"This is one of our most recently excavated areas." Montoya announced to the Executives, his voice echoing of the walls of the small chamber. "Work here only started 5 months ago. As you can see, we have large deposits of copper in this region, which is a valuable resource for both Venture Horizon's own infrastructure, and for it's government contracts."
A rumble came from one of the side passageways. Not very large, but still enough to make the walkway they were on vibrate, and the party was drenched from water droplets being shaken loose of the stalactites above.
"No need for alarm." he reassured them "Were still using explosives to excavate this area, but new regulations introduced by the Colonel mean we're now being far more careful than we've ever been before with their application. So long as nobody wanders off, we'll be fine. This is one of the measures contributing to a 30% decrease in industrial accidents we've seen over the last 3 months. You'll find the fall in costs for Venture Horizon on the front far outweighs the lower speed of progress."
There was a brief summary of questions, before Lee held up his hands.
"I'm afraid that's all we'll have time for this evening. Rest assured, there's far more to see on all levels of the facility, and I'm sure you'll all get the chance to see it. For now, please follow Lt. Abreu back the way we came, and when we're back at the surface, you'll be shown to your quarters."
Lt. Abreu saluted the Colonel as she turned and silently led the executives back the way they came. Pure anger bubbling through her blood as she couldn't stop focusing on how such a spoiled cunt like Selina was able to come up in the position she was in now. If anyone in this tour group had more than likely spent time on their back to get to where they are now, it was probably her.
"Where are we going Penn?" asked Felix.
It was fortunate that Nikolai had awoken earlier than the others, as it gave him time to make himself presentable. The fresh meat had clearly not done enough to lift the shroud of sickness that clung to him. He woke clammy and shivering, with barely the strength to get to his feet. When he did, his leg ached worse than it had done last night, and the first thing he did was half-drag himself to the mouth of the cave, where he vomited copiously into the rough. His bile was thin and pale, with streaks of blood in it, and it stung him all the way from the depths of his throat to his nose. Not long after, a similar substance left him in the opposite direction.
He was dying. He understood that now clearer than ever before, weak and shuddering beside his own filth. Even if by some virtue they found sanctuary now, make contact with other Men who were inclined to help them, he wondered if it was too late for his body to be saved. Staring at his massive, rock hard physique, he wondered whether or not it was fitting. It was the norm for Men who killed to die in battle, he understood, yet he'd never shared that desire himself. Why would a warrior wish to lose, to be proved unworthy by someone stronger. Nikolai had killed every man who had ever stood against him. This way, he would die defeated by the only adversary that could ever hope to destroy him. His own body.
It didn't matter. Death was death, and these distractions would not change the inevitable. Nevertheless, Nikolai was about to find out what that one simple word truly meant, and he was for the first time uncertain. He had referred Men refer to it as 'meeting their maker'. An old phrase. The Men without faces had made Nikolai, with their glowing red irons and their chains and their endless questions. Nikolai was a creature born in fire and screams. He could gladly accept most any fate... but he didn't want to go back there.
It turned out that Nikolai was not the worst off, one he had made himself more presentable and the rest had woken. Henrik, who had seemed in better health than most the night before, never woke up from his slumber. They couldn't carry him, the soil was too shallow and rocky to bury him, and they didn't have the time to make a fire and burn him. They had no choice but to leave him, curled up and peaceful looking, as they made their way down into the valley again, towards the village.
Acolyte stood over Henrik's body, lain peacefully on the ground. Closing his eyes, Acolyte placed his hand against his sternum and intoned in Mandarin Chinese, *"the flesh of the earth has been left behind. This soul has entered the clearing beyond the path, where he now waits for us. May he find peace."* They were the words he had spoken over all of their group who had fallen so far. He wasn't sure if Nikolai knew of the impromptu last rites he gave the deceased, or even if the man cared.
With that, he turned, striding past those watching him and picked up his meagre belongings, including the wood that was beginning to take on a vaguely quadrupedal shape, on a wider, flat section of the wood, hewn into a rough plinth.
Through the small slits of the metal grate, Neil watched as the group of executives and their warden escorts left the Hive. He got one good look at Lee before he left. That was the face of a man who had sentenced thousands to death. Innocents and murderers, herded together to be slaughtered like animals. The most dangerous men of the Pit: Orphan, Azrael and the Dog; these men were often considered when the topic arose. However, few ever considered wardens when making these claims.
To anyone who paid any attention the answer was obvious. It was why the Devil chose Lee as his adversary. Lee was the very definition of "dangerous game".
If he were an inmate he too would be judged by the the Reaper, Neil thought.
He would be judged eventually... perhaps by the stern, well-dressed woman with him.
Once they had departed Neil made his way back towards the Cathedral. He would have to lay low after today's events.
Lucia stood above Henrik's corpse as Acolyte prayed. She had seen enough death at this point that it no longer stirred her. Not the death of this man, at least. He was Nikolai's brother, not hers.
Her brother was already dead.
Lucia patted Acolyte on the shoulder before turning and walking out the mouth of the cave where the rest of the Freemen waited. None of them said a word.
As they began their march towards the village, Lucia couldn't help but notice Nikolai's uncharacteristically sluggish pace. After studying him a bit longer what was happening to him became abundantly clear.
Nikolai was dying.
This village was his only hope and if he didn't make it.... if their leader died, so too would they.
But not until they had grasped for whatever life was left for them to live. Lucia would become a target.
It won't end like that...
Kusanagi would die on her own terms... not naked, on her back in the middle of the wilderness. Not with some pitiful creature's hands around her neck.
As they walked farther down she drifted towards Acolyte and looked around to ensure they would not be heard.
She whispered in his ear, "If Nikolai dies today, we run."
"If Nikolai dies today, we run."
Acolyte's gaze was steely as he responded. "I won't let them take you. Once we're clear of the ravine, we can hare off in any direction."
He glanced at Nikolai, pushing along. "Do you think there's anything we can do for him?"
"Somewhere away from Wardens and Boffins." Replied Penn, making sure to look as natural as possible, "They tend not to like it when you stay in one place for too long, and I doubt they'll be inclined t'ward lenience when there are guests around. They'll want to impress 'em." He could tell the kid was worried, so he put his hand back on his shoulder, "They'll treat the Spaniard well enough. It'd be a bad investment to let 'im die."
"Do you think there's anything we can do for him?"
Kusanagi shrugged, "It depends on what we find in the village. I'll let you know what you can do to help once we're there. For now... just be on your toes."
Kusanagi would do whatever it took to survive. Of that, Acolyte must have understood.
With no ammunition left for his shotgun or pistol, Nikolai had left them behind, and instead now carried Henrik's sub-machine gun, as he would no longer be needing it. He still had his hammer slung across his back, but it felt much heavier than it had done yesterday.
As Gregor had predicted, the village appeared deserted when they finally came out of the tree-line onto the dirt road. Soon after they crossed the threshold, it became apparent why. Bodies were strewn everywhere, left where they had fallen. People just going about their everyday business had died, In their allotments beside their tools, beside their carts filled up with goods to take to market, even Young who had been playing in the street, now lay face down over their chalk markings. No wonder the Wolves hadn't been afraid to follow them so close to the village. Everyone here was dead.
