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

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After trundling through thick forest, along narrow, heavily rutted tracks for what was probably not such a long time as it seemed, their convoy made it out of the rough foothills and into the mountains proper, passing a roughly hewn cave entrance in the side of a cliff face hidden under the rich canopy. As the vehicles rolled through the darkness in single file, Nikolai could see them being greeted by more and more Songbirds. It would seem that the ones they had associated themselves with so far were only a small cell, a fraction of The Talon's true resources, despite being led by the Supreme Leader herself.

"There is a honeycomb of tunnels stretching all throughout these mountains." announced a Songbird Soldier who was chaperoning them inside the Free Men's truck. "With any luck, it will be hours before Venture figures out what we took and calls for aid. In that time, we can hide under thousands of tonnes of rock, where no surveillance can find us. When we leave, we can split a dozen different directions, and all emerge hundreds of miles away. They have no chance of tracking us. We're safe now."

Nikolai heard, but did not reply at first. The whole journey he had sat in silence, not wanting to look at the stretcher that Lucia occupied, silently wincing every time their truck had gone over a particularly sharp bump. Most of the Free Men had been seen to by medics on the way here. Nikolai himself was hunched forward, a creamy salve applied across his bare back where the blast from his own explosive had burned him (strange, he had not noticed). So many who had followed him were dead, and for what? He had offered them a chance to live the rest of their lives with sky above their heads, and now they were heading back underground again. At the very least, those men had truly understood the fragility of life, and chosen to risk theirs. What of Lucia? She had made the choice to come to, and would get angry if you treated her like a child, so Nikolai had relaxed his grip on her, silently offered her the chance to prove herself.

This was his fault.

"What happens now?" he asked eventually.

"We have room in these tunnels for you to stay and recuperate, with more advanced medical supplies than we can take with us into the field." was his reply. "You and your men are welcome to stay as long as you wish to recover your strength. Once that's done, The Talon has decreed that your debt is paid. We can spare a few guides to aid you on your journey South, through the Disputed Arabia and across the sea to Madagascar. The island shelters a pirate port, where those who do not wish to be found by any authorities can seek safe passage. We already use it to smuggle supplies to our operatives all around the world. We will take you that far. Once their, you can go wherever you please."

The soldier sounded congratulatory, but Nikolai felt full of doubts. The hard truth was that escaping The Pit in the midst of all that fire had been the easy part. In the outside world, he had no idea where they could go where they might be safe. It had been Vladimir and Dmitri who were they travelled ones, and now they were dead. Nikolai could rely on their counsel no more. What sort of leader can a lost man be? He only hoped that what they had done today, would one day rid the world of Venture Horizon and the others that followed in their wake. Then, they might finally stop running.

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A makeshift command centre had been set up in the Industrial Complex since contact had been lost, and then men who manned it looked at Lee Like they were seeing as ghost when he walked in, as if nothing was out of the ordinary, and asked for a report.

"The enemy have advanced most of the way through the Upper Levels." a slightly shell-shocked officer replied after a delayed salute. "We're bleeding them hard, tactically retreating so as not to lose more men than we can afford, but they just keep coming, and with contact to the surface lost we have no idea how long they can keep this up for."

"Much longer than we can." Lee replied gravely "How many men do we still have?"

"Third Battalion is still at over 70% strength. First lost about 40% of their men defending the perimeter and in falling back to 3rd's position. Once that was done though most of them made it underground with us. Second... when second flanked the first wave advancing on the Atrium, they swept the enemy clean off the board, but when the barrage fell they were caught in the open. 10% made it back here, the rest are either dead or being taken prisoner."

"Is this everybody who made it back from the Ops Centre?" another asked.

"Yes." Lee replied. "There are many more still inside, made up of wounded and non-combat personnel. I sent them as deep inside the complex as they can go. With any luck, by the time the enemy reaches them they'll have realised anyone still inside is no threat."

"And what about us?"

"I'm not sure what exactly it is our enemy wants with this facility," Lee lied "but what I do know is that there are thousands of people inside this complex who, no matter what they might be in here for, are our responsibility. I don't intend to hand over that responsibility to an unknown entity with unknown motives. As long as there's a man of us who can still fight, then we fight."

3 months ago, such a declaration might have sparked a mutiny within the Wardens. As it stood, all the men inside the room nodded, looking slightly more resolute than they had before.

'I'm afraid I'm out of options Neil. Time for Plan B.

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Over in the ruins of the Ops Centre, soldiers moved slowly through the wrecked corridors, watchful for any booby traps laid down in their path by Venture Wardens. An advance team heard the hubbub coming from the mess hall ahead of them, and radio'd in for further orders.

"Wait for backup." came the reply "We don't know who's in their. Do not assume personnel are hostile. We may need some of these Venture employees in the coming weeks. Of course, if anyone tries to fight back, kill them."

"Once there, you can go wherever you please."

Acolyte was sat with Lucia, squeezing her hand but he watched Nikolai as this was said. The man seemed troubled. Gently breaking away from Lucia, he sat by the huge man. "Do you even have any idea where you want to go?" he asked softly.

Heavily medicated, Kusanagi had been drifting in and out consciousness since the convey began it's journey. Acolyte remained by her side, holding her hand for comfort and speaking to her in words she could not make out. She wanted to talk to him. She had so much to say! So much on her mind! But she couldn't, no, everything was a blur.

"We have room in these tunnels for you to stay and..... as long as you wish to recover your strength. Once that's done, The Talon has decreed that your debt is paid. We can spare... to smuggle supplies to our operatives all around the world. We will take you that far. Once their, you can go wherever you please."

Kusanagi could hardly make out what was being said as a dull hum drowned their words every few seconds, but whatever it was, Nikolai didn't appear pleased.

"Do you even have any idea where you want to go?"

Struggling against the drugs in her system, Kusanagi lifted herself up onto one elbow, "F-Far away from h-here..." She muttered.

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Neil watched helplessly as the Pit tore itself asunder. It was just like it had been three months ago. So much blood. So much chaos. As the crowd thinned and the corpses piled up, Neil could no longer spot any living wardens. What of the battle above? If they were pushed back into the Pit by an opposing force they'd be met with an army of deranged criminals on their flank.

"Hey." Caught off-guard, Neil spun on his heel and leveled his pistol. It was Connors. "Whoa there, kid! It's me."

Neil lowered his weapon and looked below once more, "Where have you been during all of... this?"

Connors shrugged and stood by Neil's side. The two remained silent for a time as they looked upon the chaos below, "I just came back from above... Neil, they've lost. The complex won't be under Venture's control for much longer... I'm sure you knew some good men that died today, but hey, let's celebrate, yeah? Venture had it coming."

Neil shook his head, staring down at the ski mask in his hand, "No. No, Connors... this isn't good."

"What did the Colonel say to you?"

"If I told you... I'd have to kill you."

Connors cocked an eyebrow. Neil was a blunt man, yes, but to say it in such a cold tone... "Look, the game's going to be changing soon, Neil. The wardens are out. There'll be someone new calling the shots. Things won't be like they used to and we can use all the allies we can get. You sure you want to cut me out of this?"

"I'm sorry, but I don't have a choice." Neil said plainly. "Listen, you need to stay away from me. In fact, you need to find and silence anyone that knows we're connected. People are going to come after me, Connors, and they will find out about you."

Connors laughed, "And what's stopping me from killing you to cover my ass?"

Neil grunted in amusement, "You can try. I certainly would appreciate the chance to escape all this."

Again, the two remained silent as they watched the riot die down. Connors pointed to the mask in his hand, "What about the reaper?"

"He's dead. He has no place in this world anymore." Neil sighed. "You don't have much time Connors... you need to either find a way out of this complex or you need to..."

Connors nodded, "Yeah, yeah, I got it. Look kid, you take it easy, okay? And no hard feelings if I end up needing to put you down."

Neil nodded, not taking his eyes off the ski mask in his hands, "Let's hope it doesn't come to that." And with that Connors had left. Their alliance, expunged. With his thumb, Neil fingered the eye hole of the mask and grimaced.

