Chapter 3 – Stakes of the Game
“None of this makes sense,” Pete stated as he paced around the High School library. “You’re trying to tell me that those things were actual, real life demons, and that this little girl is some kind of superhero? And where is Claudia?”
Giles sighed. He could see the panic in the young man’s eyes. It was a panic he too was feeling and trying to keep a firm handle on. “The world is much older than anyone knows…” he began.
“Save it, Rupert,” Artie eyed the Watcher, hatred, and now fear, still boiling beneath his façade of calm. “Pete, not too long ago you suddenly learned that Artifacts exist. Tonight is the night you find out that vampires and demons do, too. Therefore, so does a Slayer to fight them. This young lady.”
“It just seems so strange,” Myka mused. “Why haven’t we had a run in of this kind before? I mean, we’ve seen some weird stuff, but demons?
“Well,” Giles shrugged. “There is more contact between agencies than you would suspect. For instance, historically one Watcher is also called to sit on your Board of Regents, as I have said. It was considered that I might be the next to fill the role before I was sent to be Buffy’s Watcher. As it is, a friend of mine--”
“Valda,” Artie growled and Pete shifted uneasily.
“Yes. I do recall rumors of him running afoul of your agents recently.” He gave a slight smile. “Likely deserved it… He can be a bit of a prat. The point is, it became practice early on not the burden those agents on the front lines with this information.” At several annoyed looks, the Watcher held up his hands in defense. “I know it seems odd and unfair. But consider, how much more difficult would it be for you to concentrate on averting a world-threatening crisis if you knew in the back of your minds that, even if you succeeded, another group could fail at any moment? Many couldn’t handle the added stress in the past. Therefore, you at the Warehouse are only expected to do your best against the threats from Artifacts, and leave other threats to other capable groups, such as the demons to Buffy.”
“But she looks so tiny.”
Pete pointed at his partner, “Yeah that. I mean, demons okay, but a little girl named Buffy fighting them?”
“We don’t have time for this,” Buffy groaned. She strode up to Pete, placed her hand in the center of his chest, and gave a firm push, sending the muscular man flying across the room to land in a stack of workout mats Giles hadn’t yet put away.
Myka did her best to hide a smirk as they watched the large agent flounder around while Artie grimaced, “Enough. I agree with Buffy, we need to get on with what’s important here. And that’s Claudia and Willow. To that end, much as it pains me to say this, you two will take whatever Rupert tells you about demons the same as you would take anything I say about an Artifact. Understood?”
Both his agents nodded seriously.
“Giles,” Xander said softly, reading the Watcher’s hidden worry. “What did happen to them? Are they…?”
“No!” Giles answered quickly. “Wherever they are, they are perfectly safe for now. It’s clear that this attack wasn’t against them. It was meant for us,” he glanced pointedly at Artie. “These… trickster demons have, for some reason, made the two of us their next target.”
“Please don’t tell me Will was just caught in the crossfire here,” Buffy frowned.
“I’m afraid it’s worse than that. And all my fault.”
Artie shook his head with a sour frown, “Not all.”
“Oh my God!” Xander suddenly cried. “Oz. We need to call him. He should know about Willow.”
“No wait,” Myka stopped him on the way to the phone. “I don’t think we can call anyone. It was something those things said...”
“Yes,” Giles agreed. “I’ve been trying to remember the rhyme, but parts are missing. Did you hear it?”
“I think so. Everything was so noisy.”
Xander grabbed a notebook from the counter and brought it to the table. He sat, pencil at the ready. “Okay, shoot.”
Working together, Giles, Myka, and Artie were able to piece together the parts of the rhyme that each was sure of and put them into couplets that made sense. Everyone gathered around to hear Xander read out what he had on the page.
“Two is one and one is two.
Master chose who games with who.
A treasure from each we’ve come to take.
In his hands, we rest its fate.
All here now may game with thee.
But any more, you’ll forfeit be.
Solve our puzzles and face the pain.
Your treasures you may see again.
But only one, the victor be.
The other, death, a kindness seek.”
Buffy sighed, “Gotta say, still don’t understand the poetry thing.”
“It’s not meant to be artistic,” Giles answered in his resigned teacher’s voice. “It’s a set of rules telling us how to play their game.”
Pete rolled his eyes. “I hate rhyming rules.”
“This is obviously the first puzzle,” Myka stated. “So, the first stanza must mean that these, um, these… demons have someone pulling their strings. And this master of theirs has chosen you two as the targets.”
Giles and Artie glanced at each other. “We do have a mutual past,” Artie grumbled. “Maybe someone’s been waiting an awful long time for revenge because of something we both worked on.”
“The next bit confirms what happened to Willow and Claudia.” Giles slowly removed his glasses for a polish. “They had to take something equally important from both of us. Something we would fight for, and, if need be, give our lives to keep safe.”
Xander frowned. “But why take Willow? If they wanted what was most important to you, wouldn’t they take…?” he glanced toward Buffy.
“Yes, Buffy is my Slayer and my purpose. But Willow is…” The Watcher faltered.
