith was right, she did look like shit. Her skin was waxy pale and looked as though it were drawn too tightly across her face. Dark circles hung beneath her eyes making them look sunken. Her hair was bound up into a scruffy ponytail but half of it had fallen out and was hanging limply around her face. She glanced down at the thick sandwich in her lap and immediately felt her stomach lurch uncomfortably as though it were threatening to rebel should she dare to try and eat it.
"Well if you're not going to eat it, I will!" Faith announced as her hand darted over to Willow's lap and snatched the morsel up, she continued talking with her mouth full of sandwich, "You know, I'm not surprised that you don't remember the flight, you've slept every moment that we've been in a plane or a car since leaving LAX yesterday...or today, whatever! I can never get it straight."
"Where are we? Are we almost there?" Willow flipped the visor back up and glanced around for any sign of the map she remembered purchasing after landing at Auckland International Airport, their first stop on New Zealand soil.
"We're about two hours out of Christchurch," Faith didn't appear to be consulting any map, "And we're headed in the right direction if you're thinking I've gotten us lost...although you're going to be the one responsible for putting us in the wrong country altogether...I mean, why the hell in that sword thingee in New Zealand?"
Willow remembered her dream of meeting the coven and the cryptic words that were all the clue she had as to the whereabouts of the Gladius. She quoted them again for Faith's benefit, "Travel to the highest mountain at the edge of the world, in a land almost unknown when the dark power was originally sealed and yet not unreachable."
"Yeah, yeah," Faith replied, "That could be any number of places, but you're leaving out the part where you're dragging us to New Zealand because of what you saw in a dumb-arse movie!"
"I know it's here," Willow replied firmly, "I remember the long mountain range in my dream and I should have realised sooner but it was exactly the same as the opening of one of the Lord of the Rings films...long, cragged mountains covered in snow...you'll just have to trust me on this one Faith, I'm right, I know I am."
"You do know how much is riding on your hunch don't you?" Faith commented, a little more harshly than she intended.
The slayer instantly regretted her tone as she glanced across at Willow to find her trembling slightly in her seat. Faith reached across and laid a gentle hand on Willow's thigh. At first she thought Willow was going to retreat back into her own thoughts but eventually the redhead managed to calm herself.
"Hands, Faith," Willow commented with a ghost of a smile, nodding down towards Faith's hand lying on her thigh, "Hands verging on naughty touching."
Faith gave Willow's thigh a playful whack, glad to see that she retained at least a small semblance of her former self inside the worn out body that had to adapt to too much, too fast.
The pair drove onwards for a further half an hour, the flat farmland gradually replaced by more mountainous terrain as they left the plains behind and drove into the Southern Alps. As the road became narrower, Faith continued driving until they reached a small, faux European village dominated by small hotels and Alpine Guiding businesses. The little cluster of buildings were completely dwarfed by the mountain ranges surrounding them. Willow felt all too small when she stepped down from the SUV. Her legs were more than a little shaky as she closed the door behind her and took a few exploratory steps. She heard Faith slam her own door shut and move around to the rear of the vehicle. In minutes she had their brand new hiking packs containing the gear that they had picked up a few hours previously sitting on the ground ready to go.
Willow glanced over at the packs adorned with climbing gear hanging from various straps and down at her own attire. Faith was already rearing to go, bent over lacing her climbing boots as Willow wrinkled her nose at the bright yellow jacket she wore.
"I feel like I'm radioactive or something," Willow zipped the jacket up to her neck and flexed her arms within its confines.
"I'm sorry," Faith's own jacket was a far more tasteful red, "I didn't realise this was a fashion show."
Faith finished lacing her boots and snatched up a green woollen hat. She planted it securely on Willow's head, pulling it snug down over the redhead's ears.
"There, matches your eyes...lovely," Faith commented as though that was the end of the matter, she then moved to pick up Willow's pack and motioned for her to turn around so she could help her into it.
Clearly Faith intended to set out immediately despite their exhaustion and while Willow knew time was against them, she was sure she would collapse less than half way up the mountain.
"Have you done this before?" Willow asked gingerly as Faith helped her slip the heavy pack on her back, carabinas and ropes dangled against her legs.
"I'm not an expert...but I'm sure I can get us up there safely...I'm more concerned about wherever 'there' might be," Faith pulled Willow's straps tightly across her chest, "You will recognise the place won't you?"
