The woman rose from her chair and clasped Buffy's hand in a firm grip. "Pleased to make your acquaintance," she said. "I'm Evelyn O'Connell, but you can call me Evie. And that nosy lout over there is my husband, Rick." Warmth sparkled in her eyes as she spoke.
"Hey! She said I could look," Rick yelped in reply, making a show of being offended, but to Buffy's Scooby-educated eye he looked more amused than anything. He abandoned the stack of papers, then took her hand as his wife released it, bowing over it in a gentlemanly fashion. "And at least I know better than to read any of it aloud," he added in an aside, flashing a wide, white smile in Buffy's direction.
"I'm guessing there's a story there," she said wryly as he let go of her hand, thinking of Xander and the speaking of Latin in the library.
He was more than a head taller than Buffy, and she felt faintly dwarfed by his presence. It wasn't just the height, either; there was something intangibly massive about him, like a supernatural gravity well. It probably had something to do with that Anuby-thing Giles had mentioned earlier; whatever it was, it made the hair stand up on the back of her neck, though not in an evil-vibe-y kind of way. It was just... there, like his blue eyes or callused hands, and kind of distracting.
"You're not wrong," he told her, eyes dancing as he glanced over at his wife.
"Oh, you," Evie fumed, suppressing a grin as she swatted him on the arm. "You're never going to let that go, are you?"
"Considering what we're here for?" he asked ruefully, raising his eyebrows.
The humor drained out of Evie's expression. "Well, it isn't our fault this time, and it wasn't the last time, either. I can't imagine what they're thinking, bringing him back now. The only person whose orders he took at Ahm Shere was Anck-su-namun..."
"And after what she did to him there..." Rick shook his head. "He's not going to be a happy camper."
Buffy made a face, her pleasant observations of the couple derailed as their reason for visiting reared its ugly head. "Great, just what I need. Another bulletproof religious nut with a grievance against women." She took a seat at the table with a sigh, then smiled up at Willow as the witch slid a cup of coffee and a pastry in front of her. "Thanks, Wills."
"No problem," she said. "We already ate, and I figured you wouldn't have got up yet." She waved the others to their seats, then moved the stack of papers from counter to table and sat down in the last free chair with another paper cup bearing the Starbucks logo.
Buffy took a bite of the pastry, allowing herself a moment to ignore the calorie content and enjoy the sweet taste, then washed it down with a sip of her skinny latte and refocused on the issue at hand. "So," she said. "First things first. I tracked down the guys in the robes; they're in a block of flats over by the local Wolfram and Hart offices."
Willow nodded and shuffled one of the pieces of paper out of the stack. "You left the map out on the counter this morning; Dawn looked up the address and left me a note."
"These guys in the robes," Rick said, leaning forward with a serious expression on his face. "They wouldn't happen to have any facial tattoos, would they?" He made a gesture toward his cheekbones. "Like words in Arabic?"
Evie turned toward him, a shocked expression on her face. "Rick! You don't think..."
He reached out to clasp one of her hands in his own, shaking his head a little. "Probably not, but it doesn't hurt to check. Ammar's a stand-up guy, and he's got Rashad to back him up, but he's no Ardeth, you know? And not everyone agrees with him that the Medjai should stick to their traditional lifestyle in this day and age. If one of the tribal leaders is sneaking around behind Ammar's back, looking to cut a deal..."
Buffy frowned at him, something about his description tickling at the back of her brain... not from the guys she'd seen the day before, but from something someone else had reported recently. She couldn't remember who it had been, though, or when. "I didn't see any tattoos," she answered, after a moment's thought. "They all looked kind of Middle-Eastern-y to me, but none of them were all that memorable, and most of them wore turbans. I'm not sure I'd recognize them again if they ditched the tentwear."
Rick sighed, settling a little, a relieved expression smoothing out his features. "Good," he said. "The Medjai are pretty much the only family either of us has now, except for a few random cousins of Evie's; I'd hate to see them implicated in this."
Willow frowned at that, fidgeting with her cup. "I thought Giles said you had a son?"
Evie and Rick exchanged a long look, full of old grief, that made Buffy's nerves crawl with the wanting to whip out her cell phone and dial Dawnie's number. "Had, is the right word," Evie said quietly, smiling sadly in Willow's direction. "Alex. He died about forty years ago, defending his wife's people."
"I'm so sorry," Willow said, wincing. "I didn't know."
