arena II:
let the games begin

By kismet

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"You ARE joking, right?" Xander said incredulously. Buffy shook her head emphatically. "OK, you're not joking. So what do we do?"

"I think the answer's obvious; go by the old plan and stake him." Anya popped her Chupa Chup back in her mouth. "Mmm, I love the Strawberry Ice Creams."

"It's not that simple, Anya," Giles said, rubbing his forehead.

"What's not simple? Spike's still a soulless vampire, we were expecting a soulless vampire, so don't we stake him?" Anya's eyebrows went up.

"But he was one of us, in a weird sort of way, for a while," Willow said, frowning at her Banana and Chocolate Chupa Chup. "Until he got the chip out of his head, that is, but don't old relationships count for something?"

Anya looked around, then said, "No."

Xander looked askance at her. "Really? That's something...new. And interesting."

"Take you for example," Willow tried. "You're an ex-demon, but we don't off you."

"Keyword being ex? And I have a soul, you know." Anya crunched down on the lollipop with a sound like bone being ground.

"And correct me if I'm wrong, but the ex-demon is also now my loving girlfriend?" Xander put in. "I'd hate to think that you guys were considering offing my official honey, now."

"Oh," Willow frowned. "Then all that's wrong with Spike is that he didn't hook up with one of us while he had a chance at redemption through love?"

Xander and Anya glared. Willow grinned. "Sorry, my bad."

"I just don't know whether it is a good idea to keep this from Angel," Giles was saying to Buffy. "Are you sure lying to keep a secret of this sort will be...beneficial?"

"I couldn't tell Angel!" Buffy threw up her hands. "You know how he gets, all territorial. And he's always had this thing about Spike, maybe because he made him he sees him as one of the mistakes he needs to polish off."

"And we have to add the fact that Spike tortured him a few times? That's gotta hurt." Xander removed Anya's lollipop and gave her a loving kiss.

"So are you just going to let it go?" Willow grimaced at the couple's smacking display of affection. "Leave Spike alone?"

"I can't, not while he's making Los Angeles demon headquarters," Buffy sighed. "And Angel's going to find out sooner or later; he's expecting us to call to schedule when we're going to work on this again, and I think he kind of found my answers fishy. I don't know why I bother, the world sure wouldn't miss Spike if he fell down some drainhole and never climbed out again." She stood up, taking her leather jacket off the back of the chair. "Anyone for donuts? I feel like some sugar."

"Honey frosted chocolate," Xander called. "And two raspberry jellies for Anya." The ex-demon giggled and whispered something to him as they engaged in casual petting. Giles rolled his eyes and Willow stifled a giggle as she put in her order.

"Be back in ten!" Buffy sang out as she left.

When the front door closed Willow shared a look with Giles. "Is it me, or is Buffy bouncier than usual today?"

"I...I did notice something amiss, but I can't quite identify it, I'm afraid."

"Mmmmf...she's lying," Anya broke away from Xander for a moment. "About something, but I don't know what."

"I'm lying to myself," Buffy said disgustedly as she walked down the suburban, tree-lined avenue. "If that over-aged, over-bleached blood-vacumn fell down a drainhole, I'd miss him." She groaned, closing her eyes and putting her fingers to her temples. "I think I must have lost some brain-cells somewhere along the way. Spike. SPIKE, remember? Spike bad. Bad bad! Three years in Psychology and what? I can't even sort out my own twisted..." she gave a snort of disgust as she looked both ways and crossed the road.

One minute it was a fine, sunny day with a nice nip to the breeze and a girl with a honey-streaked ponytail was crossing an empty street, the next moment a black, unmarked car had come screaming round the bend and collided with the only pedestrian in sight. The impact knocked Buffy off her feet and she landed on the bonnet before rolling off to smack into the ground face-down. Even then she groggily tried to push herself up, but the two men who burst out of the car gave her no time for that as they hauled her into the backseat, sticking a syringe into her arm even before the doors slammed.

With a screech of tires, the car sped away.

*~*

"Angel?"

The man lifted his dark head.

Cordelia was standing in the doorway. "There's someone here who wants to see you."

He uncoiled easily, feet falling to the floor as he stood. "Send him in."

Cordelia frowned at him and quickly slipped in, shutting the door. "I don't think that's such a good idea. In fact, you know what would be a good idea? If I told her you were asleep, or in the shower, or not in..."

