CHAOS RISING

Ethan Rayne dug his hands deeply into his pockets and stared into the mists blowing from his mouth. It was bitterly cold, and he did not appreciate the waiting. He could only conclude that Michael had been arrested again; hardly surprising given his continued belief that he could drive perfectly well whilst high on a cocktail of alcohol and drugs. It made riding with him interesting, but the police were rather inclined to take a different view. Ethan swore loudly and kicked at the ground. This was supposed to be the highlight of the week; the culmination of thirty-six straight hours of partying in celebration of his twenty-second birthday; and here he was standing on a street corner, shivering in icy frustration. His expensive fur coat did not seem nearly warm enough, and the leather gloves which had seemed so soft and indulgent when he had bought them during the winter, now seemed like nothing but paper to protect him from the chill.

The figure which emerged from around the corner was hunched up to keep warm, and clearly had not seen Ethan. It bumped into him, swearing angrily, and Ethan caught it by the arm. His own anger was enough to inflate the slight incident into a major confrontation, and clearly the other participant was thinking along similar lines.

"Watch where you're going, jerk." Giving the unknown figure a hard shove, Ethan sent him stumbling into the wall.

"Watch out yourself, jerk." Moving back towards Ethan as though spoiling for a fight, the figure straightened up, glaring back at the tall young man with eyes that sparkled with green lights. There was fierce intelligence in those eyes, and the sort of anger which could only be born from true dedication. It was an anger which shone out at all the world, burning with hatred and unrest; and that was a sensation that Ethan Rayne was very familiar with.

"You're new around here." He liked the bright eyes, with their untold stories; but their owner was clearly not feeling so friendly.

"Does that matter?" He spoke with the voice of one who had been brought up to speak well and clearly; and yet hated that, and was trying to lose his accent in something else. It was all no doubt a part of his inner rage and conflict, which seemed to be reflected in everything from the toes of his feet to the wavy lines of his dark hair. "You want to try pushing me again, sunshine?"

"Not really." Ethan smiled, enjoying the flames that he was so visibly stoking. A disgusted noise came from the back of the stranger's throat.

"You started this, pal."

"And are you going to finish it?" Folding his arms, Ethan smirked. "You don't have the bottle, kid."

"Why you--" The young stranger reacted with a speed that startled Ethan, even though he had been expecting some kind of action. A fist shot out of nowhere, catching the young man a heavy blow to the side of the head, whilst a follow-up shot slammed into his stomach. He doubled up, seeing stars, and gasped for breath.

"Hey..." The protest was barely audible, and even as it escaped from his lips his attacker grabbed him by the back of the neck, spinning him about and throwing him against the wall.

"You were saying?" a voice asked him, speaking directly into his left ear. Ethan laughed.

"Nothing." He waited for the hand to relax, then straightened his coat. "Want a cigarette?"

"Depends." There was no longer any anger in the voice; in fact there was no emotion at all. Ethan's smile grew.

"Come on. It's cool stuff. Only the best." He pulled a joint from his coat pocket, glad to see that it did not seem to have suffered too much from his recent battering. He put it into his mouth and lit up, breathing deeply of the distinctive smoke. "Want some?"

"Sure." The young stranger took the proffered joint and drew hard on it. Ethan could see that he had smoked the stuff before; there was no cough, no signs of nausea. He felt a low chuckle grow in his throat.

"You got a place to stay?" he asked. His answer was a shaken head.

"Cool. You do now." He offered his hand. "Name's Rayne. Ethan Rayne."

There was a minor hesitation.

"Rupert Giles."

"Rupert? You're kidding?" Ethan began to laugh, then saw the fiery lights relit in his new friend's eyes. "Hey, who am I to laugh. Ethan's no cool handle. Guess I'll call you Giles."

"I'd prefer it if you did." The young man breathed on his hands to try to warm them. "This place of yours near here?"

"No, it's a long walk away. I was going to get a lift, but I think my ride got nabbed by the bluebottles again." He shook his head. "I need a new chauffeur."

"I can get us a car." Giles smiled slowly. "Got a favourite colour?"

"Black." They grinned at each other, and the younger man pointed to a large van parked at the side of the road.

"That one?"

"Sure." Ethan watched with raised eyebrows as his companion broke into the van; but he climbed into the passenger seat without complaint, and smirked as Giles started the engine with the smoothest of moves. "You're good."

"Only the best." Giles drew deeply on the joint, then handed it back to Ethan. "Gonna give me directions?"

"Just keep on driving, man." Ethan leaned back, resting his legs on the dashboard. "Roll with the tarmac."

"Yeah, sure." The van pulled away from the curb and moved slowly down the street, gathering speed as it went. Soon the cold little side street was far behind them. Ethan giggled softly, blowing clouds of marijuana smoke high into the air. He felt a strange link with this new arrival that he could not understand; as though something somewhere had drawn them together and was linking them, one with the other. They had barely met and yet already they seemed to be trusting each other completely. It was a slightly disturbing sensation for a man who had never really trusted anyone before, and he stole a sidelong glance at his companion as they drove, trying to gauge his character from the evidence on show. The black leather jacket was battered, and could have come straight out of A Streetcar Named Desire; the collars set at an angle that screamed of rebellion. The white shirt beneath it, however, despite its growing age, was clearly of superior quality and looked almost as though it could have come from Saville Row itself. There were more contradictions in the jeans, which were dusty and cheap looking, and seemed to be more hole than material. Giles felt Ethan's eyes on him, and glanced across.

"What?" he asked.

"Nothing. Just trying to figure you out, man. Where you from?"

"Last stop Oxford." Giles shrugged. "It wasn't my scene, so I blew it; figured London had to be more of a blast. I grew up on the east side of town."

"Well this is the west end. Things are different here." Ethan handed the joint back across, enjoying the feel of the pleasing effects taking over. "If you're looking for a blast you came to the right man." He giggled, feeling light-headed and warm. "I love a good blast."

"Cool." A dark veil seemed to have settled over Giles' face. "I'm looking for something off the beaten track. Something hot."

"Something real hot." Ethan giggled again, and this time Giles joined in. "Hot's my middle name, man. Trust me Giles. I can show you things you never even thought about; stuff even your dreams never told you about." The giggle erupted again. "Maybe not your dreams. Maybe we're looking more towards your nightmares."

"Fine by me, Ethan." Giles tightened his grip on the steering wheel, gazing out into the dark street beyond the windscreen; or he could have been looking at something else entirely. "I'm looking for that little something more." He laughed a soft, dangerous laugh. "And I think I might have found it."

**********

"Ethan?" Opening his eyes reluctantly, the young man sprawled in the fireplace groaned and sat up. "Ow. Where the hell am I?"

"About to get roasted. Come on, get out of here." Kicking the man aside, Ethan bent over the ashes of the fire, busying himself in relighting them. He threw some small logs on top, then glanced up at Giles. "Oh. Giles, Philip Henry. Philip, Giles."

"Hi." Looking far-gone, Philip tried to shake Giles' hand, missed entirely, and looked confused. "You aren't from here."

"He is now." Succeeding in getting some small spark of life from the fire, Ethan stood up. "Okay Giles, this is home. It's kind of messed up at the moment. We've been partying." He nudged Philip. "Any food left?"

"There's plenty of bread in the kitchen, but I think somebody set it on fire." Philip tried to focus on the pair. "The kitchen that is, not the bread. Hell, I don't remember. It's all a blank after..." He frowned. "Hell, it's all a blank. I think Deirdre was trying some new casting."

"Casting?" Giles narrowed his eyes. "She's a witch?"

"The more usual response is 'huh?!'." Ethan grinned. "Either you're not as used to that joint as you've been making out, or you know a little something about magic. You want to share?"

"I... dabble." Giles shrugged. "You really know a witch?"

"Yeah... her name's Deirdre Page, she lives here. She likes to think she's got powers, anyway, but to be honest she can't even do the basics without screwing everything up. Yesterday..." He frowned, his mind confused by the last few long hours of drug-laden merry-making. "Er... make that a few nights back... She was trying to make the flames in the fireplace freeze over, but all she managed to do was make my coffee boil. I damn near drank it too, and it was foaming and spitting all over everything."

"Cool." Giles giggled, glancing towards the fire. It was just beginning to get going, and although he appreciated its warmth, he saw a fine chance to impress his new found friend. Something in the back of his mind warned him that he should be careful, but the relaxation caused by the marijuana, to say nothing of its anti-inhibitory effects, was loosening him up past caring. He spread his fingers. "Any fool can freeze flames." He frowned, trying to concentrate his splintering attention. "Just a few deep whisperings, a little razzle-dazzle..." The flames spat at him, and Ethan giggled. Philip frowned, still trying to clear his vision enough to see Giles, let alone what he was doing. Giles rubbed his eyes, his frown burrowing deep into his forehead. There was a flash of fire and the flames leaped forward, racing towards Giles as though desperate to tear the words of his spell from his mouth; then all at once they were stilled, and ice hung in their place, hurled into leaping shapes above the logs. Ethan whistled.

"Well I'll be..." He clapped his new friend on the shoulder. "Giles, my man, you've got yourself a place here as long as you want it." He chuckled. "Course, now I've gotta get the fire started again."

"No problem." Backing away from the fireplace, Giles snapped his fingers. The ice shapes shattered, collapsing into a heap of crystals in the grating. He sighed.

"Damn. Must be the marijuana."

"No matter." Ethan kicked the ice aside and bent to relight the fire, scrabbling around in the ashes and logs. "You want to tell me where you learnt that?"

"Read a book. Lots of books." Giles threw himself into a large, over-stuffed armchair which smelt of whisky. "Magic is an interest of mine."

"Uncommon interest." Philip finally managed to focus on the guest, and wobbled his way over to stand in front of him. "How'd you get into it?"

"Same way as you probably. Looking for a little fun in my life. Who wants to run the nine-to-five trail with a wife and a mortgage, and get stuck in the family business for the rest of Time?" He threw his feet up onto the coffee table, which was heavily carpeted with magazines ranging from Playboy to the Radio Times. "I plan on living my life, not inheriting it."

"Good plan." Ethan, his head in the fireplace, appeared to be nodding. Philip shrugged.

"Magic isn't the usual way to avoid the grind," he commented. Giles stared up at him, meeting the fogged eyes with his own clear and bright ones.

"You found this trail," he said quietly. "Why shouldn't I walk the same path?"

"No reason." Philip threw himself into another armchair, closing his eyes. "Just curious, man. I mean, this ain't exactly a sociable way to live. People party with us, but when they see what we're into, they can't get out the door fast enough. Last time I asked some girl to help in one of my experiments, she blew me out so quickly I couldn't even get a lock of her hair." He giggled to himself at the memory. Ethan glanced back towards Giles.

"He's right. We're the life and soul of the town, man, but the cool-cats don't want to know."

"They can go hang. I don't give a damn." Giles shrugged. "I'm not looking for popularity, Ethan, I'm looking for a buzz. I told you that. And I know how the jerks out there react. The last place I stayed, I tried to do a little casting; I can't do any of the major stuff, this was just for fun. This guy used to set mousetraps in the cellar, and I got all those little dead mice to pay him a visit one night. It was only a hallucinatory thing. I'm no Vincent Price. But man did he ever blow a fuse." He shrugged off his leather jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves to show the bruises on his arms. "The jerk called his buddies in, and they threw me out of the window once they'd had their fun." His eyes burned slowly. "I showed them."

