In trouble. Need help. He should have thrown the postcard away the moment it arrived, really. It wasn't as though he hadn't known who it was from, even though it hadn't been signed. The handwriting was as familiar as his own; and besides, who else would send him an alluring picture postcard from Mexico with a message like that on the back? Nobody but Ethan Rayne, former cohort, former friend, former partner in terrible crimes. Rupert Giles still had nightmares about the things he and Ethan had got up to, and he probably always would. He supposed he should be glad, for it was proof he had a conscience; and that had to be better than not caring about all that had happened. Sometimes, though, he would have preferred a guiltless life, and the knowledge that, whatever he did, he would never be tortured by it in waking or sleeping hours. It would mean that there truly was no hope for his soul, but it would make his life easier, his nights shorter. Even now, when approaching ten years had passed since his worst act with Ethan had come about - the summoning of the demon Eyghon - he still found that the nightmares plagued him, every so often. Once a month perhaps, or more if life and his studies threw up unpleasant reminders. He saw again the spells cast by candlelight, and the words written in blood; heard laughing drunken songs and muttered incantations; smelt incense, alcohol and smoke. A lot of people had been hurt or had died during the course of Giles's games in London. A lot of lives had been changed. Now he was living in Bath, buried in books belonging to his father, and the friends he had left behind were spread throughout the country, ruined by their many experiences. Randall James was dead, Thomas Sutcliff a disillusioned alcoholic, Philip Henry had disappeared entirely. And Deirdre... She had been everything to Giles, but he hadn't seen her since the night Randall had died. He heard rumours - alcohol; every illegal substance known to man; desperate, failed attempts to recreate the spells of her glory days, and experience again the old ecstasies. Once she had wanted Giles; now she wanted only Eyghon; and with his banishment she had fallen upon dark times. Giles had tried to get in touch with her, but she wanted nothing more to do with him. If only, he thought sulkily, the same could be said of Ethan Rayne.
Although clearly it wasn't just Ethan who was to blame. He had sent the postcard, with scant enough clues as to where exactly the help was needed - Mexico was a big place, after all - but nothing had really forced Giles to get on an aeroplane and head out there. Nobody else had known about the card, nobody had been around to play on his conscience, and make him feel bad for thinking ill thoughts of his old friend. He could have stayed back in Bath, poring over his books, continuing to work hard at his reintegration into the Watchers. It was not easy to convince them that he could be trusted again; not easy to build up a whole new façade of respectability and innocence. He was beginning to lose track of what was really him, and what was just playacting for the benefit of the Council. Gone were the cigarettes, the absinthe and the banned books, though those at least still lurked in a secret bookcase. He had taken to dressing in a suit and tie, save in the evenings when he could be sure he was alone, and the golden earring that had once been a permanent feature now spent most of its days in a box inside his bedside table, though the hole in his ear resolutely refused to close. He wore the ring now, sitting at the bar of a tiny taverna in a resolutely backward village in the middle of Mexico, very conscious that it made him stand out here almost as much as it did amid the ranks of the Watchers back home in the UK. As if he didn't stand out anyway, in his expensive black shirt and matching jeans, his skin pale from too many months sitting in his library. With his halting Spanish letting him down too much to allow proper conversation he had taken to addressing the locals in Latin, which had led most of them to assume that he was a priest. Admittedly that had made them wonder less at his black clothes, but in consequence rather more at his gold earring. Still, he had no objections to being wondered at; just to being dragged halfway across the world by a man he had spent so much time trying to convince himself that he wanted nothing more to do with; a mocking reminder of the days he was struggling to leave behind. If the Watchers found out he had come here, and for what reason, he could be gone from their number forever. Ethan would have laughed at that idea, and told him that he didn't belong amongst them anyway, but whether or not that was true, he needed to be one of them. They were stifling and strict and the very opposite of everything that had been a part of his life in the seventies, and they were helping him to stay on the straight and narrow. Bad magic could easily become an addiction, especially to a man like Rupert Giles, and being a member of the Council, with all their restrictions, rules and disapprovals was like having his own special, secret Alcoholics Anonymous. It worked too - when Ethan Rayne wasn't around.
Giles sipped thoughtfully at the glass of what passed for whisky in these parts, and turned slightly so that he could scan the rest of the room. It was largely empty, for it was still only just getting dark, and only the serious drinkers were in at this time. About six of them, with little enough money between them, all dressed in cheap, once white cotton, and all unashamedly interested in the stranger at the bar. Unless he was very much mistaken they all knew his name by now, as well as which room he was staying in, and what business he had claimed to be on. None of them believed that last, either; that much had been clear from the start. They might think that he was a priest, but that didn't mean that they believed a word that he said, once Ethan Rayne's name had arisen in conversation. Ethan Rayne - password to ostracisation and unpleasantness. Well, some things never changed. He sat at the bar now, musing over why exactly he continued to get himself involved in such things, and cursing Ethan for his postcards, his propensity for getting into trouble, and his amazing ability to make enemies. Mentioning his name had been social suicide.
Still, at least that reaction had at least proved that he had come to the right place. The picture on the front of the postcard hadn't exactly been easy to trace, and from there he had had further detective work ahead of him before he had found this little town. He had been here for nearly twenty four hours now, and there was still no sign of Ethan. Just locals, glowering at the 'priest' with the earring and the dodgy connections. Some glared at him with hatred, some with burning suspicion, many just with a sense of hurt or disappointment. How could a priest be friends with Ethan Rayne? He had given up trying to tell them that he wasn't a priest. He had come to them in good quality clothes, speaking Classical Latin, and bearing a suitcase of leather-bound books that somebody was sure to have gone through by now. They were written in languages illegible to all but a handful of scholars, and such things apparently pointed to the Church. So 'priest' he was, and had to put up with it, as well as their glowers, their mutterings and their disapproval. It was almost like being at a gathering of Council members.
It was not the most exciting drinking hole that Giles had ever spent time in. Not the most menacing either, although that hardly meant that it was warm and welcoming - at least, it seemed, to friends of Ethan Rayne. The bartender kept on serving him because he kept on paying, but there was no smile with the service; just a steady expression that was one millimetre away from a glower. Maybe he was worried about the possible consequences of being rude to a priest, but it certainly looked as though he would much rather have been doing almost anything to Giles instead of serving him. Giles was beginning to reach the stage where he didn't care. After several glasses of sour whisky, and a couple of hand-rolled cigarettes from a tin full of the things that he had found in one of his pockets, he wasn't really of a mind to worry about anything. He eyed the tin now standing on the bar in front of him, and scowled at it. Doctored tobacco. He shouldn't be surprised; he had rarely smoked anything else, after all. Not having smoked even the mildest and most conventional cigarette in some while, though, meant that this latest experiment had gone straight to his head. He transferred his attention to the half full glass of bad whisky, and waited until it was standing still before he tried to pick it up. It almost tasted nice, which was proof that he really was stoned, and he considered buying another one to make the most of this beneficial state of affairs. He decided against it though; better to quit while he could still walk. Or probably walk, anyway. Throwing a few more coins onto the bar, and collecting his ill advised tobacco tin, he lurched to his feet and fumbled his way outside. He wanted fresh air, and hoped that it was now late enough for the hot day to have turned to just that. A few people milling about outside stared at him as he wandered away up the street, and he flashed them an old favourite Ripper smirk. They went about their business, muttering to each other - probably about this young disgrace to the priesthood - and he found himself chuckling lightly. Bloody Ethan. Three thousand miles, just to get drunk in a little Mexican village. He could do that in the comfort of his own home.
He found a little side street, and wandered past several overflowing rubbish bins, heading for the never very far away edge of town. There was a stretch of desert beyond that, which he found oddly beautiful at this time of day. The many colours swirled before his faintly befuddled eyes, and he stood and enjoyed the show for a while, before turning to wander in another largely aimless direction. His head was clearing now, and he felt better for it; more in control of his movements. A wander around the perimeter of the town, just to be sure that his head was once again functioning with some degree of normality seemed like a good idea, so he turned to his right and strolled on. The taverna, some sort of hardware store, a little church-run school - all passed him by as he wandered; all painted white, all peeling slightly, all apparently designed by the same architect. The place looked a hundred years old at least, he thought; probably more. It showed no especial signs of having changed in that time either. The blacksmith still apparently did a roaring trade; nobody seemed to own a car. He saw no television aerials; had seen no evidence of electricity. The whole place seemed stuck in the nineteenth century. Anywhere else it might have been strange, but here it seemed to fit. He would have been more surprised had he arrived to find 1985 in full swing.
Leaving the street he strolled a short distance into the desert; just far enough to let the town become a background noise. The light from oil lamps burning in windows was barely noticeable, and he had just the overhead moon to light his way. It wasn't a strong moon, but it was enough to see shapes on the horizon, and admire the patterns of shifting sands moving with the faint motions of the wind. It was cold, he realised, at last sober enough to truly notice such things, and he walked a little faster to warm himself up. Tall cacti loomed up out of the darkness, but other than that there was not much to see except the sand, and what seemed to be distant rocks out towards the horizon. There were no roads, as he had discovered driving out here; no gardens around the houses. How they got their food he didn't know, for he had seen no sign of cultivation of any kind. The place was completely bare.
He could see something though, and he quickened his pace to see what it was that had caught his attention. Something on the ground, breaking up the natural colours of the sand. Stones. Six white stones arranged into a circle, all clean and polished to ensure that no moss ever managed to grow there. There was a bigger stone in the middle; more a rock; equally well cleaned, and equally well cared for, and with a certain flatness to it, like a table perhaps. Giles was no fool. He had studied magic and its good and bad uses for so many years that something like this was as clear as a well-annotated diagram. It was a sacrificial altar, and by the look of the herbs and flowers scattered about, it was one that had recently been purified. It was intended for use; and soon.
"Well now doesn't this just get curiouser and curiouser?" Strolling towards it with all the confidence of the slightly drunk, he looked at each of the smaller stones in turn, searching for identifying marks. There were none. There was nothing on the big central stone either, suggesting that the altar was dedicated to no specific demon or god. He paced around the circle examining everything, but could still find nothing but scattered herbs and dried flowers. No circle of burnt earth, no pentagram, no marks of old blood. Perhaps it was just for decoration? Except somehow that was hard to believe.
"Ethan." Of course, it had to be. The misbegotten son of a scavenger rat had called him over here just to try to involve him in whatever nastiness he had got himself involved in. Sacrifice by the look of things. Giles wondered who or what Rayne was planning to lie out on that central stone, and growled unpleasant things at the stars. Well he'd be damned if he play any part in it no matter how hard Ethan pleaded. No wonder the locals had been so unfriendly. Knowing Ethan the local young virgin girls had probably been disappearing for the last few days, and Giles had managed to point himself out as a possible partner to it all. Well that was great. He'd have a choice few things to say to his erstwhile friend if ever the brazen coward ever bothered to show his face. Feeling hugely stupid for ever having left his studies in Bath, Giles turned about and decided to go back to his room. He'd have a sleep, possibly something to eat provided it didn't look poisonous, and then head for the airport first thing in the morning. The sooner he got out of here, the better.
He took the long way back to town, preferring not to head straight back there from the altar. It wouldn't do to let them know he had seen it; they might think he was planning something there, and then he'd never get out of this place. With Ethan nowhere to be found he'd have nobody to back up his claims of innocence either - not that Ethan actually would back up his claims of innocence. No - better to walk on, and wander innocently back into town from some other direction. Part of him queried whether he shouldn't be hanging around and seeing if there wasn't something that he could do to stop Ethan, but the larger part of his subconscious denied it. Ethan wasn't his problem; not anymore. Besides, what always happened when he got involved in the bastard's plans? Trouble, that was what happened. Every single time. Trouble, and occasional broken limbs.
It was dark now; almost completely dark, in that sometimes atmospheric, sometimes downright disturbing way, which didn't go at all well with thoughts of sacrifice and black magic. It didn't go too well with unfamiliar territory and slight drunkenness, either, and he had to slow his pace considerably. The terrain was rough beyond the worn smoothness of the streets inside the town's perimeter, and dips and rises conspired together with enthusiasm to make him trip up. He scowled at them and muttered a few choice obscenities, then wandered on. Vague shapes of town buildings hung about at the edge of his right eye's vision, and blank emptiness stretched out to his left. A cactus perhaps, and that was all save sand and a purple horizon. He rather liked the idea of being surrounded by desert. All that space, with no people for miles. Admittedly the heat in the daytime was something of a deterrent, but other than that there was a lot to be said for the desert. No telephones or postal services for starters, so Ethan bloody Rayne couldn't send him his jinx-filled missives. There could be no pompous nonsense from the Council, either.
Voices floated to him, and he stopped to listen for a while. Children playing, perhaps? Young lovers enjoying a night time stroll? It didn't sound like it. To his left a building loomed up through the darkness; an unexpected appearance in the emptiness outside the town, and he realised that it was from this building that the noise was coming. Curiosity was never healthy, he reminded himself, but by then he was already creeping towards the building. He listened carefully. One voice, apparently, not two. Occasional singing mixed with angry mutterings had made it sound like more than one person talking. One very familiar person. Giles scowled. The last person he had wanted to hear tonight, with his plans all laid out, and his return to England all but begun. He should turn away immediately, he told himself, and head back to his room in town. His feet were drawing him onward, however, and his cursed curiosity was wondering at what Ethan was doing. He sounded furious, and apparently with himself. Maybe his store of virgin girls for the altar had escaped? Giles supposed that he should probably go and find out. Maybe he could get Rayne away from here before anything really nasty happened.
He wasn't able to find a window to peer through. A door proved oddly difficult to find as well. Wandering around and around the apparently featureless wooden building, he began to find the situation oddly funny. Here he was, trying to do the right thing - possibly - and yet Fate wouldn't let him anywhere near Ethan. How was he supposed to perform his drunken heroics, and rescue the people of the town from Ethan's bad magicks, if he wasn't able even to get to the man? He tried knocking on the wood, and feeling along the cracks, but couldn't find anything. He muttered a few spells, designed to find hidden doors, but none of them worked either. They had an effect of a rather different kind though.
"Giles?" Ethan's voice, a delighted whisper, floated out through the wooden walls. "Giles? Is that you?"
"No." There didn't seem to be any point in not answering, but Giles was damned if he was going to sound glad. He heard a soft laugh.
"It's good to hear your voice, old friend. Are you trying some spells?"
"Me?" Giles hit the wall hard, approximately in the place where Ethan seemed to be standing. "What are you doing in there anyway? This place seems invincible."
"It is, you clot. Prisons are supposed to be." There was a loud sigh. "Listen, I'm in trouble."
"I know. You said as much in your letter. In fact that was pretty much all you said as I recall. No 'Hello, how are you'. No 'How have you been since the last time'. No 'Sorry I got you arrested in Guatemala', or--"
"Giles, shut up. I'm serious. I couldn't write a long letter, I thought they were coming for me. I was right too, wasn't I. They grabbed me not a minute later and locked me up in here, and it's bloody lucky I was able to write anything at all. Be in a right state if I hadn't been able to send you that card, wouldn't I." He paused. "And I'm sorry about Guatemala, okay? Now get me the hell out of here."
"I can't, there's no door." Giles smiled at the blank wooden boards. "And anyway, it strikes me that you've got what you deserved. I saw the altar out there. You never bloody stop, do you. Always with the dark magic and the blood rites and the rest. Always up to something that it's high time the universe paid you back for. Well maybe this time--"
"The altar isn't anything to do with me. Honestly. Listen, Ripper, I--"
"Don't call me that. And what do you mean it isn't anything to do with you? It's always something to do with you. You're always up to something, Ethan."
"Granted, and I was. Up to something I mean. This place is a treasure-trove for an amateur archaeologist like me, you know. Ancient caves and stuff, full of all kinds of relics of ancient rites and magicks. Stuff your Council buddies would kill for, and probably have in the past. Anyway, there I was, just looking and digging, and suddenly there's all these local people getting really angry, and shouting a lot, and I can't get any sense out of any of them. Spanish never was my strongest suit, but there was something about not messing with local magic. Well I had no intention of messing with local anythings, but they wouldn't listen. They tolerated me for a day or two, then out of the blue there's this mob looking for me. It was like a lynch party. So I wrote that postcard - I had a few that I'd bought before I came out here... just in case... and I posted it just before this gang came around the corner and grabbed me. They threw me in here, and that's the truth. Giles, that altar isn't mine, it's theirs - and they're planning to sacrifice me on it, tomorrow night. I swear to you, Ripper. I'll swear on anything. Not my mother's life, because you wouldn't believe me then, obviously, but anything else. Tomorrow night they're going to cut me open in that circle, and feed me to... well, to something. I'm not sure what. You have to get me out of here."
