Just as it had happened with the view of the outside, as soon as the door slid shut, the camera watching the pool cut off.
“No!” Willow cried. “Xander! What’s happening?”
“Oh. Nothing you want to witness, Luv.” Ethan said casually without turning back to his prisoners. “Blub, blub, blub…” he teased.
“No!” the young witch screamed again, rushing forward and forcing his chair around. “You have to stop this.”
He stared at her with cold eyes. “Why?”
“Because you can be sure we won’t let you get away with hurting our friends,” Claudia growled.
“I don’t understand,” Willow pleaded. “Giles said you guys used to be friends. How can you be so hateful now? How can you enjoy seeing him suffer like this?”
“Friends… Is that what Ripper told you we were?” Ethan’s eyes glinted with a spark of deep red. “How memory fades,” he sneered. “No remorse for turning his back. No sorrow for the young man left with nothing. All I had, gone in a flash,” Willow was magickaly cast back to her seat. “As my ‘friend’ went back to safety. Found himself a new life and new friends. But look at them now!” He swung back to continue watching.
“Okay, this guy is a serious wackadoodle,” Claudia whispered to Willow.
“There’s something wrong,” the younger girl hissed back. “I think there is something affecting him. It’s like that thingy, the… Artifact, is making his anger and hate overwhelm him. Everything else he used to be is gone.”
“All Artifacts have bad side-effects. Could be that these whammy the person using them, too.
Being an all-consuming ball of rage can’t be healthy.”
“If Ethan has lost the little reason he had, the others are in more danger than they can know. We have to find a way to warn them.”
Claudia sighed deeply. “Not much we can do right now with Mutt and Jeff waiting in the wings over there.” The piercing demon eyes never left them.
“And Ethan’s getting worse.”
The chaos sorcerer laughed joylessly as he watched the next monitor.
Giles gazed up into nothing, his glasses dangling from loose fingers. He couldn’t bring himself to look for what could be next. This new hellish chamber was much brighter, lit by braziers lining the walls. Oppressive waves of heat radiated from the fires.
Several minutes passed as the others collected themselves. His Slayer approached and placed a comforting hand on Giles’ back. “He’ll be all right,” she tried to soothe. “He did exactly what you told him to do. By now he should be wrapped up in a big, tweed jacket twice his size.” Leaning her head against his shoulder, Buffy murmured, “You have to make yourself believe that.”
The Watcher blinked some moisture from his eyes before shifting them down to her. “I always…” He whispered, swallowing a lump in his throat. “I always knew there was a good chance that I would one day lose you, lose all of you. I just never realized that it would be my fault and by my own hands.”
Buffy shook her head. “You haven’t lost us yet. Xander, Willow, me… We’re all tougher than anyone can see, even you. We can do this because you taught us how and you believe in us. But right now we are believing in you to get us through this. And the faster you do, the sooner we’ll all be back together. We have to keep going now. It’s the only way to make sure they’ll be safe.”
Giles ran his hand affectionately over her shoulder and squeezed. “You’re right. Thank you.”
“Looks like the next round of fun is over here,” Pete called out.
Artie bent to see into the strange tunnel that was carved into one wall. “I don’t understand. It’s a hole.”
He leaned in, resting his hand on a small, flat cart that was affixed to a track leading up the slight incline. The touch triggered fire to erupt on all sides of the pathway. Sharp blades swung down, cutting closer and closer until there was barely room to reach an arm through to the lever at the other end.
Everyone jumped back when a burst of fire billowed up past the tight entrance.
“They’ve got to be kidding,” Buffy groaned.
Pete shrugged in a strangely appropriate state of panicked resignation. “Seems to make sense. Water, now fire. In a really sadistic sort of way, that is. Can I just say, I’m beginning to really not like demons?”
The Slayer couldn’t help an understanding smirk. “Most of them do take their evil seriously.”
“Can you two please focus for a moment?” Artie growled.
Pete gave him a sympathetic smile. “We’re here, Artie. We’ll figure it out. You’re gonna make it to her.”
The senior agent ducked his head and rubbed his eyes under his glasses.
“Looks to me,” Buffy stepped up, “like we only have one choice here.”
Pete suddenly moved to block her. “Yeah, me.”
“No way. I’m the smallest. I have a better chance. By the time you get to the other end, you’ll be sliced to ribbons.”
