"Where is he?" Hobbs asked, impatiently checking his pocket watch for the fifteenth time.
"He'll be here, don't worry. You know he's one of our best. Three of the blighters would hardly give him too much trouble," Gray answered from his position slouched in a chair reading his paper, his feet resting atop a grimy crate upon which sat a bottle and an empty glass.
"So why is it taking so damned long? He's reckless, that's what he is. I wouldn't be surprised if he's managed to get the poor boy killed tonight." Hobbs began pacing back and forth in front of the crate, occasionally glancing at the solid wood doors of the stable.
Gray looked up at the rafters, amused and frustrated by his colleague's behavior. It was bad enough that they were hiding out in a run-down stable overpowered by the smell of horses, more specifically horse-dung, without him bringing up the jittery young lad they'd been told to train in the field. Tonight was the boy's first taste of the hunt. Gray highly doubted he'd see his second, although for less pessimistic reasons than Hobbs. If you asked him, the lad wasn't cut from hunter cloth. He should stay cooped up indoors with the books, like the good little Watcher he should be.
"The boy will be fine. He'll be quaking in his well-turned boots no doubt, but fine. Will won't see him harmed. The whelp will be running off to file a report, and we'll have seen the back of him at last."
Hobbs ceased his pacing long enough to refill the glass with what little was left in the bottle of Scotch that Gray had brought along and took a large gulp of the amber liquid. Gray watched him, amused, then went back to reading his paper.
"Blast that infernal Council. Why is it that we remain in their employ? Ah, yes, the funding. I'd forgotten. I don't see why we have to raise these useless young bucks for them though. We're supposed to be hunting monsters, not training newborns. The majority of the lads don't make it past their first outing in the field before they're running back to the safety of a desk. That's if they haven't been killed."
Gray didn't bother responding. He was more than used to hearing his partner rant about their employers. Still, if it weren't for the Council, they'd be finding their next meal a lot harder to come by. Hunters didn't enjoy the luxury of a fat coin purse. Well, most of them anyway.
"You never know. There is the rare occasion that the Council might send us someone useful— a lump of coal amongst the flash diamonds the Council spews out," he said at last, dragging Hobbs' attention away from the door and his pacing again.
"An extremely rare occurrence. And our piece of coal is not exactly reliable though, is he? Case in point," Hobbs said, gesturing at the doors, which just at that moment swung open.
Both men looked up, Gray planting his feet on the floor and leaning forward to inspect the two men who entered. Well, one man who had practically fallen through the door and tripped over his own feet in his haste to make it as far inside the shelter as he could and one man who strode in purposefully and slammed the doors closed behind him.
"So how did it go?" Gray asked, taking in their torn and dirt-stained clothes.
The young Council lad had suffered a scratch on his arm, which he was moaning about as though near death. The calmer of the two had a deep gash on his chest and his leg appeared to be burned slightly, the clothing around the wound scorched and sticking to his skin. He walked steadily and took a seat on a stool near the crate, opening Hobbs' satchel.
"We have a problem," the man replied, as he rooted around inside the satchel for bandages.
"A problem!" the frightened boy exclaimed, before releasing a hysterical chuckle. "I'll say we have a bloody problem! Three fledglings, that's what we were supposed to be after. Those were not fledglings, and there were most definitely not three of them!"
"Trouble, Will?" Gray asked his injured friend sitting opposite him.
Will removed his jacket and shirt while Hobbs took his satchel back and found what he needed instantly. Hobbs set about patching up the wounded Will who sighed wearily, running a hand through his sandy brown curls and removing his dust covered spectacles.
"They aren't fledges, not in the least. The boy's quite correct regarding that. They numbered far more than the three we were sent after. The others were newly risen, true, but remarkably well organized. They behaved as though they were under orders, and they followed them very well. It was an ambush, pure and simple. The three leaders left us to their minions. Five of them. Thank the lord for crossbows," Will answered, wiping his spectacles on his dirty shirt, squinting at them, then sighing and placing them back up on his face.
"We're all dead! I have to get out of here. If I'd known these were the sort of mission risks involved, I'd have never left headquarters," the frightened Watcher, Adam Longley rambled, still shaking like a leaf.
Gray and Will exchanged matching grins at the scared "young buck." None of them had expected him to last long. They were betting on him backing out after tonight's excursion, although by the sound of it, what these two had endured was far more than any of them had bargained for.