"It's all right," Evie assured her. "It was a long time ago. We visit his children and grand-children every now and again-- the Medjai are much more open to alternative views of reality than most cultures, so we don't have to hide our identities among them-- but we've never been able to stay with them as much as I would like."
And there was that mention of the Medjai again; Buffy frowned as the nagging sensation in the back of her mind grew stronger. Oh well; if it were really important, she'd remember it soon enough. "So, tell me about this Impotent guy," she said, steering the conversation back on track. "Giles says he's pretty powerful for the evil undead, but he didn't really make with the details, and I'd rather not get caught unprepared." She'd faced that kind of battle more than enough over her last year in Sunnydale; she never wanted to risk that kind of bodycount on her watch ever again.
Rick choked on a laugh. "'Impotent' isn't exactly a word I'd use to describe him. He got cursed in the first place because he was having an affair with the Pharaoh's mistress."
Willow perked up a little at that. "Oh! And of course the Pharaoh caught them, right?" She feathered through the stack of papers again, apparently looking for the reference in question.
"Yes, and then they killed him," Evie said, with a sour twist to her mouth. "Seti's daughter, Nefertiri, was watching from the balcony when it happened and called for the Pharaoh's bodyguards, but they were too late. Anck-su-namun killed herself rather than be captured, and Imhotep's priests carried him away to safety in the confusion. A few days later, Imhotep returned to steal her body, then took her to Hamunaptra to resurrect her. Fortunately, the Medjai were able to stop him that time, and turned him over to the new Pharaoh-- Seti's son Ramses-- for judgment."
Buffy was really starting to get a Watcher-y vibe about these Medjai guys. If they were running around in whatever-hundred BC trying to protect the Pharaohs, what were they still doing running around the desert three thousand years later? The answer was almost on the tip of her tongue-- she knew it!-- but there was something else bothering her, too.
"So why that curse?" she asked, thinking about the whole invulnerability angle and the Plagues of Moses thing. What kind of insane troll logic would make someone give a criminal that kind of power?
"What do you mean?" Evie asked, furrowing her brow.
"She means, how'd he end up so powerful?" Rick translated. At Buffy's look of surprise, he shrugged and added, "It never really made sense to me either, that first time out."
"Oh." Evie drew a deep breath, then pushed back her chair and stood, pacing slowly around the room. "Yes, well. It wasn't an accident, or anything like that; they knew perfectly well what might happen if he ever got free, but at the time, it seemed like the trade-offs were worth the reward." She trailed her fingertips along the edge of a bookcase as she walked, frowning absentmindedly at the titles as she passed by them. "Ramses could not let the death of our father go unpunished, and I... his sister was furious beyond all reason. The Hom'Dai promised eternal suffering for the victim."
"I get it," Willow said, nodding solemnly. "Buffy, you know the work I was doing with the coven in England? One thing they explained to me was that powerful magic of any kind, light or dark, needs a counterbalance, something built into the spell itself, or else it spills over on everything around it. That was part of my problem; every time I cast a spell, all the way back from what happened with Angel, it was like I was splashing ink on myself. Tara helped for awhile-- she knew how to do it right-- but she didn't know all the reasons why
, and I got frustrated with it, so I took shortcuts whenever I could. By the time she was killed..."
"Gotcha," Buffy nodded. "Scary dark-vein-y Willow." She turned back to the O'Connell's, who seemed more grim than confused at the turn of the conversation-- Giles must have been blabbing. "So they were scared of the Honey-Dew backfiring, and gave him a few power-ups to balance out all the gnashing of teeth?"
"More or less," Evie agreed. "Basically, if he were ever dug up and awakened with the Book of the Dead, the curse guaranteed that he would become a walking disease, with power over the sands, unnatural strength, and all of the ancient plagues of Egypt at his fingertips. Naturally, that meant someone had to stick around to keep him from being dug up, but it was felt that the payoff was worth the sacrifice in his case."
"And that's where the Medjai come in," Rick added. "And how I ended up running into them, that first time. Though of course they've added a few other things to their job description over the years."
Buffy stiffened as it finally came to her, where she'd heard about these guys before. Xander! He'd ridden out from Aswan in search of a Slayer among the desert tribes, and got bounced right away by guys on horses with swords and guns and tattoos on their faces
who wouldn't let him anywhere near her. They'd said something about the Watchers trying to take a Slayer from them before, and then dropped a name-- Evelyn Carnahan O'Connell.