"You do something cool?" Philip leaned closer, his eyes losing some of their fog in his excitement. Giles smiled to himself.

"I left the cellar full of dope. Grass and stuff. Called the coppers and told them it was a real den of sin there. They couldn't get in fast enough. Those jerks in that flat were so square you could see the corners. They looked so scared when they got busted at three in the morning."

"Out of this world." Philip leaned back in his chair, gazing up at the ceiling. "Out of this world. There are some guys I'd like to do that to. I mean, where do these guys get off acting like that? We're only after a little fun. Not looking to hurt anybody unless they get in our way." He giggled softly. "I'd like to do something to fix the guy that owns this place. When he comes for the rent, he treats us like we're scum, man. Sniffs the air and tries to make out like we're dope-heads or something. I mean, what's with a guy like that?"

"He's got our cards marked 'cause of how Michael crashed through the garage door the other night, trying to park." Ethan finally succeeded in getting the fire to light, and joined the other two. "He's had his suspicions since June tried to put a spell on his kettle."

"To do what?" Giles asked. Ethan laughed.

"She wanted it to turn the water to blood, but something got crossed somewhere. Every time he uses the damn thing, every dog in the neighbourhood starts howling. I can't figure it out." He shook his head, throwing himself down on the settee and stretching out along its full length. "Some of us are better at this whole magic thing than others, in case you hadn't guessed."

"I guessed." There was a loud spitting noise, and a crackle of flames, and Ethan sat up straight. The pile of ice in the middle of the floor had burst into flame, and was beginning to grow across the carpet.

"Damn!" He leapt to his feet, making a dash for the kitchen. "Hey come on, we have to live here." Philip giggled, drawing his feet up to escape the flames, and Giles began to laugh out loud.

"I knew I'd got the spell right," he announced, standing up on his chair to watch the flames. "Hey Ethan, you better get it out fast, man. It's gonna take the whole carpet with it otherwise."

"Jerk." Ethan vanished into the kitchen, and emerged with a fire-blanket which he threw over the flames. There was a blossoming of smoke and the fire died away. "Some help you two were."

"We knew you could handle it." Philip relaxed again, smiling at some secret joke. "Man Ethan, you shoulda seen your face."

"Thanks." Throwing the smoke-blackened blanket at Giles, Ethan shook his head. "If you two are past the inane giggling stage now, I'd kind of like to get some sleep. You can take Michael's bed tonight Giles. He isn't going to be using it."

"Cool." Giles fought off the blanket, emerging from within its folds. "Somebody show me the way, 'cause I'm ready for cloud cuckoo land."

"You're already there, man." Ethan dragged him to his feet. "Come on, buddy. If you can walk in a straight line I'll show you up the stairs; or otherwise we'll end up sleeping on the kitchen table." He threw his arm around the younger man's shoulder. "So what do you think of our side of town so far?"

"Yesterday I thought it was deader than Hades." Giles grinned, meeting Ethan's laugh with one of his own. "But right now, man, I think I'm home."

"Stick with me, pal." Ethan made it up the first of the stairs, and concentrated on struggling up the rest of them. "This is gonna be the biggest blast of your life."

**********

"Hey, Ethan?" Michael Forbes, Ethan's oldest and least trusted friend, stumbled into the large living room with a bottle of beer in either hand. "Hey, where'd the party go, man?"

"It went home." Ethan stood up. "Where the hell have you been? It's been a week since you said you'd give me a lift. Seven days, dig?"

"A week?" Michael giggled, his voice stuck on a high and particularly irritating note. "That is totally out of this world. And then some. You are not going to believe this, buddy." His eyes lighted on Giles and he frowned. "Hey, new boy in class. Where did James Dean spring from?"

"Where you weren't." Ethan took the two large bottles of beer from his friend's hands, and then pushed him into a chair. "Where'd this come from?"

"Off-license in Liverpool. Busted the front window and took it out of the display stand." Michael stood up, wobbling over to Giles. "Hey, I know this guy. I'm sure of it."

"I'm not." His voice soft, Giles looked the new arrival up and down. He had heard a lot about Michael over the course of the past week, most of it uninspiring. Ethan had acquired a gang of hardcore layabouts, which fluttered about him like moths around a light bulb. It was largely to do with the huge wealth of his father, which he alternately ignored and exploited. Most of the gang living in the house came under the Michael Category; they couldn't be bothered to go anywhere else, and would rather just feed off the somewhat warped generosity of their host. Ethan didn't seem to care, so long as they supplied him with plenty of alcohol and marijuana.

"Liverpool?" he asked. Michael nodded, grinning at him widely.

"Liverpool. Land of... of... the Liverpudlians. She took me there, but I don't remember half of it."

"She?" Ethan sounded interested now, and Michael caught on to the questioning tone of the voice.

"Yeah... Maggie. Man is she ever hot, Ethan. You would not believe the things we did." He giggled, rubbing his eyes. "Head's gone, man. Think I did too much hot smoke coming back..." He frowned. "She picked me up that night I was supposed to meet you, and - and we went somewhere. Don't know where. There was smoke, and pictures on the walls. Symbols, and - and - fires and incense burning everywhere."

"Maggie?" Philip began pouring the beer into plastic mugs. "I never heard of no Maggie in our scene. You sure she's not some trouble maker?"

"No way, man. She's the works, I am here to tell you." Michael made a swipe for one of the mugs of beer, spilling a little on the chair seat next to Giles as he did so. He downed a huge gulp of the liquid. "The things she showed me... Dynamite, man."

"Ethan..." Giles stood up, taking one of the plastic mugs before Philip could begin handing them out. He smelt one, his face showing his disgust. "Lose this. Trust me."

"Hey, new boy's a joker." Michael took another swig from his mug, draining it. "You gotta problem with my beer, pal?"

"Yes, I have a problem." Giles handed his mug to Ethan. "This is drugged. You can smell it a mile away."

"Drugged?" Ethan sniffed cautiously at the beer. "Something doesn't smell quite right, but it's just cheap beer. Drugged?"

"That's torus root. I'd know it anywhere." Giles glanced towards Michael. "Are you sure you just got this from an off-license?"

"S'what Maggie told me." Michael glared at him. "I was out of it, man, I don't remember. She told me we smash-grabbed it from the store. I don't know." He reached for the open bottle to refill his mug. "It ain't drugged. She wouldn't do that."

"It's drugged." His voice harsh, Giles took the beer bottle, moving it around to better release the odour. "Torus root is a powerful hallucinogenic with a cumulative effect. It takes over the mind and leaves it very open to reprogramming." His eyes sought Ethan's. "I know what I'm talking about."

"Yeah, I don't doubt it." Ethan stood, turning towards Michael. "You've got some explaining to do, pal."

"You're listening to him?" Michael turned towards Giles. "You're asking for it, new boy." He made a grab for his beer bottle, but Giles was too quick for him. "Give it back!"

"Don't be crazy. You've already got a whole lot of this stuff inside you. Much more and you're gonna OD, man." Giles tried to dodge again, but Michael, incensed as he was, moved with unexpected speed. He grabbed hold of the young man, knocking him off balance. Both men and the bottle crashed to the ground.

"You nut!" Giles was on his feet again in seconds, his hands tightly fixed to Michael's lapels. He hauled the other man up, eyes aflame. "You may want to fry your brain, jerk, but don't try adding us to the mixture, dig? Now who the hell is Maggie, and what does she want with us?"

"Maggie's cool, man." Michael tried to push him aside, but Giles, inflamed, delivered a solid right cross which downed the other man, leaving him sprawled in a heap.

"Yes!" Punching the air, Randall James laughed out loud. "Go get him, Giles!"

"I'll put a fiver on Michael." Harris Walton pulled a crumpled note from his pocket. Philip laughed.

"You got it. I'll cover that."

"Me too. I'm betting with Giles." Deirdre Page waved another note in the air. "Come on, Tom. Choose your side."

"I'll go with Michael." Even as he watched the brewing fight, Thomas Sutcliff was regretting his decision. Wavering on his unsteady legs Michael managed to get in one good punch, which caught Giles on the jaw and sent him staggering back into Ethan. Rayne set him straight, grinning all the while.

"Go get him, tiger."

"You're dead, man." Staring at Michael with eyes that screamed fury, Giles threw himself at his new enemy. His fists lashed out, striking with a strength and accuracy that showed true venom. Ice sparked in his eyes as he fought, and Michael fell back, abandoning his attack in order to concentrate on defence. He threw up his arms to protect his face, but the assault was merciless.

"Hey, hey come on! Enough!" Stumbling back, barely able to stand, he tried to put the furniture between himself and his attacker. "Ethan!"

"Giles. Hey, Giles!" Ethan hurried forward, only to get thrown aside by the younger man as he tried to slow him. "Giles!"

"Butt out." Giles' voice was like ice. He turned back to Michael, crouched on the floor with blood pouring down his face. "You still want to argue, sunshine?"

"No. No way man." Michael could barely get the words out. "It's - it's cool. I'm cool. You say the beer's drugged, it's drugged man."

"Fine." Giles glanced down at his hands, staring at the blood stains on them as though realising for the first time what sort of damage he had done. He cleaned them on his shirt, leaving long streaks which gave him an added wild appearance. "Don't pick fights with me, Mikey. I don't like it."

"You're nuts." Regaining his courage with his strength, Michael made it back to his feet. "You're gonna regret all this. Maggie will soon sort you out."

"Then she is something special." Giles stepped towards him, amused by the fear in the other man's eyes, and the way that he cringed back. "Who is she? What is she?"

"She's hot, man. Real hot." Michael laughed loudly, with little humour. "She's a real witch. Not like Deirdre. Her spells really work." He picked up the unopened bottle of beer, leaving the other one to continue depositing its contents into a sticky pool on the carpet. "She'll show you. All of you."

"Don't get out of your depth, man." Ethan took a step towards him, but Michael shied away.

"Keep your hands off me, man. I don't dig this scene anymore. All you guys; you're history." He wiped some of the blood away from his face. "And you, new boy. I'm gonna get you for this. You're dead."

"I'm scared." Giles kicked out, catching the departing man on the shins with a hard shoe. "Loser."

"You're gonna be the loser soon enough." Michael stumbled the rest of the way to the door, staggering through it and out into the night with a short parting wave. Giles shook his head, wandering over to the fireplace. Ethan watched him for a second, staring into the flames as he tried to regain control of his wild temper.

"What the hell was all that about?" Randall stared towards the door looking shell-shocked. "Has he totally blown it or what?"

"Michael totally blew it months ago." Deirdre laughed. "I wonder who this Maggie woman is though. Why'd she want him to drug us?"

"She's a witch." Giles turned back to face the others, wiping away the blood which marked his face from Michael's one successful blow. "Could be anything, 'specially this time of year."

"Summer solstice is on the way, and it's real cold." Ethan nodded. "Speaks of something wild to me, ladies and gentlemen."

"Yeah. Point taken." Deirdre nudged Harris and Thomas. "Come on guys. Pay up."

"Huh." Both handed their money to her, and also to Philip, who had also chosen to back Giles. Philip stared at the second five pound note.

"This is counterfeit, Thomas."

"Yeah. Bloody good though, isn't it. Nobody'll know, man."

