The landlady let him in, which was handy. He would have had to wait outside in the rain otherwise, since he could hardly gain entrance on his own; but the obliging woman had invited him in as soon as she had seen him sheltering in the porch. Giles would be cross about that, Spike had no doubt; but that was his fault for choosing to live somewhere with such an uninformed landlady. He had always had a lax approach to security though, even when living on the Hellmouth. Apparently he was even more relaxed in the city that had long ago become his home.
Spike hadn't missed London. It was dreary and wet there, even though it wasn't nearly the coldest time of the year. He had forgotten just how depressing the British weather could be at times, thanks to the Californian sunshine, somehow welcoming even to somebody who couldn't go out in it. Here, though, was a city with a sky the same shade of grey as the buildings; where puddles glistened on every street corner, lit by the head lamps of cars caught in permanent traffic jams. A faint wind blew stray pieces of litter about the pavements, and a scattering of over-worked and underpaid police officers drove by in pairs, consistently failing to get the traffic moving again, stop the litterbugs or brighten the weather. Not that they were really supposed to do the latter, but Spike felt sure that so much rain had to be somebody's fault. For a while he stood by the window, staring out at the grey city that had once been the whole of his world, and trying to remember how it had looked when he had first known it. Smaller, was all that he could confidently recall. Smaller and less noisy. The weather had probably been better then too.
"Bloody London." He turned away from the window, deciding to explore the apartment instead. Flat, he corrected himself, remembering that there were different words for things here. It looked more like an American apartment, though, rather than a British flat. Flats were smaller and more poky in his experience, and were traditionally reached by lifts that had broken down, or stairs that the local drunks had thrown up all over. This was quite spacious, consisting of several rooms, and even had roof access. Very American, which probably put the price up no end.
"Where do you get your money from, Giles?" He had wondered it before, back in Sunnydale, but here he thought about it again. Everywhere money was in evidence, from the apartment itself to its eclectic contents. Books were all over the place; and of course, this being Giles's home, they were anything but cheap and easy to come by. Ancient leather bound volumes, many of which had equally rare twins back in the Magic Box, were in every direction he looked; lining overflowing shelves, littering chairs and the surface of a massive oaken desk, standing in piles on the floor. Statues were almost as abundant; hand-carved wooden and soapstone representations of a hundred different demons; marble busts of several long dead Watchers; what looked like the death mask of a Phrygian sand demon. There was a chess set too - several times larger than most, standing on an antique table with ornately carved legs. The set itself must have been an antique as well, for the white pieces were clearly made of ivory, smooth and milky in contrast to the sharper gleam of the jet that had been used to create the black. Giles was apparently in the middle of a game, so Spike switched a few pieces around, mostly just because he felt like it.
He tired of examining things in the end. Giles no doubt felt differently, but to Spike's way of thinking there was a limit to how many books you could look at without losing the will to live. He played with the huge old globe for a while, and examined the collection of paintings - members of the Giles family? heroic demon hunters? vampire self portraits? That soon wore thin as well, so he amused himself by rearranging the carefully catalogued demonic artefacts on top of the sideboard, and switching the labels on the bottles of magical substances standing on the mantelpiece. Sabotage done, he lit a few candles, experimented happily with a collection of incense sticks, and eventually had to open the windows just to get some air.As he leant out, wreathed by the multicoloured smoke from the incense sticks, he saw a familiar figure entering the building, and wondered if he shouldn't attempt to clear up some of the mess. Why bother? he told himself. After all, if Giles didn't know by now that Spike was evil then he had no business being a Watcher - even a vaguely disgraced, reinstated sacked one. He hid the three stakes that had been standing on the desk though, throwing them behind one of the thick purple curtains. Well, there was no sense in asking for trouble.
"What the hell are you doing here?" The question boomed out even before Giles had finished opening the door. Spike grinned at him, lounging comfortably on one of the few chairs not weighed down with books. He blew a plume of cigarette smoke high into the air, watching it mingle with the green fog still floating from some of the incense sticks. Spike had never encountered incense that burned green before, and was beginning to think that it wasn't incense at all.
"Hey Giles." He watched in faint amusement as the Watcher's eyes widened at the sight of the green smoke, and frowned questioningly as he hurried over and beat the apparently-not-incense-sticks-after-all into ashy oblivion. "Been somewhere fun?"
"I've been at Watcher headquarters, listening to a lot of rubbish about how on top of everything they are." Clearly not in the best of moods, Giles glared at his chess set, put the pieces back where they were supposed to be, then turned his thunderous frown back onto Spike. "And you didn't answer my question. Why are you in England?"
"Visiting." Spike watched the green smoke fade away. "I thought you might be lonely."
"Which naturally I believe." Giles sat down at his desk, clearly deciding that he wasn't going to be getting anything like a sensible answer from the vampire. "I feel so honoured that it was my house you decided to come and ransack."
"Call this ransacking?" Spike nodded at the incense sticks. "What were they, anyhow?"
"Meditation sticks. They're used by certain demons in the Panchurian line to focus their mental energies. Light them and it's an invitation to every psychic attack demon in London to come and, well, psychically attack."
"Oh, don't get your knickers in a twist. Those things are nearly extinct these days." Spike grinned. "Course I might be wrong."
"You're not. There are probably no more than a dozen left in Europe - but there does happen to be an enclave hidden somewhere in southern England, and I'm supposed to be finding them. Hence the meditation sticks." Giles sighed and tugged open a desk drawer. "I do actually have work to do, Spike. That's one of the reasons why I'm living here now. If you've come all this way just to annoy the hell out of me, I'd rather you waited until I'm a little less busy."
"I'm evil, Giles. I don't call back when it's more convenient to you." Spike leaned back, putting his feet up on the desk top and sending several quill pens and half a dozen more incense sticks tumbling onto the floor. "Anyway, I can help catch demons. Psychic attacks don't tend to bother vampires."
"I do not want your help." Finishing his rummaging in the desk drawers, Giles produced a smallish, square bottle from one of them. It was made from thick, green-tinted glass, and had a grey paper label that was peeling at the corners. Spike looked up hopefully.
"Whisky?" he asked. Giles had had a good stock of whisky back in the days when Spike had lived with him. Neat or mixed with blood, it had had definite sophistication.
"No. Absinthe." Producing a couple of glasses, Giles poured out several measures of the pale blue-green liquid. It had been a favourite of his in his younger days, and somehow, on returning to London, he had found himself taking up the habit again almost without thinking. Absinthe and London were mixed in his memories; part of that confused jumble of darkness and smoke that was the seventies. Marijuana and chanting, too much alcohol, and too many long days without food or sleep. He had made himself respectable, left all that behind long before moving to Sunnydale; but so much had changed whilst he was out there; so much had happened to splinter the new façade and let his old self back out again, that on coming home it had been more to the old ways that he had returned. Oh he was older now, and more sensible, and certainly less self-destructive. He didn't perform dangerous spells anymore, and he no longer tried to fight the Watchers' Council - but he wasn't the man who had got on the plane to America back in 1997. He never would be again.
"Absinthe?" Amused, Spike reached over to take the proffered glass. It had never used to be especially easy to come by, and the only real experience he had had of it was when he had once drained a young poet who had been drunk on the stuff. Spike had spent the next twelve hours hearing more voices in his head than Drusilla did on an particularly chatty day, and had found himself completely blind for the best part of the night. Dru had thought it terribly funny, and had assured him that lots of people reacted that way the first time they drank it. Spike hadn't been convinced, and had given it a wide berth ever since. Experience had taught him that most other people did the same thing. "I thought this was illegal?"
"It was. The ban was lifted a few years ago. Mind you, the stuff they sell in shops now is hardly the real thing." Giles emptied his glass in one go, as always pleased to find that he still could. There was something depressing in finding that you could no longer drink the way you had once been able to, and he liked to think that he wasn't getting old so long as he could still take his absinthe without gasping too much. "So how are things in Sunnydale?"
"Alright, so far as I know." Settling down in his chair with a sulky look on his face, Spike sipped his drink. He wanted to give in to temptation and knock it all back, but with luck, if he took it slowly, it would be easy to get drunk and stay that way. "Buffy and I... well we sort of had a fight."
"Thankyou, but I have no desire to listen to stories of your... relationship... with Buffy." Giles considered refilling his glass, then decided that that mightn't be such a good idea. Getting drunk when you were alone with a vampire was never wholly advisable at the best of times, and with everything else that had been going on lately a clear head was surely the best thing. Spike scowled.
"I don't have any 'relationship' with Buffy, excepting that she's the bloody Slayer." Hunching his shoulders as though to shut out the world, Spike glared at his drink. "Anyway, that's Sunnydale. This is England, and if I know London there's a demon somewhere nearby that needs eviscerating. I didn't come here for the scenery you know."
"You came here to help me eviscerate a demon?" Giles sighed and shook his head. "Look Spike, much as it delights me to know that you enjoy my company this much, I do have better things to do than sit around here watching you look grumpy. Did you really come all this way just to moan about the state of your love life?"
"Don't mock, Watcher." Threats weren't nearly as much fun post-brain chip as they had been before, but he had never quite got out of the habit of making them. Giles smirked.
"As if I would. Look, I'm supposed to be meeting... well, a friend. For dinner. I have to go soon. Since you're here you might as well stay, but try not to drink everything."
"Meeting a woman?" Spike sounded impressed, although only in a deeply sarcastic sense. Giles glared.
"No, actually. A man. An old friend... of sorts. He said he has some information for me, and he's proved useful in the past."
"Good." Spike stood up. This was something that sounded promising. Buffy rejecting him was a part of the reason that he had chosen to come all this way, but here was the rest of it. London could always be counted on to provide some form of entertainment; add Giles into the equation, not to mention the apparent furore currently stirring up the Watcher camp, and there was bound to be some fun. With a bit of luck there would be bloodshed as well.
"You want to come with me?" Clearly wondering what exactly he had done to deserve this, Giles stared up at the vampire in disbelief. "Spike, this isn't some mad battle like in Sunnydale. The Watchers called me down from Bath to help out with an increase in supernatural events in the capital, but it could all turn out to be nothing. Even if it does turn out to be important, it's quite likely that a few spells, or a bit of Holy water in the right place, will clear it up. We don't fight huge battles for the safety of all mankind in the East End of London."
"Bloody well do. I've seen them fought." Spike smirked, knowing that he had the Watcher now. "You know London. Better than the Watchers do, if they think a few spells can sort stuff out. There's been supernatural stuff happening here since before the Romans made it a trading post, and everybody who was ever a part of the Underworld knows it. And when I say Underworld, I don't mean the Kray twins. I've hardly been here more than a few hours, but I've already heard whisperings. You want to go underground, mate. Stop listening to the tweed pillocks in their nice big mansion in the country."
"Have you finished?" Letting out a deep sigh, Giles rescued the quills and incense that Spike had knocked onto the floor. "Yes, the Watchers' Council is pulling its collective hair out over the wrong thing, and yes they should be more worried about other things going on in half a dozen other places; but something is happening in London. I'm not denying that the Council doesn't know half of what goes on here most of the time, and their idea of 'increased supernatural activity in the capital' really means that they've finally noticed something that's been going on for years. But this time they're actually onto something. Things are stirring, and I want to find out what they are. I don't plan on having some love-sick vampire following me around, and getting all excited about the chances of breaking a few undead skulls."
"I am not love-sick." Spike drained the last of his absinthe, and snatched up the bottle to refill his glass. This one he emptied in one gulp, and decided that he definitely felt the better for it. "Come on Giles. 'Sides, if you leave me here you don't know what state the place'll be in when you get back, right? And you can't keep me out without casting one of those invitation revoking spells. Even then the housekeeper might invite me back in."
"Yes." Giles thought about the ever-so-helpful woman downstairs, and thought something uncharitably rude. "Remind me to sack her in the morning."
"I like her." The vampire, incorrigible as always, couldn't help smirking. "She offered me some hot chocolate, 'cause I'd got my feet wet out in the rain. I always like women who offer me hot chocolate."
"She's kept this place for me for years. She knows she's not supposed to invite people in after dark." Giles was heading to a door that led off the main room, apparently heading for a bedroom and a change of clothing. "Don't touch anything. I won't be long."
"We going anywhere flash?" Eyeing his clothes, which as ever were far from being especially neat and tidy, Spike pondered whether anybody would dare try to enforce a dress code once he had shown them his fangs. Knowing English head waiters, they very likely would.
"I am going to a club downtown. It's not the sort of place that demands a suit and tie, no." Giles's head reappeared around the door. "Spike, you loathe me. I loathe you. Why are you trying to come to dinner with me?"
"Sunnydale's boring right now. Everybody's all angsty, including the vampires, and all the interesting things have left town. Word is that something's coming, and the smart money's on a certain redhead." Spike lit up another cigarette, and contemplated lighting another of the meditation sticks as well, just to watch Giles change colour. He decided against it. After all, he genuinely did want to tag along to this club. "She's not finding this cold turkey thing easy. You do know what could happen if she loses it, right?"
"There have been stirrings in the Watcher camp. A lot of muttering since the, er... well... since Buffy's return." Giles's head disappeared, and Spike heard the sound of footsteps, and a wardrobe door creaking open. Knowing Giles it was a huge antique wardrobe, which would explain the atmospheric creaking. There was no more speech for a while though, and the unusually sensitive vampire could easily pick up on the Watcher's unease. Maybe he didn't like being back in England as much as he made out, during those regular telephone calls to Sunnydale. He clearly still worried a great deal about the young friends he had left behind.
"So what do the Watchers want to do about it?" He wondered why he was asking. Did he care about Willow? She had been nice to him from time to time, and he hadn't forgotten her polite pretence of caring, when he had first faced the after-effects of the chip in his head. Given that he had been trying to tear her throat out at the time, her reassurances had been unique to say the least. Maybe he was still thinking about Buffy, caring enough to want to help her closest friend? Except that he didn't want to care about Buffy anymore; not after everything that had happened. He waited for Giles's answer, trying to tell himself that he didn't care if one never came, but found that he was listening impatiently anyway. Eventually the Watcher reappeared in the doorway, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket. The fact that he looked infinitely more comfortable in them than he had in the suit he had been wearing before was further evidence of how much he had changed since his librarian days. The earring seemed to be more or less a permanent feature now too, which might have been reason to smile, if the topic of conversation hadn't been so serious. Or slightly serious, anyway. Spike was doing a fairly good job of convincing himself that he no longer cared about any of that.
"The Council wanted to 'take care' of the situation at the time." Giles's careful emphasis made it clear just how his sometimes shadowy colleagues had wanted things handled. "I persuaded them to rest easy for the time being, but if anything else... occurs... something will happen. It'll have to." His eyes looked distant, for Giles had always had a fondness for Willow. Spike was aware of it, as he was always aware of such things, even though it hurt his vampiric pride that it should be so. "Right now Sunnydale has to wait though. I have to deal with things here first."
"Fighting talk. You're speaking my language." Spike was already on his way to the door. "Come on. You may be getting old, but there's no need to walk so bloody slow."
"I see. We've decided that you're coming, have we?" Giles still didn't understand what he had done to deserve this visitation, but Spike, naturally enough, was unapologetic.
"Course we have. I'm British, aren't I. If there's anything threatening the old mother land, I want to help twat it."
"Charmingly put. Now if only you could sound like you actually mean it." Beginning to realise that he was stuck with Spike, even if he couldn't easily work out why, Giles opened the door and pushed the cocky vampire through it. "Don't stake anything unless I tell you to. You're not the only bloody annoying dead thing that occasionally manages to be useful."
"You can be really complimentary sometimes, you know that?"
"I make a point of it, especially where you're concerned." They started down the long, atmospherically dark flight of stairs that led down to the street, and Spike paused to admire the impressive stains of encroaching damp that blackened the ceiling, and made the unattractive paper peel from the walls. It was almost as though Giles were battling Spike himself for the title of Owner Of The Least Cheerful Residence - and that was quite something given that Spike himself lived in a crypt. And a crypt in a haunted graveyard on a Hellmouth at that.
"So is this place some kind of family heirloom?" he asked in the end. Giles shook his head.
"Just a building I used to live in now and then, back in the nineties. I wasn't here much. Just wanted somewhere that the Council didn't know about."
"That would explain it." Spike pretended to shiver. "Not exactly welcoming, is it."
"The rooms I inhabit upstairs are. Perfectly so in fact." Giles opened the oddly grand door that led out into the street. "The rest doesn't matter much. Besides." His expression darkened accordingly. "Given that you're not even supposed to be in the same country as me, let alone the same building, I can't say that I care all that much for your opinion."
"Ouch." Spike relit his flagging cigarette, and puffed a cloud of smoke at his companion. "Friendly sort, aren't you. Anybody would think you didn't appreciate my visit."
"I don't. I can't honestly imagine that anybody would." Giles waved his arm from the edge of the road, hailing one of a passing phalanx of taxis. "Now do you promise not to snack on the driver, or do I have to make you walk?"
"You know damn well that I'm not going to eat the bloody driver." Smarting at the insult to his pride that any mention of the chip in his head, however veiled, would always cause, Spike headed for the slowing taxi. "And if I did happen to decide to snack on somebody in the car, it wouldn't be the driver anyway."
"I'm touched." Giles climbed in after the vampire, having ruled out jumping quickly into a second cab in order to shake off his uninvited guest. Spike would only catch up sooner or later. It was no easy task to lose a vampire.
"Don't be. Not as if I can take a bite, is it." Spike flopped back into the seat, folding his arms and directing a long plume of smoke at the no-smoking sign stuck to the back of the driver's seat. The driver, perhaps wisely, didn't complain. Instead he arched an eyebrow at the rear-view mirror, and tried to gauge which of his passengers was the one it was best to speak to.
"Where to gents?" He asked the question to both of them in the end; a general query voiced in tones that showed a veteran's suspicion of potential troublemakers. Giles hadn't failed to notice the steel mesh between the front and back of the taxi, and sympathised with the suspicion. When he had left to live in America few English taxis had been equipped with such screens; now it seemed that every other cab he got into had one.
"Cutter's Street." He always asked for that destination, but it was rare that even the oldest and most experienced of drivers knew of it. They ended up dropping him off nearby instead. This time, however, the driver merely nodded and pulled out into the traffic. Spike screwed up his forehead, thinking.
"I thought I knew this side of town fairly well. Never heard of Cutter's Street."
"Few people have," the driver told him. "Old place, lots of history."
"But not on any historical sight seeing tour," added Giles. The driver nodded curtly.
"You can say that again. It's part of the history of this fair city that the authorities don't like telling the tourists about. That's all Tower Of London, and centuries of royal residence and the rest of it. The darkest stories you'll hear about officially are to do with the plague, and maybe a few gory beheadings in the Tower. The real dark stuff is for experts and interested locals only; and a lot of it involves Cutter's Street."
"I'm impressed." As a gesture of respect to the driver, Giles took away Spike's cigarette and ground it out in the ashtray built into the door. The driver laughed.
"Not everybody in this city is blind to the obvious. London has a lot of history, anybody will tell you that. What they won't always tell you is that a lot of history usually also means a whole lot of ghosts. And where there are ghosts... well the way I figure it, there are probably a whole lot of other things as well."
"That's one way of looking at it," piped up Spike. The driver nodded.
"Yeah, well I grew up in a haunted house. Old place, turned into flats in the thirties. What they didn't tell the residents was that a crazy old guy had used to live there, and spent most of his evenings slicing young women into little pieces. Nobody got much sleep around there. The owners were forced to pull the place down in the end, and when they did they found stuff buried underneath it that would make a cynic shiver. That's when I realised that dark magic doesn't just exist - it positively thrives, especially in some places. London more than most I reckon. Comes with the age of the place, maybe. I don't know enough about these lay lines that people talk about to be able to comment on that."
"London has always attracted weirdoes." Spike thought about lighting up another cigarette, but decided against it in the end. He was starting to feel almost chummy towards the driver, rather as Giles apparently was. "So what's so special about this Cutter's Street?"
"A coven of witches lived in the area in the sixteenth century," Giles told him, with the old air of the lecturer about him. He had grown accustomed to briefing Buffy and her friends in just that way, although Spike didn't really appreciate it. "Strictly speaking, though, the roots of the place date back even further. A number of Roman soldiers were found ritually murdered on the site in around 25 BC, and legend has it that mysterious - and not so mysterious - deaths occurred there long before."
"It was those witches that really gave the place its claim to fame, though," added the driver, not to be outdone. "Turns my stomach to think of some of the things they were supposed to have done. The coven was finally destroyed after about fifty years, although a couple of the witches are said to have escaped. Weird things have happened there ever since. Finally stopped when the site was blessed by an army of priests in 1850, but nobody would live there, or use the land for anything. Not until the twenties, when somebody realised he could buy the place up cheap. He turned the buildings into the grimmest set of flats you ever saw, filled them full of people who had nowhere else to go - and no money to be able to go there even if they did - and told everybody to ignore the high suicide rate. Place has a horrible air about it. All gloom and doom and ancient misery." He grinned cheerfully into the mirror. "There's rumours, though, about a night-club built underground. People say it's the brightest place in London, but I've never met anybody who could say for sure if it's there or not. Must be pretty damned hard to get into." A crafty look entered his eyes. "You going there?"
"I'm hardly the night-clubbing sort." Giles tried his best to look very respectable, which wasn't too difficult even in a leather jacket and jeans. The driver nodded.
"Sure, guv'. Whatever you say. Anybody who knows about the things you obviously do has got every legitimate reason for going to Cutter's Street." He hesitated, the good-natured smile wavering slightly. "But listen, yeah? Things are happening. All kinds of things that I can't quite put my finger on. I've been hearing whisperings that I haven't heard since the seventies. All kinds of odd things happened back then, specially round the year of the Jubilee and right after. Murders they still haven't solved, people going missing, corpses found horribly mutilated..." Something in Giles's eyes made him break off, and he smiled uncomfortably. "But anyway, the last couple of days things have been getting weird again. Your ordinary citizens, they've not noticed anything in a hundred years, and they probably never will - but those of us with our eyes and ears open, we're different. Take my advice and be careful, especially if you're going to Cutter's Street."
"Yeah. Sure." Spike, naturally, was not going to sound as though he wanted to be careful no matter what the quality of the warning. The driver studied him for a moment, apparently considering the bleached hair and severely battered coat. Then he shrugged.
"Well you know better than I do what you're capable of. All I'm saying is, there's things happening. You ever hear of a Suzie Montgomery?"
"Yes." Suddenly interested again, Giles sat forward. "What about her?"
"She was killed last night. Died of loss of blood as far as anybody can tell, but there are bits of her still missing. The police found some, but half of her face and all of her right arm below the elbow are gone, along with a few other pieces. According to a friend of mine who keeps himself informed about these things, it looked like she'd been half-eaten." He paused for effect. "By rats. Hundreds and hundreds of them, there must have been. She was covered in bite marks all over, like she'd been caught up in the middle of some kind of feeding frenzy. We're not talking a few of the little buggers here. We're talking a bloody army."
"Poor Suzie." Giles leaned back in his seat, staring into space for several moments. "She dropped by for a visit when I arrived back in London. We were talking about old times."
"Big on bad spells and demon summoning was she?" asked Spike, rather facetiously. Giles glared at him.
"She was a white witch, very powerful. Once upon a time she was famed for her protection spells. People bought them all over the world."
"Didn't do such a good job protecting herself," pointed out the vampire. This time it was the driver's turn to glare.
"Protection spells don't work against animals," he said, with an air of authority that didn't quite belie the fact that the truth of the matter was rather different. "And besides, she'd never have thought she was in any danger. Nobody would ever want to hurt Suzie."
"Maybe, maybe not." The taxi was sliding in to the side of the road, and Giles was already opening his door. The driver slammed on the brakes.
