Chapter 11: Worst-Case Scenario
"Take a moment and savor the irony," Buffy said.
Willow looked from the open manhole to the statue staring down at them with a benevolent gaze. "You mean the way he looks all kind and wholesome?"
"Well, yeah, that plus he's got this happy look and he's staring at the very spot where he got blown to smithereenes."
Riley looked up. "So that was the Mayor, huh?"
"Kinda-sorta. I mean, he wasn't eighteen feet tall. Well, not until he turned into the snake; once he did that, he was more like fifty feet long, but he couldn't look all warm and fuzzy then."
"Plus which, they probably didn't want to immortalize him slaughtering the students and eating the principal," Willow added.
Carter blinked at that as she hooked up the Humvee's winch to one end of the remote-control cart. "That was a joke, right?"
"Nope," Willow said. "One bite. Chomp."
Carter shuddered. "And stuff like that just ... happens. Regularly." She shook her head. "How can you live like that?"
Anya looked up from the Humvee's fender where she had been leaning. "Actually, Ascensions don't happen every day. Last one before this was, oh, two, maybe three hundred years ago, and that was far worse."
Carter looked at the blackened ruins of the high school. "And some magic rite did all that damage?"
"Oh, no, that was the bomb they used to blow up the Mayor."
"Bomb? Isn't that a bit much to take out one ... of those?" Carter asked as she started the winch.
Anya shook her head as she wandered over to the manhole, resting the water cannon on her shoulder. "I don't think so. I mean, this is the only time in recorded history that an Ascension ended with a body count under a hundred."
Carter looked back to the ruins, then at the statue gazing at them from the center of the park, and finally over to the manhole, where the bomb on its cart was now fully through the opening, slowly lowering into the sewer pipes Buffy had assured them could hold the bomb, the strike team, and possibly the Humvee in a pinch. "How's it coming?"
Willow called, "Almost there." She peered into the manhole; apparently Buffy and Riley had gone down to guide the device down. "Stop!" she shouted. "Could you take it up about one foot?"
"What happened?" Carter asked, reversing the winch for a moment.
"The thing was starting to tip upside down. You got it, Buffy?" Willow asked. Obviously hearing an affirmative, Willow nodded. "Lower away, Major."
A minute later, the bomb was on its wheels, extra weapons in a duffel lashed to its side, and all five of them were slowly making their way up the sewer pipe.
They were a pretty motley group, Carter thought, but that didn't mean they wouldn't be effective. She shifted her weight as they progressed, their pace determined by the speed of the bomb's driving wheels; she was carrying a lot more hardware than she'd anticipated.
Buffy held point, longbow at the ready; if you discounted the trendy clothes, she looked like something out of one of the Dungeons and Dragons books Carter's brother had used for the damn roleplaying games as a kid. Longbow with an arrow nocked, a sword at her back in a sheath, light on her feet ... it was surreal. And Carter had to remind herself that the kid was a damn good fighter - Colonel O'Neill's misgivings aside, almost nobody could hold their own in a hammer-and-tongs hand-to-hand fight against Teal'c like Buffy Summers had on their first encounter.
The other two girls were much more of a concern. Willow was holding back, staying near the rolling bomb, clutching a vicious-looking axe with a grip that looked less intimidating than terrified. Anya, on the other hand, was brazenly marching along, holding her ridiculous-looking water gun as though she could take on all comers.
If there was combat, Carter worried, it would come down to Riley Finn and herself, both overloaded with a lot more weaponry than Carter had initially intended on carrying. Riley had the worst of it by far; he was carrying the M4 carbine with the grenade launcher attached, one of the SPAS-12 shotguns slung on his shoulder, with grenades, tracer ammunition, and wood-slug shotgun shells in his tactical vest, and on top of that, he was carrying a pistol and the zat gun Carter had reluctantly given him. Carter wasn't much better off; her smaller frame was burdened with more than her standard-heavy combat load, MP-5 machine gun slung from her shoulders, shotgun strapped to her back, zat gun and pistol on her hips, plus a couple of other items she'd grabbed especially for the occasion. The two of them had enough ordnance between them to fight off a batallion of whatever the enemy could throw at them ... assuming they didn't tip over or collapse under their own weight.
