Life had been slow to return to normal after the destruction of Sunnydale. Not that it had ever been normal to begin with. There were Slayers to train; many, many Slayers, to track down all over the world; and no longer any real Watchers' Council to provide support. Giles didn't miss the Watchers. They had always had their issues with him, finding fault with his methods and his character, but goodness knew their infamous resources would have been useful in the task of tracking the former Potentials, and setting them upon their new calling. Buffy had been wonderful, alternating her first real chance at exploring the world with finding Slayers and showing them all that they could do. Dawn was useful too, her new talents for study and research giving her the book learning that was always beneficial in training a new Slayer. She was no Watcher, certainly, but she was as good as they could get right now. Willow too, making a formidable team with her own Slayer partner, Kennedy, taking a different part of the world to carry on the search there. Giles had been kept busy beetling about between the two pairs, carrying on his own search the rest of the time, gathering Slayers and hunting out any Watchers who might have survived the catastrophic attack on the organisation. There were few enough of them, but from the furthest corners of the Earth they came in the end; the outcasts, the black sheep, the handful who had been fired. Old, young, and everything in between, they came together at his call. A potential new Council, but one that would have made the old one cringe and shiver. None of them had a past quite as questionable as his own, but they had all managed to bring the wrath of the old Council down upon them at some point. It had saved their lives, but whether or not that would turn out to be for the best in the fight against evil, only time would tell.
But for now, at least, Giles was on holiday. Or taking a short break at any rate. He had landed at Heathrow Airport in the early hours of the afternoon, found his way back to his London flat in a daze of jet lag and general sleepiness, and fallen onto the nearest couch as soon as he had staggered his way upstairs. His eccentric housekeeper had followed him all the way up to the top floor, offering one hundred and one ancient recipes supposedly guaranteed to pep him up and make him feel ready to face the world, but all he had wanted was sleep. He awoke in darkness, and the realisation that, for the first time in many weeks, he didn't have anything to do. He could just lie here for as long as it suited him.
Ten minutes later he was bored. Great. All this time he had been dying for a holiday. Now he had one and he didn't know what to do with it. Could it be that he was really so much a part of his calling that he had nothing to fill his time outside of Watcher/Slayer business? All his usual forms of recreation seemed involved with it somehow; reading, writing, research. He could play music of course; put some on the stereo, sit and strum his guitar, go out and find a club with a live act playing - but that didn't seem enough to fill the next seven days before he and the rest of the Scoobies had agreed to meet up again in Vienna, their respective vacations completed. He wished he could believe that they were all finding it as hard to occupy their time, but he didn't believe that for a moment. Maybe he should have taken up Willow and Kennedy's offer to accompany them surfing in Australia - if that wouldn't have just been weird. And probably intrusive. And... definitely weird.
So it was just him - him and a threat from Andrew to drop by on a visit some time. Andrew had latched on to him for some reason, and was filled with grand ideas about visiting Britain, and touring ancient monuments that he had read about in his erratic researches. Giles could only hope that he lost his passport, or got kidnapped by vampires, or fell down a hole or something. Anything would do, so long as it kept him from turning up in London looking to hang with his favourite Watcher. At least he didn't know about this flat. Very few people did. He would probably find his way to Bath in the end, and wander around there looking lost, wondering when the twenty-first century had arrived. He had a firm conviction that he would find England filled with horse-drawn carriages and dark, Jacobean mansions housing ill-tempered ghosts. One of these days, Giles was going to have to have a talk with him about the books he was using for his 'research'.
Rising to his feet, stretching limbs cramped from their awkward sleeping place, he checked the small tower of mail waiting on the desk. Postcards from Ethan, sent from a dozen locations world-wide; a letter from Olivia; several invitations to the sort of parties he himself had used to throw back in the seventies - and which the police would probably love to be tipped off about; and the first consignment of books he had ordered to replace the library lost when Sunnydale had disappeared into the earth. He put Olivia's letter off to one side, promising himself that he would sit down to read it later and give it the concentration it no doubt deserved, when he had a nice glass of fine brandy to keep it company. Ethan's postcards didn't take long to read; most of them were only a couple of sentences long. Egypt great, read one. Buggered up a spell and got hexed, but everything worn off okay. Some things never changed. The books he unwrapped carefully, giving them the courtesy they seemed to demand. Most were several hundred years old. He pitied the postman. Rosie, the generally odd housekeeper, would have made him carry all this stuff upstairs rather than doing it herself, and the books must have weighed a ton. They were all the thick, leather-bound type, with a thousand or so pages, and with bands of metal to close them against prying eyes. Not the sort of thing you could order from anything like a conventional source. Compulsive reading though, with their grim tales, blood-soaked histories, grotesque true-life characters, and spells of mass destruction. The sorts of books written by people who didn't live long after completing the task; or who were already dead when they began it. He locked them into a huge oaken chest off to one side of the room, burying them beneath a rug hand-woven in India five hundred years before, and which allegedly possessed the power to fly. Not exactly an impenetrable vault, but secure enough. It was unlikely that any thief would make it past the spells that guarded the outer walls, anyway.
He picked up Olivia's letter then, pouring out a glass of his best brandy, and settling himself down in a favourite chair. Her handwriting on the envelope was perfect; beautifully shaped and formed, and she had drawn a little monster on the back, where the flap was sealed closed. Olivia might never fully accept what he did, or why he had to do it, but she was growing more at ease with it now. If ease could ever really be the right word. He smiled at her greeting at the top of the page, and at the sound of her voice that her written words produced in his head. She was in America on business, needless to say, so there was little chance of their getting together during his break. They always seemed to be too busy to get together these days, save for the odd beautiful coincidence. South Italy three months ago... Now that had created a few happy memories. Rather a lot of happy memories come to that. His mind drifted back to thoughts of rough new wine from lofty vineyards, and quiet strolls in the lukewarm dusk. The pair of them, giggling like schoolchildren as they hid from Buffy and Dawn in the villa they had rented together. It had been a wonderful handful of days.
"Olivia." He spoke her name with great satisfaction, a probably stupid smile plastered across his face; and from behind him, interrupting his dreamy thoughts, came a quiet, discreet cough. He sighed. Rosie again, no doubt, bringing some half remembered message left by one of his dodgy old acquaintances. Except that Rosie never coughed discreetly, and couldn't possibly have been behind him. Nobody could, unless they had been here, hiding, since before he had woken up. Rising very slowly to his feet, hand sliding quietly towards the letter opener resting nearby, he turned around. The rest of the room was dark; a place of shadows thrown by multitudes of bookcases. It was hard to distinguish one object from another; to see one thing in the midst of the murk and the gloom; but a human shape was there - or seemed to be. A tall human shape, bathed in dark colours beyond those of the shadows and the clouded moon. Realising that it had been seen, the figure moved forward, and Giles held the letter opener up in warning. Not that it had much of a blade on it, but it would stab, if it had to; and if he put enough force behind the blow. He stilled his hand though, when he recognised his visitor; and instead of attacking, he found himself beginning to smile.
"Bloody hell!" It was a man in his thirties; tall, and slight of build, with mussed up hair and several days worth of stubble. He was dressed in black jeans and a leather jacket, and the purple shirt that completed the ensemble was so far from Giles's mental image of the man that his smile soon became a laugh. "Sorry. I just, er... Never mind." He frowned. "How did you get in here?"
"I walked through the wall." The man, who in what seemed another lifetime had been Giles's colleague in the now destroyed Watcher organisation, came a little closer. Giles could see the changes in his face then; the changes that went deeper than stubble, less than perfect hair, and an absence of glasses. There was maturity, darkness and the echo of traumas old and new. The smile was new as well. Giles's previous experience of the smiles of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce was of something that inspired the wish for violence; smug, self-satisfied smiles, smacking of the Watcher Council's special brand of arrogance. This was something different though. This was warm and almost friendly.
"Through the wall?" He was surprised, then impressed, then worried, in pretty much that order. "I'd heard that you were building up your magical powers. Quentin Travers expressed some concern about it the last time we met. But are you really up to transcendentals now?"
"No. Not exactly." Wesley was still smiling faintly, a teasing glint in his eyes. Teasing? Wesley? Giles shook his head, trying to make the oddities translate into sense. What the hell was the man doing here, in England, claiming to have walked through his wall? And why was he dressed in the sort of clothes he would never have dreamed of wearing, back in their days together in Sunnydale? He had been a man of suits and ties then; every stitch placed exactly, and every millimetre of cloth pressed to perfection. Shined shoes, gleaming glasses; the antithesis of all he now seemed to be. "Giles, I--"
"You're undercover." It made sense, in a peculiar way. He was pretending to be somebody else. "Some case for Wolfram & Hart, which I really don't want to know about. I think I've made my feelings quite clear on that score. If you're going to involve yourself with an organisation like that, you can handle the problems it causes without coming to me for assistance."
"Undercover?" Wesley sounded frustrated. "I'm not undercover. And I'm not here for Wolfram & Hart. We're finished with them now, or at least I think we are. It's complicated, and quite frankly--" He broke off. "What makes you think I'm undercover?"
"The, er..." Giles's eyes travelled up and down, once again taking in the clothing and the stubble. "It's a new look for you. That's all. With the, er..." He gestured with the hand that didn't have the letter opener in it, then shrugged and shook his head. "Never mind. I-- No, never mind. So you're in to transcendental projection now? I'm impressed. Is your body back in Los Angeles?"
"Probably." Wesley's smile suggested a joke that Giles didn't share. "I'm not projecting myself, Giles. This isn't magic. Or... not the kind you mean. And why is it never easy to explain anything to you? I'm dead. Stone cold. Long gone. Passed over. Or... some of the way. That's how I managed to walk through your wall. And I came here for a reason, so--"
"You're dead?" It wasn't exactly a common conversation to have with somebody, even in Giles's line of work, which might explain some of the confusion. "I... I had heard rumours, to be honest. I was beginning to suspect... But no one seemed to have seen your body. Nobody seems to know where it is."
"Yes, I know. I'm a little concerned about that myself." Wesley shrugged, very faintly. "But it's difficult to do anything about such things when you're dead." He stopped, a gentler look coming into his eyes. "You know that Angel is dead too? I know you were friends, of a sort, anyway. And I know that you didn't agree with his recent career choices, but... I thought you'd like to know."
"Yes." Giles looked away, unbidden memories of wishing for Angel's death floating into his mind, along with images of Jenny Calendar, and far too many hours tied to a chair in a little dark room. So many kinds of pain. But there were other memories, which would always come to make the worst ones easier to bear. "Again, I'd heard rumours. Nothing confirmed. Is he, er..." He looked around, half expecting the big, perpetually brooding vampire to appear through one of the walls. Wesley shook his head.
"He's watching over Buffy. It's strange, but with all we've been through, all we've done, I've never seen him so happy as he is now. Really happy, with no fear of unleashing Angelus. Perhaps it's redemption, of a sorts."
"All of which is at least as weird you being here. I... So you're a ghost? A wandering spirit?"
"I know what a ghost is, Giles. Watcher, remember? Or ex-Watcher, anyway."
"You're certainly an ex-Watcher now." Giles forced the grin from his face. "Sorry. So it really is true that your whole team went down? I've been picking up bits of a story here and there, but it's not the first time, so I rather ignored it. There was a rumour once before that Angel and Cordelia were both dead. And then that they'd come back. And then that Cordelia was gone again. Los Angeles is a complicated place, when it comes to rumour."
"Things happen there. Lots of things. This time the rumours are true." The slight shoulders shrugged. "Or they appear to be. We died. Or I'm rather assuming that we did. It... wasn't what I'd expected, frankly. I'm not sure what I was expecting... but it's fair to say it wasn't Cordelia, talking about higher planes. I think she's an angel now, which... is an odd choice."
"Nothing warm, white and floaty?" That was more or less as Buffy had described the place she had found herself in when she had died. A place of peace and contentment. Wesley smiled.
"Not really, no. Actually I wound up in the lobby of the Hyperion hotel, where we used to have our offices. Cordelia was the closest I got to Saint Peter, which... isn't very close at all, when you think about it. One minute it's 'You're dead, how very careless,' and the next it's 'There's still plenty you can be doing.' It's... strange. Very strange. But I will say one thing for it. It's a whole lot easier to stake vampires when you're dead. They have much less chance of killing you."
"You... I don't... But never mind." Giles shook his head once more, still trying to make everything work itself out inside his brain. It didn't look like it was going to be doing so any time soon. "You can still stake vampires?"
"Well, no. I can move ornaments about with a bit of concentration. But maybe one day." Wesley raised his eyebrows. "You know, nice though it is to have this opportunity to catch up, Giles, I really did come here for a reason. It's not like I've been assigned to you full time. I have a mission. You have a mission."
"If you tell me you're my spirit guide, I'll start an exorcism right away." Giles threw down the letter opener that he suddenly found he was still holding. "Listen, Wesley... I'm sorry. I should have said that straight away. I... confess that I wanted to kill you myself the last time we met... but I would never really have wished you dead. You're a young man still."
"Was a young man. Sort of. I didn't feel like one anymore, to be honest. Life is complicated, Giles. For me, perhaps more so than most. I could explain some things, but quite honestly I don't want to. Suffice to say, death has given me something of a new perspective, so forget the sympathy card, and let me tell you why I'm here. It's important, or so I'm told. Very important. Presumably these things usually are."
"Presumably. It's not often a ghost turns up on my doorstep claiming to be bringing me important news, so I'd imagine that it's a rarity at least." He sat down on the arm of his chair, and gestured to the younger man. "Go ahead. You said something about a mission. Is this something I want to hear, or something I want to get as far away from as I possibly can?"
"That would probably depend on your outlook." Wesley came closer, sitting down on the edge of the desk beside Giles's chair. He seemed able to sit well, as though some part of his consciousness that was used to solidity enabled him to perform such tasks well enough, whatever his current non-corporeal status. "Given that it was Cordelia who sent me, I suppose you should be wondering if you've ever done anything she might be wanting revenge for."
"Ouch." That was a tough one. There had been all manner of subtle insults in the old days, when Cordelia had been an obnoxious teenaged girl, and one more of the many problems against which Giles had had to struggle every day of his Sunnydale life. And now she was some kind of angel, apparently, sending dead men on voyages to the land of the living. There was a lesson there, in always being nice to everybody, because of never knowing how they might one day be placed; but the writers of such morals were never the ones who had actually had to put up with Cordelia during her high school beauty queen phase, so what did they know? He shook his head. "I'm sorry. It's just that, you, Cordelia - it all seems just a little too much to believe. The last time I saw you, you were a bumbling idiot. And I'm not going to apologise for that. Buffy and Willow both said that you'd been through a few changes, but I still don't really see you as the sort of person that some higher power is going to see fit to pull back to this plane of existence for whatever reason. Let alone the sort of person who would be sent to me, in whatever form, to pass on a... a 'mission', from - from who exactly? From Cordelia? Because that's looking rather hard to believe as well from where I'm standing. Cordelia, an angel? She might have turned out to have a good heart beneath the... faintly nauseous exterior... But an angel?"
"You want some kind of proof? I could move ornaments about with my mind before I died, Giles. It's elementary sorcery. I could manipulate the lights and make things glow too. If I walk through a wall you'll just go back to this 'transcendental projection' nonsense - which, for your information, I cracked a long time ago. I just never really found any point to it. It happens to be ever so slightly annoying being non-corporeal. Spike got the hang of it, and I fully intend to do so myself, but for the time being at least, it's a pain in the backside. I wouldn't take it on by choice!" He drew in a deep breath, which had to have been a purely instinctive motion, and then fixed Giles with an intensity in his gaze that was truly off putting. Either death had brought the man new self-confidence, or he truly had been through some gargantuan changes before he had died. Such intensity did not belong to the Wesley Wyndam-Pryce of memory.
"And Cordelia?" Giles asked, feeling a little subdued. Wesley smiled fondly.
"You wouldn't believe the things she's done. The way she changed. When she died... it felt like the end of everything. But the way she died. Everything it meant. If she truly is an angel now, Giles, then she deserves it. Every sparkle and shine on the wings she might one day wear." He frowned. "Do angels actually have wings, or is trying to win them merely metaphorical? The books were always a little unclear on the subject."
"I don't know." For the first time since Wesley had appeared, Giles found himself softening a little. "I can't say that I've ever met one. Apparently I don't move in the right circles."
"If rumours about your past are true, Giles, you and the right circles couldn't be further apart. But then I'd have said the same thing myself, once upon a time. I expected to find myself on the fastest escalator down into hell, as soon as my heart stopped beating. But then I'd more or less forgotten that I had a heart, so perhaps I wasn't the best judge. All the same, I was quite convinced that there was some innermost level of hell, set aside just for me."
"I think we all believe that. It's something to do with being a Watcher. Never being the hero, only the one who does the things that the hero shouldn't have to do." Giles found that he was smiling, and no longer with amusement at the expense of his guest. "Alright. Go ahead. What is it that you came here to tell me?"
"Twelve centuries ago, a sorcerer named Philarbus was studying his art in Italy. It was the Dark Ages in much of the world, and there was little worthy of celebration going on in the lands around him. Eventually the people became afraid of him, and he was burned at the stake. Much of his property was burned too. His former neighbours built a gigantic bonfire out of his possessions, and his house was knocked into rubble before being burnt as well."
"Yes, the story does ring a bell. After the fire went out, a secret room was found beneath the ruins of the house, containing all manner of magical artefacts. Books, dried ingredients, parchments dating back nobody knew how long. Wonderful things, or would have been if they had survived. The people who found it all set fire to the room immediately. It spread so fast, and the heat was so intense, that only one of the arsonists escaped."
"True." Wesley nodded slowly. "But what most accounts don't say, is that there was something else, besides the firestarter, which survived. A box. It was found in the middle of the secret room, three days later, when the fire had finally cooled enough to allow people to enter. One box, untouched by the flames, as cold as if it had never been near a fire in all its days. They tried to open it, but they couldn't. In the end, afraid by what it might be, they sent it to the Vatican, for study or destruction. It never arrived. Rumours persisted about it for years. It had been stolen, it had been destroyed. Demons had arisen from hell to steal it away from the messengers carrying it. Any number of tales, each more extravagant than the last. Then, earlier this year, it finally turned up."
"A box belonging to Philarbus?" Giles whistled. "Now that would be something to study. Is there any indication of what's inside it? Has anybody examined it? Have you seen it?"
"No. Nobody has, not really. Including Wolfram & Hart, who are very anxious to find out what's in it. So far they haven't been able to get anybody inside the vault where it's hidden."
"Which is where I come in."
"Which is where both of us come in. The box was stolen, when it was on its way to the Vatican, by one of Philarbus' greatest rivals, a former scientist and philosopher who had turned to magic after conventional studies had failed him. He believed that the box contained the ultimate secrets of magic, and perhaps even the secret of eternal youth." He shrugged. "Yes, well. What good story of magic doesn't involve that particular rumour? But this man - Corbio - was certain that the box contained something that would make him rich and powerful, and all the other things that people crave in such stories. But he never managed to open it. He became obsessed with it; more and more consumed with the idea that it contained great secrets and treasures, and that others would one day try to take them from him. He had it locked into a great vault, which he used all his knowledge to build - and the knowledge of certain demons with which he had supposedly made deals. And there it remained."
"Until some crusading archaeologist uncovered it?" Like most scholars, Giles was fond of archaeology - but there were times when he wished that people would be a little more circumspect about what they dug up. It seemed that ancient demons, old magicks, and any number of vengeful spirits had been re-released upon the world by historians who had dug somewhere that they shouldn't. Wesley shook his head.
"I doubt any ordinary archaeologist could reach the vault. That's where we come in, remember? No, in this case it was some pieces of parchment that were dug up. A series of writings by Corbio, which confirmed that it was him who took the box, and hid it. Wolfram & Hart went on the alert instantly, and began attempts to recover the box. It's only a matter of time, with their resources, before they get to it. Somebody else has to get to it first. Whatever is in that box, whether it's something good, something terrible, or even nothing at all, Wolfram & Hart consider it worth their attention; and that means that they have to be prevented from claiming it. The Senior Partners... well let's just say that recently I've had even more cause than before to see what they're like. What sort of things they do, and why. It's important that somebody else gets to that box before they do."
"I can imagine." Giles nodded slowly. "So what sort of a task is it likely to be? And more to the point, why come to me about it? I might keep myself in good shape, especially with all the work that I've had to do lately - but something like this is a task for a Slayer, surely? You're not telling me this is going to be an easy ride?"
"A Slayer?" Wesley smiled fondly. "I'd trust my Slayer - or yours - to fight her way into any vault and come through it unscathed; if that was all that was called for. But neither Faith nor Buffy, nor any of your new army could do what's required to break into this vault. We can't take your whole gang, Giles. The fewer people the better."
"So what is required? Brains rather than brawn?"
"In a sense. Corbio was a Watcher. To open the vault requires Watcher blood, so neither Faith nor Buffy would be any use there. The way to the vault is marked out in a fashion that Corbio believed would guard it from all save himself. A labyrinth of some kind, with obscure languages to guide you through the passages, and doors guarded by magicks that only a sorcerer could break. If I was still alive I'd do this myself, but as it is there's too much I probably wouldn't be able to do. It very likely requires a living, breathing man - a living, breathing Watcher - to go in and do what needs to be done. I can translate the languages you don't understand, and if any of the magic is beyond the sorts of thing you do nowadays, I can help out there too. But it needs somebody who's still got some substance to finish the job. I certainly can't use my blood to open the vault."
"You can still perform magic? Because I have to say, I'm more than a little rusty. These last few years I've tended to let Willow do the lion's share of that kind of thing. She's the one with the real power."
"Yes, I know." For a second the intensity in Wesley's eyes warmed into something fond, then snapped back into full hardness again in an instant. "I can do magic. Admittedly mixing ingredients is a little hit and miss just at the moment, but I can still do magic." He scowled. "It's frustrating. Spike can move things with remarkable precision just by using his... ghostly powers, if you want to call them that. But then he does have previous experience of course. Me? I can use magic to make things float, and that's about all. Cordelia says it might be some kind of cosmic punishment for always having worked alone, since I obviously need to work with somebody else just at the moment, but I prefer to think that it's because I haven't got used to all of this yet. Gunn's just as useless. He's taken to popping up in front of vampires and surprising them so much that somebody else can take the opportunity to stake them, but I can't see him being content with that for long." He frowned. "Sorry, you never met Gunn. Suffice to say that he's another friend who managed to get himself killed. I'd think we'd been bloody stupid if it hadn't been so satisfying, even for just an instant."
"You make quite the case for dying in battle, you know. Fight, die, and carry on the fight regardless."
"Maybe." Wesley's eyes faded in their focus for a second, and Giles could see that death was perhaps not so great a career move. "It's not all good. Perhaps not even half good. I still have my friends about me, but the one I cared for most is gone forever, and now I could have an eternity to mourn that fact, instead of the fifty odd years I might have had otherwise. I can't feel the night breeze on my face anymore, or taste anything, smell anything, touch anything. That last might change with time, as I've seen it do for Spike, but it'll never be the same. I can only touch other dead people. There's a... a certain lack of satisfaction in that." He smiled faintly. "But I suppose it's better than oblivion. It's certainly better than hell. And, in a way, it's better than my life was towards the end. I'd still prefer to be alive, but now that I'm dead all my mistakes and sorrows no longer haunt me so." He shrugged. "But this is the kind of thing we might swap stories about later, when the box is recovered. We should get moving."
"Time is of the essence, I suppose." Giles sighed. "Isn't it always? But I haven't said that I'll go with you yet, Wesley. For all I know you could be lying. You could be here working for Wolfram & Hart, not against them. You might not even be Wesley."
"I'm not a cyborg disguised by clever spellcasting." Wesley sighed. "So what is it that you want? I could suggest that you ask me a question only Wesley would know the answer to, but we never knew each other well enough for that. I'd ask somebody else to vouch for me, but pretty much everybody I ever knew is dead, and I doubt that the survivors would be much help. Besides, they're all too far away. By the time you could get any of them here, we'd have lost valuable time. The only one close enough to reach in the next few hours is my father, and to be perfectly honest I have no desire to speak with him."
"No, neither do I." Giles had never had much time for Roger Wyndam-Pryce, one of the few Watchers to have survived the recent cull. He had, of course, been called to help with the new organisation, but with a tiny handful of other old guard, had preferred to strike out on his own. Nobody knew what they were up to, those four or five old, reactionary types, who so hated the band of exiles and rebels trying to continue the Council's work. Giles didn't want to know what they were up to. They were from the Quentin Travers school of Watchers, and that meant that they had little in common with him. He didn't trust them. Not a single one of them. He picked up the letter opener, still lying nearby where he had left it, and tossed it casually through his guest. It passed through as though the younger man had not been there, though that in itself was not really the proof he had wanted. He still had his suspicions about a man who had gone to work at a law firm owned by the enemy. In all honesty, though, there was little that would prove Wesley's credentials, save his actions when it came to the crunch; and the only way that could happen was if they went together on this little mission. All of which seemed a particularly reckless way in which to prove something. He sighed.
"I'm supposed to be on holiday," he grumbled, without much true irritation. After all, The Powers That Be, or heaven, or whatever, didn't send dead colleagues to him every day, bearing alleged missions from the angels. Or an angel. Or Cordelia, anyway. Wesley smiled.
"You're bored already. Admit it. My last day on earth I was supposed to be out having fun, and I couldn't think of anything to do. We're cut from the same stuff, you and me. You may have your guitar and your rock music - Spike told me - but you still live for your work. It's in your blood, and in your case that's been true for generations. There were probably members of your family in the Watchers back in the days of Corbio and Philarbus, and they didn't know how to take a holiday either."
"True enough." It hurt, on one level, to be accused of being so limited in his interests, but only because it was something Giles had, a few moments before, been considering himself. He nodded.
"Alright Wesley. I'll go with you. But if you turn out to be evil, or if this turns out to be some kind of a set up, I'll have your soul right down in the hell you always expected it to end up in. And faster than you can say 'poetic justice'. Are we understanding each other?"
"Yes." Wesley's eyes showed gentle acceptance. "I think we understand each other perfectly."
