Out Of Africa - Chapter 12
written by Pythia

Giles had been terrified that they wouldn’t make it in time. The jostling, desperate race between the hospital and the museum had seemed to take forever – and that despite Xander’s foot down, run every red light, hope we don’t pick up a cop, style of driving. Once he’d finished climbing into the clothes that Angel had found for him – and he hadn’t been about to ask whose locker he’d raided for those - the Watcher had counted off every junction and every corner, trying desperately not to imagine what they might find when they got there. Images of Buffy, helpless in the hands of her captors had kept bubbling to the surface of his mind – and every time he’d banished them, he’d found Lilithu’s feral smile haunting the space they left behind. He’d tried to banish that too, knowing that he couldn’t afford to be distracted by the memory of what she’d done to him. There would be, he’d told himself firmly, time for that later. Much later.

Provided there was a later, of course …

There’d been a grim kind of irony in that line of thinking, a disturbingly positive aspect to being gifted with a whole new bunch of nightmares. Something to look forward too, he’d acknowledged wryly, not for one moment missing the equal irony of having the subject of most of the old ones crouched behind him when the thought occurred.

Angel, not Angelus, he’d reminded himself firmly, conscious that the vampire had probably saved his life after Lilithu’s misjudgement in her initial attack. It was obviously a night for ironies; he’d never suspected that being attacked by a vampire both older and far deadlier than Angelus had ever been might prove to be the catalyst that refocused his perspectives in that regard. He’d never expected to have those perspective refocused for a start – yet, there they were, allies and comrades in arms, the Watcher and the vampire with a soul, racing to save the world once again.

Racing to save Buffy.

She was the reason that made it right, whatever might have been before. The Slayer was Angel’s inspiration, the choice he’d made when turning the endurance of his curse into a quest for redemption – and she was her Watcher’s purpose in life – not just his service and his sacred duty, but the unexpected answer he’d found to that age old, ponderous question. Why am I here?

He was probably one of the few people in the world who could answer that with utmost certainty – although by the time Xander pulled up in front of the darkened museum, Giles was half convinced he’d be answering in the past tense from that day forward. The knot in his stomach had grown tighter and tighter as they’d raced through the night, and a sense of desperate panic was tearing through his soul. His Slayer was outnumbered, out matched and running out of time. If Lilithu hadn’t killed her by now – killed her, or god help them all, turned her – then it would only be because the vampiress found her defiance amusing.

Or because she’d found a better use for her alive …

"How many did you say she’d sired?" Angel’s question was anxious; he’d stilled Xander’s instinctive reach for the van door and was peering out into the night with wary concern.

"Six," Giles answered, doing much the same. "And yes – she left one on watch out here. Along with a very dead night-watchman, I regret to say."

"You have nothing to regret. There was nothing you could do."

Now that was irony, that a vampire could offer him such quiet and considered absolution – and mean it with absolute sincerity. He appreciated the thought. Being forced to stand and watch as an innocent man was slaughtered in front of him hadn’t exactly been a pleasant experience. "No," he acknowledged softly, suppressing a small shiver at the memory.

Xander threw him a worried look. "You sure you’re up to this?" he asked. "I mean – you being all ‘dead man walking’ and stuff … I’d be looking for a small dark place to hide. Or a - not so dark place. A bright, lots of people, hello company kind of place …" He trailed off under the look he received; a patient, slightly pained look . "I am so not helping here, am I."

"Not really." The Watcher could hardly blame the young man for his concern – and, truth be told, he was pretty close to being right. Giles desperately needed to distance himself from the raw and vivid memories of his recent experiences – and if he weren’t facing the prospect of striding in to confront the demon responsible for those experiences, he’d might well be busy crawling into the bottom of a bottle of very good single malt.

For strictly medicinal reasons, of course.

But Buffy was in trouble, and seeking the refuge of oblivion was not an option, so he was just going to have to push those sort of issues to one side and work out how deal with them later. The here and now was the important thing at the moment; the safety of his Slayer, the call of duty, and the potential fate of the world resting in his hands.

Which appeared to be shaking …

Giles grimaced with self annoyance, taking a deep breath and clenching his right fist over his left to still their mutual trembling. His damaged wrist protested the pressure, but he ignored the shiver of pain and focused on more important matters, his expression settling into tight, determined lines. He didn’t have time to fall apart and, he wasn’t about to. Lilithu might have subjected him to long hours of intolerable torture, but her greater sin was the pleasure with which she’d taunted and tormented Buffy, the cruel games she’d been playing and her arrogant confidence that she was destined to win. The anger that came with that thought was a source of strength; he seized hold of it, using it to fortify his resolve. The bitch was going to pay.

