For Oz, it was a lure, beckoning him to its source and triggering an impulse to chase, to attack, to maul. Like Toucan Sam, Willow once observed, if he had a thirst for blood.
Preoccupied with his own failing detection skills, Angel eventually noticed that Oz had spoken. "What?"
"I smell fear." He fished the containment charm Giles had given him out of his pocket, wrapped it around his hand. "I think I can track it."
With newfound respect, Angel let him take the lead.
* * *
"You..." Spike gulped frantically at the dank air; none of it seemed to be enough. "You made me..."
"Don't worry, darling, it's only temporary. A cleansing," Lamashtu soothed, turning a sharp dagger in the firelight. "I wouldn't wish humanity on my worst enemy. But then, humanity is my worst enemy, isn't it?"
What was she planning to do with that dagger? Was the baby here? Where was Buffy?
Was it all over, and had Succudoc won the world?
"Now open up and say 'ah'." She cut into the tip of her tongue, and instead of blood, a black mist rose out of the incision.
Pinching his nose until he gasped, she latched her mouth over his and didn't let go. Spike choked and floundered and thrashed, powerless, as Lamashtu's icy-cold essence invaded his body.
"Your Darkness," he heard WinQuar say from across the room. "Perhaps you can finish this later. It is time."
She pulled away, miffed at the inconvenience. "Well, it appears I have a baby to deliver. Why don't you rest until my return?"
Against his will, he succumbed to her suggestion.
* * *
"Willow! You're released!"
"Shhh! I kinda released myself." She blinked at Xander. "What were you doing in the...?"
Behind him, Anya exited the broom closet as inconspicuously as she could.
Willow was appalled. "Am I the only one of us who doesn't have sex in public?"
"Well there was that one time," Tara put forth with a blush and a grin.
"Oh yeah," Willow said, suddenly haughty. "I guess that qualifies me for the club after all."
"What?" Xander blinked at them. "One time? With who? Oz doesn't strike me as the..." He waved his fingers in front of them. "Wait a second."
"We're going upstairs to see Buffy," Willow announced, walking toward the elevators. "Coming with, or are you two going for another round?"
"Xander," Anya whispered. "Don't ogle the lesbians."
The nurses at the reception desk hushed.
"I mean uh... thespians?! Damn those actors, always... doing that acting... thing..." He followed them down the hallway and whispered, "When did this happen? Feel free to leave in the vivid details."
"Xander," Anya and Willow hissed in stereo.
"Sorry." He put his head down. "I just don't get why I have to be the last to know about these things."
"Because you spaz out." Willow pressed the elevator button and pointed at the reception desk. "Case in point."
He gasped. "That's why Oz was so freaked!"
"When did you see Oz?"
"Tonight. He said he saw you, and he went upstairs to bring Giles a book. I'm guessing you didn't see him..."
The elevator door opened with a ding, but no one entered.
"Hey," Willow said, feeling avoidy, "wanna make sure Faith's still in a coma?"
"Sure," Xander agreed. "But I get to draw the funny moustache on."
Willow pressed the down arrow. "Deal."
* * *
"Sanvi isn't answering her phone," Giles reported, worried. "And neither is anyone at the Council."
"This is ridiculous," Joyce said. "She can't just hold the baby in. I'm getting another doctor."
"I apologize for the delay," Sanvi hurried into the room. "Dreadful accident on highway 5. How are we doing?"
Noticing the beige Donna Karan blouse the doctor wore, Buffy double-checked for the amulet. "Better, now that you're here."
"Good." Sanvi examined Buffy like a seasoned pro. "Ten centimeters; you're ready to push. Are you wearing a necklace?"
"Huh?" She dropped her hands to her sides. "I... Yeah. Why?"
"It's best to remove large pieces of jewelry before delivery. In case of complications."
"Oh. Um, Giles, can you...?" Tentatively, Buffy unclasped the chain, and without hesitation, Sanvi plucked it out of her hand and passed it along, saying, "Here you are."
Slayer and Watcher stared in wonder. If Lamashtu could touch it with nary a consequence, how could they use it against her?
* * *
"It ends here?"
The fear trail had brought them to the same rock formation Buffy had rested on the night before, Angel realized. The one that, come to think of it, resembled a triangular throne...
"Maybe. Not sure. I lost it, or it disap--"
There was a high-pitched noise, and Angel yanked Oz away.
