Summary: The business cards say "Supernatural Investigations & Curse-breaking". They don't say anything about being rained on, soul-sucked, shot at, snowed on, or fed dangerous spicy drinks.
Notes: Written for postholedigger, who has waited most patiently. Thanks due to drsquidlove for the helpful beta-read.
"Only a couple miles now," Giles said.
Xander looked up from the map book in his lap and over at Giles in the driver's seat of the Land Rover. "Good." Good, because the drive would be over soon.
Xander closed his book, leaving a forefinger stuck in it to keep his place, and turned his attention outside the car. He tried to come up with a word for the current variety of rain. Not bucketing; he'd seen bucketing yesterday. This was more drifting rain, stinging rain, lifted high and sent sideways by gusts of wind over the sodden fields. It had sleeted on them briefly on their way out of Westbury, which Giles said was to be expected in December. No sleet now, but visibility was tanked. Not that this slowed Giles down. He was careening over the roads at typical English country driving speeds, slowing only for the places where the speed cameras were. Worst traffic calming measure ever, as far as Xander could tell.
More than a year in England had not exhausted Xander's ability to complain about the weather. It still gave him hives, how unpredictable it was. No two days were the same. In a single day it might change five times. But Giles, Giles was on his native soil, and comfortable inside his skin in a way Xander had never seen him comfortable before. Rain and windy country roads. Sleet. Wool sweaters, red noses, and hot drinks. Giles territory. For the last year, Xander territory by adoption. All in all, he liked it better than Sunnydale. Sunnydale hadn't had much going for it when he left. Willow had never forgiven him for smashing the world's last urn of Osiris. His only consolation had been knowing he'd done right by Buffy.
Giles territory had its downside. Mostly Giles himself, who was a perfectly good boss and only occasionally annoying as a roommate, but entirely oblivious to Xander as a guy. Or indifferent, which was the same thing as far as Xander was concerned. He wished he could say it was mutual, but what had started as a slow-simmering long-standing crush had flared out. Sometime in the last year, Xander wasn't sure when. Maybe it had happened during that case in the Parisian catacombs, when that French woman had flirted with Giles and he'd blushed. Or earlier, when they'd de-demoned the St Pancras station, and Giles had been so deadly with that silver knife. Or maybe it was just the new haircut. Who knew? It wouldn't do him any good to figure it out.
Giles turned off the main road onto a little feed road, still paved but single-lane. In California Xander would have called it a fire road, except they didn't need things like that here. He rechecked the map. They were somewhere east of Avebury and off the beaten tourist track. And getting close to their destination: Giles slowed and nosed the Rover onto an even narrower road, more a gravel-strewn track than a proper road. It wasn't on the map Xander held, even though he was certain he was on the right page of the guide. The track was blocked by a gate. Gates were Xander's job. He sighed, pulled on his hat, and shoved open the car door. The rain stung his face and chilled his hands to the bone in the seconds he spent fumbling with the latch. Giles pulled the Rover through the gate and Xander shut it behind. What was in this field, anyway? Cows? No, sheep, black-faced sheep, with green paint sprayed on their tails. They were heading away, toward shelter. Smart sheep. Back into the truck, heater blasting against the damp, and down the road, much slower now as the Rover jounced along the track.
Xander tucked the now-useless street guide into the glovebox. Mode switch into prep for the job.
"How long has this guy been missing?"
"Seems like a day longer than I would have expected. Are we going to find him alive after two days?"
Giles made a grunting noise that Xander couldn't parse. Giles knew even better than Xander that time mattered in these cases. Their last job in a crypt underneath a medieval church had been an emergency call not more than half a day after a questing curate had gone AWOL. They'd found that guy alive, barely, scared out of half his lifespan. Probably literally: his hair had gone white, which Xander had always thought was a myth. Apparently not, according to Giles. Ghosts could do that.
The supernatural was Giles's expertise. Xander's was all the other stuff, the getting in and the getting out. Lock-picking and wall-scaling and mapping the catacombs as they wandered in. Giles would still be lost inside that underground maze in Scotland without Xander's fluorescent paint arrows showing the way they'd come. And the ghost at the center would have killed Xander without Giles there to bind it. It was a good partnership.
Except it wasn't. Rupert Giles, Investigations and Excavations. That's what the business cards said, the ones Giles left in the used book shops. There was a second set of cards that said "Supernatural Investigations & Curse-breaking", which Giles tacked up in the magic shops. His name wasn't on those either. Peon status for him, the guy without the string of letters after his name. He was going to have to do something about it some day. Some day when he grew a spine. But today apparently wasn't that day. Today he did his job like a good assistent. He'd do half the work of rescuing the anthropologist in the neolithic barrow and get none of the credit.
Speaking of barrows. "What lives in barrows?" he said.
"If this were anywhere else, I'd say the usual ghosts. But this sort of site attracts barrow wights. They like the communal graves. The more bodies, the more attractive."
"Probability of wight versus the guy just breaking his neck caving without gear or training?"
Giles downshifted and spun the Rover around a hairpin turn. They were climbing a little hill now, with a cluster of trees at the top. The road had dwindled to little more than two tire-track ruts worn through the grass.