"We aren't dead, Longley," Will said, still exercising patience, with the boy, despite having dealt with him all night. "We very nearly were, but we're not."
"Yet another of your miraculous escapes then?" Hobbs asked wryly, finished with bandaging Will's chest wound and moving on to the burn on his leg.
"Hardly miraculous, Hobbs. There were only five after all, narrow alley though it was. Now if those first three had stayed, that would have made it miraculous." Will chatted away amicably. Though his voice projected bravado, Gray could clearly see one of Will's hands shaking slightly, betraying the depth to which the encounter had rattled the man.
"So who is it then?" Hobbs asked.
"The Order of Aurelius," Will said, seriously.
Hobbs stared up at Will, his mouth open wide. Longley let out a frightened yelp, gripping his hair as if he was about to tear it out. Gray only blinked, looking his friend in the eye.
"You're certain? It's them?"
"One male, Irish accent, dark-haired. Two females, one blonde, the other dark-haired and insane. I'm positive. It's them," Will answered soberly.
"What are they doing here? And how could they possibly be mistaken for fledges?" Hobbs wondered aloud.
"I have no idea, but they're here and they were. We need to tell the Council and see what's to be done."
"Surely this is a problem for the Slayer." Hobbs declared, standing up.
"It should be," Will answered, with a slight smirk.
"You disagree Will?" Gray asked.
"From what I hear, the Slayer is in France at the moment. However much I might wish that the Council would get her charming derriere back here for this, the truth is that they haven't gone out of their way to stop the Aurelius clan before and they're not likely to choose this moment to begin. They usually attempt to leave these types of matters up to the local hunters, who clearly haven't succeeded. Hell, we'll be lucky to procure reinforcements for the task."
"The Council will do what they can. They know too well that the Aurelius Clan is not to be taken lightly. It can't be helped that only one Slayer at a time exists, which is precisely why they began the hunter program in the first place. Will, you're supposed to be the top hunter in the area. Surely you can come up with a suitable plan for dealing with this menace." Longley said, finally pulling himself together.
The three men simply stared at the lad, and he shrank back a little.
"You'll certainly make for a fine member of the Council, Longley," Will said.
The young man became flustered, fiddling with his jacket; from Will's tone Longley appeared uncertain whether or not it was a compliment or something else. He decided to take it as the former.
"Yes, well, um, thank you."
Gray and Hobbs rolled their eyes. Yes, the boy would make a proper addition to the Council indeed.
"So we rally the troops and come up with a plan of attack then?" Gray asked, deciding to ignore Longley from that point on.
Will swept a hand through his disheveled curls and leaned back.
"I suppose so. However, I think we should avoid a conflict until I can fully recover. I'm not precisely out of action, but if we're going to take on those three, I'd prefer to be in top physical condition first. In the meantime, talk to your sources and spread the word. I wouldn't want anyone else getting caught in a similar trap. It will be easy enough to find out how many hunters are in the area and forewarn them."
"Just when I think you can't possibly get us into any more trouble, look who you manage to run into," Hobbs said, adjusting his hat and buttoning up his coat.
Will stood up and struggled back into his shirt and coat, wincing when his chest wound stretched under the bandages.
"Ah, but Hobbs, think how dull your life would be otherwise for never having known me," he said, with a wink.
Hobbs chuckled and gave the younger man a friendly pat on the back. Gray smiled at them as he rose from his own seat. They didn't always get on so well, of course. That was mostly due to their initial opinion during his first outing to the scary and barbaric world of the Council's pawns. At first they'd seen Will as another mere Watcher-in-waiting. How wrong they'd been.
Gray rubbed his face wearily. "Well, goodnight chaps, I believe we could all use some sleep tonight. Will, do get some rest, and don't spend all your time working out battle tactics. People will begin to worry about you even more, and your mother already has suspicions you've got involved in something improper and dangerous because of your late nights. In addition, remember to get cleaned up before you frighten the staff right out of their skins. As for me, I have a contact I need to inform, then it's off to bed." Gray headed towards the door, giving Longley a nudge with his shoulder, startling the boy out of his frightened musings.
"Are you all right to get back, Longley?" Will asked as the door banged shut behind Gray.
"Uh, well—" Longley stuttered, fidgeting with his clothing.
He very nearly fell forward when Hobbs moved behind him and gave him a slap on the back, laughing at the flustered boy's reaction.