Yet, there had been no battle. None that Nikolai could see at least. There was no damage to any of the buildings. Nikolai turned over and examined the body of a Boy, who couldn't have been more than 11 years old. Crows had pecked out his eyes, where maggots now crawled, but aside that there were no wounds. He hadn't been shot, stabbed, beaten or burned. All the others appeared to be the same. What foe had befallen them? No-one had fought. There were no weapons lying at the fingertips of the dead. From the way the bodies were positioned, it didn't look like anyone had even tried to run away. Was Nikolai hallucinating? Were these projections of death apparently without cause just another stage of his deterioration? No, it couldn't be. The others could see them to. They were reacting.
He felt so tired, so heavy. A part of him just wanted to lie down next to this boy, close his eyes, and give in. He wouldn't though, not yet. He would keep going until the last step. That much at least, he must achieve.
"These have only been dead a few days," He announced, his voice a little slurred "and there's been no looting. Search every den, every room. Food, water, medicine, weapons. Take as much as you can carry."
As others milled about, searching the houses, Acolyte stopped by Nikolai, being careful to keep Lucia in his line of sight. He ran his gaze over the child's corpse at his feet. "No sign of injury. It could be sickness, in which case, we'd do well to keep away from them. But... there's no sign of a plague. It's almost as if someone decided to test chemical weapons on these people."
He glanced up at the huge man, as he spoke, gauging his reaction.
Kusanagi stood back, watching Nikolai examine the boy from afar. Lucia would have stumbled away to vomit in the brush. Kusanagi would do no such thing. She would stand her ground and think on the situation.
There was something very wrong about this place.
"It's almost as if someone decided to test chemical weapons on these people."
Kusanagi nodded and looked to Nikolai, "I was thinking the same thing. If that's the case... I wouldn't advice consuming any food or drinks in this village. They could be contaminated by God knows what," Her eyes wandered down to Nikolai's leg. "We could do with some medical supplies though."
It was well into the night by the time Viper and Husky squads emerged again at the top of The Atrium, and everyone, Warden's and Executives alike, seemed keen to get back to the barracks, out of the cold. For Selina though, there was one more thing she must attend to first.
"May I have a word with you Colonel..." she asked, as the rest were ready to mount up at the motor pool "in private?"
Colonel Lee and the leader of Viper squad exchanged glances. The squad leader looked uneasy, but Lee consented.
"It's quite alright, Captain. We'll take a different truck when we're done."
After they were left alone, facing each-other on the frost-bitten asphalt, the Colonel broke the silence. "Your first impressions?"
"From what I've seen so far, I have to say I'm legitimately impressed." Selina replied, smiling. "You've made far more progress in the last three months than I would have expected, even from reading your file. The wonders of what can be achieved with total autonomy... Your little coup may just end up being the best thing that's happened for Venture Horizon in a long time."
The corners of Lee's mouth stretched into the coldest smile Selina had ever seen, which was saying a lot considering she had grown up around politicians.
"Congratulations Ms. Hernandez." he replied, his sarcasm subtle "Your detective skills have reached the same level as the idle gossip of the rank and file, having had one too many drinks whilst off duty. Would you like my confession in writing, or will this statement suffice?"
Selina laughed "No need to alarm yourself Colonel. As surprising as it may seem I have no interest in incriminating you. For once, my motives are remarkably transparent. I'm simply here to ensure that the reconstruction and reorganization of RACDI-Alpha is working in the best interests of Venture Horizon; and so far, I've seen no evidence to the contrary. Sometimes you have to take drastic action. Short-term risks are necessary for long-term gains. It will take time, and significant investment still, but I'm confident that your reforms will make this place a more valuable investment than it has ever been."
"And further still," Lee added "create an environment where Inmates who respect the system can know a level of humanitarian decency."
"Well," she replied "We all have our hobbies."
The conversation could so easily have ended there. However, in an uncharacteristic defiance of her superiors, Selina chose to divulge the rest.
"I fear that what I make of your actions is irrelevant though. They won't try and stop you from doing what you're doing. They know it needs to be done as well as us, although they may not want to admit it. However, you made them lose face, and as we speak the jewel of Venture Horizon's crown is costing far more than it's producing. The current global situation is far more fragile than it appears on the surface, and every day RACDI-Alpha is hemorrhaging funds, our competitors grow more ambitious. Sooner or later, someone's going to have to carry the can for this. The Board's directive behind closed doors is that if this place isn't turning a profit again by the end of the next fiscal quarter, then you're out."
The Colonel's smile had gone, but neither was there any shock and anger visible on his face.
"You already knew, didn't you?"
"I know them, which to all intents and purposes is the same thing." he replied, his voice impassive. "Their ultimatum is impossible, and they know it. I can get losses down 60% by that time, 75% at the utmost, but no more than that. This inspection is my show-trial, my chance to fail publicly, legitimizing my dismissal, and they want you to play the part of the Prosecutor."
"Are we feeling sore?" Selina asked.
"In all honesty, no." The Colonel said, suddenly weary. "It's not like I ever asked for a medal. It is as you said, they know what needs to be done, and if they must find another willing shill to finish what I started in order to save face, that's no concern of mine. I'll let them take the credit. I long since stopped caring about advancing my own career. However, there are some things that I can entrust to no-one else. This work must be finished before I graciously fall on my sword."
"Care to elaborate?" Selina inquired, her interest piqued.
"Not tonight, I think. Anyway, shall we?" Lee responded, gesturing to one of the trucks remaining parked up.
It was a risk, consuming anything that they gathered here. Of that there was no argument. However, what choice did they have? They couldn't always rely on a plentiful supply of wild fruit and game. Even then, as the Wolves had demonstrated last night, they were just as likely to be the pray of much of the Beasts who prowled these mountains.
Not that any of it was like to matter to Nikolai anyhow.
"We take what we can use, then we go." Nikolai told them, hoarsely.
They and the rest of the Free Men set about searching the buildings, cleaning out larders, vegetable patches, and drawing water from the well. Inside almost all the new rooms they broke into, they found more corpses, the ones inside being less decomposed than the ones lying in the street. From these bodies, it was even more apparent that something invisible had killed this village. Many of the victims were still tucked up in their beds, showing no visible signs of distress. Nikolai had seen similar sight to this before. Back underground, in the Deep Places, there would sometimes be leaks of harmful gases, locked away beneath the rock through all of time, until someone struck a hammer in the wrong place. When that happened, Sheep, Dogs and Men alike could be felled in great numbers before anyone knew anything had happened.
But these Men and Beasts were above ground, the same could not have happened here. It looked so similar though, almost as if it had been designed to be so...
On that thought, Nikolai's stomach seemed to drop out of him. He retched, but he had no more bile left to spill. His knees gave way, and he stumbled, before collapsing by a pile of old children's building blocks, the Young that they had belonged to lying motionless opposite him. This was it.
Sounds had become faint and echoing, as he drew further and further into himself. Still, he heard someone calling for him from outside. They still needed him. From somewhere, Nikolai was still able to summon the effort to get back to his feet, and stumble outside.