"I do, huh." Giles stared up at the building, feeling his heart sink. He really should have walked away as soon as he recognised the voice. Sticking around when Ethan was in the vicinity never came to any good. Still, Ethan really did sound frantic - and if he was genuinely prepared to swear on anything...
"Giles?" Ethan apparently thought that he might have slipped away. "Are you still there?"
"Of course I'm still here." He could have kicked himself, but it was stupid to think that he might really have what it took to leave Ethan behind. "So do you have any idea how I open this place up?"
"I don't know. Anything I try in here just gets deflected, so it's got to come from you. It's all protected with some kind of charm as far as I know. Something local, bound to be. It could be Spanish, or it could be something older than that. The original native language maybe. Aztec? Mayan? Hell, you're the expert. You speak any of that stuff?"
"Oddly enough, no." He began another circuit of the building, prodding at the ground and trying various lines of Latin, trying to illuminate the situation a little. There had to be something that would help. Something locked up in his remarkable memory that would give him what he needed to break this spell and liberate his infuriating friend. It was a long time, though, before inspiration came. Pulling out the pocket knife that he was rarely without, he tested the sharpness of the blade, then made an uncomfortably deep incision in the thumb of his left hand. It hurt, but the pain was just another thing to blame upon Ethan Rayne, and thinking unpleasant things about Ethan was almost always guaranteed to put him in a good mood.
"What are you doing out there?" Ethan sounded as though he wanted to be very impatient, but didn't dare for fear that Giles would leave him. Giles glared at the blank face of the building.
"Shut up," he hissed, though not loud enough to be heard. He was already busy, using his bleeding thumb to mark out a door on the wood; a proper sized, mostly straight door that stretched up above his head. Ethan was muttering again, about wretched locals and archaeological study, and something about him being a fairly innocent victim. Giles didn't believe any of that last, but he couldn't be bothered to tell Ethan to shut up again. He would be silenced soon enough. Beginning a muttering of his own, this time in Latin, he paced backward and forwards in front of his 'door'. He was telling the wood to discount the previous magicks performed upon it; telling the air, or perhaps what flowed through it, that his spell was stronger than the one keeping Ethan Rayne locked up. His words were rhythmical and his tone harsh, his concentration fixed upon a book he had read nine years previously, when in the late autumn of 1976 he and Ethan had still been at the beginning of their studies and experiments together. An old book, that he had done his best to forget in recent years, but which sprang to mind readily enough now. The words were ones that he might not have enjoyed saying, coming as they did from the store of knowledge he had hoped to leave behind; but they were ones of undeniable usefulness, even if they did leave an unpleasant taste in his mouth. He fancied that the wind blew colder and the sand shifted more powerfully when he spoke them, but he told himself off for his imagination, and spat out the last of the words in a rush.
"Giles?" Ethan's voice had gone soft; so soft that it was hardly audible. "Giles, what's happening?"
"Stand back," Giles told him, in a voice that wasn't really meant to be heard. He could feel the faintest vibrations beneath his feet, and it seemed as though his efforts had been successful - unless there was some hidden spell to fight back against his attempt. As the vibrations grew to a brief crescendo, he knew that there was no such spell; and with a burst of red light that followed his lines of blood exactly, the wooden boards split apart, and his improvised door was a gaping hole in the wall. Smoke coiled faintly around the edges, and the smell of burnt blood drifted into the air. Giles went to the new doorway and peered inside.
It was a very basic room that met his eyes; a place purpose built, no doubt, and with no decorations or furnishings. Straw covered the floor, singed now along the near wall, and a jug of water stood to one side. It was beside this that Ethan sat, clothes slightly blackened, face showing considerable surprise. He blinked at the apparition in the doorway, and coughed up a quantity of black smoke. Giles smiled at him rather crookedly.
"Did you want to be rescued or not?" he asked. Ethan made a rather shaky attempt to stand up.
"You never said..." he began, before having to trail off in order to work out how to make his legs move. "You never said that half the bloody wall was going to throw itself at me in sharp little pieces."
"It did?" Feigning surprise with a gleam of innocence in his rather murky green eyes, Giles smiled airily. "Nothing like that happened on my side. It was all rather tame."
"Lucky you." Ethan rubbed his ears as though they had suddenly become rather sensitive, then tentatively touched at his head, apparently searching for signs of bleeding. There was none, and he looked rather disappointed. "You chose the most vicious bloody way to open that door that you could possibly think of, didn't you."
"I chose the only way I could think of; and I could probably find a way to cancel it out if I felt like it." Giles let his eyes trail up and down Ethan's insulted, slightly dazed length. "That or beat you senseless and leave you here for the locals to find. Now come on."
"Sorry." Ethan sounded as though he were in the middle of one of his periodic fits of honesty, and genuinely meant his apology. "And thankyou. Do you think anybody will have noticed?"
"I have no idea. I've never used the spell before." Giles frowned, thinking back to some of those drug-addled days and wondering how exactly he would know if he ever had used it before. "They might have felt the ground move a little, but they wouldn't necessarily know what it meant. We should probably go though."
"Music to my ears." Ethan offered him a breathless grin, then hurried through the faintly sloping doorway. "Just how did you do it?"
"With difficulty." Giles took a quick look around, searching for signs that they might have been seen, and that a pursuit was already beginning. "I need to go back to my room in town to get my things. I have a car, too, on the edge of town. Rickety old bone-shaker with half its paint gone, but it was the best I could find to rent. It'll get us out of here well enough."
"I'll find it. Wait for you there." Ethan smiled a little uncertainly ."Thanks Ripper. Really. They were going to sacrifice me, and... well that's not a great thing to happen, is it. I owe you one for this."
"You've owed me half a dozen for years. Let's just get out of here, shall we? The car is behind the stables. Don't get into trouble on the way." He glanced at his watch in the moonlight. "I'll be back in five minutes. And Ethan?"
"Yeah?" His old friend was already walking away. Giles gave him one of the coldest glares he had had cause to summon in some years.
"You and the car had better still be there. You try to run out on me, and I'll kill you. Understand?"
"Yeah." Ethan's smile was bright and breezy and infuriatingly warm. He was trying to be nice, and that was never a good thing. Giles tried to throw off his misgivings. He was leaving the town, he had done what he had set out to do, and there had been no trouble. There was not likely to be any now. He could be home before he knew it.
They drove for the rest of the night, which confused Giles no end. He didn't remember the drive out being so long, but admittedly Ethan hadn't been with him then. Whatever new leaves Giles turned over, whatever resolutions he made, everything seemed to regress when Ethan reappeared; and before many miles had gone by the passage of time had ceased to appear even remotely logical, for the tin full of cigarettes was out of his pocket, and the pair of them were smoking companionably - or as companionably as was possible when Giles was still determined to be angry. He didn't sound terribly angry, as he sang the assorted hits of The Kinks in a loud and cheery voice, tapping the steering wheel in time to the music. He had reached Lola by dawn, and Ethan was joining in on the chorus with gusto.
"It's getting pretty hot," he observed, when the song began to peter out. Giles swung the wheel around hard to avoid a cactus he had failed to notice until the last minute.
"We're in the middle of the desert," he announced, as though pointing out some new and previously unknown fact to a young pupil. "It does tend to get hot in the desert."
"Yes..." Ethan couldn't be bothered to be annoyed, for he was feeling luxuriously relaxed just at the moment. "But what I mean is, we're going to get rather hot. Do you have anything to drink in this rattle-trap?"
"There's a canteen or two in here somewhere." Giles indicated vaguely towards the back seat, where his bag lay, spilling pens and pencils at each enthusiastic bend. Ethan went scrabbling about in search of the water, but could find only two empty containers. He held them up, less than impressed.
"They're empty," he announced, somewhat redundantly given his expression. Giles frowned.
"Before you drank what was in them you mean?"
"Very funny." Giles brought the car to a rattling halt, and struggled to put on the hand-brake. "I filled them up as soon as I arrived in town. There's a pump right by the stable, and I used that."
"Well clearly you didn't tell the canteens, because they're pretty certain that they're empty." Ethan turned them over, looking for holes. "You think somebody poured all the water out?"
"Why would anybody empty them?" Giles thought back to the general unfriendliness of the town, and thought again about Ethan's question. Still - it didn't seem likely. Just because the town's people apparently didn't like strangers - or Ethan-related strangers at any rate - it didn't mean that they would attempt sabotage and murder. On the other hand, if they had honestly been intending to sacrifice Ethan, then they were very likely capable of anything. He scowled, and revved the engine loudly.
"We won't get very far when the sun gets high if we've got no water," he said gruffly, decidedly unimpressed with the situation. "The car's going to need it as much as we will, and the last thing we want is for the radiator to pack up."
"So what do we do?" Ethan gestured about. "We've been driving all night. We're probably miles from anywhere. What are the chances of our coming across any water out here?"
"Given what your presence usually does to my luck, I don't think our chances are very good. " Giles punched the steering wheel. "Great. I always wanted to get dragged halfway round the world just to die in a desert."
"Nobody dragged you." Ethan puffed sulkily on his cigarette. "Anybody would think you didn't like helping me."
"There's a reason why I walked out on you all those years ago, Ethan. Surprisingly enough it was because I didn't want to have anything more to do with you. You're bad news. Bad news and bad luck, and I'm not a twenty-two year old kid looking for trouble and rebellion anymore."
"No, you're a thirty year old sourpuss." His old friend threw the cigarette away with a scowl. "Giles, face it. You came here of your own free will. So I sent you a postcard. It wasn't bloody enchanted. Now stop grousing, and think of something. How far away is the nearest town?"
Giles shrugged, beginning to feel once again the effects of too many glasses of sour whisky on top of cigarettes made from tobacco to which he had grown decidedly unused. "I don't know," was all that he could offer. Ethan sighed.
"Well how long did it take you to get to Santa Clara - the place we just left?"
"I don't know. Four hours from the next town along, or something like that. It all seems pretty isolated out here, but it isn't, not really." He frowned. "Anyway, you came out here too. You must know something about the lie of the land."
"I came up from the south. It's three days solid driving from where I was before." Ethan looked at his watch. "We've been driving for seven hours."
"Yeah, I know."
"And it's only supposed to take us four to get somewhere."
"That's about the size of it."
"So, what? We've been driving in the wrong direction?"
"No." Giles was certain about that. He had a good sense of direction, and the bell on top of the church back in town had been a good landmark. They had definitely been heading in the right direction.
"Towns don't get up and run away, Ripper. If we're heading in the right direction - and we haven't exactly been going slowly - then where the hell's this town?"
"How the bloody hell am I suppose to know?" He climbed out of the car, kicking up a plume of gritty sand. "I suppose I just wasn't driving as fast as I was on the way out. What other explanation can there be?" He turned about, gazing at the horizon as he did so, staring at distant rocks and flat, flat sand - and behind the car the proud, sun-baked white buildings of a little town. No, that didn't make sense. "Um... Ethan?"
"What?" Rayne sounded distracted, clearly thinking about the water again.
"Tell me that's not what I think it is."
"What isn't what you think it is?" Ethan turned around, looking to see what had caught his companion's attention. He saw white buildings surrounded by a growing heat haze, and frowned deeply. "We didn't drive past a town."
"We certainly didn't drive past that town. Look at the buildings. That's the town we left last night."
"That place is less than a mile away. We left Santa Clara hours ago." Ethan wished that he hadn't thrown away his cigarette. "Giles, that's insane."
"Maybe. And maybe there's a lot going on here that somebody hasn't bothered to tell me. Like exactly why the townspeople were planning to sacrifice you, and who to? Like what exactly that town is a part of, and why you came here to begin with? If I'm caught up in the middle of some kind of magic, Ethan, I want to know what is it. What the hell is going on?"
"Ah." Ethan looked rather like a child caught with its hand in a biscuit barrel. "I might have missed a few details out, but it's nothing that major. Just... one or two little things."
"Such as?" There was a long silence, and Giles turned away in disgust. Grabbing the two empty canteens - and the tobacco tin as a last thought - and throwing an old rug over his bag of books, he started back towards the shimmering, white town. Ethan started up in disbelief.
"Where are you going? We can't go back there!"
"We can't bloody well get away from it, can we! All night and we're barely a stone's throw away. In a very few hours it's going to get very, very hot, Ethan. I don't want to be stuck out here in a box made of metal, with no water, when that happens."
"They'll sacrifice me." Ethan was apparently now sulking, and with fairly good reason, Giles supposed. Sacrifice didn't tend to be much fun, at least for the person being killed. He slowed his stride.
"Okay. So we'll head for the stables or something. Somewhere quiet where you can hide out."
"And you? They'll know you broke me out, Ripper. These people may act like nineteenth century provincials, but they're not. They have ways of knowing all kinds of things."
"Just another of those little details you missed out, right?" Giles shook his head, then turned around and renewed his stomp back to town. "Sorry Ethan. If you're still keeping secrets you're on your own."
"I won't be." Ethan ran after him, reaching out to grab Giles by the arm and spin him around. "You go back there, they could kill you too. You might well take my place on that sacrificial stone if they can't get hold of me."
"Let go." The threat in Giles's tone would have been unmissable to anybody who had known him as the Ripper. Ethan's hand fell from its resting place with the suddenness of a dead bird dropping from the sky. He smiled awkwardly.
"Still got the heart of an ice demon, hey Ripper."
"No. I just don't like being manhandled by ex-friends. Still want to keep those secrets?"
"If I tell you everything it won't help. And you won't want to hear it."
"Fine." Giles started walking again. "Then I guess I'll see you around. You can sort yourself out from now on."
"Okay!" Able to hold out under the threat of being left alone for almost two seconds, Ethan ran to catch him up again. "Okay, I'll tell you. Just don't walk out on me. Like I said on that postcard, I'm in trouble, and I need your help."
"So tell me why."
"Alright, damn it! I said I would. Just... don't walk into town so openly, okay? Look for a sneakier way in. It's the weekend, so we can use the school."
"Fine." Giles changed direction slightly, heading now towards the arched white building that was the local church-run school. If it had been somebody in the town who had made it impossible for them to leave, the local people would probably already be aware of their return, but it didn't seem as though anybody saw them as came upon the edge of town and slipped quietly into the building. It was cool inside, and dark after the bright light of the rising sun. Giles ignored his body's relief at the shade, and the temptation of the water pump at one end of the big room he had found himself in, and instead turned straight to Ethan.
"Well?" He wasn't really expecting the truth - Ethan Rayne never gave the truth, unless his life really depended on it. With luck, though, he might get some answers, and might therefore come a little closer to understanding all that was going on. Ethan was starting to look fidgety.
"Are you sure nobody saw us coming in here?" he asked, peering out of the nearest window in obvious concern. Giles rolled his eyes.
"You were going to tell me the truth," he pointed out, as forcefully as he could given the necessity to keep his voice down. The walls of the building were thick, but it was still early in the morning, and the town was quiet. He didn't want his voice carrying to whatever ears might be nearby. "Why did you come here?"
"For the archaeology, like I said." Ethan turned from the window and went instead to the pump, working it hard until the trough beneath it was half full. He filled the two canteens that Giles had thrown down on entering the building, then took a long drink from one. Giles didn't hurry him. Ethan often spoke best when allowed to approach a subject from a round about route. "You ever hear of a demon called Abadonis?"
"A glutton." Giles let his mind drift back through his encyclopaedic memory. "Reputed to sit on a massive hoard of gold and jewels, and various other things that he's stolen over the years. Nobody has ever proved his recent existence one way or the other though. Rumour's always had it that he was killed hundreds of years ago by the invading Spaniards, who wanted his gold." He frowned. "Don't tell me that's what you're after, Ethan? Gold? I expect rather more from you."
"Gold is nice. It's shiny and it makes people give you nice things." Ethan shrugged. "But you're right, it wasn't the gold. You said yourself there are 'various other things' supposedly in that hoard."
"Books." Ethan smiled, his eyes shining with all the warmth and brazen ill intent that made him what he was. "Ten books of forbidden knowledge set down by alchemists working a thousand years ago. They were brought out to this place by a wandering hero named Leon, who had taken it upon himself to remove them from the reach of certain people. One of those tales of great heroism and self-sacrifice and bucket loads of integrity. Hardly inspiring to the likes of you and me. Anyway, on arriving in this part of the world, dear Leon was devoured almost instantly by Abadonis. Something to do with fair maidens and heroic battles. Idiot. The books were lost, presumed taken by Abadonis to add to his collection of priceless bric-a-brac."
