Charlotte rose slowly to her feet, Carnagan's voice still rolling from her lips, rich with its usual arrogant confidence. The red lightning crackled about her again, but it was different from before.
Previously, it had ripped through her body with the force of a hurricane, tearing and scorching. Now, its movements were slower, more languorous, almost playful as it coiled about her body.
"Uh, Doyle," Faith said hesitantly. "Is it just me, or is she not exactly... standing normally?"
I licked dry lips. "It's not you." Charlotte's feet were an inch off the ground.
"Any suggestions, boss?"
Of course. When everything was going her way, she was pissed off with me and wouldn't listen to a word I said. Now, suddenly I was in charge?
I took a cautious step towards Charlotte, feeling the hair on my arms rising. "Hey. How ya doin'?"
The lightning twisted and writhed about Charlotte's face, throwing her features into sharp relief. Carnagan's voice rose in intensity and pitch, still in eerie timing with the motions of her lips.
Faith cleared her throat. "You want anything? Blanket, nice cup of tea... battery?"
Charlotte rose another inch or two off the ground, still chanting. The lightning about her flared, and Faith grabbed my shoulder and yanked me back. "Whatta we do, Doyle? Hell, what's she doing?"
I glanced at her panicked expression and back at the hovering woma - spirit. "Uh..."
I blinked. It was hard to really make Charlotte out in the bright light from her private thunderstorm, but were my eyes going or was she getting paler... less substantial? A moment later, I was sure. I knew what she was doing.
"Leaving? Where's she gonna go?" Faith asked, her hand tightening on my shoulder. "The only door out is past us..." Her voice trailed off as she realised what she'd said.
"Don't worry," I said, worrying furiously. "I don't think she's plannin' to use the door."
It was clear now - even Faith saw it. Charlotte was fading away before our very eyes, growing less real as the lightning about her grew brighter and brighter.
"We gotta stop her," I said, refusing to think about the practicality of what I was suggesting. "We gotta stop her gettin' out of here."
Faith laughed hysterically. "How? You hiding a lightning conductor under that shirt?"
Charlotte was nearly gone, a bare shadow inside a nexus of electrical energy.
Aw, hell. It's not like I ever come up with smart plans anyway. Might as well stay true to form.
I was everywhere, and I was nowhere. I was in a thousand, thousand pieces, falling over the city streets. I was a flash of energy from sky to ground, I was a swirling potent presence filling the sky.
I was everything, and I was nothing.
There was pain, but it was a pain so distant, and yet so encompassing, that I was aware of it only on a purely analytical level. Faith was with me, part of me, and somewhere deep inside I could feel whatever was left of Charlotte's being as well, lost in a deep endless storm of elemental energy.
Lost as I was lost.
I couldn't feel the confines of my own body, just an endless spreading out, a dissipating, across the entire globe, linking every cloud, every rumble of ominous thunder...
There was a tearing, ripping sensation, and my mind went completely blank.
...and I was facedown in filthy water, twitching and shuddering, lightning jolting and burning me, and the pain was inside me like a living thing...
I was vaguely aware of Faith flailing and jerking next to me, flopping in the thin film of dirty water like a landed fish. My muscles refused to obey me, contracting and releasing on someone else's orders... definitely not mine, since all I wanted to do was curl into a ball and scream.
With a titanic effort, I managed to lift my chin from the water, enough to see... a polished shoe.
A shoe which led to the smooth grey cloth expanse of a raincoat, which flowed upwards to form a face...
"Ah. Mr Doyle." Carnagan sounded as calm as a man making polite conversation at a tea party. "This is unexpected." The expensive shoe dug into my ribs and heaved me onto my back, affording me a better view of my surroundings.
I didn't recognise the sewer junction specifically, but I'd probably passed it once or twice, more than likely on the trail of some demon or generically evil beastie.
But even if I had passed it, it definitely wouldn't have looked like it did at that moment.
Wesley lay on his back, his glasses skewed and eyes closed, a couple of meters away. Something was holding him off the sewer floor, something he was tied to with a length of black cord.
