Pilgrimage (Pt IV)(Brush Knee)
A transitional chapter.Words:
4,444--- --- ---
Willow blinked, and blinked again. She wasn't sure her eyes were working, it was so dark. She couldn't even see her hand in front of her face, though she knew it was there. She couldn't remember how she'd gotten here, wherever here was, leaning back against a cold stone wall, sitting on what felt like a pile of small stones. Everything in her head was fuzzy, like the after effects of doing too much magic on an empty stomach. With no way to tell how long she'd been there.
Taking a slow, shaky breath, Willow tried to reconstruct what had happened.
She'd been exploring a side passage in the temple, trying to get a feel for the whole thing, before attempting to break the wards on the main chamber. There'd been a huge roaring sound and the ceiling in the small alcove she'd been looking in had collapsed on top of her. She could remember falling. And then nothing, until now. She must have blacked out.
Willow concentrated, going over her 'where does it hurt' checklist before attempting to move. Her head seemed okay but her entire right side was numb. She wondered if this was what shock felt like. Trying to move her right arm, she gasped at the sudden pain in her shoulder.
"Pain, not good," she said, her voice echoing oddly. Her throat felt like she'd swallowed more than the recommended amount of vampire dust. From the location of the pain, she suspected that her right shoulder was dislocated. Gingerly, she tried to move her right leg. No pain but it felt heavy, like it was weighted down by sand. Something was definitely wrong with it.
Taking another deep breath, she tried to summon her magic. Fixing her shoulder or leg, without knowing what was wrong, would take much more power than she'd had when she'd entered the temple, but hopefully she could at least do a simple light spell long enough to find her bag. There were a couple nutrient bars in it that would help with the energy issue, though she was currently feeling more nauseous than hungry.
"Luminous," she whispered. A small, yellow ball of light appeared, wobbling in front of her. In the brief minutes before it flickered and disappeared, she searched for her bag but didn't see it anywhere. Somehow she'd managed to lose it when she'd fallen. She hoped it had survived. She'd look for it again once she'd recovered some more. Her laptop and Bronwyn's knife were safely hidden by a glamour near the temple entrance, but without the staff, and with her very low magic reserves it would be very difficult to enter the inner chamber of the shrine and retrieve the artifact she'd come for.
"Stupid witch," Willow said to herself. "Take care of the arm and leg and then worry about other things." Running her left hand along her right side, she couldn't feel anything out of place. Her shoulder still hurt but it didn't feel like it was dislocated after all. Not that she could fix it if it was. She wasn't a slayer with the high pain tolerance. A couple of her ribs on her left side were tender but not painful.
Carefully maneuvering her injured arm up, Willow pressed a button on her watch to display the time, noting in surprise that she'd been in the temple for longer than she'd thought.
Shivering in the damp air, Willow could hear the faint sound of running water. A little rest would make it easier to get up, she thought. Closing her eyes, she lay back and concentrated on using her remaining energy to keep herself warm.--- --- ---
Lara cautiously inched her way around the rubble in the passageway. Her well honed ability to sense danger stopped her from stepping into a dark hole on the other side. Shining her torch through the dusty air, she could see where the collapsing wall had fallen into the hole, in front of a small alcove. Lying down, she carefully ran the light from her torch along the jagged rim. The floor of the passageway appeared to be a layer of stone on top of several feet of limestone. From the roughness of the rim, it didn't appear to have been an intentional trap. Age and the collapse of the wall onto it had caused it to fall in.
Standing back up, she put on her protective glasses, adjusting them to the low light. Carefully examining the passageway, she looked for evidence that the owner of the bag had escaped. Very faint, small footprints could be seen coming from the other end of the passageway. She grimaced when she noticed that they ended at the hole.
Not finding anything that looked strong enough to attach her line to, Lara used one of the half dozen anchors she carried with her for just such a purpose. The muffled thump as she activated it told her it had attached itself securely to the opposite wall. Running the end of her nano-carbon rope through it, she attached the free end to her harness and dropped the spool end into the hole.
Slipping on her climbing gloves, and clipping her torch to her belt, Lara lowered herself into the dark space below. Once she was below the floor, she thought she could see the far wall of the large cavern off in the distance. Looking down, she could see the cavern wall going down a dozen or so meters before sloping down at a steep angle for several hundred more before ending in a wide ledge facing a large dark area.