"You're no longer needed." He muttered as he tossed the mask off the side of the cliff and into the center of the riot. Trampled under the feet of deranged, violent men, the Grim Reaper was no more.

After the moment of embarrassment had passed, Abigail had regained her composure, and and looked directly at Lewis with a calm and determined look on her face.

"We best start bringing everyone down here, the sooner the better. It's far too quiet up there, which means we could be in for a real maelstrom soon." Abigail said as she began walking towards the stairs, all the while she could hear the sounds of someone shouting, and another trying to calm the first down; she heard her's and Lewis's name mentioned. When she reached the top of the stairs, Abigail could see that it was Lewis's sister doing all the shouting.

"Why would anyone want this hellhole?" Asked the woman as she got out of her wheelchair.

"Beats me, maybe they just want to take control of the prison and utilize the facilities here for their own ends. Good to see your finally up and running, I know someone is going to be pleased." Abigail remarked as she stood just outside the entrance with her arms crossed. She then turned her head slightly so her voice would be projected down the tunnel.

"Hey! Lewis! I think you should come up here, someone has finally decided to wake up." Shouted Abigail, hoping that Lewis would hear her; after that she turned her attention to the rest of the assembled people.

"As for the rest of you, take what you can, and get downstairs, be prepared to wait a while, things might be getting worse than they already are." As Abigail spoke some people looked more nervous than they already were, but eventually got up from their seats and started making their way down.

"Do you even have any idea where you want to go?"

Acolyte's tone suggested that he was trying to help... he thought. Nikolai still wasn't very sure with these things. Regardless, the question was no help at all. All around him were expectant faces. Loyal faces, but tired. What good did it do anyone to show up that their leader was just as lost as they were; that their leader couldn't so much as direct them to the nearest village, let alone to some sheltered place where they might find safety if such a place existed in the world? Perhaps, if this Madagascar sheltered those who did not wish to be found, they should stay there. If not, then it occurred to Nikolai that he might as well stay with the Songbirds. He was still ignorant to much of their cause, and he was not blind to the instability in their leader, but perhaps none of that mattered. He was a fighter, a killer, and so were they. Even if he was not a believer, at least he could spend the rest of his days paying Venture back in kind for his decades in the darkness. Nikolai had seen The Talon's strength and skill on the battlefield today. She was the first person Nikolai had met who could beat him, he just knew it. If he was truly weary of leading, then The Talon might just be the only person in the world worthy of Nikolai to follow.

"F-Far away from h-here..."

That choice, if he made it at all, would be his alone though. He would not inflict Te Talon's war on the others, on her. If that was the path he chose, the others would be free to go their own way... and Nikolai would be free of his promise.

"Where would you go?" he asked, looking up at Acolyte.

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When the first soldiers forced their way into the mess hall, they were greeted by emptiness.

"Clear!" one announced.

"Bullshit. I heard voices." said the other.

"Lock it down, both of you!" interrupted a third, who's voice spoke authority. "Everyone fan out. I want every inch of this place searched, and we've got plenty of time.

"Where would you go?"

"Holland," Acolyte replied instantly. "The countryside is still beautiful even if the cities contain networks of decay and crime. In Holland, I have some untapped assets I left safely hidden. More than enough to help any man here with nowhere to go." He cast around to everyone as he said this, but his gaze lingered on Lucia especially. Then he fixed Nikolai a firm look. "Enough to live out my life." What little is left to me.

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In their own truck, Riley sat watching Odin standing between the ranks of men in the seats lining the sides of the vehicle. The wolf stood rooted like a rock, his tail swishing back and forth. Reaching out, he teased Odin's ear with a finger. It flicked and twitched at the contact, but the wolf did not respond. Another man would have lost fingers, but Riley and Odin were often playful.

Turning to the Talon, he said, "the assault went well. No barrels of Phantom were lost. Minimal casualties. What do you think the Free Men will do now that they have really are free?"

Abigail's hug was almost diminished when he saw Aggie well alive and awake. Aggie was even more surprised to see Lewis but really more confused about the entire situation.

"Jesus Aggie, I thought you were comatose." Lewis awkwardly joked before ushering her to the shelter.

"Lewis, what the hell is going on?" Aggie said, slightly hesitant of going into another dark hole when she just lucked herself out of one.

"Long story short, we're under attack." Lewis said, anxious to get into shelter. He feared that the facility might have been breached.

"I know that part! But who's attacking us?" Aggie asked. Lewis only could answer with a shake of his head. "Out of the frying pan..."

"Into the oven, now let's go." Lewis said, leading Aggie down the newly opened passageway as fast as he could. He didn't want to know whether or not their invaders were taking prisoners or not. Although judging by the corridor's route, they might as well already be prisoners.

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Lu was led down the prison once more but this time he saw the Wardens being pushed alongside with him. Whoever was attacking the facility had serious help and no doubt this was the effort of a long period of planning alongside careful scheming. He went through his head once more and who would attack this facility although a good number of competitors already had a few choice reasons but necessarily the means. Then his thoughts drifted to Selina. She knew something that he didn't. Her scheming was probably a side effect of this.

He waited for a few moments before seizing the opportunity to walk up to Selina. He was visibly distraught from the bombings but he was still determined to get something out of her. Lu approached Selina with a stern face and a simple question.

"Selina, who is attacking us and why would they want this facility?" Richard asked her. "I can help you... just tell who and why before anything else happens."

"Holland... The countryside is still beautiful even if the cities contain networks of decay and crime. In Holland, I have some untapped assets I left safely hidden. More than enough to help any man here with nowhere to go. Enough to live out my life."

With a weak smile, Kusanagi nodded, "Holland... it sounds like a wonderful place." A sharp pain shot through her midsection, forcing her to wince and lie back down. "L-let's go there. All of us. We can't split up now, can we?"

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It was dark and quite in this place. Cold too. Neil had retreated to the darkest, deepest depths of the facility. Former Arctic Wolves territory... likely one of their old slave prisons if the stench was anything to go by. He sat on the floor, against the wall with a lit cigarette pinned between his two front teeth and bottom lip. He could barely see the remote in his hand through the darkness, but he could certainly feel it. It had a surprising heft to it. It was likely made out of some fairly stern stuff.

He hesitated as he rested his thumb on the button. One press, that's all it would take. It was all that was necessary to change his life forever. Was he ready for the responsibility that came with it? No. No, there wasn't likely anyone in the world that could shoulder such a burden without losing themselves in the process. One press of this button and he'd lose the man he'd been working so hard to become.

None of this mattered, however. He knew what had to be done.

It's time you stopped acting like such a fucking bitch, Verner.

He rested the back of his head against the wall, closed his eyes and pressed the button, "Bring it on, you fucks."

"What do you think the Free Men will do now that they have really are free?"

"Likely, they will search for some other thing to hold them in bondage." The Talon responded, not taking her eyes off the crates, drinking in the sight of them, their contents the final key for the doors of the Great Revolution. "Those who lust after freedom most are often the least prepared for it. Service is all they know. It doesn't matter, they served us well, and we gain nothing by holding them further. If any wish to join us they will be welcome. As for the remainder, the dawn will rise for them just like all the rest."

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Minutes passed in silence, but eventually the convoy arrived at it's terminus. Outside, Nikolai could here higher ranking Songbirds barking orders as everyone piled out.

"We have wounded in here!" The Songbird who had spoken to them earlier called out.

"Follow me." a voice replied, I'll take you to triage."

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"I can help you... just tell who and why before anything else happens."

"Richard I don't have the first fucking idea who these people are or what they want!" Selina snapped, her voice wavering as she started to panic. Her safety, and the safety of those who had followed her here, was dependant on Venture Horizon's backing, backing that was about to disappear now that it had become apparent that this battle was lost. Once that reality was confirmed once and for all, what would happen to them.

No, it did her no good at all to lose her head. She had risen through the ranks, and been chosen for this task above all others thanks to her intellect. Lee might be the commander here, be she was Venture Horizon's true representative at this facility. For the sake of everything she had dreamed of achieving, she needed to think, now more than ever.

