Disclaimer: The story is mine, most of the characters aren't. So :P
Note: As always, much thanks to my wonderful Beta, DreamsofSpike.
Even now, it all seemed to come down to her. Her presence was overpowering – even though he knew by now that it couldn’t possibly be real.
He was barely aware of the punishment he was receiving anymore. It only left more marks that, in time, would fade like all the ones that had come before them. His entire world and entire being could crumble, and wouldn’t leave a single permanent mark. His body jerked with each punishing blow of the lash, but nothing he was feeling was anywhere near strong enough to even stir his deadened thoughts.
Until he felt *her*.
Turning his head to search for her, he had seen it – that golden hair. He could do nothing but stare as the masters and punishers were shoved aside by the small blonde. Her green eyes were wide and shocked, her lips moving with words he couldn’t hear. She had been moving straight in his direction – wanting to get a few more blows in before it was all over, no doubt.
After the explosion, he couldn’t see her anymore. For some reason, he had found himself trying to laugh, even as flaming bits of oil and hot rock had landed across his back and shoulders, almost catching his skin on fire, as his punishers roughly smacked it out and unchained him, intent on getting him out of the room before he was completely destroyed.
He fell limply into their arms. Hot, flaming pieces of rubble were still falling all around them – but he couldn’t have cared less if they had ignited.
He realized vaguely that this was the longest period of complete awareness he had had in a long time.
The vampire couldn’t be sure what was going on, or why things seemed to be changing so quickly. It didn’t really matter. They were taking him down the spiraling stone staircase again, to make it hurt more. In the end, this momentary interruption didn’t matter at all.
They were going to make it hurt again.
And then – they were going to make it end.
Very soon, oblivion would welcome him like a mother’s warm womb.
The panicking crowds were not easy to push through, but Xander was not about to give up. He was smaller than most of the demons that surrounded him, and in their haste to escape, no one really paid him much attention. He was kind of glad about that, having no desire to be mistaken for a slave and hauled away with them.
His best friend was lying on the ground, trying to rise, though she looked as if she would be caught under the stampede of fleeing demons before she could manage it. Xander made his way quickly to her side, taking hold of her arm and pulling her up to her feet.
“Buffy, we’ve got to get out of here!”
“I-I can’t…” Buffy was trying to pull away from him, still dizzy and dazed. Her legs were about to give out under her, but still she pulled against him, staring toward a dark doorway on the other side of the torture chamber. “I have to…”
“We’ve got to get out of here!” Xander insisted. He picked the Slayer up off of her feet, marveling that for once he was actually capable of overpowering her, though it *was* for her own good. It was obvious that she was in no position to argue, as her head lolled onto his shoulder and she began to fade again.
“Great…” The chamber was nearly empty, except for the few demons remaining to try and put out the fire. It made it easy to navigate, at least.
Xander retreated to the far side of the chamber, feeling around the wall. “Damnit, where…?” He pulled the crumpled, and now stained map he had swiped from Durrak’s office out of the small bag he’d brought with him, struggling to open and read it around his armload of barely-conscious Slayer. “Man, that demon’s going to be pissed…”
He ran his hand all along the wall, but it wasn’t until he reached high above his head that he found the loose stone. He pushed hard, then shoved at the wall with his entire weight, before suddenly falling forward into the hidden tunnel. Before any passing demons could notice the opening and investigate, he shoved the hidden door back into place with his foot.
Buffy was beginning to show more signs of life. She frowned, rubbing at her bruised forehead, even as she continued to lean back against Xander.
“What were you doing?” Xander couldn’t help but ask. “Why’d you run off like that?”
“I-I didn’t…” Buffy looked as if her entire world had been blown out from under her. Xander helped her to stand, and they both stumbled along the hidden corridor, back towards Durrak’s office, as she tried again weakly to explain.
“I thought…I thought I saw…”
“What?” Xander demanded. “What did you think you saw that was so important that you went rushing off without even saying where you were going?”