"And you want these books." Giles couldn't help but be interested. "Just what kind of forbidden knowledge are they supposed to contain?"
"Demon summonings, spells of every imaginable kind, more potent than any in more general use. But it's not what they're supposed to contain, Ripper. It's what they do contain. I've seen them. I've held them. They're real, and they've got everything in them that the stories said they did. I found them barely a stone's throw from here, or thereabouts. This town was built on top of Abadonis's lair. The local people presumably have an understanding - he doesn't eat them, and they don't eat him, I don't know. Something. Bastards knew about the books, anyway, because they made pretty bloody sure they took them away when they grabbed me."
"And this sacrifice?"
"Oh. That." Ethan smiled, this time a little ruefully. "There was a small incident when I was trying to get the books from Abadonis. I might have... killed him a little bit."
"And the locals are angry? I'd have thought they'd be glad to get rid of a demon."
"Yes... Slight business about a curse, apparently. But anyway, I--"
"A curse. And this is yet another of those little details that you thought you wouldn't bother telling me about." Giles rubbed his eyes, feeling the same mixture of seething rage and weary exasperation that Ethan Rayne so often inspired in him. "And it's this curse that's the reason you need help, right?"
"Yeah..." Ethan smiled at him, all charm and charisma, and as usual doing his best to look innocent. "I was going to tell you, Rupert, honestly. Not really any point in keeping it to myself if you're going to be of any help... but I stirred up quite a can of worms this time, even if I do say so myself. You'd be proud of me. Or you would have been once, anyway."
"I doubt it."
"Yes, well. Like I said, these days you're just a sourpuss. Anyway, when I arrived here, this nice baking hot piece of ferocious desert was quite the green and pleasant land. Abadonis and his magic, I suppose. As soon as he died... well, you get the picture."
"And that's why they want to sacrifice you? In the hope that they'll get their fertile country back?"
"No. Not exactly." Ethan's smile was now so wide and so warm that it had reached the zenith of all possible sincerity, and was rapidly descending into complete untrustworthiness. "Listen, Rupert, much as I'm enjoying this little chit chat, don't you think we should be making some plans for getting out of here? I mean, you have this great brain full of all kinds of magical how do, and really we--"
"Don't try to change the subject. If they knew we were trying to leave town, they're sure to know that we've come back, so if they're coming for us, they're coming for us. Just tell me the rest of the story."
"If you hadn't stuck your oar in, Ethan, these people who still be nice and happy, this place wouldn't be a vicious bloody desert, and we wouldn't be in this mess. I wouldn't even be in this country. Instead we're having to shelter in the middle of what's apparently enemy territory just to keep from frying to death in a desert you created. So tell me the truth. What else do I need to know? You said I wouldn't want to hear the truth. Exactly what truth is that?"
"The curse." Ethan wandered back to the window, peering out at the deserted street. It bothered him that he could see nobody out there. "It's quite a big one actually."
"And. Yes." Ethan took a deep breath, apparently wrestling with his desire to keep the story to himself, and his equal desire to tell it, so that Giles might be able to sort things out. Eventually, deciding that it was best just to get it out in the open, he hissed the breath out through his teeth, kicked mutely at the stone tiled floor, and shrugged his tense shoulders. If he didn't get on with it Giles would almost certainly start hitting him, so it was probably best just to talk. He tried a winsome grin, in the hope of keeping the Ripper's fearsome temper in check. Not that it ever usually worked.
"Well see there's this curse," he began, rather unnecessarily. "If anybody kills Abadonis - even if it is completely by accident and absolutely unintentional - his wrath will be unleashed at the next full moon." He frowned. "Always full moons, isn't it, with these things. Every demon's an amateur astronomer in his spare time. Anyway, if the person responsible for his death isn't sacrificed in accordance with all due rituals and appropriate flourishes, things will get unpleasant. Widespread mayhem, blood and chaos. Fun for all the family."
"And he'll wipe out the town, I take it?"
"Not exactly, no. According to the local headman, or mayor or whatever the local title is, some creature born from hell will rise up out of the earth, looking for some pretty hefty revenge. If he isn't appeased with a nice taste of my blood, he'll possibly - and I stress the possibly, because to be honest these things are usually open to some interpretation - he'll possibly cause the entire continent of America to sink into the sea. There'll be earthquakes and tsunamis. General pandemonium and terror. And probably a lot of drowning." He smiled awkwardly. "So, um... any ideas?"
"Yeah." Giles turned away, staring out of another window into the increasingly hot and shimmering desert. "Right now I'm pretty much leaning towards letting them sacrifice you. The whole bloody continent?! Good grief, Ethan!"
"Hey, it's not like I did this on purpose, you know. I just wanted to get hold of those books, and Abadonis was all growly and uncooperative, and all I had was this little knife."
"You went in unprepared?" Given Ethan's usual propensity for complicated planning, Giles wasn't sure that he believed that. His old friend grinned winningly.
"Well no, I had a fistful of damned impressive spells I was hoping to try out, and a huge shotgun I thought might make a dent or two if I needed it, but he was rather quicker than I'd planned, and next thing I know I'm up against a rock with two whacking great scaly fists trying to turn my neck into play-dough, and my nice shotgun lying in pieces all over the ground. I couldn't speak, so the spells were a non-starter, and then all of a sudden I dug out this little knife, and figured I'd try sticking it in one of his hands so he'd maybe let me go before I passed out. Except instead of just letting me go, he screamed so loud I thought the ceiling was going to fall in, and there was all this green stuff bubbling up from where I stabbed him, and then suddenly he was dead. All foaming green liquid and chunks of steaming flesh. The knife was... poisoned a little bit... so maybe he had some kind of an allergy."
"Allergy." Giles felt almost as though he ought to sit down. "Yeah, right Ethan. Of course he had an allergy."
"Oh you know what I mean. And anyway, how was I supposed to know that there'd be such a fuss? The world's usually glad to get rid of another demon."
"That doesn't mean that the demons themselves are always so glad to be rubbed out. You're supposed to think about these things. You know what repercussions there can be for actions like this."
" 'Repercussions' don't usually mean countries sinking, and people wanting to sacrifice me. Come on, Ripper. Tell me you've got a plan."
"A plan? What the hell kind of a plan can I have? What else can I possibly do but let them go through with this? We're talking about an entire continent. Millions and millions of people who could be killed because of you. I'm sorry Ethan."
"You want to let them kill me?" Ethan was aghast. "Rupert, we're supposed to be friends. You can't honestly be planning to let this happen. There has to be something else."
"Hell, I don't know. How about evacuation?"
"Oh, sure." Giles lifted his hand to his face, mimicking a telephone receiver. "Hello Mr President. How's Nancy? By the way, this guy down in Mexico just accidentally killed a giant demon, which because of an old curse means that the whole of the Americas are going to sink at the next full moon. Which is tonight, by the way. Might be an idea to get everybody to leave pretty bloody quickly." He rolled his eyes. "Don't talk through your backside, Ethan. It doesn't suit you."
"You can't let them kill me, Giles."
"Well what the hell else can I do?" Giles turned away, running his hands through his hair, trying to focus. "Tonight. The full moon is tonight. You're leaving me maybe twelve hours to find us a way out of this."
"You'll think of something."
"Right now I'm not sure I want to bother trying. The world would be a much simpler place without you in it."
"Yeah. Thanks for that." Ethan stared morosely out of his window, trying to think of a decent reason why Giles really should help him. "Look, I'm sorry about this, okay? I'm sorry about involving you, and I'm sorry about killing Abadonis, and I'm sorry about Guatemala. Now tell me there's a way out of this!"
"I don't know. I really don't know." Beginning to pace, Giles closed his eyes and screwed his forehead up in angry concentration. "You said if they couldn't get you they might try to use me. So does that mean that this curse isn't totally rigid?"
"I don't know exactly. They were talking amongst themselves just after they grabbed me, and that's all that I know about it. Something about possibly appeasing the curse through sheer weight of blood. So far as I understand it, it's either me on that slab tonight or rather a lot of substitutes instead." He smiled weakly. "I'd like to think you'd be happy to take that route, but somehow I don't think even you're Ripper enough for that."
"If you mean that I wouldn't let countless others die in your place, then you're damn right. Why should they die?"
Ethan shrugged. "Why should I? All about perspective, isn't it. Look, I'm not asking you to let any of that happen. I just want to know that you're at least thinking about how to get me out of this. I can't run away, we've proved that. But I can hide. I can put myself somewhere where they won't find me until it's too late, and I might just do that. If the worse comes to the worst I can always find myself a boat and get ready to ride the storms out. At least I'd be ready for what's coming."
"You'd let millions of people die just so there's a chance you won't have to?" Giles sounded disgusted, but not entirely surprised. Ethan smiled at him, eyes faintly mocking, though also strangely warm.
"I just want a chance, Giles. If I have to meet my Maker in the middle of some mad ceremony tonight, I'll do it. Maybe. But I want there to be some hope that that won't have to happen, and you're my best chance for that. Think, Giles. Use that head of yours to find me a back door, or at least promise me that you'll look. I mean that much to you, right?"
"I don't know what you mean to me, Ethan. I really don't." Giles rubbed at his eyes, beginning to feel his recent lack of sleep. His mind didn't seem to be functioning on all cylinders just at the moment, which was hardly uncommon when Ethan was around. The problem was that he couldn't see any way out of this, save for letting the locals murder his friend as part of their ritual - and he was finding that that was not a pleasant prospect. He genuinely didn't want Ethan to die. But at what cost could he save him? He closed his eyes and tried to force his mind to focus, but for the time being at least, the impressive brain he had trained for so long did not want to do his bidding.
Behind him, Ethan turned back to his window again, and tried to remember why he had thought that coming to Mexico was a good idea. The truth was, of course, that in many ways he still thought it was a good idea. The books were priceless, and even if he hadn't used the spells himself, he knew that he could have made his fortune by selling them to those others who wandered on the dark side. Now came the difficult bit; saving his own life in the face of this confounded curse. He well knew that only Giles could save him, and it was only a shame that Giles - the once almost completely immoral Ripper - now seemed so resolutely committed to the path of righteousness. Even in their darkest days it was unlikely that he would have been willing to let the Americas go to the bottom of the sea, or to let so many other people lose their lives in place of Ethan; but he would at least have been happier to think of alternatives. Could he really be that indifferent to the health of his once closest friend? Ethan listened to the fiercely regular sounds of Giles's pacing, and smiled tightly. Life, it seemed, was full of misadventure. He was left now with perhaps the greatest misadventure of them all.
"I can see them outside the window now," he commented quietly. Giles appeared at his elbow, peering out through the dingy glass. Sure enough there were people there; the locals, gathering in groups in the street. They seemed to bear no weapons, but the intent in their fierce and determined faces was clear enough. They could seize the pair of sheltering sorcerers through sheer weight of numbers, and without any need of weaponry.
"Great. A siege." Giles turned away, returning to his pacing with greater agitation than before. "Sodding hell, Ethan."
"I take it that means no inspiring ideas yet." Ethan stared nervously at the accumulating figures. "I'll take any suggestions, Rupert. Bar dying like a man, obviously. I've never bothered to hide my--"
"Not cowardice, no. I prefer to think of it as my good sense and aversion to personal discomfort. At any rate, all ideas gratefully received, and all rescue plans considered. Even crazy ones."
"Well I see it more as cowardice, but at least in this case it seems justified. What are they doing out there?"
"Standing. Watching. Coming closer maybe. Just how the hell do they know we're in here?"
"I don't know. Ethan, we drove all night and barely made it a hundred yards down the road. I'd say that means that there's something weird going on, so knowing where we are is probably the least of their feats. One of them must be some kind of sorcerer I suppose. Probably the one who's intending to carry out the sacrifice."
"Oh yes. The sacrifice. Do let's mention that as often as possible." Ethan spun on his heel and began some very agitated pacing. "Damn it Giles, I don't want to be sliced and diced for some insane ceremony! I didn't mean to kill their demon."
"Expecting an entire continent to take the consequences for you instead is a little much though, don't you think?" Giles stared morosely out at the approaching figures, trying to think up some last ditch method of escape. Nothing sprang readily to mind. They were unarmed, save perhaps for a knife or two - and even so, if Ethan was right about the curse there really did seem to be no help for him. How could there be? With luck it would be quick and painless, but beyond that... A loud crash rattled the door on its hinges, and Ethan gave a great start.
"They're going to get in here, Rupert."
"Looks like it." Giles wondered if they were both destined to be taken for this sacrifice, and wondered if that wasn't actually a better idea than standing back and allowing Ethan to be carried off. Winding up as part of a blood drenched ritual had a certain symmetry to it. Another crash seemed to make the floor vibrate as well, and cracks appeared in the plaster around the door. Nothing could stand that kind of battering for long. He knew a few spells that might slow things down, and he knew that Ethan did too - but his friend was making no attempt to begin them. Perhaps he thought that postponing the inevitable would be worse than getting it over and done with. It didn't seem right to ask.
"Ripper..." Ethan was backing away from the door, though there were faces enough at all of the windows to make any direction an unhappy option. Giles looked over at him, preferring the view to that of the wildly bucking door.
"Thanks. For coming. You didn't have to, and... well, I appreciate it. It's nice to know you care. Or... maybe not care. But... you know."
"I know." Neither of them was much inclined towards sentiment, at least of the demonstrable kind, but Giles found himself appreciating those few fumbled sentences. It wasn't often that Ethan managed to sound sincere about something. "Ethan, listen. There might still be... I mean, curses have turned out to be red herrings before."
"Not this one. You get to be able to tell the real ones from the fakes, you know that. Nobody's going to turn up an ancient set of runes that says this is all some Neolithic practical joke. That mob out there aren't going to change their minds."
"No, I suppose you're right." Another almighty crash made the door crack with a sharp retort, and Ethan took another step back. Behind him one of the windows crashed open, the glass shattering as it was slammed back into the wall. Ethan jumped.
"Looks like this is it," he said nervously, his eyes furiously bright. Giles's fists clenched. Maybe Ethan did have to go; maybe his death was important - but no way were these people taking him without a fight. As the door finally burst open, and as a stream of people began to rush in from the street, Giles moved to meet them. Behind him Ethan was muttering half-hearted platitudes, no doubt smiling shakily as his face drained of colour. He was still trying to get out of this, and would be until the moment the knife fell.
"You can't stop us." One of the older townspeople smiled almost kindly at Giles. "We need your friend."
"I know." Slowly Giles raised his clenched fists. "But to take him you have to go through me."
"Thanks Ripper." Ethan sounded almost chirpy, though Giles recognised the fear behind his voice. Ethan often acted like a coward, but in truth he had a good deal of courage. It was failing him now though, and Giles could hear it turning to terror.
"You're greatly outnumbered." The spokesman was using good English, although Giles hadn't heard much from the other townsfolk save Spanish and Latin. It was a relief to be addressed in his own language now; he wasn't sure that his simmering brain could have done much translating just at the moment.
"I can see that." He could hear them scrambling in through the broken window, feet thumping on the stone tiles as they arranged themselves in an unbroken line. They could have seized Ethan then, but they didn't. They hung back, waiting for a word from their leader. Ethan drew in a shaky breath.
"I do have quite a lot of money," he offered, without much conviction. The spokesman smiled at him.
"We don't need your money. What good would it do us when this continent and all its people are going to sink beneath the waves? All we want is your blood, Mr Rayne. It'll cure our land, save our land mass, and prevent the cruel deaths of millions of people. I don't see why you're both so anxious to prevent that."
"Nobody wants millions of people to die." Giles's eyes drifted across to Ethan, and he frowned slightly. "Well, maybe one of us does. But that's beside the point. You can't just--"
"Yes." The spokesman took a step forward, movements precise and forceful. "We can. And we will." He gestured with a hand, and three of his fellows converged upon Ethan. With an oath Giles dashed to intercept. He struck out, caught for the briefest moment in a struggle that had no chance of success - before he was dragged back by a deluge of locals. In that wild, intense moment the old battle fury was upon him again, and he fought hard and viciously. His skin was flushed and hot, and he knew that there was another man's blood smeared thickly on his knuckles. For racing seconds his anger-fogged brain could barely process real thought; but gradually, inevitably, the moment passed. He struggled on against the gang now holding him, though the real force of his rage was gone. Faint, hissing threats tumbled out of his mouth as he struggled. They were impotent and empty, and he didn't mean any of them.
