Disclaimer: I downloaded the characters from Napster to see if I like them. I'm going to buy the cd... Really....

Fallen from Grace
Chapter Ten
By IceWing (icewing@one.net)

The Dark Slayer knocked softly at the door. Tilting her head slightly, she listened for any sound that would indicate that Xander was on the other side. After a few moments of silence, she knocked again.

"I heard you the first time," came his voice, a hint of something, sadness perhaps, evident in the words, as he spoke from the other side of the door.

"So are you going to open the door so I can talk to you."

"I can hear you just fine Faith. I don't have anything to say to you." A whisper of a sigh made it through the door to Faith's ears. "You're not going to just leave me alone, are you?"

From her position on the porch, Faith could hear the barely masked pain in his voice. She had to be careful. Pushing too much right now could have the completely wrong effect, driving him back into the darkness which so much of him wanted to hide in. Faith knew all to well how that could happen. Looking back, she realized just how close Xander and Angel had been to pulling her back from the darkness when things had gone south. She wouldn't fail Xander, not when he had literally risked his neck to try and save her. She could do no less. "I can't leave Xan. Not when I can help you."

"Don't you get it Faith?" She could hear his voice trembling. "You can't help me. Nobody can. I'm so far from the light that I can't even remember what its like anymore."

"I don't believe that, not for a second. I made it back from the darkness. So did Angel, and he had a lot more working against him that either of us. You're not weaker than DeadBoy, are you?" It was a gamble, and she knew it, but maybe she could use some of their past to show that the road she wanted to help him along wasn't as impossible as he thought it to be.

Seconds of silence passed. Nervously, Faith asked if he was still there. A heartbeat passed before the answer was given that he was, but he just couldn't do this right now.

Part of her wanted to stay, to help him fight his way back towards the light, but deep down Faith knew that all she could do was be there for him, as he had tried to be there for her so many years ago. But no matter how much she wanted him to beat the demons that lived in his heart and mind, it was a battle that only Xander could accept, and that only he could win.

"Ok Xan. I'm going to head back into town. If you need me, I'm staying at the bed and breakfast on Sycamore. I'll be back tomorrow though. If you want to talk then, I'll listen." She turned to walk away, but paused. "I've missed you."

And with that, she walked over to the Mach One and slid inside. She knew that this was a task that would take a long time to help him overcome. But Xander was one of the few people she considered family. And she didn't run out on family. She'd learnt that lesson at great cost.

She'd be there for him, every step of the way. A faint smile crossed her lips as she started the massive engine. It was a difficult road ahead of Xander, but that's what family was for.

Besides, she wasn't the only family he had left.

** ** ** ** ** ** ** **

Faith stared at the heavy oak door which stood before her. Her eyes drifted to the right, and a faint smile crossed her face before she reached out and knocked three times on the aged wood. From within, her enhanced hearing picked up the sound of somebody approaching the door.

"Faith. Please. Just leave me alone." It didn't take a Slayer to hear the tiredness, the emotional exhaustion that filled the voice on the other side of the door. "Go back to where ever you live these days and please just forget you knew me. I won't bother you, or any other good guys…"

The once fallen Slayer took note that he didn't seem to be including himself as a white hat anymore, a sure sign that at least part of him knew what he was in danger of becoming. "Xander, please. I just want to talk to you." Faith sighed. "You tried to save me all those years ago. You wanted to help me, talk to me when things were rough… I pushed you away and look where it ended up… You don't want to be where I was. Open the door and talk to me."

Nothing happened for the span of several heartbeats, then there was the sound of locks being thrown open. It was like music to her ears. The door swung open and Xander stood there, glaring at her. "Any chance that now that I've given you something you want, that you'll just leave?"

"Not a chance in hell." Faith stood defiantly. "Look Xander."

"Would you mind not calling me that?" he interrupted, but even to him, it sounded kind of weak.

"It's your name, what your friends call you. You remember friends, don't you?" As soon as she snapped out the words, Faith knew it wasn't the best thing to say. She was trying to get him out of the past, not remind him of the horrors that happened back then…

His next words were far colder than he sounded when he first opened the door. "Yeah Faith. I remember friends. Friends who shut you out. Friends who run away or abandon you for making mistakes. Friends who ignore everything you do to help. Yeah, friends. I remember them."

"That was really the wrong thing for me to say. I'm sorry, Xander. And you're right, we did screw up, everyone screwed up. I did, you did, B did, everyone fucked up. We all screw up sometimes Xander. We all get hurt sometimes. Some deserve it, some don't. I got my own knife shoved in me and fell off a roof. But I deserved that, that and more. Whatever happened to you, Xander, you didn't deserve. But all your doing by pushing me away is hurting yourself more. Don't let the bad things outweigh the good... Life chews you up, spits you out and leaves you scarred and broken. Sometimes you just have to pick yourself up and push on, no matter how bad your hurt. No matter how fucked up your problems are."

"Yeah, life leaves some nasty scars doesn't it faith?' he snarled as he pulled the long sleeved t-shirt off and threw it at her... 'but somehow I think that mine are a tad worse than yours...' Faith gasped at what she saw...

All across Xander's torso and upper arms were scars… Criss crossing each other, it was obvious that he had been subjected to injuries that few survive, healed, then subjected to them again and again. Faith could pick out the pucker like scars of bullet wounds, the long thin indicators of slashing injuries, dozens of bite marks, and that was just on his front… As he turned around, to give her a view of his back, Faith was chilled to her core… His back was a solid mass of scars. She recognized the patterns, although had only seen them in person a few times… Whip marks… Layer upon layer of them, scarred over with time. Her eyes started to tear up as she imagined what hell's Xander had been subjected to in order to leave his body looking like it did… The fact he was still standing before her was a silent testament to just how strong the Zeppo truly was.

Faith watched as Xander slid the shirt back over his mangled body. She wanted to ask him, beg to find out what had happened that had almost killed him. But things were to tentative, so she stood there, waiting.

