6. In Rusty Armor
Willow squeezed her eyes shut against the image of Buffy’s straining and twisted face. She knew her best friend would give her life to save the world if need be. But not like this, not for her. Her eyes reopened to find Claudia’s. Both of them were thinking the same thing. It was down to two now. The games were over. Giles and Artie were walking into a trap. One that neither of them would survive.
“If we’re going to try, this is it,” the Warehouse agent whispered. “There’s no more time to think about it.”
Willow nodded. “There’s nothing else we can do.”
“Are you set for your side of things?”
“I think so. I’ve never actually tried something like this before. I’m sorry if--”
“Don’t say it,” Claudia hushed her. “We both know this is a stupid thing to do. But it’s the only chance we have if we want to get the guys out of this mess.”
“We have to try. For them.” Willow put on a determined look. “All right. Resolve face in place. Let’s do this.”
The other redhead let a little chuckle escape. She took her younger friend’s hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “On three,” she whispered. “One… Two… Three!”
Both girls flung themselves forward at the same moment. Willow flew toward the twin demons, shooting sparks from her outstretched hands in an attempt to distract them. Meanwhile, Claudia raced up behind Ethan, hoping to snatch the mask from his face before he could react.
With a raise of the sorcerer’s long fingers, everything was engulfed in a blinding flash. An instant later the room was empty.
Artie sprawled on the concrete floor, sucking in oxygen to catch his breath. It took what felt like too long for him to regain his functions and prop himself upright. A few feet away, he could see Giles collapsing into a rocking pile of grief and misery. Artie scooted up beside the other man.
“Rupert?” he whispered cautiously, hovering a hand over his once-friend’s back, but not quite touching him. “She let it drop. Your Slayer is the strongest, bravest young lady I’ve ever seen. I’m sure she’s--”
“Not like this,” the Watcher groaned miserably. “Slayers die. We all know. But they give their lives for innocents, for the world… Not for the likes of me. Not for the mistakes of a foolish, lecherous old pillock.”
Artie signed heavily. “Much as I’d love to agree that you are a pillock, we both know that Willow could throw herself naked at you and you would never touch her. You’re not that kind of man. Loving is not a sin, Rupert. The person using the people we love against us… that’s who we need to be focused on punishing now.”
“Arthur,” Giles said quietly, never glancing over. “I want you to know, I never intended to take Amber from you. I had no idea you felt so deeply…”
“You didn’t take anything. She was as unaware as you were. Even then I wasn’t the greatest at communicating my feelings. How could I blame her for noticing my handsome, young friend?”
“We were friends once, weren’t we? Seems like another lifetime now.”
Artie let a small smile slip. “I never minded going to London on assignment, knowing I’d be stopping by to have lunch or dinner with my friend Rupert. He was the most interesting conversation in Europe.”
“And I always knew you’d have good advice whenever I thought my life wouldn’t amount to anything. Whenever I believed the Council put me in a museum because I belonged on the shelves with all the other useless memories. I remember how you spoke for me to the other Watchers when my probation time was done. It was you who made them accept me back.”
“I only told them that if they couldn’t see you were meant for more, then they were blind, old morons and we could use a man like you over at the Warehouse.”
Giles chuckled, “Always the eloquent speaker.” Ducking his head, he murmured, “It happened after I left her that night. I never thought that we might have been followed. When they told me she was dead, I prayed it was the truth. But she came back, and she found me at the museum… Part of me wanted to let her take me, just so I could be with her forever. But, when I saw the demon, I couldn’t let that thing keep her face. I did what I had to do. That’s when you walked in.”
“My head knew what was going on, but my heart wouldn’t let me accept it. I needed to punish someone for what happened to her. Before I knew it, I was chasing you down the corridor with that… I can’t even remember what it was I grabbed.”
“It was a halberd, fourteenth century Swiss. You don’t soon forget the business end of one of those coming after you.”
