'The Pit: Hell Frozen Over' - Arc 3, Chapter 2: 'Whispers' (Closed, Started)

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The congregation had not yet arrived at Azrael's court, as Nikolai, Kusanagi, Sharptooth and his men came in. He was seated at his throne, in discussion with Yuri and some others. Matthias was notably absent. Nikolai's suspicions were confirmed when Azrael caught sight of them.

"Matthias is dead, along with his men." he told Nikolai. "They had betrayed us. It was only the three of us present when I gave him his orders, and yet somehow out friend on the surface got wind of the information. A shame... he may have always been too soft, but he was a good negotiator, and I always thought he of all people would be too clever to dare defy me. It makes no matter though, by tonight, we shall have no need of negotiators."

"Sticks has managed to mass both the Aryans and the Crips against us at least," said Yuri "whether the Zulu have joined them is unknown, as we have no informants in their camp. The Dragon, and he is now truly singular, is with them, but all parties consider him disposable. He is not worth our concern. I'm also getting reports that there's another running with the Aryans, although he's supposedly not one of them. Some kind of infiltration and martial arts protege."

"An empty pantomime." Azrael dismissed. His face still showed little, but he was more cheerful than Nikolai had ever seen him. "If Sticks wants to show how much strength he can marshal against us, then let him. He will find himself wanting. Even in the worst case scenario we overpower the Aryans, the Crips, and the Zulu all together in sheer force of numbers; and even then, behind the cannon fodder we have men with better weapons and better training. If they attack, they will break themselves against us. We are too strong, and about to get stronger.

When Orphan lies dead all The Pit will see me as the vanquisher of men that no-one else could touch. Our ranks will swell immediately as new recruits seeking protection or glory will flock to us rather than our rivals. Other gangs, wiser gangs that Sticks has no currency to trade with will stand with us. Finally, as I told you before Yuri, mutual goals do not make fast friends. Sticks may have been able to get the Aryans and Crips to share a common enemy, but that does not truly make them friends. On the battlefield, if the Aryans look like they're about to break and run, do you really think the Crips will move to support their line, the line of the gang that would see them all dead and desecrate their corpses in a heartbeat? Do you think the Aryans are truly prepared to lay down their lives for a gang they see as dirt? Some of their more hard line branches are starting to desert them at the news even now. No, when they break, they will break apart from each other, and that is when our victory will be absolute.

Besides, the whole point of betraying the Aryans was to eliminate all our competitors for Stick's trade. By sending them all to die, he's really doing our own work for us. When the fighting's done, our numbers may have taken a dent, and Sticks may try to spin himself as the victor, but really, he'll have left himself with only one customer for his business. Us. Rather a hollow victory wouldn't you say?"

Azrael now turned his attention towards Kusanagi.

"My dear, I trust the night's meditations have left you in a more humble mood than yesterday. Don't worry, as I'm sure you've already been informed, we require very little active participation from you. Provided you can comply with the simplest of instructions, you will get your brother back as whole as he's ever going to be, and our business will be at an end. Now, let us welcome in our guests."

Kusanagi said nothing as Azrael spoke to her. He wasn't worthy of her words. As he turned his attention away from her she glanced over at Nikolai. Vigilant as ever. Was he being sincere last night. Could she really put her faith in someone she knew nothing about.

But then... after last night, perhaps she knew him better than anyone else in the Pit.

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The slender man cocked an eyebrow. To say Travis' demeanor was disrespectful would be an understandably, "Hans von Strucker was murdered by the niggers the other day! You had better show some motha fuckn' respect you goddamn---"

The man was interrupted by two larger men who pushed him aside and stepped between him and Travis, "The Commander was expecting you. Follow us," As they started for the war room one of the men signaled to the other. "Go get kung fu bitch."

The other man nodded and went in search for Acolyte.

Travis was led through a crowd of armed Nazis and found his way into the Commander's war room where Harris greeted him, "Ah 'The Dragon' was it? I don't believe we've ever met," Harris had a very smug air about him as he held out his hand for a shake.

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Conrad woke to a knock on the barracks door. After the mission last night he'd fallen into the first bed he found. The recruit's barracks. He hadn't gotten much sleep, but even the Wardens in the Pit were used to sleep deprivation.

"Rise and shine Sgt. Verner! You wouldn't want to miss the show!"

