“Artie! What are you doing?” Claudia screeched, shaking against the bars that held her.
“Finally, we find something of worth.”
“I know you don’t like him very much,” Claudia continued. “But this isn’t you, Artie. You’re not a murderer.”
Artie gazed up at the girl, his eyes hard with determination. “You don’t know that. You know nothing of who I am.”
Claudia froze, stunned by the harsh tone he used.
The chuckling from the throne grew. “And you, Ripper? Will you trade one life for another?” Giles growled deep in his throat. “Of course. We all know that being a killer is very much part of your nature.”
“It is not, you liar,” Willow shouted angrily. “Giles is the kindest, sweetest man--”
“Just start the damned trial,” Giles interrupted. “If it’s blood you want, you’ll have it.”
“Yes, I will,” Ethan hissed. “The game is this. On one side,” he gestured past Willow, “We have the key to save Ripper’s princess.” A large locking mechanism appeared in the wall with a heavy, archaic key protruding from it. “On the other, the key to free Arthur’s princess.”
“Oh, you did not just call me a princess,” Claudia snapped at her captor.
“Quite simply, the first one to turn their key… wins.”
“How do we know you’ll keep your word?” Artie asked.
Ethan chuckled. “The rules of this game aren’t set by me. It is the Char-Qualkn way to set the victor’s treasure free.”
“And what of the other?” Giles rumbled.
“Ah. She will be my prize. And you can rest assured that she will blossom at my side.” The tone of his words sent shivers up everyone’s spines.
“What about them?” Willow asked.
“I’m sure we all know what these men would give for you, my dearest. And, when the loser has fallen, and we have our champion… My demons are hungry.”
“No!” both girls shouted together.
“We agree!” Giles and Artie stated.
“Then let the final trial begin.” On the sorcerer’s pronouncement, a short sword appeared in the free hand of each man. They turned toward each other, gripping the chain binding them together. Just before the first blow fell, Ethan sighed, “No, no, no… Ripper fancies himself noble. He would be foolish enough to sever his own hand if he thought he could save both and cheat me from my prize.” The swords were instantly replaced with clubs. “Much better.”
Artie struck first, but Giles was able to block. The Watcher frowned regretfully. “I can’t let Ethan have Willow.”
“And leave Claudia in the hands of a madman?” Artie responded, attacking again.
The blow was vicious, plowing into Giles' ribs and knocking him breathless. It only took him a moment to respond with a volley of his own, forcing Artie dangerously close to the edge of a pit. But a yank on the chain surprised him, and both had to wheel back in order to regain their balance.
After that, the blows fell fast and hard. Willow and Claudia didn’t want to watch, but couldn’t look away. They were trapped with a view of the last moments of their mentors, friends… the men they cherished. Tears escaped as they heard bones snap, flesh crumple, and blood splatter.
The men were slowing, completely exhausted from everything they’d been through. But neither would back down. They traded strikes… slow, shaky, yet still bone-crushing. It looked as if the next blow could end it at any moment.
Hungry, the Char-Qualkn became visible. They danced teasingly around the combatants, snarling and drooling, anticipating the coming feast. Moving swiftly in opposite directions, their paths crisscrossed here and there.
Waiting for one such crossing, Artie and Giles moved as one. When the demons neared each other, they rose up and swung their clubs together, in on the masked heads. The demons screamed as the thick wooden weapons smashed into their heads, causing them to careen into each other with skull smashing force. A blood-curdling screech echoed around the room as both Char-Qualkn convulsed in pain, then were engulfed in red flames. They were nothing but ash.
At the same moment, the shackles binding Artie and Giles vanished, and the dungeon turned into the run-down back room of an abandoned funhouse. The two men collapsed to the floor in exhaustion.
The cages gone, Willow and Claudia ran to their champions.
“Oh my god, Artie!” Claudia flung her arms around her old man. “That was so totally badass!”
“Please,” Artie gasped. “Gently. In pain here.”
She sat back to look at him and smiled adoringly. “My knight in shining armor.”
The senior agent chuckled carefully, and placed his fingers against her cheek to make sure she was real and safe. “More like rusty armor,” he murmured.