Willow glanced up at the peak in the distance and shuddered involuntarily. Aoraki/Mount Cook, at over 12,000 feet high, was the highest mountain in New Zealand and was 12,000 feet higher than any mountain she had ever climbed. She thought back to her dream and the nightmarish sounds of the wind howling through that icy cave where the coven had told her the sword was to be found.
"I'll recognise it, I don't know how to find it...but I'll recognise it," Willow shivered as she said it.
Willow stumbled. She went face first into the wet snow and ice that was beneath her and lay there for a few moments despite the icy wetness creeping through her clothing to her skin. Already frozen to the bone, Willow couldn't care less about lying in the snow as she felt she could not possibly get colder than she already was. It was only Faith's strong grip beneath her armpits that succeeded in heaving her back to her feet. A ruddy cheeked Faith stood in front of Willow and brushed off the loose snow from her clothing with a gloved hand.
Willow nodded her thanks and propelled Faith forward with a slight push on her pack. She knew Faith was only stopping out of concern for her, but this was not a time to keep to the pace of the slowest person. It was a time to push on to the very limit of endurance. There were lives of friends and family at stake.
They had been pushing through tundra, ice-covered rock, gravel and snow for the better part of twenty-six hours, give or take a few. Each hour seemed the same to Willow apart from the six sleepless hours spent huddled in their alpine tent with stodgy protein bars sitting in their bellies. Faith was growing increasingly tense as to their complete lack of direction but Willow insisted that they weren't directionless...just searching. Every rock, overhang or outcropping seemed familiar but she remembered nothing from her dream until she glanced up at the call of a circling bird high overhead. Willow squinted in the harsh reflected light and stopped walking to stare.
Faith continued on for several metres before glancing over her shoulder to find that Willow had stopped, she turned and trudged back.
"Up there," Willow said simply.
Faith peered in the direction Willow was looking and saw a steep ice bank leading up to a rocky ledge about thirty feet up.
"Are you sure, Will?" Faith began undoing the straps of her backpack, "Because I sure as hell don't want to climb up anywhere to find out I only have to come back down again because you've taken us the wrong fucking way."
"The cave is just past that ledge up there..." Willow paused and shrugged, "Okay, I was seeing it from above last time but I'm sure it's the same one...send me up first if you're..."
"Whoa there, Red," Faith interrupted as she knelt to tighten her crampons, "I haven't brought you all this way for you to break your scrawny little neck, Tara will never forgive me if I bring you back broken."
"I think I'm a little broked already," Willow commented somewhat gratefully.
She stood back and watched Faith begin to work her way up the face using her crampons and ice axes, the Slayer of course making it look all too easy with her methodical movements. All too soon she was up and had a rope secured to give Willow an added measure of security as she ascended. Taking her own ice axes, Willow began a far less graceful climb to join Faith at the top. She reached out to accept Faith's hand up the final few feet and she found herself standing on the ledge. She was instantly brought back to the faux reality of her dream. She remembered falling off the higher ledge just above the one on which she now stood and landing in soft, fluffy snow. The snow underfoot now was anything but soft, it was frozen and dangerous.
Willow then glanced off to her left where she had seen the coven. There were no elderly ladies standing there now, but there was the gaping black mouth of the cave with its teeth-like icicles almost covering the entrance. It was even more foreboding in reality and she shivered violently.
"You're taking us in there?" Faith asked dubiously, the fact that the Slayer sounded nervous hardly inspired Willow.
Willow nodded and gamely started out towards the entrance. She felt a growing sense of dread with each step she took. A strange impression in the ice at the entrance caught Willow's eye and although it gave her the heebie-jeebies to be anywhere near that dark, gaping hole, she hunkered down to get a better look. In front of her were a series of perfectly frozen footprints making their way towards the cave and then stopping abruptly. She reached out and traced the one nearest to her. Willow remembered standing in front of the cave in her dream with bare feet and wearing nothing but her snoopy pyjamas. The footprints looked to be about her size...
A shadow fell over the footprints and Willow realised Faith was standing over her shoulder, no doubt wondering what had captured Willow's attention.
"Am I dreaming, Faith?" Willow asked quietly as she rose to her feet and turned to face her friend.