Sticks was like a little kid when he was excited. It kind of pissed Conrad off, but he's a professional so he puts up with it. Conrad sat up in bed rubbing his eyes, "What show is that?"

Sticks smiled insidiously, "The changing of the guard."

As the two of them headed to the Pit Sticks spoke softly, "Lee's plan will be running full-throttle very soon. No later than the end of the week... possibly the end of the day."

"Are we ready?"

Sticks shook his head, "No... but neither is Azrael."

Travis smiled as he was escorted by two very large Aryan men. He was led into what he assumed was some kind of war room as it was fille with armed Nazi's. He was greeted by the new Nazi leader. "Ah 'The Dragon' was it? I don't believe we've ever met," Harris had a very smug air about him as he held out his hand for a shake.

Travis was just as smug as he shook his hand. "Yes it is, a pleasure. I don't believe I know your name, and may I see it feels good to be speaking to someone who can speak with actual pronunciation. My condolences to your late leader I may add. Anyway, to business. The Crips want to form an alliance to take out the Wolves."

Korovitch was up early. After a short mile run with his squad, and a small breakfast, he put on his uniform, belted the Makarov and the kukri, and set off to the Colonel's office. It occurred to him that, aside from yesterday, during which nothing had happened, today would be the first day he'd worn the blade on active duty. He put this from his mind as he rapped curtly on Lee's office door.

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Acolyte was already awake when the Aryans came to find him. 'We got some asshole talking to the boss. Says you should be there.'

He shrugged, slung his rifle across his back, over his Kevlar vest (which he wore to conceal the swastika burned into his chest as much as a safety measure) and set off. He came around the corner to see Harris and the Dragon.

He smiled, casually. 'Good morning, Harris.' Still smiling, he nodded to the Dragon. 'Hello, Chinese New year.'

Harris smiled, "The name's Commander Harris von Strucker and my brother was a dumb fuck. Don't pity his demise."

"Anyway, to business. The Crips want to form an alliance to take out the Wolves."

Harris frown, "Yes, our mutual friend on the surface sent word earlier this morning," He was obviously not happy with the development. "I think it goes without saying... we'll work with them for now, but once the Wolves are finished I'll be expecting you to help us exterminate those pests."

Once Acolyte entered and greeted them Harris signaled for the two to sit down around the table in the center of the room, "Gentlemen. This is a most special meeting. We have 'The Dragon', a man who has nothing, yet has everything to gain once we have Azrael's head on a spike. And we have you, Acolyte. A mysterious man who allegedly killed our bothers, but can offer us unparalleled skill in hand-to-hand combat," Harris gave a hearty laugh. "You smell that? That's the smell of a bright future my friends! Something you only smell when all of the unworthy niggers are wiped from the Pit!" As he spoke he gave Acolyte a mocking look. "But unfortunately now's not the time for this war. We have a show to attend."

Harris threw his arms out dramatically, "Azrael's last."

The concrete tube was quiet except for the sounds of Hannah's tools. Ilene was sitting on Hannah's bed with her right hand covering her face. Her stump of a left arm rested over her knees. She tried to cope with her spectacular failure the night before. Hannah didn't say a word. She didn't have to.

The old woman was working on Ilene's mechanical arm for the past two hours. The torn piece of metal was slowly crumbling and she was asked to restore it to its past glory. More ammunition was needed for her tools, as Ilene had spent nearly all of it. Ilene already sent Diana on her way to scramble for any information she could find. Even though she didn't end the Dragon, something more important came up - something much, much larger. If what the Crip leader said was true, then the Dragon was working to form a coalition against the arctic wolves. Those sadistic bastards had been using women for toys ever since they were born. Ilene couldn't even dream of taking them down herself, and none of the gangs wanted to screw with the arctic wolves while the wardens were aiding and trading with them.

The situation was about to change. Travis was amassing a coalition to fight against the wolves, but he met with the Wardens before he set out to meet the Crips. That warden body... something was amiss.

"Done". Hannah proclaimed proudly. She pulled away from her little workshop at the end of the tube and turned to see Ilene . The bitter woman always seemed to put a show whenever she went. She would never show emotions and never succumb to fear. That was the way of life she was forced into, but Hannah remembers her from before. It was the time when her prosthetic arm was just there to help her life an ordinary life. A time when she was hopeful of her prospects, hoping she could survive in this hellhole with the help of her sisters. Oh how wrong she was. A thought ran through Hannah's head.

