Out Of Africa - Chapter 10
written by Pythia





Angel’s steps were hurried as he made his way though the hospital corridors and into the depths of the ICU. The place still hummed with subdued activity, anxious attentions focused on the dying and the desperate; no one bothered to stop or challenge the determined vampire, since he clearly knew where he was going and why. He didn’t intend to stay long – just long enough to speak with whomever had duty watch that evening, and find out what they knew.

Unless it was Buffy, of course.

In which case he’d tell her what he’d found, and they’d go looking for Lilithu together.

He expected to find the room much as he left it – filled with the soft murmur of active monitors, the anxious concerns of whomever hovered there, and the emptiness of an abandoned shell – a living corpse bereft of soul or spirit.

What he didn’t expect was a scene from a Hammer horror movie.

Oz had been lurking behind the drawn curtains. As soon as he’d spotted Angel approaching he’d darted out, grabbed his sleeve and dragged him in, hastily shutting the door behind them both. The vampire blinked in bemused surprise.

There were candles everywhere. Perched on monitors, lined up along the side table, defining patterns across the floor; red candles, blue candles, black, gold and amber ones. Most of them were lit, including the flickering nightlight beneath an ornate incense stand which sat at the end of the bed. Willow was there, wearing a huge wooden ankh, and using a taper to light the rest of the candles. She looked up as Angel entered, her expression shifting from wary alarm to relieved recognition.

"Angel? Oh, that’s great. This’ll work so much better with someone to take the place of the fourth pillar. Can you stand over there? Yes – right there. Don’t worry. I’ll tell you what you have to do in a minute."

He moved to where he was directed, finding Xander occupying a similar slot on the other side of the bed, and blinked again, even more bemused. The young man appeared to be cradling a young tabby cat, which was currently purring happily.

"What’s going on?" Angel asked, keeping his voice low, since the atmosphere in the room seemed to demand it. Xander – who’d been staring at the silent occupant of the bed with wide and worried eyes – looked up and found him a wary frown.

"Counter attack," he whispered, pointing out the narrow strips of paper which now lay either side of the Watcher’s comatose form. "She snaffled Giles’ soul. So we’re going to grab it back."

The paper was inscribed with complex symbols, most of which Angel didn’t recognise. Some of them were also painted on the unconscious man’s skin; patterns of scarlet hieroglyphics paraded down one bare arm and were echoed on the bandages which wrapped the other.

"Lipstick," Xander supplied helpfully, seeing the way the vampire’s eyes tracked their preparations. Angel nodded, looking a little relieved. He’d known it hadn’t been blood – but there were several other things they could have used.

"Okay," Willow announced, nodding to Oz, who took up a place beside her. "Think we’re ready now."

"You sure this is going to work?" Xander asked, gently depositing the cat on the bedclothes and stroking her so that she settled where he’d put her. Right in the middle of Giles’ stomach as it happened. The animal stretched and prodded a little with its paws - then curled up and made itself comfortable. "This is really old magic, Will. Much older than anything you’ve tried before."

"I know," the young witch frowned, carefully pouring something from a jar onto the charcoal in the burner. "And I’m not sure. I’m not sure at all. But we have to try something. Giles is out there being all ‘Night of the Living deadness,’ remember?" Smoke began to curl up from the hot coals, filling the room with the scent of flowers and burning honey. "Did you deal with the smoke alarm?" she asked Oz. The werewolf nodded.

"Totally dealt. In here – and down the corridor too."

That was probably just as well; the incense was drifting up in long lazy curls, adding to the heat and flicker from the candle flames. If things got any hotter, they would be setting the automatic sprinklers off.

"Dealt too," Oz smiled, catching Angel’s upward glance. "I’ll switch it all back afterwards."

"Okay," Willow said a second time, gathering her concentration together. "Now, there’s three things we have to do. We have to wake up his body, we have to undo the serpent chains that are keeping it and the spirit apart – and then we have to call one back into the other."

"Well, that sounds simple," Angel muttered, not entirely sure what she was talking about. "I mean, you managed to give me back my soul …" Her frown silenced him. Xander’s was equally intimidating.

"Not simple," the young man said anxiously. "Much worriedness here. You took two goes. Only got one chance at this."