Huddled behind a tree, they watched as several Winiquas emerged from an opening in the rock and marched in the direction of the hospital.
So the rock was the portal. But how?
When it was safe to move, they returned to it, but the mass appeared solid again, impenetrable as ever.
"Somehow I don't think 'open sesame's gonna fly," Oz said.
"There's got to be a way in." Angel slid his hands down the rock face. "Some kind of key."
"Huh," Oz said. "'The Song holds the key.' Guess I should've read the book."
Leaves crunched nearby. They froze, senses on alert, but before they could react, the Winiqua had them surrounded.
Oz billowed his demon-scented shirt, but that didn't stop one from sending him flying into a tree with a single whap.
Fighting them off, Angel yelled to Oz, "Go! Get the book and find the key!"
Oz was nabbed by another demon and flung in Angel's direction. He landed on something painful and dug it out of his back pocket -- his lucky tuning fork.
He couldn't help but acknowledge the irony. What can hold a key better than this?
With that thought, he remembered the noise that the portal made, and the broken cell phone's ring tone. The verse replayed in his mind: Ba-ba ba ba ba...
Coincidence? Probably. But it was worth a try.
He tossed it toward the Winiqua that was coming for him. It whizzed past its head, hit the rock and pinged a dulcet A.
And just like that, the invisible door opened.
"It is them," the remaining Winiqua said together, and shoved them both through the portal.
The rock closed instantly behind them, and the duo stood alone at the top of a narrow, winding staircase.
"Key of A," Oz said, bemused. "It was the Abba song. This a demon of the disco era?"
"More like the Stone Age," Angel said. "And she's not a demon."
Oz felt his hackles rise as a low feline growl resonated from the stairwell. "She's a gigantic catmonster from the Studio 54 in Hell."
"No." A scaley oversized lion with a mane of serpents came into view, followed by another. "She's an omnipotent god. These are her bouncers."
Staring into the shining eyes of imminent grisly death, Oz said, "Not sure I want to be on the guest list."
* * *
"You're almost there, you're almost there..."
"One more great, big push!"
"I don't wanna! I don't wanna!"
"We're all here for you."
"Er... downstairs. I think."
"You'll let me hold it, right? You'll let me hold it as soon as it comes out?"
"Of course I will," Sanvi said with a chuckle. "It is your child after all."
Buffy shut her eyes and concentrated.
* * *
"She looks sorta..."
"Peaceful?" Willow offered, head on a tilt.
"Diabolical," Xander concluded.
"Yeah, you're right."
"Her eyeballs are twitching rapidly under her eyelids," Anya said. "Is that normal?"
"I'm not sure, but I do know that poking a slayer is never a good idea. Even if she is comatose."
Anya stopped poking Faith.
"Willow?" Tara interjected, wondering if the voice she'd just heard in her mind was really Buffy's. "I think we need to go upstairs. I think the baby's coming."
* * *
"Don't move," Angel warned. "Don't look them in the eye."
One was sniffing his shirt. "Invincible?"
"We're about to find out," Angel said, gums receding, fangs elongating. "Stay back. I don't know if I can protect you."
One roared, and an instinctive rumble escaped from Oz's throat.
Consequently, his skeleton began its painful rearrangement, punctuated by the containment charm popping off of his hand and skittering down the stairwell.
"Don't worry about me," he said, going with it. "I'm an animal."
The guardians lunged. The werewolf retaliated. Angel jumped into the fray. Scrabbling wildly, the four creatures tumbled down the pitch-black rabbit hole.
* * *
"Congratulations, Buffy," Sanvi proudly proclaimed as the baby showcased its formidable lung power, "you've given birth to a healthy baby girl."
Joyce's breath caught as she glimpsed her granddaughter for the first time. "Oh, she's perfect!"
"Give her to me," said an exhausted Buffy, keenly aware that the battle had just begun. "I need to hold her."
"All fingers and toes, no unusual traits." With a wink, Sanvi gently placed the newborn in Buffy's arms. "Shall I ask your friends in?"
Buffy didn't answer.
She was transfixed: gazing upon this tiny pink alien that had caused so much turmoil in her body and her life, she suddenly understood. Why she saw it through, why she had to keep fighting. This was her doing, her destiny. Her reason.
And not just hers. Those sparkling blue eyes, the arched browline and angular lips, the curly blonde hair... it was unmistakable.