Lowering herself down onto the slope, Lara looked for signs of the person she assumed had fallen through the hole. Shining her torch along the slope, she could see bits of stone and marks leading down to the ledge but nothing conclusive. Using her rope, Lara rappelled down the slope.
The ledge was several meters wide. There were signs of a large object going over the edge in a direct line from the hole above. Reaching the edge, Lara looked down. Several meters down was another, much wider ledge. Directly below her was a pile of rock. Off to one side, in the dim light from her torch, she could see the small, immobile figure of a woman leaning against the wall. Moving several meters along the ledge to a clear spot, Lara quickly lowered herself down to the next ledge, unhooking herself from her rope as soon as her feet touched solid ground. Giving the edge of this ledge a quick look, Lara could finally see a large lake covering the bottom the cavern. Shaking her head in disbelief at the close call, she hurried over.
Crouching down, she examined the small woman whose features were almost familiar in the light of her torch. Removing her gloves, Lara reached over to check her pulse. When her fingers touched warm skin, Lara found herself looking into a pair of surprised eyes.--- --- ---
It would have been a nice place for privacy, Willow thought, if she were dressed warmer, and her shoulder didn't hurt. And if she could stand up.
She'd been lying there against the cold wall, meditating for at least an hour when she started hearing noises, like something rubbing against stone, on top of the moving water she'd heard earlier.
Feeling warm fingers touching her throat, Willow opened her eyes in surprise. Crouched over her, illuminated by light from a small flashlight, was a beautiful woman. She idly wondered, in a distant part of her brain, while a dozen different possible reactions rushed through her thoughts, if the woman's beauty was a result of the low light, like candles enhancing the atmosphere of a romantic dinner.
"Um, hi?" Willow said.
"Are you alright?" the woman asked, the huskiness of her voice not disguising her British accent.
"I'm alive," Willow told her. "I think I cracked a couple ribs, and did something to my right shoulder. And my right leg seems to have issues."
"Can you stand?"
"Not sure," Willow said. "It hurt too much to try earlier."
"How long have you been down here?" the woman asked, frowning at her.
"A couple hours. I think," Willow said. "I was just waiting for my leg to get over the whole falling thing before I tried again."
"It doesn't appear to be broken," she said, carefully running her hands over Willow's right hip and leg. "But your hip seems swollen. You must have banged it very hard when you fell."
"Not broken is good," Willow murmured. "Getting out of here might be good also."
"I don't believe going back the way you came is a good idea." the woman said. "We'll need another way out. The lake isn't on my map," she added.
The woman pointed out into the dark cavern. "A couple meters that way."
"Good thing I stopped here then," Willow said faintly. "You have a map?"
"Um, do you have a name?" Willow asked. "Before you do the rescue thing I'd like to know who is doing it."
"Lara Croft, at your service," she said.
"Really?" Willow tried to see past the shadows, trying to match up what she could see to what she remembered from past encounters. "I don't think we've ever been formally introduced, though Buffy seems to run into you frequently. Willow Rosenberg," she said, holding out her hand.
"I wasn't expecting to run into you here, Miss Rosenberg," Lara said. "But we can discuss that once we get you out of here."
"Willow, please, " Willow said, "is my name. How do you want to do this?"
"There should be an entrance into the temple from the lake," Lara told her. "Once I find it, I'll carry you out."
"I can't leave the temple yet," Willow said.
"Whatever you came to find can wait," Lara told her, pulling off her jacket. "Exploring a temple like this while injured can be deadly."
"You know something about the temple that I don't?" Willow asked as she leaned forward and put the jacket on with Lara's help.
"It's possible," Lara said. "But comparing notes can wait."
"Right. Sorry." Willow sighed. Buffy hadn't mentioned how alpha female Lady Croft was. But she had mentioned her tendency to carry guns that would make Xander jealous. Willow suppressed a shudder at the sight. She wasn't going to offend her rescuer because she still had issues.
"It shouldn't take longer than an hour to find it," Lara told her, "assuming it isn't hidden. Will you be fine here by yourself?"
"Yup," Willow said. "Could you keep an eye out for a knapsack? There are some things in it I don't really want to lose."
"There's one about so big," Lara said, gesturing with her hands, "near where you fell."
"That sounds like it," Willow said, smiling in relief.--- --- ---
"What about your rope?" Willow asked.
"I'll come back for it later," Lara said, tightening her grip on Willow as they ascended the steep stairway from the lake.
