Out Of Africa - Chapter 11
written by Pythia





"Get up." Lilithu’s command was impatient – and the frown she threw at the Slayer held more than a little impatience. "Foolish child," she hissed. "You can’t kill something that’s already dead. All you do is hurt the spirit it contains – and yourself by doing so. Save your strength."

"Go to hell," Buffy muttered, watching the dead thing, not its mistress. The fall had broken bones. It heaved itself back to its feet with difficulty, one arm twisting at an impossible angle, and its body leaning drunkenly to one side. The sliver of wood that had been embedded in its back had been driven right through its chest; the point of it now jutted out of decaying flesh while fluid bubbled up around it.

Oh god, that had to hurt …

The zombie seemed unconcerned by its injuries. It staggered forward again, limping and lurching as its damaged left leg dragged beneath it. Buffy gagged and struggled for breath, fighting back tears of anguish, anger and frustration. She didn’t want to do this, nor could she let the thing anywhere near the staff.

"You know," she said shakily. "If I could do this any other way …" Her words were pained, filled with apology. She knew there was no need to seek forgiveness, but she still needed it. She’d sparred with Giles a thousand times, beaten him, knocked him down, even knocked him out a couple of times – but she’d never attacked him – not like this. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t fair. She didn’t want to hurt him, but she had no choice. He was bound and helpless, unable to defend himself – and she was the Slayer; she wasn’t pulling punches.

A step, a little bounce – and she swung into action, spinning into roundhouse kick that slammed the side of her foot across the dead man’s face. It twisted away in reaction. There was a sickening snap – and the thing’s head lolled drunkenly to one side.

But it still continued to shuffle forwards.

"God," Buffy choked, stepping forward to strike the heels of both hands hard against the zombie’s shoulders and drive it backwards. "What do I have to do? Tear him apart? Rip him into pieces?"

"Probably," Lilithu smiled, amused by her efforts – and what they were costing her. "It’s dead. It exists only to serve. All you do is delay the inevitable. And hurt one you love. But then – we always hurt the one we love. Don’t we?"

"Dammit. Damm you," Buffy cursed, lashing out through a haze of tears. She was striking to cripple now, to break bones and disable limbs. Her hand punched into an unresisting shoulder. Her foot cracked an already damaged knee – and then there were hands clawing at her from behind. Lilithu had signalled her followers and two of them had raced in to seize her, dragging her away, kicking and struggling.

"Enough," the vampiress commanded. "Slaughter lacks season without screams to add to its savour. And I grow weary of this foolish dance. Hold her." She barked an imperious command to the zombie, which stumbled forward in a broken parody of a walk.

"No," the Slayer protested, struggling and twisting, all to no avail. The vampires had learned from their brother’s demise. Their grip was solid and she couldn’t break free. "No."

It was too soon. There hadn’t been enough time. Willow’s spell had taken too long, had failed to free the Englishman’s captive soul – and now Lilithu would be the one freed from enchantment. Buffy’s heart – already aching from what she’d been forced to do – shivered with inner pain. She’d done her best – and her best just hadn’t been good enough.

A dead hand reached down, groping for the length of ivory that lay sprawled across the floor. Time stretched into infinity as cold fingers closed around the carved surface and began to lift the staff from the ground. Somewhere, oddly distant, Buffy heard Wesley’s voice choke with desperate horror; "Oh dear lord." Cordelia whimpered. Lilithu smiled triumphantly.

And then the corpse caught fire.

It was a subtle reaction at first. Smoke began to eddy up from the clenched hand as it swung the ivory staff upright. A hint of flame licked at the curve of zombie fingers and then rippled along its arm, eating into the tattered shirt and sending a hint of cooked meat into the air. The dead man showed no sign of distress. No sign of any reaction in fact. It completed its unsteady return to its feet, turned to face its mistress and carefully planted the end of the staff firmly on the ground.

By the time it had done so, it was shrouded in smoke and shimmers of fire were dancing in its hair.