Her little girl was a miniature Spike.
* * *
At this stern command, the guardians fled.
Errant tufts of fur following them down the stairwell, the werewolf crashed head-first to the stone floor with a whimper, and the vampire, broken and bloodied, slid to the last step.
"Welcome," WinQuar said. Wielding a torch that lit the narrow passageway, he was flanked by a cadre of eyeless clones. "We've been expecting you."
Oz slowly returned to human form, confused and barely conscious.
Sneering as he crunched a dislocated shoulder into place, Angel said, "I knew this was a set-up."
"And yet you still came." WinQuar threw Oz a robe. "Put this on and get to your feet."
Two Winiqua lifted Oz off the ground.
"You don't need him," Angel said as two more lifted him. "Let him go."
"Oh, but that's where you're wrong. I need all three of you."
WinQuar waved the torch and his cronies followed, dragging Oz and Angel down the passageway into a dome-shaped room -- the cave in the vision.
At the north end, a small, crude altar. Atop it, a cradle, a goblet, and an antique dagger. On the walls, huge symbols were painted in blood.
As they chained Angel to a stone pillar in the west side of the cave, Oz was bound to one in the east.
And strapped to the pillar in the center, living, breathing and obnoxiously snoring... was Spike.
"Surprise." WinQuar thrust the torch at Angel, stopping just shy of his face. "Now you'll get to see how it really ends."
* * *
"Somebody told a big fat fib," Willow said, touching the baby's face. "You are the spittin' image of your daddy."
"Yes, you are," Buffy cooed to her newborn, "and you're gonna see him real soon." She glanced out the window at Sanvi, still talking to Giles in the hall. She asided to Willow so the nurse in the room wouldn't hear, "I don't get it. What's she waiting for?"
"I don't know," Willow said. "It'd be great if our protection spell was that good... but I kinda highly doubt it."
"Well, more prep time for me. Hold Junior while I get dressed?"
"I... Oh..." Willow didn't quite know how.
"I can take her," offered the nurse good-naturedly. "She should be examined in the nursery anyway."
"She's fine," Buffy said, holding her blanketed bundle tightly. "I'm taking her home."
"You both need to be examined before you're released. It's hospital policy."
"That's nice. Obi Wan?"
"O-okay," Willow said, shutting her eyes and opening them, attempting to manipulate the nurse's mind without Tara's help. "You'll make an exception this once."
"I'll make an exception this once," the nurse said, and as her eyes locked into Willow's, they said together, "Hemorrhage."
"Huh?" Buffy peered from one to the other, both under some kind of thrall.
And then, something warm gushed out of her, staining the white sheet that covered her, blossoming out into an inkblot of dark red.
"No." Fighting against the pain, Buffy glowered at the nurse. "You can't have her. She's mine."
"The Slayer weakens, the heart grows ripe," the nurse and Willow recited together, "masses perish, day falls to night." They smiled. "I'll take her now."
Giles was right outside, if she could just get his attention...
* * *
"Rupert, I have something to confess."
He stammered for a moment and dug for the amulet in his pocket. "Do you?"
Sanvi took a breath, paused, and finally said, "I lost some time tonight. And I think... this is going to sound strange. I think the Council called me and told me I wasn't quite human."
Giles was thrown. Lamashtu hadn't entered Sanvi's body yet?
"I know, it hardly makes sense, but I've lost time before. In England. I'm beginning to think they may have been behind it. I have this nagging sensation that I'm forgetting something vital, but I can't put my finger on it."
He loosed his hold on the amulet. "Oh, Sanvi."
"You know something," she realized, and gripped his arm. "What did they do to me? Who am I a weapon against?"
Willow emerged from the room in a panic. "Something's wrong with Buffy!"
* * *
"Oh my god," Joyce cried, returning to a daughter in the midst of what looked like an epileptic fit. "What happened? I was only gone for a minute!"
"We, we were just talking," Willow babbled. "She was about to get dressed, and suddenly she had these convulsions--"
"She's hemorrhaging," Sanvi said, and gave quick orders to an intern. "I'm sorry, but everyone will have to leave."
"It's okay," Joyce assured herself and the gang as they left the room, "Buffy is a strong girl, she's going to be--... Where's the baby?"
"I -- I don't know." Willow's eyes widened. "Oh god, I don't remember!"
"Did anyone see anything?" Giles urged. "Does anyone remember who was in there last?"