"I'm expecting a wight," Giles said. "The barrow has somehow escaped all previous observation, which tends to argue for an active, er, unearthly presence. And he vanished on the solstice."
"As you say. Ah. Here we are."
A little red Ford hatchback was sitting in the track in front of them, slewed a sideways. Past that was another car, a battered Saab with a grimy rear window with a Darwin fish on the back. Their contact and the missing anthropologist, respectively, Xander guessed.
Giles pulled the Rover onto the field and drove around in front of the Saab. The engine cut and coughed to silence. Rain spattered on the windows. Xander sighed. Show time. He fumbled for his jacket snaps. Gore-Tex and Polar fleece, the fabrics of the new millenium, perfect for exploring something that Giles assured him was at least four thousand years old. Nearly old as the pyramids and way way wetter.
Xander cast a glance aside at Giles and found that Giles was looking right back at him. There was a line between his eyebrows. "Xander," he said. "Is something the matter?"
"No. Let's do it."
Xander opened the Rover door and let in a blast of cold wet wind. Out, onto the wet field, door slammed shut. Giles was climbing out on his side. A little man in tweed had emerged from the hatchback. He had shaggy white hair poking out from under a wool cap. His left arm was held in a sling under his coat, a sling with a plaid pattern on it. A long scarf hung loosely around his neck. The overall effect was genial eccentric of a species peculiar to this island, in Xander's experience. They were especially common in the supernatural branches of academia.
This specimen used the tag end to wipe off his glasses as he came nearer. He peered through them and then smiled. "Young Dr Giles!"
"Ah, Mr Eccles. A pleasure to meet you again."
The two men shook hands.
"Bleak circumstances, Dr Giles. Bleak. I must say I was surprised the Council sent you. I thought you were in America."
"Been back for a year now."
"Ah, who's this new fellow with you? A student?"
"My assistant, Xander Harris."
"Hey," Xander said, and stuck his hand out. Eccles stared at it for a moment, then extended his own for a perfunctory shake.
"A souvenir of your travels, then?" Eccles said, addressing Giles with a chuckle that made Xander want to rearrange his face. He met Giles's gaze. Giles looked back quickly at Xander then away. Xander gritted his teeth. It wasn't the first time this had happened at these jobs. Giles showed up, got the effusive greeting, and Xander got handed the luggage to carry. Giles himself never treated Xander that way, but something always made their clients dismiss him as hired help. Student? Nope; American. And zoom, Xander was as absent from their attention as he was from the business cards.
Hooray, he was the Zeppo here too.
"So, there's a guy missing, I hear," Xander said, breaking heartlessly into the chit-chat about how awful the States must have been for poor Giles.
Eccles surprised him by giggling nervously. "Oh dear, yes. Poor Dr Dalziel. He seems not to have taken my warnings about the site to heart."
Giles cleared his throat. "Er, yes. Could you show us where?"
Eccles led them over the lumpy field to a jumble of rocks near the base of the hill. One of the stones was like the ones all over Avebury: creepily white and jutting upright over all the others, like a ghostly fang. Below it was a cluster of gray-blue stones that looked more or less natural until Xander got closer. Then he saw that there was a sort of doorway, only it was half-collapsed and it pitched downward almost immediately. He crouched next to the opening and played his pocket flashlight into the opening.
Eccles leaned over him. He smelled vaguely like pipe tobacco and it make Xander's nose itch. He said, "Not the original entrance, in Dr Dalziel's opinion. Constructed much later by some person or persons who wanted access to the barrow."
Grave robbers? Or was that the habit of a later civilization? Xander knew that grave robbing was a bad enough problem that lots of tomb-builders had left nasty traps behind, hence the "curse-breaking" on Giles's second set of business cards. But neolithic stuff wasn't where you found the elaborate coffins and the corpses buried with gigantic diamonds.
Giles leaned alarmingly far out over the opening. "Bugger. Straight down, is it? How'd Dalziel get down there?"
"I didn't see him go in," Eccles said, then giggled again. "Didn't know he'd descended until I got word he'd gone missing. He was an odd one."
"You left him here on his own?"
"He assured me his assistant was on the way. And, if you'll forgive me, it was pissing down. Was just as glad to leave him to it."
Which Xander couldn't blame him for, much as he wanted to. He said, "Not to mention your arm."
"Excuse me? Oh, yes. My arm. It was a bit in the way, yes."
"What happened to it?"
"Fell off a horse," Eccles said, with no trace of the giggle in his voice.
"So you left the guy here at a known supernatural locus and didn't check back?"
"Now, Xander," Giles said, but Eccles didn't seem annoyed. He pulled off his hat and put it back on again and looked shamefaced.
"Got distracted by another task, to be quite honest, over to Avebury. Turned out to be nothing. A frightened tourist. Meanwhile--" He gestured with his single free hand. "Rather glad you're here to sort it out. Been in this business for years, but human stupidity still takes me by surprise."
Xander frowned at him, but he couldn't argue with that. It was how it usually went. They never took the risks seriously, these amateurs, and they got themselves stuck at the bottoms of holes.
