Cleveland Museum of Art – European Paintings Gallery – Moments Later
Emma broke into a light jog to catch up with the rest of the group as they walked purposefully past more lines of paintings. “How long have you lived here, Summers?” she asked Buffy. “You treat every winter day in Cleveland like you’re on an expedition to Antarctica.”
“I might as well be,” Buffy grumbled. She pulled off a pair of enormous mittens and blew on her hands, then looked up to see Emma grinning at her. “Hey, I am your watcher, Missy, that means you’re supposed to show me respect.”
Liz snorted. “Not how I hear my dad tell it.”
Buffy grinned and said, “You speak of things you know nothing about.”
“Don’t worry, they’re just kids. They have a lot to learn,” Emma offered.
“Are not,” the three teenagers said at the same time.
“Okay,” Emma began, “when this is all over, we’ll go to the bar. First round’s on me, but you get the rest. Oh, that’s right. You can’t. You’re children.”
“Not to complain too much,” Rowena butted in before anyone could argue, “but we were out there four minutes longer than we planned. And we do have a strict schedule.”
“Yeah,” Jen called over her shoulder. “When somebody DMs you the news that some vamp cult is gonna steal the oldest lootbox in history, and then you, like, ask the museum to let you hang onto said box just for a while, and the museum’s like ‘nah bro, that sounds like some fake news right there’ and then you’re, like, ‘we lowkey really need this box’ and they’re like ‘nah, we’re literally the worst, so we’re good’ and then you have to steal the box yourself before the bad guys do because when you’ve got the responsibility for the entire existence of humanity living rent-free in your head, going off the schedule just hits different.”
The adults of the group stopped walking to stare at her, then had to hurry to catch up. Liz looked over her shoulder with a raised eyebrow, then over at Jen. “You just wanted them to know you paid attention in the briefing, while also confusing them at the same time?”
“Pretty much, yeah,” Jen replied with a smirk.
“Aaanyway,” Emma said, “that’s the thing I tried to mention earlier, I got held up. I think –”
“Someone tried to rob you?” Buffy interrupted in surprise.
“Someones tried to fang me. I wasn’t at the door sooner because someone kinda sorta turned at least two guards into vampires.”
This time, everybody stopped and stared.
“Yeah, I dusted them,” she said. She turned to Alex and continued, “Oh, tell your mom she’s slipping. That Powder of Morpheus she gave me lasted, like, sixty seconds, absolute maximum.”
“That’s because it’s not designed for vampires,” he told her.
“Why have you guys stopped moving?” Willow’s voice echoed. Jen and Alex both winced, which caused Emma and Buffy to glance at them in confusion.
“Maaaa!” Jen complained out loud. “Get out of my head! It’s creepy.”
Watchers Council – Command Center – Same Time
“We talked about this, sweetie,” Willow thought from her seat in the bustling Council Command Center. “If you and Alex were going to be in the field, both of us needed to monitor your first covert mission. Don’t you prefer this to both of us tagging along?”
“The problem is that sometimes the things in my brain are sort of, um, private?” Alex thought.
“Gross!” Jen put in. “I don’t want to know Alex’s pervy thoughts.”
Willow rolled her eyes. “You both know no one can hear your thoughts unless you want them to.”
Cleveland Museum of Art – European Paintings Gallery – Same Time
Finding herself surrounded by people with weird looks on their faces, Emma put her hands on her hips. “Can we at least say what we’re thinking out loud, so that those of us who aren’t part of the hive mind can be part of the conversation?”
“Hear hear,” Liz agreed.
“It’s not a hive…” Rowena shook her head. “Look, we don’t have time for this. Will, Emma dusted two of the guards.”
“Dusted? You mean –”
“Tell her I think someone turned –” Emma began, but Rowena held up a hand, and her mouth snapped shut.
“If all the guards are vampires,” Buffy said, “then maybe the Order of Parathos isn’t breaking into the museum tonight. Maybe –”
“They’re already here,” Liz finished.
“Buffy and Liz just said the same thing, Will,” Rowena said aloud. “If Em dusted two, then that means we might have ten more waiting, based on the employee list.”
A very brief moment of silence passed among the members of the group.
“We need to move,” Rowena said. “Now.”
Watchers Council – Command Center – Same Time
“I’m on it,” Willow sent back. “I’ll see if there’s anyone here we can redirect your way. I never liked you going in with only two slayers. A-and one of them is Jen.”
“We’ll be fine, honey,” Rowena’s thoughts echoed in Willow’s head.