Buffy turned into a branching pipe and halted suddenly, leveling her bow. Carter quickly halted the bomb cart, bringing up her MP-5; Riley brought up his shotgun and slowly moved to her side as she crept up closer to Buffy.
It happened in an instant, before Carter even had time to breathe; Buffy drew back the bow and loosed an arrow in a single fluid motion, and Carter barely had time to register that there was someone further down the pipe - several someones - when the arrow struck home, dead center on a human-like form. It staggered back - but even as it did, three others were charging, bumping it, stirring up the cloud of dust that consumed the first target.
There wasn't time to shout a warning; all Carter could do was bring up her gun and-
-but before she could even flip the safety from "safe" to "live", there was already another arrow in the air, and Buffy was reaching back into her quiver for a third - nocked the arrow, drew, fired, quicker to do it than even to say the words - the second creature staggered - a fourth arrow ready before the third even hit its target, airborne even as the third vampire was thrown back against the wall of the pipe from the impact - and now the fourth vampire staggered, growled, showed its fangs, and then collapsed into a pile of ashes.
Carter hadn't even had time to bring up the sights on her gun. "Wow," she breathed quietly.
"You think they heard that?" Buffy asked.
Carter shook her head dumbly. "I don't ... that was too fast," she stammered. "I don't think they could have picked up on that."
"I hope not," Buffy whispered. "Because if they're all ready for us in there, it's gonna make finding Giles and Jackson - aw, crap!" she shouted, her eyes locked on a spot behind Carter's shoulder.
Carter didn't see it, but she did feel it: an incredibly sharp pain in the neck, like someone driving nails into her jugular. She didn't say anything, didn't scream, didn't make a noise.
Instead, she simply scythed her fist down, blindly striking behind her, and felt her target try to double over, shouting in pain even as it let up the bite - only to get slammed in the nose as Carter snapped her fist back up as though on a pivot. The attacker jerked back, moaning as Carter followed up her one-two strike with a thrust from her left elbow right into its solar plexus; it staggered, then charged - only to be met by Carter's right fist, right above the heart, and the wood stake pounding home, driven in by the momentum of all of Samantha Carter's weight plus fifty pounds of government-issue weaponry.
She shouted out from the exertion, almost slamming the stake right through the vampire into the sewer wall - and the creature disintegrated.
Carter let go of the stake, letting it hang from the lanyard she'd used to lash it to her wrist, and all of a sudden realized that she'd never even seen the face of her attacker.
"Not bad," Buffy said, eyes wide, arrow ready but coming down. "Wow. That was quick."
"I didn't even see it coming," Carter gasped, eyes wide.
"Yeah, but you're still alive," Willow pointed out. "A lot of people end up dead even when they see it coming."
"We'd better move," Riley muttered. "We need to be inside the compound before the others get there."
"Is it too late to say I've got an idea?" Xander asked, raising his eyebrows at how his voice sounded to his own ears.
One of the snake guards behind him turned and made an expression with his hands - O'Neill, Xander guessed, based on the pale hands - but no words were spoken.
"O'Neill," the other guard said in an amplified voice. "You must disable the helmet's sound damper."
O'Neill shrugged, touched a control on his collar, and said, "Can you hear me now?"
"Loud and clear."
"You've got an idea, kid, any time's good. The only time it's too late is when you're dead."
"That's reassuring," Xander sighed. "So how swift on the uptake are these snake guys? I mean, are we talking actually clear thinkers or are they down at the before-I-kill-you-Mister-Bond level of Big Bads?"
Teal'c turned to face O'Neill; Xander couldn't tell from the helmet, but he would have bet that the big guy's eyebrow was arched.
"They like to gloat," O'Neill finally said.
"Great," Xander said. "That way I can get King Tut talking in English pretty quick."
"How are you going to do that?" Spike snapped.
"Trust me, Spike. You're going to love it."
"Wrong on both counts, Harris. I don't trust you and I already hate this plan of yours."
"You're bitching to me about trust issues, Mister Evil-Is-My-Business?"
"Enough," Teal'c boomed.
"Yeah, sorry," Xander muttered. "You'll keep feeding me any hints I need through the radio, right?" he asked, pointing at his ear and the discreet receiver nestled in it.
Teal'c touched his collar, and his voice came through the earpiece. "I will do so, Xander Harris."