Ilene looked back at Hannah with tears in her eyes. She hadn't seen her cry in many years. The vulnerable looking woman now looked more feminine than ever. She pulled back her hair and wiped the grime on her trousers.

"Thank you, Hannah. I sometimes forgot how it's like moving without the iron-fist". Ilene tried to hold back her emotions, but the dam broke regardless. She hide her face behind her right hand and sobbed quietly. Hannah approached her holding her prosthetic arm. The old woman seemed like a twig that could fly on the wind. Her silky white hair fell down to her lower back. She looked pale, as she always does, and her blue eye glistened as she looked at Ilene. A smile crept onto her face. Hannah sat down next to Ilene and put the prosthetic arm aside. She turned to Ilene and pulled her closer to her. Ilene's head resting on her bosom while Hannah was slowly rocking her.

"I haven't seen you like that in a long time". Hannah whispered. "I'm so glad to see the pit hadn't taken away your humanity".

"No... I still kill... I still hurt people... It's always the same. I'm never an equal".

"They deserve it all, darling". Hannah's fingers ran through Ilene's short hair. She pulled away and kissed her on her forehead.

"This time... I think I can make it right... this time...". Ilene raised her head and her gaze met with Hannah's. Hannah hand was still wrapped around Ilene's neck when she pulled her in and closed her eyes. The two kissed each other passionately. Hannah pushed herself on Ilene and dropped her prosthetic arm on the floor.

"Wait, my iron-fist-". Ilene protested.

"It's fine, Ilene. I will be your left hand".

Acolyte ran a hand down his face. 'We've all heard about the sheer numbers and resources the Wolves possess. Even with the numbers of both the Aryans and the Crips, if we go into all out open war on a direct front, there's every chance they'll slaughter us. What we need to do is orchestrate something more subtle. If you ask me, we should distract them with a large scale assault, and while that's going on, we send a group to take out Azrael. With him gone, dealing with his men will be easier. He has to be dealt with as soon as possible.'

'Hello, Chinese New year.' said a balm man as he entered.

"What?" the joke was lost on Travis.

Travis forgot about it and sat down, listening to Harris give a speech about both Travis and Acolyte. Travis laughed especially when he said "You smell that? That's the smell of a bright future my friends! Something you only smell when all of the unworthy niggers are wiped from the Pit!" He then looked at Acolyte as if he were no Aryan brother. "But unfortunately now's not the time for this war. We have a show to attend." Harris threw his arms out dramatically, "Azrael's last."

"What show? What's going on?"

"Enter." Lee commanded, to which the door swung open. "Good morning Warrant Officer. Please, take a seat."

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Nikolai was statuesque as ever, while Azrael put on his show for the crowd.

"I look around me in this room and I see strength. I see dominance. I see the iron will to climb atop the mountains of the dead and destitute, to plant the flag of victory!" he pontificated to rapturous applause. "I have seen this day after day after day for decades; and yet, I have also seen fear. Our poor souls, already cast into these hellish depths to be forgotten by the world of men, have had to endure one final insult. We have been hunted, my friends, like common vermin, by a malevolent shadow to mocks us by hiding behind the implied innocence of his name, Orphan!"

At the very mention of his the noise rose in cacophonous fury. It was all an act, Nikolai knew. Fire without heat, but it served Azrael's purposes all the same. It was yet another demonstration of his power, the key to his success. By styling himself as more than just a common gang leader, the cult of personality and rule of legend that surrounded him was just as powerful as the brute strength of The Pack.

"Orphan! For year after year he seemed untouchable, but now we know better." he swept a hand over to where Kusanagi stood "Now, we know him for a tired old man, a paternal fool. His strength was little but deception. Orphan, I now speak directly to you. Your time is at an end. Soon, The Pack's ascension will be complete. You cannot stop us, so instead I give you the chance to die a man. Reject this, and you will be chased down like the rat you are. Meet us alone, and unarmed at The Hive by seven tonight, to try your might against us. When you die, you will die a worthy enemy. However, should you defy our demands, or should anyone else attempt intervention on your behalf, innocents will suffer for your cowardice. Let the word spread to all corners! 'The Most Dangerous Man In The Pit' dies today, and when he does there shall be no question of our authority. This prison will be made into our kingdom, and it will be a rule of absolutes. All who stand with us will be carried to conquest by the zephyr of a God, and none who resist shall be spared!"