"No " Buffy yelled, throwing herself back into her struggles with desperate effort. It was bad enough she’d had to break and beat him. But to see him stand there and simply burn alive … "God, no. Giles " Her cry was like a catalyst. The gently smoking zombie went up like a roman candle, its body bursting into furious flame. Lilithu took a startled step backwards. Her children echoed the reaction, their retreat dragging Buffy back from the sudden wall of heat.

"No…" she sobbed, her knees giving way as a wave of anguished despair washed over her. The corpse still hadn’t moved. The flame was peeling flesh away from bone, melting muscle and skin like so much warm wax. There was a soft click from nowhere in particular, and water began to rain down from above as the museum sprinklers kicked in, reacting to the heat and the smoke. Nobody even noticed; every eye in the room was fixed on the macabre sight at its centre, the image of a man devoured by unholy fire.

It didn’t take long.

The flame ate him from inside and out, stripping him down to bone in bare seconds. Then even that succumbed to the fire; it cracked and crumbled, disintegrating into little more than dust and splinters. The skull tumbled back, shattering into pieces as it hit the floor. The rest of the body collapsed after it, leaving the staff unsupported. It stayed upright for a moment, softly shimmering with a hint of power – then it too fell, landing across the charred remains with a muted clatter

After which there was nothing but a soft hiss from the still discharging sprinklers – and the quiet sound of gulping, shaky sobs as Cordelia fought unsuccessfully to control her tears.

Buffy didn’t even try. Her face had been wet long before the impact of the fire control. She let the grief well out of her, let it spill down her cheeks to mingle with the moisture that was busy dripping from her hair. Stunned, silent tears; warmth and hope washed out of her, leaving her cold and empty of everything – except the ice of certainty, the resolution that someone was going to pay. The eyes that she lifted to seek out Lilithu held bitter determination, a silent promise of death.

One way or the other, only one of them was going to leave this room.

The vampiress wasn’t even looking at the Slayer. Water was cascading across her bare shoulders, but she didn’t seem to have noticed; she was staring at the tumbled staff with bemused fury, her whole body trembling with anger.

"This cannot be " she denied with a hiss. "He was worthy. I know he was worthy." Her eyes narrowed with sudden suspicion. "The vessel – the vessel was flawed. It could not hold his spirit and the staff – yes. Yes. Curse them " Her hands went wide, expressing her anger; glass splintered on every side, windows, cases, even the fluorescent tube lights shattered under the impact of her rage. "The sons of jackals. Taking what I had, using what I am. Turning my shadow against me. When I am free," she announced, looking up to glare at her children with disquieting menace, "I will drag their souls back from eternity and make them suffer as I have suffered. I will drown in their screams and feed on their agony …" She paused, her eyes caught by something – or someone – behind the captive Slayer’s shoulder. "And I will be free." A cruel smile curled across her lips. "The night is not over yet."

No …

Buffy had been savouring the vampire’s anger, finding bitter satisfaction in her frustration and rage. Lilithu’s plan had failed. She couldn’t touch or take the staff, couldn’t use it, couldn’t free herself from its chains – and as long as that remained, as long as there was still a chance that she could be destroyed – then Buffy could convince herself that her Watcher’s sacrifice had not been in vain. She’d not stopped to think that her secret weapon – her second Watcher, supposedly intent on unravelling the last of the ritual – might also hold the key to the she-demon’s freedom.

Not, that is, until Lilithu sought him out - and smiled that confident, knowing smile.

* * * * *

Pain.

His world had been filled with pain - black, red, lightning white pain. There’d been the physical impact, the merciless punishment that had hammered into dead flesh, the unbearable sensation of being pierced through the heart – and, along with it, the anguish of his soul, the torment of his imprisonment and his comprehension of the price his Slayer paid with every blow.

Then – for a bewildering moment – there’d been nothing at all.

No up, no down, no light, no dark, no sound, and no sensation. He’d been ripped into breathless nothingness, an absence of everything; the transition had been so abrupt that - if he’d had a voice - he probably would have screamed.

A heartbeat later, he was plunged back into a maelstrom of perception, an overload of sight and sound and sensation. Everything hit at a rush; colours and light and sound tore through his senses. He was falling and he was flying, buffeted by phantom caresses, shivering with heat and cold, feeling as if he were being stripped to the bone with agony and yet pleasured beyond ecstasy. He was drowning in pain and euphoria in equal measure, fighting for focus, fighting for balance, fighting for self-control.