No matter what it might cost him.

"There he is," Angel announced, pointing out through the window of the van. Giles stared in that direction, briefly envying the vampire his enhanced night vision. The lurking creature was hard to make out in among the shadows.

"Got him," Xander announced gleefully, then added, "Whoa. Ugly or what? Think you can take him, Angel?"

"Think you can lure him away from that door?"

The young man and the vampire exchanged a look - one that sent a cold shiver down the Watcher’s spine. He didn’t want Xander out there, risking his life like that – and he certainly didn’t want him doing it in response to some stupid macho dare, as if there were some obscure and pointless point to prove. "Angel," he started to protest, "I-I’m not sure that – "

"It’s okay," Xander interrupted. "I can do this. The bait thing, I mean. I’m good at being bait. Lots of baitiness in me. All those demon’s out there, keen to get their teeth into that genuine Xander goodness. And I so wish I hadn’t said that … But, hey. This I can do. I’ll lure, he’ll stake – and you go get the bitca, okay? Save Buffy. And – the world, I guess, but – Buffy?"

Giles swallowed against a sudden lump in his throat; there wasn’t anything he could say to that – except, perhaps, let a little of the enormous pride and affection he felt for this young man surface in his eyes. Time and time again, he’d seen Xander Harris rise to the challenge – and surpass it. He knew there was something special about Buffy, about the loyalty and love she inspired in her friends – but there was something special about those friends, too, in the strength and commitment they brought to their mutual cause. "Just – b-be careful," he advised as sternly as he could manage in the circumstances. "Don’t – do anything – stupidly heroic. Unless absolutely necessary, of course."

Xander grinned at him. "Back at ya, Watcherguy." He pushed open the van door and slid out into the night, taking a few deliberated steps away from the vehicle before thrusting his hands in his pockets and starting to whistle jauntily. Angel picked up a stake and started to go after him; Giles put out his hand and held him back for a moment.

"If anything happens to him …" he warned softly. The vampire threw him an understanding look.

"It won’t. Go. Get to the staff. Stop Lilithu. We won’t be far behind you."

* * * * *

There were three things that struck him as soon as he stepped inside the museum. The first was a shiver of discomforting deja-vu; the second was the realisation that it was raining. Seriously raining; the sprinkler system had clearly been active for some time, filling the air inside the exhibition hall with a fine persistent mist, slicking every surface with a sheen of moisture and creating glimmering pools across the debris strewn floor.

And the third?

The third was the sheer grace and poetry of his Slayer in motion, the power and the proficiency she displayed as she fought her ancient foe. He’d thought – enduring her blows, suffering her tear-stained attack – that he’d finally felt the true depth of her strength; now, watching her in action, seeing her tear into the vampire with furious force, he realised that - even then - she’d been holding herself back.

He was witnessing the Slayer in all her glory: focussed, determined, filled with righteous fire. It was wonderful, and it was terrifying; it took his breath away.

It also lifted his heart to his mouth; the vampiress was giving back everything she got, and she wasn’t pulling punches either. He winced as Buffy went flying, then suppressed a grin as she flipped back to her feet, grabbed a handy statue and started wielding it like a club. A somewhat unusual use for an image of Kuan yin, but he suspected that even the goddess of mercy would approve of violence when it came to dealing with a creature like Lilithu.

The she-demon backed away from the furious attack, evading most of the blows with an impressive display of speed and agility. The two were remarkably well matched. The vampiress had a feral, feline grace, a turn of speed worthy of a cheetah and the strength of a lioness defending her cubs. Buffy, on the other hand, was more acrobat than animal; she tumbled and twisted through the fight like an Olympic gymnast, superbly confident in every move, every twirl and somersault. Her punches contained no mercy, and each kick was delivered with power and passion. Something had made her very, very angry – and yet she was using it, controlling it, reining in her rage to give her the edge she needed.

Giles tore his eyes away from the sight with difficulty, remembering why he was there and what needed to be done. Much as he loved to watch Buffy at work, he had a task of his own to pursue. One Wesley Wyndam-Pryce had obviously decided not to risk, since, rather than using the staff to serve its intended purposes, he was standing defensively in front of Cordelia and an older man, wielding it as a defence against two of Lilthu’s unholy children. Giles, who knew the dangers inherent in the ritual and the perils of even a single mis-pronunciation in its litany, heaved a small sigh of relief. Partly because that meant there was a very good chance the ritual could be completed – but mostly because both his fellow Watcher and the frightened girl behind him were alive and apparently unharmed. In fact, he noted with surprise, Wesley was making quite a brave show for someone who’d previously demonstrated about as much backbone as a jellyfish.

