Chapter Sixteen

**(Suggested Music: Coma Black by Marilyn Manson)**

My stomach clenches as I watch Faith hit the ground and I can't seem to breathe. I keep running though, jumping over bodies and taking out demons as I go. Krista and a few more girls follow after me, fighting off the horde of demons that continue to come at us from every angle. When I reach Faith's side, the girls circle around us to give us some space from the onslaught. They keep peeking over their shoulders as I fall to my knees and pull Faith up so that she's on her back beside me, looking up.

As soon as I look at her face, I know that this story isn't going to have a happy ending.

"Oh god, Faith," I cry, tears freely flowing down my cheeks.

There's blood all over and on the ground around her. The sword must have gone clean through because she's bleeding from both her front and back and she's getting paler by the second. I put one hand beneath her on her wound and my other hand on her abdomen and press down hard, hoping to stop the bleeding.

Faith gasps and a tiny bit of blood leaks from the corner of her mouth.

I don't know what to do. There's nothing I can do.

"Fuck," she coughs, a few more blood droplets escaping her suddenly dry lips.

"Don't talk. Don't move," I tell her, trying to keep my hand firmly in place over her stomach despite the fact that she's trying to move it off.

"Get outta here, B," she says, trying to push me away. "I'm a lost cause."

"No!" I say angrily through my tears. "I'm getting you out of here. We're gonna get out of here together."

She takes a deep breath and tries to calm herself despite the pain I know she's in. Her eyes meet mine and she tries to smile.

"I'm already dead," she says, but I can't accept it. How can I? I don't want to be without her anymore. I can't be without her.

"Don't say that," I say as I lean down and bring my face closer to hers. I slip my hand out from under her back and wipe the blood off on my thigh so that I can brush her hair away from her face. "Don't you dare say that."

"This ain't a flesh wound, princess." She cringes and tries to keep her composure. "Got maybe another minute left in me and when that minute's up, you're gonna get the fuck outta dodge and run until ya can't run anymore."

I shake my head almost violently, tears still spilling from my eyes. "No. I won't leave you, Faith."

"You're not gonna have much of a choice." She winces and I slip my hand in hers so she can squeeze it. She takes advantage, gripping it tightly. "This is what you do; fight a path toward one of the exits to the camp, then run and jump the fence. Don't look back."

"I can't leave you," I whisper, shaking my head slowly. A tear drips from my chin and splashes on her cheek.

She raises one of her shaky hands to my face and brushes the tears away with her thumb, smiling faintly.

"You will. For me," she whispers back. "You've always been my angel, Buffy. Always you."

Her eyes start to lose their focus and I shake her, trying to keep her with me.

"Don't you dare leave me," I say, my jaw clenched tightly. "I'm only alive because of you."

She weakly shakes her head, "No, you're alive because you're you. You're kinda amazing when you're not beating my ass."

I chuckle softly, sobbing at the same time.

"You're the amazing one. And I don't want to be here without you. Please, Faith," I say, then lean down so that my forehead is pressed against hers. I close my eyes and whisper, "Please don't leave me. Please."

Faith closes her eyes too and her breathing slowly stops. I sit back up and look down at her, my eyes wide with fear.

"No. No! Wake up!"

Suddenly Faith's eyes shoot open and she gasps, hands reaching out to grab at my armor. She pulls me down so that we're almost face to face and looks at me with wild eyes.

"We die. We all die," she says with an air of clarity. "The only way out is death. The only way out is death. The only way out is death."

She keeps repeating it over and over again, her brown eyes locked on mine. After a few seconds her words start to bleed together in a quiet mumble and I cry harder, knowing that this is it.

"I love you, Faith," I whisper, my tears spilling over my lips. "I love you. I love you."

Her eyes drift off to the side, focusing at some spot over my shoulder and her body stills.

And then she's gone.

