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

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"Yes." Lee replied, his tone of voice softening, but just barely. "How is she?"

No further clarification was needed.

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"Hernandez, Selina Hernandez." She answered, extending the offer of a handshake. "I've been working for Venture Horizon for eight years now. Before then, I headed up all of Ignite Solution's North Africa operations. They concluded ti was the best place for me, considering they were exactly the same operations I'd overseen when that territory still belonged to Iberia."

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The Talon looked past Kusanagi, to this new one who spoke. This one had quite the history to him. He was clearly Western European in origin, but his accent was weak and nebulous, suggesting a long period of travel, just like her. He was tall and athletic, his stance and the ever present focus in his eyes were clues to extensive martial arts training. The very faint signs of repeated needle use were sill present on his arms, and he shifted uncomfortably under his flak jacket.

"These 'temples' that you speak of have a limited understanding of truth." she told him, gliding up to him calmly, her smile still warm. "I should know, I have traveled to all places, and seen all kinds of preachers debate and pontificate. The One Truth is evident in all their teachings, but never fully realised, never understood by those who hold the keys to it. Political, spiritual... all are facets, broken fragments of clouded glass, each individually offering only the smallest and most distorted insight of the One Truth. I have assembled the fragments, cleared the pane, bridged all divides and unraveled the mask of rhetoric, and I can see..." At this point, The talon extended her left arm, and deftly touched, with the tip of one hooked blade, the center of the swastika brand that lay concealed beneath his attire.

"The One Truth is complete, pure, and undeniable, the sum of all the pieces and yet more still. Perhaps, one day, you will see it as unimpeded as I do. Of this I am certain though, if I simply told you now, you would refuse to accept it. Forgive me, but I refuse to sabotage your understanding by revealing what you are not yet ready to comprehend.

We are the Songbirds, and our purpose is to bring about The Great Revolution, the only logical conclusion of the One Truth. You are here simply because otherwise you would all be dead. Beyond that, your path is still undecided. You could become allies in The Great Revolution, you could become enemies, or you could simply pass by on a tangent, separate from us. Until it can be ascertained which, you remain here. Unless to conspire to cause us ill, then you have my solemn oath that I shall treat you with nothing but kindness."

"Hernandez, Selina Hernandez." Selina answered with, offering a handshake which Abigail accepted and returned. "I've been working for Venture Horizon for eight years now... They concluded it was the best place for me, considering they were exactly the same operations I'd overseen when that territory still belonged to Iberia."

"A pleasure to meet you Miss Hernandez. My name is Abigail Nyte." Abigail said with a smile.

"What a...interesting life you've lead; I cannot claim that my life has been as illustrious as yours, it has been a decent one. Growing up in New Toronto, things were peaceful, and with the waterways providing reasonable trade locations, stable in an economic sense. Sure there would be a bit of unrest now and then, but the same could be said of everywhere in the world. At least I know someone close to me who is working to keep people safe; my father, you see he works as a Captain for the city's SWAT team." Abigail said with a bit of blush on her cheeks, proud of her father.

"Apologies for that Miss Hernandez, didn't mean to start talking about my life. So I take it your work has mostly been in a logistical or managerial sense then? And how have you been enjoying your stay here so far?"

Korovitch didn't answer right away. His eyes widened, and for a few seconds he stood there. He was lost in memories, breaking down the door, seeing Cornelius on top of her. And before that, years before that. Not Lisa, but the woman she'd reminded him of; he'd been a young man...

He shook himself, under the Colonel's gaze, and spoke. "The surgeries have been successful. Her shins are more fibreglass than bone now, but I'm told it won't impede her walking ability at all. If anything, her lower legs will be more durable than those of your average human. She's in therapy now. Who knows how long that will take. Lis--", he cleared his throat. "Specialist Beaumont is as well as she can be expected to be, given everything. I would not be surprised if she resigned her position, though."

He looked at Lee. "If that's everything, sir, it appears I have men to induct." The brief emotion was gone from his voice. He was coldly professional once more.

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Acolyte's brow twitched in shock, and he gently but firmly moved the blade from his chest. If the woman was as gifted at reading people as he suspected, she probably knew he had had to thoroughly check his actions in order to prevent himself from slapping her mechanical arm away from the mark burned over his heart. Odin and the bearded man were watching him intently, he noticed. Two pairs of glowing wolf eyes burning into him. He ignored them.

When he spoke, it was with the utmost politeness. "That all sounds just a bit pretentious to me."

Kusanagi took a step back as the Talon engaged both Riley and Acolyte. She wanted to focus. Take it all in. This woman spoke in riddles and she would have to analyse the details to get at their meaning.

"...Until it can be ascertained which, you remain here. Unless to conspire to cause us ill, then you have my solemn oath that I shall treat you with nothing but kindness."

Kusanagi stepped forward once more, "I cannot speak for everyone else here, but I'm going to warn you of your impending disappointment. Considering what we have all been through, I wouldn't be surprised if the majority of us went with the 'tangent' option. You have been kind enough to us and I wish you no ill will, but I have a promise to keep. I can't throw my life away as a part of some revolution."

Eyes downcast, Kusanagi sighed before continuing, "I thought that way once. Perhaps in another life I would have heard your call-to-arms, but," Kusanagi's locked eyes with Talon's once more. "I'm not just living for myself anymore."

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Neil, hiding atop an out-croft in the stone wall, watched the wardens from afar as they investigated the crime scene. Through his binoculars he had a pretty good view, though he was way too far from them to hear what they were saying. He went over the events in his head over-and-over again.

There's no way I left anything incriminating... is there?

He noticed one of the wardens kneeling down by something several meters away from the corpse. It was a cigarette butt.

Fuck.

It was all clear to him now. He could retrace his steps perfectly. He was smoking when he looked over the ledge and saw the body below. As he climb down the stairs nearby he'd flicked his cigarette butt away.

Fuck me.

The warden brought the cigarette butt to his superior who got out an evidence bag and placed it within. The wardens had his DNA on record. Though he suspected Lee knew of his survival, after a quick DNA test he'd know for sure.

And he'd think he was a murderer.

Neil didn't want to, but he knew he had but one option. He would have to seek her aid. It was either that, or run from the wardens for the rest of his life.

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It didn't take long for him to find what the wardens called, "The Ragged Man." He was an inmate who was given some humble privileges for his services as a liaison between important inmates and the wardens. His "position" had become more-or-less defunct since the riot, but if an inmate who was worth a damn still had a message to send, the more "flexible" wardens would allow him to deliver it. Neil found him in the back of an alley in the upper-levels. He wasn't sure if the man would recognize him after his makeover, but he had something to offer him so it likely wouldn't matter.

Nonchalantly, Neil stood next to him and placed a small baggy on a crate nearby. Some crack he'd picked off of one of his marks a few days ago. The ragged man looked at it for a moment before slipping it into his pocket, "Who and what?"