His Slayer came to his rescue. “Willow’s the little spark of light that’s always there to prove the world isn’t completely swallowed in darkness.”
Giles gave her a small smile. “It seems you do understand poetry after all, Buffy. It’s true. Willow has become a part of my life that I would indeed say I treasure. That, aside from the fact that they might have seen kidnapping a Slayer as too much of a risk. And,” he gazed sympathetically at the agents, “from my brief introduction to her, I’d venture to guess that Claudia fills much the same role in your lives.”
Artie ducked his head, knowing the answer was written all over his face. And that she was in danger because of him… again. Myka offered him support with a light hand on his hunched shoulder.
“The third stanza is why I don’t think we can call anyone,” she said. “It has to mean that we can help the players because we saw the kidnapping, but call anyone else and who knows what they’ll do.”
“It sucks,” Xander whispered. “Oz is her boyfriend. He has a right to know.”
Pete shook his head grimly. “Totally. And if we lose Claudia, Mrs. Fredricks is gonna fry us.”
“But, then it says if you guys win the game you get them back, right?” Buffy asked hopefully.
Giles took a deep breath. “If we can survive the tests, it says that one of us will.”
“This is bull!” Xander stood and turn huge eyes on the Watcher. “I know I usually hate when you do this, but spell it out for us. Worst case scenario.”
The older man was noticeably avoiding everyone's eyes. "Well, um, if we fail this time, the world won't end."
"Depends on whose world you're talkin’ about." Xander touched his arm. "This is Willow, Big Guy. Give it to me straight."
"Claudia, too," Pete added to the plea. "We need to know what we're up against."
Giles sighed deeply and looked around the group. "If we can't find a way to best their games and worse comes to worst.... Arthur and I will end up brutally murdering one another, and Willow and, um, Claudia will never be found." His gaze met Artie's, both knowing what the other was capable of.
"Well, that can't happen," Myka insisted.
"We're on it, People," Buffy announced. "And whoever's behind this is gonna wish they were never born."
“Yeah,” Pete agreed enthusiastically. “Time to seriously kick some bad guy butt. Where do we start?”
“Here,” Giles gestured to the piles of books on the table. “Our only chance to beat these demons at their own game is to know all we can about them. So we research.” There were subtle groans, but Artie and Myka nodded, ready to go to work. “I think the best place to start may be with what brought you here. Willow and I hit something of a dead end with nothing but ‘clown demons’ to go on. But if we knew of any Artifact involved…”
Artie pulled a file out of his bag, then hesitated. “They understand this is all top secret, right?” he eyed the two teenagers.
“Arthur,” Giles groaned. “They fight vampires.”
“Yes, fine, okay…” The senior agent plopped the file on the table. “We came here looking for a bifurcated Artifact,” he began, knowing Giles had the background to understand everything he was talking about. “It was a Carnival-style mask and scepter set once owned by the Marquise de Sade. Whenever and wherever the two are brought together there has been an outbreak of sadism and murder.”
“I think it’s clear that there’s more at work here than the standard personality transfer,” Giles muttered, studying the file. “I seem to remember something about the Marquise… Give me a moment the consult a book.”
Watching her Watcher hurry into the stacks, Buffy leaned over to Pete. “You ever get the feeling people are speaking another language and you should just stand back and let the knowledge-guys figure things out?”
“All the time,” the agent whispered back.
“It’s as I feared,” Giles set down an open book for Artie and Myka to look over. “The Marquise de Sade was known to be an accomplished practitioner of the dark arts. It’s been rumored that he was once able to capture a pair of Char-Qualkn demons and bind them to his will somehow. Clearly, he used the mask and scepter to imprison them, and, as he sent them out to cause mayhem during Carnival time, their original species name was bastardized into the modern word, Harlequin. Which is why Willow and I could only find references to them as far back as the eighteenth century.”
Myka looked up from the page with a furrowed brow. “Does knowing this help us, or just creep the crap out of us?”
“It helps,” Artie nodded. “Now that we know what they are, we can figure out how to kill them.”
“Time to get to work,” the librarian announced, beginning to pull more books from shelves.
Claudia opened her eyes and blinked several times. The dull grey ceiling above her didn’t look familiar. She rolled her head carefully to the side and saw another girl lying unconscious on an old army cot across the room. Listening for anyone else, she slowly sat up and found that they were shut in some kind of storage room. A soft groan brought her attention back to the other girl.
“I’m not sure yet… Willow, wasn’t it?” Willow sat up and nodded. “Last I remember we were with everyone else outside. Then I woke up here.”
The other redhead glanced around. “Do you think we’re the only ones that got captured? Maybe the others were put in another room.”
Claudia got up and tried the solid metal door. It was, of course, locked. She peered out a small window. “I don’t see anything. It’s all quiet out there, too.” Plopping down next to Willow, she chuckled, “Artie’s gonna kill me. He ordered me not to leave his side.”
The younger girl couldn’t help but chuckle with her. “Giles will be worried, too.”
“Don’t you worry, it’ll be all right. Wherever we are, Artie will find us.”
“Not if Giles finds us first.”
The two girls looked at each other and grinned, recognizing the kindred spirit in the other.