"Good. Then perhaps we'd better be off." Casting a longing glance at the letter from Olivia that he had not yet finished reading, Giles drank down the last of his glass of brandy, and rose to his feet. "Where are we going? Italy?"
"Spain. By the fastest possible route."
"Fine." Giles picked up the telephone, and began to dial. "Then I'll book a seat on the next plane out. Um... do I have to reserve a seat for you too?"
"Very funny." Wesley also stood up, misjudging the movement slightly, so that he wound up standing half in the chair. It was a little off putting. "I'll see you in Madrid. You'll have to rent a car there. Don't hang about Giles; and be on the alert. It's always possible that somebody will be sent to stop you. I don't know how much Wolfram & Hart know."
"That's reassuring." Giles nodded. "I'll be careful."
"Good. Then I'll see you in Madrid." Wesley nodded a brisk farewell and disappeared. Giles stared after him. Something about this was very strange... but then wasn't it always? His life had ceased to be normal on his tenth birthday, when the suspicions about his father's peculiar career had been confirmed. There seemed little sense in looking for normality now. At the other end of the telephone line somebody answered, and he set about booking a ticket to Madrid. Whatever the weirdness, he had to go. This was something he had to investigate for himself.
"You really think that he has a chance?" Her voice was as warm as ever; throaty, musical, filled with flirtation and humour. Wesley sighed. Pleased though he would always be to hear that voice, there were times when it could be a downright annoyance. He turned away from the railing, from which he had been watching the sights of Madrid far below, and fixed his visitor with a frustrated eye.
"You. I should have guessed. Then I was right, and Wolfram & Hart are trying to get the box."
"Of course they are. All those secrets? They're really quite determined." She moved closer to him, and trailed a teasing finger up his arm. "And you've sent Rupert Giles to see if he can beat them - beat me - to the draw. I'd have gone for somebody younger, myself. I'd have sent you."
"If I weren't dead."
"Well, granted that is an obstacle." She laughed lightly. "For you. Personally I don't find it has many drawbacks."
"Our circumstances are slightly different. But I'd rather experience a few corporeality problems than have Wolfram & Hart own my soul."
"Maybe." Her gentle fingers reached his face, and softly stroked his cheek. "But then I'm not you. I don't have a good guy complex. Or any of those pesky morals that seem to make your life so difficult." She ruffled his hair. "Or your death. Whichever."
"You could always help me. Let Giles flounder on his own. Wolfram & Hart would be very pleased. They might even give you your body back."
"Then they do have it!" He had been trying to get that piece of information out of her for months. Or weeks. He had rather lost track of whichever it had been; death did strange things to his sense of time. Lilah just grinned at him.
"Not telling. But not because I don't want to, Wes. You have to understand that Wolfram & Hart have their rules, and that some of them even I have to obey."
"If you were to help me though, it would be a mark in your favour. Whatever it is they have planned - if they really do have your body - there's a fair chance they'd stop it. You know they resurrected Darla once. They could do the same thing easily enough to Angel and Spike if they wanted to. You and Gunn would be even easier, since you're not just dust. Wes... whatever you might think of me, there are many, many things that I want to spare you from. I'm evil, admittedly... but I'm the evil you can trust."
"Hmm. There's an oxymoron in there somewhere." He took her hand, and finally moved it away from its gentle stroking of his face. "But gosh, I just can't see where. Lilah, go back to your employers, and tell them that it's not going to work. I'm here for a reason, and I'm going to go ahead with it. I'm going to help Giles get into that vault, and we're going to get to that box before you do. There's nothing you can do to stop me."
"I know." He was still holding her hand, and she lifted them both so that she could place a quick kiss on his wrist. "If there was, it wouldn't be nearly so much fun. You wouldn't be nearly so much fun - and you've always been that."
"If you know that you can't stop me, why do you keep trying?" He pulled his hand away from hers, managing the difficult task of looking cross with her whilst still keeping an inexplicable smile in his eyes. She really did do strange things to him. She always had.
"Because I'm evil, Wesley." She batted her eyelashes. "You can never remember that, can you. I'm the black knight, you're the... murky grey one. I would suggest that that makes Giles the white knight, but from what I've heard he's even more of a murky grey than you are." Her smile brightened. "This could be fun."
"See you around, Wes." She blew a kiss at him, then turned around, took a step, and vanished. He stared after her, infuriated to an incendiary level. She was evil, he reminded himself. She did the things that she did because she was evil. He had to fight her for that reason; or fight the things that sent her, at any rate. That was why he was here, in Madrid, waiting for Giles's aeroplane to arrive. To help Giles recover an artefact that must under no circumstances fall into enemy hands. Into Lilah's hands. The hands of the woman he... don't say it Wesley... loved. Maybe loved. Sometimes loved. Liked a lot. Tolerated. He sighed. Why was death never simple? The roar of an aircraft's engines distracted his thoughts for a moment, and he looked up as it began its approach to descend. It was bringing Giles, to start the search for the box. To begin the latest game with Lilah Morgan. He didn't want to think about how he was going to explain Lilah away to Rupert Giles. Maybe he would get lucky, and he wouldn't have to. Believe that, Wes, and you'll believe anything. He sighed. Somebody somewhere probably found all this hilarious; of that at least he was certain. If there was one thing he had learnt from his experiences both living and dead, it was that the universe had a definite sense of humour. It was the only one who found its jokes funny, but the humour was still there nonetheless. The team at Angel Investigations had come to understand that well enough. But he had things beyond jokes to turn his mind to now. A vault, a box, and a Watcher who wasn't even sure that he trusted him. Cordelia, he thought irritably, one of these days I'm going to get you for this. A thousand miles away, or a thousand millimetres away, wherever the higher plane or the world of angels was, Cordelia laughed fondly, and sent a gentle kiss his way. And he smiled. The universe could have its jokes, and The Powers That Be could have their machinations. The players in their games could still move independently. And Rupert Giles would reach that box first. Wesley smiled tightly, and with a flicker of spectral light, disappeared.
Giles had been driving in his hired car for some ten minutes when Wesley appeared in the passenger seat beside him. It came as something of a surprise to the Watcher, who jumped violently, and almost swerved the car into the oncoming traffic. He swore, colourfully.
"Sorry." Wesley didn't sound terribly apologetic. "I thought you'd be expecting me."
"I never really expect a ghost to suddenly appear beside me. And where the bloody hell have you been? I expected you at the airport."
"Sorry. Something came up."
"Oh for goodness sakes..." He slowed the car to a halt. "Wesley, I'm driving this car around mainly because I didn't want to look a complete prat at the rental place sitting there waiting for you. I'd like to know which direction to drive in now please. If it's not too much to ask."
"Oh. Right. Head south east, for the mountains. It's an out of the way place, obviously, a little north of La Mancha. There are three entrances to the vault; presumably to allow Corbio access from several different locations; or to provide him with escape routes as he grew more paranoid. We're heading for the one that was probably beneath his main place of residence."
"And the archaeologist who discovered the parchments? What does he think of us turning up, looking to steal his thunder?"
"I have no idea. Supposedly he went looking for the vault, in which case he's probably dead. So unless he's become a ghost too, I doubt we'll be seeing all that much of him." Wesley leaned back in the car seat, staring out at the surrounding countryside. "This really isn't half as much fun as it used to be. I always loved travelling in Angel's convertible. Roof down, cruising through LA. We used to turn a lot of heads you know, me and him, in that."
"Really." Giles wasn't particularly impressed. Wesley nodded.
"Oh yes. And only a very few of the people we encountered got the wrong end of the stick and assumed we were gay. Of course we didn't do much driving about in the sunshine like this, but still... It just not the same when you can't feel the wind in your hair. I can't feel the sun, either. It's like being a vampire, but without the super-strength and handy martial arts skills."
"Or the soulless, evil intentions and habit of torturing and killing the innocent?"
"That too." The ghost of the man who had first entered Giles's life apparently just in order to disintegrate it, smiled softly, and Giles felt several years worth of dislike fade slightly. "I think I've had too many vampires as friends."
"Yes. It can give one a rather different perspective. When you find yourself sitting at home of an evening with a vampire on the sofa beside you, going through your record collection and sharing your beer... it rather overturns all those years of Watcher training."
"Tell me about it. The last few years I've numbered a demon amongst my closest friends, as well a vampire - two vampires of late. I even spent the last moments of my life cradled in the arms of a demon. Or a demon of sorts."
"I have quite a few happy memories of being cradled in the arms of a demon." Giles smiled. "Sorry. Too much information?"
"Not necessarily. The famous Rupert Giles Chequered Past, I suppose. When I was a child I used to hear people speaking of you in hushed voices. My father used to swear quite eloquently on the subject. He was furious when you were given the post of Watcher to Buffy. Mind you, he wasn't much happier when I replaced you, so I wouldn't take it personally."
"Does he know?" It had only just occurred to Giles to ask. "That you're dead, I mean? I haven't seen him since just after the Council was destroyed."
"I doubt he knows. I'd imagine he has his contacts here and there, like any of the older Watchers, but I haven't been to visit him. I have no idea if he'd be able to see me, anyway. And I don't have anything to say to him. He'd only see my death as one more failure."
"It's hardly an easy subject to broach, is it. 'Hi dad, I'm dead'."
"Potentially easier than 'Hello father, I've gone to work for a vampire'. Not our best conversation ever, that one."
"It's not what any of us expected of you."
"Yes, well I know exactly what you expected of me. If I hadn't guessed anyway, your friend Andrew's little clues would have filled me in nicely." He sighed. "But that's all another lifetime. Literally."
"True. A very different lifetime." One of screams and fumbling, and a useless twit who couldn't be of any use to anybody. He didn't say it. It wouldn't accomplish anything; and at the end of the day, Wesley had been no different to any of the other inexperienced Watchers that the Council seemed to like to produce. Giles had his own murky past, and years spent immersed in black magic, to thank for the fact that he was different. It was why some far seeing, high ranking member of the Council had insisted that he be given the post of Watcher to Buffy all those years ago; because he could think differently. Work differently. And didn't just see in terms of theory. His perceived failure in the post must have been why the Council had decided to return to form, and send out as a replacement one of their more usual types; somebody with the book learning and academic skills of a genius, and the practical abilities of a moron. Wesley, as a for instance. Maybe it had been Angel who had battered that hopeless idiot into the man who had gone willingly to his death just to strike a blow for light and glory. Or maybe the rumours about Wesley's death were wrong, and he had merely been killed in a road accident. He might bring the subject up eventually, he decided. But not now. Just at the moment his companion looked decidedly mournful, and it was perhaps time to steer the conversation onto rather more cheerful topics. For the time being.
"So does death always come with a change of image?" he asked conversationally, choosing the first thing to say that he could think of which didn't involve fathers or Wesley's unfortunate personal history. The other man frowned.
"Yes. Do all dead Watchers lose their love for tweed, and do all ghosts have perfect eyesight?"
"Not that I'm aware of, no." The ghost looked down at himself rather self-consciously. "A suit and tie wasn't exactly good fighting attire, and the glasses were always at risk of falling off at a vital moment. Besides, LA tends to rub off on one, in the end. This is all pre-death. Sorry to disappoint you."
"Willow did mention that there had been a few changes. A certain surliness. And stubbliness. And something to do with a woman in a closet, but that might just have been me mishearing."
"Things were complicated." But that at least was impossible to explain. That Wesley's life had been forever changed by the existence of Angel's son was something that remained between Angel and Wesley. The wider world knew nothing of such things. "Giles, are we going to make it past your obsession with my appearance some time soon? If I'd known it would be so disturbing to you, I'd have turned up looking the way I did when I first arrived in Sunnydale. Although quite frankly that would have been going back to somewhere I have no desire to revisit."
"I'm sorry." Giles couldn't help smirking, nonetheless. It was tantamount to meeting Ethan somewhere, and finding him in a priest's black coat and dog collar, claiming to have left his old ways behind him and taken up the cloth. "So tell me about this vault. There are three entrances, you say. We enter through one - and do I take it that somebody else will be making an attempt on one of the others? Or will your Wolfram & Hart friends come the same way as us, just to make life really difficult?"
"I don't know. I'd imagine they'd use a different route, rather than risk a direct confrontation. They wouldn't want to take the chance of their man coming off worst. But certainly they're making an attempt right now. I got confirmation of it just as your plane was landing, so we'll find out soon enough, one way or the other. Anyway, yes. Three entrances. Three tunnels. Probably all the same length, and probably all secured in the same way. One in the mountains, one at the coast, and one that seems to have had a town built over it, so we can count that one as unreachable."
"And this confirmation that Wolfram & Hart are going to be making a move? It's a certainty? Because if there's no proof that there's even anything in this box..."
"They're making a move. I have it from the horse's mouth, so to speak. A source I have no reason to disbelieve. Besides, just because nobody knows what's in the box is no reason for Wolfram & Hart not to want to get hold of it. Just the possibility of it containing something interesting is enough for them. I suppose the fact that it survived the fire is a pretty strong indication that it's not just a money box."
"Hmm." Giles pushed down the accelerator a little more, thinking of the journey still ahead. He still hadn't decided quite how much of all this he believed, but the threat of an organisation like Wolfram & Hart getting to anything before he did was enough for him to risk a bit more speed. It wasn't as though he had seen any sign of traffic police so far, and the roads were not too busy. "We have a long way still to go, I take it?"
"Two hundred miles, perhaps."
"Two hundred miles." It didn't have to be too long a trip. For most of it he could probably keep the speed up nicely, and they could make it in three hours; but that was still three hours in a car with Wesley. Three minutes together in the past had been enough to make Giles want to resort to physical violence. It wasn't that the conversational possibilities were limited exactly, although it did seem unfair to grill the other man on ghosthood. Was it impolite to talk of death to a ghost? On the one hand it was a remarkable opportunity for research; on the other, it was probably crassly insensitive. He decided to play safe, for the time being at least.
"Do you like music?" he asked in the end, punching the power button of the car radio. Static blasted out of the speakers at a particularly unfriendly volume, and he let the car wobble from side to side of his lane as he fumbled with the tuning control. Spanish folk music faded into being for a second, followed by some kind of modern bouncy Euro-pop. He winced. "Apparently the Spanish don't."
"Giles, if you're going to kill yourself in a car wreck, we don't have any chance of finding the box first." Wesley fixed his eyes upon the radio. "Let me try."
"If we're lucky." There was a powerful crackle, a quick blast of awe-inspiringly loud opera, then another rush of static that managed to be even louder still. Giles winced.
"Wesley, if this is an example of your powers, we're both in trouble!"
"Bear with me. I haven't had much cause to fiddle with radios so far." He frowned, half closing his eyes and redoubling his concentration. Again the static rose in volume, and behind it rose a wall of classical music. Verdi, thought Giles, who had been raised on long dead composers.
"Not great driving music," he commented. Wesley glared at him.
"I suppose you could do better?"
"Yes. I'd use the tuning knob and do it properly."
"That's not what I meant!" He scowled. "Sod it. Spike can keep the psychic powers. At least he knows what to do with them." He raised a hand and held it out towards the radio, watching in satisfaction as his fingers began to glow.
"Wesley, is that really going to work? You're non-corporeal, man. Any magical energy you generate is going to be just as unreal."
"Magical energy is always unreal, at least by the laws of physics." He clicked his fingers, and the radio squawked in protest, crackled, and began blaring All You Need Is Love in perfect stereo. Wesley grinned. Giles nodded in gracious acknowledgement. Seconds later the radio exploded.
"Sorry." Wesley shrugged. "It's breaking through into the real world that causes the problem. I think I need to practice."
"Not near me." Giles sighed, and turned his attention back to the road. Some things apparently never changed; just as in their Sunnydale days, after three minutes with Wesley he was thinking about physical violence. Not that he could act on the desire; punching his non-corporeal passenger would get him nowhere at all. Still, it remained a fairly satisfying image, and he had to entertain himself somehow. Without the radio the next three hours were likely to go very slowly indeed.
"It's a door." It was, too; a big one. A really, really big door. Standing there, looking... doorlike. Wesley nodded.
"It certainly is."
"I was expecting... I don't know. Something a little more secretive. Something hidden, for example. A-a-a trapdoor perhaps. Buried beneath several hundred years worth of undergrowth."
"Yes. That was much the kind of thing I had in mind, too. But at least this was easy to find."
"Easy to find?" Giles stared up at the door. It was close to eight feet tall, and made from highly polished oak with bands of steel. "Everybody must know about this. You don't need an archaeologist to find a set of parchments about it."
"It doesn't look as though it leads anywhere though, does it." Wesley walked around and through the door, appearing in the middle of it as though it were some holographic projection. "Or maybe not everybody can see it."
"It's eight feet of solid wooden door, Wesley." Giles knocked on it. "Even if you can't see it, you're going to notice it's here once you walk into it." He looked Wesley up and down, half in and half out of the door. "Well, most people would, anyway."
"Well whether everybody can see it or not, it's what we're looking for." Wesley tried tapping on the door, but unsurprisingly his hand passed straight through it. "We have to open it and go through."
"Which we do how?"
"I don't know. Perhaps there's an incantation."
"Perhaps. Try an opening spell. I'll have a look around." Giles turned away, then glanced back. "Oh, and Wesley? Do try not to blow anything up this time."
"I'll also try not to strain something when I laugh hysterically at your jokes." Wesley threw a few spells at the door, whilst Giles began searching the ground around it. "I think it's impervious to magic."
"Or possibly just to your magic?"
"There's nothing wrong with my spells." Wesley didn't appreciate having his magical abilities mocked, at least in part because the man who had killed him had done just that, right before striking his fatal blow. "Are you having any luck?"
"Looks to me as though the ground around here has been disturbed lately." Giles knelt down, scraping at the grass with his hands. Some of it came away in neat and even squares, as though recently cut away with a sharp spade. "Ah ha."
"A slab of stone." It was large, with roots firmly attached to it in places, and large sections worn away from years growth of grass and plants. It had been engraved deeply; words in some ancient script that to Giles's eyes looked more like beautifully scripted patterns than true writing. "Sumerian. And yet not."
"The alphabet is Sumerian." Wesley crouched down beside him, studying the twisting shapes. "The words aren't though."
"No. It's familiar, but..." Giles shrugged. "But at the same time it's not. What do you make of it?"
"Cantonese. Clever. Since most spells call for you to have to understand what you're reading, you'd need to be able to read both Sumerian and Cantonese. That must have made this very secure in Corbio's day, especially in this part of the world."
"Not that secure. By the sounds of it, our friend Corbio was a typical Watcher. Too arrogant by half."
"Maybe." Wesley gestured to the stone, expecting Giles to begin reading the spell, but the older Watcher shook his head.
"Don't look at me, I'm not the languages prodigy. I speak a good half dozen of them with what I like to think is impressive fluency, but my Cantonese is... rusty."
"Then maybe you should oil it." Glad to be doing something that he knew he could accomplish with ease, Wesley leant over to get a better look at the words. They made perfect sense to him; other languages always had; and it was a matter of moments to read the script aloud. He sat back on his haunches then, and gazed expectantly at the door. Giles frowned.
"Is something supposed to happen?"
"Being dead doesn't make me a leading authority on every subject, you know."
"Maybe not. But you're the one with the direct line to certain higher powers. Can't they tell you anything? Don't they know everything?"
Wesley raised an eyebrow. "Er... Cordelia?!"
"Yeah. Fair point." He threw the grass back down over the writing, then went back to the door. It hadn't moved; hadn't opened. It still stood there, as big and as solid as ever before. Once again he knocked on it; and this time he fancied that the sound carried an echo; just as though there were an empty room on the other side. "Well that's different."
"Will it open now?"
"There's really only one way to find out, isn't there." There was no handle, but he put both hands on the door and pushed. Something creaked. The door remained closed, but he thought that he felt it move.
"Push harder!" Wesley sounded excited. Giles glared at him.
"I don't see you helping!"
"Very funny." The younger man tried anyway, with a predictable lack of success. "It can't be that hard."
"It's a very big door." He redoubled his efforts, trying to find the best anchorage for his feet, and this time was rewarded by definite movement. Using all of his weight, and all of his strength, he pushed even harder. The door eased its way open. Soon enough there was a space big enough to walk through. He stood back.
"What are you waiting for?" asked Wesley. Giles gestured at the opening.
"For somebody who can't be hurt to go first."
"Don't mention it." Again he gestured at the opening, and with a mutinous glower, Wesley went through. He called back almost immediately.
"Looks like an entrance hall. I'm impressed. It must have required some remarkable spell-casting to come up with this."
"You said he made deals with various demons?" Giles pushed through the gap to stand alongside his dead colleague. Wesley nodded.
"Yes, he did. And he'd have needed to. Look at this place."
"I see it." It was remarkable; a huge room with a flagstone floor, and great arches of stone and oak that rose far above their heads. Stone gargoyles leered from their resting places on the walls and the ceiling, their bulbous eyes filled with unpleasant humour. Either an astonishing piece of camouflage had been created to hide all of this, or they were now standing in a different dimension. Whichever was the truth of it, the work was that of a master craftsman, or a man in thrall to who knew what powers. As though to press home the import of it all, behind them the door swung quietly closed. Giles tried to pull it open again, but of course it would not move.
"I don't think we're supposed to leave this way." Wesley wandered further into the room, looking about at the gargoyles and the massive stone pillars. Giles nodded grimly.
"Which means that we have to see this through to the end, I suppose. Perfect."
"Were you really planning to back out?"
"No." Giles smiled ruefully. "But it's always nice to have the option."
"Maybe that's the point." Looking around, Wesley waved his companion on. "I'm guessing it's this way. The room seems to head in this direction."
"There's no noticeable door leading anywhere. We could probably walk in any direction."
"True. But one of our predecessors certainly chose this route."
"Oh?" Giles caught up at last, and saw that Wesley was crouched over the body of a middle-aged man. "Oh. Our archaeologist friend, perhaps?"
"And you were thinking that taking the route that killed him would be a good plan, would you?" Giles shook his head. "I'm beginning to see how you managed to end up dead."
"Not through any lack of sensible planning."
"Wesley, I remember your plans. Don't tell me that the Lifestyle manual you got that new look from came with a free book on cunning plans and how not to die when using them." He saw a burn of anger in the eyes upturned to his, but Wesley offered no comment on the insult. Instead he merely stood up, and began to walk in the direction the dead archaeologist seemed to have chosen. Giles frowned. The changes in his young colleague apparently weren't just skin deep after all; but baiting this new improved version seemed to be much less fun. "I see," he said loudly, to the rapidly disappearing rear view of the other man. "We're going this way anyhow then are we?"
"It's the right way." The voice was clipped, calm, and only faintly simmering. "So I thought it might be a good idea, yes."
"And you know this how?"
"There was a symbol back there on the wall."
"Oh." Giles caught up, wondering if he should feel abashed, but not really inclined to try. "You should have said."
"You should try giving me the benefit of the doubt." Wesley stopped, looking left and right. "Of course, there's always the question of what killed him."
"True. There didn't look to be a mark on him."
"I know." They exchanged a glance, common knowledge uniting them where little else could. There were all manner of ways in which a man could die without any sign of physical trauma. Some were natural. Many more were not. Giles didn't want to consider some of the possibilities.
"Hex?" he suggested eventually. Wesley shook his head.
"I'd expect a hex to be location specific. You're not dead."
"That I've noticed, no."
"He might have died of fright. There could be creatures here."
"Any demons or other beasts would have died of starvation long ago. You're not telling me that enough people get in here to keep them well fed."
"True. Unless this place is timeless."
"Or in a suspended state until somebody enters." Giles nodded. "You know damn well what killed him, don't you."
"If I'd thought it was a hex I wouldn't have called you over to look. Giles, I find you just as annoying as you seem to find me, but I don't want you dead. You'd be very little use to me then."
"Fair point." The older man looked back to the body, which looked to him to be considerably further away than it should have been. Either they had been walked a hell of a lot faster than was mortally possible, or the corridor was growing as they went down it. He frowned. Just when had it become a corridor, anyway? It had been just a room before. Wesley also looked back.
"Clever, isn't it."
"Very. And only mildly off-putting." He swallowed his pride, at least a little way, but stopped short of an actual smile. "So what did kill him?"
"A Grakh beast, at a guess. You'll have noticed that his fingernails had something caught underneath them? Scales, I think, although without a microscope I can't be entirely sure. Anyway, since the Grakh tend to kill by destroying certain internal organs without leaving any outward physical damage, and since Corbio was the Watcher who first catalogued the species, I think it's a fair assumption."
"Yes, I suppose so." Giles bit back a sharp retort. It was like spending the day with a school prefect. An extremely knowledgeable and extremely annoying school prefect. To somebody who had spent his school days doing his damnedest to ensure that nobody ever considered him remotely worthy of prefectdom, this was definitely not a good thing. Wesley was striding on again now though, his poise and easy grace of moment such a blinding contrast to the geeky image Giles still had of him - and which had just been resoundingly reinforced - that it seemed most peculiar. He followed on, making half-hearted resolutions to have a damn good growl about this to Cordelia one day. One day not very far away from now, if this little mission didn't turn out in his favour.
Up ahead, Wesley was also thinking of rude things to growl at Cordelia. Giles had always been a trial, although admittedly only in the past because he had envied the older man so much. Giles was so effortlessly talented as a Watcher, whatever the Council had thought. He didn't need to try, didn't seem to need the Council's support. He fought like an expert, whilst Wesley himself had been useless. Pitifully useless. Now that he was anything but; now that he could fight with the best of them - when he wasn't dead, anyway - and now that he had the sort of knowledge and magical skills that made him an extremely useful man to have around; he no longer had any need to be jealous of Rupert Giles. So why did being around the man bring out the head boy in him again? It was like having his father hanging over his shoulder; inspiring him to start reeling out facts like a child trying to impress his teachers. He could feel echoes of his old self, like a past image hanging over his shoulder, slowing him down and tripping him up. Giles still saw him as the hopeless inadequate he had been in Sunnydale - and for some reason that was just the way he was behaving. He hated himself for it, and he hated Giles for bringing it out. He wanted to show the older man that he wasn't that wet behind the ears imbecile anymore; and he was angry that he even cared what Giles thought. Wasn't he above such things now? Apparently not.