Neil stared at the wall in front of them as he spoke, "I need this delivered to a warden named Lisa. I don't know her last name. She's French, if that helps."

"Consider it done," The man said as he took the sealed letter from Neil's hand, "Pleasure doing business with you."

Neil stood there in the alleyway alone as the man left. He remained there with nothing but his memories to keep him company.

During the chaos of the riots he had managed to get a letter to her hospital bed. In the letter he explained that he was sorry for what had happened to her and said he'd atone by living out the rest of his days in the Pit. He'd never received a response nor did he ever expect to get one, but if she had any shred of sympathy for him... hopefully she would extend him this small favor.

If she refused... he was finished.

"Of course, Captain." Lee said "Just one more thing...

I'm not sure how well you knew each-other, if at all, but I just feel it prudent to inform you of the sad news that one of our civilian colleagues is gravely ill. Dr. Maxwell Cohen is one of the regular medical staff assigned to this facility. He was responsible for a round of inoculations involving Micah squad just over 3 months ago, while they were still under command of our dear departed compatriot, Lt. Cornelius. It would appear that Dr. Cohen had previously made some extra wages on the side by feeding the black market inside The Pit, using routine supply drops that would be intercepted by Micah squad, but I suppose all that is by the by now."

Lee leaned forward over his desk, and looked directly up at Luka, both men's expressions still blank.

"Two days ago Dr. Cohen's health deteriorated very quickly, and he was airlifted to a specialist medical facility. The staff there have informed me that he is suffering from radiation sickness, presumably from some kind of industrial accident. The matter is being investigated. They assure me that they're doing everything thy can for Dr. Cohen, but his prognosis isn't good. At this point, they are doing their best to make him as comfortable as possible, in what little way they can. It would appear the onus is on me, tactless as it may seem, to start looking for his replacement. Just thought you ought to know."

Lee's mouth moved into an uncharacteristically pronounced smile.

"As you were, Captain. Do give Specialist Beaumont my regards in your next correspondence."

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Miss Nyte appeared to be friendly enough, as well as good at her job. She was a little small time for Selina's tastes, but then, she supposed that, for all her skill at charm and deft diplomacy, juggling matters of global significance with a smile and a spring in her step, Selina actually had very little idea how to have an innocent conversation.

"My stay has been... cold." She replied, taking another sip of her drink. That summed it up in pretty much every sense of the word. "And it's quite all right, you can say whatever you like and I'll find a reason for it to be relevant to my job.

So, you left your job and family behind in the relatively peaceful city you call home, to come and freeze half to death in the middle of nowhere, serving drinks to jaded ex-soldiers, mercenaries and police officers, who've spent their day minding the single largest concentration of psychopaths on the planet. Forgive me, but either you must be getting quite the paycheck, or you had other reasons to want a change of scenery."

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This one didn't trust her. It was unsurprising. If The Talon had been handed a bullet for every one of her Songbirds who had been leveling a gun at her when they first crossed paths, she reckoned she could probably have incited The Great Revolution single-handedly by now. All declared allegiance in the end, either to the One Truth, or to her. Time would tell if any of these travelers would discover their destiny here.

She laughed whimsically. "Indeed, I don't deny it; but consider... perhaps a certain pretension is precisely the remedy we all need for these troubled times. Mankind is floundering, lost. Even in the places where 'civilisation' is once again beginning to flourish, people scramble desperately to hold on to some kind of context, to find their place inside a collective existence so cruelly torn down from such a great height. Perhaps, in times like these, what our species needs is someone who is willing to look further. Someone with the conviction to challenge the very fundamentals of how we see ourselves and our place in this world. Someone who can, and will, shift the paradigm."

She moved closer, her voice growing ever softer.

"You learned at those temples for guidance I take it. You wanted to find understanding, to see more clearly the path ahead. Did it work? Was everything you experienced there exactly what you hoped it would be? You don't seem to be a missionary, so I conclude that you left, or were forced to leave, for other reasons. Since then, can you truly say that your path has always been clear, that you have never felt lost? Has what they taught you truly given you an answer to everything you've encountered?"

She listened politely to what Kusanagi had to say, before replying...

"We shall see, Kusanagi. All of our lives are forfeit at some point. I have no desire to keep you against your will as hostages or chattel. However, while you're here we will find some way for you to contribute. I apologise, but you must understand, in our world nothing is guaranteed. Protecting you, feeding you, and treating your wounds put a tremendous strain on our resources, which may cost us dear. I take on this burden with no regrets, but at the same time we can only afford to be so charitable. Rest assured, you will not be forced to make any kind of commitment beyond honest repayment of debts."

Kusanagi listened to her words intently. It was best to be civil in this situation. She may speak in metaphor, but she doesn't hide daggers in her words nor did she speak in a condescending manner. Kusanagi recognized this but wasn't sure whether it was a good or bad thing. Just what was this woman all about?

In any case, she couldn't argue Talon's logic and nodded with a feint smile, "Had you told us we were free to leave right away I think I may have argued a debt needed repaying. As before, I can't speak for the Freemen but I don't mind lending a hand in making up for lost capitol."

The Talon was an imposing figure to say the least, but Kusanagi had to act strong. Talon needed to understand that she wasn't a cowering little girl. She took a step forward, putting less than meter between them. Kusanagi spoke in a hushed tone so that only the two of them, Acolyte and Riley could hear them, "If it had not been for your intervention, Nikolai would have died of his wounds and we would have been made to flee from his comrades. I cannot thank you enough for that. If you'd be willing to accept it, I have medical experience that could be put to good use." She offered her hand as she spoke.

Korovitch saluted. "As my men have the day free today, I shall be visiting Beaumont this evening. She's still in the onsite wards, though I understand she's soon to be moved for therapy and official sick leave."

With that, he turned and walked away. There were any number of messages in what Lee had said about the man Cohen. 'Don't fuck with me, or you'll die' being one that did jump out at him. But he thought it was more personal. Lee had wanted him to know people who'd helped Cornelius, a man Luka had reason to despise even past the grave, would meet sticky ends. Was the Colonel trying to win him over for something? Ensure his loyalty?

Korovitch was a literal minded man, with little patience for games. It was too soon to tell.

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"Since then, can you truly say that your path has always been clear, that you have never felt lost? Has what they taught you truly given you an answer to everything you've encountered?"

"I don't suppose it's always been straightforward, but I'm still alive. At this point, that's all the guidance or help I need."

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"Rest assured, you will not be forced to make any kind of commitment beyond honest repayment of debts."

Riley chuckled softly at this. The sound set Odin's tail swishing back and forth amiably.

A slight smile on his face, Riley said, "honest repayment of debts. Everything is a double edged blade; even being pulled out of the fire." He chuckled again.

The Talon accepted the offer of a handshake, with her left arm. The cold metal fingers wrapping around Kusanagi's hand. From the way she could move these artificial digits with such softness, you could never guess that the arm had the strength to crush bones into dust.

