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

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"You will know tomorrow." Yu replied curtly. "For now, you need only wait. What would I gain by lying to you now, when you would find out about it before I had asked you to do anything?"

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"Would you have rather had us leave you all to die?" The Talon answered, peering over at her. "Of course, I understand that trust is a rare commodity in this world. I won't play games with you, and you shall have the full tail. We spotted you the moment your aircraft came within 250 kilometers of this base. At the time, all we saw was a Venture Horizon cargo plane coming towards us with no known intent. I was half ready to order you shot down, but as chance would have it, your vessel managed to crash quite efficiently of its own accord. I ordered scouting parties to seek out the crash site, still thinking that this was an enemy military deployment. I thought perhaps we could capture and interrogate survivors, if there were any, and if not, that we could at the very least recover some intelligence from the wreckage. Imagine my surprise, when we arrived to find bodies clearly identifiable, not as military, but as inmates of a Venture Horizon facility. Even without the serial number and black box from the aircraft, it wasn't hard to guess from your approach vector where you had come from.

Our next priority was to search for survivors. It stood to reason that, if any remained who could move under their own steam, that you would endeavor to put as much distance between yourselves and the crash sight as possible. Large fires tend to attract unwanted attention after all. It didn't take long for our best hunters to track you down, and confirm that you were indeed all escapees.

I admit, at that point I could have ordered my scouting parties to reveal themselves and take you in, which I'm sure would have saved you much in the way of hardship... provided you wouldn't have panicked and opened fire on us. You'll have to forgive me, but I haven't survived all these years fighting enemies that permanently outnumber and outgun me without a certain respect for caution. You weren't foes, yet, but neither could I determine whether or not you could be friends. Nevertheless, I kept close watch over you. Escape from a secure Venture Horizon facility is rare enough, but escape from RACDI-Alpha, the largest and most heavily guarded, with only one way out and mile after mile of flat, empty, freezing wilderness on all sides... that's unprecedented. I was curious to as to what sort of people could accomplish such a deed, and what that meant for me. Your survival skills exceeded expectations, especially considering your rough landing. However, it became more and more apparent that you weren't going to last much longer. When you came across the village, my current position became untenable. You were a part of our war now, whether either of us willed it or not. I decided to take you in, as both of the other options, namely killing you all, or waiting for you to be captured or killed by opposing forces, felt like a wasted opportunity."

The Talon smiled her kindly smile, as her metal hand delicately sythed through a buck of grapes. "And that, my dear, is where we arrive at The Point."

"Thank you for saying so, Warden." Lee said with honesty, to which Abigail showed a brief, but professional smirk. "Although personally, I think that there was room for improvement on that score..." It was then the Warden In Chief went quiet, Abigail summarized that he might have been reliving some memories, painful or otherwise.

"Pan-Arabia," Lee said, carrying on from where he left off. "...or Bahrain, to be more specific. That's all anyone ever remembers. Myself included, to be brutally honest... I was there for all three. On the front line, in the thick of it, and yet sometimes even I struggle to recall which memory was from which battle, or even which war."

"I guess that is what happens when you perform a task for so long, the memories of it become fluid like tributaries leading into a river; you don't know where one began and another ends, even if you were there from be beginning."

"Someone should know. I owe the dead that much. What say you, Miss Nyte? Do you think you could stand listening to an old man's war stories?"

"I think I could stand to hear a few; it would be a welcome change from the drunk talk."

"What would I gain by lying to you now, when you would find out about it before I had asked you to do anything?"

Aggie shook her head.

"I know... it feels like a dream." Aggie said, still in shock but mostly apprehension. How would Lewis react to such a hellhole? Would she have to protect him? Could she still protect him? Questions shot through her brain like bullets. Aggie looked at her hands. She felt an impulse to clean her hands followed by everything else. How would he react to her?

"Anything else you want to tell me? Is my mother here too?" Aggie nervously joked.

"No." You replied, either not recognizing, or not appreciating the attempt at humour. "There is nothing else, only that if both you and your brother follow the instructions we have given you to the letter, you will both be generously rewarded."

With that, Yu exited the cell, slithering out as quick and silent as a cat, before vanishing into the gloom. Less than a minute later, a Warden patrolled right past Aggie's cell, his flashlight sweeping down the hall, none the wiser as to what had just come to pass.

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"I think I could stand to hear a few; it would be a welcome change from the drunk talk."

Lee gave her a solemn smile. Miss Nyte was likely still expecting colourful accounts of his courage and daring. How young they all were...

"Japan was my first campaign. I was a 1st Lieutenant back then, fresh out of the officer academy in Hanoi. The Tiger Republics as a political designation was barely older than I was, and still vulnerable. It was a proxy war, in truth. The threat that most concerned the delegates in New Shanghai at the time was America, or 'The New Confederacy of the United States of America', to use its full title. In the decades following the Cataclysm, America lost almost all of its influence and resources in the Middle East, as well as having to contend with its own affluent East Coast being rendered to little more than a waste land. As such, their gaze began to turn West across the Pacific. The Tigers needed Japan to serve as it's most Easterly outpost, and a staging area for war in the Pacific, if it came to that.

The government of Japan however, had always been opposed to entering the Tiger treaty, and when further efforts were made to assimilate them through diplomatic means, they walked away from the table. Cultural context is important here. Simply refusing the Tigers would have been an obstacle, refusing to even negotiate would have been an insult, but entering negotiations simply so they could spit in our face where all the world could see. That meant war, and everybody knew it. Doubtless, the Japanese were likely arranging their own alliance with America, to protect against Tiger retaliation. It would have worked to, had our intelligence services not anticipated it.

A three month smear campaign against the Japanese government by Tiger agents working undercover in their civil service, media centers, trade unions and fringe political movements whipped up a storm of civil unrest the likes of which have never been seen before in what was usually such a deferential populace. It was a stroke of genius. The country had become ungovernable, which gave the Tigers an acceptable pretext for the 'liberation', as it was always called. As well as this, it put America in the position of being unable to intervene without facing accusations of meddling in Eastern affairs in the name of self-interest, which would have angered the energy giants who did business in that region, and that America was depending on heavily. When both sides took to the field, the Japanese were outnumbered, outgunned, and didn't even have the majority support of their own people to give them legitimacy, and when they called for help, no-one answered.

We had naval superiority on the second day, and air superiority on the fifth. Their standing army was swept aside less than a week after that, and their entire political assembly, excepting those who we had already agreed would hold power after the regime change, were taken into custody on charges of crimes against their office. Some of them were even true. It was a pathetically short war, if truth be told, and it has a reputation in history for being remarkably clean. However, that's usually because history tends to skip over what happened next.

While the smear campaign had done its job, their were still large pockets of the native population opposed to Tiger rule. The last thing Shanghai wanted was for us to become bogged down in a messy insurgency when the possibility of war across the Pacific was still their main concern. The troops on the ground, of which I was one, were ordered to crack down, hard, on any signs of dissent. Freedom of communication was restricted, borders were closed, entire families disappeared in the middle of the night, and anyone who dared appear on the streets waving the old Japanese flag in protest was shot. For 18 months, we ruled through fear, stamping out even so much as implies resistance to the new regime with extreme force whenever it appeared. I was there for all of it. I burned down homes, opened fire on peaceful protests, and personally interrogated several suspected agitators; and all that time I was proud to serve. Now, Japan is a dead state, little more than a Tiger military outpost, with a local population living in fear and poverty, unrepresented by their own government, and so cut off from outside their own borders most don't even realise how bad they have it, because of me."

He forced himself to look at her then, so she could see him, and judge him, for what he was.

"There are times, when I sincerely wish that those who say I broke at Bahrain were right. That would be so much easier, but no; that war didn't break me. What it did, was finally open my eyes to how broken I had already become. I remember the moment clearly. I was taking cover in a shell hole, with death and battle all around. The hole was so deep it had breached a sewer pipe underneath. For a second I looked down, catching the reflection of my face in a puddle of shit, and I saw myself for the first time."

Clementina came upon Lee's office. She could see it from a distance and sighed sharply, he would not enjoy this report. Surely there were more pressing matters that required the Colonel's attention and this wasn't as high on the priority list, but nonetheless a failure is still a failure. She walked up to the door and was stopped by the guards on duty.