"They better not." He pocketed the note, looking towards Ethan. "So what do we do? Stay here and groove or try to find out about the crazy woman?"

"If Maggie is after us in particular she'll come here soon enough." Sounding confident, Giles sat down on the edge of the fireplace. He tugged off his leather jacket, hurling it to the floor. "Anybody want a little game to pass the time?"

"Sure." Ethan kicked off his shoes. "What will it be tonight, boys and girls? A little casting? Or something more powerful?"

"Something interesting." The final member of the group, June Foster, grabbed a book from the coffee table. "Check this out. We paint a pentagram on the wall, and light candles--"

"You need virgin's blood for something like that to work." Giles smirked up at her. "Where the hell are we going to get a virgin around here?"

"Go spin, big mouth." June threw the book at him, and he caught it easily in one hand.

"Cool book. Where'd this come from?"

"I bought it from some guy at Kensington Market. He said it belonged to some old witch back in the Middle Ages."

"I keep telling her it was written in the nineteenth century," Randall laughed. Giles shrugged.

"1840, 1850. Sometime around then." He flicked through the pages. "Hey, cool. You guys want to try a sťance?"

"Speak to dead guys? You're joking?" Thomas drank from the bottle of cheap wine beside him. "Hell, it could be fun, I guess."

"Yeah." Ethan jumped to his feet. "Let's groove. What do we have to do?"

"Follow my lead." Giles shut the book with a snap and sat cross-legged on the floor. "Sit still, close your eyes." A cool draught blew through the room and the fire flickered. June stared up at the lights, which blinked on and off a few times. Ethan laughed.

"Feeling the chill, June my dear?"

"No." She sat cross-legged on the ground between Thomas and Randall. The lights flickered again. "Yes."

"Close your eyes." Giles stared at her until she complied, then he clenched his hands together and began to intone in a soft, clear voice. Outside the windows, the wind began to blow.

**********

Michael ran through the dark city streets, frightened by the howling wind which was beginning to circle his shoulders. It was cold; frighteningly cold; but those few others that he passed on the streets did not seem to notice it. One or two were even dressed in T-shirts, and they looked towards him in amusement as he ran past them in his thick coat and heavy boots. The wind blew his hair, ruffling the long strands and causing them to lash at his eyes; but those others that he ran past seemed unconcerned, as though, to them, there was no wind at all and the night was still and warm.

"Maggie!" He reached his girlfriend's house, banging on the door until his knuckles stung. The door opened slowly and he ran in uninvited, staring about at the gloom inside the building. He knew every inch of the dark, damp-stained walls; knew every creak in the floorboards and every patch of mould on the moth-eaten curtains; even though he had only been there once before. As he stepped forward a series of candles lit on his passing, marking the path ahead and allowing him to see something of the room. He saw the symbols painted on the wall, recognising that they had been written in blood. He saw the designs drawn with chalk on the floor and felt a chill come over his body; more intense than the chill from the cold wind outside.

"Michael." She stepped out of nowhere, walking towards him with her hands outstretched. He ran to her, sinking into her embrace.

"Maggie. I'm so glad I found you."

"Who did this to you?" She held him at arms length, admiring the handiwork of his attacker. He lowered his eyes.

"They turned on me. They knew that the beer was drugged, and they all jumped me. All of them."

"Liar." She laughed, amused by his sense of pride. "It was just one of them, wasn't it. The boy who joined them recently."

"I don't know." He lowered his eyes. "I never saw him before. Maggie, you've got to show him. You've got to help me get back at him for that. He showed me up in front of everybody. All my friends..."

"They aren't your friends." Smiling sweetly she led him to a chair and poured him a glass of red wine. He took it, drinking greedily. "I'm your friend, remember? You don't need them."

"Sure. Sure, I remember." He nodded hard. "But you will help me teach that new guy a lesson, right?"

"Of course." She gestured dismissively with one hand, as though such worries were of no concern to her. "Whatever you want, Michael." She leant closer to him, letting him feel her warmth. "Did any of them drink the beer?"

"No." He turned aside, looking angry. "The new boy stopped them. He said there was torus root in there." A frown passed its way across his face. "He said it was dangerous, but it's not, is it? It's just for fun."

"Of course it's just for fun. I wouldn't have let you drink it otherwise, would I." Her eyes narrowed. "Listen to me, Michael. I have to have your friends here to help me with something. You do want to help me, don't you?"

"Of course I do." There was utter rapture in his eyes as he stared at her. "I'd do anything for you, you know that."

"I know you would, darling." She pressed closer to him. "So let's make a little deal, shall we? I'll deal with Rupert Giles, if you'll get your friends for me. I won't hurt them." She smiled at him. "I won't hurt them at all."

"Rupert Giles?" He was frowning, and she ran her hand through his hair.

"The boy who did this to you." Gently she traced one of the bruises on his face with her fingertips. "He's very special, you know. I could do such things with him..."

"But you don't need him. You've got me." Michael's voice sounded cold, and she laughed lightly, pouring more wine into his glass.

"Of course I have you, my dearest Michael. But you want me to deal with Giles for you, don't you?"

"Yes." He drank the wine, his eyelids beginning to droop. "I'll get the others." He frowned suddenly, looking up at her through eyes that were clearly glazed. "Why do you want them?"

"Nothing much, Michael. Nothing for you to worry about." She smiled into his eyes as they closed, then waited until he was asleep before she stood up, pushing him roughly back into his chair. Her expression changed as she looked at him; the soft eyes turning hard and her mouth forming into a hard, vicious line.

"Just bring them all here, Michael dear," she whispered, her voice cold and unpleasant. "And I shall deal with the Watcher. I haven't had one of them since 1455." She chuckled to herself, and her tongue ran over her lips in feverish delight. "The web draws nearer, and soon the time shall be upon us all."

**********

"Rupert..." The voice was soft and insistent, and it seemed to come from somewhere far above him. Giles opened one reluctant eye and peered up at the ceiling. He could see nobody. He closed his eyes again, deciding that opening the second bottle of vodka had been a bad idea.

"Rupert..." The voice began again, sinking into his consciousness whether he wanted it to or not. "Rupert..."

"What?" He sat up straight, gazing about at the darkened room. The thick shutters on the windows let in none of the light of early dawn, and he could see little beyond the gloom save the posters of scantily-clad women which remained from Michael's time as the occupant. "Who the hell are you?"

"Mind your language." It was a firm, clear voice now, and he recognised it without enthusiasm.

"What do you want?"

"To talk to you." He thought that he saw a faint light before him, marking the rough shape of a person; but he could see no detail. "To speak to you about certain things."

"I don't need the birds and bees jive, dad." He lay back down, turning over to prepare once again for sleep, but something struck him in the back, throwing him from the bed. He hit the floor hard, leaping to his feet and spinning around.

"What'd you do that for?"

"To get you to listen, you idiot." There was clear anger in the voice. "What makes you think that you can speak to your father like that?"

"Hell, I wonder." Giles sat down on the bed, beginning to put on his shoes and socks. He had not got undressed for bed, having hardly been in any condition to attempt anything more complicated than lying down. Even that had seemed confusing when he had finally made it to his room. "You're dead, dad. Stay that way and butt out of my life, okay? I don't want you hanging round."

"What you want doesn't matter one tiny bit to me, Rupert." The vague lighted shape moved closer to him. "I have to warn you of certain things. You may be an arrogant prat at times, but you're still my son."

"Nice of you to remember." He pulled on his leather jacket. "Okay, make it quick dad. I have things to do."

"More books to buy for you and your warped friends? More spells to cast? You're a Watcher, Rupert. This is not you."

"How the hell do you know what's me? Do you even remember how old I am? Can you tell me my date of birth, or what I was studying at Oxford? Did you even know that that's where I was? This is me, dad, trust me. Get it through your head that I am not a Watcher. That little joy is falling on somebody else's shoulders right now. Just 'cause you wanted to go look after some woman who liked killing vampires doesn't mean I have to be in line for a similar career."

"It's your duty, boy." The light came closer, beginning to burn brighter. Giles turned away, trying to protect his eyes.

"To hell with my duty. I'm choosing my own way in life, and there's nothing that you can do about it." He walked towards the door. "What was it you wanted to say?"

"Nothing." As though somewhere a switch had been pressed, the light vanished. The voice hung in the air for a only few seconds more. "You won't listen to me, so maybe you had better choose your own path. If this is the road you really want to walk down, Rupert, I can't follow you there. You'll be walking on alone."

"Good." The young man pulled open his bedroom door, stalking out into the corridor beyond. Some strange worry caught at the back of his mind as he shut the door behind him and headed off down the stairs, but he crushed it quickly, turning to other thoughts instead. The visit by his father was no more than an echo of last night's sťance. He had no reason to think that it was anything else. He dug his hands into his pockets and headed out into the cold summer morning, trying to ignore the cheerful whistling of the milkman further down the street. If the strange inner sense trying to warn him of impending danger was anything to do with his heritage as a Watcher, he did not want to listen to it. He shut it out and quickened his step. He had business to do at Kensington Market.

**********

"Can I help you?" The man was old and wizened, and peered out at the world through half-closed eyes. He wore a long black coat, and his hands were lost inside woollen gloves.

"Maybe." Giles ran his eyes over the piles of books on the old man's stall. "I've been looking round the market, and this is the only place I haven't looked yet."

"Ah." The old man smiled knowingly. "People always come to me last; but I'm usually the only one who can help them. What is it that you're after?"

"Books." Giles rested his gaze on one in particular; a heavy looking tome entitled Vampires And The Forbidden World. "I'm a collector of books on the occult; magic, demons, darkness; all that sort of thing."

"You look a little young to be interested in such pastimes." The old man peered more closely at him. "How old are you? Eighteen? Nineteen?"

"Twenty-one." Giles allowed some distaste to creep into his voice. He disliked being patronised, particularly by old men who looked as though they belonged in a Home. "Now do you have anything that might interest me or don't you?"

"What's your field of interest?" the old man asked. Giles shrugged.

"Power," he said evenly. "Darkness. Excitement."

"I don't sell to glory-hunters. Only scholars need come here." The old man turned away, dismissing him in an instant, and sparks of rage began to burn in the young man's eyes.

"I am a scholar," he said, his voice becoming cold. "I study what I find interesting. And darkness intrigues me. I find it fascinating. Fun."

"It is never fun." The old man sighed. "I can sell you some books about vampires, and maybe some about demons; but there's nothing here that you couldn't find in any decent bookstore with a section on the occult."

"I beg to differ." Moving closer, Giles slid his hands into his pockets. "Now you listen to me, old man--"

"Trouble, Oscar?" An old woman, her hands hidden in the folds of a long cloak, wandered from the back of the stall, staring from the old bookseller to the young man confronting him. The old man laughed.

"Hardly. If this little pipsqueak thinks I can't handle him, he's got another think coming. You worried about me Edna?"

The old woman cackled softly, and leaned closer to Giles to get a look at him. "He's pretty, Oscar. I like that gold ring." Her fingers reached out to brush against the gold earring in Giles' left ear, and he jumped quickly back. She cackled again.

"Back off, old woman. I'm talking to him." Giles picked up a few of the books on the stall. "I want some stuff, old man; good stuff, that'll give me a blast, you know? Something hot."

