5. The Maze
“You know the clown king here?” Claudia asked with just a hint of surprise in her voice.
“Yeah,” answered Willow, never taking her eyes off Ethan. “He’s like Giles’ own personal bad penny. A blast from the past who likes to show up and cause trouble.”
“From his past, huh? And what do you wanna bet linked to Artie, too?”
“What are you doing here, Ethan?” Willow growled, both girls eyeing him expectantly. “This isn’t really your style. You usually like to hide in a corner and watch while people get hurt… On second thought, this is totally your style.”
The Chaos mage’s grin never wavered. He chuckled softly. “I am flattered. You remember me.”
“How could any of us forget?” the young witch grumbled.
Ethan smiled even wider. “The lovely and feisty little Willow. You have no idea how surprised and happy I was to see you brought here. I was so afraid I’d have to deal with the Slayer’s tiresome attitude. But no… It makes me proud to know that Ripper still has such good taste.”
“Long story,” Willow answered the agent.
“Okay, later. For now,” in one smooth motion Claudia pulled Artie’s pistol from the back of her jeans and pointed it steadily at Ethan’s head, “I suggest you put the Artifacts down very slowly and put your hands on your head.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you still had that,” Willow sputtered. “I had to tell you if I had anything.”
Claudia hissed, “Shh!” indicating the screen showing their original cell.
Ethan was laughing again. “Miss Donavan. How would Arthur feel if he knew you were threatening a man’s life with a gun?”
“Considering the ‘man’ kidnapped me and has been threatening him, I’ll say he’d be good with it.”
“Ahh. But even if you did have a heart hard enough to kill, it wouldn’t be the best idea for you to kill me right now anyway.”
“Yeah? Because why. I’d regret it?”
“No,” Ethan shifted his gaze to something behind the girls. “Because of them.”
The two Char-Qualkn demons stepped up behind them. Claudia jump around, startled, and fired into one demon’s chest. The monster slowed for a moment and growled deep in its throat. Then both demon’s chests began to glow slightly and the bullet wound closed and healed.
“You see,” Ethan continued as his captives stared, wide-eyed. “If you kill me, you will break my control over them. And, with no master, they would be free to do as they pleased. I don’t think you’d like the outcome of that. But don’t worry, yours is not the flesh they have a taste for at the moment.”
Willow spun back to the mage, more acclimated to the sight of demons than the Warehouse agent. “Why are you doing this, Ethan? Why would you want to make Giles suffer like this? He was your friend.”
“I’ve only done as he did to me. They both took something I treasured. Seems only a fitting revenge.”
“What? Tell us what they did.”
Ethan wagged his finger. “Nuh uh… Can’t spoil all the fun too soon. Besides…”
The first demon grabbed Claudia’s gun and crushed it in a clawed hand. Then both girls were taken, surprisingly gently, by the shoulders and made to sit on a bench by the wall.
“… The show is about to begin.”
He swiveled around and looked at a screen that showed an outdoor space. Six people were cautiously approaching.
“Don’t you hurt them!” Claudia cried out.
“My dear,” Ethan chuckled, keeping his eyes on the monitor, “I think you’re missing the point of the exercise.”
“Welcome to Sunnydale,” Xander drawled as the small group came to a halt in front of the crumbling façade of a funhouse. “Come for the Hellmouth, stay for all your creepy, evil setting needs.”
“Like a dilapidated carnival?” Pete continued the banter as he glanced around at the rusted, overgrown rides and torn tents.
“Alright,” Buffy huffed. “I’ve been pretty much all over this town on patrol. Was this always here?” The only answer was a shrug from both Xander and Giles.
Myka was staring up at the giant, painted clown head that stood as the entrance to the funhouse. “Well, this is the most intact building within a mile. Seems like our best bet.”
Xander shuddered, “I hate clowns.”
“Duuude…” Pete commiserated.
Buffy was searching out with all her senses. “I don’t get it. Aside from it being Creepsvile, there’s nothing really here.”
In the next few moments, the sun slowly dipped down and met the horizon. The structure before them grew into a dark, twisted fortification. And the smiling clown morphed into an image straight out of nightmares, its sharp, menacing teeth creating a sealed door before them. Xander jumped and screeched, ducking behind the Slayer. No one else could blame him for acting on their first impulse.
Pete gasped, “Great googly moogly.”
“I think we found it,” Myka murmured uncertainly.
Giles stepped forward and ran his hand along the surface of the doorway. “No kind of handle or mechanism. If the trend continues, there must be some sort of puzzle to open it.”
“I’ve always found that an ax makes a good key,” Buffy stated, turning to where the bag of weapons they brought had been. “That is if those dirty cheaters didn’t just steal all our stuff!”
“This is a test of cunning and courage,” her Watcher sighed. “Also, likely to be a means of merely tormenting us. It’s no surprise that we’d be left with nothing in the way of tools.”
