Out Of Africa - Chapter 9
written by Pythia

The museum was closing; security guards could be seen ushering a couple of late visitors through the door and down the steps just as Wesley pulled the car into the car park. "We’re too late," he observed with a frown. "We’ll have to come back tomorrow."

"Uhuh," Buffy objected. "Not tomorrow. Tomorrow’s too late. Way too late." Her sense of impatience had been growing all day. She knew that they were running out of time, that - if they didn’t act quickly - they might not have a chance to act at all. Some of that was driven by memories of the feral vampires and the carnage they’d wrought at the Bronze. Each night that passed gave the vampiress time to spawn more of her savage brood. Too many innocent souls had already succumbed to her hungry kisses – only to rise again as creatures filled with an insatiable appetite for blood. That fact alone would have been reason for urgency – but now there was another factor, another concern which tightened the knot in her guts and demanded that they act, and act now. Somewhere, out there in the gathering dark, the sorceress was busy crafting the key to her liberation; planning to use the essence of a stolen soul in order to deceive the ancient magics which had once been stolen from her. If she succeeded in gaining control of the staff, she would be unstoppable.

Buffy couldn’t bear the thought of it – or that of her Watcher being used and abused in such a gross and unspeakable way. She’d tried to imagine what it would be like, to picture the unspeakable torment he was being forced to endure – and her mind had skittered away in dismay, unwilling to face the picture it was painting. She couldn’t imagine it, couldn’t encompass the horror of being trapped and helpless, captive to another’s will – let alone being forced to become the instrument that would unleash Lilithu’s true power on the world.

She had seen how much Giles had suffered, fighting the spell which had ensnared him; if what they’d uncovered were true, then it had been no more than a hint of what he had to be suffering now. Every second that they delayed was one too many.

"So what do you suggest?" Wesley was asking pointedly. "We break in and steal the tablet and the staff?"

Buffy threw him a look; this was hardly the time to become concerned about the niceties of the law.

"Yes," she answered. "No, wait …" She’d been scanning the building, wondering about the best way to get into it and noticed that there were still lights on in the exhibition hall. That meant someone was still working there – and with any luck, that would be Albrecht, and they could persuade him to let them in. "I think I can get us in. Come on."

She led the way across the grass and down the side of the building, Wesley and Cordelia following close behind. She wasn’t entirely sure why Cordelia had elected to join the museum party, rather than the one bound for the hospital, but she suspected it had something to do with the list of spell ingredients Willow had sent Xander and Oz in search of. Powdered serpent’s tongues, crocodile teeth, honey and dried lotus leaf had been okay – and then she’d balked at the need for a live cat and a freshly shed snake’s skin. Buffy hadn’t been entirely happy about the cat either – but Will had assured her that the animal would come to no harm. ‘Kitties are sacred things,’ the young witch had said, then had added, a little worriedly, ‘I hope Giles isn’t allergic …’

Buffy didn’t think he was; he certainly hadn’t been worried about the zombie cat that had invaded her house that time. Although that had been dead, and … her mind skittered across that sudden memory, recalling the stink of rotting flesh. She shuddered, hastily focusing on other things, like the fact that she’d arrived at the outer door of the exhibition hall, and there was someone there, locking up.

"Erm – Hi," she smiled at the uniformed guard. "We’re here to see Dr. Kalskal? We have some – papers he wanted to see."

The guard looked the three of them up and down for a moment; two young, smartly dressed women and a studious looking man in an equally studious suit. Cordelia was the one clutching the file containing all the translations. She gave the man a radiant smile, one designed to convince him that she was an efficient, hard working secretary, and he half smiled back before recollecting himself with a frown.

"I dunno …" he started to say.

"I – I can assure you we won’t be long," Wesley interrupted, responding to the subtle jab Buffy made with her elbow. "Um – I’ve just recently arrived from England, and – uh – I’m in possession of certain materials that I know Dr. Kalskal will be eager to receive."

This clearly clinched it; the guard relaxed and nodded, reaching to throw open the door. "Okay," he said. "Tell the Doc I’ll come back and lock up in an hour or two."

"Thank you," Buffy smiled, slipping through the door before he changed his mind. He grunted and moved away, leaving Wesley to look slightly astonished at their success.

"I say," he said. "That was easier than I expected."

"It’s the accent," Cordelia told him adoringly. "Makes you sound all – official and stuff."

"It does? Oh yes," he smiled. "I suppose it does."

Buffy grimaced, grabbing his jacket to pull him into the building. "Come on," she said. "Let’s see if it works on Albrecht."

