Watchers Council – Library – Later
“I think I’ve got something,” Robin said, rising from the table and bringing the Opus Obscurum with him, making Rowena and Giles walk over. “Bonnie called it the Arena, right?”
“Yes,” Giles answered.
“It doesn’t mention the Presidium specifically, but it does say that mages have been known to create alternate realities and merge the waking world with the sleeping world. Kinda like Freddy Krueger.”
“Who?” Giles asked.
“Movie villain – Nightmare on Elm Street,” Rowena explained quickly, before turning back to Robin. “Is there a remedy?”
“No, but there is a reference to something here,” he said, pointing to a particular page.
“Okay, let’s get this down to Willow now,” she said, motioning the three of them toward the door.
Watchers Council – Coven Room – Same Time
Willow read the passage as Giles, Robin and Rowena looked over her shoulder. She looked at another book and compared it to the page Robin was pointing to.
“I don’t know if it’ll work, but it’s the only option we have,” Willow answered. “We’ll have to be sedated, because I don’t think falling asleep is in our plans anytime soon.”
“I don’t have to remind you of the risks here,” Giles told her. “If you get there, we might not be able to wake you if you’re drugged. And if that happens, you might become trapped in that Arena.”
Willow nodded. “I realize all that. But we’ve gotta get those girls out of there Giles. If the only way is for me to hitch a ride inside with a slayer and blow the sucker up somehow…so be it.”
“And how are you going to do that exactly? Blow it up I mean?” Robin asked.
Willow shrugged. “I’ll figure it out once I get there. For now, let’s go see if Kennedy agrees.”
Arena – Moments Later
Imbethit raised his arms, drawing a deafening roar from the crowd as four tiny figures emerged from the tunnel into the Arena. Faith, Mia, Vi and Marsha were shepherded at spear-point before the demon.
“Two must die,” Imbethit pronounced, “for the other two to live.” Once more he tossed the silver dagger down, placing it neatly in the sand in front of them.
“I will not kill for you!” Faith shouted, earning a derisive boo from the crowd. “Yeah?” she challenged them, staring around the towering stands. “Bring it on! Come on, chains and all! You want a Hellraiser moment to get off on, well, here I am! I’ll put this,” she said as she snatched up the knife, “through your damn head!”
“That is not for you to choose,” Imbethit rasped.
Faith whirled around in horror as Marsha’s shrill, panicked scream filled the Arena. The young slayer slipped slowly into the ground. Already her feet had vanished, then her calves, as she fell over and clutched at the sand, trying to drag herself free. Serpentine shapes moved beneath the sand around her.
“Get her out of there!” Faith yelled, leaping for Marsha, clutching her hands and pulling.
“She lives yet,” Imbethit said as the other two slayers joined Faith, trying to keep Marsha from sinking any deeper. “If two of you fight, she will live.”
Watchers Council – Coven Room – Same Time
“Are you ready?” Willow asked.
“Let’s get it done,” Kennedy said firmly.
Willow and Kennedy lay down in the circle in the center of the Coven Room, side by side but with their heads in opposite directions, with their hands linked together. A host of candles surrounded them, as did Dr. Miller and his nurse, who each gave Willow and Kennedy an injection in their arms.
Giles and Robin kept a close watch on the events from the far side of the room. Rowena stood next to them but looked away, as if unable to watch any further.
After the medical staff stepped outside the circle, Jeff stepped forward and began to shake holy water around the circle, while chanting softly. Willow and Kennedy both closed their eyes.
Arena – Same Time
“What do we do?” Vi screamed frantically, heaving on Marsha’s arm with all her might. Mia held the other, while Faith tried to dig Marsha’s legs free.
The young girl was still sinking inexorably downward, her knees now vanishing. A chain slithered across the sand between the slayers and burrowed down toward Marsha’s trapped legs. She let out another piercing scream, this time one of agony.
“Fight me!” Faith demanded as she stood up, turning to Vi.
“What?” Vi asked in horror. Faith then turned instead to Mia.
“Come on, fight!” she insisted.
“No,” Mia pleaded in a tiny voice, barely audible above the baying of the crowd.