Xander patted at the small pouch attached to his belt and sighed in relief. At least their med-kits had been left untouched.
Artie stepped up beside Giles. “They weren’t smart enough to take everything,” he said, dipping a hand into his leather bag. “Stand back. I’ll make a door.”
“Arthur, careful…” Before Giles could stop him, Artie pulled out a small jar and threw its contents at the clown’s mouth. There was a bright flash and a shockwave that knocked the entire group back and to the ground.
Buffy was the first to recover and crawled toward the two older men, both of whom had taken the brunt of the impact. “Are you guys alright?” Giles sat up slowly and nodded, readjusting his glasses. “I take it that wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Artie groaned as Pete ran up to help him. “Hey man, a little warning next time you throw around exploding Artifacts. You still with us?”
“Yes,” the senior agent grumbled. “It was my own stupidity. I should have realized. Is anyone else hurt?”
“All accounted for,” Xander called. “What happened?”
“It was just a mistake,” Giles answered. “Some of Francois Villon’s ink, I’m guessing. A good thought, but Arthur forgot the inherent instability of mixing Artifact energy and demon magick.”
“I’m sorry,” Artie muttered. “Guess we really are on our own.” He tossed his bag to the ground.
“But,” Buffy scrunched her face. “Isn’t the mixing of those things why we’re in this mess in the first place?”
“It can be done with great care and study,” Giles answered. “That is why the Marquis’ achievement was so noteworthy. Where others would have created a talisman to bind these demons, he went one step beyond.”
“I think I’ve got something, Guys,” Myka called. “Over here.” She pointed up as they gathered around her. “See? In the clown’s eye. I think it’s the next clue.”
Everyone soon found the spiral of words she was looking at.
“I’ve got this one,” Pete announced. “It says: Enter here, all those who dare. To seek and save the maiden fair.” The large agent shook his head. “Boy, if Claud knew she was being put in the role of ‘damsel in distress’, she’d be in there kicking butt already.”
Xander grinned. “Yeah. Whoever’s behind this is going to have a couple of really cheesed off damsels on their hands. I just hope they’re still okay when we find them.”
“They will be,” Buffy reassured all of her male companions. “Never doubt it.”
There were nods of agreement just as Myka shouted, “That’s it. See, the clue is written in the shape of a Nautalis. And all of these holes in the wall have corresponding numbers. We just have to reach in and pull the levers in the right order. It’s the Fibonacci Sequence!”
Artie stepped back to see the big picture. “I don’t see a one, two, or five.”
“That’s because it starts at the triple digits,” Myka grinned excitedly.
Giles stood on her other side. “Yes, I see what you mean. That means the first lever would be…”
He stepped forward, but was pushed aside by Buffy. “I’ll do the first one and check it out.” When her Watcher began to protest, a hard glare silenced him. “Where am I going?”
Myka pointed, “Number one-forty-four.”
The Slayer stepped forward and cautiously placed her arms into the two holes until she could feel the lever inside. Grabbing hold, she cringed and gave a tug. Everyone gave a sigh of relief when nothing happened to her. But there was a loud clunk, and one pair of the ugly clown teeth slid open an inch.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Buffy smiled, letting go. The teeth slammed shut.
“We must have to hold them all in order,” Myka mused.
The blond went back and held her lever. “Okay, Myka. Tell them what to do.”
The agent nodded determinedly. “Pete, number Two-thirty-three.”
“Mr. Giles, please take number--”
She smiled and nodded. “And Xander, you get six hundred and ten. That leaves nine-eighty-seven for you, Artie. And I’ll get the last, number fifteen-ninety-seven.” Myka stepped up, put her arms in the holes, and pulled.
There was a bang as the mouth-door gaped open. At the same time, sharp spikes in the wall slammed closed on Myka’s arms. She bit down on an agonized scream.
Pete was the first to run to her side. “Myks, let go!”
“No. If I do the door will close.”
Her partner’s eye grew panicked when blood began to seep down her arms. “You’re hurt. Let me help you.”
“Pete, get them inside. We knew it would be this way. This was my puzzle to solve. Get going!”
“Everyone inside,” the Warehouse agent yelled, waving at them to continue. He gave Myka a pleading stare.
“They need you. Just get them through to the end… for me.” Myka’s face had gone pale, and she’d begun to shake. She was going into shock.
“I promise,” her partner swore, tears flashing in his eyes, before turning and running through the entrance.
With everyone inside, Myka let go and sealed them in.
Pete jumped clear of the gate just as it slammed shut.
“Where’s Myka?” Artie ran up and grabbed him by the shoulders.
“She… She was trapped. She had to hold the door open for the rest of us.”
The senior agent could see the slight panic still shining in Pete’s eyes. “And you left her there? Was there something wrong? Was she hurt?”
A spark of uncharacteristic annoyance arose in the taller man. “Of course she was hurt, Artie,” he nearly growled. “Isn’t that what this is all about? Your past coming back to literally bite all of us in the ass… again.”