They exchanged salutes and Clementina began "I need to bring my report to Colonel Lee right away."

"Sorry Lietuenant but the Colonel is not in his office at the moment."

Clementina nodded, "Very well, do you know when I can hand in my report?"

"I will inform the Colonel and he will call for you when needed Lieutenant."

"Thank you sir." They saluted once more and Clementina made her way towards the barracks to wind down. She resisted some temptation to go to The Gates of Pandemonium but surely drinking would reflect even worse on her performance. She enetered the barrakcs and sat down on her bed, punching the pillow in frustration. 'First duty and I fucked up. I can't believe I let my temper get the better of me. Three goddamn months and...' Clementina sighed and leaned against the back wall. 'Maybe I should get some help with my temper so I don't fuck up anymore.'

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Travis had had enough of working. His shift was just about finishing when he clocked out. He couldn't do this every day. He had been behaving well like this for just under three months now, but what kept him going was the promise that one of these days he was gonna get some action. Maybe he would shove someone into the furnace, or bend a bitch over the refinery and burn her face while he rapes her. But now that promise was gone, what drove him to live and work from one day to the next had died. No fun anymore he was just like every other fucking prisoner. He would be protected but if no one had tried anything after three months then maybe there was no danger anymore. Making his way back up to his cell he knew that soon he would need to find The Reaper. He acted like a badass but- wait...

Travis stopped in his tracks as his mind drifted back to the riots and the attack on The Wolves. 'I had a lot of guns back in my cell. I took most of the ammo out but there might be some left. Fuck I can't remember!' Travis punched a nearby wall in frustration and anger. 'I could kill that fuck in the mask before he can even touch me, there was a... fuck what was there... um... assault rifles and machine guns? I think machine guns. I gotta find my old cell, I gotta find it. They've probably all been taken by whoever lives there now, or some gang fuckers, or the Warden's, but its worth a shot. Its definitely worth a shot.'

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Felix wandered around the mid levels of The Pit for a few hours, gaining his bearings and trying to understand the layout. This would take much longer than a day. This place was huge! Massive! Gargantuan even! It was like a city, with some places even looking like they were built to house legitimate businesses. The Warden's acted a lot like a police force, rather than prison guards. Was this Pit more of an underground city than a prison? It seemed very much like a civilisation under the earth, and some prisoners acted like they had freedom. Freedom away from freedom, was perhaps the only difference the lack of fresh air and sunlight? No, this was a prison. Rules were enforced harshly and there was a constant thread of dread and depression that couldn't be escaped from. Speaking of escape that in itself seemed certainly impossible. With Felix's small self guided tour through the mid levels and the way he remembered the higher levels being so extremely heavily guarded, he figured you would need an army to break someone out of the Pit.

Felix deemed he had seemed enough and headed back towards his cell... if he could remember the direction. He headed up past the various buildings and workplaces, following the numbers on the cells, although there was a lot of graffiti and vandalism on them, he also had to avoid the suspicious looks of those in the cells as he looked at their cell numbers trying to find his own. Many times he heard people repeat "The fuck you staring at?" to which he quickly and politely tried to get away from them, avoiding all fighting were possible (as well as being shanked). After two hours of being lost he finally found his cell, deciding to lay his head to rest. Tomorrow he would tour this place some more. He needed to know this prison like the back of his hand if he were to survive here.

She had done exactly what Lucia had expected. Despite knowing what Lucia was getting at she elegantly tiptoed around the issue. Lucia would have to alter her strategy. Be more direct, "And we're supposed to assume that you don't intend to use us to further your own goals? Most people would have amputated Nikolai's leg and sent him on his way, but no." Her eyes narrowed. "You wanted him strong. Stronger than ever, perhaps. You're..."

She stopped herself before the word "grooming" left her lips. She was getting ahead of herself. She paused for a moment before tackling another point, "I have no doubt you've considered our knowledge of the Pit, so I'll ask you this straight... do you intend to use us in your battle against Venture Horizon? Yes or no?"

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Picking teeth out of your knuckles after an interrogation is usually a sign that you've gone too far. Neil knew he'd crossed a line he'd been teetering on, but he was working against the clock. Ironically, it seemed the "Reaper" of the Pit had his own Sword of Damocles to worry about. Fear and anxiety drove him more than duty ever had.

Holding the limp man by the collar, he looked over the mess he'd made. A hour-long beatdown and no new intel. Neil was just about to leave the cell when he heard a loud thud on the other side of the wall. Instinctively, he drew his pistol and threw himself against the wall. The three unconscious men laid out on the floor were rather loud. It was likely one of their friends had heard their cries.

He crept up along the wall and peered around the corner to see none other than Travis, his fist planted firmly in the wall. He looked angry, however, he appeared to have just been passing through. Neil was prepared to wait him out, but considered the slim chance that he could have had information. The Reaper rounded the corner, pointing his pistol at Travis' head, "Hands where I can see them!"

"Hands where I can see them!" Travis turned to see the Reaper pointing a gun at his head.

"Oh fuck you, what are the fucking chances." Travis put his hands up. "There you happy? Cos I'm fucking not. I have some questions, you said I can defend other people but what about myself?" Travis asked as he beat his chest, "What the fuck am I gonna do if someone runs up and tries to kill me, a lot of people want me dead you know. Second you came from fucking nowhere but you said you had my life in your hands or some shit. Did you used to be a Wolf? Or an Aryan? Cos you sure as shit don't look Zulu or Crip. I mean why do you care so much, this place is literally fucking hell, who in the right mind does vigilante in hell?! That's retarded! And last thing..." Travis turned his head and heard the groans coming from the cell he had just left, "What the fuck are you doing here? Shit kicking dudes?"

"I have no doubt you've considered our knowledge of the Pit, so I'll ask you this straight... do you intend to use us in your battle against Venture Horizon? Yes or no?"

Acolyte sat forward to listen at this point, swallowing a mouthful of bacon. It was a good question, and one that had crossed his mind numerous times since they'd gotten here.

He listened, and kept silent, but then said, "you're responsible for those villagers slaughtered by chemical weapons, aren't you?"

"you're responsible for those villagers slaughtered by chemical weapons, aren't you?"

"Am I?" The Talon replied playfully. "Responsibility is a scale. Did I kill those villagers? No, I did not, you have my most solemn vow of that. However, I could have saved them, and I chose not to. Why? Well, I needed to know if the pathogen was finally ready. It's the entire reason we came to these mountains, and in death those poor villagers have confirmed that it is time for our operation here to enter its final phase, a gift that was more than worth its cost."

She turned to the child again now, who was being as stubborn and petulant as ever. She seemed to have some kind of notion that she was the spokesperson for a band of savages, as if only she could understand and convey what they all wanted. It was amusing.

"Have I ever denied that I sought your assistance?" she asked. "I made it clear when first we spoke. My taking you in was no act of charity, and the debt will be repaid. Your knowledge is of little use to me. I already have all of the intelligence I require. What I would ask of you is rather more conventional."

When she continued, wshe spoke less directly to the child, and more to the group as a whole. "The operation we are about to undertake is fraught with danger, and we are stretched thin. I require your numbers, your strength, your prowess at killing. You need not swear any oaths of loyalty or join the Songbirds outright, not unless taking revenge against those who took your lives away from you is a concept that appeals to you. Nonetheless, that is my price."

"Nonetheless, that is my price."

Lucia's furrowed brow sank along with the rest of her face. There was no way. Absolutely no way. She glanced around the table to gauge the consensus among the Freemen. They all stared at her without so much as a whisper. She couldn't begin to imagine what they all thought of her proposal, but if it was anything short of "hell no" then theirs was obviously a group of masochistic psychopaths.

She couldn't hold it back any longer. She stood up, her hands planted firmly on the table, "Are you out of your mind?! After everything we've been through to escape that place, you honestly think we'd want to return?! You're insane!"

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"...What the fuck are you doing here? Shit kicking dudes?"

The Reaper sighed and lowered his pistol. He'd already forgotten how tiring this man was, "You're really bad at asking questions. Usually you're supposed to give someone time to, you know, actually give answers." After holstering his pistol he pulled up his mask to reveal his mouth and a dark goatee while lighting a cigarette.