“Hey! I can suck it in when I want to,” Pete joked nervously. “Just… Hear me out. All I have to do is lie on this thing and let you guys pull me up to the switch. Just lying there is my specialty. Wait… No! Forget I said that. I’m actually a very active and attentive--”
“Pete, she’s in high school,” Artie reminded him stiffly.
“I know! But I’m not about to do something this dangerous and brave in front of a beautiful girl without her thinking I’m anything less than a stud muffin.”
Buffy tried to hide a soft chuckle. “Your studdliness is secure with me.” At his satisfied smile, she continued, “I still think I’m the better… It’s just, I have these supernatural reflexes and I can heal like so much fast than anyone else.” Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy could see her Watcher fighting to keep his composure while she was arguing her way into this torturous situation.
“And all of that is why you need to go on,” the Warehouse agent was saying. “What if I can’t get them through the next door? What if those monsters are waiting behind this one? This right here is something I can do. And I’ll get it done knowing you’re going to help these guys kick some evil ass.”
The Slayer found she couldn’t argue with his reasoning. “You’re sure?”
“As anyone as ready to wet themselves as I am right now can be.”
Nodding, she stepped aside.
Artie came up to Pete, his emotions under tight, but tenuous control. “Um… I…”
“This isn’t your fault, Buddy.”
The older man shook his head. “Sure feels like it. My past coming back again.”
“Exactly. Your past, someone else’s vendetta. You’ve got to get to whoever’s behind this. Snag and bag the Artifacts. That’s what we do.”
“Here,” Artie suddenly tugged his heavy overcoat off. “This might give you some protection from the flames and blades. Not much, but every little bit…”
Pete took the coat with a serious nod. “Find Claudia. Stop all this. Come back safe. That’s all I ask.”
“I’ll do my best,” Artie mumbled, mostly to the floor.
“Okay, Boys,” his agent said as he lay his belly on the cart that barely held him from shoulders to waist. “Turn me into Superman!” Reaching his arms forward, he prepared to grab the prize at the other end.
Giles stepped up next to Artie. “We’ll do this the same as before,” he instructed. “When you open the door, give us to a count of five, no more. With the angle of the track, you should slide right back out when you let go.”
The two older men took hold of lengths of chains hanging out of the wall on either side of the tunnel. With a final thumbs up from their victim, they began to pull in unison. The steady pace they set seemed to take only seconds and forever at the same time. As soon as Pete disappeared inside, a wall of flame blocked their view, but the tell-tale ring of blades slicing fabric and flesh was unmistakable. As were the groans of a man hiding his pain.
Without any warning, the door across the room snapped open. “I got it,” Pete’s ragged voice echoed in the room. “Go!”
Buffy and Giles grabbed Artie, dragging him numbly away as they hurried deeper into the hell-maze. Moments later, the door slammed shut behind them.
Ethan laughed so hard he almost choked as the monitor watching Pete blinked into blackness. “And we bid a fond farewell to another ‘friend’.”
“I really want to cause this guy some serious pain right now,” Claudia growled to the girl next to her.
“I know, I know,” Willow whispered back with panic in her voice. “Tell me what will happen if we suddenly pulled the mask off of him.”
The agent nodded understanding, trying to regain her focus on the problem. “Some Artifacts can leave contact wounds. Not that I’m all that worried about maiming him right now. The real problem is that I don’t have any gloves or neutralizer. If we can snag the goods, best case is, breaking his contact might stop what’s going on. Worst case is that the major crazies infect one of us and we send the Bobbsey Twins on our very own little power trip.” She took a breath and sighed. “Then again, you thrown in the whole demon thing, and it’s something that I have no idea… This is new and freaky territory.”
Willow thought for a moment. “It’s probably not going to work, but I’m pretty sure neither of us have as many enemies to get revenge on as Ethan. All we have to figure out is how to get past the Char-Qualkn. Oh, and past Ethan’s own magick, too. Then we can grab the thingies.”
Claudia glanced at one of the large demons snarling at her. “Yeah, piece of cake.”
“Arthur,” Giles shook the shorter man by the shoulders. “Come now, we must press on.”
Artie’s hollow eyes suddenly focused to a laser point on the face of the Watcher. “Don’t touch me,” he snarled, jerking away. “Always when you show up. Always! And again I’ve lost all my agents, all my… friends. I should have pulled the trigger the moment I saw you.”