Willow met Faith's confused expression for a few moments before searching the surrounding snow, half expecting to see a whole series of footprints indicating where the coven had stood in her dream. Faith was well used to Willow's odd comments and she immediately slapped Willow hard across her cheek to prove her point. A red flush spreading across her cheek, Willow turned to glare at Faith.
"No, you're not," Faith replied, "And if this was a dream then you can bet you'd be standing here by yourself...I'd be somewhere in Australia playing beach volleyball with hot, sun-tanned chicks in bikinis."
Still pissed at being slapped, Willow did not appear to be amused by Faith's flippant comment. She turned her back on the Slayer and alternated between staring at the cave's entrance and her own frozen footprints.
"Sorry Will," Faith slapped Willow on the back, "You could join me in Australia, I'm sure dreaming about playing beach volleyball doesn't count as cheating on Tara."
"I'd hope that Tara would be one of the hot chicks wearing a bikini," Willow replied with her best attempt at levity, trying to imagine that sun drenched scene in her mind.
That beach in Australia was a far cry from the alpine wilderness in which the pair now found themselves. They managed to smile at one another before strapping on the helmets they both carried and switching on the little LED lights affixed to the front.
"All go?" Faith lightly whacked the top of Willow's helmet.
Willow nodded, mindless babble concealing her absolute terror, "I've always wanted to wear one of these...although I never imagined actually wearing it into a cave...even though that's what you use them for of course, I kinda thought I'd wear it around the house...all those night time trips to the refrigerator where you risk a nasty accident falling down the stairs."
Faith began by hacking away several of the icicles that covered the entrance, creating a hole big enough for the two women to enter. Willow winced with each hack at the ice, as though they were wounding a creature rather than mere frozen water. Even the wind seemed to howl with anger, whipping past their bodies. Faith seemed to have overcome her early nervousness and entered without pausing, her backpack scraping against the ice. Willow followed as Faith disappeared within the cave, a few moments later the beam of her headlamp picked her out continuing carefully into the cave. It became clear that the cave mouth gradually became a tunnel stretching downwards towards the heart of the mountain. Willow was too exhausted to babble further and they descended in relative silence save for their combined hoarse breathing, crunching footsteps and the constant trickle of running water. All too soon the cave mouth was a distant prick of light behind them. They rounded a corner and it was gone altogether. Pitch blackness stretched out on all sides of the feeble light emitted by their two helmet lights. Faith paused momentarily to scratch a direction marker on the wall with a thick piece of chalk.
As Willow walked she began to feel at the tips of her fingers and toes burn painfully, as cold limbs did when they were warmed. She brushed it off, thinking that the air inside the cave was warmer than out. The burning gradually gave way to comfortable warmth that continued to spread throughout her body. It was a marked change from the mind numbing cold she had experience during their trek up the mountain. Willow gratefully gave herself over to the warmth and in her exhaustion she did not dwell on it. She continued plodding down the tunnel after Faith.
"It's fuckin' freezing in here!" Faith gasped after almost half an hour of silence, she glanced over her shoulder at Willow.
Willow noticed the almost blue tinge to the skin of Faith's face and the heavy mist that issued from her mouth each time she drew a breath. While her own breath frosted in front of her face, Willow felt her cheeks to be quite warm. Faith must have noticed too as she stopped to look Willow up and down, checking her for signs of fatigue. As Willow drew to a halt she was reminded just how exhausted she was, but her body was warm and functioning well.
"You okay?" Faith asked, taking a sip of water before passing the bottle onto Willow.
"My limbs are jelly but the cold's passed," Willow replied after taking a long swig, "Are you sure it's cold in here...I'm actually thinking about taking off my jacket."
Faith peeled off her glove and reached out to cup Willow's cheek, feeling just how warm Willow was for herself, "I'm freezing my arse off and you're almost burning up, maybe we'd better stop for a rest and check you out properly."
Willow took another sip of water before handing the bottle back to Faith, "I feel fine, seriously...maybe caving just agrees with me?"
Faith stared at Willow dubiously, "Not likely...I think there might be other forces at play here, magical ones for instance."
As soon as the words were out of Faith's mouth Willow felt sick to her stomach. While the thought had not crossed her mind she now felt that this was because she had subconsciously suppressed it out of fear. With Faith staring at her as though she were about to self-combust, Willow realised that the warmth spreading through her body was akin to that she felt when she embraced the current of power running through her veins. Although this time she was doing nothing to call on it, there were no external factors drawing it out as with the desire to protect Tara from the vamps in the graveyard. It was as though she were being drawn towards something. Experimentally, Willow turned around and retraced her steps. It was imperceptible at first, but with the more steps she took the colder she became. Warmth fled from her fingers and toes all too quickly. When she had gone far enough to confirm her speculation, she gladly returned to Faith's side and felt the welcome warmth flood back into her extremities.
