Title: The Singing Stones
Characters: Giles and his new pushy friend from the Bodleian.
Trigger warning: Mental Health issues (I probably should have warned for Giles’ PTSD long before this).Series: Bookends. All the Companion pieces in the series are listed here... It might not make much sense on its own
It took some time to climb the heath and they did so in silence. The night air was mild for the time of year and Giles was grateful for the full moon and the light it afforded, but even so, their progress was checked by loose footings and the occasional stumble. It wasn't a particularly exerting climb, but Giles was certainly sweating freely by the time they reached the perimeter of the stone circle and he stopped outside and took a moment to calm his shaking hands by drinking from the bottle of Evian mineral water he'd carried up in his jacket pocket. The shaking wasn't entirely due to the exertion, he was, after all, about to dabble with incredibly ancient magicks; magicks that predated the Council's archives, the written word, and probably even a vocal language that anyone in thousands of years had uttered. And yet somehow, here he was, about to interact with a breath-taking power, the depths of which went far beyond his comprehension. It was incredibly humbling and yet, he conceded in a dark smile, it also gave him the familiar, arrogant little rush he'd loved since his days as Ripper.
The seven stones in front of him had been weathered and gnarled down to between two and five feet in height and looked ominously hunched in expectation at his approach. There was a silence in the night air which seemed profound and yet almost profane, and Giles swallowed more water nervously, spinning out the seconds before he had to enter the circle and commit to the course of action. His companion from the Bodleian, the instigator of this whole expedition, showed no such hesitation and, declining the offer of water, took Giles by the sleeve and strode the both of them confidently into the centre of the circle. Once inside, the atmosphere changed sharply as the clear sky gave way to a perfect canopy of grey cloud and the temperature fell ten degrees, but most noticeable was the noise as each stone seemed to be emitting a different pitched hum, creating an eerie tonal drone that eddied and darted around them. To Giles it felt like a sound that could pick his pockets and read his soul.
"They know we're here," he said quietly.
"Yes." The girl looked around in a measured awe. "They've been waiting for us." She switched her gaze shrewdly to his trembling hands. "How are you feeling?"
"I'd feel a lot better if I knew the full extent of this spell," he admitted. The earlier confidence of the library research deserted him as he mused he'd only really gotten scraps of information of the full outcome of the spell. For all he knew he was about to get the both of them killed. "You might be safer waiting outside the circle while I do this," he suggested. "Once I start , we have to see it through to the end."
"I'm happy to watch the Watcher do his stuff." She sat contently on the ground, palms back, legs straight with feet crossed, as if they were about to open a summer's picnic hamper rather than tackle dark primeval forces. "I have every confidence in you."
Giles grunted and approached the smallest of the seven stone. Positioning himself as a direct radius to the centre, he poured some of the water on his left hand to cleanse it.
"Er, I thought you needed holy water?" the girl called out.
"This is holy water," Giles explained over his shoulder, shaking off some of the drops. "I get the chaplain in college to bless it for me as a six-pack."
She laughed and said, "Does he think you're nuts?"
"Possibly, but Priests know better than to ask."
Giles reached his hand out to the first stone. The blessing of water to help drive out demons pre-dated Christianity and what little he'd learnt implied the stones sang because they were dry and in need of nourishment. A sharp, almost magnetic, tug pulled his hand the last few inches and he gasped as he felt the warmth of the rock as it seemed to act like a sponge and absorb his fingers. As he let go, the stone's discordant high pitch squeal meekly subsided and Giles permitted himself a smile at his apparent success.
"Now the rest," the girl commanded, and Giles moved almost dreamily to the next stone and took up position. The reaction of the second stone was a little stronger. Giles felt more of a jolt on first contact and it required more effort to pull away but its resonance and singing stopped just as completely as the first.