"THERE!" shouted someone. Nikolai couldn't tell who, their face was so blurry. He could see though that they were pointing back were they had come, on the level of the treetops.
A small black smudge was emerging above the trees, moving towards them. Through the echoing in his ears, Nikolai recognized the whir of rotor blades.
"EVERYONE, HIDE!" he ordered, but it was too late. Huge Metal Beasts with their round, rubber legs came up the road behind them, and Men were expelled from their bellies. They carried rifles, and shouted words that Nikolai could no longer understand. The meaning needed no explanation though. The Free Men were outnumbered, outgunned, and surrounded.
It wasn't fair! Let his body die. Let the crows peck out his eyes, the maggots wriggle through his flesh, and the Wolves gnaw on his bones. It was naught to Nikolai anymore; but to have come all this way and fought so hard, only to pass from the hands of one Master to another...
He opened his mouth, and tried to give an order. To run. To fight. To die. He wasn't quite sure, and the words wouldn't seem to come out anyway. Nikolai's vision went black, and he didn't even feel his body hit the dust.
Over the next few days, Nikolai would drift in and out of consciousness. Even when he was awake, he was hardly lucid. His vision was so blurred he couldn't even make out faces that were only a few inches from his, and sounds appeared to be coming from very far away. He barely even had the strength to lift his own arm, and when he did, someone would only force it back down again. Visions and faint sensations drifted past. At times he felt like he was being carried inside the belly of a Metal Beast, and at other times he thought that he may have just been floating, lost somewhere. Was any of this even real, or were these sensation just the faint deliriums of a decaying mind, desperately trying to cling on to some kind of consciousness. He tried, through dry throat and cracked lips, to make some kind of sound, to connect with something or someone on the other side of the veil he was trapped behind. He could not tell if any noise escaped him, and even then, no response found its way back.
Eventually, on the sixth, or perhaps the seventh time he woke, he was able to make out some level of detail. He looked to be in some kind of bunker, lying on his back. The walls and ceiling were whitewashed concrete, and there were no windows that Nikolai could make out. The bright light directly over him seared behind his eyes, while all around him the sound of beeps and hisses. Machines that appeared to be connected to him, monitoring him. A tube was in his mouth, reaching all the way down his throat. As soon as he became aware of this, he gagged violently, bringing his hands up to his face and trying to tear out this invader. Before he could do so, Nikolai was set upon by a group of Men, all of them big and strong looking, but it still took at least five of them to hold him still in his panicked state, while another removed the tube for him. Once in was out, Nikolai spluttered and gulped in air, trying again to throw off the Men retraining him, as they all shouted at him in voices he couldn't make out. There were more tubes in his arms, and across his chest. Nikolai couldn't understand what was being done to him. Who were these people? Why wouldn't they let him go?
"Be calm!" Those two words cut through him frenzied distress and found their way into Nikolai's consciousness. He couldn't see who had said it. The voice was soft, musical even, and yet it carried such wait and authority. Nikolai paused, still tense, his chest rising and falling rapidly, as the owner of the voice stepped into view.
It was a female, dark skinned, like that of the Impi Warriors who had lived underground in the deep places. he eyes were even darker, close set in deep sockets. Warm, yet piercing. Her black hair was cut short beneath a red beret. She was tall and toned, wearing a faded grey vest and camouflage trousers. By far her most distinguished feature was her left arm, or rather her lack of it. In it's place, starting not far above the elbow, was a metal prosthetic. The design was crude, grisly even, and yet so intricate Nikolai couldn't help but be mesmerized by it. There was no attempt to imitate a layer of skin, and so the skeletal framework and internal workings were laid bare. The arm was an incredibly complex design. More than just a model for cosmetic purposes, the metal appeared to have been fused onto, and into, her remaining flesh, with an array of wires, springs and gears that traveled all the way up inside the stump of her bicep, connecting to her organic muscle and nerves. The female moved the arm upwards, and scratched underneath her chin with the same deftness that anyone wielded their natural extremities with. The only real distinction in functionality to a real arm was her hand. Instead of four fingers and a thumb, there was one stubby, opposed digit, with three spindly, elongated fingers, each almost twice the length of the hand itself. At the end of each finger was a Raptor's talon. Recreated in black steel. the talons were over-sized, curved, gleaming. One look was enough to tell that they were razor sharp.
"You were very sick when my Songbirds found you." She told him, reaching out with her organic arm, and caressing his bald scalp. Nikolai flinched from her touch at first, but she didn't appear to mean him any harm. She smiled at him sweetly.
"You're safe now, along with your friends." she went on "We've given you clean water, and the medicine you need. However, some wounds do not heal so easily..."
Nikolai followed her gaze, down his body and passed his waist. All the way down to the leg that had been mauled by the Alpha Wolf.
The leg that was no longer there.
Nikolai gave a low, haunting howl. No words in particular, simply one long expression of anguish and despair. A cold metal finger rested on his lips, and the female drew her face closer, her eyes staring deep into his.
"There was no saving it, but there's no need to cry. If you lie still for me, I can make it better. I can make you better."
Another Man appeared behind her, wearing thick, leather overalls. His face was concealed by an iron mask, and in his hand, a blowtorch ignited.
"No!" Nikolai exclaimed, his voice high and panicked. Inside his head he could hear the screaming again. "Please, no!"
"Shhhh, it alright." the female told him, and somehow Nikolai was no longer inclined to struggle. With her human fingers she caressed his bare torso, lightly brushing every twisted, ugly scar.
"How many times they must have hurt you..." she wondered aloud "They cut you open, and burned you shut. Again and again and again... and now you shrink from fire."
She looked into his eyes again, and Nikolai looked back into hers. What he saw there was utter conviction. Conviction in something that lay far out side of this room. Something fundamental, something untouchable...
"It was Men that hurt you, not the fire." she told him "The fire was beyond them. It had a purpose beyond their plans. Fire is an cosmic instrument, a way the universe changes our destiny. When they used the fire, it was both less than them, and so much more at the same time. This time, the fire will heal you. Do you understand?"
Nikolai wasn't sure that he did, yet something about her made him stop resisting anyway.
"Lie back now," she said "and be ready to be reborn in fire again."
The past three days since the arrival of the Executives had gone relatively smoothly, Lee reflected, as he poured over the files that he wished to study this morning. Since their private conversation, he hadn't had the chance to have any more in-depth discussions with Ms. Hernandez. The woman had proved more favorable than he had feared. Still, he thought it best to keep her and her cronies on as short a leash as possible. The inspections had continued periodically, but the state of RACDI-Alpha was a sideshow to the larger game at hand, at best. Lee wondered how much the rest of the Executives knew, even how much Selina herself knew. She had a rather paradoxical reputation. Whether she was a mercenary or a stalwart cheerleader for Venture Horizon depended on entirely who you asked. Certainly, she was very close to the Board of Directors, but military pursuits were one area that lay outside of her expertise. Whether she was ignorant, or consenting, to the larger goal at hand, could make the difference between success and failure of Lee's most important mission yet.