"Don't worry. I'll see the lad gets home safely. Don't want you disappearing and having the Council breathing down our necks now, do we?"
Will chuckled and gave his friend a grateful nod as he made his way out of the stable. He really didn't have the energy to deal with accompanying Longley home. All he wanted was to get reasonably clean and fall into bed before his early start in the morning. Exiting the stable, Will walked down the street, and hailed one of the late night cabbies. It was difficult not to doze off in the coach as it rocked and swayed, but he made it home at last. When he reached his room, he removed his torn, dirty clothes, cleaned up as much as he could at the washbasin, dressed for bed, and crawled under the covers, falling asleep almost instantly, his mind replaying the night's events in his dreams.
"You were out awfully late again last night William," Anne said, while she worked on her embroidery.
"Yes Mother. I'm terribly sorry. I was caught up in a discussion and was unaware of the lateness of the hour. Time slipped by so fast. I won't let it happen again," Will answered, sipping his tea.
They were seated in the sitting room. Will had decided to spend the day with his ailing mother against her protests that he go into town and enjoy himself. He knew that he was worrying her lately, and with her illness getting worse he didn't want to be away from her for long, constantly trying to reassure her that he was all right.
"That job of yours certainly seems to have increased your sociability, William dear. You seem forever to be getting caught up in discussion with your friends these days. Not that I in any way object to your associates stealing you away. I merely wish you would be wary of the time. It isn't safe for gentlemen to be wandering the London streets late at night any more than it is for ladies, with all the pickpockets, thieves, and—" she trailed off, bringing her handkerchief to her mouth, stifling a cough.
William poured her a glass of water from the tray nearby and handed it to her. She took it gratefully and swallowed some of the clear liquid. He watched her tenderly while she drank. He knew what she'd been about to say. It wasn't safe with all the murderers about. People were killed almost every night under mysterious circumstances. He was glad his mother wasn't aware of what horrors truly existed out there under the night sky. When he thought of the Aurelius Clan having arrived in town, he had no doubt the number of killings and missing people would increase dramatically in the next few days. The sooner he recovered and they got organized, the better. They had to put a stop to this threat.
"William?" Anne's voice called to him.
"Hmm, I beg your pardon?" Will shook his head to clear it, realizing he'd been staring into space.
"Where did you go just now? You suddenly seemed awfully preoccupied."
"Oh, it's nothing much, Mother. My employers have asked me to meet some people who have recently arrived in town. They might be troublesome, so I will probably be busy for several days, but I don't want you to worry. Mr. Hobbs and Mr. Gray will take good care of me and make certain that I return home safely." William took the empty glass and placed it back on the tray.
"I hope you won't be too busy to attend the party in two days time? The Underwoods' soirée?"
Will sighed and smiled at his mother. He knew what she was hinting at. She wanted him to settle down. To find a nice, suitable girl and marry her, raise a family, and be content. When he'd revealed an interest in Miss Cecily, his mother had gone about urging him to be present at as many parties and social events which said lady would be attending as possible. The problem was that Cecily didn't even know Will existed, at least outside the physical realm of there being a man called William Pratt, who occasionally turned up at social functions. Even if she did, he mused, she wouldn't know the real him. Even his doting mother, whom he adored, didn't know how much he'd changed from the soft, timid poet she had raised.
"Doubtful, mother; but we can never be sure of these things. If there is one certainty in life, it's that nothing is certain," he said, returning to his chair and fishing out a book that had slipped down between the cushions.
"Surely, it can't be so important that you must miss an opportunity to enjoy yourself. You don't go out for fun enough, William. You should enjoy some recreational time away from your busy schedule, like now, for instance. Instead, you are sitting here reading, with me, at home."
"Nonsense. I'm enjoying the company of a beautiful, intelligent woman while in the comfort of my own home, and catching up on a favorite pastime I fear I'm beginning to forget, due to a busy schedule. I wouldn't wish to be anywhere else, Mother." Will found the page he had marked and crossed one leg over the other. Smoothing the paper out with a gentle hand, he peered down at the words and pretended to study them intently, hoping she would let the matter rest.
"You are a dear boy, William. I'm a lucky woman to have such a generous, kind-hearted son, and any woman who scoops you up will be twice as lucky for finding an affectionate, loyal husband. Do go to the Underwoods' party, William. I'm sure Miss Cecily would love to see you again, and you must read her some of that wonderful poetry. It's another hobby I fear you've been neglecting recently."