Giles had his hands all over the white rock, the one that looked so out of place. He had an expression on his face that Xander had learned to fear and be charmed by at once. It was the expression of Giles completely caught up in fascination. Fascinated by what, though, Xander had no clue. The rock looked like all the other rocks dotted across Wiltshire: vaguely creepy but nothing special. Nothing about that rock said to Xander "stand me on end in a pit you dig by hand".
Giles said, still with his nose to the rock, "This site has been undiscovered all this time?"
"Seems so," said Eccles. "The field hasn't been under cultivation for a good long while. Just the sheep. The owner ran amuck and contacted the university instead of me, despite all the work I've done establishing my persona as an expert." He sniffed. "And Dalziel would insist on investigating. Wanted a head start on publication, I suppose."
Giles and Eccles shook their heads and sighed in mutual exasperation over civilians who would plunge headlong into dangerous close encounters with the supernatural. Though of course they had no clue. Their profession was keeping those civilians blessedly innocent so they could walk around after dark without fear. So they would enter those neolithic barrows and second dynasty tomb complexes and Victorian necropolises without being eaten, soul-sucked, zombified, vamped, terrorized, folded, spindled, or mutilated.
Mostly they managed it. Mostly. Dalziel, assuming they found him in one piece at the bottom of that barrow, was going to have one hell of a drinking story to tell.
Xander cast Giles a glance that he wasn't sure he noticed, then headed back to the Rover. After their first prehistoric grave experience, he'd taken steps to make the next one easier. He'd joined a climbing gym and taken all the classes they had on safety and caving. He'd even gone on expeditions with the local spelunking crazies, which had involved way more bats than he ever expected to see outside of Sunnydale's creepier cemeteries. Bats were normal, though. Seeing bats was reassuring. It meant that nothing was down there eating them. Xander liked bats. Who knew? No bats in December, however. He opened the Rover's rear hatch and sat himself inside, partly out of the rain, and opened the duffel with the caving gear. The barrowing gear. He buckled himself into his climbing harness, snagged a second for Giles, then a third for their missing anthropologist. Two helmets with lights mounted on top, which he'd probably have to force Giles to wear. He shouldered on a bandolier heavy with climbing gadgets. Then he changed into climbing shoes.
Giles was still over there mooning around with the snotty, giggling Eccles. Xander was mad about that. Madder about that than maybe Giles deserved, but screw it. He hopped down into the rain and shouted.
"Hey, Giles, give me a hand here, would you?"
Gesture, shrug, and Giles came trudging over the grass. His shoulders and hat were dripping and his breath steamed. He looked more than a little put out when he arrived.
"What's this about?"
"Put your harness on."
Giles cooperated with Xander's harness and helmet installation. Xander let himself steal a moment of private pleasure as he fiddled with straps at Giles's waist. It was the closest he'd managed to get to Giles's guy bits, and unless he grew a pair for himself, the closest he ever would get. Not that it mattered.
"What do you know about that guy?" he said. He wanted to vent.
"Been with the Council for donkey's years. My father knew him. He's one of the rare ones who prefers field work. Always looked up to that."
"You trust him?"
"Implicitly. He just told me a story about my grandmother." Giles smiled, one of those brief flashes of pure pleasure that usually went straight to Xander's heart. Not this time.
"Xander, don't be ridiculous."
"He's being a complete jerk to me."
"That's--" Giles flailed his hands around. "Not uncommon. He's a perfectly fine fellow once you get to know him."
"Which I have no intention of doing."
Giles stood up abruptly. "Suit yourself. Are we ready to head down yet?"
"Gimme a minute to stow my pack. I need the full rescue kit. Guy might have fallen."
"Do let me know when you're ready." And that was Giles being sniffy. Xander watched his stiff Goretex-clad back progress up the hill to rejoin Eccles the Evil. He wasn't sure which of them he was more annoyed with.
When he returned to the barrow entrance, Giles and Eccles were right back into their wrangle about the history of the site. Giles wanted to know how it could possibly have been overlooked for so long. Eccles was going on about how many similarly undiscovered sites there had to be in Wiltshire. The discussion was polite yet animated, and it was probably going to continue until Xander physically separated them.
He turned his back on them and got to work. Where could he anchor? He cast around a bit looking for a rock that would work. They'd all work, come to think of it. These things weighed a ton each and they were all half-buried in earth. Nothing short of a backhoe was budging them. Why not go for the creepy one? He cast around the rock he'd dubbed White Fang and got himself tied in properly. Giles broke off from his conversation with Eccles and turned off the absent-minded professor mode. He checked Xander's ropes and nodded. Xander checked Giles's belay set up in turn.
"You're going down, then?" said Eccles, master of the obvious. Xander didn't bother answering. "Bit dangerous."
"We're well-prepared for whatever we might encounter," Giles said. It was good to hear the sniff addressed at somebody else for a change.
Xander sat on the soggy rock edge, dangling his feet into the barrow shaft. He gingerly edged out and let his feet find a spot to rest over the edge.
"Bombs away," Xander said.