“Hey, hey, hey,” Xander interceded as the older man paled at the outburst. “Let’s focus, guys. Willow and Claudia. They need us.”
Pete took a calming breath. “I’m sorry. Myka told me to get you through this, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“I know,” Artie nodded. “It’s just…”
“I don’t get it,” Buffy was searching around the oppressively dim and empty room. “Where’s the next test?”
“It’s over here,” Xander announced. “And it’s my turn.”
“How do you know,” the Slayer asked as they gathered behind him and stared. “And what the hell is it.”
The pitch black pool of water stretched before them, its surface still and smooth. It could have been some kind mirrored floor, except for the medieval-looking contraption sitting at its edge. Some kind of chair attached to the end of a long lever stood menacing and waiting.
“Looks to me like some kind of dunking stool,” Pete mumbled.
“To be correct,” Giles and Artie chorused together, “it is a Ducking Stool.”
Pete gave them a sideways glare. “Thank you, encyclopedia bro-tanica.” The two older men seemed sufficiently chastised.
Buffy bent and touched the water, sending ripples along its surface. “Xander, what are you thinking? It will be impossible to see in that dark, and this water is so cold you’ll get hypothemics!” Both Giles and Artie opened their mouths but, seeing the words mirrored in each other, thought better of making the unnecessary correction. “You can’t go in there,” Buffy finished.
“There’s no choice,” the young man responded. “Look around. We all know the switch to open that door,” he pointed at their next obstacle, “has to be down there. I’m the logical choice, Buff. Remember, I was on the swim team.”
“For all of one day! And you were almost turned into a fish monster.” The petit blond frowned at the determination in her friend’s eyes. “You can’t ask me to strap you into this horrible contraption.”
“He’s not asking you,” Giles stepped up beside them. “This is my mess, and my trial.” He put a fatherly hand on his young student’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t be asked to do this. I’m sure I could--”
“No. It’s me. You’re going to put me in that water, and then you’re going to leave me behind and go save Willow. That’s what we’re here for.”
The Watcher couldn’t help a small swell of pride at the boy’s bravery. “I-it, um, it’s very cold in here. Perhaps you should take off as much clothing as possible so you’ll have something warm to put on when you get yourself out.” Xander nodded numbly at him, the reality of the situation settling in now that he had won the argument. “And, here,” Giles slid his tweed jacket off, “this should help keep you warm.”
“Thanks, man,” Xander whispered, adding his shirt, shoes, and socks to the pile on the floor. As he reached for the fly of his jeans, he looked up at Buffy. “You mind turning around and giving a guy some dignity,” he half-heartedly joked.
Buffy tried to give him her best smile. “Hey, I’ve seen you in a pair of speedos. Your dignity is a thing of the past. Besides, you can’t have anything worse than that on under there, can you?”
Xander shook his head slowly and pushed the jeans off his hips. He blushed slightly at the reveal of a pair of Scooby Doo print boxers shorts.
It was Pete who came to the younger man’s rescue, crowing, “Dude, awesome! Do you think I could get some of those in my size?”
The well-timed outburst was enough to spur the group on. Xander walked to the rough, wooden chair and sat down, and the Watcher moved to stand in front of him.
“Xander,” he resituated his glasses in frustration. “If there was any other way…”
“There’s not, Big Guy. At least, nothing we would be able to figure out in time. Just, make the straps loose and leave me one hand free. I’ll be good.”
Giles smiled slightly as he began his work. “Yes, I do believe you will be a very good man.”
“Was that a compliment, G-man?”
“Not if you’re going to insist on calling me that,” the Watcher sighed.
His young friend chuckled. “Just making all this easier for you.”
“Now listen,” Giles looked seriously into his eyes when everything else was finished. “When you find that switch, I want you to hold it for a count of five, no more. We will have enough time to move on. Then I want you to only concentrate on getting yourself out of there and warming up. Do you understand?”
“Got it,” Xander nodded. “And, Giles… I don’t care what these demons throw at you, or what you have to do… If you come back without Willow, you’ll have me to deal with.”
The older man took a deep breath. “If I can’t get to Willow, I won’t be coming back.” He looked to the others. “Go wait by the door and be ready.”
Before complying, Buffy ran over and hugged Xander around the neck. “Get them through,” he whispered into her ear.
Giles stepped around to the handle of the infernal mechanism and found Artie waiting there. They shared a silent conversation full of commiseration, then took their places.
“Are you ready,” Giles called when everyone was in place.
“As ever,” Xander answered.
Lifting the chair into the air, the two men maneuvered it over the pool, and plunged its captive into the black depths. Every heartbeat seemed like a lifetime as they waited for something, anything to happen. Only after what seemed like too long, the door snapped open. Knowing there was nothing else anyone could do, the shrinking group hurried through the opening.