Angel stared at her for a moment. "Cordelia?"

"Hmmm?" she said brightly.

"Why would I not want to see this person?"

Cordelia opened her mouth but there was a rap on the door. Before she could say anything it opened.

The woman took off her sunglasses and pulled down her hood, revealing a pair of striking violet eyes and neatly pleated ridges on either cheekbone. The tattoo down across her left eye shifted slightly as she smiled, tucking the glasses into the pocket of her long leather coat. "Hello, Angel."

The vampire sucked in a needless breath. "J'heira."

"And he asks why," Cordelia muttered as she stalked around the woman and out the door. She couldn't quite forgive the Oden Tal princess for having left her to die the last time they'd met, and she suspected the demoness had more influence over Angel than was healthy. Quite rightly, too.

J'heira waited until the door clicked closed behind Cordelia, the planes of her Oriental face impassive except for her almond eyes as they flicked up to Angel sharply.

Hand reaching blindly behind him, Angel dropped the book he had been reading and it fell to the floor. Trying to catch it, he accidentally knocked the name plaque and clock off his desk and there was an embarrassing clatter.

"I'm...ahh...sorry about that. Clumsy fingers...late night." Angel bent over and fumbled for the objects as J'heira smiled. "It's been a long time. What brings you to LA?"

"Do I need a reason to come?" She trailed one finger over the top of the clock he had replaced that was still, amazingly, ticking. "Maybe I just came to see how you were doing."

Angel stilled, his fingers resting on the smooth top of his desk. She was barely a hairsbreadth away from him, her hand resting lightly on the top of the dark wood of the ornamental clock.

"Not you. You're a woman driven by a cause and I think you would not 'waste' your time on anything that did not have to do with it."

Dark lashes flickered over violet eyes for a moment, then she turned from him, pacing across the office. "Is that the way I seem to others?" Under the back of her coat, the spiny strip running down between her shoulders to follow the curve of her spine was beginning to glow red. Even across the room he could feel its heat, a dangerous lure of attraction that could very well burn. "We all have our causes to drive us through life; you have your own."

The instinct that surged through him was almost uncontrollable. "Whatever you came for, J'heira, you can ask from me without trying to bend me to your will this way," he gritted out, a muscle beginning to twitch in his jaw. "It's dangerous and it's demeaning; I don't like people trying to control me."

She spun on her heel suddenly, divided coat flaring around her legs for a moment. "What do you want me to say, then? No polite talk first?"

"Just be as short and direct as you can." Slowly, he walked around his desk, settling carefully into his chair. "And it would help if you would stop it."

Violet almond eyes narrowed. "I can't," she said abruptly as she came forward, one hand out. "But it's true, I need your help, Angel. Two of my girls have been taken."

"So you're still at it?" he asked rhetorically. "Tay again?"

She shook her neat head, lips curling. "I killed him some time ago, they haven't sent new trackers for some time though they still continue to keep tight security in my dimension. No, these were people of this dimension and the girls they took were not those new to maturity. They were two of the first I ever brought over; two of those whom you helped me save the last time."

He tried to regulate his needless breathing. Slowly. Inhale, hold and exhale. Inhale, hold and exhale. The heat seemed to make the air between them shimmer. Normally it took longer than this, and when they were not alone sometimes it did not happen at all. Yet here it was now and he felt as if he was betraying someone even though in actuality there had been no one for some time.

"Demon or human?"

"I don't know," she said curtly with the reluctance of a strong, self-reliant person to admit defeat. "They were together alone in the city, and they never came back. All I know is that they were taken away in a truck with this license plate." She tossed the folded bit of paper down onto the desk.

He folded it into his palm. "I'll have this run for you." A pause. "They were taken, how? The Ko..."

The violet eyes looked away. "I don't know if they were cut." They both knew that with the powers the matured women of the Oden Tal possessed, it was almost impossible to subdue them unless the Ko was cut away.

"I'll find them for you," he said abruptly. "Just give me a day to have the number run, then I'll contact you. Where are you staying?"

"I gave your receptionist my mobile number." Her eyes assessed him for a few moments then she turned and strode for the door. "Goodbye for now, Angel."

It was almost a physical relief when the heat broke and the stifling air in the room seemed to settle. Lowering his head with a small gasp, Angel braced himself against his desk.