He let himself slide down. Two feet, and a smooth stop, braked by Giles's steady hand. He got the soles of his boots solidly against the wall, and nodded. Kicked out, another few feet down, and his feet found an outcropping to take his weight. His head was now below ground level. Solid rock, blobby, lots of fissures and knobs to get his hands on for the way up, but it was all dripping wet and lichen-covered. Xander signaled up.
"Gonna hold here for a sec," he said to Giles's face leaning over the edge. He extracted a wedge-y piton from the collection on his bandoliers and set it against a crack in the rock. One solid hammer blow got it half-way in. A second strike drove it the rest of the way. Carpentry practice came in handy at the oddest times.
"What are you doing?" said Eccles. "You're harming the site!"
"No more than it's been harmed before," Xander muttered. There were recent marks scored across the rock, big gashes through lichen and into living rock visible under his headlamp. The rock was sharp-edged and lighter-colored than the rest. And below that, older gashes. Interesting. Xander gave the piton a last setting blow, then hung the hammer on his belt again. "Okay, Giles, give me another few feet."
"Really, Dr Giles, you need to curb your assistant." Eccles, a little muffled by wind.
"Er, Xander, be careful with the site. No unnecessary damage."
Xander swore under his breath, then said, "Okay, whatever." They were going to do this the hard way, then.
He cheated a couple of times on his way down, in places where the rock was like slippery soap under his hands and he couldn't see anything. Places where the fear of falling got to him, even with Giles at the other end of the rope. He wedged a couple of hex nuts into cracks and hoped it would be enough. He'd never really taken naturally to climbing and heights. Especially not in the dark, when he couldn't see the pointy stuff at the bottom. Or the giant sinkhole.
Forty feet down, maybe more, not completely in a straight line, and it got dark and narrow toward the bottom. Caving was no hobby for claustrophobes. Barrowing. Whatever. His feet touched bottom, a soft soggy bottom, but definitely something he could stand on. Xander flashed his headlamp around. The usual sodden mess of half-rotted leaves and half-rotted other things padded the rocky floor beneath him. A tunnel curved back into darkness and wet. Water ran away from him, gurgling down and away toward something he couldn't see. He devoutly hoped that he wouldn't be wading through waist-deep water. Not again. Not in December.
He shouted up and got a muffled reply from Giles. His turn. Giles was more awkward than Xander in the tunnel, less practiced. He wasn't the one who'd spent a year at a gym trying to build back muscles to impress somebody who didn't notice. Ah well. Xander had hooked up with a couple of guys he'd met climbing, and they'd noticed. He was sure he'd hook up with them again. Just as soon as he got over this one.
The view of Giles's ass descending toward him was not exactly helping with the recovery. No matter how irritating Giles was being in the moment, overall he was something else. God, Xander had it bad, that he could watch this guy scramble awkwardly down a rock wall and think of nothing more than how much he wanted to be nailed by him. Crass, given that there was a missing person he was supposed to be worrying about instead. Leave it to Xander to lower the tone of every heroic rescue mission. At least he'd learned to keep his mouth shut a hundred percent more often than he used to.
Giles was only about ten feet up now. He froze in place on the wall suddenly and scrabbled with his feet. Xander could see the panic. He splayed himself against the rock and shouted. "Hullo up there? Please don't touch the rope."
Xander saw the rope jerk as if somebody were yanking on it. Somebody? Had to be Eccles.
"Hey! Leave the rope-- Fuck."
Xander stepped forward just enough to get his body in between Giles and the jumble of stuff where he'd land. Giles scrabbled for a hold on the wall with hands and feet, caught, lost it, then slid down the last eight feet or so, right into Xander. His knees buckled under the weight-- Giles was a tall guy-- but they both landed soft.
"Shit. You okay?"
"Yes. What the bloody hell? Did it break? Eccles! I say! Eccles!"
No reply came from above. Xander bent to retrieve the rope and ran his hands over it, searching for the end. He knew it hadn't broken. This rope didn't. He found the end and held it up to Giles: knife cut. Giles swore with deep feeling.
"I was right. That guy was evil." Though it was weird he'd waited so long to cut the rope. He could have killed Giles outright if he'd cut it earlier.
"You were right," and that was contrition in Giles's voice, not that it helped.
"So he's our number one suspect now."
"Wight story a big hoax?"
"Perhaps," Giles said, thoughtfully, but he didn't sound convinced. It would be worse for them if there were a wight, in Xander's opinion. Giles took a step away from Xander, down the tunnel, then returned. He didn't seem particularly frightened. Instead he sighed. "Can we get back out?"
Xander glared at him. "Maybe. It's going to be a bastard of a climb without any protection fixed. And with that evil jerk up there waiting for us.."
Giles shook his head. He turned away from the shaft up and peered further down into the cavern ahead. "Let's do what we came here to do before we worry about that, shall we?"
Xander shrugged. Might as well. First, though, safety. He roped himself to Giles with a good ten feet of slack. Giles had wandered off more than once. Sometimes Xander thought he should stick a bell on his harness. Hey, that was actually a good idea. Bell the ex-Watcher.