It was somewhat of a surprise when he actually got it

One moment he was in total chaos, and the next he was arcing up with a gasp, his body reacting to the demands of desperate struggle. His heart was beating wildly in his chest, his lungs were labouring for air – and he was sitting on a bed, in a room filled with smoking, unlit candles, staring straight at Willow as she collapsed into Oz’s waiting arms.

Giles blinked, trying to assimilate the memories of his metaphysical roller coaster ride, and feeling distinctly discombobulated by the whole experience. His perceptions were busy violently disagreeing with the sensations which still echoed through his soul – and his body ached with blows it had never felt, reflecting the protests of someone else’s broken bones and scorched skin.

"Friend or foe?" a voice demanded firmly from his left. He turned his head, and blinked a second time. Angel was standing right beside him – and the vampire was lifting up the gleaming length of a sword blade, poised as if to strike. "Speak or die "

"Err - " Angel with a sword in his hand was a completely different entity to an Angelus with mayhem in mind, but one echoed the other, and for a brief second or two Giles wasn’t entirely sure which of them he was looking at. He realised he probably ought to say something, but his lips, tongue and vocal chords refused to work with sufficient co-ordination to achieve recognisable words. He still had the taste of death in his mouth; while a part of him wrestled with the need to formulate speech, most of him just wanted to throw up.

"Put that - bloody thing down, you pillock," he managed after a moment, gulping down much needed air. His body might have been breathing while he’d been out of it, but he felt as if he hadn’t taken a breath in centuries. "You’ll t-take someone’s head off, waving it about like that."

The words were instinctive, an irritated, defensive reaction, totally unconnected to the shiver of irrational terror which had torn through his soul. No doubt he could have come up with something pithier, or more erudite, but he was too busy taking stock of his situation to worry about being polite – or particularly restrained either. As it was, the peeved remark seemed to be exactly the right thing to say. Angel relaxed with a smile – and there was the sound of a decidedly relieved sigh from somewhere on the other side of him.

"Welcome back, Rupert," the vampire said, lowering the sword.

"Yeah," Xander’s voice agreed, its owner appearing to his right with a very happy grin on his face. Lots of welcome backness. From all of us. You had us worried for a while there."

"R-really," Giles acknowledged bemusedly, a little taken aback by the fervour of the young man’s greeting. Xander wasn’t just saying that. He meant it. The Scoobies had been worried about him – and that was rather nice to know. "I-I’m sorry to have –caused you such concern. Is – is Willow all right?"

"I think so." That was Oz, crouched somewhere at the foot of the bed with his girlfriend in his arms. "She’s out, but she’s breathing easily. That was major mojo she was working with. Cool stuff. But scary."

Giles took a perplexed glance around the room, registering the pattern of candles, the still smoking incense burner – and the cat, sitting up among the monitors with smug expression on its face. "I’m - sure it was," he acknowledged warily. His befuddlement was beginning to subside, and he fought to gather his thoughts and achieve a little focus. Given his recent state, and the paraphernalia currently scattered around him, it was pretty easy to identify the kind of magic Oz was talking about. The rites of Thoth were dangerous things at the best of times – but using them against someone with Lilithu’s power was literally playing with fire. Willow had taken a frightening risk. Any one of a thousand things could have gone wrong.

He blinked and flexed his fingers, feeling the incredible pleasure of being able to do so, the certainty of his own flesh working to his own will, and he breathed a silent prayer of thanks to whichever higher power watched over Watchers – not to mention would be witches, anxious Scoobies and vampires with souls. "She’ll be more c-comfortable up here," he suggested, tugging off the tangle of monitoring wires and swinging his feet off the bed. "Can someone find me some clothes? I have to go. We don’t have a lot of time."

"Whoa there, G-man," Xander reacted, reaching to catch him as his attempt to stand practically pitched him onto the floor. "Coma-ness and convulsy things been happening here. You’re not going anywhere. Not ‘til you’ve seen a doctor."