"New job?" Cordelia's head popped in, followed by the rest of her. "At least she can pay the bill, unlike some of the other losers who come in here from time to time." She paused, eyeing her boss for a few moments. "She did it again, didn't she?"

"It's...it's so strong," he tried to clarify it. "Like a command from a power you can't disobey. It's even stronger than the urge to feed and she knows it. What I can't see is why she has to use it on me..."

Cordelia gave a very unladylike snort as she set the mail down on his table. "Sometimes you guys are so stupid I'm thinking you were born with less brains or something. Don't you get it?"

"Get what?" Angel raised his head, massaging his temples as if he had a headache when it was actually some other part of him that was aching.

"She can't help it. Duh!" Cordelia tossed her brown hair over one shoulder. "Weird, dimension-hopping lady has set her sights on you as a 'possible', or at least her genetic sights. Her fertility radar is way off, anyway, if she thinks that you're father material. I don't..."

"I need to go downstairs." He stood up abruptly, shoving his chair back and brushing hurriedly past her. "Mind the office for twenty minutes, will you Cordelia?"

"Well..." the door slammed on her. "Sure," Cordelia finished with a sigh as she pulled it open and went out into the front room. Off-key whistling outside the front door announced Wesley's arrival, and with a cocked eyebrow Cordelia poured two mugs of coffee instead of one as the ex-Watcher-turned-rogue-demon-hunter hung up his latest white coat on the peg.

"Good morning, Cordelia! Where's Angel, not up yet?"

"He's taking a shower. A cold one."

*~*

It was the roar that woke her, and at first she thought it was the roar of the sea. Low, thunderous and powerful. Slowly, she swam into consciousness. Bars of light broke the darkness and fell over her face. The air was musty and held the tang of new-sawn planks along with the sharper, cold smell of iron. She was lying on her side, curled up in foetal position.

She put out her hands and her fingers felt the cold smoothness of iron bars within, and the roughness of unfinished wood without. The shafts of light were bright and forced her to squint as she pushed herself up. Dark and light made her head spin  as she felt above her and found that she could just sit up without hitting her head on the metal-sheeted top.

"I'm in a crate?" Buffy said hoarsely, her throat feeling like three frogs were sitting inside it. She shook her head and felt a strange coolness against her forehead. She put her fingers to it and discovered that she was wearing some kind of band that went all around her head, hidden under her hair.

The roar turned out to be the roar of voices, punctuated now by the sound of hands clapping. There were people out there, many people.

"Hey!" she shouted, getting into a kneeling position. "Hey! Can anyone hear me?"

One voice was rising above the rest now, aided by a microphone. She couldn't make out what it was saying.

"Someone let me out of here!" She thumped on the metal sheeting above her to no avail. "Help!" Lying on her side again she lashed out with her feet, but her boots only made the bars vibrate. She tried punching the top of the crate, but she was in too awkward a position to put all her force behind it and all she got for her efforts were bruised knuckles.

"Someone's really going to pay when I get out of here," Buffy muttered as she struggled into kneeling position again, trying to put her eye to a crack and thanking her stars that she wasn't claustrophobic. She drew a large breath, preparing to scream as loud as she could...

With a snap the planking over the side she was facing was flipped upwards an a face grinned at her from the other side of the bars.

She fell back with a shriek that sounded more scared than scary, heart almost bursting out of her chest from the sudden shock.

"Welcome back," said the man with a nasty laugh. "I was wondering when you'd wake up." He was in his late twenties, maybe, dressed oddly enough in a pearl gray suit with a dark blue shirt, his corn-yellow hair parted on one side and slicked back.

"Let me out," Buffy said in her deadliest voice. "Or I'll make you sorry you were born."

"Actually, I think that will only happen IF I let you out, darlin'. So be a good little girl and...whoa!" he jumped back, laughing, when she lunged forward, her fingers clawing as far as they could reach between the bars. "Already in the fighting spirit? That's good, because you're going to get more fights than you can take on in a little while."

"You have no idea what you're dealing with," she spat. She was in what looked like an empty storeroom, harshly lit by fluorescent bars hanging from the ceiling. There was a doorway covered by divided black plastic sheeting as if this was a warehouse.

"Really? As a matter of fact I do. This generation's Slayer, all of five feet two with hazel eyes and honey-blond hair, third year Psychology student at the University of California Sunnydale, lived with single mother, now bunking in dorm with one Willow Rosenberg. You're a lot younger than I thought you'd be."