After taking a long drag he exhaled back into the cell and continued, "As for why I'm here... I found a dead girl, a warden down in the lower levels. She'd been raped and beaten, possibly by multiple assailants. I'm here to interview some of the usual suspects, but I'm short on leads."

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, "Tell you what, Travis... you take a cigarette and have a little chat with me. You tell me what you know, I answer some of your questions and we part ways." Pointing with his smoking hand he added, "You don't want to end your morning like these guys, do ya?"

"Return?" The Talon laughed. "Who said anything about return. RACDI-Alpha is several hundred miles away from here. If the pathogen was being stored there, why would I be here?"

She snapped her fingers and one of the Songbirds brought forward copies of the same images she had been looking at earlier, blueprints, diagrams and aerial photographs, and began to pass them wound to people sitting in their places.

"What you're looking at is the final field testing phase of Venture Horizon's Project Phantom. The purpose of the project being to develop a unique chemical weapon with a singular and ingenuous purpose. You see, as large and well equipped as Venture Horizon's standing army may be, they can't exactly afford to go to war over every single asset they wish to acquire from a competitor. It's much more convenient for them if an accident should happen. An accident that makes their competitor very keen indeed to rid themselves of said assets as soon as possible. Whatever you may feel about the ethics of Phantom, the Chemistry behind it is nothing short of genius. The pathogen doesn't even become toxic until it has been absorbed into the bloodstream via the lungs, whereupon it reacts with elements of the chemical makeup of your blood, forming a substance that blocks oxygen being absorbed by the brain, suffocating the victim. Both the substance in the blood, and any trace of the pathogen remaining in the air, break down mere minutes after death, leaving no solid trace of foul play.

Phantom is a corporate weapon, not a military one. It's purpose it not for use against opposing armies or insurgencies, but rather civilians. People not much different from yourselves who are at this moment toiling away down mines or on rigs owned by corporations competing with Venture Horizon. One vial of Phantom is enough to turn even the largest of these facilities into a graveyard in a matter of seconds. No survivors, no witnesses, and the perfect storm of industrial accidents. After it's used, and the reputations of these facilities become tainted in the eyes of their owners. Venture Horizon will be able to buy them up for a bargain price, and exploit their wealth to their hearts content.

Obviously, Phantom is worthless without secrecy, so Venture have chosen to do their live-fire testing in these mountains, on remote villages far away from the eyes of anyone who might care. Not all that far from where we are sitting now, there is a top secret Venture Horizon outpost, and inside there is a considerable stockpile of the now complete Phantom formula. I intend to acquire it, and then use it to give Venture Horizon a taste of its own medicine. Given what these people have put you though all those years you were locked up at their pleasure, I imagine there are at least some of you here who would not pass up the opportunity for a generous helping of revenge. What say you?"

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Nikolai scarcely glanced at the diagrams. They were of no use to him if he could not read them. He understood the words this Talon spoke though. He understood them well, and they were enough even in his ravenous hunger, to make him stop wolfing down everything within his reach. Behind his eyes, the fires danced more vividly than ever before. This time though, they did not scare him, they enraged him.

"I will fight." he spoke up, his tone noticeably dark even when counting in his usual deep, growling tones. He shot a look at Kusanagi. He would not have her speaking for him, he would not stand for it. He was done being told what to do. Killing may be all he was good for, and if that was truly so, they who he killed and why would be his choices. Venture Horizon, and those who bowed to them, had taking everything from him; his home, his family if he ever had one, and any chance he ever had of a peaceful, normal life.

He was going to make them pay for what they had done.

The rest of the Free Men were spurred on by his declaration. Many were actively cheering their agreement. Nikolai looked to Acolyte, his newest brother. What would he have to say?

"I will fight."

Nikolai set his gaze upon her. Judging her as he had before, though she did not notice the meaning behind his stare. His words were enough to make her heart sink. She just returned the gaze with a sad, defeated expression. Couldn't he realize that, despite hating the "world of men" so much, he was still falling prey to it? What drove him to this decision? Revenge? Talon's charisma? Some misguided notion that this was his choice?

Yeah, sure it was.

Talon intended to use the Freemen as pawns in her war. She would discard them if it benefited her, of that Lucia had no doubt. But what could she do? She couldn't make this decision for them.

She stared down at her food once more, searching for a hunger that no longer exist. Lucia was tired. Tired of all the death and sacrifice. Why couldn't they just let it go? Why couldn't they just turn their heads like she had forced herself to all this time?

She too looked to Acolyte. Surely he would side with her... wouldn't he?

Acolyte was silent for what seemed like an age.

"I'll join on one condition. And I'd like you to answer a question; tell me what you intend to do about the prisoners who're surely going to be caught up by the chemical weapon along with the Wardens. There're scum in there, sure, but still an awful lot of political prisoners, falsely imprisoned people, and people who knew too much. If you plan to sacrifice them for some kind of "greater good", then be upfront about it."

He glanced at Lucia, and then took a breath. "As for my condition, if you want my help then I want you to get her away from here. Out of the country, somewhere safe, like Holland. You're a global network, right? This is within your means. For that price, I will do anything."

'I think we can take that as a vote of confidence.' The Talon thought to herself, as the roars of approval rose, one by one.

She turned back to Acolyte.

"Why is it that you keep assuming that my ultimate goal lies at RACDI-Alpha?" she asked, amused. "You do my ambition a disservice. Regardless, what would I really gain from such an action. Would it hurt Venture? Yes, but it would come nowhere close to destroying them; and even if it did, they are a symptom, nothing more, of a civilisation gone so far bent, that no peaceful remedy remains. Our true enemy is not Venture Horizon, or all its kin, or the weak and corrupt nations that support them. Our enemy is the system itself, that allows these entities to bleed the helpless while the world dies around them, and will always allow more to rise no matter how many we try to bring down one by one. While the system survives, there is no hope for the future; and I will not sit idly by, or turn and bury my head in the sand while life on Earth whores away all its worth to no avail. I will eliminate all the entities responsible, with any arms at my disposal. Will their be collateral damage? Certainly, but The Great Revolution gains nothing by wasting the Phantom pathogen on the denizens of RACDI-Alpha, or any of its sisters.

As for your deal, I sincerely hope that will not be necessary. This one operation is all I ask of you. Deliver Phantom to me, and your debt is repaid. It will not take long, and afterwards you may all go on whatever path you deem fit, no longer beholden to the Songbirds. You need not march to war with us after unless that is your wish. She will choose who she goes with and where, the same as you. Should you not return from this task, and should she accept our help, we can take her as far away as is possible. However, know this... You are a fool if you think she will be safe. Nowhere, and no-one, is ever safe. That is why we fight, because until there comes a day when the system that breeds evil is wiped from this world, none of us will ever be beyond its reach. I have traveled long and far in my search for answers. Do you not think, had I found a place in this world where I felt safe, where the injustice, greed and cruelty that now turn the cogs of the great human machine could not touch me, that I would have stayed there?"

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Lee's office was bland, there was really no other word for it. It was a room made to fit a position, not a man; and, if The Colonel had ever at any point attempted to leave his own personal mark on the place, it hadn't taken well. Although, Selina supposed it may not have made much difference. Lee himself was a man molded by his duty, however much he may resent it. His title, rank, and responsibilities all fit him as if he was tailored to them. For all she knew, Selina could be looking at what passed for a statement of identity for Lee, and she was just unable to tell the difference.

The Sergeant stood silent in the corner, keeping his back covered and giving himself a full view of the room. A true soldier, this one, and careful. He would not give up his superior vantage point, which was exactly what Selina was counting on.

'Best to move quickly, and with purpose. Wasting time only arouses suspicion.'

She spied the files that she had, purposefully, left on Lee's desk. It had been a risk. If Lee had just handed them back to her, the whole plan would have been a bust. However, the paranoia that the plan had hung on paid off, and Lee had neglected to mention it, likely so he could have a thorough read of Selina's highly classified information. An acceptable price to pay.

"There they are!" she announced in triumph, striding towards them quickly. As she got to the desk, her heel landed crookedly, and she stumbled, spilling the contents of the file over the flaw, behind Lees desk and out of the Sergeant's line of sight.

"Are you alright Ma'am." he asked, concerned. However, he refused to move from his vantage point, out of fear that he might lose sight of the door, allowing access to someone else.