"No time," Giles insisted, straightening up with an effort. His sense of disorientation was being replaced by one of urgency; while the memories concerning his return were still bewildering, the ones from before were beginning to focus with crystal clarity. "Buffy’s in trouble. Lilithu has her – I - I have to get the museum right away. And don’t call me that," he added, giving Xander an irritated glare. The young man grinned – a reaction just as much a reflex as the remark – and then his expression creased into anxious concern.

"The bitca’s got the Buffster?" he registered worriedly. "Did you – dead you that is – manage the ‘lets let the unstoppable evil loose on the world’ routine?"

Giles blinked yet again, taking a vital second to translate the question from Xander speak to something that approximated English. "Uh – no. No – y-you pulled me out just in time. But … Buffy - " The image that sprang to mind – the last thing that dead eyes had seen - was stark and stomach churning, his Slayer, held in the merciless grip of two powerful vampires. It might already be too late.

"She’s got backup," Xander protested, not entirely with conviction. "Wesley’s there …and Cordy."

"All the more reason to hurry," Giles decided grimly. "All of them are in mortal peril. Lilithu will do anything to be free. Anything."

"Giles," the vampire observed warily, "You barely have the strength to stand. You really think rushing over there is going to be a good idea?"

"No." Giles had no illusions about that. But sometimes desperate situations called for desperate measures. "I - I know the ritual," he said. "Get me to the staff and I will stop her. Once and for all."

* * * * *

"Pick it up."

Lilthu’s command was both resolute and confident. The man she confronted was neither. Buffy distinctly heard Wesley gulp.

"Why would I …?"

"Pick it up," the vampire commanded a second time, her hand imperiously pointing towards the abandoned staff. "Or I will rip out the girl’s throat, give the old man to my children – and then disembowel your Slayer and feed you her entrails."

"Ewww," Cordelia reacted - before saying, "Wes, pick it up. There’s a good – ah – fellow. Pick it up and …" Whack her with it, her lips completed hopefully, her eyes and the jerk of her head desperately trying to emphasis her suggestion. Buffy winced. It was a plan – of sorts – but did she have telegraph it quite so obviously?

Wesley was busy frowning at Cordelia’s antics, his eyes darting from her to Lilthu and back again, confusion wrestling with the terror in his eyes. The Slayer sighed.

Maybe she did …

"Pick it up, Wesley," Buffy said softly, dropping her shoulders a little so that she became a dead weight in her captor’s hands. She let her head droop too, conveying an impression of defeat. That wasn’t hard. She felt as if the world had been torn away from her, as if nothing in it would ever have joy or savour ever again. How could it? Her Watcher – her real Watcher – had suffered and died because she hadn’t been good enough to save him. Just like the last time.

That totally sucked.

But she was the Slayer. The chosen one. And just like the last time, the vampire responsible for ripping out her heart was going to pay. Big time.

"I-I-I- I d-ddon’t kn-now if -" Wesley took a quiveringly deep breath and stuck out his chin with less than determined defiance. "I – don’t think I should – do that."

Oh great. Now he wants to play the hero …

Actually, Buffy was surprisingly impressed. Her would-be Watcher hadn’t shown a lot of backbone up until now and - even if that backbone had a yellow streak - his sudden attack of bravery suggested there might be some hope for him after all. If he survived that was. If any of them survived.

Lilithu moved like lightning, launching herself across the water strewn gallery to drive one hand up under Wesley’s chin and lift him bodily into the air. His shoulders – along with the back of his head – hit the rippling surface of the woven wall hanging behind him. The carved tablet, the one which he’d been clutching to his chest ever since the zombie had gone up in smoke, slipped from his hands and landed with a heavy thump on the tiled floor. The stone shattered. Its pieces scattered in every direction, and Albrecht whimpered, a sound of terror and sorrow and pain.

"No," Cordelia pleaded, stilling the his instinctive reach towards his precious artefact. "Don’t …"

Lilithu spared them a pitying glance, then turned her attention back to the man she held pinned to the wall. Wesley was going a distinctly purple colour and his feet were flailing in panic.