Her mind raced. He knew a lot, for a human. But he didn't know as much as he thought he did if he thought she was young for a Slayer. At her age she was practically grandmother-material by Slayer standards. She pulled back a little, fingers curled around the bars as she watched him carefully. He was grinning cockily at her, probably enjoying what he thought was her stunned reaction.

"Who are you, and where am I?"

"Sensible girl," he said, pleased. "You can call me Julian, and you'll be seeing a quite a bit of me for the rest of your time here, here being an undisclosed location in LA." The muffled roar of voices rose again along with the sound of applause, and he looked up. "It seems the show's about to start, so let's cut the chit-chat for the time being, shall we? Wouldn't want you to miss it, seeing as you've got a special seat reserved." He stepped away and motioned with his arm to someone she couldn't see.

"What's going on?!" She felt the crate or cage or whatever it was suddenly lurch into motion. "Hey!"

"Don't worry, sweetheart, I'm not leaving you." Julian laughed again as he walked leisurely along, keeping pace with her cage as it was pushed through the plastic sheeting. "And once you've watched the show, things will become a lot more clear, so don't get your panties in a bunch."

"My p...underwear isn't any of your business!" Buffy spluttered. They were moving through a dark passageway now and the ruckus was getting louder. "If you're working for some demon you'd better tell your boss that this was the biggest mistake of his life; I'll rip his throat out and make him eat it by the time we're through!"

His laughter practically bounced off the walls, as if she'd said the funniest thing on earth. "Oh God, that was a good one. Keep it like that, Buffy, and we'll get along famously. Now," he motioned again. "We're going to have to shut you in just for a minute, wouldn't want the audience seeing the latest attraction before time, would we?"

"You shit...!" The shutter banged down on her and she pulled her fingers away just in time. She struck furiously at the top of the box, and might as well have been trying to make a dead man talk for all the good it did. She heard the creak of rusted metal, shrieking at being moved, then the light flooded in through the cracks again and the roar nearly lifted them all on its crest.

Scrambling up, she fitted her eye to the largest crack between plank and bar that she could find.

People, banks of people sitting, standing, screaming, crying and clapping, pumping their fists into the air from the rows of seats high up around them. Hard music pounded loud enough to make the walls shake. The spotlights glared down, making the very air seem to shift and shimmer in unnatural brightness in the amphitheatre. She caught the words of some of the screams, and they were ugly in their ferocious excitement, making some unconscious part of her want to crawl inside herself and hide.

They were moving sideways between the high iron grille and the wall into the enclosed section under the seats. She heard the clang as the gate Julian unlocked clanged behind her and the thunder of feet above her, echoing.

They pulled up the shutter again and she saw a row of cages which must be similar to hers. They were all ranged up along the iron grille at the very front, right under the first row of seats. The cages weren't empty either. She couldn't see into them, but she could hear the occupants as well as she could see the sides and tops shake under the onslaught of the furious creatures trapped inside.

"What did I tell you? Best seats in the house." So saying, Julian bent down and tossed a bottle of mineral water in to her. "Enjoy the show and don't let the neighbours bother you too much. They're new here too and it's their first fight, so they're quite jumpy."

She was wheeled into position not a foot from the grille. She couldn't hear them leaving for the sound of the crowd and the sheer intensity of the music, but she thought she did hear the clang of the gate. The crate beside her rattled and she heard some horrendous hissing that she couldn't identify, along with words in English and demon-languages she couldn't identify from the other cages.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" boomed the voice amplified by the sound system as the music was momentarily turned down. "Welcome to The Arena, where the best and most bloodthirsty fight for survival and for your entertainment!"

The roar of approval was deafening.

"As in the days of old gladiators fought in the Colosseum for the rulers of Rome, here they fight for you and for your approval! Each of our fighters are specially chosen for their skill, viciousness and talent, and we guarantee that nowhere else will you see such spectacles as you will see here."

"Get on with it!" shouted a man somewhere above Buffy. The shrill, shrieking laughter of a woman echoed his words like the mad warning of a banshee.

"Make sure you stay for tonight's special performance, a sure shocker for those of you familiar with your modern-day demonology, but first things first. We'll begin tonight's blood-letting with the pairing of a well-known face with a newcomer to the pit. In the right hand corner, welcome the Minotaur, Garfadc!"