“Hey!” Buffy moved to step in, but was stopped by Giles’ calmly raised hand.
“Perhaps you should have,” he replied softly. “I’m well aware that my presence has never exactly facilitated safety for those around me. A status I know we both share. But we are in this now, and the only way to help anyone is to see it through to the end.” Smiling slightly, he added, “Don’t worry, Arthur. I’m sure you’ll get another chance to kill me before today’s finished.”
“Giles! That’s not funny,” Buffy huffed.
“But it is true,” Artie answered, much more subdued. “As is the fact that he’ll get the same chance. And we both know it.”
She frowned. “The real goal here is to slay those demons. And since I don’t see them in here, that means you’ll need each other to do it. Slay the demons, get Willow and Claudia out of trouble. All in a day’s work.” The Slayer glared back and forth between them. “Anyone confused about this concept?”
“We will do what we need to, Buffy,” Giles tried to sooth her. “You have to understand that it is a bit… disconcerting, to be forced to become an instrument of pain against those you hold dear.”
She gave them a sympathetic sigh. “I know. But the only way to stop it is to end it. So you guys are gonna have to focus on the finish line. Because this next door doesn’t look like much fun either.”
The two men followed her gaze across the room behind them. In front of what could only be the exit stood a huge slab of rough-hewn stone. Large chains at the top connected it to an ancient-looking, rudimentary pulley system. Their eyes followed the rusted chains along the ceiling and down the opposite wall to a wooden contraption with four shackles, one at each corner.
“No!” Giles railed threateningly at the torture device. “I won’t! I can’t!”
“It’s the only way,” Buffy tried to remain reasonable.
“I refuse to strap you onto a rack. This is madness.”
“Hello,” Buffy teased gently. “Welcome to our life.”
“Damn it, Buffy. Don’t you understand?”
The Slayer bit back on another smart remark. Seeing her Watcher this freaked out over her was never easy. “Giles, look at me.” She held him by the upper arms, attempting to ease his panic. “We’ll figure this out. We always do.”
Giles nodded, tears of anger and fear still in his eyes. He pulled the girl to him for a rare, but much needed, hug.
“Buffy, how much do you think you can dead-lift?” Artie glanced back from examining the giant stone.
She tilted her head questioningly before coming to understand. “Oh. I’m not sure. We’ve never really tested my strength to the max.”
“Ever tried anything close to this size?”
“No, but there’s a first time for everything.” Buffy bent to examine the lower edge of the block for hand holds.
“How would making her lift all of that weight be any better than putting her into that device?” Giles grumbled.
“If she can do it, it would give her more control. Instead of stressing her joints by stretching them, she could get into a compact stance and use her skeletal strength as well as muscle.”
“You’re right, of course. But it will be harder to support while trying to balance everything as well. And how long will she have to do that while we attempt to crawl under with her worried about crushing us?”
“Guys! Hold on and let me give it a try,” the Slayer silenced the conversation behind her. “You two can talk it around in circles until forever. Sometimes out here you just have to… Well, kick the damn thing.” She illustrated by turning and kicking the lower edge of the stone as hard as she could. Some crumbled away, but not much. “Damn. I was hoping to make more of an impact, maybe just beat my way through it.”
Giles ran his hand along the jagged surface. “This is a block of granite. Even if we had tools it would take us days.”
“Well, here goes…” Buffy squatted down, but could only get her fingertips into the small cracks. She pushed up with all her strength. The heavy, metamorphic stone shifted, but her precarious grip failed and it slammed back into place. “It was worth a try. Guess this means square one. Time to strap me in.”
“Not necessarily,” Artie walked toward the racking device.
“No more stalling,” the blonde stated, following him. “We’re out of options.”
“There is one more. Put me in it instead.”
“Arthur,” Giles pulled off his glasses. “As much as you tend to bring out an… angrier side of me, you can’t seriously expect us to--”
“I’ve given it thought. If the two of you go on, you’ll have a much better chance of killing the Char-Qualkn and saving both the girls. You have an instinctual bond. You’ll work together much more efficiently, not against each other like a pair of stubborn, old men.”
Giles ran a flustered hand through his unruly hair. “It’s suicidal. You’d be pulled apart in an instant.”