"In a hurry, aren't you." He consulted his meter and opened his mouth to call out the fare, but Giles, already out of the taxi, thrust a handful of money at him through the open window.
"Here." He turned away, then looked back momentarily. "Do you have a family?"
"I sure do." Offering some change and smiling in pleasure when it was refused, the driver nodded to double his affirmation. "Why?"
"Because maybe you should think about getting them out of London." Giles was staring up at the buildings that surrounded them now; misshapen, grey monstrosities that screamed unpleasantness and misery up at the unsympathetic grey sky. Even Spike looked uncomfortable.
"You think something's coming?" The driver didn't bother stopping to ask more than that, and he obviously didn't doubt the authority behind the brisk, firm nod.
"In all probability, old chap, I think it's likely that something's already here." Giles met the other man's eyes, gently impressing upon him just how serious he was. "Take a holiday, yes? Just to be on the safe side. I'd tell that to everybody on this side of town if I thought they'd listen." He managed to drag up a weak smile. "And if you see any rats, I'd heartily recommend running away."
"Yeah. Maybe you're right." A little unsettled by the turn of the conversation, the driver gunned the engine rather too roughly. "See you around, maybe."
"Maybe." Giles stepped aside, nodding a farewell as the car roared away. Spike stared after it, almost wishing that he was going too. Cutter's Street was without a doubt the grimmest, most unpleasant bit of London he had seen in at least a hundred years. Not that he had ever bothered to spend much time in the really horrible bits.
"So this is Cutter's Street." He stared around again, at the buildings that seemed to ooze every ounce of misery that had ever been wrung from their unfortunate inhabitants. Every window seemed to have at least one broken pane; every warped iron balcony gave the impression that at least one person had jumped from it. Strings of washing hung from some of the bent old railings, and a few tired faces stared from some of the windows. It was a picture of the sort of grim poverty and general depression that politicians and their speech writers had been swearing hadn't existed since the end of the war. Spike would have identified it as a neighbourhood never to take a drink in, back in his old, toothy days. The sort of place where, if you ate anybody, you would only end up hungrier than before you'd taken a bite.
"We going to this night-club then?" he asked, hoping for something rather more exciting to look at. Giles nodded.
"The Virgin And The Unicorn," he supplied, already heading towards the rusted and discoloured railings that surrounded the lower half of one of the buildings. "It's more of a pub than a night-club, actually. One of those places where humans and... well, practically everything else, all hang out together, and pretend that half of them don't want the other half dead. The ones that aren't already that way, obviously."
"Sounds cool." Only half sarcastic, Spike followed Giles down a steep flight of steps. From above it looked like the way down to any other cellar dwelling; just like all the other underground flats that were rented out to people who couldn't afford to live elsewhere - or who thought that it was a good idea to have their windows level with the street drains. From below, however, it was clear that this was nothing of the kind. A sign, just like any of the others that marked the names of pubs the country over, swung gently above a black door, and although the appearance was one of something faintly drab and old, there was an undeniable frisson in the air. Spike noticed it, although he couldn't quite put a name to it. It was as if the air around the place had somehow been charged with something more powerful than mere electricity. It was the sort of place that might have drawn Dru once, and he wondered why she had never brought him here. Maybe the misery of the street above it was too powerful for her fractured psychic powers.
"I doubt it's the kind of place many teenagers would fall over themselves to get into." Thinking back to the Bronze, the last place that he recalled being referred to as 'cool', Giles tried to imagine Buffy and her friends in The Virgin And The Unicorn. Willow would love it, most likely, which was reason enough to not even consider bringing her. The others would hate it.
"And this is where we're meeting your friend?" Spike watched dispassionately as Giles pushed open the door. A waft of hot air blew out from the space within, and a muted babble of voices climbed steadily in volume. Giles nodded.
"That's the plan. Now behave yourself, Spike. You throw any punches in here, or act tough with the wrong person, and no amount of vampire super-strength is going to stop you from getting your head torn off by somebody. Regulars can get away with murder and worse; strangers are lucky to get served a decent drink."
"Friendly place." Spike wandered in, close on the Watcher's heels. He was lighting another cigarette as he did so, but despite his characteristic insouciance, his thumb froze on the wheel of his lighter. Whatever he had been expecting of a secret club beneath a slum, this certainly wasn't it.
The place was huge; a dance-floor packed with humans and vampires dancing like stoned lovers; a bar teeming with demons so diverse that it looked almost like a scene from the Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars. Three topless female vampires danced on a dais, to a backdrop of writhing cobras, and pulses of ultra-violet light intermittently lit up dark corners of the room, where fierce eyes flashed anonymously. Vague shadows flitted by, without any noticeable substance, and a wind that seemed to blow from nowhere brought the scent of blood and alcohol, mingled with sweat and incense. Invisible speakers played old rock songs, bringing an air of normality to the room that somehow made everything stranger still.
"Come on." Giles was leading the way through thronging dancers and scantily-clad patrons of every description; past misshapen demons dressed like seventies throwbacks; and vampires, fangs bared, who swore colourfully at the two new arrivals. One of them snatched Spike's cigarette, but he swallowed his angry retort and kept on walking. Somehow he could believe Giles's claim that aggressive behaviour would get him sliced and diced. In a place like this it was possible to believe absolutely anything.
"The usual?" A man behind the bar, dressed in an oddly shiny suit that looked as if it had been made some time in Prohibition America, looked up as Giles approached. The Watcher nodded. He had come into this disjointed place the first day he had arrived back in England, when he had still been desolate and miserable over Buffy's recent, and as it turned out temporary, death. The last thing on his mind had been to have his old favourite drink foisted upon him; a heady mix of absinthe and brandy that he had favoured in the days when his life had been something to hide from and try to forget about. The bar staff at The Virgin And The Unicorn, though, had acted as though the long years of his Sunnydale appointment had never happened, nor the years of feigned respectability which had preceded it. They had pointed him towards his favoured old barstool, handed him a drink just like the ones of his youth, and set up a string of his favourite old rock songs to blare out over the speakers. In a place like The Virgin And The Unicorn, ten years might as well be two hundred. It made no difference.
"Blood for your friend?" Not even looking up at Spike, the bartender was already reaching for another glass. Spike shrugged.
"Sure. Why not. How about mixing it with a little vodka though, yeah? No ice."
"Whatever takes your fancy. You want that at body temperature?" The bartender clearly wouldn't have cared if his customer had asked for pureed virgin's brains, and would probably have been able to serve it if he had. "Somebody's been asking for you, Ripper."
"Yes, I rather thought he might." Giles took his drink and nodded towards the far end of the room. "He in one of the booths?"
"Number twelve. You want a menu sent through?"
"Yes." Giles watched with something that might have been distaste as Spike's drink arrived on the bar. "Just make sure you send a waiter we can trust, alright?"
"Sure. Whatever." The bartender flashed a grin that was filled with gold teeth. "You two back in business, or just catching up on old times?"
"Neither." The answer was filled with the sort of horror that suggested that Giles hated either suggestion. "Come on, Spike."
"Back in business?" The vampire, back to full cocky mode now that he was starting to get the measure of the place, couldn't help grinning broadly. "This is one of your old haunts, isn't it. From the days when you were anything but good old Rupert the bookworm."
"I was always a bookworm." Well aware that, to Spike's way of thinking, such a word was an insult, Giles acted as though he had been given a compliment. "But yes, I used to hang out here. London's Underworld is one of the biggest in the world, and places like this are at the heart of it all."
"Young girls being sacrificed at the stroke of midnight, and that sort of thing?" Lighting another cigarette with the air of a man who couldn't help wondering if he was actually going to get the chance to finish it this time, Spike followed his companion through a set of absurdly thick curtains into a long corridor. Bizarre paintings lined the walls, giving the place the appearance of a rather scary brothel, and much too pale young people wandered listlessly out of private booths, showing the obvious signs of voluntary blood loss. Spike's fangs momentarily showed, although his pride was too strong to think seriously about drinking from somebody who wanted him to do it.
"No sacrifices, no." They went further down the corridor, until the noise of the bar had diminished, and only the thumping rock music remained. "Just vampires who get carried away when they're invited to take a bite."
"Weirdoes." Spike thought about Riley Finn, and didn't bother hiding a smirk. Giles ignored him.
"Maybe." He had stopped at booth number twelve, and was hesitating, taking a thoughtful sip of his drink as though unwilling to go any further. "Oh well. I suppose I can't put it off any longer."
"And there was I thinking there was some urgency involved." Pushing past the Watcher, Spike dragged open the wooden door that blocked the entrance to the booth. Inside he saw scarlet walls, adding to the scary brothel allusion, and more bizarre paintings. Dragons, mostly, and one that clearly showed a pair of vampires staking a human girl. Spike got the distinct impression that she was a Slayer, and that the painting depicted an actual event.
"Who are you?" The voice was British and hostile, though tinged with the suggestion of fear. A man who could handle himself, but much preferred not to have to - Spike's impressive insight, as always, could tell him that much as a first impression. He sauntered closer, deliberately using his body language to intimidate.
"This the bloke we've come to meet, Giles?" He was looking at a man of Giles's own age, tall and fairly thin, with a faintly aristocratic air mingled nicely with something unquestionably untrustworthy. He was dressed stylishly and expensively, and his poise, despite the tension in his voice, was absolutely relaxed. Giles nodded, although there was no warmth or welcome in his face.
"Yes." His eyes travelled joylessly over the figure seated so casually at the nearby table. "Ethan."
"Ripper." Both men spoke warily, their guards fully up. Spike shrugged.
"Feel the warmth in this room." He tugged the curtains closed, then sat down opposite the stranger. "Ethan. Ethan. Oh right, Ethan Rayne. He's the guy who turned you into a Fyarl demon that time."
"Very true." Ethan grinned at that, although his eyes still showed that uncertain wariness. Spike got the impression that the man was afraid of Giles, and the suggestion of that amused the vampire no end. "But Rupert never holds things like that against me. Do you, Rupert?"
"Yes." Giles sat down next to Spike, and drained the rest of his drink. "You know bloody well that I do."
"True." The niceties of their greeting apparently done with, Ethan's eyes travelled over to Spike. "So who's the punk wannabe?"
"Spike." Giles watched as the pair exchanged cold nods. "I wouldn't go winding him up, though, if I were you."
"Oh?" Ethan clearly didn't agree. "Well if he waltzes in here looking like Billy Idol during an anorexia attack, what does he expect?"
"Blood, probably." Giles obviously liked the idea of acting as though Spike was still capable of attacking humans, and not one to dwell on his own inabilities, the vampire was happy to play along. He let the demon's face ripple its way briefly across his features, and enjoyed the momentary shock that showed in the other man's expression. It didn't last long though, for Ethan shrugged.
"So you're hanging around with vampires again. Every time I meet you, you insist that the Ripper's gone, but every time you show me more evidence that he hasn't. Still, I did think it was female vampires that you usually preferred."
"I'm not hanging out with him." Giles folded his arms. "He's nearly as bloody annoying as you are. Now I didn't come here to listen to you babble about nothing. You said you had something for me."
"I do." Ethan stretched languorously, hiding his nervousness at the knowledge that it was only the worth of the story he had to tell that was saving him from a beating. He liked making Giles wait, and enjoyed the moment. "There's things afoot in London, Ripper."
"I know that. If that's all you've got to tell me I might just as well have stayed at home." Giles began to rise to his feet, but Ethan waved a hand at him, motioning for him to stay where he was.
"Not so fast, Rupert. You'll want to hear this. You ever hear of a man named Weatherby?"
"A vampire fighter. Middle-aged Australian who annoyed the hell out of everybody in the eighties by trying to stake everything he thought was undead. The Watchers' Council did the clear up, to make sure that the truth didn't get out. As I recall he killed five or six true vampires and about a dozen young Goths. He'd stake anything with a pale face and a thing for black clothing. Learnt about vampires from reading daft fiction as far as I know." Giles glared at Spike's amused grin. "Why? He back in town?"
"Sort of. Weatherby was killed in '89 by a vampire named Yoshiko, somewhere in the Czech Republic. He really was killed, too, not turned. Then just a few days ago a friend of mine saw him down near Dover. He was heading this way."
"Somebody who looks like him, that's all. He wasn't exactly uniquely featured as I recall."
"True, sort of. He's pretty distinctive now though. Aside from the two holes in his neck from when Yoshiko drained him, there's also the little matter of him having been dead for more than decade. Makes for something of a distinctive appearance, or so I'm told. According to my sources this fellow had Weatherby's tattoos as well. A crucifix on either wrist, and a skull and crossbones on the side of his neck - what was left of it. I'm telling you, Ripper. There's a dead man in town."
"Another one is hardly going to be noticed. There are more ghosts in London than in any other capital city in the world." Spike blew a disinterested plume of smoke into the air, then stared challengingly back at Giles's scathing glare. "What? You know damn well there are."
"This is no ghost. He's solid for one thing; and besides, ghosts aren't all shuffly and rotten, with bits dropping off, and eyes that are rotting in their sockets." Ethan smiled lazily. "Something's going on, Rupert."
"Zombies." Choosing to ignore the other man's faintly teasing attitude, which he had long ago learnt was best, Giles toyed with his empty glass. Zombies were rare these days, but a few sorcerers and assorted evil doers still liked to use them. "I wonder why they'd choose a man like Weatherby."
"Does it matter? Maybe somebody hoped to tap what's left of his brain for a few useful titbits of information - like knowing to go to my friend near Dover to ask questions. Maybe it was just chance, and his was the only body handy at the time, I don't know." Ethan didn't really look as if he cared. "I'm just passing along what I know. Doing my bit for world peace, that sort of thing."
"Doing your bit to help save your own skin. You must be worried about this too." Giles was thinking hard, and wondering what this latest piece of information was supposed to mean. The Watchers had warned him of brewing nastiness, and increased supernatural occurrences, and his own contacts had told of much the same. But a zombie? The (presumably) largely mindless reanimation of a mad old vampire hunter? He was baffled as to what it might be leading to - and it didn't help when it looked as though he was going to have to solve this with the assistance of Ethan and Spike. Just one of them would have been bad enough.
"What about Yoshiko, the vampire you said killed this Weatherby bloke?" Draining the last of his blood and vodka, Spike leaned back as far as he could in his chair, and folded his hands behind his head. "Creepy sod, him."
"Which is quite something coming from somebody like you." Giles eyed the vampire thoughtfully. "You know him?"
"Met him, just the once. About... sixty years ago or thereabouts I suppose. Dru and I were in Thailand for some reason. She saw something one night in her dreams, decided that we had to go beetling off to the East, and we ran into Yoshiko while we were out there. He was from some ancient noble family, younger son of an emperor, famed warrior, that sort of thing. Your standard historical type. Then he got turned. Big fight with a clan of vampires, rivers running red with blood, all your usual picturesque imagery. He's the clever sort, anyway. Quite the scholar, or likes to think he is." He puffed smoke in as disparaging a fashion as was possible. "Didn't like him much. Eastern warriors are supposed to be all silence and strength, or so they say - but this guy could talk the hind legs off a donkey. He's all snide and sneery, and he kept flirting with Dru. Ugly sod as well."
"But he's the scholarly type?" Ethan nodded slowly. "Might be into zombie-making then, and if he liked resurrecting old victims it'd explain why he chose dear old Weatherby. Wouldn't peg a vampire as the type to go in for dark magicks and complicated sorcery though." He smirked at Spike. "No offence, old chap."
"None taken. Magic is for poncy gits with no muscle or teeth." It was Spike's turn to smirk. "No offence."
"Touché, I suppose." Ethan looked over at Giles again. "So what do you want to do, Ripper? I'm assuming that you're planning to deal with this?"
"I don't have a lot of choice, do I. This is the sort of thing that I do nowadays." Giles tapped irritably on the table top, then looked up sharply when the door opened. It was a young man, dressed in a suit so studiously old-fashioned that it seemed odd he was not covered with a dusting of cobwebs, just to complete the image. Giles winced. Surely The Virgin And The Unicorn wasn't selling out and trying to appeal to the tourist market?
"I have your menus." The young man bowed from the waist, his overly-starched shirt creaking as he did so. Giles nodded at him.
"Thankyou. Just put them on the table, would you old chap? We'll give a call when we're ready to order."
"As you wish, sir." The young man came forward, giving them all a better look at the suit as he came fully into the light. It was black, and unmistakably funereal, and had clearly been made some time in the nineteenth century. Set against its dark material, the young waiter's skin had a definite, unhealthy pallor. Giles' suspicions began to rise.
"Just a second." He spoke up as the boy came closer, by which time Spike was already rising to his feet. Not the type to wait for the erstwhile librarian to ask his polite questions, the vampire was reaching inside his jacket, face beginning to change. Ethan jumped to his feet.
"Fighting?" he asked. "If you don't mind I'll sit this one out. I came here for a nice meal, and fighting plays havoc with my digestion."
"No fighting." The young waiter, eyes staring from Giles to Spike and back again, was starting to smile. "Just dying."
"Oh yeah?" With a growl that he was personally rather inclined to think was pretty bloody cool, Spike leapt forward, kicking his chair into the waiter's path and drawing the stake he had been hiding beneath his clothes. The waiter gave a similar growl, but instead of attempting to leap forward to meet the attack, he merely swung up one arm as Spike leapt for him, and delivered a devastating backhanded blow that sent Spike flying across the room. He hit the far wall and slid to the ground, lying there dazed. Giles blinked.
"Who sent you?" It was an optimistic question, for the young man - who was clearly neither young, nor a true man - was equally clearly not the chatty type. He turned to face Giles now, a long knife gripped firmly in his left hand, like some grim kind of back up for his teeth.
"Death to the enemy." He spoke in a guttural voice, little more than a whisper, and nothing like the tones of deference he had used when pretending to be a waiter. Giles judged the distance between them, then glanced over at Spike. The vampire was trying to rise, but didn't seem able to do so. There was blood matting his bleached blond locks, and if possible he was even paler than usual.
"Uh huh. Well I'm not anybody's enemy, so I'll be going now then, yes?" Ethan started to edge around the side of the table. "Happy to leave you to it, old fellow. I'll just get another booth, keep out of the way."
"You will all die." The young man had changed now; revealing his vampiric self. Giles backed away slightly, reaching for the wooden cross that he always carried these days, in the pocket of his leather jacket.
"Is this something to do with Yoshiko?" He wasn't sure what effect he hoped the name would have, but even Watchers weren't usually randomly attacked by angry vampires. Make that especially Watchers, he mentally corrected himself. After all, who could be less of a threat, generally speaking, to the ranks of the undead than a bunch of dusty old men armed with antiquarian books?
"That's right, Ripper. Chat with the fellow." Ethan was still sidling away, and so far their uninvited guest was making no move to stop him. "I'll just, er... well you know. Been nice knowing you."
"Yes." Giles held up the cross, seeing the revulsion that crossed the vampire's face. He knew from experience that the icon wouldn't necessarily work for long; any determined vampire could knock aside a crucifix, no matter the burns it might suffer as a result. "Yes, you just run off like a good little coward, Ethan." He was watching his old friend with one eye and the vampire with the other, and wondering if Spike was ready to re-enter the fray.
"All of you shall die." The vampire was still advancing, although clearly it was finding the going harder now. Its eyes were fixed on a point beyond the cross, and its tongue flickered periodically across its powerful teeth. There seemed more to it now; far more than had been evident even when it had first abandoned all pretence at waitering. The old suit, it was now clear, was not just an affectation. This creature was as old as its wardrobe; a vampire probably some decades Spike's senior. Not the usual lackey then.
"All of us shall bloody not." Spike was struggling upwards, but had so far not succeeded in making past his knees. He swayed on them, gripping the wall for support, and fighting to make his legs do as he wanted. Giles didn't spare a glance to check up on his progress. Instead he took a careful, measured step forward, and thrust the cross as near to the vampire as he could without risking putting himself too close. The creature growled, a deep and fearsome noise that seemed to reverberate mightily around the small room. It backed off though, moving around to try to come at Giles from a slightly different direction, all the while losing sight of Ethan Rayne completely.
It was the chance that the sorcerer had been waiting for. Snatching Spike's stake from where it had fallen he moved with a speed that seemed impossible, particularly for a man such as he usually pretended to be. The vampire turned, spinning in a moment of prescience, seeing the stake that was being driven so unerringly towards its heart. It lashed out, one hand catching Ethan on the wrist, just as the sorcerer changed tactics. Suddenly, instead of trying to stab the demon, he was pushing at it, using its hand on his wrist to propel it in an adapted judo move that spun it out of control and backwards towards Giles. The Watcher was ready, cross still in one hand, stake now in the other. As the creature, again realising its imminent danger, tried to right itself, he pushed the cross into its face, disorientating it enough to put it off its guard. Almost at the same moment he was striking with his stake, even as Ethan was doing the same thing. Their stakes collided, both aims exact, in the midst of a cloud of erupting ashes. Ethan whistled.
"Well that wasn't fun."
"Certainly wasn't." Spike had made it to his feet at last, and was gingerly touching his bloodied head. "Ow, bloody hell. I think I've broken half a dozen ribs as well."
"And I think that confounded creature has dislocated my wrist." Ethan was rubbing at it ineffectually. Giles glared at him.
"Serves you right for trying to run out on me."
"I was not, and you know it. That was part of the plan for getting it where we wanted it." Rayne looked insulted. "Anyway, it's dead and we're not. I'd say that everything worked out in the long run, wouldn't you? Except that we still haven't eaten."
"I'm not sure I want to eat here. Not if all the waiters want to kill us." Spike had apparently been hit very hard indeed, for he seemed to be trying to see his reflection in the glass that fronted one of the room's more bizarre paintings. By the look of it he was trying to check out the damage to his hair. "Damn. I must look like I just went a dozen rounds with a Slayer."
"Red hair suits you." Giles was heading for the door. "The two of you can stay here and compare wounds if you want - in fact I'd happily encourage it. I have to see the management."
"I think it might be a little unfair to complain about the service." Ethan, having decided that his wrist wasn't too badly hurt after all, had apparently decided that wherever Giles was going, he was going too. Strangely enough, Giles wasn't especially delighted.
"I want to know who sent that vampire in here, and how whoever it was knew who we were, and where we were. That wasn't just somebody fancying a nibble."
"They'd have more sense than to choose you two if it was. Middle-aged men are nobody's first choice." Spike, like Ethan, had no intention of being left behind, and was tagging along as well. Giles glanced upwards, looking towards the heavens in a fit of deepest sarcasm. Oh how his cup runneth over.
"Middle-aged blood tastes better." Ethan sounded faintly insulted, although quite why he was telling a vampire that he was worth eating, Giles could only wonder. "It's seasoned. It has body, like finely aged port."
"Yeah, well since it's only middle-aged men who drink port, I suppose you'd know all about that." Spike was still smarting about something, either the fact that his beloved blond hair was blond no longer, or just because he alone hadn't killed anything yet today. It was tempting to tell him to shut up, but Giles knew from long experience - horribly long experience - that swapping insults with Spike was a game inclined to go on indefinitely, or at least until one of them got drunk.
"I never did think much of your Sunnyhole friends, Ripper." Ethan had his sulky face on. Giles ignored him.
"I don't think much of the local ones, either." Spike, naturally enough, wasn't going to let anything lie. Ethan shot him a poisonous glare.
"At least I'm alive. Not some undead creep."
"Yeah? Well you may be alive, but there's no guarantee you'll stay that way for long. I'm immortal."
"Enjoyed any sunlit walks lately?"
"So I don't have a nice suntan, so what? I'm stronger than you could ever dream of being."
"Yeah?" Ethan's disdain was still clear. "Well at least I don't have damn silly hair."
"Giles!" Coming to an abrupt stop, Spike caught the Watcher by one arm and turned him around. "Either you shut your friend up, or I'm going to tear his bloody annoying head off."