"Only one?"

Willow nodded. "The waking up – the opening of the mouth thing? That’s easy. Standard Book of the Dead stuff."

"They did that to all the mummies. Daddies too, I guess," Xander added with typical defensive flippancy.

"The breaking of the chains is harder stuff," Oz supplied, checking the heavy tome sat next to the burner. "We think Lilithu’s serpent power will be strong – and she’s not going to want to let go of him."

"And once we’ve done that?" Willow’s expression wasn’t just anxious. It was scared. "We have to call him back within four beats of his heart – or else …"

"Three possibilities," Oz concluded bleakly. "We get Giles, we get something else – or we get nothing at all."

"Nothing …" Angel glanced down at the silent form on the bed. The Watcher’s eyes were closed, his face slack, his expression as empty as the rest of him. They were saying that – if this spell failed – the man would remain that way for the rest of his life, trapped in a true living death. "You really want to risk this?"

"We have too," Willow insisted. "It’s the only way. She’s not going to let him go until she’s ready – and that won’t be until after she’s used him to get her power back."

"Which is a big no way thing," Xander interjected. "Because – she gets it, we get it. Buffy – us, whole of SunnyD. Big time."

The vampire shivered, remembering his own attempt to bring about an apocalypse. Rupert Giles had fought – stubbornly and determinedly – to prevent that, and Angel knew that he’d choose to fight this if he could, that he’d be prepared to risk anything and everything to protect the world.

To protect these young souls, who meant more to him than family.

And to protect his Slayer, for whom he would willingly give both life and soul without a moment’s thought.

"Will – doing this stop Lilithu? Even if – "

"We lose the G-man?" Xander didn’t want to say it, but somebody had too. "Yeah. We break the chains, she’s got no ritual corpse guy. Buffy kicks her ass, and Wes does the oops, you’re toast, stuff."

Angel found himself smiling grimly. "Then we’d better get started, hadn’t we?"

* * * * *

The zombie was a macabre thing; a dead man with pale, puffy skin, a slack mouth, and a blank, staring expression. It moved with drunken, uncoordinated steps, its arms hanging loosely at its sides and its body swaying unsteadily. The stink of decay eddied in around it, carried on the remnants of Lilithu’s wind.

Buffy shivered, watching the thing stagger forward. It wasn’t just dead; it was well and truly dead, something that should have been buried days ago. Dried blood patterned the ashen skin beneath its torn shirt, flaking, distorted symbols that echoed the magic used to create it - the same magic which imprisoned the soul of a living man within its pallid, rotting flesh. Her stomach churned, and she had to swallow against a sudden surge of nausea. The whole ‘wrapped in a dead man’s skin’ idea had been gross enough; the reality was unthinkably revolting.

"What is going on here?" Kalskal demanded, his voice cracked with fear and horror. "Who are these … people?"

Bad idea; his question drew Lilithu’s attention back to that end of the hall. Wesley, very sensibly, froze in place as her eyes swept across him. Cordelia shrank back, pressing herself up against the painted hangings which draped the rear wall. The vampiress smiled.

"Who am I?" she asked, taking a sensuous step forward. The zombie shuffled after her. "I am Asha Lilithu. I am life in death and death in life, the daughter of the endless serpent, the mother of eternal hungers. These are my children, born from my blood – and you are nothing but whimpering noise, a slave to my desires."

"Let me translate that," Buffy offered, anxious to regain the demoness’ attention. She couldn’t help grimacing at the arrogant and inevitably over the top pronouncement. There was something about becoming a vampire that encouraged the inner drama queen, and the older they got, the more pompous and conceited they became. The Master had been – well, a master at pretentious speeches. Angelus’ contemptuous taunts and his little mind games had reflected his arrogant self confidence. Even Spike – who liked to pretend that he had no time for that kind of thing - was generally smug, condescending and utterly full of himself. "She’s a blood sucking bitch, and these snarly types are her beasty boys. Who are so over, by the way."

That did the trick. Lilthu’s eyes swung back in her direction, smouldering with angry irritation. "I promised you a lesson in manners," she growled. Her hand gestured, spurring the nearest vampire into motion. "Teach her some."

