Watchers Council – Giles’s Apartment – Minutes Later
Willow, Jeff, Dawn and Skye sat, hunched over, in the middle of Giles’s apartment. They had linked arms together to form an unbreakable circle and were chanting loudly when Ethan and Giles entered the room.
Swirling hot winds met the two men. Papers flew around the room in a whirlwind, while pictures on the wall rose like flags, threatening to fly off their hooks.
“I think it’s mad,” Ethan offered.
“No…ya think?” Kennedy said, sarcastically.
Giles began to make his way towards Becca, who was down on the floor with her back jammed up against a bookcase. She was yelling obscenities at the Fire Eater, while Rupert-the-dog, ears and coat waving wildly in the whirling winds, stood guarding her, snarling and snapping savagely at the creature.
Giles passed the Fire Eater on his way to Becca. Just as he did, the creature dimmed, and then flashed so brilliantly that all in the room were blinded.
When the light cleared again, Ethan could see Giles had been tossed along the far wall. The watcher didn’t move.
Robin, Faith and Xander arrived at the doorway, and the winds immediately blew hotter inside the apartment. Becca cried out in pain from the sudden, searing heat and looked down to see if she was on fire.
“Stay out!” Ethan ordered, pushing Kennedy into the hall. He slammed the door and locked it.
Robin began to bang loudly on the door. “Ethan! Let us in! Ethan!”
“Say pretty please!” Ethan muttered humorlessly.
“Faith!” Robin called, and stepped aside.
“Right!” she said. She backed up a couple of steps, preparing to kick the door in.
A contingency of slayers and Black Ops arrived as Faith bounced on her toes a few times.
Xander stumbled over and stood squarely in front of the door.
“Get out of the way!” Kennedy barked at him.
“Okay, but this is gonna really hurt,” Faith said, starting her kick.
Xander put his hands up calmly, and Faith held. “I think we gotta trust Ethan here,” Xander said.
As if on cue, the sounds of a crash and shattering glass came from inside the apartment.
“Oh hell, why start now?” He shrugged, then moved aside.
Faith launched forward and kicked the door with all her slayer might. It didn’t even rattle.
“Oh yeah,” Xander said, as Faith grimaced in pain, “that hurt.”
Ethan pressed his face to the door jamb again “I told you, get away from the door! Your presence is whipping this thing into a frenzy, and you’re making me use precious energy to keep you out!”
“He’s right,” Rowena’s voice came from behind the slayers crowded in the hallway. “Everyone out! Now!”
“Are you crazy?” Kennedy said to Rowena, as the slayers began to file uncertainly from the area.
“Slayer energy feeds it,” Rowena said. “Everyone leave.”
“Go,” Faith said, motioning to the girls.
“You too, Gen’ral,” Rowena told her.
“You’re endangering them, so move out.”
Faith huffed and looked at Rowena. “Fine, but we won’t be far.”
“Agreed.” Rowena nodded.
Robin, Xander and Faith herded the slayers off down the hallway.
“Okay, they’re gone,” Rowena called against the door jamb. “Ethan? Ethan, I said they’re gone. Ethan!”
Robin looked back to see Rowena still there. “You coming?” he asked.
Rowena looked undecided. She closed her eyes and rested her palm on the door. “Be safe, Will,” she said softly, before she turned to catch up to the others.
Watchers Council – Giles’s Apartment – Same Time
Ethan fought his way towards the circle, moving forward on hands and knees with the bowl of magic ingredients. As he reached the chanting Wiccans, the swirling winds changed direction, rushing upwards. Just as quickly, they slammed down hard on the sorcerer, crushing him against the floor.
Ethan raised a hand with great effort and, with the small amount of air still left in his lungs, uttered an unintelligible word. The winds rushed out in all directions away from him.
Becca crept slowly towards Giles, who lay moaning against the far wall. The force of the dispersed winds knocked her over, but she got up again, unharmed.
Ethan rose, blood flowing freely from his nose and lips. He looked down and saw the bowl had tipped over and most of its contents, no longer dazzling but merely dust, lay scattered by the winds. He righted the bowl and the remainder of the glittering mix and pushed it into the center of the circle through the gap between Dawn and Jeff.
Then he stood slowly, as the winds threatened to knock him down again. He wavered against them, steadied, then held his arms out.
Ethan began a chant that even he couldn’t hear over the din.
Becca shook Giles and he began to stir. “Rupert! Rupert!”
“Becca! Are you…” Giles sat up shakily. “Are you alright?” he asked, completely focused on her.
“You have to help Ethan!” she said, looking at the injured mage.