After a moment, Xander began to speak… The words bursting forth like a levy that could no longer hold back the immense pressure welling up behind it.

** ** **

The underbrush tore at him as he was dragged away from the cruel tableau where the Slayerettes had fallen. His knee, wrenched during the fight, screamed in pain as the being dragging him pulled him further and further from safety with the clawed grip around his ankles. When his head hit the rock, darkness was a blessed sanctuary from the pain.

Wakefulness brought no escape from the darkness. Panicking, he felt around him, hoping that he hadn't lost his vision. Shaking hands confirmed that his eyes were still there, and a moment later, they found the walls, which penned him in. Shifting his back to the wall that was behind him, Xander frantically felt along the walls. Within seconds, he realized he was in a space, a cell, which was just big enough for him to lay down in, one direction only, and not even as wide as his outstretched arms. Nervously, he checked his neck and to his horror, found a seeping wound on the side. "Right where vamps like it.." he whispered in horror.

In a heartbeat, all the pain was gone and he was on his feet, feeling the walls, trying to punch his way out when he found no method to open the cell from the inside. "Let me out of here, you bastards!" he yelled, his voice harsh with rage and anger.

The response surprised him. "Shhhhh! Quiet or you'll get punished. You'll get us all punished." The voice was so quiet, as it passed through the wooden wall to his right, that Xander couldn't even tell if it was a male or female speaking.

"What do you mean? Where are we?"

"Just be quiet. Its better that way." A pause, before the voice added, "It hurts less…"

Xander asked, a little more quietly what was going on, but the voice was silent.

In the darkness, he had no way to know how much time passed. All he knew what that his mouth was dry and he needed to use the bathroom.

Light blinded him as the door was jerked open. "Ok you blood bags out and line up!" yelled a harsh voice. When he didn't move, a scaled figure stepped into the light and grabbed Xander by the front of his shirt. With a solid heave, he tossed him free of the cell and against the far wall. "Maybe you're too dumb to listen. I said out of your cell and line up."

Xander started to open his mouth, but pain blossom across his back before he could let loose with a smart ass comment. After ten lashes, the back of his shirt was in shreds and it felt as if his back was ablaze. "Now you get your ass up and follow the rest of the meat or you get more of the same."

Dazed, Xander trudged fell in line with the other two dozen humans and moved along with a single thought running through his head…'Buffy, where are you?'

After being handed a half gallon of orange juice and an apple, Xander was separated from the rest of the prisoners. He was pushed onto a crate by one of the vampires and told to sit there and shut up. A moment later, that vamp was replaced by another.

Xander looked around at the room. Nothing he could use to stake the vamp and get the hell out of here. Buffy might be able to break a packing crate into stake sized pieces, but he was pretty sure that in his current state there was no way in hell he would be able to.

The vamp watched him and after Xander was done scoping out the room, spoke up. "Won't do you any good. Even if you dusted me, there's a dozen vamps in the building. And all the doors are locked."

Xander looked at the vampire with disgust on his face. "Don't suppose I really trust a bloodsucker like you, do you?"

"No, but I know you. You hang with the Slayer. I can see in your eyes you want to kill all of us."

"You're already dead. I'd just be putting a corpse down," came the cold response.

"Mighty tough talk for a guy who's trapped in a bloodhouse with no weapons, no way out and is hurt to boot. You got balls though."

"Buffy's gonna take this place apart. You know that right?"

"The Slayer isn't a problem. She hasn't found this place since she moved here, and our clientele don't talk about this place, so I really doubt it. Plus, she looked pretty hurt from what the guys that brought you in said."

Xander swallowed. He knew he'd never heard of anyplace like this in town. There was the place that Riley had visited, but those people paid to get bit. Kinda a kinky consensual thing. And since he sure as hell didn't want to be here, this was a very different kind of place. "You know the Slayer. You let me go, and I'll put in a good word for you."

"Sorry kid. I'll take my chances, but I will tell you some things, just in case she does show up, I can say I tried to help you. First. Keep quiet. Noisy humans don't always come back. Second, there are worse things than being a bloodbag. Troublemaking humans don't last long. Third. If you do manage to get a stake, and you stake somebody, you'll be an object lesson. The last one took about three weeks to die."

Xander looked at him and didn't know whether to laugh, cry or have a breakdown. 'Buffy will save me,' he kept repeating to himself as the door opened, and he saw the trays of needles and the red hot coals and irons in a brazier in the corner of the room. 'Preferably within the next ten seconds…'

** ** ** ** **

The brands on his left shoulder and right shoulder blade had healed, leaving scars that indicated his blood type. The scars on his body had multiplied as weeks then months passed, leaving permanent reminders of each vampire who had fed on him, draining away his life blood to sustain their own demonic existence.

His life had become an endless cycle. Every morning orange juice and fruit. Protein drinks for lunch and dinner. Once in a great while some watery soup for dinner. Twice a week he got to walk around in the courtyard. Always during the day. The blood splatter on the wall made sure he never tried to use the sunlight to avoid returning indoors. The keepers had no intention of letting their cattle deteriorate too much. No value in them if their blood was weak.

What sickened Xander was how he was almost looking forward to the twice a week feeding times. At first, he had hoped that maybe the vamps that had fed on him would run across Buffy and she'd beat his location out of them… Somewhere after about 50 bites, Xander started to realize that Buffy wasn't coming for him. That nobody was going to rescue him.

That hit him harder than the guards did when he tried to escape. It had been a month before he could breath without pain from the broken ribs. He still occasionally compared the pain of that beating to the pain of realizing that Buffy was probably dead. Otherwise she would have found him.

At least, that's what he kept trying to convince himself of. Part of his mind, a voice that had been getting louder of late said instead that Buffy was a fighter, he was a victim. That it was time he realized that and admitted his fate to himself. The rest of the world had already written Xander Harris off.

It wasn't long after that the owner of the blood bank noticed that the eldest type O negative was losing weight, even though he was getting the same amount as he had for the rest of the 8 months he had been a 'donor'. With a shrug, the demon made a note to start his teams looking for another replacement. Sooner or later, all the bloodbags gave up. He'd actually been surprised how long this one had lasted.