The scream that leaves my mouth is enough to bring the entire arena to a standstill. The demons stop charging us and watch as I pull Faith into my arms and hold her against my chest, sobbing loudly. I whisper my love into her hair as I rock back and forth, tears still streaming down my face. I finally look down at her and touch the side of her face softly, pressing my lips to hers for our last kiss.

When the tears stop falling, I place her gently on the ground and stare down at her face as I stand up, my body on autopilot. I can hear the girls around me crying too but my anger soon drowns them out. I turn from Faith to look out into the arena at the thousands of demons that remain.

And with Faith's sword in my hand, I silently pledge to take out every single one of them.

For her.

I jump into the fray before the demons can start their assault again, swinging my sword hard and taking the heads off the five closest demons in one swipe. Their bodies fall to the ground and I step up onto them, ready for the next wave. And just like that, the locusts start swarming again, trying to swallow us up in their sheer numbers.

The girls that were around me jump up and protect my back, taking on the demons that are coming from the sides and rear. Soon the bodies are so high that it's like we're in a fortress and the demons are trying to come in over the top. I hear a loud grunt from behind me and look back long enough to see Lucy with a gash across her throat, deep enough that it almost severs her head completely. Her body falls in the middle of the other girls and I but we keep fighting as hard as we can.

A Polgara demon charges at me and, with the height advantage, manages to knock me backwards and on top of Lucy's stilled body. He pounces on me with both of his wrist-skewers extended and manages to wedge one in my shoulder before Krista grabs him by the horns and Hazel runs over, running her blade along his throat. His blood sprays over me before I can scurry out of the way but I barely even realize it. There's so much blood everywhere now . . . it's hard to tell where it's come from.

When I get to my feet, I notice a clearing in the mass of bodies far enough to see another group of girls fighting maybe thirty yards from us. I can't tell who's left but there are quite a few of them still standing. When they finish with the demons that are around them, I see Ha and Hayley run for the side of the ring where there are a couple of torches burning. They throw them into the stands, starting a slow burning fire which goes ignored by the demons.

I guess the girls are trying to make sure that even if we don't succeed here, this arena will never be used for anything like this ever again. No more death for sport.

Another wave of demons hop down from the stands and start heading directly for us. The girls around me shift so that we're away from the pile of bodies and have more room to fight. I don't move too far from Faith's body, careful not to let anyone or anything get too close to her. Hot tears prick my eyes when I gaze down at her and I grip my sword a little bit tighter.

"Jesus fucking Christ," Krista mumbles as the wave gets closer and closer, their footsteps sounding like thunder. "Oh shit. Oh shit."

And when I look up, I realize why she's scared.

These aren't normal demons. They're virtual giants Haxil beasts, I think - and they're headed right for us, fangs bared and muscled arms ready to strike. The first one breaks through us and hits Laura so hard that she sails through the air and lands near the second group of girls thirty yards away. Krista and Hazel jump on the demon's back and pummel him with their swords and fists until he falls in a heap at our feet. We all turn to face his friends who are quickly approaching and that's when we hear a horrible roar from across the arena.

It sounds like a dragon or a dinosaur or something even worse.

Imagine my surprise when I see demons being ploughed over and tossed easily through the air as a path is cut in our direction, connecting us with the slayers who were fighting across the way. When the path reaches us, I gasp when I see Bobb-o standing there, twice his normal size and looking scarier than I ever could have imagined. His eyes are glowing red and he's breathing hard, growling with every breath.

"Bee okay?"

I clench my jaw and nod but glance over to my right where I know Faith's body is laying. Bobb-o follows my gaze and emits a loud, eardrum piercing howl that manages to break my heart all over again. He takes a step toward Faith and drops to one knee, then stands and charges into the fray, saving us from the giant demons that were about to hit us.

They bend and give like cornstalks against a plow and the girls cheer, happy to have a little bit more help on our side. The feeling of victory is short-lived, however, when we see Bobb-o surrounded near the wall and close to one hundred more demons closing in on him. He swings his arms and tries to charge again but they pin him there, completely helpless.