He would have to investigate this matter further, he was sure. However, it was not at the top of the list of his business for today.
"Please tell Captain Korovich to enter." he said, over the intercom to his secretary.
Lucia didn't like this one bit.
Okay, she may have appreciated the meals and the opportunity to bathe (Lord knows she needed it), but there was something very off about this whole situation. How was it that these "Songbirds" happened to stumble across their group so soon after entering the village? Why had they taken the Freemen in and provided for them? Out of the goodness of their hearts? If that were the case, why is it that they've been confined to this room for the past three days? And what exactly happened to that village, anyway?
It didn't add up.
Lucia shook her head to break free from her doubts. She had been so lost in her thoughts that she didn't even realize she'd been pacing for the past five minutes. She'd managed to attract some attention to herself through her rather... frantic activity. Though, the stares could have easily been a result of being the only woman in the building. She was used to that kind of treatment by now, especially after having removed the dirt and muck from her hair and cloths.
She had had the back of her hair cut down and her bangs trimmed so as to be practical once more, but if there was such a thing as a fashion sense left in this world she imagined her new "do" had a bit more of it. She also had her cloths cleaned for her. They'd offered her a new outfit but the warden gear was practical and still in good condition, so she opted to keep it.
She found Acolyte and sunk down against the wall next to him, holding her knees against her chest, "So, you think Nikolai's ever going to walk through that door?" She asked nodding in its direction.
Korovitch stood up as the secretary called him to Lee's office. The summons, unignorable, had come the previous evening with an appointed time. He'd spent the last couple of weeks working rigorously with Iron Squad, and their three new members. The three he had chosen not to bring to the arrival of the Executives. As such, on some level he was annoyed that Lee's call had broken his flow. He'd given his team the entire day off due to this. They were run ragged. But it didn't show or even bother him now. Another issue for another time.
Gently opening the door, he strode into the office, snapping a crisp salute as the door swung slowly shut. As usual, there was a chair available for him, and as usual, he remained standing. "Colonel."
Riley walked down the path, back to the base. At his side was Odin, silent and deadly. The great wolf had howled for a long time after scenting the blood of its smaller Russian brethren, alarming most of the men they were now guarding for hearing the sound so close. Wordlessly, Riley threw out his palm and the wolf stopped dead as he continued on. After a few seconds, he gave a wrist flicking gesture, and Odin streaked away, most likely to hunt. The men guarding the abandoned base saluted and moved out of his way immediately. You could spot Riley from a distance, clad in rawhide clothes he had made from the locale's own wild deer that left his arms bare aside from an archer's wristguard on his left forearm. The only thing marking him for a songbird was the insignia stitched into the chest. On his left hip was a small quiver, matching the small hunting bow slung across his back, with the hilt of a machete poking out from underneath it. Across on the other hip was a Colt 1911; the only modern technology on his person.
After ascertaining their "guests" were to be fed, sheltered and watered, he had not looked in on them. And when he had, on their arrival, he had done so from a distance; none had seen him. But now it was time to introduce himself. One of the men opened the bunker door, and he strode in as though he owned the place. And in a way, he really did. Moving through the complex, he found the room, one of the base's largest, that now housed their prisoners. The man guarding the door opened it without a word.
Acolyte lay on his cot, gazing at the ceiling, fiddling with a heel of bread in his hands. A holdover from his time in the Pit, he still caught himself saving portions of food from his meals.
"So, you think Nikolai's ever going to walk through that door?"
"Well, I don't know about walking..." this got a stricken look from Lucia, but he overrode it. "But if anyone's going to survive, it'll probably be him. We'll see him when we see him, child."
A grating sound made him look up as shafts of sunlight flared across the room. A lone man wandered in, and Acolyte blinked in surprise at him, his masked shock echoed visibly by the double takes and murmurs of the Free Men. The man was strange, no two ways about it. He was tanned in the hard way of one who spends his life under the sun. His accoutrements, primitive, but well made, were strange, as was the tribal tattoo on his left shoulder. But the weirdest thing became incredibly noticeable even across the distance when the door was dragged shut and the sunlight no longer flared around him. Those yellow eyes, bright and alert. They seemed to drink in the dim light cast by the bulbs and lamps around the room as though thirsty for it. Almost as if they glowed.
He was snapped out of this reverie by the sound of something equally as strange. The man spoke, his voice carrying through the room in a startlingly civilized, polite English accent. "Good morning, good morning," the man said as he looked around, a smile showing white teeth between his well trimmed but thick beard. "I am Wolf Brother, or the Wolf. Either way, I am the man chiefly responsible for your nourishment, your housing and..." he gave a pause so brief it almost didn't exist as he cast those eyes of his across the room, "... your safety."
He gestured briefly with his hands, as if to say any questions?
Acolyte sat up, setting his piece of bread to one side. "How is Nikolai faring?"
"The big man? Oh, he's doing just fine. Looks like someone gave him a seeing to before we brought you in, and whoever did that wasn't half bad." He flashed Lucia a charismatic grin as he said this.
The last three days since the arrival of the Executives for Abigail had been uneventful in terms of anything interesting happening, but not entirely boring. A couple of the lower ranked ones actually came into the bar the previous afternoon, curious as to why the bar was given such an unusual name. Abigail proceeded to give the same spiel she always gave to newcomers, about how the name attracted a fair amount of Wardens so they could kick back and down a few drinks after a long day of keeping the peace.
It was early morning, 9:30 AM if her alarm clock was working correctly, which it occasionally didn't due to the cold weather. Abigail woke up with a loud yawn, grateful that she had somehow managed to bag a room to herself upon arrival; maybe she got lucky with the assignment, or perhaps running a bar for Warden's had it perks.
She soon got up and went to have a shower, making sure she looked all clean and tidy before changing out of her issued sleepwear and into her uniform. Abigail then spent a few minutes in front of the mirror making sure her hair was combed properly before braiding it into the usual single ponytail. After finding her key-card on the floor and tidying up her room, Abigail left to open up the Gates of Pandemonium.
Her arrival was quiet like it always was, as no one had the desire to drink so early in the morning, though it did help wake people up. She got to work tidying up bar up, as the first few patrons would normally arrive within an hour of the place being open.
"How much trouble do you think we're going to be in?" Walker asked, cleaning his boots. Mornings are one of the busiest times in the barracks. Shogun squad prepped for another day on the job but this time something concerned the crew.
"I told you...I'm not quite sure." Oliva put on his belt. "They might cut our pay, make us do extra hours, maybe more grueling exercises. Things have changed here. The fact that they made such a big deal out of this proves so. Its been a few days. They might have forgotten."
"Back before the riots, they didn't mind." Albergo whispered.
"Before the riots there was a lot of things Lee didn't mind." Marino remarked. Lewis walked into the room already dressed and ready to go. An awkward hush fell on the squad but Oliva was the first to rise.
"Come on buddy, let's go."
Albergo looked at Lewis but Lewis didn't return his gaze. His perpetually weary eyes turned to the doorway even when Oliva patted his shoulder.