Giles took in the scene. Ethan was bloodied and on the verge of being swept off his feet by hurricane-force winds. Then Giles shifted his gaze towards the angrily twisting Fire Eater.
“Why doesn’t it attack?” he wondered aloud.
“I don’t know,” Becca yelled over the noise. “It’s like it’s stuck or something.”
“Yes –” Giles said suddenly, “between corporeal and incorporeal! It can’t do anything until it…Ethan, no! Don’t manifest it!”
But Ethan had just chanted the last word of the spell. The contents of the bowl flared, then went out on a feeble “pop,” only heard by the circle of witches. They stopped chanting and looked accusingly at Ethan.
And then the winds stopped. The Fire Eater stopped twisting, flashed like lightning, and glowed harshly. Everyone squinted against the blinding-white brilliance of it. No one could make out its form in the glare.
Ethan saw it slowly move. “Now!” He cried hoarsely, as it picked up speed.
Giles scrambled along the floor towards the weapons chest.
Ethan tried to move and found that his legs were not cooperating. He stumbled as the over-bright Fire Eater swept swiftly towards him, mere inches from him.
A flash of brown, black and white suddenly crossed between him and the Fire Eater.
But the dog was already in midair, his teeth clamping fiercely down, deep into the bright, painful light.
A strange sound escaped the dog’s throat. Neither a yelp nor whimper, it was the unearthly note of something vital being wrenched from the animal. The dog dropped to the floor, limp and unmoving.
The Fire Eater folded into itself in one turn and vanished.
The room stood in tableau; Giles holding the weapons chest lid aloft, the Wiccans silent and staring, Becca and Willow with stunned looks on their faces.
Ethan blinked at the dog, his own breathing slow and shallow. Then he lifted his gaze and narrowed his eyes. “This isn’t over,” he said grimly. “It’s been hurt, so it’s angrier. It’s fed – and wants more.”
There was a loud banging at the door. “Will! Giles?” Rowena called. Are you all right? Willow answer me!”
“I told you, stay out!” Ethan said hotly. His eyes began to lose their color and darken. “Keep those damned slayers away!”
“I’m okay,” Willow yelled. “Stay outside.”
“Becca, leave.” Giles said, turning to her. “Go outside with Rowena and –”
“No!” Ethan said. “She’s the one it’s after.”
“Why?” Giles shot back. “She’s no slayer!”
“She’s pregnant.” Ethan’s eyes got even darker. “Potential energy, Ripper! Potential life! A soul coming into being. What would you rather have, a plain chocolate or a chocolate covered cherry?”
“That isn’t funny!”
“Damn you, I’m not being funny! If she leaves, it will follow her!” Ethan shouted, his eyes going completely black.
“Stop it, both of you,” Becca told them. “Who can we afford to let out of the room? How about Skye and –”
“NO ONE! ” The veins in Ethan’s face began to darken and show through his skin.
Willow stood slowly up in front of him, trembling.
“I –” she began in a shaky voice, as he stared at her with black eyes. “I think you need to calm down Ethan.” Her voice broke, but she defiantly held her ground.
Neither moved. “No one is leaving,” Ethan said quietly, shaking with barely controlled rage. “We need all hands.”
Willow moved towards him slowly, reached out her hand and placed it gently on his arm.
He held her gaze for a moment with his black-black eyes, then looked down and away. Soon his breathing slowed and he relaxed. When he looked back at her, his face and eyes were normal again.
Willow smiled at him gently. Without warning, the Fire Eater flashed brightly behind her.
“Will!” Jeff cried.
She turned and shouted a spell at it, which had no effect. Unharmed, it charged her. Ethan pushed her away as the creature rushed forward.
“Kill it!” he shouted.
Giles came up quickly from the weapons chest, firing a crossbow as he rose. The arrow flew fast, hitting the Fire Eater a little above dead center.
The Fire Eater turned a sickly yellow, then green, flashing, glowing and twisting in its death throes. A rush of hot winds swirled around it, as it twisted into its own center. The arrow and some loose papers were sucked into the swirling vortex. Then it closed in upon itself and disappeared without a sound or a trace.
“Yes!” Jeff said, punching the air.
“Great shot!” Dawn grinned up at Giles. He held Becca tightly against him, kissing her forehead.
Ethan slowly raised his hand, still staring at the spot where the Fire Eater had disappeared. Then he lifted it deliberately and released the front door from the charm that held it closed.
Jeff quickly let Rowena in. She called an all’s-well to Faith on her walkie-talkie as she ran over to Willow, pulling her into her arms.
