Rupert made his way deeper into the Forbidden Woods, weapon held at the ready. Behind him, he heard his trusty steed, Prince, nicker softly from where he'd left him tethered.
"Sorry, boy," he murmured under his breath. "I can't take you with me. It's too dangerous. You'd just be a quick snack for Tiamat."
He didn't dwell on what Tiamat could do to him; that wasn't important. Someone had to stop her before she razed the entire countryside, and that someone was going to be Rupert, the, um –he looked down at what he was wearing– the green knight.
Gripping his sword tighter, Rupert continued down the path, every sense alert. He paused at a bend in the path; around that curve lay the dragon's den. Around that curve lay his destiny. Rupert took a deep breath and then, with a fierce battle cry on his lips and sword held high, he ran around the bend to confront...
"Hello, child." It had six legs, four swirling eyes, and its smaller set of nostrils flared as it looked down from far above upon the unfortunate knight. "Would that by any chance be your father's best short sword in your hand?"
"Gra-annnn!" Rupert put his hands on his hips and glared at the dragon. "Stop with the 'llusions!"
There was a flicker of air around the... thing, and Harriet Giles was looking down at Rupert from on top of her horse, Paladin. Her stern expression was spoilt somewhat by the slightest of smiles curving the corners of her mouth.
"You can't fool me. I'm not a little kid, y'know," he told her with righteous indignation. "I can tell when it's you."
"And what else can you tell, oh wise one?" His grandmother's gaze moved from Rupert's face to his hand and the weapon it held.
Rupert raised his chin defiantly. "That you can't vanquish Tiamat with a wooden sword."
"I find it highly unlikely that you could vanquish primordial chaos with a metal one either. Even Marduk required all his wiles as a thunder-god to subdue her." Gran lifted herself in the saddle and dismounted.
"I have wiles," Rupert insisted, pouting.
"In which case, you hardly need your father's sword, do you?" She held her gloved hand out, ready to receive it.
With a huge sigh, Rupert handed it over. "I wouldn't have to borrow it if he'd give me one of my own."
"On your tenth birthday, you know that." She was resolute as ever as she took the blade from him. "It's not long now. The scabbard?"
"Back on Prince's saddle," he said, sighing again. "You going to tell him?"
"Are you going to tell him," she corrected, trying the sword in her hands for weight and balance as she'd taught Rupert to do. "That depends very much on you, my lad."
Rupert thought about pointing out to Gran that blackmail was a crime, but then she just might tell his father regardless. "What do I have to do?" he asked, giving in, defeated.
She studied him in that way that always made him shuffle his feet restlessly. "You're a sensible child, despite current evidence to the contrary. You know your father's things are dangerous and not toys, under any circumstances. Can I trust that from now on you will remember this fact?"
Rupert looked down at his feet. He wanted to argue, but knew from experience that wouldn't get him anywhere except standing in front of his father for a much more... intense version of this same lecture. "I promise," he finally said grudgingly.
"Make me believe it, Rupert."
"I'm not lying," he protested, looking up, a little anger flaring in his voice with the denial. "But you can't expect enthusiasm."
"What I expect really isn't up to you to define, but in this particular case, eye contact was all I required." She smiled at him more fully. "Well done. Now..." She handed him back the sword. "Go and put this back in the scabbard and then perhaps Marduk and Tiamat could have a magical duel. Whoever loses has to sneak the sword back into the Great God Ea's study." She winked at him.
Rupert grinned back, his bad feelings forgotten. "I'll be right back, and Marduk can boot Tiamat's ar– tail all over creation."
He ran off, eager to get that done so they could start playing. This was going to be far better than he had hoped for. He'd take playing with Gran over playing with his father's sword any day.
I continue to be both impressed and slightly concerned at Rupert's growing proficiency with his power. Although obviously my own still exceeds his comfortably, I had to set my limits considerably higher than normal for someone of his age, even in this family, in order to give Marduk a convincing 'win' over the dread Tiamat.
These concerns aside, however, my Grandson is a delight, and I confess I am not anticipating with much pleasure the day he'll start at the Academy. I wish I could tell him to enjoy his freedom while he still can, but no, it would do more harm than good to do so.
