Damned If I Don't, Damned If I Do
Part Three of The Damned Series


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PART TEN: 24th to 25th September 2004
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Chapter Four: Taking Sides and Aching Inside

I try to help you out through the hardest of times
Your heart is in your throat and I'm speaking my mind
Though it looks as if it's over
I'm still not over you
*****

Buffy's senses came slamming back to her as Faith helplessly yelled her name. First as a look of wide eyed, slack-jawed amazement, then an inappropriate bark of laughter and then as a sharp slap of reality to the face as Troy followed her almost immediately into orgasm - although, to be fair, despite this being his big moment, the angry language spewing from his mouth kind of gave the impression he wasn't all that happy about it either.

The comfort that brought was cold; actually it was non-existent. Troy had succeeded and she had failed. Also, she was standing here staring at Faith and Troy nakedness and that could just never be a good thing.

Faith wasn't looking at her any more. She was focused solely on Troy now, holding his face in her hands, her expression pleading remorse into his icy blue eyes and she was apologizing - a lot - like she didn't even care Buffy could hear her.

She couldn't really, to be honest. Oh the sorry's and please forgive me's were coming through loud and clear, but they were so loud they were drowning all the other words out. Thankfully. 'Cause like this was really a conversation she wanted scored deep in her memory.

She couldn't do anything more, she realized, and loitering here was just extending her future therapy fees indefinitely. It was time to get out and re-group with her friends, come up with a plan b to defeat Troy later down the line as Angel had suggested.

When Troy found her missing from the dungeon and nowhere around trying to cause trouble, he would probably forget all about it. It wasn't like he had a reason to haul her over the coals - metaphorical or literal - now that he'd won. As for Mapanos, well, the ritual was complete, Troy would just sacrifice him as he'd originally intended; there was no reason to worry about goat-shaped shadows in her future.

Buffy started to back away from the door, already thinking about the long, boring walk back to Rome in an effort not to think about the nude, still interlocked, now arguing bodies on the bed before her.

Until, that was, she heard Faith say, "I can't help it if a part of me still loves her, can I? Doesn't mean it changes the way I feel about you."

"There is a difference between loving someone and calling their name out in bed!"

Buffy stopped. Not the smartest thing to do, but some sick part of her had to find out what Faith was going to say next.

She looked like she was having trouble keeping a straight face all of a sudden as she said, "It just slipped out! I said I'm sorry. Can't you just forget it? Come here."

Buffy grimaced. Troy might have done too because he pulled his head away roughly.

"You are supposed to be committed to me! Tonight is important, Faith, and now you have ruined it."

"Jeez, I'm fucking sorry, okay? I'm marrying you, aren't I? How much more committed do you want me to be for Christ sakes?"

"For my future wife not to be harboring sexual feelings for somebody else! I have tolerated it until now but I will not any longer. I have a status to maintain within the higher community, Faith, and I will not have it undermined by your association with that woman."

Buffy licked her lips nervously.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Faith echoed her thoughts.

"It means that once we are married you will have to banish her from your life. It will not be permissible for you to see her again."

Buffy gasped, stupidly enough, but Troy was still too intent on Faith to notice her presence. Unfortunately, that stopped working in her favor a second later.

'No, Faith, don't do it, don't telegraph me with your eyes!'

It was too late. Faith, obviously not knowing how to take what she was hearing, looked straight at her. In less than a blink, Troy was looking straight at her too. In less than a bli... Buffy was running across his living room and out of the suite, slamming his front door behind her.

She ran as fast as she could towards the central staircase. It turned out to be occupied. She couldn't have been in the suite long, but apparently it was just long enough for Troy's demons to find their ass with both hands. Her being their ass, which now that she came to think about it wasn't her best attempt at a Buffy-metaphor ever.

Giving the stairs a miss, she kept going. The corridor was long and there were plenty of doors to choose from. It wouldn't do to get blocked in though. She really wished she'd insisted Faith give her that tour now. Not that she'd expected to end up running for her life around the castle. Giles would probably say that was a poor lack of foresight on her part.

She picked the door she was running past as she heard the first set of demon feet hit the landing. Even if it was a dead end, at least she wouldn't be spotted running into it. With any luck her pursuers would try a few other doors before this one.

As it happened it led to another corridor. Portraits lined one wall, slitted windows lined the other. Halfway down was a suit of armor. Just what the slayer ordered! This one didn't have a sword but it had a pike. It would do.

She tried to pull it up out of the clutch of the empty gauntlet but it wouldn't come. She tried giving it a little tug towards her but it still wouldn't move so... she gave it a harder one. The suit of armor fell towards her, breaking into several pieces and clattering and clanging to the ground with an echoing racket. She winced; if the demons hadn't guessed where she'd gone before, they knew now, but hey, at least she had the pike!

She ran for the door at the end of the corridor just as company arrived. On the other side of the door she danced a little with the demon posted on guard before giving a good smack to the side of its red head with the end of the pike.

It did enough to let her get away although that just meant one more demon to chase her. It was time to pick another door at random and they were fewer and further between down this corridor, plus there was something watching her now. It wasn't like she had a choice though; if she turned to fight instead in the heart of Troy's lair there was a good chance she'd be fighting for the rest of her life. Running until she found a way out was the only sensible thing to do even if it wouldn't win her any badges of courage.

So pick a door she did and she just had to hope it didn't lead to a sheer drop as she ran through it. It didn't, but it looked as though someone had forgotten to pay the electricity bill for this part of the castle. There was light, but it was from tiny oil lamps placed on ledges along the walls. The castle seemed older here, the passage was thin and cobwebs stretched between the walls and the ceiling. Dust swirled around her as she disturbed the air. She was within the walls of the castle, she was sure of it.

A shout from behind gave her the impression she wasn't supposed to be in here. Religious-y looking symbols - but not any she actually recognized - were painted on the walls in what looked like dried blood, making her think she really shouldn't be in here either.

In other words, the narrow space was majorly creepy. Her shadow stayed just ahead of her, looming large against the walls and looking more ominous than she felt herself right now.

Demons entered behind her and the fact that they could only chase her in single file now didn't make her feel more relaxed. The passage took a sharp right and then a sharp left and she was out of sight again. She tried to move even quicker, but running just meant she kept banging her elbows.