He continued around the circle, and the unearthly choir dropped in tone as the smaller stones and higher pitches were cleansed. The results were satisfying but Giles began to find the pull of each stone harder to resist and his teeth seemed to be permanently gritted as he battled the sensations that tugged at his mind and body. Finally, only the largest stone remained; a huge brooding baritone of around five foot high and three wide that seemed to be contemplating Giles as much as he contemplated it.
"It's as if they are alive," he observed.
"You have to finish the ritual," the girl called, somewhat unsympathetically. "You said so yourself."
"Yes." Giles braced his footing, poured the last of the water on his hand and reached out. He was nervous for the familiar jolt but it never came. Instead, the stone made no resistance to his contact but the low bass noise it had hummed still stopped abruptly in compliance to his touch. Everywhere was a beautiful silence.
Giles allowed himself another small smile and muttered, "Well, that was easy."
Seven years on a Hellmouth really should have taught him something. Because barely had the complacency left his mouth when all of the stones appeared to rise up out of the ground and unleash an ear-splitting cacophony of protest that physically spilled Giles, via a backwards roll, towards the middle of the circle. Briefly disorientated and flat on his back, he pushed his hands into spongy earth and felt the top soil seemingly strip away, sinking him lower. Blinking his eyes open in panic, he saw viciously dark storm clouds overhead, swooping together at improbable speed, but as he tried to scrabble himself up and look for his companion, the stones screamed again, with a sound that seemed to wrap itself around his nervous system and jolt him effortlessly back to the sinking earth again.
"We have to get out of here. Right now," he spluttered, rolling, crawling and dragging himself to at least all fours.
"No." Her voice seemed oddly calm. "Like you said, you need to stay and see the ritual to the very end."
"What 'very end'? There's no ritual left. That's all I had." He was angry she didn't seem to understand the danger they were both in, and angry with himself for putting them in this situation, but when he twisted to see her face, he was at first relieved to find she was kneeling in the comparative calm of the very centre of the circle, but then horrified to see she was holding the business end of a sharp hunting knife.
"What?" she chided. "You didn't imagine sprinkling a little holy water was all that was needed, did you?"
"I rather fucking did, yes!" he spat in exasperation. His father had taught him never to swear in front of ladies but Giles felt the circumstances warranted a bloody great exception to that arcane rule. "What the hell is going on?"
"Don't worry; we are going to sustain the protection spell, you and I. We are going to protect the town and the students." As she spoke the loose top soil began to ricochet around Giles' head, forcing him to duck his eyes. "It's just going to take a little more commitment on your part than you had realised."
Bugger that for a game of soldiers, he thought, and lumbered up determinedly, stumbling as the earth filled the air around him unnaturally, he blundered towards a gap in the stones. But he got no more than two feet away when the stones shrieked their disapproval and huge blue arcs of electricity surged between the uprights and blocked his exit. Giles covered his eyes as best he could and turned back to the girl.
"What is this, what's happening?" he shouted, as the wind continued to whip around and small stones battered against him.
"I'd heard about Watchers of course, but I was impressed in the library. You covered in a matter of hours, the research I took months to complete, but maybe it was a little churlish of me to keep one or two items I'd read, away from you."
"Now would be a good time to share."
She smiled at either his sarcasm or his futile efforts to brace himself against the whirling elements, and he found he didn't care which. At the centre of the circle, where she stood, Giles could see there was a relative calm and he risked a tentative couple steps nearer to minimise his exposure to the maelstrom that was whipping round the excited stones. They were shrieking in turns and in pairs and he was having a hard time concentrating and formulating any sort of plan. That he'd been incredibly stupid was obvious, but he really balked at the suggestion that this was to be the end of his life, and he wanted to avoid that outcome very badly indeed.
"Each of these stones has a human soul," she began.
"They are alive?" Giles was appalled but she pondered the question academically.
"Philosophically, that's probably debatable, but no, I don't mean it in that way. They each contain a human soul which they are slowly consuming, it is what sustains them in their task of maintaining the protection wards on the town down there. When a soul becomes too weak, they need another to be provided and they sing for a new voice to join them. Is it not a worthwhile price to pay for all those people down there?"