I was expecting an altar of some kind. I certainly wasn't expecting a pink-and-white folding plastic picnic table. Carnagan noticed my gaze and shrugged almost apologetically. "They were all out of bloodstained altars at the shops."
Great. Budget Human Sacrifice.
"One has to make do with what's available," Carnagan observed. "And often one is rewarded with bonuses beyond what was allowed for...like you and the Slayer, for example. I'm fairly certain I corrected my mistranslation, but it helps to know I have a few bodies in reserve."
I tried to force my trembling lips to shape a suitably obscene response, but to no avail.
Carnagan smiled slightly. "Well, I'd love to sit around and chat, but tempus fugit, Mr Doyle." His gaze shifted past me. "Tempus fugit, indeed. You." He said curtly. "Over there, near the receptacle. We'll do this right, this time, won't we?"
Charlotte was barely even recognisable as human anymore, just a pale, fleshy presence within a crimson inferno as she drifted over to stand near Wesley. "Oh, enough with the drama," Carnagan rebuked. "The glare is hurting my eyes."
The spirit didn't respond, but the lightning thinned away to a red halo about her, Charlotte's body seeming to coalesce out of the light.
Carnagan stepped over to the table, and bent over Wesley. The limp Watcher was nearly as pale as Charlotte, but I could still hear a heartbeat, though it was fairly weak and fluttery.
Hell, my heartbeat wasn't exactly regular.
"Pryce," Carnagan said sharply. "Pryce, wake up." He slapped Wesley twice, the blows quick and impersonal. "Wake up, man. Pryce, I order you to regain consciousness."
"Wyndh'm-Pr'ce," Wesley muttered, his eyelids stirring and fluttering open. I watched in pitying sympathy as he realised his position.
"Awake now?" Carnagan said briskly, like a doctor with a patient. "Good." He pulled a wicked-looking knife from beneath his coat and checked the edge with his thumb. I swallowed, with difficulty. It was a very big knife.
For Wesley's part he seemed not even to notice the huge blade, his attention instead fixed on the man wielding it. "You. You're the traitor... not Ch-" Then he noticed the other figure standing by him, and for an unbearable second, his face brightened with hope. "Charlotte! Help me! Char-"
The crackle of lightning about her hair cut him off. I watched his face settle into the stoic Watcher's mask, analysing and calculating. "So. That's the way it is." The mask trembled slightly, but held.
Carnagan, who had watched this exchange without expression, nodded. "Well done, Pryce. Glad to see the Council hasn't completely wasted its time on you."
The way Wesley looked at him chilled my blood. I think even Carnagan was taken back by the undiluted hatred in those normally weak and hesitant eyes. He dropped his gaze to the knife, and checked its sharpness a second, unnecessary, time.
I managed to roll myself onto my chest again, and made a futile attempt to lift myself off the ground. The thud as I slumped back attracted the attention of both Watchers, somewhat to Carnagan's relief judging from his expression. "Yes, Mr Doyle? Is something the matter?"
Again my lips failed me. "W - w - w..."
But either Watchers were trained to read lips, or else Carnagan read my mind instead. "Why?"
"Yes, why?" Wesley bit out. "Why turn traitor, why betray the Council and everything you believe in, why throw it all away for your own petty gain?"
Carnagan's expression was dark as he looked down at the younger man. "I threw it all away? They threw it away! They threw away the world we had, the advantage we had won against the darkness, because of their own arrogance and pettiness! I am no traitor, Pryce, no more than those fools in England, with their protocols and their policies!"
He snorted in disgust at Wesley's confusion. "Oh, come on, man! Surely you and yours, who are fighting on the front lines, can understand! The endless political manoeuvrings, the pointless academic back-biting and smug moral superiority while the very world crumbles about us? What use is that? The Council has lost its way, lost whatever drive it had to stand against evil. We're anachronisms, Pryce, useless Englishmen with piles of dusty books and encyclopaedic vocabularies."
He glanced at Faith and sneered. "And our vaunted secret weapon? A girl. One silly girl, fickle, adolescent, undisciplined. Weak enough to be killed by a single vampire, all but useless against the greater threats."
"S-screw you, too," I heard weakly from beside me. A warm, if trembling, hand closed in weak grasp over my own.