Buffy’s fists clenched with fury, and she had to bite her lip to keep herself from springing up, there and then. The she-demon couldn’t afford to kill him. She needed him alive.

"I will not repeat myself again," the vampiress purred – and threw her captive away from her, a casual backhanded toss that tumbled him across the debris of the exhibit to land, face down, in the middle of the dampened pile of ashes that lay beside the abandoned staff. "Pick it up."

The Englishman lay there for a moment, looking decidedly dazed. His glasses hung askew and he was gasping desperately for breath. Buffy was holding hers, holding back the cry of protest, the scream of rage that was building inside her. She needed that anger. She needed to control it. It was going to help her win.

"Oh – G-God " Wesley had just realised where he’d landed. He arched up and pushed back, reacting to the cling of sodden ashes with a look of utter horror on his face. His glasses tumbled away completely. "Oh dear God."

His first instinct was probably to get the macabre coating off him as quickly as possible – but further realisation clearly struck as he scrambled up onto his knees. He froze, his panicked fingers barely inches from the desecration he’d been about to commit. Buffy saw him swallow, hard. He lifted both his hands and turned their palms towards himself, watching as the spattering misting from the sprinklers slowly sluiced them clean.

"Life is real," he muttered, staring at the horror that stained his skin. "Life is earnest. And the grave is not its goal." His voice was shaking almost as much as the rest of him. "Dust thou art, to dust returnest …" He paused, lifting his eyes from his fingers to meet the Slayer’s perplexed – and anxious – gaze. "Was not spoken of the soul …"

The last was almost a whisper, a tremble of sound that Buffy barely heard. But she got the message and her heart turned over with unspoken pain. She wondered if he’d ever seen a man die before, if this was the first time he’d actually confronted death in all its heart wrenching reality. He knew about death; of course he did. He was a trained Watcher. He’d seen her stake vampires, and he’d listened to tales of the usual Sunnydale murders and mayhem with stoic professional interest. But this was different.

Of course it was different.

It was – well, it was Giles.

"I’m waiting," Lilithu announced, a little impatiently. Buffy saw Wesley shudder; he was wrestling with fear and grief and anger, a combination that was a little too much for his cultured sensibilities. Watchers watch. They don’t get emotionally involved, he’d told her loftily, not so long ago. She’d smiled at him a little sadly, telling herself he’d learn – but this was all too fast, all too baptism of fire stuff. Almost literally in fact.

He’d gone from staring at his hands to staring at the staff. It lay beside him with deceptive innocence; its surface slick and glimmering from the onslaught of the sprinklers. It had looked just as innocent, just as harmless while it had been burning its way through dead flesh. Buffy could sense the power in it now, could feel the angry hum of it, whispering to Slayer senses. She wasn’t sure just when it had come alive. Had it been the moment that Lilithu arrived, or later – when the dead hand imprisoning a living soul had lifted it up? There was a part of her that wanted it to have been then, because – if that was the case - then Giles was somehow still part of this fight, the catalyst that had woken the weapon she needed.

Of course, she needed his fellow Watcher to wield it. And by the look on his face that was the very last thing he wanted to do.

Pick it up, she fumed inwardly, knowing that she couldn’t afford to yell at him out loud. If Lilithu realised that her spirit hadn’t been broken, that she was ready to leap in and kick vampire butt as soon as the opportunity presented itself … well, she’d be in trouble, and the others wouldn’t stand a chance. She knew Wesley was struggling to master a very real – and understandable – fear, but they didn’t have time for him to get over his prissyness.

The vampiress wasn’t going to wait that long.

"Wesley?" Cordelia questioned shakily from behind Albrecht’s shoulder. "If you’re going to pick that thing up, do you think you could work on picking it up soon? Because – I am so not going to appreciate the dying thing, you know? This is what I get for hanging with miss not-so-cool," she added, misreading the nervous warning look that the German scholar gave her. "Which I so wouldn’t do, if it wasn’t for all the now we save the world stuff. Which is cool. Mostly. Is there foam in this water? It is so totally going to ruin my hair …"

"Cordelia " Wesley’s distraught snap held a note of panic, but it had the desired effect. She subsided into silence. "Th-thank you," he acknowledged, taking a deep, resolute – and very tremulous breath. "Well – here goes nothing. I-I suppose." He reached down before he could change his mind, closing his eyes and grabbing hold of the staff with a kind of shaky grope.