"You don't know what you're getting yourself into, boy." The old woman peered at him through a pair of gold-rimmed opera glasses. "That sort of stuff is best left alone. Especially for people in your line of business."

"My line?" Giles frowned at her, wondering how much she knew. "Meaning?"

"You know what I mean, boy. One day you'll regret what you're doing now; unless you stop before it's too late. There are always repercussions in the future, when we deal with things we know nothing about."

"Mind your own business." He sunk his hands deeply into his pockets, pulling one slowly back out again, the fingers closed around a small flick-knife. The blade darted out. "Now wise up, old man, before I call up the fires of hell to burn this whole damn stall down. I'll fry the whole market place if I have to."

"I don't doubt it." The old man turned away, but Giles reacted quickly, jumping the stall easily and catching him by the arm. Behind the stall he could see numerous books, and one in particular caught his eye. He laughed.

"So this is where you keep the cool stuff. This is more like it." He picked up the book that was screaming most readily for his attention. "Now you two stay here and be good, and I won't be a bad boy."

"You'll regret this, Rupert Giles." The old woman smiled at his surprised expression. "Yes, I know you. I know of you, and I know about you. And you will regret the decisions that you are making. One day."

"Get lost, old woman." He vaulted back over the stall, grabbing a bag and slipping his prize into it. "See you around."

"If you live long enough." The old man shook his head, watching as the young fugitive escaped with the book. "That book is extremely powerful, Edna. Do you have any idea what an inexperienced boy could do with it?"

"I know." She laughed. "But that's his problem, not ours. He's the one who'll pay for it, if he lives. Him and his Slayer."

"Not our concern." Oscar shrugged noncommittally. "See you around, Edna."

"As you wish." She wandered back into the dark recesses of the stall and vanished. Almost immediately another figure approached the stall; a young, attractive woman in a long black shawl. Oscar raised his hand in greeting.

"Good morning Maggie. I'm sorry, but that book you ordered isn't here anymore."

"Rupert Giles took it. I know." She glanced over some of the other titles. "It doesn't matter. I'll have it back soon enough. You will regain it for me at the first opportunity."

"Sure. So, er... are you going to fry him?" There was a certain delight in the old man's eyes, and Maggie laughed.

"My dear Oscar, you do have a delightfully bloodthirsty side. As a matter of fact I haven't decided what to do about young Rupert just yet. I shall think of something."

"Word is you're after his whole gang." Oscar was clearly angling for details, and Maggie shrugged.

"People like that are few and far between, Oscar. They have started to move towards the dark path, but haven't gone far enough yet to cease to be innocents, at least in some respects. Caught halfway between good and bad; darkness and light. Their souls have certain powers which are not to be taken lightly."

"Fascinating." He smiled at her, then glanced in the direction taken by Giles. "I shall look forward to it."

"Please do." She laughed and picked up a book, flicking through its old and dusty pages. "And in the meantime... if you should happen to come across any spells involving Watchers, please let me know."

"Oh I will." He took the book from her and slipped it into a bag, handing it back. "The darkness is falling, isn't it. I can feel it coming."

"It's coming faster than we think." She smiled to herself, slipping the bag inside her shawl. "And the souls of our young Watcher and his friends are right at the centre of it all. I shall enjoy sucking each one dry." She pulled the shawl closer around her shoulders and turned to walk away, laughing softly to herself. "Death is the greatest revitaliser."

**********

"Hey Giles, my man." Raising his hands in greeting as his newest and closest friend entered the room, Ethan rose automatically to pour him a beer. "Where you been?"

"About." Giles held up a paper bag. "At Kensington Market mostly. Thought I'd hunt out that guy who sold June the book we were using last night."

"Hey, cool." Ethan took the bag, opening it with excited hands. Inside was a leather-bound book with decorations in gold leaf on the front. He turned it over, running his fingers over the gold-edged pages. "Now this is style, man. It must have cost a fortune."

"Little of this, little of that." Giles grinned. "People give me things; what can I say?"

"You mean you stole it." Ethan opened the book carefully, reading the title page. "Majick And Mysterye by AE Cummings. Wasn't he that Black Magician back in the last century?"

"Yep." Giles shrugged. "Figured it'd make a little cool light reading. The others will be out on the town tonight, as it's Friday. I figured you might want to stay in and do some research."

"You got it, pal." Ethan's eyes were alight with excitement. "Have you looked through it at all?"

"Bits. There's some really cool stuff towards the middle. Summonings and predictions; some really hot stuff about the other dimension." He carefully put the book back into its bag, then drank the beer Ethan had given him. "You want something to eat?"

"Sure, brother." The older man caught up his coat and slung it on. "Which restaurant shall we grace with our presence this fine day?"

"Somewhere warm." Giles grinned. "And somewhere with a table close to the doors."

"Naturally." Ethan opened the door, bowing low as he waved his partner through. "I fancy a little squid fried in ink... maybe some garlic potatoes... What d'you say?"

"Cheese burger and fries would suit me, but there's no challenge in stealing from a Wimpy." Giles shrugged. "Squid sounds good. I can live with that. Maybe a bottle of champagne."

"Or a fine burgundy. Who gives a damn? We ain't paying." They laughed, shutting the door behind them and heading off along the street. As soon as they were out of sight Michael appeared around a corner, a mercenary smile on his face. He stopped in front of the door to the house he had lived in for so long, then grinned broadly and unlocked it, vanishing into the interior. Maggie's voice whispered softly in his mind, and he began to climb the stairs.

"Michael." June appeared on the landing just as he arrived outside her bedroom door, and he grinned at her, his expression vacant. "What are you doing back here?"

"Visiting." He giggled softly, moving towards her. "Rayne and Giles are out. You're all alone in the house."

"Michael..." She backed away, her expression wavering between nervousness and hopeful certainty that she was safe with such an old friend. "Michael, were you wanting something? If you want to come back and live here with us, you know you're welcome."

"Not with Giles here I'm not." Michael advanced still further. "He's got you all believing in him, hasn't he. But he's not what he says he is."

"None of us are." There was a sharp edge to June's voice now, for she was rather taken with the newest member of their group. Not only was he good-looking and extremely intelligent, but his attitude was hotter than most rock stars; and he had an electric guitar in his room. She had heard him playing it when he thought that he was alone in the house, and to her undiscerning tastes he was the coolest man alive. "Giles is okay, Michael. You're only sore because he beat you last night. That's nothing to sweat over. I'll bet he could beat Ethan too."

"Well he won't beat me now." Michael reached out one hand, sliding it over her shoulder. "You're cold, June. Was it something I said?"

"I think you'd better leave now." She took another step back, but as she reached her bedroom door it slammed shut, startling her with the suddenness of its closing. She jumped, wondering what could have cause it to shut so abruptly.

"Don't try to shut me out, June." His voice had become sharp and cold, and his eyes reflected its new ice. He moved even closer to her, until his body was pressing against hers. His hands stroked her throat. "Can I ask you something?"

"No. Leave me alone." She tried to push past him, but he was too strong. His hands tightened on her neck, the thumbs pressing against either side of her trachea.

"Leave you alone? Now? Just when things are starting to get interesting?" He giggled at her, his eyes burning into hers. "Just one question June..."

"What?" Her voice was small, and she tried to keep from screwing her eyes closed.

"Have you ever wondered about death?"

"Death?" Her eyes snapped wide open. "What do you mean, death?"

"There's only one kind, June." His thumbs pressed harder. "Are you finding it hard to breathe yet?"

"Yes." Her voice was faint. He laughed.

"Well don't worry. I'm not going to strangle you." He saw the relief in her eyes, and giggled helplessly at her. "I'm going to rip your heart out." He raised one hand, the nails suddenly as long and sharp as daggers. June's eyes widened, and he ran the long nails down her cheek. "Goodnight June."

"No..." She tried to pull free, fighting him with her own nails, but he was far too strong, and seemingly impervious to her attacks. His long, claw-like nails stroked her chest, then dug sharply in. She gasped, her eyes bulging in sudden pain and shock.

"Michael..." She choked on the word, staring up at him as her legs gave way and she began to fall to the floor. He dug the nails in still further, then twisted sharply.

"What?"

"Why?" Her voice was almost gone, but still he heard her clearly. He shrugged.

"Why not." Slowly and deliberately he pulled her heart out, watching as the last of her life-force drained away. Her heart dangled from his long fingernails, spurting blood out at regular intervals. He watched it for a moment, seemingly mesmerised, then lifted it to his mouth.

**********

"You should have tried the oysters, man. They were incredible." Ethan reached for his keys as they approached the door to the house. Giles grimaced.

"No thankyou. Cold slimy things are not food."

"You're a Philistine, brother." The older man laughed as he fitted his key into the lock. "Did you see the look on the head waiter's face when he realised he wasn't going to catch us?"

"Yeah." Giles laughed, throwing open the front door as soon as his companion had unlocked it. "Poor sod nearly had a heart attack. Maybe we should have offered to give him the kiss of life."

"Are you kidding? He was pushing sixty, and looked like my Uncle Sidney." They entered the house. "Besides, I didn't want him to get that good a look at us. We might be able to go back there again." He stopped. "You feel that, Giles?"

"Yes." Giles pushed past him, taking the lead as they stepped into the main room on the ground floor. "Something's not right. I--" He froze. Lying on the floor not six feet away was a woman's leg. It had clearly been torn from her body, and lay pooled in blood. "Ethan..."

"June." Ethan spoke the word with utter certainty, breaking into a run. He cleared the rest of the room in barely a second, coming to a halt beside the large swing chair in the middle of the floor. It turned as he reached it, revealing Michael, a severed arm in his hands. He was chewing on one end of it, blood running in rivulets down his chin. Ethan backed away, paling visibly.

"Michael..." He could barely get the word out, but all that his one-time comrade seemed able to do was laugh softly at him.

"Hello Ethan."

"Michael, how - how--" He took another step back. "What the hell is going on here?"

"Keep away from him." Giles caught up with his friend, his flick-knife in his hand. "He's gone, man."

"Like, totally." Michael rose to his feet, spinning the severed arm in his hands like a club. "My mother always told me never to play with my food, but what the hell. She blew her head on drugs nearly twenty years ago. Who gives a damn what she thinks?"

"What happened, Michael?" Ethan began to advance on him again, but Giles held him back.

"Leave it, man. You can't rationalise with him. He's with her now."

"Who?" There was frustration and something very like fear in Ethan's voice, but Giles still seemed immensely calm.

"Maggie. She's some kind of witch. This is a ritualistic killing, and if I'm not mistaken, we're next on the list." He tightened his grip on the knife, although realistically there was little that he could do with it. His eyes strayed to the stairs. "I wonder if anybody else was home."

"Nobody else." Michael took a step towards them, his voice sinking to a whisper. "You're good, Giles, I'll give you that. They've taught you well so far, haven't they?" He laughed a low, guttural laugh. "But you're wrong about one thing. I want Ethan's heart next, not yours. Maggie is going to deal with you personally."

"Lucky me." The flick-knife danced from right hand to left and back again. "But if you want them, you have to come through me."

"No problem." Michael advanced still further, the nails of his right hand growing into the long, dagger-like protuberances that he had used to such effect on June. "Maybe now that she's given me these powers, I won't need her to fix you for me."