Buffy leapt back as the creature charged forward, its eyes glowing and its face twisted with a feral snarl. "Don’t hurt her too much," she heard the vampiress say. "Her defiance amuses me, and I killed the last one far too quickly. I want to savour this."

The Slayer ducked as a clawed hand swept in her direction. Her arm went up to block the follow through blow and then she went into action. Kick, punch, twist, throw; she moved with determined fury, focusing her energies and making every contact count. She had to keep Lilithu’s attention. Had to give Wesley time to work on the tablet and – she risked a wary glance in the zombie’s direction – time for Willow to work her magic.

If she could.

* * * * *

"I speak unto the silence, saying ‘listen’ and the word will echo in the empty hallways of the heart.
I speak unto the stillness, saying ‘awaken’ and the word will stir the quietness like a rushing wind.
I speak unto the voice and say ‘the way is open’.
The way is open."

The warmth of billowing incense swirled through the chant, filling the room with a soft fug of smoke and the scents of summer flowers. Willow’s face was furrowed with concentration as she spoke, her voice struggling a little with the unfamiliar words. Angel’s hands tightened anxiously on the hilt of the sword she’d handed to him. He knew that the process was delicate, the ritual complicated, the outcome uncertain - and he didn’t like the thought of what might be required of him, should everything go wrong. Of the four ‘pillars’ or guardians required in the performance of the ceremony, the vampire had the least to do – at least while everything was still going smoothly. Xander had an easy task, that of applying the required mixture of lotus oil and honey when the ritual demanded it. Oz would be occupied in keeping the incense burning while Willow summoned power and conducted the rite.

Angel’s job was simply to stand guard.

Not to defend the process from external attack or disturbance, but to watch the Watcher – which would have been amusing if the reason for it wasn’t so significant.

We get Giles, we get something else – or we get nothing at all …

Willow had explained that there would be a moment, a space between those four vital heartbeats, in which the man’s body – stripped of all defences to allow his soul to return to it – would be utterly vulnerable to invasion. There was a chance that some inimical spirit might seize that moment and the body with it, a chance that something else might awaken within the empty flesh and take it for its own.

The ritual included innumerable precautions to prevent such an occurrence, but – if the unthinkable did happen – then Angel was charged with taking the necessary steps to deal with whatever they awakened.

Up to, and including, separating the man’s head from the rest of him.

Which wouldn’t bother Giles, since in those circumstances the man’s soul would already have been lost beyond further recall – but it would certainly bother Buffy, which is why the thought of it bothered Angel.

Bigtime, as the Slayer might say.

"I call unto the senses, saying ‘attend to me’ and the senses will stir and the endless dream be broken.
I call unto the eyes, saying ‘see.’
I call unto the tongue, saying ‘taste.’
I call unto the ears, saying ‘hear me.’
And I call unto the heart, saying ‘I am the way. I am the light.’
The way is open."


* * * * *

This vampire was just as fierce and feral as the last one had been, and it took all of Buffy’s strength and skill to keep it from overwhelming her. She sent it flying several times, wrecking cases, toppling exhibits, destroying display stands – and it still came back for more. It didn’t help that the creature was trying to injure, rather than kill her – or that she was trying to spin out the fight, trying to earn her support team some time and keep Lilithu’s attention from wandering.

Claws raked across her arm, drawing blood. She cursed and kicked out, blocking the next blow – and the next. She couldn’t keep this up for ever. She was tiring, and there were still five other vampires to deal with. Six, if you included Lilithu, who was watching the dance with hungry eyes.

"She does well," the vampiress remarked, directing her words at the silent corpse that stood obediently beside her. "A true credit to your teaching. You should be proud."

If Buffy had needed any further proof of the horrors wrought by Lilithu’s magic, it was there in those quiet words, in that softly amused observation. Her Watcher was there – not just in some weird, ritualistic there in spirit kind of way – but literally there – awake and aware of everything going on around him. What had the book said? Trapped in a decaying corpse, using its senses yet being totally unable to influence its actions … Sudden comprehension of what that meant clenched around her heart with fingers of ice and made her miss a step in the dance. She dodged when she should have ducked, caught a glancing blow to the head and went tumbling, spinning back and round to land, breathless and dizzy, right in the middle of a demolished display.