"Thank you." The Talon offered politely "I'm sure your help will be most appreciated. A dangerous mission awaits us soon, a mission that will be instrumental to The Great Revolution.

In any case, I feel that this Nikolai will be up and about soon enough. The surgery was extensive, but he strikes me as the sort who wont stay confined to a bed any longer than he must. That said, his recovery will be a long process, and if he has someone he trusts with the skills necessary to help him, then all the better."

On that note, The Talon turned and spoke clearly to the rest of the congregation.

"I have other business that I must attend to. You will all see me again soon enough, but in the meantime our Wolf Brother will take good care of you."

She left the hanger, heading in the direction of her private quarters. These 'Free Men' may be just what she required to tip the balance over these next few days, rag-tag as they were. The key would be their leader, for only the two outsiders seemed willing to speak without him.

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Back underground, the effects of the sedation were starting to wear off. The last couple of hours had been undoubtedly the most painful of Nikolai's entire life, and yet... there had been no screaming inside his head, and the fire behind his eyes hadn't ignited once more. Nikolai felt lighter somehow, as if the Metal Woman had drained a swelling inside of him.

At the end of his left leg, something that wasn't his left foot twitched. Sitting up, Nikolai inspected his new addition. Her arm had been slender, designed with elegance in mind. Nikolai's new leg had obviously been forged around a very different philosophy. The cylindrical block of metal that started just below his left knee was heavy, joined to his flesh by a ring of angry scar tissue. Though not visible through the solid outer casing, all the internal components that were present in the arm must also be present here. Nikolai found that if he concentrated very hard, he could turn his new ankle, a ball joint at the end of the metal rod comprising the lower half of his shin. Below the ankle, his new foot consisted of a heel and two large toes, represented in blocks of vulcanized rubber, durable, and deadly as a blunt force weapon. Ne knew he would be clumsy at first. Every sensation was dulled, except at the points where metal met flesh, where every nerve seared white hot.

A fair few minutes afterwards, Nikolai was walking through a labyrinth of windowless corridors. Trying to find the surface, trying to find the others. With every other step, the hallways would reverberate with a deep, hydraulic clunk.

Once Talon was gone Kusanagi let out a sigh of relief. Talking to that woman had been... stressful. She had an aura about her that made you feel uneasy. Uncertain. About everything. She was gone now, however, and they were left alone with no one but this "Wolf Brother" to keep them company.

Kusanagi looked to the wolf standing by its master's side. She offered a feint smile and approached it. It took up a defensive posture but didn't growl. She knelt down beside it and offered a hand for it to smell. Before Riley could protest she spoke, "Don't worry. I know a thing or two about taming wolves."

Then the growling started. A lot of growling. Kusanagi retracted her hand but did so slowly. She looked into the beast's eyes. It would not stand down. With her hand now at her side her smile grew. Her eyes remained locked with Odin's, "He's quite protective."

She rose to her feet and backed away, allowing him the space he obviously desired, "Kind of reminds me of someone..."

Riley put a hand on Odin's head and the wolf quieted immediately. "You don't tame wolves, girl. You earn their trust, kill them or stay the hell away from them."

He turned and headed to the door. After fixing Lucia with a stern stare, Odin swished his tail and followed. "If you need anything, let the guard who brings your food know. I'll be along as quickly as I can." Then he was gone.

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Lisa took each step as gingerly as she could. Her walk had taken her from her room to the clinic reception. She had considered stepping out the door for some fresh air, but her gown wouldn't protect her against the chill for long. Eventually, one of the attendants had found her sitting in the lounging area with her book, and admonished her not unkindly for being out of her room without her crutches, though she insisted she barely needed them.

Now she was nearly back to her room, and the soreness was creeping back into her legs. Opening the door, she made the short journey to her bed and eased herself gently onto it. For some time, she stared at the ceiling, an old song stuck in her head. Shaking herself, she picked up her book and began to thumb to the page she was on, the corner of which was folded down. No sooner had she found her place when the door opened. A nurse wheeled in a little cart holding a tray. Vegetable soup and crusty bread today, with a glass of apple juice. Serviceable food, at best. When the tray was settled comfortably on her lap, the nurse began to wheel away, but then stopped. "Oh, I almost forgot! I was asked to give this to you!"

She turned back and set a small envelope on the edge of the tray. It was a ratty little thing, not even properly glued. The tab instead held in place with a patch of sticky resin. Her skin crawled seeing it. Picking it up, she smiled and thanked the woman, who left politely.

Her food forgotten and her heart hammering, Lisa broke the seal. She'd received a letter like this before. The paper inside was of a similar dubious quality to the envelope, barely more than a scrap. She read it, and then read it again.

"Merde..."

Kusanagi watched him disappear before muttering to herself, "What do you think a dog is, asshole?" Sick of her own metaphor she went to the back of the room and sat back down against the wall. Acolyte was still standing by the door, "I don't like him."

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Neil remained in the alley for hours. He'd already smoked seven cigarettes before he forced himself to stop. It may help with the stress, yes, but it didn't do a damn thing in regards to fixing his problem.

He spent most of his afternoon trapped in his memories. Stuck thinking about all the what-if's and could-have-beens. Would Lisa turn her back on him? Would Luka here him out? How delusional was he to think such a charade would last longer than it had.

Sooner or later Lee would find him and kill him. That much was for certain. Yes, it would be easier to get it over with and fast-track his punishment, but Neil believed a life in the Pit was as fitting a punishment as any. Execution was the easy way out, but that wasn't why he was so adamant about avoiding capture.

Above all else... Neil feared his own death. Now his life rested in the hands of a woman he had wronged.

What would she do?

"You'll have to excuse my appearance. It was a busy night."

"Oh don't worry I won't be long." Richard said. He had spent the time thinking of what to say but now he was trying to catch what he had devised. "I just wanted to share a few words before we departed to once again. It's on the matter of what is going on here."

Richard crossed his arms as he thought. "Everything's too clean here, I don't quite trust it. Has your team found any inconsistencies? Just curious..."

Acolyte ran a hand through his fledgeling beard.

"Maybe. But I prefer him to the woman, I'll say that much." Now they were alone again, the Free Men went back to whatever they were doing, and Acolyte sat back down on his cot, absent mindedly chewing his heel of bread. He then spoke around a small mouthful, using what remained of the bread to pontificate with pointing motions. "He's right about one thing though, I wouldn't take the wolf lightly if I were you. Whatever his bond with it, it's still a wild animal."

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Korovitch pushed through the double doors of the canteen. Sat around a table in one corner playing poker were Hayes, Wickers and Tanner. Tanner was one of the replacement additions to Iron Squad. An African American with a good background in commando warfare. The man was always jovial, and Korovitch appreciated the morale he brought to the group. A quick glance at the table told him that he was cleaning out the other two for everything they had.