"Miss Hernandez," one of the officers in the makeshift war room announced, stepping forward. He was sweating profusely, his face bathes in the red light of the revolving emergency alarms. Whether is perspiration was thanks to the heat of the industrial complex, or fear, was a matter of debate. "we have some reports from Warden's on the front line that hostile forces are wearing uniforms consistent with that of the Shao Long Conglomerate. In the absence of any more solid leads, we have been assuming it is they who we are fighting."

The Shao Long Conglomerate was one of the biggest resource extraction corporations on the planet. Based in New Singapore, it was a member of the 'Big 5' energy powers, of which Venture Horizon was currently at the head. A proud and fiercely competitive company, even in comparison to Venture and all the rest, they were one of the few contenders who actually had the wealth and the might to make a convincing challenge to Venture Horizon's throne. Perhaps all that crap Le Saux had spouted in his last breath about the Songbirds had been a Red Herring. It certainly made more sense for an organisation with Shao Long's resources to be able to turn on of Selina's own, than a rag-tag band of guerrilla's. Something about that still wasn't right though, and racking her brain Selina soon hit upon the answer, despite how fiercely Venture protected its assets, taking over a RACDI was always intended to be the 'easy part' for any potential foe. To strike at a jewel in Venture's crown was nothing less than an act of war, and whoever dared do so would soon find themselves facing the full might of Venture Horizon's military assets. An economic competitor would need to do more than just take The Pit to get any profit out of it, they'd need to hold it, and yet... the forces overwhelming Lee's Warden's had smashed the perimeter and carpet bombed the surface, destroying an impressive array of defences that they would have needed to co-opt for their own use in the event of counter-attack.

Whoever these people were, they had no interest in defending their prize for any significant length of time...

Meaning RACDI-Alpha's resources couldn't be what they were after...

"You knew what was going to happen." Selina said quietly, approaching Lee. When he looked up at her, his eyes told her all she needed to know, before he even opened his mouth.

"I knew something was going to happen. It appears thought that I underestimated the capabilities of our enemy; or perhaps their was just never enough time."

"But you knew the objective was always to provoke open warfare. That's why you refused to send the SOS."

"Venture won't attack anybody without what they think is conclusive proof. Once they have it, they'll be walking into a trap. The longer it remains unclear to the outside world what's happened up here, the longer we have to avert disaster."

"Colonel!" another officer interrupted. "Enemy forces have breached the Mid-Levels. All remaining forces are falling back to the industrial complex!"

"Please tell me you have a plan?" Selina asked.

"I always do." Lee answered "For this one to have any measure of success however, I need you to do exactly as I say."

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It didn't take them long to find the panic room. When they reached it however, it was closed up tight, and 10 times the plastic explosive they had at their disposal couldn't have broken down those doors.

"See if you can patch up in to their communications. I want to know who's in there."

The commander was disappointed however, when the answer reached him a minute later.

"What the hell do you mean, 'we're being jammed'?! Who could still be... inform the General at once! We need those communication back online!"

The commander stepped forward to the door, and punched the button for the speaker next to it.

"Attention Venture Horizon personnel inside. Your facility is lost and we are here to accept your surrender. If you have no ranking officer amongst you, you have 30 seconds to choose a spokesperson for me to negotiate with."

Abigail sat down next to Lewis and Aggie after pulling the door of the Panic Room shut. From outside, she could faintly hear the sounds of someone entering the Mess Hall, she felt somewhat glad that they had given themselves a small respite from the running. Looking around, she could see the fellow occupants of the Panic Room were nervous, some even terrified about what might happen in the next few minutes.

There came a sudden silence as the sounds of footsteps approached the door, next came talking, then a few more steps, then a voice over the speakers.

"Attention Venture Horizon personnel inside. Your facility is lost and we are here to accept your surrender. If you have no ranking officer amongst you, you have 30 seconds to choose a spokesperson for me to negotiate with." Spoke a man on the other end. Almost instantly did many of the panic room occupants began to literally panic, as they feared the worst.

30 Seconds

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. The words that Lee spoke played over and over in her mind, she realised that he knew this was going to happen.

20 Seconds

"Your not actually going to surrender are you?" Asked the voice that was Lilith.

15 Seconds

"I say we fight!" Shouted one of the storage room workers. Abigail stood up when he said this, a sigh escaping her lips.

"I hate to play devil's advocate here, but we haven't exactly got the firepower to last long, nor put up any strong resistance. It's likely they have guns pointed at the door as I speak, and if we have the look of fighting on us, they'll take us down before we even step through the threshold. I'm sorry, but the status quo has changed, we can't hide here forever. If we act calm, chances are, they may be reasonable with us. I lead us here, I should be the one to talk with them."

5 Seconds

Abigail turned and calmly walked towards the intercom, turning to look at everyone with the look of "I'm so sorry." on her face.

3 Seconds

Abigail took a few deep breaths as she thought about what she would say, what would most likely to appease them.

1 Second

Abigail pushed the intercom button.

"This is Abigail Nyte speaking, proprietor of the Gates of Pandemonium drinking establishment, and representative."

As his countdown ticked away, the commander conversed with the rest of his squad.

"It doesn't sound like they want to play. See if you can tap the ventilation. If we can't break down these doors, then we'll gas them ou-"

"This is Abigail Nyte speaking, proprietor of the Gates of Pandemonium drinking establishment, and representative."

The commander and his second looked to each-other, eyebrows raised.

'A barmaid? Seriously?'

Not showing any of that scepticism in his voice however, the commander stepped up once more to the console.

"Thank you very much for your cooperation, Abigail." he said casually "Now, first questions: How many of you are in there, how many of you are able, and how many of you are armed?"

Lewis and Aggie sat anxiously in their little vault as Abigail decided to talk to whoever was out there.

"Die here... die there... doesn't matter to me." Aggie hissed as she rolled her eyes.

"Aggie, she's trying to help us." Lewis said stunned by his sister's remark.

"I don't you know what happened in Denmark, huh?" Aggie asked rhetorically. "My unit was torn to pieces by the Baltics and the blizzards. By the end of it all it was just a few of us left in some bunker in the middle of the wasteland. Whoever was left decided to give up. They surrendered themselves to the Baltics like this and you know said no? Me? And do you know who's left from my unit? Me. I'm the only one left. You hand yourself willingly to a silver platter, be my guest." Aggie looked to Abigail, hoping she'd see the look in her eyes. "No one's armed here, Abigail. Tell'em."

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"I understand." Lu said, his glowing demeanor giving way to the gravity of the situation. Venture had too many rivals to count so it didn't surprise Lu that it would be the Shao Long Conglomerate to make the first move. But he had a fishy suspicion that it was beyond the resources. It might even be beyond the facility itself. Now all that Richard knew was that Lee knew all along that such an attack would happen. That matter made the feeling of being a pawn simply more worse since he wasn't used to the feeling at all.

"Thank you very much for your cooperation, Abigail." The man on the other end said rather casually. "Now, first questions: How many of you are in there, how many of you are able, and how many of you are armed?" He then asked. This gave Abigail the opportunity to look around and take stock of the situation. Everyone looked as though they were on edge, Lewis and Aggie were busy talking, but Abigail thought she saw Aggie give her a look.

Abigail responded with a look of her own, one that said "I ain't risking anyone's neck here." Which came with a smile at the end. She pressed the intercom button again.

"Well first off, for invaders, you at least have manners. Secondly, there are roughly a dozen of us in here, physically we are all pretty able, though some may be a little on edge given the situation. Finally, none of us are armed, we're all non-combat personnel here; just a collection of bar staff, storage workers and a few medical personnel." Responded Abigail with sincerity, hoping whoever she was talking to would believe her.

"Besides, think you chewed through most of the combatants on your way down here." She then remarked with a smirk.

"H-Holland... N-Nikolai... will we go there? Will y-you come with me?" Kusanagi managed to whisper. Her voice weak, Nikolai'd be hard pressed to make out a single word, save his own name.