It did. It worked wonders. Especially when Wesley tugged out the faxes of Webber’s notes and generously offered to leave the copies with him if – just for a moment – he might get a closer look at the tablet? So as to confirm that the translation was complete? Kalskal was delighted to oblige, practically beaming at Buffy and Cordelia as he led the three of them to the relevant cabinet. Wesley immediately went into paroxysms of scholarly enthusiasm, pointing out the way that Webber had been able to reconstruct some of the damaged areas of the text, and matching translated lines with the carving on the original. Kalskal nodded and agreed, while Cordelia desperately tried to look as is she knew what they were talking about. Buffy left them to it and wandered across to where the staff hung in its glass case. She couldn’t help thinking that it should be Giles standing there, cradling the tablet as if it were the most precious thing in the world, and a part of her resented the enthusiasm of the younger man, along with the intrusion he represented.

Still, she rationalised, staring up at the intricate carving and the amber bands that spiralled around the polished ivory, if he wasn’t here, I probably wouldn’t be here either …

She and the Scoobies might have figured out the link between Lilithu and the staff, but without Wesley’s connections with the council, they’d have never got hold of Webber’s translations or worked out the stuff about the ritual. Giles, she suspected, might have been able to translate the tablet without the notes – but that, of course, was why the demoness had attacked him. Why she had targeted him in the first place.

It was also why his Slayer still wrestled with a deep seated and bitter sense of guilt. She should have protected him, should have stopped Lilithu before she had a chance to wreak her magic – before she could carry out her cruel and audacious theft.

She lifted her hand to splay it across the cold glass, using its chill to centre and focus her resolve. As soon as she’d arrived and seen the staff, she’d known. Known that Lilithu was on her way – was coming here, tonight – and whatever she should have done, whatever ‘might haves’ or ‘what ifs’ plagued her, there was no escaping the truth of what she was about to face. Wesley had recognised it – and warned her as best he could, as gently as he’d been able.

The Mother of eternal hungers had to be stopped – no matter what it took, no matter what the cost.

Unless Willow could conjure another last minute miracle, unless she could find a way to break the demoness’ spell – then the price Buffy would be asked to pay might turn out to be more than she could bear.

* * * * *

The zoo was quiet and deserted, its gates locked for the day and only the minimum of night staff left to guard the grounds. No one was around to see as a dark figure carefully made its way along the twisting walkways and into the depths of the hyena house. That too, was deserted – except for the huddle of hyenas themselves, their dark eyes gleaming in the dimness.

Angel – who’d been busy sneaking in with determined care, stepped away from the shelter of the wall with a soft curse. He was too late. Lilithu had already left – and taken her unholy brood with her by the look of things. He’d managed to locate her hiding place as much by luck as anything else; no-one in town seemed to know anything about her – except to insist that she was bad news and it was better to stay as far away from her as possible. After several hours spent stalking the sewers and interviewing every lowlife demon and vamp he came across, he’d finally remembered what the policeman had said that night at the hospital. That there’d been two previous assaults that the authorities had known about – the first near the museum, the second near the zoo.

He’d pondered investigating the museum, but he knew that Buffy had already visited the place. Besides, when he stopped to think about it, he had a vague memory of the scents that had lingered in the cemetery after Lilithu’s attack. There’d been nothing concrete, nothing specific, but his instincts had said ‘animal house’.

And that had brought him to the zoo.

The hyena house had been the obvious place to start – and just as obviously the right place once he’d got close enough to check it out. The demoness, however, had been gone for at least an hour. She must have left almost as soon as the sun had abandoned the sky. He spent a few moments studying the area around the exit. There was little to see there, and he realised he had no hope of tracking her without some idea as to where she might have been heading.

Confident that the place was deserted, the vampire headed into its depths, hoping that he might find some clue that would put him back on her trail. The hyenas growled at him menacingly, so he shifted into his vamp face and growled back; it was almost funny to see the way they hastily cowered away from him. Once past their faltering protests, he prowled around the darker areas of the lair, but found little to enlighten him. If anything, the things he found only served to mystify him further.

Why had Lilithu covered one of the inner walls with makeshift hieroglyphics? And why was the room they dominated rank with the scent of something that had been dead for several days? There were signs of spilt candle wax in among the scattering of straw that covered the concrete floor – along with the abandoned body of a very dead snake, its skin stripped from its flesh. That was pretty rank by now, too – although the smell that lingered in the air was too strong to be wholly explained by its presence. Angel wasn’t as sensitive to magic as Drusilla had been, but even he could tell that something powerful had been enacted in this dark space.