“You could have stood your ground, you know.” Artie shook his head ruefully. “You were younger than me, much better trained in combat. You chose to run when you could have easily beaten me.”
Giles smiled sadly. “During my life I had already learned not to underestimate the madness that comes with grief. And I had already lost one person I cared about that night. It was my hope that you wouldn’t be another I had to lose forever.”
The Warehouse agent frowned guiltily. “Maybe not forever. Only twenty years or so.”
Looking him in the eyes, Giles said sincerely, “Thank you. It’s good to have your forgiveness. One less thing to regret.”
“Yes… for me, too.”
“We’re both going to die tonight.”
“I know that,” Artie nodded. “But we’re going to make sure we’re the only ones. And we’re going to take those demons with us.”
To seal the deal, they grasped each other’s hands and shook.
“Now,” Giles cleared his throat as he stood. “Let’s go get Willow.”
“And Claudia,” Artie agreed, rising beside him.
The two men looked around the room that they had tumbled into for the first time. This one did not have the medieval feel of the others. It was more run down industrial. There was a grating to one side that led into pitch dark. About five feet up, at either side of that doorway, some naked wiring stuck out of large industrial conduits which continued on around both sides of the room. Directly opposite the exit they entered a huge power box with a throw switch. A sign proclaiming, Warning High Voltage, was clearly only there to tease.
Both men stepped towards the exit at once.
“It’s clear what has to happen here,” Giles sighed.
“Yes, even to an idiot like you,” Artie grouched, retuning instantly to their antagonistic rivalry. “That’s why I’m going this way, and you’re going that way.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Arthur. You don’t want to have to do this anymore than I do.”
“Then stop fighting me,” the agent huffed, exasperated. “We both have to get through that door. There’s no other way to open it. This we know from agonizing experience. This whole process is going to be painful, for both for us. So let’s stop arguing and just get the damn thing over with.”
Giles sighed and gestured his friend onward. He gallantly fought to hide his smile when Artie stretched his arms out, but could barely touch the wiring with his fingertips.
With a sour frown, the Warehouse agent stalked back across the room. “Not one damn word.”
“Come now, Arthur,” the Watcher strode past him. “We both know you’ve always wanted to send fifty-thousand volts coursing through me.” Standing in the doorway, he took his handkerchief from his pocket and gave his glasses a steady, thorough polish. He then folded the cloth into a thick rectangular pad.
“I’ve wanted to do a lot of things to you over the years,” Artie stood next to the power box. “It doesn’t mean I ever really had it in me to pull the switch. We don’t even know how much voltage this is going to send out.”
“What we do know is that they are not quite ready to kill me, yet. That would be too simple. You know what you’re going to have to do, right?” Artie nodded. Giles looked straight into his eyes. “If I am wrong about this, and I don’t make it… Please promise you’ll save--”
“I’ll get them both out,” the older man answered solemnly. “I swear to you, if it’s the last thing I do.”
The Watcher placed his handkerchief between his teeth and bit down. Having at least five inches of height on the other man, he held out his correspondingly wider arm span and grasped the soon to be live wires. He then took a wide stance and braced himself. On a nod from Giles, Artie took a deep breath and pulled the toggle.
The voltage buzzed noisily as it ran though the Watcher’s body, all of his muscles tensing at once. Less than a heartbeat after sending the electricity, Artie shifted his weight and began to move. He ran across the room as fast as he could, building up momentum, and hurled himself straight into Giles’ chest. The massive force was enough to rip him free, and both men went flying through the opened grate to land in a tangled heap on the other side.
Artie scrambled to his knees and began checking the still body beneath him for vital signs. He brushed the singed and smoking cloth from the slack jaw. There was no breath. The pulse was very faint. He pounded his fists down on Giles’ chest, attempting to beat the life back into him.
“Come on you know-it-all bastard,” he growled. “Don’t you dare make me put my lips anywhere near you!”
With another thump, Giles gasped in a deep breath and began to cough. Slumping back, Artie sighed in relief.