Robin, Xander and Faith rushed into the room, stopping suddenly at the body of the dog. They looked down at him, surprised. Giles walked Becca over to Xander, while the others stared sadly down at the dead animal.
“C’mon,” Xander said, putting a supportive arm around Becca’s waist, “let’s get you downstairs.” But Becca held back, watching as Giles went to stand alongside Ethan.
Ethan was still watching the spot where the vortex had been.
Giles looked at the spot, too. After a moment, he turned his head to Ethan and said, “It’s over.”
Ethan nodded, his eyes still fixed on the spot. “Yes,” he finally agreed, and began to turn away.
The vortex opened in a single, swift rotation.
The arrow, its trajectory and speed unchanged, continued its flight, right at Giles.
Ethan moved adroitly, one step to the left.
The arrow hit its mark as the vortex burst apart with a final flash and a “crack!”
Giles felt a sudden weight strike him as the needle-sharp tip of the arrow pierced his chest. He staggered back one step and looked down in shock. But instead of a mortal wound, he saw a small tear in his shirt and only a trickle of blood. He followed it with his eyes to Ethan in front of him. The arrow had gone straight through the sorcerer’s chest, the point sticking out of his back.
Ethan began to drop before Giles, and it appeared as if the watcher felt his own stomach lurch in response.
“No.” Giles said, uncomprehendingly. “No!” he said again, as Ethan’s slide came to a halt, his back against Giles’s legs, his head tipped back against the watcher’s knees.
Giles dropped down to the floor instantly, supporting Ethan from behind. Blood pumped violently from Ethan’s chest and back where the arrow was deeply embedded. Warm, wet and thick, Ethan’s blood covered the watcher’s arms, hands, chest and stomach. Giles felt the warmth begin to run down his legs.
Giles laid Ethan back in his arms. “Ethan…Ethan!”
Willow dropped to Ethan’s side and Jeff ran up behind her, nearly toppling over her. “Tell me what to do!” he cried. “Will! Tell me what to do! Willow!”
Willow was crying, “No! Oh no! No…” she kept saying.
“Ethan,” Giles said softly. “Ethan…” and began rocking him slowly.
Ethan’s eyelids fluttered a little. Then he opened his eyes. Giles took his face in one hand and turned Ethan’s head until his gaze met Giles’s. A gurgle and a sudden cough of blood escaped Ethan’s throat. Then his eyes rolled upwards, his last breath broke, and his head fell back against Giles’s shoulder.
Willow stopped crying. “Move!” she ordered Giles.
Willow grabbed Jeff’s hand roughly. “Through me!” she told him. “Concentrate!”
Jeff concentrated all of his energy towards the witch. He began to tremble and groan, as if in pain.
Willow screamed at Giles, “Let go of him!” Giles appeared confused. “I said move!” Willow cried, turning on Giles. Her words echoed in the silent room.
Giles began to move, but before he could get clear, he was blown back by a burst of energy. Willow’s eyes turned sky blue, then quickly black as she wrapped the fingers of her other hand around the arrow protruding from Ethan’s chest. Veins stood out in her arm, black and spidery. A snide smile slowly curved her darkened lips.
“Don’t go into the light,” she mockingly admonished Ethan’s still form.
Willow’s hand, the arrow, the thickening blood and Jeff’s own hand, arm and half his body began to glow green. Jeff continued to groan in pain.
“Is that all ya got?” she sneered at him.
“Pull…” Dawn said, catching on. “Pull, Jeff! The arrow! Focus on the –”
Jeff’s body convulsed and the arrow slipped cleanly and unceremoniously out of Ethan. Blood slowly stopped draining from him and began to flow backwards, back into the wounds at front and back.
The wounds began to shrink as the last bit of blood was sucked in, then puckered and eventually closed up tight. Within a few seconds, the last vestige of them faded entirely.
Willow released Jeff’s hand and he collapsed to the floor. He curled up on his side, shaking and wide-eyed. He involuntarily jerked with pain. Dawn knelt beside him, smoothing his hair back and trying to still him. Skye joined her there and took one of his hands in hers.
Ethan gasped, his eyes flying open in panic. Uncontrollable trembling overtook him. Giles clambered back to him and half-raised him off the floor. Ethan’s breaths came in strangled gulps and he coughed up some blood still in his throat.
“Slowly,” Giles told him, “Slow breaths…”
After a moment, Ethan breathed more easily and the trembling began to subside. He looked at Willow, still holding the arrow in her hand. Red strands of sweat-soaked hair were plastered to her pale face and neck. She was spent. Jeff lay by her, curled up and in shock.