Tara said, "Wasn't there a nurse in there with you two? Green scrubs?"
"I... don't remember any nurse," Willow said, crestfallen.
"She possessed the bloody nurse," Giles said. "And without Buffy, we won't know where to find her. Dammit, I was so sure she'd take Sanvi."
"Who is this 'she'?" Joyce threw her hands up in frustration. "Will someone at least tell me who's stolen my granddaughter?"
"Her name is Lamashtu," he said, and with it, a dark mist slithered out of his mouth and down the hall. "Did you see that?"
He distinctly saw it take a right turn. "It must lead to her when she's nearby." He began to follow it, a flash of memory cleaving through the fog. "Speak her name, the wind will change; sing it and she'll... she'll... what was it?" He opened The Song of the Lilin and fanned through the pages as he walked.
"Tara, you should go with him," Willow said.
She nodded, and tapped her own temple. "Report back to me up here, okay?"
"Okay." Tara kissed Willow, gathered her courage, and ran down the hallway after Giles.
* * *
"So," said the security guard, leaning in to the receptionist at the lonely rear entrance desk, "I've been thinking about us."
"Really," the receptionist drawled.
"Rea--" A local alarm went off. "Shit. If that's another prank..." He straightened and pointed at her. "This conversation isn't over."
"I hope not," she said with a stubborn grin as he left.
"Hey Christine," came a whisper from the stairs, "can you come here a sec?"
The receptionist spotted the nurse in the shadows. "Karen? What are you doing hiding over there?" She got out of her seat and approached her friend. "Why are you holding a baby?"
"Can you hold her for me real quick?"
"Um... I guess so..."
Bundle safely in her arms, the receptionist took a deep, cleansing breath and made for the exit door.
* * *
"There's gotta be something we can do for her," Xander said, trying to peer past the closed blinds of Buffy's hospital room. "Will, can't you chant it away or something?"
"You think I didn't try? God spells are a little out of my league, you know."
"What if the doctor turns into Lamashtu while she's trying to save Buffy?" Anya wondered. "Won't she just let her die? Or kill her?"
Joyce stopped wringing her hands to say, "Oh, god."
"Don't worry, Mrs. Summers, I'm going in." Willow centered her energy and said, "Eye of Acana, I call on thee."
Before her, a tiny sphere of light appeared.
"Ooh, it worked!" She refocused and demanded, "Show me what I cannot see."
The sphere zipped under the door.
* * *
"Which way?" Tara stopped beside Giles at the elevator. An alarm was ringing on another floor.
He whispered the name again, and the mist waved into the stairwell.
They tried to hurry down the stairs, but others were filing in, reacting to the alarm. People shouted at the duo to slow down.
When Giles finally pushed through to the first floor, he slipped on something viscous.
Tara covered her mouth, shocked and sickened. Behind her, a woman screamed.
Giles was sitting in human remains. Long ribbons of ripped skin and teal fabric.
Backing up in horror, the security guard said, "Holy god, Christine! Where's Christine?!"
Guessing that whoever Christine was, she wasn't quite herself anymore, Tara helped Giles to his feet.
"Lamashtu," he said again with determination, and the mist curved out the door, into the night.
* * *
The Eye of Acana bounced around the room.
"I found no excess placenta," Sanvi was saying. "And she's not reacting to uterine massage. Administer fifty more cc's of Pitocin."
Willow's minion floated behind the intern, verifying his actions. If Lamashtu could possess anyone she chose, she could easily jump into this body and adjust a dosage...
He turned, and the eye dove to the floor, zipping out of his way and hiding under a chair.
The heart monitor's beeps began to speed up.
"Doctor, maybe we shouldn't--"
"She can take it. Trust me."
He attached the bag to the drip.
Buffy's heartbeat doubled.
"Two forty-eight," the intern read off, "two fifty, two fifty-six, two sixty bpm? This is impossible..."
"I know. Just wait."
Willow didn't know what to do. It was too hard to tell if Sanvi was genuinely helping or--
Beneath her, under the chair, she noticed the words "The Song of the Lilin" scrawled onto a leaf of paper, along with rudimentary music notes.
How'd that get there?
"Two seventy-two! Doctor, she's going to--"
For a second, the beeping ceased, and the sound that followed brought Willow's body, still in the hallway with Xander and Joyce, crashing to the floor:
The long, sustained tone that signals death.