Out Of Africa - Chapter 14
written by Pythia





"Powers of earth, powers of sky." The language was long dead, the dialect obscure and the pronunciation complicated – but Giles spoke the words with confident ease, measuring the rhythm of them as they were shaped by lips and tongue. Living lips, and an unswollen tongue; the litany was alien to them, but the spirit that moved them was word perfect in every way. The long hours of tortuous practice had branded the ritual into his soul. "Powers of light, powers of life, hear me."

The staff stirred at the command; the thrum of power grew stronger, and the ivory quivered under his hand, almost as if it were a living thing.

The demoness’ backwards retreat slowed, then stopped altogether. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to go on backing away, but the commencement of the ritual had caught her in a net she could not escape. The power he was summoning was her own – stolen from her, and turned against her, but still hers in a way she could not escape.

There was irony in that – and bitter satisfaction. The ancient priests who’d crafted this ritual – who’d given their lives to destroy the darkness which had been consuming their world – had more than understood the paradoxical nature of their work. Death is the antithesis of life and darkness the antithesis of light; yet here he was, using the power of one to summon the other – with himself in the middle of it all.

"She that is death, shall be undone. She that is hunger will feed no more."

"No," Lilithu denied with vehemence. "I will not be bound."

The protest was too late. Tendrils of power were already snaking out from the staff, wrapping around her like bands of steel. She was caught and held by the net his words were weaving, a net that trembled and shook as she fought to be free of it.

"By the gift of the past, I invoke thee. By the gift of the present, I bind thee. And that which is to come will be thine undoing "

The net tightened. Lilithu was glaring at him with unmitgated hate. He could feel the magic surge and pulse with the impact of her anger.

"You will fail," she told him tightly. "Just like the one before you. The words will stumble in your mouth. The power will strip you of your senses. The fire will claim you. You may bind me – but you will die before the rite is ended. And I will walk this earth again. I swear it "

He met the glare with one of his own. She was trying to unnerve him, to make him falter – and she had about as much chance of doing that as she did of stepping out into the sunlight when the morning came. She was taunting him with the prospect of death, and right now that was the least of his worries. Besides – he’d felt this kind of power before. Had ridden it for kicks, surfing the edges of a demon’s desires in order to experience the kind of intoxication that no words could possibly describe. Those moments in Egyhon’s embrace had scarred him – but they’d also toughened his soul and tempered his will. He could do this.

He had to. The fate of the world depended on it.

"The darkness will be chained. The beast will be silent. The serpent of the night will gather the hunger in its coils. That which was named will be nameless."

The she-demon’s glare held a malignant rage that was almost tangible. She was struggling like a hooked fish, fighting every moment with fierce and determined fury. The power surged and bucked around them both, ripping through his senses, flailing into him like white hot strands of steel. His hand clenched around the ivory, gripping it tighter, despite the searing pain that lanced though his palm as he did so.

"That which was fear will be feared no more."

His pronunciation was exact; the net snapped tight, sealing Lilithu within illusion of ebony. Her struggles became a point of concentrated rage that burned and festered behind her carved eyes. He shivered, despite his determination to remain focussed. The she demon was bound by her own power, helpless to resist the final phase of the ritual; once again trapped and tormented inside a body that would no longer answer to her will.

The memory of it – of being restrained, of being fettered in decaying flesh - rose up in him like a wave, threatening to swamp him; each hour of his imprisonment had felt like a lifetime – and she had endured like that for centuries …

The shiver became a convulsion of pain; his momentary distraction had allowed the magic to flare and surge, whipping through his senses like razor edged ribbons. He bit back a curse and fought to regain control. This was the critical moment. It was here that Gregory Webber had failed, too weak to bring the ritual to its planned end – and it was here that the first wielder of the staff had failed, unprepared for the demands of the final section of the rite. Lilithu had taken great delight in describing that failure – in revelling in the man’s failure, his inability to endure the energies he had summoned.

"Fires of forever I summon thee."

Heat surged out of the staff, a heat as searing as the flame which had charred dead flesh. It flared up around him, turning him into a living pillar of fire. Instinct screamed at him to let go, to step away, to escape the unbearable agony of it – but he fought against the reflex, knowing that to let go of the staff was the very last thing he should do. The power was shaped by the staff, but it was being channelled though him, held and directed by his will. If he let go, if he succumbed to the demands of his body, he’d surrender himself to the fire, and it would consume him, not the demoness that watched him so intently. She had imprisoned his soul, forced him to endure maddening torment - and he knew he could endure this, despite the way every inch of him was screaming in anguished protest.