"I'm fine, I'm fine. It's just... oh damn it!" Selina cursed, scrambling on her hands and knees to collect all the lose pages. "I don't know what's got into me today?!"

The tower for Lee's desktop computer was stored underneath the desk, in its own wooden compartment. When Selina crawled behind it, she slipped a portable hard-drive into the USB slot, and the program inside auto-executed.

"Are we done here, Ma'am." the Sergeant asked when she emerged back on her feet, just a minute later.

"Yes, we are. Thank you ever so much for being so understanding." Selina beamed.

Acolyte sighed. "As long as you do that, then I'll help. And I know nowhere is truly safe, but at this point, everything is relative."

He didn't look at Lucia as he said this. He doubted she'd be particularly happy with him.

Lucia grabbed Acolyte's arm and shook her head, "No, I can't let you do that. I won't let anyone else die for me. I'll go, if only to fulfill multiple debts I owe and put all this behind me." She turned her attention back to Talon and spoke plainly. "Once this is done, you'll let us walk... no strings attached. Can I trust you to keep your word?"

Abigail stood to listen to Lee's tale, and if she was being honest, it sickened her; even the part of her that was Lilith, who didn't mind the odd bit of death now and then found it abhorrent. How one man could stand proud whilst he cut down countless people, civilian or otherwise. Her eyes turned cold as Lee looked at her, and a part of her almost felt pity for the man; to Lee, he was simply doing his job, and no doubt would have suffered by his government's hand should he have failed to bring results.

"...I was taking cover in a shell hole, with death and battle all around. The hole was so deep it had breached a sewer pipe underneath. For a second I looked down, catching the reflection of my face in a puddle of shit, and I saw myself for the first time." Abigail had not uttered a word since Lee had begun his story; whilst partially out of respect for his higher rank, but she also wanted to hear the details in their purest form.

"And so, in the face of your own mortality, did you realise how far you had fallen, how deep into the gaping maw that is hell you descended, how much of a monster you became. To think, the man who did all that is now in charge of a prison complex, where people have done things less severe. In another life, or rather another world, chances are we might not be having this conversation."

The Reaper acted like he was better than Travis as he pulled on his cigarette, making his nostrils flare in response. Smug asshole. "As for why I'm here... I found a dead girl, a warden down in the lower levels. She'd been raped and beaten, possibly by multiple assailants. Sounds like fun, thought Travis. "I'm here to interview some of the usual suspects, but I'm short on leads." Travis panicked for a moment, he would be a prime suspect for such an act. Luckily for him The Reaper then reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, "Tell you what, Travis... you take a cigarette and have a little chat with me. You tell me what you know, I answer some of your questions and we part ways." Pointing with his smoking hand he added, "You don't want to end your morning like these guys, do ya?"

Travis clicked his tongue and walked towards The Reaper, slowly and tentatively taking the cigarette he was offered. "I'll smoke it but I dunno anything about any dead bitch."

"I'll smoke it but I dunno anything about any dead bitch."

The Reaper glared at him from behind his mask. This man truly had no respect for anyone, "You're telling me you haven't heard anything about this at all? Please, this the worst thing that's happened to a warden since the riots. I am sure you heard someone mention it."

He thumbed the butt of his cigarette in thought and decided to change up his tactics, "Who've you been associating with lately? Last time I checked you were a bit of a loner, but I am sure there's someone down here you've spoken to a few times in the last week or so."

Travis held his unlit cigarette in his hand. "Seriously the only people I can even think of talking to me in the past week is that Conners fucker, the ugly bitch you jumped me with and you... but..." Travis chuckled a little, "maybe we can help each other. No one trusts you around here, shit just look at that cell next to you to see that. Them you looking for'd probably be "less inclined" to think I was up to anything shady if I went poking round if you catch my drift. You gonna light this or what?"

"Once this task is done, I will let you go," The Talon said sincerely "along with all other members of your party who wish to leave. Of course..." she added "each individual will be given the chance to choose for themselves."

With that, The Talon took her leave. "Brother," she turned to Riley "I believe you wanted a word."

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

Ice clung to Warden Nyte's tone, and her eyes gave away revulsion. Colonel Lee was unfazed. He did not come here to have his achievements lauded, or his crimes absolved. At the same time, no amount of disgust she felt at what he had told her could match what he felt for himself.

"To think, the man who did all that is now in charge of a prison complex, where people have done things less severe. In another life, or rather another world, chances are we might not be having this conversation."

"Almost certainly." Lee replied "We are all what we have been shaped to be, are we not? I was raised, since the day of my birth, to believe that I was destined to fly the flag of a great new empire, one that would bring peace and prosperity to all. I was to be a commander as shrewd as I was fierce and unyielding. A new Alexander the Great, for a new time if you will. Before I had so much as set foot outside my homeland, I had had the belief cemented in me that my enemies were barbarians. Unwashed savages, standing in the way of justice and honour for their own selfish appetites. I ate it up, hook, line and sinker. What ambitious young boy, who all his life had known nothing else wouldn't? Eventually my eyes were opened, but it took too much time, and far too many lives. I have no justifications, only regrets. One day, I will face just retribution for the crimes I have committed, Warden Nyte. However, that day will have to wait until I have left at least one lasting, positive impression on the world on which I've walked."

Lee stood up, finishing his drink, and setting the empty glass back down on the bar.

"Come with me Warden. I wish to show you something."

"Almost certainly." Lee replied, unfazed by the bitter tone that Abigail's words invoked. "We are all what we have been shaped to be, are we not?... However, that day will have to wait until I have left at least one lasting, positive impression on the world on which I've walked." Lee then stood up, finishing his drink in a single take, and set the glass back down onto the bar.

"Come with me Warden. I wish to show you something." As soon as Lee had said that, Abigail felt a pang of fear build up in her. Whilst her mind was telling her that she was over thinking on the potential ramifications of accepting, saying that it can't be that bad, her heart was telling her to remain cautious.

"Okay.... sir. Mind if I ask where exactly are we going?" Abigail asked, her nerves getting slightly the better of her.

Stuffing his mouth with bacon, Riley got up and followed Talon from the hangar, chewing as he went. When he'd pulled the huge door to, he swallowed the food and spoke.

"I walked in on Nikolai and Acolyte having some sort of gladiator showdown while the others watched. I let it run its course, obviously. I'm sure you picked up that Nikolai has been warmer to Acolyte since it happened. In any case, those two certainly are brutal."

As they crossed the courtyard, he got to the nub of the matter. "When they'd exhausted themselves, I took them to see Milgram to have them patched up. When he was examining them, he noticed something... disturbing. The Monk appears to have a form of brain tumor. You're ten times the surgeon old Millie is, and I know you have access to some higher grade medical equipment than you generally disclose -hence the cybernetic limbs you and the big man have- so I thought you should know in case you could do anything. Or if you even wanted to. Though by Milgram's prognosis, I can definitely tell you that Acolyte's condition won't impede his effectiveness during the course of our plans."

The Reaper considered his offer carefully as he lit Travis' cigarette. Making a deal with a devil was never the wisest choice, but he was pressed for time. With no word from the old man in the last few days this was likely the only help he was going to get. Plus, he could cover more ground this way.

He took another drag and nodded, "Give me one reason I should trust you. Who says you won't just talk up a few of your friends and lead me into a trap?"

Travis took back the cigarette with a long pleasurable inhale. Despite his most vile of vices Travis actually wasn't much of a smoker, but he appreciated it. It does make you feel good. Confident. Something he needed. He laughed and blew smoke out at The Reaper and said, "What friends? If you haven't noticed, the only 'friends' I had died a while ago, and now there's just people who want me dead. Even then you'd probably fight your way out and kill us all anyway"

The Reaper shrugged and let out a surprising laugh, "Yeah, probably. But, you know, this puts me in an awkward situation." He flicked the butt of his cigarette to the ground and squashed it under his boot. He pulled down his mask to cover the entirety of his face once more. "If I have you do this I will be... empowering you, for lack of a better word."

He pulled out a warden issued combat knife from a sheath on his belt and showed it to Travis, "I can't have you questioning dangerous folks without the means to defend yourself, so let's make an exception to our little agreement. For the time being you can defend yourself if the need arises, but only if there is no other way. Trust me, if I find out you abused this opportunity I will find you and your punishment may or may not be swift."