She passed doors now and again; tall, arched doors she'd have to go through sideways and the few she tried didn't open. All the while she could hear the tramp of half a dozen demonic feet. That didn't seem right; there had to have been at least twice that many demons chasing her. Then again, with the echoes and the closed in space distorting her sense of, well, everything, it was hard to tell what was following her.

She came to some steep steps around a corner that almost took her by surprise. If she'd be looking behind at that particular moment - as she was doing with more and more frequency - she'd have fallen down them and probably come to a nasty end. Although maybe not as nasty as the one the demons had planned for her.

She kept her footing and went down them, leaning backwards and using her free hand against the wall to steady herself. The lighting was even worse here. There were still lamps but they were spaced out more and in little niches that decreased the spread of their light. Everything was shadows now.

There was another noise too. She could clearly hear the footsteps behind her reaching the top of the steps. The demons were walking in silence, as if they hoped she didn't know they were there. Something else though, the murmur of foreign and, if she really strained her ears, a different tread of footsteps coming the other way.

They'd split up! They were going to sandwich her between the walls! Buffy stopped on a step trying really hard not to panic, because as nice as giving in to complete hysteria sounded, it wouldn't do her any good in the long run - the long run being, oh, three minutes from now.

She took a deep breath, calming herself as best she could, rolled her shoulders and leveled her pike so that it was pointing straight out in front of her. She would run at the demons below; hopefully they wouldn't be expecting that. With any luck she'd spear a few on her pike and the rest she would just have to punch her way through. These things weren't that tough, despite how they looked, and providing she got the jump on them she could get out of here alive.

The pro-active thinking wasn't filling her with as much confidence as she'd hoped, but again, she was out of choices. She could try and fight her way out and probably get killed or she could stand here, wait until the two sets of demons met in the middle and definitely get killed. Her life was just so full of variety these days.

She began her charge down the steps. The steepness meant she picked up speed fast; she was going to strike into those demons like a hundred and twenty-six pound bowling ball in granny underwear at this rate.

Something shot out of the wall and grabbed her arm tight. She lost her footing and voiced genteel surprise; okay she screamed like a blonde in a horror movie right up until a warm hand clamped over her mouth and she was dragged sideways into the wall - or possibly through a door she hadn't noticed. It was pitch black. The pike caught on the door frame and she tried to use it to pull herself back into the comparative light of the hidden stairwell but her wrist was seized and wiggled until the long weapon fit through smoothly. A silent whoosh of air hit her face and after a soft click the blackness was absolute.

She tried to scream around the hand, but only succeeded in blowing out all her breath and making a rude noise against the palm.

"Buffy, be quiet."

The familiar voice whispering roughly into her ear not only shut her up, it immobilized her completely. Oh, shit, this was bad! She wasn't ready for this. She'd rather face the demons!

"I am going to remove my hand, but you must be very quiet or they will hear us."

Buffy nodded and slowly the palm slid away from her mouth. It didn't go far though, staying to caress her cheek in the darkness. She was breathing too fast and not because of her dash down the steps. She didn't know what to say, didn't know what to think even, so she just stood there, gulping occasionally, as fingers stroked into her hair.

"Are you okay?"

She shrugged.

"It is good to see you."

Buffy found her voice and used it to say the most intelligent thing she could think of. "It's too dark to see me."

There was a chuckle; she hated that she loved that chuckle, hated that it made her smile automatically.

Warm breath traced her lips before a kiss was forced upon her. Okay, not exactly forced because she wasn't fighting it. In fact the phrase 'kissing back enthusiastically' wouldn't have been out of place. There may even have been a little happy-moan, but it didn't last long before something clicked inside of her.

She pulled back, breathing even harder now as she snapped, "What are you doing lurking inside Troy's walls!"

"Ah, saving your life? I have not done it before. Did I somehow do it wrong?"

"Don't... don't do that!" Buffy pushed her but it was hard to get any space in the narrow gap. "Don't be cute! You're supposed to be in Japan! Not pouncing on me in secret passages and kissing me in the dark."

"I take it you have not missed me as much as I have missed you then," Toni whispered, and then Buffy heard her wry sigh. "I wonder why that should be."

"Oh, I missed you!" Her finger, aiming for a shoulder, jabbed a breast instead. She'd forgotten how much taller Toni was. She retracted it with a hidden smile and didn't let it slow down her rant. "I missed everything. The bullshit behind your oh-so-heartbroken going away speech? That I missed completely. The fact that you were really trekking through those Japanese mountains you claimed to love so much because you were doing Troy's dirty work all summer? Totally passed me by. The fact that you've been lying to me about everything since the very moment we met? That went straight over my head!"

"Buffy, please keep your voice down," Toni whispered urgently.

"You keep your voice down!" She shot back, all riled up. "Aren't you even gonna bother to pacify me with more of your crap? Or do you not care now that it's all over?"

"I have not lied to you about everything."

"See, I knew you had one more sweet nothing in you!"

Toni sounded exasperated as she said, "Buffy, if you do not keep quiet, you will be killed."

"Oh, so now you're threatening me?" She pressed closer to the other woman, pushing her back against the wall easily. "Boy, you really are like him, aren't you?"

"If I wanted to kill you why would I save your life from the demons?" Toni asked reasonably.

"How should I know? Maybe you just wanted one last grope in the dark before cleaning up Troy's loose ends."

"But I have not groped you."

"And you'd better not even think about it now."

"I was not."

"Oh."

Buffy tried to remember the thread of her tirade and to recapture the zest to continue it. Now she heard what Toni had; the two groups of demons had met in the middle and were talking in their demon language not far from the door.

"Buffy, please remove whatever it is that is digging into the skin of my throat," Toni whispered after a few moments. "It is very... uncomfortable."

She'd forgotten the pike was there. It wasn't like she'd planned to stick it in Toni; she had just been angry; angry at the perceived threat, angry at Toni's complete lack of remorse, angry at everything Toni-shaped right now. Oh, yeah, there was that zest.

Keeping her voice very low now too, she asked, "So there was something you didn't lie to me about? Your shoe size maybe? Your favorite flavor of soda?"

"No, I lied about both of those."

"What? Are you pathological or something?"

"I was making a joke, Buffy!" Toni said, chuckling again.

"Do I sound like I'm in the mood for comedy?" she hissed.