"Be my guest." Stepping aside, he carried on down the corridor, wondering if, for once, somebody somewhere might smile down on him and let Spike and Ethan kill each other now. It should be possible to stake somebody through the heart whilst they were tearing your head off, shouldn't it? Naturally enough, though, he was not to be granted his wish. Spike couldn't so much as raise a hand against Ethan without his chip seeing that he suffered for it. Brain chips might be handy when it came to saving mankind, but where killing annoying old friends was concerned, they were a major inconvenience.
The club was as busy as ever; just as many creatures of just as many races still filled the dance floor and clustered around the bar. They fought half-heartedly amongst themselves, bought drinks filled with blood and any number of other additives, and chattered in a flurry of languages that even Giles could not completely understand. A ballad was playing over the loudspeakers now, and the topless vampire girls were swaying in tandem with the cobras that slid amongst them. Giles pushed straight through the lot, heading for the bar.
"Ripper." The man who had served him his drink smiled to see him. "I was going to send a waiter to ask you what you wanted to eat."
"A waiter came." Giles leaned forward, grabbing the man by the shirtfront and hauling him forwards. "Who was he?"
"Ripper, I--" The barman struggled, but none of the other patrons offered to help him. Giles tightened his grip.
"Who was he? Young looking fellow, disturbing complexion, dressed like somebody attending Queen Victoria's coronation?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. I haven't sent any waiters in to you." The barman was looking as nervous as only one who had known Giles in the old days ever would. "I was going to send somebody through, but there's a lot of people in here tonight, and I've been rushed off my feet making drinks. Giles, listen. If anybody came through to your booth, it wasn't me who sent them."
"Then how did they know which room we were in?" Waving the stake that he had taken back from Ethan, Spike leaned closer. The barman's eyes widened.
"I don't know! I swear! Look, people come in, people go out. I can't watch everybody, see who's following who. Anybody could have seen you go through the curtains, and then followed to see which room you went into. You know they could. We don't exactly operate a top-notch security system here, you know. We don't watch out for spies."
"And has anybody been asking after me lately?" Giles had loosened his hold on the unfortunate man, although only by a little. The head that was balanced so precariously on top of the trapped neck wobbled uncertainly up and down.
"Yeah. Y-yeah, there was somebody this morning. A man, some name I didn't know. Yosh... Yoshiko, that was it. All high and mighty he was, and acting like he expected me to go out of my way for him. Anyway, he said that he was an old friend of yours, but I'm not bloody stupid, and I always could spot a vampire a mile off. 'Sides, he came in the back way - the sewer entrance - and if that doesn't scream 'vampire' at six o'clock in the morning I don't know what does. He still said he was a friend of yours, mind, and I don't know what sort of company you've been keeping lately. Living on a Hellmouth all that time, and all those... types... you used to hang out with in the years before you went away. What was I supposed to think?"
"That I'm a Watcher. And Watchers don't hang out with vampires." Giles's eyes trailed to the blond- and blood-striped man standing beside him, stake still pointed menacingly, and sighed. "Well, not by choice. What did you tell this man?"
"That you come in here sometimes, and that you usually prefer to drink on your own, in one of the back rooms. Used to like the bar well enough before, though, didn't you. Maybe things change when you spend all that time watching a Slayer at work?"
"Or maybe I just don't like the smell of blood as much as I used to." Giles let the man go, and watched him scurry away to the other side of the bar. He returned to serving drinks with the professionalism of a man born to the task, but Giles could see him muttering to his customers, and shooting annoyed glances back at the man who had roughed him up.
"Well that didn't tell us much, did it." Ethan looked at his watch. "Come on. The moon's well up by now, and if the redhead here is really planning to help out, we ought to make a move before dawn. Otherwise he's not going to be doing anybody any good." He smiled, the laziness having returned to his eyes now that the moment's danger was well and truly behind them. "Not unless we meet a hungry vacuum cleaner."
"Why don't you just--"
"Spike!" Giles didn't bother looking at either man, but merely headed towards the door. "Shut up. The pair of you, shut up. I have things to do, and neither one of you is helping."
"And the guilt is so hard to bear." Spike overtook him, deliberately pushing past. "Where next?"
"I don't know. I have another library. Most of my father's collection is still at the old family house."
"Books?" Spike was not impressed. "This isn't a time for reading. This is a time for getting out there, and finding lots of evil things that I can kill."
"Or, more likely, lots of evil things that can kill us." Ethan trailed along behind them to the door. "Although I have to say I agree with whatever you said his name was. This isn't a time for books."
"We need to know what we're up against. I don't know anything about this Yoshiko character, but I'm willing to bet that my father did. He or his mother. Between them there wasn't a thing in the whole of the dark side that they didn't know all about, and everything they knew is in their library. I have some of the collection in Bath, and I left a few volumes in Sunnydale, but most of it is still back at my father's house."
"Which is miles away." Ethan pushed open the door of the club, but manoeuvred himself around so that he was preventing Giles from actually exiting. "Ripper, look around you. Think things through. Use that brain you've always liked to flaunt at the world. We both know something's coming. Do you think I'd be offering my services for nothing? When evil comes knocking, I look for somewhere safe to hide; I don't offer to help fight it. Now I am. That's how serious it is."
"You really think it's that bad?" Giles remembered the fear in the eyes of the taxi driver who had brought him to this place, and thought of Suzie Montgomery, apparently half-eaten by a swarm of rats. Factor in the recent attack, a supposed zombie roaming the pathways of southern England... He had to agree with Ethan and Spike. Maybe books weren't quite the thing just now. All the same, they had to do something. Hanging around at the Virgin And The Unicorn had been of no help whatsoever.
Beyond the club the world seemed oddly still. It was a difficult transition, sometimes; from the mad, hot, unreal bar to the drab, dreary street above it. Giles had become used to the feeling many years before, but he still felt it; still felt that sensation of going back to the mundane. To the quiet places, where humans lived in ignorance. A pair of rats were sitting in the middle of the road, chewing on the detritus caused by years of littering, and far too rare attempts to clear up. Giles felt the beady eyes staring at him, and for a moment understood the old superstitions that had always been attached to the powerful rodents. It was easy to see malevolence, in those bright eyes and sharp teeth.
"Rats." Spike tossed his stake in his hand, as though volunteering to go after the creatures with it. "Coincidence?"
"Unlikely." Giles glanced up and down the street searching for more, but couldn't see any. The drains were full of them around here though; he had discovered that during drunken stumbles down this street more times than he cared to remember. Hundreds of rodent feet, pattering around below the tarmac, treading their age old paths beneath London.
"Am I missing something?" Ethan was heading forwards, ignoring the small creatures that were now watching them openly. Giles didn't move. He didn't see any danger, not in these two animals, but the taxi driver's story had left him inescapably cautious.
"Just something that I heard." He glanced back at Spike, who was scanning the rubbish-strewn corners with hunter's eyes. "But acting like old women isn't going to get us anywhere. Come on Spike, if you're coming."
"Yeah, sure." Spike ran a hand through his rapidly stiffening, bloodied hair, leaving it with a few more spikes than usual. Johnny Rotten, thought Giles, with the flicker of a smile. Circa 1977.
"You've heard some charming story implicating rats in whatever it is we're in the middle of, haven't you." Ethan's expression was almost as unhappy as Spike's. "Please tell me we're not going up against some weird Rats Of Nimh sub-culture here, because if we are I'm getting on the next plane back to Sunnydale. Rabid Slayers and the whole bloody Initiative are definitely a nicer prospect than rats."
"Coming from somebody who used to share a rotting old mansion house with several dozen of them, that sounds a bit strange." Picking up an empty beer can, Giles threw it at the rats, and they scuttled away with a joint squeal of rage. Ethan ineffectively masked something that came close to a shudder.
"I might once have shared a mansion house with an army of rats, but that doesn't mean that I'd choose to do the same thing now. Ugly great things, with those nasty little eyes, and those horrible, snaky tails. Times change, Ripper. I wouldn't try to make out with a vampire nowadays, either."
"Well this vampire is certainly relieved to hear that." Spike was still staring after the two rats. "I'm with Mr Smarm on this one though, Giles. Rats are a definite no."
"Great. You two are a big help." They were heading towards the end of the street, hoping that they would be able to catch a taxi sooner rather than later. Cutter's Street was the darkest part of a particular distasteful area, and it was always more pleasant to drive through such places than it was to walk through them. There was little or no danger from muggers, just the pervading aura of decay that threatened to drag the most cheerful of dispositions into oblivion.
"Not my fault." Spike had the sulky look about him that Giles remembered from too many evenings spent alone together, when Spike had shared his home back in Sunnydale. It was the look of moody rebellion and surly arrogance favoured by many a rock band, and which had probably had its debut a hundred years before punk had ever been thought of. "You should have said there'd be rats involved. If I'd known I wouldn't have come here."
"Then remind me to learn how to see into the future." Eyes rolling heavenward, Giles muttered his words at the grimy sky. "It might save me later visitations."
"Oh stop moaning." With a flash of unexpected anger, Spike pushed on past the Watcher and his old friend, and began to stride rapidly away down the road. "Everybody's trying to get rid of me just lately."
"Spike?" Concerned despite his usual merry dislike of anything bleached, blond and fanged, Giles quickened his own step. Left behind Ethan sighed and sped up as well. Nobody ever really liked to be left alone in Cutter's Street. Not even experienced ageing sorcerers with considerable powers at their command.
"Spike!" Catching up at last, Giles fell into step with the moody vampire. "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. That is, I... well I probably did, actually. Not that I ever really thought you had feelings to hurt."
"I don't." Spike lit up another cigarette, and stowed away his stake somewhere in the depths of his leather jacket. "And who said I was hurt? I'm a bloody demon, Giles. Evil. You can't hurt me by wishing I hadn't come to visit. Now let's get a move on, shall we?"
"Has something happened? I mean, I know you and Buffy have been having... problems... but--"
"Giles... I didn't come here for relationship counselling. I want a good old-fashioned fight with something big and tough, and I want some time away from Sunnydale to think. That's all." He fell silent as Ethan drew level with them, and focused instead on puffing moody smoke rings. Giles took the hint.
"So are we all friends again?" Ethan lit up a cigarette of his own; a more sophisticated brand than the one favoured by Spike, but nonetheless a relic of his own surly, pouting and rebellious days. Spike shot him a poisonous glare, only slightly less friendly than the one that came from Giles.
"We are not friends." The vampire's rough accent made the words sound even more unpleasant still, and Ethan smiled happily.
"Well that's alright then. I was worried that our relationship might have been getting a bit strained." He blew a string of smoke rings, bigger and wider than Spike's as though to make a point, then handed the cigarette over to Giles. "Now just in case I'm the only one worried that this Yoshiko character knows enough about Giles to have gone to that place to ask after him - not to mention the fact that somebody has already tried to kill us once tonight - might I suggest that we stop being so casual about everything, and start getting respectably scared?"
"Nothing to be scared of yet, is there. Some old vampire does some voodoo mojo, and a witch gets eaten by rats. Hardly Beware The Apocalypse stuff, is it." Spike looked up at the sky, where blood red clouds floated in a haze before an oddly yellow moon. "You holding out on us about some prophecy, Giles?"
"Nothing that I'm aware of, no. Just stuff on the grapevine." Giles was also looking up at the sky now, and the sight bothered him. They were at the end of Cutter's Street, and the road was widening out. Usually one or two cars came by here; unhealthy vehicles held together by rust, driven by people who were less healthy still. Tonight everywhere was silent. There weren't even any drunks sprawled in the doorways of the long-deserted shops.
"Um... when did the clouds go that colour?" Tipping his own head back, intrigued by whatever had caught the attention of his companions, Ethan shaded his eyes with his hand, and tried to tell himself that there was nothing necessarily creepy about red clouds. Giles took a thoughtful draw on the cigarette in his hand and nearly coughed. Trust Ethan to have spiced it up a little.
"I'm not sure. They certainly weren't like that a few minutes ago. Everything was grey then."
"Moon's looking pretty weird, too." Spike cocked his head on one side. "And can anybody hear something?"
"That scratching noise you mean?" Ethan listened to it, imagining all the many possible causes. "It sounds like it's beneath us."
"It is." Giles was moving now, walking onwards at a speed that was only just short of a run. "Come on. Keep going, and look out for a taxi. Any vehicle. If we have to commander a bloody bicycle that'll be better than nothing."
"What is it?" Not needing to be told twice, Ethan was practically jogging along beside him. "It's not good, right?"
"Rats." Giles spoke the word with a rare flash of real venom. Whatever his earlier jokes about the foolishness of his friends in professing their dislike for the creatures, right now he felt an almost equal disliking himself. He knew the sound of massing rats; knew the noises that they made as they ran through their subterranean tunnels. He knew when that mad running had none of the randomness of nature as well; recognised the sounds of so many animals, united in a common purpose too focused to be in any way spontaneous. He didn't know how he knew it; couldn't remember what experience from his confused and varied youth might have given him such knowledge - but such things were not for questioning. Not when there were a thousand hungry rats heading for the surface. Not when their furious squeaking was already audible above the frenetic, echoing scratching of their feet.
The threesome broke into a run at the same moment, a ragged group with no immediate unity, knocking against each other when they tried to run too close. Above the sky was growing darker, or seemed to be, the red light from the moonlit clouds shining down on the street in eerie patterns. Something flew close to Ethan's ear, and he brushed it away, wondering why a bat of all things should suddenly seem sinister and strange. He had always liked bats; but not now. Not tonight, in the dark, back streets of London.
"Make for the main road." Giles was pulling into the lead, without quite knowing why. It wasn't as if Spike wasn't stronger and faster than either human, and didn't have the disadvantage of losing breath, either. He seemed slower than usual though, distracted by the sky, and by the shadows beginning to loom up at the sides of the road. Giles turned his head, looking towards them. Rats. They were swarming out of the drains, pushing up the age-loosened manhole covers, and spilling out into the street. It was a trickle at first, then a stain; then a broiling black sea of squeaking, scratching fur. Ethan stumbled.
"Oh great. I'm going to be nibbled to death. I'm blaming you for this, Rupert."
"Me too." Spike hurled his cigarette at the nearest of the rats, as though hoping that the tiny glow of heat might scare the animals off. It didn't work, and the cigarette was crushed into obscurity by the many clawed feet. Giles would have snapped back a curt reply at his mutinous companions, if he hadn't been running so hard. Somehow it never seemed to get any easier, doing the physical stuff; nowadays especially. He noticed it more these days, when he no longer had Buffy to do it all for him.
"Are they after us?" It seemed a stupid question to ask, but Ethan asked it anyway. Was it likely that a gang of animals would, or indeed could, choose to pursue a particular target? It wasn't as if humans were generally prey, and particularly not to rats. Giles caught hold of his old friend's arm, propelling him forward and wishing that the fool would stop wasting valuable running time on speech.
"Killers," he said forcefully. "Already killed one person, maybe more. All part of... well, of recent weird stuff. Explanations later, yes?"
"If you say so." Ethan lashed out with one foot, missing the advancing rats as they twisted and leapt out of his way. They moved like a shoal of fish; a single mind, almost; an impressive unity of action and purpose. Giles felt a tug at one of his trouser legs, and realised that something had taken a bite. Fortunately it had just been his clothing that had been torn, and not his skin.
"This way." Spike moved into the lead as soon as it became apparent that they were not shaking the rats off. Giles and Ethan followed him automatically, for the vampire could display real authority when he wanted to; when his own life was very likely at risk as well. He led them towards the buildings at the sides of the road, running through the edges of the swarm, stumbling over dark, warm bodies that writhed around his feet. Ethan swore loudly, but kept up, fighting to stay upright as the animals launched a mad assault on his clothing. He thought that he felt one trying to run up the inside of one trouser leg, and shook his foot hard. A small ball of bristling fur tumbled away, then hurled itself back into the tumult like a creature possessed. Ethan was rather of the opinion that that was exactly what it was.
"Up here." Spike was a full length ahead of them now, beginning to pull himself up the uneven wooden stairs that led up the side of one of the old buildings lining the grimy alley. The rats followed, but it was easier to push them away from above. The stairs wobbled at every too enthusiastic movement, but it was not hard to keep a balance. It helped not to get too close to the grey wall of the building, where years of accumulated moisture had caused a build up of green and black slime. It coated the sides of the steps as well as the wall itself, and was as slippery as ice. Giles almost lost his footing on it when he strayed too close, and only the upward surge of rats around his feet helped him to keep from tumbling back down into the street. He didn't like to think what would have happened then; landing down there, lying down in that sea of hungry creatures - especially if he was at all stunned by the fall. How long did it take a gang of rats to tear the flesh from a human being? How long had it taken Suzie Montgomery to die? He probably didn't want to know, and felt a moment of sadness for the woman who had once been his friend. Once, in another life, in a nearby and almost equally grim part of London.
"Stop pratting about, Giles." Seeing the other man slip, Spike made a grab for him, missed, and nearly sent all of them tumbling as the steps wobbled uncertainly. Clearly they hadn't been used in a long time. It was hardly a surprise. The building to which they clung, so tenuously, was clearly part of some old housing development; probably the result of one of the slum clearances some hundred years previously. The upshot of Victorian attempts to clean up old London had often been the creation of something just as bad as the disaster that was being replaced, and this was clearly some such monstrosity. Badly and cheaply built, it had acquired an interesting tilt, which along with the slime and the clearly shoddy workmanship on the stairs all begged the question of why the place hadn't been torn down years before. The answer to that was simple of course; everybody had forgotten that it was there. People had probably been living in it until recently; rent paying tenants most likely, able to afford nothing else, and conveniently forgotten by anybody in a position to help out. It might have been used as a squat once the tenants had left or died; but a place as depressing as this wouldn't hold inhabitants for long. Not unless they were really desperate, like the three men currently trying to find shelter from the rats.
"Ah ha!" Without the others even being aware that it was what he had been trying to do, Spike had managed to open the door at the top of the stairs. He thrust Ethan through, kicked out at the rats that tried to follow, then hurled himself and Giles through together. A few rats followed, but with a titanic heave that launched several of the onrushing rats into unexpected flight, Spike slammed the door shut and held it that way. Trying to catch his breath, uncertain of his footing in the dark, damp room that he now stood in, Giles looked for something that would keep the door closed. Spike had found a bolt, but it was so rusted that even his enhanced strength could barely move it; and it didn't feel at all robust. Ethan flopped against the door, adding his own weight to try to be sure that the creatures couldn't get inside.
"Our friend Yoshiko. He must have something, right? Something that allows him to control those things." Peering out of a grimy window, the sorcerer watched the rampaging animals. "Rupert?"
"Yeah." The Watcher was clearly lost in thought, but he glanced up at the question. "Yes, I'd imagine so. Rats don't usually attack on demand. They must be under some sort of spell. A, um... a ring, or a necklace are traditional sources of power for control spells, but it might just have been an incantation."
"Trust you to think positive." Ethan pointed a stabbing finger at his companion. "If he's just cast a spell, we can't necessarily break it. - but if he's got some kind of amulet as a centre of his power over those little beggars, we can take it, or break it, or do whatever the hell we have to do to stop having rats snapping at our heels. Right?"
"Yes. Right." Giles toyed with his glasses. "Um... well a-always supposing that we get within snatching distance, one of us might try getting the whatever it is. After that whichever of us it is won't have much time to do something with it. I'd imagine that there'd be a fair old battle to get it back."
"Plus it would only get rid of the rats. We'd still have an angry vampire to deal with." Spike didn't sound impressed by the plan. "Plus we don't know what this magic bauble looks like, or even if it exists at all. Plus we don't know how on earth we're going to get hold of it if it does exist. Oh yeah - and there's also the fact that we don't have a clue where Yoshiko is. We can only get his magic jewellery if he's here. And he's not."
"And of course, even if he is using some kind of amulet to control the rats, he wouldn't necessarily have it with him." Ethan smiled lightly at the other two. "Well the pair of you were being so damn pessimistic I thought I might as well join in." Giles glared at him.
"I thought we were supposed to be thinking positive? Look, it-it's difficult to know what to do without being sure what spells Yoshiko used in the first place, but, um, given time I can probably come up with something to counter the effects."
"Stuck in here, without your books?" Ethan didn't sound especially confident. "I've seen you cast spells in the past, remember; and we're not exactly talking Success Street."
"I was younger then, and you can always do the casting if necessary." Giles cast him a scowl that might have frozen any other man to the marrow. "And besides, I don't see you coming up with any smart ideas."
"You're the brains of this organisation, Rupert." Ethan clapped him on the back, smiling in his characteristically infuriating manner. "I'm the looks and the charm. So keep thinking."
"Preferably before whoever's directing the troops out there comes to see what they've caught." Spike turned from the window, glowering fiercely into the darkness. "We were herded up here, and I don't like being trapped."
"No. Quite." Giles watched the seething creatures beyond the window for just a little longer. "We'd better take a look around, and see what sort of place this is. If we really were sent in here on purpose, I'd like to be sure there's nothing nasty nearby."
"Yeah." Spike looked around at the many gloomy shadows. "Like something that might be about to bite. Visiting you is turning into a dodgy business, Watcher."
"My heart bleeds." Pushing over a table, Giles helped the vampire to settle it into place against the door. It was heavy, although it wobbled a little. The door stayed shut though, and the threesome, freed from the task of keeping it shut, were better able to move around. Ethan lit a match.
"Oh well," he said flatly, holding up the flame to survey their surroundings. "I suppose I've whiled away my nights in worse places. Probably." The others turned to look, taking advantage of the few seconds of pale and flickering match light that were left to them.
They were in a largeish room without noticeable charm; a place of stained carpet and walls only half covered by rotting floral wallpaper. An armchair stood in the centre of the room, several of its springs showing through the appallingly unattractive brown upholstery; and seated in it, gaping stupidly in the fast diminishing light, was a corpse. The match blinked out, and Ethan lit another in a fit of panic.
"Well this must be the last resident then." By virtue of the fact that he never liked to look too scared by anything, Spike was the first to move closer. He pulled out a cigarette lighter, the better for a more long lasting flame, and held up the little light to get a better look at the body. It was mostly skeletonised, the bits of skin that remained having dried and shrunk to a mummified leather of indeterminate brown, which didn't present the most charming of perspectives. Dressed in jeans that had seen better days, and a T-shirt that read, somewhat ironically, Choose Life, it suggested youth, and the rough tumble of hair showed the suggestion of what had started out as a fashionable cut. As far as Giles could see, he - it looked like a he, and the Watcher was usually a fair judge of such things - had died in his sleep, slumped back into the embrace of the chair's lumpy back cushions. A small coffee table beside him held a syringe and a tobacco tin, and one of the bony arms still had a length of rubber tubing tied around it. Another drug addict, then, dying a lonely death.
"I wonder if he's still got anything around here worth looking at." Turning his back on the dead man, Spike began to rifle through the few belongings left scattered about. Ethan's match had gone out, and the cigarette lighter was all that was left; a horribly faint glow that left the skeleton silhouetted in the minuscule flame. The redness of the back-lit clouds outside didn't help, shining just the tiniest amount of their unpleasant colour through the threadbare curtains still covering the dirty windows. Giles spotted some candles, and appropriating Ethan's matches he lit them quickly. They showed him the positions of the few rats that had managed to gain entry through the door, but the animals didn't try to attack. Instead they just watched, lashing their tails, their little teeth bared at the three men.
"Find anything?" There was nothing to sit on, and Ethan was loath to use the grimy floor, so he was leaning against the back of the arm chair. Death was not something that bothered him, at least when it wasn't his own, and once he had got a proper look at the sorry figure in the chair his immediate panic had drifted into mere distaste. The skeleton made this depressing room, in this depressing building, into something less pleasurable still. He had grown used to the finer things in life in his middle-age, and the squalid conditions that he and Giles had lived in so readily back in the seventies were something that he had no desire to experience again.