"I'd leave town now, if I was you." The spokesman still sounded pleasant, reasonable. "You can't save your friend, but you can save yourself, and we won't necessarily take kindly to your presence here from now on. You'll find that you can leave. It was him stopping you from doing so before."
"Maybe I don't want to leave." Giles stared into warm, dark eyes and felt a burst of shame. He had no right to give these people a hard time. His own eyes drifted away to the slumped form of the man he had hit; the man whose blood now decorated his hands. There was a broken jaw there at the very least; probably a concussion. He hadn't really deserved that. The spokesman smiled on, eyes still warm and friendly.
"Fair enough. But I'd advise that you stay inside. At the inn where you're registered perhaps. Have a drink. Read your books. They'll be brought from your car if you'd like. But don't try to stop us. We can't let you do that, and I think you appreciate that fact."
"Maybe." Giles met Ethan's eyes, seeing his friend's fear, and felt wretched. They were right though; how could he argue with that? Even Ethan wasn't arguing with the veracity of the curse.
"There are no maybes. Not here." The spokesman nodded, and Ethan was dragged towards the door. He put up a token resistance, but there were too many people holding him for there to be any realistic chance of fighting back. Briefly he looked back at Giles, eyes wide; but he didn't say anything. In seconds he was gone, manhandled away across the street. Giles ceased his own struggles, though his guards didn't release him.
"You'll go to the inn," the spokesman reiterated. Giles met his stare for a moment, combative and angry; then nodded and turned his eyes away. The people holding him let go, slowly and uncertainly, still standing close as though to grab him if he tried to run off.
"Your drinks are on the house, if you'd like to stay in the taverna," the spokesman told him. "Don't try to find your friend, and don't try to come to the altar tonight. Understood? I have no problem with killing you as well. Believe it or not I don't want to kill anybody, but your friend has to die. I might just as well damn my soul for two deaths as for one."
"Fair point." Giles spoke through his teeth, still smouldering for who knew what reasons. Bloody Ethan and his stupid bloody schemes. Perhaps it had been inevitable that things would end this way, for one of them at least. Head down, trying to ignore everybody, he headed for the door. It didn't surprise him when a good half dozen of the locals stayed with him. An honour guard. How nice. Quickening his pace, letting each step churn up his frustration, he tried to distance himself from them, but they made it impossible. They followed him to the taverna; to the bar; almost to the stool. The bartender was there as before, staring coolly and indifferently at the 'priest' who had drunk so much earlier on.
"Whisky," Giles snapped at him. "Leave the bottle." He had to repeat the order in Latin, by which time he was even more annoyed, but the bartender didn't respond to the rudeness. He merely opened a bottle and handed it across with a tumbler. Giles filled the latter to the brim, hand tight around both vessels. He could hear his guards muttering amongst themselves as they stood in the doorway, and he tried to shut them out of his consciousness. Tried by diverting his attention; tried by reciting poetry. Tried by pouring as much whisky down his throat as he could. The latter seemed to work, and as the morning wore on, and the sun rose higher, he finally ceased to care about his guards. Let them stare. Let them whisper. What did it matter? Nothing did really; not in this town. Not on this day, with Ethan waiting to die, and America poised to sink into the sea if he didn't. How could anything matter? Pouring out yet another glass of whisky - he had long since lost count - Giles raised it in a shaky toast to the solid human blockade at the door, and re-focused his eyes on the bottle. It was labelled in Spanish, but it was familiar in every other respect; just like so many others that he had drunk his way through before. Just like so many that he had shared with Ethan Rayne. Sodding Ethan Rayne. Cause of so many troubles.
With a sigh of frustration Giles threw back the latest glass of whisky, then stared accusingly at the bottle. Perhaps it was to blame for all of this; or another like it. Perhaps he had had too much to drink back home in Bath, and all of this was some stupid, drunken dream. Perhaps he was still lying slumped on his reading desk, in his wood and leather study, over some brittle text. Ethan had not sent any postcards, this little town didn't really exist, and Abadonis - confound him from his tail to his horns - was still alive and well. Except if that was the case, why was he so infernally hot, as the sun rose higher into the sky? Why could he smell stale, cheap whisky, instead of the expensive stuff he preferred to drink? Why did his head resound with the whispered conversation of half a dozen scowling men he didn't properly understand? He fumbled to pour another measure of the sour tasting stuff he had resolved to drown himself in, and realised that his mind was drifting back. Away from the uncomfortable heat and the reams of muttered Spanish. Away from curses and the dreadful feeling of impotence. For a moment he thought that he was passing out, but he knew he hadn't drunk enough for that. Not yet. He was merely floating into memory; into thoughts of Ethan Rayne. Bitter memories of the man he constantly told himself he hated. Of times long past and more recent. Of events ganging up to tell him that Ethan's death was for the best, and then that it must not be allowed to happen. His hand shook when he lifted the glass to his lips again, and this time he didn't notice the taste of the whisky as it went down his throat. He was tasting other things instead. Absinthe and brandy, and the sickly sweet hints of herbs, incense and fires burning; cheap food at irregular hours when a gang of half-stoned sorcerers had finally remembered the need to eat; blood, salty and metallic, free flowing in a dozen vicious fights. Memories that were inescapably Ethan. Memories to make his mind burn.
It had been one of those days. Milk bottles knocked over on the doorstep, newspaper torn as it went through the letterbox, the postman bringing nothing but bills. An angry telephone call from one of the Watcher hierarchy demanding that some routine paperwork be completed by yesterday at the latest, and a local policeman capping it all by recognising the one-time troublemaker, and insisting on taking him to the local nick for a round or two of interrogation. There hadn't been any charges, and Giles had left eventually, with a cheery smile and a clear conscience, and with his temper boiling discreetly beneath the surface. From there he had hoped that things could only get better, but they hadn't. His radio had ceased to work, the needle on his record player had needed replacing and he hadn't got a spare, and to round it all off a power cut had robbed him of his heating, his light and any and all possibility of boiling his kettle. He had retired in a sulk to read by candle and firelight, sitting on the stone fireplace of his father's old study in a dark jumble of memories, and lurking ghosts of an accusatory past. Hardly the evening he had planned.
And by midnight, listening to the howling wind outside the house, he was beginning to forget his books. His candles, melted by the heat of the fire so much as by their own little flames, were guttering; his glass of brandy stood in a circle of its own tinted light, as forgotten as the books; his head was nodding less through exhaustion than through mere boredom. Instinct was telling his body to give it up and let the day go. Maybe tomorrow would be better.
Which was precisely when the window just above him smashed into smithereens, showering him, his brandy and his books in tiny pieces of glass. He didn't jump. Such things had a familiarity still, after years of dangerous living, and he merely blinked, shook the glass from his hair, and stood up. The wind tore through the broken window, and he felt a heavy sprinkling of rain on his face.
"I don't mean to sound impolite," he said to the dark square that had been a window, "but it's not very friendly to turn up in the middle of the night and start breaking windows. Who the hell are you?" There was no immediate answer, and he shook his head once, very slowly. If it was thieves they would be in for a shock. The house had some very interesting burglar deterrents. He took a few steps forward, feeling the force of the rain on his face, and wondered just what kind of a night it was. The sort when dark things happened, and people rather like the man he had used to be did unpleasant things in atmospheric places. He heard a low laugh.
"Ethan." It had been just a fraction of a noise; a tiny sound that might barely have registered upon the consciousness of any other man; but Giles knew Ethan Rayne as well as he knew himself. The tiny laugh might just as well have been a shout of introduction. His eyes narrowed.
"Well that doesn't sound like a cheery hello." With a slight grunt of effort the familiar shape of his former best friend appeared in the window, climbing through and jumping down to the floor. He was holding a length of electrical wiring, which spun idly in his fingers, and in his other hand a small ball of light rolled to-and-fro. He held them both up, smiling brightly. "Dismantled the whole security thing. Hope you don't mind."
"Ethan." Giles didn't seem able to say anything else. He just glared. Ethan's smile lifted a notch or two, and his eyes sparkled.
"Sorry about your window," He twirled the wire again, then tossed it aside. "I can probably come up with a spell to fix it if you'd like. Only there was no answer when I knocked at the door, and I was getting pretty wet. It's not exactly hot and sunny out there you know."
"Screw the weather. What the bloody hell do you think you're doing? You're not welcome here, Ethan. You're not welcome anywhere near me."
"Why I'm almost insulted." Ethan snapped his fingers to make his ball of light disappear. "It's been a long time, Ripper, and I've come all this way. I heard a rumour that you were back in this old place. What happened? Finally get tired of ramshackle old places with three inches of mould on the walls?"
"My mother died." The words came out like razor blades. "Now get the hell out of here. Are you alone?"
"Alone? Are you kidding?" Ethan looked and sounded disparaging now. "You know I've been alone pretty much since you walked out on us. As if I'd stay with that band of losers after you left. I don't know where they are. Last I heard Philip had been stuffed into some drying-out clinic by his parents, but I doubt they'll make him stay there. Likes his illegal substances too much, doesn't he."
"I don't remember asking your opinion." Giles's fists were clenching and unclenching in rapid bursts of movement. "Now get out."
"What? It's cold out there. And wet. And dark. I came all this way for a reason, you know, and the least you can do is hear me out before you slam the door in my face."
"Bugger off, Ethan." Giles's voice was dangerous now, and Ethan heard the threat loud and clear. A lazy smile took over his eyes without quite showing on his mouth.
"Don't you want to know why I came?"
"No. I want to know why you're still here. I have no interest in you or your schemes. I've started again, Ethan, and I'll be damned if I'll let you get the in way of that."
"Ripper, you're damned anyway. Goes with the territory." Ethan had a curious look in his eyes that he might never have exhibited in the old days. He hadn't dared to press Giles then; now he wanted to know how much had changed. "You really don't want to know? There's things afoot, pal. The Slayer's dead - again. Can't seem to get one that lasts more than a few weeks just lately, in case you hadn't noticed. Everybody on the dark side is saying that the power of the Chosen is waning, and that it might be the start of a new age."
"That's crap, and you know it."
"Oh, I know it. But that doesn't mean that there aren't certain possibilities in all of this. There's magic being done. London hasn't been this exciting since we had half the Underworld shivering in its slime."
"Get out of my house." Giles's voice had dropped to the very deadliest of deadly whispers. "I mean it, Ethan. I never want to see you again."
"And I came bearing gifts." He was smiling then, holding out a square bottle of absinthe, the liquid glowing in turquoise splendour when the firelight flickered across it. "Tell me you don't want to take a drink with me, Ripper. Tell me it's all over, and I'll walk out of here and never cross your doorstep again." He shrugged. "Or your windowsills - whatever."
"I don't want your absinthe, and I don't want you. I believe I've already told you that several times." Giles was advancing upon him without even realising it, his shoes making tiny little clicking sounds on the hot stone of the fireplace. Glass skittered about under his feet, and his ankle brushed the brandy glass, knocking it over. The liquid pooled out, igniting in the heat from the fire, but he didn't notice that either. Ethan was smiling faintly now.
"You're looking all dangerous, Ripper. All... fiery. I kind of like it. Rumour on the streets is that the Ripper has lost his Rip. That true, old man? All your teeth and claws gone now? Do you sit like a little tame pussy cat at the feet of your Watcher masters?"
"Huh?" He checked his stride with a jolt, eyes clearing of the rage that had momentarily filled them. "What did you say?"
"I said, are you a good boy now? Behaving yourself? No more of the rages that made us all afraid of you?" Ethan shrugged. "Quite something if that's true. Quite a shame, really."
"Well then it'll have to be a shame, won't it." His shoulders had slumped a little, the anger that had come so close to overwhelming him now seeping away as he regained his control. "I'm not that man anymore. I don't do those things anymore. And if that means that the Watchers have tamed me, then I think that's probably for the best, don't you?"
"You really think that?" Ethan waggled the bottle of absinthe as invitingly as he could. "Come on. Have a little drink with me, chat about old times. Reminisce."
"Talk about how I raised a demon that killed one of my closest friends? Talk about how I woke up one morning and realised I'd spent the last ten years acting like a jerk? Betraying my destiny? Slowly killing my mother? Yeah, Ethan. Sit down. Pull up a chair. Pour out the poison. But if you do, you won't be leaving in the morning."
"You can hide who you are from the Watcher Council - and I can see why you'd want to, with them threatening you with execution and all - but don't go trying the good boy act out on me."
"It's not an act. Now get the hell out of my house."
"Yeah, sure. Listen to you. Can't even swear properly anymore. Are you that respectable now?" Ethan laughed shortly, prising off the lid of the bottle of absinthe, and taking a quick sip. He seemed to be drinking for courage, and perhaps he was. Giles knew that his old friend was trying to make him angry, and presumably that required a certain amount of bravery. It seemed an insane thing to do; to come all this way, and go to all this trouble, just to goad a man to anger. That was the way Ethan worked though; mad and bad and not always with obvious intent. He would have his reasons, even if they were only minor ones.
"Leave. Now." He took the absinthe bottle and put it down on the nearest table; a small, walnut desk where he had worked at tasks set by his father, years ago when his training had just begun. Ethan raised a teasing eyebrow.
"You're supposed to be hearing me out. I had my reasons for coming, remember?"
"Yes. To annoy the hell out of me, and to tell me that the Slayer is dead. We've done that bit, and I'm not interested. Go away."
"I didn't come to tell you about the Slayer. You must already know all that, and it's only of relevance to what we might get up to later. For now I have more interesting possibilities to explore. The chance of a lifetime, old friend. An archaeological dig, in Australia. They're finding things every day, and we should be a part of it. The artefacts they're digging up... they don't have a clue what they are. We're talking magic that'd make the hair on the back of Eyghon's neck stand up and quiver. Enough to get us everything we ever wanted. You can't tell me that doesn't make your heart beat a little faster."
"I'm not interested in your artefacts or your magic." Giles turned away, leaning on the mantelpiece to stare into the fire. He could hear Ethan's breathing getting heavier behind him, and for a moment he wondered if it had been entirely sensible to turn his back on the other man. Ethan didn't try anything though. He merely laughed very softly.
"Then they really have gone to work on you, haven't they. I never saw you as a coward before, old man; but if you're really determined to be the Council's good little lap dog I suppose I'd better leave you to it. I'll go to Australia and dig up the secrets of ancient sorcerers, and you can sit here and read books about demons you'll never meet, because you're never going to leave your damn books. They used to say you were destined to lead a Slayer one day, Rupert, but I guess they got their prophecies screwed. You need balls for a job like that, and you've let the Council stick yours in a drawer somewhere."
"You think?" It wasn't easy to get the words out through a throat suddenly constricted with anger, but he made it sound as though he wasn't angry at all. Ethan smiled at the turned back.
"Come with me to Australia, Ripper. You and me, like the old days. We'll see what we can find, and we'll paint London red when we come back again."
"Or alternatively..." Giles turned around, eyes hard and face set, "you get out of here in the next twenty seconds, or I tear your head off. I don't want to listen to your plans or your stupid insults. I don't want to listen to your attempts to make me angry, just so you can score some stupid points over how much I've really changed. I've listened to all that crap before."
"Then why are you still letting it get to you? You're smouldering more than a cigarette caught out in the rain. Let it go, Rupert. Let the anger out. Tell the Watcher Council where to get off."
"Your twenty seconds is nearly over. You'd better get moving. Quickly."
"Or?" Ethan's smile was so smug it made Giles's blood boil even more. He took a lazy step forward.
"Are you really that anxious to make me mad, Ethan? Do you really want to see how much I've changed? What'll that prove, exactly? It won't make me go away with you. It won't bring the old days back."
"It doesn't have to." Ethan also took a lazy step forward, skin a little pale, smile a little hesitant. "Show me you're still a man, Rupert. Show me it wasn't cowardice that made you run out on us that night. Show me it wasn't some damp squib I was standing up for, when Deirdre said Eyghon was too much for you."
"Deirdre said--" For a second even his vision was lost in the rush of white heat that raced through him. Deirdre? The girl who had meant everything to him, inasmuch as he had been capable of feeling anything during those long, dark days. The girl at the centre of that mad, twisted party of magic and experimentation. And she thought that of him now? He felt his fists clench, and heard his heart beating hard and fast. Ethan's smile grew.