Another loud howl sounds through the arena before I hear the unmistakable sound of his body falling hard on the ground.

The demons don't pause for a second though and the next wave starts in on us immediately.

"Buffy, what do we do?" Krista asks, blood dripping down her arm from where she has a nasty looking gash.

"Should we run?" Hazel asks, looking like she's ready to bolt.

"We fight," I say, bracing myself for impact. "You guys wanted your freedom, you have to fight for it. We leave here when they're all dead."

They look nervously from one another and finally Marie stands up at my side.

"Then we kill'em all!" she shouts.

"Kill them all!" Krista shouts as the girls from the other group join us, weapons bloody and raised and ready for action.

The girls start letting out battle cries and they run up to meet the demons head on, hitting in a collision of steel and muscle and teeth. Several of the girls are tossed back immediately but they get up and charge back in, fighting hard. They're scared and they're hurt but they want this. Freedom or death; no more of the in-between.

A M'Fashnik demon heads in my direction and I drop low, catching him under his ribs with my shoulder and tossing him behind me. When I turn back to see where he landed, my stomach churns when I see that he's on Faith and trying to get to his feet.

He never makes it.

I'm on him before he can stand, pounding his head with my fists so hard that I feel two of my fingers dislocate. He's strong, though, and he manages to kick me off of him, sending me back into the fray. I struggle to regain my balance and that's when I feel it. A weird pressure in my chest that feels hotter and hotter every second.

When I look down, I see a blade poking out of me just below where my armor covers. I drop to my knees and the blade slips out but the white hot heat remains. The pressure continues building and I cough, covering the ground in blood.

"Shit, Buffy!" Hazel yells. She drops her guard for just a split second but that's all it takes for a Fyarl demon to charge her with a crude steel sword.

Her body is still when it lands on the ground next to me, her eyes still open.

I look away, tears stinging my eyes again. Breathing is difficult but I calm myself down as much as possible and crawl away from the fray, stopping only when I'm next to Faith. I collapse next to her, wheezing and gasping and trying to see through the tears burning my eyes.

"Faith," I say before having a coughing fit. I rest back with my head on her shoulder and close my eyes, trying to ignore the white hot pain in my chest. Trying to ignore the screams and cries of the girls still fighting around me.

A loud thud just to my side catches my attention and I open my eyes to see Krista laying flat on the ground next to me, her head turned to the side and her eyes wide. A trickle of blood spills from the corner of her lips.

"Buffy," she whispers, wincing as she says my name.

I take her hand and squeeze it, then clench my eyes shut. After a few seconds I hear her breathing pick up and I open my eyes to see her watching one of the bosses approach, a fancy silver sword in his hand.

"You had it so well here," he says as if perplexed.

"I'd rather die free than as a slave," Krista says with the last of her strength.

The boss raises his sword up and buries it in her chest. "And so you shall."

Her hand goes limp in mine and I watch as he pulls the sword out of her and steps over to me. He tuts and shakes his head sadly.

"Such a waste."

He raises the sword above me and I close my eyes, holding on tight to Faith's limp hand.

I'm finally caught up in the swarm.

Heaven is a lot different than I remember. There are loud noises and people talking. I actually feel like my body is tired instead of the bliss I felt when I was here last time. Maybe they wouldn't let me back in though. Maybe I have too much blood on my hands now.

Maybe this is hell.

"Her heart rate is too high. Perhaps it's time we fetch a doctor."

Giles is in hell?

"Just give her a second. The same thing happened to all of the other girls. Give her more time to come through."

Willow? Do Jewish people even believe in hell?

I feel someone take my hand in theirs and squeeze it gently. "Come on, Buffy. Open your eyes."

My heart feels like it's going to explode in my chest and I hear the beeping sound get quicker. That voice. Can it be? Slowly and with a bit of difficulty I manage to open my eyes. The first thing I see is Dawn sitting at my side, concern written across her face. She smiles a little bit when I look at her, a single tear running down her cheek.