Kusanagi fought to stay conscious as they moved her out of the truck and into the tunnels, but it was of no use. She was simply too tired and the drugs were too strong. The last thing she could recall seeing as her consciousness faded was Nikolai's massive back. He and Acolyte had remained by her side as they crossed into the tunnels.

Despite the pain, she passed out with a smile on her face.

They were good friends.

"Well first off, for invaders, you at least have manners."

"I'd prefer to think of ourselves as liberators," the commander replied "Come to free the destitute from the yoke of the unjust. Although, I suppose that what invaders always think. There'll be plenty of time to argue semantics later I'm sure, provided you all behave yourselves."

"Besides, think you chewed through most of the combatants on your way down here."

"I'm so glad you approve." he said facetiously, a little puzzled by the girl's tone. For someone cowering behind a steel door, she sounded far too confident. "I'm sure we'll get alone just fine. Now, I'm going to ask you to open this door Abigail. When that happens, I want everyone inside to exit, single file and with their hands behind their heads. You will go first. You seem like a smart person, and I have no intention of shedding the blood of those who offer up no resistance, but be warned nonetheless... if anyone tries anything, my men will open fire, indiscriminately. Is that understood?"

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"Sir! They've flanked our position. Enemy contacts at 200 meters!"

"I see. Get ready everyone!"

Metallic clicks and clacks filled the space as the Warden's inside the War Room readied their weapons, slotting in full magazines and pulling firing levers back. While Lee still had his sidearm, he had accepted a rifle from Montoya, who himself was sporting an M4A1. Lee's rifle was a more heavy-duty, 7.62mm AUG battle rifle. Testing the feel of it in his shoulder, adjusting the sights, it occurred to him now above everything else that he should have been thinking about, that this was the first time he'd held a rifle since Pan-Arabia.

They stacked up at either side of the doorway, the men at the front crouching to give those behind clear fields of fire. More men stood behind them, taking cover behind work benches with a clear line of sight down the middle.

"Enemies sighted!"

"Let them get closer."

The troops advancing down the hallway had nowhere to duck and cover, so they laid down suppressing fire with each step they took, forcing the Wardens to stay hidden behind the doorway. That was, until the first man triggered the trip-mines placed halfway down the hall. Screams, rubble and dust.

"OPEN FIRE!" Lee shouted, as the Wardens emerged and unleashed a fierce barrage of lead straight at their foe.

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Almost a kilometre away already, Selina and Richard raced through the labyrinth of the Mid-Levels.

"I'd prefer to think of ourselves as liberators." The man replied. "Come to free the destitute from the yoke of the unjust. Although, I suppose that what invaders always think. There'll be plenty of time to argue semantics later I'm sure, provided you all behave yourselves." He then added.

"Yet some would call you conquerors, but like you said, enough semantics for now." Abigail told herself as she continued to listen to the man's requests.

"I'm so glad you approve." The man spoke in a rather flippant and inappropriate manner. Abigail didn't necessarily approve of such an action, she was merely stating the obvious given the current situation; she thought that getting in the invaders good graces might make things easier.

"I'm sure we'll get alone just fine. Now, I'm going to ask you to open this door Abigail. When that happens, I want everyone inside to exit, single file and with their hands behind their heads. You will go first. You seem like a smart person, and I have no intention of shedding the blood of those who offer up no resistance, but be warned nonetheless... if anyone tries anything, my men will open fire, indiscriminately. Is that understood?"

"Crystal." Abigail said bluntly, no hint of emotion.

"You may want to give us a minute first, the door handle was a bit stiff on the way in, no doubt it'll be like that on the inside." Abigail remarked before shutting off the intercom and turning to the assembled group, some appeared to be a bit calmer after hearing her talk.

"Alright then everyone, the initial negotiations are over. The invaders, or the liberators as the person who I assume is their boss likes to call themselves has asked that we exit the Panic Room quietly, with our hands behind our heads. He also asks that we don't try anything foolhardy as we leave; otherwise... well I'm sure you can imagine what will happen."

"Now then, I'll go first, followed by Lewis, then Aggie, then everyone else. We're to go in single file, so no pushing or shoving." Abigail remarked as she began turning the release lever on the door. The hissing sound of the release mechanism kicked in after a few turns, and Abigail stepped back to allow the door to open; then proceeded to place her hands behind her head.

Clementina kept shooting madly, wildly, viciously, somehow keeping her marks through her panicked state. Not that she hit every shot but she could certainly vouch for 80, maybe 90% of her bullets. "Fall back fall back they're fucking swarming us up here!" Yelled their Captain down below.

No. No way. Fuck that. Its time to kill. Kill kill kill thats what we have to do to survive. This is the most secure prison in the world it DAMN WELL won't fall to some scumbags who want... what the hell do they want anyway?

Clementina kept shooting through her questions as the rest of the soldiers were filing out. "Abreu come the fuck on we're going!" Yelled a fellow soldier.

"NO! Fuck that! Where the fuck are we gonna run to? Eventually the Pit ends. It runs out of space, and if there was a way we could dig out prisoners would have found it fucking years ago." She cocked back the hammer, reloading her sniper rifle.

"Clem we have orders, we gotta-"

"DON'T FUCKING CALL ME CLEM!" She barked as she turned back to her comrade. However, explosions soon began rocking the building she was in and she was knocked off balance. "What the fuck now!"

"They're attacking the support structures! We need to go right the fuck now!" shouted the soldier to Clementina as he helped her up.

"God dammit!!" She cursed as she pulled his arm to get herself up as she began running back the way she had come. They both ran through the fire escape on the other side of the building, they wouldn't have much time to get down before the enemy intercepted them. Rushing down the frail metal staircases they finally got down to the end just as some of their fellow wardens were covering them.

"Speed it the fuck up slow asses we're getting left behind!" Yelled a superior officer.

"Yes sir sorry sir!" Both the young soldiers replied.

"We run out into the open they're gonna light us up. Smoke out, frag out, run like hell."

"Yes sir!" They responded as the three of them threw some smoke to cover their tracks. The rest of the wardens providing covering fire launched grenades at the enemy, giving a small enough window to run and fall back to their allies ahead. They ran like hell but bullets were sure to find their way through the smoke. Bullets tearing through warden after warden, even their superior had gone down. Clementina kept running, as fast as she could, turning corner after corner, leaping over fences, cutting through walkways and not turning back once to see if she was being followed. She ran for God knows how long until finally she could see some signs of Wardens ahead of her.

"GET DOWN!" Yelled a fellow soldier as he levelled his gun at Abreu. She promptly dived down onto the floor, getting behind some makeshift cover as prison guards fired at her old position, bullets flying back their way as well. Clementina was stuck in the middle of it. Sitting there stuck, she had suddenly realised, she was the only one of the stragglers who had made it. The other lieutenant, her superior and all those who had covered her had died when retreating. Gulping, only one thought ran through her mind as she thought of her comrades who may have died in order to save her.

Don't get left behind next time.

"NOW NOW NOW!" Yelled one of her allies to her, the fire fight pausing for a mere moment as Clementina ran towards them. She jumped over the makeshift sandbags they had made from blasted off bits of concrete and hid behind it.

"You the only one left?" Asked the one who had just yelled to her.

"Yep, everyone else went down." She spoke coldly, pulling her sniper rifle off her back and into her hands again.

"Fuck!... alright, get to the back if you wanna use that well. Its a dead zone up here. Move move move!"

She did as she was told. She wouldn't fall behind next time.
===================================================
Felix stayed in the vent, resting. He panted as his breathes were becoming harder, the cramped space certainly made him feel a lot worse. 'I hope today is a special occasion.'

Suddenly he could hear footsteps running beneath him. He peeked down to see some men, all white with skinned heads, rushing across the floor. Soon after they were followed by many black men.

"Y'all mu'fuckers thought we were done?"

"Been waitin' 3 god damn months to do this!"

"I'mma cut that fucking swasticka off yo chest, bitch."