Giles watched as Ethan lowered the journal and paused to look up from the floor where he was sitting, surrounded by books from Harriet Giles' chest. Ethan had taken over reading the entries aloud after he'd caught Giles skipping over sections that were, frankly, rather embarrassing. "You really were an insufferably cute brat, dearheart," Ethan told him, smirking. "You should be ashamed of yourself."
"And I suppose you never played some version of slay the dragon when you were young?" Giles asked from the window seat, trying to direct the conversation away from how 'cute' and 'precocious' he'd been. Not that he wasn't enjoying hearing his Gran's thoughts on him and the mischief he used to get up to; he was. In some ways, it was like getting one last chance to talk with her. He just wished it wasn't giving Ethan quite so much teasing material.
"My dragons were all a bit too real," Ethan said with a self-effacing eye-roll. "But perhaps I did and have simply forgotten. Do you want more of the Amazing Adventures of Knight Rupert and his Noble Steed, or shall we jump a year or so and see if we can find references to your Gran's first meeting with Coven types?"
"If that translates into getting away from a recital of every embarrassing thing I did as a boy, then by all means."
Ethan flicked forward through the pages of the journal he was holding, but then put it on the floor in order to pick up a different one, seemingly at random. As he opened this, he asked casually, "Have you actually told Ian about all this yet? I mean, I know he was told that your Gran had mentioned Vaurtain, but does he know the extent of the information potentially available to us here?"
"I haven't mentioned the journals to anyone bar you," Giles replied, trying to match Ethan's casual tone. It was a decision he had made without looking too closely at his reasons, other than knowing the thought of revealing their existence to others felt... wrong.
"Much though I adore my worthy mentor, his continued closed mouth tactic when I know he has more he could tell us is a little aggravating to say the least. We should capture him one night, and you can use some of your torture expertise upon him. He'll tell us everything." Ethan winked up at Giles.
Giles grinned. "You just want to watch Ian and me together."
"Well, the thought of someone else having to endure your version of a cock-ring is certainly pleasurable." Ethan flicked through some pages, but apparently found nothing relevant. "So you don't want to tell him about the journals?"
"Not yet. I..." Giles trailed off as he tried to explain his answer, but in the end could only come up with, "It feels wrong. Gran left these for me, for us. I think we're the ones who are supposed to look through them."
Ethan nodded, apparently accepting that without further question. "I won't say a word until you give the word."
Giles relaxed, relieved that the argument he'd been bracing for wasn't going to happen. "Thank you."
There was silence as Ethan continued to browse, but then Giles saw him sit up straighter. "Hmm, well, I have possibly jumped ahead a little too far, but this is relevant. Listen..."
Lucy Harkness came again today. Really, the persistence of that young woman bewilders me, but if this is truly a war of attrition, I fear my siege walls are falling. My own research, following the clues she's previously given me, has proven sufficient of her 'facts' to force me to consider that the rest may well be true as well.
My poor boy.
I have found several supporting references to the 'Guardians of Equilibrium' or similar phrases, enough to be reasonably confident that such pairs have been born within the world cyclically every few generations. Lucy says things are speeding up now. That, I have not yet been able to verify.
Over millennia, these pairs of mages have helped protect the world, if not all of existence, from threats from both sides of the Chaos/Order axis, but the Coven insists that the greatest threat for many centuries is now faced by the world, faced by my grandson if the appalling things they tell me are true. And this threat is Chaos-based.
The dark god, Vaurtain, he of many ancient names and myths, seeks to escape his dimensional prison. This much, while not common knowledge, is easily double-checked within the deepest vaults of the Council's library, and so I have done. According to the Coven, unrelated events forecast for the end of the century will weaken the walls to our dimension sufficiently to allow him to push his way in.
He will want revenge on those who jailed him, and without the Guardians, Lucy says, the world will soon cease to be a place that can support life.
I have decided to drive down to Devon next week and talk to the Coven seer. There must be more she can tell me. In the meantime, I will write to Rupert and urge him to put his back into his studies. His father has received some disturbing reports from Oxford. I know it is natural for young men to rebel, but now is not a good time.