"So, how are you three enjoying the day off?"

Wickers glanced sourly at his meagre collection of chips. "Poorly, sir. If you could give me something to shoot, I'd appreciate it."

"Well, I'll give you the next best thing. We're getting new blood." He handed him the stack of files. "Seven of them, to be precise. We're going to put them through their paces."

Hayes sipped on a beer thoughtfully. "So this is meant to be a free day, and you're still working? Damn, sir."

Korovitch shrugged. "I'm going to visit Lisa later today. See how she's doing."

Wickers smiled. "I saw her a couple of days ago. Seems like she's doing better."

"I hope so."

After Luka had left, Lee turned to a new set of files. Two, to be specific. He now had much more important business to attend to. He pressed a button under his desk and spoke into his private intercom.

"Viper One, I'm sending you the current location of Shogun squad's patrol. Please relieve them of their duties, and inform Ln Cpl. Lewis Moore that I would like to see him in my office immediately. Have some of Viper squad escort him up here if you must."

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Having encountered some of these Songbird Men in the corridors below, Nikolai was able to acquire an escort to where the rest of the Free Men were being held. They seemed disinclined to let him wander on his own, and Nikolai was both too groggy and too unarmed to refuse them. A few minutes later, they'd made their way outside and across to the hangar.

Clunk, clunk, clunk went Nikolai's every other step as he crossed the threshold. He scanned the room. All seemed to be present, and all seemed to be in better shape than when he had seen them last. Nikolai smiled, showing new rows of shining metal false teeth that had replaced his broken ones. Some looked pleased to see him. Others looked uneasy, as if they weren't sure it was the same Nikolai. Well enough, he would prove it to them.

He lifted his new leg high, focusing all his weight on it, before stamping on the ground with all the force he could muster. The impact made his whole skull rattle, and the leg punched its way through solid concrete as if it were dirt, creating a crater the size of a beach ball, and causing fissures to snake all around it. Wrenching his leg free, there appeared to be no damage to it. He was stronger than he thought.

Nikolai beat his chest and gave his trademark howl. He was back.

"He's right about one thing though, I wouldn't take the wolf lightly if I were you. Whatever his bond with it, it's still a wild animal."

Kusanagi smiled with a hint of arrogance, "And we've killed plenty of those over the last few months," She crossed her arms as she spoke and looked back towards the door. "I agree about Talon though. There is something... odd about. It's almost as if--"

She stopped mid-sentence when Nikolai came stumbling into view. They truly had saved him. After a needless display of strength he howled loudly.

He certainly was back. He may have had a metal appendage now, but she could tell he was the same old Nikolai. As his men howled in return and began to gather around him Kusanagi pushed through the crowd and placed herself directly in front of him, "Looks like someone should have taken my advice back at the cave," She said with a smile.

Nikolai wasn't so vulnerable to have a light jab like that affect his morale. She could tell his joy would not be conquered so easily, "It's good to have you back, Nikolai." She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around his enormous frame. He was long overdue for a hug.

It looked as if Talon had begun rubbing off on her already.

From a distance, Riley could hear the roars of the Free Men as their leader rejoined them. He shrugged and put them out of mind. The noise set Odin's ears swivelling in distaste. It wasn't their problem, though. What was their problem was supply and demand. The Talon hadn't been far wrong when she's said it was costing them a lot to house their guests, and one area that was hitting them hard in was the pantry. Time to hunt, already. He figured he could drop something, and have it back to the compound before the evening meal. Likely it would even be a part of it.

Man and wolf crept off into the forest. Riley was an admirably skilled tracker, but nothing beat the natural senses of a wolf. Though he checked signs himself, he followed Odin now. Fairly soon, they found promising tracks. Boar. He fished a small clay vial stoppered with an antler cork from a pouch on his belt, marked from its fellows with a unique sigil etched in. The symbol was tribal in nature, and nobody else in the compound could read them.

What was in his hand now would deaden the muscles of his prey. Taking an arrow from his quiver, he gently dipped the slate head into the jar. It came out slick and tinted with bluish grey. He corked the vial and replaced it, then unshouldered his bow and knocked the arrow. Even he could smell the boars now, and he crouched, creeping through the undergrowth, testing the bowstring as he went.

After several minutes, he was watching them, sizing them up. The largest was easily in range; a monster, laden with meat that would cook well. Odin watched. Riley drew, his muscles flexing hard. He aimed, not needing to take his time, but taking it anyway to enjoy the perfection of the shot. He fired. The arrow hit home in the grubbing boar's neck. Blood welled up and sprayed around the arrow lodged, and the boar squealed. Its fellows waddled and ran, and Odin was off. A lesser creature Riley wouldn't trust to pursue the boars alone, but Odin was an old hand at lone hunts. Meanwhile, his kill was feeling the effects of the toxin, as well as blood loss. It took a wobbling step and crashed to the earth.

When he knelt by the dying creature, he made the wound gape with finger and thumb and as the boar whined, he pulled the arrow free. It remained intact, to his pleasure. Ready to be reused. With calm efficiency, he set it down and drew his machete, bringing it across the boar's throat. Blood flowed from the wound and the creature's dying sounds went silent. He spoke in a tribal tongue, then, any trace of his English accent gone. *"I am thankful, clan spirit, for the life given so that me and mine may live. I shall honour this creature's sacrifice by living in its name, and when my time comes, I too shall give back to other creatures in this way."*

With that, he set about dragging the huge carcass back the way he came. It took all of his not inconsiderable strength to move the huge carcass, but he set off, dragging it to base. He had been gone maybe an hour, but it would take twice that at this pace. Odin would rejoin him whenever he would. He only paused by a small stream to clean the arrow he had used, before drying it on his rawhide legging and replacing it with its fellows.

Marino and Lewis patrolled around the Mid-levels once more. There was a disturbance between an inmate and another one arguing over food rations but that was defused as soon as they arrived on scene. But as they left the scene a squad of Wardens walked towards them.

"It's alright, we don't need backup for this one." Lewis said to the approaching squad.

"We're here for you, Lance Corporal." One of the said. He looked to Marino. "You and your squad is dismissed for today."

"Okay..." Marino said.

"Corporal, Lee requests your presence." Lewis sighed as he tried to anticipate as to why he was being summoned by Lee. Then it occurred to Lewis that he never was in Lee's office before. He didn't even know where it was.

"Um... of course." Lewis said. "I might need a guide. Never been to Lee's office before."

The squad collectively rolled their eyes.

"Ramirez! Escort the Corporal to Lee, ASAP!" The squad leader said. Ramirez stepped forward and motioned Lewis to follow him.

"Keep up, corporal." Ramirez said. He lead Lewis away from Mid-levels all the way to the buildings on the surface. He only remembered going there for processing or to receive his pay but never to Lee's office. The journey was far from arduous but Lewis perspired with apprehension. He wasn't sure what he was expecting from Lee but once Ramirez pointed to the door, Lewis assumed that he was getting fired. He knocked on the door.

