Ethan had had enough of the fifth form common room for the moment. Callow boys, making callow boasts about unlikely exploits with girls while they were at home over the summer hols. And it was Evans making the most noise; Evans, who didn’t have two neurons to rub together to make fire with. First in their year to lose his virginity, if one believed him. Ethan met Rupert’s eye, and closed his history book. He tucked it under his arm and wandered out of the room, down the hall, and out of the building. A gray day, freshening wind, the smell of rain in the air. But it smelled better outside. Not so much like dirty socks.
“Behave yourself, Rayne.”
Ethan looked up. Hammond, the classics master, glowering from his perch on the back of a bench. Cigarette in hand, threadbare tweed jacket, shoes with scuffed toes, and a limp Rupert said he’d got fighting a fiend of hell. Rupert did not exaggerate about such matters, and Ethan knew enough about the world not to doubt him any more. Hammond ought not be twitted, at any rate.
“Of course, sir. Just out for a bit of fresh air.”
Ethan moved smartly away, lest the old bird detain him. He cast a glance over his shoulder. There was Rupert, wandering past a moment later with his nose in his Latin text. He received no such warning. He never did. He mostly never deserved them. Instead he got a smile and a question about what he was reading. Ethan decided not to wait, but trotted off around the edge of the field. He picked his way through the trees, checking behind himself now and then to see if he were followed. He found his way to their tree, an ancient willow in a bit of boggy land at the end of the wood.
Ethan leapt and caught the lowest branch and swung himself up. It got easier every year. He climbed until he reached the spot they liked, where two branches growing alongside each other had made a natural seat. In the trunk just above them was a hollow where he and Rupert kept a few treasures safely away from the prying eyes of their schoolmasters and their fellow students. They’d once used it chiefly to hide their candy and conkers. Now it held cigarettes and magic supplies, with the odd bit of toffee or chewing gum kept to hide the smoke on Ethan’s breath.
The wards had held, as Ethan expected. There were other Watcher boys in the school. St Dunstan’s had been where they were sent to study for over a century, according to Rupert. But most of those were no sorcerers. They might find the tree, but they wouldn’t find Ethan’s goodies. He extracted the pack and lighter and set about practicing inhaling. He might learn the trick soon.
A minute later he heard the rustle below that meant Rupert had joined him. The branches shivered, and Rupert clambered up beside him. He still had his book with him, thrust into the back pocket of his trousers: Horace. Ethan waited for him to get settled, then politely offered him the cigarette. Rupert took it gingerly and inhaled. He coughed immediately, and made a face. He handed the cigarette back.
“Suppose Evans did any of that with his cousin?” he said.
Ethan shook his head. “Evans got that story out of a porno mag.”
Rupert snorted. “Are you sure Evans has ever seen a porno?”
“Possibly not. Have you?” Ethan poked Rupert’s arm.
“Only the one Parker had last year. Complete rubbish.”
Ethan mumbled assent. He’d seen more blue magazines than Rupert had, apparently. Not to mention the ones that showed men exclusively, which he’d found in Germany over the summer. That had been an eye-opener. He wasn’t sure he could mention it to Rupert. Or rather, he had to, but he didn’t know how. He had to find out if Rupert would mind. Though he thought he might not, still, it was tricky. Rupert had a stubborn streak, and a stringent code of behavior that interfered at the most annoying times.
Rupert sighed. “Bored out of my mind already, and we’re only two weeks in. At least there’s less work than I had over the summer. Training every day except Sundays, and reading at night. Father wouldn’t let up. Wouldn’t let me patrol with them, either.”
He shifted and stretched himself along the branch, chin resting on the bark. He’d changed a bit over the last couple of months. He was now almost as tall as Ethan was, and wider in the shoulders. All that maniacal fitness training had put muscle on him. He didn’t look like a boy any more, not really. Ethan felt weedy in comparison. He glanced at Rupert’s backside and away. It was one thing to look at magazines and think these thoughts. It was another to look at Rupert.
Ethan cut off that line of thought and cast about for a distraction.
“What we need,” he said, blurting, “is something to do. An adventure.”
Rupert snorted. “An adventure that is comfortably over by sundown and has us back in our rooms in time to avoid punishment. No chance. And besides, what could possibly happen?”
Ethan heard the somewhat bitter note in his voice, the one that meant they’d learned too much. The rules of the world were known to them now. The woods were not woods, but a little stand of trees not half a mile long. And they weren’t boys. They were too old for adventures.
An idea came to him. “We could create one, perhaps. Was reading about summoning–”
Rupert sat up suddenly, shaking the branch. “What the devil’s that?”
A strange noise had begun in the wood behind them. It was a sort of groaning, scraping sound, almost a howl but more mechanical. It repeated, and got louder. The squirrels screamed in outrage. Rupert met Ethan’s puzzled gaze, then swung himself down from the tree. Ethan heard him land. He stubbed out the cigarette and tucked everything away into the cache again, then clambered down as fast as he could.
The noise had come from somewhere closer to the school grounds, back in the thicker clumps of trees. Rupert moved fast, half-crouching, and showing skills Ethan hadn’t known he had. Then he came to a halt behind a tree. They were at the source of the noise.
A blue police box, the old-fashioned kind, stood in the middle of the woods. The light at the top flashed and then died, and the horrible noise stopped. Ethan knew these woods, and he was damned certain he’d never seen this before. Excitement washed through him, and his heart sped up.
Ethan peeked around the tree. No one was around. Rupert straightened and advanced into the open. Ethan followed him to the police box, and touched it. Wood, blue paint, a sign on the side with lettering in English. It looked perfectly ordinary, though Ethan hadn’t seen one since he was small. Though there was nothing ordinary about a police box appearing in the midst of a small rural woods.
The door opened a crack, and smoke poured out. Ethan stepped back, and Rupert stepped forward. Then the door slammed open all the way, and a man in a black coat two sizes too big for him tumbled out. He caught himself on the door, staggered three steps, and fell flat on his face.
Rupert was at his side in an instant, checking for a pulse.
“Strange,” said Rupert. “Very thready. Help me turn him over.”
Ethan scrambled to obey. Rupert leaned his ear against the man’s chest. His expression turned dark.
“Bugger. Two heartbeats. Demon. Got a weapon?”
“Doesn’t look demony,” Ethan said, looking into the man’s face. He looked human, with his untidy dark hair and the smile lines around his mouth. He looked more tired than dangerous. His clothes smelled of smoke.
“No, must say he doesn’t feel demony, somehow,” said Rupert.
The man, demon, thing with two hearts, whatever, made a sound. His eyes blinked open. “Where am I?” he said. He sounded perfectly English.
“Who are you?” said Rupert.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Where am I?” the man said again.
“Place called Wells,” Ethan said. “Near Glastonbury.”
“Yes, good, but when?”
Rupert met Ethan’s glance and shrugged. Obviously still dazed by the smoke. Rupert shifted around behind the man. “Here, sir, let me help you sit up.”
The man groaned, but sat up with some help. He coughed. The smoke was truly vile. Then he looked up into Rupert’s face and squinted.
“Jamie, thank God it’s you,” he said, and his head fell back onto Rupert’s chest. He’d fainted dead away again.