Willow paid her no mind, instead standing up from her chair and looking around the room. Watchers sat at several computerized work stations, many of them chattering into headsets. A wall of screens dominated one end of the room. On some, information scrolled quickly past, others showed maps of various parts of Cleveland and other areas, and a few ran local and national news feeds.
Willow waved to get the attention of one person in particular. The young woman, tresses of hair framing her face, stood up from where she had been hunched over the shoulder of one the watchers and strode over.
“How’s the Night at the Museum going?” she asked when she arrived.
“Not great, Shannon,” Willow sighed. “It seems like somebody turned the security guards into vampires. Emma dusted two.”
Shannon blinked a couple times, almost as if computing what Willow said, then she replied, “Okay, Emma has over half a decade of experience as an active slayer. She can handle it.”
Willow sighed. “Yes, she probably can, but is there any way there’s a patrol in the area we could send now –”
“If we send in more girls,” Shannon interrupted her, with her arms crossed, “it’ll blow the whole ‘steal the thing without the museum knowing about it’ angle. Your wife and kids are technically, and also not-so-technically, committing a felony right now, and you want to draw more attention to it?”
Willow’s eyes narrowed. “I understand you’re still getting used to being the slayer general around here,” she said icily, “but it doesn’t mean you need to walk in a-and start swinging it around.”
Shannon’s eyes grew wide, just for a second, and then she snorted a laugh. “Wow. Swinging it around? Swinging what around, exactly?”
Willow hesitated. “I mean, whatever people are usually talking about when they…that’s not the point!”
Shannon sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. “Yeah, I am used to being out in the field, which is how I know what it’s like. But guess what? Kennedy’s on maternity leave, and transitioning to your Coven, and her second-in-command is, well…sadly Casey’s not coming back any time soon. And I turn thirty this summer. So, you better get used to me in the Command Center, Willow Rosenberg.”
“Look, you vote we send a patrol over now, I say no. Looks like it’s one to one. You want me to get Grace down here to break the tie?”
Willow eyed Shannon silently for a long moment, then ran a hand through her hair. “Yeah,” she said quietly. “Rowena said they’re fine, and you’re probably right.”
Shannon reached out and put a hand on Willow’s shoulder. “I’ve got a kid, too, y’know. Moms worry sometimes, but like Ro said, they’ll be fine tonight. We’re talking, what, ten vamps, tops? You and I both know Em and Jen can do that in their sleep. I’ve fought beside them both, shoulder-to-shoulder, so trust me when I say they’ve got this.”
Willow didn’t appear convinced as she bit her lip in a nervous gesture.
“Look,” Shannon said. “I’m not sending anyone in, because I stand by what I said. But I’ll have the Little Italy team patrol the East Cleveland area now, instead of later tonight. That way they’ll be five-ten minutes from the museum.”
“Thank you.” Willow grinned.
“You’re welcome.” Shannon leaned forward, and Willow’s eyes rose to meet the younger woman’s. “You’ve raised passionate, brave and intelligent humans – that’s the best any parent can do. One thing I’ve learned real quick, being a parent, and I’m sure you know all too well…you can’t control everything.”
Cleveland Museum of Art – Hall of Armor – Moments Later
When the Council group reached the large hall with the medieval armor and tapestries, they found the opening to the gallery holding the Box blocked by a large set of double doors that had been slid out from the walls.
“Was it like this when you came through?” Rowena asked Emma quietly.
“No,” Emma said.
“I’m thinking there’s a party that could use some crashing,” Liz commented, a little too loudly.
While Rowena shushed Liz and pulled her aside, Buffy put a hand on Emma’s elbow and led her a few steps in the opposite direction.
“So, whatcha thinkin’?” the watcher asked the slayer.
“I think we’ve gotta get in there,” Emma said furtively. “They could be doing anything while we –”
“I meant, what’s the plan?”
Emma pulled her bat-blade-stake contraption back out of her guitar case once again, then tossed the case to the side. “I think the plan is for me to kick some vampire ass and keep a box safe.” With that, she turned to walk toward the door.
“Em,” Buffy hissed after her. Emma looked back at her. Buffy hesitated, then said, “Be careful.”
Emma nodded, once. “You know me.”
Across the room, Rowena and Liz were having their own furtive conversation.
“It’s vital that we prevent anyone from opening the Box of Nakodok,” Rowena was whispering. “I hate to admit it, but you’re better for this job than me. So, while Alex and the slayers are holding back the vampires, I’m going to need you to wait for your moment to run and –”
“You’re saying I’m better than you?” Liz asked with a lopsided grin.