"THE FURY OF THE PACK IS UNMATCHED!" came the thunderous reply, even from those who represented other gangs. It was only now that Nikolai could truly see just how vast Azrael's armies were. Even though less than a hundred could fit in this court, the cries he heard echo'd with the voices of thousands, all ready for the final march, and it was all held together by one Man. He looked at Azrael, basking in the worship, paying Nikolai no mind, and for the first time saw the true enormity of his task.

Luka sat down in the offered chair and looked across at his superior. 'I'm pleased to report the group are doing well with each other. Initial tensions are being smoothed out, and they will function as only brothers in arms can. Be it the result of more training, or... a trial by fire. What is it you'd have of me, sir?'

"Good to hear." Lee replied. "We'll discuss further developments later. Right now, there are other concerns that need to be addressed."

Lee smiled, while Korovich looked somewhat confused. While he had no delusions that Korovich was a man easily sweet-talked, what he'd arranged was less about buying loyalties and more about practicality. The Warrant Officer had said himself it was irregular when Lee had first given him the directive, and he's been right. If Korovich was going to play a major role after the dust had settled, then he needed the authority of rank.

"Both Venture and I are in agreement that your service during your tenure here has been exceptional. You are a good soldier, able, intelligent, and experienced. More than that, your recent assignment has proven that you possess the natural talent to inspire those around you. You can lead without the benefit of rank, and that is exactly why you are worthy of it."

Lee stood up, mimicked by Luka, with both striding forward to face each other.

"I've taken the liberty of fast-tracking the necessary paper-work, all that is required from you is your consent. Congratulations on your new promotion, Lieutenant Korovich."

Lee extended the offer of a handshake, which Korovich met, and in the brief clasp Lee exchanged a folded note from one palm to the other.

Korovitch let his hand drop. He'd pocket the note when he was out of the office and out of the eye of whatever bugs were in there. He snapped off a salute. 'I'm honored, sir. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be seeing to my squad now.'

With that, he turned and left.

Kusanagi stared blankly as Azrael blathered on about his assumed victory. If she'd been her former self she'd have been weeping during his speech. Kusanagi, however, could bury her emotions when she needed to. She couldn't show any weakness here. Reconciling Orphan's death would have to wait.

She was so close now. So close to saving Tristan.

But once that's been accomplished. What then? Could he ever recover from the torture he had endured? Would he still beg for death when this was all over?

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Harris nodded as Acolyte spoke, "You know it's a shame you are not one of us. Our ranks lack the tactical finesse your mind wields," He closed his eyes and smiled. "However, our contact has already planned for a similar scenario."

"What show? What's going on?"

"Azrael's planning to kill Orphan in the Hive tonight. Our contact believes that this will be the catalyst for all-out war... something to do with another warden's grand scheme," Harris began pacing around the room. "If what he predicts comes true we'll be in the midst of the largest riot in the Pit's long history. Azrael's forces will be forced across the Pit as to secure it's boarders, assets and allies. We will spread forces out around Wolf territory as to block off support and communication from the bulk of their forces and their main headquarters. In the meantime we will send a small team of our best men into their headquarters. No prisoners except Azrael. We need to make an example of him," Herris slammed his fists on the table. "NO ONE UNDERESTIMATES THE BROTHERHOOD!"

After a moment of rage he quickly calmed himself, "Now... are you two ready to witness the fall of the Pit's 'Most Dangerous Man'?"

Acolyte's mind was racing. Orphan was going to die. Was there anything he could do about it? Maybe, but it would almost certainly mean his and Lucia's deaths. He didn't respond to Harris' rhetorical question.

Travis began laughing hysterically. He slapped his hands on the table and laughed for a good minute, no doubt irritating Acolyte and Harris. "I think I just figured it out. I think our 'mutual friend' is being played by his big boss. I think... once we have had this big ol' war, the Wardens are gonna lead some kind of purge. You say another Warden has a big plan, I think he's playing our man and he doesn't even know it. After the smoke clears, and a lot of people are dead, I have a sneaking suspicion that a shit ton of Wardens are gonna be marching down here to clean up whoever's left alive. Wolf, Aryan, Crip, fuck it. They're gonna try to kill us all." Travis stood up. "So even if I'm wrong, I think we should be ready for two big fights. Enough of that though, I wanna see the Orphan get slaughtered."