“Do it! Vi, keep trying to get her free. Mia, fight! He wants a fight, let’s give him one! Drag it out as long as you can! Come on!”
“No,” Mia shook her head, tears misting her eyes. But then she leapt at Faith, driving her off her feet. Vi looked on, shocked, but then turned her attention to Marsha. Vi hauled on her arms while whispering to her, trying to calm the terrified, crying slayer.
Arena – Underground Cell – Same Time
At the far end of the cavernous cellblock, a dim skylight cast its murky glow on a new cell containing Kennedy and Willow. The two got up and looked around.
“Are you from the Council?” one of the girls in the adjacent cell asked, startling both of them.
“Yeah, Willow,” she said, pointing first to herself and then to her companion, “and Kennedy.”
“Hey, pass it on to whoever’s in charge up there,” the girl said over her shoulder. “Willow and Kennedy.”
“No need,” Willow said, striding up to the bars, “we’ll introduce ourselves.”
“Can you zap ’em?” Kennedy asked.
“Nightmare on Elm Street number four, Grasshopper,” Willow grinned humorlessly, gripping the bars. “This place isn’t a physical realm, so real world rules don’t apply.”
“I thought four was the one where they showed Freddy the mirror?” Kennedy asked.
“Wasn’t it the one where they put holy water on the grave?” a girl in the neighboring cell asked.
“Whatever,” Willow said, “this is the one where a good witch can tear this place to bits.” She stood back from the bars, then swept her arm around. The bars were sliced clean through, twisting back away from her, as if she had wielded a scythe.
“Come on,” she added, similarly opening the next cell, “jailbreak.”
She and Kennedy sprinted down the main corridor. Kennedy yelled for the trapped slayers to stand back while Willow tore open cell after cell.
Presidium Citadel – Panopticon – Same Time
“Well?” the Flayer demanded of the Lover, as they watched the events unfolding in her Panopticon.
“Well, what?” she replied calmly.
“Are you going to allow this?” he clarified, frowning.
“Your servant has been given the Arena,” the Lover said, her eyes fixed on the images of Willow and the growing force of slayers with her. “The choice of how to wield it, and against whom, was his. If he cannot control it now, he shall not have help from us. He is not powerless.”
“Yes, Highness,” the Flayer snarled as she turned her back.
As the Lover walked away, a small smile graced her leathery lips.
Arena – Same Time
The gateway to the subterranean tunnel erupted outwards, admitting an army of slayers. Imbethit’s robed form started in surprise, staring across the vast Arena floor, then raised both hands. Beneath him, dozens of hidden doorways opened in the encircling iron wall, releasing guard after guard.
Willow spotted the demon atop his ornate platform. She ran forward, seemingly immune to the attempts of the guards to stop her. Their spears rebounded and those that blocked her way were tossed to the ground. Then the slayers were upon them, wresting their weapons from their hands, stabbing and crushing them
“You got a plan yet?” Kennedy asked, running alongside Willow.
“Just don’t die,” Willow panted. “That’s Imbethit up there. He must be the focus of the Arena spell. If I take him out we all go home! Injuries shouldn’t matter once we’re out, just don’t die!”
Willow turned her head sharply to the sound of Marsha screaming from inside the pit.
“You stop tall, dark and ugly,” Kennedy said with a nod, “I’ll help Marsha.” She ran toward where Vi was desperately trying to assist the young girl. Marsha was buried to her waist, sobbing in fear and pain, as Vi dug at the sand around her, trying to free her.
Willow paused for a moment, looking unsure of which direction she should go, then headed in the opposite direction from Kennedy, toward Imbethit.
Back in the death pit, Kennedy raced along dodging the various melees around her.
“Help me!” Vi pleaded. Kennedy fell to her knees beside her, grabbing Marsha’s arms and trying to pull her free.
“Faith!” Kennedy yelled, spotting the head slayer struggling with Mia nearby.
“Nice of you to stop by!” Faith grunted. “Did you bring help?”
“Willow’s up there,” Kennedy pointed to the stands.
Faith pushed Mia away and raised her hand to her split lip, wincing as she touched it. Mia caught her by surprise, attacking again with an inarticulate shout. She knocked Faith to the ground and ended up astride her hips.