"One of us has to give up our soul?" Despite the onslaught of grit in his eyes, Giles gave her a significant glare. "Because if push comes to shove, I'm narrowing it down a lot further than that."
"You wouldn't and besides it has to be a Watcher. I'm sorry."
"I confess I kept from you the material that covers the 'Sacrifice of the Watchers'. I mentioned my great-great-uncle was a Watcher, didn't I? He's here, you see, in one of the stones. I really am sorry in a way, but not any soul will do. They only respect the lines of continuity. It needs to be a Watcher to replace what's left of my uncle's soul."
"This magick is older than the concept of Watchers. I can't see how they can make a distinction. Not to mention," he added, with courage born of a great deal of indignation, "I've bloody well retired from being a Watcher!"
"Great magicks always require commiserate sacrifice. You know this of old. What was that boy's name? Randall? The one you and your friend killed for your perverse pleasures? He'd have been what, in his fifties now? Looking forward to grand-children? Maybe ones that would apply to the college down there? You yourself said we had to safeguard the town, whatever the cost."
He rose above the cheap taunt. "You want to preserve a protection spell by murdering me? What sort of twisted ethics is that?"
"No-one is murdering anyone." She laid down the knife with the handle facing him and stood serenely. "It's not that kind of sacrifice."
He approached carefully, wary of her retrieving the knife, but she remained still and allowed him to gain a measure of respite from the whirlwind, but the stones continued to call for him.
"I did my research on you," she said softly. "I know all about your expedition to flatten the already flat county of Norfolk and die a hero's death. Is this not an equally noble cause to die for?"
It probably was, but he wasn't in the mood to try it. The real dilemma he found himself considering was much harsher: was he prepared to kill for the town? Was he prepared to take a life to spare his own? What if there was no other way? She was human, no question, so there would be consequences to taking a human life especially in circumstances he couldn't explain to a judge and jury. And would it even do any good? Would it stop the stones calling for him? There had to be another solution. He opted to stall.
"I'd have preferred to have the element of choice about this," he suggested. "If you'd simply told me what was needed, I'd have listened."
"And meekly agreed to give your own life?" It was her turn to look incredulous. "You haven't made a single good decision about your life for the past thirty years so I couldn't risk it to chance."
"That's not true!"
The seven stones began to arc and wail in an intensity to match his anger.
"You are nothing that others haven't made of you," she continued. "I'm sorry, but you've been led by the nose through life since the day you were born. You've never amounted to anything on your own. Even your current house and job were arranged for you."
"That's not true." He felt his voice rising to block out the increasing singing from the circle. They seemed to be getting incredibly agitated.
"The Slayer arranged all that for you. You weren't experienced enough for that lecturing position! The Master of the college and his wife took you on as a favour to the Slayer, out of pity for what happened."
"That's not true," he repeated furiously. "I make my own decisions, and I'm not dying just because you want me to." He felt as if the stones were behind him now, crushing him forward.
"I don't know how you can live with yourself when there have been so many deaths laid at your feet." There was genuine pity in her voice and Giles hated it. "What's it like when every sorry decision you've ever made has cost the lives of others? Letting the vampire into the house, letting him kill your family. Did he make you watch?" She gestured to the knife on the ground. Do this thing and you can make a difference! Let this one decision be the one to make amends. Safeguard that town. Be at peace with yourself. It will be the most worthwhile thing you've ever done."
Giles felt the weight of a stone smash into his back, and he toppled forward and made for the knife. He felt heat and flame and a barbaric shrieking that wrapped around his skull and squeezed his brains. He heard a girl's laughter as he clutched his head in agony, then he felt, or possibly dreamt, an explosion bark from under him that seemed to rip the ground from under his feet. As the familiar old friend of unconsciousness took him, his last thoughts were of flying.