"Are you sure I'm not too heavy?" Willow asked. "Kennedy can carry me like this with no problem, and Buffy too, but, well, they're kind of strong."
"Kennedy?" Lara asked, curious. That was a name she hadn't heard associated with Rosenberg and her friends yet.
"Girlfriend," Willow mumbled. "Still, I hope. The Coven said I had to come here alone. She wasn't too happy about that."
"Ah," Lara said, stopping at the top. Carefully releasing Willow's legs, she helped her balance on her good leg, her left arm still wrapped around Lara's neck.
"Now what?" Willow asked.
"The traps are supposed to be disabled but better safe than sorry," Lara said.
"Supposed to be? Something else you'll explain later?" Willow asked.
"Yes."--- --- ---
Sitting on the top step, Willow leaned against the doorway, her right leg stretched out in front of her. It wasn't numb anymore, the feeling had been slowing returning to it, but her hip was now aching. And her foot tingled like it had been asleep for hours. If she could get outside, away from the temple's magic-nulling affect, she was sure she could fix it or at least speed along the healing.
From the few things she'd said, the sudden appearance of Lara Croft wasn't a coincidence, Willow decided. But she was right, explanations could wait.
"All clear," Lara said, crouching down beside her. "How are you doing?"
"Sore, tired, hungry," Willow told her before noticing what she was carrying. "You got my bag!"
"I thought you might need it," Lara said. --- --- ---
"I'll need my other bag," Willow said, absorbing the late afternoon sun as she watched Lara turn a branch into a makeshift crutch. She wondered if the Council could hire her to help with planning for expeditions. Her efficiency made theirs look amateurish by comparison. As soon as they'd exited the temple, from the side entrance the Coven hadn't bothered to tell her about, Lara had called someone to arrange for a room at the same hotel she'd been staying at.
"Where is it?" Lara asked, helping her stand.
"It's hidden near the main entrance to the temple."
Lara gave her a skeptical look but just nodded.--- --- ---
"Where?" Lara asked, looking around the small clearing. She'd searched it earlier, before entering the temple, and hadn't seen anything.
"Do you believe in magic?" Willow asked her with a faint smile.
"Yes," Lara said. "I've run into it on occasion."
"Okay," Willow said. Whispering something in a language Lara wasn't familiar with, she waved towards one side of the clearing. Without any fanfare or special effects, a large backpack appeared.
"So..." Lara raised an eyebrow at Willow. "Real witch. Not just a Wiccan?"
"Yup," Willow said. "I'd rather discuss this back at the hotel. How far is our ride?"
"Just over two miles," Lara told her.
"I might be able to do that," Willow said. "Must have walked ten to get here yesterday."--- --- ---
The trip back to the hotel had given Willow the time she needed to absorb enough of the ambient magic to speed up the healing of her right shoulder and hip. She wouldn't be running any races for a few hours and she was still limping but she was at least mobile now.
"My room or yours?" Willow asked after Lara finished checking in. She hoped she wasn't assuming too much about her plans.
"Mine," Lara said firmly, guiding her towards the elevator. "Join me in an hour."
"Dinner?" Willow asked hopefully. The nutrient bars she'd had in her knapsack had helped a little but after using magic to heal she was starting to feel hungry again.
"Room service?" Lara asked.
"Sure. They have a few things I can eat," Willow said, joining her in the elevator. "The vegetarian soup of the day and a salad would be great."
Lara nodded before pressing the floor number.
"Same floor?" Willow asked.
"Of course," Lara told her, winking.
"Your minions are good," Willow said. "When do I get to meet them?"
"Are our goals the same?" Lara asked.
"Haven't decided yet," Willow said, shrugging. "We can discuss that over dinner."--- --- ---
"How much do you know about magic?" Willow asked, watching Lara set up the equipment to video conference with her associates at her home base after dinner had been cleared away.
"I've occasionally run into beings using it over the years," Lara said, adjusting the camera. "I haven't spent much time analyzing it but they seemed to use it more to scare than do actual damage."
"They used it as a weapon?" Willow asked.
"So, you haven't had any real contact with the various magical communities?"
"But you have one of the oldest active English covens in your backyard," Willow said.
"I'd always assumed they were Wiccans," Lara said. "not actual witches."
"They are Wiccans," Willow told her, "though the name has been co-opted by modern pagans. Which can be confusing. But we won't get into that now. Just be aware that Wicca is a millennia old belief system and its true followers can do real magic."