"So this is your solution?" Wesley retorted. "Dark magic, perversion of the natural order? We'd be no better than the enemy we fight!"
I expected Carnagan to lose it at that, to raise that huge knife and slice Wes apart, ritual or no ritual. But in contrast the fury in his face seemed to melt away, replaced by pleading. "Necessary perversion, Pryce. Necessary magic. I told the Council, you know, back when Sunnydale fell to the Master. I brought the evidence of my studies to them and urged them to take action."
"Necessary action," Wesley said flatly. "Am I right?"
"It was necessary!" Carnagan snarled. "Look at what they did instead! They sent in their weak, ill-prepared Slayer and the vampires killed her! Killed her and continued to kill, hundreds of deaths that could have been avoided if only the Council had accepted my proposal, had provided me with a subject for the spell as I asked!"
"A subject," Wes echoed. "You mean a sacrifice."
Carnagan shook with the force of his passion. "We are at war, Pryce! There are always sacrifices in war!"
The high colour drained from Carnagan's face. "What?"
"Yes," Wesley repeated. "We're at war. I'm a soldier in that war, so are Doyle and Faith, so was..." his voice shook slightly, "was Charlotte."
Carnagan smiled in approval, as if Wesley was a particularly slow student who had finally understood a difficult equation. "Yes. That's right. Her sacrifice was necessary, as yours is."
"But you're not a soldier," Wesley cut him off. "You crossed that line when you took Charlotte's life and gave her body to that thing. You're a murderer, and nothing good can come of alliance with murderers."
I watched Carnagan's face with fascination. It just froze up, piece by piece. His smile locked, then the rest of his features. His eyes were the last to go, the heat of his passion buried beneath icy resolution.
Wesley gazed calmly up at the other man, but he blanched at Carnagan's next words.
Because they were in Latin.
My arms lay uselessly by my side as Carnagan's voice rose with power and authority, invoking and binding mystical energy. Charlotte's halo brightened until it was blinding, a searing outline about the dark shadow of her human host.
Desperately, sweat beading on my brow, I tried to force my uncooperative body to move, a familiar sense of helplessness falling over me.
I had been here before. Paralysed by Wesley's poison dart, trapped with the crippled Watcher by a clan of demons. But then Faith had arrived to save us.
Now she lay by my side, as helpless as I was. As we all were.
Carnagan's chant peaked, and he brought the sacrificial knife down. There was a crack like thunder.
Instinctively, my eyes shifted to Charlotte, but she was still.
Carnagan swore, kicking at something by his feet. It took me a moment to process what had happened. The plastic table beneath Wesley had buckled under his weight, dropping him to the sewer floor.
"Shoddy American workmanship," Carnagan cursed, planting a brutal kick between Wesley's ribs. The younger man rolled away as the older shifted his grip on the knife and came after him.
Wes staggered to his feet, the rope about his arms still tying him to the split table. His arms bunched, straining against the rope, but the dark cord held. Obviously Carnagan had got that from a shop with better quality control.
Wes lurched back a step, ducking a knife slash, the dismembered table wobbling wildly on his back. My breath caught in my throat as Carnagan whipped the weapon up towards his face.
There was a crunch, and Wesley stumbled back, blood dribbling from his mouth. Carnagan wiped the blood from his knife's bronze hilt with a white cloth, as fastidiously as Wes might clean his spectacles. "Really, Pryce. This is all most unnecessary and hardly seemly-" Still talking, he thrust the blade out. Wes dodged, and clumsily swiped at Carnagan with a protruding table leg.
The standoff seemed to last for hours, Wesley dodging and retreating, Carnagan advancing with broad, confident sweeps of his knife leading the way. Carnagan's first few swipes were lazy, over-confident, but when they didn't immediately fell his enemy, his eyes narrowed in grudging respect and his attacks became more measured. All the while, I strained useless muscles, trying to come to his aid.
Abruptly, a gentle push rolled me to one side. Faith rose on trembling legs, her face gritted in concentration, and moved haltingly towards Carnagan, stalking him. The rogue Watcher's back was to her, his attention focused on Wesley.