Realization dawned on Ethan and he looked back at her, smiling wanly. “Class dismissed,” he croaked out.
“Get ’em to Doctor Miller,” Robin said, as he helped Willow to her feet. Faith lifted Jeff off the floor and she carried him to the infirmary, with Skye and Dawn in tow.
Robin went to Giles and reached out to lift Ethan. Giles began to relinquish the mage to him. Then he stopped. Gently, Giles pulled Ethan into him by slow degrees and held him lightly for a moment.
“Ripper…” Ethan rasped, not looking at him.
“Is that your crossbow or are you just happy to…have me…ba…”
Ethan’s eyes fluttered and closed. He drooped exhaustedly against Giles’s chest.
With one arm behind Ethan’s shoulders, Giles slipped his other arm behind Ethan’s knees, took a breath, and lifted the unconscious sorcerer off the floor. Giles carried Ethan from the room, stepping over the dead dog without a glance.
Watchers Council – Staff Kitchen – Next Morning
Willow and Xander came into the kitchen where Dawn, Skye, Giles and Becca were sitting talking quietly over coffee and breakfast.
“Hey!” Dawn greeted them brightly.
“Hey,” Willow said, quietly. “How’s Jeff?”
“He’s fine, just a little, you know, freaked. I think he’s scared of you now.”
“Of me? Why?”
“Well, you did go black-magic-mama on us,” Xander said.
“I didn’t do anything,” Willow said, warily. “I was just a link between his power and Ethan. He did all the work. I didn’t even have any control over it.” She quickly turned to the counter to pour herself some coffee.
Xander went up to her and said softly, “But you were all with the black-eyed-girl routine.”
Willow looked squarely at him. “Like I said,” she answered firmly, “I just channeled his power.”
They saw Giles watching them out of the corner of his eyes. He looked as though he was about to say something to them, but stopped and looked away.
“Have either of you seen Ethan?” Becca asked. “He wasn’t in his guest room this morning.”
“Just did,” Xander said. “He’s uh, out by the old tree, um, burying, um…”
An awkward silence fell on the group.
“We wanted to help him,” Willow added. “But he wouldn’t let us. Said he always works alone.” She turned to Giles and said openly, “Like everything else he does.”
Giles looked up at her irritably. “There’s a reason for that,” he stated flatly. Becca laid her hand on his arm and he looked at her. “Oh, bloody hell,” he muttered, getting up from the table.
Parked Car Outside Watchers Council – Same Time
Il Pappagallo had a clear shot at the man digging the hole. He began to squeeze the trigger.
“Hey,” Tommy called out from the back seat, “looks like someone killed the mutt anyway.”
Il Papa’s hand relaxed and he lowered the rifle a little with a slight turn of the head. He said nothing.
Vince turned around to look at Tommy from the driver’s seat. Tommy took the hint and shut up, as Il Papa turned back to his work. The hit man raised the rifle again and began to squeeze the trigger as Ethan stopped digging for a moment to catch his breath.
A little Mozart concerto in beep tones broke the quiet in the car. Vince reached for his cell phone and answered. “What? Are you kiddin’?…No, not – Hey! Papa, stop! They’re callin’ off the hit! What the hell’s goin’ on, Jimmy?”
Il Papa released the trigger gently and engaged the lock as Vince, still on the phone, started the car. The sedan slowly pulled away and drove off down the road.
Watchers Council – Grounds – Moments Later
“Willow tells me you’re not interested in help with burying the poor brute.”
Ethan turned to face Giles. “Yes. And she tells me that his death proves animals have souls.”
Giles grinned at that as Ethan went back to digging. “Well, she’s probably got a point. If they didn’t, the Fire Eater couldn’t have destroyed the dog,” he said, gazing at the blanketed form.
Ethan said nothing.
Giles waited a moment, the only sound that of the rhythmic shoveling. Giles frowned. “That handle is broken,” he said pointedly. “Didn’t Xander have a better shovel than that?”
“Don’t you have a better pickup line?” Ethan muttered angrily.
“What? Oh, bugger. Do it yourself then!” Giles turned to leave. “I’ve plenty to do as it –”
“Man’s best friend,” Ethan grumbled bitterly.
Giles turned back around.
“Damned stupid beasts,” Ethan continued, still digging. “Pat them on the head once in a blue moon and they’ll drop dead on the spot for you…tear up your socks, hide your slippers…”
Giles lifted his hand towards Ethan’s shoulder.
“…bark when you’re hung over, chew your best casting bowl…not to mention all the trouble of having to dig a damnable hole when they –”
“Ethan, for god’s sake.” Giles’s hand changed direction and reached for the handle. “At least let’s get a better shovel.”