Harris smiled, "I admit... it doesn't sound fishy. But we don't have any other choice. We either fight and die during this theoretical riot or we take advantage of the situation and strike at the Wolves!" Harris' blood lust was almost tangible. What he failed to mention to his comrades was that he didn't care how it all went down so long as Azrael ended up dead in the end.

Justice had to be served. No mater the cost.

"Eh, fair enough," Travis sighed. "Oh one thing, I am going to be part of that small team by the way," Travis smiled smugly, "just thought I'd mention it."

Travis in the team? That probably wasn't good. Acolyte knew he'd be a part of that team. It was almost certainly why Harris had recruited him. Travis had tried to rape Lucia before. If they found her, and he tried something again, Acolyte owed it to Orphan to stop him, in whatever way he could.

'Who's actually leading this team, by the way? You, Harris?'

Harris nodded to Travis and looked to Acolyte, "Damn straight I am. I need to make sure none of you fuckers get to Azrael before I do!" He gave out a gruff laugh as he exited the room. The most important fight ever fought in the Pit was about to begin and he was sure-as-shit not going to miss it.

Acolyte followed Harris towards the Hive, slinging his rifle into a more comfortable position. 'I get it, by the way. You're having me along to deal with Azrael's Dog if he shows up, aren't you?'

Harris continued onward keeping his eyes ahead as his men fell in behind him, "It's not a matter of 'if'... it's a matter of 'when'. The only man that I know of that's capable of taking him down may very well be dead by the end of the day," Harris glanced back at Acolyte. "You're the next best thing we've got."

"You're the next best thing we've got." Said Harris as he spoke to Acolyte.

"Next to me that is. I don't know if word spread or not but I fucked up that nigger Crip leader Zig Zag by myself! What the fuck has this pissant done?"

Harris shrugged, "For starters he's survived in the pit... alone for who knows how long. He also took down one of my best men while unarmed and without incurring more than a few bruises," Harris paused for a moment while sizing up Travis. "He also wasn't doped up when he did it."

The Hive was at once alive with activity and deathly still. The Wolves and their allies were there in force. Armed, disciplined, and ready to deal extreme force towards any attempt at intervention. This time, no Wardens were sent to even make a show of authority. As tensions had tun higher and higher in the past few days, the Wardens had been hanging back, not wanting to get caught in the middle of the inevitable hostilities. When gang violence had threatened to escalate to this level before now, the Wardens preferred to save their numbers, let the warring factions beat each-other into a stalemate, before reengaging to clear up the mess made by the now much smaller gangs.

Nikolai had stepped into the ring. While most of the Pack wore their ceremonial skins as a show of intimidation, Nikolai had more practical concerns, and as such was dressed in nothing but loose-fitting tracksuit bottoms, for maximum agility and endurance. The floodlit arena always brought his already badly scarred and burned torso into even more grisly focus, while the glare reflecting off his pale skin made his muscle contours look absolutely obscene.

He looked up to the fourth floor, where Azrael had made a royal box of sorts. He was flanked by his other lieutenants, who in turn had covered the balcony with elite guards. He had made Kusanagi kneel at his feet, where she stared down with a blank, lock-jawed expression. Looking, but not seeing. Azrael had his hands on her shoulders, almost caressing her. If Orphan really saw Kusanagi as something akin to a daughter, then Azrael intended that the last thing he would see before he died was the girl in his grip, completely under his control. Placing so much as a finger on her would be seen as akin to defiling her, and Azrael knew it.

"The Orphan is running out of time." Azrael announced, in his voice that seemed to carry without effort.

"Maybe we should make 'is bitch call for 'im?" came Sharptooth's gravelly response "See from 'ow far away 'e can 'ear 'er screamin'."

"Give him a few minutes more. It takes a lot for a Rat to change its nature, I almost sympathise."

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Once again Lee stood looking out from the roof of the ATC tower at his facility. It looked slightly less foreboding in the fading light. Captain Montoya stood at his side, but the two of them didn't speak. After two years of meticulous planning and moral agonising, what else was there left to say? They had arrived at the culmination of their efforts, and the wheels that they had set in motion had now reached a critical velocity. There could be no turning back.