Different voices now.

"Aw yeah? Bring it on ya bunch 'a' fucken niggers!"

"Fuck it! I'll cut outcha heart an' eat it like th' savages ya are!"

"I'm gonna take that skull'a yers and shuv it up your mommas ass!"

"Oh yeah! BRING IT WHITEBREAD!"

"KISS MY ASS MONKEY MAN!"

The sounds of fighting ensued as Felix could hear the men below tear each other apart, ducking his head back in the vent. He pounded the metal as his face went red with suppressed anger. 'I should stop this! Stop them from killing each other!... but they will kill me if I go down there. I'm not strong enough. I need to get my head better, think clearly, see clearly.' He had to stop himself from swearing, nearly breaking one of his many rules. He tried to push his mind away from the fight below. 'I hope I am not the only man here who speaks with proper diction?' he joked, trying to amuse himself.

"I'm gonna rape your fucken eye socket ya silverback basta'd!"

The man's vile comments had to bring him back to reality. 'No, focus on something else. Something else!'

"You got a fast car... but was it fast enough to help you fly away..." whispered Felix to himself, remembering an age old folk song from aeons past. "You've gotta make a decision... to leave tonight or live and die this way..."

"There's a good girl." the commander remarked, smiling, at the sight of everyone lined up and ready to be marched out. A few minutes later, he had the all back up in the mess hall, on their knees and in a horizontal line. Starting at the end opposite to Abigail, the Commander squatted down so he was at eye-level with the man he faced.

"What's your name?"

"I-uh, Dr. Schultz, Dr. Eric Schultz."

"And are you ready to renounce your service to Venture Horizon, Eric?"

"I... I am."

"Very good."

The doctor was then taken away to be processed with all the other prisoners, and the commander squatted down opposite his next captive, the storage worker who had spoke up in favour of resistance back in the panic room.

"What's your name?"

"Rebecca Healey."

"Are you ready to renounce your loyalty to Venture Horizon, Rebecca?"

"Go to hell!"

The commander sighed, and shook his head in calm disappointment.

"Not today, Rebecca."

Suddenly, a pistol was in his hand. A second later, Rebecca Healey's brains were all over the wall. People gasped and chocked back cries of fear and shock. One man about half way down the line vomited over his own knees. After that, few did anything other than answer quickly, and meekly, that they had no more loyalty to Venture. An orderly, sixth in line, spat in the commander's face, and died for it. The ninth, recognised by some as one of the Executives who came with MS Hernandez, Olivander or some such, refused to answer at all. Whether his muteness was due to defiance, or petrification, was unclear. In either case, after a few minutes the commander grew bored of watching his men take turns beating the silent captive with their rifle butts, and shot him through the head as well. That left only Aggie, Lewis and Abigail.

The Commander's eyes appeared to light up with new life when he gazed upon Aggie's scars. Reaching out, he gently traced his finger along the line of one of them on her face, fascinated.

"You must have some stories to tell." he mused, quietly. "What's your name?"

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

Selina rounded a corner, almost losing an eye as she came face to face with the barrel of an assault rifle.

"We're non-combatants!" she sounded, her voice clear despite its high pitch. Slowly, she raised her hands. "We're non-combatants and we surrender."

"Who are you?" called out the soldier at the head of the group, lowering his weapon only slightly.

"Selina Hernandez, Chief Political Analyst for Venture Horizon, currently overseeing RACDI-Alpha."

All the rifles snapped up again in unison.

"Wait!" she called out "We've surrendered. I have no wish to die, and I have valuable information to trade with whomever you represent here, in exchange for my life and well-being, as well as that of my colleagues."

There was silence, the battle around them seeming not to penetrate the space, as Selina stared into the cold, grey eyes of the man in front of her. It seemed to her that those eyes would very much like to shoot her on the spot. However, he lowered his weapon, before ordering his comrades to do the same. The soldiers converge on the pair of them, and Selina found herself having her hands roughly tied behind her back.

"Where are you taking us?" she inquired.

"To the General." the captain of this squad answered gruffly "We'll see what he thinks of your proposal."

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

Nikolai was sat by her bedside in the underground ward when she awoke. The way he was sat, sort of curled up on a stool that looked like it might crumple under him if he made any sudden movements, made it clear that Nikolai was far from comfortable in these surroundings. He was almost expecting to be chained, or put to work with pickaxe and hammer, or else set upon by hungry Inmates, at any moment. This had been the longest time that he could remember where he had just sat, doing nothing. When he saw that Lucia's eyes had flickered open, he became even more furtive, fiddling with something in his big, callused hands.

"You are awake." he said, as if she needed to be informed of her own consciousness. He made a small, jerky movement of his wrist, as if he was going to reach out and hold her hand, but then thought better of it.

"I know you told me never to call you Lucia." he eventually blurted out, after uncounted moments of silence had passed between them. "but that was before... when things were different. When..."

Nikolai held up his hands a little so Lucia could see what he was holding. It was an old, a very old, and well-worn book. While no smaller than usual, it looked comically tiny and fragile in his hands.

"I am not different, not yet, but I want to be. Underground, I was the strongest, the fiercest. I need fear no Man or Dog; but in the outside, there is so much I do not know. I only know that strength is not enough, not any more...

I want to learn, and I think I would like to start with these, words... Can you help me?"

Lewis and Aggie was led out along with the rest of the inhabitants of the bunker. Then they were forced to kneel as the commanding officer of the group went one by one and asked them to change their allegiances which was odd enough as it is. Whoever complied had their opinions splattered all over the wall. The sound of death wasn't that new to either of them but the sound of the pistol indoors was nearly deafening causing Lewis to flinch every time he opened fire.

Then he arrived to Aggie.

"What's your name?"

"Agatha Moore but I prefer Aggie if you please." Aggie looked at their commander in the eyes as well with the same look she gave Abigail. "I've had no allegiance to Venture in the first place so that's that. Anything else, commander?" She asked, tauntingly.

Lewis grew frustrated at Aggie. The fact that she could die right then and there didn't help him either but he tried to keep his cool. Any sudden movement and the man could easily just shoot him as well so Lewis held his tongue.

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

Richard had already been out of breath by the time they had been captured by the enemy soldiers. So as they were escorted back to their supposed General, Richard took time to recover and think once more about Selina. She claimed to have wanted to help people but he truly wondered if it was to save her own skin from it all. Someone in her position had things to lose if she spilled her secrets to the enemy especially if Venture found out. Her motives remain unknown to Richard but perhaps when she talked to the Commander then he would know or find another facade of Selina once more.

The first thing Kusanagi noticed as her senses returned was the dull, methodical beeping of the medical equipment she'd been hooked up to. Despite being acquainted in the ways of medicine, she'd never actually spent that much time in hospitals. As her memory began reconstructing itself, however, she realized she was far from anything that could be truly called a hospital. The pain was muted now. Thanks to the drugs, perhaps?

As her vision returned a familiar voice called out to her.

"You are awake."

Kusanagi replied with a weak smile.

How long has he been sitting there?

"I know you told me never to call you Lucia."

Had she the strength she would have likely jumped in shock. She'd never heard him say that name in all the time they spent together. What was this now? What point was he to make? This wasn't him exiling her from the pack, was it?

"...but that was before... when things were different. When..."

Kusanagi looked down at the book in his hand. Though she'd already been trembling due to the latent shock in her system, it intensified as a sudden realization washed over her. She could do little more than say his name, "N-Nikolai..."

"I am not different, not yet, but I want to be. Underground, I was the strongest, the fiercest. I need fear no Man or Dog; but in the outside, there is so much I do not know. I only know that strength is not enough, not any more...

I want to learn, and I think I would like to start with these, words... Can you help me?"

What he was asking of her was clear enough, but there was something else there. There was subtext in the way spoke her name and how he so humbly requested her aid. Was he trying to change? Truly? With the prospect of true freedom on the horizon, had he finally seen what she'd been driving at all along.