"Uh... it's Corporal Lewis, sir." Lewis nervously said.

"So, you left your job and family behind in the relatively peaceful city you call home... who've spent their day minding the single largest concentration of psychopaths on the planet. Forgive me, but either you must be getting quite the paycheck... a change of scenery." Selina said with a degree of candor in her voice. This caused Abigail to simply freeze, her mind at a complete blank on what to say next. The question had really made her think.

Why had she come here in the first place? Abigail has begun to ask question to herself.

The money? No, such a shallow answer, I was reasonably okay financially back home.

A change in location? Perhaps a little bit, though it can get a little depressing in here at times what with the drab colour scheme.

To get away from parents? Not really, I loved Mom and Dad dearly.

A challenge perhaps? Possibly, I never really had a managerial role like this back home, but keeping track of everyone's drinks during rush hour can get a little tough a times.

Then another question came into her mind.

Do I actually enjoy working here? Kind of, I mean I get along rather well with many of the Wardens, they always seem to enjoy my company and like my conversations. Perhaps that is why I am here, I want to make the people who work here lives more meaningful in such a lifeless and inhospitable land. Though I doubt that Selina will take that as a response.

After several minutes of uninterrupted silence, Abigail had finally found her answer.

"Miss Hernandez, whilst I am afraid that I do not have a proper answer to your question; I feel as though I am important here, since here at the Gates of Pandemonium, the Wardens who work full-time, have a place where they can relax and enjoy themselves, to allow a welcome change of scenery away from the doldrums of watching over some of the worst that humanity has to offer."

"Well..." Said Olivander, "there was a prisoner caught with contraband who got sent off with a warning, a prisoner brutalised by guards until his leg fractured, and when a guard confessed, Mr. Montoya showed more annoyance than downright anger. I don't think he believed him." The economist rubbed his eyes, "I'm not sure that's how things normally go here, though it wouldn't exactly surprise me. Come in, I've got figures I need to show someone."

Felix was busy doing pushups in Penn's cell, trying his best not to irritate his first associate within the Pitt, but he knew he had to stay in shape in this hell hole.
-------------------------------
Travis lay in his bed in his cell, his arm draped over his face as he contemplated the past year over and over in his mind. Was it worth it? The bitch with the Glasgow smile had struck him with such a question. What did Travis gain from any of this other than a loss of pride and pain, mental and physical pain. No doubt a guard would see him and force him to work, but he would wait until then.
-------------------------------
Clementina waited with a group of other Warden's charged with escorting some of the executives around the mid levels, they were taking their time and trying her patience.

Lisa stared at the ceiling, counting the tiles. She was that bored. She was so bored that she was just about to start counting the perforations in each tile when there was a knock at the door. The noise filled her heart with apprehension, and sweat beaded her forehead. It would be him.

Wiping it away, she sat up in the bed, and called out in her lilting tones, "come in."

The door opened, and Luka walked in. She looked him in the eye, though his eyes were always a little unnerving. Pale blue, and icy. The look of eyes that had seen too much. For a moment, she just watched him. He was strong and so clearly there, it made her feel secure. He reminded her of a cliff face overlooking the ocean. The water might wear away some of the surface, but the cliff would be there, strong and immovable long after she was gone.

"Are you going to sit, sir?"

He shook his head slightly. "I'm quite comfortable standing here, Specialist."

She thumped her head theatrically against the pillow. "If you don't loosen up a little, I'll whack you with my crutch. Please, sit!"

Sighing, he stepped forward, and took the slightly delicate wooden chair by the bed, sitting stiffly as though he'd forgotten how to do it. She knew it was the awkwardness of forced casualness, though. She'd seen him move in action. Despite being a man in his forties, Luka Korovitch was a lithe, lethal blur. He surprised her then, by speaking first.

"So, how are you? Are you walking any further?"

She favoured him with a smile. "Oh, yes. I even feel like I'm being excessively limited."

"Colonel Lee asked after you."

"Oh, really?" That was surprising. It was just a pleasantry, but her brief occasion to see the man hadn't given her the impression he was a man for pleasantries outside of necessity. What did he want from Luka? If he was putting him to use, as he had in the initial formation of Iron Squad, the request she was ruminating on might be more difficult than she thought. Though she wasn't sure she would bring it up.

"Yes, I told him your operations went well. Any word on when you'll be moved from RACDI-Alpha?"

"They tell me it'll be some time within a couple of weeks. Though I wish they'd be more specific."

There was a pause, then. It dragged out. She looked at her hands. At the round scar on the back, echoed on the palm where the bullet had passed through. It was much fainter if slightly wider on the palm, where the exit wound had been, but they had given her skin grafts on the palm to stop scar tissue affecting mobility. Except in certain lights, it merely looked as though the natural lines of her palm stopped in the center. Then she looked up at Korovitch, who was looking past her to a small painting on the wall. He might have been handsome once; in a grim, hard set sort of way. Until the blade he now carried had rent his face open and left the scar. A huge, deep thing that stood out in partial shade.

She cleared her throat, softly. Yes. She would do this thing. He looked calmly at her; expectantly. She spoke. "Luka, I've had a letter."

"From who?"

"I... you should read it for yourself." She reached under her pillow and brought out the stained envelope. When it was in his hands, he opened it delicately, and tugged out the scrap of paper inside. A few seconds past as he read; his eyes moving along the lines calmly. When he spoke, it was a single word.

"Fuck."

"Exactly."

"So, this man is..."

"The one that made me fall."

"Cornelius' dog?"

"Yes. Can you do it?"

"Do you want me to?"

That gave her pause. After a moment, she said, "I asked, didn't I?"

He nodded. "Alright. I have additional men to train, which is beginning tomorrow. So I shall go tonight."

"How will you gain access?"

"Simply," he said and stood up. "I'll tell you all about it when I get back," he said idly as he left.

"Please do. Au Revoir."

Neil made his way over to one of the warden outposts in the Upper levels. They were relatively small buildings that were used as checkpoints for wardens who were coming and going between the lower levels and the surface. If there was something Venture Horizon was good at it was employee time allocation. They were out to save every dime. They were rarely guarded by more than a single person at any given time... not that it really mattered. There was never really anything of worth to any inmates to begin with save clean paper, writing utensils and a coffee machine.

Strangely enough this wasn't the first time he'd had to break into one of these buildings. In his former life he had been ordered to manipulate Venture's records. This involved more than a few B&Es. He snuck by the warden on duty with easy and found his way to a back door. The simple padlock was easily cracked and he was inside.

Locking the door behind him, Neil found a table in the back room and set up the meeting location. Two metal chairs across from each other, situated around a round coffee table. If Luka brought guests they would have to stand. He removed his jacket and vest to reveal his black long-sleeved shirt beneath and placed them on the back of his chair. He removed his weapons: a 9mm pistol and three knives of various sizes, placing them on the table next to his ski mask.