“Giles, are you alright?” Willow knelt down beside the Watcher, tenderly checking him for any life-threatening injuries.
He gingerly took her hand. “As long as you’re safe.”
The young witch ducked her head shyly. “I always feel safe with you around.”
Lifting her chin to see her eyes, he said, “Willow, I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am. If it wasn’t for my feelings--”
Willow lunged forward impulsively, wrapping her arms around his neck and cutting him off. “I love you, too, Giles,” she whispered in his ear. “I’ve always known you cared so much about all of us.” She pulled back to look into his eyes. “If you didn’t love me so much, I wouldn’t be able to do any of this.”
It was Giles’ turn to duck his head at her overwhelming understanding and forgiveness.
“How did you guys know what to do?” Claudia couldn’t help asking.
Willow grinned, answering for them, “Research.”
An agonized groan from across the room gained everyone’s attention. Ethan was balled on the floor holding his face. His mask-crown and scepter had disintegrated into flames along with the Char-Qualkn.
The two girls carefully braced the men as they all limped to his side.
“Ethan, give me one good reason…” Giles griped as he knelt beside his past.
“Ripper, is that you?” The sorcerer took his hands from his face, turning his head in frightened jerks. His face was scorched from the flames, and his eyes were covered in a milky-white film. “I can’t see anything.”
“Bloody hell, man,” Giles sighed. He sat beside his stricken enemy and placed a hand on his shoulder so he could feel that he wasn’t alone. “Didn’t you even do the bookwork before using those things?”
Ethan looked confused for several moments before deciding on what must have happened. “I did look up references. I thought I was strong enough to control simple demons.”
“Only you weren’t dealing with normal talismans,” Willow said.
“I…” Ethan shook his head as if to clear it, “I can’t remember anything after slipping the mask on.”
“Told you,” Claudia said thoughtfully. “Classic big-time whammy.”
“Where did you get the Artifacts?” Artie barked, in too much pain to muster any sympathy.
“Artifacts, of course,” the sorcerer groaned. “They… they were sent to me.”
“From?” the agent prompted.
“No return address. But there was a note.” He blindly patted at his pockets and pulled out a scrap of paper.
Artie snatched it from him and began to read through his cracked glasses. “I heard you like toys. Here are some that might help punish a few who wronged you in the past. Enjoy… From a brother in loss and chaos, M.” The senior agent sat down hard, cradling his forehead in his hand.
Claudia shook her head slowly. “Please tell me that’s not the M I think it is.”
“McPherson must have sent it off before he died. He knew that Mr. Rayne here was likely to target Rupert and that…”
“You would come chasing the Artifact while we followed the demons,” Giles finished.
With a loud bang, the door burst in. Those in the room looked up, unphased. Buffy tumbled in, followed by Pete, Xander, and Myka. They were bandaged up, but no one appeared to be exceedingly damaged.
Willow jumped up to hug Buffy and Xander, while Claudia met Pete and Myka.
“Who do I kill?” Buffy growled.
“It’s all right,” chuckled Willow. “Our heroes already took care of it.” She gestured to the men on the floor.
The Slayer stepped forward. “Ethan Rayne. I should have known.”
“Calm down, Buffy,” Giles sighed heavily. “This time it’s only slightly Ethan’s fault.”
Ethan cocked his head up with a slight smirk. “You wouldn’t hit a blind man, would you, Slayer?”
“I could make an exception.”
Xander glanced over all of the older men before him. He frowned, pulling up on the sleeves of Giles’ oversized jacket. “Looks like we’re gonna get the group rate at the hospital again.”
“Are you okay, Artie,” Myka squatted down to look him over with her usual concern.
“Just a little tenderized. Rupert has forgotten how to pull his punches.”
Giles laugh, but clutched at his ribs when the shaking hurt too much. “Seemed to me like you were working through some aggression issues yourself.”
Pete pointed between the two men. “Okay, did something happen with those two that we missed? Because last I knew they weren’t on joking around terms.”
Artie shrugged. “Crisis brings out truth…”
“…And truth, forgiveness,” Giles finished.