Giles stooped down and entered the tunnel. He looked huge: six foot guy in a tunnel dug by five-foot malnourished guys using deer antlers. Xander ducked down and hovered at the threshold. Once more into the breach, dear idiot demon hunter. On the creepiness scale, he rated it below the medieval catacombs. There were no statues intended to scare him into good behavior, for instance. And no deliberate traps. The people who'd made it hadn't set out to kill anybody coming along later. There was just a tunnel into the dirt lined with heavy rough stones. It would be short, because you didn't dig long complicated tunnel networks when you were digging with deer antlers. Deer antlers. That was the part that always made his eyes bug out.
A jig to the left, and it was pitch black ahead of him. The light on Giles's helmet flashed around, up along the ceiling, ahead into the tunnel. Water trickled down the rock walls of the barrow and ran in streams deeper inside, somewhere beyond the limits of his lamp. The air smelled like water and mud. There was something else there, too, decay maybe. Everything dead here was supposed to have been dead about four thousand years. Maybe an animal had fallen in.
The earth under his feet shook. Stone ground against stone. Earthquake, he thought first, then he realized it was a cave-in. Xander crouched and drew breath to swear. If he was going to die in a cave-in, he was going to do it with the word "fuck" in his mouth. Something hit him in the small of the back, viciously, and he pitched forward. His foot caught and then he was landing on top of Giles. Giles's elbow caught him in the chest and knocked the wind straight out of him.
Xander lay where he was for another few breaths. Giles. Warm. Soft. Hard. Pointy. No, that was all the hardware Xander was wearing over his body.
"No, that's not a piton in my pocket. I'm just happy to see you."
Giles smiled at him, a flash of genuine amusement, and then he was untangling his legs from Xander's. Xander let Giles help him get up, and that was when he learned he'd wrenched his ankle. He sat down again, almost gracefully, on the tail of his coat. Thank heaven for the inventor of Gore-Tex.
Light flooded the cave and Xander raised a hand to cover his eyes. Giles had switched his headlamp on high. Right. Duh. He did the same. Giles's light was pointed at the tunnel they'd come through: instead of tunnel there was a huge slab of rock. It blocked the way back completely. The Neolithic barrow-diggers had been into traps after all, and what a great way to find out about it this was.
Giles came back and hovered over Xander, who hadn't tried to stand.
"Ankle. Twisted good."
Giles knelt down in the muck before him and eased the climbing shoe off his foot. He worked Xander's ankle gently back and forth. Xander grunted.
"Just a bad strain. Nothing damaged seriously," Giles said.
Giles laced the shoe up again, tighter than it had been. Xander caught a good whiff of Giles's aftershave and had his usual reaction, completely badly timed. He closed his eyes and tried not to breathe until Giles finished with a tug at the laces.
"It'll do well enough in your boot," he said. "Won't swell until you take it off. So don't."
"Not about to."
Giles stood and gave Xander a strong hand up. The pain in his ankle was blunter now, though he couldn't put much stress on that foot. He could limp, at least.
"So what happened?"
"Exactly what happened to Dalziel, it seems. We're trapped in the barrow."
Giles snorted. "Precisely."
Giles hauled his cellphone out and started punching buttons, but judging from the expression on his face it wasn't working. No surprise. They were down fifty feet at least in an surprisingly rocky bit of a mostly-chalky county.
Xander turned his own lamp down to its lowest setting. LED lamps, long battery life, but the spare batteries were in the back of the car and not in his pocket. How much food did he have? Energy bars for a couple of days. Water would be the problem. He looked at the back of Giles's head and carefully did not say this. There'd be time for panic later. And Giles, strangely, did not seem to be panicking or even making snarky comments about doom.
So, okay. Proceed with plan A. Keep calm and carry on. Xander played his light over the slab blocking their exit.
"Something look funky to you about this, Giles?"
Giles leaned close to the slab and ran his hands over it. "It's too neat. Squared corners, flat surfaces. It's either not neolithic or-- not natural." He stood silent for a little while with his eyes closed and his hands against the stone. Xander watched cautiously, half-expecting another attack. Though what he could do about it, he didn't know. The magical stuff was Giles's area of expertise. He was clueless.
Then Xander turned and looked down the tunnel and he realized the slab wasn't the only thing funky about the situation. Where had the mud and the mulch gone? His shoes were still soaked and leaving soggy footprints, but on bare dry rock.
"Are we even in the same place? Look at the floor."
"Curiouser and curiouser," Giles said. He stood, half bent over, with a hand on the tunnel wall, peering thoughtfully into the depths ahead of them. "Odds are now firmly in favor of a wight being present. A surprisingly strong one."
"Well. Nothing for it." Giles waved his hand in the direction that counted as forward. "Tally ho."
"Shouldn't we be, I don't know, scared of whatever's that way?"
"Dalziel was alone. We are not."
"Oh. Right," Xander said, faking comprehension. "Tally-ho-ing."
The tunnel wound down from the entry shaft. It was longer than Xander would have expected. Giles wasn't stopping, and the rope connecting them meant that Xander wasn't stopping either. He got his bravery at the end of a rope, tugged along behind the ex-Watcher who never seemed scared of anything. And at whom he couldn't stay mad for more than five minutes at a time. Maybe those two things were connected. Maybe he should stay mad. Maybe after he was sure he wasn't going to die miserably he'd think about that.