"You said 'communities'?" Lara asked, sitting down.
"Yes," Willow said. "To put it as simple as possible, magic users can be best defined based on the source of their power. Wiccans get their power from external sources. Higher powers that they have a relationship with; the ambient magic in the earth and ordinary objects. That kind of thing. Druidic practitioners are similar though they tend to work with different higher powers than Wiccans. Wizards have an internal source of power that they can manipulate. Sorcerers generally get their power through controlling demons and elementals."
"Where do you fit in?" Lara asked.
"Wiccan, mostly," Willow said. "I learned on my own years before I joined the Coven."
"So, when you revealed your backpack in the clearing, you were communicating with a higher power?"
"Some people call them gods," Willow told her. "But not exactly. I'm able to tap into the same source of power that the Wiccan Goddess does without needing her permission. Though I usually let her know before I do something huge, just to be polite."
"You have the power of a god?" Lara frowned at her. "That seems dangerous."
"Goddess," Willow corrected her. "And it is extremely dangerous if you don't know what you are doing. The Coven has been teaching me how to access it safely but it'll be years before I can do it their way. Right now, what I usually do is just absorb the ambient magic around me and use that."
"Why weren't you able to use magic to rescue yourself," Lara asked.
"It's a Wiccan temple," Willow said. "Which doesn't mean much to you does it."
"Just another puzzle to solve," Lara said.
"A dangerous puzzle, if you aren't aware of certain things," Willow said. "The first is that it should be neutral magic-wise. You can only use the magic you bring with you." Willow paused to take a bite of the apple that had come with her dinner.
"I'm assuming you 'charged' yourself before entering the temple?"
"Yes," Willow said. "Unfortunately, that temple seems to absorb magic. So when I fell..."
"It absorbed your magic while you were unconscious."
"So we'll have to explore the temple the old fashion way and hope we don't run into any magical traps?" Lara asked.
"I should be able to detect magical traps," Willow said. "But you said you had a map?"
"Yes," Lara said.
"Where'd you get it?" Willow asked.
"Several women in your Coven asked me to retrieve a holy relic for them," Lara said. "The map was part of the information they gave me about the temple."
"Clever," Willow murmured.
"They sent me on a pilgrimage. One of those 'prove you're worthy to take the next step in the Coven' pilgrimages. The first stage requires that I retrieve the temple's source of power, a mystical artifact," Willow said. "They couldn't send you to help me directly. That would violate the rules of the pilgrimage. But they could send you for the same thing and we can work together."
"They gave me a deadline," Lara warned her.
"Not a problem," Willow said. "Together we can get in there, get past the protective wards, get the artifact and get out alive."
"You suspect a real trap?" Lara asked, sitting back in her chair.
"It's an old temple," Willow said. "The only thing keeping it from collapsing is probably that power source. Removing it is going to be like popping a balloon."
"So, grab and run," Lara said, nodding. "Are you sure you'll be completely healed by tomorrow?"
"Yes, I should be all healed by morning," Willow told her. "A little bit of Earth magic does wonders."
"Good," Lara said. "Once we have this artifact, what are your plans?"
"I need to use it," Willow told her. "It's part of the key to a hidden chamber in another temple."
"And then back to the Coven?" Lara asked, her look telling Willow that her vagueness would only get her so far once they'd retrieved the artifact. She wasn't Buffy, who had turned the Scoobie art of 'winging it' into a vital element of any plan.
"Yes," Willow said, smiling hopefully at her. A traveling companion of Lara's calibre would make the rest of the pilgrimage go much smoother, even if she wasn't getting the feeling that she was integral to the success of the journey.
"Before we discuss our plans for tomorrow, I was hoping you could explain a few things to us," Lara said, waving at the camera.
"If I can," Willow said, shifting nervously in her chair.
Lara hit a few buttons on her phone. After a long pause, two men appeared on the screen. One had the scruffy look of a geek in the middle of an all-nighter while the other, impeccably dressed, gave off the distinct aura of competence and faint familiarity.
"Good evening, Lara," the well dressed one said. The geek echoed him, muttering her name.
"Bryce, you can stop trying to find Miss Rosenberg," Lara said. "She's with me."
Willow waved at the camera, "Hi!" she said nervously.
"Willow is going to clear up a few things for us about her organization, and then we'll need to go over our plans for tomorrow and the rest of this trip," Lara said.
"Things?" Willow asked.