Will inwardly rolled his eyes. He was a terrible poet. Deep down, he knew, but it never stopped him from writing all that sentimental drivel. Of course, he used to think that it meant something to share his feelings, spew words of love for a woman he realistically knew would never have him. That was before he knew what the world was really like, how fragile life was and how much he needed to convert his efforts into doing something worthwhile that didn't involve meaningless prattle and rhyming schemes. His mother still encouraged his poetry of course. She wanted him to share his feelings. He was a sensitive lad in her eyes. Dealing with demons had hardened that sensitivity though, toughened him up. How could anyone look into the horrors of the night, realize that the darkness truly did harbor fangs, and still remain lost to their own mundane existence, pretending that they mattered in a world where no one ever saw them? Nevertheless, this was the pretense he had to endure for his mother's sake and those who knew him as a weak, Victorian gentleman.
"Very well, mother. If nothing serious arises before then I shall attend the party, and maybe find time to write while in attendance. It is where my muse will be, after all."
She smiled lovingly at him, and he grinned back. As she bent her head over her embroidery, Will pretended once again to focus on his book. He skimmed the pages, but his mind was elsewhere. He had to get Charlie, the stable hand, to go and meet with some of his contacts and spread the word. Due to an incident when Charlie had been attacked, he was the only member of staff who knew about Will's double life. Will had saved Charlie's life that night and from then on he'd held the man's admiration and loyalty. When Will was occupied, Charlie could be trusted to convey messages to the other hunters around town. Charlie also helped keep Will's nightly activities secret from the rest of the staff who often talked and spread rumors in the house. Charlie was always adept at sending them in the wrong direction. The last thing Will needed was word getting around that he was insane, believing he fought demons at night.
"It's not good news," Hobbs said, marching into Gray's study and picking up the decanter on the desk to fill a glass.
All three of them were gathered in Gray's study. He had the house to himself for the evening, so they had decided to meet there instead of the more dangerous stables, or pubs in which they usually held their meetings. Any vampires spying on them would require an invitation, and it kept up appearances for them to be seen socializing in each other's abodes. Will had arrived earlier, after slipping out of the house unnoticed by the servants once his mother had gone to bed. He was lounging in the chair opposite Gray, his feet on the desk, something he would have balked at under the laws of propriety before, but now did easily in their company. Gray himself was usually the one who adopted such a position. Hobbs was typically the one who stood and paced about the room, always on edge. This was no different.
"What happened?" Gray asked, taking the decanter back from Hobbs to refill his and Will's glasses.
"Hunter in the East End had a run in with them. He's dead. His whole family, actually. Hadn't heard the news in time and thought he was after fledglings. Got one hell of a nasty surprise."
Will observed Hobbs as he swallowed down a large gulp of the fiery liquid. He seemed to savor it as it poured down his throat. Will noticed that afterwards he seemed a bit more relaxed.
"An ambush?" Will asked, curiously.
Hobbs shook his head. "No. The way witnesses tell it, he was with some big fellow before he disappeared. Sources said they saw a group at the house though. Piece it together, and I'm almost certain that first the hunter got into it with Angelus, then the three of them tracked down the family and slaughtered them."
They remained silent for a moment, sparing a thought for the deceased. Will knew they were up against some serious evil this time around. The same thing could happen to them, or worse, if they weren't careful. Their group had built up quite a reputation amongst the demon community, one that could literally come back to bite them in their backsides if they didn't watch their step.
"You realize that you could be a primary target here, don't you Will?" Gray asked.
Will nodded soberly, staring into his drink. He rubbed at his chest absently, something that didn't go unnoticed by the other men in the room.
"Maybe this is a fight we shouldn't rush into. Wait to hear from the Council. If we're persistent enough, the Slayer might—" Hobbs began.
"I'm not going to go running about with a stake the minute my strength's returned, Hobbs," Will interrupted. "I'm not completely insane, despite what you might think. I would fully support the idea of waiting for the Slayer if I thought there was the slightest possibility she was going to pay us a visit. Facts are facts. If the Council wanted the Slayer to chase down the Aurelius Clan, they would have done so already. We're on our own for this one. I'm not eager to be dealing with Angelus and his consorts, but we haven't much choice. People will die. People are already dying, and it's clear that if we don't put a stop to the clan, many of those deaths are going to be hunters and their families. I'm fairly confidant that we're already on their list. Aren't you?"