“Mia!” Faith yelled, just before the other slayer smashed her fist into her face again. Kennedy stared at her girlfriend in shock. Then, as other slayers arrived to help Marsha, she leapt into action. Mia hit Faith twice more, cutting her cheek and splitting her lip again, before Kennedy arrived with a dive and drove her to the ground. Faith rolled away, coughing and spitting blood.
“Mia!” Kennedy shouted, as her girlfriend struggled in her arms. “Mia, it’s me! It’s over!”
Mia shoved her off with brutal strength and leapt atop her, raising her fist to strike. Kennedy stared up at her, too dazed and confused even to lift her hands to defend herself. Their eyes met, and Mia hesitated.
“Please?” Kennedy said softly. Mia’s arms dropped to her sides, then she simply fell sideways, lying on the sandy ground. Kennedy crawled to Mia’s side and hugged her as she started crying.
Guard demons were still streaming out of the gateways beneath Imbethit’s platform, starting to outnumber the slayers. Willow burst through the press of bodies and raised her arms, clenching her fingers into fists. The iron of the Arena wall twisted, caught in an invisible grip. At Willow’s command the great walls tore, huge slabs of twisted iron crashing down into the open gateways and entombing the guards there.
Above her, Imbethit’s grip on the railing in front of him crushed the metal. The Assassin raised a gauntlet and swung it in Willow’s direction, sending several of the huge statues around him toppling toward her. She deflected them with a wave of her arm, sending them flying into the stands where they exploded into fragments among the roaring crowd.
Her forehead knit in concentration, Willow raised her hands toward Imbethit. The air rippled between them and the steel wall leading up to the demon’s platform buckled, twisting to either side, then crumpling downwards. The pair were left facing each other at either end of a chasm of tortured metal.
Imbethit raised his armored fists in defiance, and the Arena’s crowd suddenly wailed in agony as they disintegrated. The remains of their bodies formed a dark mist that swirled back toward Imbethit, wrapping around him like a cloak. He aimed his power at Willow, who staggered beneath the assault. The air around her fractured with an ear-splitting shriek.
Faith, bruised and battered, joined Vi in trying to get Marsha free of her sandy prison. Suddenly the whole Arena seemed to lurch. With an anguished cry Marsha sank deeper into the sand, which itself was draining away, revealing patches of oily, writhing chains beneath it. Slayers and guards alike lost their footing as the true face of the Arena was revealed – jagged metal and barbed chains, slick with blood, tatters of flesh still hanging from them. In seconds, the battle was reduced to humans and demons alike struggling to stay upright, to keep themselves from falling into the writhing mass of iron.
“F-faith,” Marsha sobbed, “don’t…please…”
“I won’t let go kid,” Faith assured her. Vi yelled as her leg slipped through a gap, a thrashing chain cutting her thigh before she could pull it free.
“Let go,” Marsha pleaded, “just…it hurts, please let go –”
“No!” Faith yelled, as Marsha let go of her wrist. “Willow’s here. We’re almost home, so hang on!” She and Vi both redoubled their grip on the young slayer’s arms, struggling to pull her out of the mass of metal trapping her. “Willow!” the elder slayer yelled. “Hurry up!”
Willow held a hand out, shielding herself. She glanced quickly back at the struggle to save Marsha, then returned her attention to her opponent.
“Die, you son of a bitch!” Willow snarled. She leaned forward, as if into a gale, gritting her teeth against the storm of power being directed against her by Imbethit. Around the two of them, the Arena was disintegrating, its walls crumbling. Great chunks of stone and iron crashed down, forcing the slayers to retreat into the center of the lurching Arena floor as the periphery collapsed. Imbethit fell back a step, driven back by Willow’s attack.
With a deafening groan of tearing metal, the Arena floor erupted at the center, sending slayers sprawling in all directions. Faith lost her grip on Marsha and fell away down the sudden slope as the floor moved. She rolled to a halt with a pained cry, lifting her hand to find her palm sliced open. Looking down, she saw Imbethit’s dagger, her blood on its blade.
Above, the twisted mass of chain fell in on itself, swallowing Marsha and threatening to take Vi with her, her arm vanishing into the mass. Vi screamed in agony and fell backwards, clutching at her bleeding, mangled hand in shock.