** ** ** **

The being who only occasionally thought of itself as Xander shielded his eyes as the door to his cell opened up. It was to early for dinner, and variation from routine was never good. "Get out here."

Quickly, Xander scooted out and lay on the floor, unsure of what was going on.

"Looks like you get to go on a trip. You've been traded."

Before he could really comprehend what was going on, Xander was cuffed and had a burlap sack tossed over his head, then was dumped in the back of a van. Cowering in the corner, he heard the vamp guard say that he hoped he'd be of more use in the ring… All that scar tissue was making him hard to drink from any more….

** ** ** **

The sound of the door being unlocked sent the unwilling residents of the barracks darting for cover. It wasn't time for the pre-fight prep work, not by a couple of days. That meant that either the Khan had decided on some unscheduled entertainment, the guards were bored and wanted to take on one of the fighters, or that there were newbies inbound. Of the three possibilities, the last was actually the worst, because it meant there would be more people to mourn when they met their inevitable demise.

One of the uglier guards, who looked like a cross between a wild boar, a Klingon and week old road kill, tossed Xander from his shoulder onto the ground. The young man landed heavily in front of the only human in the room who was standing up to the demon horde who were dragging in the fresh meat. "The Khan has entered you into the upcoming pairs tournament. This wasted blood bag has been decreed to be your battle mate, till one or both of you have the sense to die for our entertainment. Next time maybe you'll keep your mouth shut bitch!"

The woman stood, unmoving and unfazed by the demon's words, or more noticeably, by the odor that it gave off. She spoke with a calm, yet powerful voice. "Now that you've finished polluting our air with your stench, you can put the rookies down and get the hell out of our quarters. Try not to drool on anything on the way out."

PigBoy bristled at the insult, moving to attack. Before he could carry through, one of the other, more intelligent guards, a vampire, put a gloved hand on his shoulder. "You remember what happened to Jnorgelag when it attacked one of the prisoners outside the ring? She ain't worth it."

"You're lucky this time, human. I can't wait to see you dragged down and split wide open in the ring. The boss didn't even want to waste the money on a live one for you to die beside." With that, the guard kicked Xander hard in the side. On the ground, the one time Slayerette just took it, not even bothering to scream at the pain. It was nothing compared to what he had been through. As a second kick was imminent, the smart guard once again stopped PigBoy.

Yanking him back from Xander's prone form, the vampire began to speak softly and quickly, pointing at Xander once or twice during the short diatribe. The woman managed to pick up part of the conversation, despite the hushed tone. The words Slayer, Scourge of Europe and Ascension stuck the most. Words that she would have to learn more about later.

The brash guard looked down at Xander, curled up on the floor in disbelief. He mutters under his breath that he doubted it, this bloodbag doesn't look like it could stand up to a harsh breeze. But regardless, he stepped back without administering another kick. "I'll enjoy counting my winnings when I put my money on your death bitch!" Satisfied that he had at least made some effort to save face, the lead guard turned and stalked away.

Moments later, the demons and vampires left, making sure to lock both the gate and the solid door behind them. As the sounds of the locks faded, the occupants of the barracks like cell moved toward the new arrivals.

The woman stood there for a moment, the other humans and a few demons, gathered around her. "Ok people, we've got some new folks to help get settled in. Find out what you can about them, explain the situation like usual. Smitty and Jackson, you see what you can find out about skills. Sounds like we don't got long to get everybody ready before the next fight. Get to work!"

With that command, the gathering broke into small groups, tending to the needs of the new arrivals. Offering what support and comfort they could.

As she knelt beside Xander, she saw that the back of his shirt was glued to his back with dried blood. Carefully she reached out, meaning to try and gently lift the shirt up so she could note the extent of the wounds beneath. When her fingers touched him, she saw his flinch back, as if the mere contact was painful to him.

'Ok,' she thought. 'Let's try a different approach.' "The scum that run this place call me the Queen of Death. The Demon fighters call me the Queen, out of respect of my abilities. Most of the humans call me Vasquez or Captain. Why don't you call me Michelle."

Xander slowly rolled over and, after a couple of shaky attempts, regained his feet. "Hi Michelle. Any chance you could do me the favor of snapping my neck. I'd slit my wrists, but I seem to have lost anything sharp or pointy during my tour of the hells of the Hellmouth." The sheer emptiness of emotion in that sentence would have scared anyone who had known Xander. The joke was hollow, but the desire to check out of the world wasn't.

Whereas Xander's statement was lacking in emotion, the Queen's was not. Her hand struck like a viper, hitting his face with an opened handed, full force slap that knocked his head to the right. "Death like that is a coward's way out." Her hand came back across in a savage backhand which split his lip, spraying blood. "From how those demon's reacted, you didn't use to be a coward. What happened to change that, boy?" she sneered. Inwardly, she hoped that this wouldn't backfire on her. From her years as a cop, and a counselor while in college, she knew that the only way she was going to get a response out of him was to get him mad. If he didn't then the quick death in the ring would merely be punctuation, finishing off somebody who was already dead inside. "You made it through Ascension." she wondered what the hell that was anyway. Sounded big. "The Scourge of Europe." Sounded bigger. Another savage slap rocked his head. "And now you want me to finish you off like an animal to slaughter?"

Before the backhand she was winding up for could land, Michelle Vasquez found herself on the floor on her ass. "You sucker punched me!" She hadn't even seen it coming either. A bit weak, but considering the shape the kid was in, not to mention that he was on the rocks mentally and emotionally, it was a start."

"Damn fucking right I did!" he snarled. Anger fuelling him for the first time in months. "I don't know who the fuck you think you are, but only two women in the world can hit me like that and get away with it. They're both Slayers. You aren't. Hit me again and I'll break your arm. You may be hot shit around here, but I'm from SunnyDale. I've fought tougher things than you on the way to school. And more demons than I want to think about while AT school."