"You were ambushed, Will. They know you're no lightweight. It's almost as though they were…testing you. I really think that we need to be careful in how we go about this," Gray put in, finishing his brandy and refilling their glasses.
"And by 'we' you mean me, correct?" Will raised an eyebrow at his friend, amused.
"Will, they could have attacked you themselves, but they didn't. They were testing you with that fight. I can feel it. You know the stories about them. They like to play with their prey. I don't want you becoming another of Angelus' masterpieces in some stuffy Council diary," Gray continued, leaning forward in his chair, his tone serious.
"I won't be. Now, I think we should focus on where this information about fledglings is coming from. It appears to me that someone has been setting up hunters. Should this be the case, we need to know who is doing it and why. I don't like to think that we have a double agent in our midst, but it's a possibility. Check your sources and track this rumor. Once the word's out about them, they may change tactics and find some other way to lure us into a trap."
Gray stroked his chin thoughtfully before continuing on. "Now, what do we know about these vampires specifically?"
Hobbs leaned against the edge of the desk; the brandy he'd consumed appeared to be relaxing him at last. He ran a hand over his thick ginger moustache and appeared to be thinking.
"Well, although he's younger than Darla, Angelus is the leader, probably because he's the male. He favors the innocent and likes to toy with his food, torture his victims, and spare no one. Darla tracks young gentlemen, often ruffians, and leads them off to some dark alley where she sinks her fangs in. Drusilla is insane. Made that way by Angelus before he turned her. She has visions, and possesses thrall, which makes her a formidable member of their group. She has a love for children, the young and innocent, probably due to her own childlike mental state. Each one of them poses a threat separately, but together, they are an unstoppable force. If we're to stand any chance we need to separate them." Hobbs took another drink after his brief re-cap of what the Council had recorded about the three vampires.
"Divide and conquer then," Will said, raising his glass and letting the light reflect off it, making it sparkle and dance.
"Did Longley arrive safely back at Council headquarters?" Gray asked, turning to Hobbs.
"Hmm? Oh yes, quite. We won't be seeing him again. He was on his way back to them this morning, I believe," Hobbs said distractedly.
"I should probably hasten home myself. I must be up early tomorrow. Some business I have to take care of—the dull, everyday kind of business. We're to meet the others at the barn tomorrow night then?" Will asked, standing up and setting his glass down on the desk.
The others stood up also, nodding in agreement.
"Do you plan to attend the upcoming Underwood party Will?" Gray asked.
"Possibly, if nothing comes up. Must keep up appearances after all," Will answered, tiredly.
"Poor Willie-boy. Whatever shall you do at such a fine gala, pining after Cecily and having everyone ignore you? You'd be better off coming to the club for a good brawl to make sure you've not gone soft," Gray teased. Hobbs laughed from across the room.
Will pretended to look hurt. "I am shocked that you would treat a friend so. You're supposed to support me. You know, you could attend. Would make me seem less of a social handicap, and I told you not to call me that."
"Ah, but that would defeat the purpose of hiding your secret life, wouldn't it? I mean if you suddenly have friends, people would be suspicious of our darling poet, wouldn't they?" Gray moved to ruffle Will's hair, and Will slapped his hand away, stepping back.
"Oi, stop that," Will said in mock-annoyance.
"I hope you aren't neglecting that wonderful poetry of yours. You know I'd love to read another sometime, maybe one about us and how you're so grateful for the many ways in which we've saved your life," Hobbs added, winking at Gray.
"All right, that's enough. Moreover, I believe it was I who saved you chaps all those times, remember? Maybe I'll let you get eaten next time, if this is the thanks I get."
After a few more jokes at Will's expense, they broke up the meeting, and Will left for home. It was earlier than usual when he arrived, and so he did not fall asleep straight away when he entered his room; he unlocked the drawer of his writing desk and took out the small black journal hidden there. Whereas before he had used the journal to store his awful poetry, now it was his hiding place for his notes on demon hunting. He opened the journal and skimmed over what he'd written regarding his encounter with the Aurelians the other night. There wasn't much new information he could glean from them, but he wanted to be as prepared as possible.
He stroked the cover of the journal, now three-quarters full. The first few pages were vastly different from his current writings. They contained the fears and shocked discoveries of a man whose whole life had been turned upside down. He gazed out of his window at the bright moon in the hazy sky. If he closed his eyes, he could almost see it happening again. That first day when everything changed…