A minute more, and they ran into the first signs of life - or of the undead, Xander corrected himself, facing down four vamps in game face, carrying staff weapons. He stood up straight, extending his hand blindly to one side; Tara took it, straightening out her body, making herself look as imperious as Xander hoped he did; the only sign of the strain she had to be feeling was a tremor in the hand that gripped his own. He glanced at her, saw her eyes flash from the illusion, and favored her with a small, quick smile.
Teal'c advanced, his own staff weapon leveled. "Tell your master," he said in a booming voice, "that the System Lord Apophis has come to speak with him."
"Nobody passes. I don't care who you are."
Xander let Tara's hand go and walked right up to the lead vampire, staring it down. "I have come a long way to speak with your master. Will you stand aside and let us speak with him? Or will you stand in our way and be destroyed?"
"Get bent," the vampire spat.
"Okay," Xander said, mentally cringing, hoping that it didn't break the illusion. He took one step to his left.
Teal'c didn't wait; he snapped open his bug-zapper and fired three times into the vampire's chest. The creature staggered, then righted itself, took half a threatening step forward and then dissolved into thin air, not even leaving dust behind.
The three other vampires took a step forward; O'Neill raised his own bug-zapper, snapped it open, and barked, "I wouldn't."
"Now," Xander announced. "Tell your master I have come. Or die. Those are your only choices."
The three remaining vampires looked at Xander and took another step forward. Xander gulped - hoped that the spell didn't magnify the sound - and raised his right hand. The vamps looked at it - shrank at the sight of the ornate glove, the jewel in his palm - and then they backed away, terrified.
"Good choice," Xander boomed. "Lead us."
The vampires turned as one, gingerly looking over their shoulders, turning down one of the corridors.
"Lemme guess," O'Neill's voice came through the earpiece as the group followed them. "Channeling Magneto, were you?"
"Nah," Xander whispered. "Doctor Doom. Magneto, you're not talking so much of an evil overlord, more just your average psychotic villain. Totally wrong vibe for what we're trying to do."
They turned one corner, another, a third, entered a large chamber, and stopped cold.
An elaborately dressed man was strapped into a throne, arms, legs, chest, neck, and forehead bound tightly against the metal of the chair. Two female vampires attended him closely, while a third brought a bowl filled with water.
Xander looked on with increasing anxiety, and then had to bite his tongue to keep from yelping as the third vampire gingerly extracted a slick, slimy creature from the bowl. The eel-like thing cried out shrilly, then twisted in the vampire's grip, facing the body in the throne.
The vampire placed it on the man's chest, and it slithered up to his neck for a moment, paused, and then lashed out, launching down through his mouth into his throat and burrowing itself in. The man jolted in the restraints; his eyes flared red, then white, and then he relaxed.
"It is done," he said in a deep reverberating voice. "Release me."
The vampires immediately undid his straps; he stood up, flexed his arms, and took in the five newcomers. "I see you have brought me a gift," he said. "Welcome."
"You will bow before Lord Kheper," one of the female vampires snapped to Xander.
Teal'c snapped open the front of his armor, revealing the gold brand on his forehead, and the steely gaze in his eyes. "The System Lord Apophis bows to none," he said sharply, and just as abruptly triggered the helmet closed.
Kheper responded in harsh tones, in a language Xander had never heard before; Teal'c's voice came through his radio earpiece: "I bow to the will of the System Lords, of course."
Xander shook his head. "It would please me to have this ... thing," he said, poking a finger at Spike, "able to understand just what it is he defies. Let us speak his language, so he will understand his failure."
Kheper nodded. "Of course," he said, dropping to one knee.
Xander gritted his teeth. Here we go.
> Anya cradled her water cannon as she entered the next chamber of the compound, and stopped short. Three vampires stood near a pair of doors, with the intimidating-but-bored-as-anything look she'd seen a thousand times from prison guards of one sort or another. Two doors. Two prisoners. Anya hadn't done too great at math, but she could count that high.
She could either try and sneak past them and end up as hors d'oueurves, she figured, or try something unexpected.
"Hey there! This is Kheper's place, right?" she asked, walking right up to the vampires.
The vampires jumped a bit, then frowned at one another in confusion.