The crowd screamed and Buffy's eyes fixed as one of the scratched steel doors on one side of the amphitheatre began sliding open.

Hooves were the first thing she saw, attached to ankles knotted with muscle. Then the ragged hems of a pair of stained jeans. The door opened fully and Garfadc was revealed behind a row of solid bars. The Minotaur was huge, at least seven feet tall and humanoid, with nut-brown shining skin, two sweeping horns capping his elongated head like that of a water-buffalo and large red eyes. His bull's snout snarled, revealing a row of yellowed fangs as he gripped the bars that kept him from the arena, muscle rippling under the sleeves of his incongruously human white T-shirt as his eyes fixed wildly on the opposite door across the arena. The crowd obviously knew and loved him, judging from the screams.

"And in the left corner we have our newcomer, Azalia the Nuimenorean!" The applause was noticeably lower this time, and the jeering was loud.

Then the door opened, and the noise level dropped sharply.

There were no feet, no legs, no body to be seen. Just coils and coils of dully gleaming emerald scales. Every eye watched avidly as those coils shifted, huge stretches of muscle rising sharply under the shining skin, then Azalia decided to show herself.

She had the torso, head and arms of a woman but from the waist down she was a serpent. Huge, slitted yellow-green eyes blinked almost sleepily as she raised herself, swaying slightly from side to side, pale green hair streaming from under the folds of skin atop her head like a cobra's hood. She yawned and her teeth were small, white and pointed. Her fingers were long and ended in wicked claws. Buffy's eyes fixed on the silver band that ran around Azalia's head which was identical to the one Garfadc wore, and probably her own as well. It was almost pretty, perhaps half an inch thick and studded at intervals with pale blue squares which on closer inspection turned out to bear silver patterns like the ones you saw on circuit boards.

The crowd went wild. As Buffy was soon to learn, the first fight and the last were always the most highly anticipated.

"On the right Garfadc, five-time winner in the Arena, and on the left the lovely Azalia!" The announcer said triumphantly at the crowd's adulation. "Who will win and move to the next round, and who will die? You know the rules, ladies and gentlemen, fight and win ten times and go free. Who wants it the most, we'll see! And now..." The music blasted back on, hard and driving, the beat thumping. "Let the Games begin!"

The bars slid back, freeing the combatants.

Garfadc was the first to step out, but he was now obviously uncertain, moving slowly and warily along the perimeter, staring at the opposite wall.

Azalia yawned again, stretching her human torso luxuriously, then slithered out.

She was huge, at least twelve feet from head to tail, the coils at her middle as thick as a man's body. Muscle rippled under emerald scales as she moved, smoothly and faster than anyone would have thought for a creature her size, and she scanned the crowd and the pit that she was seeing for the first time as a fighter. Her eyes narrowed a bit and she hissed daintily, but Buffy saw that there was no fear in those snake-eyes, and nothing that even remotely resembled a human consciousness. She was beyond a normal demon, she had no rationale except in a very basic sense and a dangerous, quicksilver cunning. She would not know how to speak or laugh or even feel affection, all she knew was hunger, sleep, kill, pain and content.

The two combatants watched each other for a few minutes, Garfadc circling carefully, looking for weak spots. Azalia drew herself up until her head was above that of the Minotaur's, her swaying picking up in tempo as the end of her tail began to twitch. The minutes stretched on, and still the serpent seemed content to watch and sway, her eyes blinking slowly, sleepily.

In the end Garfadc's nerves could stand it no longer and he attacked first.

Immediately the tail whipped around to sweep his hooves out from under him, but the Minotaur leapt and evaded as the crowd shouted over the thundering beat of the music. They went back to watching and waiting, each having tested the other.

Azalia moved first next, and she moved like lightning. Again the giant tail swept out like a crocodile's with a force that would have thrown the Minotaur to the other end of the pit. Again he evaded, but couldn't watch both ends of her at the same time. Her claws raked his shoulder, drawing first blood and the crowd howled, expensively dressed men and women in evening gowns going as wild as the Gothic punks scattered throughout.

Garfadc roared in pain and whipped around, one huge hand catching the serpent by her wrist. He ducked the swing of her other hand and struck at her snake's belly.

The walls of muscle just contracted, absorbing the blow, and the claws of her other hand sank into his other shoulder to hold him still as she gathered her coils to wind him to his death.