That was all he found. There was nothing that gave a hint as to Lilithu’s intentions – and nothing to suggest where she might have gone to pursue them. His hopes of bearding the she-demon in her lair, to perhaps bluff her into revealing her plans, or luring her into a place where he and Buffy could deal with her, had been dashed almost as soon as he’d stepped into the place – but there had been a chance that he might have been able to follow her – to find out what she was up to.

He heaved a small sigh and headed back out into the grounds of the zoo. Maybe he’d hit a dead end, but there was always hope that Buffy and the rest of the Scoobies had better luck. It would be too late now to catch them at the school, but – for once – he had a very good idea where he would be able to find them – one of them, at least.

It only took a minute or two to negotiate the complexity of walkways and cages. There was still no one around to see as the black clad figure, its long coat billowing around its agile form, vaulted over the outer fence and scrambled straight up the wall of the nearest building. From there, a short run across the rooftops of Sunnydale would take him straight to the hospital.

* * * * *

"You are sure about this?" Albrecht Kaskal said, puzzled. "The statue, the tablet and the staff – all mentioned in the myth?"

"Yes, yes," Wesley answered enthusiastically. "Look – here, and here – the tablet mentions Lilithu by name. And these glyphs – the ones set apart between the cartouches? They describe the wording for the ritual. You see?"

The older man frowned. "Well," he agreed reluctantly, "it certainly looks as if that is the case … Dr. Webber’s work does seem to indicate that those who carved tablet also believed that the statue held the spirit of this evil goddess. You say that the translation is incomplete?"

We really don’t have time for this …

The Slayer was busy watching the darkness of the outside world, anxiously waiting for the Watcher to finish what they came for. She knew he was doing his best, but it didn’t seem enough somehow. She wished – she really wished – that Giles was there, adding his own particular influence to the debate. She missed him; missed his stalwart support, his comforting presence; missed his input and his perspective; missed his wisdom – and his resolute courage, which always armoured her own. Her sense of impending menace had been growing stronger and stronger. She’d been hard put not to start pacing, certain that – any moment now – hell was going to break loose, and she’d find herself in the middle of it.

As usual.

Cordelia was hovering at Wesley’s elbow, trying very hard not to look bored, and Buffy began to wonder if bringing her along had been an entirely good idea. She’d proved herself relatively capable when faced with the average vampire, but the creatures they might be about to confront were anything but average. It was, however, far too late to suggest that she leave. Night had fallen, and the streets were no longer safe for anyone to walk them unescorted. Even waiting in the car would be a bad idea – especially with who knew how many of Lilithu’s brood about to make an appearance. Buffy had initially hoped that they’d get the last lines of the ritual, persuade Albrecht to lend them the staff and then be able to confront the vampiress in a location of their choosing – but that was looking less and less likely as time went on.

For one thing, Kalskal was asking so many questions that Wesley hadn’t been able to concentrate on locating the missing lines. For another, the German was so sceptical about the whole idea of his missing statue actually being the one the tablet described, that it was looking less and less likely that he’d even let them *handle* the staff, let alone walk away with it.

Come on, come *on*

Buffy turned to glower impatiently at the scholarly pair arguing over a dusty piece of stone. Didn’t Wesley know how important this was? The Englishman glanced up as she turned, his look conveying an echo of her own edginess, and her anger retreated a little. He was trying his best – and the elderly German was being justifiably stubborn, since the Watcher had, understandably perhaps, decided against taking the approach which began, ‘actually your statue is Lilithu and she’s on her way here to reclaim the staff.’ Without that explanation, the need for urgency was very hard to justify.

"Perhaps if I had time to study the papers," Kalskal suggested, taking the tablet out of Wesley’s hands and carefully placing it back on its plinth. "The tablet has resisted my attempts to translate more than a fragment of it – and I am not certain how much of Dr. Webber’s work will reflect the misconceptions of his era. These glyphs are much older than the ones on the Rosetta stone, you know."

"Yes, yes, I know," Wesley agreed patiently, darting sideways glances at the section he was interested in. "If I could just …"

Just what, neither Buffy nor Albrecht Kalskal would ever know.

Because time had run out.

The smash of glass heralded the attack. A snarling figure leapt through one of the larger windows, scattering fragments everywhere. A second vampire crashed through the unlocked side door, and a third came howling through the skylight, tearing its way through a hanging Indian carpet to land, crouched and snarling, practically at Buffy’s feet. A hot, fierce wind tore into the room with them. It swept away photo-laden panels, ripped hangings down from the walls and sent carefully printed labels fluttering high into the air.