"Hey Wes." The voice came from just beside him, and he would have jumped, had he not been so determined to play the rôle of tough guy these days. He knew the voice of course, and knew exactly who he was going to see as he turned his head. She was leaning against the wall; languorous, lazy and lethal, just as always. Oh but she did such things to his head... and oh but he hated the pair of them for it. He came to an abrupt halt.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
"Saying hello. Checking out the opposition." She looked past him, clearly eyeing Giles up and down. "Not bad. I might just stick around."
"Lilah..." He frowned suddenly. "Can he see you?"
"I certainly hope so." She grinned at him in a way designed to make him glower; for Lilah always had liked Wesley when he was angry; then moved around him and smiled down the corridor. There was trouble to be stirred here; and trouble was her favourite business.
To Giles it seemed that she had appeared out of nowhere. One moment Wesley had been storming along, quite clearly thinking black thoughts of somebody - Giles didn't really need to wonder who - and the next there was a woman beside him. A tall, statuesque woman dressed, with an impressive lack of appropriateness, in a tight red dress and matching silk scarf. She clearly knew Wesley, for she leaned close to him with the familiarity generally reserved only for relatives and friends; and her body language spoke volumes. Giles couldn't help goggling, if only briefly. Did she and Wesley really have something going on? She and Wesley?! Only then did he stop to wonder how on earth she had suddenly come to be there, and what exactly she might want. He caught up quickly then, on the alert as well as intrigued.
"What's going on?" He used the cool tone he preferred to use when disguising concern. Wesley didn't look too bothered though. At the very least he didn't seem to think that there was any danger.
"Giles, Lilah," he said, without formality. "Lilah, Giles."
"Wes, honey, remind me to knock some points off your report card." She fluttered her lashes at him briefly, and made sure that she brushed against him as she went to greet Giles. Giles's eyes narrowed at the sight. Whoever this woman was, and whatever she wanted, she could touch Wesley. That made her either a magician or dead. Neither was a particularly inspiring option, especially in a place like this. She held out her hand to him though, and he shook it willingly enough. "Lilah Morgan," she told him. "Former head of this and that at the Los Angeles branch of Wolfram & Hart. I imagine you've heard of us."
"Oh I've picked up a little gossip here and there." His voice was cold now. Giles wanted nothing to do with anybody from Wolfram & Hart; even if they were gorgeous.
"You're Rupert Giles," she said, amusement colouring her voice in response to his sudden cold front. "The great Rupert Giles. People still argue about what side you're on. Some say if it wasn't for the Slayer you'd be back on the dark side quicker than you could say... what's that colourful little sobriquet?... Ripper."
"Some say that the moon is made of cheese, and is inhabited by little pink knitted creatures that squeak." Giles folded his arms and looked past her, directly at Wesley. "What's going on here?"
"Lilah is heading up the opposition. I imagine she has a Watcher of her own that she's accompanying to the vault." Wesley felt a little awkward, well aware that Lilah had done nothing to reassure Giles over the whole issue of Wolfram & Hart. Everybody in the Slayer's inner circle had severed links with Angel Investigations after they had agreed to run the Los Angeles branch of the infamous evil law firm, and in many ways Wesley could sympathise. At the same time, he knew that he could still be trusted. Giles didn't. Having self-confessed employees of Wolfram & Hart appear out of nowhere and treat him like a very close old friend wasn't going to be doing anything to raise his stock in Giles's eyes. She grinned, and stroked his cheek with obvious affection.
"That's my Wes. All business. I could think of far better ways of introducing me than that."
"I should add that she's dead," he put in, shooting her an evil look. "And that that scarf is there because I beheaded her. If she annoys you, try giving her head a good push."
"Easy, lover. No need to air our dirty laundry in public, is there." Her hand still lingered, on his shoulder now, and he didn't push her away. He was far too used to her for that. "He's right. I am dead. I have little to fear from this place, and whether I win or lose this little contest, I could well be back in the Underworld by the end of the day - so what happens in here means nothing to me. But I don't intend to lose. Remember that." Still smiling teasingly she waggled her fingers in farewell, blew a kiss at Wesley, and disappeared in a warm glow of red light. Wesley let out a deep sigh.
"I'm sorry. I knew that she was here somewhere. I should probably have said something."
"I can't imagine it's terribly easy to explain that your evil dead, former lover is hanging about in the shadows somewhere, waiting to put a spanner in the works." Giles shook his head. "Wesley, I'm not going to make comments about inappropriate girlfriends. It's none of my business, and it would be something of a matter of pots and kettles, given my past. But somebody from Wolfram & Hart? There you were insisting that you hadn't been affected by the place, and all the time you were... well. Clearly up to something with one of the staff. And not one of the kindlier ones by the look of things."
"Lilah and I... Lilah and I were over long before we took over the firm." Of course strictly speaking, 'long before' was something of an exaggeration, but technically they had called an end to their relationship some while before the fateful deal had been struck with Wolfram & Hart. It just hadn't actually ever got around to ending. Completely. Not even after he had cut her head off, as it had turned out. Giles nodded.
"Fine. So instead of having a fling with her when you were workmates together at Evil International, you got together when she really was still the enemy."
"Is this anything to do with you?" Eyes flaming he turned away, then glanced back again. "Pots and kettles, Giles. Remember? Don't forget, I've committed my various indiscretions after being fired by the Council. You committed yours long before they decided to throw you out. Which means records. Detailed records, many of which I've seen. So don't go casting stones at me. Lilah is... what Lilah is. And we have work to do."
"Yes, I suppose we do." He couldn't help seeing the younger man in a new light though. Irritating he might be; but there had to be something else to him if he could attract the attention of a woman like that. She was untrustworthy; everything about her said that. She was almost certainly evil, at least to a degree. But there was plenty else going on there. Plenty else. And the affection in her eyes had been as real as the promise of foul play. He could almost have hoped that they hadn't seen the last of her; and he didn't need to look too hard at Wesley to see that he was thinking much the same thing.
They did not have to go far to encounter their first surprise; and their first indication of the playful meddling of Lilah Morgan. A Grakh beast, clearly dead, lay sprawled in the corridor ahead of them, bleeding copiously from a neck wound. The weapon that had been used against it lay nearby; a curved sword of such gigantic proportions that Giles could barely lift it. He whistled.
"Your girlfriend?" he asked. Wesley could only shrug.
"It's possible that somebody else has come this way since it killed the archaeologist."
"You don't really believe that." Giles tossed the unwieldy sword down to the ground, listening to its furious clatters. "I didn't hear a thing, did you?"
"And we can't expect direct help from Cordelia, right?"
"I wouldn't have thought so. There are rules about direct interference." He crouched beside the body, fancying that, if he had still possessed the sense of smell, he would have detected the unmistakable scent of Lilah's perfume lingering in the air above the fallen creature. It had her stamp all over it, although where the sword had come from, and how she had used it, he didn't know. Didn't want to know, especially. Giles nodded.
"Then why? We're the opposition."
"I don't know. Why come to a gloat a few moments ago? It's just Lilah. The way she is. Maybe she's trying to lull us into a false sense of security, or just make the competition more interesting."
"Meaning she doesn't want me dead."
"Not yet, no. She won't shed a tear if you drop dead around the next corner, but she'd rather you stayed alive for the time being at least. Lilah likes things to be interesting."
"And her Watcher?"
"I don't know. I suppose I could probably find out."
"Then do so. I want to know who we're up against." It bothered him that he was being toyed with in this way; that somebody apparently saw him as the means for a little entertainment. It wasn't that he was sorry he had been spared the need to fight the Grakh, but he didn't like to think of an enemy doing it for him, just for her own amusement. "I'll keep going. Meet me further along the way."
"Okay..." He hesitated, apparently unwilling just to head off, but Giles glared at him pointedly.
"I think I can survive without you, Wesley. I've been doing it for long enough. I'm rather better placed than you to fight monsters anyway."
"I suppose so." He nodded. "But keep your eyes open. Don't forget to check for symbols if you come to a cross roads."
"Wesley, go away." Beginning to walk off down the corridor, Giles walked with as much determination as he could. When at last he looked back Wesley had disappeared, and the corridor contained only its dead Grakh, still dribbling its remarkable volume of blood. The Watcher nodded in satisfaction, and continued on his way. It was better to be alone. Better to wander along the corridor without wondering whether he should be making conversation. The going did seem lonelier now though; the empty corridor, which could conceivably have lain empty for twelve centuries, seemed quieter, the air heavier. He thought about the sword, lying back near the fallen Grakh, and wondered if he shouldn't have brought it with him. He had a stake and a cross, and a fairly sizeable dagger, but there was nothing quite like a sword to make a man feel ready to confront fearsome beasts; even if it was a sword that he very likely couldn't handle. He glanced back - and came to an abrupt halt. The Grakh had gone; the corridor had gone. Behind him was nothing but green fields. A warm sun hung overhead, and a cloudless blue sky that seemed eerily empty of the birds to which he was so accustomed in the real world. He turned back again, to face the way ahead, and found that that too had changed. All was green and blue now; he was unquestionably outside. There seemed little to do but walk on, and hoping that he was heading in the right direction he did just that. Beneath his feet the grass seemed wiry and tough; not as soft as the grass he knew. The wind that blew brought no fresh air; instead it seemed to be taking it away. Step by step, piece by piece, the illusion of familiarity faded away. This was outside, sure enough - but it was nothing like his own world. The sky was overcast now; the grass brittle and sharp. It cracked and splintered underfoot, and the shards of it rattled and rustled as Giles walked on. The air grew heavier, the going harder, the wind increasingly hot. Soon the grass was brown and sparse, and the earth beneath it cracked and dry as powder. Dust rose in choking gusts, but there seemed nothing else to do save walk on. Once he looked back; but behind him, where there should have been the open ground over which he had walked, there was nothing but a towering stone wall. He turned his back on it then, forgetting all thought of return. Clearly there could be no return. Just as the door had closed behind him on entering this strange place; just as the corridor leading back to it had disappeared; now the very ground over which he had walked had also gone.
He had been walking for some ten minutes - or so he estimated, for his watch had apparently stopped, and there was no other means by which to mark the time - when he came to a door. Just like the first it was a door standing, unsupported, in the middle of open ground, which he could walk around as though it led nowhere. When he did walk around it, however, he discovered that this door, unlike that first, was not alone. Lined up behind it, in succession, were three other doors. Clearly only one of them could be the right one, and he had no desire to make a mistake and choose wrongly. He looked for marks on the wood; on the doors and on the frames; he hunted for hidden messages, like the stone slab near to the first door; he tried a few spells designed to reveal secrets; but the four doors remained a mystery. He even tried knocking on them, and calling to see if anyone or anything on the other side might open the right one for him. Nothing did. He shouted "Open Sesame!" as loud as he possibly could, mostly because he had always wanted to try it somewhere, and see if it might work. It didn't. Finally he sat down on the hot, dusty ground, and wished that he wasn't quite so thirsty. He didn't want to admit that he might require Wesley's help to get any further. Hadn't he always managed in the past on his own? Admittedly it wasn't often that he had to get by without his books, and usually these days he had a full research team ready to lend a hand; Willow, as had been the way for years now, with her ever present computer standing by; Dawn, determined to prove that she could be useful. Even Olivia, when she happened to be around, offering to read alongside him, annotating his notes with comical illustrations of the monsters she encountered in the text. Here he had nothing but his own mind.
Four doors. Four wasn't a common number in magic. Three, five, seven - almost always odd numbers, like the points of stars. Four was more like the points of a compass. These doors were all in a row though; not arranged around him as compass points would be, all facing in different directions. There were plenty of fours in literature though; in history and folklore; and one in particular that circled immediately around his head. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ancient harbingers of doom, and scourge of many a Mediaeval tale. In this place of dust and almost unbreathable air, it was easy to think of the Horsemen. Death, Famine, Pestilence, War - or Disease, as it would have been in Corbio's time, for War was an invention of modern interpretation. His tired mind, affected by the heat and the lack of oxygen, couldn't help assigning a personality to each of the doors; the paler one, that was Death, who had supposedly sat astride a pale horse. The thinner one was Famine, with its struts jutting out like ribs on a too thin chest. Pestilence was the one that seemed to stand at a slight angle, and which appeared tinged faintly green in the powerful light of the unfriendly sun. He smiled at his own fancy, but the heat pressed on, and fancy became more of a reality. The doors seemed to have faces, gazing down at him with hateful eyes. Flies circled over Pestilence; Famine groaned and moaned. Disease dribbled blood down from its doorframe. He had to choose one of them; he knew that, deep inside. But everything was so hot, and there was so little air. So very little air. It was harder to breathe than ever before now, and the dust still rose around him. Death mocked him with its tall, pale height, and Pestilence's flies buzzed angrily. He swatted them away when they hovered above him, but they kept coming back. Kept circling above him, buzzing their angry messages. Why are you here? they wanted to know; wanted him to tell them why he had come to their place and disturbed them, where none was supposed to be save them. He couldn't answer. Why was he here? Why would anybody choose to come here? It was impossible to breathe. He could taste dust all of the time, and the hallucinations were becoming more real than the reality he faintly remembered having existed first. There were no longer four doors; only four men. Large men, with faces like skulls, and weapons that clashed and flashed in the sun. The impossible sun. It seemed so close to him now that he could reach out and touch it; and he knew, faintly, that it would kill him soon enough, if the Four Horsemen didn't. One of his hands reached out, brushing against the sun, and finding it not so furiously hot as he had always imagined that it would be. He couldn't touch the sun and not burst into flame himself, surely? But apparently he could, here. He reached out for it again, wondering if he could pluck it out of the sky in this reality; reach up for it, and take it away forever. He smiled at the thought, but the smile froze on his lips. Stealing the sun would make it dark; and if it was dark there would be vampires. Everybody knew that darkness meant vampires, especially on the roads he travelled. And vampires meant one thing to him, above all else. Not death, not blood, not demons. Buffy. And suddenly he could breathe again, although not easily. Suddenly he was more aware of the heat, and the dust, and of the realisation that he had to get out of both. This place had been a trap, and it was one that had come close to capturing him; of dragging him down into it, and killing him as surely as the Grakh had been intended to do. He forced himself to his feet.
Four doors. It had to be one of them. Death, Famine - no, damn it. He forced himself to concentrate. Not Four Horsemen - just four doors. He couldn't let the daydreams take him again. Not in this place, where the dust could suffocate him at any moment. When any second could potentially be his last. And then it came to him, and he smacked his forehead with the heel of his hand, berating himself for the fool he had been. Any second could be his last - time. It was one of the things for which Corbio was best remembered, amongst the Watchers at least. He had been a physicist, in as much as such a science had existed in his day, and time had been one of the things that had fascinated him the most. He had expended great energies in the desire to return to the days of his youth, spending copious amounts of time and money building a machine designed to map time. Years, months, weeks and days. The Watchers had complained that he was wasting time the could better spend studying the occult. His fellow academics had laughed at him, telling him that his machine was a waste of time. But he had persisted, month after month, year after year, until he had been close to losing himself in his obsession. Well meaning friends had burnt his machine; his great work, reduced to ash with him swearing bitterly that he had been on the verge of success. Now Giles understood. Four doors; four segments of the machine. Years, months, weeks and days. But which was he supposed to open? The heat was getting to him again, and the lack of proper oxygen made his head swim. Not long left, his subconscious warned him. Just open a damn door. Any damn door. But if one door led to where he wanted to go, the other three doors would lead nowhere, or to death. That much he knew. But if he was going to die anyway, standing here in the heat and the dust, with nothing left to breathe save the dryness of everything, why not take a chance? Years, instinct told him. Corbio had wanted to return to his youth, and that meant travelling through years. The first door then... or the last? Barely able to see any longer; as light-headed as he could be without passing out, he staggered to the last of the doors, and with all of his strength, pushed it open. Cool air hit him, oxygen flooded his lungs - and the ground disappeared. As he fell it struck him that he wouldn't know if his choice had been the right one until he ceased to fall. Until he was either killed, or thrown into some new part of this journey. Part of him wanted to worry about it, but he was too tired; far, far too tired. Grateful to be out of the sun and the dust, he closed his eyes, and waited to see what happened next. When he stopped falling, and landed, gently as could be, upon the next stage of his travels, he didn't even notice. By then he was fast asleep.
Wesley awoke him with a shout, after what felt like no more than a second's sleep. He opened his eyes and looked up, certain that he looked as bleary as he felt. Was that really Pryce looking down at him? How did he come to be here in London? Wesley smiled at him.
"Well done. If I'd known about those four doors, I'd have stayed with you."
"I was starting to think you'd gone for good." He yawned and stretched. "Couldn't you have let me sleep for a little longer?"
"Not really, no. Time's passing, Giles. We might not be very clear on how much of it is going by in this place, but it's passing all the same."
"Where have you been?" He stood up slowly, stretching as hard as he could, and thanking the god of ageing Watchers that his life was still such an active one. If he could go half a dozen rounds with Buffy in the training room still, then he could struggle through the weird labyrinths of Doctor Corbio. Or he liked to think that he could, anyway.
"Here and there." Wesley looked cautious. Wherever he had been there was something he had discovered, and it was clear in his eyes that he wasn't very happy about it. Giles let him simmer for a moment, and looked about at wherever it was that he had wound up. They were inside again; a big, stone room with an arched ceiling and walls, and a floor of coloured tiles. Empty suits of armour stood to stiff attention at regular intervals, and coloured shields bearing many different coats of arms hung from the walls. It was cold and damp, in a way that only old castles could be, and black fingers of mould gripped at every corner. Giles wasn't any more enthusiastic about this new place than he had been about the last one, but it beat suffocating in an airless dust bowl. He glanced back at Wesley.
"Looks like there's only one direction we can take right now. Any chance you can skip ahead and see what's coming?"
"I tried to when you were asleep. There was nothing there. It's quite possible that this place only exists when there's somebody in it, and presumably a ghost doesn't count."
"Your friend Lilah managed to jump ahead to kill that Grakh beast."
"True. But Lilah has a physical presence. She's solid, at least when she wants to be. Even though she's dead, she probably has enough corporeality to make this place react to her. I don't." He shrugged. "I can go a little ahead, we know that, Just not very far."
"Great." He sighed. "So what else did you find? Aside from this complete inability to warn me of my impending doom? You were going to see about the Watcher who's working with Wolfram & Hart."
"Yes." Wesley's unhappiness was even more clear than before. "He's Anthony Forsythe. You'll know the name?"
"Oh yes." Giles's brow darkened. "I know Anthony Forsythe. We've had our encounters now and again. He completed his training at the same time I did. That was after I'd had my little detour courtesy of London's darker side, and er..." His hand strayed unconsciously to the place on his arm that bore the Mark of Eyghon. "Well, he was insufferable, anyway. There were a lot of people who didn't think that I should have been allowed back after all of that, and he was one of the more vocal ones. Little oik. The family had some minor connections with aristocracy, and he was the only one of them destined to be a Watcher. It went to his head, along with his family tree."
"You didn't get along?" The question seemed innocent enough. Giles laughed shortly.
"That's one way of putting it. The man's a complete bastard. He finished his training, and he did very well, but he didn't last long in the Watchers after that. I suppose I'm the last person who should be casting stones when it comes to dabbling in the dark arts, and summoning demons and such like - but I never turned against my own. Not once they were my own. He must have killed a dozen fellow Watchers. More than that; and several who were friends of mine. Do you know him?"
"We've met." Wesley shrugged. "He tried to recruit me when I was fired. How he found out about that I don't know, but I suppose he must have had friends in the Council still. He belonged to a dark sect. The Order of the Purple Iris. I got the impression it was quite wide reaching."
"And now he's working for Wolfram & Hart." Giles shot his companion a particularly disparaging stare. "Not that he's the only one."
"Are we really going there again? If I was evil I'd--"
"Glare at me a lot?"
"And be a damn sight more rude than I am being." Wesley smiled faintly. "You're an aggravating sod, and you always were. But I have changed, and I'm not a stupid little idiot anymore, Giles. I went into Wolfram & Hart with my eyes wide open, just like Angel did. He took us in there for a very particular reason, which I don't have any intention of sharing with you. It has nothing to do with whatever reasons Forsythe might have had for joining them."
"I believe you." He didn't know why, and a few days before he certainly wouldn't have believed it; but Wesley had changed. The man he had once been could have signed his soul away to Wolfram & Hart without even realising it. The man he now was had more about him than that. Anthony Forsythe on the other hand - Anthony Forsythe would have gone to Wolfram & Hart looking for power and wealth and dark secrets of many kinds; and he would do whatever in the world he could to make sure that he reached Philarbus's box first. That meant one more danger to be faced here. So long as Forsythe survived, he couldn't help but be a lurking threat waiting to be overcome. Giles rather fancied the idea of meeting with him, somewhere among the twists and turns of this peculiar place. It was a place beyond the laws of men, and that made it ideal for the settling of old scores. No doubt Anthony Forsythe was thinking much the same thing.
"He'll try to stop you," affirmed Wesley. "Magic I can combat; monsters you can fight. But Forsythe could crop up with a gun and end this without either of us being able to do anything about it. Our paths have to cross some time."
"I'm rather hoping that they will." Giles turned sharply on his heel. "Come on. Time's wasting, remember?"
"Yes, of course." The dead Watcher kept pace with the living one, keeping quiet, but apparently with something weighing on his mind. Giles let him stew for some time, as they walked together down the cold stone corridor. The ceiling rose higher and higher above them as they went, and gradually the place seemed darker. There had been a sense of natural daylight to begin with, although what the source of such daylight might have been was impossible to tell. Now the way was lit by candles; many hundreds of them standing in tiny alcoves along the walls, all flickering and spitting and never seeming to melt the wax that carried their flames. The flames cast shadows, and the shadows leapt and danced in huge patterns against the stone, and all was strangely cheerful and homely. The place was still cold, though, and still smelt of damp, and the suits of armour still stood guard. Only then, after so long in silence, did Wesley finally speak.
"If it's Forsythe that you're worried about, it needn't be. Given the chance I have every intention of confronting him, but I won't let that take precedence over getting to the box."
"That's not what I was thinking about. If I was the one with real fists to hit with, I'd be wanting to deal with Forsythe myself. I tried to take him down the day he offered to recruit me into his order, but I wasn't nearly up to the task then. No, I was thinking about that Grakh; or more precisely what else might be in here with us. The way has been pretty clear so far. You haven't had to fight anything."
"A source of great disappointment to me." Giles's sarcasm was sharper than the dagger hidden in his clothing. "No doubt there's some charming surprise hidden around a corner somewhere. Just so long as it isn't another Grakh. They drool, and it's really quite revolting."
"I'll drop by the Underworld for a moment, shall I?" Reacting to Giles's barbed tone, Wesley responded just as caustically. "Ask Corbio if there's any more drooling monsters hiding down here. Maybe you can avoid them then. Only go for the ones that have bad breath instead."
"Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, you know." Choosing to ignore that it was also his favourite, Giles shot a sharp glare at Wesley, who glared back just as sharply in return.
"Bully for it. I notice you're not exactly a fan of the higher forms yourself."
"Oh... shut up Wesley." Giles quickened his pace. "And get a move on if you're coming." He lowered his voice to a faintly petulant mutter. "Otherwise bugger off."
"I see. We've gone past the courteous part of the expedition then? Fine. I don't much enjoy trying to be polite to you, either." Wesley also quickened his pace, provoking Giles into walking faster still. "Great. Take an even more mature approach."
"I'm not trying to be mature. I'm trying to make a point." Giles glowered at the petty tone of his own voice. It was like being back in the library of Sunnydale High, when he had first worked alongside Wesley. The other Watcher had brought out this adverse side of his nature then, too, and he had found himself gradually losing his usual gravitas, sinking instead into antagonistic prickliness. He hadn't liked it then; he didn't like it now. Wesley, who felt rather similar, was just as frustrated, and just as increasingly annoyed.
"This is daft," he offered, in an attempt to smooth the troubled waters. Giles nodded, without turning around.
"We're supposed to be on the same side."
"Also granted. We just can't stand the sight of each other."
"True." Wesley stopped rather abruptly. "Although I could suggest that--"
"Don't suggest." Giles slowed to a more gradual halt. "Just shut up."
"Because that sounds like a good way to help bury the hatchet."
"Screw the hatchet, Wesley. Listen."
"To what? You? No thanks."
"Don't be an idiot!" Giles turned slowly around, looking back the way they had come. "Oh, great. Well that's just bloody marvellous."
"What?" Following the older man's lead, Wesley also turned around. He could hear something now; what Giles had been trying to draw his attention to before, presumably. A clanking, soft but persistent. Metal moving slowly but with force. He guessed what he was going to see before he saw it, and it was less with surprise than with mere displeasure that he saw ten suits of armour coming down the corridor. Ten large, broad suits of armour, empty of anything alive, but apparently nonetheless determined for all that. They carried no armaments, but presumably there was no immediate need for weaponry when you were six feet tall and made from thick plates of iron. "Oh."
"Now would be a good time to tell me that you know the perfect spell for this kind of situation."
"I'm sure it would. Now might also be a good time for you to announce that you're superhuman."
"I think it might have been mentioned in my Watcher records, if I was." Giles thought about drawing his dagger, but had to conclude that it would just look ridiculous. "Okay. A plan. A plan would be good."
"Down a corridor filled with even more suits of armour, yes. Any one of which could come to life at any moment, and join in the party. I think I'd rather stay here and face ten of them than run away and risk getting surrounded by several hundred."
"We have to go that way some time."
"Yes, but by then one of us will have made use of the years of remarkable training, not to mention the superior intellect and hugely impressive knowledge that we're supposed to have, and will have come up with a brilliant plan of action. Right?"
"Possibly." Wesley tried throwing a punch at the nearest suit of armour as it drew level with him, but of course his fist passed straight through it. Giles rolled his eyes.
"Oh, way to go Wesley. Punch the thing. Because that's going to work even if you're not incorporeal. It's made of iron you prat."
"Then you bloody well do something!" Frustrated beyond measure as the marching suits of armour walked right through him, Wesley raised a furious fist and sent a blast of magical energy after the beings. It glanced off the helmet of the leadmost suit, and showered Giles's head with sparks. He swore, very loudly and extremely eloquently.
"Wesley! Damn it, I have little enough hair left as it is, without you trying to set fire to it!"
"You're going to have little enough of anything left in half a second! Pardon me for trying to do something!"