He placed the knife back in its sheath, "You'll find this blade in your cell when you get back there later."

Travis damn near bit his cigarette in half as he saw the blade.

Oh fuck is he gonna... no... not now...

He damn near blew his load when he was told he could defend himself. But with The Reaper watching him he would have to be careful. Perhaps he could get himself cornered and use it as an excuse to kill someone? He didn't know, but knowing he would get such a lovely knife gave him the shivers-in the most pleasant way. "Thank you sir, I will treat that... beautiful tool you have there... with the utmost respect..."

The Reaper would have face-palmed had he not been wearing his mask. This guy had some serious damage, "Look, this is only temporary. I know it' likely impossible, but don't get any funny ideas."

He pulled a picture of the warden from his pocket along with some important snip-its from her records that he'd managed to steal, "This is the victim, and for the love of God don't say anything about her you'll come to regret. Also, make sure you're not caught with that knife by a warden or they'll take you in and you'll be useless to me. We have three days to identify the perp."

Travis nodded as he took in all the information. Do this do that, jump through hoops don't get caught blah blah blah. "I won't get caught but I may need some help getting back my old cell on the lower levels if I'm gonna spending more time down there. My new cell I'll probably get found with the knife. And can I keep the picture?" He had to damn near stop himself from licking his lips.

The Reaper shook his head, "No, and if I find out you've pleasured yourself to the picture of a dead girl I'll feed you your own balls, you understand?" He had a humorous tone in his voice, but Travis could tell he was serious. "Head down to your old cell. It will be cleared out by the time you get there."

Travis sighed and chuckled. "You're the boss. This is gonna be a fun bonding experience for us both. Will you get my back against anyone who still wants to kill me?"

Laughing, The Reaper crossed his arms, "I suppose, unless they give me a good reason you should be dead. Now get the fuck out of here. We have a lot of work to do and no time to spare."

"Yes sir" Travis said in mock salute to the Reaper.

This fuck wont be in charge for long. Giving me a knife and my old cell is the dumbest thing he'll ever do in his life.

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

Lucia felt as if an enormous weight was taken off her shoulders upon Talon's departure. After a some meditative breathing to calm her nerves she looked to Acolyte, "Thanks for doing what you did, but I am serious, Acolyte. I can't let you make those kinds of sacrifices for me. Someday... someday, I may not have anyone around to take a bullet for me... you know?"

She glanced over at Nikolai for a brief moment to catch him glancing at her. He was likely expecting a lecture from her, though he recognized she hadn't the energy for that right now.

'Perhaps I could try...' The Talon wondered in response to the news 'but to gift him his salvation now would only serve to leech at his willingness to die. After though, if he survives, the promise of deliverance could be powerful.'

"I will see what I can do, later." She told Riley, kindly. "For now though, best put matters of secondary import out of your mind. I need you focused for what is to come."

The Talon raised her arms and touched Riley lightly on the shoulders. To his left, the warm caress of flesh; and to the right, the cold bite of steel. Both seemed to hold a power of their own.

"The Great Revolution is coming, Brother, and the cycle nears it's peak once more. Below the horizon, a new dawn waits, and we will soon lift it onto our shoulders. When we do, the One Truth will be carried across the world in its light, and our song."

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

"We are not going far, Warden." Lee replied pointedly "We are simply going downstairs."

Once again the soldier, Lee marched over to the door behind the bar, the one he knew lead where the liquor was kept stored. He strode through quickly, not stopping to further appreciate the merchandise. The room was only very dimly lit, by rows of flickering fluorescent tubes suspended from the ceiling. Not being an area frequently seen from the outside, or of any particular strategic importance, the stores had not been cleaned up as fastidiously as the rest of RACDI-Alpha. and plaster peeled away from the bare concrete walls. All the better not to rouse suspicion.

"I am about to involve you in matters that are of the utmost importance To the security and well-being of every denizen of RACDI-Alpha," he announced, as they walked through the stacked columns of wooden crates, containing the nectar which drew so many to The Gates Of Pandemonium. "from the highest ranking officers in the Warden's, to the lowliest worker, toiling down in the Lower Levels. It may well come to pass that your part in this may be invaluable to millions upon millions of people across the world. I am not certain. What I am certain of, is that if any of what I am about to tell you, or show you, is relayed to another living soul, especially our most recent civilian guests, there may well be no hope for anyone. I am placing an incredible amount of trust in your discretion."

A small safe was embedded into the wall at the back corner of the room, used for storing valuables that were not safe at the bar. Lee did not wait for Abigail to give him the code. The one she knew was not the one he required. The code he punched into the keypad was five digits, as opposed to the usual four, making it impossible for any uninvolved and unsuspecting party to enter the secret pass code by accident. No sooner had his index finger left the fifth key, than the low rumbling scrape of stone against stone was heard to their right. A square block of concrete floor, barely wide enough to permit a grown man's shoulder span, had disappeared just a few feet away from them.

"Follow my lead." He told her "There are iron rungs we can use to climb down the shaft, but light is poor. Tread carefully."

Minutes later, they both touched down at the bottom of the shaft. Stretching out ahead of them was a roughly cut tunnel, still sloping downward and going on far further than Lee's vision would permit him to see. The tunnel was supported by metal beams at hundred yard intervals, and lit by the same electrical lamps that Inmates used to navigate the tunnels of the Lower levels, suspended from the ceiling.

"It is widely believed that The Atrium is the one entrance and exit to The Pit," Lee began, without waiting for an inquiry from his companion. "When RACDI-Alpha began, this was the truth. However, once the operations of the gang syndicates, aided by corrupt Wardens on the surface, became fully-fledged, they were no longer content with relying on supply drops to smuggle in their weapons and bootlegged narcotics. Over the span of decades of slow, careful planning, tunnels were made, hidden in often ignored areas of the surface and stretching all the way down the the Lower-Levels, that were beyond our reach until recently. Unlike this one, I have destroyed all others that I have discovered.

Auxiliary Warden Nyte, I am entrusting my rear guard to you. Should RACDI-Alpha come under attack, an eventuality I am now convinced will come to fruition at some point in the near future, I mean to defend it fiercely. However, I would be remiss not to make certain preparations in the event that I should fail. No matter what, I will not allow all the hard work that I have poured into this place be undone the moment it is wrested from my hands. Should it come to that, you will not be a hostile combatant to enemy forces, unlike the other Wardens, and their is every chance that you may be passed over whatever will be in store for the rest of us. They'll want someone to serve their drinks too, I suppose. You will continue in your duties, doing whatever is asked of you by your new masters, and giving them no reason to suspect you. However, this secret you will guard, with your life if needs be. When necessary, you will use this tunnel to smuggle in, and out, any personnel or equipment that can be used to hamper the efforts of those who hold The Pit. Doubtless if they can take it, they will mean to hold it for as long as they can. However, should they look to be overwhelmed by an open assault, I doubt they would flinch at raising this entire facility to the ground.

It is imperative that this back door is kept open the lives of every living soul down there, at the very least, depends on it. You said it yourself, Warden. Many of The Pit's population are innocent of any crime, and even of the monsters, many of their atrocities are not so monstrous as the things that I have done. You will not do this because I have told you to, you will do it because they need you to."

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

The program inside the flash drive that Selina had inserted into Lee's computer had frozen his firewalls, and made a local copy of all his files in a matter of seconds. It was some of the most advanced software used in the digital espionage branch of Venture Horizon's military forces, and highly classified. Even with the Director in such a lather to find any pretext to see Lee gone, it had taken Selina all her diplomatic talents to wrangle a requisition out of him. By rights, even she shouldn't even know that this technology existed, and her clearance was Category 4, for crying out loud!

Still, that was only the easy part. filtering though files that were of no importance, and getting through the layers of encryption that surrounded anything Lee was bothered with protecting, was taking a lot longer, as Selina paced up and down her room, passing her laptop again and again as it worked. It would be incredibly frustrating if she found nothing suspect after all this effort. She didn't harbor any grudge against the Colonel, but finding nothing here wouldn't exactly be proof of his innocence. Photographic memory meant that Lee need not keep a written copy, physical or digital, of any information he had accessed that was beyond his clearance, or any suspect communications he had made.