Ethan pulled the shovel away and thrust it angrily into the ground. As he did so, a large splinter broke off the jagged handle and lodged in his palm. Swearing, he began to remove it and grimaced dramatically.
“Oh, give it here!” Giles said, taking Ethan’s hand roughly. “What is it with you and pointy pieces of wood lately?” Giles grumbled. He frowned slightly as he held Ethan’s hand in front of him, regarding the splinter.
“So,” Ethan smirked, “are you going to pull it out. or would you like to leave it in a bit longer?”
With a scowl, Giles yanked the splinter out cleanly. Ethan flinched.
“Oww!” he complained, before rubbing a small bit of blood from the puncture.
“I think you’ll live,” Giles said dryly.
Ethan didn’t say anything. His mood turned sober as he looked back to the half-dug hole. “Well,” he said quietly, almost to himself, “two out of three…” Ethan’s voice trailed off as he stared at the hole.
Giles didn’t reply at first. “You know,” he began nervously. “You can always get a new companion. There’s more than one dog in the world, after all.”
Ethan nodded, still looking at the hole. “Perhaps…but Rupert was special.”
“And you took good care of h –” Giles cut himself off and looked away, uneasily casting his eyes about the Council grounds. He turned when he heard the sound of the shovel again, as Ethan resumed digging. He stood by for long moments, watching the sorcerer work. When the hole was finished, the two men lowered the dog into the ground wordlessly and covered the hole together.
After the last bit of dirt had been tapped down, Ethan stood silent for a bit, staring at the mound. Then he turned to the watcher. But Giles was halfway back to the Council.
Jimmy Volano’s Office – Later that Night
Jimmy Volano opened the door and put on the light. “I’m telling you, Pudge, Rodham said the plans have changed. But Angella says She still wants the wizard dead, just not right away anymore. Guess they got somethin’ else for him to do before – what the –”
Jimmy and Vince stopped dead in their tracks. Sitting upright in the chair across from Jimmy’s desk was Tommy. He had a small, clean bullet hole in his head. A trickle of dried blood ran along his nose and a look of surprise was on his face.
From his breast pocket, there hung a green-and-gold silk handkerchief – the calling card of Il Pappagallo.
“Since when does Pappagallo pull the trigger without a contract?” Jimmy demanded.
Vince shrugged at the lifeless Tommy. “Guess there’s always an exception to the rule,” he said.
Jimmy gave Vince a puzzled look. “Get him outta here,” he said, with an off-handed wave.
Watchers Council – Giles’s Study – Same Night
Giles was neatly writing in his Council journal when the door opened. Becca poked her head in. “He’s here,” she said.
Giles nodded and she opened the door for Ethan. “I’ll be outside if you need anything,” she said, and closed the door on the two men.
“You sent for me.” Ethan said, all business.
Giles sighed and sat back. “Yes,” he said. “Look, Ethan, you came here to help –”
“The Little Red Witch,” Ethan countered curtly.
“– and you did.” Giles matched his tone. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“I wish I hadn’t. But the fun’s over now, isn’t it?” Giles hesitated, looking into Ethan’s grim face. “Bloody hell,” he said. He pulled out a bottle of scotch and two glasses from his desk drawer, then poured them both a drink.
“Here’s to your mangy cur,” he toasted, softly.
Ethan watched Giles down the scotch, but he didn’t drink his own. “And to yours,” he said coldly.
Giles blinked, open-mouthed, and then a look of comprehension crossed his face.
Ethan downed his scotch.
“When are you leaving?” Giles asked wearily, rubbing his eyes.
“I can leave tonight. Almost right away, if you like.”
“What, you aren’t even going to try to overstay your welcome?”
“Is that what you want?”
“I…look, I don’t know. There is a contract out on you, apparently, and-and that means you’ll be on the run, all the time. Well, it is a bit – I mean, you have helped us out. Not that it ever feels like help, but, well, I mean, perhaps there’s some way we could…work things out.”
“What?” Ethan said, laughing harshly. “You’re joking.” His smile evaporated. “You’re not.” He blinked at Giles, incredulously. “So, what, then?” Ethan raged openly, “Let’s give it a go, make it right, all hearts and flowers and little pink bows between us? Sod you, Ripper. I’m not naïve –”
“Anymore?” Giles finished quietly for him.
Ethan turned away angrily and walked to the bookcase. He ran a finger over the spines of Giles’s collection. “You know,” he said honestly, “there was a time I’d have given my life to hear you say those words.”