Pain cracked through her shoulder and twisted down her arm. She heaved herself up with an effort – and was caught, seized from behind by the vampire’s eager hands. Her own hand groped in the debris, discarding unidentifiable artifacts until her fingers closed around a broken sliver of carved wood; she seized it with determination and quickly concealed it inside her jacket. The vampire hugged her in close, its arms wrapping tightly around her, and she let it lift her back to her feet; let it think that – for the moment – it had control.

Over at the far end of the hall, Wesley had reached his goal. While Lilithu watched Buffy’s apparent capture with an arrogant smile, he was carefully lifting the tablet from its cradle and turning it to find the vital lines.

"A worthy effort," the vampiress said confidently. "But inevitably a futile one. I grow weary of these games. It is time to do what we came for." Her hand moved in a commanding gesture – and the glass protecting the staff shattered into a cascade of shimmering splinters. Cordelia and Kalskal both jumped, and Wesley nearly dropped the tablet. Only nearly. Buffy heaved an inner sigh of relief as he regained his grip and went back to his hasty examination.

Lilithu turned to the dead man at her side. "Gift me with my destiny," she ordered, then added a curt phrase in what Buffy assumed was probably Egyptian. The zombie began to shuffle forward, heading for the now unprotected staff.

* * * * *

"The stone sinks into the sand and is swallowed up.
The tree takes root and flourishes.
It draws life from the desert, it devours the stone. It spreads its leaves above the sand, offering its protection.
In the shadow of its branches is the serpent confounded."


Willow had begun the second part of the ritual, slowly dripping wax from a burning candle onto the shrivelled snake’s skin as Oz carefully coiled it into a shallow dish beside the incense burner. Angel could feel the subtle crackle of magic weave its way around him, around all of them, summoned by the incantation, yet still raw, still undefined – and very dangerous. Xander was looking tense and worried, his eyes flicking from the chanting witch to the patterns of light playing across the monitors. There’d been a subtle change in their messages as Willow had worked through the ritual opening of the mouth; the slow beat of the man’s heart had quickened just a little, and the bare ripple of brain activity had begun to take on more definition, more noticeable form.

The vampire could well understand the young man’s anxiety. If anyone back at the duty nurse’s station noticed the increased activity on the monitors, they might well come to investigate – and any interruption to the spell would risk both its subject and its caster. They just had to hope that the nurses had more urgent things to attend to than checking up on a coma patient that the doctors had more or less given up on.

The kitten – which had slept through most of the first stage – sat up and looked around, its eyes wide, bright and reflecting the flicker of candle flame.

"The brightness of the sun lures the serpent out of the shadow.
It uncoils in the light, it offers its belly to be warmed.
I will follow the path of the serpent, I will walk its coils,
Between this vessel and the spirit that is lost, I will find the way,
Seeking the hidden paths, seeking the treasures it guards."


* * * * *

"Buffy " Cordelia’s plea managed to convey both terror and exasperation all at once. "Don’t just stand there. Do something " Buffy risked a look in her direction, seeing her lurking behind Kalskal’s shoulder, all wide eyed and quivering. The German had an equally wide eyed but far more bewildered look on his face; he was staring at the dark skinned demoness as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. Close by, Wesley had lifted his head from the tablet to identify the reason for Cordelia’s demand. He caught Buffy’s glance towards him and jerked his head towards the zombie with decided urgency in his expression. She nodded, fixing her own eyes on the tablet with equally urgent significance. He blinked, then realised what she meant and returned to his study with anxious haste. Lilithu had also glanced Cordelia’s way, but she’d simply smiled and returned her attention to her shuffling slave, clearly confident in her moment of triumph.

"What can she do?" the vampiress taunted. "My children are many. She is but one."

"Yeah," Buffy agreed, twisting in her captor’s grip so that she could drive the sliver of wood deep into the creature’s heart. "The chosen one." Dust exploded around her with satisfying force, she stepped through it with a look of grim satisfaction on her face. "Don’t you just hate it when a guy gets clingy?" A twist of her wrist turned the sharpened sliver into a makeshift dart; she pulled back her hand and threw it with determined force, her aim both firm and true. It flew through the air and embedded itself straight between the zombie’s shoulder blades – where it stayed, jutting out like a misshapen fin. The impact swayed the zombie forward, but that was all; the thing continued to shuffle across the polished floor, one arm beginning to lift, ready to claim its intended prize.