"The pilgrimage story is a useful cover," Lara said, "but I believe you are leaving out important background information."
Willow sighed. She'd hoped to at least keep the Council and slayers out of this. But obviously Lara knew more than enough to be suspicious.
"Okay..." Willow took a deep breath. "Bryce, and...?"
"Hillary," Lara said.
"Do I need to go over the whole magic thing again for them?" Willow asked her.
"Magic?" Bryce asked.
"It can wait," Lara said, shaking her head at him.
"So, the simple version... For the sake of argument, let's all agree that there are people who can do this thing called magic. And that there are creatures, that most people consider mythical, that exist, often because of this magic. Things like mermaids, unicorns, werewolves, demons, and vampires, to name just a few. And there's something called 'Good' or 'Order' and its opposite 'Evil', often known as 'Chaos'. With me so far?" Lara and Hillary nodded. Bryce grimaced but also nodded following a glare from Lara.
"If we consider concepts like Good and Evil as the ends of a scale, these mythical creatures exist at different points along it. With Good and Evil we get the concept of a balance between Order and Chaos. And powerful beings devoted to maintaining that Balance. But, although we tend to call them 'The Powers that Be', these beings aren't what we think of as gods. The true gods are something complete different. The gods can directly interact with our reality. The Powers that Be work through others, including the gods, to maintain their balance." Willow paused for a moment.
"Go on," Lara prompted.
"So we have these creatures. Some we would call Good, others Evil and in-between. Most of the evil creatures are not exactly fans of humans. At some point in the distant past, before recorded history, some of those people who could do magic decided to create a warrior to protect ordinary humans from the creatures who either want to prey on them, like vampires, or the demons who kill humans. And they did. For reasons we won't get into, they took a young girl and, using magic, turned her into a demon hunter."
"They couldn't just train someone?" Bryce asked.
"Lara? You've run into vampires, haven't you?" Willow asked.
"You probably noticed how strong they were?" Lara nodded. "Vampires are actually some of the weakest of demonic creatures. Most demons are much stronger than humans. This demon hunter was given enhanced strength and other abilities that made it possible for her to fight demons and survive."
"What does this have to do with your organization?" Lara asked.
"Somehow, when this demon hunter died, her essence, whatever made her what she was, went to another girl somewhere. We aren't sure if that was intentional or not but the Powers seem to have latched onto these demon hunters, sending them visions of future events, using them as a tool to help maintain their precious Balance. Over time several groups sprung up to support this line of demon hunters. Training them, interpreting prophecies from the Powers, that kind of thing. We're the most recent incarnation of one of those groups."
"So you support demon hunters," Lara asked. "Is your Coven a part of that?"
"Not directly," Willow said. "They're a balancing force on the 'Good' side of the scale. They prefer peaceful means of maintaining the balance, which unfortunately doesn't always work."
"And Buffy Summers is one of these demon hunters?"
"Yes," Willow said.
"And your reason for retrieving this artifact?" Lara asked. "Other than being part of a key."
"By itself it isn't important, other than as a Wiccan holy object," Willow said. "And providing the power that protects the temple, of course. You remember what I said about visions and prophecies?"
"Yes," Lara said.
"Buffy's been having visions, they come in dreams, about something that could lead to the end of the world," Willow said.
"And you believe these dreams?" Lara asked.
"She's got a very high accuracy rate," Willow said. "Fortunately, sort of," she grimaced, "Buffy's sister found an obscure prophecy that strongly matches her visions."
"And the true purpose of the pilgrimage you're on?"
"It's part of the prophecy," Willow said. "I realize that is very vague but it's part of our preparations to stop the end of the world."
"Okay," Lara said. "For now."
"So you'll still help tomorrow?" Willow asked.
"Yes," Lara said, feeling a small spark of excitement. "But let's plan this a little better than your previous attempt."
Willow blushed but nodded in agreement. "Well, the first thing is getting into the temple..."--- --- ---
"What do you think?" Lara asked, calling Bryce and Hillary back after Willow left.
"Secret societies and women who are demon hunters?" Hillary asked. Lara nodded. "You've encountered stranger things over the years. And some of it fits."
"Yes. We'll need to re-evaluate our plans after we retrieve the artifact," Lara told them. "I suspect there's even more she hasn't told us that will be critical. I'm not sure she'll need our help but..."
"You were looking for something different," Hillary reminded her.
"Yes," Lara said. "And this could be it."--- --- ---TBC