"Get back." With a sudden forward movement, Ethan threw himself between Michael and Giles. The severed arm thumped into his chest, and he felt his feet leave the floor. Whatever strength Michael had put behind the blow clearly was not his own, for without any obvious effort he sent Ethan flying across the room. The young man landed in a heap, the breath knocked from his body.

"Too easy." Michael laughed. "Come and get me, Giles. Come on."

"Delighted." Flexing his fingers, Giles moved forward. He feinted to the left with his knife, watching as Michael moved with the bluff, then dodged sharply in the opposite direction, knife stabbing upwards. It grazed the other man just below the ribs, but Michael moved too quickly for any real damage to be done. He swung June's arm round, catching Giles a powerful blow across the back, which knocked him to the ground.

"Giles!" Ethan began to stumble to his feet, watching helplessly as Michael kicked his opponent in the ribs, sending him rolling across the floor. Before the older man had made it halfway to the pair, however, Giles was back on his feet. He tightened his fingers around the handle of his flick-knife, eyes bright.

"That the best you can do, Mikey?" he asked. Michael stretched his arms out to either side of his body, and laughed loudly.

"You're a dead man, Giles!" With a flash of sparks he rose into the air, his body seeming to grow as he rose higher. Giles' eyes widened at this new trick, but he stood his ground.

"So what? You've been dead since you fell in with Maggie, you jerk." His knuckles whitened around the handle of his knife. "How does it feel to be somebody else's slave? To know that your mind isn't your own?"

"Maybe you'd like to find out!" With a roar of rage Michael swooped down towards Giles, his long fingernails reaching out to grasp at their target. Giles felt them scratch at his arm, but even as his foe came towards him he was moving out of the way. He let himself ride the blow, ducking beneath the other man's legs. He caught hold of the flailing feet, holding on with a grip of iron, and spun Michael around.

"Still here, Mikey?" he asked, his voice low. He heard Ethan moving towards him and did not look back at him. "Stay out of this, Ethan."

"But--"

"I said stay out of it." Without pausing for further conversation, Giles drew back, delivering a mighty punch to his enemy's stomach which dropped him into a heap on the ground. Michael fought back to his feet, his hands lashing out at any available target. His fingernails sliced through Ethan's arm, and blood began to seep through the gang leader's sleeve. The sight of it made Michael's breathing quicker, and he swung towards his old friend, eyes wide.

"Dammit Ethan, I told you to stay back!" Giles caught Michael by the arm, but was flung aside as the other man flew towards Ethan. Rayne threw up his arms to protect himself, only to feel himself being lifted off his feet. His eyes widened. All of his not inconsiderable strength was useless against the wild beast that his friend had become. He had a vision of bright, mad eyes coming closer and closer towards him, then Giles was grabbing at Michael's legs and holding on tight. Together, connected by sheer rage, the threesome rose higher and higher into the air, until Ethan felt the ceiling scrape at the top of his head. They were far above the floor, hovering in the stairwell where the ceiling was at its highest. He froze, terrified that Michael would let him go.

"I'm going to tear your heart out Ethan!" The cry came from Michael's throat, and used his voice, but there was nothing in it that Rayne could possibly recognise. He stole a quick glance down at Giles, and saw to his surprise that his friend had pulled a crucifix from out of his shirt. It hung on a silver chain around his neck. Slowly and deliberately, and with apparent great relish, he pressed it firmly against Michael's leg.

There was a scream of rage and pain such as nothing that Ethan had ever heard before in his life. He felt the grip on his shirt go slack and his heart leapt into his mouth; then suddenly he was sinking towards the ground. He clung onto Michael's wrist, staring into the wild eyes that he no longer knew.

"Damn you, Giles!" Throwing Ethan aside, Michael spun around, his hands searching for a grip on the elusive young man. He caught only at the air, for Giles himself was too quick. He caught up the nearest chair, smashing it against the wall, and held up a chair leg. Michael grinned.

"What do you plan to do with that? I'm not a vampire, Giles. You try and stake me and it won't do you a scrap of good. She has my soul in a glass jar."

"I'm very pleased for both of you." Giles advanced, a crooked grin on his face. "I'm not going to stake you, Mikey. That would be way too simple." He spun the chair leg in his hands. "Come get me."

"With pleasure." Michael took to the air, flying towards Giles with a whoop of glee. Giles watched him come, eyes wide but calm. He seemed to be counting under his breath, and at the last possible second, when Ethan was beginning to think that all was over, he leapt aside. The chair leg slammed down onto Michael's back, and Giles, his movements practised and graceful, was on the fallen man in seconds, kneeling on his back and holding him down with an arm around his neck. Michael struggled, but try as he might he could not get the upper hand.

"What's wrong, Mikey? Your little encounter with the crucifix steal your strength?" Giles grinned, the look on his face unpleasant. Michael mumbled something that Ethan could not catch, and he started forward, anxious to give his friend a hand.

"Keep back, Ethan." Giles pressed harder against Michael's neck. "Sure, pal, I know it's only temporary. But that's not going to matter." His free hand tightened around the chair leg. "Ready for this, sunshine?"

"Are you ready for Doomsday?" The words barely escaped from his constricted throat, but still Michael was able to sound sullen. Giles scowled down at him.

"Sorry pal. No time for last words." He drew back, his arm leaving Michael's throat, and for a second Ethan thought that he was letting the man go; then suddenly, with a force that his relatively slight figure did not begin to hint at, Giles swung the chair leg. It slammed into the back of Michael's head, smashing his face into the floor. Again and again Giles raised the makeshift club, and again and again it fell, until there was nothing left of Michael's skull but a bloodied, broken mess.

"Giles..." Sounding aghast Ethan stepped forward, but Giles was not finished yet. He gestured for the other man to keep his distance, then ran for the bottle of vodka which always stood on the mantelpiece. Returning with it quickly, he poured it over the body, which was already beginning to twitch. He stepped back, lighting a match.

"Giles, are you nuts?" Ethan took a step forward, but Giles, his expression set firm, dropped the match onto the vodka-soaked body. It burst instantly into flame, and for a single, terrifying second a scream ripped forth from Michael's throat, hanging in the air above the two young men; then there was silence and the fire vanished. There was nothing left of Michael save the buckle of his belt. Only a fine, powdery residue on the carpet showed where he had been.

"I..." Ethan staggered over to the place where the dead body had ceased to exist, and sat down rather heavily on a wooden footstool. "What was - I mean, how - how--" He stared up at Giles. "What the hell was that Giles? You--" His eyes widened. "You killed him! Damn, man, you killed him!"

"I didn't do it. He was already dead. Maggie probably killed him that night he left us." Giles felt suddenly weak, and sank to the floor, his head hanging. "I wasn't sure I was going to be able to do that."

"You did more than I could have done." Ethan frowned. "Those moves... You looked like you'd been taught to fight; by somebody who really knew what they were doing. You want to tell me a little more about yourself Giles? Like how the hell you knew how to kill that... that thing in Michael's body? And how come you were wearing a crucifix? You don't look like Mr Faith."

"I'm not. Not really." His strength sapped, Giles leaned against the nearest solid object, a heavy chair stained with blood that he presumed was June's. "I - I didn't exactly tell you the truth about myself."

"Gee, you don't say." Ethan shook his head. "Spill, Giles. Now. I think it's only fair."

"Yeah, I guess." Giles closed his eyes. "I - I come from a long line... a... tradition of... of people with... special destinies."

"Well that's comprehensive." Ethan shook his head. "We're friends, Giles, right? Now I want to know what's going on, because - and correct me if I'm wrong here - but this does not look like your ordinary everyday occurrence to me. Old tenants do not usually come back and tear my friends to shreds! They do not usually try to tear my heart out, and nor do they start to fly around the room. Not as a rule, anyway. I want to know what you know, and I want to know it now."

"I'm a Watcher." Giles spoke the words softly, his head hanging slightly. "Or at least I will be. Well, I--" He sighed. "Unto every generation a--"

"Slayer is born," finished Ethan. "Yeah, I know that. A girl, who comes along and tries to wipe out all the vampires and demons and things. Super strength, all that sort of thing." He frowned. "You're a Watcher? I mean, you're the guy who's supposed to train her? Get her ready for her whole big destiny thing? You've got to be kidding."

"I'm not." If it were possible, Giles' head hung still lower. "I - I'm sorry that I didn't tell you, but this isn't the sort of thing that I like to spread around. I - I figured you'd understand. You guys aren't exactly the usual London citizens and all, but well--" He sighed. "I don't want any of it, you know? Why should I have to give up my life to train some girl to fight demons I might just want to get to know a little better? Why should I risk my life fighting things that I have no quarrel with?" He kicked at the leg of Ethan's footstool. "It's not fair, man. Why do I have to have this whole destiny thing to live up to? It isn't easy you know. Having to learn quarter-staffing and fencing and clap-trap when all the other kids are out playing football. Having to read about demons and vampires when the other kids are reading The Beano. This is not a fun way to live your life."

"So you dropped out, huh." Ethan stared at him for several seconds, then sighed. "You are full of surprises, pal."

"I try." Giles smiled up at him. "So, er... what happens now?"

"What happens now is that we get the gang together and go kick Maggie's butt." Ethan hauled his friend to his feet. "This is getting way too weird around here for me, and I say the sooner we waste the witch, the better. Then we can get back to the nice, pleasant things in life, like Black Magic and shop lifting." He was silent for a second. "We won't tell the others. At least not yet; about you I mean."

"Thanks." Giles looked towards the torn pieces of June's body. "What do we do about the mess?"

"Get a bag from the kitchen. We'll bury her in the garden as soon as its dark." Ethan smiled, feeling surprisingly strong and resolute. "This is war, Giles. June was my friend."

"Yeah." Giles fingered the crucifix around his neck. "Well if you're looking for a showdown with Maggie, you won't have long to wait. She's going to come to finish what Michael started."

"Good." Ethan grinned. "Well we've got an ace up our sleeves, buddy. We've got you."

"Yeah." Giles bent to pick up Michael's belt buckle, staring at the design on the metal. "Well believe me, man; we're going to need everything I've got."

**********

"I don't believe this. Michael killed June?" Philip shook his head. "No way, man. That just doesn't jive. Why?"

"Because he fancied a quick snack," muttered Giles darkly. "Look, I'll go out there and dig up the pieces of her that we managed to find, if you really want. Maybe you can compare the bite radius with Michael's dental records."

"Hey, I'm not knocking you, man. You say he did it, he did it." Philip had no desire to incur the wrath of Rupert Giles; his temper was already famous in the locality, and one did not risk its unleashing unless drunk enough to cushion the blow. "I'm just getting at why? I always thought he was hot for her."

"He was." Ethan shrugged, slumping back in his easy chair with his feet dangling over one of the arms. He puffed on a cigarette and gazed up at the ceiling. "Giles thinks this Maggie is probably some serious sorceress. Michael said that she had his soul. Question is, why?" Eyebrows raised he looked across at Giles, who shrugged.

"There are eight of you. Eight is a potent number. We're virtually at midsummer, and that's a powerful time of the year if you know what you're doing." He chewed idly on his chewing gum, jaws working soundlessly as though empowering his mind. "Hell I don't know. My guess is she's looking to summon something; or free something maybe. Something from the other dimension." He shrugged again. "Guess we'll have to ask her."