"Trying to do something?! Would that be trying to kill the monsters, or trying to explode me?" Ducking a powerful iron fist that came slamming towards his stomach, Giles caught the arm as it passed by him, and hurled the suit that belonged to it into the next one in line. Both suits collapsed into a pile of constituent parts and lay still.
"Nice work!" Argument forgotten, Wesley smiled broadly at this development, though the smile soon vanished. Giles was swamped immediately, the eight remaining suits marching relentlessly towards him. He could do little save try to stay out of their reach.
"Don't congratulate me! Do something!"
"Oh. Yes." He sent another ball of energy after the suits, this time catching one of the suits directly in the back. It exploded, showering gauntlets and helmet parts all over the corridor. Giles was vanishing from sight though, borne to the ground by creatures he no longer had any chance of fighting. Wesley ran into the thick of it all, passing through the suits, and swearing when his fists still failed to make contact. He did manage to hurl a spell Giles's way though, and drag him back out of the reach of the marching armour. The older Watcher staggered to his feet as though resoundingly drunk, and spat dust and metal shavings from his mouth.
"I hate this place!" He had to dodge immediately as one of the suits came for him again, its fists passing straight through Wesley's chest as it tried to get to Giles. "And you could at least have the decency to get in their way properly!"
"Oh, because I really prefer being a ghost!" As Giles ducked and dodged, managing to slam one of the suits into the wall so that it collapsed into pieces like the first three, Wesley blasted another. "You're supposed to be understanding of my condition. Tolerant." He blasted another suit. "Sympathetic."
"You got yourself killed. I'm supposed to be sympathetic? Sarcastic is suiting me much better." Giles had to duck very suddenly, and Wesley laughed at the near miss.
"Sarcasm doesn't help the fighting much though, does it." One of the suits aimed a punch at him, which sailed smoothly through his head, and it was Giles's turn to laugh.
"You said it." He fell back against the wall as another of the beings rushed him, then ducked down and bodyslammed it in the stomach. It staggered back just as Wesley fired at another of the things, and both suits exploded together.
"And then there were three." Giles was feeling better about it all now, although his ribs felt decidedly tender. "Maybe this isn't so hard after all."
"They are just basically inanimate objects. Or animated inanimate objects, anyway. No brains I suppose." Wesley exploded another in a shiny burst of energy of which he was really rather proud. He was getting quite good at this. It had been hard at first, getting the hang of it all again since the whole business of dying and ceasing to truly exist; but it was feeling natural again now. Giles hurled another of the things into the wall, then sensing the approach of the final one behind him, ducked quickly so that Wesley could shoot over his head. For a second the two Watchers shared a triumphant grin, then remembered that they were angry with each other, and looked away. Giles straightened his clothing.
"Okay. That was exhilarating. And strangely not difficult."
"I shouldn't complain."
"I wasn't." He smiled to himself happily. "Shall we go on?"
"Fine." Wesley gestured to the awaiting corner in the musty stone corridor. "After you."
"I'm on it." It was with a spring in his step that Giles walked on. Ten magical monsters defeated with only a few bruises and a mild singeing. That wasn't too bad. Maybe this wasn't going to be so tough after all. And then he finished going around the corner, and saw what was waiting ahead, and came to an abrupt halt. Behind him Wesley jerked to a halt to avoid a collision, then remembered that he was incapable of colliding with anything and carried on walking instead.
"What's wrong?" he asked, passing jauntily through Giles's right elbow. The older Watcher glared at him.
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe everything?" He nodded on ahead. Wesley looked. Saw the way ahead barred by a massive, snarling, two-headed dog. Smiled nervously. And things had been going so well.
"Oh." He frowned, not finding great encouragement in the size of the creature's teeth. "This doesn't look good."
"I was preferring the suits of armour, certainly." This time Giles did draw his dagger, although it still felt faintly absurd. Next time he went on holiday he was definitely taking his full compliment of weapons along. To hell with Customs. "Any bright ideas?"
"Offer it a bone and call it a good dog?"
"You see any bones around here other than mine?"
"Not in the immediate vicinity, no."
"Then let's forget the bright ideas, shall we." Giles sighed, and raised his dagger in a display of blind optimism. Maybe he should trying shouting "Sit!". Or possibly just running away. All things considered, being bored in the flat back in London definitely seemed a better option right now. He never had finished reading Olivia's letter.
But the dog was coming for him, and that was all that he could think about now.
Lilah was bored. It wasn't that the trip so far had been uneventful; toying with Wesley was always fun, and the way to the vault had turned out to be highly entertaining. There had been three vampires, a chaos demon and a pair of flying swords so far; all hidden in peculiar places. She had walked along a stormy beach, what had appeared to be a piece of quaint English countryside, and something approximating a rainforest, as well as a sizeable length of particularly drab corridor. Corbio had created a masterpiece of a labyrinth, and she knew that Wolfram & Hart were taking notes with every step that she took. It required every piece of her Watcher companion's knowledge to work out the clues that told them which door to take next and which path to choose, and if it hadn't been for her own status as somebody already dead, she was quite certain that she would never have survived the tussle with the chaos demon, let alone the three vampires. The problem really was Forsythe. He wasn't entertaining company - and when Wesley was on the same mission, who knew how near or far away, it wasn't exactly fun to stay at the side of a man like Forsythe.
He was everything that Wesley wasn't, which perhaps was why he was working on her side, instead for the opposing faction. Loud, crass, boastful and easily corrupted, and clearly anxious to get whatever he could out of this particular deal, he walked with a swagger, talked constantly about himself, and whilst he could competently deal with the puzzles and the monsters that crossed their paths, he did so distastefully, and with far too much smug satisfaction. Lilah didn't like him. He didn't care, and he flirted with her anyway, as though he believed that she was sure to be won over in the end. As a means to an end he was acceptable; as anything else she found him merely repugnant. Maybe she should have chosen rather more figure-concealing clothes; but then Lilah was used to dressing how she liked, without having to suffer for it because of some imbecile with the brain of a dinosaur. A highly intelligent, extremely well-educated dinosaur, who could apparently speak some twenty-five languages. Not that she let that impress her.
"This place is fascinating." Forsythe was walking on ahead, peering at everything, and explaining it all to her as though she wasn't even capable of knowing what a vase was without his assistance. She nodded. She had already heard his discourse on the abilities of Corbio at least three times today, and knew exactly how Forsythe felt all of this could have been improved upon, given a designer of greater vision.
"I'm sure it is." She sped up, overtaking him and walking on down the corridor before he could drag her into another conversation about his own genius. She found herself wishing that he would do something to refute that supposed genius, but since the only way he could do that would be in making a wrong move that risked losing the game for Wolfram & Hart, she had to swallow the desire, and wish him well instead. He caught her up.
"Any idea how our rivals are doing?"
"Well enough. My employers are only keeping a passing eye on them to check on their progress, since there's nothing they can do to interfere. But so far everything seems to be going well."
"Well for them or well for us?"
"There haven't been any fatalities yet, if that's what you mean." She wondered what would happen if something did happen to Giles. Would Wesley give up? Unlikely. He would probably come after her and try to stop her own attempt to get through. Wesley might succeed in wiping the unpleasant smirk from Forsythe's annoyingly handsome face, but technically speaking she would have to stop him. The notion of taking Forsythe's side over Wesley's - hell, over anybody's - was not a nice one.
"Good." Forsythe drew level with her, grinning in what he apparently believed was an irresistible fashion. "You know Rupert Giles?"
"Not really." She knew him by reputation, and by Wesley's opinion of him. He was a talented Watcher with a past murky enough to impress even her, and that was an undeniable source of interest. Dark magic, rebellion, supposed murder, arrests, tales of sacrifices, connections with any number of known bad apples across the globe - how could she not be interested? He still bore, so the tales went, a mark on his arm that linked him to a powerful demon currently incarcerated in hell; but which, if ever it managed to escape, was likely to embark on a killing spree in celebration that would make the whole world tremble. And do so whilst in possession of Giles's own body. And people called her morals dubious.
"Well I know him very well. He's a few years older than me, but we did some of our training together thanks to him taking a sabbatical in his early twenties. The guy practically turned London on its head, doing spells that made even the normal citizens realise that something was up. Personally I'd never have let him into the Watchers, mystical destiny or otherwise, but that lot never did know up from down. They seemed to think that because there'd always been one of his family in the organisation, there always should be. They completely overlooked the contribution of people such as myself, who weren't from the traditional familes. Not a single one of the Council ever took any interest in me at all; it was always Giles, Giles, Giles. I suppose I should be glad. When I realised that I was going to get far more from the other side of magic than I ever got from the Watchers themselves, none of them noticed until it was far too late." He sniffed. "Nobody except Giles. He kept coming to me, saying that he could see what I was up to, and that it wouldn't do any good. Him, with his forbidden library, and the Mark of Eyghon tattooed on his arm, and his meetings every week with a coven of witches to help him give up his thing for black magic. Cocky bastard. Accent all over the place. Cockney guttersnipe one moment, jumped up public schoolboy the next. I told him exactly where to get off; I mean what exactly was he going to do about it? Rupert Giles, telling tales on one of his fellows, for the sort of acts that he'd been getting away with for years?" He laughed shortly, and Lilah found herself disliking him even more. "We finished our training, and I got sent out on some expedition to the Far East. I found scrolls of magical knowledge that the Watcher Council would have given everything to own, and I kept them for myself. I learnt things that other men would have killed to learn. And then Rupert bloody Giles turns up in the middle of the night, and leaves me lying in the gutter with a broken jaw, and takes the damn scrolls back to Watcher HQ. I'd have killed him then, as soon as I recovered, but he'd got himself sent on some expedition to Central Europe. All clandestine stuff, sneaking over the border into the East, and spinning little spells to make the authorities on both sides look the other way. I got sent in as back up, and picked apart all his little spells like old knitting. Bastard still managed to escape."
"And then - then - I get stuck on light duties because everybody assumes I screwed up when things got a little hairy on the Hungarian border. Screwed up? I took those spells apart on purpose, and anybody who'd bothered to look could have seen that. But I was just the new boy. The unknown quantity. The wildcard from a normal family, with no history of involvement in anything mystical. What was I going to know about bad magicks, right?"
"Mr Forsythe..." She really didn't care about his personal vendettas, but there was no shutting him up. His rich, marbles-in-mouth voice carried disgust well, and relished every syllable filled with hatred. She thought about killing him; not for her the lack of solidity in death that so bothered Wesley. She could break Forsythe's neck without too much difficulty. She was fairly talented as a pickpocket too, and she could have slid his dagger out of his belt and cut his throat with it before he'd had much chance to fight back. Not that fighting back would do him a great deal of good, theoretically, since she was already dead. She sighed though. It was all just wishful imagining. Forsythe was her ally; the man she had been detailed to assist on this mission for Wolfram & Hart. If she killed him the consequences for her could be extremely unpleasant. Being dead might save her from Forsythe, but it couldn't ever save her from Wolfram & Hart. Nothing could, short of the destruction of all levels of existence; and knowing Wolfram & Hart, they'd probably find a way past that, too.
"And he still hadn't turned me in. Like I said - it's hard to tell tales on somebody who's just doing the same sort of thing you used to do yourself. Hell, I hadn't done anything half as bad as he had, and he was still in the Watchers, so what could he say? And who to? And meantime he gets sent to Africa and comes back all covered in glory after wiping out some vampire cabal that he shouldn't even have been fighting - and which, if you believe the stories, he only managed to destroy because his evil sorcerer old friend was helping him - and I'm still stuck dusting library shelves. But one thing about the Watchers is that they always have good things in their libraries. The idiots kept underestimating me. Never let me show them what I could do. So I decided I was going to show them anyway." He grinned, in the sort of matinee idol/manic fiend way of his that Lilah had decided annoyed her almost as much as his infernally outsized ego. "I read every book I could get hold of, and I learned every secret that that pointless lot had forgotten they ever knew. And Giles kept getting drunk with old buddies, and wandering off the straight and narrow, and hiding it behind this tweed jacket façade that he'd managed to come up with, and none of that useless bunch of imbeciles ever seemed to notice. They didn't notice anything at all until the day one of them brought in a book that I knew would change my life forever. They were going to lock it away in a vault somewhere, and never let anybody see it, and what would be the point of that? So I stole it. I took out a dozen or more of them in the process, with a few little tricks none of them had a clue how to deal with. Giles came after me, but it wasn't so hard to stay ahead with my new book to help out. I've never looked back." He laughed again. "Wolfram & Hart couldn't get close enough to me, and I see that they came to me pretty quickly when they found out about this place. One day Wolfram & Hart will have to bring me into their inner circle. I might even become a senior partner in the end. I obviously have something that they feel they can use."
Expendability, thought Lilah with a wry smile, though she kept the thought to herself. Forsythe was an arrogant sod who could be easily manipulated, and left thinking that the manipulation had all been done by him. Wolfram & Hart would use him up the same way they had so many people in the past; be it towering intellects, ambitious law students, or the many people who recognised their own evil, and thought that it matched that of Wolfram & Hart itself. All of them thought that they could come out on top. All of them thought that they would be the one in control. All of them were wrong, and discovered it only when it was far too late. This chattering peacock would be no different, in the end. She only hoped that that eventual certainty was enough to keep her from throttling him in the meantime.
"I take it you're hoping to see them fail?" she asked, having learnt that he was less annoying if she tried to shape his conversation, rather than letting him ramble on unchecked. He grinned. She was rapidly coming to hate that grin, she decided. The smugness of it was bad enough; the fact that he was still certain she was going to melt at the sight of it just turned her stomach.
"They will fail." His confidence was impressive, she had to give him that much. The idea of him being the one to fail was simply impossible for him to grasp. "Giles isn't a good enough fighter to make it through here alone. And you say the other guy is dead? What bloody use is a ghost going to be?"
"That ghost could be a lot of use." She wanted to smile a fond little smile, but didn't. She and Wesley were privileged information. Whatever the nature of their relationship was - and she had no idea herself what it was, not really - she didn't plan on broadcasting it to everybody.
"Really?" Forsythe didn't sound very interested. "I didn't recognise the name. A former Watcher himself, you say?"
"And one that you've met. Apparently you tried to recruit him, at least according to my employers. To the Purple Iris?"
"Oh." He shrugged. "I probably thought he could be useful. Where was this?"
"Somewhere in America in 2000."
"Oh." He nodded suddenly. "Oh. Yes, of course. Pryce. Fired for losing a Slayer, which was something of a first if I remember correctly. He gave the Council a hard time for refusing to help save the life of some vampire, which is probably what made me think I could use him. He pulled a gun on me, and I had to grab a couple of passing civilians to get the idiot to leave me alone. So you think he's going to be useful to Giles, do you?"
"He will be. He has been." She didn't know how exactly, since she wasn't privy to all of the details, but she had a confidence in Wesley that he didn't even seem to have in himself. Forsythe nodded slowly.
"Well maybe if we all make it through we can meet up at some point. I've never fought a ghost before."
"We're not here for grudge matches and personal challenges." She was talking to a brick wall, and she knew it. "We're only here for that box."
"I won't endanger that." He was grinning again, no doubt seeing himself standing over the dead body of Rupert Giles, triumphant and delighted, and even more full of himself than usual. Well as long as his daydreams of personal grandeur didn't inspire him to start flirting with her again. There was only so much dribbling and invasion of her personal space that she was prepared to take before she did something drastic, and she wasn't ruling out trying the same trick on him that she had used to such entertaining effect on the Grakh demon. The Senior Partners were sure to know about that by now, and would be wanting an explanation before much longer, she knew - but what was a little gift for a friend here and there? Somehow she didn't think that they'd much appreciate the argument that there would be no fun at all in any of this if the opposition got killed too soon. The Senior Partners never seemed to appreciate excuses involving 'fun'. All part of being ethereal evil powers, presumably. As for Forsythe - as oblivious to her attempt to help the enemy as he was to everything else that didn't directly involve him, he was wandering into the lead again, once more peering at the things that they passed, and no doubt preparing his next lecture on the subject. She thought pleasant thoughts of Grakh beasts and bubbling internal organs, and followed on in the irritating sod's wake. She hoped he didn't start reminiscing again. The last thing that she had wanted had been to hear the story of his young life in the Watchers, but of course he had failed to notice her lack of interest. He probably thought that she had been enthralled, and anxious to hear more. She really, really wanted to kill him; or step aside when they met their next obstacle, and let fate take its course. Do the world a favour, and stop him ever going back into it. But she knew that she never would. How could she, when she was only here through the grace of Wolfram & Hart? When she belonged to them as surely as Forsythe soon would? She would do as they asked of her, and help the revolting individual through all of this, and probably stand by if he found some way to take out Wesley. Because that was what the Senior Partners wanted, and what she wanted was immaterial. There was a price to pay for being dead. And it was a price that she was only just beginning to pay.
"What do you mean 'well what'?" Giles was exasperated, which wasn't entirely easy to convey in a hoarse whisper. "You're a ghost. There's very little chance of it eating you. Try something."
"Alright." Looking rather uninspiringly low on confidence, Wesley moved forward slowly. The last thing that he wanted was to antagonise the creature, and risk it charging. Judging by the direction in which it was pointing, it would go straight through him and land on top of Giles. He could foresee all kinds of people being very annoyed about that, only one of whom would be Giles himself. The dog growled at his approach, both heads following his every move. He smiled encouragingly at it.
"Good boy. Good boy."
"If it's a girl you're not making a great start there. Pissing off the big two-headed dog isn't very advisable."
"From over here I can't see which it is. It might be neither. Checking wasn't high on my list of priorities." He edged forward a little more. "Look at the size of this thing."
"I can see its size, believe me! And its two heads. And its teeth and its very large claws. And it can see my very small dagger, and by the look of it it's laughing. Can you see any weak spots?"
"No." Wesley had drawn almost level with the beast now, and was watching it rather nervously. It was not always easy to remember that nothing could hurt him now; or nearly nothing, anyway. He expected the giant dog to lash out at him at any moment with a paw full of gleaming, hooked claws. Instead it merely growled at him, and its hackles rose in spikes down the back of each head. He spoke quietly now, anxious not to spook the thing. "I could try hitting it with a few energy bolts."
"You know their strength better than I do. What are they likely to do?"
"Might kill it in the end though."
"Yeah, after it gets really angry and tears me to shreds." Giles fell silent for a moment. "Okay, look. It let you get close. Maybe if I go really slowly and quietly, I'll be able to get past it too."
"You feel confident about that, do you?"
"Not in the slightest, since you mention it. I've always got on well with dogs in the past though."
"Any of them happen to be giant, slavering two-headed ones?"
"Not recently." He sighed. This was getting them nowhere though. If he stayed where he was, the thing was bound to go for him eventually. At the end of the day this was surely why it was here? On the other hand, if he advanced it was even more likely to go for him. Quicker, and more angrily, and probably with even more deadly accuracy. Well, no. The accuracy thing was probably going to be the same either way, in all fairness, but walking towards the animal still seemed daft. Standing still didn't really feel any more sensible though, so putting one foot in front of another, he began to move forward. The dog growled. One of its heads turned to watch him progress, and the other remained watching Wesley.
"We could run in different directions," he suggested as he walked. "Maybe that would confuse it."
"I doubt it."
"So do I, but it felt good to be suggesting something." The dog took one long, slow, deliberate step forward, and Giles stopped abruptly. He considered brandishing his dagger at it, but it was beginning to feel even more absurd. Why the hell hadn't he brought something else? He almost always had the dagger on him, for it was useful in certain spells, and truth be told made an excellent pencil sharpener, but when fighting massive mythical beasts it was about as much use as a fruit basket. "Okay. We can handle this."
"A little confidence would have made that sentence much more convincing."
"Yeah, well I'm the one who's actually going to get torn to shreds. I'm allowed to be nervous."
"Think positive." Wesley moved slowly, edging back between Giles and the dog. "Hold that dagger out."
"Wesley, whenever I move this thing I swear the dog giggles. It isn't even sentient, and it knows I don't have a bloody chance armed with something like this."
"Then let's make it into something else." The younger Watcher had his eyes closed now, and Giles could see his lips moving slowly. Either he had been doing some serious work on his magical skills prior to death, or death itself brought an impressive upgrade, but whatever the explanation, Giles felt the dagger begin to vibrate. The dog growled fiercely at the sight of it, and with a flash of light the blade grew to the size of a sword, and both of the dog's heads roared loudly. The dagger was heavier now, as befitted its new size, and its gleaming blade was a mass of flickering candlelight. It seemed to antagonise the dog greatly, and with a second rumbling roar, it began to advance once again.
"I don't know how long that spell will hold." Wesley was still trying to keep between the dog and its prey. "I can't do a permanent change. That would mean creating new matter, or diverting something that pre-exists, and there's very few magicians who can do that. You've got five minutes. Ten at the outside."
"Ten should be enough, one way or the other." The dog had slowed to a halt once again, but clearly it was gathering its strength. Its intention was to leap, and it was going to happen sooner or later. Where to strike with the sword though? The creature looked as hard as nails; harder. There were plenty of beasts that would barely be tickled by a sword of any size, and it would be just his luck, he felt sure, if this creature turned out to be one of them. After all, if you were a two headed dog, the chances were you had already been touched by magic of one sort. Why not another as well?
"Ready?" Wesley's right hand had begun to glow, a precursor to the bolt of magical energy that he was clearly about to launch. He seemed to have great faith in them, or was just proud of the ability to fire the things; Giles preferred cold, hard metal himself. There were too many things in the magical world that could counteract all manner of spells, or were just impervious to human sorcery entirely. Knowing Wesley the sorcery was not entirely human; but that was still no guarantee of success. There were, after all, more things in Heaven and Earth... and all that.
"Ready." He wasn't of course. 'Ready?' was such a damn silly question. Who the hell would be ready in a situation like this? Aside from Buffy perhaps. He smiled at that thought. Buffy; his tower of strength. His inspiration in moments of difficulty and danger. His arms seemed to fill with new energy, and the sword held itself a little higher. It was beautiful, he thought in that moment; something unreal, which of course was what it was. Something brighter and cleaner and shinier than any true sword had any right to be. In its blade he saw Wesley's ball of fire leap from his hand and fly straight as an arrow; saw the yellow and the white and the red of it all spark and burn. The dog turned one head towards the ball, and snatched it out of the air with its teeth, crushing the fire into a flash of hot orange light that skittered its way across the stone floor in broken pieces like shattered glass. Undiscouraged, Wesley summoned a second ball, but the dog was having none of it. With a roar that reverberated around the room, echoing in the arched stone ceiling far above, it leapt straight for Giles, both its jaws snapping, its hugely powerful legs propelling it forward with the sort of speed and power that made his heart leap straight for his throat. He jumped aside, slashing with the sword, catching it a tearing blow along one shoulder that didn't seem to worry it in the slightest, then had to twist away as it swung around in mid-air, coming at him again without a pause. He stabbed this time, feeling the point of the sword glance off a hard ridge of bone. A ball of fire hit one of the creature's heads, and it turned momentarily to glare at Wesley, then turned back to Giles and growled with all the menace of hell. Or so it seemed to him, standing before it now, feeling the heat of its breath on his face, and seeing so many teeth, all set out before him in stereo. He took a step back, held the sword out ready, and as the creature came for him once more, slashed furiously at the juncture of the two short necks. Both heads lashed back and forth and the sword was almost torn from his grasp. He saw new blood well forth against the dark of the demon dog's hide, but again it seemed to feel little pain. More fire rained down upon it; its coat gave off the faint scent of singed fur. It didn't care.
"You're going to have to do better than that!" Giles lashed out with the sword again, directing his words to Wesley, who had appeared at his side with both hands aglow. The younger Watcher had an expression of deepest concentration, but the dog was too much for his tricks and he knew that now. Moving between Giles and the dog once again, he muttered a spell and called forth a sword of his own. Giles rolled his eyes.
"A ghost sword. That's sure to work."
"Run for it. I can distract it long enough for you to get past, and then maybe this part of the way will cease to exist."
"It won't." Other parts certainly had as they had gone along, but Giles knew that this place wouldn't disappear. Not yet. "Not until this thing is dead. It's not finished with otherwise."
"It's worth trying! Maybe there'll be something else up ahead." The dog was gathering itself for another spring. "Just go, damn it! It can't hurt me."
"I wouldn't be so sure of that." All the same, it did seem a fair argument. Perhaps there would be weapons ahead. Perhaps there would be somewhere he could lose the dog. Perhaps there would be another of the blasted things, and he would run straight into its waiting jaws. There was only one way to find out. As the creature leapt, Giles ran. He saw Wesley, in the corner of his eye, swing his sword in desperation at the dog, but the blade passed straight through its chest. The creature growled nonetheless, swinging one head around to stare at the dead Watcher whilst its other head turned to watch Giles. Giles turned his back on it, running for the other end of the room - only to come to a dead stop. There was no way out. No other door, no continuation of the space. Everywhere there were dead ends; stone walls that gave no quarter. He was trapped here, as surely as could be, until he or the dog were dead. He groaned. The dog raced for him. He stumbled for somewhere to run, but the wall was behind him and there was nowhere to run to. Somewhere off to his right he saw Wesley, moving like the warrior he had certainly never been back in Sunnydale, executing a perfect dive and roll to bring himself into a better position. He came up with a speed and agility that Giles could only envy; and when he stood again he held an automatic pistol in each hand. The guns were firing even as he was straightening up; even as he was running closer to the beast. Giles heard each gunshot like an explosion in his mind; echoing powerfully in the stone-enclosed space. Something ricocheted; something ripped through the material of one of his shirt sleeves. The dog twitched and jerked. Real bullets - or something very like them. Galvanised into action, Giles stepped to one side, and as the dog began to wobble, began to show its first signs of weakness, he lifted the sword and drove the blade deep into its chest. It roared again, and the teeth of one great head grazed his arm. He stumbled back. The guns rattled on. With a last growl that became more of a sigh, the beast collapsed. So almost did Giles.
"I thought that was it, for sure." He leant back against the wall, shaky from exhaustion and relief. Only then did something occur to him, and indignation leant him new energy. "And what the bloody hell was that all about? Those were real bullets. Why didn't you do that earlier? No, forget that. Just how the hell did you do it?"