“Just this once, yes,” Rowena replied. “Look, it’s hard to say for certain, because that thing predates the written word, but if Dawn’s translations are correct, then the box holds the essence of the First Vampire King of Abyssinia. He would be older than any vampire any of us have ever dealt with. We can’t let that happen. So, when you see your chance, grab the box and run like hell out of there. Stop for nothing or no one, understand?”
“So, what do I do if this king dude has already shown up?” Liz asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Same answer. Run like hell.”
“Ma,” Alex, standing nearby, called out with his mind, and also said aloud so the others nearby could hear. “You feel that? See anything? There’s another presence nearby.” His eyes were trained on the skylight above the Hall of Armor. Everyone else started to look in various directions.
Willow’s response was unsure at first. “I’m not seeing or getting anyth – wait! I do feel it. It’s getting closer, and it’s strong.”
At the same time, Rowena watched as Liz’s head turned quickly to the skylight above them.
“Up top,” Liz chimed in, looking up, “I just saw something out of the corner of my eye above us. Did you see it?”
“No,” Rowena answered. “Will, do you think we should –?”
“It’s go time,” Emma said, slapping Alex on the arm. “You ready?”
He hesitated, just for a second, then nodded. “Frigide,” he whispered, and a ball of blue flame appeared in his hand.
“You know I’m in,” Jen said from Emma’s other side, a wicked grin on her face and a wooden stake in her hand.
“Wait, guys, I’m picking up –” Willow thought to Alex and Jen, but Emma couldn’t hear her. She kicked the door down.
Inside the next gallery, they saw approximately a dozen vampires, now wearing long black and red robes over their security uniforms. Many of them were now kneeling around the central display holding the Box of Nakodok. The glass from the display had been removed, and one of the vampires had an arm outstretched in its direction. He stopped mid-chant when he saw the intruders.
“There’s more of them than we expected,” Alex said nervously out the side of his mouth.
“Don’t let them see you sweat, Rosenberg,” Emma told him, while keeping her eyes trained on the startled vampires. “This is gonna be easy peasy.”
The trio launched themselves forward at the same moment the vampires recovered from their shock and charged them. Alex released his ball of blue flame at the nearest of their attackers. When it struck the vampire, his movement ground to a halt, and he found himself completely encased in ice within an instant. A split-second later, Emma swung her bat, and the vampire shattered into dozens of pieces, all of which quickly turned to dust. Jen staked the next-nearest vampire almost immediately.
From the doorway, Rowena, Buffy and Liz watched. Liz’s eyes darted around nervously as she waited for her moment. Meanwhile, Rowena watched Emma confidently take on four vampires at once.
“You’ve done a remarkable job with her, Buffy,” she said. “You should be proud.”
“It’s all her,” Buffy said, a small smile on her face. “I’m mostly here for moral support.”
The two of them paused as Emma staked one of her vampires, then another.
“You should give yourself some credit,” Rowena said. “I remember when she first got here, she was an angry little kid who wouldn’t listen to any of her teachers. Now look at her.”
“Yeah,” Buffy quipped. She leaned back slightly as a vampire ran in their direction, but Jen pulled it back at the last moment and laid a right cross on its jaw, and Buffy continued. “Now she only doesn’t listen to me.”
“I’m serious,” Rowena said with a small smile. “You really are the slayer whisperer.”
“I told you not to call me that,” Buffy said through her teeth, but Rowena was no longer listening to her. The vampire herd had thinned considerably, and there was a clear lane between the box and the door. Liz looked over at Rowena, who nodded.
Liz sprinted forward. To her left, Emma swung and slammed a vampire hard in the face with her bat, and he went flying. To her right, Alex telekinetically pulled another vampire’s arms above his head, and Jen staked him.
That was when the skylight above them shattered, sending glass raining down around them. Liz skidded to a halt, putting her hands arms above her head to shield herself from the shards. Amid the debris, a girl slammed down to the floor from above.
She looked up and took in the scene at a glance. She was a teenager, petite, her afro hair slicked back and tied into a bun. She wore a pale brown bomber jacket. She scrunched an eyebrow, slightly confused. “Nobody said anything about you Council assholes being here.” Then she shook her head. “Whatever.”
She turned and clocked the nearest remaining robed vampire, sending him flying backward into a Mesopotamian plaque standing nearby. It shattered beneath him.
It was then that the museum alarms started to go off.