The Minotaur swung his head wildly, fists jarring into the snake body again and again as Azalia bared her teeth. Then, one of his horns struck her across her woman's belly.

The serpent shrieked as the telling blow struck soft flesh. Seeing his chance, Garfadc punched her again and she let go, throwing him away from her as her emerald coils thrashed and constricted protectively around her.

"Garfadc!" shouted the Minotaur's supporters. "Garfadc!!!"

Garfadc sprang again, emboldened now he had found her weak spot. Buffy saw his fatal mistake for what it was a split second before he realised it, but by then it was too late for him.

Azalia swung aside and it was a wall of green scales and muscle that rose to meet the Minotaur, the powerful tail catching him as he fell and wrapping him in green like a Swiss Roll. Garfadc let out a bull's bellow as the coils tightened around him, thrashing desperately to break Azalia's hold and hitting at the coils with all his considerable strength.

The crowd was on its feet, yelling for blood. Above her Buffy could hear a woman screaming, possibly the same woman who had laughed earlier, "Kill him! Kill the bastard, tear him apart!" The scaffolding was trembling under the thump of hands on the railing and the shifting of feet. Even the occupants of the cages under them were silenced, their demonic instincts silenced by the sheer fury of humanity's love of violence.

Garfadc was screaming with his last breath under the unrelenting pressure as the serpent squeezed. Then he ran out of air and the bull's muzzle quivered, gaping in tortured silence that was filled by the pounding music and the frenzy of the crowd. The red eyes rolled back in his head as his ribcage cracked first, lungs crumpling as boned punctured them. Buffy closed her eyes when the blood began pouring from his bull's mouth and nose. All she could hear was the music and the cheering, the clamour to greet Death.

The whole thing had lasted less than ten minutes.

"The champion: Azalia the Nuimedorean!" boomed the announcer. "A splendid fighter and an addition to the stable which guarantees some very interesting fighting in the future!"

Buffy watched, feeling sick as at last the coils loosed and withdrew, leaving the bloody mess that had been the Minotaur on the sand of the pit. Azalia's head turned, scanning the crowd above her and trying to locate the announcer, the only distinct voice in the mass of the crowd's sound. She couldn't, and she hissed, backing towards the wall in confusion. Her green-flamed yellow eyes swept around again, registering the iron grille that prevented any escape, then she saw the row of cages and their occupants.

Buffy saw the serpent tense and it was the only warning she had before Azalia screamed in fury and rushed right towards them.

The Slayer threw herself backwards seconds before a green coil slammed into the grille. Around her cries went up from the other cages which shuddered in their anchors as their occupants tried to get away. Buffy watched in disbelief as the bars actually gave, molding themselves to the curve of the snake's body. All around the pit the spectators were craning their heads, unable to see what the Nuimedorean was trying to get at.

For a millisecond Azalia swept past Buffy to slither down the line, and the Slayer pushed back against the wall of her cage at the pure killing fury in those flatly cold eyes.

She had been wondering what the silver bands they wore were for, and now she got a demonstration of it. The blue squares flared with light for a moment as some small electrical current went through the circuits, activating the device. Azalia jerked to a halt as if she had run into a brick wall, her eyes going huge in her face. Then she began to scream, tearing at the band to stop the agony lancing through her head. The more her fingers tried to pull it off, the more brightly the blue squares glowed until the serpentine coils were trashing in the sand and the woman's body crashed to the ground in agony.

At the far end of the amphitheatre the steel door slid open, a yawning mouth of welcoming blackness. The glow of the circlet faded, and like a snake to its bolt-hole, Azalia shot instinctively for the door. The bars clanged into place behind her and the steel door came down as the music ended. The first fight was over.

Buffy raised a disbelieving hand to the cool metal at her own brow. Whatever the stupid piece of jewellery had inflicted, it had been enough to floor that monster. This was a big problem if she was going to escape. A very big problem.

She thought about it as the crowd subsided into loud chatter and laughter above her, winners taking their money from less-than-gracious losers and bookies taking new bets for the next few fights. Four fights per night, that was the rule. Three nights a week. She thought about it when the two muscle-bound guys came in to clear up the mess in the bloodied sand and scatter fresh sand over the whole thing.

The next fight was less spectacular, involving five minor demons let loose in the arena with a collection of assorted weapons with which to kill each other. The last one left standing was the winner.