“You just about did,” Giles gently acknowledged.
Ethan huffed, bitterly. “Yes, well, and now that you’ve said them…I realize that that’s all they are. Words.”
Giles slammed his drink glass down on the desk and stood up. “Then, dammit, Ethan, what the bloody hell do you want?”
Ethan looked at him. “You know.”
Giles looked back at him pityingly. “It was a long time ago, Ethan,” he said quietly. “So very long. We were…reckless, young.”
“But not innocent, as I recall.”
“You haven’t ever moved on, grown up, have you?” Giles sighed. “Although, I don’t suppose it was for lack of trying.” He looked away.
“And what about you?” Ethan sneered. “What do you want, Ripper?”
Giles straightened a bit, took a deep breath, and looked starkly at Ethan. “I want you gone.”
Ethan half-smirked. “Your wish…” he said, and walked towards the door.
“Ethan…” Giles came out from behind the desk and walked to the waiting sorcerer. They stood face to face and Ethan watched him struggle for words.
“Careful,” Ethan cautioned snidely, “you don’t want to say anything you’ll regret in the morning.”
A sad smile curved the corners of Giles’s mouth. He shook his head slowly, then leaned forward and pressed his mouth softly against Ethan’s in a chaste and honest kiss.
Neither of them moved for a few seconds, but when Giles pulled away, he heard a small, unearthly sound escape the sorcerer’s lips.
“Goodbye, Ethan,” he said, gently.
Ethan forced a smirk. “Be see…” Ethan’s voice trailed off as his smirk faded. He blinked a few times at Giles’s unreadable expression. Then he turned and strode to the door. He hesitated there for a moment, waiting, his head turned slightly. Then he faced forward and left the room, vanishing before he reached the front door.
Presidium Citadel – Panopticon – Later
With a subtle gesture the Lover summoned an image from the magic surrounding her – an expensively-appointed room, an expansive bed, two figures entwined beneath the sheets. It showed a man atop a woman, both moving in time. Then the woman seemed to double, one image of her, which seemed more solid, sliding out from beneath her partner and standing by the side of the bed, facing her mistress, while the other, ethereal duplicate remained, pleasuring her lover as if nothing had happened.
“Angella,” the Lover said.
“Mistress,” the woman acknowledged calmly, while behind her, her shadow-self writhed and cried out in passion.
“Take no further interest in the sorcerer,” the Lover instructed. “See that your charge does likewise.”
“I will comply, Mistress,” Angella said, dipping her head subserviently.
“He is progressing well?”
“His tempers are strong,” the woman noted, “yet he associates my acquiescence to his physical demands with loyalty. I believe he is ready to be used.”
“Then do so,” the Lover said. Angella nodded and turned, crawling back to the middle of the bed and re-entering her shadow-self’s form, while the man remained unaware. The Lover dispelled the image, then turned to the servants by the chamber’s entrance.
“You may fetch the Flayer now,” she ordered.
Presidium Citadel – Panopticon Entrance – Moments Later
The Flayer ignored the pair of servitors who escorted him into the Lover’s sanctuary, then silently departed. His brow creased, though, at seeing his immediate superior surrounded, not by images of the Council and its leaders, but by an intricate web of light and filament, spaces and voids – an unearthly map.
“Highness?” he rumbled. The Lover favored him with a brief glance, then lifted a claw. The map spun about on its axis, its extremities vanishing. It expanded to fill the chamber, until the glowing blue-green sphere at the very heart of the web hovered in front of the Lover’s face, casting its glow over her. She drew a sharp fingertip through it, watching as the patterns of light and color distorted and reformed.
“Earth,” she murmured.
“Yes, Highness,” the Flayer agreed, with practiced patience. The Lover turned and looked in turn at the points of color nearest the tranquil blue-green, linked to it by silvery spider-web lines – four of them, one scarlet, then fiery orange, ashen gray and, lastly, obsidian. Other web-lines stretched out further, to more distant nodes.
“And her closest neighbors,” she continued, “Abyss, Gehenna, Abaddon and Sheol. The Hellmouths between these places and Earth, once opened, would be strong – enough to anchor dozens more.”
“Yes, Highness,” the Flayer agreed, his face suddenly animated. “Is our campaign to begin at last? Your experiments –”
“Are ongoing,” the Lover said mildly, quashing the Flayer’s sudden enthusiasm. “But…” she added, flashing him a quick grin, “it is clear to me now that my beliefs are sound. Our Lord agrees with me. Thus a timetable can be set, and you,” she turned on the Flayer, “need no longer delay.”