Liz shot to her feet. “Shit, it’s the cops!” She noticed Rowena giving her a wan look and took a breath. “Sorry, reflex.” Then she had to spin out of the way of a couple of throwing stars and took off back into a run in the direction she had just come. “Why are there throwing stars?” she shouted. “What the hell are those supposed to do?”
She skidded to a stop behind a display pedestal holding an Egyptian cat statue, where she found Rowena and Buffy already hunched and waiting for her.
“Maybe dial it back, Liz,” Rowena commented.
“Seriously, now?” Liz shouted back over the alarms. “I have glass in my hair!” She pulled out a shard and showed it to them.
“I’m sorry,” Buffy put in, “Who the hell is this person?”
“Guys!” All three of them heard Willow in their heads. “What’s going on? I’m getting –”
Rowena looked around the corner of the pedestal. “Yeah…it’s not great. But the Box is fine, so…I take it this isn’t your backup, Will? Because if it is –”
“I didn’t do it!” Willow insisted. Rowena’s face took on the look she would have been giving Willow, had she been physically present. “Fine, don’t do the face, Shannon wouldn’t let me.”
“I’m not doing a ‘face’,” Rowena lied.
“How does Willow know?” Liz asked Buffy.
Wordlessly, Buffy gave Liz’s forehead a slight tap and then motioned to the small body cameras they were both wearing. Liz had an ‘ah-ha’ look then.
“Nearly two decades together doesn’t hurt, either,” Rowena threw in.
As for the Box, it did indeed remain intact in the center of the room, but much of the area surrounding it was now in a shambles.
Alex found himself backed into a far corner of the room with a particularly large vampire stalking toward him. He held out one hand, as if to do a spell, but nothing happened. Slightly panicked, he pulled back his hand and briefly blew on it, then held it out again. Still nothing. “A little help!” he called out.
Jen growled and tried to run in Alex’s direction but tripped over the decapitated head of a stone Assyrian king that now lay on the floor. Emma was thoroughly engaged with another vampire and could only look frantically over in Alex’s direction.
Alex winced as the vampire closed in on him, then cautiously opened one eye when he realized no one had bit him. The girl who had fallen from the ceiling had tackled the vampire off of him and to the floor. Alex watched her pull back a stake, then ram it through the vampire’s heart. She whirled to face him, eyes hard.
“Stay out of my way,” she growled. Then she leapt back into action.
Alex just stared after her, mouth open. Then he said, “Okay,” but not nearly loud enough for her to hear it.
“Freakin’ lancers,” Jen called out, saying the word like it was a slur. “They never think of anybody but themselves.” She executed a leg sweep on a vampire from her spot on the floor, but he scrambled out of the way as she moved to execute a staking. Jen growled in frustration. “We frikkin’ had this.”
Emma called out, “Finish this first, then worry about the other stuff!” Her eyes moved to the Box, now unprotected in the center of the room, at the same time that the interloper slayer’s did. They both rolled toward the center of the room at the same time and found themselves back to back in front of the Box’s pedestal.
Emma looked over her shoulder at the girl, who returned the look with a suspicious glare. Emma pointed and said, “You take that one, I’ll get that one.”
The other girl just looked at her for a beat. “Yeah, we’re not doing that.”
Both their eyes widened as one of the vampires Emma had pointed to charged in her direction, shouting, “The King will rise!”
The unfamiliar slayer pushed Emma out of the way and went into a low fighting stance. Caught by surprise, Emma went sprawling.
Liz’s eyes went from the new girl to the vampire and assessed what was happening in a split-second.
“Don’t flip him –!” was all she got out before the vampire reached the new slayer. The girl drove her body downward and executed a perfect judo throw over her shoulder, sending the vampire sprawling directly into the Box of Nakodok.
He slammed to the floor, the Box underneath him. Stunned silence ensued among the Council group, the other slayer and the remaining vampires, broken solely by the continuing, ear-splitting alarms. Both Jen and the vampire she had in a headlock froze, watching to see if anything happened. Then the vampire on the floor rolled over to reveal that the Box had been smashed into at least a dozen small pieces beneath him.
“We’ve gotta get out of here,” Rowena said, first quietly to herself. Then she raised her voice. “Everybody! Time to go!”
“But what about the…” Alex began.
He trailed off when he saw a trail of black smoke slowly rise from the remains of the box. It grew in size and volume, forming into a cloud about the size of a person. A moment later, the smoke dispersed to reveal a beautiful woman with very dark brown skin.
“Wait, that’s the First Vampire King of Abyssinia?” Liz commented. “Not what I expected.”
“Maybe Dawn got the translation wrong,” Buffy offered.