He stood there with his hands on his hips, surveying the room he'd just put together.

It would have to do. He looked down at his watch. It'd be at least an hour until Luka arrived. At least, that's what the Ragged Man said. Neil sighed and walked to the back of the building.

He might as well brew some coffee while he waited.

"You may enter, Corporal." Lee announced, his tone rigidly formal. "Please take a seat."

Lee himself remained seated on the other side of his desk, the files he had been studying kept in the top draw, out of sight for now.

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

Nikolai was a little taken aback by Kusanagi's greeting. He wasn't used to physical contact of a non-violent variety. Had anyone ever held him like this before? Nikolai couldn't remember. Nothing remained of The Boy except fire and screams, and now he wondered if even that would fade. It was strange, the screams and the brief flashes of remembered agony that could pass through the doors in his mind that Nikolai had barred shut were his torment, and yet the thought of being without them disturbed him. Without the screams he would have no name, and were it not for the pain he would have never grown strong. Would he be just an empty shell? Muscle for whoever saw fit to use him, just as his old Master had intended?

Perhaps not. Perhaps, if the screams faded, some of The Boy that had been lost would return, as if he had been hiding just out of site the whole time. Nikolai was not an optimist, but a small measure of hope seemed appropriate at this time.

He returned the hug, gingerly; aware that while Kusanagi was no waif, Nikolai had strength enough in his massive arms to crush her bones into dust without even meaning to. Over her shoulder he spied Acolyte, attentive as ever, and distant. Nikolai still didn't trust him. He had helped the Free Men, but that was no proof when his own survival depended on it. The Man made no sense, decrying the killing of those that would show no mercy themselves, and yet killing alongside them when it suited him. He came from far away, and sometimes he talked as if he was still there, looking down on the rest of them with faint, guarded distaste.

Nikolai understood little, and liked even less. However, now was as good a time as any for breaking new ground, so long as Acolyte was willing to prove himself.

"You." He said, letting go of Kusanagi and striding up to him. "You are not trusted. You are not one of us. That can change, but first you must fight."

The Free Men would continue to resent Acolyte's presence unless he proved his strength in the way they all had. As leader, Nikolai could tolerate no more discord. They were not Wolves anymore. To be a brother, Acolyte need swear no allegiance, nor wear any uniform, nor take any new name. All he must do, is prove himself worthy.

"Come in, I've got figures I need to show someone."[/b]

Richard nodded and entered the Olivander's room curious about the figures that he needed to show. No doubt it was just calculations, and theorems about the efficiency of the Pitt. He acknowledged the importance of such studies and career choices but he never quite liked sitting around, calculating for something he can just do. Either way he wanted to see what the good Doctor had in terms of figures. The story about the prisoner being brutalized did pique some of his interest.

"Sounds interesting...." Richard said.

-----------------------------------------------

Lewis entered the room. He looked calm on the outside but his mind was heavy with apprehension. He had seen Lee before but never this up close and personal. The Tiger of the Tiger Republics was seated behind the desk awaiting Lewis to take a seat and so he did.

"You wanted to see me, sir?" Lewis calmly asked.

While the Corporal did an admirable job of matching Lee's professionalism, Lee had been in this profession more than long enough to know when a man is intimidated. There was fear behind the Corporal's eyes, and also, if Lee was not mistaken, a hint of reverence. He got that from time to time, whether it be from fresh-faced recruits, with their green fantasies of becoming legends, or from fellow veterans who had taken to war better than most, and who projected their lust for it onto Lee's reputation, and assumed him to be some kind of paragon for all they stood for. In truth, their was no-one on this earth who held Lee's deeds in less esteem that Lee himself.

Nevertheless, this combination that existed within the Corporal would be useful, and so naturally he would make use of it. The contents of this conversation were ethically fragile to say the least, and anything that gave Lee more control over the situation was a necessary utility.

Necessary. The word had tasted sour for far too long. It was always [i]necessary[/b], every deplorable, underhand and thoroughly rotten deed he had done had been born out of necessity, and this is what it amounted to. What meager, petty helpings of progress, what slim hopes had been gifted to him by doing what was necessary! Whatever awaited Lee on the other side of the abyss, on the day he must finally cross it; be it paradise, damnation, nothingness or some new beginning (he was keeping his options open), he would embrace it gladly, on the proviso that never again would an issue of necessity make him feel so sullied.

"I did." he replied coolly. Ever the soldier, ever the tactician, any internal turmoil that the Colonel wrestled with was hidden underneath a steadfast stoicism. "First things first, I received a report from Lt. Com. Montoya about the use of excessive force on an Inmate in the Lower Levels three days ago, and I want to hear your side of the story. Do you have anything to say?"

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

"Ah, so you feel worthwhile here, that's it." Selina responded kindly, taking another generous sip of her drink. "I can respect that. Time was I would never have been seen dead in a place like this, so close to the front line as it were. It would have been beneath my station, an embarrassment even. To say I was comfortable growing up in Iberia would be a criminal understatement. I had high-ranking ministers competing for my support when I was just 13, and you have no idea how hospitable politicians can be when they really put their minds to it. I had enough money to buy anything I wanted, and yet I seemed to pay for nothing...

My life with Venture Horizon is somewhat less glamorous, but don't think I'm complaining. It was good fun and games among the ruling classes of the Iberian Alliance, and that was precisely the problem. I never had to take it seriously, and behind the pomp do little of any global importance was being decided in the corridors of power that I was apparently destined for. By the time the fools started to sit up and take notice, we'd lost a good 80% of our territory south of the Mediterranean. Half of it captured by the Tigers, and the other half sold off to Ignite Solutions in exchange for saving our necks, and I knew that if I stayed, I'd soon fall from grace for being the only one who didn't let pride stand in the way of taking action. This is what I was made for. Being on the cutting edge. I may not be so pampered as I once was, but now I have the resources and the freedom to be part of the force that drags the human race out of our post-Cataclysm minutia and towards a new golden age. The nation states belong to the old world, and the ideals that form their very foundations died along with all those billions of people we lost during the dark times. Of course, progress has its price, but we do only what we must."

"Do you have anything to say?"

Lewis breathed deeply thinking of what to say. He knew he had the chance to tell Lee what really happened in the Lower Levels. He could tell Lee that it was Albergo who struck down the inmate for trying to smuggle a piece of coal. It seemed like years ago now.

"Yes, sir. Corporal Albergo and I were patrolling the levels when we came into contact with a prisoner who tried to smuggle a piece of coal onto their person. We repeatedly tried to communicate with the inmate but he didn't cooperate with us." Lewis said, taking a pause in his words. "I felt threatened in that situation. Something got the better of me and I struck the prisoner. I take full responsibility for the excessive use of force." Lewis belted out with pure conviction. He was going to ride this lie for as long as he could, even in the face of Lee. "I was unaware of the full extent of the prisoner's injuries until after the beating. Once I realized that, Corporal Albergo and I searched for a medic on the level which brought us to Lt. Com. Montoya, who happened on the scene before we could get a medic."