"Magical forces check," Willow stated reluctantly.
"You know you should be going first then don't you?" Faith replied, nodding her head in the direction of the dark tunnel ahead.
Willow exhaled quietly, "What are we waiting for then?"
With hesitant steps at first, Willow started off down the tunnel. As she got used to the sound of Faith's confidant footsteps directly behind, her pace increased. After a while, the darkness ahead did not worry her in the slightest. It was simply a case of getting the job done, get the sword...and get out again. Once out with the sword was another story altogether and she would worry about that when she came to it.
Willow had lost track of how long she had been leading them when she suddenly lost her sense of direction. She felt cold and yet the tunnel stretched on ahead without branching off and had done so for the past five minutes. Retracing her steps she felt the warmth return but it made no sense. That was until she glanced upwards, the beam of her headlamp shining up a vertical wall. She could just make out a ledge and the darkness of an opening high above. Faith's headlamp was soon shining in the same direction as the Slayer realised where their path lay. Straight up a vertical wall of wet, jagged rock.
"I'll be taking the lead again then?" Faith began stripping off her backpack and outer jacket, "Unless you can suddenly fly?"
Faith re-strapped her insulated climbing gloves one last time before starting up the rock face. With each movement the gear hanging from her harness swayed and rattled. When she had climbed ten feet of the face, she anchored herself with the first of her spring loaded cams, shoving it securely into a likely crack and releasing its trigger. Down below, Willow took up the slack on the rope which connected her to Faith. As with the ice face, Faith made short work of the climb. It was as though she was climbing a ladder instead of vertical rock. Willow continued to stare up at Faith even when all she could see was her light bobbing in the darkness. When it disappeared altogether Willow's blood ran cold.
"Faith!" Willow yelled into the nothingness above her head.
Several faint echoes were all that responded until she saw the glare of a headlamp shining down at her. Squinting up at the light she realised Faith had momentarily disappeared over the ledge.
"Strap yourself in!" Faith called, her voice echoed around the cave.
Willow double checked her harness to confirm that she was ready to climb, "All set, coming up!"
"I'll pull you up!" was Faith's response.
Willow paused on her first handhold and glanced upwards in surprise as though she could see Faith and the determined expression she knew would be on her face.
"You can't pull me!" Willow began to protest before a sudden tug jerked her several feet into the air, "Okay, apparently you can."
After one too many jerky tugs and more than a few painful collisions with the rock face, Willow crawled up over the ledge. She scrambled a safe distance from the edge and collapsed with an exhausted gasp.
"You're tired!" an out of breath Faith commented acidly, "Spare a thought for the one who had to haul your fat arse all the way up here!"
"You could have made the trip a little smoother!" Willow shot back, unclipping her harness.
Willow reached out a hand to help Faith to her feet and they both peered back down the face they had just come up. Both women were fervently hoping their destination was within reach as their packs remained at the bottom of the rock face.
"If we leave this stuff here for the return trip," Faith indicated the rope and its anchoring cams, "How much have we got left?"
Willow fingered the rope bag dangling from her harness, "Just what's in here."
Faith nodded as though satisfied, "Should be enough...after you, Red."
Allowing her inbuilt homing system to guide them, Willow took the lead once more. The new passage was far narrower and as her beam swayed from side to side over the tunnel interior she noticed that it had a regularity and evenness to it, as though it had been hewn with great determination into the very heart of the rock. When Willow reached out a gloved hand to touch the rock she felt a sudden jolt. After initially snatching her hand away, Willow reached out again and trailed her fingers along the surface. She was prepared for the sudden shock which she now allowed to gradually give way to a crackling energy.
"Red?" Faith asked quietly, "Are you tripping out on me again or what?"
Willow glanced quickly back over her shoulder, "No, it's just that...don't worry, it's stupid."
Faith then reached out and grabbed Willow by the elbow, pulling her back a few steps so they were walking side by side.
"Bullshit!" Faith hissed in Willow's ear, "Nothing you're going through is stupid!"