What of the fighting she'd done? What of the changes she'd undergone?! What of Kusanagi?! Was she no longer needed?! Was she to be cast out?!

Stop being such an idiot.

It was simple, really. Kusanagi was nothing more than a mask Lucia had adopted to weather pain and suffering she'd never been made to know until now. Was this Nikolai telling her that they were past all that? Was he saying that the insanity of this chaotic existence could be controlled.

Was he admitting there was more to life than strength?

Lucia sat up in bed, ignoring the pain in her side and clutched Nikolai's wrist. Her eyes welling up and her lips trembling, she smiled at him, giggling, "Of course, Nikolai." She took his massive hand and held it between two of her own. "Anything you need, Nikolai... anything you need at all and I'd be happy to help."

Happiness and despair struggled against one another in her mind leaving her a mumbling, giggling mess. This was the happiest she'd been in a long time.

The MRI chamber had been a surprise. But useful, Acolyte supposed. That was where he lay now, with noise cancelling headphones to block out the deafening sounds of the machine whirring.

"Alright, you can move now," came the tinny sound of the doctor over the little speaker built into the left earmuff. Propping himself up on his elbows, Acolyte scooted out of the machine and sat up. The doctor tending to him was sat at a computer, looking at the images as they loaded.

"The tumor is still stage one," he said. "But it seems well on its way to progressing. The previous bleeding was caused due to the impact of that fight. Rattled your head around some, which didn't go well with the lump. You get the idea."

"How long?" Acolyte asked.

"I'd say about a year before death. Possibly as far as eight months before the tumor starts impacting memory or motor functions. I really can't say what order those symptoms will manifest in, I'm afraid."

Acolyte sighed. So he wouldn't just keel over at the end. It would be prefaced with months of losing the ability to coordinate his movement. Months of the gradual loss of his mind. "Is it operable?"

"I'm not sure. Not with the resources I myself am capable of bringing to bear. Our Leader is a far more accomplished surgeon than myself, but... well, I would lean towards terminal."

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

The lids of Korovitch's eyes felt heavy as they came open. He still seemed to be shrouded in darkness as much as when they had been closed. As consciousness restored itself, he became aware of the weight pressing down on him, and the stench of death. Movement was hard, but not impossible as he pushed through the huge mass that surrounded him, bogging him down. Shoving up with an arm, he broke through to cold air and dim light. Bodies fell from the mound atop him, and so it was that Luka Korovitch, counted among the dead, clawed his way out from their number. He stood, the bodies tumbling from around him.

A man in kevlar left to guard the bodies turned at the sound. He saw a body from a pile of corpses standing, and opened his mouth to scream. Korovitch's fist cut off his windpipe. Sweeping the man's legs out from under him, he came down onto one knee, crushing the songbird's neck.

He found the pile of discarded weapons and belted on his kukri. In the dimness that was barely more than darkness, he had to consign his service Makarov to being lost. Belting on a Beretta handgun in its place and hefting an M16, Korovitch made his way down to the lower levels, where the fight would be.

"Oh lookie here lil boy!"

Travis stopped dead in his tracks, grinning as he looked down at the floor before hiding his happiness. "W-wha?"

"I remember you, punk ass!" The man's voice howled, sounding like he was from the south of America. "Yeah me and ma crew used to fuck y'all up!"

"Oh God, no please not you please!" Travis pretended to beg as the man came upon him. A redneck crew, not the biggest but certainly they had history with the Dragons.

"Please?" the man laughed and spat on the ground as two others surrounded Travis. "Las' time you came onto our terr-i-tory, we sent you back the cut up bits o' your boys. Now we get the cut up bits o' you!" The man lunged forwards at Travis.

The serial killer grinned as he lurched up from his hunched over position, driving his knife deep into the naval of the man who accosted him. He stared deep into his terrified eyes before rising the blade up his body so high that when he pulled it out it nearly exited his neck. He span on his heel and laughed as gore flew out of his victim and he turned to his other opponents. "BRING IT COCKSUCKERS!" One man hesitated, while the other pulled out a butterfly knife and edged towards Travis. "Aww, how sweet. Come here, I got a little present for ya." Travis laughed and put his knife behind his back. "Come on, I got a hand behind my back. You got the advantage." The man shook for a moment before rushing forwards.

He lost the fingers he was holding the butterfly knife with.

"Why do they always fucking charge like that?" Yelled Travis as he pushed the man to the ground, squeezing his throat tightly and plunging the knife deep into his eye, cutting his brain in two. The last one was already fleeing. "Where ya going! We haven't gotten to the end of the story yet!" Rushing after him, The Dragon found the man trying desperately to open a locked cell. The Dragon crept up behind him. His footsteps heavy and confident. The man turned around in fear as he saw his soon to be murderer. "Aww, I wish you had kept running. A hunt is much better than a plain old 'stand there scared while I kill you.' Although, it certainly does give me an opportunity to try out all sorts of new techniques."

"No! PLEASE NO!"

=========================================================
"GOD DAMMIT FALL BACK THERE'S TOO MANY!"

"Again! ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME!" Clementina yelled as her battalion were beginning to flee. Running up the front next to the captain she yelled, "Sir this is bullshit! We're just running for the sake of it now! We've barely been here ten fucking minutes!"

"Abreu shut your damn mouth I am your Captain and I-" The captain, who was a full foot taller than Clementina, went down fast as a bullet tore through his chest so powerful it lifted him off his feet, forcing his corpse to hit the ground hard.

Clementina's eyes widened as he fell but before she could say anything another bullet flew over her head. "FF-FUCK!" She screamed out, the bullet so close it nearly killed her. She picked up her pace and began running in zig zags, avoiding bullets all over the place.

"There's too many mother fuc-" Another soldier died as he made the mistake of turning around to shoot. Clementina simply turned her head and saw a force that seemed impossibly large. Dwarfing her numbers. Wasn't the Pit meant to be the perfect holding ground? With choke point after choke point? Whether built for it or not, the facility was perfect for this sort of invasion. Yet why the hell were they all falling so easily! This didn't make sense. How were there this many? Was the entire opposing army down here? Or had the entire world suddenly decided to turn on Venture Horizon and take over the facility.

Once again she was running, 'Like a FUCKING COWARD', as her comrades fell around her. Running past cells, buildings, hell it seemed like she had past the entire Pit as she fled. Every single time one of her fellow Wardens turned around to shoot, they were torn to pieces by their enemy. "THIS IS FUCKING IMPOSSIBLE!" She didn't realise she shouted aloud. "HOW THE HELL ARE THERE SO FUCKING MANY!"

"Who knows just fucking leggit!" Boomed a man running beside her.

"This goes way past tactical retreating, this is..." Her voice trailed off.

"Yeah, we know."

"Anything else, commander?"

The commander's smile stretched wider.

"Oh, that will be all for now. I'm sure you and I are going to get along just fine."

Turning his head, the commander saw the anger and fear etched all over Lewis' face. At first it had been difficult to tell, but now the commander saw their resemblance clearly. They were dressed in Inmates coveralls, these two, but the boy at least certainly didn't hold himself like one. What were these two doing on the surface anyway?

"What about you?" he asked "Have you got any of your sister's fire in you?"

Lewis looked down, unable to match Aggie's tenacity. He always wished he could be her. Be as strong, prideful and spiteful as her but he was only Lewis. He was only a pup following his master. Instead, Lewis looked away from the captain and towards the walls or rather anything else besides the men that could kill him within the second.

"I have whatever you need from me, sir." Lewis said. Aggie rolled her eyes.

The commander turned his nose up at Lewis in general distaste. However, if he'd do as he was told then there was no reason to shed any more blood. Surely they could find some way to make use of the boy in due time.

"Find somewhere to put the pair of them." he ordered to his men dismissively, leaving himself and Abigail alone in the mess hall... besides the dead bodies.

"Thank you very much for your help today Abigail, you saved a fair few lives."

"I suppose I did, though the same can't be said for those less fortunate." Abigail said with a slightly saddened tone as she looked at the dead bodies, the sight made her shudder, she had never seen a corpse before, especially one so freshly dead.