The Slayer gave her friend no answer. She still looked to be a million miles away, but more alert at least, constantly glancing over her shoulder as they headed down the corridors. Still, Xander found himself in the lead, trying to decipher the ever-winding tunnels, and even having to draw her attention back when they finally came to the opening on the roof.
Durrak’s office was a welcome sight.
The corridors were, thankfully, mostly empty. They had heard only their own footsteps ever since they had emerged from the tunnels, neither of them willing to bring up the subject of the Slayer’s spazfest. The Slayer in question looked constantly worried, as if something were pulling her in the exact opposite direction from the one in which they were going.
The sound of laughter broke the silence just as they reached the door. Frowning, Buffy placed a finger to her lips to motion for Xander to be quiet, then burst through the office door.
Durrak’s two sons sat at the desk, a bottle of something looking very much like alcohol sitting between them on it. They were laughing heartily and throwing their hands up in the air, making noises that sounded suspiciously like ‘Kaboom!’ When she crashed through the door, their attention suddenly focused on the Slayer and her friend.
“What’s going on?” Buffy demanded.
The two half-demons turned to regard them with grins. “Kaboom!” one repeated gleefully.
“Yeah, we kind of noticed.” Xander dryly replied. “There was a great big explosion in this torture chamber…”
“We made,” Tymok said, nodding eagerly. He held out his hands wide. “Big boom! First strike complete, we destroyed the…”
His words were suddenly cut off with a strangled gasp for air as the Slayer bore down on him, pressing him up against the wall with a powerful hand locked around his throat.
“That explosion killed slaves!”
“Twenty,” Slimosh interjected. He grinned widely, obviously proud of the number. “Killed twenty slaves.”
“You…you killed…you *purposely* killed…” The Slayer looked bewildered – and beyond angry. She raised her fist to strike out at the half-demon she held by the neck, but a strong hand closed around her wrist before the blow could fall.
When Buffy whirled around to see who had stopped her, she immediately grabbed him by the neck and slammed him against the wall beside his son. Durrak did not struggle against her grip, simply looked down at her calmly. He had entered the office in the midst of the confrontation, while his sons were distracted by the Slayer’s death threats.
“You owe me an explanation, now,” Buffy informed him coldly. “Your sons just killed slaves – innocent slaves – while we were supposed to be coming up with a plan to rescue them!”
“I am sorry.” Durrak’s voice was low, humble. “We had no choice but to deceive you.”
“I’m not liking hearing the word ‘deceived’ in anything you have to say right now – so I’d suggest you do something about that.”
“There was no other way,” Durrak said calmly. “You must understand…we needed your help to stop all of this…but you would not have come, unless you believed that you could save them.”
“The slaves. If you had known, you would not have come to our aid.”
Buffy’s face looked pale. Her grip loosened as her dread began to grow. “Known what? What about the slaves?”
“They cannot be saved.”
A startled hush fell over the office. Durrak pushed away from the wall, carefully untangling himself from the Slayer’s suddenly weakened grip. She’d stepped back from him, distracted with the effort of understanding his words.
“You see,” he continued. “This was never about the slaves…not completely. We brought you here to put a stop to the slavery, yes…to make sure that no more can meet this fate… but the slaves already here…” He shrugged. “Well, they’ve been damned all over again.”
“Why?” Xander shook his head in confusion.
“Simply because no slave can leave this dimension alive.” When his words were met with the stunned and slightly blank faces of the two humans, he sighed. “When a slave is brought to this dimension, many…precautions are taken. These precautions are to ensure that the slaves never have any hope of escaping. When a slave is captured by an independent hunter, said hunter is responsible for embedding the slave with a Fire Stone before the slave is sold to the brothel. The Fire Stone is a rare gem, known only to this dimension – simply because it cannot exist outside of it. If the stone were to be taken outside this dimension, through one of the gateways…it would…well, that’s to say, its magical properties would cause it too…”
“To what?!” Buffy’s increasingly short fuse was threatening to blow.