"Dawnie," I say, barely able to recognize my hoarse voice. "You're alive. You are alive, aren't you?"

"Yeah, I'm alive, Buffy," she says, a few more tears trickling down her cheeks as she smiles widely and squeezes my hand. I feel a small pinch and when I glance down, I notice that there's an IV needle in the top of my hand with a piece of white tape holding it there.

"They didn't kill you," I say with wide eyes, looking from my hand back up to her face. "God, they said you were dead. The First . . . Dawn, why was The First able to take your shape?"

Dawn looks even more worried and she looks off to the side. I follow her gaze and am more than surprised to see Willow, Giles, Xander and Kennedy standing there.

Wait, Kennedy?

I try to shuffle back in my . . . hospital bed? . . . but my muscles are too tired. There are wires all around me and when I start to get tangled in them, Dawn hops up and helps me untangle myself. When my arm is free, I lift it up it feels like it's made of lead and point it at Kennedy accusingly.

"You're dead! I saw you die! You're The First! Willow, smite it!" Kennedy raises an eyebrow at me and Willow looks between her and I nervously. I point over at Giles then. "They killed you too! You couldn't do their magic and they killed you!"

"Buffy," he begins, his voice gentle.

"Willow!" I look over at her, eyes wide. The heart monitor they have me hooked up to is beeping like crazy. "You kept calling the slayers but it exhausted your energy and they killed you too. Oh god, you're all dead. I'm in a room full of dead people!"

"We're not dead, Buffy, and neither are you," Giles says calmly.

I feel anything but calm though as I remember everything that happened at the camp and tears start falling down my cheeks. I shake my head, cutting him off.

"I died, Giles," I tell him, half-sobbing now. "They killed me and now I'm in some kind of crazy dream world where my dead friends are haunting me because I couldn't save them."

Giles takes my hand in his and tries to soothe me.

"You did die, dear. It's the only reason why you're here with us now."

"I don't understand," I tell him, shaking my head gently. "Someone please tell me what's going on."

"Buffy, do you remember the date that we entered the high school and descended into the Hellmouth?" he asks.

I nod my head. How could I forget that day? "May 20th, 2003."

"Precisely," he says, offering me an encouraging smile. He looks off to the side and over at one of the chairs reserved for visitors. It's loaded with magazines and books and jackets. It looks like it's been put to good use for quite a while.

Xander quickly grabs something from it and brings it to Giles. I notice that it's a newspaper and I watch Giles fold it so that the center section of the front page is visible. He hands it over to me and points to some text just below the headline. It's the date.

July 21st, 2003?

That's impossible. Two months? I've been a slave for two years!

"Is this an old paper?" I ask and Giles shakes his head sadly. "Is this a joke then?"

"You've been in a coma. A Mystical coma," he quickly clarifies. "When you entered the Hellmouth with the potentials, The First was prepared with magicks stronger than we could have anticipated. After Willow used the scythe to activate the potentials, the First initiated its second line of defense, the first being the ubervamp army. It needed one of the original slayers to fall, and unfortunately for us, that was you."

"I was stabbed," I say, pressing my fingers to the scar that I know is under my hospital gown. I can feel the rigid bump underneath the thin material.

"You were," Giles agrees. "Your wound was quite serious and you must have passed out from blood loss before your enhanced healing could help. In any other fight, you would have woken, sore and wounded but alive. The First's magick attacked you, however, and you never regained consciousness."

"But that doesn't explain . . ." I shake my head slightly, tears welling up in my eyes again. "It couldn't have been a dream. Everything that happened . . . I felt it all. It was real."

"It was real for you, Buffy," Willow says, taking a seat on the other side of the bed and resting a gentle hand on my knee. "The First's magick created an alternate reality in your mind. You lived and breathed there; everything you thought and felt was real."

"Tell her the even crazier part," Kennedy urges her on.

"It gets crazier?" I ask, swiping a tear away.

"You might want to hold onto the bed rails, Buff," Xander says.