“Thank you, Highness,” the warlord said with a savage grin.
“Now,” the Lover continued, turning back to Earth and its four satellite hells, “your plans of battle are already formulated, and consultation has been made with the Dreamer and the Corruptor. Three of these hells we must have, as bridgeheads. There we will anchor our magics, mass our forces and finally from these places we will strike Earth. Fate,” she gave a chuckle, “favors the prepared. I would have all four under our heels before we proceed. Your thoughts?”
“I will crush Sheol first,” the Flayer said at once.
“The Sheol hell has great fortresses,” the Lover noted, “and powerful armies. Attack the strongest target first?”
“Destroy the strongest target first,” the Flayer said confidently. “Our forces have lain in wait unusually long since conquering the Galas hell. Our enemies use every moment’s delay to prepare for the assault they know will one day come. With Sheol in ruins, our armies will be strong, and those who would resist will be weak and dismayed. Gehenna and Abyss will fall quickly thereafter.”
“And Abaddon?” the Lover asked.
“Sheol will end in massacre, once the walls are broken,” the Flayer replied, “Abaddon will capitulate at that.” The Lover nodded politely.
“I bow to your experience in these matters,” she acknowledged.
“Then the order is given?” the Flayer asked expectantly.
“Your forces are prepared?” the Lover countered. “Show me.”
She stood aside, and the Flayer took her place in the center of the chamber. The map of Earth and its hundreds of surrounding hell dimensions vanished, replaced by a vast, desolate plain of blood-red sands, bordered by distant black mountains, just visible through the hazy clouds.
Rank after rank of demon warriors was arrayed on the plain, hundreds, thousands, countless regiments in formation behind their banners and totems. The red glow that passed for sunlight glinted off spears, pole-arms, jagged swords and maces, the iron frames of heavy crossbow, the steel-braced carriages of ballistae and catapults, with unearthly, magical fire burning on their bolts and shot.
Massive behemoths trampled between the ranks of troops. Some carried iron-armored carriages strapped to their backs or riveted to huge bolts driven into their flesh, others were led by smaller demons that tugged on their guide-ropes and kept them in line with long, barbed pikes. There were dark figures in robes and armor with haloes of mystical energy crackling about them, towering horned colossi wielding iron weapons the size of trees, slender demons astride reptilian mounts standing in formation or practicing maneuvers. Above them all, indistinct as they swept through the clouds, huge winged creatures banked and glided, the occasional thump of their wings echoing over the vast army like a heartbeat.
“Excellent,” the Lover murmured, watching from the Flayer’s side. “Then the order is given.”
Watchers Council – Grounds – Morning
Willow and Giles walked towards the big tree. “Thanks for doing this with me,” she said to him. She held aloft the bunch of flowers in her hand.
Giles nodded and they walked a few more paces.
“I tried channeling Jeff again last night,” she said to Giles.
“Oh? And was Jeff willing and conscious when you tried it?”
Willow chuckled uneasily. “Well, he wasn’t crazy about the idea, but he let me try anyway.”
“Nada. Zilch, zippo, uber-goose-egg, meter reads empty –”
“Yes! Thank you, I get the picture.”
She stopped and looked at him. “Why do you suppose…”
“I imagine,” he said, “because you did exactly what you said. You channeled Jeff’s energies through you, but that doesn’t make you capable of making it happen at will. Nor does it make Jeff capable of doing it again. It was raw emotion that drove it. Your feelings for, well, Ethan, and Jeff’s powers came together in the right measure at just the right instant. But it’s not something one can merely pull out of a hat, so to speak. Feelings are like power. Although a strong and often devastating force, they aren’t exactly reliable.”
“Like my experience with Persephone’s Knot. The Coven’s feelings for me kept me from dying. But it didn’t mean it was a sure thing.”
“Giles, if it wasn’t me, then the-the dark mojo thing, it must have been –”
“We don’t know for sure, Willow. Perhaps Jeff’s powers could only come through via your…dark attributes. You know you still carry that magic with you, although you might not see it on the surface.”
“Ethan says all power comes from darkness, but our lightness is our strength.”
Giles frowned slightly and began walking again. “Willow, what did Ethan actually teach you?”
“Oh…he gave me some exercises to do from the Va’al Kabeth.”
“From the what?”
“The Va’al Kabeth. It’s a very obscure work taken from the ancient accounts of the –”
“Oh… ” Giles groaned.
“But hey! Not black magic — just exercises! No bad mojo. Honest, Giles!” Giles gave a small snort. “What’s so funny?” Willow asked. “I mean, glad to see you’re such a wacky watcher again, but…”
“What else did he make you do?”