Ethan looked up. "On the contrary, I'd say your timing was perfect."
"I remember the letter she sent me," Giles said, dropping a hand to rest briefly on Ethan's hair. "I thought my father had put her up to it, pulling out all the stops to get me to tow the line as a proper young Watcher-in-training."
Turning over a few pages, Ethan made an impatient noise. "There's no entry for when she was actually at Devon at all. There's a longish one here though, which seems to have been made shortly after she got back to London."
Giles frowned. "If she waited until she was back to London to make an entry, she probably was either told something she wanted to verify first, or something that affected her so much that she needed some distance before recording it." He leant forward to try to read over Ethan's shoulder. "What does it say?"
"She's not at her most coherent," Ethan commented, but he took a deep breath and started...
It's all true. For Rupert's sake, I have to accept that. He is one-half of the latest pair of Guardians, and God save him from the fate of that poor man, Ian, whom I met while I was away. Seven years should be enough to recover from any bereavement, surely, yet the poor wretch seemed barely lucid in his bewildered misery and loss.
I'm told Ian was tricked by an agent of Chaos in a way that somehow led to his partner falling hundreds of feet. Judging by the look in Ian's eyes, barely a minute goes past without him seeing his lover's broken body and blaming himself.
Ethan came to a broken halt and bowed his head. Giles could see Ethan's knuckles were white where his hands grasped the book.
Dear lord. Giles could picture it so clearly, Gran's words combining with his memories of Buffy's death to play out like a movie in his head. Except it wasn't Derek or Buffy he saw falling, it was Ethan. Needing the comfort of touching his lover, Giles tugged on Ethan's arm until he'd crawled up onto the window seat and into Giles' arms, still holding tightly to the journal.
"Oh God, it hurts," Ethan muttered, pushing his face against Giles. "How does he go on? I keep asking him; I..." He didn't continue.
"He goes on because he has to." It was easy to say, but the emotions it represented had never been so clear. Or painful. Giles tightened his grip on Ethan.
"Why does he have to?" Ethan's question sounded almost childish in its confusion. "I wouldn't have done. Even with you still alive I got dangerously close to deathwish-fulfilment more times than I care to remember."
"Because the Coven found him in time and gave him something to hold onto, something he needed to stay alive for." He tilted Ethan's face back so he could meet his eyes. "You. Us, but mostly you."
Ethan's eyes were dark and liquid. "Do you know how that makes me feel?"
"That he valued you enough to stay to help you?"
The noise that came from Ethan then wasn't what Giles would consider laughter by any stretch of the imagination. "He didn't know me to value me, only what I am... would be. For, what –thirty? Thirty-five?– years, he has been suffering because of me."
"He hasn't just been suffering," Giles said, certain of that, turning the whole idea of Ian over in his mind. "I'm sure that Ian misses Derek still, and the pain of living without him is always going to be there, but Ian's life has been more than that. It's been... magic, and learning, and teaching, and friends and evenings of laughter and drinking and music. It's been a life, even if it had to be alone. And the thought of you gave him the strength to have that."
Ethan pursed his lips tightly shut and twisted his head away from Giles' fingers. Giles frowned and thought that he'd have to soothe and encourage him further, but then Ethan straightened up. "Thank you," he said quietly, seriously, watching his own fingers move over the pages of the journal. "Shall I go on?"
Giles leant in and kissed Ethan, long and lingeringly, needing that contact before he sat back and nodded. "What else does she have to say?"
Ethan swallowed, lifted the book, and read on...
I do not know how I can best protect my grandson from either death or a hell of loss. It shames me to admit that I briefly considered seeking out his prospective partner and... No, I cannot even write it here. Needless to say, that ambition lasted no longer than a few desperate minutes, but every saner idea that has come to my mind has been immediately disregarded by the Coven.
They know. They have seen. Rupert and his partner must be kept separate until the millennium turns. That is the only way they will both survive. The only way the world has a hope against Vaurtain.
Do I believe them? I've had to accept everything else they've claimed, so why balk here? Thirty years, almost, I'm meant to keep Rupert single. He will despise me; he will rail against me. And what if they're wrong?