"We'll get through it together alright?" Oliva said more to the group than to Lewis of which they nodded their heads in agreement. The rest of them got up and made their way to their posts.
"It's me and you today Lewis, we got Mid-Level." Marino said to Lewis.
"Alright, cool." Lewis returned in response. Shogun squad separated but Lewis knew that they would later converge in the bar later on today like they always would but today Lewis felt something weird in the air. His intuition was telling him otherwise but he would have to see later on. Marino and Lewis caught the elevator down to the prison which more or less still felt as hostile as before. They went to their stations but Lewis still couldn't shake the odd feeling he had in his stomach.
Aggie awoke once again from her cough. The coughing fit sent some blood out of her mouth and she spit it out on the floor of her cell although she immediately regretted it after she did so. Aggie calmed down and wiped some blood from the side of her lip. She pushed herself from the bed and fetched another can of beans for breakfast. Her stock was still relatively good for now but among the food was still the whiskey bottle Connors had given her a few days ago. She hadn't seen Connors for days along with the Reaper although some nights she caught glimpse of a shadow by her cell only to turn and see darkness. Regardless, Aggie felt that someone was watching her even when she wasn't sleeping.
She put on her work face and shuffled alongside her morning shift com padres to the hot factory where another day of work awaited her. The monotony of it all would have gotten to her by now if she didn't keep on thinking of the life outside of the prison. There were two ways to get out of this prison and it was either through death or escape. A few inmates a while back did just that and escaped the facility through unforeseen circumstances so ever since she's heard the story, she's been wondering just how they did it. When she wasn't working, she'd ask around for stories of the daring escape but even that is running scarce due to the intensive crackdowns the Wardens have been putting on the inmates. Any word of it and they'd hit you faster than a bullet train.
Aggie arrived at her work station put on her mask and went to work once again.
The Dog. That was one of the men. Aggie thought. Probably in Aruba by now...
Richard continued his smile but on the inside everything seemed to polished. He knew something was up with the way everything seemed so... efficient. Maybe he just wasn't used to this level autonomy for a RACDI so separated from the outside. He'd been to several and none of them seemed so up to date or so well run. He compared notes with his team to see the same thing. He had yet to see what the other head Executives had in their notes and that's exactly what he intended to do today.
He knocked on the room of Dr. Olivander.
"Dr? I was wondering if I could have a word with you before we go off for another round of inspection?."
He wished the Captain would learn how to take a seat. Lee was not an informal man himself, to be fair, but at this point he thought that he and Luka should perhaps be beyond such formalities at this point.
Lee corrected his train of thought. That was the sentimental old man in him speaking. Formalities were just as important as they had ever been, perhaps more so. No matter what Ms. Hernandez might say about having no interest in undermining him, yet, it was still unwise for Lee to allow himself to become too comfortable. Best keep up the act, even among his accomplices.
"Thank you for coming, Captain." Lee began "There are a handful of small matters I wish to discuss with you. Firstly, how are the new members of Iron squad shaping up?"
'"The Gates of Pandemonium"... seems fitting.' Selina thought grimly, as she passed through the threshold. At this time in the morning, she and the young woman behind the bar were the only two people here. As pokey as the bar was, at least someone seemed to be making an effort to brighten up the place. Anyway, she had some time to kill, and what better way to spend it than gossiping with the locals.
"Good morning." she said, smiling sweetly.
This giant of a man's ability to internalize pain was phenomenal. Almost as good as her own, The Talon was willing to bet. He was heavily sedated to be sure. However as bare nerve endings were fused with wire, and metal structures were welded onto bubbling flesh, he barely made a sound. An impressive specimen. So fascinating, so familiar, and yet so alienating all at once. Even had her Songbirds not tracked this troop of runaways all the way from their crash site, it wouldn't be difficult to deduce their origin. Not many places in the world could forge a man such as this. Perhaps this one could understand her, understand her destiny in this world, better than anyone else, even her fellow Songbirds. That said, she couldn't help but be a little disappointed by the way he concealed his anguish.
Some might call The Talon a sadist, but she had long ago dismissed those judgments as those of the ignorant. Those who close their minds to the forces that exist beyond their sphere of influence. She did not enjoy the pain of others, such feelings would be selfish, irrelevant, internal. The Talon was beyond these things. Less than them, yet also more. When she caused pain to others, it was not for her own petty self-gratification. Instead, the process channeled something external, of cosmic significance. There was no truer, purer way to touch another's spirit. When you cause a person so much agony, such an unbearable level of physical anguish, that all other stimuli cease to exist for them, only then can you see, clear and unmolested, the true mature of the human condition. At that moment, they become a cosmic vessel as well, and through them the truth of all things pours though. The ritual was necessary for her. It was the only way she could keep in touch with her role in things. The only way she could cling on to her sense of purpose in the twisting, tumbling mass of forces in the infinite.
How a part of her longed to use this man for the same purpose. A man as strong, as resistant as he, to become a vessel for the one truth. What wonderful, vivid revelations would she find locked away in the deepest recesses of a soul such as that? How much clearer things might still become? She could only imagine.
Lucia dismissed his charm and went straight to business, "When will we be able to leave this place?"
She didn't expect a straightforward answer, but it was important she let him know she had no tolerance for bullshitting. Lucia's eyes pierced his, as if she were staring into his very soul.
With Nikolai out of commission, Lucia had to look out for herself. She wanted this man to understand that.
Riley shrugged in response to Lucia's question. "When we decide you can. But really, love, you shouldn't be in a hurry to leave. After three months of watching you stumbling through the wilderness, it's fairly fucking obvious you lot don't know how to get by. Half starved more often than not, it seemed to me. You're lucky there weren't any storms or floods. Those tend to happen every now and then."
Acolyte's face was a calm mask, but internally, his mind was racing. This man had tracked them for three months? From their crash? They had frequently scouted the area around them, and there had never been any sign.
The strange Englishman's expression turned hard, and he spoke with an intense seriousness. "I know what it's like to be in that situation or worse, and you shouldn't be in such a hurry to go back to it."
"They are doing well enough, sir. The replacements I selected are showing a high level of competence, and I'm happy to report that team morale is at a decent level. What else do you wish to discuss, Colonel?"
Korovitch was wondering what other 'small matters' he was here for.
"it was better than where we came from, that's for damn sure!" Lucia spat.
"If you were watching us for that long why'd you wait until we reached that village to swoop in and 'save the day'? We lost several good men in those three months. And---" Lucia stopped herself before continuing on. Blind accusations weren't going to get her anywhere. She was pissed, sure, but there were too many unknowns to risk getting her captures agitated.
She sighed, "Look, we appreciate what you've provided for us, but why keep us cooped up here? Can't we at least be trusted to look after ourselves? We don't even know who you people are, so why think we would bring you harm?"
Diplomacy was an art she had long forgotten, but she tried at least.
"Yeah, a bunch of ex-cons from the world's most brutal prisons, I'm sure you're all a bunch of saints," Riley responded sarcastically. "It's just easier for us to keep an eye on you if you're all in one place. As for why we only intervened at the village, it's simple. My men were there. I tracked you and made sure the garrison was ready to meet you when it was possible. It's easier for one man to move quickly and unseen than it is a group of them, I'm sure you realize."