Usually these places were simple: a brief tunnel with a low roof, room made of giant rocks, empty spot where bones had been piled a couple thousand years ago and where some nasty little coven was operating now. This tunnel was longer than he'd expected. And it was getting chillier as they walked.
"My feet are cold. Also wet. Did I mention cold and wet?"
"Your country sucks, Giles."
"Better this than ninety in the shade on Christmas Day."
"You haven't lived until you've seen Santa collapse from heat stroke."
"You haven't lived until you've frozen the end of your nose off singing carols in the rain. But at least we have wassail to make up for it."
"Later. Good Lord."
Giles came to a halt. Xander ranged up behind him to see what had startled him. Their breath plumed out in front of them, eerie in the light from the headlamps. And in the blue-white light from the chamber that opened in front of them, which was wrong in a million ways. The wrong color. Wrong for existing at all, this far underground. Wrong because of what it lit up.
What the light revealed to them was bones. Lots and lots of bones. From lots and lots of dead people. Skulls grinned up at him from piles of long white bones and rib cages, biting up at empty air with broken teeth.
"Curious," said Giles. He crouched down before the bone pile and leaned forward. He was careful not to touch anything, Xander noticed. First rule of archaeology, don't disturb the site until you have a bloody clue what you're doing. Or so Giles put it, and he generally didn't disturb things even when clued. They got in, broke curses, and got out once they were sure the official teams wouldn't get eaten by demons.
"So many bones. Mostly skulls and thigh bones, you'll note. The peoples of neolithic Britain seemed to like them especially. But--"
Giles broke off. He stood up abruptly and came over next to Xander. He put a hand on Xander's shoulder. Then he began waving his free hand in a repeated pattern and chanting something in a sing-song voice. Xander stayed put and kept his eyes open. Giles fell silent. His hand rested warm on Xander's shoulder as if he'd forgotten it was there. The fog swirled and withdrew, coiling itself into the corners of the chamber. As it withdrew, the bones were revealed again. Not bones. Bodies. Dead people. Dressed up, wrapped up, wearing jewelry. The worst was the guy tied up with arrows in his chest. He looked as if he'd just been shot and the expression on his face was surprise.
Xander swallowed. Freshly dead bodies were worse than four thousand year old bones. Much, much worse in the creeping him out department. Giles squeezed his shoulder and let go. Xander found himself keenly missing that hand. Giles was warm. Possibly Giles was the only warm thing in the barrow. So many dead things. Xander shivered.
Xander then realized that the bodies weren't really there. The guy with the arrows in him, he'd have been bleeding if he were truly here and freshly dead. Xander had seen the newly-dead many times before in his career as a demon hunter. Vampires weren't always neat about their kills. Blood had a smell. These things didn't smell like anything. He reached out a hand and hovered it over the nearest body: a man, a short guy, stocky, with longish gray hair, eyes closed as if he'd gone to sleep. The air shimmered blue and cold. He pulled his hand away before he could touch it. If it was touchable, which he wasn't sure of. He hoped it wasn't. There was something soul-suckingly depressing about that sad guy lying there as if he had just slumped backwards and fallen asleep. Asleep for four thousand years.
"So. What are we looking at?"
"The wight's world," Giles said.
"Jeez. Kind of amazing if you're an anthropologist. You can look at the bodies before they turned to skeletons. Revolutionize the field."
Giles shook his head. "Brief glimpses only. And only through the power of the wight."
"Speaking of which, where is it?"
Giles only grunted in response. Translated from tweed-speak, that meant Giles had no clue. Xander undid the rope connecting the two of them, and left Giles to his examination of four thousand year old corpses. He wandered a few steps away and aimed his headlamp at the dim corners of the barrow, where a wight might be lurking. Did wights lurk? Not for the first time, Xander wished he'd done his homework on the supernatural part of the case. It was all very well and good to have three different kinds of rescue descenders in his pack, but they wouldn't be much use if a wight tried to eat him. Maybe he could bludgeon it with them. Bludgeon. Good word. Xander repeated it a few times under his breath while he rotated around, lighting up as much of the chamber as he could. No wight. Just bodies, glowing bluish white.
"Hullo! What have we here?"
Xander jumped, then realized it was just Giles. Giles was standing over the body of a guy who looked completely different from the other bodies. He had on what Xander recognized as a jacket and knee-length pants. He was on his side with his arm thrown over his face, hiding his eyes. Giles shone the flashlight on the back of his head, and Xander saw the red ribbon and the little pigtail.
"That guy is not four thousand years old."
"No. Eighteenth century. Middle, I think. Not an expert."
Xander turned up his headlamp and took another look around the barrow. "Over there. That woman." She was laid out on her back, with her hands folded on her breast, more peacefully than the others. But again, her clothes were all wrong for somebody in a barrow like this, as Xander understood it.
Giles knelt down beside the woman's body. Xander stepped back to give him more light. "Victorian. Early? Servant class, perhaps, given the clothing. Doesn't appear to have been a victim of violence."
