Word Count: 60,000
Rating/Pairing: R, Giles/Willow
Disclaimer: Not mine! They belong to Joss and Mutant Enemy.
Feedback: Would be really, really nice, even if it's just to say hi.
Summary: When a cult that worships the First Evil makes Willow their target, Giles finds himself on a quest in the Amazon to save her - and world (again) - with the help of bloody Ethan of all people. Post-Chosen.
Author's Notes: This was written over the course of about six weeks. It was an incredible experience that I hope to never have again, and it would not have been possible without certain people. Thanks to my Amazing Narcoleptic Line-Editor fuzzyboo03 for holding my hand, helping me piece together the damn action sequences, and forcing me to tame my clauses. Thanks also to kivrin for beta reading and looking at the Big Picture when I couldn't see it anymore. Last but not least, thanks to twitchylizard for her mad Wiki skillz, which were invaluable during the research process.
It was nearly daybreak when they arrived at the Mouth of the Beast, where the river widened and then split. There was nothing but lush green rainforest to be seen to either side and before them, an unending and unbroken span of ferns and palms and a hundred other types of trees whose names were a mystery.
In the early morning light the vegetation was more black than green, or perhaps it was always so. It took Giles a few minutes to realize he was bothered not by anything mystical, at least not yet; what made him uneasy was that the forest was too quiet. No howler monkeys screaming in the dawn. No nocturnal frogs giving their final croaks before settling in for the duration of the wet, hot Amazonian day. Not even any bird cries. All things living and innocent avoided this place. Giles’s shoulder ached.
Ethan found them another inlet, this one even smaller and darker than the last, and wedged the canoe inside. They sat in the near perfect stillness and said nothing for some time. Giles supposed he should have felt sleepy after the night they’d had, but this place put him on guard.
Predictably, it was Ethan who broke the silence. “Well, this ought to be fun.”
To his own surprise, Giles managed a laugh. “I will admit, there is nothing quite like going into battle outnumbered, outgunned, and crippled for the sheer adrenalin rush.”
Ethan stood and stretched, balancing carefully before making his way up the canoe and jumping out onto solid ground. “I suggest we do some scouting now,” he said, “and then we can rest in the heat of the day.”
Giles followed his example with even more care; his shoulder had stiffened during the night, and to his embarrassment, Ethan had to help him out of the boat. He winced and reached to probe the injury gingerly.
“How is it?” Ethan asked.
“Swollen,” Giles said. “But as we are lacking in ice and heat packs and I don’t have the luxury of lying about with my arm in a sling, it will just have to do. Pass me some water, will you?” Giles took a long swallow from the water bottle and felt steadier. “All right, let’s go.”
Ethan had charge of the maps and took the lead, which Giles was only too happy to let him do. There was no trail here, and the undergrowth was thick and stubborn, as though the jungle were reluctant to yield her secrets, especially to the likes of them. Ethan slashed through the worst of it using a huge knife with a wickedly curved blade.
It was deadly quiet once they got away from the negligible noise of the river; the hair on the back of Giles’s neck and arms stood up and he had to fight the almost physical urge to flee. “Not a very hospitable place, is it?” he muttered.
“The place I found Willow was much the same.” Ethan replied. “Except possibly worse.”
“God, how frightened she must have been. To wake up in a place like this . . .”
“She didn’t seem too pleased about it, no.” Ethan’s tone was dry. “At least not judging by the way she clawed at me. This way.”
The next ten minutes were increasingly slow going. It was all Giles could do to pick his way forward without falling, until the tangle of vines and bushes and twining roots finally gave way to a clearing with a wide stone table at the center. The unpleasant low-grade tingle Giles had been feeling became a sudden, painful shock along his nerve endings, like plunging into icy water. He only just managed to swallow a gasp.
“I think those were wards,” Ethan said, sounding a bit strangled. “New, if I’m not mistaken. They’ll know we’re here.”
“They already know we’re here,” Giles said. The shock was past, though the urge to turn and run was not. “Let’s be quick about this.”
“How many can we expect, do you think?” Ethan asked, pacing the length of the clearing until he paused beside the stone table.
“Willow said there were only ten before, and I’ve killed three since then. But they won’t be alone.”
“Right,” Ethan said. “Bringers.”
“Yes. I imagine they’ll be acting as guards if nothing else. This is going to be tricky.” Giles frowned and stepped into the clearing for the first time, though he stayed well back from the table. “I would like to take charge of the focusing spell and the amulet, if you don’t mind.”
Ethan grinned. “Not at all. Explosions are much more fun.”
“Yes, well.” Giles took a turn around the clearing while Ethan studied the table, though what he saw that so fascinated him, Giles couldn’t guess. “We’ll need to have a good view of the, er –”
“Altar,” Ethan supplied absently.
Giles stared. Yes, that was the right word after all. He wondered suddenly who it had been dedicated to originally; not the First, though the Children of the Dark Eye had appropriated it easily enough. The indigenous peoples native to the region were not known to have consorted with demons or worshipped the hell-gods, though the black arts did have a long history in the area. Who had built the altar and to what ends were questions without answers now, but Giles had to wonder if the ancient, forgotten god to whom it was dedicated would appreciate having it used for such purposes. Not that the old gods had much of a say in anything.
They spent half an hour surveying the site, until they had identified three places that would allow them to see the altar and also provide some shelter. Ethan had suggestions as to spells that would conceal them or at least make them less noticeable, but Giles was dubious about how useful they would be against the Bringers. All the same he felt somewhat encouraged as they hiked back to the canoe – though perhaps some of that was simply the relief of being away from the wards and the creeping power of the clearing.
His shoulder was aching too much to sleep, so Giles offered to take first watch once he and Ethan had set up their makeshift camp. A tarp propped up on a few metal poles was all Giles had been able to find in the way of a tent in Macapá, but at least it would keep the rain off. Ethan didn’t argue; he retreated under the tarp with his sleeping bag, leaving Giles standing outside, rubbing his swollen shoulder.
He moved the last few supplies out of the canoe and under the tarp so they wouldn’t get soaked during the inevitable afternoon thunderstorm, and then crawled beneath it as well. Ethan was snoring, which made Giles glare in both annoyance and envy. His exhaustion was starting to win out over his general discomfort. He dug a package of dried fruit out of one of the rucksacks and set to munching to keep himself awake. Though it had been well over twelve hours since his encounter with the alligator meat, Giles realized he had very little appetite.
It was while tucking the wrapper back in the rucksack that Giles found the black cloth bag with the amulet inside. Ethan had had charge of it all night and had submitted to Giles’s insistence on checking on it every hour or so with a roll of the eyes and a cutting remark. Now Giles drew it out, cupping the pendant with the huge emerald in the palm of his hand and allowing the chain to drape over his fingers. It was afternoon at the coven, he thought. They would have finished lunch and perhaps she was walking to the beach with Buffy and Dawn, or meditating with Mary. He felt very far away from her at that moment, not just in a physical sense, and perhaps that was why he could stand to ask himself that which he had dreaded and avoided thus far: the question of what would become of them once this was over. Or, more accurately, the question of what they would become.
He suspected it was foolishly insecure to assume she would not want him once she was well, but he could not help it. Far better to assume that and then find out she did want him than the reverse. Still, he knew Willow better than that; she didn’t use people and when she loved, she loved long and deep and with great devotion. Too much, perhaps, but after so many years of solitude, Giles thought that too much sounded like just enough.
He couldn’t let himself think about any of this. Not really, not yet. The future would have to wait until he was sure they had one; anything else was just . . . masochistic. He slipped the chain over his head, tucked the pendant into his shirt, and went to patrol around the perimeter of their camp, such as it was.
When he was finally able to go to sleep a few hours later, Ethan having woken to relieve him, he dreamt of Willow, sitting on the couch from his Sunnydale apartment, which had somehow been transported to the high school library. Willow was certainly her current self, though, in long, flowing skirts, a peasant blouse, and bare feet.
“Hi,” she said, looking up at him. “Sit down. You look like you’re about to fall over.”
“Is this –” Giles stopped. He didn’t need to ask. This was not a true dream; he could tell by the persistent ache in his shoulder. “Should we be doing this?” he asked instead, trying to sound concerned rather than censorious.
“Miss Harkness said it was okay. Doesn’t take much more than meditation, after all. Seriously, Giles, you better sit down before you fall down.” He sat at last, reassured. She shifted closer to him and took his hand. “So yeah, this is totally approved and everything, but I kinda didn’t have a lot of control about where we ended up.” She shrugged and gave an almost embarrassed smile. “I guess it’s where my unconscious wanted to be.”
“That’s . . . a little strange,” Giles said. Though he missed the library at times, if his unconscious had to choose a place to be with Willow, he rather hoped this wouldn’t be it.
“Not really,” she said, her smile widening to a smirk. “Remind me to tell you some of the sordid library fantasies I had about you back then.”
Giles felt his mouth drop open. He closed it quickly enough, and had opened it to reply – though what he would have said to this stupefying revelation, he had no idea – when she noticed his shoulder and frowned.
“Giles, I thought I told you not to get hurt.”
“I did my level best, I assure you,” he replied wryly. “The Bringers had other plans.”
“Bringers?” she repeated, her eyes going wide.
“Unfortunately. Things have gotten a bit . . . complicated.”
“I guess.” She reached to touch. Giles winced, and she snatched her hand back. “Sorry,” she said, in such a way that gave Giles the impression that touching his shoulder was the least of what she was apologizing for.
“Don’t be,” he said, capturing her hand in his. “You can’t possibly think it isn’t worth it to me, and much more besides.”
She nodded, but looked no less miserable. “If things were normal, I could just –” She made a vague gesture toward his shoulder that somehow managed to indicate healing. “If things were normal,” she added after a moment, “I’d be there.”
There was a level of bitterness in her voice that Giles had not expected. He had known from their earlier conversation over the phone that she was chafing under the forced inactivity, and he had expected nothing else – but he had not known that it would make her angry. Frustrated, yes, but not angry. “I would like nothing more than to have you with us,” he replied at last; it was the only thing he could think to say, even if it were not quite true.
She squeezed his hand and he could see her struggling to master her emotions and put on a cheerful face for him. He didn’t know how to tell her she didn’t need to. “I know. It’s just . . . I’m really not into sitting around, waiting to be rescued. It makes me growly. Buffy too. We’ve been a pain, or at least that’s what Dawn says. Well, she says a lot more than that, actually.”
“I can imagine,” Giles said, smiling faintly.
“So yeah,” she sighed. “I mean, it’s not like there was any other way.”
“No,” Giles agreed. He watched her for a moment in profile as she bent her head, her red hair falling gracefully over the nape of her neck. “Though there might be something you can do.”
She looked up. “Research?” she asked, with a notable lack of enthusiasm
“For now. A . . . fairly complex spell, I imagine, later on.” She raised her eyebrows expectantly, her eyes already brighter. “It seems that what the cult did with, with you was only the second part of the ritual. They had already done something – I’m not sure what, and the information Xander and the researchers unearthed didn’t say anything about an earlier ritual. But it seems to have let the First back in.”
“Hence the Bringers,” Willow said. “I get it. They must’ve, I don’t know, cracked the inter-dimensional back door open.”
“Exactly,” Giles said, pleased at the apt metaphor.
“You want me to figure out how to close it?”
“And dead-bolt it, if you can. The sooner, the better. I realize it isn’t –” he started to add when she only nodded.
“No, no,” she said, quickly. “It’s way better than the whole lotta nothin’ I’ve been doing since you left. I bet Buffy’ll even help and you know she’d rather face a Polgara armed with a Wiffle bat than crack a book.”
Giles chuckled; she grinned and kissed him, threading her fingers through the back of his hair. When they broke apart, she stroked his good arm and caught sight of the pendant beneath his shirt, visible because of the two buttons she’d undone during the proceedings. “What’s this?” she asked, pulling it out and letting it lay in her palm, much as Giles had earlier.
“It’s yours,” he said. “That is, it will be. I’m going to use it to safeguard your power, but afterward, if you want –”
“I want,” she said, and smiled up at him, eyes sparking. “But . . . won’t we have to break it?”
“I hope not. That would be a shame.”
She nodded, rubbing her thumb over the emerald, and then kissed him again, lightly this time. “I should go,” she murmured against his lips.
“As should I. I’ll talk to you –”
The dream dissolved. Giles woke slowly, as from a long, refreshing sleep rather than an all-too-brief nap. He basked in the feeling for a moment, and then, remembering the circumstances, sat up quickly. He gritted his teeth against a groan as he jostled his arm.
It was later than he’d expected – he could tell the sun was setting by the orange glow on the water – and Ethan was sitting in the canoe, pitching rocks or possibly seeds into the black water by the shore.
Giles rubbed a hand over his face. “You should have woken me sooner.”
Ethan twisted around to grimace at him. “Believe me, I would have, but I tried everything short of dumping you in the river. You could not be woken.”
Giles paused. “Oh.”
“Indeed. And how is Willow?”
“Going starkers from the inactivity.” Giles ducked back into the tent for water and some of the strangely addictive peanut candy.
“Ah.” Ethan said nothing until Giles had returned. Then he raised an eyebrow at him and said, “You know . . . I would just like to take this moment to say –”
“I told you so. Because we’ll very likely be murdered in the next few hours, and I wanted to say it before then. Invited you into her bed because you were safe. Idiot.”
“Thank you, Ethan, for that refreshing dose of . . . perspective.”
Ethan shrugged and climbed out of the canoe. “I am, as you know, always glad to be of service.”
They packed up the canoe again in case a quick escape became necessary. Giles took the opportunity to study the motor; it was ridiculous that he had thus far avoided learning how to operate it. If Ethan were injured or worse, they would be in dire straits indeed. Ethan apparently thought similarly, and pointed out how to start and cut the engine and how to steer. Giles nodded, though he hoped he would not have to test his new knowledge in any sort of practical setting.
They approached the clearing with great caution. When they were near enough to see dark-robed figures milling about inside of it, Ethan indicated with hand gestures that he would circle round the back way. He held up five fingers to indicate five minutes, and pointed back toward their canoe. Giles nodded and made his own way around to the best of the three hiding spots they had found. It was a small copse of trees grown unusually close together about fifteen meters away from the clearing itself. Crouched down inside, it was possible to see the stone slab and probably three-quarters of the clearing. Giles touched the pendant at his neck and then the knife in his boot before taking stock.
There were, as he had expected, seven cult members in the clearing, two of them drawing a pentagram, three more consulting demonologies, and two walking the perimeter on guard duty. Two of the three with the demonologies were unfamiliar, but one of them drew Giles’s attention immediately; power fairly crackled from him. Giles would have bet that he was Saramargo, the one who had stolen Josué’s power, although it seemed his own had been considerable even before then. If that had not been enough to confirm it, one of the other members began lighting the freestanding torches that demarcated the edge of the clearing, throwing it into a pool of bright yellow firelight that glinted off the gold inlay of the Dark Eye hung around his neck. Giles stared at it for a long, frozen moment before tearing his gaze away.
The pentagram could be either strength or weakness, Giles thought. Early on, breaking the pentagram would also break the ritual, but they had to let things get further than that. By the time they would be trying to reclaim Willow’s power, the pentagram would be volatile, dangerous to anyone who tried to cross it. Giles frowned and watched them pour the blood-red sand; they were all wearing robes, but the hoods were back, and he clearly recognized the woman he’d seen in the café across the street from Josué’s building.
Then there were the guards; only two of them, and they would undoubtedly be occupied during the ritual as well. But the Bringers would be there, and despite the lack of eyes – or possibly because of it – they were much more effective. Fortunately Giles had no intention of attempting to invade the clearing.
His five minutes up, Giles made his way back to the canoe. Ethan wasn’t there yet. Giles paced along the shore as he waited, trying to think if there was anything to be done about the Bringers, not that there had ever been before. He pressed his hand over the pendant, which made a lump under his shirt, and thought of Willow. Sordid library fantasies, indeed. She had to be teasing him. But then again . . . perhaps not.
Another five minutes passed, and still there was no sign of Ethan. Giles wasn’t sure if he should be worried or annoyed; after the stunts Ethan had pulled so far, he could well believe he was delaying his return just to piss Giles off. But somehow that didn’t feel right. There was too much at stake at this point for Ethan to do something so juvenile – which did not mean he wouldn’t, Giles reminded himself as he aimed his torch up the path.
Ten minutes later it was clear something was wrong. Giles crept back to the clearing; everything was just as it had been, except Saramargo was missing. Giles swore under his breath, entirely certain that boded nothing good. It didn’t come as much of a surprise when, perhaps three minutes later, two Bringers dragged an unconscious Ethan into the pool of torchlight. Saramargo followed, the golden curves of the Dark Eye glowing against the black of his robes.
Giles swore again, rather more creatively this time. He hadn’t actually held out any hope of his plan going off without a hitch; none of them ever had before, after all. But when he saw the two Bringers tying Ethan to the stone at Saramargo’s behest, he felt his heart sink. Ethan’s head lolled; Giles wondered if they had merely knocked him unconscious or if they had drugged him as they had Willow. Either way he would be unable to free himself or fight or perform the spell, which meant Giles would have to. With one arm, no less.
He stayed crouched there another few minutes, watching. Saramargo ripped Ethan’s shirt open and then returned to his demonology, leaving the two Bringers to guard him.
Giles glanced at his watch; he and Ethan had assumed the cult would wait until midnight to begin the ritual, but it could be performed any time after full dark and moonrise. Giles needed to go back to the canoe to retrieve the herbs and a few weapons, so he could set up and be ready even if they did not wait for the witching hour. He ran more of a risk of being caught, staying so close to the center of the cult’s activities for what would probably be several hours yet. But he suspected they would not come after him; they were no doubt using Ethan as bait, expecting him to come bursting into the clearing in the perfectly senseless tradition of heroes everywhere.
Well, they could keep waiting. Giles had no intention of leaving Ethan there, but neither was he a complete idiot.
Once back at the canoe Giles quickly packed the smallest rucksack with the herbs he would need for the focusing spell, as well as everything Ethan would need for the other; they would not be able to perform them simultaneously as they had planned, but Ethan had been right when he’d said that leaving the cult anything short of decimated would be criminally foolish. He added a small but wickedly accurate crossbow to supplement his dagger and the ever-present knife in his boot, and then eyed the larger bag of weapons; he had several swords in there, which would be useful against the Bringers. But they were simply too cumbersome to take with him, especially as he couldn’t carry anything heavy in his right hand. He would force the Bringer into close combat if need be, where the dagger would be far more useful than their axes and swords.
He was able to get back into position without much trouble. He encountered a Bringer on the path, but he saw it in time and concealed himself behind a tree until it had passed. Once crouched down in his copse of trees, Giles assured himself that Ethan was the same as before – unconscious but unharmed. Giles had no idea what he would do if it seemed the cult was about to do to Ethan what they had done to Willow; he had to hope they wouldn’t, since they already had adequate power for the ritual in the talisman. If Giles were forced to reveal himself to save Ethan, it would leave them with very little hope of ever actually re-capturing Willow’s power.
Time crept by. Giles grew both increasingly uncomfortable and increasingly certain that the cult was determined to wait until midnight after all. His shoulder ached fiercely and his legs cramped up. He tried to stretch without much success, and watched Ethan for signs that he might be waking. He started to once, only to be knocked unconscious again by one of the Bringer guards.
At ten o’clock it started to rain. Giles hunkered down in the mud and began mixing the herbs for the spell under his poncho where they wouldn’t get wet, in a small stone mortar they had brought with them for just this purpose. Then he unhooked the amulet from around his neck and coiled it in the bowl with the herbs, murmuring the words of the spell over the mortar until he felt the amulet begin to give off a pulsing heat. It was primed to receive her power now.
Giles settled back, leaving the amulet in the bowl as it was too hot to have next to his skin just yet. It would cool as the magics steadied, but for now he merely kept it out of sight and out of the rain.
Midnight found Giles crouched on the balls of his feet, which was not particularly comfortable, but seemed the best compromise between staying hidden and being ready to either run or intervene on Ethan’s behalf, should either become necessary. It had stopped raining; Giles wasn’t sure he should be grateful, but at least it meant he had been able to do away with the thrice-damned poncho. The amulet lay beneath his shirt once more, still warm but no longer uncomfortably hot. He wrapped his fingers around it and ran the words through his mind once more. He was ready, if only they would be.
It seemed they were. Ethan had begun to stir and they hadn’t bothered to knock him out again. Giles watched him anxiously, until at last he opened his eyes to slits, looked straight at Giles, and shivered one eyelid closed in a wink. Giles smiled grimly and pulled the amulet out his shirt. He felt the magic dance along the nerve endings of his fingers and realized he was holding his breath.
“That’s a nice little trinket you got there, Giles,” Buffy’s voice said in his ear.
Giles jumped. The First smiled. As it often had last year, it had chosen to appear to him not as Buffy as she was now, but as she had been when he’d first met her – bangs and curls and a lollipop in one hand. He didn’t reply, but he suspected his expression gave away his shock.
“You didn’t really think I hadn’t noticed you hanging out back here, did you?” it asked, cheerfully flipping its hair over one shoulder. “Crouched down here in the mud, useless and watching as usual. Your pants must be totally gross by now.”
Giles turned his face away with an effort and forced himself to focus on the clearing. Seven cult members, four Bringers, he saw. The cult members had positioned themselves one in front of each flaming torch. The clearing was almost ablaze with firelight, but for once Giles had been lucky and the harsh light merely served to throw him into deeper shadow. Not that hiding would do him any good now.
“I guess you’re probably kinda worried I might give you away, huh?” the First went on when Giles said nothing. “Well, don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with me. I mean, you can’t win. But it’ll be hilarious watching you try.”
Giles didn’t dare look over until nearly half a minute had gone by in silence. The First was gone. He let out a breath, but there was no respite, because at that moment the chanting began.
If Giles had found being near the dark energies of the place to be uncomfortable before, that was nothing compared to what it felt like now. Willow had described the air as becoming hot and thick, but that only covered half of it. There was the most awful thrumming in the air, as of a guitar string that had been plucked, but harsh, entirely unmelodic. It grated on him and the urge to flee had his adrenalin flowing and heart pumping. He mastered himself with the greatest effort, digging his fingers into the damp earth as an anchor.
And the sensation would not cease. It went on, building with the chanting, until at its height Saramargo drew the talisman over his head and placed it around Ethan’s neck. Giles relaxed minutely; he had thought they might steal Ethan’s power for themselves and then he would have to intervene, but it seemed that was not their plan. Giles wondered what would happen if the First possessed someone with as much power as Ethan: would it burn up along with Ethan’s soul, or would it remain, a negligible addition to the First’s own vast power?
The chanting was at a fever pitch now, the grating thrum as well, until it ended in a moment of shockingly still silence. Giles opened his hand so the amulet lay exposed and began murmuring the words of the spell. With a harsh cry, Saramargo smashed the talisman.
The focusing spell was simple and could be used for any number of things, but with Giles’s mind and magic he called to Willow’s power. There was some essence of her in it still, and he hoped that it would be drawn more to him than to them, even while their spell was undoubtedly the more powerful of the two. More than any romantic attachment they might have formed – still too new and tenuous to be put to this sort of test – he drew on their many years of friendship: on all the times they had celebrated together or grieved together; on his memories of those days after Angelus when she had first taken care of him, and later forced him to take care of himself; of those days after Tara’s death and her trip into the dark when he had done the same for her. Surely that would remain the core of their relationship, no matter how it might change in the future.
There was an outpouring of white light the color of the moon in all directions before it narrowed and became a single, blinding channel, pouring straight into the amulet in Giles’s hand. He heard an echo of Willow laughing and saw her for half a second, smiling and radiant, and then the light was gone. He blinked away the dazzled spots before his eyes – and realized he was in serious trouble.
The light show had given away his position as clearly as though someone had shone a spotlight on him. There was a single moment of stillness, and then he was on his feet, clutching his crossbow in his good hand, trying to fumble his dagger out with the other. He was running and they were close behind.
Bloody hell, but it was dark. He tripped over a tree root and barely avoided falling flat on his face, which would have been certain disaster with one arm already useless. The dagger was less use at the moment than the torch would have been, but he’d left the torch behind in his haste to achieve some sort of head start. He wouldn’t have liked to give away his position in any case, not that he was being particularly stealthy at the moment, thrashing about in the undergrowth. Fortunately, from what he could hear, it seemed the cult was doing little better.
He plunged on, relying on blind luck and the small amount of moonlight filtering through the canopy to guide him, until at last his foot caught on a tangle of something and he went sprawling. He landed on his bad arm and was completely incapable of picking himself up at first for the pain, which was the only reason the bolt of pure magic shot over his head and burst the tree ahead of him into woodchips instead of disemboweling him. It was a tall tree, probably centuries old, and it toppled slowly, ponderously, bending younger and weaker trees in its way, until it lay at an angle, not quite on the ground, forming a blockade between Giles and the cult.
He crouched down behind it, peering over the top to watch them. All except Saramargo held torches and were muttering to each other in Portuguese, too low for Giles to hear. Saramargo glared into the dark, turning in a slow circle. Giles could hear others – Bringers, no doubt – creeping through the jungle around him, making the back of his neck itch. He ducked down and loaded the crossbow. He would have only one shot.
The sound of a crossbow bolt hitting human flesh still made him flinch after all these years. The sound was raw and a little wet and utterly grotesque. Saramargo staggered with the blow, which was slightly off the mark, as someone leapt to keep him from falling. He looked down at it in faint surprise, and Giles froze, waiting for him to collapse.
But he didn’t.
Instead he closed his eyes, gripped the bolt with one hand, and yanked it out with an even more disgusting, meaty, sucking sound. Giles’s stomach turned over, but already he could see the blood flow slowing, the edges of the wound starting to knit together. It was not instantaneous; Saramargo wasn’t immortal, and if the bolt had found its mark it likely would have killed him. But he was so overflowing with magic that healing a gaping chest wound was almost nothing.
At least it would leave the cult’s leader with no room for distractions for several minutes. Giles didn’t try to raise his head again to aim the crossbow. Instead he stayed crouched down and pressed to the tree before crawling along its length on his hands and knees – or hand and knees rather, as he had to keep the crossbow and his sore arm tucked up next to his body. He had no intention in mind except to put as much distance between himself and the cult as possible before doubling back to free Ethan, but then he came to the part of the trunk that had been blown away by the spell. It had fallen facing away from the cult and looked as though something huge had taken a bite out of it. If Giles crawled inside and pulled his knees up to his chest, he doubted anyone not looking directly at him would be able to see him.
Without further hesitation he did just that, and none too soon. The cult members vaulted over the trunk, holding their torches high in every direction. Saramargo came last, moving slowly, one hand still pressed over the hole in his chest. “Spread out,” he ordered, his voice raspier than Giles remembered. “He can’t have gone far.” The others moved off, each in a different direction, until at last only Saramargo remained. For a moment Giles was afraid he would sit down on the fallen tree to wait and then he would have a real problem. Saramargo was looking around still, as though he could sense Giles’s presence – and perhaps he could; the amulet around Giles’s neck still pulsed faintly with magic. But the whole area was so infused with it that Giles couldn’t see how he could possibly tell one magic from another.
In the end, he moved on as well. Giles let out the breath he’d been holding, stood, and found himself face to face with a Bringer.
It almost had Giles’s head off with its axe before he could even think. He had the crossbow in his good left hand and the dagger in his useless right one; he could not bludgeon the Bringer with the crossbow, it would likely break into pieces, so he clubbed it across the face with the hilt of the dagger and wished uselessly that he’d brought the sword. He had to swallow a yelp of pain at the bolt of strained muscle fire that shot up his arm and resorted to an unstable shove with his booted foot to the Bringer’s midsection, which at least knocked its next swing off balance and gave Giles the split second necessary to swap his weapons.
He waited for the next swing of the axe and dodged it by ducking, though its attack on the backswing took him by surprise and clipped him on the thigh. He felt the warm blood welling up to soak his trouser leg first, and then the blossom of pain, which made him hiss. He evaded the next swing even more narrowly, this time by stepping forward so they were almost embracing. Giles braced himself with his bad arm around the Bringer’s neck, much too close for the axe to be of any obvious use. Before it had the chance to discover any of the less obvious ones, Giles lodged his dagger in its heart.
He eased the body down to the ground, glancing about with disquiet. They had both been silent throughout the short struggle, but something might still have alerted the others. When no one appeared immediately, Giles set off back toward the orange glow of the clearing, feeling his way down the path – such as it was – with more care. The cut on his leg stung and the fabric of his trousers stuck to it unpleasantly, but he thought it was fairly superficial. If not, it would just be one more scar for his collection.
The clearing was deserted and unevenly lit, half the torches having been knocked over in the melee and then suffocated by the damp ground and rotting leaves. Ethan was pulling uselessly against his bonds and, after a brief hesitation between Ethan and fetching his torch and other accoutrements from the hiding place, Giles went to him.
“Are you all right?” he asked, his gaze caught by a vaguely eye-shaped burn in the center of Ethan’s chest.
“It stings like hell. Get me out of these things, will you?”
“What are they?” Giles asked, bending to examine them.
“Rope, you horse’s arse!” Ethan snapped, scowling in impotent fury. Giles raised his eyebrows in disbelief that mere rope could hold Ethan Rayne, and Ethan yanked on them again. “I can’t do any magic – I think it’s the altar itself. Just cut me loo –”
He broke off, eyes widening as he drew breath to shout, but Giles was rolling to the side already, even as the Bringer’s axe whistled past his ear. It rang off the rock of the altar, taking a chunk out of the stone.
“Hey!” It was the First as Buffy at her most petulant. She scowled at the Bringer. “Watch the altar. It’s mine now. Honestly, Giles,” she added, putting her hands on her hips. “Can you believe these guys?”
Buffy would have had a sarcastic retort, but Giles refused to answer. Not that he had time or breath in any case; the Bringer’s next blow with the blunt end of the axe caught him with stunning force across his injured arm, and the one after that clipped the side of his head. He was down on the ground, vision blurring and threatening to go out altogether. A kick to his torso had him retching into the dirt, the taste-smell of damp earth filling his mouth and nostrils. The Bringer swung his axe again; Giles rolled and it buried itself in the dirt, buying him a few precious seconds to scramble behind the altar and haul himself up. He pulled his dagger out and managed to get Ethan’s left arm free before the Bringer was on top of them again.
If Giles had thought Bringers capable of emotion, he’d have said this one was pissed. Ethan must have seen their end written in the Bringer’s eyeless gaze as surely as Giles did, because he reached over, ripped the dagger out of Giles’s fingers, and plunged it to the hilt into its jugular.
Giles abruptly found himself splattered in Bringer blood, which was black and much hotter than human blood. It tasted foul as well; he spat some out and wiped more from his mouth with the back of his hand.
Ethan used the dagger to finish cutting himself free. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said to the First. “Did that throw a wrench into your plans?”
“Not a problem,” it replied in Buffy’s bright voice, and then metamorphosed, growing six or seven inches, its hair turning brown, its clothes aging thirty years. “Don’t worry, Ethan. I didn’t expect anything else from you. You’ve always been . . . slippery. You get out of anything and everything, don’t you? Even when you don’t deserve to.”
“It’s lying,” Giles said, retrieving his rucksack from the tree.
“Yeah, maybe,” the First said to Ethan. “But how do you know?” It paused, cocked its head, and smiled Randall’s lopsided grin. God, Giles had forgotten the way his whole face had never seemed to smile at once. “Hey, what’s that I hear? I think it’s the pitter patter of the feet of the people who are going kill you.” It laughed and, to Giles’s relief, vanished.
“Hell,” Giles said, because footsteps were indeed approaching, many of them, the noise muffled but unmistakable.
Ethan rubbed his wrists where the rope had chafed them and shook his head. “No, Ripper, you’re not thinking right. We need them to chase us. We still have to set off that explosion or they’ll catch up to us eventually. You might have a whole army of Slayers ready to pummel anyone who comes after you, but we aren’t all so henpecked. Is the canoe ready?”
“Is the – yes,” Giles said, eyes widening.
“Let’s go,” Ethan said, grabbing him by the arm – the injured one, as it happened, which was rather the worse for its encounter with the Bringer’s axe, but Giles barely had time for a hiss of pain before the cult burst into the clearing. Ethan paused long enough to cast a spell at one of the members – not Saramargo – and he fell gasping and clawing at her neck.
Their flight through the jungle back to the canoe was headlong and reckless. The pounding of blood in Giles’s ears was incredibly loud in the unearthly silence, his and Ethan’s harsh breathing the only other noise the jungle had to offer. And, of course, the pounding of their pursuers’ footsteps behind them.
The canoe came into view at last after a long, dangerous slide down the muddy track the trail had become. Together they pushed it into the water and jumped in, shoving themselves off with the paddles. Once they were afloat, Giles paused and listened; the footsteps seemed to have veered off at the last, as their pursuers apparently realized where they were going and that they would not catch them in time.
“One of us will have to drive,” Ethan said as they entered the main current. “And one of us will have –”
“You’re more powerful than I am.” Any irritation Giles might have felt at making the admission was stripped away entirely by his desperation. “I drive, you fight.”
Fortunately for Ethan, he chose not to gloat. “Fair enough,” he said, and gave up the motor to Giles to crouch amidst the life vests and watch over Giles’s shoulder for the cult to appear. There was no sign of them yet and the jungle was growing louder with every meter they put between themselves and that godforsaken clearing; still, over the reassuring sound of the cicadas and the croak of the frogs, Giles thought he could make out the buzz of a motor not their own, faint but becoming less so.
“Just out of curiosity,” he said, once he’d managed the first curve of the river without capsizing them, “where the hell are we going?”
“Damned if I know,” Ethan said. The stupid bugger grinned again, even as not one but two canoes shot round the same bend in the river they’d just navigated. “Pick any spot you think you can squeeze us into.”
“Right,” Giles muttered. He turned his attention forward and kept it there even when the spells began flying over his head, churning the water around them. He glanced back a few times when Ethan uttered a particularly colorful turn of phrase; they were closer each time and Giles put on a burst of speed and managed to pull away a little. He pushed the canoe for all it was worth and then some, apologizing under his breath for every resentful thought he’d had toward it in the course of their journey.
They might have gone all the way back to Macapá like that, Giles being too nervous to take his eyes off the water ahead of them long enough to watch the shoreline for a likely spot. But then Saramargo stood up recklessly at the bow of their boat and scored a palpable hit; the canoe rocked and Giles nearly pitched into the water. He managed to keep his seat, but the motor coughed ominously. He swore; they were losing speed, the gap between them and the other boats closing with frightening rapidity. He turned them toward shore, fighting with the motor and the rudder, both of which had suddenly grown reluctant in his hands. Ethan cast a defensive shield and turned to assist; together they managed to run the canoe up on shore, for once heedless of damage to either the boat or the undergrowth.
“You got the herbs?” Ethan demanded as he jumped out. To Giles’s irritation he trained the torch on the path rather than the canoe.
“Yes!” Giles snapped, trying not to kill himself in his unlit scramble over the benches onto dry land. He snagged his sword on the way; he’d felt naked without it earlier.
He was barely clear when the first of the cult’s canoes crashed into their own, splintering it. That had been stupid, Giles thought, huffing up the trail behind Ethan. It would take them seconds, perhaps even a minute or two, to get themselves sorted and onto dry land, and all the while he and Ethan would be increasing their lead.
“How many of them are left?” Giles asked breathlessly.
“Five, I think,” Ethan said. “I killed one in the canoe.”
“Wonderful,” Giles muttered.
“We can take five,” Ethan replied with all the cocky bravado of their youth.
“You just tell yourself that,” Giles said, and closed his hand over the amulet around his neck. It was warm now only from his body, its pulsing heat having faded with the intervening minutes. He couldn’t hear anything but the cicadas; God only knew what noises they might be covering.
“Oh,” Ethan said suddenly. “Yes.” He started to run. Giles chased after him, shoulder aching with every jolting step, until he realized where they were going and forgot about the pain altogether.
The tree was enormous: a Brazil nut tree, if Giles wasn’t mistaken, at least two meters in diameter and stretching above them for an untold number into the canopy. It had, Giles saw, a sort of hollow where the tree’s thick roots extended out and into the ground, leaving the area nearest the trunk sheltered, almost like a shallow cave. Ethan stepped into it and disappeared entirely from view.
“You’ll have to hold them off while I set up,” he said, emerging once more.
“Right,” Giles said, glancing down the path over his shoulder. “How long?”
“I’ll need to create a protective circle first, so it’ll be a few minutes. Is that possible?”
“Yes,” Giles said with a confidence he didn’t feel. He resisted the urge to rub his shoulder or check his leg, which felt as though it were bleeding again, presuming it had ever stopped. Something must have shown in his face, because Ethan looked dubious; Giles couldn’t blame him. Still, it wasn’t as if they had any other options, and after a moment Ethan fell to his knees in the dirt to begin tracing a circle about himself. Giles checked his dagger to make sure it was in place, and then hefted his sword in its scabbard.
“So, what’s this?” a familiar voice said. The First was Buffy again, smiling at them from the path in that uncomplicated, cheeky way he remembered from his first months with her. Those few short months before she’d died the first time that Giles had not treasured enough. “A hole for you to crawl into?”
“I have no intention of crawling anywhere,” Giles replied, despite his general policy of refusing to dignify the First’s taunts with a response. He drew the sword out in one smooth motion and sighted down the blade; he’d treated it before they’d left Macapá and the edge of it glinted wickedly even in the faint light of the torch. “I’ve been waiting for this.”
The First went on smiling and waved its lollipop. “That makes two of us. I gotta tell you, Giles, you’ve done a totally awesome job with all this. I’m impressed, ‘cause I mean, I really didn’t think you had something like this left in you. Though I have been meaning to ask.” It metamorphosed, though not to Randall as Giles had come to expect, but to Jenny. Giles stared, too startled to do anything else as she stepped toward him and lifted her face to his as though she were about to kiss him. “How many dead lovers does one sexy fuddy-duddy librarian need?” With a peal of Jenny’s achingly familiar laugh, it vanished.
Revealing the Bringer it had been hiding.
Giles barely raised his sword in time to deflect the axe and he still held it in his bad right arm; the shock drew a grunt of pain from him. He switched hands, but was forced back by the Bringer’s next parry.
“Watch the circle!” Ethan called. Giles managed a nod of acknowledgment and lunged forward aggressively. The axe was deadly but slow compared to a sword; they relied on brute strength rather than speed, and Giles’s attack made use of reflexes and instincts honed by years of teaching Slayers to fence. It forced the Bringer back in turn, so they were both well out of danger of destroying the circle Ethan had drawn.
Giles scored a hit off the Bringer’s shoulder and gritted his teeth in satisfaction. Over the clang of their blades he could hear footsteps on the path, and he froze minutely, attempting to gauge their distance. The Bringer used Giles’s distraction to slip in past his defenses; Giles fell backward, losing his sword in the stumble. The Bringer towered over him while he groped for it desperately, fingers questing and finally finding it at the very moment the Bringer’s axe began its slow motion fall toward him.
Giles brought the sword up in a wide arc that lacked skill or grace but knocked the Bringer off balance, and then, with the raw force of both arms, shoved the sword straight up and into the Bringer’s chest.
This time he managed to roll out of the way before the body fell. He yanked the sword out of its chest and stood breathing heavily. The footsteps on the path were closing in on them, and he turned to check on Ethan, who sat cross-legged in the circle. He opened his eyes to meet Giles’s.
“Good show,” he said.
“Thank you,” Giles said, rather pleased despite the circumstances. “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” Ethan said. He, too, glanced toward the path. “Take out as many as you can with magic. I won’t be able to help.”
Giles shook his head. “As long as the explosion does its job.” He touched the amulet, attempting to center himself. When he looked up again, Ethan was holding out his hand expectantly. “What?” Giles demanded.
“In all honesty, Rupert, the odds aren’t looking great right now. We are, as you said earlier, outnumbered, outgunned, and crippled. And we don’t have much time to argue.”
“You, you can’t –”
“Not yet,” Ethan said calmly. “But if the time comes.”
“If the time comes,” Giles said, “it should be me. Making you do it is the coward’s way out.”
“So?” Ethan replied. His hand never wavered. “You cleaned up my mess once. It’s my turn now Besides,” he added, “the only thing more tedious than having you smash my face in every two or three years would be to spend the rest of our allotted span watching you beat yourself up over this.”
Giles stared at him with what he was quite sure was a very stupid expression. Then he pulled the amulet off and placed it in Ethan’s hand, which withdrew back into the circle. “Don’t lose it,” Giles muttered.
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
There was no time to say anything more, because at that moment the first of their pursuers appeared on the path. They’d had to come single file, which gave Giles a temporary advantage. He followed Ethan’s advice and used magic to lift the first one clear off the ground and into a tree; the impact knocked him out – or her rather, Giles realized, catching a glimpse of her long, tangled black hair. She slid bonelessly to the ground, torch rolling out of her hand and snuffing out in the ground. The second one had both hands free and was ready for him, blocking Giles’s spell with a careless wave of his hands. Behind him came one of the Bringers Giles had predicted; beyond that, Giles couldn’t see.
Giles raised his sword, but had no time to attack before he was flung backwards, arcing ten feet through the air to land on his back, where he lay too stunned to move. An invisible hand lifted him by the front of his shirt and held him upright and immobile. The cult parted like water before a ship as Saramargo stepped forward, a Bringer to either side. Giles dangled, the tips of his shoes barely touching the ground. He still had hold of the sword, not that it mattered: Saramargo had stopped a safe distance away.
It was the first time Giles had seen him up close. He had black hair, but was pale compared to the others, with a rather Roman nose that made Giles suspect he might actually be descended from one of the exiled members of the original cult. His dark eyes glinted and there was a cruel, mocking smile about his lips. He’d slapped Willow to wake her, Giles remembered, and for some reason this infuriated him more than anything else so far. He tightened his hold on his sword, but bided his time. A better chance would come. He hoped.