"She was just saying what we were all thinking, old man. I mean, the way you left... the way it happened. Randall, Eyghon, you - all part of the same thing, wasn't it. Not being strong enough. Not being up to the task." He shrugged, ready to deliver his masterstroke with a casual, easy pace. "I guess that's why the Council wants to keep you on such a tight rein, huh. They know you wouldn't make it otherwise. Not without somebody to hold your hand."
It all happened so fast that Giles had no clear memory of it later. He remembered leaping at Ethan; remembered the blur of fists and furious, angry words. He remembered Ethan's token resistance, and little, painful laughs as he finally got the reaction he had wanted all along. Giles was angry at himself then, for giving in and letting his emotion take over; but the anger had only one outlet, and that was the one he was already using. Only when Ethan was no longer moving did he manage to rein himself in, and take control once again. He stood there, staring down at the unconscious man at his feet; staring at the blood that ran from his own knuckles, and dripped onto his expensive shoes. One of those same, bloodied hands reached up to wipe the sweat from his head, then reached out almost without his knowing to take the bottle of absinthe from the walnut desk. He took a long, long drink, tasting the familiar liquid, feeling the familiar sensations that it created. He was trembling, partly from the lingering traces of his anger; partly as a reaction to what he had done. He was furious with himself, but a part of him was glad that he had finally wiped that infuriating blasted smirk from Ethan's smug face. He grinned, crookedly and coldly, and let himself revel for a moment in the glory of the fight; the pride of blood let and damage done. Then he turned his eyes away from the crumpled figure, and gave his attentions up to the bottle. Somebody would find him in the morning, when they came to see if he had finished all that infernal paperwork. They would find him drunk and passed out, with or without his victim still sprawled beside him. There would be dressing downs and yelling, and more threats to exclude him from the Watchers forever. All because of Ethan. One of these days... thought Giles, as waited to see how much absinthe his body could still deal with. One of these days he was going to kill the bastard, or stand back and laugh whilst somebody else did. One of these days Ethan would pay, with more than just a beating. And the Ripper would be glad indeed.
It was a beautiful place, and a grand way to spend the New Year; or should have been. He had come to Scotland to unwind. After all - where was more beautiful than the Scottish Highlands, even if it was freezing cold at this time of year? The looming mountains, the atmospheric purple-greenness of everything, the ragged, ruggedness of scenery carved by ancient glaciers... and the home of the finest whisky available anywhere in the world. Giles had moved into a small hotel near the wind-swept north-western coast, and had planned to lose himself there for a few weeks. The Watcher Council thought that he was attending a seminar in Gloucestershire, and the seminar organisers thought that he was bedridden with the flu and unable to attend. It wasn't that he hadn't wanted to go; lengthy, complicated discussions in a grand stately home in one of the most haunted counties in Britain; world renowned experts in all things supernatural, brought together for the first time; the opportunity to increase his library with books unavailable through any ordinary channels. He had planned to attend; but when he had gone to the station to catch his train to Gloucestershire, somehow he hadn't been able to go through with it. He had climbed onto the first train he had seen, instead, and had wound up heading determinedly further north. Past the northern Midlands towns he had spent time in as a young teenager, on one of his perennial attempts to run away from home; through Yorkshire and Cumbria, with their histories and their own ancient ghosts. He had spent a night in a grim boarding house in Glasgow, listening to the howls of a city still celebrating Christmas, then pressed ever on, northwards. He followed his instincts, or possibly was drawn by Fate. Who knew? At any rate he had arrived, in the end, at a place he knew he wanted to be in; underdressed for the cold weather, wet and shivering, and carrying nothing more than a small bag with a change of clothes and a book he had brought from home to read on the train. The hotel had found him rather than the other way around, when he had stopped to help a man collapsed from the effects of too much alcohol, and had found him to be the proprietor of this place in which he now found himself. Heavy wooden beams and solid, age-old furniture; paintings of local scenery, and ancient photographs of long dead crofters; dust and damp and crumbling books written in impenetrable Gaelic. Robert Burns in abundance, and beds that creaked with every breath their occupants took. Giles loved it. Or, at least, he had loved it at first.
He wasn't sure that he loved it now, chained as he was to a stout wooden beam in a cellar so solidly built of stone that a direct hit from everything the British Air Force had to offer probably wouldn't have cracked it. Not that they'd have tried. It had all been rather sudden, really; drinks in the bar, several milling locals, a certain guest with a rather prominent forehead and distinctly luminous eyes... Then a bottle over the back of the head - an empty one, he hoped, since the local stuff was far too good to waste in knocking out innocent tourists - and he had woken up down here. His arms were stretched out rather painfully, his toes barely brushed the ground, and all in all he was starting to realise why crucifixion had been so painful. The bonus of not actually been nailed to anything wasn't really making him feel any better. He had tried shouting and struggling; had tried to see into the impenetrable blackness at the edges of the cellar to find clues about what exactly was happening; but all had come to nothing. He was still chained up, he still had no idea why, and his head was still throbbing painfully. So much for wanting to be here.
A woman came, after what felt like hours. She was a little above his own age, dressed in white and black, with the most exquisite red hair he had ever seen - but she refused to speak to him. She didn't even meet his eyes. She checked the chains at his wrists, ignored his questions and useless threats, and expertly avoided his attempts to lash out with his feet. Afterwards she crouched in the middle of the floor, arranging candles in a circle, and lighting them with a book of oddly ordinary looking matches. He thought about trying to blow them out, but didn't really think his lungs would be able to reach that far. Instead he merely watched her instead, making marks on the stone floor with a piece of chalk; scattering sand and salt from a little bag taken from inside her dress; pouring smears of thick red liquid from a stone jar. Giles asked her what she was doing, but she didn't answer. She merely finished her work, turned slowly about, and left him alone with the candles. Knowing what he did about ritual and ceremony, the extra light wasn't especially comforting.
He could see his watch, he discovered, if he twisted about enough. By its usually accurate reckoning he had been in the cellar for five hours, but it felt like a considerably longer time than that. He watched the candles burn, and tried swinging his unfettered legs about in an attempt to cause enough of a draught to blow the things out, or knock them over. Anything to try to interfere with whatever was going on here. The movement threatened to break his arms, but he carried on anyway. It didn't work. He was left to contemplate the cold, and the shadows, and the possible outcomes of all of this, as well as his own stupidity for not going to the seminar in Gloucestershire. What a way to spend New Year's Eve. New Year's Day now, technically.
They came just after three in the morning, when his arms were dead from the awkwardness of his position, and the rest of him was dead just from the cold. Six people, in long robes that swept the ground as they walked, and covered their faces completely. Each one clutched a candle, save the one in the lead, who carried an incense ball like some priest marching down the aisle in a church. None of them looked at Giles. He tried asking them what was going on, but they didn't show any sign of hearing. Instead they arranged themselves in a circle around the candles and the markings on the floor, and began to chant in sing-song Latin. He understood that of course, which was something of a relief. At last something that might give him some answers. There was talk of sacrifices and feasts, and a much repeated name - Devonis. Everything else was too steeped in ceremony to make much sense to an outsider. He tried struggling again, but had no more success than the first time.
"This doesn't seem like great hospitality," he commented, as the chanting seemed to come to an end. Nobody bothered turning to look at him. "I paid my bill in advance, you know. I suppose this is why it was insisted on? Get all your guests to pay up front, because you don't plan on giving them the chance to pay later? There must be some kind of regulatory board for hotels, and I'm pretty sure they'd be against this kind of thing."
"Not necessarily. You'd be surprised how many people in high places practice black magic." The nearest of the robed group turned to face him at last, officialities apparently dealt with for the time being. Giles almost breathed a sign of relief. It was always better to be dealt with as a human being, than as something not worth consideration. He tried to decide if he recognised the voice, but had to conclude that this was not his landlord.
"What's going on?" he asked. The robed shoulders moved, but the face was still invisible, which made it hard to judge what sort of an answer he was getting.
"A ceremony. A very ancient ceremony. It's been carried out here at the start of each new decade since 1791."
"I suppose there's no use arguing that the start of the new decade was at the beginning of last year, not this year?"
"Not really, no." The figure turned away again, putting his candle down on the floor, and muttering for a brief moment with some of his fellows. Giles raised his voice, determined not to be ignored now that he had at last made some kind of contact.
"Devonis is a fortune demon isn't he? He grants wealth, health and the like? Strikes me that this is a hell of a complicated way to ensure that the hotel does well. I mean why not just invest in some better advertising?"
"The sacrifice is not supposed to talk," complained one of the assembled party. The one who had spoken to Giles before laughed a little.
"It's not hurting anybody. So you've heard of Devonis? I'm impressed. We've never had anybody down here who knew what was happening. Most of them assume it's some insane cult, and spend their last moments trying to scream for help. They don't realise that there's really no point."
"Soundproofing?" asked Giles. The hooded head shook from side to side.
"No. But there's nobody who could hear, and besides, one of the first things we do in the ceremony is to cut your vocal chords. So screaming becomes very pointless."
"Devonis not like noisy offerings?"
"He prefers his meals to go down quietly, yes. But don't worry, there's a few minutes yet. Are you following the ceremony so far?"
"More or less." Giles wondered if everybody who was sacrificed got it all explained so politely first. He couldn't say that he really appreciated the gesture. "I don't suppose there's much point in suggesting that I wouldn’t go down very well? I had rather a lot of garlic at lunchtime, and I'm sure I must still taste of the stuff."
"I've never known Devonis object yet." The figure cocked his hooded head on one side. "And I've been feeding him visitors since 1861, so I do have quite a lot of experience." Giles swallowed hard. This really didn't bode well at all. They were all taking knives out now; long, gleaming things with black-tinted blades, and cruel, curved edges. The sheer facelessness of the band was bad enough, but the knives made Giles's blood run cold.
"You really don't want to do this," he offered, well aware that they wanted it very much indeed. A low laugh from the group's spokesman drained the last of his hopes away in a rush.
"My dear young man... I haven't presided over this ritual all these years by not wanting to do it. Of course I want to do it. If I don't, how can I realistically expect to be here ten years from now, to do the next sacrifice? Or a hundred years from now? Health and wealth, just as you said. I was always wealthy, with or without Devonis. It's health, and through it longevity, that I ask for from him. So." He gestured to the people around him, and they closed in as one. "It'll all be over reasonably quickly, I can assure you of that. I'd ask you not to kick up too much of a fuss. It won't help you, and it'll only prolong things. Wriggling sacrifices tend to get rather more puncture wounds than is entirely necessary. If you see what I mean."
"Surely the belle of the ball isn't here yet? You can't begin now." Giles stared around, looking for the familiar signs of a demon's approach. Rattles, cracks, smoke and fire; the sound of distant roars. The cellar was as still and quiet as before. Again came the low, disturbing laugh.
"He comes when you're at the point of death, to feed on your entrails... and on your soul. And I thought you seemed to know something about him? As our song reaches its final note, our newest initiate will strike the first blow, killing your screams before they can begin. Then the rest of us will move in to finish the job. So if you have any holy icons, Mr... Giles, isn't it?... then it might be an idea for you to try to make your peace with them. People usually like to pray at this point. They seem to think it helps." He shrugged. "It doesn't though, as it happens. If Devonis eats your soul, there can't be any eternal reward for it, can there."
"You won't get away with this." It was the sort of clichéd comeback line that Giles might have preferred to avoid, under more usual circumstances, but just now it seemed to fit. Besides, anything was better than taking this quietly. The robed shoulders shrugged.
"We have done so far. Now if you'll excuse me, my friends and I have our song to sing."
"I hope it's a good one." Giles wondered which of the determinedly anonymous band was the initiate, and hoped that whoever it was had a good aim. He didn't much fancy being slashed to pieces by somebody on the hunt for his vocal chords. Perhaps the red headed girl from earlier was the one? She could be any of this band here, and she had behaved something like an initiate, coming in as she had to light the candles. When the group began their song, however, he heard no female tones amongst them. Just men; raucous voices, fortified by drink and filled with the spirit of noisy camaraderie. One of them was moving closer as the song progressed. There was an exuberance to his movements; a sense of tension with one very likely cause. The initiate then, moving in to take up his place, ready for when the song ended. Giles wondered if there was anything that he could say; anything that he should say, if these were to be his last minutes on the Earth. Nothing sprang readily to mind. He turned his attention to the song instead, with its dirge like tune and droning vocals. More ritualistic stuff of course, to go with the perfectly placed candles and the geometric precision of the marks on the floor. It was all in Latin, the oft-favoured language of choice for sorcerers, and certainly hadn't been designed for its lyrical beauty. He caught lines about gifts of blood and entrails; about debts owed and fulfilled; about Devonis himself, and his personal power. Then all at once the song was over, and there was no sound at all save a single set of footsteps.
Giles had faced death many times. In his life it had once been a frequent threat, be it from gangs of London troublemakers or from more supernatural foes. Nothing he had encountered before, though, was quite on a par to facing an implacable man with a knife, when there was no way of diverting the coming impact. He felt his throat muscles tense, waiting for the blow that would begin his death, and wondered what it felt like to have your soul devoured. The knife gleamed blackly, and the rest of the group, anticipating the coming strike, began a fast, hypnotic chant. It seemed to pound in keeping with the rhythm of Giles's heart, which was becoming quite fast indeed. He watched the knife rise, felt his heart move up into his mouth, saw the rest of the group beginning to surge forward - then the knife, all at once, flashed downward. Giles felt the draft of its passing close to his face, then watched it pass in stunned amazement as it completed its swift arc, racing down and then back up again as the initiate spun about and buried the blade deep into the chest of the nearest member of the coven. There was a howl that did not seem to come from the wounded man; then the other robed figures were running forward. The initiate froze for a second, knife raised rather uselessly as a defence against this sudden force of numbers, before a wild rumbling in the depths of the ground made everybody freeze. Giles, realising what was coming, began to struggle violently against the unbreakable chains. The floor and walls were vibrating now, humming with the onrushing speed of a demon drawn by the spilling of blood. As the vibrations reached a peak and the floor began to splinter, the wounded man began to scream in fear. He tried to struggle away into the dark corners of the room, but before he could move at all the figure of his patron demon burst out of the ground and towered above him. Giles gulped.
"Get me out of here!" he hissed to the apparently stunned initiate, not really knowing if the unknown man had any particular desire to save his life at all. The hooded figure turned towards him, waited a beat as the massive head of Devonis surveyed the room, then finally managed to galvanise himself into action. As the huge yellow eyes of the demon fixed at last on the bleeding man on the floor, so the initiate jumped forwards, struggling with the chains. Nobody tried to stop him. The rest of the coven were fleeing now, stumbling and falling over each other in their hurry to get out of the cellar, whilst the man on the floor began to scream anew. His hood fell back, revealing a broad face gone chalk white, eyes standing out and jaw slack with terror. As the chains fell away and Giles at last felt solid ground beneath his feet, he thought about making an attempt to go to the fallen man's aid; but he knew there was little chance of success. He felt the initiate grab his arm, pulling him away; saw Devonis smash down onto the screaming man, roaring his displeasure at the screeches and struggles of his victim - then all at once man and demon were gone, and the floor was once again unscathed. There was not even any blood to mark what had happened. Giles and his unlikely rescuer collapsed onto the stairs, both gasping with relief.
"I seem to owe you my life, sir." Giles extended a somewhat shaky hand towards his companion, only to let it fall back to his side at the sound of a very familiar chortle. The hood swept back, and he was looking, of all people, at Ethan Rayne. His old friend was laughing hard now, eyes bright with sheer pleasure.
"Oh Ripper. If you could only see your face. Good grief, man. How do you get yourself into these things? Sacrifice to a secret society in the bloody Scottish Highlands?!"
"You?" Giles stared at him for several seconds, completely incapable of movement - then punched him hard. His saviour rolled down the stairs and landed with a jolt, then climbed back to his feet with the ease of long practice. Ethan Rayne was not at all unused to being hit.
"Hey!" he objected, not sounding particularly hurt. "What the hell was that for?"
"For... for..." Giles shook his head. "Damn it Ethan! What are you doing here?"
"Saving your life, you ingrate. What do you think I'm doing here? Screwing up my chances of getting something out of all of this. Risking my life for you. Weeks I've been up here, ingratiating myself with these people, in the hope that they'd let me into this society of theirs. Weeks. And all for nothing."
"You were willing to kill somebody? What if it hadn't been me? What the hell would you have done then? You're insane, Ethan!"
"Oh get off your high horse, Rupert. I didn't know it was going to be a human sacrifice, did I. These things call for all kinds of offerings. I can't say I much like the idea of trying this out with an animal either, but sometimes things are worth it, to me at least. Have you any idea of the power Devonis can grant to his acolytes? I was so close!"