The woman took a long, deep breath, seeming to revel in the sensation of air passing into her lungs. Then she looked over at the vampire whose fall had released her. Though her appearance at first seemed that of a normal, if exceptionally attractive, woman, there was something in her eyes that revealed something ancient beyond description, a force beyond the limited shape it had been pressed into.
Under her piercing gaze, the vampire hurried to get to one knee. He bowed his head, ignoring the broken glass in which he kneeled.
Emma watched, wide-eyed, still in the same spot on the floor, as the Box’s former prisoner strode forward and stood directly over the kneeling cultist.
“Timo un ok ubi uwacho?” she asked.
The vampire blinked up at her. “I’m sorry, I don’t…do you speak English?”
The woman’s expression revealed nothing. “Kaka ngimani rieko ni gikulrene,” she pronounced, the tone infinitely confident, even if the meaning was obscure.
“Of course she doesn’t speak English, dumbass, she predates agriculture!” Liz yelled.
The woman whipped her gaze over at Liz, Rowena and Buffy. Their eyes instantly widened.
“Shut up, Liz!” she said to herself, and ducked her face behind the cat statue, though it totally failed to hide her. The alarms continued to blare.
Rowena grabbed the bridge of her nose. “Don’t help the vampire cultists, Liz.”
The woman from the Box turned back to the vampire kneeling in front of her, anger now clearly flashing in those eyes. “Gime en ni mana ni en obadho! Koro atho.”
The vampire looked around the room sheepishly. “Does, um, does anybody have Google Translate?”
The woman placed a hand on either side of his head, and he looked down in obeisance. Then she pulled and a sickening cracking noise could be heard over the alarms. A moment later, the vampire’s severed head, along with the body she had separated it from, turned to dust in her hand. Her facial expression not changing, the woman rubbed her hands together to brush the dust off of them.
“I think Dawn got the translation right,” Rowena said softly.
It was about then that all hell broke loose. Those vampires who remained desperately scrambled to get out through the door Emma had kicked down. Emma got to her feet and moved to grab Jen, though the younger girl initially resisted being pulled away. Rowena did the same with Liz, while Buffy stayed near the door, motioning to Emma to follow her. One of the fleeing vampires bumped into Alex, sending him into a nearby stone tablet, which he then desperately found himself trying to hold upright.
Meanwhile, the slayer who had entered through the skylight said, “This bitch is mine,” walked up to the King, and delivered a hard right cross directly to her jaw.
Most vampires would have gone flying, but the King barely turned her head. She cocked her head and said, “Nyako ma e Sineya. Gombo.” Then she casually backhanded the girl, which sent her flying backward at least thirty feet. The girl plowed through several ancient works of art and slammed into the far wall, then crumpled to the ground, leaving a girl-shaped dent where she had just been. The girl groaned and tried to get to her feet, but it didn’t work the first time.
Seeing this, Jen immediately stopped resisting Emma’s attempts to get her to leave, her jaw hanging slightly open. Most of the rest of the room’s former occupants had made it at least to the stage of scrambling over the doors that were still lying over the floor in the entranceway to leave the room.
Just short of the opening, Jen stopped and saw that one person hadn’t: Alex, who was still in the corner, holding up the stone tablet. The King stalked silently toward him, her eyes laser focused on the teenage boy. When Alex noticed, he gave up trying to hold the tablet upright, and it crashed over forwards onto the floor, breaking up into a half dozen pieces. He had the sort of look on his face that a mouse might have watching a cat approach.
Then Jen was grabbing him by one hand and pulling. “Come on, dumbass.” She kept talking as the two of them sprinted away, hand-in-hand. “If you die, our moms are never gonna let me out in the field again, so I swear –”
Jen, now about halfway to the door, realized in that moment that Alex was no longer holding her hand. She looked at the offending hand for a second, then up to find the King holding Alex up in front of her by one hand, wrapped around his neck. His kicking feet dangled uselessly, a foot off the ground. Choked noises deep in his throat suggested he was trying to scream as he held on to the vamp’s arm. Jen’s eyes went wide.
Rowena, seeing this scene through the open doorway, screamed in terror. “Alex!”
The King looked up at this noise, then back at Alex. She didn’t quite shrug, but her expression suggested she might have if she was someone who did that sort of thing. Then she pulled back and tossed him like a ragdoll.
If anything, Alex flew farther than the other slayer. He sailed back into the Hall of Armor, plowing into the mounted rider and horse suit of armor in the center. The whole contraption tipped and fell at the impact with a huge clatter, sending Alex flopping to the floor along with the rider’s heavily dented helmet. He groaned, and Rowena ran over to check on her son. Buffy and Liz followed suit.