"No thankyou." Thomas shook his head, staring at the fire. "What's to stop her killing us, the way Michael killed June? I'm not going to be lunch for some demon thing." He frowned suddenly, looking up. "If she's trying to summon something, why don't we just help her? I mean this could be the break we're looking for, right? I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little tired of sitting around here watching Deirdre trying to put spells on kitchen appliances. Why can't we just go along there, introduce ourselves, and go with the flow?"

"Yeah." Harris glanced up. "Could work, right?"

"Hardly. If she needs your souls to free it, it's not coming until you're dead, moron." Giles slumped into a chair some way from the rest of the group. "Whatever power and opportunities it's bringing with it, it's not going to be much good to any of us if we're all dead before it gets here." He rolled his head towards Ethan, staring at his confederate. "Maybe there's something in one of our books."

"They're all about Black Magic, not how to defeat the dark side." Ethan shook his head. "We'd need books on White Magic to do that."

"Okay, then maybe there's something else we can summon that will do our fighting for us. Some other demon, or - or a giant snake or something?" Deirdre jumped to her feet, beginning to pace. "Somebody somewhere has got to know how to fight these things, right? A Catholic Priest?"

"A Catholic Priest wouldn't come within three miles of this place." Randall giggled, relighting his fading cigarette. "Not since Ethan tried to get the choir to sing Sympathy For The Devil at the last Church meeting he went to."

"I was bored." Their leader rose to his feet, stubbing his cigarette out on the back of his chair. "Okay, let's think this through. Giles, do you know anything, anything at all, that might help us? Think hard. Maybe a book you've read, or whatever. You're our expert on the creepier things in life."

"We're talking long term planning here. Somebody had to have known that we were all going to be together at this time. Think of the preparation; getting Michael over first, coming for June when she was alone in the house. If you take a look outside the windows in the middle of the day, there are people walking up and down the streets in T-shirts; this is supposed to be one of the hottest summers for years. So how come we're so cold? This has got to all be linked. I was cold too, the night I first met you, so I was already a part of all this. It has to have been in one of the prophecies. Us, together here and now. That has to be important."

"But who could have known that we would all be here now?" Deirdre stared up at him, frowning at his earnest face. "You really think that somebody has been preparing for this time?"

"Yes, I do. There are too many coincidences otherwise, and there's no such thing as an accident in prophecy and magic." He frowned. "Somebody knows more than they're letting on."

"Not one of us?" Thomas asked. Giles shook his head.

"No. They want to kill all of us. It has to be somebody else." His eyes widened. "That's it! The - the bookstall. Kensington Market! When I got that book there this morning, the people there knew me. Knew my name, everything. June got a book there too, remember? She might have been there any number of times, and they sure know enough about magic." He hesitated. "I'll get the book."

"You really think that some old bookseller is mixed up with Maggie?" Ethan shrugged. "Well, whatever you say." He watched as his companion ran up the stairs, returning moments later with the large, heavy book still in its bag. He tipped it out onto the settee, flicking through the pages.

"There has to be something here..."

"Like what? The bookseller's phone number?" Deirdre smiled, screwing the paper bag up into a ball. Her hands met resistance, and she peered inside the bag to see what was in there. A small piece of yellow card caught her attention. "What's this?"

"What's what?" Giles looked up at the object, then let out a whoop and snatched it from her hands. "Perfect! Deirdre you're a genius!"

"I am?" She frowned in confusion, watching as his bright green eyes scanned the piece of card. "What is it?"

"It's a reserved card." He grinned at her, then turned the smile onto the rest of the gang. "This book was reserved for some woman called Maggie. It's got her phone number on it. I think we're in business."

"Her phone number?" Amazed, Ethan took the card, staring at the number written on it. "I guess it's worth taking the chance, but if this turns out just to be somebody's granny, you're doing the explaining. I'll call Directory Inquiries and get the address, you others get ready to rock. We've got a lady to visit."

**********

"Ethan?" They walked down the road together, a band of seven giving way to no one, filled with the attitude and confidence that came from ganghood. Giles and Ethan took the centre positions; Giles in his leather jacket, collar turned up, and Ethan in his long fur coat. There was something sinister about the group, and nobody that they met in the street challenged their prerogative to take up the entire pavement as they walked.

"Yes?" Rayne turned his head slightly to look at Giles, who was silent for a moment before answering.

"Doesn't this seem a little easy to you?"

"Easy?" Ethan sounded confused. "We're heading towards almost certain destruction at the hands of some truly weird woman with a thing for soul-napping. This is easy?"

"I don't mean that. I mean finding the phone number. Call me suspicious, but I don't think demons and witches tend to leave their telephone numbers lying around for the good guys to find."

Ethan grinned. "We're not the good guys." He saw the serious look on his friend's face and sighed. "You're worried. You think this is a trap."

"Yes, I think this is a trap." Giles rolled his eyes. "Come on, pal, don't tell me you don't find this a little--"

"Of course I do!" Ethan was purposely keeping his voice low, and he pulled ahead of the others to ensure that their conversation remained private. "Giles, this has been screaming 'trap' at me since we discovered June's body; it was like bait. I just - well I think some risks are worth taking, that's all. I'm not planning to sit back and let this go on. This is my turf."

"I don't think squatters' rights apply with demons." Giles rubbed his eyes, evidently stressed and tired. "Ethan, this all seemed like a good idea back at the house. I - I was all fired up. But don't you think that it's - well I don't know - maybe just a little crazy? The seven of us, with - what - three flick-knives and a crucifix between us? Against Maggie and who knows what sort of allies she has lying around... I just think we're heading for disaster here."

"I never thought you were a coward, man." Ethan slowed to a halt, surprising the rest of the group, who had heard nothing of their conversation. "You want to turn back?"

"No! No, it's not that." Giles did not sound entirely convinced. "I--"

"Listen, Giles; you're either with us or you're not. You want to hang with me, and be in my gang, you gotta take the rough with the smooth. You're with us all the way - no matter what we do - or you're out. Understand?"

"I understand." Giles stared at the ground. "I'm with you, Ethan. For better or for worse."

"You better be, bud, 'cause there's no going back." Ethan grinned, as though he were a father proud at some success of his son's. "I knew you were going places when I met you. Now we get to find out, huh?"

"Yeah, sure." Giles flashed him a weak smile. "I guess."

"There a problem, Ethan?" Deirdre asked, coming up behind them. The leader glanced towards her, smiling slightly.

"No, no problem. I was just telling Giles here that I don't give a damn if this is dangerous. We have got to assert our rights. Which-" he pulled a small bag from within the folds of his long coat- "is why I've brought us a few little toys along." He opened the bag, revealing the dull, dark glow of street lamps on gunmetal. "I could only get three. I know I can handle them. Anybody else want to be a hero?"

"Sure, no problem." Giles took one of the guns, checking it over as though it were second nature. "Silver bullets?"

"Are you kidding? I had to get these from my underworld contact. He just does the usual lead ones." Ethan laughed. "Don't sweat it, we'll be okay." He flipped the gun in his hands. "We're ready for this, right? This is what we've been looking for. After tonight, nobody will challenge us. This is our patch."

"This isn't a gang war, Ethan." Harris sounded doubtful, but Ethan laughed at him.

"Sure it is, man. Maybe it's not about street gangs, but it's still the same thing. We're looking for that step up the ladder; the way to the top. Well this is it; our big chance. After tonight, every magician and demon chaser in London will have heard of us. It'll open doors; new knowledge, new spells - the chance to really make our mark. Real power." He handed Giles a small box of ammunition, then passed the third gun to Thomas. "Death is a justifiable risk. Right?"

"Right." Deirdre nodded hard, rubbing her hands together. "Fighting these guys may be what gets us a little closer to supremacy. Maybe one day we'll be the ones stealing the souls." She smiled at the others, who one by one smiled back. Ethan grinned in triumph and held out his fist.

"Together," he said loudly. One by one the others placed their own fists by his, forming a circle in the now deserted road. "We make our way by darkness," he told them. "We may kill others, and we may search for chaos, but we are still together."

"Together," Philip echoed. Thomas followed suit, then Deirdre, Randall and Harris. Giles grinned.

"Darkness," he said softly. "Hell, if I'm going to die at least it'll be in good company." His fist tightened until the knuckles gleamed white. "Together."

"Forever," Ethan finished, then stepped back, abruptly breaking the circle. "Alright, guys and girl, lets get to it." He pointed down a side street. "This way to judgement day. Me and Giles will lead the way. You others follow on. Don't all come in at once, we may need the backing. Okay Giles?"

"Okay." Giles grinned at him, all doubt gone. "I'm right behind you brother."

"Then let's do it." They hurried together down the side street, aware of the increasing darkness and the intensifying cold. The walls on either side of them seemed to be growing closer and higher, hemming them in; but neither man hesitated. Their stride did not slow until they stood before the large, heavy black door that could only have been the one they sought. A row of stone gargoyles were arranged above the lintel, staring down at the pair with dead, blank eyes that seemed to see all.

"Get us in." Ethan glanced about, looking for any sign that they were being watched. He could see nothing and nobody, but was nonetheless sure that they were being kept under close scrutiny. Eyes seemed to be everywhere, burning into the back of his skull; yet still his confidence and certainty did not ebb. Giles seemed to share his convictions, and made short work of the lock on the door. Slowly the door swung open, revealing darkness and damp air beyond.

"Lovely place." Ethan wandered into the room, glancing about. All was murky and cold, and vague clouds of vapour seemed to rise from the floor. Their straining eyes caught sight of the symbols and patterns painted on the walls. Giles went closer to them, reaching out with gently questioning fingertips.

"Blood," he said authoritatively. "I don't know what they're all for, but my guess is that it's some way of focussing power; it probably acts like some... giant radio transmitter, for whatever it is Maggie has got planned."

"And our souls are the last piece of the puzzle," guessed Ethan. Giles nodded.

"At the stroke of midnight on midsummer's day she'll do something with them... some spell or incantation. And that's when it all happens."

"Very good." The voice was clear and musical, and came from somewhere indeterminate. Both men swung about, guns raised, searching out the source of the voice. They could see nothing but vapour and darkness.

"Where are you?" Frowning into the gloom, Ethan strained his ears for any sound. "Come on out!"

"If you insist." She walked out of nowhere, appearing from the midst of a faint burst of greenish light that erupted in the middle of the room. "Welcome to my humble home. Come to borrow some coffee?"

"You're Maggie?" Ethan frowned at her, certain that he had seen her somewhere before. She laughed back at him.

"Of course I am. What's wrong? Were you expecting some ancient hag with a long nose? I can do that, if you'd prefer." Her features blurred and changed, settling into those of a time-ravaged old woman, with wild grey hair and deep wrinkles. She laughed, her voice changing to a hoarse cackle. "Is this better?" Abruptly her form was changing again, and she stood before them once more as a young, strikingly beautiful woman. Her hair and eyes were dark, her skin strangely pale, and her face deeply compelling. She smiled at them both, holding out her hands. "Come to me."

"Not likely." Ethan pointed his gun at her. "We've come here to kill you."

"You have?" Her surprise was clearly contrived. "I say, that isn't terribly friendly. Wouldn't you like a little of what I gave Michael? I'm sure I could handle both of you."

"Shut up." Giles stepped forward, his gun raised to point straight at her head. "We're not interested in your games. You killed June."

"Oh yes, June." She smiled at him, her voice taking on a faintly intoxicating lilt. "I have her soul right here. Michael's too. They're ready and waiting for the other six to join them."