"Bene! I deceived you! All along I have been giving you nothing but half truths. I was required to keep you engaged so that Troy could court Faith without her... her affection for you interfering. Since we met I have been duplicitous and misleading, coaxed you away from the truth by giving you what she would not and manipulated your heartache for my own ends. I am sorry that I hurt you, mia tesoro, truly, but it is a fact I am very glad I did these things and I would not choose to change the things I have done."

"Thanks for your honesty!"

"You do not understand. I was obligated to have sex with you..."

"Yeah, I think I understand perfectly and I know I've heard enough so..."

She tried to slide away along the wall but Toni leaned in, trapping her with her arms and determined to make her listen.

"...but I fell in love with you of my own free will!"

The urgency in Toni's word curbed any automatic sarcasm and stalled her attempts to get away. It was the first time Toni had said it after all; it deserved a moment of consideration. Of course, just because she had said it didn't necessarily make it real.

It might have been a turning point, though. Buffy's moment of pause gave it that chance. If only Toni hadn't forgotten to whisper. The faint demon voices suddenly rose to excited shouts like hounds on the scent.

"Merda!" Toni snapped and grabbed her hand, pulling her through the narrow darkness.

"I can't see anything!"

"There is another way out. Just follow me."

"I can't see you!"

Toni squeezed her hand reassuringly. Ha, that was funny! Buffy didn't let go though.

"You can't love me." Her voice, thick with unwanted emotions, was barely audible over the noise of the demons.

"That's what I believed, too," Toni said. "And why Troy chose me for this task, but thanks to you I have found a way to break free from my eternal judgment."

It was another thirty seconds before Buffy said, "Huh?"

Toni chuckled. "There is no time to explain now but once we are away from here I will tell you everything as I promised."

"It's too late now! Troy won. He and Faith have already had sex!"

"They have had sex many times. Why should it bother you?"

"Don't play the jealous girlfriend. You know why it bothers me."

"Tonight was foretold, Buffy. I told you many times you could not prevent it."

They stopped. Buffy realized why when a ray of light lit up Toni's face as she opened a door. She'd forgotten how attractive she was too. Webcams and cell phone photos didn't come close to the up-close, in the flesh, real thing. She'd have been better off being kept in the dark, she realized, as, despite her current confliction of feelings over the beautiful brunette, seeing her face again gave her butterflies and involuntarily replaced her frown with a goofy smile.

Dammit, like that was helping!

Toni poked her head around the door to see if the coast was clear before opening it wider and tugging on Buffy's hand.

"We must go very quickly now," she whispered. "I will take you as far as the gate and then you must run to my grandmother's house. She will not be there but Torre and Angelina will be. I will call and tell them to expect you. I must be at the blood sacrifice in the Arena or I will arouse suspicions, but I will come for you as soon as it is over and take you back to the city."

"Okay."

They were walking swiftly down one of the castle's long corridors. There were no demon guards in sight and presumably the ones that had been chasing them were still moving awkwardly through the pitch black narrow passage behind them. Toni was still holding her hand and Buffy couldn't find the resolve to pull away.

"I had to try," she said at last, speaking to Toni but it was for her own benefit really.

"Try?"

"To stop Troy sleeping with Faith tonight. To stop the prophecy. Maybe I never had a chance, but I had to try!"

"Why? You are a slayer, si? Your life's mission is to quell evil. Troy is not evil."

"Well, he's not exactly good!"

"That doesn't automatically make him evil. His quest has always had the betterment of mankind at its heart. His methods may be unorthodox to someone who has lived as short a life as you, but that doesn't make them wicked."

"You can't honestly believe that?"

"Why would I not? I have spent a long time believing it."

"He's tricking Faith into having his baby!" she said incredulously.

Toni shook her head, equally incredulous. "She has done nothing unwillingly. When she falls pregnant it will be a natural consequence of the unprotected sex she has freely participated in. I am more surprised she does not already have a hundred progeny considering..."

And just as they'd been getting on so well they reached the line Buffy couldn't cross. She dug her bare heels into the stone and dragged Toni to a halt with ease.

"Considering what?"

Toni turned to face her, not backing down from Buffy's glare. "Considering her promiscuous lifestyle before she met Troy. I am only speaking fact. You know her past better than I do; can you honestly say you do not think she was asking for an unplanned pregnancy before?"

"Yes I can honestly say that!"

"Ah, but you are speaking literally when you know I was not, meaning you agree with me."

"No, I don't."

"You are defensive because you think I am judging her."

"You are judging her!"

"No, mia tesoro, I am not. I do not care how many people Faith sleeps with as long as you are not among their number. My only reason for mentioning it is to prove that Faith has become pregnant because she did not guard against it."

"Faith is pregnant because Troy manipulated her! And you're only mentioning it because you're jealous of her," Buffy said, fuming.

"You may choose to see it as manipulation if you wish but her reward will far outweigh that as you already know." Toni started pulling on her hand. "We must keep moving, it is not safe to stand here."

Buffy reluctantly followed her again, but didn't give up on the argument. In a way she was trying to force it, wanting to get so mad that she could just tell Toni to go to hell... and actually mean it.

"Getting to go to heaven is not a good enough reward for having to marry Troy and have his baby!"

"Can you think of a higher reward?"

No she couldn't, but that didn't make it right. So she tried a different argument.

"What makes you so certain that Troy's big plan will help mankind anyway?"

"I know much more of it than you do."

"I know quite a bit of it," she countered as they left the corridor and started down some stairs. "For example, I know Troy's son grows up to take over all the populations of the world."

Toni laughed quietly as they went down the steps.

Buffy frowned at the response. "And I know he's going to start a religious war that makes Al Qaeda look like playground bullies."

Toni laughed again and shook her head derisively too for good measure.

"What? You think that's funny stuff?"

"I think it is misinformed stuff. Troy's son is destined to unite the nations of the earth, not take them over, and once they are united there will be no more religious wars."

"Yeah, that's not what Quantiaro said."

Toni stopped this time and turned to her; with the step between them they were almost eye to eye.

"Quantiaro is a desperate fool," she said fervently. "He is scared of becoming one of the old order, almost forgotten, worshiped only by the occasional oddball in secret corners. He is scared of becoming what I am now, that is why he fills your head with such propaganda."

There was silence that seemed to stretch on for ages, broken only when Buffy whispered, "What you are now?"

Toni looked at her feet, then at Buffy's feet, and then slowly, and with no small amount of horror, her eyes traveled up the rest of her.

"What are you wearing?"

Buffy winced as she remembered. "Nothing! I mean, obviously something, but..."