"Eyghon didn't teach you anything, did he." Giles slumped back against the stairs, breathing heavily. "Well thankyou. Thankyou for saving my life. Thankyou for being here, even if you are going to lord it over me forever. Now I only have the one question."
"Oh?" Ethan was busy stripping off his robes now, apparently glad to be rid of them. Giles watched him for a moment before asking his question, waiting to catch the infuriating man off guard.
"There's some very angry men up there, with some very big knives; and they're all pretty bloody pissed off with us right now. Just how the hell are we going to get out of here?"
"Oh." Ethan kicked off the robe and sat down rather heavily on the stair just above his friend. "You know, I didn't actually think of that."
"He giving you any trouble?" The man who had acted as spokesman when confronting Giles and Ethan in the school loomed now in the doorway of the inn where Giles had gone to get drunk. One of the guards shook his head.
"He just keeps on drinking, and reading those weird books of his. I don't know how he's still conscious - but if he carries on this way he won't be for much longer."
"Good." The spokesman, the town's mayor, as well as its intellectual in happier times, eyed the stooped figure of the unwitting visitor with a definite degree of compassion. "Although I could almost wish that he did cause trouble. I've never killed anybody before. I don't want to have to start now."
"It's necessary," one of the other locals told him, getting a slow, sad nod in answer.
"Yes. But that doesn't mean that I'm going to enjoy it. His friend is out of the way again anyway. He won't be able to escape, so be ready when it gets dark. And make sure that this one can't do anything before then. The sacrifice must be allowed to go ahead."
"You don't need to tell us that." The leader of the little band of guards folded his arms, almost filling the doorway with his own bulk. "He won't get out of here. I'll see to that."
"Well don't get complacent." The mayor, who clearly had some considerable authority amongst his fellow locals, took one last look at Giles and was gone. Giles himself didn't move. He had heard everything, though he had had to work at the translation; and work harder than usual thanks to his dwindling mental energies. The day was progressing, and to the marvel of the bartender he had kept up his intake of alcohol all this time, his body somehow managing to process it and keep him awake long after most people would have passed out. He had eaten nothing, consumed nothing except the alcohol and more cannabis smoke, drawing on reserves of hard-earned stamina to keep him at his study. He had to find something; something in the pages of the eclectic collection of books he had brought with him, in anticipation of whatever Ethan's call for help had been about. Something that would prevent the sacrifice. Prevent his friend's death. Prevent the dreadful alternative of the Americas sinking into the sea instead. So far he had found nothing, and was beginning to see that he was not going to. There was nothing to find, at least in these books, and probably not in any other. In the books of Abadonis himself maybe? But he had no idea where those were now, and he doubted that Ethan did either. Probably only the townspeople knew, and they were sure never to tell anybody. Exhausted in body and in mind, and troubled by all manner of confusing thoughts, he let his eyes slide closed and his memories slide back. He didn't want Ethan to die, no matter how often he had wished for the infuriating sorcerer's death in the past. He was helpless though, and soon all he would have left would be his memories. Perhaps now those same memories would be his refuge.
North Africa, 1984
It was never a good idea to arrange to meet Ethan Rayne. Things tended to happen, for one thing. It wasn't so much the ridiculous amount sof alcohol that would usually end up being consumed, or even the dubious nature of the meeting places themselves. It wasn't the size of the hangover the following morning - or however many days later when the sobering up process actually began - and nor was it necessarily the fact that fisticuffs frequently broke out at some point. It was just that, generally speaking, whenever Rupert Giles and Ethan Rayne arranged to meet, things had a tendency to happen. Demons got summoned. Spells got cast. A disproportionate number of buildings seemed to collapse. Nightmares spread through the local populations like outbreaks of some highly contagious disease.
And yet of course, whatever the inevitable consequences, still Giles continued to meet with his oldest friend. His only friend, perhaps, since the others all seemed to have slipped away. Which was presumably why he found himself now, in a coffee house in Tangier, arguing passionately with the semi-inebriated Rayne. A crystal decanter of awe-inspiring beauty lay on its side on the table between them, emptied of its expensive contents long before it had fallen. The strong, sweet smell of hashish filled the air, and fans in the ceiling buzzed endlessly around, supposedly freshening the hot, dead air, but actually just spreading the hashish fumes. Giles and Ethan had avoided the stuff itself this time around, but thanks to the fans, and the wonders of passive smoking, they were both feeling its effects by now. Mingled with the finest Caribbean rum it was interesting indeed.
They had been in the coffee house since it had opened, somewhere in the region of six that morning. It had seemed a little early for rum, but once the first few glasses had been filled there had been little point in arguing; and now, several hours later, the time had long since ceased to matter. They had led half the patrons in a rousing version of Spirit In The Sky, although Giles himself couldn't remember why they had bothered. They had played a quick game of one-upmanship over which of them knew the most dangerous spell - although on this case sense had won out, and they hadn't actually tried testing the spells. They had both tried to seduce the owner's daughter, a particularly well endowed girl of about nineteen, with a laugh, as it had turned out, like the scrape of nails on a blackboard. All in all a fairly eventful morning, even if they were supposed to be in hiding.
Which was Ethan's fault, naturally. A local girl had, it seemed, been put in the family way by a British tourist, and her family were determined to find the culprit before the baby was born. Giles sympathised, to a degree - but not so much so that he was prepared to do anything save run away when Ethan had helpfully - if untruthfully - pointed him out as the guilty party. One manic chase and a blistering argument later, and Giles and Ethan had come upon the coffee house. It was as good a place as any in which to hide from vengeful locals looking for a swift shotgun wedding.
"Didn't we come here for a reason?" asked Ethan, some minutes after his seventh attempt at seducing the owner's daughter had been shot down in flames. Giles frowned at him, searching for some way to make his eyes focus.
"Here? We came here to hide from that girl and her brothers."
"No no no. Not here here. Here. To Tangier."
"Oh." Giles wasn't sure that his mind was capable of going back that far, to ten o'clock the previous night when he had arrived on a bus that should have been scrapped forty years before. It came to him eventually though, with the strong smell of coffee floating over from the other side of the room. "Yeah. You asked me to meet you here. You said last night, eleven thirty, Tangier. I assumed you had some reason."
"Oh." Ethan looked genuinely perplexed. "I didn't give you any clues? Hints? Anything?"
"You called me all the way out here for no reason? Ethan, I have a life. I have things I have to do, and very often people I'm supposed to do them with. People who get cross when I don't turn up for my nine o'clock meeting in London, because I'm sitting in a coffee house in Tangier with a drunken moron. I'd leave in disgust, but thanks to you large sections of the local populace want to strong-arm me into marrying a girl who's probably too desperate to tell them that I'm not actually the father of her child." He glowered. "And stop bloody giggling. It's not funny."
"I'm not giggling. I'm chortling. Mildly. It's like giggling, but it's more polite, and it's a little bit sympathetic. Honest." Ethan brought himself back under control. "Look, you didn't have to come to Tangier, you know. Just because I ask you to meet me here doesn't mean that you actually have to turn up. Admit it - you were delighted to get my telegram. The chance to put a little excitement back into your life. Slough off a layer of dust and duty."
"I thought it might be interesting. That you might have uncovered something. Instead I get fed cheap stew and cheaper wine, and get dragged round a checklist of tourist low spots, including the most revolting little statue I've ever set eyes upon. You really do take the biscuit, Ethan."
"Little statue?" Ethan was frowning, watching the drifting tendrils of sweet, thick smoke that filled the room's upper atmosphere. "Demon fellow. Three horns. Uglier than Eyghon's mother in law? I remember. There was a reason why I asked you here."
"Which was?" Giles was sure that he would wind up regretting the question, and Ethan, as ever, was not about to disappoint.
"The statue. Mathros. Legend has it that if you stand before him on certain nights of the year he'll free you from all your troubles. Any dangers, worries, misfortunes - the whole gambit. He'll suck them off your shoulders - metaphorically speaking - and drag them into hell in the corporeal form of..." He trailed off with an awkward smile.
"The corporeal form of...?" Giles didn't really need to prompt for the completion of the sentence. "You took me to that statue so that everything that's ever made your life miserable could get sucked into hell using... using my soul as some kind of a trapdoor? You were going to get me sent into an eternity of torture and torment? Ethan, I--" He broke off, halfway to his feet, then slumped back down again and waved frantically to the owner of the smoky little establishment. The man brought over a fresh decanter as he came, not waiting to listen for an order first, then melted away again at the first sight of the look in his customer's eyes. Giles poured out a generous measure of rum, and knocked it back in one go. "Bloody hell Ethan. I thought we were friends?"
"Friends? Last time we met you broke my jaw. Friends do not break each other's jaws - at least, not on purpose. Whenever we meet I seem to end up with broken bits or bruised bits, or with bits in traction. Why the hell shouldn't I get a little revenge?"
"You're drunk." Given the way that his own tongue slurred the words, it was hardly the damning indictment Giles had intended it to be. "And you must have been even more drunk when you thought up this... this... this balderdash. You're bloody lucky it didn't work."
"Yeah? Well a hell of a lot you could have done about it if it had worked. You'd be gone, and I'd be happy and carefree. Bloody Mathros. You've no idea how embarrassing the ritual was that I had to do before I took you to him."
"If it involves naked dancing, I don't want to know." Giles filled his glass up again, and Ethan's as well. "I should leave. I should walk out of here right now, and never bloody well have anything more to do with you, you bastard."
"Then go. See if I care. I only want you as a sacrifice, anyway. It's not like I asked you here so that I could enjoy the sparkly gloriousness of your company, you know."
"I can't go." Giles threw back the contents of his glass, and almost choked at the strength of the rum. "It's not safe out there. I have half the population of Tangier looking for me because you told that blasted woman's family that I was the one who got her pregnant. I should take you to Mathros and see what he makes of you."
"It wouldn't work. Not until the next equinox, anyway. And besides, clearly it doesn't work."
"For you. I've got a lot of time until the next equinox to study some serious textbooks, and find out how to make it work right." Giles folded his arms, grinning unpleasantly. "You can't even begin to imagine the sources that I have at my disposal."
"Going to study them in here are you?" Ethan tried to match Giles's Ripperish grin, but as always could only manage something faintly self-satisfied and untrustworthy.
"Oh, get stuffed." Giles refilled both of their glasses. "I'm not happy about this, Ethan. Just so that you know."
"Oh stop moaning. It didn't work, did it. You're not in hell. Mathros turned out to be a big wet squib, and I've still got all my problems and worries and--"
"All of which you deserve."
"Maybe." Ethan drained his glass, and immediately wished that he hadn't. "But at any rate, I've still got them. So no harm done."
"No harm done? You bloody well tried to kill me!"
"No... I tried to get you cast into hell. There's a difference. Technically you wouldn't have been dead."
" 'Technically'. Well that's nice, isn't it. My best friend doesn't want me dead. He just wants me being flayed alive with a billion fiery pokers for the next million years."
"Stop bloody complaining."
"And you're not complaining? You're the one who thinks his problems are so bad he's got to resort to rituals and sacrifices and dodgy statues to get rid of them. Try living with my problems for a while. Interminable bloody destinies, and prophecies and responsibilities. But do I try to murder my best friend to sort things out? No I bloody don't."
"That's the second time you've called me your best friend." Ethan reached for the decanter, refilling the glasses yet again. The fact that most of the expensive liquid ended up on the table rather than in the glasses should have been a warning that neither of them should really be drinking any more, but he persevered nonetheless. Giles just frowned.
"You, calling me your best friend. I could almost be moved. Quite possibly to tears."
"Don't be. I'm drunk. You can't blame me for anything my tongue does."
"Then I'm hurt. I thought that you loved me." Ethan raised his glass in a toast, but had to drink it slowly this time. His head was beginning to feel decidedly heavy, and the extra alcohol had almost instantaneous effect. "Think it's safe to go out yet? I'm bored of this place. I want to go somewhere else."
"Yeah, I know." Giles also finished his drink more slowly than before. "To that bloody statue, so you can try your sneaky little plan out again. You're sodding well going to pay for that, you know."
"Shan't. I'm broke. And anyway..." He trailed off. Giles frowned.
"Bugger knows. Can't remember. Think I might be drunk actually, and it's doing peculiar things to my head."
"Oh." Giles nodded. "It'll do that."
"Don't suppose being drunk yourself is getting rid of your anger? Making you a shiny happy little Ripper instead of a big bad grumpy one?" Ethan reached for the decanter again, and missed. Giles started to laugh.
"If course I'm still angry. You think I could just forgive something like this?" He made a similarly botched attempt to capture the surprisingly nimble decanter, then scowled and tossed his glass away. It broke on the stone tiled floor with a faintly musical tinkling of scattered glass. Ethan sniggered anew.
"Look at you. All Greek tea party. You know what we should do? We should go to Greece. Visit the ruins, buy some dodgy artefacts. See if we can't get old Pan to do a little something for us."
"Greece? The only place I'm going is back home to Britain. I've got a job, plus at least three houses to look after. That's a lot of libraries to sort through and cata... c-catalogue."
"Surprisingly difficult word to say, that," commented Ethan. Giles nodded.
"And bes... besides. Remember the pregnant woman? She's not going to be very happy if we bugger off to Greece and leave her standing, is she. Her brothers will proclaim all kinds of vendettas and blood feuds and all that waffle, and every tourist within a hundred miles will probably be in a right mess."
"Well since the only way out of that is to marry her, that's just hard bloody luck, isn't it. Come on Ripper. Come to Greece. Quick boat trip, and--"
"I am not going to Greece. I'm still angry with you, remember? Only place I'm going is home. Just as soon as it's dark, and I've got some hope of sneaking out of here without having to get married. You can go to Greece on your own."
"Have another drink."
"And don't go trying to get me drunk." He accepted anyway, staring at the rum for some time before attempting to drink it. His arms were starting to object to the whole business of movement, and he felt confident that unconsciousness would be rearing its head before very much longer. The business of getting thoroughly drunk was one with which Rupert Giles was impressively familiar. He took in a deep, steadying breath, and savoured the sweet heaviness of the lingering hashish. The owner's daughter was laughing again, at something some other customer had said, and the sound now turned to music in his ears. He knew that that was just because he was drunk, but he smiled happily at the sound anyway. Might as well appreciate a drunken illusion rather than wincing at the reality.
"As if I'd try to get you drunk. No offence, Rupert, but that's a trick I only try on attractive young things with rather less in the y-chromosome department. Unless you're offering something particularly impressive, in which case--"
"Just shut up and pour me another drink. And don't spill as much this time. It's not my shoes that are looking for refreshment."
"Whatever." Ethan snapped his fingers, summoning over the nearest waitress to order a supply of hashish of their own. The second hand smoke was whetting his appetite, and he fancied something a bit stronger, even if he was close to passing out. He smiled happily, settling himself more comfortably into his seat. "Think they'll really find you if we leave by daylight? The brothers, I mean."
"Who knows? Quite frankly if they see me in my current state I very much doubt they'd want me to marry their delightful sister." Giles attempted to raise his glass in a toast, and didn't quite manage it. "To... I don't know. To friendship."
"We're friends again?"
"To enemies then. And bastards. Like you."
"I'll drink to that." Ethan took a hearty puff on their hookah, then gestured for Giles to do the same. "How about a toast to Greece, too?"
"I am not going to Greece."
"No. Okay. Whatever. Italy maybe?"
"London. Work. Responsibility. Duty. Destiny. It's where I belong, Ethan."
"Yeah." Ethan shrugged, bizarrely incapable of feeling anything but desperately happy. The morose stage of drunkenness seemed to have passed him by, and he was happy to linger in the place of great merriment. "London. Okay."
Two days later when the pair of them woke up on a Jamaican beach, neither of them was particularly surprised.
He awoke from a violent nightmare about sacrifices and rituals, to the feeling that many hours had passed; and was not surprised to see that the sun was going down. He had vague memories of it being higher in the sky when he had last seen it, and of hearing stilted mutterings from his phalanx of guards. The next bottle of whisky that the bartender had given him had tasted differently to the others, but Giles hadn't cared. Part of his stupefied brain had warned him that he was being drugged, but even his self-preservation instincts couldn't be bothered to kick in. He hadn't been able to find anything that could save his friend, so who cared if he was drugged? So what if he woke up on the sacrificial altar next to Ethan? So what if he never woke up at all?