"What's happening to me is stupid!" Willow shot back before biting her lip to halt the rash flow of words, she sighed in exasperation and continued, "For want of a better word. I'm a cop...and that's all I ever wanted to be. Buffy and I working as a team, actually doing something that made a real difference in the world. Now Buffy's dead and I find myself right smack in the middle of something huge that threatens the people I've come to love most in the world, not to mention the fact that I've gone from being a model of self-control and sanity to this freak who doesn't understand and can't use all these powers running through her body."
The last few words burst like a torrent from Willow's lips, seeming to confirm her self-confessed loss of sanity. Faith however, was not concerned in the slightest at being hundreds of metres underground with someone on the verge of suffering a breakdown.
She simply shrugged and deadpanned, "That sucks."
Willow glanced across at Faith and realised that the two simple words summed everything up rather nicely. It's simplicity also made her tirade seem foolish and pointless.
"You were about to say something before you started out on your little self-pitying episode and I'm just dying to hear what it was," Faith added.
Willow managed a ghost of a smile and resumed trailing her hand along the sides of the tunnel. Faith thought her face seemed more than a little pale in the strange light of their headlamps.
"It feels as though I know this place," Willow replied, continuing to feel some sort of energy flow through her gloved fingers.
As she walked, keeping in contact with the wall, Willow realised that the feeling emanating from the walls had changed from being an electrical shock to something that was almost comforting. Keeping her hand on the wall made her feel a little safer and not so lost.
"Like you knew where to find the cave?" Faith asked as she dropped back into place behind Willow, "Because you'd been here in your dream?"
In the light of her headlamp, she watched Willow shake in her head slowly. Faith also noticed that Willow's pace had increased as her steps became more confident. She seemed to plant each foot on the floor of the tunnel as though she had already travelled the same path many times.
"It's different, I know I've never been here...dreaming or otherwise and yet I feel each drop of sweat that it took to build this tunnel," Willow mused, casting her eyes over every facet of the tunnel's surface as she walked, "It was a labour of love...but it's clouded by an overwhelming sensation of grief. Whoever made this tunnel suffered in its making..."
"Lovely," Faith commented sarcastically, "Then they could have made it a lot shorter."
The Slayer glanced down and saw her bootlace had become undone at some point and she knelt to retie it. Willow heard Faith stop to tie up her shoelace but continued walking, knowing she would not be far behind. Her light showed the tunnel broadening just ahead and it wasn't until she had travelled a few more metres that she realised it had ended and another chamber began. If there had been any doubt about the man-made nature of the tunnel's construction, the chiselled steps that Willow now had to step down erased it completely. Just four steps led to the floor of what appeared to be a semi-spherical chamber, the walls tapering up smoothly to meet several metres above Willow's head. Bouncing lightly off the last step, Willow crossed the floor to stand directly in the centre. Her light shone in every direction but all she could see was solid stone. There was no continuation of the tunnel, nor any other opening. She turned back to see Faith standing on the top step and threw up her hands in exasperation.
"This is one big frilly nightmare!" Willow spun around on the spot and stopped when she was facing Faith once more with a confused expression on her face, "Climb mountain...check, enter cave that looks like the mouth of hell...check...follow magical forces...check, so where's the exit?"
"You might be standing on it, Red," Faith indicated downwards with a nod of her head, almost laughing at Willow's little checklist.
"What?" Willow glanced at the stone floor beneath her feet.
At first Willow noticed nothing but rock, until she realised that there were lines etched beneath her feet. She twirled around once more although this time with her light shining downwards so she could make out the circular pattern surrounding her.
"Symbols," Willow whispered, recognising them instantly as being very similar to the ones which had baffled her and Buffy during their first introduction to the Society and led to her meeting with Tara.
It had been the first day of the rest of her life. Willow fell to her hands and knees and traced her gloved hand around the ice-encrusted symbol beneath her.
Faith was trying to ignore the foreboding chills running down her spine when she thought she saw a glint of light radiate outwards from where Willow was crouched. Seconds later it happened again and this time she clearly saw a pale blue light dart out from beneath Willow. The light flooded outwards, tracing each of the lines and symbols that made up the pattern spreading across the chamber floor. It continued to radiate, pulsing outwards until each of the symbols and interlocking lines were glowing. The chamber was filled with an eerie, pale blue light.
"Ah, Red," Faith began slowly, thinking that surely Willow would have noticed the glow all around her.