Kalskal stepped back with a startled curse as a creature straight out of a nightmare loomed up in front of him. Cordelia screamed.

So did Wesley.

Not entirely without justification, it had to be said. Taloned claws had raked in his direction, ripping their way through the sleeve of his jacket as he’d jumped away. The vampire lunged after him and he hastily dodged behind a nearby display case, looking decidedly terrified.

Buffy moved like lightning, spinning round to kick away the nearest vampire as it scrambled back to its feet. The blow took it firmly in the shoulder and sent it flying – straight through a stack of tribal drums and onto the top of a nearby table case. The case immediately collapsed under the creature’s weight, spilling a mixture of glass, broken pottery and stone axes across the floor.

She didn’t wait to see whether the thing got up or not. She was already half a step away, turning to confront the next one; it too, went flying, crashing through several flimsy panels and taking half the Koenigsberg family tree with it.

"Buffy " Wesley squeaked, still playing dodge and feint around the exhibits with the third vampire. "Help I mean – aah –your assistance would be – eep – much appreciated "

She took three steps in his direction, her expression creasing with a hint of amused exasperation, then turned back as the main doors of the exhibition flew open with decided force, driven by another gust of the unearthly wind. Two more of the feral, snarling vampires loped in.

And Lilithu arrived.

She swept in with regal authority, her hands lifted to direct the fury of the wind which had preceded her. Display panels tumbled like dominoes, the intricately constructed walkways which had filled the centre of the room unravelled into scattered fragments, leaving a semi-cleared space that offered little obstruction to the vampire’s view. Her eyes glanced round the room, alighting – first on Buffy, then on the rest of her company; on Kalskal, who’d nobly pushed Cordelia behind him, and on Wesley cowering behind angled glass. Her smile, which started out arrogant and amused, tightened briefly with a hint of anger – and then relaxed back into a confident sneer.

"Well," she said, gesturing at her brood to stay where they were. "This is a surprise. I was not expecting to see the Slayer tonight – and yet here you are, ready to witness my triumph. I see they sent you a second Watcher. Did they despair so quickly of the first?" She took a few paces forward, down the steps into the main body of the hall. Buffy watched her move closer, her eyes narrowing as she judged the distance between them. There had to be a way to keep her – and the rest of her brood – busy, at least until Wesley could complete the translation and begin the ritual. She hoped he had the sense – and the courage – to begin edging back towards the tablet.

"Have you no care? No loyalty, child?" Lilithu was looking at her with cruel amusement. "To seek another’s guidance while a faithful heart lies stricken in your service? Perhaps it was a kindness that I took him from you. You could not protect him. Do you think to guard this one any better than you did the last?"

That was a low blow. Buffy took a step forward, her eyes flashing with anger and her fists balling up with fury. "That’s far enough," she said tightly. "You’re not in Egypt or Africa any more. You’re on my turf, sister , and you are going down."

"Am I?" The vampire laughed softly. "Such spirit in one so young. Such anger. Such certainty. But I am Lilithu, and I am eternal. I am the giver of life and death; in my hands lies the fate of the world."

"Oh, give me a break," Buffy said with a roll of her eyes. "Bad enough I have to fight you guys. Do I have to listen to the speeches too?"

Lilithu’s eyes flashed with a sudden hint of anger. "You have no sense of courtesy," she snapped. "Nor do you understand who it is you face. Your defiance is merely irritation; you are lucky that it amuses me to see you exercise it."

The Slayer blinked at her. "And we learned to speak English in which century?" she enquired sarcastically. "Look –are we going to do this, or what? Because I do have other things to do, even if you don’t. Like get on with my life?"

Somewhere off to her left, she glimpsed Wesley inching his way back along the mask decorated wall, trying not to look conspicuous about it. That was good. That was what she needed him to do.

"Your life is mine," the vampiress considered coldly. "And you have only kept it so far because I have promised it to another." The cold look became a calculating smile. "One who cherishes it above his own."

Giles …

Buffy shivered, despite a determination not to. "What have you done with him?" she asked, keeping her voice low and her tone resolutely fierce. "Where is he?"

"At my side," Lilithu laughed, crooking her finger to beckon someone – or something – in from behind her. "And in my service." She turned her head and issued a soft command – one phrased in her own, ancient tongue. A shadowed figure shuffled forward, stepping obediently to its mistress’ side.

"Mein Gott," Kalskal exclaimed. Wesley drew in a shocked breath. Cordelia let out a little shriek of disgust and horror.

And Buffy’s blood ran cold.

Read: Chapter 10