Title: One, But A Lion
Author: Beer Good
Fandom: Buffyverse, very much pre-series
Word Count: ~1200
Summary: Egypt, 48 BC. A Slayer and her watcher take a trip and learn that even in ancient times, some things were more ancient still.
One, But A Lion
Alexandria, 48 BC
She has to drag him from the burning building. For a while she considers leaving him; he's been her watcher since she was a girl, and for all the times he's sent her out against vampires, mummies, djinns and demons she's never seen him care about anything as much as he cares about those damn scrolls. But Alexandria is in complete chaos, there's Roman soldiers everywhere, and she can't leave an old man with a broken leg alone in this mess. And so, as Egypt falls, as the last pharaoh arranges to have herself snuck into her conqueror's bedroom, as the library of Alexandria burns to the ground, Mkhait the Vampire Slayer drags the man who's controlled her entire life to safety, back to her cell. She bandages him as well as she can, expecting them to lay low until things return to normal,but he's adamant; things won't. He orders her to go and take him with her, and as befits a Slayer, she obeys.
And so they wind up on the deck of a grain transport headed upriver. It's certainly not the first time, but all the other times she could be certain that it would end either with her dead or back in Alexandria waiting for the next time. This time, she's not so sure. She looks over the side, down at the reflection of her scarred face in the water. The moon is up, shattering silver over the Nile, but this is no romantic cruise for the passengers or the sailors; just a hard slog up the world's mother river.
"Where are we going?" Mkhait asks.
He looks up, as annoyed with her as ever, but clearly bothered by the pain in his leg. "Giza." He uses the old name for it, and as always his Egyptian is flawless. It used to make her so angry that the old Hellene clearly knows every tongue in the world and yet insists that they speak nothing but "civilized" Greek to each other – a language which, to her, will always be a blunt, foreign tool. Now he's been mumbling under his breath constantly since they left the city, often in languages she's never heard, if they're even languages at all.
"The Romans attack, and we flee to Giza? Why?"
"You'll see soon enough." He's quiet, breathes shakily as he tries to shift his weight, then inexplicably laughs. "Why? Because it's lost. All of it. Thousands of years of accumulated knowledge, gone in an instant, pffft." He rattles off a quick sentence in something she thinks might be Babylonian. "I'm the only one who'll ever know that now."
"We will make them pay. Egypt will -"
"Egypt will do nothing. Your people are done. The Romans are barbarians, but they'll be very successful barbarians, with swords and walls and everyone marching in time to simple slogans. They don't care for philosophy or astronomy, and mathematics only concerns them if it helps them calculate trajectories. They didn't even burn the library because they're afraid of it – they did it by accident, because the notion that it might be valuable didn't even occur to them. They're the future." He returns to his mumbling, reciting texts to himself in words an Egyptian farmer's daughter has no chance of understanding, so she's alone to wonder just how much of that is true and how much is just him needing to hear himself speak.
When they get off the ship the next day, his leg has swollen to twice its normal size and Mkhait has to carry him. She offers to find him a surgeon, but he refuses; the fever has already started, there's nothing anyone can do. She hires a donkey cart.
"We are here." She shakes him awake carefully; at first she thinks he might be dead, but then he groans and manages to sit halfway up. The moon has risen again and the pyramids loom blackly a few hundred cubits away, larger by night than by day; huge, ancient, everlasting. "What is it?"
"What is what?"
"You said everything is lost. You bring me here. You want me to slay something before you..." Funny, her entire life has been about killing, yet she doesn't know any words in Greek for how an old man dies.
He nods, slowly. "Have I told you how old these things are?"
"Old." She shrugs. "Gods themselves -"
"Two thousand five hundred years." He knows that means little to her. "Fifty lifetimes. And they were built by men, for men – powerful magicians seeking immortality, at which some were successful, but still men."
"So what -"
"You are not here to slay. You are here to see." His voice is shaking, she feels the fever coming off him in waves. "Time is a funny thing. Once something is old enough, it's easy to think it's always existed. But the pyramids were built by men. There was a time when they were not here. There was a time when there was only her."
At first she doesn't understand what he's talking about, then... "'Her'? The Sphinx?"
He nods towards the giant statue, its body half-buried in sand but its head held high. "The Lioness. One of those old kings put his face on her, built his grave beside her to live forever, but it's borrowed power; she was here long before that. Since the old gods were driven from this plane, she's stood guard. Even if everything else disappears, she'll always be here." He puts her hand on her shoulder and suddenly speaks to her in her own language. "I know you've never liked me much. I've made a soldier out of you, because it was my job. I hope you'll forgive me for that someday. I cannot offer you anything more than this: Things changed here once. Sooner or later, they will change again. And there is still some magic left here. Now go."
A dozen different curses she's been storing for years and couldn't have spoken to him five minutes ago occur to her (you son of a, you arrogant, you self-serving, you uncaring, you fucker of) before she remembers that he's dying. And she's suddenly noticed a light under the Sphinx's head.
It's a campfire, she discovers. There's a girl there. She's nubian, dressed in rags and bone, at once younger than her and so, so much older. And she speaks Mkhait's language – not her watcher's well-schooled city speech, but the dialect she didn't think she remembered from back home. They talk all night.
In the morning, Mkhait carries her watcher to the Nile and sets his body afloat. She never knew what gods he worshipped, but she knows that the river carries anything to the sea, and Greece is somewhere far beyond that on the other side of the world; let them find him if they want, if he needs guidance. Beer Good (She stands there for hours, watching the river flow, constantly changing, renewing and rewriting itself. Then she turns and continues walking up the river. She doesn't know where she's going, but she has an idea about who she is now, and just being the one who's going will have to be good enough for now.