Well, Anya figured, nobody would have expected that. Taking advantage of the silence, she plunged ahead: "Well, I heard he was going to try and bring on an apocalypse, and I figured, hey! Sounds like a party! But I wasn't sure whether you'd want alcoholic beverages, or snack foods of questionable nutritional value, or maybe a couple or three fresh junior-high students to nibble on? So I thought I might drop by and ask what you needed."
"What's that?" one of the vampires growled, pointing at the water cannon.
"What, this? Oh, silly me. It's just water," she said, pulling the trigger and spraying water into the faces of all three vampires.
They screamed, clawing at their eyes; Anya shrugged and pumped the slide on the cannon twice. "Oops. Did I forget to mention it was holy water?" she asked; then she pulled the trigger again, sending a high-pressure blast of liquid right into the chest of the nearest vampire.
He howled, staggered, fell to his knees, and crumbled into dust. The two other vamps scowled, game faces angry and scarred from the splash of holy water, and came face to face with the two military members of the party.
"This is a joke, right?" one vampire said with a dismissive wave at Riley's shotgun.
Riley fired right into its chest.
The vampire snorted, gave a derisive laugh, and then winced. Anya thought that the look on his face as he disintegrated was actually pretty humorous.
The third vampire didn't bother with any banter; it just gathered itself and jumped at the group; Anya pulled her trigger, but all that came out was a puff of mist. She cursed to herself for forgetting to charge the weapon, and rapidly pumped the action, hoping that the vamp wouldn't do too much damage before someone killed it-
-when Carter put a three-round burst into it at point-blank range.
This time the vampire didn't laugh or scoff; it screamed, grabbing at its clothes as they caught fire from the burning phosphor of the tracer rounds. It tore at the clothing, clawing at the holes in its chest, and burst into flame, collapsing to the ground, howling in pain as the flames consumed it and turned it to ash.
"Crap," Buffy growled. "That probably woke up the whole compound."
"Just this room," Willow said. "I had a sound-damper spell going. Figured that whoever was in here might be loud."
"Go, Willow," Buffy said, sighing.
Anya quickly tried the doors, one at a time. "Hello? Can you open up in there?"
"Well, if we could, that would rather defeat the purpose of keeping one prisoner, don't you think?"
"Giles!" Anya called. "Thank goodness you're all right. Is the other brainiac there with you?"
"I'm fine, thank you for asking. Anybody got a key for these doors?" Daniel asked from behind the other door.
Buffy stepped up, called out "Stand back," and kicked down both doors, one at a time. "Won't win points for style, but hey. Giles, you okay there?"
"I ... ah ... yes," Giles muttered. "Took your time about it, I see."
"Well, you know, we would have come earlier, but Xander had rented a video, and the pizza place did not deliver in thirty minutes or less ... come on, Giles. We had to prepare. You know, we've actually got a plan this time?"
Giles groaned. "Perish the thought," he said with a rueful smile, getting to his feet and staggering. "Ow. Bloody hell. Those electrical devices ... what were they called again?"
"Zats," Carter offered.
"Zat. Hmf. Short for?"
"Er, zat'nikatel," Daniel said.
"Ah, yes. Those ... zat'nikatels. Quite ... ow ... potent." He sighed. "It rather makes me nostalgic for demons that would simply bludgeon one unconscious."
Riley came over and helped him to his feet. "Easy, Giles. Now we've got you guys, all we have to do is get the bomb in place and book out of here."
"Let's just hope that they don't go pouring out of every exit at the first hint of trouble," Daniel said.
"There's only two ways in or out, Daniel. The Colonel and Teal'c mined the front way, and we've got charges set up on the back entrance. Once we're clear of the two exits, first we blow the doors closed, then we set off this thing."
"How much farther do we have to go?" Anya asked.
"Only a couple of chambers farther down," Carter answered. "We just need to keep the Goa'uld distracted long enough to find a corner to park the bomb, cover it up, and get ourselves out of here and clear of the blast zone."
"Rather a chancy thing to leave to a timer," Giles mused out loud.
"No timer," Carter said. "The Colonel and I each have radio detonators for the exit charges and the bomb itself. We're not leaving this to chance." She triggered her radio. "Colonel, we've got the hostages free. We're going to position the bomb now and begin our withdrawal."