"A couple of books." Spike held up two floppy paperbacks, thick and heavy like course text books. Psychology, apparently, had been their dead friend's chosen avenue of study, until his extra-curricular pursuits had caught up with him. There was a ring-binder folder as well, pale blue and decorated with labels peeled from alcopops, and several explicit lyrics stickers taken from album covers. Spike opened it, looking at the scrawl of barely legible writing on the inside cover.
"Name's Neil Baker," he supplied, without any real sense of interest. "If the date in this is anything to go by he was a student in 1986, but there's no date beyond that. Still, at least he's one that we can't chalk up to the rats."
"Pretty miserable place to die in though," observed Giles, rather annoyed by his companions' blasé attitude towards the unfortunate young man. To be fair, though, it would once not have bothered him nearly as much as it did now. Years of seeing far too many premature deaths in Sunnydale had left him more sensitive about such things than he had ever been before.
"Pretty miserable way to die, too, but he's not the first, is he." Ethan nodded at the syringe and other equipment, "Not the last, either. Our concern is the mystical, Ripper. If it's dead people you want to fret over, you have to worry about the ones that were killed by demons and monsters and man-eating rats, not the ones that went by this fellow's route."
"Ah ha!" At the other side of the room now, Spike had come up trumps. In the small cupboard that was the only other item of furniture in the room, buried under a layer of half-hearted dust and sad looking cobwebs, were two full bottles of cheap whisky. It wasn't the stuff that he usually liked to drink, but it was alcohol, and he had never been a connoisseur. He dragged them out and held them up, waving them like flags.
"Very nice." Ethan took one of the bottles and held it up to the erratic light from the three candles. "Cheap stuff, and goodness knows how long it's been hanging around. Still, just what the doctor ordered, I'd say."
"Just what the vampire ordered, anyway." Spike twisted off the sealed cap of the bottle he held, and peered into the top. "Not going to be past its sell by date, is it."
"You're dead, Spike, you're hardly likely to get food poisoning." Giles took the second bottle, pulling off the lid of that one as well. "Anyway, if this thing even has a sell by date I'll be surprised. By the smell of it the alcohol content's high enough to keep anything from going off." He took an experimental swig, and winced. "If this is what our friend here had been drinking, it's no wonder his drugs didn't agree with him."
"Is it just me, or is it a supremely stupid thing to do, getting drunk with a whole bloody army of rats sitting outside the door waiting to tear us limb from limb?" Taking the bottle back, Ethan downed a large gulp that left his stomach gasping for breath. "Bloody hell, this is worse than that stuff you used to like, Ripper."
"It probably is a bit daft to sit here and drink this with that lot outside." Giles crossed to the window, drawing back the curtains to peer out at the rats. Many had given up on the steps now, though they still seethed about in the road. Anybody who hadn't heard about Suzie Montgomery, or who didn't know about dark magic, would think that there had been an unusual boom in the population, or that some particularly tasty supply of food must lie nearby; but they wouldn't have imagined what that food might be. "Especially since their ringmaster is sure to be on his way."
"We don't know for certain that he is. And getting drunk's always a good idea." Apparently having rather changed his tune from earlier, Spike leaned against the damp wall, taking his own experimental first drink. Even he had to take a brief gasp. "Wow. This could be paint-stripper."
"Paint-stripper is probably better for you than this stuff." Electing in the end to sit on the cupboard, Ethan tried another mouthful. It didn't burn quite as much as the first. "So does anybody have any ideas, or are we just going to stick with getting drunk and letting the rats do their thing?"
"So long as their thing isn't breaking in here and taking a quick bite, I say stick with that plan." Spike smirked at Giles's stiff back. "You got any better ideas, Giles?"
"No. We're well and truly trapped." Giles crossed over to the others and took Spike's bottle. Quite suddenly he wanted nothing more than another drink. At the very least, he might then feel a little bit warmer. This room was one of the dampest he had ever found himself in, and the chill was horrible.
"Trapped was pretty much my diagnosis as well." Ethan leaned back against the wall, regretted it when he felt its clammy touch, and glared at young Neil Baker. Why did the dead guy get to have the only decent seat? "But are we being kept out of the way, or is somebody planning to do something to us here?"
"Storing us like fresh meat in the larder?" Spike had meant the words in jest, but the likely reality of them left him feeling the need for considerably more alcohol than was on offer. "Or maybe not. Seems to me that somebody is after something from Giles."
"You could be right." Giles toyed with the bottle, then handed it back. "I get the feeling I've been manipulated all evening."
"Yoshiko seemed to know where you'd be alright." Ethan nodded. "Makes sense. After all, there's only a handful of us that know about your flat here in London, so the club was always going to be the place for an ambush."
"Just as well we're here then, isn't it." Spike raised his bottle in salute. "The three of us are more than a match for some old, sorcerer vampire guy. This is all about magic, and magic is for pussies who don't have any real talents to fall back on." He smiled the smile of someone who was already heading towards drunkenness, and swayed unsteadily on his feet.
"Strangely I don't feel particularly encouraged by your presence." Giles wanted to pace, but such was the aura in the room that he didn't really feel inspired to move at all. Pacing would create a breeze, which would make him even colder than he already was. Spike offered him the whisky bottle.
"Ingrate. I suppose you'd rather be sitting here alone, watching the mould grow on the walls, and chatting to Neil here when you got lonely?"
"Oh don't mind him. Giles has always been a sulky sod." Ethan waggled his own whisky bottle in salute. "Mind you, being trapped in a leaky coffin by ten thousand rodents hasn't put me in the best of moods either. I want to be back in my hotel right now, in a hot bath, with a glass of fine tawny port and a book."
"I'd settle for a glass of fine tawny blood and a Sex Pistols album, but I get the drift." Spike lit up a cigarette, puffing the smoke at the candles, and sending bands of faint shadow drifting around the room. One of the rats squeaked.
"They don't want to be here any more than we do." Ethan felt almost comradely towards whichever of the creatures has produced so plaintive a sound. "Can we build a fire?"
"And burn the whole house down. That would be such a good idea." Giles was warming to the idea of getting very drunk, and was beginning to realise that he was already halfway there. A third share in two bottles of whisky was probably going to have a fairly quick effect taken after several glasses of absinthe and no food. He couldn't seem to inspire himself to worry though, even if it was a damn silly idea to get drunk here and now. The rat squeaked again, but whether it was agreeing with him, or just telling him to hurry up and drink the rest of the whisky, he didn't know. One of the candles began to burn less brightly, and he watched its shadow bend and bow at the wall.
"Is it me, or is it getting a bit oppressive in here?" After several minutes of silent and fairly heavy drinking, Ethan was starting to sound as though his mouth was full of marbles, for the whisky was having an unexpectedly sudden effect. The words were discernible though, if only just.
"Yeah. Ugly, that's it." Spike took another mouthful of whisky, then offered the bottle to the other two men. "Maybe it's because the candles are going out."
"Or because it's getting late." Ethan fully intended to get up and go over to the window, but didn't even make it to his feet. Half certain that he might have done, though, he made a few attempts to draw back the curtains and peer out. "Got to be midnight at least."
"Oh good." If things had been going badly earlier in the evening, this had to be the part when they were getting to be worst of all. "Who doesn't enjoy being stuck with a mob of possessed rats at midnight?"
"I'm drunk, I don't care." Ethan grinned rather lopsidedly. "Besides, don't forget that if anything nasty is going to happen, we agreed that it'll be happening to you. You're the star of this little show."
"Not that we're not here to help out," added Spike.
"Oh of course." Ethan nodded enthusiastically, not at all deterred by the fact that his drunken state was making everything spin madly. "We came to help out, and we're going to help out. Just not very much, if there are mad, ancient vampire sorcerers running around. Or possibly flying around, on big broomsticks."
"You know something?" Spike began to laugh. "You're drunk."
"I deny that." Ethan stood up, then promptly fell back again. "Well yes, alright. I concede that I might be mildly sozzled, but my point still stands. We came here to help Ripper fight the evil... whatsit... and fight it we will. Just from a distance, and with him between it and us."
"Sounds good to me." Spike smiled mockingly in Giles's approximate direction, and Ethan chortled gently to himself.
"Glad you think so. I used to be quite the Master Planner in my youth, you know." From his slumped position on top of the cupboard, he managed to bow to his old friend, who rolled his eyes impatiently. With a shudder and a wisp of black smoke, the second candle went out.
"Where are those rats?" Beginning to think that it might be an idea to draw up his legs, Ethan peered out into the increasing gloom. By now the third candle was also looking distinctly unhealthy, although it didn't seem in imminent danger of giving up the fight. Spike kicked at something that had stirred near to his feet.
"They're not far away. Don't think they'll try anything on their own though."
"Well just so long as they don't know how to open the door." Ethan watched the final candle as it did a fair imitation of something in its final death throes. The flame was still a decent size, but to his reckoning it was still fast approaching the time to panic. "Maybe getting drunk wasn't such a good idea after all."
"It rarely is." Staring at the remnants of whisky in the bottle that he held in his hand, Giles smiled to himself. If getting drunk wasn't such a good idea, reminiscing probably wasn't either, but sometimes the feeling just hit you. "Remember that time... in '77 wasn't it? Randall decided to try summoning a despair demon to teach the little old lady down the road a lesson, but he read the magic books upside down or something. We ended up with an attic full of spite demons instead."
"Yeah, and he hadn't told us what he was trying, so it all happened when we were seven shades of blotto without a sober brain cell between us." Ethan laughed a little, although he was still too tense to enjoy the story properly. Something made him laugh out loud suddenly though, and he looked up, appearing years younger again in the flickering candle light. "Thomas refused to believe that it was actually happening. He accused us of putting something illegal in the vodka, and was convinced that everything was really perfectly fine."
"And meantime he was sitting up on the roof, wearing next to nothing, with a pair of spite demons fighting over who got to push him off." Giles nodded. "Not one of our finest moments. It took me a horribly long time to decipher the incantations for sending them back. It was all in one of those complicated languages where you have to enunciate everything exactly, or it all means something completely different. I was slurring my words so much I don't know what I was saying."
"I met a spite demon once." Spike clearly didn't relish the memory. "January 1902. Sneaky little bastard tried to get me staked by a journalist from the Times, and bloody nearly succeeded." His expression of distaste became the sort of smile that suggested the story was about to come to what was, to his mind, an enjoyably gory ending. "Then it tried to split up Dru and me. Course, it didn't realise that the lie hasn't been invented that she can't see through. It was still trying to apologise when she staked it out on a warehouse floor and squished it with a bloody big counterweight. Made a hell of a mess."
"Black goo," intoned Ethan, sounding like something of an expert on the subject. "Spite demons are full of black goo. And blood, obviously. You never get the stains out of the carpet."
"I wonder if they'll get the stains of what's left of us out of the carpet, once the rats have had their fill." Spike glanced up and grinned malevolently. "Well don't tell me you weren't thinking it."
"You won't make much of a stain," pointed out Giles. "If they do enough damage to actually kill you properly, you'll burst into dust."
"True." The vampire scowled. "I should have known better than coming here. Things always go wrong in London."
"No, London's alright. It's Venice where things always go wrong." Ethan cast another look at the remaining candle flame, checking on its progress. It was beginning to look decidedly pale. "Three times I've nearly died in Venice. I've been shot, stabbed and hexed, and all by visiting Austrian para-psychologists. I mean, what are the odds of that?"
"I knew there was a reason why I always liked Venice." Giles went back over to the window, peering out into the darkness. It was complete now, the lights from the few houses in this ghastly street that were still inhabited not being strong enough to illuminate anything more than tiny pinpricks within the blackness. Squats most likely, decided Giles; people with no proper access to the electrical grid, and no more efficient lighting than the three candles shared by the three unlikely, would-be fighters of dark magic. Well, one fighter of it, one proponent of it, and one vampire who in all honestly probably couldn't give a toss either way.
"Can you see anything out there?" Returning once again to seriousness, Ethan stumbled over to join his old friend at the window. Giles shook his head.
"Not so much as a rat."
"Do you think they've gone?"
"Do you?" Giles turned back to the room, meeting Spike's eyes over the by now tiny candle flame. "We have to make some decisions."
"We need to drink some more." Spike gave his bottle a hopeful shake, then sighed. "Damn. Why can you never get as drunk as you want, when you really want it?"
"I think we've drunk enough." Giles didn't feel particularly sorry for having got drunk, although that might only have been because he was drunk. It wasn't easy to regret being in such a state when you were in a room where depression oozed from the walls as readily as the moisture and mould that covered everything. The few rats that had made it in through the door seemed affected by it too, crouching together in a subdued huddle, barely twitching so much as a whisker. It was easy to grow paranoid in here, in the darkness and damp, accompanied by a grimacing skeleton and the mind-bending effects of one of the strongest whiskies known to man. Easy to imagine the planning that might have led him here; the careful manoeuvring of a clever mind, herding him for some uncertain reason. The rapid paling of what little light remained only served to strengthen the paranoia, and play further tricks upon the Watcher's already active imagination. Ethan nudged him, face pale in the gloom.
"Can you hear anything?"
"Yeah, 'cause hearing things is always a good sign." Spike kicked at an empty whisky bottle, and watched it roll disconsolately across the floor. It churned up a fair amount of dust as it went, and sent several spiders wandering away in search of new lodgings. Ethan glared at the vampire.
"Well excuse me for trying to stop us getting eaten. Seriously, I thought that I heard something."
"I didn't." Giles listened anyway, hoping that it was just Ethan being typically nervy. "What was it you thought you heard?"
"Footsteps." Ethan cocked his head on one side, a frown bringing extra lines to his face. "Outside the door."
"Footsteps?" Spike joined them by the window, and made to pull the curtains back, but Ethan stopped him. "Hey, don't push!"
"Well don't go trying to draw the curtains back then! You don't have to tell him we're in here."
"If anybody is hanging around outside this door, in the middle of a swarm of bloody rats, whoever it is probably knows we're in here." Spike pushed Ethan hard, in a rough approximation of the other man's attempt to get him away from the curtains. " 'Sides, with you squalling like that half the street knows we're in here by now."
"Shut up, the pair of you." Giles had pressed one ear to the door, listening carefully. "I still can't hear anything. Could it just have been rats that you heard?"
"Rats? I know what rats sound like, I've shared enough houses with them in the past. This was footsteps. Human footsteps, or a rough facsimile. Loud, creepy, scratchy footsteps, made by loud, creepy, scratchy feet."
"You've been jumping at shadows all night. There's nothing out there but some weird red clouds and a few snuffly rats." Spike laid a hand on the curtains once again, then froze. "Does anybody else see shadows out there?"
"Yeah." Giles was staring at the curtains, illuminated now by only the very palest light from the treacherous candle. "There's somebody out there."
"And he doesn't look small." Ethan stared, transfixed, at the silhouette of a man that was unmistakable now; a powerful figure picked out darkly against the red glow of the sky outside. "Still, if it's this Yoshiko character, we don't have to worry, right? A vampire can't come in unless he's invited."
"I didn't have any trouble," Spike reminded him. "The tenant's dead, in case you hadn't noticed. That changes things."
"Oh." Ethan swallowed hard. "Oh well, look on the bright side. It's Ripper he wants. He might let us go."
"Possibly." Giles nodded, faintly ironic despite the apparently dire situation. "But on the other hand very likely not. He might want me alive, and decide to tear you two to shreds, in which case I'm definitely the winner."
"Oh well you're full of cheerful sentiments tonight, aren't you." Ethan wished that there was still some whisky left. "Let's barricade the door with something. Least we can do is stop standing here like lemons, and actually do something to keep the creep out."
"Maybe he's not going to come in." The door handle rattled, and Spike shrugged. "And then again..."
"Do you suppose that table will hold?" Ethan couldn't take his eyes off it, even though he was barely able to see it in the fast diminishing light. Even that tiny amount of vision was a blessing; the last way to be sure of the security of their refuge. He felt almost as if it were the candle, as much as the door, that was keeping the intruder, and the rats, out of the building.
And as if on cue, the light went out. For a moment the scent of the extinguished candle blew faintly across the room, mingling with the smell of damp and dust; then all was dark and still. The rattling at the door increase in volume, and Ethan took a step away from it. He didn't know where he was going, but everything suddenly felt much, much less safe than it had just a few seconds before. He wondered briefly where he was retreating to, since the rats outside the building turned it into an effective prison - he just knew that he had to get away from the door, and perhaps to somewhere where there was a little more light. In the darkness he collided with something, and almost fell.
"Let me help you." The voice was soft, sibilant, strange. Ethan froze. There was nobody in the room was there? There hadn't been a moment ago. Just Spike and Giles and himself, and the silhouette that they suspected was Yoshiko, waiting outside. The only other person was--
A hand fell lightly on his shoulder, the hard coolness of naked bone obvious through the thin material of his suit. One finger, very gentle, very firm, touched him lightly on the chin and angled his head up, drawing his eyes inexorably to a shape hardly visible in the dark. Ethan's eyes were adjusting fast though, compensating for the loss of the candle, drawing on the limited light coming, red-tinged, through the curtains. It wasn't much, but it allowed him to see Neil Baker, skeletal head cocked on one side, mad, grinning mouth hanging slightly open, empty eye sockets fixed intently upon him. Nearby Giles was reacting at last, starting forward with an oath that Ethan barely heard through the pounding of blood in his ears. The grip on his arm tightened, and he felt himself being propelled back towards the door.
"Time to let your guest in." Baker's voice didn't sound human; not at all like that of the young student he had once been. It reminded Ethan of dark spells, and creatures he and Giles had once summoned from their graves - and from worse places. It was a voice like a shiver running down his spine, and it went with the red glow that he could already see shining within the empty eye sockets. Behind him he heard the splintering of wood as the door burst open, and the table they had set up as a barrier smashed into match wood against the wall. Giles and Spike turned, ready to do battle with whatever was about to enter, but Ethan could see at once that neither one of them had a chance; not even with Spike's great strength to help them, for what was entering was no more human than the skeleton gripping his arm. It was a zombie, massively muscled, its huge arms scarred with patches of rotting flesh. Milky white dead eyes burned with unnatural light, and the lips that had long begun to curl back dragged the mouth into a grin nearly as gaping and wide as that of Baker. Shuffling forward, the zombie entered the room, tongue-less sounds forming uselessly on its rotting lips. Spike clenched his fists, wondering if now wasn't perhaps a good time to make the swiftest exit of his long life, and see if he could catch a flight back to Sunnydale. One of these days he was going to learn that visiting people was never a good idea.
"Does anybody have any weapons?" Trying and failing to pull free of the bony hand on his arm, Ethan threw a wild glance back towards Giles. "Anything except a blasted stake!"
"What the hell works on zombies?" Backing away, all the time trying to look as though he wasn't, Spike raised his fists ready to fight. "It's already way past dead."
"Cut its head off." Giles was fumbling through his pockets, discarding stake and cross, finding only a small flick-knife. Spike practically goggled.
"Great. So we're going to try beheading it with that, are we?" He rolled his eyes, rather at a loss. "Oh sod this. If it can die once, it can die again, right? I'll deal with this. You help your boyfriend."
"It's a zombie, Spike. Not the kind of thing you meet every day of your life wandering around in Sunnydale." Giles sighed. Who was he trying to convince? There was no way of talking Spike around once he had made up his mind to fight something. Dodging past the battle ready vampire, he launched himself at Neil Baker.
"Ow!" Dragged down under an airborne Watcher and a heap of bones and leathery skin, Ethan struggled uselessly, then changed tactics and threw a clumsy punch. He felt it strike naked bone, and winced at the pain in his knuckles. Okay, maybe not such a good idea.
"Fools!" Baker was already making his way to his feet, knocking Giles aside as though he were nothing but a child. The Watcher threw a punch of his own, his hand colliding solidly with the sunken chest, which bent in a satisfying fashion. Baker seemed unfazed.
"Very rude, Watcher." He moved closer, the red glow in his eye sockets shining into Giles's eyes, strangely disorientating and hypnotic in its effect. Giles ducked under a flailing arm, punching upwards into the creature's armpit, feeling his own finger bones protest even as he felt the creature wobble. Ethan let out a cry that might have been meant to bolster courage, and hurled himself back into the fray.
"You're going to be bone meal!" It was a ridiculously optimistic boast, but Giles wasn't going to try shutting him up. As his old friend once again fell to the ground beneath the pile of bones, he threw himself onto the top. Ethan grunted in pain, but clung grimly on to a collection of rib bones, wrapping his feet around one of the long, strong legs that was kicking so furiously. Above him Giles was pounding away, raining blows down on Baker's screaming skull, trying to avoid the manic thrashing of the dangerously unrestrained arms. Somewhere a bone snapped, the noise as distinctive as could be. Ethan didn't think that it was one of Baker's.
"I could do with a bit of help over here!" Spike's cry was a surprise; a reminder of the other battle going on close by. The vampire had made a promising start, snatching up the two empty whisky bottles, hammering away with them at the enchanted creature. With his vampire's strength and his unmatched enthusiasm he was a formidable opponent; but the zombie was stronger still, and was backed by the power of whatever magic had raised it from its tomb. A huge fist, loose drying skin flapping on the knuckles, caught Spike under the chin and lifted him from the ground, propelling him the full length of the room. He managed to get back to his feet only to meet another attack, just as deadly, and knew straight away that he had more than met his match. This creature was too powerful for one vampire; too powerful for a vampire, a Watcher and a sorcerer. They were, at least to Spike's experienced eye, well and truly stuffed.
"You're not the only one that needs help!" Knocked breathless by the skeleton on top of him, but unwilling to risk letting go even for a minute in order to recover, Ethan could do little but cling grimly on. He could see nothing, Baker and Giles between them limiting his vision even more than did the almost complete lack of light. He could hear little save endless thumping, and his head, with horrible regularity, was beginning to knock against the dusty floorboards. Above him he heard another bone crack, and winced. Giles was being very quiet, despite the violent struggling.
"Ripper?" He tried to move; tried to see; tried to hear something besides thumping and the pained groans of the battered Spike. "Ripper?"
"Just hold on." Giles's voice was like ice; the voice Ethan knew well from their past. If there was something else behind it; some flicker of a pain that couldn't be entirely hidden, the sorcerer ignored it. Pain wasn't important now; goodness knew he was in enough of that himself.
"Any bright ideas?" Spike flew past them, and even with his blurred vision Ethan was able to see him go. A part-blond, part-bloodied shape that flew over their heads, and crashed against the wall. A guttural growl followed him; the voice of the zombie still looking for carnage.
"Bright ideas?" Giles moved slightly, throwing another punch at the skeleton still caught between them both. It had begun to laugh, low and soft, a giggle that might have chilled them, had they had the energy left with which to be afraid. "No, not really. I had one or two pretty stupid ones earlier, but I seem to have tried them all now."
"Anything would be good." Spike was crawling towards them, apparently unable to stand. The zombie was on its way as well, still fresh from the fight that had all but killed its opponent. The vampire tried to transform; tried to bring out his teeth and renew his energies; but could barely even raise his head. He groaned. "I want to go home."
"Yeah." Ethan yelped as Baker finally tore free from his grip, slamming a bony, pointed, and very hard elbow into a particularly soft and sensitive part of his would-be captor's anatomy. "Me too."
"Hard luck." Lashing out with a fist that knocked Giles out of his way, Baker rose up to his feet. "You will die. All will die."
"This bloke gets his rhetoric from the same place as that vampire back at the pub." Spike stared up at the skeleton, wondering if he could bring himself to make a token attempt to fight it. He couldn't really think of anything - save perhaps for one thing. The zombie loomed above him, but he was out of its immediate reach, and it was watching all three of them now, attention diverted away from the man it was sure it had defeated. Tired, slow, his movements awkward, Spike pulled out his cigarette lighter. It was a matter of moments to flick the wheel, and the flame glowed upwards, burning brightly in the darkness. Baker looked down. Spike looked up. Baker frowned.