"Ah," Toni frowned at the disco loured underwear. "One of Troy's games."

"No, games are supposed to be fun. They're not supposed to give you cooties."

"Cooties?" Toni gave her a small smile before turning and going down the steps again. "That is something unpleasant, si?"

"Si. I thought you'd know that word considering you went to high school in America."

"I was only there for a short time."

"But you did go?" Buffy asked suspiciously.

"Yes!"

Buffy's eyebrows went up and she didn't back down. "How come? I didn't think America had been discovered when you were a high school student."

Toni didn't answer that.

"Out of available lies?"

"We don't have time..."

Buffy pulled her up short again at the bottom of the steps. "Surely you can answer me without going into the specifics? Just a little honesty from the woman who supposedly loves me is all I'm asking."

Toni blew out an exasperated breath, clearly not happy with standing still. "I had my official schooling in Rome. Seventy years ago my father decided it was time I went out into the world again and he enrolled me in the Montpellier Academy because it was close to his base in New York. I was there two years. If I learned the word 'cooties' in that time I have forgotten it."

"And that's where you met Helena?"

"No. I met Helena in Rome."

Buffy sighed irritably. "So she wasn't your high school honey after all?"

"Actually she was." Toni turned again. "We're nearly at the side door, hurry now please."

Buffy followed her. "Does she look like me?"

"Why would you ask that?"

Because it said in your diary the resemblance nearly gave you a heart attack, Buffy thought.

Out loud, she said, "I read your diary."

She kinda startled herself by admitting it, she was pretty sure she hadn't planned to.

All Toni said was, "Ah."

"That's it?"

"You would prefer me to be angry with you?"

"Well, it is customary."

"I did not pack in that much of a hurry, Buffy."

What was that supposed to mean? Getting nothing else, Buffy went back to her question.

"So does she?"

Toni hesitated. "She did."

Buffy frowned, "But not anymore?"

"I should not think so. She has been dead a very long time."

"Oh." So that was another thing she had lied about, but it felt wrong to call her on it. "I'm sorry."

"Thank you."

"So she didn't really run off with some other girl?"

"No, she did."

"Okay."

"But that was after she died."

"Okay," she said again, more slowly than before.

"I never thought I would be able to love again until I met you."

"You're not just exaggerating, are you?" Buffy guessed.

"For many years my heart has been in stasis - fated to be devoted only to the unattainable forever." She suddenly turned her head and smiled. "Until you, Buffy. I do not know what has changed to make it so; I can only believe that it is simply you! But again I can feel love, that which was meant to flow through me, and that is why although I understand that you are very angry with me, I know we will be okay."

"How very touching!" Troy stepped out of an archway behind them and grabbed the back of Buffy's neck.

She tried to pull away from him but his grip was uncompromising; she couldn't even move her head. She threw her left fist up, felt it make contact with his face, but he just laughed and seized her hand, pulling it back down at such an awkward angle it was a wonder it didn't break.

"Let me go!"

He started to march her along the corridor and she had no choice whatsoever but to go where he wanted.

"Let her go, Troy!" Toni almost had to run beside them to keep up.

"I do not see that happening."

She couldn't see his face, but Buffy just knew he was grinning manically.

"Please. You promised no harm would come to her."

"That was if you kept your end of the deal."

"I did! I have done everything you asked of me."

"And yet she was still able to hover in my doorway and spy on Faith and I while I completed the ritual!"

"Spying on you? What does that matter?"

"Yeah," Buffy grunted. Troy was pushing her head down, making talking uncomfortable. "You still did what you wanted!"

"Si!" Toni agreed. "You have secured the prophecy. There is no reason for you to treat Buffy this way."

"I have had enough of her interfering! That would be reason enough, but also the prophecy may well be null now thanks to Faith's continued attachment to her. I need to assuage the gods to compensate and only her death will grant me that opportunity."

"No!" Toni shouted, pulling on Troy's arm now. "Don't do this, Troy! I have been faithful to you. You owe me this."

"I only owe that which I promised you and you will have that by the end of the night. What I do with this mortal now no longer concerns you."

Buffy was forced through a doorway and down a steep flight of steps. They were going underground again. Toni followed, still pleading.

"Troy, please, you know why Buffy has acted as she has. In any other circumstance you would applaud her."

"This is not any other circumstance."

"Let me take her away. Please? We can leave right now and be out of the country in a few hours. She will never bother you or Faith again."

"I think you over-estimate her love for you."

Buffy was going down the steps so fast if it hadn't been for the vice on the back of her neck she would have been tumbling down them head over heels. It made it a little hard to join in the conversation going on about her. As they hit level ground again she did her best.

"And I think you under-estimate it." She thrust her right hand out to the side and Toni grabbed it. Buffy gave it a squeeze. "That'll probably lead to your second downfall."

"Really?" Troy sounded amused. "What will be my first?"

"Underestimating me!"

Buffy threw herself backwards and to the right to knock him off balance and pulled Toni in front of him to confuse matters.

It would have worked too, if it had worked at all. His grip on her remained solid and all she succeeded in doing was giving herself a severe neck abrasion and getting her bare foot accidentally stomped as she pulled Toni towards her.

"Ow!"

"Sorry," Toni said.

"Can we proceed now?" Troy asked and she was propelled forward once more.

The passage opened out into a long gallery, segmented by high arches. It was kind of like the dungeons, but well-lit and the walls were decorated with tiled mosaics capturing the same violent scenes as the one in the stained glass window several floors above. It also felt used. Unlike the dungeons, the air wasn't even musty.

Actually, she realized after another minute thinking about it, it did smell musty, but not enclosed dampness musty, more like... she sniffed, trying to place it... hyena-pen-at-the-zoo musty?

"What's Faith going to say when she finds out you've killed me in cold blood?" Buffy tried next.

"Cold blood? No, this is the heat of passion. She will understand."

"No she won't!"

"Troy, what if she doesn't?" Toni asked. "Is taking instant revenge now really worth losing Faith's commitment?"

She got points for effort, but Troy didn't even blink over it. "If it comes to that there are other ways."

That sounded way too ominous. "You'll kill her too!"

"Not at all. However, she could be comfortably detained until the baby is born. Afterwards she would be free to leave if she still wished to, but I imagine that would be unlikely once she has forgotten you."

"You asshole! Get off me!"