"I'm not sure. Self belief?" Not that that had ever been a particular trait of Wesley's in the past, but it was all that he could think of now. Giles shook his head.
"I don't think so. Oh a ghost might be able to touch things, and move things around, once it gets the hang of it - that's well documented enough. But to draw a gun and shoot real bullets? Like snatching swords from nowhere - even useless ones - and blasting everything with fire balls. Where exactly did you get all this new magic from, Wesley? Wolfram & Hart? Was it a part of your deal when you joined them?"
"Wolfram & Hart?" His companion didn't look angry so much as shocked. "Do you honestly believe that I would take anything from them? Anything at all? When Angel was playing along to fit the part, when Gunn was--" He broke off, something that appeared to be both grief and rage combined flashing across his eyes in an instant. "I took nothing from them. Not once. And don't think it wasn't offered. Possibilities here, suggestions there. Temptations of every sort every day. I took nothing. But every night, no matter how late it was when I got home, I turned to the books. New books, bought from demons and sorcerers in parts of Los Angeles even you might not believe exist. I knew that something was coming. We all did. And I've never had the muscle to play my part as well as I might. I studied, Giles. The same way you did, once. It's done neither of us any good in the long run, because it never does. Not when it comes from the sort of books we've always had to read. But if I have any powers now, I've earned them; and if that's what let me do what I just did, then I've earned that too." He put the guns away, lowering them into holsters that Giles could not see, and drawing a deep breath to regain his slender control. "Let's get on, shall we?"
"I'm sorry." He wished for a moment that he could shake the other man's hand, at least to show that he meant his apology. He really had distrusted the other man; he saw that clearly now. The distrust born from their time together in Sunnydale, and fed by the deal with Wolfram & Hart that he didn't think he would ever understand. "I just... I'm never at my best when I've been shot at."
"Yes. Sorry about that." There was the tiniest of smiles in the oddly young-old eyes. "Guns tend to bring out the zealot in me. I rather shut out the rest of the world."
"If that's what made the bullets real, let's both be thankful for it." Except that the bullets hadn't been real; not in the usual sense. He could tell that from the lack of cordite scenting the air. Still - real or not real, they had done their work. He went over to the dog and drew out his sword, discovering a dagger once again. He cleaned the blade carefully on the dog's tough hide, and gave it a final polish on his own shirt tail. It didn't look quite so absurd anymore, he decided. His little dagger, forged two hundred years ago not far from the mountains in Spain where he had begun this bizarre journey. He would never look at it in quite the same way again.
"I wonder what's next?" he commented idly, as he stowed the dagger away, and turned to look around at the waiting stone walls. One of them had already dissolved, and it showed a new way ahead. A way lit by moonlight, and a sky sparkling with thousands upon thousands of stars.
"Only one way to find out." Wesley moved ahead of him, his slight, dark figure already looking different in Giles's eyes. Prejudices were slipping away, the older man realised. Long held prejudices, finally being laid to rest. With a faint smile, he moved up to walk alongside his companion, and together they stepped out into the darkness. A new world swallowed them then. As strange as any they had yet seen.
It was dark. Darker than dark, save for the stars. Nothing in the world seemed to be a source of light, as though civilisation had not yet cast its hand upon the Earth. The glow of the moon, which had served to lead them from the stone corridors of before, had gone now, and the moon itself was no more than a tiny sliver; the faint curved stripe of white of the old awaiting renewal in the nights to come. It was hard to see the ground beneath their feet; hard to see anything at all save the stars. The many, many thousands upon thousands of stars, that filled the heavens with the bright clean flicker of candlelight. Giles saw all the constellations he had learnt over the years; the ancient ones named millennia ago; the newer ones given more recent names. North and south, east and west; constellations that had never been seen together before, as though the whole of the sky had been opened up and stretched out above his head.
"Look at it," he breathed, sharing the marvel with a man he could now barely see. He reached out to touch his companion, before remembering that he couldn't, and letting his arm fall back to his side.
"It feels... strange." Wesley's voice sounded more faint than before. "I feel less real here, as though the starlight is shining straight through me."
"Everything feels less real. Everything probably isn't real." Giles winced at that sentence, thinking ill thoughts of young Americans who couldn't speak the language properly, and of the years he had spent amongst them. "But just look at those stars."
"Yes." It seemed to Wesley that they were clearer than they had been before; that the many things which dimmed the heavenly lights had no effect here. The constellations themselves seemed different too; Cassiopeia looked less like a zigzagged line, and more like a reclining queen. Perseus seemed to have a real fist that gripped his sword; and were those wings sprouting from Pegasus's powerful white back? But that was absurd, of course.
"Where do you suppose we are?" Giles's voice came from up ahead, but Wesley found that he couldn't catch up with him. The ground no longer felt solid beneath his feet, and when he tried to walk, instead of striking solidity, his feet passed straight through into nothingness. He floundered briefly, and floated confusingly in the air. Only after a moment did the emptiness seem to make sense to him. He was a ghost, after all. A thing of air now, no longer of the Earth. Walking in space should be nothing strange.
"Er... Wesley?" It was Giles's voice, and as Wesley floated up into the ether, he realised that Giles was there too. That didn't make sense. Giles wasn't a ghost. He couldn't float about in space amongst the stars. Neither could ghosts, come to that, rationalised some part of Wesley's brain. Not in this kind of space, anyway, where Auriga was visible in the distance as a vast man in a war chariot, and Pegasus pawed the ground with a hoof and flexed his impossible wings. There was laughter now; Cassiopeia, her mirth like merry music, sipping from a goblet filled with wine that swished gently as it moved. Andromeda, laughing at anything and everything. The hounds of Orion barked together, and the twins of Gemini giggled and pointed and whispered.
"I think I preferred the two headed dog," muttered Giles. He was floating helplessly, trying and failing to snatch at Wesley for an anchor. The ghost was doing only mildly better, trying to convince himself that this should be natural to a man who was no longer a man. Something thundered past him, feeling much more real than it had any right to be; a horse, but not pulling a chariot this time. Centaurus, he thought, to judge by the shape of the creature. There wasn't time to see much detail in the half-human figure as it raced past, but he saw gleaming muscle, and heard the four sharp hooves striking ground that wasn't there.
"There has to be a way through all of this." He concentrated on the emptiness, and made himself pass through it, walking past the myriad stars, all of which stood apart from the living constellations now. They were scattered about at his feet like stones; as tiny as they appeared to be from the Earth, and shining brightly all the while. His passage through them disturbed them, and they skittered away like pebbles. Around him others fell like hailstones, but he didn't feel them. He could see their light though, glowing all around him like fireflies, and granting him greater vision than before. Everything was brighter now; each living constellation shining with ethereal beauty.
"A path, you mean." Giles was nodding, still fighting to find his own balance. Unlike the dead man beside him, he still clung to solidity; to reality. He was still of the Earth, and needed to feel it beneath his feet. "Leading us onwards to the vault."
"Exactly. There has to be one here somewhere. Can you see anything?"
"Gods playing games. Demigods being heroic. A bloody great horse with wings, prancing about like a ballerina."
"But no path."
"I wouldn't know what to look for. Everything is just... white and floaty." He frowned at that. "Are we dead?"
"No. Well, I am, obviously. You're not."
"How can you be so sure?" Struggling for balance, Giles managed to take a step, and watched the stars fall around him like rain as he moved. Cassiopeia laughed, but he didn't take it personally. She had been doing little else since he had arrived. He considered speaking to her, but she seemed to be caught up in a world of her own; some great party of the mythical and the mystical, where all the beings set out in the stars laughed and drank together. Orion was loosing off arrows, and they fell as comets.
"I don't know." Wesley was moving around him, beginning to find it easier to navigate. "Perhaps because you still seem so clumsy here. Or perhaps because Cordelia hasn't appeared."
"No reason why she should, to me. I'd expect to be greeted at the gates of hell by a lot of old friends long before Cordelia got a look in." Death wouldn't come gently to Rupert Giles; of that he was sure. There would be no bright white lights and trips into happy floaty land, and dead friends converted into angels to help him continue his work. It was far more likely that he would be met by Eyghon, and the souls of the other dead Sleepwalkers. Which was perhaps reason enough to assume that Wesley was right, and that he wasn't dead. Just very, very confused. "What sort of path should we be looking for? Which direction were we heading in before everything went weird?"
"I doubt direction has much relevance." Wesley was beginning to float about like one of the constellations, his body no longer nearly as tangible as it had seemed before. Giles could see the stars shining through him, and the gleam of the tiny moon like a curved sword through his side. "At least in its usual sense."
"Then how do we know where we're supposed to be going?" In contrast to Wesley, Giles felt heavy. Leaden. The call of the Earth, perhaps, or of the ties his body felt for it. The call of life, but in a way that served to hamper and disorientate. Living men were not meant to dance with stars. Wesley, almost entirely transparent now, his outline one of shining white starlight, drifted past.
"Ask the stars," he suggested. Giles rolled his eyes.
"Thankyou for that pearl of wisdom. How the bloody hell can we ask the stars?"
"I didn't mean in the literal sense." Another chariot thundered past them, and the tiny stars flew up behind its mighty wheels, raining down again like leaves billowing in a wind. There was the sound of music as they fell back down; like the perfect notes of glass wind-chimes striking against one another. "The answer has to be hidden here somewhere."
"Why?! Corbio didn't design this place to guide people through. He built it to keep them out. The puzzles we've seen so far were to help him find his way, and you're not telling me that he needed help to remember the way through a place like this? You're not likely to forget it in a hurry!"
"All his pathways are guarded by beasts designed to attack all but himself, or by puzzles and conundrums that prevent possible intruders from finding the way onward. He didn't leave anything to chance. There's always something hidden. So either there's some monster out here somewhere that hasn't come to eat us yet--"
"Eat me." Giles felt it was only fair to strike that point home. "You wouldn't make much of a meal."
"To eat you then," conceded Wesley, without losing rhythm or thread, "or there's a puzzle that we have to solve that will tell us which way to go next." Cassiopeia laughed and clapped her hands, and Giles glared at her. She might be the queen of the skies, but that didn't make her any less annoying.
"Maybe we should start walking," he suggested, without feeling much enthusiasm for the idea. Every movement was a hardship. He felt as if he weighed several tonnes.
"You wouldn't get very far. And I can't go on without you, remember?" Cassiopeia laughed again at that, and raised her goblet in salute. Giles scowled.
"I don't care how far I can go. I'm sick of being giggled at by Miss Intangible, 2004. Let's find some less annoying constellations."
"There's enough of them to choose from." The view was still astounding, even though, now that they were up amongst them all, it was harder to see the great spread of stars. Giles wondered how Corbio had come to know of so many, in order to create this place, since he came from a world without telescopes; but Corbio's knowledge and abilities had far outstripped those of any normal man, of his own time or any other. He had learnt from demons, and they knew the universe as only creatures countless aeons older than humankind could. The thought made him wonder at what could be in Philarbus's secret box, if such a man wanted it so dearly. "But what if walking in the wrong direction is a part of some trap? Remember the four doors? If you had opened the wrong one, you'd have been killed almost certainly. It's bound to be the same here." This time it was Orion's turn to laugh; a great booming shout of merriment, accompanied by another shower of his flaming, comet arrows. Giles wondered how dangerous those arrows might become if they took a wrong path. Sagittarius was out here somewhere too, with a bow of his own to add to the potential damage - and that was without taking the animals into account. Ursa Major, Leo, Draco - it didn't require much imagination to think of the dangers that they could all pose to him. How did it feel to be scorched to death by an ethereal star dragon? Or ripped to shreds by a mythical lion hanging in space? He didn't want to know - but even the thought of it had seemed to make the strange characters come closer. Aries bent its huge head towards him, to display its vast, curling horns; Serpens slid back and forth; bigger than any true snake, its hissing the only sound that could drown out Cassiopeia's laughs. He felt tempted to kick out at the creature, but his feet were too heavy to move so quickly, and he knew that it wouldn't do any good. You couldn't kick snakes that didn't exist, even when you could see them as clearly as starlight. The snake would not care; but it could doubtless bite, even if he could do no damage to it in return.
"There has to be somewhere we can go. There has to be a path."
"I'm not disputing that. I just want to careful. We can't just choose a direction at random."
"Fair enough." Giles tried to shut out the growing cacophony around him, of celebrating people, noisy animals, and burning arrows falling through space. It made it hard to think. "Well they're stars, aren't they. You use stars for navigation."
"Only usually if you already know where you're going, or where you're coming from, or have some set course to follow. We could find north easily enough, but what good would that do us?"
"True. And usually the stars in question aren't moving around all over the sky, and stealing each others places." He gave in to temptation and aimed a hearty kick at Serpens, but the great snake slid out of reach long before his foot had a hope of connecting with it. Its tiny, glowing white eyes glared back at him, and its bright white tongue flickered back and forth. "I wouldn't fancy being a sailor tonight, with this lot to guide me home."
"Astrophysics," mused Wesley, who had had cause to brush up on his physics extensively in recent years. Giles shook his head.
"Too modern. Corbio might have been way ahead of his time, but astrophysics isn't something that a man would have turned to twelve centuries ago. He seems to have known something about stars that his contemporaries never knew existed, but he probably still thought of them primarily as heavenly bodies rotating about the Earth. The stuff of legend."
"9th century science." Wesley cast his mind back to the long ago lessons in his father's study, all of far greater clarity in his mind than the school books of his youth. "Aristotle. The Earth at the centre of the universe, with the planets in revolution about it, and the stars in a spherical canopy beyond."
"In popular opinion, yes." He was finding it hard to think, the heaviness of his existence dragging at his mind now, as well as at his body. The dangers of this place were intense, for anybody who was not supposed to be here; or for anybody who was not dead. "But what... what does that mean? For us? Where is the pathway?"
"Perhaps we're on it." Wesley floated away a short distance, his easy manoeuvring making Giles feel jealous. The older Watcher could now barely hold up his head; at any moment he felt he must go crashing back to the Earth, however far away it lay. Either that or he would simply implode under his own mass, until he became nothing more tangible than the drifting mists that lay between the stars, and made up the substance of the living, breathing constellations. "If the Earth lies at the centre of the universe, and we're in the fixed canopy of stars that lies beyond the planets, then according to Corbio's contemporaries we're in a vast rotating sphere at the edge of the universe. Our destination has to be the Earth."
"Which is down," suggested Giles, wondering if perhaps he shouldn't just given in to the desire of his heavy, heavy body, and let himself sink. Wesley nodded.
"Probably. But not by any direct route. That would be too easy."
"Yes. Nothing must ever be too easy." Giles fought with his tiring mind and body. He couldn't think. Not in this place. The ball had to be in Wesley's court now. Part of him fought against that, for a part of him still thought of the other Watcher as the useless pain in the neck he had always been in the past. The kid sent by Headquarters to be a thorn in his predecessor's side. The rest of his mind floated between new opinion of his colleague, and a complete inability to care. He was just too tired. Too heavy, and too tired, and beginning to sink, inevitably now, into the tiny stars that lay like pebbles at his feet.
"Fight it, Giles." That was easy enough for Wesley to say. He was the weightless one, floating without effort amongst the stars. This all looked like fun to him; as though at any moment he could begin to swoop and dive and fly through the glowing mists and stars, to become one of them without earthly cares. He wasn't the one who felt as if he weighed ten thousand tonnes, and was being slowly crushed by his own body. Far above came the screams of flying beasts; Aquilus and Draco, circling in their own sky; and he knew that they were waiting for him to die. As soon as it all became too much for him they would dive down upon him, and devour whatever was left. He knew that as clearly and as certainly as if he had already seen it come about. Perhaps he had. He had no concept of time anymore, and if it was at all linear here, he wasn't aware of it.
"Just find me a way out of here," he managed to say, his tongue fighting with the words. He had to spit them out; force himself to create them from the air. His vision was blurring. Every instinct was telling him to give in, and let his body sink - and if he did indeed want to go to the Earth then perhaps he should allow himself to do just that? That would be a part of the trap, he knew, but it was so hard to fight, and the Earth was calling to him like a psiren demanding attention. Above him birds screamed and wheeled in their private heavens, and he fancied that he felt the heat of Draco's breath against his face. They wanted him. They needed his flesh and his substance to feed them. If he sank they would catch him before he could fall to Earth. That fact struggled through his mind, the speed of thought no longer something fast and wonderful.
"I don't know the way out of here!" Wesley cast a look up at the swooping, waiting creatures of the air. "Down, certainly. But here? Over there? Two hundred yards to the left?"
"I don't care..." Giles didn't even know if he was speaking aloud. He couldn't be sure that his lips were even capable of forming words anymore. "Doesn't matter." It felt as if the whole of the universe was pressing in upon him now, ready to crush him, or drag him into infinity alongside it. Draco breathed white star fire; the hounds of Orion snapped nearby. Somewhere a powerful roar set the stars vibrating. Leo? Or one of the bears? It could be any of the animals of the heavens, ready to join in the feast and devour the foolish mortal man who had struggled into their midst. His body began to ache, to hurt, to throb with the pains of too much weight, too much effort, too much clinging onto a life that no longer felt capable of sustaining itself. He could hear the buzz of Wesley's voice that marked the process of the other man thinking aloud, but he couldn't distinguish the words. His ears were no longer capable. He couldn't hear the screeches of the birds anymore either. Perhaps he wouldn't know it when they eventually descended upon him. Would Cassiopeia laugh on as he was torn to pieces? He wouldn't know it if she did. Perhaps she would toast his demise with her fine goblet, and Orion would fire extra comets in celebration. Or perhaps none of them would see, or care.
"Where would the path be?" Floating back and forth, not truly aware of Giles's myriad discomforts, Wesley turned his own bright mind to the puzzle at hand. Where would a 9th century magician and scientist secrete a path that led from the stars to the Earth? Which constellation would guard the entrance to the path? Or would none of them do so? Should they follow the sequence of the planets, each residing, as was the way of 9th century astronomy, in its own crystal sphere? And if they should indeed step from sphere to sphere, like some giant staircase of the imagination, then where did the first such step lie? Did Cassiopeia hide it beneath her couch? Was that why she laughed at her own secret joke? Or did it lie beneath one of the other stars, lying out around him in a sweep of such magnificence? The lessons of his youth, the memorising of the constellations and their various significances and places in myth and history, filled his mind. He had always been a walking library; it was what his father had taught him to be, what the Watchers had taught him to be; what destiny had first created him to be. Giles was the same - but Giles was sinking, and spoke no more. Wesley would have caught him if he could, but he could no more touch the other man than he could touch anything else that mattered. He was no more real than this place of illusion in which he now hung like a wraith. Would Corbio have been as heavy as Giles in this place, he wondered? Or would his own powers have sustained him? He would still have been a creature of the Earth, not free to roam in the heavens unless he abandoned his body... at least in theory. Whatever the truth he would have wanted to get to the end of the pathway as soon as possible. He would have wanted some quick method of leaving this place. Would he have ridden some celestial chariot? Was that the way back to the Earth? But no. He was Corbio; not a man of chariots and racing horses. He was a man of grandiose imagery; of great ego and self-importance. And Wesley smiled, and turned his head to look past Orion and Cassiopeia, and all the other prancing heroes, distracting him with their antics and their merriment. It had to be here somewhere; it couldn't not be. It was one of the oldest of the named constellations, at least as far as recorded history knew. Somewhere it would be here, amongst the preening and the posturing and the star-filled arrogance of these many imaginings of Corbio. Billowing white sails; a proud prow, lifting up out of foaming, misty waves. The Argo, ship of legend, vessel of heroes. The great ship created by master craftsmen to convey Jason and his fellows to find the golden fleece. He could see it now, the better for his thinking more clearly of it. It seemed to drift closer, summoned by the realisation of its purpose here. The figurehead gazed down upon him with bright star eyes, and he could almost imagine that he could feel the spray from the waves, and the cool breath of the wind that filled the great sails.
"Giles?" The other Watcher was looking up, not truly seeing the ship, but feeling something now. Feeling himself lifted up and taken onboard, as the pressures and the heaviness eased a little. There was a sensation of speed; of vast, immeasurable, wonderful speed that made even his heavy body that little bit lighter. Some power of thought returned to him; some sense of vision. He saw Draco then, diving straight for him with a roar of rage, but incapable of striking the magnificent ship. White sails shut the dragon out; then the great crystal sphere of the stars was closed, and the world of white lights was gone. There were only planets then; each one a different colour; each one a great, perfect sphere caught in its theoretical harmony as decreed by the ancient beliefs of long dead scientists and philosophers. They raced past on their perfect, circular orbits, aloof and strange, the flawless inventions of a flawless Creator. Wesley was shouting instructions to the ship, or possibly just yelling aloud in glee. Giles didn't think that seemed like a Wesley Thing to do, but since the words were in a language he couldn't place off hand, and since he was still too heavy and tired to pay much attention to anything save the spectacular view, he let it all float by his head unstudied. Let Wesley shout his unintelligible words at the starry mists that carried them if he wanted to. So long as he knew how to stop the thing when they finally reached Earth. Or the next part of the journey. Whatever.
Clouds met them when they finally began to slow down. There was daylight rather than moonlight; real wind rather than the imagined winds of space. The ship seemed less solid; less real - if it could ever have been called that in the first place. Giles found that his body seemed almost to belong to him again; that the calling of the Earth was no longer a dragging chain, but a welcoming embrace. He lifted himself up, cast one final glance back at the shining darkness from which they had come, then looked forward instead, towards the clouds. They billowed about, racing the ship, joining with it and becoming a part of its sails, then twisting away when the ship broke through and at last made its final dive towards the ground. It seemed to be happening rather fast, thought Giles, and wondered about shouting a warning to somebody; but whoever the helmsman was in this craft, he took his instructions from none save the ghost standing out on the bowsprit, untouched by the wind that dragged at his colleague. Giles recognised the language that had guided them through space then; Ancient Greek, of course, the language of so many of the characters behind the constellations. He had been speaking it all of his life, but he hadn't understood it during that time of heaviness and encumbrance. The Powers, whoever or whatever they were, had known what they were doing when they had sent him a ghost as a companion - that much was sure; although he was beginning to wish that they had sent him a ghost with a better understanding of piloting a vessel. The ground was rushing up to meet them now; green and blue and brown and very, very hard. He shouted a warning, but the wind whipped his words away before he could hear them himself, and still the ship raced on. On and on until suddenly it no longer existed anymore - and he was merely lying, surprised, upon the ground. Confused, disorientated, mind still filled with spectacular visions of stars come to life - but alive and uninjured by an impact that had never occurred. He frowned. That was unexpected. Pleasant, definitely; but unexpected. Not that he should be surprised by that, given from where he had just come.
"Hello." It was a woman's voice, which was also unexpected. His muscles leapt into life, and his hand went for the stake he hoped was still in his belt. Whoever she was, she had to be a foe; that was what this place was about, after all. As he moved he caught a glimpse of a red shoe - an expensive looking red shoe - then he was on his feet, his stake raised, and frozen in his hand when he recognised the woman he was facing. Lilah. Wesley's... girlfriend? She was smiling at him, looking very, very attractive, and very, very amused. Gentle mockeries made her eyes glow warmly, and her mouth carried the notion that he was being teased. Teased or threatened, he didn't know which. He got the impression that nobody ever knew, with Lilah's smile.
"Look out!" That was Wesley's voice, wasn't it? Giles jerked his head around, unwilling to take his eyes off Lilah for fear of whatever trap she might be about to spring, seeing Wesley, running for him or for somebody else, drawing his twin revolvers as he came. Giles turned to watch him move, still searching for the cause of the alarm, seeing it as a distant blur in the corner of his eye. A man. Tall, stocky, middle-aged. Handsome, with an air of debauched excess that faded the power of his looks to all eyes save his own. Arrogant, aristocratic, and smug as hell. Anthony Forsythe. With a gun. Now at last Giles moved. The stake fell from his hand as he turned to go for cover, and he heard the first gunshot and saw the splinters fly as the stake took a glancing shot. He saw little else then, for all he could think about was the rocks that seemed to lie about him, and the refuge that must lie amongst them. Furious at having to run from Forsythe, and angry that he had long since ceased to carry a gun himself, he rolled behind the rocks and lay low. Gunfire still echoed, Forsythe's and Wesley's, and he heard it ring loud in what seemed to be a great cavern of jagged stone. There really was no rest for the wicked, he thought ruefully. Really no rest at all.
The sound of gunfire filled Wesley's ears as he walked through the centre of the cavern. He had no need to fear it of course, for to him it was nothing more than wind; less than wind. To Forsythe, though, it would be much more. He headed towards the former Watcher, face set hard, imagining that it would be easy for him to walk through the other man's rocky cover, and shoot him where he stood. His bullets were as real as he himself failed to be; he apparently never had to reload his guns. He could walk through the hail of lead; through rock; through Forsythe himself, if it took his fancy. And he could shoot the annoying sod right then, if he could find it within himself to be so heartless. A shot in the leg, perhaps, or the arm, if something more vicious was not within him.
But something was wrong. He had a clear aim at his enemy now, but the bullets were having no effect. For a moment he wondered if he had lost the ability to fire effectively, but he could still see his shots scarring the walls, and hear the force of their impact. It was Forsythe. Confound him, he had come up with some enchantment to protect him from gunfire. Now that was just not playing fair. Some part of Wesley's mind conceded that that was probably a bit rich coming from a ghost who could walk straight through bullets without being affected by them - but he was one of the good guys. That was different. Forsythe was evil, and he ought to have the good grace to be shot when somebody fired at him. Cursing under his breath, Wesley lowered the guns. He thought about shooting at Lilah just for the hell of it, but she had disappeared from her last vantage point, and he couldn't see her anymore.
"You should probably do something." She was beside him, having presumably stepped out of thin air without him noticing it. "He could go over there and shoot Giles without you being able to stop him."
"Does he want to shoot Giles?"
"More than you want to shoot him."
"Great." Wesley saw the tall, broad form of the renegade rise up out of the rocks, and swore softly. Lilah laughed.
"I always did like you when you were cross."