In his wake, the King stalked over the fallen doors into the Hall of Armor. Never had someone looked quite so unhurried. She surveyed the Council group silently.
Emma turned to Buffy and caught her eyes. “Get the rest of them out of here, I’ll slow her down.”
Buffy shook her head. “How?” she half-asked, half-yelled, but Emma was already headed in the King’s direction. The two of them began to trade blows, and Emma was able to at least parry the King’s first attempts without flying across the room.
Buffy stayed rooted to the spot for a moment, watching this helplessly, until Liz started trying to shepherd her away. “C’mon, old lady, we gotta get Alex and bail.”
Liz and Rowena helped Alex crawl out from beneath the fallen suit of horse armor. She put a hand to his eye, which was already starting to swell shut.
He winced, but then said, “I think I’m okay.”
“Can you walk?” Rowena asked him. Liz put one of his arms over her shoulder and helped steady him.
“What’s going on?” Willow asked in both of their brains. “You guys aren’t sending, but the signals I’m getting…is everybody okay? Talk to me!”
“I think Alex is okay,” Rowena replied. “We’re sort of busy right now.”
Instead of answering either of his moms, Alex glanced up with his good eye to see Emma raining blows fruitlessly on the King, who mostly just stood there and looked at her, unfazed. Then Jen jumped on the King’s back. The woman did a brief take at this, then grabbed Jen with one hand and flipped her hard to the floor.
“You think?” Willow practically shouted into Rowena’s head, sounding panicked.
“We have to help them,” Alex said through gritted teeth.
“No,” Rowena said firmly. “We’ll get Emma and your sister, you follow –”
But Alex was already raising his hand. “Ignis,” he whispered. He seemed almost surprised to find another flame appear in his hand, this one bright orange.
“Alex –” Rowena tried again.
Alex took a deep, pained breath, and his nose started to bleed. Then he shouted, “Step away!”
Emma took a step backward, while Jen dragged herself a few feet further away on the floor.
With a throwing motion from Alex, the ball of flame leapt from his hand and sped toward the King. It struck her full in the chest, and a split-second later the woman was completely covered in flames. Alex smiled.
But the woman didn’t burn up. Instead, the fire slowly ebbed until it framed the King’s face and hands. She turned to regard Alex and said, “Mac inyal timona tim marachno.” As she did so, her shoulder, still on fire, brushed against the bottom of the medieval tapestry closest to the door. It immediately caught aflame.
“The tapestry’s on fire!” Emma said.
Jen, getting to her feet, said, “Eh, I mean, it’s okay if you’re into that kind of thing.”
“Not is fire, on fire!” Emma yelled, pointing at the flames. “Does anyone see an extinguisher?”
At that very moment, the sprinkler system kicked in, drenching the team with water. Jen closed her eyes and tried to blow her soaked hair off her forehead. She did not succeed.
Buffy yelled at the top of her lungs, her tone brooking no argument whatsoever. “Retreat! Now!”
Emma looked back at her watcher, just for a moment, then nodded. “C’mon,” she said to Jen, and the two of them ran for it, giving the still-flaming King a wide berth. Or at least they tried to run. The wetness of their shoes and the slick floor hindered their efforts. They both stumbled and helped the other right themselves. Twice…each.
The entire group exited as post haste as possible, with Liz, Rowena and Alex bringing up the rear with his arm slung over their shoulders. The King watched them go for several seconds, the fire framing her features gradually sputtering out harmlessly. She then turned without another word and walked back into the thoroughly-destroyed Ancient World Gallery.
Outside Cleveland Museum of Art – Minutes Later
The Council group burst out of the front doors of the museum at a run, sopping wet, and found themselves at the top of a large flight of marble steps.
Liz glanced over her shoulder. “I don’t think she’s following us. For some reason.”
Buffy stopped next to a large bronze statue, The Thinker by Auguste Rodin, and put her hands on her knees, breathing hard. Emma pulled up next to her, not looking nearly as tired.
“Ya all right, Summers?” she asked Buffy, putting a hand on her back.
“It’s been a decade, and I still hate this,” Buffy gasped. “Oh God, it’s cold. I’m wet and I’m cold.”
Emma gave a half-grin, but it disappeared when she saw Liz, Rowena and Alex trying to negotiate the stairs. He was mostly walking on his own now, but had the makings of a very angry-looking shiner over one eye.