Claudia laughed. “Well, we’d better figure out how to get outta here. Those two old farts are gonna be completely lost without us.”
“Yep,” Willow smiled. The smile faded as they both sat thinking for a minute.
“So… Demons, huh?” the Warehouse agent grunted.
“Yep,” came in a more somber tone. “But this doesn’t make sense. Those two that attacked us looked right. I mean they were the things we were after. But the book said they were trickster types. They like to tease people and make them play awful games, not kidnap them.”
“And what was with that terrible song they kept chanting. It didn’t even make any…”
Two sets of eyes went wide as they both rapidly went through what they’d heard in their heads and came to the undeniable conclusions.
“This isn’t about us,” the young witch murmured.
“Those creeps are gonna make the guys fight each other to try and get us back.”
“We’re their treasures,” Willow breathed, astonished. “Not good. Not good at all. That guy was about ready to kill him before. Who knows what he’ll do to Giles now.”
“Hey… Your guy didn’t seem all that defenseless or pacifistic either.” Claudia took a deep breath. “Listen. We know the whatevers had to take equivalent treasures from each of them, so that means they both must care a lot about the two of us. And, if your Giles is anything like my Artie, their first instincts will be to try and save both of us. We just have to do what we can to help them from this end.”
“Giles is always getting hurt. I hate the thought of him getting hurt more because of me.”
“Tell me about it. Sometimes it seems like Artie’s a total pain magnet. He just recovered from being run through with a sword.”
“You don’t even want to know what happened to Giles last year.” Willow stood, resolve face firmly in place. “Let’s see what we have to work with in here. If we want to save our men, the first step is getting through that door.”
“Knew I liked you!”
The library was dark except for the dim glow of the reading lamps. It was the wee hours of the morning and the hours of searching had taken their toll. Xander was slumped over the table, sound asleep. Buffy had disappeared into Giles’ office where the couch was. Pete had stretched out on the exercise mats, saying he just needed to rest his eyes. No one had the heart to disturb him when he started softly snoring. Myka was the diehard, still sitting in the dim light, trying to make sense of ancient texts on subjects she would have never believed a day ago.
Artie sat on the steps, his face cradled in his hands. He looked up slowly when Giles approached and handed him a tumbler. The Watcher sat down next to him, taking a sip from his own drink.
“When did we become a couple of stupid, old men?” he sighed deeply.
Artie chuckled mirthlessly. “The extra twenty years made us old. I think the stupid was there to begin with.”
“Yes,” Giles snorted, “You’re probably right.” Several minutes passed in silence as both stared out at nothing. Finally, his voice barely audible, the Watcher breathed, “She’s a brilliant and resourceful young woman… likely already figured this whole mess out and finding her own escape.”
“Yes, she is… And you were talking about Willow, weren’t you?”
“I was. But I suspect it holds true for Claudia as well.”
Artie took a sip of his drink, hissing against the burn. “She’s already spent so much of her life alone because of me. I can’t stand the thought of causing her more pain.”
“Wherever they are, we should believe that they were kept together. I imagine them to be quite the formidable pair. Chances are, they’ll be just as worried about us,” Giles gave a sad smile. “It’s in the giving nature of the girl.”
“Yeah, Claudia will worry. Then save herself and come kick my sorry butt for getting her kidnapped by demons.”
They shared a soft chuckle and fell silent again.
Artie stared into his glass with a frown. “I’ll do what I have to,” he mumbled. “If we can’t stop this, and there is no way to save both of them… you should know that I will do whatever it takes to save Claudia.”
Giles nodded stiffly. “And I would guess you’d expect no less of me regarding Willow.” A sideways glance from the Warehouse agent was all the answer needed. “I wonder… Will you tell her after this is over?”
“Tell her what?”
“That your love for her is not quite as fatherly and innocuous as she might imagine.”
“Just what are you accusing me of?” Artie growled.
“Only of feeling for your treasure as deeply as I feel for mine.” At the personal admission, Giles ducked his head to hide a slight blush.
The other man looked over and snorted. “Stupid, old men is right.” He gulped the rest of his whiskey. “Well, at least mine is out of high school.”
Giles head shot up at the jab. “Yes, you’re right. The two or three years Claudia is older than Willow more than make up for the decade you have on me.”
“Claudia is much more mature than she appears.”
“Oh, and you think I look at Willow and see what, pigtails and dimples?”
“I wouldn’t put it past you and your—“
“I’ve got you!” Myka’s shout of triumph put an abrupt end to the growing hissing match. The two men were up and headed toward her within a split second. She looked up at their hopeful faces. “At least, I think this is them. The twin demons part fits. And this looks like treasures they’re stealing in the engraving. But I can’t read most of the page. It’s in a language I’ve never seen before.”
“Which is a lot for her to admit,” Pete murmured the intended joke as he stumbled over, rubbing his eyes.
“Let me see, please,” Giles reached out for the book. “Yes. It’s in a pretty standard demon dialect.” All eyes were on him as he sat down to study the book. “This shouldn’t take too long. Give me a bit and I’ll have it translated.”