Lewis looked Lee in the face even in the face of his lie. He would never abandon his loyalty to his friends. Not ever since the Highlands. Lewis could still hear the shrill screams. The smell of burning petrol and flesh combined. The yellow spots in his eyes still remained from the inferno he saw and did nothing about. Never again.

Acolyte raised an eyebrow in interest. He hadn't expected this. Despite that, he met Nikolai's gaze evenly.

"Fight who? You?"

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

Korovitch watched through binoculars as Tanner approached the warden guarding the outpost, with doctored orders to relieve him. The man put up some idle protest, mainly out of curiosity. But after a few seconds, he shrugged and headed off. For a couple of minutes, Wickers and Korovitch watched Tanner stand guard dutifully. Then they headed to the outpost themselves. As one, the three of them walked into the outpost building. There sat the man Korovitch had been sent to meet, weapons on the table. He could smell coffee brewing.

Nikolai nodded.

"To us, survival must be earned. Those who cannot withstand the test must not be allowed to taint the rest with weakness. When they die, all grow stronger for it. Your survival has been a gift, but that ends now. A child is one thing, but the Free Men will no longer stand to share their meals with a grown Man who has not earned his place."

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

Lee resisted the temptation to sigh, and rub his temples in frustration. It was the answer he'd been expecting, but not the one he had hoped for.

"I see..." He began, holding the pause "You would really risk it all, wouldn't you? You're closer than you've ever been, having come so far and fought through so much. You've held your tongue and kept your secrets, all the way to the last place any sane man in this world wants to be, and now you'd watch me take all that, and crush it into dust, for the sake of a colleague. I was like that once, a very long time ago. There was a time where I would have defended my comrades with everything I possessed, in everything they did. If I could go back, you have no idea how many of those men I would shoot dead, now that I have seen what would remain of them after the slow erosion of war had swept everything else away."

Lee drew the first file, and thumbed it open. Taped inside on the first page was a set of photographs, taken during processing, with a list of details beneath. He laid the file out on his desk facing the Corporal. It wasn't quite a family reunion.

"I'm not sure how much of my reputation precedes me, but let me assure you that there's no use lying to me, in matters great or small. You have not been responsible for the mistreatment of any Inmates, quite the opposite in fact. I expect you spend most of your day trying your best not to look them in the eye. Even so, did you really think no-one would find out about her?"

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

Kusanagi stepped back and allowed the boys to display their masculinity. While she believed such a bout to be utterly pointless now was a good a time as any for them to blow off some stream. They had spent three long, grueling months without any means and without the energy to vent their angst and frustration. The thought occurred to her that she had not been given the opportunity either.

Kusanagi hadn't taken issue with Nikolai's boasts or taunts until...

"...A child is one thing, but the Free Men will no longer stand to share their meals with a grown Man who has not earned his place."

An angry smile broke out across Kusanagi's lips, "Sounds like someone's forgotten I killed one of Azrael's top lieutenants. If that doesn't make me one of the boys, I am not sure what would."

She was proud of her wit, but she couldn't help but place her hand on her pelvis. The memory burned in that moment.

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

Neil heard Luka and his men enter through the front. He continued brewing and spoke without diverting his attention from the task at hand, "How do you like yours?"

Like waves on a sandy dune, Lee's dissection of Lewis' philosophy eroded some of his conviction for loyalty but still it stood. It stood but Lee revealed some of its weak points. He thought back and Albergo's agitation was revealed in a new light. Lee planted a seed of doubt into Lewis' head.

"Even so, did you really think no-one would find out about her?"

Lewis looked at the file, seeing the proof that Aggie was here but it was nothing that he didn't know about. He knew this day would come. He would recite his statement to whoever would find out, even to Lee but now that he's face to face with him, things seemed different. Lewis looked closely at the pictures. She looked more gaunt than he had last seen her and her red hair was still noticeable.

"Eventually, sir." Lewis said, matter-of-factly. "She's the sole reason why I requested to be transferred here and the reason why I try to look the inmates in the eye, sir. If you want the truth then that's it. Plain and simple."

Olivander stumbled over to a desk piled high with neatly arranged papers. "I've been running some numbers, using any file that the Wardens have seen fit to let me see and... Do you have any idea what a logistical nightmare this place is!? Look at this!" Cried the financial executive, waving a file, "It's almost impossible for this place tomactually run a profit! I'm freaking amazed Lee has been able to make this place what it is! It's nothing short of a miracle! And it's still not enough!" He slumped down, clutching his head "It's maddening! The guy's probably the best administrator this place could have, and the bosses are threatening to fire him unless he does something physically impossible!"

"How do you like yours?"

"Not poisoned. I'll skip the drinks." As he said this, Wickers and Tanner paced to opposite sides of the room. All three of them cradles MP5 SMGs, with suppressors. Allowing his to hang by its strap, Korovitch took a seat. Gesturing to Neil, he said, "you're in trouble. I'm not clued in on the specifics. What's wrong, and why should I help?"

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

Acolyte nodded to himself. "Alright. I prepared to fight you once, when I thought you'd taken Lucia by force. I suppose it'd be a waste if I didn't end up doing so."

He stepped forward, shrugging off the kevlar vest. The swastika brand stood out against his muscled chest, ridged and angry. It caused murmurs amongst the Free Men that he ignored. They were backing away to make room in the spacious hangar, and that was all that mattered.

Bending his legs slightly and swaying rhythmically on the balls of his feet, Acolyte put up a guard, and said, "let's do it, then."

"Not poisoned. I'll skip the drinks."

Neil smirked as he dumped cream and sugar into his coffee and began stirring, "I wouldn't trust me either."

"You're in trouble. I'm not clued in on the specifics. What's wrong, and why should I help?"

Neil blew into his mug as he turned and took the seat across from Luka. After taking a sip he placed it down in front of him and took off his sunglasses. He hadn't seen into Luka's eyes in quite some time. The two of them didn't have much in the way of a past, but they had been at odds with one another... so to speak.

"Pvt. Michelle Stevens, you've heard of her?"

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

Kusanagi went silent once the brand came into view. When had that happened? Had he always had it? No, that wasn't possible... she had seen him with his shirt off back in the Pit. Come to think of it, Acolyte had avoided taking off his vest until now.

Was he trying to hide it from her?

And then it hit her like a sack of bricks. His allying with the Aryans to save her. Had they done that to him? How far had he gone to save her? It seemed there were still many aspects to her escape she didn't understand.

Kusanagi gritted her teeth. She was tired of others suffering for her. For every independent action she took to further her own survival, another had taken two. She clutched her pants--where her brand had burned into her skin--tighter as the Freemen began to murmur.

I need to make this right.