'Unless he plans on selling Venture Horizon's secrets, or simply releasing them worldwide. For that he would need evidence...'

As if to answer her query, the program signaled its digital chirping sound, to tell her that the decryption was finished. Selina practically raced over to the screen, and what she saw there made her gasp audibly.

'It's a map! A bloody road map; of all of Venture Horizon's classified operations! Military, economic, scientific... what research was conducted, where, when, and by whom... force deployment, intelligence. He's ordered and compiled every single secret this company has!'

There was no manifesto, no mission statement or admission of guilt. Still no concrete answer as to what exactly the Colonel planned to do with this information. However, that question seemed to matter less now. Lee would have had to flout his clearance, breaking trust with the company as well as the law, a thousand times over just for a fraction of this information. Whatever he meant to do with it, Selina was convinced it meant nothing good for Venture Horizon.

Most of the names of the operations listed she recognised. 'Project Condor' was one, 'Project Amber' another. However, there were also many that even she did not. Her cursor passes over one listed as 'Project Phantom', and rested on the single entry, that was buried beneath the deepest level of encryption. It was uncategorised for clearance, and yet she had never even heard of it, suggesting that it was a dead op, and that whoever had been running it had done their utmost to remove all traces of its existence from Venture's archives. Lee appeared to have visited this entry frequently, every day over the last month, to be exact.

It read: 'Project Talon'.

Chapter 3

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

The fire blazed. As far as his eyes could see through the smoke-charred air, the fields were blankets of roiling flame. Long, twisted, evil fingers of red and orange groped for him, twisting and writhing as they slashed through the darkness like some vicious, many-tailed whip, herding him this way and that. Beneath the sound of the flames, the creak of wood and the crash of slate tiles, as building that might have been stables, kennels and granaries were pulled down by the fiery hands that gripped them. As well as this, the frantic barking of dogs, the terrified screams and brays of livestock, and the shouts of what might have been men. The air inside his lungs felt oven-hot, and he coughed a harsh, racking cough as his body tried to clear the black, soot-stained bile from his throat. All around him, the heat was so intense it seemed at any moment that his own skin, and the clothes that clung to them, should just burst into flame. He must get out. He must run, get free, find someone, anyone who could help! Where? Which way should he go? Deep red and pitch black surrounded him, and he had half-forgotten where he was.

"Nikolai!" The voice screamed, high, shrill, and full of anguish. "Nikolai! NIKOLAI! NIKOLAAAIIIII!"

"I'm here!" he wanted to shout in answer. "I'm here! Come and find me, I'm here!"

But he did not. Something inside him, something deep and long forgotten, told him that was wrong. He had not answered that call, but why?

"Not you." The voice almost seemed to whisper. "Not yours. Remember. Remember your name."

The dream changed...

He was younger now, so very young. A large boy for his age even then, but still his head barely crested the canopy of long grass. It must have been grass, or wheat or some such other crop, that he ran through, giggling with dizzy delight. He could not make out more detail than that. The stalks were grey and indistinct, made of smoke and shadow. When they swayed in the breeze, the smoke-shapes scattered only to form up again once the wind had died down. The Sun was shining, he could tell, and yet even the sky was monotone. All in grey, there was scarcely any telling where earth ended and sky began.

A laughing woman scooped him up in her arms and whiled him round, laughing. He could tell it was a woman, but little more than that. She was grey as well, although she seemed more solid, and her facial features, while present, seemed to blur and fade whenever he tried to focus on them. He squealed and cheered, the way only a child can. Was this the same woman who he had heard screaming for so many years? It was hard to tell.

"Tell me." he wanted to ask, though the squealing child said no words aloud. "Who am I? Tell me."

"Nikolai." her voice answered, though her mouth never said the words.

"No. That's not right. I know it isn't. My name! Tell me my real name!"

"Nikolai."

The woman's laugh morphed into a single, ear-splitting scream, and ashes flew from her mouth. Her face and hands cracked, peeling away and crumbling into dust.

"Wake up Nikolai."

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

Nikolai grunted and opened his eyes. It was hard to see the sky underneath the thick canopy of forest. However, if Nikolai had to guess, he would say that they had around 3 hours before dawn broke. It was time to move out.

Their party was 12 strong. Himself, Natalia, who had woken him, and four other Free Men made up the Free portion. Along with them were six Songbirds, including the hunter with his wolf, who led the group. They were one of three teams sent to scout the compound where the formula The Talon wanted was being stored. Theirs was the Northern approach. Kusanagi and Acolyte were with Gregor to the East, and The Talon herself was to the South. They had made camp and caught some last minute rest about a kilometer and a half from their objective, and now it was time to move out.

Nikolai rose to his feet, shouldering his heavy M60 LMG. The long belt of rounds was looped round both of his shoulders. His trusty hammer was across his back, two 45.cal handguns, with spare clips, holstered under his arms, and in satchels on his belt he held clusters of grenades and C4. For now they were travelling light. The real attack wouldn't start yet, not until The Talon decreed they were ready, For now they were to watch, detail every movement, ever sign of activity in the compound. Note every door, every watchtower, every searchlight.

They did not look so much like a rag-tag band of rebels and convicts. Every one of them was wearing full, combat gear, heavily camouflaged with moss, mud, and leaves. Every inch of exposed skin was painted in swirls of black and green and brown, and they checked their weapons and other equipment with rehearsed efficiency.

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

Chen leaned silently against the wall, in a small alcove along from a corridor in the Mid-Levels. At the end of the corridor was an elevator, which he knew would soon be arriving down here with his package, as soon as he'd made it though processing. Yu had made all the arrangements the night before. Chen, as ever, just wanted to get the job done.

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

Selina had considered not taking part in the tours today, perhaps by feigning illness of some other important duties. However, to have done so would only have roused suspicion, the last thing she wanted. Still, it was a thankless task, as their guide droned on about... wait... what was he even talking about?! Something to do with time savings transporting minerals between levels, she thought. She couldn't remember ever having found it so hard to focus on the task at hand before. Each time she tried, he mind kept drifting back to those files. Column after column of them. Some linked together by Lee with the odd, confusing note added. She suspected that those notes may have been written in some sort of code, because they certainly sounded like nonsense to her. Only one thing was certain. In those files Lee had enough secrets to finish Venture Horizon, either by selling them to the highest bidder, or by releasing them to the general public. Letting him ride out his remaining tenure at RACDI-Alpha was no-longer an option. It was too dangerous. He had to go now, quickly and quietly.

'But why?' Again, that question. What was all this in the name of? Why was Lee still sitting on this information if he meant Venture any harm? Was he still looking for something?

Nothing made sense, and she had no-one to turn to. She dare not confront Lee, she did not trust her colleagues, and the Director would not be inclined to wait until her curiosity was satisfied before bringing in the cavalry. A part of her wondered if it was even her place to question. The contents of those files were of no business to either Lee or herself. She was no traitor. By rights, she should have already sounded the alarm; and yet, something had made her pause.

"Are you with us, Ms. Hernandez?"

"Of course." She replied, too quickly. They were all looking at her, and Richard Lu wore a puzzled, inquiring expression that she didn't like one bit.

Korovitch grappled with McMann and Channing. He was stripped of his uniform, his upper body covered by a black tank top that was slick with sweat despite the Siberian chill. Channing lunged at him with an underarm jab. Rather than backpedaling or sidestepping, Korovitch rooted himself to the ground and tensed his abdomen to receive the blow, which came in hard. Lesser men would be on their knees, spluttering. Luka Korovitch, however, took the opening to grab the man's forearm and twist it round and over into a dislocation position. Realizing he was on the knife edge, Channing was forced into full cooperation as Korovitch took position behind him. In one fluid motion, he released the arm, then sunk his foot into the small of his hostage's back, sending him careening towards McMann, who caught him. Korovitch took his opening and sprinted forward. Doubled over with his hands on his knees, Channing didn't see McMann's eyes widen. Korovitch planted a hand on Channing's back and balanced on it as he vaulted the man, bringing his foot around in a brutal kick that caught McMann in the sternum, sending him flying.

As his opponents picked themselves up, Korovitch turned to observe the rest of his men; eight in total. They watched the combat with an impassiveness he took pride in. Behind him, McMann spoke. "We're still good to go, sir."