“Well…that’s it really. That’s all we worked on. He said I had to really work hard to perfect it. I haven’t yet. But I feel stronger and more in tune with myself and…I think it really helped me get some of my focus back and…okay, give. What’s with the Cheshire cat impression?”
Giles stopped and looked at her fondly. “When Ethan and I were at the Academy, there was this one lad – unbearable sot — a couple of years ahead of us, who insisted it was his destiny to be the most powerful mage on earth. Ethan and I decided to challenge him to the test of the Va’al Kabeth exercises. Of course, Ethan and I groveled at his feet, saying we couldn’t begin to do them ourselves. He worked at them for weeks, trying in vain to prove his superiority, to the neglect of his coursework. He wound up failing the exercises, as well as his studies for the term. Finally, he dropped out of the coven he was in.”
“What happened to him?”
“Ah. Well, he tried his hand at other things and eventually found another career.”
“Oh yeah, doing what?”
“Annoying the devil out of Buffy, mostly.”
Willow blinked and laughed to herself as Giles walked on ahead of her. “But…but hey!” she called, hurrying after him. “If you know the Va’al Kabeth, you could maybe coach me yourself and –”
“Well, Ethan’s right, the Va’al Kabeth is a very obscure work. In fact, there are only two known sources of it.”
“Oh, no…” Willow cringed.
“Ethan and me,” he said, tapping his head with a finger and grinning at her.
“You made it up? You and Ethan – all as a-a college prank? And I fell for it…”
“Well, no. Not really. I believe that Ethan is quite fond of you and was trying to get you to re-build your confidence and concentration. God knows why, but you’re special in his eyes.” Giles quickly looked concerned. “Oh, not that you’re not special,” he said fast. “I mean Ethan’s willingness to help, pro bono, you could say. I must admit, though…he’s quite clever.”
“Meaning the last time he was here, I forbade him to work with you or to coach you in any way with magic. So, he used the most un-magical thing he could think of to get you to where you were feeling confident about yourself and your ability to evolve your powers again. And if the way you saved his life is any indication, I’d say he succeeded. If there is a joke here, it’s on me.”
“You see, Giles,” she said, “h-he helped me. And he saved your life at the risk of his own! Guess it proves Ethan can play by the rules and do the right thing.”
“Maybe he is mellowing with age…or just getting a bit daft,” Giles smirked.
Willow stopped walking. “Can I ask you something?”
Giles turned to face her. “Certainly.”
“There’s more to you and Ethan than just college chum pranksters, isn’t there?”
“And what are you suggesting?” he asked, avoiding the question.
Willow blushed, but still went on. “He was – I mean, aside from the ‘bloody hell’ comment when I came out about Tara, you’ve been, well, okay about me. So I figured, you know…you and…”
Giles smiled slightly. “Let’s just say I’ve had a very colorful life over the years, and there’s very little I haven’t seen or done.”
“Which means…” Willow prompted.
“Which means I cared for Ethan a great deal and in many ways. As much as I hate to admit it,” he smiled softly, “I always will. But Ethan was — well, he was always trying new things and dragging me along after him.” Giles cut himself off, as if hearing his own words. “Point is, we had fun, but it ran its course. For me, anyway. For Ethan…”
“You meant more,” Willow answered.
“Essentially,” Giles concurred with a nod. “He’ll always hold a resentment towards me, and I’ll never be a party to that…chaos…again.”
They walked along silently for a moment.
Willow looked up at Giles hopefully. “Maybe he’s changed and –”
Giles held up his hand. “We are talking about Ethan, here,” he said, as they reached the big tree.
“I’m talking about Ethan now,” Willow countered. “You’re talking about who Ethan used to be. He isn’t the same person anymore, Giles. I’m sure of it. Maybe a part of him will always feel, I don’t know, jilted…but, Giles…Giles, what’s wrong?”
The watcher stood gaping at the ground.
Willow followed his stunned gaze to the spot under the tree where Ethan had buried Rupert-the-dog. She caught her breath at the sight of a few objects there, remnants of a ritual she herself had once performed: the broken shards of an ancient vessel, a ritual knife, and a wild rabbit, its throat cleanly cut and its blood drained.
“You were saying?” Giles said softly on a breath.
The flowers fell in slow motion from Willow’s hand onto the dog’s grave. The grave itself had been churned up from below, as though something had clawed its way to the surface.
End of Fire Eater
Next on Watchers…
Faced with an unstoppable foe out to destroy her bloo0dline, Kadin Van Helsing flees to Cleveland in a desperate search for aid.