"Wow, this is creepy. They've been burying people here all along. One of those weird-ass horror movie villages. Like the Wicker Man, only they freeze you to death instead of burning you."
Giles stood and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I wonder."
He said nothing further but stepped back from the body of the Victorian servant. He raised his hands and waved them again and said something sing-songy in Latin, different from the last time. Xander's vision wavered and shifted. Bodies vanished and there was nothing but old bones left. He let out a long, long breath. Who knew it would be a relief to see a pile of skulls? Or the woman's body, at Giles's feet yet, now a pile of bones inside black rags? That at least was reality.
Reality was a major bummer. So many people here, represented by their thigh bones, dead one and all. Dead for so very long, along with everybody who knew them, everybody who spoke their language, everybody who'd had any semblance of a clue about why they'd built this place. Everything lost. So many bones, everywhere he looked in this room. He limped away from Giles, all the way to the end of the rope. Bones and more bones. And--
Against the wall was a body that wasn't a jumble of bones, a body in completely modern clothes. Xander yelped and Giles came over at a run. Giles knelt down in front of the man and felt at his neck. He stood and shook his head at Xander. They stood over him in grim silence for a moment.
"Dalziel," Giles said.
Xander had the urge to take off his helmet in respect, which he resisted. Then a more practical urge overcame him. He hunkered down and took a good look at the body, being careful not to touch it. Dalziel was slumped over now but obviously he'd just been sitting against the wall, legs stretched out before him. Less than two days down here, and it was cold but not freezing and he'd had warm stuff on. And bottled water, there by his side, next to a neatly coiled climbing rope. And he had a digging tool, one of those combo shovel-pickaxe things you found in hiking supply places. It was lying on the ground next to him, under his hand, as if he'd just set it down. He'd been swinging at something with it, though, because the end was dented. A desperate attempt to break through the slab, maybe.
"He shouldn't be dead. I don't see any blood. What killed him?"
"The wight. Drains the hope and will away first, then the life energy. As a self-defense mechanism, mostly."
"So he just sat down and died?"
"Yes. It looks like a death from exposure superficially."
It was probably a quiet way to die, not violent and bloody and painful the way Xander had seen some people go, but it still creeped the hell out of him. He broke out in goose-pimples. Christ, he was such a coward. If he weren't trapped there he'd be booking it back to the surface. He was shivering with fear now.
No, wait. That wasn't fear. That was cold. He could see his breath pluming out in front of him. The temperature was dropping fast. This far underground, that meant only one thing: something wicked this way came.
Xander turned. The wight was there.
It was a vague white cloud at first, as if Xander's exhaled breaths had coalesced. Then it began to take shape, writhing and rippling as it solidified. Human-like, in some ways, but the limbs were impossibly long. Its feet were not quite touching the ground. As it drifted closer, slowly, as if blown by a breeze Xander couldn't feel, more details came clear. The fingernails that were like claws, for instance. And the shimmering rags wrapped all around it. And its left arm, which didn't match the right.
Its left arm was oozing ichor. Xander could see it fall to the rock floor, silvery shimmering droplets. The wight held it at an odd angle across its body. Xander had seen somebody holding his arm just like that. Eccles, on the ground over the barrow, saying he'd fallen from a horse.
Xander grabbed Giles's sleeve and pointed. "Arm."
"Arm? Oh dear. Yes, that explains it."
Giles still sounded impossibly calm. Xander tried to imitate him. Not very well, as usual, but he was trying. "Not sure I get it," he said.
"Eccles has linked himself to the wight somehow. He's using it. Drawing power from it. Life essence."
"Life? Is he undead?"
"No, perfectly human, if you think necromancers are human. He's the one who murdered those people. Yes, even the ones from hundreds of years ago."
"So he's older than the guy with the pigtail."
"At least. It does explain how he knew my grandmother. But it poses a bit of a problem for us." Giles's voice was dry, and he still sounded impossibly calm.
"My confusion is epic. But don't bother explaining it."
"I imagine Eccles has been luring people down here as victims. And we're next."
"I said don't bother."
Xander thumped down onto the rocky floor. Something went crunch underneath him but he ignored it. His ankle hurt and he was cold. What was the point of explanations? They were trapped. The wight had them. They might as well give up and go quietly.
Giles loomed over him. His face was blue in the wight-glow. Or from cold. Xander shivered. Giles said, "Xander. Touch me. Hold my hand."
Xander shrank away and folded his arms. "Huh?"
Giles tugged Xander's hand out from where it was tucked against his side and grasped it. His fingers were hot against Xander's. "The wight. Fight it. Think good thoughts. Positive thoughts. About something you love."
Xander stared at his hand in Giles's. Giles's hand was warmer than his but it was useless. Giles would never be interested in him. Never think of him as anything more than the guy who lifted the heavy objects and sharpened the stakes. He wasn't doing anything good with his life. Why not give it up for a better place?
His hand slipped from Giles's and he slumped over onto his side. He could lie right here.
"Don't give up," Giles said. His breath was right in Xander's face and his hands were dug into Xander's jacket. Xander stared at them in puzzlement.