"Shut up, Lilah." He left her behind, running for Giles, trying to snatch up a stone to use as a weapon against Forsythe. His hand passed straight through it, and he swore again. Damn it, it was a pain in the backside being dead. How the hell was he supposed to accomplish anything when he couldn't - his fingers grazed stone - touch anything? Focus. It was something that Spike had said. How many times had Wesley watched him struggle to affect the world around him, when he had been restored to the Earth in a ghost-like form? That had been in the days when Wesley had still been solid, and alive, and not really expecting ever to be the one with no body himself, and he had watched and listened only for research's sake. It all came back now though. Focus. Or, in this case, merely lose all focus and give in to rage. His fingers caught hold of the stone, and even though he couldn't feel it; couldn't detect its roughness or its coldness against his skin; his hand managed to close around it, lift it, and let it fly. It struck Forsythe squarely on the forehead, and he fell back. Wesley grinned in triumph. Maybe he could try something a little more complex - try to actually make contact with the man himself, and attempt a very satisfying punch - but somebody else, with infinitely more chance of success, had beaten him to it. Launching himself out of the rocks, taking full advantage of Forsythe's momentary distraction, was Giles. And it was a Giles filled with attitude. A Giles angry at the need to rely on Wesley for so long; at his own inability to do anything decisive on his own. A Giles who knew without a shadow of a doubt that there was one thing he would always be good at, beyond puzzles, knowledge, magic or ancient astronomy. A Giles who was ready with his fists. Like a black shadow he flew at Forsythe, hitting him low, knocking the gun from his grasp with a sideways chop of one hand. He made no attempt to catch it up himself; he didn't want a gun. Why bother when he could do it all so well with his fists? For a moment Wesley watched, fascinated to see the transformation of Rupert Giles into a wild, furious creature of pure passion - then Lilah was beside him again, smiling appreciatively.
"I think I see why they used to call him Ripper. He's quite the brute when he wants to be."
"Forsythe doesn't seem to be doing too badly."
"Forsythe is all magic and ego. Your friend better be on his toes if he's going to stop the little slimeball from just casting a spell and sliding on out of all that. He may be on my side, but I'm happy to admit that I'd love to see him get his jaw broken." She punched her companion lightly on the arm. "And congratulations, you dark horse. Bullets that really hit things, and you managed to throw a stone. Few more months and we'll have you acting like a real poltergeist. You might even be able to read books again."
"I'd like that." He had spent his entire life with a book never very far away. Now he couldn't even take them off their shelves, let alone flick through their pages. His books still awaited him in the Hyperion Hotel, where the Powers or Cordelia had seen fit to stockpile them, but they were as useless to him as if he had never been able to read. He longed to feel the pages beneath his fingers, smell the musty old papers, parchments and leathers, and read the printed or hand-written words in their myriad different languages. He needed books, the way that Lorne needed music and Angel had once needed blood. The way that Giles, it seemed, needed the occasional burst of furious violence to feed the heart of the Ripper.
"I know." For a moment; for the tiniest of tiny moments; she was looking at him with real gentility; real empathy and regret. Then the moment had passed and she merely smiled in her usual gentle mockery, and ruffled his hair. "Let them fight. Your friend can take care of himself, and he's more use at that sort of thing that you ever were, alive or dead. You should be thinking about what to do next."
"I can't. Not without Giles. This place doesn't open up before me." He couldn't take his eyes off the fight; off the sheer animal brutality of the man he knew as a gentleman and a scholar. Giles the tweed-jacketed librarian; the middle-aged has-been he had been sent to replace all those years ago, and had dismissed as an outdated relic. Wesley well knew how badly he himself had behaved in Sunnydale, and he couldn't help wondering now how close he had come to awakening this kind of response. Lilah waved a hand in front of his face in a light-hearted attempt to redirect his attention back onto her.
"You don't have to go ahead of him. Just open the next door."
"Which you're telling me about because...?"
"Because your boyfriend over there is giving me the best entertainment I've had in years." Her fabulously lascivious smile lightened up her face. "Well - not counting all that entertainment I used to get from you before I managed to get myself killed. I'm stuck with Forsythe, but that doesn't mean that I like him. Giles is doing me a favour. Why shouldn't I reciprocate?"
"Because you're evil, two-faced, and you can't be trusted." He said it without animosity, and she fluttered her eyelashes in response.
"I love it when you pay me a compliment."
"Act up all you like; I still don't trust you."
"Wesley, what can I possibly do? It's not like I can race ahead and get the box, even if it's just a stone's throw away from where we stand. It takes Watcher blood to open the vault, remember. Real, living Watcher blood. Not something I could have hidden in a bottle in my pocket. And I'm definitely not a Watcher myself. So how's it going to hurt if you open the door?"
"I don't know. I'm just sure that you've thought of something." He frowned at her. "You can't open it yourself?"
"It's another trick. You wouldn't believe the things we've had to decipher to get this far. There was a choice of doors earlier, and to find the right one there was a riddle written in Egyptian hieroglyphics. And Forsythe only figured that out thanks to a picture of the Sphinx that hid the riddle itself. This has not been an easy ride."
"Tell me about it." He gave no mention of navigating in Ancient Greek through bizarre representations of the solar system, or of fighting demonic, two-headed dogs and suits of armour. Lilah smiled at him, and choosing to take him literally, straightened his clothing with a proprietary air.
"I'll tell you later, lover," she said softly, managing to make it sound conspiratorial. "In the meantime, that fight isn't going to go on forever."
"Looks to me like it's going to go on for as long as Giles wants it to." He walked past them, tearing his eyes away from the battling duo, and the impressive work of Giles's lightning fists. The cavern, like the room in which he had found himself upon first entering this weird place, had a natural gradient to it, which directed the traveller towards one end. Here the cavern ended, in a narrow, high wall of almost smooth stone, covered in the paintings of long dead cave people, and the carvings of more recent visitors, with stories of their own to tell. He recognised most of the symbols from one language or another; all of them seemed to mean 'door' or 'open'. An interesting puzzle then, and presumably one filled with red herrings. Perhaps something in the languages themselves, rather than in the symbols? Perhaps some more complex mathematical solution, based on the form of the symbols, or of the words that they represented? Something based upon the cultures to which the languages belonged? He could feel his brain humming with delight at a new difficulty to overcome, and he soon shut his mind to the ferocity of the fight going on nearby. Only Lilah refused to be shut out - but he was used to that. She hung about next to him, muttering encouragements that he didn't need, but found that he enjoyed anyway; little comments that made him inexplicably glad that she was there. Damn it but she was annoying. And noisy. And distracting. And evil. But she was also Lilah. And she was also the only person he could touch, and the only person who could touch him. Just as once before, he found that he needed her; and just as before he couldn't adequately describe why.
Nearby Giles was aware of Wesley's new interest; of his attention focused on the wall at the end of the cavern. There was a puzzle there presumably, and Lilah was showing far too great an interest. Giles didn't trust her. He was fairly certain that Wesley didn't either; but it was clear that there was something going on between the two of them, and that was almost sure to interfere in matters of common sense, at least on Wesley's side. Not on Lilah's - that much was certain. Giles could see the way that she worked. Cunning, clever, irresistible. Manipulative, whilst still managing to be trustworthy when it suited her. Enough to keep somebody believing in her, anyway, no matter what she did. He wondered distantly just what had brought her and Wesley together, and what degree of sincerity there was in her smiles and her smirking displays of affection. Whatever the truth in it, she would probably be the only one ever to know.
But that was Wesley's problem. Lilah, her plans and machinations, the puzzle carved onto the cavern wall - all that was for Wesley to figure out, or to screw up, or to do whatever the hell else he wanted to do with it. Giles was having far too much fun to worry. It was a strange sort of thing to realise; even stranger to admit, even just to himself. There was a sense of joyous abandon that came with leaping into the fray though, at least when it was to a fight he knew that he could win. It was less fun against vampires or demons, or enraged two-headed dogs, but when his opponent was a smug sod he had hated for years, it was definitely a thing to be celebrated. Savoured. Even his fists seemed to be enjoying the experience, as he smashed them to-and-fro. Such endeavours were the stuff of his past; of Friday and Saturday nights spent baiting the club-going fashion victims in London, and of other nights fighting pitched battles with his friends against rival gangs. Pub brawls, knife fights, magic-enhanced free-for-alls in the street where he lived. A hundred and one ways to cause damage; a hundred and one different kinds of chaos and carnage. He had loved it, he had lived for it, and every so often it welcomed him back into its waiting arms. Forsythe looked shell-shocked, but Giles knew just how to keep him conscious long enough to keep this interesting. Where and how to hit to cause damage and pain without delivering his victim to the refuge of oblivion. It wasn't the sort of skill that the Watchers taught, but it had been just as useful, upon occasion, as their brand of battle-craft and self defence. Forsythe had been to the same lessons as Giles when it came to Watcher fighting. He had learnt all the old tricks. He could dodge and feint, and he knew to try to stay out of arms' reach when he could. He had even learnt to box in school, many years before. He had no idea how to defend himself against the Ripper though; against a man who played by no rules save his own. And so the blood flowed and the blows fell, and the Ripper dodged and wove like a man for whom the years meant nothing, whilst Forsythe's movements became more sluggish, and his eyes began to swell. He spat broken teeth, his fists swung out with a fraction of their former speed and accuracy, and his feet tripped him faster than he could move. He choked out insults as he tried to fight back, but they were insults only by the tone of his voice. Giles couldn't distinguish the words, and wouldn't have cared anyway. He grinned fiercely, his eyes hot with the old green fires of all those other fights, and cheerfully spat back more insults and curses than Forsythe could have managed even if he had been able to speak. Through his jubilant mercilessness he tried to keep a part of his attention on Wesley, to see what he was doing, and to see what Lilah might be doing standing beside him, but it was hard to lessen the fun by even that small an amount. Wesley seemed to be doing okay - whatever the hell it was that he was doing.
In point of fact Wesley was doing okay, although his attention was also divided. Lilah was still distracting him, and a part of his mind remained upon the fight. He had to be alert in case Forsythe somehow got the upper hand, although there was little enough that could be done about it if he did. It seemed that the renegade was much too far gone to be capable of spellcasting now, but such things were still a possible threat, and something to be considered; just like Lilah, and her sparkling-eyed, warmth-filled smiles with their hidden, decidedly treacherous, depths. He focused as much of his mind as he could upon the carvings on the stone, whispering their words to himself as he did so, and thinking of Corbio and his past, his ways, his previous trickery. Nobody had been expected to get this far; did that mean that this puzzle would not be a puzzle at all? But Corbio, it seemed, left nothing to chance. There was nothing that was straightforward about this tangle of engraved words and pictograms. Nothing that made any sense beyond the meanings of the words themselves. 'Open' and 'door', writ large a hundred times. Not in a hundred languages, but in different dialects, different forms, different ways. He traced the nearest of them with his fingers, listening all the while to the sounds of the fight going on nearby. Brutal sounds; hard fists impacting with flesh and bone; all going on much longer than he could ever have thought possible. Cloth tore; sharp, hard words burst out of the melee; Lilah brushed close against him, and told him to ignore it all. He did as she told him for once, although it was hard to shut out the sound totally. Part of him almost wanted to go to Forsythe's aid now; to rescue him from the unyielding onslaught. Wasn't that his job? Protecting the helpless, fighting the good fight? Not standing by whilst somebody - even somebody evil - was beaten into a wretched pulp? But he was a Watcher, and he knew his duty, and he knew that this door had to be opened. Knew that he could find the secret if he looked hard enough, and long enough, and didn't let thoughts of nearby violence distract his working mind. 'Open' and 'door'. Old languages, newer languages. Demon languages and languages that couldn't be spoken aloud. The paintings of a cave tribe from thousands of years before, showing men chasing their prey across the illustrated rock. The animal they pursued bled red blood, dimmed and darkened by the passing years, that spattered around them like stars. Or flowers. Or pebbles. Tiny dots that moved in his mind, and made their own little patterns. He traced them with his fingers, seeing how they joined up; how they could form, to the eyes of a man who knew of such things, new words on the cavern wall. Words written in a language unknown even to most Watchers, but familiar, assuredly, to a man like Corbio, who had made deals with demons to protect his treasures. It was a trial to fight for a translation, for even a man like Wesley, for whom languages had always come easily, did not carry all of them around in his brain. He closed his eyes, seeing the words resound inside his skull, and slowly found their meaning. Forsythe rolled on the ground at his feet, passing through his insubstantial ankles, and he looked down briefly. Saw bloodied, swollen eyes staring up at him with an expression of wild hatred. Something burst out of the mouth; a rush of words in a spatter of bloody droplets that might have been the beginnings of a spell; but Giles was there in an instant, grabbing the other man, and hurling him up against the wall. He didn't look like Giles anymore - not to Wesley. He bore a darkening black eye, and a streak of blood across his face that managed to look wildly dramatic as well as debased and insane. There was blood on his hands, and spattered upon his clothes, and the grin that made his eyes shine so furiously was something that Wesley didn't recognise at all. He tried to speak, but Giles didn't hear him. Only Lilah did.
"I think I like your friend," she told him. Wesley shook his head.
"He won't like himself. Not once he shakes this off."
"It's not his fault. It's this place. It's bringing the hate out in both of them. It must be."
"That would explain it I suppose." He tried to turn his mind back to the puzzle; he was close, he must be. The violence nearby had spilled over into his part of the cavern now though, and it was harder and harder to ignore it. Giles was going to hate himself for this, once the rage wore off - or so Wesley hoped. He had heard the stories, read the reports - he thought that he knew what the Ripper had been about. But this? Was this really what Giles was still like, beneath his unassuming veneer? Was he really a man who could beat somebody half to death, without apparently showing the slightest bit of remorse? Perhaps it was something to do with the memories of a relentlessly bullying father, but Wesley had never taken kindly to seeing such acts of violence against people who had no means of defence. Lilah moved around in front of him, blocking his vision of the fight.
"There's nothing you can do," she pointed out. "Maybe they'll snap out of it. Maybe it's all a part of the journey, and they'll heal as soon as they're out of the cavern."
"You don't believe that." He had thought that he had fallen far, level by level, after his dismissal from the Watchers. He had heard tales from Willow of her own mad fall into darkness. But this - this was a glimpse into the very depths to which his kind could fall; the depths from which one could only pretend to rise again. Giles was no ordinary Watcher - nor even an ordinary man. He had something dark inside him just as had Angel, in the days before a new level of death had saved him from all of that.
"When did what I believe have any relevance? Just open the door, Wes. See if you can save them both before one of them tears the other to shreds. If your friend Forsythe is pressed too far, the magic might burst out of him even if he's no longer in any state to chant spells."
"Maybe." Wesley took a deep breath, shutting out the battling madmen. The door. He had to think about the door. About the words hidden in the ages old blood spatters, taunting him with their presence. They spoke of a key, but not of its type. Words; all words. It made more sense to him than what was going on between his two colleagues a few yards away, but it was still confused. A key. A key of... words? The translation was ambiguous, and intentionally so. Keys, words. A word key? There was some way in which the patchwork of other languages carved into the rock came together to form a key. Some combination, perhaps, of the words. But the application... He wished that he had books to consult, but even had he had them here, they would have been useless to him. He had managed to throw a rock - it was an accomplishment, but it was not enough; not yet. Pages were too delicate; too hard to grasp.
"Wesley?" Lilah was pestering him again. Giles crashed past him, slamming into the rocks without seeming to be hurt by the blow. He was truly enjoying all of this; truly relishing the chance to let go. Wesley almost envied him. He never let go. Never. He certainly couldn't now. The words were dancing in front of his eyes again, burning themselves into his retinas. 'Key', 'door', 'open'. All those languages, all those scribbles, all those pictograms. Did it really make any sense? Forsythe rolled past him, grunting and groaning as he bumped over the uneven ground, his cracked and bloodied knuckles leaving trails as he fumbled for something to use as a weapon. The words made more sense than the fighting; Forsythe and Giles and their seemingly endless battle. Wesley muttered it all over and over, listening to the words as he spoke them aloud. Ignoring Lilah's increasingly impatient coaxing. Wishing that he could punch the wall without sinking into it.
The key lay in the words hidden in those drops of blood - that was as clear as their meaning. It was an ancient language; more ancient even than the picture that had been so carefully doctored to hide it. More ancient than the languages of the other words scattered around it. The older languages had more power, at least by tradition. Word magic might be scorned by some of the older races, but it was the preferred kind of most human sorcerers. The older races liked to use their blood magic, or their Earth magic, but word magic had been Corbio's speciality. What little remained of his writings and journals showed that. But he had, of course, had his allies; his helpers from other races. The demon sorcerers drawn by his power, and perhaps by whatever lay within the box. Wesley had no blood to offer the rocks to make the blood magic, but the Earth magic he thought he could try, if he put his mind to it. It called for difficult spells that for the most part were beyond him - beyond all but the most powerful of human magicians - but if the key was here, the hardest of the work would already have been done. Calling up a ball of fire from one hand, he held it aloft, and let it light the rocky wall, illuminating all the carefully carved words. It took all of his concentration; all of his skills; to make the fire burn as brightly as it had to; to illuminate every crack in the rock, and chase away every shadow. Lilah was silent now, but he didn't look at her to see what she was doing. He didn't look to check on the progress of Giles. He just cast his mind back, into the very depths of his memory, searching for the oldest of all the languages that he knew. Nothing more recent would suffice. Nothing but a language far older than any human tongue would be enough to allow him to work the Earth magic. The flame in his hand shuddered, and had he still been alive he would have felt the sweat run by now. Instead he merely felt his hand shaking, and forced himself to concentrate all the harder. Old languages. Ancient languages. Languages from the time when demons had held sway over the Earth, and the Earth magicks had been as common as science was amongst the humans of the modern world. He had learnt the languages to pass the time in his room as a child. Practiced strange spells when he had not been big enough to even begin to handle the power. Melted candles and scorched the carpet and fused every light bulb on the top floor of his parents' house, and all without knowing what he was doing, or what he was dealing with. The flames in his hand bent and bowed and nearly went out, but he held onto them, though his body was now almost transparent from the strain. It made his vision blur, as in the days when he had still relied on his glasses, before he had tried his first, tentative new spells to correct his sight. And still he searched his mind, for words that came from long hours locked in his office at Wolfram & Hart, trying to research Illyria. For words learnt under the bedclothes at night when at boarding school; words read in the pages of books his father had kept hidden, and would never have dreamt that his much maligned son would be able to read, let alone understand or one day use. It all came together now, in a single word that made the fire in the shaking, translucent hand burn suddenly blood red, with a fierce, eye destroying flash of bitter intensity. It filled the carved words, and made them glow. It made the rocks shake. It made Wesley's insubstantial form shiver and shake like a projected image shone through a shattered and shifting lens. If he had been alive he would surely have been killed. Only a few humans could perform such magicks as these and live. As it was he felt waves of dreadful exhaustion rush through him, and almost faded away entirely. Only the sight of his success gave him the strength to go on, and he smiled in childish delight to see that some of the carved words now shone bright white. He shouted them aloud, each one in turn, taking the age of each language as his guide. He didn't recall learning when each of the languages had first been spoken, but his mind put them in order automatically; and when he had shouted the last word aloud, forcing his human mouth to speak the demon sounds correctly, he fancied that he saw the wall move. Light glowed above and around him, and he thought that he heard Lilah give a shout of glee. He was exhausted now though, and as the cavern wall began to heave itself open, he collapsed to the ground. His image was juddering, just as the flame in his hand had been, one moment clear and the next almost invisible. He barely noticed when Giles and Forythe rolled through him; but he did notice when Forsythe's hands began to glow. Magic. Somehow, despite the beating, he was beginning to work magic. Giles didn't seem to have noticed. Consumed by the fight he was focused on nothing but struggling, hitting, grappling, trying to maintain the upper hand. Wesley called out to him, but his voice was weak, and his image was as faint as the sound. Giles would barely be able to see him, let alone hear the desperate warning.
"Giles!" He forced himself to his feet; tried to grab at a stone to use as a weapon again. It didn't work. He was too weak now even to attempt contact with a real object; and when he tried to grab at Forsythe his hands passed pointlessly through the battling mage. The renegade was chanting now; the words clearer than his previous attempts to speak through his bloodied lips, his hands now glowing powerfully. Giles had noticed at last, and he was struggling to free himself from the other man, but Forsythe was suddenly too strong. Wesley linked his hands together, and rabbit-punched the thick neck, but again his hands passed straight through. Lilah was laughing delightedly, and he turned on her.
"You tricked me!"
"Yes. You trick so beautifully." She sashayed over, running her hand up the back of his head, gentle and teasing. He jerked away, but he was still so tired that his movements were not nearly as fast as they should have been. At his feet Forsythe's hands snapped tight around Giles's throat, and the murky green eyes opened wide with shock, staring straight up at Wesley.
"We-Wesl--" He was trying to ask for assistance, but what the hell did he expect a ghost to do? Wesley's eyes roamed desperately about the room. There were no likely weapons. His guns would not hurt Forsythe, but if he tried to use them they would certainly hurt Giles. Again and again he tried to catch hold of Forsythe; tried to summon more balls of fire; but he was too tired. Too drained by the effort of opening the door. He could feel himself slipping again from the extra effort in his exhausted state; could see himself vanishing before his very eyes. Giles didn't seem to care for his discomforts, and was still choking out his demands for assistance even as Forsythe did his damnedest to crush his throat. Desperate now, Wesley turned to look for Lilah, trying to think of something he could say to make her intervene. Whatever side she saw herself upon; whatever evil things she did; he knew that some part of her cared for him. Probably. Possibly. He opened his mouth to call her name - or gasp it, more likely, given his current situation - but a blow from behind dropped him to the ground before he could shape the first sound. He didn't even have time to wonder how a ghost could be knocked out before he was lying unconscious on the ground, his form no more than a shadow, and all its colour lost.
"Forsythe!" There was real command in Lilah's tone; she had always known how to lead when the moment called for it, and even a man like Forsythe could respond to such a voice. He stood up, letting go of Giles, the blood and the injuries vanishing from his face as though new skin was growing instantaneously to banish them.
"What?" He hadn't yet finished his work. Giles was unconscious now, or nearly so, his throat bruised by the attack - but he was still alive. Forsythe didn't want that.
"We're leaving." She gestured to the door. "I told you he'd open it."
"Probably some new stuff they didn't teach in my day." He walked through the almost invisible form of the collapsed spirit, showing no interest in him or his condition. "So we just go? We leave Giles alive? I'll kill him, and then we won't have to worry about him any more."
"You really that scared of him?" Her voice was mocking, and he glared pure poison.
"I'm not scared of anything."
"Then leave him. Come on. We're wasting time."
"It won't take a second to--"
"Come on, Forsythe." This time the anger and the steel in her voice was stronger than before; hard like a knife blade that stabbed at his pride. He cast another look at Giles, wanting so much to throw the last blow, or summon the last spell, and end the other man's life as easily as he knew that he could; but something in Lilah's manner stayed him. Something in her bearing made him wonder at what powers she might have, that he might come to understand. He spat the last of the blood from his mouth, thought about following it with the sort of curse that might have made even Lilah look shocked; but changed his mind and scowled heavily instead. Get the box, he told himself. Get the box and then do as you like. Whatever the hell you like. And screw Lilah Morgan, Wolfram & Hart, and pretty much everybody else. Swallowing his pride, he stepped through the door. Lilah remained behind for an instant; just for an instant; until Wesley's image regained a little of its substance. Reassured then, she turned away and followed Forsythe into the next stage of the labyrinth. Wesley would understand, she told herself. She wasn't sure which was worse; that she only half believed that attempt at solace, or that she cared enough in the first place to have made it. Confound it all. Maybe there was something in the box that would make everything easier. Answer the questions. Free her from Wolfram & Hart. Quickening her step, she hurried on. She wasn't sure which part of her it was that deigned to leave the door open, but she didn't cast another look back at it, or even another thought. Just like Forsythe, her mind was with the box now. It was almost as if it was reeling her in.
Giles awoke choking, and rolled onto his side to spit a mouthful of blood onto the ground. He felt terrible. His throat was raw, his head ached, and his knuckles looked as though he had been beating on concrete for several hours. He put up his hands to cradle his head momentarily, and winced when his fingers brushed his left eye. By the feel of it that was one hell of a bruise. He indulged in a little moaning for a while, until he was sure that nobody was either going to commiserate with him, or hit him again. Then he sat up.
He was still in the rocky cavern, just as before, but this time the door was open. He didn't remember it being open before, although a distant part of his consciousness remembered Wesley shouting something, and some kind of a flash of light illuminating one end of the cavern. He frowned then. Where the hell was Wesley? He didn't seem to be anywhere around. He struggled to his feet, calling out for his colleague, wanting somebody he could yell at for his general feeling of discomfort. Had the other Watcher snapped off back to spirit land, or followed Forsythe and Lilah? Only then did he see the ghost lying on the ground, far paler than he should have been, so that the rocks that were strewn loosely about the cavern floor were visible through his slight frame. Giles reached out for him automatically, then muttered disparagingly at himself and raised his voice instead.
"Huh?" The colours within the ghostly figure strengthened and brightened, and finally the transparency was gone. He looked up then, blinking confusedly. "What?"
"You were out like a light." Giles stretched, wishing that his muscles didn't feel quite so uncomfortable. "You want to tell me how a ghost gets knocked out?"
"Lilah hit me." Wesley sat up, rubbing his head. "Although really that's not much of an explanation." He frowned suddenly. "The door!"
"Still open. I guess they went through it."
"But they left it open?" He stumbled to his feet, staring at the end of the cavern as though unable to believe it until he saw for himself. "Oh praise be. I really don't think I could have opened that again."
"Forsythe shouldn't have been in any state to go anywhere." Giles touched his head delicately. "Damn. I think I'm one big bruise from the waist up.
"Sorry." Wesley wanted very much to lean against the wall, but in his current state was ssure that he would just fall straight through it - which wouldn't have made him feel any better. "When it turned out that he was impervious to my bullets, I should have guessed that he would also be unaffected by your fists. I suppose he must have worked some kind of spell. To protect himself, but to make it look as though you were beating him - and to make you want to in the first place. Lilah said that he couldn't open the door. He used us both."
"That was no spell to make me attack him." Giles smiled ruefully. "That was all me. I couldn't resist it. Serves me right, I suppose. Now he's presumably not got so much as a scratch, and I feel like hell. How about you?"