Xander looked around, seeing for the first time where he was. "And where the hell am I anyway….."

"Well, at least there's something in there that's not dead." She wiped the blood from her own split lip and then gets to her feet. "Let's get some food in you, and you can tell me how you ended up in a hell hole like this. And then you can tell me about SunnyDale. And what the hell is a Slayer."

** ** ** ** ** ** ** **
"Ladies and Gentlemen. Humans and Denizens of the Outer Planes. Welcome to the Pacific Northwest Regional Combat Championships. You've all been waiting for the big show, well this is it. The Grand Championship Final Round!" In the background, techno music began to play over the arena's hidden sound system while the MC's image was projected onto the big screens situated around the ring. "First, the rules. As this is the Finals, the Climax of the Tournament, we've gone from surrender or first blood… To the Death!!!"

The crowd went wild. Two thousand years of human history had not made a dent the removing the bloodlust that, if anything, seemed more intense than that seen at the height of the gladiatorial fights in the roman coliseum.

"You've watched them fight their way up from the opening rounds, through luck and skill. It's their first year in the League, and they hope it's not their last! Give it up for Furious and Saturn!" The crowd cheered and booed, hollered and hooted, as the two fighters approached from the side entrances to the arena. Almost as one, they walked up the steep steps to the squared circle, where they stood, facing each other, more than a bit nervous as the crowd's energy lashed in at them.

The music changed as the lights dimmed. The orchestra sounds of the Imperial March from John Williams filled the packed auditorium. A hush fell over the crowd. "And, for the first time in the Paired Fighters Tournament. You've watched her for years as she's fought her way clear of demon hordes, human wave attacks and against the most skilled fighters of the realm." The spotlights flashed on, illuminating an arched entry way which was draped in smoke and shadows. "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Queen of Death!"

From the archway, four burley men, dressed in what could only be described as a Dominatrix's dream attire for her male slaves, came four burley men, carrying on their shoulders a fanciful palanquin. Seated on its cushioned throne, draped in a deep blue velvet cloak, sat Michelle Vasquez, known only as the Queen of Death to the assembled audience. Her steel circlet crown glittered in the spotlight, the ruby's and onyx set in it, shining like both blood and the darkness of the Abyss. The four lumbering giants slowly advanced down the aisle, bearing her on high like the queen she was to the crowd. A crowd that was completely enthralled with her. A reverent hush fell over the crowd as a member of Death's entourage was brought before them. Several heartbeats passed, in which even the music seemed muted, before a slow, rhythmic chant began chanting for the Queen.

Behind the queen and her bearers entered another figure. In its hand, it held the lead for a massive charger, a war horse several centuries out of time.

"This things going to throw me off and break my neck!" Xander cursed under his breath as the moved down the ramp from the archway, towards the raised ring.

Even as the charger's massive hooves sparked against the floor, the MC continued. "And, for the first time, your Queen is attended by one of her sworn warriors. A knight, skilled in the deadly arts, a loyal fighter whose loyalty shall be rewarded… By the blood of his opponents!"

As the announcer was continuing his monologue, the demon holding the reins brought the horse to a stop within a couple of feet of the side of the ring. "Dismount, huu-man," hissed the creature.

Xander did so, quite happy to be free of the horse. Damn things were scarier than most demons, and right up there with Snyder. Remembering his cues for the performance, he stepped to the side of the palanquin and offered his hand.

Vasquez took it and stepped down from the platform. She nodded as Xander bowed to her, then waited as he took his place behind her right side. Together, they then stepped up into the combat area and moved to the center, where the spotlights focused on them.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Queen of Death and her loyal Knight!"

As the MC spoke the last word, Vasquez turned slightly as Xander removed the cape which had covered her, adding a theatrical flourish to the act.

The crowd gasped as they saw her outfit for the evening. It looked as if the costuming department had stolen one of Boris Vallejo's concept sketch books and fabricated the fantasy from his pages in steel and leather. The base medium for the deadly attire was a skin tight leather bodysuit, which looked like it had been painted on. The one inch heels brought her within an inch or so of Xander's height, so the two looked like a properly matched set, although his leather fatigues looked like cast off rags compared to her outfit, which looked as if had been custom tailored by an evil Armani. On the front of her boots, ran three razored shards of steel. The deadly accessories matched the ones on her bracers and on her shoulders, all of the edges glittering in the spotlight. The leather skirt, similar to what would be seen on the armor of a Roman Centurion was studded with silvered steel studs, the color matched to the hammered steel bustier which covered her breasts and upper portion of her stomach.

The crowd got even louder, as the sexual allure of this battle maiden mixed with the bloodlust they were feeling.

Xander and Michelle stepped back, and Xander bowed to his Queen. That done, they took to their corners, so each cardinal point of the circle squared was filled.

The four combatants reached out of the ring, and almost as one, took the hilts of their weapons, and in Xander and Furious's case, their shield as well. Each gently adjusted their grips as they turned back around. Soon the wrapped leather grips of the weapons would be soaked in sweat and blood.

"Fighters! Salute the ring Master! And your opponents!"

As soon as the ritual was complete, Xander turned to the crowd, while the other warriors stood there, adjusting their grips on the weapons they help. "Mortitori te salutamus!" He banged his shield with his sword one, yelling HooAhh! as he did so. The crowd, already on their feet, went even wilder.

"What the hell was that all about?" asked Vasquez as she took her ready position, her rapier in an en garde position.

"Old Roman custom. Means, we who are about to die, salute you. Thought maybe a bit of historical irony might keep my ass alive….That and I've been praying to every deity I've ever read about, and that's a lot!" Before he could say anymore, the MC implored that the spirits of Grishnaak, watch over the warriors and feast on the departing souls of the losers.

Then the bell rung and the arena was filled with the sounds of steel and death.

** ** ** ** ** ** ** **
The battle was long over. The crowds had departed, breaking up to return to their safe, comfortable lives. The crew had mopped the blood from the arena and the armorer's had cleaned the blood from the blades.