He stretched awkwardly, finding his body slow to respond at first. Alcohol and drugs were a combination that could have all kinds of effects, some more incapacitating than others. Once he had made it to his feet, though, and had successfully completed a couple of circuits of the room, most of his body felt as though it belonged to him again. His head was still mostly absent, but he was prepared to go ahead without that if necessary. Still half drunk, mind dulled from various substances and the lack of proper sleep, he had come to a definite decision. Whatever the consequences, whatever the cost, he could not let Ethan Rayne die. Part of him was aware that this was a foolish resolution, and that it would be better should he fail - but he knew that he could not help but try. Suddenly it didn't matter that Ethan had caused him more aggravation, more danger and more pain than any other person alive. It didn't matter that he was the personification of everything that Giles wanted to banish from his life. He was still Ethan. Still the man who had saved Giles's life; still the boy who had shared his ascent to adulthood; still the friend who had been the catalyst for so many good times. He seemed to have arrived at this decision several times, both before and after he had passed out in the bar; but this time he felt truly resolute. It was the alcohol or the drugs perhaps, but he didn't care. He just wanted to be doing something.
He listened outside the door first, certain that he could hear the muted snores of some less than attentive guard, then tried peering beneath the door in case it was possible to see something through the gap. It was too narrow for details, but he thought that he could see something resembling the legs of a chair. Certainly something had been placed right in front of the door, and it seemed sensible to assume that there would be a guard there. So the door was out then; he didn't want to risk a possibly noisy struggle. Instead he made his way to the window. There were people there, too; a pair of them, standing shoulder to shoulder beneath the window. Neither looked up when he eased the window open, and he stared down at them for a time. He could perhaps jump down, and hope to overpower them before the alarm was raised, but it seemed too much of a gamble. It wasn't as though he could keep trying, if his first attempt failed. The alcohol was still enough in control to override his usual good sense, and climbing out onto the narrow sill, he swung himself up onto the roof. A pair of rather disgruntled birds flew up into the air when he rolled near to their roost, but nobody down below seemed to hear them, or to wonder at what might have caused their sudden flight. The pair of guards down in the street didn't even look up.
Moving as fast as he could, he made his way across the roof, and climbed unsteadily down on the far side of the building. He took a moment then, leaning against the wall, trying to recover his equilibrium, then hurried away down the street. He was heedless of the many houses, the many windows. Anybody might have seen him, but he seemed able to consider only those men who had been detailed to guard him. None of the other townspeople properly registered in his semi-inebriated mind.
He was heading for the building, windowless and door-less, where he had found Ethan before. He had left it with a hole in one wall, but still he was sure that it would again be Ethan's prison. They wouldn't want him in one of their own homes, or any of the buildings that they used everyday. Everybody here wanted to distance themselves from what was going on. To pretend that it wasn't happening. Giles wasn't sure if he sympathised with them, or just felt contempt. They sought a man's death in order to protect their own lives, yet they wanted to hide from the necessity. It made so many of them cower inside, and turn their backs to their windows, so that they would not see Ethan being taken to the stone, and wouldn't hear anything that came after. It meant that they didn't see Giles, either, as he ran unevenly down the same roads that had led him to Ethan's prison before. His mind was beginning to clear, as the hot air cooled to the night chill of the desert, and he was now well and truly aware that he was acting irrationally. He didn't stop. He couldn't stop now.
There was only one guard outside the prison. He was a heavy set man of around Giles's own age, but he fell at one blow. Giles threw aside the small rock he had used as a blackjack, faintly disgusted with himself at having hurt a civilian - but nothing could stand in his way now. He dragged the unconscious figure around the side of the building, where he would not be visible should anybody else come this way, then slipped through the hole in the wall that he had created earlier. Nobody had bothered to patch it - there was little point now. Securely roped to the building's one central pillar, Ethan was not in any position to escape. He was staring into space, face impassive, and didn't seem to notice the arrival of his friend. He didn't react at all until the ropes fell away, and he found himself suddenly free.
"Huh?" He turned slowly, expecting the locals. It was a little earlier than he had imagined, for a fragment of the sun was still visible in the western sky, but it was still possible that they had come for him. When he saw Giles, however, he gaped in shock.
"Ethan." Giles caught him by the arm. "Come on. We probably don't have much time. I'm getting you out of here."
"You're what?" Ethan pulled away, frowning at his old friend. "You're drunk, Rupert. Don't be a fool."
"Huh? You're telling me not to be a fool? Listen - drunk, stoned, or sober as a judge, what the hell does it matter? I'm not going to let them slice you open. We're leaving."
"We can't leave, remember!" Ethan shook his head. He had clearly been thinking hard during his hours alone, and Giles was rather surprised to see where such thinking had led him. "Years of being a good little Watcher, and you choose now to suddenly rediscover your dark side. Listen, I can't leave this town. We've already established that."
"Then I'll hide you. It's only until dawn, and after that--"
"After that, what exactly? This isn't about me, you fool. We're talking about the whole of the continent, remember?" He seemed to shiver, as though not quite believing his own words, or really agreeing with them. "Rupert, I know what I said earlier, and we both know that I'm no hero - but even I don't want a whole bloody continent to drown. I think maybe that's too much even for my conscience."
"Ethan... don't talk about conscience. It doesn't suit you. Just stop being so bloody contrary, and get a move on. The place where I'm staying has a cellar. You can hide in there, and--"
"How? They knew where we were before, remember? Wherever I hide out they'll find me." Ethan caught his friend by the shoulders, raising his voice to try to make an impression. "You're not thinking straight. If I don't go through with this, millions of people will die - probably including us in the end, if we don't move fast enough when the waters rise - and I don't want that. Death doesn't usually bother me - mostly when it's somebody else's - but when we're talking about millions? Besides, I like this continent, damn it. I like California. I like Miami. Okay, so some of the places in between, maybe..." He smiled, faintly and a little crookedly. "I've had a lot of time here, old man, just standing and thinking about all of this - and it's made me come to a lot of conclusions I would never have considered before. Call it a... an epiphany if you like. I won't be responsible for destroying all of this. If your brain was firing on all cylinders, you might appreciate that."
"I'm only a little out of it. That doesn't stop me from thinking straight, and you should know that." He frowned, trying to get his head around the idea of Ethan Rayne wanting to do the right thing. "I suddenly find that I don't want you to die. It's a new sensation for me."
"Oh, don't get sentimental on me now, Ripper. We've both always known that there's a fair chance this is how it would end, for you and for me. If not Eyghon, then any number of other nasty magical forms of death. We've courted it all for too long not to be aware of the dangers. I asked you for your help, and I'm not sorry I did that. If you'd been able to find me a way out of this then I'd have been very grateful - but you couldn't, and I won't see a whole bloody continent wiped out in my place. I thought I could, earlier. Now I know that I can't."
"I can't quite believe that you're trying to be the hero." Giles went to the hole in the wall and looked out. There was no sign of anybody coming yet, but surely they wouldn't be long. "Ethan, I... This is insane. Last time we spoke--"
"Last time we spoke I hadn't thought things through quite the way I have now. I've been thinking about everything I've ever done in my life - everything we've ever done, and-- I just can't run away from this. Not that I don't think it's pretty cool that you came to break me out."
"All part of the service." He frowned, totally thrown now. Maybe Ethan was right and his brain wasn't firing on all cylinders - or maybe he was missing the point entirely, and Ethan was up to something again. "Well look, if you change your mind..."
"I won't. Now get out of here, before they go trying to stick you on the slab next to me. Besides, you're a temptation I can't give in to. I've got to stay here."
"If you're sure? Really sure?"
"Of course I'm not sure! I'm waiting to be ritually slaughtered so that my bloodied parts can be offered to a sodding great demon. Why in Heaven's name would I be sure? Just get lost, okay?"
"Yeah. Okay." He turned to leave, then stopped and looked back, taking off the crucifix that he always wore around his neck. "Here. At least take this. It might be of some use."
"Use? Does St Peter look more favourably upon you if you turn up wearing religious jewellery? Giles, we both know where I'm going, and I'd rather not turn up there wearing a crucifix. They're not fond of them there."
"Maybe." Smiling sadly, he slipped the old cross back into his pocket. "Ethan, listen, I--"
"Go. Now. Before I give in and go with you. Get back to the jeep and get the hell out of here, Rupert. It's not a nice place to be."
"I never thought I'd have cause to say this, old friend... but I'm proud of you." Giles wanted to say rather more but, for whatever reason, found that he couldn't. He had come here ready to throw away everything that was supposed to matter to him, in order to save his friend, and had found that the dark sorcerer was ready to be the better man. Ethan laughed.
"Nothing to be proud of, old man. Face it - if America sinks, I sink with it. Either way I'm for the chop. This way I get to play the hero for once; and everybody wants to do that once, right? We don't all have a head start in the heroics department like your lot."
"My lot? I wish I knew what lot that is." He smiled faintly, though by now his back was turned. "I think they're coming. I can see somebody."
"Then go. Quickly. You shouldn't let them find you here."
"Yeah." He tried again to say the things he had wanted to say before, but again he found that they wouldn't come. Without another word, without another look back, he slipped away into the growing dark. He didn't go far though. Ethan had made sense when he had told him to leave town, but he wasn't ready to try it just yet. Instead he hung back, listening to the hushed words of the approaching men. It was in Spanish of course, and much of it was beyond his understanding, but he didn't need to know what they were saying to know why they had come. They disappeared inside the building without looking for the man they had posted on guard, and save for a slight raising of the tone of their voices, they seemed to show no surprise at Ethan's partial liberty. Giles heard his old friend greet them in his usual cheery way, all insincere warmth that was doubtless backed up by his familiar, slightly untrustworthy grin. Moments later they were all walking away.
Giles stood for a long time in the shadows, listening to the pained groaning of the man he had knocked out earlier on. The sounds bothered him, partly because they were an indication of the damage he had done to an innocent man, and partly because he wasn't as sorry for his actions as he might have been. The groans rose in volume as the poor fellow presumably called out for assistance, but there was nobody to hear him. Nobody save his attacker anyway, and Giles wasn't in the mood to help anybody just now. He waited for the guilt to kick in; the instinct to dash to the man's aid, and apologise profusely for his previous violence. He waited for Ethan's apparent good sense to make an impact on his own emotions, but still he couldn't see past his original desire to prevent the sacrifice. He told himself that it was just the drugs that had been slipped into his whisky, but whether it was or it wasn't was immaterial. He really had been willing to consider genocide in order to save his friend - his extremely dubious friend - and he wasn't even sure if he was all that sorry. Being a good guy was confusing. How much more easy it had been, when he had been on the other side, and little things like conscience and morality had been the last things on his mind. He groped for his cigarettes and lit one, appreciating the burst of warmth now that the night had become very cold. The little glowing tip seemed to flaunt its very existence at the world, and at the Watchers who had tried to prevent him from smoking these charming and illicit concoctions. He blew out a stream of smoke, feeling like his old self again. The Ripper, standing on street corners, all black leather and torn denim, puffing on cigarettes as though to do so was the epitome of rebellion. Eyeing up passing women with just enough arrogance to scare away the ones he wasn't really interested in. Ready to pull out a knife if anybody looked at him in a manner he didn't like. Ethan had teased him in the past about how much of that person still remained, and Giles had always argued that that part of him was gone forever; but how he felt he was living proof that it hadn't. He wanted to hate himself, and couldn't. He wanted to hate the locals, and couldn't do that either. The only person left to hate was Ethan, and that just seemed stupid. In the end, not knowing what else to do, he abandoned the slumped guard to his semi-conscious exclamations of pain, and hurried off after the execution party. If he couldn't save Ethan, the least that he could do was to be there at the end.
The ritual was already underway by the time that he arrived. A circle of men, arranged around the sacrificial slab, all avoiding each others eyes, and looking painfully new to the whole dark sorcery game. There were no women present, or children. Presumably they had all been detailed to stay inside out of the way, perhaps as a precaution in case something went wrong, or perhaps because somebody had decided that this was a job for men. The men who had been chosen didn't seem to think that it was a job for them, for they looked as pale and as terrified as children frightened by shadows. None of them were looking at Ethan, even though they were gathered so closely about him. Some were holding candles, and some were waving effigies that Giles assumed represented the departed Abadonis. Three held knives, and it was this group of three, robed in black, that seemed to be leading events. They were chanting together, in musical, slightly quavering voices that showed slight traces of alcohol. Dutch courage in abundance, but eyes still cast down. They couldn't even look at each other.
He moved closer, watching the circle beginning to rotate, watching the men all begin a strange set of movements that they seemed to have been practising for some time. They didn't look comfortable with it; more like middle aged men pressed into taking part in a disco. The ones with candles waved them high, and the ones with the effigies turned in tight little circles. The chanting rose in volume, and clouds moved slowly to cover the moon. Nothing else happened. Perhaps the demon who was allegedly so anxious for Ethan's blood was as unhappy about all of this as the men trying to fulfil its desires. Giles wished that they would all just get on with it. The sooner this was over and done with, the better.
Almost as if they had heard him, the three men with the knives broke apart from the rest. One went to the foot of the slab, the others to stand either side of Ethan's head. Giles saw his friend's eyes turn from one to the other of the men, probably searching for the eye contact that they were unable to give. The chanting was beginning to grate now, the music lost, replaced by a dirge. It was rising in volume and urgency, the rhythm becoming more and more intense. One by one the men with effigies of Abadonis partnered off with the men holding candles, and set fire to the little figures. Thick blue smoke drifted about in layers, and Ethan coughed rather pointedly. Giles almost smiled. He was still thinking about trying to stop all of this; of saving his friend and to hell with everybody; but drugs and the cold, and his cigarette and the chanting, and Ethan's own insistence were keeping him still. Far underfoot he thought that he felt a rumble begin, and tasted blood mingling with the flavour of his cigarette. He had bitten too hard on the inside of his lip without realising what his teeth were doing. Some of the blood dribbled down his chin, and he felt its wetness acutely in the cold. Nearby Ethan was having his own problems with the cold, for the mayor, standing close to the captive's head, had reached down and cut open the expensive, if bedraggled, dress shirt. He ran the knife blade lightly over the bare chest, then, creating a long, thin line of dribbling red. He seemed to be muttering something beneath the infuriating chants of his companions, and whatever it was Ethan clearly heard and understood. Giles saw his old friend clench his jaw and tense his bound hands, either in defiance or in fear, before the knife danced down again, and brought another thin red line into life across the first. They were shallow cuts for now, but presumably worse was to come. Somebody dropped a burning effigy, and somebody else stumbled as if about to faint. The whole event was a mess; fifteen hopeless novices, playing at something they didn't really understand. Another slash with the knife, another wobble from a suddenly pale, candle-holding local. The rumbling beneath Giles's feet became stronger. Not just his imagination then; this must be the creature sent to claim revenge on behalf of Abadonis. The rumble came again, far more audible now, and somewhere nearby a dog began to bark. It made the chanting fools jump, and another of them dropped his burning effigy. He went to pick it up, breaking the circle momentarily, but one of his fellows snapped at him to return to place. The knife flashed again, and this time Ethan cried out. The chanting rose in volume, and the thick blue smoke spread out further afield. Giles wished he had some whisky with him, or preferably something stronger. Instead he sucked harder on the cigarette as it burned on down, and mourned the fact that it didn't seem to be as strong as it might. The ground rumbled again, with yet greater ferocity, and he thought that he saw it beginning to bulge as though something were about to break through. Ethan cried out again, as the mayor's knife once more made its descent, and another of the knifemen finished the job of cutting away the ruined shirt. The chanting came to an abrupt stop. All three knifemen stood poised for action. Giles's heart rose into his mouth. Lying on the table Ethan closed his eyes tight and clenched his teeth, as the three knives rose in perfect synchronisation to await their fatal task.
And with a crashing of rocks and a tearing of roots and earth, a mighty creature burst out of the ground and stretched its fists towards the sky. It was some ten feet tall, red in colour, with disproportionately large teeth and horns that swept back in broad spirals. It roared in all the joy of a creature liberated after a long imprisonment, then swung its mighty torso around to stare at the circle of men and their bound victim.
"I come in the name of Abadonis," it announced redundantly, in a voice strangely reminiscent of Barry White. The mayor nodded a quivering head.
"We know," he said, speaking in Latin just as it had done. "We... we have the man who killed him. He's here. Just say the word and we'll slice out his liver and his heart, and you can take your revenge. Just spare our town and this land."
"Blood." The creature clearly relished the prospect. "Blood and entrails." It rose up, stretching its body so that it seemed even taller, and licked its rubbery lips with a massive tongue. "Your sacrifice is most welcome."