"Fires of eternity, give me the purity of thy flame. Cleanse this place of defilement. Defy the dark. Devour the hunger."

Giles’ voice was trembling. He was trembling. The power was ripping through him without mercy, threatening to tear him apart.

"Let there be an end to death. Let there be a reckoning of the soul."

Somehow, somewhere, he found the strength he needed to lift the slender ivory shaft, lift and tip it, pointing it at the unmoving figure in front of him. There was nothing in his world but flame and ebony; Lilithu’s eyes were a darkness into which he was falling – a darkness which only the fire could dispel

"The circle closes. The end becomes the beginning. The beginning becomes the end."

The heat and the pain were stripping his soul; a white hot river of energy was welling out of his heart and flooding every inch of him. There was no escape; fighting against it was impossible. So he let it take him. Immersed himself in it, feeling it rip self from self. Agony transmuted to ecstasy; soul and flame coalesced in a moment of exquisite insight.

And just like that, he became the fire.

"That which is, will return to that which was "

Light leapt from the tip of the staff, a shaft of white hot flame that speared the silent she-demons’ heart. Her eyes flared with one last howl of anger and pain – and then her ebony form shattered into dust, exploding outwards with explosive force. He was flung backwards as the shockwave hit him, lifted completely off his feet and thrown halfway across the hall. 

* * * * *

"Giles!"

Buffy’s outcry was practically a primal scream; it voiced a savage denial, giving expression to the anguish and the terror that had taken root in her heart. She’d been forced to stand and watch as the ritual played out, her body tense and her heart pounding in her chest. She’d barely felt the comfort of Angel’s hand on her shoulder – although she’d felt his hands as he’d caught her, preventing her convulsive charge as, for the second time that night, she saw flame creep from around clenched fingers and ripple up a man’s arm. Her breath had caught in her throat then, choking her instinctive cry of alarm; she’d been frozen to the spot as the hint of fire flared into sudden conflagration. It had taken barely seconds - between one and the next – and the moment had pierced her heart and ripped what was left of it in two.

But Giles’ voice had barely faltered. And the flame hadn’t consumed the figure within it – not the way it had before. She’d watched with horror as he’d continued to intone the ritual words, trying desperately not to imagine how it must feel, fighting to banish memories of flame seared bone emerging from beneath cooked flesh and charred skin. She didn’t notice how Angel’s grip on her arms had tightened with bruising reaction – anymore than she felt the pain of manicured nails as they bit into the palms of her hands. The light from the fire had grown brighter, etching the scene indelibly into memory; Lilithu’s frozen glare, the gleam of amber and ivory – and the image of her Watcher, turned into a living figure of flame.

A moment later everything went kablooie. Light flared with unbearable brilliance. A wave of force and heat surged across the hall, scattering the debris of the exhibition and shaking the whole building with a sound like thunder. Buffy felt something stab through her – a silent howl of anger and pain, a raging moment of loss and death – and that was when she cried out, when her fears finally found a voice.

She matched it with action, tearing herself from Angel’s grip and leaping back into the now darkened and silent hall. Dazzling afterimages danced behind her eyes, and she blinked, fighting to regain focus – and to brush away the resurgence of tears. It just wasn’t fair. She’d faced this loss once tonight – and for him to be taken from her again, in the same night, the same way

The roller coaster of her emotions sat poised on the brink of a final fall. She was suspended over an abyss, and a piece of her wanted to jump, to tumble into the dark; down there she wouldn’t have to feel, wouldn’t have to deal – and the world could go to hell, and she wouldn’t know and wouldn’t care.

Except she would. Because she was the Slayer – his Slayer – and, just like Merrick before him, Giles had willingly given his life to enable her to fulfill her destiny.

She almost could hear him pointing that out – gently and with some amusement; telling her that she could and would go on without him.

In fact, he was laughing about it …

"Giles?"

She wasn’t imagining his laughter. She was hearing it – a soft, semi-hysterical chuckle echoing out of the dark. Buffy moved towards the source of the sound, stepping cautiously through the remnants of Koenigsburg’s collection. Between her, Lilithu, and the final moments of the rite, there wasn’t a lot left intact; at least the steady drizzle from the sprinklers seemed to have stopped, although there were glistening pools of water everywhere.

She found her Watcher lying in one.

He was flat on his back, sprawled out like an abandoned rag doll. His clothes were torn and charred, and he was soaked to the skin – but he was laughing. Giggling in fact, his body shaking and quivering from head to foot.