“Maybe. But I know you’ll make sure Claudia is safe.”
The Watcher blinked in surprise, unsure of how to respond to the unexpected show of faith.
Buffy sighed. “Come here,” she told Artie. The agent stepped forward without thinking. With a quick jab, she hit the joint of his left shoulder with only the tip of her thumb. He jerked away, nearly folding over in pain. “You’ve been favoring that shoulder since we met. There’s no possible way you can hold that much weight long enough for us to get through.”
Artie gave her an annoyed glance. “I needed to take a sword away from someone,” he muttered as an explanation.
“The point is, I’m pretty sure this room is meant specifically to take me out of this fight. Pete was right. The goal here is for you two to find who’s behind this and stop them. There’s no more to discuss.”
“Buffy,” Giles murmured.
“No! You are not strapping me into a torture machine. I am going to lift up this door, and I’m ordering the pair of you to crawl your butts under it and kick the hell out of whatever’s on the other side. Is that understood?”
“Yes,” the two men answered in unison, both badly hiding very proud and inspired smiles.
To Giles, she continued in a softer voice, “Willow’s waiting for you. You can’t imagine your life without her… Well, neither can I. Go get our ‘light in the darkness’, Giles.” With a small chuckle, she added, “Then point her at whoever did this to her so she can show them just what kind of fire they’re messing with.”
“I promise she’ll be safe,” her Watcher whispered.
His Slayer lightly placed her hand on his shoulder. “Better if you both are.” Stepping away, she shook herself back into fight mode. “All right. I think we’ll need to make the ankle shackles tight to give me some leverage. Then you can leave the wrists loose and I can hold on to the chains. That way I’ll be able to get out pretty easy.” She stepped into place and turned around, looking at them expectantly.
Slowly, both men knelt before her mostly bare legs and took the shackles in their hands.
“These things are monsters,” Arties whispered. “Just putting them on is going to tear her skin up.”
“I know,” Giles replied with a sour expression. Glancing down at himself, he quickly undid the buttons of the vest to the suit he’d put on for school three days ago. “Here, hold onto this.” Handing one side to Artie, he gave a sharp, hard tug, ripping the material down the back. “Wrap it around her ankle. Hopefully it will give some padding and a bit of protection.”
Each of them made quick work of wrapping Buffy’s leg as if tending to wounds not yet there. They then locked the rough, iron rings into place.
Standing, Giles inspected the chains that hung above her head. “These are going to tear your hands apart.”
“It’s okay,” the Slayer reassured. “I’ve dealt with way worse.”
“Not when you didn’t need to.” Thinking quickly, Giles pulled off his tie and wound it around her wrist and hand. On her other side, Artie pulled a large handkerchief from his pocket and did the same. “How does that feel?” the Watcher asked when they had fitted the shackles as loosely as they dared.
Buffy cocked her eyebrow at him in an expression that plainly said, ‘How do you think, stupid?’
Giles frowned and turned his attention to the man beside him. “We’ll do this as quickly as possible. Crank the stone up only until we can fit under, and crawl as fast as we can so Buffy can let go.”
“I’ll give you guys all I’ve got,” she put in. “But you better move like your asses are on fire. If I can’t hold it, you’ll be crushed.”
Artie looked at the young girl with great respect in his world-weary eyes. “I wouldn’t trust anybody more. Only hold on as long as you can. We’ll get to the other side.”
With a nod of determination from all parties, the men stepped up to the large wheel cranks and began to turn them. Buffy braced herself and gripped the chains tightly. The heavy stone began to rise off the floor. Its massive weight caused the pulleys to groan, the chains to groan, Buffy to groan. The Slayer clenched her jaw and pulled with all her might.
“That it!” Giles shouted. “Move!”
Both men hit the ground hard, their hands and knees scrapping along the ground as they moved with all the speed they could muster. The stone above them caught at their shirts, ripping at both fabric and skin. Giles saw the opening and threw himself at it with everything he had. Spinning on the floor, he grabbed ahold of Artie and pulled him free as well.
“We’re through, Buffy!” he screamed. “Drop it now.” One second passed, then two… To him it felt like an eternity before the stone suddenly fell with a ground-shaking thud. Breathing hard, he sat with his head in his hands. The image of Buffy’s torn and broken body flooding his mind.