"No!" His scream came from what dried remains were left of his vocal chords, but the cry came too late. The flame touched his trousers, caught at the desiccated remnants of his flesh, and in a burst of astonishing heat he caught fire. His dry arms cartwheeled in the air and his head rolled from side to side, but it was all over too quickly. Weathered away by time he burnt easily, quickly - and in no time at all, all that remained were a few blackened bones. They fell to the ground in grim rain, and the flames, burning too fast and too brightly to spread, winked out. Spike whistled.
"Didn't expect that." He rubbed at his head, and felt ash clinging to the skin. "Still, he was hardly an advert for fire prevention, was he." He looked back towards the bigger, more fleshy zombie, but there was no sign of reprisal. Like most of its kind it was incapable of independent thought, and would probably only attack now if they tried to escape. "But we've still got his friend to deal with, and I don’t think I can even move."
"Me either." Ethan was staring up at the zombie, which seemed content now to stand and glower. "Look at it just standing there. These dead things have no brain, no imagination. Speaking as a live member of the dark side, I like to think that my evil deeds have far more distinction."
"Hey!" Spike was vaguely insulted, or would have been if he had had more energy. "That's bloody deadist."
"Whatever." Giles had made it to his feet, which was more than either Ethan or Spike were prepared to try. "Let's just be glad that we're not being torn limb from limb, shall we? I think we have to assume that this fellow is just the advance guard, which means we have very little time to get past him, or come up with a plan, or - always supposing we can manage it - both." He wobbled, the fight having taken far too much out of him. "On the other hand, collapsing might also be good."
"Collapsing is definitely good." Spike glanced towards the door, which seemed a horribly long way away. "Besides, we'd never get past all those rats. Bugger knows what's keeping them from attacking us now, but I doubt they'll keep back if we try to leave."
"Yoshiko must have told them to leave us to him." Giles wanted to go to the door; to look out into the street and make sure that everything was still alright out there. All those rats, the approach of the zombie - he couldn't shake the idea that the other inhabitants of this dreadful backwater might be in need of somebody's help right now. He didn't move though. Right now he wasn't sure that he could.
"Then I suppose he really must be on his way." Ethan smiled faintly. "Oh good. I'm so glad."
"Yeah? Can't say I'm looking forward to it." Deliberately ignoring the other man's sarcasm, Spike made an attempt to rise, but failed. He sounded far more downcast than he usually did, and Giles sympathised. He had no idea how the vampire felt, but if he was in half as much pain as the Watcher, downcast was definitely the right idea. " I wonder if we're in for a long wait."
"Doubt it." Ethan consulted the luminous dial of his watch, and frowned. "Well it's long past midnight, anyway, so he's obviously not going for the traditional appearance."
"Great. I should hate my gruesome death to be in any way passé." Giles stumbled over to Ethan and sat down beside him. He felt terrible. At least three of his fingers on his right hand were broken, and he didn't have a great deal of faith in the condition of his ribs or his skull. The only part of him that didn't seem to be hurting was his neck; and with a vampire on the way that probably couldn't be expected to last. Such a short time had passed since the three of them had been drinking, sharing their odd stories amidst the insults, swapping displays of macho bravado against the threat of the hungry rats. Now they barely had the energy to be afraid, let alone try to hide it. Ethan threw him a comradely smile.
"You look like death warmed up," he offered, in friendly greeting. Giles nodded.
"So do you." He shifted his position, trying to get more comfortable on the bare wooden floorboards, trying to tell himself that his fingers weren't really broken, that they didn't really hurt, that his skull didn't feel as if it was trying to explode. "We've got to get rid of that zombie. Get out of here, before something else turns up."
"Yeah." Ethan nodded, happy to agree so long as he didn't have to do anything else. "Escape. Right."
"Give it five minutes, then." Giles stared up at the zombie, wondering how the hell they were going to get past it when they had all been so well and truly thrashed. "Short rest... let my head settle... and then we'll go."
"Yeah." Quite certain that he wouldn't be capable of movement in five days, let alone five minutes, Ethan smiled vaguely, and nodded again. "Sure. Five minutes. Would that be before or after we pass out?"
"Before, ideally." It was too hard though. Too hard to remain awake, let alone upright. Far too hard to make any attempt to get away. He told himself that everything was alright; that Buffy was on her way; that he would soon find the solution in one of the books hidden in the high school library; that everything else would then fall into place. That was how it was supposed to work, after all. Not very helpful, Giles, he told himself. Try focusing on the present. His brain rebelled against him though, turning away to more peaceful places; to safer dreams and thoughts of quiet painlessness. Soon the room had faded away, and all his troubles with it. Let the rats come, his mind thought carelessly. Let them all come. All he wanted was rest.
He awoke to the sound of a footstep; a loud thud on the unstable wooden staircase. More than one set of feet, more than one person's weight; a heavy, off-kilter tramping that sounded like somebody drunk - or more likely somebody dead. Another zombie. A hand touched his shoulder, bringing him more fully awake, and he groaned. Everything hurt. The memory of pain returned before the sensation itself, but in a moment it all came back. His head thumped, his fingers burned; much of his right arm felt numb. It was a chore to open his eyes, and even when they were fully open at last, his vision remained elusive. He was aware that he was blinking stupidly, but he didn't want to move his hands to rub his eyes. Some distant segment of memory told him that he had two hands, and that only the right one was particularly painful, but he couldn’t seem to remember where his left hand was.
"Giles?" Spike's voice sounded distant, which had more to do with the thumping in his head than with any real physical distance. The vampire couldn't be very far away, for Giles had already decided that the hand on his shoulder belonged to him. It certainly didn't feel like Ethan's. He tried to get his eyes to focus, just to be completely sure, but couldn't seem to manage even that.
"Spike?" Strangely his voice sounded okay, which was encouraging, and inspired him to try the vision thing again. This time it showed signs of working, and the pale face of the vampire floated before his eyes. He blinked, and the sight cleared, for the most part. Spike was looking at him with something that might actually have been concern in his eyes.
"Huh." A faint smile showed on the vampire's face. "I was starting to think you weren't going to wake up."
"Give the choice, I wouldn't have." Giles blinked at his companion, then glared at him. "How come you're looking so damn cheery?"
"I never look cheery." Spike flexed his shoulders, which were feeling decidedly less battered than they had been before. "But when it comes to getting the stuffing knocked out of you, being dead has its advantages."
"I'll take your word for it." A smile crossed Giles's mouth. "Although I might be about to find out for myself..."
"Yeah. Looks like there's a fairly good chance of that." Spike nodded towards the door. "The rats are on the move, and there are more bloody zombies on the stairs outside. I think our host is here."
"So you woke me up so I could be conscious when I get torn limb from limb. How thoughtful." Giles managed another smile, more rueful than the last. "Have I been out long? "
"Less than an hour, I think. I've been pretty out of it myself." For a second Spike merely looked at him, frowning slightly, then finally voiced the question he had clearly been asking himself. "Assuming that we're not going to take this quietly, there could be a fight in the offing. How are you?"
"I've been better." Giles shifted uncomfortably, and regretted it immediately. "And worse, I suppose."
"You've looked better," Spike told him, with a little too much cheer. Giles glared. "Actually you look roughly like you did when Buffy and I had to save your backside from Angelus that time. Your fingers look about as healthy."
"Yes." Giles risked moving his hand enough to take a look at the damaged digits. "I'm starting to think that somebody somewhere doesn't like my guitar playing."
"They'll set alright, always supposing we don't get horribly murdered." Spike gave him an appraising stare. "You're okay. A few minutes fighting a dead bloke can't do more damage than thirty-six hours being tortured by a vampire that even I think might be overdoing the evil a bit."
"It was a bloody strong dead bloke, with no idea of the Marquis of Queensbury's rules." Giles nodded. "But I'm okay, yes. At least I think I am."
"For the time being, anyway." Spike held out a hand, and with the air of a doomed man, Giles reached out his relatively undamaged left hand to accept the assistance in rising. Spike nearly pulled him off his feet instead of helping him onto them, but since the effort got him upright he chose not to complain. He left that to his head. It spun madly, a whirl of pain bringing on an attack of nausea that needed several moments to overcome, before the pain in his shoulders and ribs took over the assault on his senses. The pain in his head ebbed away into a dull throb, and his vision cleared once again. He almost wished that it hadn't. Gathering his strength, he limped to the window.
It was still night time, just, though coming from somewhere far away, the dawn was nearing. It came with a slow paleness, a silvery whiteness that presumably hung in the east, although Giles had long since lost all sense of direction. With it came a gentle mist in the air, hanging in front of the sinking moon, filtering the blood red clouds until the whole of the sky was pale red. Red like death. The light picked out every rat, made every shadow more complete, showed the full squalor of the room in which they had spent the last part of the night. Even with the new, faint light, the place still looked dark. Mould and mildew turned almost every surface black; cobwebs hung thickly from the ceiling; jagged, chewed holes showed where mice had made the place their home. Standing by the nearest window, staring out at the less than picturesque view of a slimy, rot-black alley, was Ethan. He looked up at Giles's approach, and they shared a smile of mutual support.
"Ripper." His greeting was perfunctory, even if his smile had been genuinely warm. Giles nodded a reply.
"Ethan. Still glad you came to visit?"
"I'm always glad to visit with you, Ripper." Ethan's smile was faintly wicked, but still seemed honest enough. Spike joined them at the window.
"I'm not. There's a big black rat over there that keeps eyeing me up, and I don't like it. I'm starting to know how humans used to feel when I was getting ready to bite."
"Well thankyou for sharing that." Rubbing a growing bruise on the side of his head, Ethan turned away from the window, back towards the room. The zombie still stood where he had been before, staring at them all through decaying eyes. Not the most encouraging of vistas, he thought sadly.
"Not my fault if you're squeamish, is it." Spike pulled out his battered pack of cigarettes and offered them around. He even considered offering one to the zombie, but a rare moment of circumspection stayed him; and remaining behind with the others instead, he struck a match on the door frame to light their cigarettes.
"Shame there's no coffee." Ethan seemed to be in a particularly cheery mood; a symptom, Giles seemed to remember, of particularly dire circumstances. In the old days Rayne would display the most annoyingly buoyant façade whenever things looked their worst. Even now, when he was older and wiser, and frequently played the part of the coward when faced with personal danger, still it seemed that his old tendencies remained. Ethan Rayne was possibly the only person who would cower from minor dangers, and yet joke his way onwards to Doomsday.
"I'd call room service," Spike told him, without any real appreciation of the humour, "but I doubt they'd answer."
"Doesn't matter. The waiter would never make it past all those rats and zombies." Ethan blew out a long stream of smoke, staring at the rigid dead thing still guarding them inside the room. "This Yoshiko character's got quite an army behind him, hasn't he. I count four dead men out there on the stairs, and I don't even want to try counting the rats. And who has rats in an army anyway?"
"He's a vampire, not General bloody Kitchener." Spike turned back to Giles, who had turned his attention to the rats. "You've been thinking again, haven't you. You've got that smart arse Watcher look in your eyes."
"I've been thinking, yes. I just don't think I've got very far yet." Ignoring the vampire's insult, Giles absently tapped the ash from his cigarette onto the scratched surface of the room's one remaining table. "We were practically helpless against those rats. When they came after us, all we could do was run from them, and if it hadn't been for the fact that somebody was almost certainly guiding them from behind the scenes, we'd probably have been picked clean by now. That makes a pretty effective army, even if it is one that's only likely to be chosen by somebody as unpleasant as a vampire." He smiled offhandedly at Spike. "No insult intended."
"Yeah, right." The vampire blew a smoke ring, largely because it seemed a good way of displaying some degree of superiority. "So you want to make disbanding the rodent brigade into a priority, right?"
"Right." Giles nodded with more conviction than he felt, and Spike nodded back.
"And have you come up with a proper plan for stopping the little buggers?"
"You already know the plan." Giles reached for his cigarette with the wrong hand, and winced sharply when the pain from his broken fingers brought him up short. "We talked about a control focus - an amulet that he might have. That's really--" He broke off at the sound of further movement from outside. "Looks like show time."
"Not that we had any chance of escaping anyway," Ethan muttered, eyes on the falling shadows beyond the door, "but I'd still like to take this opportunity to say 'bugger'."
"Ditto." Spike swallowed hard. Men were coming through the doorway now, pushing their heavy, solid feet through the sea of scuttling rats. Big men, misshapen through injury and death, through the effects of bodily disintegration. A faint smell of rotting flesh mingled with the damp and the mildew, and milky, dead white eyes stared into the room from the greyness of the predawn outside. There was somebody else out there too, and Giles could see his shape just as clearly, even if it was less distinctive than those of the dead men who had preceded him. A proud figure, waiting just beyond the door, for all the world as if he were testing the sunlight, daring it to rise and catch him before he was safely out of its reach. The glow of the daylight was already creeping along the stairs before he took that final step forward, and entered the room at last.
If they had been expecting a big entrance, they were disappointed. There was no sense of drama, no majestic parting of the sea of waiting rats. Some of the animals scuttled aside, some scrambled over each other. Most just stayed where they were, making him step over them, or around them, or on top of them. None of them seemed to suffer any lasting damage, for he didn't appear to be the heaviest of men. In fact he didn't seem very big at all.
He was of average height, slightly stocky in build, and dressed in tight black clothes that emphasised his frame. A long coat hung from his shoulders, a riot of coloured patterning against thick black velvet; patterns that were echoed by the tattoos that swirled across his neck and chin, reaching up even to encircle his ears. His hair was long and loose, falling down his back like black water, reaching past his waist. As Spike had said earlier, he was by no mean attractive, but the marks left upon his face by his demonic side certainly made his appearance striking.
Like the Master, that wizened old creature that Giles had encountered in Sunnydale, Yoshiko did not look human. His face was smooth, and clearly showed the Japanese ancestry of the man he had once been, but the face of the man had been swamped by the creature that had killed him. His chin was too long, his cheek bones too accentuated, his brow permanently ridged. His ears were pointed, more like horns now, and his long fangs hung down onto his chin. A long tongue darted from his mouth, flickering constantly, tasting the air like a reptile, caressing those abnormally long teeth. Even for a vampire they were long, and alongside the obvious dagger-like points of his canines, the teeth showed serrated edges of clear force and power. Only Spike did not blink to see them, for he alone had met the creature before. He took a step back though, returning to his original place beside the window, glad to have some physical space between himself and the new arrival. Ethan back-pedalled as well, though not so far, the craven coward image that he had cultivated so well falling away a little, as he showed his readiness to stand alongside his old friend.
"Rupert Giles." Yoshiko's voice still bore traces of a Japanese accent, but beneath it was the rough bite of demonic force. The tongue flickered again, bright red in the air. Giles nodded slowly.
"Yes. And you must be Yoshiko."
"Lord Yoshiko." It was a firm hint for proper deference, but Giles didn't look impressed.
"I take it that you want something?" It was difficult to keep one eye on the vampire, another on the rats, the zombies, the whereabouts of his friends - and still maintain an air of studied nonchalance, but he was determined to manage it. No sense in letting the creature no how unsettled he was. An unpleasant smile grew across Yoshiko's angular, animalistic face.
"You are the Watcher." He came closer, his body showing signs of true grace. There was poetry in his form, somehow; ballet recreated in his every movement. Giles nodded slowly, almost hypnotically.
"I am the Watcher. But the Slayer isn't in England."
"I know." Yoshiko was still smiling, eyes almost warm. They were the only part of him that seemed truly human, for they still seemed to show compassion. It was not - could not - have been real, but its presence was undeniable. Perhaps it was the last remaining echo of the man Yoshiko had once been.
"I want you, Rupert. Not the Slayer." The vampire moved forward again, so that he was within touching distance of Giles, and the strange scent of almonds and oranges that came from his clothing rose above the damp smell of the room. "But I intend to get her as well, sooner or later. You're going to help me to do that, eventually."
"I am?" The scent of the vampire was off-putting, and his physical closeness more disturbing still, but Giles did not want to retreat. It wasn't easy to score psychological victories against demons, but he had long ago learnt that it was possible to do so, sometimes. With that in mind he stood his ground, and stared into the deceptively friendly eyes that looked back at him with the warmth of so many false smiles.
"You are. You'll lead me to the Slayer, you'll take me right to her. Take me close enough to do what I want, what I need." The creature reached out then, and Giles felt the fingers slide around his wrist. They were cold and clammy, reptilian even in the absence of scales, and had a strength that was impossible to ignore. "You'll let me have my way with the Slayer, and you'll help me to do it."
"I think we can arrange that." Recognising Giles's body language, even though he couldn't see the fires that he knew were igniting within the smoky, dark green eyes, Ethan stepped neatly forwards and put his hand on his friend's tense shoulder. Giles didn't look at him.
"Keep out of this, Ethan." His voice was a hoarse whisper, quavering with an anger that was eager to escape. Ethan's grip tightened, aggravating the injuries that he knew were there to be exploited. With Yoshiko's grip on his uninjured hand, the only one left to fend of Ethan was the broken one, and Giles could do little to free himself.
"Now now Ripper. There's no sense in getting angry." Keeping his smile as casual as he could, Ethan squeezed the rigid shoulder slightly, trying to impart secret messages that he hoped his friend would receive. "If this fellow wants to meet the Slayer, then why not let him? You can't keep her to your self all the time you know."
"Ethan..." The fury that kept the voice so low, so cold, was warning enough that Rayne's intervention was not appreciated. "Back off."
"Rupert..." Ethan's own voice was still gentle, still jollying, "Let's hear what the man has to say, alright? You know I don't like violence."
"Listen to your friend, Mr Giles." Yoshiko lifted Giles's hand, his grip just tight enough to cause pain, his grasp promising the cruel twist that might be forthcoming. "After all, he'll be the one that dies first if you try to fight me."
"Believe me, that's no great loss." With a furious effort that threatened to break his wrist, Giles pulled free of the vampire's clinging hold. "And you can do what you want to any one of us, but I won't help you get to Buffy."
"Not 'the Slayer'. Not 'the girl'?" Yoshiko's smile broadened, though its showed no increase in happiness. "But 'Buffy'. She means something to you?"
"She does." The shiver in Giles's voice had become a tremor of pure hatred and rage, and Ethan's hand fell away from his shoulder. No matter how much he might want to diffuse the tension of the situation; to prevent any immediate unpleasantness; he was not fool enough to get in the way of the Ripper. He fell back a step, and shot a glance at Spike. Spike, predictably enough, threw him an uncaring shrug, and crushed the last of his cigarette into the window frame.
"Good." Yoshiko nodded slowly, but his expression still didn't give anything away. "That might be useful, at some point."
"What do you want with her?" Giles's hands were itching for a stake or a cross, but he had neither. He knew where they were, for he had thrown them there himself when he had been looking for a suitable weapon to use against the skeleton and the zombie. Both were beyond his reach now, and he suspected had already been chewed into match-wood by the rats. Yoshiko laughed.
"Oh, this and that, Mr Giles. This and that. She's an obstacle that will need to be removed in order to implement the plans that I have - the plans I regrettably seem to need you for - but I intend to enjoy every moment of our eventual tryst." His smile became lascivious, suggestive, obscene. "You know the darkness of the magic that can exist between a vampire and a Slayer. There are so many, many ways to tap into that. To make it something very dark and very special indeed."
"You'll never touch Buffy." The fury igniting in his eyes Giles stepped forward, closing the gap between them so that they stood almost chest to chest. Yoshiko's mouth widened, his teeth bared to their fullest extent.
"You'll never stop me." With the sharpness of movement that came from perfect muscle control, he spun on one heel and headed for the door. Feeling rather impotent, his rage ignored, Giles hesitated uncertainly for a moment before he followed. It was clear that he was expected to do so, for Yoshiko was already pointing at something outside. Spike and Ethan went as well, keeping pace with Giles, but staying behind him. Ethan could see the bristling tension in Spike as well, and it worried him. With both of his companions thinking with their emotions instead of with any logic, they could all be in serious trouble.
What?" Impatient and angry, Giles stared out of the door. He saw London, or their small bit of it, washed pale by the early morning light, grey and dismal just like this whole rundown area. It was a place that was starting to reawaken; a place of faces in windows, and mildewed curtains being drawn back; of ageing women, more tired than they had been before they had gone to bed, appearing in doorways and on balconies to smoke their first cigarettes of the day. One or two of them were venturing out into the street, heading off to do whatever dead end jobs paid their bills, or just to whichever shops were open at the early hour, to buy the alcohol that got them through the day. They moved slowly, for the most part not acknowledging each other; until they saw the rats. Giles started forward with the start of a protest on his lips, but the rotting hands of a zombie stopped him before he could take more than a step.
"Call them off!" He struggled against the impossibly strong hands that gripped his arms, ignoring the pain that remained from his earlier battle. His broken fingers jolted and jarred, the ends of bone scraping together in a way that might have made him gasp, had he not had his mind fixed so intently upon something else. Yoshiko's smile grew wide again, and his teeth gleamed faintly yellow in the washed out light.
"Why would I want to do that? They're hungry, Rupert. They need food. And besides, you'd rather see somebody other than your friends here suffer, right?"
"Call them off." He struggled again, wishing for associates more supportive than Ethan and Spike. Neither one of them had made a move yet, for neither one of them was really prepared to risk their own lives arguing with the enemy. It wasn't exactly a help.
"Just watch. Think things through. See whether or not you're prepared to listen to what I have to say." Yoshiko was standing so close to the door that he seemed in imminent danger from the daylight, but he showed no concern. Ethan momentarily considered pushing him, and seeing if he could force the vampire out into the sun; but it was a thought that he had no intention of testing. Even if he was strong enough to knock the demon out of the room, there was no certainty that he would die quickly enough. More likely he would get back in again before the sunlight had had time to do its work; more likely that his minions would close in to take their revenge; more likely that Yoshiko would be too strong to be pushed out in the first place. Unhappy with the risk, Ethan stayed where he was. Stayed and watched as the sea of rats raced onwards towards three wandering, oblivious women.
They seemed to notice the rats at the same time, stopping to stare rather than running. Clearly none of them thought of the risk; hadn't identified the danger that the creatures might represent. One of the women gave a small shriek, but they all lived in the sort of place that had made them used to the animals. Only when the rats were closer, and it became more obvious that something unnatural was leading them on, did the women begin to run. They scattered, shouting for help to dark and featureless walls. Giles had ceased his struggles now, and stood immobile, watching the women run. It was clear that one of them would escape, for she was ahead of the others, stumbling back into her building, slamming the door shut behind her. A few rats threw themselves at the door, scratching at it in passing, but they wasted no time in persisting. Soon enough they had joined in the chase after the other two women, neither one of whom seemed anywhere near as likely to get away. Ethan felt his blood chill, and even Spike felt uncomfortable. He wanted the women to reach safety as much as his two human companions, but he was as unwilling as Ethan to give voice to that. Better to leave the demonstrative behaviour to the Watcher. Being a good guy was his job, after all.
With a shout of fear one of the women fell. The other hesitated, almost going to help, then turned her back and ran onwards. The fear in the voice that screamed at her back was horribly apparent, and Spike momentarily looked away. This wasn't sport by anybody's reckoning, and to him, even in his coldest days, the sport had been as important as the kill. With a sense of curious revulsion he looked up again, watching as the rats caught up with the woman, watching as they swarmed all over her. She shouted, screamed, struggled against the creatures that must have been slowly tearing her apart. The other woman didn't look back, although she was shaking as she ran. The rats left her to run on, bothered now only by the woman they were eating. It was several moments before Ethan and Spike looked away. Yoshiko and Giles stared on.
"Quite a force, aren't they." Yoshiko spoke up as soon as the struggles of the woman were over, and it was clear that she was finally dead. Giles cast him a revolted look.