He nodded, but replied, "it's over. I could have dislocated Channing's arm before I pushed him towards you, and I could have aimed that kick higher and broken your jaw. As things are, Channing may find rifle practice this afternoon difficult, and you'll have to be careful showering not to touch the boot print I left on your chest. It's over. I'm of half a mind not to pull punches, but I need my men in fighting condition."

"So we're to be active soon, sir?" piped up a woman from the line. Stanforth, her name was. He turned to respond, "I suspect so, but that's all it is. Call it a gut feeling."

Retrieving his Warden's jacket from the top of the pile, he shrugged it on, followed by his weapons belt. "You are excused for one hour. Break." Then he turned and left, not looking back to observe the tidiness of their dissolution. It would be perfect, he knew. Besides, he had an appointment with Lee to keep.

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

Riley moved quickly, with Odin on his heels like a shadow. He was not dressed quite like the others. Still, he wore his rawhide hunter's clothes, with the addition of Kevlar underneath the jacket with cutoff shoulders. Though he had all the necessary camouflage, too. He wore his usual M1911, with a pair of machetes. Slung on his back was his best bow, a recurve that it'd taken a year to make. Next to it was a quiver with two dividers separating it into thirds, each section housing different arrows. Dangling on his belt was a pouch containing various other small tools.

Quickly, he found Nikolai, who towered over the rest. That man and Odin were of a kind, he thought. He wasn't a small man himself, but he had to peer up at the giant. "Ready to move, big man? Remember the plan? Just scouting."

He glanced around. "I'm trusting that you'll keep your men reigned in. No offense, but they're a rogue element for me. This must go off without a hitch."

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

Acolyte shrugged the new gun onto his back. An SA80 L85A2 Designated Marksman's Rifle. Despite his adopted pacifistic nature, he thought it was a beautiful piece. On his hip was the Python revolver confiscated from him on arrival. He'd forgone the option of a knife. Close up, he was happiest relying on his own two hands. He found Lucia, and put a hand on her shoulder. "Are you ready?"

"Come with us, Corporal."

Lewis looked up to see two Wardens ready to escort him into the prison. He got up from his bunk and left. They insisted that he didn't need the belongings he had brought with him into the facility. But he was able to get his picture of Aggie before he was hurried to leave. The rest of Shogun had already been scattered to the wind, leaving him alone in the room. It was a silent departure from the barracks and an even colder one when they arrived at processing.

"From here on out, your rank and position is null and void. Do you understand, Mr. Moore?" Lewis nodded as they recited more bureaucratic jargon for him to "confirm". But the first question hit him the hardest. His Warden equipment was confiscated and returned to the armory. The only clothes he was allowed to bring was the ones on his back but not his uniform because that was one of the first things they confiscated. Now Lewis was given standard prison attire. The same attire he would see either soaked in sweat or blood in the hellhole below and Lewis was already sweating.

On the elevator ride down, the worst feeling Lewis felt was that of nervousness. It wasn't just actually being imprisoned with some of the worst humanity had to offer but also he was nervous that he would fail Lee. He believed in himself but this was on a tier slightly below doing the impossible. What slightly assured him is that if Lee believed that he could do it then it was possible. Lewis felt shaky and even more sweaty now that the heat of the prison began to bake. It felt different without the gear on. His gear and uniform made him feel safe despite sweating bullets but in this prison wear, he felt slightly colder because he didn't have the kevlar protecting him this time. The elevator shook, almost violently. Then he remembered that some of these elevators were old and needed replacement. In a grim way, part of him wished the elevator would give out and kill him already. He had seen the worst the prison had to offer so why go back down there to actually experience the horrible things? He was going to die anyway. It wouldn't make a difference.

But wait, it would. If he could try and at least save Aggie then he would have done something. He would have been at least remembered for trying his best, trying to beat the odds this prison threw at him. Lewis closed his eyes. Perhaps he already died. Perhaps he hallucinated the whole thing and he was slumped against the wall, an aftermath of a firing squad. When he was led out of processing he was actually put to death and now he was going to hell. He was going to hell for not saving his burning friends. Sloth was his sin but now he can redeem himself by saving his fallen sister whose only crime was following orders. Lewis had to save her. At least she would make it back to heaven.

The elevator doors creaked open and guards flanking Lewis pushed him out.

"See you around, Lewis." They joked. They chuckled beneath their riot masks. The same ones he used to wear. The door to the elevator closed, taking the light with it. The corridor was dark and eerie. Faintly he heard the sounds of machinery and he decided to follow it.

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

Something was bothering Selina and that has been more and more evident over the course of not only the tour but ever since he had seen her return from the main offices. She became more detached from the tour and from the looks of it she was less focused on the task at hand which more or less surprised Richard. Of all people, Richard would have ruled out Selina to be detached on tours like these.

""Are you with us, Ms. Hernandez?" One of the other executives asked. Selina shot back a quick glance.

"Of course."

"Anything on your mind?" Richard asked, curious of what Selina had in her mind.

"Are you ready?"

Kusanagi clutched the M4 carbine she'd chosen from the armory, holding it close to her chest and nodded, "As ready as I'll ever be."

She'd spent the majority of her time on the way over meditating. Summoning forth her persona from within the depths of her soul... or something like that. In truth, "Kusanagi" was little more than a name. While Lucia did her best to alter her state of mind whilst assuming the identity, she was really only tricking herself.

That's why her nightmare the other day frightened her as much as it did. Kusanagi wasn't imposing her will on Lucia like some kind of demon possession... Lucia was simply changing. Into what exactly, well, that's what Lucia feared most of all. For the time being however, Kusanagi was exactly the kind of person she needed to be.

She checked her weapon for the umpteenth time and scanned the area, "This is the first time I've ever done something like this, you know. I can't imagine how soldiers can do this for weeks on-end." Seemingly bored, Lucia double-checked her gear: her trusty combat knife, her pistol, new tactical gear with pouches and pockets brimming with extra ammunition and other utilities. For the first time Kusanagi felt like she was fighting her enemies on even footing.

Acolyte scratched the back of his neck, below his thickening head of hair, idly. "Well, Holland's had a basic training for adult males policy as far back as anyone remembers, so in practice, I'm at least vaguely familiar with this."

Truth be told, that wasn't his only experience in this sort of thing. In his drug runner days, he had taken part in and even led numerous raids on enemy gangs in various environments. "Look at it this way; if you're bored, at least that means we're safe for the time being."

They sat in silence for several minutes. It was quite a boring time, he was willing to admit. Taking a stab at conversation to break the silence, he smiled and said, "you know, I was once tied to the blade of a large windmill for two days."

Duty. Responsibility. Honor. Courage.

These had been the words which were bouncing about Abigail's mind ever since herself and Lee left the secret area behind the Gates of Pandemonium the previous evening. In fact, all this new information had kept Abigail up for an hour after she got back to her room. To think, she had a much greater sense of responsibility, and to a certain extent, purpose now. Granted, this duty would only come into effect in the event of a takeover. No doubt Lilith would have some fun. Seems that she would continue her role as the barmaid for the time being.

Following Morning

Abigail was now back in the bar, after managing a reasonable nights sleep. A few of the Wardens who had been tossed out the night before had come back, still sounding a little irked about what had happened, but soon shut up about it after a drink or two. She tried not to think about what Lee had told her, as it was not relevant at this time. Though one thing did pop into her head.

'Hmm, it's funny, over the last few days, I've been receiving a fair bit of attention from some rather high up people. I mean, first came Selina, saying that she'd keep an eye on me; and now the head honcho himself Lee has given me a rather important mission. I don't know whether to feel grateful, or to be nervous.'

The package stepped, or rather was pushed, from the elevator out into the cell block, looking lost and forlorn. That was good. Chen had been afraid that the man would try to hold his head high, being the dutiful Warden and all that. Such behaviour was like to get him shanked even with Chen and Yu shadowing him.

As he passed the alcove in which Chen had lingered, Chen slipped in behind him, matching Lewis' walking pace step for step, keeping his head down. On the move like this, they were just two workers shuffling to their next duty. Even after Borealis, most Inmates would dare not walk around on their own. Lone wolves are easy pickings for the psycho's. So, even though Chen was close enough behind to whisper to Lewis, the sight would not attract attention.