Nothing happened.

Well, his fingers closed around the ivory, so that was a something, but nothing else happened. There were no wisps of smoke, no scream of pain, and no change in the quiet hum of power that whispered through the room. Buffy let out the breath she’d been holding. Her soft sigh was echoed by a far deeper one; Wesley had opened his eyes, and relaxed with distinct – and heartfelt – relief.

"Well, whatdy’a know," Cordelia quipped shakily, finding him a brave, if somewhat haunted smile. "Mr ‘needs to get a life’ actually has one."

"Not for long," Lilithu laughed, stalking past the still kneeling Englishman to stand in front of the captive Slayer. "No. Wait," she corrected amusedly. "That might be you." Her hand went out, lifting Buffy’s chin so that she could study her closely. Buffy held herself very still, watching Wesley out of the corner of her eye. The vampiress had clearly dismissed him as being any kind of threat. She’d even turned her back on him.

But he was a Watcher. And he had the staff. He was currently using it to help him get back to his feet.

"Here’s how it works," Lilithu said confidently, tilting Buffy’s head thoughtfully to one side. "He completes the ritual – and sets me free. One wrong word, and I break your neck. Just like I did to her. That – other Slayer. Pretty thing. Prettier than you. She looked so surprised when I killed her."

"Eva," Buffy heard Albrecht breathe, a note of awe in his voice. The German scholar had finally put everything together in his head. "You were the one that killed Eva Koenigsburg. And Dr Webber? Did you kill him too?"

"No." the vampiress smiled, confident enough to turn towards him, to pause in her taunting threats to speak with amused recollection. "A childe of mine … well, there was a lot of blood. They were very hungry. She saved him. Or thought she did. He was dying, of course. The trail he left was thick and sweet and led us right to them."

"Oh, gross," Buffy heard Cordelia react. She could understand why. The pleasure in the she-demon’s voice was sickening.

"He might have been dying," a quiet English accent said softly, "but he was still able to bind you."

Buffy risked a glance over Lilthu’s shoulder. Wesley was standing right behind her, looking a little like a drowned rat. A very determined drowned rat; the water dripping from his hair, nose, and chin merely served to emphasis the resolute look on his otherwise terrified face. He was holding the staff in both hands, holding it horizontally at waist height, as if it were a quarterstaff and he was getting ready for a training session. His hands were shaking and he was breathing heavily – but he was standing there, quivering from head to foot perhaps, but standing firm, doing what he’d been trained to do. Doing his duty.

Trying to save the world.

The vampiress had let out a hiss at his words, spinning round to confront him with an angry reaction. The young Watcher blanched – then let out a panicked cry, swinging the staff up as he did so. Lilithu leapt back in startled surprise – and Buffy galvanised into action.

She’d been hanging limply against the bruising clench of undead hands, feeling both of them relax as she offered no resistance to their continued restraint. By now they were utterly confident of her surrender; neither of them were expecting her to arch back with sudden strength, twisting her arms up and around so that their grip was instantly broken. The minute it was, she threw herself in the other direction, tucking down into a forward roll and tumbling away from their attempts to regain control. Her momentum took her under the swing of the staff; within moments she’d bounced back to her feet and had turned, safely tucked behind Wesley’s shoulder as he frenziedly swept the air in front of him with amber and ivory.

One of the pursing vampires realised his peril and pulled back just in time. The second wasn’t fast enough. The sweep of the staff hit him in the shoulder, knocking him sideways; fire flared at the contact and he screamed, a sound fit to wake the dead. Wesley was still running on adrenaline and panic; he swung the staff again and again, desperately whacking at the creature with frantic, clumsy blows. It wasn’t formal combat, and it definitely wasn’t a style of fighting you’d find in any text book, but it was disturbingly effective. Each impact sank deep into undead flesh, scorching skin and searing muscle. The arm that was flung up in anguished defence was instantly severed; bones shattered and the dead thing dropped to its knees in agony, fire wreathing across its distorted features. A bare moment later there was nothing left but another pile of dust settling across the water slicked floor.