"I did what was necessary given the circumstances, I realised that the status quo was not in our favor; anything else would have resorted in death."

"Necessary?" the commander mused, smiling again. "Well, I'm sure you'll learn to like us in the end. In the mean time, it won't be long until my men will be expecting a celebration. Come on, let's see if we managed not to completely trash your bar."

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

"anything you need at all and I'd be happy to help."

Nikolai smiled awkwardly, unsure how to express what he felt at seeing Lucia so... happy. He hadn't seen her like this in, ever. In fact, Nikolai couldn't think of a time he'd seen anyone so pleased with him. He tried his best to squeeze her hand in response, but he did so gingerly. Her hand felt so small in his, like he could crush her bones into dust without even trying.

"Try and rest for now." he told her, softly. "We move South as soon as you feel better. I don't know when we might have the time to... but I'll work at it. I promise."

With that, Nikolai stood up and left Lucia alone, setting off through the rocky tunnels back to where the rest of the Free Men had made a rudimentary camp for themselves, apart from the Songbird soldiers. The clunk from his pneumatic leg echoed in the space with every other step, and at intervals broke loose small showers of dust from the ceilings.

clunk; clunk; clunk...

Nikolai couldn't say for sure where this new way of thinking would take him, although he'd decided that part of leading above ground was that you couldn't know what was around every corner. You had to take things as they came.

clunk; clunk; clunk...

Lucia seemed to believe that there was someone inside Nikolai still, who didn't have to be defined by all those years of killing and of pain. Was she right? Nikolai wasn't sure. For as long as he could remember he'd looked and played the part of a monster, and he had never not been aware of how different he was to most others. Looking at his scarred, gigantic form, it was difficult to imagine how anyone could ever look at him and see someone gentle, someone safe, even if he did find it in himself to be either. It felt good to hope though, and for now at least Nikolai was just content to have done something to make her happy.

clunk; clunk; clunk.

As Nikolai passed under one of the light fixtures, his heavy footfalls shook loose the bare bulb, the fire inside it guttering out. It tumbled down, unseen to him, and a second later the hot glass struck the bare skin on the back of his neck.

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

In a flash the roughly carved tube of stone dissolved from Nikolai's gaze, replaced by a blaze of pain made light. All of him was on fire. No, this time, he was fire, strewn across a blazing field that stretched for eternity, devouring everything he touched. He was the flames, and his breath was thick, dark smoke. When he breathed out, the smoke appeared to take on shapes for a split second, dispersing before Nikolai could grab hold of them, to turn them into charcoal and capture them forever. A woman's face howled in anguish, and a boy dragged his broken, blistered body along a dark hall. Lastly, Nikolai saw a face that he did not recognise, who's features he could barely even distinguish in the swirls of grey, let alone place. His flames cringed away from that face, and the moment was lost.

A familiar voice came in, borne along the vicious, howling wind that rose with him, fed him. It was the voice of the shrieking woman.

"Nikolai! Nikolai! NIKOLAI!"

"Don't!" Nikolai called, his voice a roar from a gout of flame. "Don't come near me! I'll hurt you, I'll burn you!"

"Not you." a second voice whispered "You know it's not your name."

"NIKOLAI! NIKOLAAAAIIIII!"

"Who is he?! Where is he?! Show me Nikolai!"

"Call for him."

And now Nikolai was yelling too. Screaching the name he'd claimed to the shrouded heavens, spitting burst of embers into the sky. Only he was receding, his fire guttering out and dying, the smoke that had before showing him secrets becoming thicker, and stiller, obscuring what lay beyond like a vale.

"No! Not yet. Show me Nikolai! WHO IS NIKOLAI?!"

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

When Nikolai awoke, he was slumped to the side of the tunnel. No, it was a tunnel, but not the one he had been in before. This one was shorter, and more dimly lit. In his hands he felt something sharp, and looking down found that his palms were lacerated with shards of glass, the remains of the light bulb that had hit him. They were now completely cool.

What was happening to him?

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

They held down that door for what felt like hours, though the ever-rational part of Lee's brain couldn't resist telling him, even at such a preposterously unnecessary time, that it couldn't possibly have been that long. They each had enough ammunition for perhaps 20 minutes, if they were careful. All the same, Lee's senses were haywire, and time seemed to slow as he fell into a mechanical, disturbingly calm routine.

'Keep your breathing steady;
Aim for the centre of mass;
Double tap for each man;
Don't rush the reload, keep it smooth.'

After so many years, it came back to him as if the war had ended yesterday. Had they not been fighting for their lives, Lee might have stopped to consider how unsettling it was that his training had so profoundly ingrained itself into his subconscious, driving him to kill without feeling and with seemingly next to no effort on his part. It was not an experience he enjoyed, it never had been. Enjoyment was too strong, too inefficient an emotion to apply to it; and yet... Lee found himself feeling strangely comfortable for the first time in months, perhaps years. The simplicity of the equation; kill, or be killed, was cathartic. It pushed everything else away and reduced Lee, or perhaps elevated him, to nothing but a set of eyes, lungs, a beating heart and a trigger finger, all working with the keenly-tuned harmony of a well-oiled engine, or a symphony orchestra conducted by a maestro. Had he been waiting in anticipation for this moment for months? Hoping for it even as he worked to prevent it?

The enemy pushed forward and died in the dozens. Bullets puncturing through and overwhelming their vests, or else finding the weak-points between. The ones pushing forward may have been able to rely on those behind them laying down fire, but Lee had the range and accuracy to outmatch them. His rifle was stable, the recoil, while firm, just another part of the process that Lee took in his stride. They came forward, they fell, and those behind them would sometimes stumble over the bodies, or bits of bodies, of their comrades. That was not Lee's concern though. They had not been people, they were not even avatars of some kind of malevolent evil. They had been targets, and now they were nothing. Further to the back, Lee spotted one priming a grenade. Prioritising the threat, Lee dropped him, sending the armed explosive spilling from his hand. More dust flew up, and more men fell. In this brief respite two Wardens at the front primed and threw grenades as well, adding to the slaughter. Cognitively, Lee was aware of his surroundings being full of noise; gunfire, explosions and voices. Many of these voices were the irrelevant screams and panicked curses, which were discarded. However, there was also combat intel, riding above it. Indeed, Lee added his own voice to the mix, projecting orders clearly. However, even from these Lee felt a separation. They came forward, he fired, and they fell. That was all there was in the world.

A bullet, fired from where he could not say, for until it pierced his skin it did not matter, tore through his left shoulder just under the collar-bone, punching Lee backwards. The force of the impact, and the white hot lead that cut through his tissue, broke the illusion. Now, the noise was deafening, the smell of gunpowder, blood and seat so acrid Lee wanted to vomit. His breathing was ragged and irregular, his heartbeat racing, his skin clammy and his mind dizzy. Montoya yelled something next to him, but Lee could not make out the words.

He had fallen largely out of the cover of the workstation that he and Montoya had crouched behind. Turning his head to look down range, he saw one of the Warden's crouched at the front, one who had thrown a grenade earlier, get shot through the head. A red mist sprayed backwards, and Lee felt ever tiny droplet of it that came to rest on his face. The man who had been standing next to him swore, leaned out to fire again, and crumpled as another shot hit him in the upper thigh. Lee felt a pressure on his chest, and friction against the floor. Montoya had moved over to his position, and was trying to drag him back out of the line of fire. With one hand on Lee and the other still holding his rifle, Montoya had nothing with which to cover his face when the cry of "FLASH-BANG!" was raised.

The world was gone in a blaze of dazzling white and a tuneless, repulsive ringing inside Lee's ears. He might have cried out a writhed where he lay. He may even have vomited or wet himself, it was hard to be sure. In the midst of the chaos, Lee was only truly away of one thing. A weight falling across his legs. His vision returned slowly and in poor condition, seeing quadruple or more of everything around him. At first, Lee could not make out the shape in the forefront of his gaze when he raised his head. It was large, dark, and moving, thrashing even. As his eyes slowly readjusted, the shape materialised as Montoya, his legs kicking frantically and his hands clasped up against his throat, trying to stem to blood that spurted between his fingers.