“It would explode.” Durrak tried to hide the fact that the short blonde’s outburst had caused him to jump in a most undignified manner. “And with the stones being surgically embedded in the vampires…any attempt to leave this dimension…and, well…”
“Vampires go poof,” Xander finished for him.
The Slayer had to take a moment to collect her thoughts. “Ok…ok so…so we have to find a way to get rid of these stones, right? I mean, there has to be a way-“
“My dear Miss Summers,” Durrak spoke gently. “You are about to declare war on every demon inside this dimension. We will have to strike fast, and then get you out just as quickly. I hardly think that you will have the time to find every fire stone, in every slave, and set them free while you’re at it.”
She shook her head. “So…so what? What are you suggesting we do? Just-“
“The best thing…the most humane thing…would be to destroy them.”
Buffy could only stare blankly for a moment.
The two brothers began to shuffle their feet, moving cautiously to the other side of the room. Both were grateful that the attention and wrath of the Slayer were no longer directed at them.
“Des-destroy them?” Buffy swallowed hard. “You brought me here…to slaughter them?”
“It is the only way you can help them.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Her laugh held no humor. She looked over her shoulder at Xander, as if to see if he was buying any of it, then looked back at Durrak. “You’re asking me to kill innocents!”
“I am asking you to set them free! Think of them for just a moment…if you deny them the freedom of death, then you condemn them to an eternity in this place! Whether they are slaves or not when you leave them here, their suffering will still continue! They will be trapped!”
“So you’re just saying we should kill them all and save ourselves the trouble?”
“Just think about this!” Durrak raised his hands in an appeasing gesture, even as he was raising his voice in frustration. “These creatures…they were taken from the freedom of wandering where they would, killing when they needed to, being supernatural powers in the world…their minds have been broken, their bodies used – some of them haven’t known freedom or the outside world for years. They now know only terror, obedience and pain. Even if you did find some miraculous way to set them all free, what sort of life could they have outside this dimension? They couldn’t possibly function on their own!”
“I am *not* going to...!”
“Maybe he’s right,” Xander suddenly spoke up.
Buffy whirled to face her friend, eyes wide.
Xander swallowed hard, but continued on. “Buffy…these are vampires we’re talking about. They’re not humans that have been enslaved, they’re *vampires*…”
“You said that you didn’t believe any creature deserved this…are you taking that back now?”
“Of course not!” Xander shook his head. “They don’t deserve this…but that doesn’t mean they deserve to go free, either! They’re killers, Buff. Yeah, I get that they have souls now…but if he’s right, and they’re beyond help – maybe insane, even…”
“Then, what?” Buffy backed away from him, her disgust obvious. “We just put them down? We don’t even give them the chance to get better?”
He sighed. “This is your job, Buff…this is what you do. We slay vampires, remember?”
“I don’t want to hear any more of this.”
The carpenter took a step closer to her. “Buffy…”
“I don’t!” The pitch of her voice made Buffy’s distress obvious. “I don’t…I can’t…” She shook her head, a tear finally escaping and trailing down her cheek. The sight of the tear shut her friend up, immediately. “Don’t you get it? I can’t do it, you can’t ask me to…these are innocent people, Xander…you may not see them that way, but they are. They have souls! And…and they’ve been destroyed inside, and you’re asking me to do is to finish the job…”
“It’s *murder*, Xander! You’re not asking me to do my job, you’re asking me to murder them!” When none of them could raise an objection to her words, Buffy backed away towards the door. She flung it open. “I can’t look at you right now…not any of you. Just…give me time to think, ok? Don’t follow me, Xander…I mean it.”
The slam of the door echoed through the office. It was only then that the demons in the room could finally bring themselves to relax.
“It is dangerous to allow her to wander off on her own,” Durrak cautioned the Slayer’s friend.
“Yeah, well…not as dangerous as trying to stop her.”
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