"Excellent shot," Lilithu acknowledged, seemingly unphased by Buffy’s regained freedom. "A slightly pointless gesture – except that," she laughed knowingly, "someone will have gotten the point."

Oh god …

Buffy’s blood – already cold with horror – froze in her veins. A shudder ran through her, one almost sharp as the makeshift weapon she’d just used. The corpse had felt nothing. How could it? It was just a dead thing, a lump of meat and bone. But she’d forgotten – if only for a moment - that the man it contained would feel everything that happened to it. Which meant that Giles had felt that. Had felt the splintered wood sink into flesh, had felt the pain as certainly as if she’d literally stabbed him in the back …

Buffy threw herself forward with a gulp, grabbing for the zombie’s arm and swinging it round so that she could look into its lifeless eyes. Except that they weren’t lifeless. The decaying face might be slack and its expression vacant – but there was something in the dead man’s eyes that mirrored the soul the body imprisoned.

Recognition glimmered there, along with disconcerting awareness and an echo of pain. She was greeted with a warmth of affection that might have been a smile, had he been able to move dead lips to match the moment - and then the look became one of determined and stern command.

The Slayer swallowed hard, reading the meaning that lay behind the look, the message her Watcher intended to convey. "I’m sorry," she whispered, knowing what she would have to do and already hating herself for it. "Oh god, Giles. I’m sorry."

Then she locked both hands together and hit him.

Hard.

The blow sent the zombie flying, in a tumble of uncoordinated limbs and dead weight. It arched through the air to land with a sickening crunch, right at Lilthu’s feet.

* * * * *

"I open the door and the words are spoken.
I call unto the one who is taken, and I send my shadow in search of him.
My shadow goes into darkness, seeking the light, seeking his name.
The coils of the serpent will be loosened.
The chains of the heart will be broken.
The spirit will be set free."


The spell was taking its toll; Willow was shaking as she worked through the measured gestures the ritual required. Sweat was beading her forehead and she struggled to continue, her hands moving infinitely slowly, as if she were pushing them through treacle – or solid rock. Magic shimmered in the air, turning the dance of candle flame into curtains of light, filling the room with tangible energy. Angel frowned, feeling the forces the witch had summoned coil around him – around all of the them – as she fought to find the weaknesses in Lilithu’s ancient sorcery.

"This is so not working," Xander hissed, catching the look in the vampire’s eyes. "David against Goliath stuff." He frowned anxiously, coming to the inevitable conclusion. Willow just wasn’t strong enough to break through. "We need a bigger rock."

"Or a little help," Angel muttered, wishing he knew a little more about Egyptian magic – and a little less about what might happen if the witch lost control. The energies she was working with were powerful ones; unleashed, discharged without direction or intent, they would tear right through all four of them. Five, he corrected grimly, glancing down at the comatose figure beside him.

And blinked.

There was a serpent coiled around the still silent Watcher – a serpent made of smoke and shimmering hints of colour. It was wrapped over him, head to toe, its thick and muscular body wound round like a thick rope, its hooded head raised above his with possessive menace. There was evil in it, and old power. The energies of the spell crackled along its coils, seeking a way to push through them – and the serpent merely tightened its grip, its head rearing back as if ready to strike.


A flurry of movement lunged through the smoke and the shadows. A blur of grey and white leapt up in a sudden dance of teeth and claws, the twisting, hissing form striking through the smoke, through the magic, and through the serpent beneath. The hooded head writhed back and the cat pounced after it, shredding its shadowed shape into drifting tatters. Power shimmered into the gaps, sliding beneath the coils and adding to the serpent’s dissolution. Willow’s head went back with a jerk, her hands frozen in their last, effort filled gesture and her eyes turning a deep blood red.

‘I call his name into the dark. I command it.
I summon the spirit from its journey, to the place made ready for its return.
Let that which was taken be restored. Let that which was parted be made whole again.
The way is open. The path is made clear.
The empty vessel will be filled.’

Read: Chapter 11