It was only when Willow lifted her head to look at Faith that she noticed.
"Did I do that?" Willow asked hesitantly, "Faith?"
"Um, I think it might be best if you hopped off the big, glowing circle," Faith suggested quickly, motioning with her hand.
Willow began to stand and added, "In the movies it always seems to be about now that the floor gives..."
It all happened in two thunderous seconds, stopping Willow in mid-sentence and throwing Faith backwards off her feet. The sound of cracking and falling rock filled her head and reverberated throughout her entire body. It felt as though her bones were going to jar right out of her skin. She wrapped her arms over her head as showers of dust, grit and rock shards burst over her. The rocks had barely stopped falling when Faith rolled over and stared where Willow had been half-standing in the middle of the glowing symbols only moments before. The light of her headlamp revealed nothing but swirling clouds of dust billowing from the chamber where the floor had collapsed. The noise died shortly afterwards and was replaced by the shifting and grinding of rocks every few seconds as they settled wherever they had fallen. Faith judged that the shaft was not deep and she confirmed it for herself when she made her way to the edge and peered down. At first she saw nothing but the infernal swirling dust, however, as it settled she made out some of the rubble lying about forty feet down below.
"Hey, Red!" Faith croaked, feeling the icy dust clogging her throat, "Red! You down there?"
Her own echo answered with the same question and she angrily slammed her fist into the rock beside her. Faith knew exactly what she wanted to blame for the floor collapsing; it was the damn mountain itself. It had lured Willow to this point and swallowed her whole. She peered over the edge once again to see the sides of the shaft had an almost smooth finish with no fissures or protrusions to suggest the possibility of climbing down without rope...and all their remaining rope was at the bottom of the shaft with Willow.
"You want the rope don't you," an incredibly faint voice called from down below, mimicking Faith's own thoughts.
Faith knelt down on the edge of the shaft with her light straining through the darkness to try and pick out Willow, "Rope would help...I knew I shouldn't have left the bag with you, you clumsy oaf! Are you hurt?"
There she was. Faith could only just pick out Willow's yellow climbing jacket in the midst of the gloom below. She appeared to be lying on her back atop the rubble. Given the distance and the dust, she could not tell if the other woman was injured.
Willow was lying on her back, spreadeagled but almost cushioned by the rocks beneath her. She tested her limbs one by one to find that each still worked reasonably well, if a little bruised and stiff. Faith's light was almost a pinprick high above and it was only when she rose into a sitting position that she realised her own headlamp was no longer working. The light from above barely illuminated her immediate surroundings and she found herself staring out at nothing but darkness. Anything could have been out there.
"Nothing broke...I think!" Willow called back, eyes darting nervously from left to right to scan the darkness.
"Stay put!" Faith called down from above, "I'm going back for that rope!"
The pathetic light shining from above disappeared and Willow's world disappeared into pitch black. She was left sitting with only the sound of her own breathing and the occasional shifting of rock. After a few moments she was calm enough to pay attention to her surroundings, or at least what she could sense of them. Now that most of the dust had settled, Willow could smell the air and found it musty as though the chamber had been sealed off for a long time. She also had the feeling that whatever space was out there in the darkness, it was not massive.
The sensations that had coursed through her body as she followed the tunnel, and the earlier warmth she had felt, had disappeared altogether. She figured that it either meant she had found what she was searching for...or had lost it altogether. Without waiting for Faith, Willow began making a few exploratory movements to test the rock beneath her. However, the fact that she could move meant absolutely nothing if she could not see. Willow removed her helmet and experimentally poked at her headlamp, her fingers ran across sharp broken plastic and she realised that it had smashed.
"C'mon, Will, you're all down with this magic stuff...you just need a little light," Willow whispered to herself, Great, I think the dark is driving me nuts already...talking to myself. "But light is good...what in the frilly heck would the spell for light be?"
Willow clicked her fingers and of course nothing happened. She ran through a host of silly little phrases more for the purposes of hearing the sound of her own voice than actually trying to work some sort of light spell. It was only when she half-heartedly said, 'Illumé,' that something happened. All of a sudden Willow noticed her hand was glowing a rather vibrant gold, steadily increasing in intensity. She yelped in surprise and shook her hand as though it was on fire before she realised that she could see. Willow exhaled loudly and held out her hand palm upwards. She now had to advert her eyes from the light it shone that strongly. A few moments later she saw out of the corner of her eye that the light had risen up from her hand and was forming into a hovering ball. Hesitantly, she withdrew her hand and the ball continued to hover unsupported.