But as she looked down at the form she held tightly in her arms, Michelle Vasquez wondered who would clean the blood from the soul of the young man who had cried himself to sleep in her arms, quaking with raw emotions as he tried to grapple with what he had become as he stood in front of hundreds of cheering people. As he had been blooded, as he had spilt the life's blood of another human.

The fog was thick around him, rolling in like a bad special effect. Xander pulled his collar up to try and ward off the cold, but the chill wasn't from the air, but from his very soul.

A shape emerged from the mist in front of him. He tried to backpedal, knowing that whatever was coming for him was of the 'not something you want to meet' category. Then, standing before him, was the man he had struck down in the Championship match. The man's white shirt was stained red with his life blood, dripping down the front and falling to the floor. "You killed me, boy. I had a wife, and three children. I won't get to see my girls grow up and marry, or watch my boy graduate from college. All because you ran a sword through my heart! No matter how much you try, my blood will never wash clean of your soul." With that he walked into Xander, and vanished.

Even as the form of his victim walked away, a new person stepped into the diffuse light of his nightmare. As he looked upon her, his oldest friend, he couldn't tear his eyes away from her hair. The normal color was even darker… As he watcher her approach, he saw blood dripping from her hair.

But as disturbing as the visual image was, the tone of her voice when she spoke was worse. "You're no better than that bitch who betrayed us. You murdered a man, spilt his blood as he lay there begging for you to spare him. You make me sick." She looked at him and spat in his face. She turned and walked away, never even letting him speak as her spittle rolled down his face like a tear.

He tried to speak as she vanished into the darkness. A voice from behind startled him. "I don't blame her, you know." Xander spun around, coming face to face with Buffy. "Frankly, I don't know why I'm even here… I mean, you're… I can't believe I almost trusted a killer like you to watch and protect Dawn."

The sheer disgust with which she said it struck him to the bone. "But…You chose Spike! I mean, come on Buffy, the guy got his name from his torture implement of choice!"

"You're right. But you know what, at least he has an excuse, the demon was in charge. You, you have a soul. And you chose to murder that man. You looked him in the eye, killed him as he begged, and then you were rewarded for it. You're far worse than any vampire I took down. I feel dirty even talking to you. You best stay away from us from now on Xander. We don't want to have a murderer like you in our group."

"Oh, Bravo!" said another voice to his right. Xander quickly looked over and saw Spike standing there. He looked back to Buffy, but she was gone.

"What the hell are you doing here Spike? I didn't invite you!"

"That's for buildings, you wanker. This is your mind, pretty much anybody can come waltzing on in if they want." The bleach blonde vampire took a drag from his cigarette before continuing. "Of course, not to many people are bored enough to want too wander into this cesspool."

"So why are you here then?"

"Just wanted to come by and let you know that I was watching earlier today. Liked what I saw. I tell you, I never thought you had it in you, but you killed that putz like you were born to it. You've got a lot more potential than I gave you credit for, Droopy! You ever want some pointers, look me up. Mind you, I might kill you, but then again, maybe not… After all, it'd be good to have a protégé who's more evil than I am. Good for my reputation. See you around, wanker."

Xander looked like he was about to be sick. One of the most vicious vampires he'd ever had the misfortune of meeting had just praised him. He looked around the darkness, trying to find a way out, any way to escape from this nightmarish realm.

Suddenly, standing there in the gloom, was Faith, leaning against, well nothing.

"What?" he asked in a combination of exasperation and panic. "You here to compliment me, be disgusted by me or kill me?"

Faith just stood there, looking at him with a sad half smile on her face. "None of the above Xan-man. Just going to welcome you to the club, and say I'm sorry."

And with that, he woke up, finding himself in a worse place than he had been a heartbeat ago.

Alone.

** ** ** ** ** ** ** **

The training bag swung back to the limits of its ropes as it was beaten within an fraction of the capabilities of the aged leather. Still she hammered away at it, lashing out with punches, strikes, kicks and jabs. Small strips of duct tape worked their way loose from the patches which had been placed on it over the years, falling to the ground like tears.

From behind her, a voice spoke. "You know, I bet that bag will never make an unwanted pass at you again… Just remember, the rest of us like to hurt it too…"

Chuckling, the Queen turned to her Knight. "You can be such an ass, you know that?"

"Years of dedication to my art. That and I've seen that look before… Usually ended up causing a lot of pain."

"Yeah. Like I'm going to hurt myself on the bag."

"Actually I meant me. Back home, about every time I saw that look, usually meant I was about get pummeled on. Then again," he said with a laugh. "That's what I get for volunteering to be a practice dummy in the training room…" He took her hands and started to unwrap the tape from them. "So, what demons, metaphorically speaking," he said as he glanced over at PigBoy. "What demons are you beating the hell out of today?"

"Just trying to relieve some tension. Kinda hating this place more than normal today…"

"And what possible way could there be to detest the fine resort accommodations which we find ourselves frequenting?"

"Oh, try today's the four year anniversary of my ending up in the darkness, since the SWAT team I was leading walked into a shit storm. Damn demonic drug lords. I watched half my men torn to bits as they emptied round after round into those monsters… And my little girl's birthday is next week." Michelle looked at Xander. "She'll be sixteen on the ninth. Four birthdays I've missed. I've been stuck here fighting for these assholes, and the idiot mob, and I've missed my little girl growing up…. I don't know if she's doing well in school, or who her friends are. Whether she still wants to follow either me onto the force or her dad into the Corps. Or if she's even alive anymore."

For the first time since he'd met her, Xander watched as Michelle's eyes filled with tears. Not even thinking, he took her in his arms, and just held her as she cried.

Neither of them spoke or moved for what seemed an eternity. They just shared strength, both physical and emotional.

After a time, Michelle broke away. "Thanks Harris," she said as she wiped her eyes with her shirt. "Sometimes this place just gets to me…"

"No worries… " He looked around the otherwise empty training room. "I'm pretty sure everybody's watching Braveheart again… Anything else I can do for you this evening? A little sparring? Maybe try and overthrow the guards? I'd offer a donut run, but I seem to have misplaced the local donut shop…"

"You know what… I could use something to get my mind off all this crap…"

"Sorry, but I retired as a gigolo. Lousy tips."