"I'm... glad." The mayor looked down at Ethan, for the first time seeing him properly, and without averted eyes. "The moon is rising fast. Should we begin?"
"All in good time." The giant beast shook itself violently, ridding its body of the last of the earth that had covered it for who knew how long. It extended one claw then; a long, curved monstrosity at least three inches long, and reached out with it to touch the blood on Ethan's chest. The massive tongue lolled out once again, in an ecstasy of anticipation, and Ethan turned very, very pale. He was muttering to himself now, peering up at the monster through eyes that were still half closed. Giles rose shakily to his feet, stepping out of his hiding place. Nobody noticed him. He started to walk towards the little gathering, fingering the tiny flick-knife in his pocket that had been his companion in so many fights against human foes. It would probably be useless against such a huge creature, but he had an idea that, if he killed the thing, this might all be over without any further danger for anyone. He wondered where to stab it. The back of the neck was usually a good bet, but clearly he wouldn't be able to reach. White knuckled, jaw tense enough to risk damaging his teeth, he advanced. So did the demon, stretching out its long, curved claw for the lines of blood on Ethan's exposed chest. Abruptly the circle broke open to let it pass, closing up again behind him. The members began their chant again, and started to shuffle to-and-fro. Ethan closed his eyes, and the claw stroked gently at his chest, touched the blood, and lifted it to touch at the massive tongue. The three knives began to descend. Giles came to a dead stop, realising that he was far too late. He started to yell, intending to cause a distraction at least; to make the demon turn away from Ethan, and perhaps stay the hands of the three men about to send the imprisoned sorcerer on his way - but the cry never had the chance to leave his lips. As the bloodied claw touched the demon's tongue, smoke belched forth in a red stream from its mouth, and with a mighty roar it seized hold of its head and rocked backwards and forwards on its broad feet.
"Unclean! Unclean! You dare try to poison me?!" Spinning around, the creature lashed out with its huge fists, knocking the three knifemen away from their victim. "You dare to bring me an impure offering to burn the tongue from my mouth? You dare try to harm the servant of Abadonis as he carries out his just revenge?!"
"I... I don't understand." Picking himself up, looking paler and more shaky than ever before, the mayor searched about for his knife, but couldn't see where it had landed. "You've got your offering. The man who killed Abadonis. How can he be unclean?"
"How? You need to ask how? Because of Eyghon. He bears the mark of Eyghon on his arm and on his soul. The Sleepwalker is in his blood. I can't touch him. I won't touch him. Give me something else!"
"Something else?" Panic-stricken, the mayor looked about at his companions, searching his mind for other possibilities. Something came to him in a flash, and he barely managed to give voice to it in his sudden state of desperation. "Friend. He has a friend. Another Englishman. A priest. Possibly."
"A priest?" The huge tongue licked thoughtfully at the slobbering lips. "A priest might do... Oh, but the rules are clear. If not the man who killed Abadonis, then many others instead. Many others."
"But a priest... The pure blood, the good intentions, the... the..." He trailed off, words slurring into a last shambled attempt to make this sacrifice work. "Please. My people have honoured Abadonis for years. Please..."
"Perhaps. Perhaps a priest might be sufficient." The demon shrugged huge muscular shoulders. "Very well. Where is he?"
"Drugged, in his room." One of the others, speaking to his leader rather than to the demon, pointed back towards the buildings. "I could..."
"Go." The mayor threw a look at Ethan, who was watching all of this with an expression bordering on the hysterical. "And he had better be a blameless priest, Senor Rayne, for your sake."
"For the whole bloody continent's sake I should think, unless you lot are willing to do the decent thing." Faint black humour showed in the sorcerer's voice, and suggested that the apparent hysteria in his eyes had been more to do with amusement than with fear. "But Giles is no--"
"Shut up." The mayor threatened him with nothing more then his fist, since his knife was still lost, but Ethan obligingly felt silent. He turned his head, watching as the villager hurried away to fetch a supposedly drugged and sleeping priest that Ethan well knew was not drugged, sleeping, a priest, or where the villagers thought that he was. Ordinarily that would have made fetching him rather difficult, Ethan supposed, and wished that he was more of a mind to properly appreciate the joke.
"No need to go back to the town. I'm here." And right on cue, thought Ethan, with a flicker of relish for the sense of drama that Giles had never lost. Striding out of the darkness he came, lit by the light of the burning effigies of Abadonis; a tall, black-clad figure with a cigarette glowing fierce and red between his lips. He folded his arms. "The 'priest'."
"Keep back, Rupert. There's no sense in letting yourself getting sliced and diced by the locals." Ethan struggled to sit up, but the ropes holding him to the stone slab did not allow him much movement. Giles shot him a disparaging look.
"Apparently I don't have a great deal to worry about. Did you know this would happen?"
"I might have had an... inkling." Ethan tried out what he had always liked to think of as his most charming grin. Giles just looked disgusted.
"And all that talk about heroics? All that garbage about wanting to do the right thing, and you knew, all along? You bastard."
"Shut up. Deal with your arguments in the afterlife." The mayor gestured to a few of his neighbours, and together they took hold of Giles. "There isn't the time or the need for the preliminaries. The creature is already here. All you have to do is die."
"A tasty priest. Walking in here so helpfully..." The demon leaned in, bent almost double so that it could sniff at his latest offering from a matter of millimetres away. Giles winced. Like so many of its kind, the demon had quite appalling breath. It reached out with a claw, just as it had done with Ethan, and raked it across Giles's chest. It slit shirt and skin as easily as might a knife, but this time the demon didn't need to taste the blood to know that something was wrong. With a mighty roar that came close to knocking over both its intended victim and the men holding him, it reared away from Giles and spat fountains of smoke and flame into the air. The ground shook.
"You try my patience, humans! You tempt fate and you tempt destiny!" It reached out, grabbing the mayor in one fist and raising him up into the air. "Once again you bring me somebody who is unclean! Well you get no more chances. It's the end."
"No! No!" Struggling desperately, the mayor tried to break free. "Please. So many people. So many innocent people. You can't--"
"Oh but I can." The demon hurled him aside, watching dispassionately as he crashed headfirst into the stone table. Ethan winced as blood spattered his clothing, then glanced up at the demon in obvious shock.
"Er.. hang on. Did you say the end?"
"We can't let you do that." Giles, freed from his now even more terrified guards, had pulled out his flick-knife. "There are too many people living in these lands for us to allow you to kill them all."
"Sod that!" Despite his earlier calm, Ethan was now suddenly panicked. "Just bloody cut me loose! We can get a boat, and--"
"Shut up, Ethan!" Giles was eyeing his flick-knife in doubt; then put it away again and seized one of the sacrificial knives instead. It was still disturbingly small when compared to the demon, but it was a little less ridiculous than his own blade. The demon laughed.
"You think that will work? I am the bringer of destruction, but killing me will accomplish nothing. Even if you do manage it with that.. toothpick... this land mass will still sink into boiling, lashing waves. It is done." And with its fists raised high in the air, it threw back his head and roared. Everything shook. The sacrificial stone shattered. The stars seemed to burst.
"No!" Giles ran for the demon, slashing with the knife at a torso that seemed impervious. The demon swatted him away.
"Enjoy the show, little priest," it roared. "Enjoy the end!"
"I really wasn't planning on this." Clambering to his feet from the ruins of the slab, Ethan brushed stone dust from his hair and clothes. "Do the honourable thing, damn it!" He kicked the dead body of the mayor. "Why'd you have to go and get your head staved in? You were the lynchpin of this whole bloody disaster!"
"The... honourable thing..." Another of the townspeople, lying full length upon the ground, looked up for a moment at this most unwelcome of guests. "The honourable thing?" Ethan hadn't heard him, but apparently the man had not been searching for an answer; he had been asking his question only to himself. He forced himself to his feet. Around him the ground was beginning to rise and fall in waves, shaking itself apart. Huge drops of rain broke free from the sky, hurling themselves at the earth below with such force that they left small craters where they landed; smoking, bubbling craters. In seconds there was no earth left in view. All was water; inches deep already, and rising fast. It shook and it lifted and sank with the motions of the ground beneath it; it fountained up in unexpected towers, and it crashed back down again in broiling whirlpools of stone, sand and dead vegetation. Giles found that he couldn't stay on his feet.
"The honourable thing..." Muttering it now in his own language, the man who had heard Ethan's outburst struggled gamely towards the demon. "Honourable?" Something caught his eye and he made a grab for it, collapsing on hands and knees to snatch up the knife he had somehow seen amidst all the water. He almost sank without a trace in the process, but he fought himself upwards again, making it back to his feet only through sheer force of will. The rain bounced off him with such force that it drew blood; massive droplets so large that they defied the laws of gravity, winding him, tearing at his clothes, blinding him as he failed to shield his eyes. He was still muttering, still speaking to himself and to his companions, although few enough of them seemed to be in any position to hear. "The only thing." And with all the strength that the rain had left him, he thrust the knife deeply into his chest, and toppled forward to land at the demon's feet.
"What's this? Proffered blood?" Bending low, the demon sniffed at the dying man, apparently enjoying the smell. Its tongue flickered out, tasting the salty, sandy mix of blood and rainwater. "And clean, too. This one is no slave to another."
"Hey!" Insulted, if now only half conscious, Ethan took offence at that comment. Unsurprisingly, the demon didn't care. With a mighty roar, clearly its favourite form of expression, it opened his mouth as though to engulf the world, and sucked in the ebbing life. Blood and scraps of flesh flew from its jaws.
"Ugh." Rather glad that there was now almost no light by which to see, Ethan might have turned away, had he not been treading water in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. The demon was cackling now, enjoying the blood but eager for more.
"What's this?" it asked again. "Mortals offering themselves to save their world? Their tiny, ineffectual, pointless little scrap of nothingness? Pathetic!" It licked his lips, and showered bloodied saliva down onto the drowning desert. "If tasty. How many more? How many more to fill my quota? To make up for the imperfect sacrifice? How many more to save this misbegotten land of quivering humans?"
And one by one, man by man, they struggled towards it. Against the current of the deluge, through the darkness, half drowned and half dead with cold, they fought their way to its side, to let it tear them to pieces with teeth and claw. With each one it grew stronger. With each man its size increased, until, thirty feet high and roaring like some creature from a long gone age, it howled its pleasure at the vanished moon, and struck out towards the houses of the town. Giles made a token attempt to stop it; a vain, pointless attempt to shout a warning, or perhaps to seize hold of the mighty creature; but the wash from its sudden movement lifted him up in a giant swell, and hurled him away through the water. Only Ethan kept him afloat and, almost senseless, they listened together to the screams of a village devoured.
The rain stopped before dawn, though it was some time after that before the waters ran away. They went more quickly than they might have done had it been ordinary rain, the Earth accepting the magical waters back inside itself as though embarrassed that the tumult had ever occurred. Exhausted, Giles and Ethan lay for some time in the rapidly drying sand, watching in wordless wonder as the spell that had made the place barren was rescinded. Grass grew at speed, and tiny seedlings promised trees in the years to come. The sun beat down with force to begin with, until the ground was no longer quite so waterlogged; and then it lessened to a pleasant, welcoming warmth. Giles sat up.
"I suppose they're all dead," he asked the sun, for he didn't trust himself to speak to Ethan. It was Ethan who answered him though.
"Probably. Once the demon had tasted the blood of his first few victims, the requirements of the curse would have made him incapable of resisting more. Excepting ours of course. The killer of Abadonis, or who knows how many replacements, remember?"
"But a whole town? A whole town full of people? Don't you feel even a little bad about that?"
"Well if it doesn't kill you to believe it, yes I do. I didn't come here planning for them all to die, you know. I didn't come here knowing about that blasted curse. I'd read some things, sure, but I didn't understand it until all of this started happening. It wasn't until today, when I was tied to that bloody pillar, that things really started to become clear, and even then it was only theory. I didn't actually intend for--"
"But you knew that you'd be safe? You knew that they'd have to carry the can for you? You lay there on that slab knowing that all of them were going to have to give themselves to that creature, to - to avoid the alternative? You're a bastard, Ethan. A cold, conniving, evil bastard, and--"
"Hey, I called you in, remember? I wanted an alternative. How was I supposed to know that there wouldn't be one? Yeah okay, as of this evening I had a vague idea that that creature wouldn't hurt me, but it was only ever a theory. For all I knew I really would die - and I bloody nearly did. I was rather counting on the mayor leading his friends in a little mass suicide before the country nearly got sucked into the sea. But then I suppose every plan has its glitches."
"Glitches?" Recovering his strength mostly through anger, Giles hauled his old friend to his feet. "Glitches?! Have you any idea how many people have died today? Have you? How many people have been torn apart by a bloody big demon just because you came here looking for some magical trinkets to make your fortune with?"
"I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry I killed a demon. I'm sorry the townspeople are probably all dead. But I'm not sorry that I wasn't acceptable as a sacrifice, and I'm not sorry that I didn't get killed. That's me. That's who I am, and you sodding well know it. So don't stand there looking all glowery and dark, and don't look like I made all this happen, because I didn't. Anybody could have kicked that curse into gear. It's not like I came here to intending provoke genocide."
"But you did come here. And you did kill Abadonis, and you did lie to me. If you'd told me the truth--"
"What? You'd have warned them? You think they'd have listened? Or knowing that it wouldn't touch an acolyte of another demon would have given you some clues to work with, would it, in that last few minutes that we had? I didn't know about it all myself to start off with! There was no way out of this. So you just be glad that you're still alive. You and the whole bloody continent. Get all misty eyed at the sacrifice these people made, if it'll make you feel better. But don't get all righteous. You put this symbol on my arm. I didn't."
"Don't try to bring this back to me. I shouldn't even be here. I should be back home in the UK, doing what--"
"What your father and grandmother and ancestors immemorial have done before you. Yeah - know it, heard it, got bored with it all a long time ago. Go on then Rupert. Go back home. Go and bury your head again, and--" He was cut short by an almighty blow to his chin, which knocked him off his feet and sent him toppling to the ground. Giles stared down at him, heat and fury in his eyes, fists already clenched for the next blow. "Oh. We're going here again are we? The adventure's over, Rupert's little heart is all a-pounding, so it must be time to beat the living daylights out of Ethan."
"Shut up." Giles hauled him to his feet only to knock him back down again. "You bloody deserve this. You and your greed and your mockery, and your not caring about anything at all except yourself. For setting all this in motion, for bringing me here to watch it, for making all those people die."
"For making you realise that you were prepared to let even more die to try to save me? Just go on blaming it all on me, make yourself feel clean that way. Beating me to a pulp honestly makes you feel better, doesn’t it. Let's you unwind just a little, the way that you try to stop yourself doing anymore."
"I said, shut up." Once again he hauled his friend up; once again he knocked him down. He could have killed Ethan; he could have handed him over to the Watchers; he could have done anything to ensure that his old friend was no longer free, and able to do such terrible things. But he knew that he never would. He merely dealt out the only justice he was ready for, as he let himself be the Ripper again for just a little while. Each blow was a measure of his own hatred for himself as much as it was an indication of his hatred or his anger towards Ethan. Hatred because he had been willing, for just a moment, to let anything happen just to save Ethan's life. Hatred because he could have been everything Ethan was; because he might still be yet; because sometimes, when the temptation was great enough, he very nearly was - and because sometimes, when the temptation was even greater, he did so many bad deeds of his own. Hatred because Ethan represented everything he was supposed to hate, and yet for some reason he didn't really hate the man at all. He didn't know how he felt. He just hated, because deep down, underneath everything else, he was still the Ripper; and knew that he always would be.
"Just keep hitting, Rupert." Ethan was laughing through the pain, and Giles was finding it harder to hit him now; harder because his knuckles were too slippery with blood. His own, Ethan's - an unclean mixture, if ever there had been one. Unclean, just as the demon had said. Always unclean. So why the hell didn't he just go back home and tell the Watchers about this? Free him from temptation? Let them deal with Ethan? He scowled, and lashed out one more time, and then thought about using his feet instead. There was a lot of anger to work off yet. A lot of illogical emotion. This time tomorrow he and Ethan would probably be sitting in some bar, ready to catch their respective aeroplanes and head off back into the world. They would be pleasantly drunk, enjoying each other's company, sharing tales of past exploits. In a few months they would probably run into each other again; share an adventure; hate each other all over again; and wind up having a whale of a time for no good reason. But that was then.
For now there was just the hatred and the hitting, and the desire to be very bad indeed.