Able to turn her attentions away from the ball, Willow took in her surroundings. She already knew that she was sitting on a large pile of rock so that was no surprise, she was more interested in what lay beyond. Cautiously, she rose to her feet and balanced herself from rock to rock as the glowing orb bobbed along just above her shoulder. Willow jumped down onto the uncovered cave floor and started moving forward. As she did she saw cave walls hemming in on either side but the way forward stretched into blackness.
Willow stopped and glanced back with the thought that she ought to wait for Faith. However, the compulsion to keep going was strong and she gave into it, knowing Faith would follow as quickly as possible. So she started out alone with only the strange golden light to keep her company. It bobbed along, illuminating each section of the cave wall as she walked. At first it was just bare, unadorned rock identical to that which she and Faith had travelled through earlier. Then the inscriptions began, mere lines at first before evolving into the same complex symbols on the collapsed cave floor. Although she knew she would not be tempted to touch them in a hurry, Willow folded her arms just to make sure.
The light began to reflect off a wall up ahead, the end of the short tunnel. The first thing Willow's eyes fell upon after the wall, was a dark shape huddled against a stone table in the centre of the tunnel. She froze, her last footstep remaining half-completed. To her horror the globe did not stop.
"Oy, you, come back here!" Willow hissed angrily as though it were a dog or a child.
Oblivious to Willow's commands, the orb did not stop until it hovered directly over the stone table. Willow's eyes picked up the glint of metal but it was concealed by the shape huddled over it. With the light above it, Willow could clearly see that it was a person, or at least something that looked very much like a person, kneeling on the floor with their head and arms resting on the table in front of them. Whoever it was, was clad in a long cape of scarlet dyed fur that fell in folds down over their body before fanning out on the cave floor around them. The hood was left folded back, away from the head to reveal blonde hair that shone like spun gold in the light of the orb. The hair instantly reminded Willow of...
"Tara," the whispered word filled the chamber.
Willow's mind raced, she knew for certain that Tara was safe in a hospital thousands of miles away...or was she? Before she knew quite what she was doing, she had crossed the distance that separated her from the kneeling figure. As she approached, her nostrils were assaulted by the smell of decay and she cringed back slightly. It was a person...or rather, it had been a long time ago. Now it was a skull with a few clinging leathery skin remnants. The chin was resting on sleeves with bony hands protruding from the cuffs. The hair which had seemed so vibrant beneath the golden light was like dull straw. Willow stood, transfixed, unable to tear her eyes away from whoever it was that had died down here, alone and in the dark. The bones themselves did not unnerve her, their location did.
In death the arms lay across the sword that Willow sought, its blade also dulled with age and neglect. Even though the sword was the object she had come to claim, her eyes were drawn to something else, a small object trapped within the cage of bones that had once been a hand. Willow knelt closer to clearly make out the tarnished gold piece of jewellery that this person had held in death. Gingerly, she reached out but stopped just short of touching the bones. Curiosity compelled her and she moved again, this time picking the item out from beneath the fingers with careful movements. Her skin brushed against the bone and she jerked, feeling the same shock that she had felt in the tunnel. Willow snatched the object out from beneath the bones, tearing a few loose in the process, and scrambled backwards.
"Sorry!" she whispered with a grimace.
She half expected something awful to befall her for disturbing what had been a peaceful slumber but there was only the sound of her own breathing and a gentle hum thrumming from the golden orb. The object felt heavy in her hand as she lifted it to get a better look. It was a locket which had at one stage been worn around someone's neck. Rolling it around in her palm, feeling it's minutely decorated surface, Willow instinctively knew that it had been cherished. As she pulled apart the two halves she felt as though she were intruding on something intensely private. She could have heard a pin drop when she saw the miniature picture held inside, her own breathing had stopped altogether.
"Hello me," Willow commented after she finally managed a breath.
It was as though she were looking at a picture of herself...if she had ever had black hair. Features identical to her own stared back at her from the tiny painting, cracked with age. On the opposite side was an inscription, she passed her thumb across it and read,
My dearest M
She was still staring at it, wondering who the dead woman was when footsteps behind her nearly had her jumping out of her skin. Willow spun around to see Faith emerging from the shadows at a sprint. Relief was clearly spelt out in the Slayer's expression.