He was doing the right thing. He knew it, he had to know it. Time and again he'd sought other, more ethical avenues, trying in vain to find an excuse to abort. The current establishment of The Pit, and the corruption that supported it, had to be removed before any progress could be made. That much was self-evident, and only a man like Lee could possess the countenance and long-term thinking to do what must be done. It broke every code of honour that had been drilled into him since birth. These were not deeds that a man could ever be proud of, regardless of results.

The honourable Lee, the proud Lee, wasn't here. That man had died in the desert. What he was now was an instrument of change, cold as steel. Korovich would be here soon, then everything would be in place; and the icy wind would still and silence, as the very earth waited for the starting gun to fire.

Travis walked solemnly, Harris was making him look weak. "Of course you'd know." Soon the sound of the Hive was piercing throughout the Pit. "I think I can hear that prick Azreal already."

What a cocksure asshole, Acolyte thought. But instead of arguing, he smiled politely at Travis, and replied evenly, 'If you're so confident, maybe you'd like to step into the ring with the Dog if he beats Orphan. That might be something worth watching.'

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Korovitch ascended the steps to the last floor of the tower. He wasn't exactly nervous. His nerves had died long ago. But if there was a time he'd been close to that state in recent years, this was it. Promotion was rare in the Pit if someone of rank wasn't killed in some riot, and yet here he was, Lieutenant Korovitch. Everything about this was unusual. He took a deep breath, checked his pistol and blade, then opened the rooftop door.

Lee and Montoya stood with their backs to him, but they turned at the jolting sound of the door. 'I came alone. I told nobody. Now sir, perhaps you'll tell me what this is all about?'

First the moaning stopped, and then the two got dressed. They didn't exchange words after their encounter. Everything that they wanted to say had been said, and now they merely waited in silence. Ilene strapped her left prosthetic arm and felt whole again. She hardened her posture and took a deep breath. The tube seemed too small for her, too confined for a wild animal like her.

Diana returned soon after, as if she waited to stop hearing the moaning that came from inside the tube. She jumped down into the hatch and then closed it behind her. She saluted the two in an ironic gesture.

"Report?". Ilene asked.

"Something is definitely up. The wolves have mobilized their forces and called in their satellite gangs for some show. Their leader... They're after Orphan". Diana seemed surprised.

Hannah was in her closed workshop while the two continue to converse.

"Did you notify our contacts?". Ilene hoped for some reinforcements.

"I did, ma'am. The Yakuza were somehow tipped off, and their intelligence agents advised them to stay away. They're still ready to mobilize, but they're ready to pick up the pieces and not join in the fight. The Cartel, on the other hand...". Diana sighed audibly.

"What are the Spaniards planning?". Ilene asked curiously.

"A hostile takeover, but they lack the men. Their natural allies are tied up in a turf war two levels up, and they can't spare enough soldiers. Still, they're eager to go on, and their leader is a hothead. I think we might see them in the field soon enough".

"I hope they will send in Maria's platoon". Ilene interjected.

"Me too, but that's not all. There's something seriously wrong going on between the head-bangers and the cannibals. I still can't see the full picture, but it seems like they're heading for a merger... and they will look for a fight to forge their loyalties". Diana was cautious with her words. The information she got from Dean and Leila was sketchy at best. They weren't in the leadership of their gangs or even in their inner circles, so what they got was minimal.

Ilene laughed out loud. "Heavy Metal Coked-up Flesh Eaters. That's a scary combination".

"Thanks, Diana".

"Iron-fist, I got you your pistol cleaned. Take better care of it next". Hannah spoke from behind the curtains. She moved past it and handed Iron-fist her pistol and two new full magazines.

"Where did you say they were going to make that show?".

Conrad knew the Pit's layout better than any Warden on the payroll. It was his hunting ground after all. He led Sticks through winding alleyways and cramped crawlspaces until they had arrived at their destination. A ventilation box that sat against the far wall of the Hive, near the ceiling. As far as Conrad knew no one else had ever found their way up there. It was a shame really. It was the best seat in the house.

Sticks peered through the vent, "This is brilliant! I can't believe you've been holding out on me all this time!"

Conrad shrugged, "Usually wardens are safe coming to these fights. Today's.... different."

