Thank you for the nice reviews and requests for more.
Warning... I have never seen anything past the third season of Buffy or the first season of Angel. As soon as I can afford it I'll buy the DVD's and watch. But that's not the here and now. This only goes up to what I know of season six, I think (and that's from reading fics here).
AN: I corrected the ending of the last chapter, because I did not like the way it flowed. This way seems to fit better.
"We will rest here," Ardeth Bey murmured as he led Willow toward a familiar oasis. His eyes darted along the still sands, looking for any sign of trouble. All he could see were the marks of the wind that moved through the steep canyon. His horse looked up at the sound of his voice, shaking his mane and snorting in greeting. The small camp looked as it had when had left it.
"A horse?" Willow blinked as she took in the big animal. Raising her eyebrow she glanced at her companion. "Why are we walking if you have a horse?"
"The canyons narrow and he would not fit through the entrance," Ardeth replied with a grin. He gently led her to the water and settled her near one of the low trees. "Rest while I get him ready to go."
Sighing softly, Willow fought the desire to argue with the Med-jai. He was cosseting her again. She did not understand why he felt the need to do so, but it was somewhere between endearing and annoying. Even Oz had not treated her like she was this fragile. But she did have to admit that she felt a bit fragile here. The dry winds and harsh sun seemed to sap her strength and energy.
"How long until we get to your people?" Willow asked as she watched Ardeth expertly brush the horse and prepare it for the saddle. She was mesmerized by the way he moved, smoothly, without any hesitation.
He looked up at her and gave her a small smile, shrugging slightly. "That depends on whether we meet them on their way back her," he replied. He turned his attention back to his stallion, settling the soft blanket on its back. "My men were taking the things the sorcerer stole back to the Elders. Then they were to return here."
"So why don't we wait for them?" Willow asked, her fingers tracing the pattern of a snake's passage by the water. She could feel a subtle threat in the desert nearby and did not really want to face it, at least not just the two of them.
"Staying here would not be safe," Ardeth said quietly, his dark eyes moving to the wall of rock protecting the hidden oasis. "The sorcerer needs you to bring back the Evil One and he is searching for you. Without the key and the Book of the Dead he will have little chance to raise the beast, but if he has found one of the lost Urns of Osiris..."
"There's more than one?" shock made Willow sit up, her eyes locking on the Med-jai. "I thought the one we broke was the last one."
"You know of the Urns of Osiris?" Startled, Ardeth Bey stared at his charge. He had heard one had been found and used, but that was one of the strongest and blackest magics. He could not believe that the small woman before him was that powerful or that dark.
Flushing, Willow bowed her head. She knew now that what she and the others had done was wrong. Buffy had been dead - enjoying her well-earned rest in heaven. With Faith in jail there had been no Slayer to fight the hordes of vampires and demons trying to take the Hellmouth. The group had tried to hold them at bay while raising a broken and distraught Dawn. The stress had been unbelievable and when she had found the spell, she had pushed until the others agreed. "We... no, I used it to bring Buffy back so we would have a Slayer to hold the Hellmouth," she admitted, staring at the ground.
Tightening the saddle enough so that it would not fall off should the big black move, Ardeth turned and moved to the red-haired witch's side. He studied her, noting again how small and frail she seemed in his burnoose. "Do you know the danger of what you did?" he asked hoarsely.
"Now I do," she whispered to the ground. She had killed, using the power of the deer's death to enforce her will on both the natural and supernatural worlds. It had been the first blatant step into the dark for her. All the other mistakes she had made before that had been unintended, errors in understanding as she tried to make herself into something more than a simple girl standing at the Slayer's side. "It was wrong, but I did not want to see it."
Reaching out, Ardeth placed two fingers under the young woman's chin, raising her face to meet his gaze. He could see the shame and honest regret for what she had done. He also saw a steely determination deep in her eyes. "Would you do it again?"
"Knowing what I know now?" Willow asked, her eyes locked on the dark eyes studying her. At his slight nod, she gave him a wan smile. "No. She was in heaven; we tore her from heaven and brought her back here to fight. Buffy deserved that rest."