His smile returned and he clapped his hands together. "Right, question time's over. Starting tomorrow, we'll be taking you out in small groups to give you some fresh air and exercise."
With that, he turned and left, striding through the small compound to his personal quarters. He had no interest in the Free Men beyond that it was his job to keep them safe, and he intended to do it to the best of his ability. Still, he was slightly intrigued by their group dynamic. It was surprising that those men hadn't pinned down that young Greek girl to take turns on her, now that her protector was gone.
He supposed for now, all he could do was watch and see how it played out. That was what he'd done for three months, with no company but Odin. He opened the door to his room, a cozy living space bordering on cramped. A desk at one side was littered with handmade clay pots of different powders and creams. Mostly poisons and neurotoxins made from various plant life, but some were antidotes and medicines. Propped in one corner were two unstrung bows of differing length, as well as a second machete. Shrugging the bow off his shoulder, he unstrung it and placed it with its fellows, dropping the string into a desk drawer, then sat down on his bed, with his back on the wall. After three months, he was tired. But there was more to do. Always more to do. He should probably check in with Talon if she was done with Nikolai.
He shuddered at that thought. He did not envy the big man his position as her patient, for whatever she had in store for him. Then he shrugged and unbuckled the gear strapped to his belt, then lay on the bed. She could stew a while longer; it was time for a nap.
"Good to know their integration is going smoothly." Lee responded "However, we need to do more than just bring the numbers up to what they were 3 months ago. When Iron squad was first formed, I needed a tip of the spear, a purposefully small strike force. Things have changed, and Iron squad needs to expand, become standardized with the numbers of other squads at RACDI-Alpha. To continue otherwise is too conspicuous."
Lee withdrew a handful of files from his desk draw, and fanned them out on the desk in front of the Captain.
"These are some of the new recruits I've acquired. Rest assured they all still fit the profile. Ex-special forces, thoroughly vetted with no anomalies to report, and still in peak physical condition. Take them all in for now, and when you're finished with them the seven most talented will integrate into Iron squad."
"It is time I greeted the rest of our guests." The Talon said, after the most dangerous period of the surgery had passed.
The medical wing was one of the most secure parts of their most recent home, buried deep underground. The rest were being held on the surface, in one of the abandoned aircraft hangars. On her way, any Songbirds she passed by dropped the their knees, stopping what they were doing in an instant. Their eyes were wide in their sockets when she passed by, utter reverence in their souls. In truth, she didn't care for it. They were too small-minded, these empty constructs of imagined authority. However, they were necessary. The Great Revolution did not require a large army. What it did require, was utter, unshakable faith in the One Truth, and those who's minds were closed to the One Truth, as men shield their eyes from the light of the Sun, must instead project their devotion onto the font of the One Truth, the Prophet of The Great Revolution, herself.
'Waste!' she thought to herself, as she stepped outside, and gazed upon her refuge. 'Waste and weakness. Yet still we grasp pathetically, like a drowning man holding onto his last lungful of air, even though he knows no hope remains.'
Still, it felt good to be out in the open air. There were too many ghosts for her beneath the Earth.
The great doors of the hangar opened to make way for her. Inside the enormous space, dwellings and communal areas had been hastily constructed, to give their visitors some sense of structure and belonging. She stepped towards them, out of the daylight, her left arm gleaming from the shine of the floodlights indoors. All of the Songbirds took to their knees.
"Welcome, lost wanderers." She told them, her voice soft and her smile warm. "Forgive me, in the rush to shelter you, and to give you all the provisions you needed, there has not been the time until now for us to be introduced, and I'm sure you have so many questions."
"Good morning." A voice said, interrupting Abigail as she was busy cleaning the top of the bar counter. Looking up she saw a rather tanned looking woman with long dark brown hair, dressed in a rather fine business suit enter the bar. Clearly this one was a Executive, and a high ranking one at that. There was certainly a hint of a Spanish accent in her voice.
"And a good morning to you as well Miss." Abigail said with a smile as she put down her cleaning tools for the moment.
"You here for an early drink, or is there something else I can help you with?" Abigail asked politely.
"Right, question time's over. Starting tomorrow, we'll be taking you out in small groups to give you some fresh air and exercise."
Lucia was not amused. She scowled as he spoke and continued to do so until he was gone, "I don't trust him," She thought a moment and continued. "I don't trust any of them. And they know too much."
What if they try to sell us back...
Lucia's heart sank. Going back to the Pit... that wasn't an option. She'd sooner take her own life than return to that hellhole. She sat in silence as did Acolyte.
That was until she appeared.
"Forgive me, in the rush to shelter you, and to give you all the provisions you needed, there has not been the time until now for us to be introduced, and I'm sure you have so many questions."
The last time she'd seen a woman with a prosthetic arm she was nearly killed. Lucia balled up two fists at her sides and inhaled sharply. She needed to be strong. She needed this woman to understand who she was and what she was capable of.
She needed to be Kusanagi.
Kusanagi got to her feet and approached the woman, greeting her with a cold expression, "My name is Kusanagi. These are the Freemen. May I ask what you plan to do with us?"
The Warden patrols had gotten lazy. It was clear the inspection of the Lower Levels had winded down and that the remaining wardens on duty had been completely burned out these past three days. This phenomenon had repeated itself a number of times since the riot, and every time it did more people ended up dead.
Pvt. Michele Stevens according to the tag, a name he recognized... but not the face. He had found her corpse at the bottom of a ravine by the coal mines. An area of the Pit that wasn't frequently patrolled. Her body was mangled by the 50+ meter drop, but the signs were clear enough. Blunt trauma to the back of the head, rape--possibly by multiple assailants--and to top it all off her face had been caved in (likely by the boots of the same men that had raped her).
Neil spat on the ground nearby as if trying to banish the taste of despair from his maw. He remembered this woman from the barracks. He'd taken her out to get drinks one night. Nothing came of it, but she was a good girl. Better than this place.
Certainly not deserving of a fate such as this.
He had to figure out who had done this and make them pay for their sins. There would be no trial. They had already been found guilty in his eyes. He just needed their faces.
And then it happened...
"Hey, you! What the fuck are you doing over there?"
A warden on patrol had wandered away from the mines--probably to take a piss--and had stumbled upon what appeared to be the aftermath of a brutal murder. Neil was at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
This isn't what it looks like! FUCK!
As Neil stood from his squatting position he pulled his ski-mask over his face as to conceal his identity and turned to face the warden who was running towards his potion, rifle drawn, "I will find the man who did this."
A mere 2 meters away the warden called out, "No need, looks like I just found him," He grabbed the radio on his collar and barked into it. "I need backup outside the coal mines. I've just got a murderer--"
"Wrong answer," The warden cried out and flew into a wild spasm for several moments before hitting the dirt. Neil saw Connors standing over the half-conscious warden with a taser in his hand. "What the fuck are you looking at? We need to run!"