"The First knew what we'd been planning, Buffy," Willow explains. "It knew that we were going to activate the potentials and it needed a way to keep them down so that it could succeed. Unleashing a few thousand ubervamps on us would take out the immediate threat but it wasn't a permanent solution."

"So The First set up some kinda whacked out plan that pulled every slayer called into your crazy little brain world," Kennedy interrupts almost excitedly.

"What?" I ask, confused.

"As soon as you fell unconscious, The First's magick activated fully and pulled all of the newly called slayers into the world in your subconscious," Willow clarifies. "While you and all of the new slayers believed that you continued fighting, you actually all fell unconscious in this reality."

"But then how . . .?"

This is all too much. Everything that's happened since I was stabbed in the Hellmouth . . . it's all been a lie. Everything. Our pain, our struggle, our . . . I shake my head and clench my eyes shut when I think about Faith.

"Luckily for the rest of the world, Spike's amulet kicked in at just the right time," Willow continues. "All of the ubervamps turned to dust and The First had to pull back to make a new plan."

"When the rest of us went down into the Hellmouth to check out the situation, we thought all of you were dead," Xander explains. "Everyone was unconscious and completely still. It was enough to mess with our heads."

"So then how did you know what happened?" I ask.

"Faith," Willow replies with a sad smile. "When The First created the spell to subdue all of the slayers, it planned it based on either you or Faith falling. Had Faith been injured like you had, the alternate reality would have been in her mind and you wouldn't have been pulled in. It was just bad luck, Buffy. She was completely torn up about it. She wouldn't leave your bedside for almost a week."

"How many girls . . .?" I ask, trying to distract myself from thoughts of Faith.

"All of them," Giles says, squeezing my hand gently. "All of the slayers that were in Sunnydale were affected, as were a few that were activated throughout the U.S. We were still unsure of what was going on at that point. We consulted what was left of the coven and they informed us of the spell that was used. Willow tried her best to break through the magical barrier but it was too strong for her. Since then we've been trying to figure out how to free everyone from your mind."

"Were you able to pull anyone out?"

"Unfortunately, no. The First's magick is utterly impregnable. It was only a short while after we arrived at the hospital that a few girls started waking though. They weren't able to remember much at all but every girl could recall their own death in this other reality. It was then that we realized that the only way out was death."

"And then girls started waking up left and right about an hour ago and we knew something was up," Xander adds. "And then Faith woke up and she told us something big was going on; that we needed to check in on everyone."

Wait, I thought they just said Faith wasn't affected by the spell. If she was in a coma, does that mean that what we had together wasn't made up by my own mind?

Xander continues, "Dawn called us all in here when your heart rate shot up. A few minutes later and, well . . . you know the rest." He smiles gratefully and I realize now how much I've missed him. How much I've missed all of them.

Willow smiles up at him and then looks back to me, an apologetic look on her face.

"I tried to find a way to zap you dead or even to influence you in the alternate reality but I couldn't do it through the magical barrier," she explains. "And that was when Faith decided . . ."

"Hey, no fair talkin' about me when I'm not here to defend myself," comes a raspy voice from the doorway.

I know who it is before I even look over. My stomach flutters and my heart aches when I turn my head and see Faith wearing a yellow hospital gown and in a wheelchair being pushed into the room by a nurse.

"I tried to tell her that she needs to stay in bed but she threatened to get up and walk over if I didn't help her. I've never seen someone who only just woke up from a coma a half hour ago make demands like that," the nurse complains as she finishes pushing Faith in and parks her near my bed. "I'll be back for you in five minutes, young lady."

No one speaks until the nurse leaves, and even when they start up again, I don't hear them. Faith and I are staring at each other and all I can hear is the sound of my heart beating in my ears. She's pale and her lips are dry but she's still beautiful.

But if she was in a mystical coma too, how did that happen if she spent a week at my bedside after we got to the hospital?

And more importantly, if the other slayers don't remember much of anything . . . does Faith?

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