“You okay?” she asked him. “You look like…”
“I got tossed by an extremely pissed-off invulnerable vampire lady who’s been in a box for the past few thousand years?” he supplied. “Yeah, but looks can be deceiving.”
Rowena managed a wan smile, then thought, “Honey, everybody’s fine, I swear, but we’re on the wrong side of the building. Can you get us an extraction?”
“I think so,” Willow’s voice replied, “but…what exactly happened?”
“Cliff’s notes?” Rowena thought. “We’re in some deep –”
“You!” Jen screamed.
Rowena whirled around to find that the slayer who had jumped down from the skylight had exited the building just behind them. Jen was stalking back up the steps toward her, fists balled at each side.
“You, you lancer asshole! You did this!” Jen pointed an accusatory finger.
“Jen, language,” Rowena put in, in an exhausted tone, but it was Emma who stepped in front of the angry young slayer.
“This isn’t the time,” she said.
“Yeah, you should listen to your commandant, Slayer Youth,” the other girl called out, a smirk on her face.
At this, Jen’s nostrils flared, and Emma was only just able to keep a hold on her and prevent her from jumping the other girl.
“You can fuck allll the way off,” Jen shouted, gesturing wildly with her free arm over Emma’s shoulder. “I swear to the Goddess, I’m gonna – I’m gonna pull out your spine and feed it to you. I’m gonna gouge out your goddamn uterus with my fucking thumbs.”
“She’s your daughter,” Rowena heard Willow say in her head. She grabbed the bridge of her nose and didn’t let go.
Jen broke out of Emma’s grip and rushed the other slayer. She pulled her arm back to take a swing at the girl, who was now in a defensive stance.
That was the moment that approximately twenty police cars, sirens all blaring, screeched to a halt at the bottom of the steps. Officers jumped out of the nearest ones, guns drawn.
“Hands up!” one of them shouted.
Liz looked over at Rowena. “Like the Offspring said, ‘By the time you hear the siren, it’s already too late.’ I told you it was the cops!” she hissed, raising her hands.
“You gotta keep ’em separated,” Rowena muttered, as she also raised her hands.
Liz seemed surprised Rowena also knew the song and grinned. The teen began to softly sing and changed the lyrics, “Hey-a-a, they don’t pay no mind. I’m under eighteen, I won’t be doing any-any time. Hey-a-a… come out and play.” Rowena tried not to grin as Liz looked over to Emma and shouted, “Hey, Em! That whole kid/not kid thing might not work out so well for you now, huh?” Liz laughed. “Can I go on record and say, I love being a kid.”
Outside Cleveland Museum of Art – Later that Night
An Hour Later
The members of the Council group all sat in a row at the bottom of the steps. They were still damp, and several of them were shivering in the chilled air. Buffy looked like her hair was about to turn to icicles. A very unhappy-looking Jen was sharing a draped coat with Alex, black-eye now fully-formed. All of them were wearing handcuffs. Despite the cuffs, Liz maneuvered her wrists around to scratch her nose.
Nearby, the slayer Jen had tried to attack was talking to the police. “Look, again, I was just doing my job. You can arrest me if you want, but I have to keep client confidentiality. I already told you, I’d like to invoke Article Nine of the Slayer Regulatory Convention and call the Guild of Independent Slayers…”
She looked up at her name to see a bored-looking cop waiting for her. She sighed and got to her feet.
“Look, I know you know who we are,” she said as she walked over to him. “Who I am.”
“Really, that’s what you’re going with right now?” Rowena’s head swiveled around to see Grace Hatherley walking toward her across the pavement in a large winter coat. “‘Do you know who I am?’ If that’s how you’ve been handling this, no wonder I had to come bail you out.”
Rowena looked down to see the officer uncuffing her with a smirk. He then turned to Grace, said “Ma’am,” with a small tip of his head, and left the two of them relatively alone. Rowena rubbed her wrist where the handcuffs had been. The two women just looked at each other for a long beat.
“The Museum isn’t going to press charges,” Grace eventually said.
Rowena raised an eyebrow. “Really?” She pitched a thumb over her shoulder. “Have you seen what it’s like in there? Because it may be time for some renovations.”
“Yes,” Grace nodded. “Extremely expensive renovations costing tens of millions of dollars, which the Council is going to pay for. Somehow. Anyway, it turns out that the Museum didn’t particularly want to spend a long legal process explaining over and over again how it refused our help in the first place and then somehow let most of its night guards get turned into vampires.”
Rowena looked behind her to see the rest of the increasingly frozen group being uncuffed as well. She turned back to Grace and gave her a very small smile. “Thank you.”