"Then they'll have a long wait." Giles took another step forward, and she cocked her head on one side, watching his approach without concern.

"You're Rupert Giles, the Watcher."

"I am not a Watcher." His grip tightened on his gun. "I never was and I never will be. I've renounced all of that."

"You're still a Watcher, Giles. It's inside you, and it can't come out." She laughed. "Unless I rip it out. What'll it be? I can give you the freedom you'll never get in life."

"You're mad." He took another step forward, his fury clearly growing, and she smiled on.

"Yes Giles, quite mad. Of course I am, it goes with the territory. But how about you? How dark is your soul? How deep does your madness run? Are you ready to commit your whole existence to the dark side, or are you still a lily-livered Slayer's servant at heart?"

"Why you--" He jumped at her without warning, but she moved aside in the briefest of seconds, her laughter echoing all about the room. Ethan ran forward, catching his friend by the arm.

"Cool it man. She's trying to wind you up."

"Well she's succeeding." He took a deep breath, looking about for the witch. "Where the hell is she now?"

"Everywhere." He felt a tap on his shoulder and turned, but there was nobody there. "Or perhaps it's nowhere. I forget." She reappeared seconds later, standing a few feet away. "This is fun. Nobody ever told be murder would be so cool." A low chuckle escaped her throat. "I love your colloquialisms. Michael taught them to me."

"I've had enough." Ethan stepped forward, gun raised. "We wanted to give you the chance to back off, but if you're not going to listen, the game's over. Leave here now. This is our town, and we'll be the one's to decide what happens in it. If anybody's going to start creating chaos, it'll be us."

"You?" She moved closer to him, smiling broadly. "You? A pair of children who know nothing? Who think that they can threaten me with guns?" She threw her arms wide. "Take your best shots, both of you. See what damage your little weapons can do me. Go on. Fire."

"You asked for it." Ethan stiffened his arm, hesitating for only the briefest of seconds before he fired. After a moment, Giles joined in. Their combined fire struck Maggie in the chest, knocking her back into the wall. Blood erupted from her body, pouring in a sudden torrent down her chin. She screamed, her arms and legs flailing as the bullets struck her; then all of a sudden she was silent. They ceased firing, and she began to laugh. At once the blood was gone, and she stood before them unharmed, a broad grin on her face.

"See? You're powerless against me. Nothing that you do can hurt me. I will have your souls, and you--" She looked straight at Giles. "Weak and foolish though Michael was, I intend to keep my promise to him. I shall destroy you too, in perhaps a little more imaginative a way."

"Not before we destroy you." Ethan glanced sideways at Giles, wondering exactly where to begin. His eyes scanned the room, coming to rest on the unlit candles, and he remembered the way that Michael had finally been destroyed. "Right Giles?" There was no answer. "Right Giles?"

"Right." He took a step forward, catching on to the edge in his friend's voice which warned him of a plan. "You're history, Maggie."

"Says who?" Her eyes flickered away from him for a second, and he saw amusement reflected in her face. "Well look who it is."

"What-?" He turned, knowing that he should not take his eyes from her, but unable not to. Harris, a heavy looking crowbar in his hands, stood by the door. He stared into the gloom, trying to make some sense of the shapeless figures before him.

"Harris, get back." Giles started towards his comrade, then changed his mind and looked back at Maggie. She looked gleeful, as though this was somehow following her plans exactly. Fear struck at him. "Harris, get out of here!"

"We're all in this together, Giles." Harris waved the crowbar about. "I'm gonna smash that witch's head into so much powder she'll wish she'd never left hell."

"Keep back." Backing away from Maggie, Giles headed towards Harris. "You're playing right into her hands, man! Get out of here. Get the others back to a safe distance."

"There is no safe distance tonight, Giles." With a low laugh, Maggie took off, hovering slowly a few feet above the ground. "Tonight I take the souls of the eight, and the doors to the next dimension will open before me."

"Tonight?" Giles glanced back at her. "But it's not midsummer's day yet."

"You made that link, not me." She grinned at him. "It's tonight that the constellations form the necessary patterns. Tonight that the links are made." She pointed at the nearest wall, and the symbols painted on it began to glow, a fierce, hard red. Giles cast a quick look towards Ethan, who was busy lighting candles at the side of the room.

"Get the others out of here, Harris." His heart cold and heavy, Giles turned back to Maggie. He had been right; it had all been a trap, to bring them here where they would all be together for the final steps of Maggie's plan. He hoped that the fear did not show in his eyes; he did not particularly want to lose his new friends, and especially did not want to find out what it was that Maggie had planned for him.

"You can't order me around, Giles. You can't take all the glory." Harris advanced still further, the flickering lights of the newly lit candles catching his attention. "What are you doing, Ethan?"

"What-?" Maggie turned, seeing the young man earnestly lighting the little flames. Rage burst across her face. "No!"

"Come and get it, witchy." With a hard blow, Ethan sent the candles spinning from the table. They hit the ground, skittering about, sparks flying. With a sudden burst of flame, a curtain caught fire.

"You will die for this! The walls!" Maggie reared up, her body seeming to grow. Her hair fanned out away from her face, and with a scream of rage she threw back her head and her arms; just as there was a splintering of glass at the other side of the room. Randall and Thomas, the latter's gun already shouting, skidded to a halt beside the sill, struggling to retain their balance on smooth, damp floorboards that were covered with broken glass.

"Keep back!" Giles gestured to them wildly, seeing them run and duck for cover. Ethan also ran forward, heading for the coldly determined Harris, who was still advancing.

"Come on, Harry," he urged, his eyes fixed on the witch above them, her mad, deathly pale face reflecting the wild lights of the flames. "Come on!"

"No!" Pushing Ethan aside Harris went the rest of the way, standing directly beneath the hovering witch. She turned her eyes down towards him, her outstretched hands beginning to glow.

"Harris!" Ethan took a step towards his friend, then saw the figure of the woman above them beginning to change. No longer was she young and beautiful, but instead her face was marked with ridges of bone, long sharp teeth grinning at them from behind swollen red lips. She laughed shortly, and hurled herself forward. She struck Harris in the chest, the force of the impact lifting him off his feet and carrying him into the air. Giles saw his eyes open wide with fear; then suddenly his helpless body was free of the witch's grasp and he was in free-flight, his arms waving desperately in an attempt to slow his mad rush.

"Look out!" Thomas, still half-hidden in his vantage point at the other end of the room, loosed off a shot at the witch, but she gave no sign of it having affected her. Harris, his last shot of desperation swallowed by the sound of the gunshot, crashed into Ethan who had no time to move aside. They went down together, the breath knocked out of both of them in the force of the landing, and they landed in a heap of tangled limbs. Ethan struggled, but could not make it to his feet. From Harris there was barely a sign of life.

"Now you." She turned to Thomas, who ducked behind a chair to escape her immediate sight. She moved towards him, raising her hands above her head. "Four birds with one explosion ought to do the trick."

"Maggie!" Giles, standing beneath her, looked up as she drew nearer to Thomas, and she looked back at him in surprise.

"The Watcher. To think that I might have forgotten about you. When I release my surprises from hell, Watcher, I intend to see that you stay there to replace them. Imagine being torn limb from limb by a fleet of insane demons eager for their first taste of human blood in millennia!" Her hands glowed with white fire, and she raised them above her head. "Time to go to sleep, little boy."

With a yell of pure relish she flexed her fingers, and bolts of hot white light erupted from within them, just as Giles threw himself aside. The twin blasts slammed into the ground, sufficient in their power to knock him from his feet, but unable to do any serious damage without a direct hit. He scrambled to his feet again, watching out of the corner of his eye as Randall slipped out of hiding, heading for the flaming curtain nearby. He caught hold of a small wooden table that was beginning to catch, and broke off a big enough chunk to use as a torch.

"You really think that you can dodge me forever?" Bearing down on the young renegade Watcher with a frightening turn of speed, Maggie raised her hands again. "You can't run forever, Rupert."

"I'm not trying to run." Coming to a sudden halt, he lifted his gun, pointing it straight at her face as she rushed towards him. "I don't need to."

"Don't you?" The blasts of white fire erupted from her fingers, and this time he did not move aside. They struck him in the centre of his chest, and his whole body arched as the force of her power slammed into him. He was lifted into the air from the force of the blow, and felt himself smashing into the table in the centre of the room. It held his weight easily, but the bottles of murky and coloured liquids which lined the tabletop fell together to the floor, smashing in a pool of viscous mess which instantly caught fire. Giles struggled from the table, watching as the array of potions and liquids fed the fire into a sudden, almighty flash which leapt ceilingward, snatching at Maggie's dress.

"Catch this!" Coming at Maggie from behind, Randall whirled his flaming brand, its fiery tip entangling itself in the material of her cloak. It ignited in seconds and she screamed, her clothes beginning to flame.

"Damn you!" Dragging the cloak and dress clear of her skin she flew higher into the air, trying to escape the sudden heat below and around her. It was a heat that was beginning to get to Giles and his friends as well, and together the group fell back, staring up at the now half-dressed witch, with the face of an enraged demon. She stared down at them, her red eyes glowing through the haze of heat and smoke.

"Now what?" Wiping the tears caused by the smoke from his eyes, Ethan caught Giles by the arm. "She's still alive, man. What do we do next?"

"I don't know!" His throat filled with smoke and fumes, Giles had trouble getting the words out, and had to fight back the cough which hung in his chest. "We have to get out of here, or we're all going to die."

"But she won't! We can't leave her alive, or she'll be after us. We have to kill her." Ethan saw his gun lying on the floor nearby and made a grab for it, only to find it too hot to hold. It fell with a clatter and he grabbed at his hand in pain. "Dammit!"

"This way!" The voice was clear and calm, and it came from the window where Thomas and Randall had made their entrance. Deirdre stood there, crouched on the windowsill, a bottle of cheap beer in her hands. She threw it like a molotov cocktail, watching without emotion as it spun through the air and crash landed in the centre of the fire, fuelling the flames sill further. Maggie twisted her head around a full one hundred and eighty degrees, staring at this latest guest with clear fury.

"The would-be witch." She laughed shortly, seeming to forget the fire as she turned towards Deirdre. "The one who thinks that she can be as good as me."

"Maybe I can." Deirdre raised her hands, but Maggie laughed, her own hands beginning to glow again.

"I don't think so." She drew back, preparing for a shot at the girl, but in the same moment a pair of hands pushed a second bottle of beer at Deirdre, and she took the hint, throwing it directly at Maggie. It caught her in the chest, splintering instantly, and the alcohol rained down onto the flames. They leapt up towards it, hungry and anxious, catching at the witch's feet and causing her to scream in rage. Black smoke rolled from the soles of her feet, and she danced high into the air.

"Come on, quickly. While she's still busy." Scrambling up next to Deirdre, Philip waved the others onward, and they hurried towards them. They heard the anguished cry of the witch above them, and in the same moment the front door caved in. There was the sound of fierce shrieking, and three large grey shapes flew in, on wings that seemed too small to support them.

"The gargoyles!" Backing away from this new threat, Ethan stared in amazement. "It's the gargoyles from above the door!"

"Of course it's not." His voice filled with scorn, Harris snatched at Giles' gun, pushing him aside. "I'll soon deal with them." He raised the gun, firing a succession of shots at the threesome, none of whom showed any signs of discomfort. "Damn."