Everything paused for a startled beat – and then Buffy was grabbing the Englishman by the waist and propelling him across the room, half throwing him in front of Albrecht and Cordelia before turning to face the snarling vampires that had charged after them both.

Their retreat had been just in time. The moment her minion had bitten the dust, Lilithu had launched herself towards the trembling scholar and his equally trembling company; another few seconds and she’d have seized hold of the screaming Cordy, who’d decided to totally wig out and have panicked hysterics at this particular turn of events. Buffy couldn’t really blame her for that. The sight of the Mother of Eternal Hungers heading towards you in full vamp face would have been enough to disturb even the toughest of the tough. Fortunately Wesley had the sense of mind to ward her off with the staff and the she demon hastily backed away with another of those angry hisses.

Buffy’s opponents weren’t quite so quickly intimidated. She found herself facing two of the remaining three, and she had to move fast to avoid their snarling attacks. They were all claws out and going for blood now – an approach she was more than happy to reciprocate. She ducked, dodged and then struck, putting everything she had into her blows. Hatred, grief and righteous fury gave her a strength even Lilithu’s brood found hard to withstand; one flew backwards, lifted right off its feet – and the other went skidding across the water slicked floor to slam, head first, into the base of a stone statue.

That wasn’t enough to stop it – it shuddered, rolled over and slowly climbed back to its feet – but it was enough to make it and its fellow vampires wary about charging straight at her again. The three of them began to prowl like hungry hyenas watching a wounded wildebeest, pacing a wide quarter-circle that kept them out of the reach of both the staff and the Slayer. Only their mistress stood her ground, poised and quivering at a point just out of the staff’s reach. Her eyes blazed with a fury that promised dire consequences as soon as she figured out how to bring them about. This was a good, catch your breath and assess your options moment – or would have been, had there been any options. The vampires’ pacing effectively pinned all four mortals into their suspect refuge in the corner of the room.

"Mexican stand-off," Wesley observed shakily, his eyes tracking the prowling vampires while he kept the staff firmly positioned to hold Lilithu at bay. "They can’t attack, we can’t escape. This – uh – may be a long night."

Buffy threw him a grief stricken look. That was exactly the sort of thing Giles would have said, had he been standing there – but it wasn’t the way he would have said it; his would have been a quietly sarcastic comment, more about easing the tension of the moment than acknowledging the peril they faced. Wesley’s words had been raw and anxious, offering the despair of truth rather than the courage of defiance.

"No," she denied tightly. "No, no. Staff. Watcher. Ritual thing. Remember? You do the voodoo. She –" It was hard to say, no matter how poetic its justice might be. "She bites the dust."

He didn’t say anything for a moment – but the look that chased across his face told an eloquent story. Buffy’s heart sank, and her stomach clenched in horror. "Wes?" she demanded tightly. "Don’t tell me you can’t do this, because you have to do this, you can do this, you are going to do this, you really, really have to do this. I need you to do this. Oh god, you have to do this." She wanted to turn and scream it at him – but she had to keep her eyes on the pacing vampires, had to watch as Lilithu’s expression shifted from furious anger through wary comprehension and into quiet delight.

"He can’t," the vampiress said, savouring the realisation – along with the expression on the beleaguered Watcher’s face. "Can you? You don’t know how."

Cordelia was busy muttering a tight ohgodohgodohgod somewhere in the background, a shivering counterpoint to the Albrecht’s equally fervent recitation of something in deep and guttural German. Buffy might have snapped at them both to shut up – but she couldn’t risk the distraction, couldn’t – for one moment – turn her attention away from hungry, gleaming eyes.

"Wesley?"

He was trembling, holding his ground despite the predatory way that Lilithu was considering him. He was also looking somewhat mortified. "I-I’m afraid she’s right, Buffy," he admitted reluctantly. "I didn’t – I wasn’t able to … I don’t know the final line."