Vasquez laughed. "You always manage to make me feel better Xander… But I want to forget about NYC, about everything about all this for a bit… How about you come clean and tell me about yourself. I mean, we've bleed for each other, but I have no idea how you ended up here…"

Xander looked at her, unsure on whether or not he should open up… If these secrets were his to tell… But if something happened to him, he at least wanted somebody to know. To remember and let the world know something about his friends. About the unsung heroes who saved the world time and time again, without a hint of recognition.

"Well, the fun stuff started my sophomore year of high school. I was careening out of control on my skateboard, when I saw this vision of blonde…."

** ** ** ** ** ** ** **

"Hey X, we managed to snag the Sunday paper. Want to take a glance?"

"Any good job openings? I'm getting a little bored with this whole fight to the death thing. Been thinking about a change. Bulletproof vest tester sounds relaxing."

Michelle grinned as she hit the heavy paper against his chest. "I don't know which are worse, your jokes or the guards' bad breath."

"You wound me, my lady… " He responded with a grin as he began to leaf through the paper.

"I would, but as you're my partner and all… Wouldn't do to lessen my chances." The Queen snorted. "Anyway, with the following you're getting, they'd likely string me up, or at least give me a good talking to for messing with a star."

But even as she spoke, Xander no longer heard her words. His eyes had fallen on an article, under the fold of page one, or more accurately, the picture alongside it.

FIERY CRASH CLAIMS SUNNYDALE TEEN

- Eagle Rock CA

It was just past one am when the club district was illuminated by a massive fireball as an out of control jeep slammed into the side of a Shell Gasoline Tanker. The vehicle, driven by Dawn Summers of SunnyDale, apparently lost control a short distance away from the truck.

No bystanders were injured in the blast, which blew out windows for close to a block.

'LAPD forensic technicians noted deep gouges left in the metal by some kind of animal... It is theorized that the victim was attempting to flee a pack of wild dogs or perhaps a mountain lion when she lost control of her vehicle and slammed into the gasoline tanker. Blood on the interior of the vehicle as well as a glass trail leading down the block suggest that Ms. Summers may have been injured by the animals and attempted to flee. But, due to blood loss, they theorize she passed out and was unconscious at the moment of impact.

The intensity of the fire took three trucks from the 9th District to be able to contain.

Police Officials do not suspect the involvement of alcohol.

This tragedy is not the first for the Summers family. Dawn's older sister, Buffy, has been missing for over two years now and her mother, Joyce, died of complications from a cancer surgery several years prior. Her father, Hank, has been in Europe for the past eight years, and has not returned for any of these tragedies.

Memorial Service will be privately held by her friends, with any donations going to the Teen Outreach Center.

Several minutes later Michelle noticed that, for only the second time since she had known him, her friend was crying. No matter what she did or said, he was unresponsive, until he finally cried himself to sleep.

** ** ** ** ** ** ** **

A knock at the entryway to her private area bought Vasquez's attention back from the book she was reading. "Um, Captain… You got a minute?" The man at the door was one of her trusted lieutenants, a fellow fighter who had been at the arena for only about a month less than she had been.

"Sure Draco. What's on your mind?" she asked as she marked her page and set the book aside.

"Well," he said as he looked to make sure nobody else was nearby. "It's about Harris." The big man looked a bit sheepish as he tried to figure out what to say next. "Well, we're starting to get a little worried about him."

Michelle leaned forward, paying close attention. "What's going on?" She was always ready to listen to what her people had to say, especially when in pertained to the well being of another. It was one of the qualities that her fellow fighters respected her for. One of the reasons why she was their chosen leader.

"Since, well, for the last couple of weeks or so, he's just not the same. I mean, he was never one to really sit down and hang out, but since he… Well, since he found out about his friend, he just stares off into space, or sleeps. Or trains, like he's trying to escape, trying to get his mind somewhere else."

"You think he's losing it?"

"I don't know, Ma'am. But if he hasn't, he's on edge. I mean really on edge. He's a good guy, and none of us want to see anything happen to him."

The Queen looked across the main area, and saw Xander leaving the gym area and heading towards his room. He did indeed look like there was something gnawing at him, tearing him up on the inside. "I'll talk to him Draco. Thanks for bringing it to my attention."

The man thanked her and headed back to his duties. But even as he left, Michelle's mind was on the problem she had just been alerted to. It had been a couple of weeks since he had read that article, and in that time, Xander had only spoken with her for a couple of minutes. The few times she had tried to get him to open up, he'd acted like he was ok, and then come up with an excuse to go do something else.

And she'd bought into it. She'd wanted to believe him that he was ok, when now that she'd been smacked in the face with it, she could see the truth.

Harris was far from ok, and he wasn't going to get back to ok without some help.

Taking a deep breath, she rose from her desk and headed across the communal area toward his private room. After standing there for a split second, she knocked on the frame.

There was no answer. In fact there was no noise at all from inside.

She knocked again, then spoke. "Xander, I know you're in there…"

The door swung open, revealing Xander standing there, still in his sweat stained shirt. "Hey Michelle, sorry I was just doing some thinking… Gonna go hit the track, you want to…"

She cut him off by pushing him back into the room and swinging the door closed behind her.

"Hey, kinda moving a little fast, aren't you?" he said humorously.

"Trust me Harris, you ain't seen me make a fast move on a man." She looked at him, then looked around his room. "You know, I just realized, all the time you've had this place, I don't think anybody else has been in here…"

"The advantage of being your loyal knight," he said, trying to keep the humor in his voice. "I am sworn to none but my queen…"

"Uh huh… More like you want to have a place you can hide from everybody else, someplace that is yours and yours alone in this shit hole we call home."

Xander looked uncomfortable. "So, you want to go for that run?"