The Watcher rolled his head toward the other man. “Told you,” he choked out roughly.
“Why you son of a…” Artie chuckled in relief and reached out his left hand to catch hold of Giles’ right as they began to help each other stagger to their feet. Before they could get half way up, a set of shackles blinked into existence, binding them together with about two feet of sturdy chain.
They had to shield their eyes when fire erupted all around them, flooding the dark room with light and heat. They stood at the center of the room. Behind them a pit of fire burned where a wall had just been. In front of them two more pits disappeared into burning depths. Above each of these hung a cage, swinging precariously from the high ceiling.
“Giles,” Willow yelled from the cage on the left.
From the right, Claudia’s voice rang out with Artie’s name.
“It’ll be all right. We’re here,” the Watcher tried to sound reassuring.
“You don’t understand,” Willow called out in warning. “It’s--”
A large stone pillar rose up between the captives with a throne at its peak. Lounging atop it was the lean form of a man. He held a long, staff-like scepter, and the mask covering his eyes had grown into a dark and twisted crown that circled his head. He laughed with great and frightening joy.
Even with the changes, Giles recognized him immediately. “Ethan,” the Watcher growled. “Stop this now or so help me I will finish what I started last time I told you to leave town.”
“Giles! It’s not him,” Willow finished.
“The guy’s whammied, Artie,” Claudia yelled. “Like total Lucrezia Borgia style, kill all who ever wronged you. Whoever this guy was, he’s not at home anymore.”
It was only after these warnings that the two men saw the red fire raging in Ethan’s eyes. “And here we are again.” The madman’s deep voice was silky smooth. “Old friends and new. Pasts and futures. Those once loved and those that still may be.”
“Ethan,” Giles tried again carefully. “We’re here now. You have us to do with as you please. These young ladies have never wronged you. Let them go and take your vengeance on us.”
“Never wronged me?” Ethan spat. “They now possess all I lost.”
“No, they don’t…”
“I remember you,” Artie spoke up when Giles faltered. “You came looking for Rupert a couple times. You wanted to drag him back into the dark with you. I refused to let you do that. I advised him never to see you again. I ran you off.”
“He belonged with me,” Ethan fumed. “We were a matched set. We were power. We were chaos. We were gods.”
“No, Ethan,” Giles answered. “We were dangerous. To ourselves and everyone around us.”
“The weak! The weak are meant to burn. Now you are as weak as the rest. And soon you too will burn.”
Both girls’ eyes went wide. Their friends stood before them, putting on the strongest faces possible. But they could see though all of it. They’ve always been able to. Giles and Artie sagged as they stood there, their torn and scorched shirts hanging from equally torn and scorched frames. Their hair was matted with sweat and mussed into odd peaks. They slumped with weariness that ran bone deep. In short, they looked like they’d already come through hell. Tears welled up in Willows eyes while Claudia chose to hold onto anger instead.
“You’re right, Ethan,” Giles sighed. “We are nothing but weak, mortal men. If we were any better, maybe these innocent girls wouldn’t be here. But they are, and we willingly accept punishment for that.”
“No, Giles,” Willow cried.
“I only ask that when this is done, you let them both return to the lives they deserve.”
“Ohh. Is that begging I hear?” Ethan teased.
“If it will get them out of here…” Artie spoke up. “Yes, we’re begging you.”
“My, my,” the sorcerer placed his hand on his chest. “I think you’ve touch my heart.” He grinned widely and blew out a large fire ball. “Oh no, it was only a bit of heartburn.” The dark laughter returned.
“Ethan,” Giles raged. “Stop this at once or I’ll…!”
“You’ll what?! Pummel me? Throttle me? Get down on your knees and give me all I’ve ever desired?”
“Sick bastard,” Artie growled.
“And you,” Ethan’s eyes blazed at Artie. “What do you offer me?”
The Warehouse agent thought for a moment, trying to control his rage. He looked up steadily and stated in an eerily calm, even tone. “I offer you his head.”