"Why not? What's the point?"
Xander lay down again, and this time Giles slumped with him. There was a strange white cloud hovering over the two of them that was supposed to mean something, but Xander had forgotten why.
"Can't give up." But Giles didn't sound like he meant it.
"We all die alone," Xander said, and he closed his eyes.
"Like hell we will."
Giles gripped him by the shirt and hauled him to his knees. Xander resented that. He wanted to sleep. He opened his mouth to protest. And then Giles kissed him. Xander was too shocked to do anything other than let it happen. And then Giles kissed him again.
It wasn't the world's most amazing knock-out kiss ever, at least not at first. Giles's teeth banged into his and his hands were digging into Xander's shirt so hard they hurt. All that gear hung on Xander's bandoliers was wedged between them painfully. It didn't matter. Xander reached up and got his numb fingers into Giles's hair. Giles made a noise that sounded like a whimper, except it couldn't possibly be one. And then his body was over Xander's and his tongue was in Xander's mouth.
He wasn't cold any more. Every place he touched Giles was almost on fire. Hands, lips, hips. The white cloud thing was gone. Giles had wedged his knee between Xander's thighs, right up where it was easy to grind against. Giles broke free first. He took that amazingly-placed knee away and rolled off Xander onto the ground. Good thing too, because otherwise Xander would have spontaneously combusted.
He lay there on the ground and just breathed.
Giles touched a hand to his arm. "Xander? Do you need any more?"
"No! Hell, no," Xander said. Any more of that would have him doing embarrassing things in his pants.
Giles stood up and extended a strong hand down to help Xander up. Xander let go immediately, because Giles was still hot to the touch. Then he wiped his mouth, which was not something he started out intending to do. He'd intended to touch his bitten lips and then beg Giles to resume. Then he remembered where they were and what was going on. And then he saw the expression on Giles's face, which wasn't so great. Giles turned away and made a big fuss out of straightening out his clothes. Yeah, he'd just had to kiss Xander Harris to free him from a wight, and he wasn't stoked about it.
Xander's heart was broken now, but he didn't have time for it. The wight had been driven off into the corner by whatever the hell crazy magic Giles had just worked, but it was coming back now.
Xander pointed and Giles sighed.
"Wight. Kill it."
"Can't. But I can cut its connection to Eccles."
"Whatever it is you're going to do, do it fast. Don't wanna go through that again."
The wight was drifting closer to them again, one hand raised. Giles turned and swore under his breath. He cupped his own hands in the air before him and began chanting something. Energy gathered around him and pooled in his cupped hands.
He threw the ball of energy at the wight. It hit the thing in the chest and exploded soundlessly. Even Xander, magic-naive as he was, felt that wave of energy. The wight wavered, staggered, and went motionless.
Giles braced his hands on his knees and breathed hard. Blood was dripping from his nose. He rubbed at his nose, then looked at his hand and seemed surprised. Out came the handkerchief.
"Well," he said. "That's done, then." He didn't sound entirely certain.
The wight also seemed nonplussed. It hovered where it was, midway between the two men. Then it drifted slowly over toward Xander.
"Hey!" Xander said. He raised his hands to block the thing from getting at his face, but it was his left arm it was after. It pinned him against the wall and wrapped its impossibly long fingers around his arm. Xander saw the nails at the end press deep into his jacket. It felt as if they were nails driven into his arm. He tried to yank himself away but he could not move. The wight smelled weird. He couldn't think like what.
Then Giles was there, getting right up into the wight's face. He put his hand over the wight's and winced. His nose was still bleeding slowly. There was sweat on his face despite the chill in the air.
"You may not take from the living," Giles said. "It's not what you are meant for."
Then Giles said something in Latin, still obviously speaking to the wight as if it understood him, which for all Xander knew it did. The two of them were staring each other in the face. The wight let go of Xander's arm. He backed away, stumbled, and fell onto his ass. He rubbed at the place where the nails had dug into him. They hadn't punctured the jacket but his arm felt as if they had.
The wight spoke. Not in any language Xander spoke and not with anything he could describe as a voice. Wind sighed in the chamber and there were words in the wind somehow.
Giles said, "This place will no longer have anything for you. Life will come and take away your bones. Go now. Leave these spirits to their long rest."
The chamber went dark. Xander fumbled with his helmet and got the light turned on again. Bones, bones everywhere, yes, but not nearly as many as it had seemed mere moments ago. It smelled musty, damp, muddy, like years of decay, but it was no longer creeping him out. Warmth was seeping back into him. Also water, from the damp floor under his knees. Xander stood up and winced. His ankle was still screwy and now his arm felt strange.
"It's gone," he said.
Giles wiped sweat from his forehead. "I persuaded it."
"I'd have gone for killing it."
"It's not evil, Xander. More a force of, of unnature."
"How about killing Eccles? Did we manage that?"
"Unfortunately no. He leached away another twenty or thirty years of life from Dalziel. He'll coast on that for a while, then he'll be on the lookout for another source."
"So next we stop him."
"Yes. He's likely waiting for us above."
Concluded in part 2.