"Sit down Xand," she said. "Look, something's up. I know it, you know it, hell even Draco and the other fighters know it, and they're not exactly the sweet sensitive types."

"You're not going to let this go, are you?" he asked.

"Not a chance in hell. It's the musketeer motto down here and you know it. We've got nobody but each other and we stand together…" She looked at him pleadingly. "Come on Partner. Talk to me…"

"Why is it that I get all this women in my life who try and make sure I have no spine left…" He looked up at the ceiling and muttered that he doesn't really want an answer to that… Sighing, he walked over to the desk and opened the bottom drawer. From its recesses, he pulled out a notepad and walked back to the bed. He sat down heavily, facing Michelle, who was sitting on the footlocker.

His fingers brushed the cover of the notepad, feeling the imperfections in the stiff cardstock. "Look, I'm trusting you here…"

Michelle looked at the young man, the haggard warrior, before her. "You trust me every time we step in the ring Xander. Just like I trust you… I've told you about everything in my past…"

Xander held up his hand. "Just stop for a second." He looked down at the notebook in his hands, then at Michelle. "I'd like…." He paused, extremely unsure of himself. "Michelle," he said as he opened the notebook to a bookmark midway through it, holding it so she could see it.

But even as she looked at it, at the picture which had been drawn in the blank pages, he knew that he had pulled this glimpse of his past out, for his own sake, not for her's.

"I'd like to introduce you to my family…" His voice cracked, and she could see tears in his eyes. His finger traced along the picture, as he named off each person. His hero and her vampire. His best friend since childhood and her girlfriend. The man he wished had been his father and the woman said man had lost. His brother, he'd been forced to stake. His fiancé, who he'd watch die as they tried to save the word again. The mother he wished he'd had, struck down by something as pointless as an aneurysm. The Slayer he had failed and because of his failure, she had crossed into the darkness.

The young woman who he'd tried to protect, who had died in that car wreck. "She was the last one left." He looked at Michelle, the tears flowing. "I protected her from vampires, demons and a fucking hell god. But I couldn't save her…" He looked down at the picture he had drawn, their images plucked from his minds eye and gathered into a group picture which he wished he had been able to assemble in real life. "I couldn't save any of them…"


** ** ** ** ** ** ** **
Twenty One Months Later…

The fighters stood, arrayed behind Xander, anger seething amongst them like a rabid beast. All it would take, all he had to do, was say one word, and the fighters would swarm the guards, exacting their revenge.

But the cost… Xander knew that if he spoke that word, made the attack gesture, then the fighters would obey. He knew they would charge and take their captors, their jailors apart like so many children's toys. But before they did, the Uzi's and magical implements the guard carried would take a hefty toll on the warriors.

The shot they heard, the single pop, hit them all like a sledgehammer in the stomach. Confusion was awash in the heartbeat that followed. It had been an accident, a stupid, pointless fluke, and they'd dragged her away and shot her… None of the fighters could believe it. Not over a sword breaking. Even if it did kill some VIP's abusive playboy kid, who cares? He wasn't worth any one of the fighters…

PigBoy entered the room a moment later, dropping the iron circlet Vasquez had worn as a crown to the floor. "Dumb bitch died on her knees, where all humans belong!" He looked at the fighters, who were all seriously debating on whether or not to charge the ugly demon and smash that leering face into a bloody red pulp. "All you beasts get back to your bunks…"

Not a single person made a move.

"You'll get back to your bunks, or I'll send the boys out and we'll bring a few dozen new kids in here and kill every one of them in front of you monkeys."

He felt like he'd been the one shot, not Michelle. Xander felt his knees starting to buckle and stepped back, reaching for one of the support column. "Tell them to do as he says, Draco."

The other fighter looked at Xander for a moment, then followed his orders. After a few minutes, he looked up. The area was cleared, except for PigBoy.

"You should have heard her beg, pleading for her life. Then, pop! No more bitch."

Xander's eyes were completely cold as he met the demon's gaze. "Now, there's two assholes I'm going to be there to watch…." The utter inhumanity of the tone made PigBoy flinch back. "But you, I'm going to enjoy…."

The demon tried to come up with some witty response, some clever quip, but the gut wrenching nervousness he felt at that moment pretty much prevented anything resembling higher brain function. The almost glee in those words, and the promise… After a few seconds of unsteadiness, the demon cleared the room, leaving Xander alone once more.

He reached down and picked up the circlet from the floor.

It would be a very long time before he let it go again.


** ** **

The tears had dried on his face as sleep finally claimed him. But dreams were no escape from the pain. All around him, Xander saw the friends he had lost over the years. Jesse, Ms. Calender, Kendra, Anya and now Michelle. All of them, blaming him for their pointless deaths.

Then, in a heartbeat, all the pain, all the images, all those he had failed, were gone. Or, more accurately, he was gone.

Instead of the bloody hallways, he found himself sitting by a campfire, beside what looked like a Mongol yurt. Across from him sat a man who looked like he should be in some body building competition. Or maybe in a maximum security prison. Or both.

"Remember your comrades. They are the ones who will greet you on the other side. But do not waste life letting their deaths hound you."

"Um… Ok… Why are you in my dreams… I'm not gay you know. Larry might be interested, but I can't really tell you how to get there from here."

"I care not for your man loving friend. His choice simply means more women for me, or it would if I were still able enjoy a drunken tavern, or a drunken brawl for that matter. But I'm dead, there are more women on this side than I can conquer in a thousand, thousand lifetimes."

"Ok, now we're getting somewhere, even if it the bizarro world. You're dead. I'm not, right?"

"Not physically, but your spirit, and body, have both come close many times. This helps with the connection which lets me speak with you. That and the blood we share."

"Great. So why are we in an episode of beastmaster?"

"This is where I fought in the pits, much like you do in your waking hours. I have fought past the Guardians to speak with you. You are a great warrior, or could be, the likes of which has not been in my line for thousands of years. But you fight, inside and out, when only one is needed. Focus yourself on what is good in life for where you are. To Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of … Well, the last bit doesn't really apply. But the first part does. You can beat where you are, boy. And when you do, nothing can stand in your path and survive."