He measured the distance across the hall with a thoughtful eye, deciding – very quickly – that there was absolutely no way he could cross it without drawing attention to himself. Although Lilithu’s concentration was firmly focussed on her furious opponent, he’d still have to get past the last remaining members of her brood – and they were watching the staff like a hawk. Creeping up on something like that was not an option; Giles knew only too well how fast the creatures could move – and how savage an attack would be. Had he been fighting fit and sensibly armed … but with a damaged left wrist, his body still recovering from serious trauma blood loss and his mind struggling to reassert what was normally automatic motor control, he’d be a fool to even think of risking it.

He’d have to risk something, though. And soon. Buffy was tiring. Her anger was sustaining her, but not even that would keep her going forever. Eventually she’d lose her edge; start making mistakes. And that would be fatal.

For all of them.

Bugger this, he decided angrily. If he couldn’t get to the staff, he’d just have to find a way to get it to him.

A sideways step was all it took; a step and a determined stare; Giles glared across the mist filled hall, over the head of his Slayer and the desperate conflict she pursued, seeking the eyes and the attention of his fellow Watcher, willing the man to glance in his direction. Fate, fortune – and possibly a subconscious trace of magic – worked the necessary miracle; Buffy struck a particularly spectacular blow, Lilithu retreated with a curse, her children turned to see if she needed help – and Wesley looked up, looked past Buffy, and saw him.

The moment was almost comical; Wesley did a perfect double take, his eyes going wide and his mouth dropping open. Behind him, Cordelia reacted to his startled reaction, glanced at him, then across the room to see what he was staring at. Her mouth dropped open – and then she fainted. Clean away, dropping into the arms of the decidedly bemused stranger standing beside her. Giles wondered – briefly – who he was, but had more pressing issues to worry about. A quick glance assured him that the girl had been safely caught, and he was able to return his attention to Wesley, who was still staring at him as if he’d seen a ghost.

He didn’t have time for subtlety or explanations; he gestured urgently, hoping that the man would understand his intentions. He knew he was asking a lot – giving up the staff would also give up the only defence the little group possessed – but he really had no choice. With luck, Angel would arrive in time to help Buffy protect them, and if not … well, sometimes saving the world meant taking risks. Making sacrifices.

Hopefully, once he’d started the ritual, the only life on the line would be his own …

Wesley’s frown was not encouraging, so he started to repeat the gesture – just as Lilithu and Buffy danced between them, briefly blocking their line of sight. The vampiress was in retreat, seeking a moment’s respite from the Slayer’s punishing blows; Buffy was in hot pursuit, charging forward to strike with a leaping double kick that lifted her up and through a complete somersault. The move was spectacular, and it caught the attention of both Watchers – one because he’d probably never seen it before and the other because he’d been witness to the long hours it had taken to master it. Giles had always complained that it was far too showy a move to use in serious combat, but Buffy’s instincts – as usual – were right on the nail. Neither kick actually hit, but they forced Lilithu into a backwards lunge and turn that was totally off-balance; she took three more steps and then slipped, her feet finding no purchase on the water and muck slicked surface beneath them.

Barely a second later Buffy had landed, snatched up a suitable weapon, and charged in to take advantage as the vampiress struggled to her feet; she struck with all her force, giving vent to a primal scream as the splintered wood sank home.

It was text book Slaying; a truly perfect move, a faultless thrust straight through the she-demon’s heart. For one, brief moment, Giles couldn’t breath, couldn’t even move, caught by the perfection of her delivery and the stark dramatics of its setting; the fitful half light that illuminated the hall, the faint mist that outlined the scene – and the fierce, determined pose of his Slayer, her hair tossed back to scatter silvered droplets as she stepped away from the blow.

Sheer poetry.

It was an affirmation of life, a denial of the dark; an expression of something so profound no words would ever do it justice.

And it wasn’t enough.

Most vampires would have been dust the moment the wood hit home; some – like the Master - might have had sufficient strength of will to cling to their bones in a last gasp attempt to remain in the world. Only the oldest and most powerful of vampires – or one protected by powerful magics - could hope to survive such a fatal blow. Lilithu, it appeared, was both.

She glanced down. Tugged the broken wood from her chest, and gave that contemptuous speech, looking at the Slayer as if she were something that had crawled out from under a rock. Buffy’s face was a picture of bewildered dismay and horror; she’d given everything she had, and it still hadn’t won the day.

"While my shadow lies bound to the staff only the ritual can destroy me," the she-demon announced confidently. "And now there is no one – no one – with the knowledge to speak the words."

It was time, Giles decided firmly, to put an end to this, one way or the other. He stepped out of the shadows and into the flickering light. "I wouldn’t be so sure of that," he said. 

Read: Chapter 13