"Giles?" Buffy didn’t know what to make of the sight – which was utterly bizarre, and utterly wonderful all at the same time. Her relief at finding him alive was immediately tempered by a mixture of affectionate exasperation and total bafflement. She dropped to her knees beside him, ignoring the way water rippled out around her as she did so. She was already soaked to the skin; a little more wouldn’t do her any harm. "Giles – are you okay?"

It was a rather stupid question, but it was the best she could formulate, given the circumstances. Half of her wanted to cry with relief and the other half wanted to join in the giggling. She managed to do neither, although she suspected nobody would blame her if she did both.

Giles turned his head and grinned at her. Broadly. An I don’t have a care in the world right now kind of grin. "That," he announced with confident authority, "was one hell of a rush. Bloody incredible." His voice held echoes of effort, and his words were slightly slurred; Buffy frowned at him.

"Uh, Giles … " she started to say bemusedly. He looked a little dazed, and he sounded - well, drunk. She wondered if he’d hit his head or something. He lifted his right hand and jabbed in her direction with an authoritative finger.

"Tell me," he ordered firmly, "never - to do anything like that again. Good lord." The hand fell away, landing with a soft splash back in the water. "I do feel peculiar."

He is drunk, Buffy realised disconcertedly. Well, not drunk, exactly. High. High on the magic. On whatever it was that happened, right at the end …

"I’m not surprised." Angel said, emerging out of the gloom. "That was … pretty impressive stuff."

"Indeed," Wesley agreed, joining the vampire in looking down at the prostrate librarian. "We knew that the ritual was intended to turn Lilithu’s own power against her – but from the looks of things the priests who created it had severely underestimated the extent of her potency. The staff unlocked the floodgates - and turned you into a conduit through which the unleashed energies poured. I’d say you’ve just survived the mystical equivalent of sticking wet fingers into an electrical power socket."

"Right," Giles acknowledged with a another quiver of amusement. He was staring up at the ceiling with an odd look in his eyes. Buffy suspected he was feeling as if he were floating somewhere up there, rather than lying sprawled on a cold wet floor. "So - you’d consider the m-moment of perceptual transcendence as merely a by-product of the experience, rather than a - a fundamental component of the process?"

"Well, ah – " The younger Watcher blinked. "The moment of what?"

"Transcendence." The giddy grin resurfaced, wrapping itself around the word with relish. "Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, you’re a pillock. You know nothing about magic and I – " Giles paused to lift his hand a second time, only to have it fall back again as he failed to find the energy the gesture needed. "I know too bloody much." The laughter left him. Almost everything left him as exhaustion finally made its inevitable claim. His eyes closed and his head rolled to one side; a moment of panic clutched at Buffy’s heart, one that she pushed away with determined effort. She reached for his hand instead, feeling the warmth in it, despite the water’s chill. His fingers tightened on hers, just as they’d done back at the hospital, back when this all began. "She is gone, isn’t she?" he asked faintly, needing that last reassurance before he could let go completely.

"Yes," Angel affirmed, giving Xander a reassuring smile as the young man appeared out of the dimness, anxious to know what was going on. "Nothing left but dust."

"Slurry," Xander corrected abstractedly. "In all this water – corpse dust gets to be slurry. Hey, Buff. Is the G-man okay?"

"He’ll be fine," she answered, finally assured that was the case. She leant forward to slide her arm under Giles’ shoulders, realising that the middle of a cold puddle was not the best of places for him to sleep. "Once he’s had a cup of tea and a cookie."

"Cookie?" Wesley queried puzzledly, and she grinned.

"Yeah. I always get a cookie after dealing with a big bad. It’s traditional. And traditions are so important, don’t you think?"

Angel had moved to help her, taking the now unconscious Watcher’s weight as they lifted him from the floor. Wyndam-Pryce’s mouth was open – he clearly knew he was being teased but just couldn’t quite work out how. Xander grinned at him.

"Totally of the important, Buff. Cookiness and just rewards going together hand in hand."

Buffy nodded, savouring the unexpected opportunity to wrap the two most important men in her life in a single loving hug. It didn’t matter that Giles was totally out of it and Angel wasn’t exactly paying attention; they were there and safe and so was she. It was over. Finally over. Nothing left to do but pick up the pieces and sweep the floor …

"Mien Gott." Albrecht Kalskal’s voice echoed across the shattered remnants of his exhibition. "What ever am I going to tell the insurance company?"

Read: Epilogue