He did, giving her a shove so hard she stumbled along at high speed, arms pin-wheeling, for twenty feet or so before going to her hands and knees on a sandy floor. A thunderous cheer went up around her and she raised her head in alarm to realize she was out of the passage now.

"What the hell?" Her shout was lost under riotous applause.

Toni ran to her side and helped her to her feet. "Are you okay?"

"No I'm not okay!" Buffy looked around in freaked-out wonder. "Where the hell am I?"

"Troy's Arena."

The cheering was coming from three tiers of seats ringing the room packed densely with people and other beings.

"Who're all they?"

"Troy's guests. Mostly family and people who have helped him complete his quest. They were promised a show tonight. Troy has to prove he is worthy of ushering in the golden dawn. If his bravery is found wanting his superiors will not allow him to take on this great destiny," Toni said all this in a rush, one eye on Troy who was still standing at the entrance to the arena, his arms raised as he let the roar of the crowd wash over him.

"And him fighting a goat was going to prove that to this lot?" Buffy asked in disbelief, spying Mapanos tied to the wall on the other side of the arena.

"No, the goat comes first as a blood sacrifice to seal this prophecy. The other animals are the show, and their defeat will secure the commencement of the next and final prophecy."

"What other animals?"

Toni pointed across the arena and she noticed the low arches with the sturdy wooden gates tied tightly shut with thick rope; she also became aware for the first time of a lower but more menacing kind of roar.

"What's in those?" The fine hairs on the back of her neck were standing up.

"Tigers, lions, wolves, meerkats, emperor penguins..."

"Penguins?"

Toni didn't seem to notice her sarcasm as she pointed above them. "...poisonous snakes."

"Snakes?" This exclamation came out way less sarcastic as Buffy looked up.

There was a bag of writhing vipers suspended from the roof a few feet to her right.

"Isn't all of them together overkill?" she asked weakly.

"Tonight is planned as a spectacle, Buffy. If an elephant could fit through the doors there would be one. Troy is ready now. I am sorry, my love, I do not think I can get you out of here now."

"But I'll never be able to fight my way through all of those animals!" She was really worried now for the first time since she'd been captured on the roof. "I'm practically bite-sized for a tiger!"

"You will not have to face the animals."

Buffy let out a relieved breath, too soon.

"Troy now intends to use you for the blood sacrifice instead of Mapanos. You will be dead before the animals are released."

"Shit! I need a weapon." She'd left her pike propped against the wall in the dark passage Toni had dragged her into to save her life. "Do you think he'll allow me that much?"

"I don't know."

Buffy turned to Troy, who after striding self-importantly around the edge of the arena was now coming purposefully towards her.

"We will fight!" He called, his voice ringing out clearly above the expectant murmur of the spectators. "To the death! Do you accept this challenge?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"No!"

"Okay, I accept." Buffy shrugged. She didn't know how much confidence she was exuding, probably not as much as she hoped. "Tell me, what happens to a God when he dies?"

"We don't die!"

"Well, that hardly seems a fair chall..."

She didn't even have the chance to finish her sentence, let alone throw up an arm to block his first punch. She landed on her back on the other side of the arena.

"Ow!" She got quickly back to her feet, gingerly touching her swelling cheek.

The crowd was going wild around her, celebrating her pain, except, she noticed as she glanced around, two old women in the front row. Nonni was knitting furiously, her mouth a hard, disapproving line and Benedetta was waving a wine bottle around, calling Troy a string of bad names in Italian.

Well, at least she had two people out of two hundred on her side.

Troy was striding towards her again, but Toni got there first. Standing firmly in front of her.

As Troy reached them, she said, "No!"

A tremendous booing went around the arena but Toni didn't flinch, not even when someone from the upper tier cried out: "Kill her too!"

"Stand aside, Antonella."

"No!" she said again.

"Toni, it's okay, I can handle this."

She wasn't really as sure as she sounded; that one punch still had her head spinning all over the place, but the last thing she wanted was for Toni to get hurt too. Maybe that was weird considering all the lies and deceit, but for all that, Buffy figured she had her answer. She still loved her, however irrational it was.

Toni stood strong anyway, but Troy just bypassed her in the end. She tried to move to block his path but he was too quick. Buffy felt a knee dig into the base of her spine, sending her to her knees again, and knew he could have broken her back just like that if he hadn't wanted the game to go on a little longer.

If she'd been worried before, she was scared now.

He picked her up by her arm - literally picked her up - and threw her back the other way across the arena. She landed a few feet from Mapanos, kicking up sand that sprayed over the goat.

This is not how it was supposed to go!

"You're telling me," she griped, getting back to her feet more slowly this time, rubbing the aching spot on her lower back. If she was already slowing down after two attacks, how was she going to be after the third?

If he sacrifices you instead I will be trapped in this body for eternity!

"Then do something about it," she growled as Toni ran up to her again.

"Buffy! Tell me how I can help."

Buffy stopped rubbing her back and straightened up, her eyes on Troy's advance rather than her girlfriend.

"You tell me how you can help! What are you?"

Toni looked taken aback. "I am sorry?"

"Toni, baby, I'm sorry, I don't have time for coy. I know you're not human, what special powers do you have?"

Toni seemed flustered for a moment and she wasted time looking anywhere but at her. Noticing Troy almost on them again, she said hurriedly, "My powers were stripped from me. I have none until the prophecy is fulfilled."

"Then you can't help me so just stay out of the way," Buffy said harshly.

Toni looked hurt, but she didn't have time for that either. As Troy came around one side of Toni, Buffy darted to the other just in time to avoid another face-flattening punch. She kicked out at his hip while his arm was still outstretched and got some small satisfaction as he had to hop sideways a little to keep his balance. Then she took off running across the arena towards the exit.

That, she realized, was futile. There was a row of red demons blocking it and a couple of them were holding back the winged lion things on thick chains. The creatures were screeching at her loud enough to rival the noise of the crowd.

She checked her run and, hearing Troy's feet pounding the sand towards her, ducked abruptly to the side. He ran past her and she leapt up with a scissor kick that caught him in the chest as he turned fast towards her. He staggered back, caught by surprise, and as her feet hit the ground again she pushed forward and followed it up with her own devastating right hook.

Troy fell to the sand and the crowd cheered. Maybe she was winning them over, or maybe they just thought violence was its own reward.

She kicked him in the head again while he was down. It hurt her bare foot but not as much as Troy catching her ankle in both hands and flinging her with a great deal of force away from him did.