Men in Shao Long uniforms were pouring into the room, ignoring the dead and ending the dying. One man came and stood over Montoya, who's right hand left his neck and, soaked in blood, travelled down to his hip where it fumbled at his holster. Before his panicked digits could make sense of the clasp, the soldier had pointed a shotgun at Montoya's face, and fired.

Next, the soldier turned to examine Lee, studying him with cold eyes. Lee could have made the same futile gesture as Montoya, and received just as quick an end. Instead, Lee met the man's gaze, his expression blank and his hands still, wondering if it would even make any difference. When the moment passed, the soldier lowered his shotgun and spoke to his comrades with words Lee found he could no longer comprehend, before a boot rose, and came down hard at the centre of Lee's face, making all the death disappear in a flash of pain.

Chapter 5

24 hours later...

A sudden shock brought Lee's consciousness, that had been wavering on the boundaries for several hours, as the ice-water splashed over him. He panted sharply, and had to bite down hard on his lower lip to keep from crying out. Immediately, his mind set to work putting the pieces of stimulus together to form a whole picture. He could see very little, for the room he was in was dark and windows were absent. Underground? He detected the only light source coming through in slits at the far end of the room, slits through iron bars. He was in a cell, on the Mid-Levels most likely. There were two shapes in there with him. One who stood holding the bucket, and one who was still in the far corner of the room, almost completely obscured by shadow. The Pit rarely smelt of roses, but today in particular Lee could smell death, rank on the air. Or was that just a memory of how it had been before. He felt that he was sitting down, with his hand tied behind his back. His face and shoulder throbbed to the same insufferable rhythm. He knew that he must look a mess. Remembering the gunshot, Lee carefully flexed the fingers on his left hand, behind him, making use of what little movement his restraints allowed him. His arm was responsive, although ever movement was accompanied by a lance of pain that forced Lee to grit his teeth. Something was bothering him, and it occurred to Lee after a second or two that there was a distinct absence of noise. Normally, with so many people living and working side by side, confined together, The Pit and the Mid-Levels in particular were buzzing, before the noise of all the machinery was even factored in. Today, he heard nothing of either. The cell block in which Lee was being held was silent as the grave. He was being kept apart from the other prisoners, if there were any others.

The man in the corner stepped forward, and despite the pain and exhaustion Lee sat up straight to receive his interrogator. Old habits do indeed die hard. The man was dressed in a Shao Long officer's uniform, row after row of stripes pinned to his chest. However, the man did not look accustomed to the garb, in Lee's opinion.

"Colonel Lee Jin Oh." the man greeted him. His accent was American, and now he was closer Lee could make out his face even in the dim light. A plain face, with dark brown hair and a wide mouth, which was currently looking at Lee as if her were a particularly juicy morsel.

"To whom do I speak?" Lee answered, his voice strained through pain and dehydration, but carrying a certain authority nonetheless.

"I am General Hammond." came the reply "Your successor."

The last part came with a lilt of smug satisfaction, but Lee's expression did not change. It was hardly shocking new at this point that the battle had been lost. Did this man expect Lee to wallow in despair?

"How are you liking the place?" Lee asked, as if he were asking nothing morbid at all.

General Hammond grinned. "There's quite a lot of spring cleaning to do, that's for certain. However, I look at my surrounding and see so many opportunities I can't help but be excited. I'm thinking of giving the place a new lick of paint, perhaps knocking through a few walls here and there. What would be your advice?"

"Be careful of the rats."

Hammond laughed. There was nothing particularly unusual about the inflection of it, but to Lee it grated like nails down a blackboard.

"Oh, I'm enjoying this. All the posturing behind the manners of an old warrior. It's just so... theatrical, don't you think?"

"If you say so."

"I do, but I sense you for one are weary of games."

"How many of my men are still alive?"

The question gave Hammond pause for a second, his smile faltering just an inch.

"Around 500 Wardens remain, including several of the former auxiliary personnel. Most of them, as well as a handful of your troops, saw fit to switch sides when it became apparent they were on the losing one." he said with particular relish, though Lee gave no emotion away in response, which frustrated Hammond visibly. "As for the rest, we've got them penned down in the Lower Levels. I have no real care for prisoners, so long as I've got enough men to keep this place in order. The thing is, there are still a fair few thousand Inmates in this facility who weren't killed in all the fighting. Inmates who are going to need placating in order for my new Wardens to stay focussed on more important matters. We're recruiting any who some forward and offer their services to the cause, but besides that, with no work to do any more the rest of them are going to need entertainment. Just imagine all the fun that they could have now that their former captors are locked in here with them?"

"In that case," Lee asked, cold as ice. "Why am I not first on the menu?"

"Besides how much I'm enjoying our little chat, you mean?"

"This facility is now utterly in your control." he continued, ignoring Hammond "You appear to have no interest in finding out how to fun it efficiently, ad you know that a public execution would be a source of great entertainment, not to mention would likely break the will of many of the Wardens still loyal to me. So, I ask again, why have you not killed me already?"

General Hammond's grin was back in evidence.

"You're a very clever man Colonel. My intel told me as much, but it's so refreshing to see such a keen mind in action. To think, if only you had been on our side, you could have worked wonders!

To answer your question, it saddens me to say that our operation here has run into a bit of a snag. We have a problem with the communications here which means that we're unable to move to the next stage of the plan until we find the problem and remove it. I'm thinking you might be the man to help us do that."

"How inconvenient for you. Perhaps the communications were damaged by your bombardment."

"We were more careful than that."

"Then I'm afraid I can't help you."

The silence lasted a while after that. Lee waited, expecting the thumbscrews or electric shocks to be employed at any moment. Eventually, however, Hammond turned and walked away.

"What are the Songbirds planning?" Lee asked just before Hammond turned the corner.

The general stopped and turned. There was genuine surprise on his face for the first time.

"You have been busy, haven't you?" was all he said, before he disappeared out of sight.

=========================================================================================================================
Selina sat in a sullen silence, perched uneasily on the edge of her bed. As a reward for her cooperation, Selina had been given one of the few actual rooms in the barracks that was still standing, although the windows had been smashed out, and it was bitterly cold outside.

She wasn't confined to the room, She had freedom to wander the whole of the Ops Centre in fact (why should she have any less? it was all ruins now, Songbirds were everywhere, and she had nowhere else to go). Still, she had chosen to just sit here, afraid to do much of anything else.

'All I have to do is wait. Just wait it out, and keep my nose clean.'

It was unbearable.

=========================================================================================================================
After hours of driving through more and more tunnels, They broke out once more into the open sky. The forest through which they had entered was nowhere to be seen here, the mountains were smoother, and the air warmer. Looking out of the back of the truck, Nikolai saw to his left an expanse of glittering water, stretching for as far as his eyes could see. He stared, transfixed.

"The land here is beautiful, untouched by the hand of Man for centuries." remarked their Songbird guide, the same who had accompanied them on their retreat from the battle the day before. "Enjoy it while you can. Once we get to the deserts, it will be little but sand and ruins until we reach the southern ocean."

"The light reflecting off the surface of the sea seemed to warm Nikolai, and so he stretched out one last, longing moment, before ducking his head back inside, and turning to Lucia, who was still holding the book open ready for him. He took it in his bandaged hands, which they had not spoken of, and screwed up his face as he concentrated, hard.

"The... Durslys, at nu-number, four..." he mumbled clumsily. Already being fluent in several languages thanks to his time underground, Nikolai had no trouble reading a word once he had leaned to recognise it, the meaning and grammar all already sorted out in his head, but so much of it was still looking like nothing more than meaningless scribbles, like the messages he had seen carved by other inmates on the walls of The Pit. None of it had ever mattered. He was fortunate, at least, to have a teacher who was patient with him. Nikolai was still a stranger to this sort of discipline. Before now, the most he had ever known of learning was 'