There was a quick spark, and the lock sizzled. The door swung open and his hand reached quickly inside, coming out with a few wrapped stacks of bills. Not too much, mind -- not so much that anyone would miss it right away. It was important to do things in moderation, especially if he wanted to stay under the radar. A couple hundred here and there would be more or less discreet, and still enable him to keep himself funded. Oh, sure, he had grander plans than this. But just because he was a genius didn't mean he was above petty theft.
Petty theft paid the bills. Opened doors to bigger things. That, he was counting on.
The few hundred he'd been able to grab should be enough for now. He only had a few seconds to finish up anyway, before the Rwasundi charm he'd acquired lost potency. Rather handy little objects, those. Very rare. Not as effective as the presence of an actual Rwasundi demon, but the small talisman caused enough localized temporal disturbance to suit his needs. No one in the bank would ever know he'd been here.
It would only take a few more moments to finish up. He'd gotten very good at working quickly – after a number of hard-learned lessons. No more "stay and gloat" for him. "In, out, and on with it" was his new motto. It had served him well in recent times.
He eased the door shut on the small cash vault and dusted away some of the sediment that had settled around the lock. Just a simple disengaging spell, nothing fancy. To a casual observer it would seem as though the vault had merely been left unlocked – a minor oversight on the part of a distracted teller. By the time anyone noticed the missing cash, he would be long gone – barely a blip on the radar of those in the bank around him since, thanks to the Rwasundi charm, no one would ever recall seeing him here. They'd suffer a few minor hallucinations, sort of like déjà vu, where they would relive the same five minutes a few times – most likely in an unsystematic order of events – all while he walked right through their midst, completely unaffected.
As long as he hung on to that charm.
He stood up. Perfect timing; nothing less than another brilliant execution. He slid the thin stack of bills into a money pouch he had hidden beneath his jacket. Very soon he'd have enough acquired to put his full plan into effect. Until then, however, it was a low profile for him.
He made his way quickly to the door, his shoes clicking rhythmically upon the green marble floor of the bank. The people around him seemed as still as statues, but that was only from his perspective, because he wasn't caught in the same displacement that they were experiencing. In a few short seconds, the natural flow of time would return, leaving behind nothing but a roomful of disoriented individuals who could not even attest to him being there.
They'd make up some feeble excuse to explain the whole thing – gas leak or something just as droll. People here were used to explaining things away. After all, it was a Hellmouth.
Ethan Rayne placed his sunglasses on and slipped the Rwasundi talisman safely alongside the cash in his money pouch, breaking the spell as he did so. Then, he turned and left the bank, walking out into the bright Cleveland sun.
In the hazy stillness of the abandoned second-floor apartment, a small form shivered. It wasn't a cold day. In fact, since it was June, the Cleveland weather was relatively mild. But the cool, damp air wafting into the uncovered, paneless window from Lake Erie seemed to coat the abandoned apartment. It settled over everything like a layer of dew, peeling away at the old, cracked wallpaper and draping a bone-chilling veil on an otherwise pleasant morning.
With nothing to use as a blanket, except the clothes she had with her and a few discarded pieces of damp newspaper, the young girl curled in upon her own body. She tucked her knees tightly in and pressed her back against the wall, shifting on the small twin bed and feeling the springs squeak and press against her. As she moved, the large piece of cardboard she'd placed on top of the springs to serve as her mattress slid partially out from beneath her. She raised her head and glared at it balefully, then cast her eyes toward the open window.
Squinting into the sunlight that reflected off the building next door, she rolled heavily off the bed. She straightened to a standing position and rubbed fiercely at her arms to chase the damp chill out of her bare limbs. Glancing around for a moment, she spotted her oversized knit sweater near the door, where she must have dropped it when she'd stumbled in through the dark last night. She probably should have left it on, but it had been so warm and stuffy in here then – a definite contrast from the cool air that had crept in and settled overnight.
She stepped toward the sweater, maneuvering around the random clutter that littered the floor. Her steps were awkward; her coltish legs seemed a bit too long and ungainly for her small frame. She picked up the sweater. The fabric, like everything else in the room that was exposed to the open air, had a cold mustiness about it. She rolled it into a ball and rubbed it aggressively against itself to warm it up a bit before putting it on.
The girl glanced out the window, her eyes still lidded with sleep. She could see the lake out in the distance, as well as Edgewater Park. The sun glittered off the water and stung her bleary eyes, forcing her to turn them back upon the dim confines of the dirty apartment.
Her hand pressed against her stomach, where she felt a squeezing grumble grow more and more insistent. She hadn't eaten much to speak of since yesterday morning and she felt almost nauseous at the twisting in her empty belly. She should go out and find something to eat. Perhaps she'd have better luck than she did yesterday.
Slipping her arms through the over-stretched sleeves of the sweater, she glanced around the apartment one more time and headed back toward the bed. There, near the iron headboard, was an old lamp – no bulb, frayed wiring, but the girl didn't use it for light. The building had no electricity anyway. It was only a condemned four-story apartment, a remnant of the old dingy steel town that Cleveland had been, located in a neighborhood that had missed out on the recent facelift the rest of the city had undergone. The lamp actually served as a makeshift nightstand, where the girl kept the one belonging she had left. The only thing that was actually hers besides the clothes on her back. And even those had been donated by the shelter, before she left.
Strung over the spot where the bulb would go was a black length of ribbon – a choker. And dangling from it was a small metallic cross. It wasn't even real silver, just a cheap silvery metal. She kept it because it had been her mother's. For luck, she had said, though lately it hadn't really been holding up its end of the bargain.
She lifted the choker from its improvised stand and fastened it around her neck. Her eyes did another sweep of the room, though there wasn't really any need; nothing else here belonged to her. She ran her fingers swiftly through her hair. She may be currently without a home, but that didn't mean she didn't have to conspicuously look the part. Especially when she was heading downtown. If she didn't look presentable enough to mingle with the crowds, then she'd hardly be able to get close enough to anyone to relieve them of some breakfast cash.
She squinted at her distorted reflection, which peered back at her from within the cracked base of the lamp as though from a funhouse mirror. When she was moderately satisfied, she left through the apartment door.
Ethan walked along Prospect Avenue beneath the shadow of the Terminal Tower. Something about a nice easy heist always made a stroll more enjoyable. He was at least a few hundred closer to his goal, and no one around him was the wiser. He caught sight of a beat cop across the street who passed by without even looking. The thought of being completely ignored by the local authorities sent a shiver of excitement through him.
Okay, so he wasn't completely above the "stay and gloat." But he'd earned his right to do so, as far as he was concerned. After he'd been escorted out of Sunnydale about three years ago by those Initiative chaps, he'd spent a few months in a detention facility in the Nevada desert. Funny how those military types always say things like "prisoner detained pending determination of his status," but when it comes down to having a real sorcerer in custody, those claims seem to fly right out the window. But they aren't secret government facilities for nothing. The outside world was meant to forget about Ethan Rayne. Lucky for him he had other plans, and his detention period didn't last very long.
It was the talisman that had done it. The military had gotten its hands on the Rwasundi charm during some kind of dimensional experiment. They'd been testing it on different control groups, noting the longevity of its effects on various demonic and supernatural life forms. Ethan had to admit, it would have made one hell of a weapon if the army had ever used it against foreign aggressors. When some of those science blokes attempted to use Ethan as a test subject, he'd managed to convince them that, in the hands of a genuine sorcerer, the effects of the talisman would be multiplied, leaving them with an even more powerful weapon at an even greater range. They'd agreed to let Ethan try, in a controlled environment, of course.
Bloody imbeciles. Though he had to admit, it had been rather brilliant on his part.
Once he'd gotten the talisman in his hands, controlled circumstances or not, it was a small matter to walk right out of the facility. He left the Initiative behind in a wave of temporary temporal disturbance.
Getting out of the bleeding desert, however, had been another matter entirely.
After all that had happened, Ethan didn't dare go back to Sunnydale. Not so soon, anyway. Ripper might play the pacifistic good guy when it suited him, but he'd been a changed man the last time they had seen each other. Quite literally – and all Ethan's doing, of course. There was no doubt in Ethan's mind that if he showed up on his old friend's doorstep too soon, Giles wouldn't hesitate to finish what he started. The innate rage of the Fyarl demon he had temporarily become wasn't the only thing fueling Giles' desire to kill him. No, going back west was not an option right now.
Instead, Ethan had found himself drawn here. Yet another Hellmouth, gathering power to itself like a magical black hole. He seemed to fit in here. This doorway to Hell didn't seem quite as potent as the one in Sunnydale, but it was powerful enough. And for the last two years Ethan had reveled in the fact that, with enough power, he could possibly have run of the place – especially without Rupert's shiny-girl Slayer breathing down his neck.
Yes, Cleveland was perfect.
Of course, it meant starting out small in the beginning. Ethan didn't want to draw the kind of attention that he had in California. Not right away, at least. Not until he was fully ready to go through with his plan – a plan that would be a first step toward the power he was looking for. A lucrative cash flow was only the beginning. Ethan was nearly ready to put the other pieces into place.
He picked up his pace a bit, walking briskly through the crowd of people who flowed along Prospect Avenue. A few more blocks and he would be able to deposit his most recent earnings with the rest he had accumulated at his flat. Occasionally, the crowd would jostle against him, and his hand would go reflexively to his suit jacket. The lump of the pouch pressed reassuringly against his palm from the inside pocket. Ethan patted it once and smiled.
A moment later, the crowd made a quick shift, and he felt himself lose his balance. Ethan shot his hand out to steady himself as one or two members of the oncoming mass of people bumped against him from the front.
He heard a disjointed voice mutter a half-hearted "sorry," but Ethan was already rolling his eyes at the apparent ignorance and utter impatience of people when herded into large groups like this. They swam upstream against each other like salmon, always in a hurry to get where they were going as fast as bloody possible. Always thinking their own schedule superceded anyone else's.
Wherever you're headed, people, he thought, it's not going anywhere. What's another ten bloody minutes?
Ethan Rayne had discovered a bit about patience in the last few years. And he'd have to say it was a lesson well learned. After all, that patience was about to pay off very soon. His hand again patted at the breast of his suit.
Ethan's eyes went impossibly wide. He halted mid-step and his fingers unconsciously groped against the jacket from the outside. His mind was already sounding the alarm, waiting for the rest of his body to catch up to what it already knew.
It was gone -- the pouch, the money, all of it. Gone.
Ethan whipped around and stood stock still, scanning the heads of the crowd around him, but seeing only a sea of people, tossing him in the storminess of their midst. As he stood there, he could feel body after body bump against his motionless form. He was vaguely aware of the irritated voices that filtered into his brain as they grumbled about his obstruction of the sidewalk. He had blocked them all out because there was only room in his head for one thought.
"By Janus," he breathed.
The Rwasundi talisman. That was gone, too.
She ducked swiftly into the mouth of an alley and didn't stop running until she was away from the main street. After that, she continued at a fast-paced walk for a few more seconds for good measure, casting looks behind her as she went. When she was sure she hadn't been followed, the girl hustled over to the nearest corner, where a building met a chain link fence and a large green dumpster hid her from view. She hunkered down to inspect the contents of whatever she had managed to grab.
It was black and bulgy, a kind of rough canvas pouch. If she folded it in half, it might be about the size of a typical wallet. One end of it had an especially prominent lump in it. For no other reason than bizarre curiosity, the girl sniffed it first. Whatever bumpy thing was in there, it certainly didn't smell like food. Though the thought made her stomach growl again. Without any further ceremony, she peeled open the thin strip of Velcro that held the pouch closed and peeked inside.
She couldn't be sure of how long she sat there with her jaw hanging open, but when she finally regained the ability to move she reached deftly inside the pouch. From its confines, she removed a stack of bills -- what looked like several twenties wrapped inside a self-adhesive currency band. As she stared at it, she had to remind herself to blink.
Inside the pouch, she saw two more small stacks of bills.
God! There had to be at least a few hundred dollars here!
The girl began to giggle. She couldn't believe her luck. She placed the bills back into the pouch and grinned madly at the walls of the alley. Unconsciously, she brought her hand up to the metal cross on the choker around her neck and gave it a little rub between her index finger and her thumb. Looked like her luck was changing, after all. She giggled again and clutched the small pouch to her chest with a gleeful bounce.
As she squeezed it, she again noticed the oddly-shaped bulge at one end. Opening the pouch a second time, she looked past the money and spotted a small brown object, about the length of her finger. She removed it from the pouch and held it up, narrowing her eyes at it.
The thing looked vaguely Blair Witch. Brown tufts of what felt like thick, coarse straw were tightly bound at one end, feathering out into what appeared to be a crude fan on the other. The bristles were stiff and scratchy and the whole thing was wound together with fraying gray thread. The only remotely interesting thing about it was in the center, where the thick handle of the thing began bristling out into the wider shape. There was a somewhat shiny stone there, held tightly in place by solid layers upon layers of the wound thread. It was ugly and mud-brown, but it was the only thing that kept the whole object from looking entirely like a miniature broom.
The girl wondered why someone who had all this money would also be carrying around such a dumb looking thing. Sentimental value, maybe, but if that was the case he was just going to learn to get along without it. After all, it wasn't like she was going to waste her time searching for the guy whose wallet she lifted just to find out if he wanted his ugly lint brush back. Apparently he was rich; he'd deal. She had learned to live without a lot of things. Thankfully, however, food was not one of them today.
Maybe, if Moneybags was really lucky, he'd manage to track it down. She decided to leave it here for him. She wrinkled her nose at the thing, and then tossed it onto the alley floor.
Ethan burst through the door to his flat at a run.
Bloody pedestrians, he thought with a growl. Absolutely no bloody consideration. Did it ever occur to them that a bloke's schedule might be just a little more bloody important than their own?
He headed immediately for the back room. Throwing aside the curtain, Ethan hurried inside and fell to his knees. All around him, the room was dimly lit and musty with the smell of heat and incense. There were many candles, a number of statues and several reliquaries – things he had needed to reacquire following his escape from the Initiative's detention facility. Some of it he had bought with the money he managed to confiscate in bank jobs like today. Some of it he had come by through less honest means. It was a far cry from the power he had once wielded, but it was a start. And his strength was growing.
Ethan grabbed a candle from the nearest shelf and a handful of powder to form a circle around him. All he needed was a simple locator spell, but he had to work fast. Whomever had taken his pouch wouldn't waste time before opening it. He was certain of that. When they did, it would expose the talisman to the open air, causing it to activate. If he wanted to get a solid bead on its location, that would be the best time to do it.
Ethan gathered what he needed quickly, then closed his eyes and concentrated on working the spell.
"Oriri, oriri. Rwasundi aperio . . ."
There was a loud whooshing noise in her ears and the girl spun around, but she didn't see anything behind her but the empty alley. The sound came again, causing her ears to ring, and suddenly there was something in front of her. It looked like a man, but its face was scarred-looking, almost fleshless, and framed by the hood of a ratty gray cloak. It grinned at her, splitting its disfigured face grotesquely.
She screamed and thrust her hands forward, trying to push the thing away, but another whooshing sound flooded through her brain and her arms flailed, shoving through nothing as the creature vanished from in front of her. She lost her balance and tumbled to the alley floor where another rush of noise disoriented her. This time she also heard the beeping drone that usually accompanied a truck that was backing up.
The girl glanced around, only to see that she was right. A garbage truck had suddenly appeared in the alley right beside her. It was holding the dumpster she had used as a hiding place high above her head. The truck began to lower it back to the ground, and the girl scrambled frantically to get out from underneath.
She scuttled along the ground and the whooshing came once again. She glanced up to see the figure in the gray cloak had reappeared over her. Letting out a yelp, she pushed herself back away from him. She landed flat on her backside, looking up into the alley, where everything around her was suddenly quiet and empty.
No Freddie Kruger in a cloak. No garbage truck trying to squash her with a dumpster. No more strange whooshing sound. No sound at all, in fact.
That was weird. A few seconds ago, everything had been crazy. But now it was exactly the opposite – unnaturally quiet. She couldn't hear the wind through the alley or even the sounds from the street half a block away. It was as though she sat inside a bubble of stillness that pushed everything else out.
The girl glanced around. The money pouch was still a few feet away where she had dropped it. She went to push herself into a standing position to retrieve it when she felt something scratchy beneath the fingers of her right hand. There, on the ground, was that ugly looking mini-broom. She gathered it in her fingers as she rose to her feet.
She stared at it again, distributing her uncertain glare between it and the silent alley around her. This time, instead of tossing it away, she shoved it into the pocket of her shorts.
Like an explosion of sound, the noises of the city returned to her ears. It was so sudden that it startled her. She took a few uncertain steps and looked toward the mouth of the alley, where a garbage truck began to round the corner. She couldn't believe her eyes. She pulled the brown thing out of her pocket again and was amazed to hear the sounds around her die down a second time. Even the truck had paused in mid-turn.
"Whoa," she breathed.
A strange smile spread over her face. She looked at the thing again and quickly pocketed it. As her ears met with a rush of noise once more, she scooped up the wallet and started swiftly down the alley, toward its opposite end.
Every few feet she glanced suspiciously around. If the garbage truck had appeared after that brushy thing predicted it would, then that scarred man must be somewhere around too. She checked behind her for any sign of him as she trotted through the shadows. She was so intent on searching for someone behind her, that she almost didn't see the person who had stepped directly into her path.
She stopped just short of plowing into him. However, it wasn't the disfigured creature in a cloak. Instead it was a tall man with an angular face and a black suit.
"Hullo, sweetheart," he said in a syrupy English accent. "I think you have something that belongs to me."
Ethan Rayne smiled at her.
The young girl started, and it looked to Ethan like she was going to bolt. He reached out quickly and grabbed her by the wrist. She let out a sharp squeal, and he was forced to tighten his grip. "No, no. Not gonna hurt you, love," he grunted as she struggled against his hold. "All I want is my talis—"
The next thing Ethan Rayne knew, he was staring at the tops of the buildings around him from the flat of his back.
"Oh," he groaned as the wind returned to his lungs. He heard the clomping sound of oversized shoes running swiftly down the alley. He forced himself onto his front, stretching a hand forward. "No," he grunted. "Vincire!"
Two more running steps, and the girl hit an invisible wall. She bounced backward from it and landed on her backside with a thud. She looked up to see a diaphanous barrier filling the width of the alley and stretching high above her head. Green energy shimmered through it like watery glass. She shot to her feet and pounded against it, emitting little panicked grunts with every strike. The green light flared up more intensely wherever she made contact with the wall, but the obstruction didn't budge.
By this time Ethan was back on his feet. He brushed himself off with a groan and straightened his jacket as he began taking steps forward once again. "Look, little girl," he droned, "like I was saying – all I want is the talisman. Just that brown bristly thing, and then you can go. So give it here like a good girl."
She backed up against the clear solid wall as Ethan reached her. "I – I don't know what you mean," she lied.
Ethan rolled his eyes. "Bollocks," he said in a bored and agitated voice. "I traced its elemental signature to this alley, sweets, and you're the only one here. Let's have it, right?"
The girl eased along the wall like a cornered animal.
Ethan groaned at the drama of it all. "Look, kid, see that wall of energy behind you? Well, I'm doing that. I'm a very powerful sorcerer, and little girls shouldn't mess with very powerful, very serious sorcerers. I don't have time to muck around here, so if you'll just hand it over—"
She rushed him with a wild cry, and Ethan found himself tackled to the ground. But that wasn't the strange thing. Finding himself tackled to the ground and landing nearly 20 feet down the alley . . . now that was strange.
In an instant, she was back up again, hauling him right along with her, twisting his arm firmly behind his back and shoving him, face-first, up against a wall.
"Ow, ow, ow . . . ," Ethan repeated over and over as he felt a sharp wrenching pain spike down the length of his arm. He certainly hadn't expected this. He struggled to gesture toward the girl with his free arm, already formulating a stasis spell in his head. His concentration was broken when he felt himself whipped around and shoved again, this time with the wall to his back.
"Leave me alone!" the girl yelled, her small hands fisting into his lapels to hold him in place. "Or I'll – or I'll kill you!"
Ethan looked down at his minute assailant. She was easily half his height, yet she was stronger than at least three of those military chaps who had hauled him off to Nevada. Maybe more. The last time he'd been manhandled like this . . .
Wait a second.
Abnormally strong little girl.
Evil-spewing Hellmouth in the vicinity.
Well, I'll be buggered.
Ethan suddenly cracked another smile as he stared down at her.
"What?" she angrily demanded, shaking him so hard that his teeth seemed to rattle when she jarred him against the wall. Still, he kept smiling. "What are you smiling at? I'm serious - I'll kill you. I'm sick of people looking at me like I'm some kind of freak!" Her last few words came out as a shrill shriek.
Ethan's smile widened even further. This was just too perfect.
"You're not a freak, sweetheart," he said gently. "Quite the contrary, in fact. You, my dear, . . . you're like me. Magic, in a way."
The girl looked at him dubiously, then released him – but not without one last attempt at intimidation as she shoved him once more against the wall. "What are you talking about?" she said in a low, uncertain voice.
Ethan straightened his suit jacket gave the girl another friendly grin. "You give me that talisman, and I'll tell you all about it, love," he said. "Anything you want to know. I promise."
The girl slipped her hand into her pocket and drew out the brown charm, eyeing him suspiciously as she did so. Ethan covered her hand with his own very quickly, before the Rwasundi disturbance had time to take effect. He removed the totem from between her fingers and slid it cautiously into his own pocket.
He could have left then. He could have reneged on his promise to tell the little troublemaker anything. It would only be too easy to whip the charm out once more and disappear under a cover of temporal chaos.
His smile added a crafty twinkle to his eyes.
But why would he want to do any of that?
Especially when it seemed as though Ethan Rayne had just met the next Slayer.
To be continued . . .