I have no one I can talk to about this, no one to help me make decisions for my grandson. The Coven forbids me to speak to him about this, and his parents would not accept the word of the Coven, so I cannot speak to them either. The Council... It galls me to say it, but I do not want to see Rupert treated like a Slayer.
In desperation, I went to the little chapel in Bromgrove and spoke to God as I have not done since I was a little girl. I will not say that I discovered wisdom or reached an epiphany, but I did find a certain sense of calm.
I wonder if this is how Judas felt when he pulled the short straw.
Ethan turned another page and shrugged. "That's that for now. The next entry deals with some friend of hers on the Council who was pregnant, apparently unwisely."
Giles remained quiet, thinking over his gran's words. He found himself much more in sympathy with her than he had been; far too many of her thoughts and fears were ones he'd faced himself to feel otherwise. More than anything, more now than ever before, he wished he could speak with her.
With that startling intuition that they so often had for each other's thoughts these days, Ethan asked softly, "Where is she buried?"
"There's a family plot at St Leonard's in the village. All the Gileses are buried there. I suspect there's still a place reserved for me if I want it." He glanced at Ethan. "As well as one for my spouse, which would be you." He couldn't resist a tiny smile; wouldn't that cause several of the more conservative of his relatives to rotate where they lay?
"Would you like to visit her? All of them?" Ethan made a wistful noise. "I hope Matthew manages to continue the line for you." He chuckled softly. "Perhaps with Pamela."
"He does appear to be rather smitten by her, doesn't he?" Giles smiled, happy to see some good come for his cousin out of the upheaval they'd brought with them.
"And she transforms into a blushing teenage girl around him. It's rather droll." Ethan snorted. "And I daresay, sweet."
"Don't you go teasing them too much," Giles warned with a mock-frown. "If Pamela gets riled at you, I have to deal with the fallout."
There was a wicked look in Ethan's eye. "She's always wanted a Giles for herself; funny how things work out."
"Yes, comments like that, you should keep to yourself."
"I got the better one. By far." Ethan stuck his tongue out.
Giles took the opportunity to lean in and nip at Ethan's tongue as he kissed him. "And I've been lucky enough to get something unique. If a bit naughty and outrageous at times."
"Naughty sounds just right," Ethan said as Giles pulled back after the kiss. "Shall we take a breather and stretch out on the bed a while? Tiring work, reading." He winked at Giles encouragingly while stretching his arms in an exaggerated yawn.
Giles was seriously tempted. Ethan had a point, going through his gran's journals was emotionally exhausting, but it had taken him so much time to work up to doing this, he didn't want to lose that momentum now. "Maybe in a little bit," he finally said, with a regretful smile. "I... we should keep going while we can."
Lips pursed in disappointment, Ethan nonetheless didn't argue. He slipped back down to the floor and swapped the journal he'd been reading from for a near identical brown leather covered book. "Let's see what this one has..."
It amused Giles to see Ethan so focused and diligent about research. Even in his attempt to force a break, Ethan had given in far easier than Giles would have predicted, but Ethan was changing just as surely as Giles himself was, and Giles loved him all the more for those changes.
Reaching down, he ran gentle fingers through Ethan's hair in a light caress. "Thank you," he murmured softly.
"You're welcome," was the equally quiet reply. Ethan turned pages for a while, eventually changing journals again, but presently he found something worth clearing his throat for. "She went to Rome," he said. "Called in favours to gain access to the Vatican archives. Not a woman to be underestimated, was she?"
Giles chuckled. "No one ever got away with telling her 'no' that I can remember."
"Oh." Ethan tensed and studied the book hard. "Listen to this..."
I have learnt today what it is that the boys are meant to protect in their pre-destined roles. The 'balance' or 'equilibrium' of their variously worded titles is not just a concept; it's a thing. In fact, if I am to believe what I have translated today, it's a thing in concrete existence somewhere within our dimension. I've a feeling that not even the Coven know what my obsessive research has now discovered, and God forgive me, but I'm not inclined to share.