While they were cleaning up the carnage, Julian came in.

"So, how did you like your first view of The Arena? We're a little low on refreshments, but you'll get fed later, and who knows, there may even be a bit of champagne left over from what those pigs are guzzling up in their exclusive boxes."

"Why don't you go and torture someone else's ears with your voice?" She couldn't see him through the side of the box, just hear his disembodied words.

He clicked his tongue. "Because, princess, you're one of our pet projects now. Do you know what news it was to hear about a Slayer in the neighbourhood? Of course we had to have you and it's quite novel for me to have a human in the stables to take care of now instead of demons all the time. You'll make headlines with your first fight; people will be flying in from New York to see you. We'll make sure your first time's as special as it should be for every girl." He let the innuendo lie heavy in his words as he laughed.

"You're a spectacular asshole, Julian, but you can't make me fight."

"You'll have to, princess." His voice was suddenly close to her as if he had bent down and put his lips to the wall of the cage. "Either that or your opponent kills you painfully, and if you refuse to go out that little tiara you're wearing will give you a dose of what Azalia just felt. We've lowered the level for you, of course, don't want to kill you outside the ring now, but it will hurt like hell, believe me."

"Go fuck yourself."

He chuckled. "Keep that spirit up, princess. I like it. A word of advice, though, don't get Larry or Greg mad if you can. They're my partners in business, you see, and they're not as patient as I am."

He left as the next fight started. All that registered in Buffy's brain was spurting blood and snapping bones and blaring techno music setting the rhythm. How had she managed to get into this scrape?? All she had done was go out for a box of donuts...and what about Giles and Willow and the rest of them? They had to be worried sick...and oh God, that presentation for class was due!

She groaned. "It's a graded assessment! Why me?" She banged her head on the back of the cage in frustration. "They could at least have picked another time, like after I aced the presentation? All those notes and all that research for nothing!" Outside the crowd roared louder again and she cursed. "What is WITH them now?"

The pit was empty and had just been sanded down again. The music had crashed to a halt. Even as she looked up the lights were dimmed dramatically.

"And now," said the announcer with sarcastic melodrama, "The moment you've all been waiting for."

The crowd groaned and catcalled just like any normal crowd. It was scary.

"For tonight's special performance we have managed to 'convince' one of history's most legendary warriors to enter our ring. For those of you to whom our shows and others like them have become tradition, for those of you who are veterans of the scene in all the major cities of the world, for those of you who are versed in the occult, this name will be no stranger. And tonight he will fight in the Arena for the very first time for your pleasure. No bets will be taken as this is just a demonstration of talent, as it were. Special thanks to Wolfram and Hart for their contribution..."

"Great, even here they have sponsors messages," Buffy muttered. Her stomach was indeed beginning to growl. She did not know how long it had been since she had eaten.

"Into the ring now we bring the challengers." One of the steel doors opened and the bars slid back with their customary clang. "An assorted mix. One Feoral demon, two Acathas and an Itsche warrior." The challengers came warily out of the opening, keeping their distance from each other and looking around warily in the dark. They had no trust for each other, but to face this opponent they knew that they had to at least tolerate each other's presence. Buffy had seen Feoral demons before, in fact Giles had become one once, but the other two kinds were new to her. The Acathas seemed run of the mill with mottled green skin and large heads, but the Itsche was dressed in armour, an ornate helmet masking all of its face except its eyes, and it had four arms. Interesting, barely.

The lights swept the amphitheatre and the almost silent crowd. Beside her the occupants of the other cages shifted and growled, feeling the naked anticipation in the air.

 "The objective is simple. If the challengers manage to bring down our surprise guest, they get to go free regardless of how many fights they've fought."

A murmur rose from the crowd. This had never happened before.

"For our mystery fighter this will be the first fight, one of a string of hopefully successful challenges on the road to freedom." The announcer paused, drawing out the tension as the music began to pipe in softly, growing steadily louder. "And now," the lights spun crazily and centered on the opposite steel door. "Welcome..." The door began sliding open, "One of the most celebrated killers of recent centuries, famed for viciousness, cruelty and bloodlust..."

She could barely see in the shadows, but she could feel. Without a doubt it was a vampire behind that door. And not just any vampire. This was a Master whose power pulled at her.

"For the first time in the Arena we give you one once called the Scourge of Britain...William the Bloody, Spike of Los Angeles!"

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