She hit the sand mostly with her face this time and groaned as she pushed herself up. Toni was there again to help her.

"Is your ankle okay?" she asked, as Buffy hobbled a little once upright.

"Better than my nose." She touched a finger to it and it came away covered in blood. "Great. What this pee-stained granny underwear really needed to liven it up was some nose-blood."

"Troy likes to humiliate his opponents. Stripping them is an old trick of his." Toni frowned at the voluptuous bra and waist-hugging saggy panties. "These are surely not yours though?"

"No! He provided these delights"

Toni's frown deepened. "He does not normally go that far."

"Well, I wasn't wearing my own when he stripped me," she said without thinking.

Toni's frown went deep deep down this time.

"Not now!" Buffy ground out, giving her girlfriend a gentle push out of the way as she saw Troy charging towards them.

She met his charge head on and then jumped to the side, planning on kicking him in the ass as he went by but he anticipated it and threw an arm out, catching her across the throat and knocking her to the sand.

She was clutching her throat before her back even hit the fine yellow grains. Fuck, she could hardly breathe! Had he crushed her windpipe or something? A second or two later her breath came back to her, just in time to roll out of the way of Troy's stomping foot. He tried again and she wasn't quite quick enough to avoid it completely this time. It glanced off her left hip and hurt like a bitch but as she continued her roll and he tried the same move again, she threw her fist up with all the power she could muster from this position and caught him squarely between the legs.

It hurt him, she could tell by the strange and wonderful expressions that crossed his face, but it only slowed him down long enough to let her get to her hands and knees. His answering kick didn't just send her arcing through the air; she wouldn't have been surprised if it had turned her right breast inside out too. She screamed and was clutching it with both hands as she hit the ground again.

Through stinging tears she saw Toni sprinting towards her just ahead of Troy. She threw herself between them again, only narrowly stopping Buffy from being kicked again as he pulled back to avoid her.

"Out of the way!" he demanded.

"No, Troy! You've punished her enough! This stops. Let me take her away before you kill her!"

"I fully intend to kill her!" He tried to shove Toni out of the way but she danced back a few steps to avoid his hands.

"No! Remember the value of human life, Aristiedies! Buffy is human! Do you betray your own beliefs so easily because one mortal has dared defy you?"

"She has had fair warning, Antonella! Many times have you and I told her of what the consequence would be if she interfered. This insufferable mortal will not impede my fortune any longer. Now stand aside or I will go through you!"

To her credit, Toni didn't stand aside until she had no choice and was shoved down to the sand. By then, Buffy was up again. In pain, but up. She cast a worried glance at Toni, but seeing that Troy had no more interest in her now she was out of the way, she turned and ran again.

She made it to the side, not moving as fast or as comfortably as she would have liked. A Panini was thrown by someone in the crowd and ricocheted off of her head. Nice! She grimaced but kept moving, Troy was hot on her heels.

The next thing to come out of the crowd was a knitting needle. It dropped just in front of her feet. She glanced at Nonni, who was staring fixedly at Troy, then scooped it up and ran back towards the middle of the arena where Toni was just dusting sand from her clothes.

"Does he have an Achilles heel?" she asked in a rush.

"His only weakness is his desire to fulfill the prophecy."

"So no soft, human-y bits I could stick this needle in to kill him then?"

"His only human-y bit is Faith. If you stuck the needle in her it would weaken him."

"I'm not stabbing Faith with a knitting needle!"

Toni rolled her eyes, "No, Heaven forbid you upset..."

"Not now!" Buffy snapped and seeing Troy only yards behind her, she started running away again.

How much longer could she keep running though? She was already getting tired; she'd had a very stressful... what, forty-eight hours now? Plus she could feel the damage he had already done taking a toll on her body.

She was running towards Mapanos and so realized he'd chewed through his rope again. He was still standing in the same place though, and although she didn't know what the goat would actually be able to do to save her, she felt calling attention to his freedom would be a mistake. So she veered away from him and ran in front of the cave-like cages of wild animals.

There were roars and howls as she ran by, the nervous, fear-soaked sweat pouring from her thrilling the captive beasts into a frenzy of their own. Even the meerkats - their cuteness glimpsed out of the corner of her eye - were bouncing off the wooden gate and chittering in terrified excitement.

Troy followed her every step of the way. Looking over her shoulder to see how close he was, she nearly tripped over a bucket of raw steak by the tiger pen. She kept her footing, just, then almost at once had to leap high over a bucket of fish. Okay, no more looking behind when she was running this fast. Better yet, get away from the edge. In the middle of the arena she had much more room for dodging. Toni would just have to dodge too.

As soon as she thought that, she cut a streak for the centre of the chamber. Unfortunately, Troy was expecting it and smoothly changed direction a second before she did.

She screamed again as he yanked on her hair, but instead of stupidly trying to pull away, she turned into him instantly and thrust the long knitting through his heart - if Gods had hearts.

They obviously had something there because he let go of her hair and stopped, made a slight gurgling sound and then, with what looked like a great deal of pain, grunted as he pulled the needle from his chest. He breathed shallowly for a few seconds and then, fully recovered, he held the needle up and grinned at her.

And why had she stopped running to watch?

She shrugged quickly and then capitalized on his smugness by bending his nose to the side with her fist.

It might not kill him but it gave her so much satisfaction to see his head snap back like that and the arrogant smile wiped from his lips again if only for a second. To prolong the good times she hit him again, making him take an involuntary step back, and then again and again. Her fist was like a jack hammer now, knocking him back an inch at a time as she kept on punching. When her right arm got tired she started using her left and she had him on the ropes now. He was staggering about, trying to avoid her blows but they found their mark every single time.

He was bleeding now, from his nose, from his lips, from a cut above his eye. Surely she wasn't going to win this? Not that she'd mind if she did, of course. It felt good; it felt really good. If she was honest, she hadn't just wanted to do this since she'd found out he was up to no good, she'd wanted to do this since the first second she had laid eyes on him at the New Years Eve party.

She was forcing him back towards the animal enclosures now but it didn't matter where they were going, just that she was hitting him. He got in a wild punch of his own, and it stung like hell, but she was mad enough to shake it off and keep the offensive. Another punch, another punch. The people in the lowest row of seats were standing up, stomping their feet and cheering, but it was all muted to her. The only sounds present enough to be noticed were her grunts of exertion, his of pain and the smack of her knuckles hitting his face.