The Byzantine document I found, deep in the basements of the Vatican, was amongst many similar manuscripts in the same hand, scribed apparently by a monk who worked all his life in a Constantinople leprosarium. His name was Bartholomus, and the little I can discover about him suggests he was a seer of some note. He endured the 'falling sickness', epilepsy, and during his fits, he saw visions. The Church seems to have taken his sight very seriously and kept him protected from secular parties.
Only one of the many manuscripts, written in ink with limited decorative illumination, seems relevant to my research. It refers to the 'Great Bear', one of the ancient ones, who will arise thrice and be expelled thrice before his fourth and final battle. Earth's defenders during this last war will be the 'Arch-guardians of the Third Millennium'. They will battle with the Great Bear for dominion over the 'word of God', using it to free the 'Prisoner in the Void'. Elsewhere the void is referred to as the 'heart of the labyrinth'.
I'm not certain what the 'word of God' could be, although the Gnostic 'Logos' is an obvious correlation, but it's described in these texts as being hidden, and we are told it must be 'revealed in Truth' before it can free the Prisoner.
That was all the document contained, but it has given me much to ponder and further research.
Whether these arch-guardians are indeed Rupert and his Ethan, or a pair that will come after them, I cannot, of course, be certain. But as the Coven believe my boys destined to fight Vaurtain, who was among other things the great bear god of the Ancient Dytriscans, I think it reasonable to hypothesise this prophecy refers to them.
I can only hope more will become clear in time. As for now, I remain both mystified and unnerved by my time in Rome. These feelings, of course, have not been eased by today's encounter with Cardinal Euchenski. I am far from convinced I will still have access to the archives when I try again in the morning.
That last bit made Giles chuckle again; he could well imagine his gran taking on a Cardinal in the Vatican with her usual straightforwardness. As for the rest of it, it certainly confirmed what they already knew and added some new bits of information, but Giles found himself wanting to concentrate on the image of Gran taking some full-of-himself Cardinal down a peg or three for the moment.
"She didn't get back in," Ethan announced after browsing another few pages. "She flew home with no more information. Rupert–"
"I know," Giles replied, cutting Ethan off before he could say it. "I just... not yet."
Ethan started to say something further, but stopped himself. He sat quietly for a while then began to collect the journals together into a neat pile. "That's enough for today," he said firmly.
Giles nodded, still trying to avoid thinking about... "I should have let you distract us when you wanted to," he joked weakly.
"No," Ethan said firmly. "Whether we deal with it now or not, we had to know this, but we'll discuss it all another time." He stood and held out his hand to Giles. "Come on, husband dear. Let's find the dogs and make it up to them with a good long walk."
That pulled a small smile to Giles' lips despite everything. Lately, that was Ethan's answer whenever Giles was thrown an emotional curve ball, to use an American phrase. "You never used to be such an advocate of a good constitutional," he said as he took Ethan's hand and let himself be pulled to his feet.
"The wild calls to me," Ethan replied, his tone so pitched that it was hard to tell if he was serious or not. "Or maybe I'm just worried I'll get fat now Chaos isn't eating away at me."
Giles pulled Ethan into his arms and held him tightly. "You could use a bit more weight on you," he murmured, resting his face in the crook of Ethan's neck. "I don't want to be the only one battling middle aged spread, after all."
"Now come." Ethan's arms snaked around Giles, inevitably finding their way under clothing and over Giles' arse. "I wage that war at your side, bravely ensuring you never eat a full plate of food."
Giles chuckled at that, although it came out sounding... strange. "The sacrifices you make..." To his surprise, his voice cracked.
"Oh. Oh, my poor Ripper." Ethan's voice was rich with sympathy. He started pulling Giles towards the bed. "Come on, over here."
"I'm all right," he protested, but his voice still sounded strange to his own ears as he let Ethan tug him across the room. "I just... I don't–"
"You're upset, and you don't quite know it yet. Lay down with me. Come on." Ethan tugged him through the curtains and onto the heavy bedspread. Giles stopped protesting and just let Ethan make the decisions. He was doing his best not to think, but it didn't seem to be helping much.
Ethan settled him onto his back and lay beside him, stroking his chest soothingly. "We're going to have to talk about it, dearheart," he said sadly. "Repressing clearly isn't working for you today."