"You're quite something, aren't you. Sick even for a vampire."
"Sick?" Yoshiko signalled to his zombie guard, who released the infuriated Watcher. Giles straightened his jacket, shrugging it back into shape as the only act of defiance that he could perform right now. "My rats are my infantry. My soldiers. They can crawl through sewers, get in and out of places that bigger creatures could never gain access to. They can arrive and leave without leaving a trace, except for their victim. Nobody sees them coming, but once they get within striking distance, nobody can hope to fight them off. My zombies add to my strength, but there are too many places where they can't go. Too many places where they'd be noticed. The same is true for me, even without my slight problem with sunlight. But my rats? They're unstoppable, Mr Giles. Always hungry, always fast, always eager. They'll eat anything. Anyone. Just imagine what would happen if I gave them free rein in this city. There wouldn't be a man, woman or child who would be safe. Not a one."
"And the zombies?" Brushing traces of rotting flesh from his jacket, souvenirs of the grabbing hands of Yoshiko's unpleasant slaves, Giles threw an unfriendly glance towards the hulking creatures - if the mindless echoes of humanity could be called that. Yoshiko shrugged.
"Muscle. Assistance for times like these. It amuses me perhaps, to see humankind reduced to such... depths. Walking dead, just like me." He smiled, and his tongue flickered again across his yellow fangs. "Perhaps I'll add you to their ranks in the end, Mr Giles. I think I might enjoy that. I could have a whole army of zombie Watchers. Perhaps even a Slayer... if there's anything left of her once I've had my fun."
"Bastard." Ethan wasn't sure whether it was Spike or Giles that had spoken, for they both started forwards at once, and both held the same expression of anger pushed too far. Yoshiko watched them both with an expression of interest mixed with amusement, for he had no doubt that his guards would waylay them before either got close enough to attack him. Even Giles, who was already almost within reach, did not manage to lay so much as a hand upon the vampire, before he was dragged back by a pair of zombies. This time he didn't struggle, although Spike did. Inspired perhaps by his long silence and relative inactivity he threw himself into the fight like a man possessed, hurling himself against the confines of an inhuman grip, and struggling so hard it seemed likely that the rotting hands of his captors might disintegrate completely. Yoshiko seemed to find his exertions rather funny.
"Spike." He spoke like a man being reunited with a friend. "Hello. It's been a while."
"Not long enough." Spike's struggles slowed a little, but didn't stop. Yoshiko strolled closer to him.
"Long enough, it would seem, for you to have changed considerably. Consorting with humans? Time was that you'd not have done that whatever threats were used against you." Distaste made his expression change. "Unless that female of yours was involved. Drusilla? I hate to see our kind weakened by emotions, and that one had you weaker than any other vampire has ever been. Is that it? Are these two using her against you?"
"Don't even think about Drusilla." Becoming suddenly very still, Spike glared at the other vampire with all the heat and hatred he could summon. Yoshiko smirked.
"Left you did she? And now you gaze adoringly at the Slayer instead I suppose? I see it in your eyes, Spike. How very sad." The smile became a grin. "I'll let you watch, if you like. When I do... everything that I'm planning to do to her. You can watch with the Watcher over there. We'll make a show of it."
"You sick bastard." Giles's voice was as cold as Ethan had ever heard it, but Yoshiko did not so much as glance his way. His whole attention seemed focused upon Spike.
"This Slayer must be a very interesting young woman. Rumour has it that she tamed the great Angelus, and now it seems that she's done the same to you. You should thank me for killing her, Spike. For killing her... and doing all the other things I plan to do..."
"You'll never get near her." His voice a bristling testament to tension, Spike met the other's eyes and held onto them with the force of true anger. Yoshiko's smile did not waver.
"Oh but I will, won't I Mr Giles. You're going to help me with a little something, and once you've done that the Slayer will be my next stop; and I rather think that you can help me with that too. You saw what happened to that woman out there. Every time you refuse to help, my rats will bring down more humans, and every time more people will die. You've already lost one friend to them. I went to that witch Suzie Montgomery to find out about you, and she told me, once the rats had eaten her arm. Do you really wish that on anybody else?"
"No." Giles met the creature's gaze, wishing he could break the inhuman grip that prevented him from attacking his enemy. Wishing that he could cast some spell, the way Deirdre might once have done, or the way that Willow almost certainly could. Wishing that he could do anything to get close enough to Yoshiko to smash the grinning fangs, and turn the monster to dust. "But I won't help you. You could kill all of London, send your rats against everybody in the country, but I wouldn't betray Buffy. Not for anything."
"Is that so?" Yoshiko sounded more interested than angry, and he turned away from Spike with a leisurely ease. "Do you really mean that, Mr Giles? You'd let countless thousands die just to protect your sense of honour? I don't need you to get me to the Slayer you know. You'd make things easier, certainly, but I'll get her in the end. She has such a reputation... I'm inclined to think that she might make things rather difficult... but I always get what I aim for. You'd be sacrificing everybody to a horrible death just to save your own Watcher pride."
"Not exactly." His voice hoarse with suppressed rage, Giles had to fight with himself not to struggle. There was no sense in fighting his captors, and giving Yoshiko even more enjoyment still. "It's got nothing to do with pride."
"Really?" The vampire wandered back towards him, turning his back on the still bristling Spike. "Then maybe there's a chance that she'll come to you. That would make things even easier." This time he got no reaction, and his smile grew bigger, his tongue flickering ever faster against his lips. Ethan could see the look on Giles's face, and knew all too well the fury that was building up inside him. There was likely to be an eruption soon, and probably from Spike as well; a powerful, pointless explosion that would probably leave at least one of them dead. It wasn't often that Ethan found himself coming to the rescue, especially when it involved putting himself in the firing line, but he stepped forward now. He knew that he had to do something to deflect either Giles's growing rage or Yoshiko's cloying, prying interest. Maybe if he could distract the vampire for long enough... But long enough for what? There was nobody coming. No cavalry on its way. That was how it happened back in Sunnydale, not here in London, where the only people available to help were the singularly useless members of the Watchers' Council. Nobody else knew what was going on - except for the one poor woman who had managed to escape out of the alley. One woman, who had seen the deluge of rats attacking her neighbour. Maybe she had gone for help? Called the police? Done anything that might mean somebody was on their way now, ready to... well, die probably, although they might provide an opportunity for three misguided, would-be fighters of the dark side to escape in the process. It was a slim hope, but it was enough to galvanise Ethan into action. Feeling distinctly shaky, he stepped forward.
"You want Buffy?" He spoke with a bravado that it was reasonably easy to fake, for he had years of practice on his side. "I can get her for you. I can get you to her, or get her here, whichever one you prefer."
"Ethan Rayne, so help me I--" Giles was cut short by a terrific blow from one of the pair of decomposing monstrosities holding him, and Ethan felt a surge of guilt. For some reason the betrayal in the eyes of his old friend and enemy bothered him deeply, but he certainly couldn't explain what he was hoping to do. He tried out a confident smile, and tried to shut the now decidedly dazed Giles out of his mind.
"Buffy and I..." He hesitated, as though searching for the right phrase. "Well, we had a little fling a while back. Nothing lasting, but we have a certain fondness for each other still... Or at least she still calls me every so often, anyway. Can't say that the thing's very mutual." He grinned, trying to look lascivious, like a man in a pub discussing conquests over a pint. "Anyway, I'm all you need. All I want's a deal, so I know you're not going to... eat me, or turn me into a zombie or something... and she's yours. Anytime you want."
"You lousy--" A blow cut Spike off mid-insult, although he didn't seem as dazed by the assault as Giles. All part of being a vampire, thought Ethan, and hoped that he wasn't going to have to tangle with that kind of super-strength any time soon. Yoshiko or a vengeful Spike, either way the result was likely to be one very battered sorcerer.
"Now now Spike." Still trying to corral what courage remained to him, Ethan managed to keep his smile from wavering, although it left his eyes completely. Giles was still watching him with utter loathing; a mixture of disbelief at the obvious out and out lie, and the sort of expression that suggested old fears reinforced. It was rather disconcerting. Ethan had never before thought that Giles might still have some faith in him; might genuinely still consider him to be the true friend he had once been. For a moment Rayne felt quite touched, until he remembered that he was supposed to be evil. Well, most of the time, anyway. Yoshiko moved closer to him, and he clenched his fists to help him keep his nerve.
"You say that you can help me?" Yoshiko was smiling without any warmth at all, his flickering tongue caressing his lips and his teeth, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down as though swallowing; as though he were already sucking somebody's blood. Ethan tried to remember just why exactly he had embarked on this particular plan, and came up a blank. So Giles had probably been about to get himself needlessly killed. Surely that was Giles's problem? His own smile, already too nervous to last, petered out completely, and all that he could manage in answer at first was a wobbling, sickly nod.
"Yes," he coughed up in the end, and his nodding became more determined in response, heartened by the single word he had successfully summoned. Yoshiko's smile broadened.
"You'll help me get to the Slayer, even though your friends won't? You'll deliver her to me, and let me do as I please with her?"
"Absolutely." The nod became increasingly emphatic. "Absolutely." He hesitated again, and wondered why the vampire wasn't looking pleased. "So um... is it a deal?"
"No." The voice was almost gentle, and it carried traces of an amused smile that hadn't yet been born. "No, I don't think so. I can see into your eyes, Mr Rayne. You wanted to distract me, didn't you. You think that that woman who escaped might have managed to reach somebody. To call for help, to find a telephone. Don't you." He leaned closer, and his oddly scaled hands felt smooth as the stroked at Ethan's chin. "You play the part of the coward. Of the man who keeps his distance and cares nothing - but even you are prepared to take risks to try to bring about my downfall. Well you're a very, very foolish man, Mr Rayne."
"Me? I don't do distractions. Hey, ask Giles. Ask anybody. They'll all tell you that I don't do distractions. I'm no hero. I'm not even a minor hero. I get nervous crossing the street."
"Perhaps. And perhaps not." The hands tightened their grip, and for a moment Ethan believed that his jawbone might shatter. "But let me put your mind at rest on one small point. Mr Rayne. That woman didn't reach safety. She didn't meet anybody. She didn't make any telephone calls. The police, for all the good that they could do you anyway, aren't coming here." He smiled, and dragged Ethan to the door, pushing him out into the daylight even though he dared not venture out himself. Ethan stood blinking on the uncertain staircase, feeling the ever impatient rats run across his shoes. He didn't look at them. He had seen enough of rats to last him a lifetime.
"Do you see anything, Mr Rayne?" The voice filled his ears and physically repulsed him, although he had never believed that he could be so sensitive. He looked up and down the street, to the frightened face of the woman who had escaped, peering out of the grimy window of her house, to the almost clean skeleton of the woman who had been overwhelmed. She lay in a muddy puddle, the rain washing away the blood that had been streaked across the muddy tarmac. Of the third woman he could see no sign, until he looked further up the road, towards the junction with other wider, slightly less grim-looking streets. Two figures lurked there, hulking and misshapen, their gait and appearance marking them out as more zombies, even from such a distance. Above them, swinging faintly in the breeze with nothing to show how she had got there, was the third woman. She hung by her feet from what must once have been a shop sign, and there was no sign of her head. Her clothes hung in loose flaps, badly torn, and her pale hands dripped blood. Ethan lowered his head. He had found himself anxious for the woman to get clean away, after her desperate bid for freedom. Momentarily he considered making his own such bid, but he felt certain that he would have no greater luck. Hesitating only briefly, he turned around and walked slowly back inside.
"Well?" Giles was unable to see anything beyond the door from his current position, and Ethan rather envied him that. He had seen fewer more forlorn sights in his life than that poor woman, hanging above the street, bedraggled and headless. He shook his head.
"She didn't make it. Nobody's coming, Rupert."
"Yeah, 'cause it would have been so good if they could. A band of helmeted Bobbies running about the place asking polite questions is really going to deal with ten thousand hungry rats and an army of bloody zombies." Finally managing to pull free of his captors, Spike made a show of straightening his clothing, despite his usual preference for an almost permanently battered appearance. Yoshiko smiled.
"I'm glad you have the sense to see things that way. Nobody can help you. Nobody is going to come here and rescue you. Even if they tried, they wouldn't succeed."
"There are still other people, in the other buildings. That woman who made it back to her house for one. People who saw what happened." Spike had no illusions about the likelihood of anybody coming, let alone being able to help if they did, but in more than a century of life he had learnt that there was very little that was truly impossible. Yoshiko merely smiled at him.
"Such optimism, my young friend. But look about you. There are no telephone lines here, and I doubt that any local residents have mobile phones. These are squats, filled with people who have no money, or only the bare minimum. People with nowhere to turn, and no light at the end of the tunnel. Not the kind of people likely to call the police even if they did have the means by which to do so. Certainly not the type to have many friends in the outside world - and definitely not the type likely to know the address and telephone number of the Watchers' Council. So really it looks as if we're back to square one, doesn't it." There was a silence, and he smiled with an air of smug triumph that didn't quite suit his inescapably evil face. "So why don't we forget the futility and get back to business. Yes?"
"What do you want Buffy for?" Giles' voice, quiet and precise, showed the traces of an anger that was as futile as Spike's wishes for the help that wasn't coming. Yoshiko turned to look at him, dark eyes aglitter, smile gently mocking.
"Want her for? Use your imagination, Watcher. I've already filled in enough of the blanks. There's a lot of fun that can be had with a girl as beautiful... and as resilient... as a Slayer. Especially one with a reputation like hers."
"No." Making an effort not to react to the obviously inflammatory words, his voice cold with tension, Giles pressed the issue. "No, that's not enough. Why go after the Slayer? There's always another one to take her place, and with your preparation you're obviously not the type for empty gestures like that."
"Empty gestures?" Yoshiko reached out, putting a surprisingly gentle hand on the Watcher's shoulder and pulling him close. A flash of blue from a bracelet showed beneath his shirt cuff, but it was not there long enough for anybody to get a proper look. "This is no empty gesture, Mr Giles. If your Slayer dies, there won't be anybody coming to replace her - because somebody already has. A certain somebody currently wasting her best years in a prison somewhere in America." The smile grew into a gaping grin, the best to emphasise the unnecessarily long teeth. "Oh I've no doubt that strings will be pulled, and that the dear girl will be released... but even if she has managed to get over the little instabilities that put her in there, she's still not going to be the shining paragon of virtue and defender of the innocent that her little blonde friend was, is she. And even if she is, I can still have done all that I want to do before she gets to Sunnydale. It's a buyer's market, Rupert. A unique situation that means I can't lose."
"Unless somebody stops you." Giles met the other man's unsettling eyes as steadily as he could. He wished that he could count on more certain support from his two companions, for even if they had shown some unexpected courage in the past few minutes, knowing them as he did he was well aware that it wouldn't necessarily last.
"But somebody won't." Yoshiko turned aside, gesturing out into the open air. A few birds had come to pick over the bones of the first dead woman, and to worry over the mangled remains of the second. A few faces came into view in a few dirty windows, but there was no sign of any other movement. There was no sound of sirens; no more people venturing outside, or entering the street from the outside world. "There are only three people in all the world who are in any position to stop me just now, Rupert - and I don't think that any one of you is really capable of doing it. One move out of turn and my servants will tear your friends to pieces, or my rats will eat them alive. There's nothing you can do."
"Don't bet on that, chump." In a decidedly belligerent mood now, Spike was fighting the urge to pace furiously up and down - mainly because he didn't much fancy the idea of being bitten by a bewitched rodent if he moved too much. It was an insult, that was what it was. He had come to London to escape Buffy, and the ridiculous, debilitating effect she had been having on his life - and what happened? Here he was, quite possibly facing death because of her; about to die because the Slayer still, even when thousands of miles away, managed to exert an influence over his life that no amount of distance, cursing and violent anger seemed able to break. When this was over, always supposing that Buffy wasn't dead at Yoshiko's feet, he was going to find a way to teach the Slayer the lesson she deserved. It was only fair. After all, a vampire - even a defanged, occasionally semi-well-behaved vampire - could only take so much.
"I never bet." Turning his deeply unpleasant eyes back towards Spike, Yoshiko's smile became a hard, though still upwardly turning, line. "Not even on dead certainties."
"I do," Spike told him, with more than a touch of false bravado. "Usually on four legged odds - the type that bark and run in a big circle - but I still bet. And I'm very good at telling the winners from the losers. Guess which heading you come under?"
"Not the one you're suggesting, my peroxide friend. When I've finished with the Slayer this world will be unprotected - the Hellmouth will be unprotected - for as long as it takes me to do what I want with it."
"You plan to open it?" Giles could still remember the last time that somebody had tried that - not that he was ever likely to forget. As far as he knew he still had some of the scars. Yoshiko laughed.
"Open it? Why would I want to do that? Open the Hellmouth and then what do you have? A world with a big hole in it, and every demon wanting to cross over here. That's a plan for madmen and monsters, Rupert, not for those of us with intelligence and foresight. No, I have a much better plan I can assure you. One that involves my true reason for wanting you close."
"True reason?" This definitely didn't sound good. Yoshiko nodded slowly, and eased closer once again.
"I've already told you that I can get the Slayer without your help if I really have to; that there's something else I want you for first. Getting your help with the girl is just the icing on a very large and very bloody cake, if you understand my meaning. No, I have other plans for you. Something that I rather think you'll enjoy."
"I doubt that." It was taking an increasing effort to keep his voice level, but Giles was managing it still. Yoshiko's increasingly smug, insinuating expression was not helping, any more than were his biting, worrying words.
"Hmm." The vampire's smile became one of honest humour, faintly tinged with great appreciation of a particularly nasty joke. "You know, I think you're probably right."
"So are you going to satisfy my curiosity, or do we just hang around and wait until everything becomes clear?" The impatience that showed in the Watcher's tone was partly the result of growing nervousness, although he didn't think that Yoshiko had guessed that. The vampire shrugged.
"There's no sense in waiting. I won't get what I need unless I tell you what it is. Your friend, the witch. The one that my rats digested at least in part - Suzie?"
"What about her?" He felt a certain pang of sadness for the woman he had once known well, back in those long ago days of his old residence in the capital. Yoshiko's lazy smile gave nothing away.
"She had something - or did once. A certain artefact. When I spoke to her, she claimed never to have seen it, but then she claimed never to have met you, either. A brave woman, I suppose you could say. Brave or stupid. I confess that I never did have much patience with witches."
"Get to the point." Giles eyes were like flint, but Yoshiko, of course, did not care.
"The point? I asked her again, she claimed still to know nothing... so I let my rats play their part in our little game. She kept silent for some time, although it's not easy to make rats take things so slowly. In the end they wouldn't keep up that speed and they rushed her all at once. She was practically buried by the time she finally gave in, and it was difficult to hear her through the sound of the rats, but her words were clear enough. Truthful, too. People don't lie when they're in that kind of pain."
"So she told you about the club, and you sent your vampire to kill me. Bravo for the effort. Less than full marks for the way it turned out, though." It was hard to smile carelessly when he had just heard the cruel tale of the death of a friend, but Giles managed it. Glad that Spike's cigarettes were within his reach, he lit one as slowly and as steadily as he could, the best way he could think of to underline the imperturbability that he felt sure Yoshiko must realise was just an act. The vampires' eyes narrowed.
"Actually that one wasn't one of mine. Believe it or not, Rupert, there's something of a civil war amongst vampires where I'm concerned. On the Continent of course..." this with a nod to Spike. "I confess that in the rest of the world it's all still a mystery to them, but in Europe... well let's just say that my kind are split as to whether they agree with me or not. The creature that came after you wasn't working for me. He obviously knew something, and took it upon himself to kill you before I could get hold of you. Hoping to put a spanner in my works, if you get my drift. I'm quite obliged to you for killing him, actually. One less for me to worry about."
"I've never heard of any civil war amongst the vampires." Giles didn't want to disbelieve the vampire entirely, since there seemed little for him to gain from lying about something like that, but the suspicion still remained in the Watcher's active brain. What did vampires have to fight about, except for the most tasty jugular veins, when they scrabbled for victims in dark alleys?
"Suzie Montgomery had an artefact." It was a return to the story of earlier, and the explanation of Giles's rôle in all of this. Giles let him speak on, not bothering to interrupt with questions. He could see that Spike was champing at the bit, but Ethan, studiously calm, didn't even seem to be listening. "A statue, of particularly striking workmanship, depicting Garos, a primitive god in certain demonic circles. I see you're familiar with the piece. When Miss Montgomery was being... devoured, shall we say?... she admitted to me that she had passed the statue on to you. Made a gift of it, very recently. I'd like to know where that statue is, Rupert."
"I remember the piece." It was pointless to deny that, since his expression had given away his familiarity with it. Suzie had owned it for as long as he had known her, and he had often seen the statue on her mantelpiece. With his Watcher's knowledge he had always known the likeness of Garos for what it was, although there were aspects of the ancient demon's character and history that were probably not known to any human now alive, or perhaps ever born. Suzie had been very proud of the fact that it was the only one of its kind; at least a thousand years old, and probably considerably more so. She had never had it tested, and to his knowledge had never so much as moved it, until the day she had visited him, a week or so previously, and presented it to him as a gift. She hadn't given any explanation at the time, but he was seeing some now. Suzie had always had some powers of a psychic nature, and she might have seen something of what was coming.
"Garos." Ethan folded his arms, staring into the middle distance with his air of casual confidence once more in place. "I remember him. Ugly little sod. Wasn't the statue carved from some sort of wood?"
"Specially seasoned wood, almost black in colour, treated so that it was as hard as any stone." Yoshiko sounded almost like an auctioneer, reading from a catalogue. "He's about ten inches high, is crouching on a roughly square plinth about another three or four inches in height, and has a tail curling down over the plinth. His eyes are black opals, which would make him worth a small fortune even if he wasn't unique and ancient. I can understand why you'd want to keep it to yourself, Rupert, but I want that statue, and I plan to get it."
"I don't know where it is." He took the cigarette from his mouth, watching the smoke as it curled from the end.
"She gave it to you. People don't lie when they're hoping to save themselves from being eaten by a swarm of rats." Yoshiko's voice was soft and even; dispassionate, but not without a measure of odd gentility. Giles nodded.
"And she wasn't lying. She gave it to me, about a week ago, but I donated it to a museum - the Carroway Collection. It's always handled odd exhibits, and the trustees have an interest in the supernatural. The statue was on display there for a short while, but the collection was stolen several nights ago. There was a highly organised break in at the museum where it was being held, and everything of any value was taken." He sounded detached but precise, as though making a report. "It could be anywhere in the world by now. A lot of the time these robberies are done to order, and the things that are stolen get shipped all over the place almost before they've been reported missing."
"You're very convincing." Yoshiko's half smile didn't waver, and his tongue stroked gently at the tips of his fangs. "Very convincing. Don't you think he's convincing?" This last was directed at Ethan and Spike, who were both less than impressed with their companion's hastily ad-libbed story. Ethan carried on staring straight ahead, well aware that his old friend was lying - not least because he knew full well that the Carroway Collection had been closed for more than a fortnight - since he himself had broken in and appropriated a large number of the exhibits. He also knew, as he suspected did most other people with even a passing interest in such things, that the collection hadn't included anything supernatural since 1962, when a glass vase reputed to contain the trapped spirit of an eighteenth century witch had exploded, and the resulting chaos had needed three priests and a sorcerer to fix. Spike was equally sceptical, although he knew nothing at all about the Carroway Collection. He knew that Giles was lying because he had seen the statue of Garos sitting in the Watcher's apartment just a few hours before. It was on top of a bookcase, standing on a leather-bound book called Principles Of Advanced Demonology, and staring around the apartment with its beady, multi-hued opal eyes. He had considered hiding it, just to wind Giles up, but he had left it where it was in the end. Spike didn't know much about demons and history, but he did know about Garos, and the unpleasant effect he was apt to have upon vampires. Drusilla had told him about it, one cold December afternoon some seventy years ago, as they had lain awake together during the long hours of the daytime. Bad dreams had made her a shivering mass of tears in his arms, mumbling about the strange demons that had always haunted her mind, and he had caught the story of Garos amid the usual babble that only Drusilla herself ever really understood.