In her peripheral vision she suddenly noticed someone set apart from the other spectators by location - he had a wooden seat to himself - and by the regal atmosphere surrounding him. He wasn't joining in the riotous cawing of blood-thirsty crows, but was sat back instead, eying her coolly, one hand rubbing his full and fluffy white beard in consideration and the other gripping - fingers patiently tapping against it - a long golden staff.

He was trouble - whoever he was - she just knew it. It was always the quiet ones you had to watch. Big beard was looking all too calculating to remain just a spectator for much longer.

She let it worry her and that was her mistake. She knew it as soon as she made it. Her next punch didn't have the absolute force of her previous assault. Troy took it on the chin - literally - and then was quick enough to backhand her forearm before she could retract it. It jarred her all the way to her shoulder, freezing her arm in mid-air for a second, enough time for him to grab it and wrench it towards him. His other hand struck her hard in the stomach, taking her breath away, and then it was cupping her jaw and holding the side of her face.

Buffy heard Toni scream, "No!" behind her and knew why. Did it hurt when your neck was snapped? Or did you die so quickly you didn't feel a thing? Call her a chicken, but she really hoped it was the second one.

"I thought I was a blood sacrifice?"

"I can still spill your blood once you are dead."

"Good to know."

Her bravado was leaking away though and she didn't really know why she was stalling. If her death was inevitable, and it certainly felt like it right now, why should she give him the satisfaction of prolonging the joy?

She was looking into his eyes - she didn't have a lot of choice - and maybe she'd hoped to see something more in them, maybe not pity, but perhaps regret, something warm, human, a window into what Faith saw in him. Something that told her she was dying for the greater good after all and not just in vain. Instead they were ice blue, cold, immortal. She was going to die.

'I'm going to die!'

Troy's grip tightened but she didn't close her eyes. Toni was there now, one arm around her neck, the other trying to yank Troy's hand away. She'd have had better luck trying to pull a sword from stone.

'I'm going to die! Any second now.'

Her life didn't flash before her eyes. It never had the other times, why start now? All she could see was Troy's eyes; she had a feeling she'd still be seeing them long after she was dead too.

"Goodbye, Buffy," he said quietly.

"NO!" Toni screamed again, this time right in her ear.

Buffy winced; she could have done without going deaf in one ear before she died. Not that it really mattered. Troy's hand shifted minutely into place as his grip tightened again. She knew it well; she'd incapacitated dozens of vampires this way before staking them. She'd never really considered how it felt from the other side before though. Horrible, as it turned out.

She took a big, deep breath - if it was going to be her last she wanted to make it count - and was glad Toni was right there so she could breathe her in too instead of just Troy. She finally managed to tear her eyes away from him and focused on Toni. She didn't want to give Troy the pleasure of seeing the light going out of her eyes and gazing at her stunningly hot girlfriend was hardly the worst way to go.

That thought might have brought a smile if there wasn't so much guilt in Toni's eyes. Buffy wanted to alleviate it but how could she? They all knew it would just be empty words now. She did forgive her, but she couldn't seem to do it out loud.

"HEY! What the fuck is happening down here?"

Toni looked sharply to the exit, Troy's grip relaxed ever so slightly and one of Buffy's eyebrows went up. And now their cosy little love triangle - or square, maybe? - was complete again.

She'd stopped noticing the noise of the crowd at some point, but she noticed its deathly, expectant hush now. It was broken a few seconds in by a mighty "Whoop!" that could only have come from Benedetta.

In the silence that followed that, Buffy's other eyebrow rose.

"I go get somethin' to eat and the whole castle empties like a fuckin' ghost town on Halloween. Then I hear this roarin' coming from under my feet. So, naturally I'm kinda curious. Now anyone wanna tell me what the fuck I just walked in on?"

Buffy was looking at Troy again now, but his eyes were on the sand at their feet. It didn't take a genius to figure out, as his hand clenched and unclenched around her face, that he was arguing with himself. She decided to let him fight it out in peace. Trying to take advantage might lead to him acting instinctively... and breaking her neck anyway.

Toni was still staring at Faith, the only one of them that had acknowledged her so far, but her eyes were full of surprise rather than malice. Her arm was still around Buffy's neck.

"Troy, fuckin' talk to me right now or...!"

Buffy's eyes opened even wider. Faith didn't even have to finish the threat before Troy let go of her face and turned around. Toni had been right; he did have one human weakness. Faith obviously had a unique gift for making evil-doers forget their evil plans.

Although, in a way, Faith was Troy's evil plan.

Buffy sagged a little with relief and rubbed her jaw as Faith ran across the arena towards them. By the exit a couple of the red demons were just picking themselves up from the sand after Faith's grand entrance.

"Fai, you should not be down here."

"Why not? What are you doing down here?! And who're all these fuckin' people?" She brushed roughly past him to get to Buffy. "B, you okay?"

"Yeah. Are you?"

"I was!" She turned and pushed Troy's chest. "One slip of the tongue and you try and kill my best friend?"

"It was more than a slip of the tongue!"

"No it wasn't," Faith fumed. "But it is now!"

Troy glanced at the crowd, still quiet as they enjoyed this turn of events, before saying firmly:

"I thought we had agreed your friendship was in the past."

"No, we didn't agree shit! You commanded and I figured if I kept my mouth shut you'd get over it. Guess I was wrong."

"You do not need her, Faith." He was obviously trying to sound as if this was no big deal in front of his spectators, but each word took on just a little more urgency. "She is simply an albatross around your neck!"

"Maybe I don't need her, maybe she is a... whatever around my neck. That doesn't mean I'm goin' to stand by and let you ice her, for fucks sake! She's my family."

"I am your family now." Troy waved his arm to encompass the crowd. "This is your family now."

"What? Them? None of them even like me! If you think I'm choosing this buncha asses over her..."

"You are choosing to be with me over her!" Troy shouted, all pretense of cool now gone.

Faith shook her head. "Not on these terms I'm not. B's a part of my life, she's staying a part of my life. If you got a problem with that, then you've got a bigger problem than you think, 'cause I ain't marrying any asshole who thinks he can tell me what the fuck to do just 'cause he put a ring on my finger."

Silence fell over them again, it was heavier than before.

Toni leaned down to whisper in her ear. "There is a good chance lightning bolts will rain upon us shortly. Get ready to run."