“Rupert Giles, yes?” Saramargo said, the corners of his mouth curving upwards unpleasantly. His English was surprisingly good. “I have heard much about you. It seems we have . . . mutual acquaintances.”
Giles tried to answer, but the invisible hand transferred its grip suddenly from his shirt to his throat and all he could manage was a gasp. Saramargo turned his head toward the cult members on his left and jerked it toward the tree where Ethan sat unmoving in the circle. “Take care of that,” he said in Portuguese.
Two of them nodded. Giles gasped, attempting to draw breath enough to warn Ethan, but it was futile: The more he struggled the tighter the grip of the invisible hand became. Black spots danced before his eyes and his clasp on his sword loosened.
They wisely didn’t bother with magic, as it would have been impossible for them to predict how it would mix with the spell Ethan was weaving. Instead the two of them drew daggers and went in with little finesse or flourish. Giles watched as best he could, struggling to stay conscious, and to his relief the wards held. No one could enter the circle where Ethan sat, and the daggers were deflected harmlessly when thrown.
It was the first thing that had gone right in hours; Giles would have sighed in relief if he’d had enough air left to do so. Saramargo gave a snarl and shook him out of sheer frustration. “Where did you put it?” he demanded. “Where did you store the witch’s power?”
“Nnngh,” Giles managed. With another shake and snarl, Saramargo loosened his grip. “Don’t have it,” Giles gasped as blessed oxygen returned to his brain in a giddying rush.
“Liar. Tell me where you put it, or you’ll suffer the same fate as that little bitch.” With a sweeping gesture he ripping open Giles’s shirt – and then stopped, unable to hide his surprise. “Well, well,” he said after a few seconds. “Seems someone got here first. Not that it matters.” He leaned closer, raising his eyes from Giles’s scar to his face. “You understand me perfectly then, when I tell you that I’ll do it again unless you give me what I want. You were lucky last time, it seems; do you really care to test your luck twice?”
Giles didn’t dignify this with a response. He cut his eyes to Ethan. He’d said it would take only a few minutes, but it had been longer than that already, which might mean things were not going well. Several of the cult members were busy casting, trying to find a way into the circle, but as yet with no luck. Giles tightened his grip on his sword hilt.
“No?” Saramargo said. “Very well then. I think taking your power for myself would be greedy though. Correia!”
One of the cult members who had been attempting to break into Ethan’s circle turned away. Saramargo beckoned her over and turned back to Giles. “Take what he has to offer,” he told her, “the better to serve the First.”
“The better to serve the First,” she repeated solemnly, but with a note of excitement in her voice Giles thought had nothing to do with the First. Her hand rose; Giles waited, much longer than he wanted to, and just as she was about to touch him he brought the sword up. The tip reflected in the wavering firelight of the cult’s torches as it sliced across Correia’s stomach; she gasped, her hands going to the wound. In the dim light and with her dark robes, the spreading stain was visible only as a blacker black.
She swayed, tantalizingly close, while Saramargo gaped, and Giles knew this would be his one chance to take her out. But he could not; foolish as he knew it was, Giles could not bring himself to finish her. Like the prisoner he and Ethan had taken earlier, she was young. Who knew why she was there, what her reasons were, whether she really believed in what they were doing? She looked up, eyes wide and hands covered in her own blood, and Giles turned away toward Saramargo.
To his satisfaction Giles’s first thrust with the sword forced the cult leader to take a step back and drop him at last. Giles landed on the balls of his feet with a grunt and pressed his advantage immediately. The cult leader had no weapon beyond his magic, and Giles’s attack was too fast to let him collect himself enough to cast. But that was the last advantage he got; the Bringers swarmed in quickly, swords and axes raised.
“You should have taken the deal,” Saramargo hissed, prowling round Gile and the two Bringers. “I’m going to suck out your power and make you wish you were dead, and in the end we’ll still get what we want. The First is immortal, omniscient, all powerful. It can never be defeated. You’ve spent your life in a losing battle, old man. How does that feel?”
“Right now?” Giles said and shrugged, figuring if it were ever a good time to channel Buffy, now was definitely it. “A bit tingly, really.”
He met the first Bringer in a clash of swords while fending off the other with a kick to the torso, and wished desperately for an ounce of Slayer grace and stamina. Thirty seconds of blurred and frantic fighting and Giles was bleeding from various near-misses. He began to tire in spite of the adrenalin that had been flowing for hours now, while the Bringers showed no signs of slowing. His attempt to trip one of them up with a foot behind its ankle threw him more off balance than the Bringer, and it was only by straining what felt like every muscle in his upper body that Giles managed to keep his feet. His sword work was getting sloppy, ineffective and predictable – and then he felt a spell hit him between the shoulder blades, thrusting him forward straight into the Bringer’s axe.
Giles staggered back, looking down at his chest much as Correia had looked at her stomach only scant minutes earlier. Red blood welled copiously from the wound and began to run down his chest in a tide of crimson. He drew breath and felt it bubble in his chest, the taste of iron filling the back of his mouth.
He fell to his knees. “Willow,” he managed. “Sorry . . .” He took another breath, ignoring the searing pain, and though he didn’t know if Ethan was even aware of what had happened, looked toward him. He still sat in the circle, working the magic, while the cult fought to break through; he could tell by their buzz of excitement that they nearly had it. They would break the circle and then they would break Ethan and then, finally, they would break the amulet. Willow would die, and so would Buffy and Xander and Dawn – everyone. “Ethan,” he managed. “It’s over. Destroy it.”
Ethan didn’t answer. Giles felt the most acute pang of loneliness he had ever felt in his life, and he had known loneliness intimately at times. He had started to believe he might not die like this, alone and far from everyone who loved him. But now even Ethan was gone, less than ten feet away and utterly unreachable. He struggled not to collapse; if this was the end, he preferred not to bleed to death, but to go quickly in the explosion and decimation of Willow’s power. It would be a little less like dying alone, he thought, though it broke his heart to think of her waiting for him when he would not come. He closed his eyes and wondered if he would be able to reach her, touch her, as he went on.
And then everything went – white. Not black, as Giles had expected, but a blinding, searing white. Giles saw more than felt himself lifted off the ground by the force of the explosion. He slammed into the forest floor and only then did the blackness claim him.