Faith grabbed at the dagger and stood, scrambling up the side of the mountain of broken iron growing from the center of the Arena. She spotted Imbethit, locked in his duel with Willow, and hurled the blade at the demon.
Imbethit’s faceless head turned for a fraction of a second to see the weapon flying toward him, and in that moment Willow’s assault broke his defenses. Her magic crushed him, his armor twisting and crushing, smoke billowing from beneath it. The knife buried itself to the hilt in his shadowed face. Great rifts opened up in the Arena, revealing a black nothingness beyond, and then –
Watchers Council – Coven Room – Same Time
Willow and Kennedy both darted up from their positions on the coven room floor and looked at each other. The rest of the room closed in around them.
“Are you alright?” Giles asked. “The girls…?”
Willow looked up at Rowena for a moment. “Marsha,” Willow mumbled, as she moved to her feet and quickly dashed from the room.
Infirmary – Moments Later
Willow stopped at the door of the infirmary and saw the slayers starting to rise…with the exception of Marsha. Dr. Miller and his nurses stood over the young slayer, working frantically. As Willow walked into the room, Vi was examining her hand, which now appeared normal. Faith pulled off her own monitors and both of them made their way over toward Marsha’s bed.
“Is she okay?” Vi asked timidly as she approached.
“Give us some room,” Dr. Miller told the slayer in a short tone, then went back to giving orders to his nursing staff.
“She’s gonna be okay, isn’t she?” Vi asked again.
“Please,” the doctor insisted and pointed her away.
Vi took a few steps back toward Mia and Faith as Kennedy and the rest of the group from the Coven Room finally arrived and walked inside the infirmary. Kennedy rushed over and pulled Mia into her arms, kissing her soundly. The gesture didn’t seem to go unnoticed by Rowena, but she made no motion toward Willow to do the same.
Slowly, Willow continued walking towards Marsha. She looked at the monitors by Marsha’s bed, where she could see that one in particular had flatlined. The doctor turned around and then motioned to the door.
“Anyone who isn’t sick, I want out of here now!” he snapped. He turned back and the assisting nurse handed him a syringe of some kind.
Xander came over and put his arm around Willow. “Come on. We’ve gotta let him work Will. We can’t be a distraction.”
The logic in Willow seemed to take hold and she nodded as the two of them filed out with everyone else, his arm still firmly planted on her shoulder.
Watchers Council – Infirmary Waiting Room – Moments Later
Rowena moved closer to Willow, but Giles’s voice stopped her. “Rowena? Please call Robson and see if his slayers have woken. Have him check with the Asian branches and advise us.”
Rowena looked uncertain, glancing back at Willow.
“Go on,” the witch told her. “I’ll be okay. Everything will be fine.”
Rowena closed the distance and kissed her on the cheek before bringing her into a hug. “I’ll be in the library,” she whispered.
Presidium Citadel – Chorum – Same Time
The many tiers around the central floor emptied, as the mages stepped back into shadow. The Flayer alone remained, staring at the buckled, broken form at the center of the chamber.
“Rise,” he said harshly. Slowly Imbethit got to his feet, the bent edges of his armor scraping against one another.
“Master…” he said in a rattling hiss.
“Your chance for vengeance is expended,” the Flayer said. “Return to your service.”
The demon painfully bowed, then left the Flayer in the silent, darkened chamber.
Watchers Council – Library – Later that Day
Rowena stood with the phone to her ear. “That’s wonderful news, Robson…Yes. I’ll be sure to inform Mr. Giles. I’ll have Willow’s Coven look immediately for a protection spell we can cast to guard the slayers. If Al finds it first, let me know, ‘kay? …You too, Robson. Bye.”
Rowena hung up with a smile and was startled to find Willow standing silently in the doorway, watching her.
“Willow…?” Rowena asked.
The witch paused for nearly three seconds saying nothing.
“Marsha’s dead,” she finally answered in a monotone.
“Oh God,” Rowena mumbled. She quickly closed the distance between them and pulled Willow into an embrace.
Silent tears rolled down Rowena’s cheeks as she rested her chin on Willow’s shoulder. The witch, however, showed no expression as she returned the hug.