"Keep walking." he instructed sharply. "Do not reply. Do not turn around. Go where I tell you to go."

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

It was done then. Morning had come, and for a change there was nothing for Lee to do beside his regular duties. All the plans had been hatched, and all but one of the vital instructions relayed. All he could do now, was wait for the seeds he had planted to bear fruit, and pray that they would be ripe before it was too late. Strange, Lee had never felt the need to pray before. Even during his most dangerous assignments, even as his friends and comrades were dying all around him, and he had been half convinced that the next bullet was for him, he had never beseeched a higher power to grant him good fortune, preferring to place his trust in his mind and body, the only things he was certain that he could rely on.

It is one thing to stand on the edge of an abyss, and to know that one step forward is a step into peril. Lee had peered over that ledge more than once. This though... he was trying to find his way through a chamber so dark he could scarcely tell which way was up. A ledge was hidden in that space, he knew, and beyond it an abyss shrouded in shadow. However, he did not know which direction turned him away, and which carried him forward to his doom. He may well choose wrong, but still walk for days, long enough to allow himself the certainty that he was safe, only to plunge downwards on the next step. He had found out all that he could, and what he knew frightened him. However, what frightened him still was what was missing.

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

While her left arm had a plethora of uses, the long, bladed fingers were clumsy when it came to handling firearms, so when in the field The Talon kept things light. In her right hand she cradled a CZ-Skorpion with a suppressed barrel. A 9mm was at her hip, and spare clips for both rested horizontally across her chest and waist. She had no need of explosives at the moment. If things went sour, now was not the time to stand and fight, but to melt away unseen before her enemy could identify their foe, and with her unique limb she required no combat knife. The only other equipment she carried was her radio, and the pair of powerful electronic binoculars clipped to her belt at the small of her back. She need not worry about Kevlar either. The Talon had other armors.

It had been her that insisted that the Free Men be separated, and dispersed across the three parties. In the short term, letting them stay separate when their knowledge of the land was so limited, and their loyalties so fragile, was tactically unsound. However, she also had other reason for wishing them to spend some time apart from one another. She wanted to gauge the abilities and personalities of each of them as individuals, rather than letting the majority hide behind the highest-ranking spokesmen, and their pet. Five were with her now, including Nikita, who seemed to have more brains than most, and the younger Niklaus, who seemed unduly shy for this group, but was also undoubtedly capable and had good instincts. None of them trusted her yet, and they had only consented to this assortment she knew because half of them hungered to spill the blood of those in league with their former tormentors just as much as their leader, and the other half knew their place. Still, these were a hardened bunch, it was plain to see. Fierce and determined fighters all, and also possessing an unexpected degree of discipline considering their background. Each and every one of them had seen, fallen victim to, and performed more cruelty than any soul should bear witness to. All the better, it made the One Truth strong in them, even if they did not yet know it.

She had been still and silent for a long time. That was her way. She would talk with, jest with, and explain her plans to those who followed her well in advance, getting all revelry out of her system before the calm. For the last half hour, she had commanded them to make not so much as a sound, while she sat there, motionless. In her meditation she visualised her every step, every twitch of muscle and twinge of nerve, all prepared before hand in precise detail, every eventuality considered, and compensated for. There was not another single person alive, not even those like the Monk who styled themselves masters of calm and concentration, who shared this gift. Her mind had been fashioned to absorb, and process with singular precision, and she made good use of it. Her breathing and heartbeat slowed almost to a stop, and for her time slowed with it, all other sensations went away. The feel of the undergrowth she sat on, the breeze on her face, and the tingling in her left elbow that she sometimes got. A fly landed on her face, just at the corner of her eye, and began to crawl across its surface. The Talon did not blink, she did not feel, she scarcely even noticed. Everything she was was dedicated to unlocking the fullest potential of her mind. Analysis, prediction, compensation and collation. Every nano-second of every possible eventuality was saved into her memory. A memory of things that had not yet happened, most of which would never happen. However, when they did, The Talon would not need a moments pause. She would not freeze at the unexpected, nor would her plans be shaken by any setback, for she had already won every battle.

Clementina didn't sleep as much as she wanted. She wanted to face the Colonol with a clear head but with less than 10 minutes of sleep she had but panic on her mind. She dare not show it, but dare failed. Even a naked eye could see she was worried. It wasn't even such a huge deal, but this whole situation was so mother fucking fragile. Even if it didn't matter, even if it was unimportant the slightest thing could cause a loss/victory for either side. Whether her being a shitty tour guide was of any importance to this war of adults in uniform and children in suits, it was likely of large importance to her career. Getting up just early enough to assume the Colonel would wake she set off to his office. "I need to speak to the colonel" she said to the guards at his door.
-----------------------------------------
Travis awoke on his bed, HIS! His bed. The bed he took for his own. The bed he lay claim to. The bed he lay his head while his Dragonlings guarded hi-'shit Dragonlings would have been a good name to use for the lower members, ah fuck it', he thought. The bed he lay his head while his Dragonlings guarded him. Where he relaxed and his bitches- 'Could'a called them Drakes. FUCK why didn't I think all this earlier.' -and his bitched did his work for him. He killed for this bed. Now he didn't need to kill, it was claimed for him. The night earlier Travis breathed in the scent of his old cell as for the first time in three months... actually... the first time in much longer... possibly a year... he felt good. Real good. Real fucking good! He had aims, goals, and a big ass knife to skin mother fuckers. Might slit open a guys throat with this. Nah, can do better than that. Cut of someone's hands the fingers and stick his fingers down the stubbs-yeah thats the stuff. Cut out a vital bone and then use that bone the stab someone's eyes out-fuck yeah! Shove it up a bitches cunt and twist it-Fuckin' sweet! This is it. This is the cell, the knife, the man he needs to be. The man he was born to be.

The Dragon was back.
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Awaking early from his cell Felix took off, he didn't have much food. Or any at all. The last he had eaten was Penn's cell and that was a day ago. Today he would search through the mid levels and lower levels on a search for food and to gauge his new home. The quest had begun!

"... you know, I was once tied to the blade of a large windmill for two days."

In an attempt to keep her volume down, Kusanagi covered her mouth as she snickered. Not knowing whether he was just trying at humor or this was the setup for a true story, she opted for the former, "Well at least you had a pretty good view while you were stuck up there, I imagine. Couldn't be worse than this, anyway."

They laughed together, but as Acolyte began to speak her mind had already wandered away from the conversation. She found herself staring down at the rifle in her hands. How had she gotten here? How had she started off as a privileged, well-mannered girl who spent her afternoons drinking tea and ended up crouched in the mud of some foreign land with a rifle in her arms, ready to kill at any moment? And how was it that this had come to feel... natural?

Not that she was particularly good at the whole "Special Forces" thing, though something told her she could be good at it.

Maybe even enjoy it.

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

Neil hadn't slept since he began and had left more inmates broken in one day than he'd shaken-down in a month under Sticks' command. The fact that it was so easy to justify his actions is what depressed him the most. Truth was, many of these people were down here for a reason and the animal in him would have preferred to rip out their throats and watch them bleed out. The man would not let this happen, however. He refused to believe he was safeguarding a pen of wild animals.

After washing some blood off his hands he made his way to Travis' cell. Ever since they met back up there last night Travis had done little more than lie around in some kind of deranged, self-indulgent state. Despite his horrifyingly sociopathic nature, Neil knew he was hardly one to judge. After all, he was the one running around in a mask calling himself "The Reaper".

He stopped at what passed for the front door and stared at a spot of old, dried up blood. That's where Sticks had ordered Travis to kill a warden recruit. A young guy, fresh out of training. Neil's former self was too drugged up at the time to notice... or care.

And now he too was using this... monster. Every atom in his body screamed that it was a bad idea, but he had nowhere else to turn.

He exhaled sharply before shouting into the cell, "Rise n' shine, Travis! We've got a lot of ground to cover and we've got less that 48-hours to do it."

Acolyte laughed with Lucia, enjoying the temporary release of tension from the situation. Of course he couldn't tell her the circumstances of that event. That he had been ambushed by a rival drug gang, bludgeoned into unconsciousness and left there. Instead, he said, "Well, the worst part was when the wind picked up."

She seemed distracted now, though. "Are you okay?"

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