"Tired. Faintly confused. And also very tired." Wesley also smiled ruefully. "And feeling like a complete idiot. I'm sorry, Giles. I tried to help when I realised what Forsythe was up to, but I just couldn't manage it. I was so drained after that spell to make the door open. Even if I hadn't been, I doubt I could have done any good. A lot of bloody use I am."
"We all have our uses. I probably wouldn't have got this far without you." Giles wanted to clap him on the back, but didn't think that letting his hand sail through the ghost's back was going to be making him feel any better about his ephemeral condition. "Although not getting yourself knocked out might have been good. Just how-?"
"She's Lilah." He said it almost fondly; goodness knew there was no point being angry about it. She was Lilah - and that just about said it all. "And we should be getting after her."
"Yes, I suppose we probably should." Giles went to the door and peered through it. "Guess what?"
"A choice of ways?"
"Yes. An easy one this time though." He walked through the doorway, and stood very still at the place where the tunnel forked. "Can you feel that?"
"I can't feel anything, Giles. I'm dead. The only thing I can feel is Lilah when she... plays games." He followed the other man into the tunnel. "What is it?"
"A yearning." Giles was silent for a moment, analysing the sensation as clinically as he could. "Desire. As though any question I've ever had might be answered. Any problems I have might be solved. The box, I take it."
"Or Corbio's tricks designed to play upon your desire to find the box. Which way does this instinct tell you to go?"
"Left. I'd suggest that means that we should go right instead, but in this case I'm not sure that we should. I think that's perhaps what we're meant to think."
"It could well be." Wesley tried to detect any sign of this strange yearning that Giles was experiencing, but failed. "Corbio probably felt that the people most likely to try to take the box, much less manage to get through even some of his labyrinth, would be Watchers. And Watchers are always trained to deny their desires. The first choice would always be to go away from this pull that you're feeling."
"Unless it's a double bluff."
"True. But I can't see any clues; any more riddles or pointers. We're going to have to go on instinct."
"So do we go right or left?"
"You're the one who feels the pull." Wesley folded his arms, frowned slightly as he looked one way and then the other. It bothered him that he couldn't feel the box calling to him. Was it because he was dead, or because he no longer had any desires? He was, after all, the man who had been unable to think of some way to use what was supposed to have been his last day upon the Earth. Giles saw the look in his eyes, and smiled.
"Be glad that you don't feel it. It's very... intense. It's as though something inside my head is stirring old longings, and making me feel them again. More powerfully than ever before. I can feel a desire to follow the yearning, with a promise of finding what I'm looking for."
"What are you looking for?"
"I don't know." He frowned. "It's like a suggestion that somehow, if I find the box, whatever is in it might contain the secret to banishing vampires from the Earth. So that Buffy would be safe. Even with all the Slayers that now exist in the world, our work is far from done, and her welfare is still a major concern. There are other things too. The promise of spells, and desires I had as a young man that I haven't thought about in years. Chaos, mostly. Dark secrets. Power."
"Then I don't think we need to wonder what desires Forsythe is following." Wesley started off down the left hand tunnel. "Anyway, their going first at least means that I can go before you. You should have some warning if there's anything unpleasant ahead."
"If there is, let's hope that it's already ripped off Forsythe's head." Giles followed the ghost, ducking his head to avoid the low ceiling. "There's not much room to fight in here."
"No, there isn't. That works against them though, as well as against you."
"Not if Forsythe is still waving guns around it doesn't. You know of any way to counteract that spell of his?"
"Possibly. He's powerful though, Giles. I admit that I'm no slouch, but if he's been dabbling in the dark arts since his expulsion from the Watchers, I don't know what he might have learnt." He smiled slightly. "I'm no Willow. I could only aspire to be that powerful myself."
"Right now you're the best I've got. I'm too out of practice myself; and if and when we run into him, I'll probably be a little too busy to try anything anyway. Just keep thinking, and if you get the chance, throw anything at him. Then at least I might be able to take him out."
"Deep down I think you like being the muscle of this operation." It was a small joke, but it was hardly familiar to hear any joking at all coming from Wesley; at least in Giles's experience. He smiled faintly.
"It's been a long time. You know what it's like playing second fiddle in that department to a small girl."
"Whatever else Faith may be, she's not small." Wesley's experience as Watcher was very different to that of Giles, but it did have its parallels. "But I know what you mean. For someone who can fight as well as you can, letting a little thing like Buffy do it all instead must be galling."
"Don't let Buffy hear you calling her that." Giles smiled. "But we each do what we're best capable of. And right now, I'm really hoping that I'm best capable of battering Anthony Forsythe into a nicely sticky pulp. If you can switch off his protection."
"I'll do my best."
"A few years ago that would have filled me with genuine dread." Giles moved into the lead so that Wesley couldn't see the smile that had warmed his eyes. "Best keep the noise down now. These tunnels could carry the slightest sound."
"I'm not the one whose footsteps sound like thunder." Wesley walked through him, emerging once again in the lead. "And keep back. I'm supposed to be checking the way ahead."
"If you like." Giles rubbed his head. "You still don't feel this thing? Like the box calling to you?"
"Like I said, I don't feel anything. I'm dead, Giles. What desires can a dead man have?"
"Not to be dead?"
"Touché. But maybe it can't work it's... mojo... on a ghost. Lilah would possibly be able to feel it. Whatever she is, she's solid."
"Yes, I've been wondering about her." Apparently happy to ignore his own advice to be quiet, Giles caught Wesley up again. He couldn't walk alongside him without walking in the ghost's body, which seemed somewhat impolite, so instead he settled on walking a short pace behind. "She's not a reanimated corpse. Not a zombie. There's no sign of decomposition, and she doesn't have the clumsiness usually associated with anything like that. She's not a vampire - or she doesn't behave like one, which doesn't necessarily mean anything. Are we sure that she's dead?"
"She was stabbed in the neck, and then I chopped off her head. That does usually result in death. It's a Wolfram & Hart thing, that's all. Contracts. Magic. They like to sign things in blood, and there are always consequences." He spoke as though it were something that weighed heavily on his mind - which it was. The attempt to free Lilah from her deathless contract had been his reason for going to Wolfram & Hart. Giles nodded.
"And these are the same people who might well have your body. Did you sign any contracts with them?"
"I'm not a fool, Giles." Wesley didn't add that Angel, however, had signed any number of contracts, bearing his own name and those of his friends and colleagues. Whatever Angel had signed away, was no concern of Giles's. Given the events of the last few years, whatever he had signed away - of Wesley's at least - was probably more than his by right anyway. So thought the ghost.
"Well. It's probably too late to worry now." There were always possibilities - but somehow Giles didn't think that a task force of young Slayers could really be sent to retrieve a dead body. Not when there were living targets to worry about.
"Far too late. And I didn't think we were supposed to be talking, anyway."
"Touché." He echoed the other man's response from earlier in the conversation, accentuating it with wry amusement. "But I don't hear anything yet. If we can't hear them--"
"Then they're being sneaky." Wesley quickened his step, taking full advantage of his lack of footsteps. The corridor was growing thinner, the ceiling lower. From time to time his head disappeared into the roof, and he had to duck to see where he was going. Giles stumbled along in the rear, jabbed by the rocks on either side, and tripped by those at his feet. Damn it, a man could wish that he was a ghost, struggling through a place like this. At least then there wouldn't be sharp stones threatening to cut his shoes to shreds, and jabbing at his arms and his head. There was just enough light to see by, from whatever source, but seeing the obstacles was not enough to stop him from colliding with them, especially when moving at speed. To add to the discomfort, the yearning that still spoke to him inside his head was growing stronger. He could almost hear voices now, snapping away inside his skull. Words of encouragement that he couldn't quite catch, stirring odd desires. The box, he thought, with more longing than he would have imagined. He had to get to the box. Get it before Forsythe did. Stop him from using it to increase his powers. If Forsythe got it, Giles would never be able to get Forsythe. He tried to imagine what might be inside the box; what could Philarbus possibly have found? Could it be worth all this interest, all this lusting, all this effort? But every time he tried to think of such things, the whisperings in his head grew louder, and he broke off his thoughts to try again to catch the words. They remained elusive, but every time they made the frustration and the anxiety increase. He had to get to that box. He needed to get to that box. All the aches from the fight back in the cavern grew stronger, throbbing with each beat of his heart. He could feel a pulse resounding in his head, sending new waves of discomfort through his skull, hurting his black eye and bringing the taste of blood afresh to his drying mouth. Find the box, end the pain. Find the box, deal with Forsythe. Find the box, find the box, find the box. He swore under his breath, and wished for an end to the tunnel. Just to get out of the echoing confinement, out of the constricting rock and stale air, and the annoying half light. He had been here long enough. Not just in this tunnel, but in the whole labyrinth. His watch no longer worked, and he had no idea how long he had been on this journey, fighting peculiarities. The watch probably wouldn't have given him a true answer anyway. What could?
"I think I hear voices." Wesley had somehow managed to get far ahead, although Giles hadn't been aware of him doing so. His voice came back through the tunnel in a whisper that carried well. "We must be getting close."
"About time." Knocking his head against numerous outcroppings, Giles hurried to catch up. "That box has got a very loud, very insistent voice."
"Fight it. You've got more chance of doing that than Forsythe has, if only because you're bound to have less desires in the first place." He smiled. "Of a sort, anyway."
"I'm not searching for power anymore, no. With luck we can use that." He thumped his head again and winced. "Damn it!"
"Ssh. If we can hear them--"
"Then they can hear us, yes. I know." Forcing himself to keep to a whisper, despite his irritation, Giles pushed on ahead, through the ghost and on down the tunnel. The voices were clear; sharp, angry voices. Forsythe's, raised in demand, wanting the box and asking for assurance that Wolfram & Hart would let him keep it. Demanding the right of ownership because of his work in getting Lilah through the labyrinth. For her part Lilah was angry, incensed at his demands, and at his peremptory tone. She had never liked it when people made demands. When they tried to exert authority over her. Giles was not to know that, but he did know that tempers were running high. He might have been in a similar state himself, had he been more the kind to be affected by the influence of the box.
"Wesley!" Keeping his voice to the faintest of hisses now, he waited for the ghost to catch up. "What about that counter-spell?"
"I can do it. I think. It depends on the strength of his own magic, but I should be able to break the enchantment. Ideally I'd have some arrowroot to shake over him, but I doubt he'd stand still for that anyway."
"Besides which, you wouldn't be able to hold the stuff, let alone sprinkle it." Giles nodded. "Forget the arrowroot. A good magician shouldn't need it."
"I hope not." It was impossible to converse any more quietly, so they both fell into silence now, walking slowly for the last length of the tunnel. It widened out a little, and the ceiling sloped gradually upwards, making the going that bit less unpleasant. Giles's head still ached, and his eye throbbed, but he found the voices easier to block out. They still called to him, playing on his desire to defeat Forsythe, but less persistently now. He shut his mind to them as much as was possible, forcing himself to breathe as deeply and as calmly as he could. Only then, when he was more or less certain that he was completely in control, did he edge slowly to the end of the tunnel, and peer into the space beyond.
He could see the box, or something that looked likely to be it; a wooden box about a foot long and roughly the same in height and width. It was enclosed in a case that looked to be made of glass, almost the size of a room, and built thickly enough to distort the image of the box placed inside. There were etchings in the glass that were clearly words, in yet another of Corbio's favoured uncommon tongues, and the whole rested in a rocky room almost as large as the cavern at the other end of the tunnel. Lilah and Forsythe were arguing together beside the glass, Forsythe growing increasingly irate. His voice rose in volume, and his body language suggested imminent violence.
"You need my blood to open that vault." He slammed one hand against the glass. "Just like you needed me to solve the puzzles to get you here. Wolfram & Hart can't be all that powerful if they needed me to help them, so they can't stop me from seeing what's in that box. And don't think that you can either. I've been practising magic since you were still in school."
"Magic isn't everything, honey." Lilah was smiling, although her eyes were empty of expression. To anybody who was not as monumentally self-obsessed as Forsythe, that should have been a danger signal. "I need your blood to get to that box, and you have to be alive when it happens. But only when it happens."
"And you think that you can kill me? Wolfram & Hart need me. They'd never let that happen."
"You believe that?" She was laughing at him, which would have been enough to drive him to fury even without the box whispering in his ear. "You're a means to an end to them. They needed a Watcher. They don't have great plans for you, and they're not going to let you take whatever is inside that box."
"Once I've opened it they won't have a choice. I'll be more powerful than they can imagine. Whoever and whatever these 'Senior Partners' are, I'll be more than they'll ever be. Can't you hear it speaking to you? Or isn't it even bothering to try? It's telling me how powerful it is. All the things that it can do for me. Once I've opened it, I'll be the greatest sorcerer who ever walked the Earth."
"You'll be a dead man. Because even the greatest sorcerer who ever walked the Earth wouldn't be a match for the power behind Wolfram & Hart. I know. Believe me, I have every reason to know how powerful they are. Now do what you were brought here to do, and open that vault."
"You sound like you're trying to save my life. But you couldn't give a damn about it, could you. What is it? Are you after the box yourself? What do you think you'll find inside it?"
"Never you mind." Her eyes were colder than ice. "Just spill your blood, before I spill it for you. You're not taking that box."
"And you're not stopping me." He raised a hand, and the light that illuminated the room shone on the blade of a knife. "You try, and it'll be you spilling your blood."
"Really." Lilah laughed at him. "I think you'll find yourself being very surprised if you try that. I'm not exactly what I appear to be."
"You're real enough. And what's real can cease to be." The knife glittered as he moved it slightly to-and-fro. Wesley made a move to start forward, and Giles grabbed at him, cursing in frustration when his hand fell straight through the passing arm.
"She's dead!" he hissed. "What the hell do you think he's going to do to her?"
"We have to get to that box first." Wesley had seen Lilah's eyes flicker at the sound of Giles's voice. They had lost the edge of surprise, but Forsythe did not seem to have noticed anything as yet. That at least was something; he didn't think that she would alert a man with whom she was evidently at odds. Not that you could ever be sure with Lilah. She didn't say anything, and her eyes remained focused upon Forsythe, inviting him to continue with his threats and demands. Wesley walked out of the tunnel to stand behind the other Watcher, a frown darkening his brow, and Giles sighed. Admittedly the confrontation had to come at some point, but he would rather have liked some say on when. Wesley rested far too much faith in Lilah. The woman was evil, and it was quite obvious that she had no intention of allowing anybody to take the box away from her and her inhuman employers. Giles would feel a lot better if she was knocked out and tied up, or better still sent back to whatever hell had granted her a temporary release. Counting on her not to give the game away smacked of insanity to him; but what the hell. The damn box was talking almost as much as Forsythe, and they might as well get this over with. Just as long as Wesley managed to make himself useful, and do something about the renegade's protection charms before Lilah decided to join the fight. Giles had no illusions about which side she would turn out to be on. Stepping out of the tunnel, he straightened his back, ignored the throbbing in his head, and took a deep, determined breath. He really wanted to have another go at beating the living daylights out of Forsythe, but he wanted it to have real effect this time.
"Forsythe." He kept his voice steady, almost conversational. Forsythe's stream of invective ground to a halt, and he turned around slowly, eyebrows raised in surprise.
"Rupert. I wasn't expecting you to recover so soon. You look... battered."
"And you don't. Nice trick."
"I like it. I think you'll find its effects are lasting. Long lasting."
"And I'm rather hoping you might be mistaken." Giles didn't look at Wesley. He didn't want to attract any attention to the thoughtfully pacing ghost. Lilah was watching him, an expression of fond amusement on her face, but Forsythe was not watching Lilah. He looked only at Giles, his own amusement anything but fond.
"I'm never mistaken. I have the kind of powers that see to that. Now what exactly was it you were wanting?"
"That box." Giles took another step forward, wishing that Wesley would stop pacing, and do something rather more inspiring. Like casting spells. "I'm claiming it. You must know that I can't let you have it."
"Oh. The box." Forsythe smiled at him. "You want it for yourself, perhaps? What do you think it'll give you, Giles? All those things you gave up to become a good little Watcher?"
"I didn't give anything up." Feeling the fury spur within him once again, Giles took another step forward. Forsythe's smile was enough to bring out the fires inside him, and he had to struggle to quell the desire to let loose with his fists there and then. "You might be about to find that out."
"Oh I don't think so, Rupert. I think you'll find that I'm a lot more powerful than you are, and that I'm going to be the one leaving here with that box. You're not getting it, she's not getting it, and Wolfram & Hart aren't getting it. I won it. It's mine by rights."
"It belongs to Philarbus. He's the only one who knows what's in it, and the only one who knows what it's supposed to be used for. The only reason any of us are here is because of him, and because the intolerant world he lived in sent him to a cruel death. It's no more yours by rights than it was Corbio's."
"Well Philarbus isn't here to stop me from taking it. Just you, some woman who seems to think she can stand up to me, and a ghost. That's not a trio that fills me with fear, especially since one of you is on a different side to the other two. And especially since one of you is dead."
Lilah held up her hand. "Two of us, actually. So whatever spells you think you can throw at us, you might want to have another think about. You can't hurt somebody who's dead."
"No?" Forsythe smiled unpleasantly. "So you're dead. Well then you're easily dealt with, Miss Morgan. I can just send you back to wherever you came from." He muttered something harsh and sharp, and in a flash of blue-white flame, Lilah disappeared. She went with a yell, her body twisting, and Wesley stepped forward in shock.
"Lilah!" He stood where she had been, eyes wide. "What have you done to her?"
"Sent her back. By the look of things, not to heaven or to hell." Forsythe looked him up and down, apparently seeing him for the first time. "I know you. Oklahoma, wasn't it? I met you at a train station. Offered you the chance of a lifetime. The Purple Iris is a very exclusive organisation, you know. You should have accepted."
"Yes." Wesley's voice showed sarcasm, and a light touch of anger. "But then I'd have had to kill you all, so it would hardly have been worth my while paying the subs, would it."
"Oh, very good. So the two of you are going to try to distract me, are you? Play little tricks to make me look away, so that one or the other of you can spin some pathetic spell that you hope will lose me my protections? Well it's not going to work. Neither one of you could possibly have what it takes. I learnt my craft from books that no other living person has read. I've practised spells that other human magicians could never dream of accomplishing. That box is mine. And neither one of you is going to take it away from me." He waved a hand, muttering a basic incantation, and in a flicker of white light, like static on a television screen, Wesley was frozen in place. His eyes moved, and his lips moved soundlessly, but the rest of him appeared to be paralysed. Giles was no lip-reader, but he recognised some of the words that were spitting themselves out of Wesley's mouth. They certainly weren't spells.
"So now it's just the two of us." Forsythe's voice was polite. Almost friendly. "It's been a long time, Rupert. 1989, I think. Or was it 1990?"
"It was 1989." Giles kept his own voice low, and as steady as he could make it. It still sounded gruff, as though he were on the point of an explosion of rage - but since they both knew that that was indeed the case, there seemed little point in making a great effort to hide it. "And you damn well know that."
"1989. Ah yes. A good year. A vintage year. Been back that way since? Fair Okhotsk, the not so sparkling jewel of the East."
"I've had no reason to go back. The only reason I was there the last time was because of you." Giles let the glare take over his face. "Now I didn't come here to talk, Forsythe. Why don't we just get on with this?"
"You're really that desperate to die? I wouldn't have thought so, myself, given how energetically you've always fought in the past. Like in Okhotsk, when between us we managed to destroy that hotel. The locals seemed to think it was some kind of localised earthquake."
"They weren't far wrong." Giles had gone to Okhotsk on the word of a weather-beaten old sailor, who had claimed to have seen Anthony Forsythe skulking there looking for oddities to use in his various spells. It had been a very long, very hard journey, and a very long, very hard fight, which had left two locals dead, several dozen wounded, and Giles under threat of serious disciplinary action from the Council. Forsythe, needless to say, had escaped, although only just. Fifteen years had passed since then though - and fifteen years could mean a lot to a man who spent his days studying all manner of magical arts.
"And now it's about to be over. We go back a long way, you and me. Back to the days when we were completing our training. Back to the days when I was still the good guy, and you were the one nobody trusted. Twenty-five years, Rupert. Twenty-five long, eventful years."
"Yes, I know. I can count. Always could. Now like I was saying, neither of us is here for the conversation. Why don't we just get this thing started?"
"I could blast you to smithereens with one word, Rupert. One little word. Are you really so--" He broke off, looking back at Wesley. "What was that?"
"He's dead, remember? A ghost. No threat to you." Giles hadn't heard anything, for as far as he could tell Wesley was no longer capable of audible speech. He merely stood frozen to the spot, muttering words through his barely moving lips. His expression showed strain and anger, but he didn't look like a threat. Not to anybody or anything. Forsythe glared daggers back at Giles.
"Yes he's dead. And trapped in there he should be as harmless as a cloud. Which is all he is, in essence. But there's something fighting back. Something inside him. I can feel it pushing against the barrier."
"He has powerful allies." Well, he has Cordelia, anyway. That's bound to mean something. Forsythe shook his head.
"He might be here at the say so of powerful allies, but it's not them fighting back." He smiled suddenly. "I have to hand it you, Giles. You always do manage to throw an interesting party. This might even be worth savouring for a little longer, if I wouldn't much rather be getting that box, and getting the hell out of here." He drew in a deep breath, regaining the control that his growing ire and the voice of the box had conspired to make him lose. "Now. Mr Pryce, isn't it? You'd oblige me by shutting up, and stopping whatever it is that you're trying to do." He waved a hand, much as he had done before, and Wesley's form blinked and bent the way it had when he had been fighting to open the door in the previous cavern. "I never did thank you for getting me in here. Couldn't for the hell of me work out the key to opening that door. But you did it, didn't you, and by the look of things it took a fair bit of magic to get it done. Maybe I should be paying you a little more attention."
"Leave him alone, Forsythe. The man's dead, there's no point in trying to make things even more unpleasant."
"Shut up." With a wave of his hand, Forsythe sent Giles flying over backwards, where he crashed to the ground with an impressive thump. He groaned. Why did his enemies have such a marked fondness for hurling him into things? It was getting to be as common as bashing him over the head. He struggled to his feet, muscles protesting, the thumping inside his skull now reaching mammoth proportions. Next time he went on holiday he was not only bringing all of his weapons, but he was bringing a family sized box of aspirin as well.
"Forsythe!" He hoped that it had sounded suitably dramatic. Looking and sounding the part was all that he could do, really, so he might as well do that much right. The renegade turned to look at him, smiling faintly.
"Am I slipping, or are you getting tougher in your old age? Play nicely and lie still, Rupert. I'll get back to you in just a moment. For now I'm more interested in your little dead magician here."
"Wesley?" Giles advanced slowly, cautiously. "He's no magician. Wesley is a walking disaster area, everybody knows that. Why do you think he's dead? Slipped up fighting somebody he didn't have a chance in hell of beating, because he was willing to follow a friend into death to make a point. He didn't get sacked from the Watchers for being a worthwhile magician."
"Then he's grown since then more than they'd ever imagined." Forsythe was not in the mood to be bluffed. "Shut up, Giles. Stay out of this. Or are you still magician enough yourself to play a part?" He snapped his fingers and muttered a few words of Latin, and Giles was suddenly standing beside him, blinking in surprise. "Here's a challenge for you, Rupert. I have a spell that I can finish in three words. If I say them friend Pryce here will vanish out of this room for good and all. And when I say 'out of this room', I also mean out of this world. Out of this plane of existence. He might fight his way back out of whichever hell he ends up in. One day he might. But being dead, I doubt it. Lost and wandering souls are like meat and drink to the creatures that live in some dimensions. Chances are he wouldn't last five minutes."
"And?" Deliberately choosing not to look at Wesley, Giles kept his eyes fixed upon Forsythe. "I take it that you're expecting me to do something to stop you?"
"You're the Ripper. Or at least you used to be. Show me your 'rip', Rupert. Stop me before I can banish your friend."
"He's not my friend." Giles's eyes were as cold as he could make them, his voice several shades colder than that. "We hate each other. He was sent to replace me when I was fired from the Council. His actions sent a Slayer over the edge. Almost stopped her from ever being brought back. He annoys me, and quite frankly I wouldn't care if you sent him to any damn hell dimension you choose. All I care about, Anthony, is getting that box before you do. And killing you in the process, if at all possible."
"Really? We'll see about that." Forsythe turned slightly, looking towards Wesley once again. The ghost was almost translucent, just as before, his image flickering and fading, snapping back into full colour only occasionally. His lips were still moving, but Giles could no longer tell what words he was saying, or trying to say. "Mr Pryce? Your colleague here appears to care little for you. Perhaps we should meet his bluff? Any preference on hell dimensions? Anywhere you've ever especially wanted to see? No?" He laughed shortly at his own joke, then raised one hand, ready to bring it down to trigger the spell. He was already beginning the three words that were all he needed to say when Giles, taking full advantage of his distraction, drove his dagger deep into the side of his neck. It stuck there, looking faintly ridiculous, as Forsythe turned about to face him.
"A knife? You think a knife can stop me? I'm impervious to damage, Rupert, or had you forgotten? Didn't my little lesson back in that other cavern teach you anything?" He shook his head. "The great Ripper - not a magician at all really, are you. It's all just about violence. Quite frankly I'm disappointed." He pulled the knife out of his neck, well aware that he had Giles's full attention as he did so. "Pryce can wait, it seems. Time to get you out of the way instead." He stepped forward quickly, slashing with the knife and making Giles jump back. It was a pointless endeavour to try to avoid the assault however, for with a word Forsythe had him frozen, immobile, his muscles straining to move bones that could not move at all. "Such a disappointment, Rupert. To find you to be nothing but a cold blooded killer at heart. Where's the finesse? Where's the intelligent strike against a worthy foe? Where's--" He broke off, the knife a mere inch from Giles's throat, a frown beginning to take over his face. "What--? What's--?"
"Never take your eye off your enemy, Mr Forsythe." Wesley sounded as though he had been running a marathon, uphill and against a raging gale. For the first time in a long while Giles allowed himself to look at the other man, and saw him on his hands and knees, barely visible, image still flickering - but free of Forsythe's bonding spell. It looked as though he was smiling, although it was hard to be sure with the constant fading and fluttering. Forsythe spat out a vicious insult, but with the words came a trickle of blood. He put up his free hand to his neck, and it came away soaked in red. The blood was falling fast now; the knife had missed the artery, but it had done damage enough to bleed a copious amount. His protection charm had gone. The knife fell from his hand.