"Harris, come on!" Deirdre looked up towards Maggie, who still hung just above the reaches of the fire, which was now in danger of consuming the entire room. "We have to get out of here!"

"I'm not scared." He stood his ground, staring towards the approaching creatures. Ethan and Giles exchanged a look of mutual understanding, and headed forwards as one.

"Come and get me!" Harris met the three gargoyles head on, before Giles and Ethan were anywhere near close enough to assist him. He raised a fist, and they saw it strike at the lead gargoyle, only to bounce harmlessly off its stone body. He yelled out in pain, and the threesome, one by one, caught at him with their carved stone claws. He screamed as they dug into him, closing around him suddenly.

"Leave him alone!" Ethan ran at the creatures, but even as he came to them he saw that there was nothing that he could do for Harris. In the centre of the mad anger of the stone creatures, he was already being torn to shreds. Rayne turned away, paling at the sight. Giles also froze in his tracks, staring in horrible fascination as the three gargoyles ripped Harris Walton to pieces.

"Number three!" Her shout one of pure mad delight, Maggie laughed loudly and pointed towards Ethan, the next closest of the gang. "Get him, my children! Bring me his soul!"

"No!" Almost falling into the room, Deirdre ran forward, chants and words tumbling from her mouth in confused succession. The three gargoyles turned to face her, and she raised her hands above her head.

"No!" Maggie moved forward, bursting through the smoke, but before she could reach her stone servants they exploded into dust, each one screaming a last, high-pitched cry of pain. "Why you - you human! You dare to try and use magic here? In my lair? You think that you can use it against me?" Her eyes sparked and raged red heat. "I am going to crush you between my hands!"

"Uh oh." Deirdre backed off, possible spells running through her head. Her eyes sought out Ethan and Giles. "Help!"

"Don't look at me." Running to her assistance despite a clear lack of ideas, Ethan skidded to a halt beside her, looking up at the enraged apparition above them. "All I can do is light cigarettes at twenty paces."

"You are going to learn more." Still backing away, Deirdre did not take her eyes from Maggie. "You are going to learn every damn spell in our library, or so help me I'll--"

"Look out!" Launching himself out of nowhere, Thomas crashed into the pair, just as a blast of hot white light erupted from Maggie's fingertips. The blast, more powerful than any that she had so far unleashed, smashed through the floorboards leaving a gaping, smoking hole.

"Oh boy..." Giles ran forward, struggling to help his three friends to their feet. "I'm voting for a strategic withdrawal."

"Me too." Ethan ushered the others to the window, part of him quite convinced that they were never going to reach it. They almost fell over each other in their haste; but as they reached the relative safety of the approach to the window, the fire caught at the wall, beginning to eat away at the floor and blocking off their escape route.

"Dammit!" Coming to an abrupt halt, Ethan tried to make his way through the flames, only to be beaten back by the excessive heat. "Now what?"

"Now you die." Hovering above them, Maggie pointed down, her face split almost in two by a mighty grin. "And before the last of my pentagrams burn away, I will complete my spell."

"You're not going to get my soul in a little glass jar." Ethan pushed the others behind him, his rage and determination as clear as Maggie's own. "I swear I'll take you with me, you freak. Nobody messes with me and lives to tell the tale!"

"Glass jar..." Michael's words came back to Giles, and he heard them echo in his mind: She has my soul in a glass jar. "That's it!" He turned and ran, struggling across the burning, collapsing room, dodging falling timbers as the fire grew around him.

"Where are you Rupert?" Maggie's voice rose above him, but he ignored it, trusting that her preoccupation with killing the others would save him for now. He wished that he could be sure that he could complete this before she took her next victim; and still leave them all with enough time to escape before the fire consumed the building completely.

"Glass jars..." He whispered the words repeatedly, like a mantra to protect him from the flames that scorched his skin. He could hardly see; could hardly breathe; and yet still he struggled onwards. He heard Ethan's voice calling him; recognised concern and confusion. The gang leader thought that his best friend was abandoning him, and that thought stung Giles' pride.

With a burst of triumph that struck him to the core, Giles reached a stretch of the room untouched by the fire. It was marked by strange symbols that he recognised as powerful marks; designs painted in blood and chalk that no doubt prevented the flames from coming any closer. He crossed the line, feeling his skin begin to crawl as the powers of the place touched him. He looked around. There, up above him on a shelf, was a line of eight glass jars. Five were empty, but three clearly contained something; some vague flashes of yellow light. He seized them, feeling them vibrate softly against his skin.

"So the Watcher turned out to be a coward after all." Staring down at the five young people cowering before her, Maggie laughed. "No matter. My demons will still enjoy feeding on him, when I free them." She moved closer. "When your souls free them."

"I told you to back off." His voice hot, Ethan straightened up, the fear gone from his face. "Enough is enough, lady. Nobody messes with us!"

"You're terribly sweet." He felt her fingers caressing his cheek, even though she was not close enough to touch him. "You could have had a great future, Ethan Rayne. A lifetime of following the dark paths and creating true chaos. It's almost a pity that I have to kill you." One of her hands lifted almost unwillingly, this time beginning to glow red. "To think that I was going to let Michael have all of the fun, and not actually take part in the executions myself... I'd forgotten how much fun all this can be."

"Maggie!" As she moved down to make the final strike, Giles staggered out of the flames, his leather jacket smouldering and his face smudged with soot. "I have some people here who want to talk to you."

"Why Rupert, my dear boy. You came back." She sounded almost glad to see him, but he was not alone in seeing the widening of her eyes as she saw the glass jars in his hands. "Put those down, Rupert. You don't know what you're doing."

"Oh yes I do." He could not help his eyes from straying to the mutilated body of Harris, lying a few feet away. "I know exactly what I'm doing." He raised the jars above his head. "You killed them, Maggie. You imprisoned them so that they couldn't go on. I think they'd like a little word with you!"

"No!" She tried to back away, to fly up towards the ceiling, but in the same instant he hurled the jars to the ground, watching them as they smashed into tiny pieces. Three yellow shapes rose up, twisting and turning about each other as they rose upwards, forming into rough mimics of the human shape. Maggie backed away still further, a single, desperate scream echoing from her mouth.

"Noooo-oooo-oooo...!" She flung up her hands to protect herself, but it was too late. One by one the three glowing shapes consumed her, latching onto her, their forms glowing more brightly as they touched her skin. "Help me!"

"What the-?" Even as Ethan tried to get the question out there was a mighty crack of thunder, and the walls shook.

"Everybody out!" The floor was beginning to collapse, but Philip, his eyes on the door, broke into a run. "This way!"

"We're right behind you!" Thomas leapt for the door, feeling the floor roll and shake beneath his feet. The six ran together, struggling to battle past the flames as the collapsing floorboards created new and very temporary pathways for them through the fire.

"Damn it, that was close." They reached the door together, and Deirdre hurled it open with a single spell, leading the exodus from the building. Only Ethan and Giles hung back, staring towards Maggie, who was being dragged down into the flames. "Giles-?"

"Not now." Giles pushed him from the building, tumbling down the steps after him. "We have to get out of here. Now that she's gone other people will start to see the flames. We have to be out of here before the coppers come, and the fire brigade."

"Right behind you." Ethan ushered the others forward, and they broke into a run, heading back down the streets towards their own neighbourhood. Behind them the sirens started to wail, and Ethan and Giles slowed to a walk, sinking back into their attitude-filled swagger. There were still reputations to uphold.

"It's hot." Wiping his forehead, Giles shrugged out of his leather jacket. "Boy is it hot."

"It is, yeah. Must be the spell being broken. Maybe we can enjoy the summer now." Ethan grinned. "Rich pickings to be had in the summertime, you know. All those tourists." He frowned. "Can you pick pockets, Giles?"

"It's nice to know you don't hang about getting back to normal." Giles shook his head. "I've never picked a pocket in my life - but I'm always ready to learn."

"Good." Ethan breathed out a long, pent-up sigh. "Look, er... I'm sorry. I thought you were running out on us back there. I really thought that you were going."

Giles smiled, an odd feeling of light-headedness rushing through him.

"No," he said softly, smiling at the closest friend he had in all the world. "We're a team, man; together forever, remember?"

"Sure. No matter what." Ethan thumped him on the shoulder. "With the darkest times ahead."

"You better believe it." Giles grinned, a rush of intoxication flooding through him. "Come what may, pal. Come what may." And far up above him, the faint yellow glow of a man-shaped light stared down at him, sadness filling its vague existence. It raised its hand as if in farewell; then stopped the action and faded away. There was no more reason for William Giles to watch over his son; the choice was made and there was no going back.

**********

Ethan Rayne threw himself into his favourite armchair, feeling immeasurably better since his shower and change of clothing. The rest of his gang were sprawled about the room looking similarly exhausted, and somewhat triumphant.

"Giles?" he asked. The renegade Watcher glanced up.

"What?"

"Is Maggie gone?"

"Yeah." Giles nodded. "No question of that. She was dragged down into hell by the souls she had kept locked up. June, Harris, Michael... they're gone for good." He frowned. "Well, maybe not exactly. If they can find a way back, they'll be looking for us. If I had released them in another way, they might have made it to somewhere a little less objectionable than hell. I'd guess they'll be a bit narked about that."

"You like springing these things on me, don't you." The older man laughed. "What the hell. At least our resident witch seems to have rediscovered her powers. Maybe it's worth you staying off the wacky baccy for a while, Deirdre."

"Jerk." There was affection in her voice. "Maybe I'm just a genius."

"Maybe we all are." Ethan reached out for the book lying next to him on the chair; the book that June had bought from the stall in Kensington Market. "I trust that this evening's little display has damped nobody's enthusiasm? I still plan to invest a little in the dark side, and I think you lot are just the band to help me." He tapped on the book. "This is all that we need; right here. Here and in that book that Giles got for us." He looked about. "Where is it?"

"I left it right there." Giles pointed to the coffee table, which was noticeably devoid of books. "Hey, who's taken it?"

"I haven't seen it since we found that yellow card in it." Deirdre glanced about, too tired to look very hard. "It'll turn up, Giles."

"Somebody's taken it." He was certain of the fact, and frustrated by his inability to do anything. "We needed that book."

"We have this one," Ethan reminded him. Giles made a face.

"That's alright for starters, man. That's okay for practice and games. But that other book had real magic in it; the summoning of demons, the creation of true chaos. June's book might start us off, but we need that other one if we're ever going to get anywhere for real."

"Then we'll find it." His voice cold and certain, Ethan opened the book on his lap. "If somebody has it, we'll find them, and we'll get the book back."

"And summon us a demon." Randall laughed shortly. "Something big and bad that'll show us the way."

"One day." A faraway look came over Ethan's face. "If we have to start small, that's no real downer." He hefted the book in his hand, and threw it at Giles. "Read on, Giles. Henceforth I'm putting you in charge of our library."

"Thanks." His voice filled with the faint tone of dry sarcasm, Giles opened the book at a random page, and stared at the hand-written words. Slowly, his voice fitting neatly to the task, he began to read aloud, and his body gradually relaxed. Maggie was already fading from his mind. Here he was safe, here he was secure. Here, for the first time in his life, he was home. He was ready to welcome the darkness.

THE END