Neil nodded and the two of them fled the scene as fast as their legs could take them. After putting a good quarter-mile between them and the crime scene Connors grabbed the now mask-less Neil by the jacket and threw him up against an alleyway wall. The old man was much stronger than he looked, "What THE FUCK was that!?"
Neil threw his hands up in submission, "Calm down, Connors. I've got this under--"
"You ain't got shit!" He spat, "You're running around this fucking shithole pretending you're the god damned Batman, when in reality, you're just as fucked in the head as the rest of these psychopaths! That's it! I'm fucking out! The wardens are going to eat your ass alive!" And with that Mr. Connors had briskly stormed off.
It wasn't the first time Mr. Connors had blown up like that and quit. He would be back. Though, the question was... would Neil still be there when he returned?
After considering it for a moment Neil came to a firm conclusion.
He was thoroughly fucked.
"Just stretching my legs." Selina replied, walking up to the bar. "I suppose it is early... but what the hell, surprise me!"
The raising of the girls hackles left The Talon unmoved. Always so aggressive, so eager to initiate their own self-destruction. No wonder mankind had fallen so far in The Cataclysm, and no wonder still that, without The Great Revolution, nothing could possibly be saved.
"Be at peace, Kusanagi." she said, her soft tone echoing through the hangar, creating a melodious, almost hypnotic effect. "I am The Talon, and I mean you no harm."
She embraced the girl, bringing her under the protection of The Songbirds. When she withdrew, she kept her arms on the girl's shoulders, and looked deep into her eyes. This one was still tender, her mask not even skin deep yet. She saw much pain there, and yet also hope. Misguided.
"I cannot tell you what will happen to you, not yet. There are many roads ahead for you, and beyond that I see no further. If you are still afraid, ask yourself why I would feed you from our own stores, and tend to your sicknesses, if I meant for any ill to befall you?"
"Just stretching my legs." The woman said as she approached the bar. "I suppose it is early... but what the hell, surprise me!"
Abigail took a moment to look the woman over, see if she could get any clues as to what sort of cocktail she should make. Going back to her accent, Abigail realised that perhaps a Spanish inspired cocktail would have the Executive think of home somewhat. She went over to the back wall of the bar, and started flicking through a handy guide of cocktails recipes to find something that seemed appropriate.
"Aha! I think I've got it." Abigail said a snap of her fingers before gathering up an assortment of ingredients and equipment. First she poured in a handful of ice cubes into a cocktail shaker, then added an equal measure of both gin and sherry, two tea spoons of sugar, some freshly squeezed lemon juice, and some freshly squeezed orange juice; Abigail then proceeded to vigorously shake the cocktail together.
After a minute or so, Abigail then poured the mixture into a cooled cocktail glass, and presented the finished drink.
"Here you go Miss, the natural sweetness of the fruits should help wake up any part of you that is still asleep."
"...If you are still afraid, ask yourself why I would feed you from our own stores, and tend to your sicknesses, if I meant for any ill to befall you?"
To say Kusanagi had been taken aback would be an understatement. The only person that had embraced her in such a manner in the past seven months had been her brother. Feeling the warmth of another was somewhat... pleasant. Kusanagi saw through the facade, however. This woman wanted something. And she fancied herself a spirit guide of sorts as well.
This would be a headache.
Kusanagi's face had relaxed and her voice had softened, but she was still on her guard, "I apologize if I appear ungrateful. That fact is, we're all thankful for what your people have done for us. Nikolai is like an older brother to these men and the sight of him back on his feet will surely raise moral. However," Kusanagi's stare sharpened. "If you're here to answer questions I hope I am not mistaken in believing you will be completely honest with us."
A smile appeared on her face, "The truth is, I feel as if a great weight will be lifted off my shoulders if I have this one important question answered." The smile seemed to disappear as the words left her mouth, "What exactly happened to those villagers?"
Riley came awake quickly. He was slumped over the side of the bed, with his hand enclosed in warmth. He opened his eyes. Odin was curled up next to the bed, and Riley's hand was nestled in his thick fur. He wondered idly how the huge wolf had gotten into the compound without him as he sat up. Odin woke up at the motion, his yellow eyes grazing over Riley's own, but not locking on. A subtle sign of deference. Standing up, he buckled on his pistol and machete, deciding to leave his bows, and headed to the door, Odin on his heels.
As he moved through the compound, he detected motion from the converted hangar, and headed towards it. The door was ajar, and he moved inside, where he saw Talon talking with the young lady who had questioned him earlier. His appearance caused some of the men to glance at him, and then hushed sounds of shock at the wolf at his side.
"Talon. I've already checked in on our guests, here. But for being separated from the big man, they seem to be doing fine."
"Thank you very much." Selina said, before taking a sip from the glass. The effect of the taste was more powerful than she had anticipated. She wasn't just reminded of home, she was almost back there. For that briefest second, so very close. The halcyon summer afternoons spent reading on the balcony. The evening high-society parties, where she had wrapped the great and the good of Iberia around her little finger. The rush she felt to see Assemblymen, Ambassadors and Generals trip over each-other attempting to gain her favour, while the women they had brought in on their arms barely contained the sourness of their envy.
Above all else though, was her father's face. Serious yet kind; bookish yet endearing. It was the face he had worn before the war, when he still looked at her with pride. His expression when they had said their goodbyes the last time had been very different. She had ripped him in two that day, and opened a wound with no possibility of healing. As a parent, he had loved her as much on that day as ever before, perhaps even more so. However, her father The Parent, and her father The Servant could not be separated. The man had dedicated everything, and risked even more, in the name of the glory of the Iberian Alliance. He had never truly cared for the power he wielded, only what he could do with it in service to the nation. His roots to Iberia sank deeper than any Emperor; and on that day, his own flesh and blood had stood before him betraying everything he believed in, everything he had toiled for. He could never hate her, but neither could he forgive her. When it had come down to it, her father couldn't even bring himself to look her in the eye.
She had made the only choice she could. In order to save Iberia, in order to give the ruling class the security of being able to claim victory, she had sullied it, condemning it to a second-rate future. On the day that treaty was signed, Iberia became at best a client nation, a crony of Ignite Solutions, and Selina had been the one who had given the Emperor his pen. From that day on, all of it, the power, the perks, the splendor, would all have an unbearably bitter aftertaste. How could she stay? How could she go on serving, when the glory of the Iberian Alliance that her father had fought so hard for, was now nothing more than a masquerade, and it was her fault?
That choice had been a wise one, and now Selina soared higher than ever, with the lift of Venture Horizon's power and influence beneath her wings; and yet, in that tiny moment Selina had never regretted her choice more.
Little, if any of this melancholy showed on her face, as Selina had long ago become accustomed to keeping her true heart as far away from her sleeve as possible. Instead, she gave a small moan of intense satisfaction, confirmation of this woman's excellent work.
"Tell me Miss... how long have you been here?" she asked.
"I will answer all your inquiries as well as I am able," The Talon told her, her smile only growing warmer as Kusanagi's faded. "and you may believe whatever you take most comfort in believing. However, I cannot promise that I will be completely honest with you. For you see... there is only one truth, the One Truth, that matters, and only those that are ready can know it. Beyond that, you have my word that I will answer with the closest analogue to fact that my single perspective can offer."