Buffy rolled her eyes. “Oh that’s not gonna be annoying. Come on. Let’s get these guys out of here.”
“I gave you my number, right?” Claudia asked Willow again. “We’ve gotta keep in touch. BFF’s from now on.”
“And email,” the other redhead nodded. “You guys are my first call if any more demon clowns show up.”
Both Xander and Pete shivered at the thought.
“It was very nice to meet all of you,” Myka presented her hand to Giles and Buffy. “I know we’re not supposed to worry about vampires and magick. With you guys on the case, I don’t think we have to.”
“That’s very nice of you to say,” Buffy smiled. “You guys are pretty cool, too.”
Everyone jumped around and stared wide-eyed at the intimidating woman who had appeared out of nowhere.
Artie grabbed at his chest with the arm not in a sling. “Mrs. Frederic,” he gasped.
“Leena said you haven’t been in contact. She was worried.”
“Yes, um, we had a slight problem with the retrieval. But everything has been resolved now.”
“You were successful?”
“The Artifact’s been destroyed,” Myka jumped in.
“And these civilians?”
All the Warehouse agents opened their mouths, searching for an answer. Before they came up with one, Giles stepped forward. “Irene,” he said in a sure voice.
Her agents watched in astonishment as their mysterious and all-too serious boss actually smiled. “Rupert Giles,” she replied, her voice softening.
“I’m sorry I lost touch. My new assignment took precedence over everything else.”
“As it should, Watcher to the Slayer herself.” She turned her smile to Buffy.
Giles shook his head. “You knew.”
“Well, who do you think made Valda cast the deciding vote in your favor? The Council was so busy looking for the best man for the job, they almost overlooked the right man.”
“Thank you. I was afraid you’d thought I turned down the Regent position on purpose.”
“Rupert, there are some who can only lead from the front lines. You would have been wasted.”
Pete leaned over to Artie and Myka and whispered, “Does anyone know what the hell is going on here?”
Artie gave a long-suffering sigh. “I know you’ve wondered if Mrs. Frederic has a type, Pete. He is definitely it.”
“Agent Lattimer.” Pete jumped at the sound of the Caretaker’s, once again, demanding voice. “Now that the situation here is resolved, you and Agent Bering should be on your way to Berlin. Here is your new case file.” When she held out the file, Pete stepped forward and took it carefully, as if afraid of being bitten. “And you, Miss Donavan, should be headed back to the Warehouse.”
“Something new you need me to get on?” Claudia asked excitedly.
“Yes,” the intimidating woman turned a frown on Artie. “Put Agent Nielsen to bed. He looks horrendous.”
“Why thank you very much,” Artie grumped, scratching at some of his bandages.
“I’ll tuck him in and get started on some chicken soup,” the young woman teased him.
“And what of him,” she had noticed the bandaged Ethan Rayne attempting to be inconspicuous.
Artie cleared his throat. “I was going to work on sending him back to where he belongs.”
“Ah, in that case, I can handle him, Arthur.” Ethan shrank even smaller.
“Irene,” Giles stepped closer to the woman as final goodbyes were exchange by the others. “Thank you again for watching over me all those years. Although there were some I regretted leaving behind, I believe I am where I belong.”
She brushed her hand against his. “Who says I ever stopped watching over you, Rupert.” Giles glanced back at his students for an instant and she was gone. So was Ethan.
When the Scooby Gang was once more alone in their library, Xander couldn’t help teasing, “Big G the ladies’ man, huh?”
“I did have a life before all of you,” the Watcher defended testily. “Once upon a time I was thought by some to be quite handsome.”
Buffy made a gagging noise and giggled with Xander.
“That’s it,” Giles huffed. “Anyone still here in,” he looked at his watch, “one minute will be helping me research medieval blood rites of the pixie nation.” As expected, two blurs shot past him and disappeared.
Willow stopped next to him. “There are still some who think you’re very handsome, Giles. And you’ll always be my hero,” she whispered, rising up on her tiptoes to give him a kiss on the cheek. Giggling at his deep blush, she continued on her way.