Sticks could see Azrael sitting in his box with Orphan's girl kneeling before him, "He fancies himself a king does he? Well, I suppose it's a shame we need him. Now'd be as good a time as any to paint his royal box with the inside of his skull."

Conrad took a peak, "Would be a pretty easy shot, honestly."

Conrad watched a sadistic smile form on Sticks' face.

Whatever was going through his sick mind was nothing Conrad wanted anything to do with.

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Harris ignored Travis as they entered the Hive and almost immediately spotted Zig Zag among his pose. Harris signaled his men to spread-out among the crowd as did Zig Zag. He turned to Acolyte and Travis, "I'm going to have a brief discussion with our... friend. You two, enjoy the show."

He and Zig Zag exchanged glances before disappearing into an alley.

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Kusanagi didn't register Azrael's cold touch. Her eyes were locked on the hulking behemoth who had taken to the ring. Could Orphan, a small, old man really take on a beast such as he?

Orphan...

She clutched her chest.

Would she even get to say goodbye?

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To say the Hive was wild would be an understatement. It was damn near impossible to hear yourself think it was so loud. As Orphan made his way through the Bloodworks however... an unsettling silence followed. By the time he'd found his way into the center of the arena the entirety of the Hive had grown quiet. He stood there, an old man in rags, with thousands of murderers, rapists and thieves staring down at him... awestruck.

Even Azrael hesitated to speak.

Orphan crossed his arms and smiled arrogantly as he sized up Nikolai, "What's this Azrael? You send your Dog to do your dirty work? I thought you were more considerate than that," Orphan laughed out loud. His gruff laughter echoed through the quiet Hive. "Are you so afraid of my legend that you send your pup to receive me? Are you not man enough to meet me face-to-face?"

A low rumble from the crowd began to grow larger every second Azrael spent not addressing Orphan's accusations.

Travis scoffed at Acolyte's words before they were both address by Harris, after he was gone he nudged Acolyte in the arm and spoke only loud enough for him to hear as he leaned in close. "Listen here faggot, I don't give a fuck about what Harris says I could kick your ass any day. And as for the Dog, after he's done kicking Orphan's shit in he's gonna be in no fit shape to fight anyone, so I might just go in there and fuck him up." With that Travis quickly paced through the crowd, a petty way to get the last word in as he didn't want Acolyte to say something else to dampen his mood and 'win'.

Acolyte chuckled at Orphan's remarks. All things aside, he rather liked the old man. Glancing after Travis, he called out, 'the atmosphere here's pretty damn festive, isn't it? I'm almost surprised there aren't people selling cola and cheap hot dogs.'

Traffic in the areas of the pit leading to Iron-fist's final destination had been abnormally dense. People seemed to flock to the same spot and the closer she got the more people she encountered. Fearing the power of a mob, she decided to move up and travel through the less comfortable and much more restricting upper passages which included ventilation shafts, among other things. She hoped to get a good view of the happening from above and to avoid unnecessary contact. Maybe if she was lucky she could spot that pig Dragon somewhere in the crowd.

"Thank you for coming Lieutenant." said Lee "I apologise for having kept you in the dark. I have several reasons, all of them legitimate. However, we're now away from hostile eyes and ears, and you're ready for the truth. I wish we could dispense with the formalities, but old habits die hard..."

Lee began to pace back and fourth along the railing.

"I'll be as direct and to the point as I can be Lieutenant, but if you wish to be fully included, I feel the need to start from the beginning. You've heard of the legend of The Northern Lights, I trust? If not, I'll give you the short version. The Aurora Borealis to give the phenomenon it's less common name, is rumored to be a majestic colour display, cast across the night's sky in the farthest northern reaches of our world. However, no-one alive today has seen them. There has been no recorded sighting of The Northern Lights in post-cataclysm history, and as such many now question if they were anything more than a well circulated story. Despite this, the legend has developed quite a cult following among the more lowly peoples across the hemisphere. Some believe that the reason for the Aurora's absence is that the evils of men in our new world have cast out this heavenly sign, and there is a prophecy, predicting that the day the Light's return will mark the return of hope, casting out greed and savagery.

Now, I'm not a believer myself, but in my own way I think I'm about to bring them the first step of their salvation..."

