Her head broke the surface of the water with a lung-splintering gasp.
Toes scrabbled furiously at spongy, wet sand. Her arms churned the water, pulling her forward imaginary inches at a time. Sunlight blinded her eyes, saltwater stung as it rushed up her nose, and her mouth was gagged with half-breaths of salt. Once, a wave dragged her under again, heaved her backward, out toward the open, toward the dark blue where there was no sun and no air, but she screamed through froth and rammed her feet into the underwater sand so hard her large toe broke.
She walked up onto the dry sand in a fire of exhaustion and pain. Her smashed toe caught on a rock, sent her crashing onto her face and hands and knees on more rocks, and she just couldn't muster the strength to stand back up.
She lay under the blistering sun until she fell into darkness again.
Thirst woke her up. Panic got her to her feet. She followed her nose and desperation into the trees beyond the beach until she found a puddle of rainwater in the dirt, cradled in old, sprawling roots. She sucked it dry, got dirt in her mouth.
She followed the puddle into the trees, the trees to a river, and the river into the rising sun.
She walked for what seemed like a long time, along the river. She ate what she could catch with her hands—fish, small, sour fish from the river, and drank the water she'd snatched them from. The sun rose and the sun set and this happened a lot. Her toe healed slowly.
After a while, there was no river. She kept going east.
She walked east without a river for what she counted as three days before her body failed her again, and then she fell down and couldn't get up.
She woke up smelling grass.
On her third try, she stood. The pain wasn't there anymore.
where am i
Her feet were bare. The field was green and gold with heather that tickled and dragged at her free hands.
The sky was blue enough to hurt her eyes. Perfect white clouds threw knife-edged profiles over the ground. The wind that upset and tousled them was cold and sharp.
Warmth pressed down on her skin like a thousand touches everywhere at once. The sun was a beautiful, shining white-gold eye. Her face turned up to it, she walked with her arms held out.
The air was so sweet it was bliss to breathe.
i saved…her. there's nothing left. i'm…done
Overhead, a sharp, darting bird screamed fiercely.
A distant voice pierced the sky in a terrible howl.
She could hear things.
In Heaven, there's no pain. But my hands hurt. And someone else is screaming in pain. Therefore—
Hundreds of voices flooded her senses. Smoke was rising, thick black against the blue sky. Metal struck metal, and women and children screamed.
—this is not Heaven.
She stood still in the grass and
I am high above the ground. A ring of fire and magic is opening to swallow me whole. My hero failed me. A thin girl with terrified eyes screams as I run to meet Hell.
opened her eyes.
screaming screaming screaming
She stumbled. Her next breath was a lungful of dirt and she coughed and spat.
A heavy hand clapped down on her shoulder. Crying out with pain and shock, she threw herself forward, further into the light.
"No, no, go back, go back—come back, girl! Not that way!"
A man wearing a silver helmet looked up. Blood dyed his armor and sword red. His green eyes widened.
The noise—it hurt. A whistle of metal—she dodged, staggered back.
A tiny girl stood crying next to an old, panting dog until a hobbling old man with long gray hair snatched her up and carried her on. The dog limped behind.
She lifted her eyes, opened them against the agony, whimpering with panic, and looked past it and to the horizon in the east, where a black figure on horseback stood motionless against the perfect indigo of the far sky.
screaming screaming screaming
Something stood over her. A howl filled her eyes. She clutched at her ears, the heavy sword singing as it fell—
Fear woke her.
The broadsword hissed as it cut the air, bit into the dirt.
She recovered. Her left leg snapped out in a spin-kick.
It happened instantly—the bone snapped, the man began to fall, she reached for the sword, his wrist broke, she had the sword, and even before she had begun to slow, even before the man's knees had struck the ground, the tip of the blade was arcing gracefully through the air and had cleanly severed the head from the neck.
She was standing over a body. It was a…man. The brief scuffle had tossed dirt into the air, and it was settling only now. The point of her sword was dripping blood and gray matter.
She looked up.
Color. Two faces, bone-white under darker skin, both men, long, wild, filthy hair pulled back and bone necklaces. There was a heavy, ugly sword in her hand.
The man in the helmet stood in a circle of corpses and stared all the distance over into her face.
was sitting down.
She was looking at her hands. The sword was gone. There was so much red. Her clothes—what was left of them—were wet again, though she hadn't seen the river for days. The sun was setting behind her—forward was the black line of the eastern horizon. She was sitting in new grass, and all around there was silence.
Someone behind her was breathing loudly enough to hurt.
Confused. Hurt. Can't hear. Can't smell…can't speak.
Slowly, painfully—she turned her head.
A man in a silver helmet.
The man with the silver helmet stood there, only seven or so feet away. The helmet wasn't on his head anymore, he was holding it. His long hair golden, and his green eyes were huge and beautiful and angry and triumphant and fixed on her. He was gold and red, so much red…
Thirty feet behind him, stood the line of men. On the ground in front of them lay spears, shields…all bloodied, and their eyes, though not the same color and not as beautiful, were the same as the eyes of the man in the helmet.
She was sick with color.
Only a foot or so in front of her, a familiar, blood-covered sword jutted hilt-first out of the ground.
"My lady," he whispered, voice rough and deep and kind-of-maybe scared, "you have saved us."
She opened her mouth to speak, but was so sick she had to close her mouth again or risk vomiting. The pain in her hands had gotten worse. She closed her eyes, laid carefully down on her side, curled around her stomach. The sky was jumping up and down and the pain was
A woman was speaking. The woman had a weird accent, British maybe, she couldn't tell. The woman was telling someone to bring boiled water and bandages and clean linen and some "broth."
She was lying down. There was warm weight over her legs and arms, right up to her neck. There was no sky anymore, only a wooden ceiling, and the smell of ashes and soot was strong.
She sat up with a choking gasp, tried to stand up, and nearly passed out from the pain in her hands and the disorientation. The woman shouted, tried to grab her by the shoulders, and she scooted backward, wild, terrified, and she
was falling asleep.
The woman was leaning over her left hand, muttering things and giving orders to people she couldn't see. The ceiling was still there, and the warm weight, and the ashes and soot.
Her right hand felt clean and tight, and she tried to flex her fingers only to find them wrapped in some sort of bandages, rough wool. She rolled her head from side-to-side, eyes half-lidded, so tired, so tired…
Someone picked her right hand up. Large, warm masculine hands were holding her fingers as if they might break. She rolled her eyes into the darkness, caught a glimmer of green and gold.
"…easy, girl…you have saved…must save yourself. Take heart…I would not…soon."
The woman's muttering suddenly stopped.
"Who are you?" said the voice. "Who are you, my lady?"
She closed her eyes.
"Please," it continued, whispering now. "Who are you? A name, I beg you, a name."
"Buffy," she heard a high-pitched, cracked, pained voice say, hesitantly, afraid. "Buffy…I'm Buffy."
"Theodred," that voice whispered back.
She closed her eyes.