"I don't think your friends believe you either." The patience didn't leave Yoshiko's voice. "Suppose we try another tack. Where do you live, Rupert? It's strange, but nobody has managed to tell me that so far. Your friend Miss Montgomery died before she could spit that bit out, and everybody else that I've spoken to has given me a different answer. I've searched every address they've given, from Bath to York, but I've come up empty handed every time. You haven't been out of the country since she gave it to you, so it must be somewhere in England. I want to know where."
"Then find it. Find out who was behind the robbery, and see if you can track down the statue that way. Asking me isn't going to do you any good." Giles met the cold, vampiric eyes, and wondered why dear old Suzie couldn't have given him some ordinary gift instead.
"The statue was not stolen." All pretence at evenness and dispassion had gone from Yoshiko's voice, and with a sharp slap he knocked the cigarette from the Watcher's hand. "You have it. You know where it is." His other hand snapped up, seizing Giles by the neck and lifting him from the ground. "And you're going to tell me."
"I don't know." He could hardly get the words out, let alone find the energy to make them sound convincing. "I haven't seen that statue since--"
"Fool." Yoshiko pushed him away, and only Ethan's presence close behind stopped the Watcher from falling. "I will have that statue, whether by straightforward means or by coercion. Tell me, Rupert - have you ever seen a man eaten by rats? Eaten tiny piece by tiny piece, whilst still alive? Your friend Mr Rayne looks big and healthy enough to last a long time before dying. Shall we put it to the test, and see how long?"
"I'd really rather not." Ethan gave Giles a nudge. "Come on Ripper. Give the nice vampire his statue."
"Bloody don't!" Oddly emphatic, Spike turned to confront the pair of them. "Do you know what'll happen if a vampire - any vampire - gets hold of that statue? He could have supremacy over all of us. No wonder there's a bloody civil war going on, if he's been putting the word out about it. Some will think it's a good idea to have that kind of a leader, but the rest of us won't like the idea at all, and neither should--"
"Yes, I think they get the picture, Spike. Although you yourself seem to be a little confused about the details." Yoshiko smiled glacially, eyes gleaming a sickly yellow. "With Garos in my hands, any vampire I come into contact with will obey me unquestioningly. At a Hellmouth I can extend that influence over every vampire on the face of the Earth - and all those yet to be. Sunnydale isn't the only Hellmouth in the world, but it is the most accessible. Reputedly the most powerful. Now tell me where the statue is."
"You plan to lead all the vampires on Earth on some kind of crusade." Giles shook his head. "There aren't enough. There can't be. Not to take over, or to wipe out humanity."
"Why would we want to wipe you out?" Yoshiko's smile was as unpleasant as a smile had any right to be. "Who would we eat then? And you forget, Rupert, that we can always make more vampires. More loyal followers, ready to join the march. It'll be the greatest crusade this planet has ever seen; greater than any conquering force ever summoned. Most vampires have no ambition beyond their next meal. They're nothing but mindless dogs, easily killed by the Slayer, by Watchers in training, by any fool who knows about them, and who can handle a cross and a stake. But my army, Rupert - all following my lead, backed by the military genius of all the great generals I trained with centuries ago in the East - would be something different altogether. In days we could double, triple, quadruple our numbers. In a week we could take over a country - more than one perhaps. By the time other countries realise what's happening - let alone bring themselves to believe it - we can have made more ground yet. We don't die easily. Even bombs won't necessarily kill us. They'll mostly just kill the humans, and make our passage easier still. Guns, chemicals, gas - all your nasty little weapons - are useless against my kind. I can't see you managing to defeat us when all you can do is fight one on one, and stake us one at a time."
"You sound as though you've thought this through pretty thoroughly." Giles had heard grand plans before, from other foes - Angelus plotting to end the world, the Mayor and his Ascension, Glory and all her ideas - but he had never been the only obstacle in the path of the evil mastermind before. It didn't feel terribly pleasant. Yoshiko nodded.
"I've been thinking it through since I first heard of the statue of Garos, which if I remember correctly - and I usually do - was in 1671. All that time, wondering if it was a myth, hearing half truths, tracing ghosts and rumours down blind alleys. And then I heard of Suzie Montgomery, the famous white witch, collector and protector of a thousand occult items. And imagine my displeasure when I heard how narrowly I'd missed it - and my amusement when I heard exactly who it had been given away to."
"Why does everybody always want to take over the world?" Ethan sounded almost disillusioned, as though he had been hoping for something more original from a vampire of Yoshiko's supposed distinction. Everybody looked at him, and he shrugged. "Well I don't understand it, that's all. All that effort, and what do you get for it? A world you can't really do anything with. My way might only get money and the occasional pleasant antique, but it's a lot more fun that world domination. Lot less bother too."
"You're beginning to annoy me." Yoshiko was losing patience, and Ethan backed away. He didn't want to take any risks with someone who wanted to feed him to a bunch of rats just to make a point. A nervous grin made his eyes look pale.
"Yes, well. Just give the fellow what he wants, hey Ripper? After all, what's a little genocide and mass destruction among friends?"
"Give him that statue, and what Angelus got up to in Sunnydale will look like a kiddie's picnic." Spike was furious. "I mean it, Giles. Way I feel I don't care even if he does go to the Hellmouth and does whatever the bloody hell he wants with Buffy. But I never wanted to see his kind of destruction, and I don't fancy getting turned into some mindless foot soldier so I can help cause it."
"Oh you wouldn't, Spike. You'd be no use to me with that chip in your head; and you were always tainted goods anyway. You and that warped girlfriend of yours. For all I care the rats can have you, along with that other violently annoying Englishman over there, and anybody else who gets in my way."
"How'd you know about-?" Spike's hand went to his head, before he scowled and reached for his cigarettes instead. "Huh. Bloody rumours. Vampires are worse than giggling school girls when it comes to spreading gossip - and as it happens this chip is no--"
"Spike." Giles stepped forward, lighting the cigarette for him with a steady hand. "Calm down. I'm not going to give him that statue whatever he does. Quite apart from the fact that there's a certain rather pleasant poetry in the idea of watching Ethan being eaten by rats, I couldn't hand Garos over anyway. I don't know where he is."
"Oh great. It's always good to be heroic when it's not you that's about to be digested." Ethan eyed the rats unhappily between glares at his old friend. Their moment of conflict seemed to amuse Yoshiko, but he didn't join in with it. Giles watched him thoughtfully as he turned to give orders to his dead associates - and had to force himself not to react when, moments later, the guards closed in on Ethan.
"You do have a plan, right?" Spike's voice was low, but a certain urgency still held. "I mean, if it hadn't been for the chip I'd probably have taken a few bites out of your mate hours ago, but I'm assuming that we don't want the rats to eat him?"
"Not if we can avoid it, no." Giles had dropped his own voice to something less than a whisper, although Yoshiko's attention seemed taken up solely by Ethan now. Only the rats were watching the other two prisoners, and most of them were beginning to lose interest, anticipating what was to come. "If he does have some kind of control amulet, we need to get it from him."
"Assuming that he's got it here."
"If he has, the next few minutes ae going to be the best chance we've got. He's only going to be watching Ethan and me for a while, and you're our best bet anyway."
"Me?" Spike didn't generally find it easy to whisper, and it was harder still whilst squeaking in indignation. "Why me?"
"Because you're a vampire. You're very strong, remember?" Giles kept the exasperation to a minimum, well aware that it had never had the intended effect on Spike. The vampire looked less than thrilled.
"Yeah, but he's a vampire too. Which means that he's also got super-strength - and super-hearing too come to that, so all this cloak and dagger stuff--"
"Just do your best, Spike." One of the dead things was heading their way, and Giles knew that it was focused on him. If Spike refused to help now, this looming, dead guard was going to be making the Watcher into a helpless part of a very grisly execution.
"What am I looking for?" Yoshiko was turning back their way now, and Spike made the words into perhaps the quietest that he had ever spoken. All the same, he couldn't quite believe that the older vampire hadn't heard them. The approaching guard seized Giles by the arms.
"I don't know!" It was all that Giles had time to say before he was dragged away, somewhat roughly, over to where the other servants of Yoshiko were wrestling Ethan to the ground. It gave Giles a burst of unexpected optimism to see the defiance in the sorcerer's eyes, and the way that he suffered the treatment with a strange sort of dignity. Ethan was often playing the coward in his encounters with Giles, but the Watcher had seen him display true courage too often to forget that it always lay beneath that apparently craven exterior. Their eyes met.
"You will change your mind." Yoshiko was close again; too close for Giles. He stared into those demonic eyes, and tried not to watch the flickering tongue too intently. Something about its restless, relentless rhythm suggested that it might be hypnotic.
"No." He wasn't altogether sure that he would be able to hold out, if the rats really did start to eat his old comrade. Ethan was, in all honesty, an annoying sod. He did bad things - even evil things sometimes. He hurt people, and he had set himself against Buffy Summers, the single most important part of Giles's life. But he was still, in a strange and indefinable way, a friend. Even if he hadn't been, Giles still wasn't sure that he would be able to stay by and watch him die. He thought about Garos, sitting on his bookcase in the flat not a very great distance away, and thought about handing it over. It wouldn't necessarily mean that Yoshiko would succeed in his outlandish plans. But on the other hand, once he had handed the statue over, Ethan would die anyway, and probably Spike as well - probably Giles himself would also die, in this dark and gloomy little place, for Yoshiko didn't need his help in Sunnydale. Dying here and now, without ever being able to warn Buffy of what was coming, was something more than Giles wanted to contemplate.
"You won't keep that up this defiance for long." Yoshiko's smile was close to being too horrible to look at, and Giles could almost see the vampire's memories of Suzie's death reflected in his smug yellow eyes. He wondered what Spike was thinking, standing nearby and watching with his usual nonchalance. Nobody seemed to be watching him, although it was unlikely that he had been forgotten.
"No last minute reprieve then?" Now flat on his back, Ethan was suffering the indignity of having his hands tied securely to the stout legs of the room's single chair. "No changes of heart? No sudden attacks of conscience?"
"Ask your friend." Yoshiko raised an eyebrow, regarding Giles with a mocking gleam in his eyes. "The statue, Rupert. Or your friend dies, bit by screaming bit. I don't think that either of you will thank me if the rats do some serious lasting damage before you crack, so why don't you just give in now? A few words and we can be on a plane to Sunnydale. Nobody need die here."
"Well I might be the one on the floor and in dire need of miracles, but even I don't believe that." Ethan tested the strength of the knots and the ropes, and wondered if he could think of a suitable spell. He had never paid much attention to the basic practicalities of magic though, and freeing himself, let alone escaping the rats, wasn't half so easy for him as it might have been for somebody who had learnt magic the usual way, from the simple spells upwards. He could make chocolate that turned adults into misbehaving teenagers, and could turn his best friend into a Fyarl demon - but he couldn't undo knots with a quick command and a hand gesture. Giles knew that, and so his hopes rested helplessly with Spike.
"Last chance." Yoshiko was toying with the cuffs of his shirt, apparently obsessed with straightening them, arranging them just so. Ethan grunted.
"You're wasting your time. Rupert's in one of his righteous moods."
"Righteousness is nobody's friend." Yoshiko raised a hand in signal, and once again his shirtsleeve fell back slightly, revealing the blue gleam of a bracelet beneath. "But so be it." The rats began to squeak. Giles didn't dare look Spike's way, although his mind, unwilling to focus on the rats, could think of nothing else. He watched the scratching creatures hurry forward, scrambling over each other in the race to reach their next meal, uncaring of Ethan's kicking legs. It was impossible not to struggle, not to try to be of some help, but he was held immobile, arms in the grip of his dead guard. One of the rats took a passing nip, and blood dribbled down one of Ethan's hands. The sight of it might have made Spike's pulse quicken, if he had had a pulse. Instead he dragged his eyes away from the thin trickle, looking towards Yoshiko. The older vampire wasn't looking at Spike - wasn't thinking about him, wasn't telling his guards to watch him, wasn't directing his rats to mount their own, sharp-eyed little sentries. He had dismissed the vampire utterly, and that hurt. Spike didn't want to risk his life for Ethan, particularly, or for Giles and his plans and half-baked theories - but for his own insulted pride, perhaps things were different. His hand fell to his wrist, unconsciously imitating Yoshiko's own movements, and he thought about those flashes of blue from the bracelet he could not properly see. The rats were making darts at Ethan now, toying with him, and with Giles. There was no more blood yet, but there would be a lot more soon. Spike wondered how long it would take before Giles gave in and handed over the statue. Humans were always weak. They didn't enjoy the experience of pain the way he did - didn't revel in the beauty and purity of it. They didn't like seeing it inflicted upon others, and couldn't handle feeling it themselves. For these reasons, among obvious others, it was never a good idea to count on humans. Spike would have rolled his eyes and muttered in irritation, if there had been an audience to make such displays worthwhile - but nobody was watching him of course. Everybody was watching the rats as they tore at Ethan's shirt, and scratched at his skin beneath. Giles was struggling harder now, and the rats were massing for a more serious assault. They covered Ethan's legs and crawled through his hair, running over his face and inside his clothing. The squeaking was growing louder, and Spike knew that he didn't have much time, but he still didn't really know what to do. All that he could think about was that blue bracelet beneath the frilled cuff. No certainties, just theories - but he wasn't exactly drowning in better ideas. He was only going to get one chance at this, and he hoped that he was right. Not for Ethan's sake, nor for Giles's. Not for Buffy, or for the vampires that would lose their independence if Yoshiko got the statue. All of that was immaterial, or most of it. Probably. He just didn't want to risk his own life for a bracelet.
But Ethan was almost invisible now. Beneath the writhing rats his shapeless form shook and struggled, but the hungry creatures could not be dislodged. A cry of pain rose above the squeaking and the scratching, and Giles fought violently in the grip of his inhuman captors. His broken hand, useless and limp, tried to grab hold of the arms that pinioned his own, but it lacked the strength or the movement. Spike stared at it, discoloured from bruising, then let his eyes drift to the blood that was beginning to stain the worn carpet. Ethan's blood, coming from minute bites and scratches. The rats were taking their time, and only Yoshiko could be making them do that. Spike growled angry thoughts, and wondered idly if there was a patron saint to watch over foolish vampires. Probably not, but it was worth asking for help anyway. Trouble was, when you'd been evil for more than a century, you tended to forget how to pray. He scowled, and let the demon take over his face, turning his eyes into glowering blazes of furious yellow light. Sod the praying. If he didn't try this now he was going to die here anyway - and with a ferocious, feral growl, he called upon all of his strength, and hurled himself at Yoshiko.
"Damn you Spike!" Borne to the ground by the weight of his attacker, Yoshiko roared with all of his vocal power. Spike went for his throat, teeth and fingers scrabbling for purchase, but the older vampire fought back with equal energy. One of the dead things howled with rage, and lowered its rotting head, hurrying towards the battling duo at an unsteady, lumbering run. Giles kicked out at the mindless creature, knocking it off balance and tumbling backwards himself, tangling unintentionally with his own, powerful guard. His broken hand sang out in pain as it thumped against the floor, but he struggled upwards again, ignoring the discomfort. Dead hands grabbed at his arms and his ankles, and he lashed out at them with all the ferocity that Spike displayed, locked in his mad, tooth and claw battle with Yoshiko. The pair were a blur of pale skin, bestial growls rising above the squealing of the rats. Giles couldn't see if either of the pair was winning, but there was no chance to get closer, to look more fully. It wouldn't have been safe, even if he had been able to get close, for the fight was a mad one; a chaotic, primal riot of unrestrained violence. The Watcher had his own battle to fight anyway, less furious but no less desperate, as he did all that he could to keep Yoshiko's servants from going to their master's aid. Nearby Ethan writhed, but the rats did not let up, seeing no need since they had received no such order.
"You'll die for this, damn you. You'll die the worst death any demon ever dreamed of." Yoshiko was spitting was rage, and Spike felt his own grip loosening. He was not as strong as the older vampire anyway, and the former soldier's ancient warrior training gave further advantage. With his incandescent fury granting further energy, further strength, the end of the fight seemed already decided - so Spike gave up trying to win. He focused only on the bracelet, that elusive gleam of blue on Yoshiko's left wrist. The older vampire seemed not to guess at his intentions, raining down blows that turned Spike's vision to a blurred uncertainty. Spike could no longer see the wrist or the bracelet, but he struggled for it anyway. His ears sang with confusion and disordered noises - rats, Ethan, Giles; the thumping feet of the dead guards. Giles clearly could no longer distract them. They were coming for Spike, and it would all be over if they reached him. Feeling breathless even though he should not have needed breath at all, he abandoned all attempt to deflect Yoshiko's blows. There was no longer the time for self defence. Thrusting forward with the last of the clarity he could be certain of, he grabbed the wrist, snatched at the bracelet, hoped for a clasp. There wasn't one, but something moved. Heavy hands caught at his shoulders, his back, his arms - powerful strength tried to pull him backwards and upwards. Yoshiko was roaring obscenities in Japanese - words that Spike somehow found he understood even though he knew no Japanese at all. He managed a breathless grin that stretched his bloodied lips too far, and made one last grab for the bracelet. It came loose. Yoshiko screamed in mad anger, so loud that the floor seemed to shake - then the guards were dragging Spike back and throwing him to the floor. He hit hard, and the bracelet fell from his tired fingers, ringing away in tuneful bounces. He watched it go, but couldn't go after it. He couldn't move. Yoshiko watched it too, and he smiled.
"Brave attempt, Spike. Stupid, but brave." He rose to his feet, casting merry but vindictive eyes about the room. Ethan was still invisible, still thrashing beneath the carpet of attacking rats. Giles lay face down where the guards had dumped him, unmoving and barely seeming to breathe. Spike was no better off, even though he hadn't needed to breathe in the first place. He coughed though, wishing that it didn't hurt so much when he did. The bracelet filled his thoughts, but he hadn't seen where it had landed. He managed to sit up, shakily, weak as a kitten, and waved an arm to attract his enemy's attention. Yoshiko glared.
"Asking for worse before your death?" He took a few steps towards his downed victim, and behind him Giles stirred. Spike watched him, in the corner of one eye, as he raised a bruised and bloody head, and smiled a far too confident smile. Spike wished he felt that cheerful, and wondered how many bones he had broken this time. Why did people always assume that he was indestructible, just because he was a bloody vampire? Well, possibly because he actually was indestructible, but that was beside the point.
"You're not going to kill me." In point of fact he didn't really believe that there was any way he could avoid being killed in the next few minutes, but he was ready to keep up the act. It clearly annoyed Yoshiko, anyway, so in that way at least it was worthwhile.
"You think not?" The powerful vampire was edging nearer, and behind him Giles pushed himself up into a sitting position. The guards stared mutely at him, but made no move. Spike wanted to watch, but didn't dare risk drawing Yoshiko's attention onto the Watcher. Only vaguely, therefore, was he aware of Giles looking about the room; only vaguely could he be sure that the Watcher had seen the bracelet. He couldn't see it himself, but then he couldn't see a lot just now. He stared up at Yoshiko, and tried out a half-hearted growl. Nearby the heavy step of a guard sounded out, and before Spike could think of anything to say, Yoshiko had swung around. He saw Giles reaching out for the bracelet, and a belated guard reaching out for Giles; and with another of his uncontrollable bellows he turned away from Spike. He was too late. Dragging the bracelet towards him, and stumbling awkwardly to his feet, the Watcher stamped down with all his might. It was a gamble, just like everything else had been, but Spike knew straight away that it had paid off. The arc of blue light that filled the room was proof enough, as was the terrified screeching of the army of rats. The control broken, in a violent, raging sea they tore across the room, panicking, colliding, running up the walls in an effort to escape, tripping the guards and attacking each other before finally they discovered the door. Giles ignored them, going straight for Ethan. Spike breathed a shaky sigh.
"You'll die. You'll die in deepest agony begging me for forgiveness." Yoshiko advanced on Giles, who was struggling one-handed with Ethan's ropes. "You'll tell me about Garos, sell me the Slayer, tell me every secret you ever knew before I'm finished, and it won't do you an ounce of good."
"Friendly bastard, isn't he." Ethan looked like death, but apparently that didn't stop him from displaying signs of a decidedly warped sense of humour. He sat up uncertainly as soon as his wrists were free, but didn't make any attempt to stand. With his face so pale that he looked more like a vampire than either of the real ones present, and blood soaking through the many tiny holes in his shirt, he didn't seem strong enough to even be sitting, but he obviously preferred at least some degree of verticality. Yoshiko growled at him, and the noise echoed strangely around the room.
"You act like you think you've been saved. Just because my rats have gone doesn't mean that I can't still have you killed as slowly and as unpleasantly as I like. My guards could tear you limb from limb, pull every finger from its socket - and I'll get what I want just as I would have done otherwise. This isn't a victory."
"Feels like one from where I'm sitting." Ethan winced as movement caused his many wounds to object. "After being nibbled at by rats, being ripped apart by zombies doesn't actually sound all that bad."
"It doesn't?" Giles didn't sound too sure, but since he wasn't the one who had very nearly been rat food, he was prepared to accept Ethan's point of view. Spike dragged himself to his feet and limped over to join them.
"Don't think I'm not excited by our stunning victory, Rupert, but how exactly are we better of now? I just about got beaten to death so we could do bit of pest control. That little Pied Piper routine of his was hardly the cornerstone of his whole bloody plan, was it."
"This bleached and gelled excuse for a vampire has more brain than I gave him credit for." Yoshiko was still smiling the same oily, self satisfied smile of earlier, barely swayed in his general air of smugness by the fury he had displayed only moments before. "One last chance, Rupert. Look at yourself. You can't fight anymore. You're a wreck, and yet you're probably in the best condition of the three of you. Why not just give in now and give me that statue? I might even see my way clear to promising your little Slayer a quick death - or only the bare minimum of distress."
"You're all heart." Giles climbed awkwardly back to his feet, wishing that the world wouldn't spin quite so wildly. If he was going to try bluffing his way through this next step, it would be nice not to faint in the process. "But not all brain, that's for sure. Those rats were important to you, or you wouldn't have bothered bewitching them in the first place. You're one round behind, and believe me we've got more than parlour tricks on our side. You're in more trouble than you think." He saw the flash in Yoshiko's eyes, and couldn't resist a grin. Ethan saw it, and a smile of his own answered it, despite the dire circumstances. He knew that grin. It was the old, confident, maybe slightly obnoxious grin of the Ripper on the prowl.
"You think that I believe you can win? Destroying a bracelet is hardly high magic, and you'll have to do a lot better than that to stand a chance of defeating me." Yoshiko was looming closer, eyes centred upon Giles now. "All that matters is that statue, and I will have it, Rupert. I don't care what it takes. Perhaps we should forget using Mr Rayne here as a hostage? Perhaps I should bring my other plans forward, and use the Slayer instead? I wonder how long you'd hold out against my demands when it was her I was threatening to have dismembered? Well? Think about it. Imagine that sweet, blonde child in the grip of a few of my finest assistants. Oh they're not subtle, I'll give you that. They're not clever, or even particularly useful in many respects - but they are very, very strong."