===============================================================================================================================

"Quite the sentiment from a man who has survived to old age by clinging to the shadows, wouldn't you say Orphan?" Azrael replied with a faint snarl undercutting his level tone, his fingers digging in to Kusanagi's shoulders. "In case your dwindling mind has forgotten, I've faced you man to man before. Well, I say 'man to man'... I was little more than a child when my assassination was ordered; and yet, I survived you. One of the very few, perhaps the only one?"

Through all of this, Nikolai said nothing. He paced his edge of the ring, eyes fixed on Orphan, drinking in every little detail, looking for weaknesses, and false weaknesses that were meant to trap him.

"I proved my personal strength on that day, and since then, unlike you, I've never been afraid to let myself be seen. So don't think there's a single man with a single drop of wisdom in this room who doesn't see the gaping emptiness behind your words!" he spat "What I must prove now is not the strength of my body, but rather the strength of my Pack, the strength of my influence, and that strength will be the end of you. Now, go ahead and die Orphan, and I'll grant you one gift. The girl and her brother will live. It's more charity from me than you deserve."

Acolyte watched Nikolai staring down Orphan, and listened to Azrael's response. The lay person would wonder how Orphan could possibly stand a chance. Acolyte knew better. When he'd been a monk, there had been a man. The oldest man in the temple, pushing his mid-nineties. This man could whip anyone else up and down the sparring arena, including Acolyte himself. Nobody was entirely sure how he'd done it. One day, that had changed, when a man Acolyte greatly disliked, one of his peers, had overcome their master and crippled him. It was put down to an accident, but Acolyte had had his suspicions. In any case, he knew. He knew there was every chance Orphan could be such a warrior himself.

Orphan nodded and bowed mockingly, "Why thank you for your generosity my Lord," He put his hands on his hips and looked around the Hive before looking back up at Azrael. "Could this old fool have one final request? A... last words of sorts from a man about to meet the reaper?"

Orphan's eyes moved from Azrael's and locked onto Kusanagi's.

Nikolai had noticed Orphan barely paid him any mind. After initially sizing him up he hadn't looked him over again. Was he going to put up a decent fight or did he already know everything about Azrael's dog that he needed?

Kusanagi broke free of Azrael's grip and crawled over to the edge of the box grabbing the chain-linked fence. She said nothing and fought to keep the tears at bay. Orphan was smiling at her.

She sat there motionless, just... staring blankly into Orphan's eyes.

Azrael seethed. "If the condemned man wants to spend his last moments playing Court Jester, then I can grant that request. I warn you though, for every one of your little jokes that doesn't make me laugh, your dear Lucia gets a scar."

He didn't show it, but the proceedings were starting to irritate Nikolai. Although they'd never faced off against each other, from what he'd heard The Orphan seemed like a efficient killer, and yet here he was playing Azrael's games. Just let this be like any other ring fight. Let the challenger come, let him do his best, and then let him die quickly. He'd never balked at any act he'd committed on behalf of his Masters before, but why must Men always find such enjoyment in it?

===============================================================================================================================

Korovich hadn't responded. Was he confused, or simply impatient, and not willing to stand around in the cold having a discussion about faith with his commanding officer. Either Lee could understand. Personally, he'd rather just give the Lieutenant his orders and be done with it. But these were no ordinary orders. If Luka's loyalty was to be assured, then he must truly understand Lee's motives, and to understand those he needed to know everything, and in detail. The man would agree, Lee was sure of it, so long as his explanation was sound.

"I was recruited by Venture Horizon five years ago," Lee continued. "and put in command of RACDI-Alpha three years after. You may not believe it looking at me now, but at the time I was delighted. It felt like a rebirth of sorts. Before Venture contacted me, I was... a damaged relic from a long and fruitless war. Having 'left' the service of The Tiger Republics, I had nowhere to go, and nothing to distract me from the memories. I had helped commit atrocities, seen atrocities committed by others, had atrocities done to me, and for what? The Tigers have the land East of the Gulf, the Iberians, allied with their new business partners, have the West. On both sides, the masses see none of the spoils, while there are far too many bones on the seabed between them.

The Tiger Airborne were the best; and my Company were the best of the best. We were poster boys to a man... and you could count on your fingers how many of us made it back!

I was abandoned by the government I fought for, and forgotten by the people I'd fought my way back for. Venture though, Venture gave me hope, and purpose. Under their wing I clawed my way back to my peak, and for a while I felt I owed them the same loyalty that I had once given the Tigers. After I got here though, that soon changed..."

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