Faith was within a metre of Carnagan now, Wesley a metre away on the other side, trying desperately not to betray her as he dodged Carnagan's increasingly-angry blows. Wesley slipped in the grime, and a cut laid his cheek open. Faith gasped involuntarily at the sight of his blood.
That was all the warning Carnagan needed. He wheeled about and smashed the hilt of his weapon down on Faith's head. She dropped without a sound.
Carnagan looked down contemptuously at the fallen girl. "Some weapon. You see, Pryce, there's really no reason to struggle. It's all for the best." He turned back to his target. "Now would you just-"
Wesley rose off the floor almost vertically, slamming his bloody face into Carnagan's. The older man staggered back, and Wesley kicked him hard, hooking his leg behind Carnagan's. Both men struggled to maintain their balance.
Carnagan went down hard, but Wes somehow managed to keep his other foot on the ground, hopping until he could get both feet planted again.
Guess his time on crutches had really paid off.
Carnagan scrambled for the knife, but Wesley stomped down hard. Carnagan screamed as bones crunched in his wrist. "Don't... insult my... Slayer," Wesley ground out, slamming a savage kick into the other man's ribs.
"Damn you... Pryce..." Carnagan gasped, staggering to his feet. "This is... necessary... we're... at... war."
"I'll show you war," Wesley snarled. The larger man charged him, trying to take Wes's legs out from under him, removing his only method of attack, but Wes counter-attacked with low strikes of his feet, aimed at joints and shins. Fighting dirty.
I felt a stirring of pride, deep within. Some of those moves were mine.
A brutal footsweep (which I recognised as one Faith had used on me once or twice, often for less... conventional reasons) put Carnagan on the ground, Wesley on top of him. Wesley slammed his head down twice, and it was all over. Carnagan lolled back against the floor.
Wesley stood, slowly and awkwardly, and limped across to me. "Terribly... sorry to prevail on you in your current... circumstance, but do you think you could lend me a hand with these... knots?"
I stared up at his bloody, bruised face, and tried very hard not to laugh.
The English. They're really something else.
Wesley's lips started to twitch as well, and we both broke into the laboured laughter of hysteria.
A burst of coughing choked the laughter in my throat, as I tried, again, to stand up. And I saw him.
Saw Carnagan, not unconscious as he'd feigned to be, but instead advancing on Wesley with a knife in hand. His eyes met mine.
"W-W-Wes," I tried to get out, my throat constricting as my mouth struggled to form words.
Still chuckling, Wesley met my gaze. "What?" Carnagan flipped the knife and threw. Wesley's eyes widened in doomed understanding as the knife struck home with a thud.
"No..." I moaned as he stood stock-still over me, with a peculiarly confused expression on his face. He half-turned towards his killer, and I saw the hilt of the knife protruding from his back, blood running down the hilt... No. No blood. I blinked, certain my exhausted brain had short-circuited. The knife was buried in the small of his back, but he wasn't bleeding. It had struck right in the centre, but there was no blood...
I understood. Wesley turned completely to face Carnagan, the knife embedded uselessly in the remnants of the table tied to his back.
Carnagan's jaw twitched in helpless frustration. "Damn you, Pryce..." The larger man charged, barrelling towards him.
Wes met the charge fast and low, planting his shoulder into Carnagan's chest and heaving him backwards. The rogue Watcher staggered, and collided with Charlotte.
For a long moment Jacob Carnagan stood absolutely still, apart from a slight trembling as crimson lightning swept over his body. Wesley was blocking most of my view, but I could still see Carnagan's face, his mouth opening and closing in silent agony, his screams drowned out by the crackle of the lightning. Then there was an explosive boom of thunder, and Carnagan's face disappeared from my view as he fell to the ground. I couldn't see his scorched body from where I lay, but judging from the stink of ozone and burnt flesh, I really didn't want to. So instead I watched Wesley's face, his mouth drawn in a hard line as he looked down at the corpse.
His lips moved. I couldn't really hear the words with my thunder-deafened ears, but I could see the letters his mouth formed. Maybe, like Carnagan had with me, I just knew the thought behind the words.
"It's Wyndham-Pryce. Sir."