"It rarely does," Giles admitted wryly.
"Shall I start?" Giles didn't answer; he knew what they had to start with. Ethan sighed heavily and held Giles tightly before going on. "You are afraid, as am I, that we need Dawn in her innate pure form in order to win this battle of ours."
"That does seem to be what the information Gran gathered is saying," Giles said heavily.
"Yes. and while it will not destroy the Key –I doubt anything could do that– it would end the life of a very real girl, loved by many. Not to mention put us in direct opposition to her rather deadly sister. There. I've spoken the worst of it." There was an edge to Ethan's voice suggesting that he wasn't really that much more relaxed about the idea than Giles was.
"I had to counsel killing Dawn once before." Now that they were talking about it, Giles was growing calmer, the emotions automatically shoved down as he forced himself to deal with what had to be dealt with.
"To save the world from Glory?" Ethan rolled onto his back. "This is the sort of decision that makes me convinced I was never cut out to be on the side of the heroes. Choosing between a friend and saving the world – I rarely had friends, didn't care about the world. Rupert, how do we do this?"
Giles took a deep breath, settling in under the weight of this new knowledge and where and to what it might lead them. "First, we look for another way. Prophecies are not inviolate. They can and have been twisted and changed and still provide the outcome we are after. Also, we need verification. We must continue to read through the journals and elsewhere."
"And what if this prophecy is inviolate? What then?"
Giles closed his eyes. His responsibility lay so heavily on him he was surprised the bed didn't collapse under the weight. "Then we do what we have to do."
There was a long silence from Ethan, ending eventually with, "I'll start researching how to... convert... the Key back to its natural form. In case all else fails, and we have to." Ethan sounded very detached, not exactly cold, but uninvolved. "It could take a while to work out, and we might not have that if or when our efforts to avoid this prophecy finally come to naught. I... I can't say I care for this feeling."
"Neither do I." Giles pulled Ethan into his arms and held on tightly. "I never have."
"Are you going to tell her?" Ethan asked after another long silence. "Er, that should possibly have been, are we going to tell her?"
"No," Giles said sharply. "Not until we... not until there's no other choice."
He felt Ethan nod against his chest. "Are we going to tell anyone?"
Giles shook his head. "There'll be no way to keep it from Dawn if we do."
Ethan pulled back enough to look Giles in the eye. "I... I know what Harriet meant about feeling like Judas. How are we meant to talk to Dawn, knowing this? To any of them?"
Giles sighed, feeling old and worn out. "All my life I've been faced with doing things others can't or won't. There isn't any trick to make it easier. You just do it because it has to be done, and there's no one else to do it. Even if it means lying to those you care about with a smile on your face."
Looking down, Ethan laughed darkly. "False face must hide what the false heart doth know," he quoted. "You wouldn't have thought lying with a smile on my face would pose me a problem, would you?"
"You've never been able to lie convincingly to me," Giles pointed out.
"I've been able to... obfuscate. Especially when your anger at me made you blind to more subtle cues."
"It's harder to lie when your heart is involved."
Ethan reverted to silence again, but Giles could hear so much unsaid between them, could feel Ethan... fretting. There was a sudden bang from somewhere in the house as someone shut a door too forcefully and that seemed to jolt Ethan out of his brooding. "Will you promise me something, Rupert?"
"Don't suffer this, any of this, alone? Don't try to protect me. Share the load with me."
For all of their closeness, the request surprised Giles. "Even if the load is making you miserable?" he asked, reaching up and caressing Ethan's face.
"Who gave you the monopoly on misery, dear?" Ethan asked with a very ragged smile. "I demand my fair share, don't hog."
The only thing Giles could think to say to that was, "I really do love you."
Ethan almost let him get away with it, almost seemed to want to, but then he sighed, glanced briefly down, and then confronted Giles with, "You haven't promised."
"Were you always this stubborn, and I just never noticed in the old days?" Giles asked with a smile.
That got him a fondly exasperated look. "I've learnt from the best, and I'm still waiting."
Becoming serious again, Giles kissed Ethan gently. "I promise," he said. He just wished that sharing the load made it feel lighter.