This one was fierce, determined, and intelligent. All qualities The Talon greatly admired. The Talon was certain that Kusanagi was not this one's real name, but it fit her well, so The Talon would address her as such. After all, she had grown up with no name at all. What was a name other than another meaningless construct, meant to distract the mortal gaze from the One Truth. In many ways she was reminded of a younger version of herself, when she stared deep into those eyes. That said, the cancer of naivety still clung to this one, distorting her world view. This one was not ready to know the One Truth. Not yet, but perhaps in time...
"The companion that you call Nikolai is going to live." she announced. "For days he danced on the edge, but out of hopelessness he chose purpose, and though he may take time to adjust, when that time is done he will be stronger than ever before. Now, as for the villagers... their deaths were not by our hand. They were slaughtered by enemies of The Great Revolution, heretics to the One Truth. However, I do not deny that their deaths benefited us in some passive form. From what we observed of their demise we learned valuable information. In this war we are fighting, none are safe, and all will surely sacrifice in some form before we see the end."
It was at this point Riley entered.
"Very good." she congratulated him upon his informing her of the situation. "You have done excellent work, and this day our song will be in your honour."
The giant wolf, Odin, slunk towards her. His head was bowed. With her mechanical left arm she scratched the beast behind the ears, and he nuzzled into her side affectionately. Apart from Riley, The Talon was the only one who Odin recognised as a superior. Riley was one of her best operators, and the hatred he held in his heart for their mutual enemies was more than enough to ensure his loyalty. However, his wolf had a greater understanding of the One Truth than he did. In fact, such a revelation made perfect sense, and was further proof to The Talon of the necessity of The Great Revolution.
"Tell me Miss... how long have you been here?" The woman asked after taking a sip from the cocktail, and gave a small moan of satisfaction, obviously enjoying the drink that Abigail had prepared.
"Hmm, it would be around five years if I recall correctly. Five years of serving drinks and providing some generally polite conversation, and keeping the peace when some of the Wardens get a bit fighty after having one too many beers. Was discovered by one of Venture Horizon's recruitment agents after he came into the bar I worked at back in my hometown of New Toronto; he need a strong drink to get over some trouble he'd gotten into." Abigail said as she poured herself a glass of orange juice.
"So, how long have you been working for Venture Horizon then, Miss...?" She then asked after taking a sip of her drink.
"Oh my God..." Lewis whispered out.
They had arrived on the scene as fast as they could. Since the Wardens were changing shifts from the early morning to the morning squads, there must have been a shortage of Wardens around in the lower-levels. Lewis dreaded going back down there again but now the place burned a hole in his memory.
The medic draped a blanket over the woman's desecrated body. A Warden's body.
Marino mumbled a curse before covering his nose because of the stench. A few Wardens arrived as well to assess what exactly had happened here. This wasn't just a murder but a reminder of an age where Wardens weren't that safe from the criminals they were watching. This was the first case of a Warden murdered that Lewis had seen mostly because none of the prisoners had the gusto to do such a thing now that Lee had laid down his fist.
But Lewis and Marino wasn't the first one on the scene. Besides the medics there was a Warden who first saw the grisly aftermath. He was attended to as well after being rendered unconscious by someone, most likely one of the murderers. Lewis approached the man who was against the wall, being treated.
"Hey you alright, mate?" Lewis crouched next to him. The Warden nodded his head, clutching an ice pack next to it as he did so. "Did you see who did this?"
"Not really. The fucker had a mask and ran off then someone tazed me from behind. Probably a croonie of his. I'm surprised I didn't get shanked." The Warden said. Lewis nodded his head and stood back up to Marino.
"Thanks, mate." Lewis said before leaving for their post. He waited until they were a few steps away, thinking of what he was going to say. "Damn..."
"There hasn't been a murder in a while here especially since Lee started to clamp down on the inmates." Marino said.
"I guess it isn't that surprising since this place is covered in murderers, rapists, and thugs but... that was just brutal."
"You can say that again..." Marino joked. The two made their way back to Mid-level, passing the massive refinery and its workers. A bell sounded and prisoners went on break for a few moments. Lewis and Marino walked close to the break area to get to their post when Lewis spotted her piercing green eyes. Lewis nearly doubled back in his steps. He stopped instead and looked for them in the crowd again. But the sight was ephemeral and was never seen again. He squinted and scanned but never saw her eyes again. Aggie's eyes.
"You alright, Lewis?" Marino asked. Lewis looked back at Marino disappointed. He shook his head.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Let's go."
The break bell was sounded a Aggie let go of her machine. She's worked hundreds of hours into the machine and only twice its broken down on her which isn't that bad considering the fact that these machines were pretty old. Aggie piled out with a few of the prisoners who were working along the lines. Small talk was exchanged but Aggie just tuned it all out. Some prisoner pointed out a couple Wardens passing by and a few around her snuffed their cigarettes. Then he passed by them.
She refused to believe it. She refused to believe that to have seen his emerald eyes pass by in a body she couldn't recognize. There was no way it could have him in those clothes with a gun. She ducked her head down hoping to believe that she was just hallucinating. There was no way that her little brother was a Warden. Her time must be running out faster than she thought. She raised a dirtied hand to her forehead, gauging her temperature but it was fine. Maybe she was hallucinating either.
Aggie went back inside to her machine. She punched the machine it sputtered but it still worked. Her skin cracked and a few drops of blood was released onto the machine.
Okay... I'm not dreaming...
At the snap of his fingers, Odin returned to Riley's side and stood as still as a statue. Riley glanced around at the Free Men staring, and gestured to the Talon. "By all means, m'lady, do go on. Don't let me interrupt this. But as they're my... guests, I might as well listen in, wouldn't you agree?"
With that, he leaned against the doorframe with his arms folded.
Acolyte stared at their casual handling of the wolf. This "Odin" was bigger than the ones that had nearly run them down at the cave; even the Alpha, and its pelt was a little paler. A different breed entirely.
He cleared his throat, tearing his eyes away from the creature. "What I would like to know is what the purpose of your group is, and what your reason was for tracking us. For netting us up like fish and containing us. For that matter, what's this 'One Truth' you're preaching? If there's one thing I learned in the Temple, it's that truth defies simplicity, and there's certainly more than one."
Olivander groggily answered the door, looking at the visitor with tired, glazed-over eyes. It took him a moment to recognise hios fellow executive.
"Oh. Hello, Richard." He said, giving his best effort at a smile, his eyes sunken and purple, "You'll have to excuse my appearance. It was a busy night."
Take them all in for now, and when you're finished with them the seven most talented will integrate into Iron squad."
Luka scooped up the files, tucking them under his left arm. His old habit that left his right free to draw his pistol or kukri. "I've been planning a brutal new training regimen. I've been on the fence as to whether to use it, but I suppose it'll make the perfect test to weed out the weak. I'll need to requisition some men for it, though. I need a few more pairs of hands to coordinate everything. The tests will consume a few days, but by the end, we'll have our soldiers."
He adjusted the folders under his arm, and then asked, "is there anything else, sir?"