"Willow Rosenberg, bloody hell!" Faith grabbed Willow by both shoulders as though to check that she were really there, "I told you to stay put...when I last checked the definition of staying put did not include charging off alone!"
"Faith I'm sorry, but look at this," Willow passed the open locket to Faith, "It's me...I mean, it's not really me because it's super old...but it looks like me."
Faith stared at the picture inside the locket and her eyes widened slightly in surprise and she shrugged, "Yeah, looks a little like you I guess."
"I wonder who she was," Willow mused absently, "She certainly had good taste in women."
"Where did you get it?" Faith's eyes narrowed at Willow and she glanced at the skeleton kneeling at their feet, "You touched something didn't you? First you go charging off alone and then you touch something! You're supposed to be a detective!"
"It's not a crime scene, Faith" Willow snatched the locket back from the Slayer's hand and turned her attention to the sword lying protected beneath the arms of the skeleton, "Don't you see, it's been waiting for us...for me, I can't stand the thought of any more kids dying because of my indecision and helplessness. I'm going to get the damn sword and put an end to this whole business once and for all."
Faith cocked an eyebrow as Willow shoved the locket into her jacket pocket and turned to face the sword. It was only now that she actually took a good look at what she could see of the weapon that was the reason for their journey. From what she could see, the sword was unremarkable to say the least. Willow wasn't sure what she had been expecting it to look like but it was something a little grander than the plain, dull blade with its simple hilt and helve covered in scraps of leather. Tentatively she reached down and wrapped her hand around the helve, taking up a secure grip as she prepared to draw it out from beneath the bones that covered it.
"Red," Faith growled warningly, she eyed the seemingly inert sword even as Willow began to slide it out with a single-minded determination.
The sword emerged with a soft grinding sound as it slid along the rock, the bones shifted slightly as the object was removed from beneath them. As the entire length of the blade emerged, Willow lifted it away from the table and held it in front of her. As far as swords went, it was slender and short, not at all like the hefty that movie stars appeared to wield with such ease. Willow's own small hand gripped it easily, the helve appearing to have been made with her in mind. She turned it over to look at both sides of the double-edged blade but they were identical, dull, unpolished steel.
"This is it I guess," Willow stated simply, she had expected the sword to react much in the same way as the locket or the tunnel walls but she felt absolutely nothing.
"Great, let's get out of here," Faith announced in a relieved voice.
Willow nodded, still staring at the sword, "Yeah, with you on that one."
Willow was about to slide the dull sword into the waist band of her harness. As she rolled her hand over while holding the sword she noticed something odd on the back of her hand. In the golden light of the orb she saw something crawling beneath her skin. She realised it was the blood flowing through her veins gradually becoming black. It spread slowly from her fingers to the back of her hand. Willow turned her hand over and saw it continue up her wrist and, after shoving back her sleeve, up her inner arm.
Faith noticed Willow's movements and leaned closer to see what was happening, her response was immediate, "I think you should put the sword down."
"Great idea...but I can't!" Willow found her fingers unco-operative, they simply would not unclench from their grip on the sword.
Willow could not see past the skin on her inner arm but she now felt it. She could feel a deep crawling sensation moving quickly up her right arm. As soon as it hit her shoulder and spread across to her chest, Willow felt an agonising pain throughout her entire body. Her head tipped backwards as she tried to scream but no sound came out. She felt someone's hands on her own, trying to prise open the fingers that gripped the sword so tightly. Then they were gone. The light of the orb seemed to fill her vision to the point where she could see nothing else, the ceiling of the cave was gone and she felt herself move without ever leaving the spot on which she stood.
Faith had watched as Willow's body went rigid. She could tell the redhead was in pain and made up her mind to reach out and try to forcibly separate Willow from the sword. Leaping forward, Faith had wrapped both her hands around Willow's. Her own fingers tried to force Willow's open. Faith had been struggling in vain for a mere second when she felt a current ran through her body and deliver a massive shock. Her body had been torn away from Willow and hurled backwards several metres. The Slayer then hit the wall hard head first and slumped to the floor unconscious.
Faith came to a few moments later with her head thudding painfully inside her helmet. She immediately noticed that the only light in the cavern was her headlamp. The golden orb was gone...and so was Willow.