"Get him talking and keep him talking, kid," O'Neill rasped to Xander through the radio earpiece. "Carter's got the hostages out and she's about to plant the bomb. We need to buy her about five or ten minutes to get it done and get clear."
Xander made an "OK" sign with his left hand, behind his back. To Kheper, he said, "You have done well. A rather ... impressive army you have collected. But why here? Why this place?"
Kheper spread his hands wide. "Since my exile from the Valley, I have seen these ... vermin spread. They have forgotten that we were their gods. That we created their civilization." He smiled. "The System Lords no longer need this world, do they?"
"No, they do not," Teal'c whispered in Xander's ear, and Xander repeated.
"This place ... this village ... holds a secret. Near us, beneath the destroyed school, there lies a gateway to another dimension. One that, if opened, will eradicate the humans from this world, and bring forth an army of creatures. An army fit for command by a Goa'uld."
Keep him talking, Xander thought. "Why now? You've ... you have been in exile for a long time."
"Settesh," Kheper spat, pacing around the throne. "I ruled the Valley as Nub-Kheper-Ra Intef, until Settesh ... arranged ... my fall. The fool could not keep his place among the System Lords, he was hunted and reviled, and yet he felt it necessary to drive me from power?"
"Perhaps he was afraid," Xander commented, on Teal'c's prompting.
"Afraid?" Kheper snapped. "My lord Apophis, had Settesh shown any signs of sense, he would have been able to seize control of this world after the System Lords abandoned us. He had none. None. He would rather gather fools to him, be worshipped by the dozens, rather than be known and renowned by the millions."
"You were also an outcast."
Kheper hissed, a deep, reverberating sound. "Because I threatened the place of the System Lords. I know they are your kindred, my lord Apophis, but they were even greater fools. My exile ... do you remember what Ra said to me?"
Xander waited for the prompt, heard nothing, then gritted his teeth and shook his head. "I am afraid I do not."
"He said that my place was as his herald, that the Scarab was not truly a high god, but merely a symbol of the House of Ra. That by desiring my own place among the System Lords, I threatened him. As though there were not enough who already held the rank of System Lord? As though there were no more room in the Council for me? I was loyal, I acted to strengthen my lord - to strengthen the House of Ra - and for this loyalty, I was cast out! Had I not the foresight to retain my sarcophagus, I would be five thousand years dead by now!"
"Five thousand years," Xander mused. "So why now? What changed?"
"You do not know?"
"The renegade Settesh is dead, my lord," Kheper said. "Five seasons ago, his ... excesses ... were finally his undoing. The armed forces of this nation found him and destroyed him." He lowered his head. "It grieves me to give you such news."
Xander raised his hand, praying he was guessing right. "He was one of us, but still, as you say, he was a fool. Continue."
"The fall of Settesh releases my hands, my lord. I have known of this place, this gateway, for a hundred years and more, but until now I could not move for fear Settesh would spoil my stroke. I have positioned myself in this place for fifteen years, preparing for the time when I could unleash it." He turned to face Xander. "Something else happened five seasons ago. The school above us ... they called it a 'high school', as though it were an ordinary school, but it was in fact a training academy for warriors. The pupils of the academy rose up in battle against a creature ... one of the monsters that is attracted to the rift between dimensions. They defeated it, but many of their number fell ... and allowed me to begin to build my army."
Xander gulped. "Keep him talking," O'Neill hissed in his ear. "They're almost there."
"Go on," Xander said.
"The fallen were my first warriors ... those that were still in their graves. From them I learned of the forces that roam this village, disorganized, frenzied, but if harnessed, a mighty force. And from them I learned of those who know how to harness the power of the rift. From them I learned of those to seek out, those whose knowledge and power could be bent to my will."
"They ... live?" Xander stammered, praying that Kheper didn't pick up on the waver in his voice, that Tara's illusion would hold.
Kheper shook his head. "They have fallen. All but one, all but the most valiant. He is my source of knowledge, my chieftain, and he will be my herald to the System Lords."
He gestured with a finger to a form behind him. "Come forward. I have waited five thousand years, my lord, but I finally have a servant worthy of the name of First Prime."