Buffy took a surreptitious look at the stands. The end of Big Beard's staff was crackling blue.

"She is going nowhere!" Troy turned to snap at his friend.

"Either she walks out of here or I do," Faith said determinedly.

Buffy smiled at her.

*****

As the argument continued in the same vein for a while, Mapanos could see Buffy's death inching closer and closer. It was naught to him if the slayer made it through this alive, but if she was used as the sacrifice instead of him, he would be trapped as a goat forever.

That was unacceptable.

He had already chewed through his rope but there was little he could do on his own. Buffy was ready to run, whether with Toni or Faith didn't matter to him, she just needed the opportunity to run.

Troy needed to be distracted to give her that opportunity.

Unheeded, Mapanos walked along the line of pens thoughtfully. Picking the wild animals least likely to appreciate the taste of goat, he started to gnaw through the thick rope securing a cage.

*****

"Enough of your insolence!" Troy snapped. "Buffy has done nothing but cause you pain! I have given you everything you desire."

"Not true. I've given her plenty of desire too." Toni's arm fell away from her shoulder immediately, but Buffy couldn't think about that right now. "Lots and lots in fact. And, really, all you've given her is lies."

"B, why?" Faith asked in dismayed bemusement.

"Why? Because I'm sick of him thinking he's better for you than me just because he can guarantee you a place in Heaven and I can't."

She heard Toni gasp beside her.

"What?" Faith asked, looking from her to Troy.

"She is acting out of jealousy, Fai," Troy said with fake calm. "See how even now she tries to manipulate you?"

"No, I'm not. Ask him why tonight was so special, Faith. Go on, ask him. Ask him why all these people are here."

Troy lunged for her too fast for Faith to react. Toni somehow managed to get between them just in time though.

"No! I will not let you harm her anymore!"

"Are you so foolish?" Troy shouted at her. "Do you not see what you are protecting? She does not care for you, Antonella! She desires only Faith! You are nothing but a distraction to her."

"That's not true," Buffy said strongly, but Toni wasn't listening to her.

She was still focused only on Troy, making her next words that much more meaningful.

"I know that. You will still not touch her again."

"Do you think you can stop me?"

"I will stop you."

Troy laughed quietly. "I grow tired of this. Move! I will not ask you again."

Toni didn't move.

Troy sighed and backhanded her across the face so hard Toni twirled in mid-air before landing on her back in the sand, too dazed to move.

"You bastard!"

Buffy launched herself at him, or tried to; Faith was there, pulling her back.

"Good idea, B, make him mad and then jump into his personal space."

Buffy struggled in her grip. "I can't just let him..."

"He's a God, Buffy. You can let him do whatever he wants."

Troy was watching them with amusement.

"What happened to him not telling you what to do?"

"That's me. He ain't gonna kill me and if he does, so what? I'll deal. I won't deal if you commit suicide by attacking him when he's all riled up."

"That's stupid!"

"I don't care. Any idea why there's a bunch of big-ass penguins waddling around us?"

Buffy stopped trying to pull away and looked around. There were a dozen of the black and white flightless birds streaming out of their pen. They seemed disorientated and not happy to be there; about as pissed off as penguins could look. The hungry and irritable noises coming from the other, more dangerous pens, seemed to be putting them way on edge too.

"No, but just be happy it's not the lions."

"Okay, we're just going to back out of here nice and slow," Faith said to her quietly. Louder, she called to Troy over the massing penguins. "I'm gonna show B out and then I'll meet you back in the suite. I think we really need to talk."

"You can't stay here with him," Buffy hissed.

"Don't you start telling me what to do," Faith hissed back. "I already feel like I'm a fuckin' yoyo right now. And since when is Tone back? You forgot to mention that, huh?"

Buffy groaned.

"You will do no such thing," Troy shouted. "Buffy will remain here and accept my..."

"You have five minutes, Aristiedies." The voice from the crowd was only marginally less than a sonic boom. It made Buffy's ears buzz but was as clear as a bell, rising above the background noise of the other spectators. "You are going to fail! You may as well allow the mortals to leave."

It was Big Beard who had boomed. He was standing up now and if he had been an impressive figure when seated, now he was awesome - in the true sense of the word.

She heard Faith mutter, "Oh crap!"

"Who is that?"

"Troy's dad."

"Oh crap!"

"I will not fail!" Troy shouted, almost petulantly. "Marco, the Sagaris!"

Buffy saw Marco float up out of the crowd and throw something with true magical aim towards him. It was red and silver and shiny, catching the light over and over as it spun through the air. He caught the Scythe in the middle of the handle easily.

"Hey! That's mine!" Buffy growled.

"And when I am done it will rightfully be Faith's," he said, smugly.

Faith seemed too shocked by this sudden turn of events to do anything but stand there, jaw open, eyes wide. Buffy backed up, trying to keep some penguins between them. She knew how sharp the weapon was. She'd nearly lost a finger polishing it one day.

Troy prepared to lunge for her, mindless of the birds - time was ticking after all.

"I sacrifice you, Slayer, in the name of Mapanos and with the power..."

A large metal bucket struck him forcefully on the side of the head, knocking him to his knees and spilling its contents all over him. Twelve hungry, angry penguins, flapping ridiculously, descended on him as they fought over the fish.

The crowd went wild.

Toni stood off to the side, breathing heavy and wiping her hands on her jeans.

"I told you I would stop you."

Then she was in front of them, pulling on Buffy's hand. "Come on! You must leave before it is too late."

Buffy didn't need telling twice, but she caught Faith's arm first. "Come with me?"

Faith was watching Troy struggling under the mass of large birds.

"He was really gonna..." she couldn't even finish the thought. "Yeah, come on."

The three of them ran together across the loose sand towards the exit. As the roar of the people and demons and animals increased even more, Buffy looked back over her shoulder, expecting to see Troy had beaten back his flappy foes. He was still buried under a wriggling throng of black and white with yellow accents but she spotted, in that brief few seconds, two other things that made her heart go cold. One was Troy's dad pointing his staff at them, the end flashing orange and blue sparks.

The second was Mapanos walking around Troy's buried form to where the stake end of the Scythe poked out between the penguins. He didn't even hesitate before running forward and impaling himself on the sharp wooden shaft. Blood pooled beneath the goat and Buffy watched him slump onto the back of the birds as he took his last breath.

The prophecy was complete.


Chapter Five

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