Buffy felt as if a hand had plunged into her gut and tugged everything out of it; for a horrifying moment she was utterly empty, hollow and echoing – and then the grief and the anger surged up to fill her with a hot and bubbling rage.

"Oh, that’s just great," she spat furiously. "We get you in here, I keep them busy, I have to … have to hurt and maim … and you All you had to do was one thing. One little, this is what Watcher’s do kind of thing "

He winced at her words. "I know. I’m – I’m sorry, Buffy. There just wasn’t time. I might … " He hesitated, his eyes watching Lilithu as she watched him, her expression confidently predatory. "I – I could try the binding sequence. I know that much. But – "

"Don’t try. Do "

"Well, - ah … "

"Wesley …" She was in no mood to listen to excuses. The price she had paid was already too high – and there was no way she was going to let Lilithu or any of her brood get away with what they’d done. Let alone what they planned to do.

The vampiress laughed. "He’s afraid, Slayer. And he should be. Afraid of death. Afraid of failure. The fire the rite summons consumes the soul – and without the final words, it cannot be banished again. If he tries to bind me without completing the ritual – this quivering Watcher will burn. Just like your last one."

Buffy launched herself forward with a wordless cry of rage. She’d had enough. Enough of this malignant creature’s taunting, enough of her arrogance and her oh so condescending superiority. So the ritual was out of the question. So? She was still the Slayer – and she was going to wipe that scornful smile off the bitch’s face. If possible, she was going to use the floor to do it.

The fight was fast, fierce and furious. Lilithu moved like lightning, dancing away from directed blows and twisting in under determined defences to strike with savage strength. Buffy took each contact, used it, reflected it, and gave back as good as she got, landing ferocious kicks and never letting her opponent get the upper hand. The exhibition became a battle zone and its exhibits weapons in the fight; statues toppled, stone jars smashed and ornate artifacts were grabbed and wielded and used with punishing effect. The lesser vampires hastily retreated from the fray – one foolish enough, Buffy vaguely noticed, to step within Wesley’s reach. The Watcher took the opportunity to jab the staff forward with ferocity; the ivory worked just as effectively as a wooden stake, and a little more dust joined the slurry on the floor.

The vampiress was tough. Buffy had to admit that, staggering back one more time from a blow that set her senses reeling. But the Slayer was too incensed to notice her own hurts, too focused in her determination to win. It didn’t matter that she was bleeding from several deep and painful scratches, or that the damage from her earlier injuries was screaming for attention; she called on all her reserves, driving the fight, forcing the she demon into defensive responses, and never letting her get the upper hand.

In the end, though, it wasn’t righteous fury that ended the fight. It was a combination of the water slicked floor and the scattering of sodden ashes that lay across it, which proved to be Lilithu’s undoing. She’d just ducked a particularly furious blow, and had darted back, seeking – not a breathing space, since vampires don’t really breath – but a moment to regroup. Her dance took her past the plinth which had once supported her and out into the centre of the floor.

Where she slipped.

It was a moment’s falter, no more – but it gave Buffy time to snatch up a piece of broken table leg and charge in with confidence. The jagged point of the wood hit undead flesh and sank deep, sliding between ancient ribs to pierce the she demon’s heart. A perfect, textbook blow. One that Buffy knew Giles would have been proud of, had he been there to see it. She was pretty proud of it too; she hadn’t been able to save him – but at least she’d been able to avenge his death in style.

She should have known better.

Vampires – most vampires – explode into satisfying dust once you’ve driven a stake through their heart. True, the Master had been tough enough to hold his bones together, but the rest of him had disintegrated pretty spectacularly. Buffy had been expecting Lilithu to do much the same. What she didn’t expect was for the she demon to stagger back, look down at the object protruding from her chest with disgust, grab hold of it – and firmly tug it out again.

"Foolish child," the vampiress snarled, tossing the bloodied piece of wood away. "You cannot kill me with such tricks and toys. I am the Mother of eternal hungers. I am death. While my shadow lies bound to the staff only the ritual can destroy me – and now there is no-one – no-one – with the knowledge to speak the words."

"I wouldn’t be so sure of that," a soft voice announced out of the shadows by the door.

Read: Chapter 12