"Like keeping Watchers away from Slayers?" she asked slowly, watching them both for their reactions.
Both Rick and his wife stiffened in their seats; Rick glanced at Evie, frowning at her for a minute, then nodded and turned back to Buffy. "Yeah, Rupert mentioned one of your guys ran into them out in the desert. From the description, it sounded like he ran into one of Alex's grandsons, Rashad's son Asim; he's kind of a hothead, but he knows his family history pretty well. The Slayer that the Council came after back in the thirties was a distant cousin of his, and they killed a lot of people getting to her. The current Slayer is his father's half-sister's daughter, as well as being the chief's great-niece, so you can see where he wasn't really feeling like taking chances on the word of a complete stranger."
Buffy narrowed her eyes at him. "Then why are you
working with us?"
Evie sighed. "Rupert's mother was a Carnahan, not a close relation, but enough of one that I kept track of the family over the years. When the Council buildings were blown up and he was reported missing, Rick and I did a little investigating; that's mostly what we do to keep busy nowadays, look into the sort of thing that modern police dismiss as fairy-tales and hokum. After we found him, he told us what was going on, and we've been helping to locate Potentials and Slayers ever since. Truthfully, we kept news of Faiza quiet because we believed she was more than safe enough already, and we did not see any reason to disturb her life any further."
"And how much of this have you told them
?" Willow asked, shrewdly.
"We actually kinda decided to leave that up to you," Rick said with a shrug. "Asim's on his way here right now with a few friends."
"Excuse me?" Buffy's eyebrows went up. "Guys in dresses, already in my city, about to raise the undead? I'm not waiting around until he gets here."
"And I agree we shouldn't wait," Evie said. "News of their movements is important; they must be setting up for whatever ceremony they have planned, and the fewer surprises on that score the better. However, I'm fairly certain they won't actually resurrect Imhotep until they have the chest he uses to regenerate himself-- the part of the curse that restores him to flesh and full invincibility was written on it when the Hom'Dai was first cast."
"Yeah, written on the box they hid the jars holding his dead girlfriend's guts in," Rick interrupted, wrinkling his nose up in disgust. "Now that
Evie swatted him on the arm again and continued. "We've long suspected that the Book of Amun Ra somehow fell into the hands of the Germans during World War II and made its way through the underworld afterward; that's the only thing I can think of that they might hope to use to keep him under their control. However, the chest has been in Medjai custody in the Cairo museum for the last seventy years, out of their reach."
"Until someone stole it a few days ago," Rick added. "Asim was able to track the theft, but not to recover it; he called to let us know it was in transit again just before we came here."
"This just gets better and better," Buffy said, bracing her elbows on the table and lowering her face into her palms. Whatever had happened to the days of see vampire, stake vampire, and go home? Saving the world had turned into such a complicated business. "Okay. So we go out, beat feet around the city for awhile, come back here to sleep if the world doesn't end first, and your tattooed great-grandson arrives when?"
Evie bit her lip. "Late morning," she said.
Buffy sighed. "Okay," she said. "Wills, since it looks like there won't be fireworks tonight, if you want to stick around and wait for Dawn and do some more research...?"
"On it," Willow said, nodding. "Hey, and I brought that digital camera I told you I was ordering for you; maybe you could take some pictures of the robe-y guys, and I'll see if I can find any references in the major law enforcement databanks."
"Good idea," Buffy said. She tilted back her coffee cup, capturing the last few drops of caffeine-y goodness, then pushed back her chair and stood. "Ready to go, guys? You can fill me in some more about what happened the last couple of times you fought this guy while we're out."
The O'Connells nodded. Rick stood, checking his weapons as Evie smoothed at her shirt; as they did so, Buffy noticed absently that neither of them had chosen the chair with its back to the front door when they first sat down. They had left that chair for Willow. She wasn't happy about some of the stuff they'd told her so far, but her instincts still said to trust them, and they clearly weren't newbies at this kind of thing.
She added a short sword and concealing jacket to her personal arsenal on the way out the door, and slipped Willow's camera and her cell phone into the jacket's pockets. Not that she'd answer if Paolo rang-- she had a feeling her shelf life as the Immortal's new love interest had just about expired-- but because she'd promised to call Giles, and in case of Dawnie-emergency. Another apocalypse might be pending, but that didn't mean the rest of her life had ended in the meantime.