"I'd noticed." Giles's tone was dry, holding a certain humour despite the circumstances. His gaze took in Ethan, slumped on the ground at his feet, and the old Ripper smile came out once again; a glimmer of darkness and malice lurking beneath supreme confidence. It came from somewhere out of the blue, a reawakening of old characteristics, perhaps in the face of possibly insurmountable odds. Ethan frowned. Perhaps it was because his mind was addled, and his current physical weakness prevented him from seeing things clearly, but that smile, that poise, and those towering, no longer human guards reminded him of something. He racked his brains, but could think of nothing at first that might tell him why this suddenly all seemed so familiar. Could there be something, locked in his brain? Some past event that reminded him of all of this? Some scrape from the old days that they must have escaped from - and which might help them to escape again today? He couldn't think, and his mind drifted to the possibility of fighting back instead. He was tired - too tired - but there might be something nearby that he could use as a possible weapon. The whisky bottles lay close by, but they were useless. If they had still had something in them, they might have served some purpose; as it was they were just glass. He had nothing else of use save his cigarettes, chewed up and scattered by the rats, and his matches, lying on the rickety little table beside Neil Baker's last effects. He felt defeated, yet still Giles was standing there, coolly defiant in the manner familiar of old, facing down the increasingly threatening behaviour of their host. Ethan fell back against the chair behind him, wondering if it was all going to end now, when they had been making such headway. They had heard Yoshiko's plans and intentions; removed his unpleasant infantry; and certainly to Giles's mind that left only one final step - the end, one way or the other. Once again the tired and weakened sorcerer turned his mind to old battles, old confrontations, searching for the reason why the sight of the Ripper surrounded by zombies should be so familiar. How might he and his companion have handed something like this in the past? How had they dealt with similar situations? There had been fights - drunken pub brawls and duels filled with dark spells, and everything in between. There had been arguments and chases and deaths quick and slow, clean and messy; demons and vampires and humans, all crossing their paths, all beaten, drawn with and even, once in a while, lost to - but none of that helped them now. And all of a sudden Giles looked his way, and his eyes showed that old Ripper resolve - just before Yoshiko's signal brought the dead and rotting guards down upon him. And then at last Ethan understood.
And it was 1978 again. They had tried to get away from London for a bit, shortly before their final descent into the hell that had brought them Eyghon. A long drive into the country with Deirdre for company, and Ethan's own then girlfriend. He couldn't remember her name now, but he had liked her at the time, more or less. It had started out well enough, when they had parked the car on Dartmoor, wondering how they had managed to get so far on half a leaky tank of petrol, in a car that none of them had ever driven before. Giles had 'borrowed' it from outside a tobacconist's earlier in the day, whilst Ethan had been inside buying cigarettes, and they had driven it hell for leather in the first direction that had taken their fancy. Why they had wound up on the moors was anybody's guess, but once there they had been happy enough. Two bottles of vodka wasn't much for four people hoping to while away a weekend - four people of their like, anyway - but with a liberal measure of marijuana, and an urge to try out some new spells and incantations, they had thought that they would be right enough; and had been, until the sun had gone down. As it had sunk, redder and brighter than ever into the westernmost reaches of the moor, and darkness had fallen, the moor had started to move - or so it had appeared at first. Movement everywhere, like the rough, flat ground and sparse vegetation coming to life; all of it gradually resolving itself into the shuffling, gaping figures of men. Dead men, wandering out of the marshes; lurching, rotting, stumbling men, former residents of the prison, perhaps, escaped or conveniently lost. Walkers who had taken the wrong path. All of them muddy and stinking of marsh gas, glowing faintly blue like jack o' lanterns. Deirdre had laughed in delight, certain that Ethan and Giles had somehow created an illusion. Ethan's girlfriend had run off before they could stop her, and the last anybody had heard of her had been her screaming. Ethan still felt a little guilty about that; or sometimes did, anyway, during his less egotistical moments. He remembered sitting in the car, lost in a funk from the alcohol and smoke, and finding it almost as hard to think as he did now, in the flat, losing blood and battered half to death by a dead university student. Giles had been behind the wheel, still puffing on one of his special cigarettes, grinning out of the windscreen at the approaching zombies as though all the bad magic in the world couldn't hurt him. He had still been wearing his sunglasses too, despite the darkness - which Ethan had thought rather cool at the time, although he was prepared to accept now that it had probably been a bit daft. With Deirdre beside them, drunk and giggling and still convinced that their apparently imminent horrible death was all a very pretty hallucination, Ethan and the Ripper had climbed from the car, armed with nothing more than a handful of spells that they were still only just beginning to experiment with. Ethan saw it all now - far more clearly than he had seen it at the time. Just another fight; just another near disaster averted through a mixture of brain, brawn, magic and sheer luck. It had been a way of life for them then, and in a way it always had been, ever since. He clawed his memory back through other encounters, other catastrophes, other struggles, and fought to focus his mind just as he had fought to focus it all those years ago, that night on Dartmoor. The spells were still there, lurking in his subconscious. He had used them since, on occasion, though never again against enchanted dead men. Never again in dark, morose places, with a head full of cotton wool and a body that didn't want to react to anything. His lips echoed the careless grin of the Ripper, and he raised his head to look up at the scene around him. It probably wasn't going to work, but at least he knew what he had to do now; and if you were going to die horribly, it was always best to do it whilst trying not to. Wiping the blood from his eyes and pulling his now ragged shirt more closely around him, he shivered to feign an even greater weakness than he felt, and stared at the others through half-closed lids. Spike stood a few feet away, looking very much the worse for wear, a sardonic smile curling his lips into a sneer that brought Ethan's earlier joke about Billy Idol back to him. Giles was rather less the sneering punk of course, held all but immobile in the grip of two dead men, Yoshiko towering before him with his yellow eyes like ghostly lamps. Giles could smell the vampire's foul breath, and had to steel himself not to flinch away. Almost at his feet, Ethan flopped back his head, closed his eyes, and began to chant.
He spoke in less than a whisper, muttering words that probably meant nothing to all but one other present - not that any of them could hear him. It was a language that he barely understood himself - just enough to make the spell work, and to comprehend what each section of it did. One of the obscure languages, as he thought of them; the ones that few beyond the Watchers knew in any fluency, and one of the many in which Giles seemed fully conversant. Ethan had used to tease him about that in the old days - the broad range of languages that for reasons known only to himself, or more likely to his father, he had learnt from an early age. He always seemed to underestimate how many he knew, and Ethan rather doubted that most of them would ever come in handy; but a few, at least, had their uses. Trying to make his faint whispering look like the delirious ramblings of a badly injured man, he chanted on, the words returning to him without difficulty. And all the time, beneath him, within him and around him, he began to feel the powers rising. They came from that murky place that lay between the good magic and the dark - the place where shadows were born. It made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle, and his hands tremble like jellies; and gradually, inexorably, it made the temperature rise. A shudder ran through the nearest of the guards.
"I think it's time that we stopped being gentle, don't you Rupert?" Oblivious to Ethan's efforts, Yoshiko rounded now on Giles. The Watcher smiled uneasily, rather put off by the suggestion that things had been gentle up until now.
"I'm not telling you where the statue is." He winced as one of the guards shifted his grip, knocking Giles's broken right hand in the process. Yoshiko nodded, waving a hand dismissively.
"I wasn't expecting to hear you say anything else. Actually I was planning to bring the conversation back to the Slayer. You remember? We began this conversation with her. You might say that I tested the waters with her, and found that she was just what I was looking for, in more ways than one."
"Yeah." Spike, ineffectually trying to rub the blood from his face, glanced up. "There are lots of us that think that." Giles shot him a vaguely disgusted look, but he merely shrugged. "What?"
"You can talk all you like, with your bravado, and your claims not to have what I want." Yoshiko nodded to the zombies, and one of them caught hold of the Watcher's right hand. "But when night falls, if we're not going to collect Garos, we'll be going to collect the Slayer instead. Everything that I said I would do to her, I'll do with you watching. And I'll carry on doing them until you tell me where that statue--" He broke off as his minion let go of Giles's hand. "What's this? Mutiny is hardly an option."
"Maybe they're out of batteries." Another of the guards tightened his hold, as though to disprove the suggestion, and Giles had to grit his teeth sharply. He didn't want any more audible winces or gasps of pain.
"Can't get good zombies anymore." Spike edged closer, trying to look nonchalant. "It's junk food that does it. Screw 'em up even after they're dead."
"There's nothing wrong with them." Yoshiko's sharp, animal gaze took in the threesome who opposed him - the tightly held Giles, the defiant Spike, Ethan shamming unconsciousness - and decided on the second of the three as the most likely culprit of any sabotage. "Why do you insist on allying yourself with these humans, Spike? Do you really like the taste of pigs' blood bought from butchers' shops that much? Is it really worth losing everything just to help men like this fight your own kind?"
"No." Spike thought about Buffy, who might have made all things worthwhile, once upon a time. "But stopping you getting hold of Garos, and controlling the rest of us, is worth pretty much anything."
"Short-sighted fool. Once humanity is defeated there'd be no need for the mind control anymore, and you know it. Why else would I have supporters amongst our own kind? Now whatever it is that you're trying to do to my men, stop it now or I'll stake you where you stand."
"Can't stop." Spitting the words out as one of his guards tightened his grip still further, Giles met Yoshiko's furious glare with as much defiance as he could muster. "Complicated spells. Very powerful. Once they're set in motion there's no stopping them."
"Every spell can be stopped, even if it's just by casting another." Yoshiko pointed at Spike, and muttered a few words, and his eyes turned to blocks of sheer black. Spike took a step back. He had seen enough such displays from Willow to know that this was not good. The ground shook beneath his feet, and he thought that he saw the plaster crack. Yoshiko spread his hands, and Spike felt vibrations within his skull. His features changed, and he growled, baring his teeth at nothing in particular, and behind Yoshiko, abandoning his pretence at last, Ethan let his words grow to audibility. Giles began to struggle.
"What-?" Swinging around, staring down at Ethan, Yoshiko's face contorted with fury. "You? Well no matter. I'll stamp on you like the worm you are, you babbling idiot. I--" He broke off as Spike tried to rush him, and with a roar of rage spun around. Spike saw the empty black eyes staring at him, and came to a halt just as the older vampire lifted one arm and threw a bolt of invisible energy flying his way. Spike tried to duck, but the magical force caught him anyway, spinning him through the air, like a toy thrown by an angry child. He crashed into the wall beside a window, landing hard, and felt one arm burn where a pale finger of sunlight touched it. Scrabbling desperately away, he lay still. Yoshiko laughed.
"And now you." He turned back to Ethan, eyes reverting to normal. At his feet Rayne stared up, face pale beneath the network of criss-crossing lines of red. The rats had left him painted in many patterns, and it leant him an extraordinary appearance. "You're a dead man." Ethan's eyes widened, but he kept chanting, not daring to break off. Behind Yoshiko he saw Giles fighting furiously against his guards, using a reserve of strength that came from who knew where, struggling as much against his own injuries as he was against his captors. Yoshiko's voice grew louder, and the roof rattled loudly. Ethan's throat began to constrict.
"You can't stop him." Falling suddenly still, Giles raised his vioce to drown out Yoshiko's. "Ethan's spells work even after he's dead."
"Tried it before have you?" Breaking off his own chanting to look back at Giles, Yoshiko smirked unkindly. "Well perhaps we should try something of the kind. I've been enjoying myself too much. I get too much pleasure from the old ways, the tortures and the displays of strength. There are ways to make a man do exactly what I want him to do, Rupert, whether it's break off his damn spell casting, or tell me where's he's hidden his statue, and that--" He broke off, turning around again and delivering a swift kick to Ethan's jaw. The sorcerer fell back, stunned. "And that, Rupert, is very simple. I bite you, we share a little blood, and then, in an hour or two, you'll answer any question I ask."
"Not necessarily." Giles stared past Yoshiko, willing Ethan to wake up. It was all very well claiming that the spells were unstoppable, but the truth was something very different, and Giles knew it. "There's a civil war going on, remember? Who knows which side I'd be on?"
"Whichever side I told you, at least while you're still newly awoken. Vampires and their sires, Giles - that's a relationship you've never seen the like of before."
"Yoshiko..." Ethan lifted his head, groggy and tired. The vampire glanced back at him, and Ethan smiled, cocky and insufferable as ever despite the pain. "Time to reture your servants." He frowned, struggling to concentrate through his exhaustion, and dragged up, from the darkest recesses of his memory, the last words of his ancient incantation. There was no colour change to his eyes, for even Ethan chose not to dabble in the deeper, darker magicks - but he felt a crackle of static electricity which made his hair bristle. Yoshiko growled and turned on him again, rushing towards him with clawed hands outstretched - but behind him, with a moan and a splutter and a splashing of putrefying organs, the zombies collapsed into pools of stinking fluid. Shaken, Giles found himself free at last, but there was no time to draw breath. Yoshiko had caught hold of Ethan, half lifting him by the neck, fangs bared as he went in for the kill. Giles threw himself forward, catching the vampire with the sort of tackle that had got him banned from the rugby field during his school days. They tumbled into a pile, Ethan's protesting form underneath, Yoshiko spitting and raging in the middle. Spike hurled himself into the melee as well, trying and failing to avoid hurting Giles in the process. Yoshiko roared, calling on the magical powers that were the only defence he had left. Spike caught his arms.
"No... more... magic." They were the only words that he had enough energy for, but they carried real feeling. Hurling his attackers from him with a last burst of strength, Yoshiko stared wildly around. His zombies were gone, soaking into the carpet, staining the floorboards, spatters of their putrescent flesh marking the walls and the furniture. He was beaten and he knew it, and even if one last spell might have done for all three of his enemies, he saw little point in trying it. There was no telling how powerful Ethan's defensive conjurings might be - and besides, Yoshiko didn't want Giles dead. Not yet.
"This isn't over. "He pointed one of his long, clawed fingers at the threesome, a bruised and confused heap on the floor. "I'll have that statue yet. I'll have my revolution. And I'll have you three dead. Soon enough."
"Yeah?" Spike wondered where Giles's stake had ended up, after it had been lost earlier. He wasn't sure he had the energy to fetch it, let alone use it, but he felt that he should try. Yoshiko growled.
"This isn't over," he repeated. Then dragging his long coat up around his head, revealing the garment's hidden voluminousness as he pulled it about him like a shield, he leapt out through the door. Giles and Spike moved to stop him, but he had vanished within seconds, somewhere in the street. Spike retreated quickly from the doorway, and Giles flopped heavily against the wall.
"Those other zombies," he gasped, trying to remain upright. "The ones in the street, who killed that woman--"
"Relax." Ethan smiled at him a little lopsidedly, his jaw hurting from Yoshiko's brutal kick. "That spell was strong enough to liquidise any zombie from here to the far side of the Home Counties. And quite possibly several humans as well."
"What?!" Giles turned to look out of the window, as though expecting to see the faces that had been in the windows opposite suddenly melt away into a messy death. Ethan fell back, waving a hand in attempted reassurance.
"Joke. Joke. At least I hope so. I wouldn't want to be wearing certain items of Druidic jewellery just now, but I doubt I've done anything too serious." He lifted his head, staring back at the Watcher. "Can we go now?"
"First we should..." Giles tried to think of all the things that they should do. Tidy up, look for evidence of what had happened and remove anything too obvious; report in to the Watchers' Council. All kinds of things - none of which he could be bothered to do. "We should get the hell out of here. I need a shower."
"And a change of clothes," pointed out Spike, with a touch of typical humour. "You've got puddly rotting dead bloke all over your shirt."
"Sorry about that." Leaning heavily on the chair, Ethan climbed slowly and painfully to his feet. "You can send me your laundry bill. Now come on. Time to leave. I'm sick of the sight of this place."
"For once I agree with you entirely." Giles stared out into the street, thinking about the last few hours. It wasn't terribly pleasant to think that he owed his survival to Ethan, but perhaps the infernal fellow wouldn't be too insufferable about it. "I want as much distance as possible between me and here. As soon as possible."
"Hear hear." Ethan grinned his favourite smug grin, and Giles's heart sank. So much for not being insufferable. "And you can thank me profusely later."
It felt strange to be out in the daylight once again, after the horrible lingering gloom of the flat. Ethan took a deep breath, grinning hugely, and did a creditable job of not seeing the two dead women in the street. Something would have to be done about that of course - but he had learned long ago that anonymous phone calls were best in such circumstances, and he knew that he would get no arguments there from Giles.
"I was starting to think that I'd seen my last rainy grey English sky." Gazing up at it, or what little of it was visible through buildings, mist and rain clouds, he sighed happily. "I like winning. Winning is good."
"Yeah. Next time you might want to try coming up with the masterstroke a little sooner. Like before we get beaten up and bloody nearly killed." Spike, who was forced to protect himself from the daylight with a large piece of the flat's mouldy carpet, was less delighted by the sight of the sky; and less delighted still to owe his release to somebody like Ethan Rayne. The sorcerer smiled happily at him, his sense of triumph undiminished.
"I don't run into zombies every day, and I can't say that I need spells like that all that often either. Got there in the end, though, didn't I. We survived."
"So did Yoshiko," pointed out the vampire. Giles nodded.
"True. But he's my problem now. I'm sure that the two of you have any number of nefarious deeds you'd rather be doing elsewhere."
"I don't think he appreciates our help, Spike." Ethan dropped an arm around Giles's shoulders, making both men wince as their various injuries protested. Giles eyed him balefully.
"I'd say that about covers it. In fact I could quite cheerfully spend the next fifty years without running into either one of you ever again. Not that I'd want you to take that at all personally."
"Course not. We understand." Ethan was in unshakeably high spirits, and seemed determined to let the whole world know it. "We're evil. You're a pure-hearted good guy. Never the twain and all that."
"I was thinking more along the lines of you being bloody annoying, actually," his old friend told him. "But yours works too."
"Hey, I can take a hint." Spike made no attempt to leave, though, despite his claim, and instead seemed content to wander alongside the other two. He lit his last cigarette, and puffed on it thoughtfully. "So what do we do next?"
"There's always Casualty." Ethan rubbed his battered ribcage. "Medical attention has a certain appeal right now, for the less dead amongst us - and I think I could probably use a tetanus shot. Ripper?"
"No." Giles stared down at his broken hand, knowing that he would have to do something about it sooner or later. "I don't like hospitals, and goodness knows I've seen more than enough of them these last few years." His voice changed to the superior tones of one of the women who worked in the ER department of the hospital in Sunnydale. " 'You again, Mr Giles? You do lead an interesting life'. I think half the doctors in Sunnydale believe I'm part of some weird S&M cult. I've had to do some creative explaining for the medical insurance, I can tell you."
"No doctors then." Ethan was fairly sure that he could come up with a spell that would patch up most of their injuries. That or kill them all, anyway, for it was bound to be one or the other. He fell silent for a while, enjoying the sensation of merely being alive, and no longer in any danger. Spike handed round his cigarette, and they shared it in a companionable peace.
"So did you mean that?" asked Ethan in the end. Giles glanced at him sideways.
"That you never want to see either of us again. That we're 'bloody annoying'?"
"Course I meant it." Giles's voice was regressing again, back to the East End tones of the old days. "And don't forget the evil bit. In case you hadn't noticed, I wasn't happy to be with either of you before the long hours of confinement, and nothing has changed. I'm a good guy. I don't want to spend my time with a vampire and a... whatever the hell you are."
"Oh." Ethan nodded. "Fair enough."
"Glad you see it my way." Giles passed the cigarette back to Spike, who nodded his thanks from beneath the carpet, and went back to blowing smoke rings.
"Oh I do. Absolutely." They walked on a bit further, still without obvious animosity despite their claimed differences. "We'll be going then. Off somewhere else. You go back to Good Guy Land, and us evil types will go and... do something evil. Alright?"
"Fine by me," Giles told him. Spike nodded.
"Good," Ethan confirmed. "Any minute now then." Then wandered on. "I should hate to compromise your principles."
"Okay. So, er..." Ethan flashed him a broad grin, filled with genuine warmth. "Back to your place then?"
"Yeah." Giles returned the smile with one of his own, no less genuine. "Alright."
"You still got any of that special whisky?"
"My father's special blend?" Giles nodded. "Got a new bottle a day or so back. My Annoying Sod detectors must have been warning me that I was due a visit."
"Great." Brightening still further, Ethan slapped him on the back, and once again they both winced. "Whisky it is then. You still in that gloomy place with the dodgy housekeeper?"
"Hey. I like her. She invited me in." Spike grinned, remembering Giles's frustration of earlier. Ethan laughed.
"Good old Rosie. She's always inviting people in. He bought that place in '89, and she's been letting in a stream of vampires and psychopaths ever since. Bugger knows how she's managed not to get herself eaten by now."
"Even evil creatures appreciate good hospitality." Spike pulled his carpet closer about him, rather glad that there were few people around. All three men knew enough dubious back streets to negotiate large areas of the capital practically unseen, which was certainly of use when you were forced to wear a carpet to avoid exploding. Too much attention could lead to problems, otherwise. "It's good whisky then, is it? This stuff your father used to drink?"
"The best. Giles gets it sent down from the Highlands. You'll like it, if you haven't jaded your palate too much from drinking all that blood."
"Children..." Giles sighed, knowing that he was going to regret spending even five more minutes in the company of these two, let alone another few hours. Still, Spike was sure to be heading back to Sunnydale fairly soon, and Ethan... Well. Ethan was just one of those things, really.
"Who's a child? We're not fighting." Ethan grinned roguishly. "Just arguing a little. Anyway, what are you going to do about it? You can't fight in your condition."
"But I can nick his carpet and do any number of painful things to you." A smile came to the Watcher's lips, just to spite his words. "Oh, I'm too tired to argue. I want whisky, and a comfortable chair. And somewhere else to put that bloody statue of Garos."
"Beware friends bearing gifts, hey." Ethan thought fondly of Suzie Montgomery, and smiled a little sadly. Spike nodded.
"Probably a whole lot of vampires are going to want to get their hands on that thing, either to help Yoshiko or to stop him. If they find out where you live..."
"I'll go back to Bath. Let the Watchers deal with it." Giles thought of them all, dozy and ineffectual, in their supposedly imposing old offices. "Or maybe not."
"The responsibilities of being a good guy." Ethan shook his head. "You should come back to the other side, Rupert old man. Chuck Garos in a rubbish bin, and leave it all to fate."
"I thought you said you were going off to do something evil somewhere else?" With an irritability that was only half genuine, Giles snatched the cigarette back from Spike, and then wished that he hadn't. Why did spending time with the vampire always end with him smoking far too much? Ethan was still being insufferably bright, and laughed aloud in answer to his companion's question. There were definitely worse things than being killed by vampires, rats and zombies, thought Giles sourly. Like being rescued by Ethan Rayne.
"I was, but you invited me home for a drink instead. Very kind of you I thought." Reaching across for the cigarette, Ethan breathed out a long stream of smoke. "I love London. Don't you?"
"Not with you in it," Giles told him. The bit of carpet covering Spike's head nodded in mildewed agreement. Ethan merely laughed all the more.
"I've missed you, Ripper. All those years when you were in Sunnydale, and before then when you were pretending to be a good little Watcher. I think I'm going to have to visit more often."
"Yeah. Gotta say, Giles, life with you is certainly never dull." Spike smiled under his carpet, feeling better all the time as his superior strength continued to heal his many wounds. Giles groaned.
"Don't you have a Slayer to drool all over?"
"Maybe." For a second the humour seemed to leave Spike, before he shrugged his carpeted shoulders. "But not yet. Maybe I'll stick around a bit. Say hi to some old haunts. That housekeeper of yours said I should stay a while."
"Great." It was hard to be truly annoyed though. Even now, when he was accompanied by the world's most annoying pair of guests, it was hard not to be glad to be alive; glad to be free, and in the company of friends. Make that acquaintances. Make that aggravating sods who talked too much, and irritated the hell out of him. But still glad. Besides, they would be drinking, and that made all kinds of hardships less bothersome; and it might be nice to talk about things, and relax whilst getting agreeably drunk. Sure they were annoying, but he could be tolerant.
And he could always behead them both later.