"And you, the wise dream guy, are suppose to tell me that you have seen that I can do all this."

"No, I know that I did it. I fought my way up through the pits, won my freedom and became a warriors whose name struck fear in the hearts of those I encountered."

Sarcasm dripped from Xander's voice as he asked if the guy had won the girl as well…

It was apparently the wrong thing to say. Xander found himself in midair as the giant grabbed the front of his shirt and lifted him from the log. "She was stolen from me by a sorcerer, whose head I took in vengeance." He dropped Xander, who landed on his feet. "But she awaited me on this side, and even now, we fight together, even if I no longer have a kingdom to defend by her side." He paused before saying that those are other stories, not to be told tonight. "Remember this, young warrior. You are a mighty warrior. In time, your name may be spoken in the same way mine was for generations, long after my time had passed. But my time grows short as the dawn approaches. Dedicate yourself to your goal. Ignore all else. Crush your enemies and drive them before you."

As the surroundings began to fade, Xander asked what his name was…

"My name matters not. My deeds are gone. Not even the gods remember who we were, or why. All they remember is that we fought, that we fought well. Against any and all odds." As the warrior, who had defeated every enemy but the reaper, so long ago, began to fade away, he spoke once more, vanishing from sight before his words did. "Claim vengeance for the friends you have lost to the darkness. Fight the darkness like there is nothing else. After all, you can always take one with you."

** ** ** **

"So," said the owner with pride in his voice. "I'd like to welcome Harris, or should I say the Knight, to the big leagues."

'Three guards, all armed. Two with swords, the one in the back with a machine pistol.' He pulled up a mental note regarding the modernly armed guard was of a species not known for their quickness of thought. Or their breath.

"We always knew you had greatness inside of you son." The Arena Master stood beside a cloth covered display of some sort. "And since you're our rising star, we want to make sure you have your own motif for your ascent."

As he reached out for the cloth, Xander felt things click into place. The guards were too close to be effective and they would block each other. The odds were a long shot, but they were good enough to risk.

And then all hell broke loose as he made his move.

** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** **

"Harris!" Shouted one of the other fighters from the lower levels. "Come on man! Open the doors! They find us in here after you butchering everybody, we're not even going to have a fighting chance!"

He looked at the man yelling to him, then the other fighters behind the door, then at the door itself.

If nothing else, they would be able to inflict a little more damage against the darkness. And they'd keep the remaining guards busy while he finished arming himself and keeping a promise.

** ** ** ** ** ** **

The arena was empty of living creatures. Of the two beings that stood there, one was dead inside, the other about have it's existence punctuated by a nine millimeter period.

"Look," babbled PigBoy as he was forced to kneel on the ground. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean any of the stuff I said."

The black gauntleted hands pulled the pistol from its holster, racking the slide, turning the machined steel from a paperweight into a precision instrument of death.

"I can help people, I'll become a priest, or a social worker or something." The demon tried to raise its hands, to plead for mercy, but the wire held them in place behind its back.

The sight picture was in place, only waiting for the pistol to finish rising, for the sights to merge with the target. The finger was gently squeezing the trigger, bringing the four pounds of pressure to bear even as the pistol slid into the proper position.

"I was lying. She's not…."

The sound of the chemical explosion was also anti-climatic. The subsonic round punched through the demon's skull like wet clay, spraying the sand of the pit with blue blood and pinkish brain matter. As the body fell to join the other dozen or so, the pistol was being slid home into the holster on the bearer's right thigh.

Without looking back, Xander Harris lifted the armored helmet and set it on his head.

The Death Knight strode from the demolished arena where it had been born, heading for the truck and equipment it had prepared.

Under the armored visage, a death's head grin formed on the once jovial face.

Let the Darkness cower in terror. Death was hunting them.

** ** ** ** ** ** ** **

Xander looked at Faith, all trace of his emotional armor gone from his face. Lines of anguish, pain and torment lined his visage. "I'm sorry Faith. Somewhere along all this, I lost who I was, the guy that you knew. I'm not him anymore. Sometimes, in very rare moments, I can remember a hint of it. A ghost of happiness and peace but then everything else rises up and sucks even those happy memories away again. The Xander Harris you knew in SunnyDale was a victim to the darkness, just like so many others. I… I'm sorry."

Tears rolled down Faith's cheeks as she wept tears for her friend that he could no longer cry for himself. "You're still Xander. The man who saved my life, who saved the lives of countless innocent people. I don't care what you've gone through, or what you've done. You're still that guy from SunnyDale, still the man who risked his life to save people who laughed at him and ignored him. You just need some help to find yourself again, Xan."

A heartbeat of hesitation, as if part of him wanted so badly to believe what she had said. To believe that he was still himself, that the Knight of Death had not completely overpowered Xander Harris. But there had been so much pain, so many times he had been kicked while he was down, even as he had tried to help others… Hope was something that he had lost so long ago. Even now, as a once fallen friend had shown him the way back to the light, he had trouble contemplating being able to succeed in clawing his way back to the man he had been so long ago.

For the first time since he had become the Knight, Xander felt tears welling up in his eyes. He looked at Faith. "I'm sorry Faith. But I can't. There's been too much. Too many years of the pain, of the loss. Too many friends being killed, watching them die and being helpless. It's done and gone. There's no way to bring it back. The man you knew, that tried to save you, that was worthy of the help you're trying to offer… He's not me. He's locked himself away, in a quiet place, where the darkness can't get in and hurt him any more. The darkness hid the door and the lock years ago, it's done and gone. Locked away, never to be released again. I don't know that I could handle dealing with all of this, and there's no way I can open that door anyway, even if I wanted to."

From the side of the door, a voice spoke. Within the words, there was pain, empathy, love and happiness. It was a voice that Xander Harris knew, that the Death Knight had never heard, and that both of them thought was gone from their world forever.

"Not even if you have a Key?"

End Chapter Ten