Grace looked down at the ground. “Yeah, well, you’re lucky I don’t take it out of your paycheck.” She quickly looked up to see Rowena still smiling at her. “I’m serious! I might have to have your wife hack into a bank or something…again.” She then quickly looked around at the fleet of police cars surrounding them and raised her voice slightly. “I mean, I would never tell Willow to do that, that would be illegal.”
“I can’t confirm or deny how my wife raised funds to rebuild the Council after the First’s attack, or even if she was responsible,” Rowena replied dryly.
“Uh huh.” Grace nodded.
Over at the bottom of the steps, Buffy walked over to Emma. “You all right?” Emma just nodded. Buffy sighed and said, “Look, I hate to say it, because I can’t feel my toes, but we should probably stick around. Apparently, nobody’s found this King lady or whoever she is yet. They’re not gonna let us back in, but I’m thinking maybe if we stake out the back entrance…”
Emma reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. “Summers, I say this with all due respect…hell no. We have both gone way above and beyond the call of duty tonight, and that woman is not going to be found or, well, anything else, unless she wants to be.”
Buffy shook her head, then took in a deep breath. “Emma, I’m serious. As your watcher, I’m telling you to we need to –”
“And I’m telling you I have homework to do,” Emma interrupted. She took a step back, hands in pockets. “After I take a very hot shower.”
“Em –” Buffy began, but the girl was already walking away.
After several steps, Emma turned back around and called back to Buffy, “Hey, don’t worry, we’ll get her – you watcher-types go research and figure it out. In the meantime, if the apocalypse comes, text me.”
Buffy watched as her slayer turned again and walked away. She shivered, sighed and walked in the opposite direction.
Street Near Museum – Later that Night
The unfamiliar slayer walked away from the museum and looked back down the street to the distant police vehicles finishing up behind her. She looked left and right, then turned a corner and pulled an old-fashioned flip phone from her jacket pocket.
“I have news,” she said. She took a deep breath, then continued. “The Box was destroyed, and the…occupant is loose.”
“I see,” said the male voice on the other end of the line. “Well, you can’t win ’em all.”
“The Watchers Council was there,” the girl said, walking down the empty sidewalk. “But I think you already knew that.”
“My business is my business,” the voice said. “You handle your end, I handle mine, that’s how this works.”
“This is all confidential,” the slayer assured him. “I’m discreet and all that. Speaking of, the cops were here, too.”
“What?” The voice seemed far more concerned by this fact than the prior news.
She shrugged. “It’s not a problem. I clammed up, demanded they call the Guild. Eventually they let me go. Cops never really want to deal with that shit.”
“Very good. We’ll be proceeding with the next steps soon.”
“Yeah, you do that.” the slayer said. “Look, I got knocked unconscious and soaked. There’s gonna be an extra fee for all that.”
“We’ll be in touch.” The sound of a click let the slayer know the other party had hung up. She held the phone away from her face, looking at it for a second.
“I sure can pick ’em,” she sighed, then put it back in her coat pocket. She turned at a crosswalk, looked both ways, and ran across the street.
Smash Cut To:
Cleveland Street – Night
The man was enormous, easily six-foot-five, with bulging muscles and a round, clean-shaven head. Even in the freezing cold, he wore a leather jacket with the arms cut out, showing off his pair of full sleeve tattoos.
He looked absolutely terrified.
The man tore down an empty street, lit only occasionally by flickering streetlights. He stole intermittent glances over his shoulder, eyes wide. His feet splashed in the slush, and his arms flailed wildly as he ran.
“Help!” he screamed at the top of his lungs. “Help! Somebody!”
The houses on the street remained silent. If anyone occupied them, they weren’t getting involved with whatever this was.
The man skidded around a corner as he cut into an alleyway. In front of him stood a chain-link fence, taller than he was. He barely hesitated before jumping and grabbing onto the fence. His muscles straining, he pulled himself up and over the barrier, then flipped down awkwardly on the far side. He scrambled back to his feet and took off again, his breath coming in terrified gasps.
He ran down the next street, still shouting for help. He made another turn and found himself obscured from view behind a tall hedge. Out of breath, he slowed to a stop. His head swiveled wildly, but he saw no one nearby. He leaned over, hands on his knees, desperately trying to catch his breath. After several labored heaves of his chest, he stood up again.
Directly in front of him on the sidewalk behind the hedge was a beautiful, dark-skinned woman with a ridged brow, fangs and yellow eyes. She took one slow step toward him.
The Vampire King smiled. The large man screamed.
End of Act One