A hooded man stepped forward to Kheper's side. "Come, my boy. I wish to introduce you to the god Apophis ... soon, my peer. And his First Prime ... soon, your peer."
"That's no god," the First Prime said in a derisive voice.
"What?" Kheper shouted.
The First Prime slowly removed his hood, keeping his head bowed. His forehead was tattoed - branded - with the raised gold image of a beetle, a scarab, much as Teal'c's was imprinted with the oval serpentine symbol.
Then he raised his head, and Xander's heart froze in his chest.
The First Prime's face was that of a childhood tormentor ... an unlikely confidant ... a comrade in arms ... and perhaps, if the fates had been kind, a friend.
"Gotta tell you, that look is not you, Harris," Larry said with a touch of bitterness in his voice.
"Lawrence, what is this blasphemy?" Kheper hissed.
"His name is Xander Harris, and if he's a god, then I'm the Duchess of York."
Kheper's eyes flared. "An impostor?" He stepped forward; O'Neill and Teal'c raised their staff weapons, but Kheper raised his right hand with a flourish; with a dull concussion, the two armored guards were swept off their feet and smashed into the wall. Tara got caught in the backwash and collided with O'Neill as he crumpled, while Spike slammed headfirst into the wall.
Xander swallowed as Kheper grabbed his jaw, blinking, then staring at his prey with those malevolent flashing eyes. "An impostor," he hissed. "Not a Goa'uld. Not even a Tok'ra. An impostor." The hand released Xander's jaw, and then the fingers splayed out again, and suddenly Xander felt as though a drill were burrowing into his brain. "Who sent you? Who dares stand in my way?" Kheper roared.
Through the screaming agony Xander thought he heard a dull explosive thump off down one of the halls. Kheper blinked, but did not let up.
Then there came a second thump, then a shrill, echoing scree, like a bug-zapper going off, and that got Kheper's attention, causing him to turn and break off the attack.
"Lawrence! Do not let them leave!" Kheper shouted. "Torak, attend!" he called, and a monstrous form detached itself from the shadows in the back of the throne room and followed as he swept out the door.
"Not much further," Carter mused, looking at the map. "Just another chamber over, and we can set this thing and get out of here."
Willow looked from Carter, manipulating the controller for the bomb cart, to Daniel and Giles, walking close by the bomb. Daniel looked okay - but Giles seemed to be having trouble keeping his balance, leaning against the wall, using a purloined staff weapon to try and hold himself upright. "Giles, are you all right?" she asked.
"I ... I will be, Willow. I suppose I still haven't shaken the effects of that weapon."
Daniel blinked, frowned, and then sildled over to Carter. "The zat effect shouldn't last this long, unless while he was out ... oh boy," he muttered. "Sam, have you got a spare zat?"
"There's one in the bag lashed to the cart," Sam said. Willow looked over at the cart-
-just in time to see a bolt of plasma slam into the control panel for the bomb.
The cart shuddered to a stop, sparking from the control panel; Carter and Riley instinctively dove for the ground, while Buffy whirled around to face the source of the blast. Willow hugged the far wall and looked in the same direction-
-to see Giles holding the staff weapon, swinging its opened end from the bomb to Buffy, leveling his aim at her heart.
Anya jumped on his back right as he triggered the weapon again, trying to bring him down or at least deflect his aim, but even as Willow brought the lightning spell into her head, the two were tagged by an angry electrical charge.
Willow whipped her head around to see Daniel with a leveled bug-zapper, but then another movement pulled her eyes further over ... to see Buffy crumple to the ground, teeth gritted and bared in agony, whimpering.
Willow ran over to her friend, ready to help her to her feet, waiting for her to spring back up, but something drew her up short. Partly the horrible charred stench, partly the sight of Buffy unconscious on the ground, eyes rolled up until only the whites were showing, mouth twisted into a rictus of pain. But mostly, what gave Willow pause - turned her stomach - was looking at Buffy's right knee. Or more precisely, the carbonized ruin of flesh and bone that had been her knee, until the staff weapon had done its work.
"Buffy!" Willow screamed, shaking Buffy's shoulders, then jerked back as the Slayer moaned once in pain.
Giles was stumbling to his feet, scrambling over to Buffy, hands empty. He took one look and gasped. "Oh, God. Oh, my God. Buffy? Oh, God...."