"Good," Ardeth spoke firmly, relieved that she seemed to have learned from the incident. Then he paused as it occurred to him exactly who Willow had to be. He blinked, trying to put his thoughts into words. His voice a soft whisper, he forced himself to speak. "The Elders told us over a year ago that a young witch lost herself in magic and nearly..."
"Ended the world?" Her heart sinking low into her stomach, Willow managed not to pull away from the hand cupping her cheek. Tears filled her eyes as she remembered the pain and loss that had filled her when Tara was killed. The loss still hurt but it was no longer an overwhelming, unrelenting pain that threatened to swallow her whole. "That was me. My Tara was killed in front of me," her voice trembled as she said the words. "It hurt so much and I was so lost, so alone."
/You are no longer alone/ The soft voice from the hidden shrine filled her mind even a warm breeze seemed to wrap around her, holding her close.
"You are not alone," Ardeth murmured, his hands cupping his red witch's cheeks even as he wondered when she had become his in his thoughts. The tears that were slowly trickling down her face wet his fingers and he gently wiped them away. He had seen warriors who in the face of loss lost all control of their rage, becoming raging winds of death. It was a rare thing for them to survive long enough to regret their actions as this woman so very obviously did.
"That's what She says," Willow whispered, a small smile gracing her face. Her eyes locked on Ardeth's she licked her lips and continued, wanting him to know what had happened after she had touched the image on the oasis wall. "I was somewhere... sacred and She came. She told me to choose but I did not know how to choose. All I could think of was what I did not want to happen - that I did not want to be that way again, afraid and dark and too powerful to think. I don't feel alone anymore. I still remember but... it doesn't hurt the same way it did."
"Good," answering her hesitant smile with one of his own, Ardeth relaxed a bit. She was not going to break down on him. Wiping away the last of her tears, he frowned when he noticed that the silvery tracery of sigils remained. He ran his thumb along her cheekbone curiously. The paint was gone, but the faint markings remained. He studied them uncertainly for a moment, but he did not think they were the same markings that had been painted there by the sorcerer.
“What is it?” Puzzled by his actions, Willow tried to pull away but there was nowhere she could go with him crouched so close to her.
“They remain,” he said, lifting her arm and pushing the sleeve of his burnoose back. Her slim arm was soft in his hand as his fingers traced another of the lines of paint. The paint remained, staining her skin with unblurred signs. “I do not like this.”
Shivering at the sight of the pale gold words on her skin, Willow tugged her arm free, twisting her head and trying to read them. She did not say them aloud but a frown slowly marred her forehead. “They are blessings – dedications to the Lady,” she translated them quietly. “I don’t think that’s what was there before.”
“No,” Ardeth told her solemnly. “They were different before, dark and dangerous signs.”
“Well, at least I’m not the only one marked,” Willow told him with a wry smile. At his immediate, confused frown, she traced the very faint line along his cheekbone. She shrugged at his reaction. “I remember seeing them appear in the moonlight. I can just barely see them now.”
“In my great-grandfather’s time, my people bore the marks of our duty on their faces. That tradition has died out,” he said quietly. “It is said that the first warriors of Seti marked themselves and their sons so that all would know their duty to protect the world against such evil as the Creature cursed by the Hom-Dai. After he rose and was sent back to the underworld, my great-grandfather discontinued the practices, saying it made our people too easily recognized.”
“The man who rescued me, in the canyon,” Willow traced the line of writing again, “he had these marks only they were dark. He had another line, on his forehead.”
“The sword… it is my great-grandfather’s sword,” Ardeth told her, trying to make sense of what she was saying. He had thought she that somehow she had managed to wield it against her captor; that his ancestor’s spirit had shown her where it was hidden. He had not expected to hear his ancestor had appeared and rescued her.
“He gave me something else,” fumbling with the burnoose, Willow pulled out the small knife with its intricate scrollwork sheath. Until this moment she had actually forgotten she had it.
“Keep it,” he said firmly, recognizing the blade as the smaller version of the dagger he had given the witch. He started to say something and changed his mind. He had much to think on before they got back to his people. There were many who would not want her near them but he felt as if it were his duty to keep her near so he could be certain she was safe. “We will talk later, when we are somewhere safe.”
“Okay,” Willow agreed.
Standing, he offered her his hand and then pulled her to her feet. “Come. We must go.”