He had summoned the courage to show his... it was only fair that she show hers. Now wasn't the time, however.

'The Talon's Roost' was the name the Songbird's had affectionately given the disused ATC tower, when she had made her quarters there shortly after arriving at this garrison. It suited her perfectly, in terms of personal, practical, and symbolic purposes. Above the activity of the main camp, her thoughts were clearer, and every Songbird who looked up, would be instilled with new courage for what was to come, knowing that she was watching over them. It was also the place that had the highest proportion of window space of any room in the entire complex. She had been almost a woman the first time she'd seen sunlight, and since then she had been forced to spend so much of her time scurrying around in the dark. Not right now though. Her time here, and her windows, were a are luxury. A luxury that she owed in no small part to her enemies. It was after all their playthings that she was using to shield herself. She could see one of the pylons right now, it's silhouette concealed to all those who didn't know exactly where to look, within the tree line on the perimeter. This place suited her, and it would be a shame to leave. However, the time was soon approaching, and when it did the window would be short.

Spread out in front her, as she sat cross legged on the floor, was an array of maps, blueprints, reports, charts and photographs. She picked up one of them, taken at the village where they had recovered the stragglers. Why had this child still been in bed at such a late hour? Perhaps she had been sick, although no sign of ailment showed on her face. In fact, she was smiling. The Talon wondered if that was merely a queer side-effect of the start of the decomposition process, or had this girl been having a good dream?

What mattered however, was the certainties; and what was clear all the photographs, the autopsy reports, and the diagrams showing various chemical compositions, was that her enemy's testing was drawing to a close. The substance was ready. The hard work was done, and in a matter of days a generous stockpile would be amassed. The nest was tended; and when the eggs were hatched, The Great Revolution would begin in earnest.

The setting sun bathed the tower in an orange bloom, and in her head The Talon recited a new poem. Each sunset was unique, and deserved its own. She did not waste time searching for paper and a pen, for she never had any intention to write them down. Her thoughts were between her and the sunset, and she would simply let them flow. The brand new verse streamed into her consciousness as if it had been there all the time. Perhaps it had. Even after so many years, The Talon sometimes felt she had barely scratched the surface of her potential, and that there were so many more gifts yet to unlock, given to her unwillingly by those she now sought to destroy. In her own way, she couldn't help but love them. They had given her so much, not least of which being that through them she had first seen the nature of the One Truth. It may have just been the effects of some residual conditioning, but she thought not. Recently, she had begun to wonder if her interpretation of events had been backwards, and it had in fact been the One Truth who had given them to her. Previously, she had understood the One Truth as merely an implicit construct within the fabric of existence, like gravity. Tangible, undeniable, but without any consciousness or will of its own. However, the closer she came, the more of the path that seemed to fall into place in front of her, the more convinced she became of some kind of divine providence. She was not simply a scholar of the One Truth, she was its disciple, it's protege, it's provocateur.

He companion in her vigil gave a weak, rattling groan as the sunlight inside the circular space continued to intensify, and if even the light itself now hurt him. It was not impossible. The Talon remembered when she had first experienced direct contact with the sunlight, bursting through the canopy as she had stumbled into that unlikely oasis at the most crucial time. It had burned, with a brilliant pain. On the other hand, her companion's experience seemed to be different. Her pain had cleansed her, burning away her fear and desperation. His only seemed to make him shrink, like some grey, translucent insect turned out from under a damp log.

Turning to face him, The Talon debated whether it was to her credit, or to his, that the man was still alive. She was an expert in her craft, and yet he showed an unusual resilience. Even after so much had been stripped away, his soul refused to reveal itself. He was suspended in the dead center of the room, chains binding him at his wrists and ankles, which in turn were attached to the joins at the floor and ceiling. Taut, the chains held him vertical, spread-eagled, the light glistening off the bare, raw meat of his torso. He was akin to a fly caught in a spider's web, only the web had been fashioned from his own skin, removed from him in slender strips, leaving one end attached, and pulling the rest out into strands, stretching out in every direction and pinned to all corners of the room. The skin is the largest organ in the human body, and fashioned in this manner, it would have been hard for the uneducated or uninitiated to believe such a maze had been harvested from just one subject. Another gift from her former tormentors. So many ways to remove a man piece by piece. Still, it had taken considerable practice on her part to become so artful. The defter she became, the more clearly the patterns presented themselves.

She lightly tapped her finger on one of the strips, drawn from his groin. Drawn so taught, the vibration traveled back to the angry flesh as if she had plucked a guitar string. A pitiless, rasping cry escaped his lips. Silently, The Talon took a cloth, and submerged it in a bucket full of a purifying solution that kept his wounds from festering. Seeing this, the man made more noises in protest, though having seemingly lost the ability to form words. This was the nature off all his kind. So dirty, stinking, foul, that any attempt to wash them of their bile will sting in agony.

"Do you see it now?" she asked, raising her voice over his fresh screams, as the wet cloth gently found every nook and cranny. "Now that your mask is lifted, and all is laid bare, do you see the disease of it? You are a malignancy, sapping the life out of the world as you cling on past your time. For the sake of all that is or ever will be, this world must be cleansed."

As Riley knelt in the courtyard, bloody to the elbows, his sharp ears caught the screams from Talon's Roost, and his nose twitched distastefully. But it wasn't his place to question her practices. As long as they didn't involve him, at least. He shrugged, and went back to his work. The boar's hide was furled up on one side of the tarp, and he would tan the hide later. First, it was time to gut the animal. By his leg was the bloody K-BAR knife he's used to skin the animal, and cut into its belly. On his other side, the boar's stomach and intestinal tract lay in a pile. If he needed to, he could use the stomach to make a cooking pot. But there was no need, so he would likely bury it.

He'd been trained to never waste any part of the animal, but in his current role, often times his own time was more valuable than guts, so he had reluctantly consigned himself to burying anything he didn't particularly need. With a squelch, he pulled the boar's liver free, and looked at it, thoughtfully. Then he shrugged, and threw it over his shoulder. A snap, squelch and thud told him Odin had snatched it from the air, and then there was the faint sound of chewing.

Later, after he had finished gutting the boar, and had taken out all of its tendons and pried off its hooves, as well as hacking its head off with a machete, he straightened up, moved everything he was taking off the tarp, and allowed his men to roll it up around the carcass that was now meat and bone, and take it for cooking. When everything was stored in his room, he walked out to where the trees started to crop up around the base, and buried the guts. When that was done, he set about gathering loose branches, and then walked back with his arms full. With that, he dug a small basin into the earth and set about making a fire in the center of the courtyard, then set off for more wood. He ended up making several trips, keeping the fire burning hot and sweeping the ash into the basin.

When he'd first been transferred here, the men under his authority had gawked at his post hunting ministrations, but they had long since lost interest. He provided a good part of the food the base ate, although not the majority. And often times, the tools and clothes he made came in useful.

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