"Bastard." For the first time he didn't sound like a lord of the manor. For the first time his egotistical self image had broken. He was no longer the aristocrat, better than everybody else. He was a wounded, furious man put suddenly on the defence. "You bastard. I'll get you for that. Three words, I--" He coughed, and it was blood rather than words that came from his mouth. "Bast-- I... I can't--" He staggered then, and shook his head slowly and heavily. Giles tried to catch hold of him, unsure whether he wanted to steady the man, or take him out with a brutal punch. He chose the first option; stabbing the poor sod in the neck was probably doing damage enough, all things considered. Forsythe pushed him off though. He was unable to summon the magic to save himself, but apparently he still had his ambitions. Side-stepping Giles he made a beeline straight for the glass vault, smearing his blood over the door in a crude symbol taken from the many etched into the glass. The ground shook.
"Oh hell." Giles ran forward, but Forsythe was already staggering into the vault. "What if he gets hold of that box?"
"I don't know." Wesley, who couldn't reasonably do anything to stop the renegade, at least that he could think of, was standing back and expecting Giles to do something instead. "I don't know what's in there, remember!"
"Oh... bloody hell." Bursting into the vault on Forsythe's tail, Giles seized the other man around the neck. "Get back, damn it. I can't let you--" He broke off when an elbow collided sharply with his ribs. Forsythe, weakened and speechless, was still not giving in without a fight. He was struggling with the box, smearing his blood all over it, choking on the spells he was trying and failing to say. Giles could feel his desperation, for it mirrored his own - the box was screaming inside his skull now, telling him to open it, promising such riches of magic and power that he had never hoped to possess even in his most power-hungry days.
"Watcher blood! And I couldn't have spilt it better myself." Lilah's voice snapped out of nothingness, and in a second she was there, in the glass vault, looking none the worse for her trip to wherever Forsythe had sent her. She sounded hungry, as affected by the box as the rest of them, clawing at Giles, Forsythe, and at the box itself. "This belongs to Wolfram & Hart. You'll never get it away from here. You'll never keep it from them."
"Lilah!" Wesley came running up, or staggering rather, still exhausted from his struggle to counteract the magic of his renegade colleague. "Lilah, you have to let Giles take it. Wolfram & Hart can't be allowed to have that kind of power!"
"Keep back, Wes." She looked feverish, her eyes hot and excited. "I have to see what's inside that box. I have to see what kind of power it really has. You're not going to stop me, and neither are these two." She pushed Forsythe, and he tumbled backwards, groaning and growling and unable to right himself. Blood continued to flow from the hole in his neck, and his skin was increasingly pale. All trace of the aristocrat in his bearing had now gone. He was nothing more than a desperate, dying man, scrabbling about in the dust in his attempts to reach his goal. Giles grabbed at a strong, deceptively slender wrist, and tried to pull the dead lawyer away.
"Your boyfriend might go easy on you," he growled, deliberately trying to pitch his voice so that Wesley wouldn't hear him. "I won't. Get back."
"Or what? You'll kill me?" She laughed at him. "I'm already dead, and it can't get much worse. A puppet on its strings, waiting to be operated by Wolfram & Hart. This box might just help me to escape from that, and I won't let anybody stop me from trying to win it." She broke free from his grip and tried to hit out at him, but he blocked the punch easily and pushed her away. He might have succeeded in making it to the box then, but Forsythe's fingers clawed at his ankles, and dragged him back. He stumbled and almost fell. Wesley tried to catch him, with predictably little success, then went after Lilah instead. She at least he could touch.
"Lilah." He was so tired. The struggle against Forsythe had come too soon after the harder fight to open the enchanted door. "Lilah... I can't let you have that box."
"After you risked everything to try to save me from my contract with Wolfram & Hart? Would you really stop me from trying to do the same thing now?"
"Like a shot." He caught her arm. "That box belongs with somebody who'll do the right thing with it."
"And you think that he will?" She nodded at Giles. "You can't trust him with something like this, Wes. You don't know what it's like, the way it screams inside your head. Telling you all the things it can give to you. If he can't fight it, like I can't fight it, like Forsythe can't fight it. Like Corbio couldn't. If he can't fight it then he'll use it - and then you'll never be able to trust him. It doesn't exactly bring out the best in any of us." She tried to twist free, but couldn't. "Gonna play it rough with me, lover? Because if you're going to get that box away, you're going to have to play far, far more roughly than you've ever played with me before."
He let her go then. "You'll never open it. Even Corbio couldn't. Giles won't either, so whether or not it can bring out his dark side, it won't be getting the chance. We're just here to deliver it to people who can see that it's put somewhere where nobody will be able to use it. I don't doubt that Wolfram & Hart could find a way in. But not you."
"Then why not let me try?" Her eyes were flashing with something akin to desperation, and he sympathised. She was right; he had risked a great deal in trying to find a way to free her from her contract with Wolfram & Hart. A way to let her die in peace. Now it seemed that that was what she sought for herself, and a part of him wanted very much to let her do just that. As usual, though, duty won out, calling him back onto the straight and narrow.
"Just get her out of the way." Taking hold of the box, Giles began to drag it towards the door of the vault. It was heavy; far heavier than it should have been, given its size. Whatever was inside it had to be of immense weight. Forsythe didn't help, snatching at the box as it inched its way past, clawing at the wood and trying to choke out his last few desperate spells. Lilah, with a powerful wrench, pulled free of Wesley and hit him hard. The ghost fell backwards, through the glass, his form fading and losing colour as he struggled to retain consciousness - or whatever the ghostly equivalent. Giles swore under his breath, and as the frenzied woman came at him, he hit her squarely on the jaw. It made him wince, though only in a very small part from guilt, but it dropped Lilah to the ground. Wesley went to her, bending down to be sure that she was okay.
"Wesley, damn it. Forget her for five minutes and help me with this thing. Cast a spell, try something. It weighs a bloody ton."
"I'll try." He was just about running on empty, but he focused on the box as best he could, and with a muttered incantation managed to get it to hover slightly in the air. It moved a little closer to the door, then crashed heavily to the ground again. Wesley almost followed suit. "Sorry. Too tired. Maybe I can rustle us up some help."
"Well then make it quick." Giles was in pain, from both of the tussles with Forsythe, and increasingly now from the influence of the box. Its persistent voices were like knives stabbing at his head, tempting him with things that he was no longer sure he didn't want. Power, chaos - all of that. He had wanted it before, so why not now? It had been his life's goal, his joy. He and Ethan, with their magic and their sheer unadulterated badness. What made him think that that wasn't still what he was after? The box filled his vision even when he closed his eyes, and he wiped his face with hands stained with Forsythe's blood. On the ground Lilah stirred, looking up at him with undeniably beautiful eyes that made the box start promising many more such women, if he would only listen to it more closely. Damn it, maybe it hadn't just been acquisitiveness and jealousy that had made Corbio hide the box away. Maybe it had been the only way he could get the thing to shut up. Giles wanted to hit it, although he knew that that would be more than merely senseless. The wood would damage his hands, and then where would he be? Unable to move it, then, and unable to do anything much of use except stand here and listen to it jabber at him. Much like now, he thought; only with broken knuckles.
"They're coming." Lilah didn't sound angry or threatening anymore. She didn't sound frightened either, or tired, or worried. She just spoke with an even voice that might have hidden any number of emotions. "Wolfram & Hart. They're coming for the box."
"Oh, you're kidding!" Giles looked over at Wesley, still far too faint, and still juddering and flickering on occasion. "I thought you said you were going to rustle up some help?"
"Maybe there's nobody to help. I don't know, Giles. It's not like The Powers That Be have ever been quick to jump into the breech before."
"Right." If there was one thing Giles could do, it was take charge. He had been trained for it like any Watcher, but with a rebellious Slayer and her tag-a-long gang of equally rebellious school friends to contend with, he had come to be very good at command; although admittedly it helped when there were no rebellious teenagers to talk back. "Wesley? Take care of the box. Open it, disappear it, get it the hell out of here, I don't care. Lilah? You and I will take care of whatever's coming. I don't give a damn whether or not you work for them; if there's a struggle it'll blast you along with the rest of us." He looked over at Forsythe, but if the other man was not dead yet, he soon would be. He would be very unlikely to be of any use in a fight. "Alright?"
"I'll do what I can." Wesley turned his attentions to the box without needing to be asked again. Giles wasn't sure that the ghost really had enough left in him to do anything decisive, but they had to try something. Lilah merely looked mutinous.
"I need that box," she muttered, and her eyes lingered upon it. Giles shot her a poisonous glare.
"Fine. Take the box. But you said yourself that Wolfram & Hart are on their way - or one of their emissaries, at any rate. You think they'll let you take the box? They'll have you burning in hell first."
"True." She couldn't tear her eyes away from the object of her desires, and Giles in all honesty couldn't blame her. Power, chaos, magic, excitement, thrills - the voices echoed in his head even now that he had turned away from the box himself. His pulse raced even faster, and he turned his back on the chest, making Lilah do the same thing. "What's coming?" he asked her, desperate to keep his own mind focused on other things, no matter how bad. She tried to glance back over her shoulder, but he caught her chin and held her head still. "What will they send?"
"I don't know. One of their enforcers. One of their beasts. They have creatures from a hundred worlds, who work for them in one way or another. The intelligent ones are offered deathlessness and any manner of other incentives. The non-sentient ones are used to fight wars, and to kill and destroy." She pulled her head away from his hand. "And what do we have to fight it with?"
"This." Somehow his dagger was back in his hand, although he didn't remember ever taking it back from Forsythe. It had become a sword once again, as long and as impressive as before. This time, however, the blade flickered and shortened as he watched. It was as though it had to fight to retain its borrowed length, and every few seconds changed back to its previous size. Evidence of Wesley's exhaustion, presumably. Still, it was better than nothing.
"How very swashbuckling." Lilah pulled a huge gun from the air. "Not that any of it is likely to do much good."
"Just remember who you're supposed to be shooting at." He took a deep breath, aware now of a rushing in the air; a sound like beating wings. Something was on its way. He had wondered if perhaps Lilah had made the claim merely as a distraction, but clearly she had not been lying. A moment later, when the glass vault exploded into a shower of mighty shards, he knew that she had most certainly been telling the truth. Heat washed over him, and he looked up into a cloud of dust and shattered rock blown from the earth by the arrival of their latest foe. Dragon or griffin, he couldn't tell. Probably neither, if it came from some other dimension. It had a pointed head, and bright, black eyes, and its feet bore twisted claws that bit into the rocky floor of the cavern. At the sight of the four human figures it roared with breathtaking force, and set the ground trembling faintly. Giles swallowed hard. Near to his feet he thought that he heard Forsythe laughing, and was sorely tempting to give the dying man a good kick.
"That looks like fun." Lilah's voice was heavy with sarcasm, and he fully expected her to disappear. That she didn't either meant that Wolfram & Hart controlled her movements, and wouldn't allow her to leave, or that for some reason she was interested in staying. Maybe she sill hoped to make a play for the box. Maybe she enjoyed a good fight. Either way, Giles still wasn't happy about her having a gun.
"Take the right." He was running already, as well as he could given the pain in his head and his ribs. He had absolutely no idea what he was going to do; the thing was twice his size, and had claws that looked like they could fillet him with one blow. All the same, it was quite clear that if he stood still and did nothing, it would kill him just as surely. It had not come here to talk, or to make deals. It had merely come to clear the way to the box.
He swung the sword with all his might, just as a feint this time, for the creature could not have failed to see him coming. It growled and turned to face him, and Lilah, taking advantage of its distraction, played some small part by firing several shots at it. It failed to have an effect, but the bullets did not seem to glance off the thing's hide. Instead they stuck there, black and smouldering with their own heat, just within the scales.
"Maybe they need to be silver." She didn't sound too worried about their failure to have any effect. Presumably such things took a back seat when you were already dead. Giles tried taking a blow at the place where the bullets had lodged, in the hope that it might increase any discomfort they had caused, but the creature, whatever it was, merely growled again and took a swipe at him with one foot. He leapt aside, slashing at one of the wings as he passed, and trying to take some small measure of triumph when the blade cut through the taut skin. A minor victory perhaps, but better than nothing. Apparently his morale didn't agree. Stumbling into the rocky wall, he ducked the lashing tail, and came back for another assault on the wings. Lilah meanwhile had abandoned her gun, and had taken to hurling lumps of rock at the animal's head. Giles could almost have smiled. Apparently she did have some reason for fighting after all, and whatever it was it inspired her to struggle on with true spirit. Maybe she just liked the exercise. Her efforts were having no real use, but then neither were his own, so he wasn't about to complain about the pointlessness of her involvement. Let her hurl rocks. There was always the chance that one might strike a chance flaw in the creature's armour; just as one of his own desperate slashes with his flickering sword might also find some fatal weakness. Slim chances were better than no chances, even when you had no strength left, and your head was filled with razorblades. Maybe especially then.
Nearby Wesley wasn't sure what to do. He wanted to help his friends, but he had neither the energy as a magician nor the solidity of a corporeal being to be of any use. Giles had charged him to take care of the box, and that responsibility he took as seriously as he took all such charges. He couldn't move it though; that much was clear. He couldn't make anybody hear him, although he wasn't sure what Cordelia could do to help anyway. He wasn't sure yet what she was allowed to do. The Powers The Be were fickle and strange, and played by their own, changing rules, and if they chose not to offer their assistance, he had to put up with that. As far as he could see he was left with only one option - and that was one that seemed impossible. How could he open the box? How could he accomplish something that one of the greatest human magicians ever to have lived had been unable to achieve?
It was speaking to him now. Now that he was crouched beside it, staring at Forsythe's bloody handprints smeared across the lid. It was only quiet - like a rustling of leaves in the distance, perhaps, but nonetheless still speech. It was offering him his life back. His life, his solidity. Live, breathe, feel, touch, taste - offers of reality echoing in the furthest reaches of his brain. Fine offers, perhaps - but there was one thing that the box couldn't give him; couldn't ever give him; and that was the one thing that he seemed to have wanted more than anything else for so long now that it was hard to remember the days when it had not been a part of his mind. Fred. That was one thing that was certainly beyond the abilities of even the greatest powers to grant. She had gone; gone completely; gone forever; gone, totally and utterly. And as such there was nothing that the box could offer to him. Not that really meant anything. The thought made the quiet whisperings in his mind flare up for a brief moment; trying again harder than before. Then they were gone. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, staring at this wooden creation of a long dead man, and thought about all of the opening spells that he knew. He knew that none of them would be any good, even if he had been sure that he possessed the strength to attempt them. They were simple stuff; basic stuff. The kind of thing that Corbio would have tried many times. He considered pushing his hands through the wood, and seeing if he could access the contents that way, but somehow he didn't believe that that would work. It would probably turn out to be very dangerous indeed. Instead, muttering at himself to focus, he gathered his returning scraps of strength, and did all that he could to touch the box. He had to get a grip on its lid, on its latch, on any part of it that might allow it to open. The voices sparked back into life inside him, but he ignored them more readily now. He knew that they could offer him nothing. Their whispered promises meant nothing at all. And then he realised that that was exactly what they were whispering; that that was the one advantage he had over Corbio. He was the only one to try to open the box who wanted nothing from it himself; who couldn't be tempted by its offerings. Knowing what he had to do then, and following the lead of the far greater magician, Forsythe, who had tried this before him, he placed his hands over the two bloodied prints on the lid, closed his eyes, and listened to the voices inside his head. They were muttering words now, in old, archaic French, and he echoed them slowly. His hands were still without substance, but whether through his own concentration, or through the power of the box instead, for a moment he felt them make contact; felt smooth, seasoned wood; smelt dust; felt heat and power spark through his fingertips. The lid of the box sprang open.
"My box!" It was a hoarse cry that came with a rush of blood that Forsythe could not afford to lose. Wesley turned towards him even before he had had a chance to see into the box, seeing the renegade Watch stumble towards him with a strength and a speed that he should no longer have possessed. They tried to grapple together, but Wesley's hands went through the other man's wrists, and Forsythe did no better. Robbed of that fleeting moment of solidity, the ghost could no nothing but fumble and snatch, uselessly, at the desperate, hopelessly bewitched man. From within the box came a flash of white light; a light so brilliant, so hot, and so intense, that Wesley could not look at it. Forsythe did - and in that instant he screamed; threw up his hands to protect his eyes; tried to back away. It was impossible. The light was all about him, blasting up out of the box in a pillar of blue-tinged ferocity that splayed out and latched hold of him where he stood. He screamed again, fighting against nothingness, trying to catch hold of Wesley as an anchor, but failing utterly. For his part Wesley tried to catch hold of him as well, but his own attempts were just as hopeless. As the light flashed upwards, blasting through the ceiling of the cavern, Forsythe gave a final wail and was gone. The light disappeared; the glow and the heat dissipated. Wesley was left standing alone, staring down into an empty wooden box.
"Well that was pretty." Lilah's voice made him jump, and he looked up almost in shock. Lilah. Giles. The dragon thing. He had to help them if he could. Apparently there was no need. He saw Lilah standing in the middle of the cavern, a long shard of broken glass from the vault gripped in one hand like a dagger. He clothing was immaculate, her hair perfect, her face glowing with apparent enjoyment. Giles was nearby, his dagger in his hand, blood on his head, gasping for breath in utter exhaustion. Of the beast there was no sign.
"What-?" the other Watcher was trying to ask, but he lacked the strength to manage it. He wanted to collapse, and would have done so if the mass of broken glass and rock at his feet hadn't looked so damned uncomfortable. Lilah smiled brightly.
"Fireworks," she said, as a completely unhelpful response. "Just as well, Mr Giles. That thing was about to bite your head off."
"Wasn't." He still had his pride, and his ability to flirt at least faintly with a woman like her. "I had it just where I wanted it."
"If what you wanted was for it to bite your head off then yes, you certainly did. Well done." Grinning so merrily that he didn't know whether to grin back or contemplate hitting her, she turned about and went over to Wesley, peering into the box. "It's empty. I suppose that's why I don't feel it talking to me anymore."
"Yes. I'm sorry."
"Don't be." Her smile was as strong as always; Lilah was good at having no regrets. "It wasn't going to make good on any of those promises, was it."
"It might have done." Wesley went over to help Giles, and received a predictable glare when his helping hand passed straight through the other Watcher's arm. "I rather think that that was Philarbus in the box. Whether or not he tried to take refuge when he was murdered, and became trapped there, I don't know. I got the feeling that it was him though."
"Makes sense." Giles always had the energy to ponder and speculate. "It would have been his powers as a remarkable sorcerer that we could feel through the box. The things that we felt we were being offered were the things that we might have been able to accomplish if those powers were ours."
"Which is why I managed to open it." Wesley couldn't quite keep his eyes from the box. "It had nothing to offer me. Nothing that mattered." He sounded sad, and Giles chose not to ask why. Instead he merely shrugged.
"Well it's a nice box, anyway. I prefer to buy these things at market stalls myself, but I'm sure that nearly getting killed half a dozen times today as I've struggled through a labyrinth, was more than worthwhile to get hold of this one. Cheaper, certainly."
"With the prices some markets charge for hand-made boxes, you're probably right." Lilah pushed the lid shut. "Well, you're welcome to it. I can't see Wolfram & Hart disputing ownership of a large wooden shoe box. Now has anybody got any idea how we're going to get out of here? If Wolfram & Hart couldn't magic me in, I'm doubting they'll be able to magic me out again."
"They didn't send you back after Forsythe banished you?" Giles was dusting off the box, genuinely interested in taking it as a keepsake. Lilah shook her head.
"That was my Wes, fighting back against Forsythe." She ruffled the ghost's hair. "Never did stop to thank you for that."
"It was entirely unintentional, I can assure you."
"You charmer." She grinned at him. "So. The getting out of here part. Any ideas?"
"Yes." Giles was looking up at the ceiling, where the towering column of light had blasted through the roof. The rock was crumbling now, either through sheer force of gravity, or perhaps by the influence of someone or something else. Daylight gleamed through. "Wherever the rest of the labyrinth was, I think this cavern is in the real world. Or at least, it is now."
"Great!" Lilah grinned happily. "Well, love to stay and chat. And fight my way up what looks like one hell of a climb, but - wait, no I don't." She favoured Giles with a particularly warm and flirtatious smile. "It's been... something approaching a pleasure. If we meet again... don't expect to win." And she vanished. Giles shook his head wearily.
"Remind me never to ask how you two got together."
"I wouldn't answer, anyway." Wesley looked up at the little circle of daylight above them. "Um..."
"Yes, I know. I'm on my own." He heaved a heavy sigh. He had used to love rock-climbing. Right now it didn't look nearly so much fun. "Do I take it this is goodbye?"
"I hadn't thought about it." There seemed little point, certainly, in hanging about to wait whilst Giles climbed up the jagged walls of the cavern. Not when he himself could disappear out of this place without even trying. "It's a bit sudden. Sort of."
"Yes, it is. I feel that I'd only just got to know you." Giles smirked. "And I confess I've definitely enjoyed the experience rather more than before."
"Me too." Wesley hung his head, the embarrassment of the way he had once been temporarily robbing him of his ability to meet the other man's eyes. "Listen, Giles--"
"Forget it. Forget all of it. Wesley, we'd probably still annoy the hell out of each other, even if we were doing it all over again today. We're two very different people, and that's probably a good thing. We lead two very different lives. Or... sort of lives. You've changed. That's good. Actually it's very good, or I'd have found some way to strangle you by now even if you are already dead. But I have, in some very strange way, rather enjoyed all this. So good luck. With whatever it is you're doing now. Maybe we'll meet again."
"Probably." He smiled sheepishly, looking endearingly young to Giles's somewhat jaded eyes. "Are you sure you're going to be alright getting out of here? I might be able to manage a spell by now. A net? Or a rope? You'll need one to get the box out of here."
"I'll come back with one later. Anyway, if your ropes are anything like your swords, it would disappear in ten minutes, and then where would I be? You still have a lot to learn."
"Yes." He considered offering his older colleague a hand to shake, but didn't think that he would be able to manage it. Another time maybe. He was getting the hang of this all the time, after all. "Well... goodbye then."
"Goodbye." Giles offered him a slightly stiff smile, and watched as the ghost disappeared. Maybe he should have accepted the offer of some magical help; after all, it was going to be a long, hard climb; but somehow, even after everything they had just been through together, he still couldn't quite bring himself to put that much faith in Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. Some first impressions couldn't help but last. And drawing in a deep breath, and thinking fine thoughts of a long, long sleep, he started to climb up the wall. It might be a long climb, but he didn't envy the dead their shortcuts. Such things came at far too great a price.
On a picturesque Spanish hillside somewhere secluded, the sun was shining down, although of the two people standing in its brightest glow only one of them was capable of enjoying its warmth. In her still perfect red dress and matching scarf, Lilah Morgan exuded a glow that suggested satisfaction at a little chaos well created. Corbio had her respect. He certainly knew how to throw a party.
"That was more entertaining than I'd imagined," she admitted, throwing a glance at her companion. He nodded.
"Somehow I thought you'd say that. It must be nice, not caring about anybody or anything."
"Oh Wes." She turned to him, standing as close as physics would allow. "You know how your little flashes of morality turn me on. Anyway, it doesn't matter. The good guys didn't lose. You can breathe easy. Or, you know, you could if you actually did breathe."
"You don't have any regrets then?"
"About not being able to use the box for my own naughty little desires? Maybe. But if there's one thing dying young teaches you, it's never to have too many regrets. There's always next time. Besides, I got something out of all of this. I have to say, lover boy, I'm impressed. I knew you were dabbling in the magical side of things, but I had no idea you'd come so far. Just look at you! Ghost Boy strikes back."
"Yes." He smiled, looking faintly awkward. "Maybe I'm finally starting to get the hang of this. Maybe it's not so bad after all, being a ghost."
"You're still dead." She brushed some imaginary specks of dust from his clothes. "And at the end of the day, that's really not so great."
"Maybe. Maybe not. But I can actually be useful like this. I can do useful things. And maybe if I... if both of us... can learn to live with being dead... so to speak... then it's not going to be so bad."
She lowered her head for a moment. "I don't think I've seen you this happy in a long time, Wes."
"Maybe you haven't." He sighed. "Life was complicated. Death is... also complicated. But in a different way. I think I can make this work. Don't you?"
"Oh Wes." Her eyes were sad now, and weirdly gentle. She reached up to stroke his face. "Nothing lasts forever. Haven't you learnt that by now? Not even death."
"What do you mean?" His eyes narrowed, but she was smiling again, and she squeezed his hand in farewell.
"See you, lover. Here, there, anywhere." For a second the smile faltered. "Whatever happens... Just be careful. And be you."
"Lilah--" But she was gone. He scowled. Blasted woman, she always had been annoying. And evil, he reminded himself automatically, although with something approaching a smile.
Stop gazing after the evil bitch queen from hell, Wes. Cordelia, the world's most unlikely angel, was demanding his attention as always. Literally from hell, in her case. Get back to the hotel.
"Another job?" he asked the ether. Employment was good, after death. They didn't have to wait to be hired these days either, and being paid no longer mattered.
You could say that. Angel needs a hand.
"Angel the angel." Well that should be interesting, in any case. A ex-vampire angel, in search of his wings - metaphorical or otherwise - and his spell-casting ghost of a companion. Never let it be said that life didn't get interesting after moving to LA. "I'll be right there." And he vanished, in the blink of an eye.
Giles arrived back in London half asleep, just as he had arrived before, and found a message waiting from Willow. Trouble, it said, in faintly jaunty Willow-style. Come to Rio. Weather's great. He sighed. So much for the break. After calling the airport to check on flights, there was just enough time for a shower, a change of clothes, and a quick hunt for Olivia's letter, still unread, and filed away by Rosie the aggravating housekeeper. Then off to catch a plane, and hopefully a little sleep on the way. There truly was no rest for the wicked; or even the only slightly wicked. Which was probably just as well, he conceded ruefully, all things considered. Holidays were damned hard work.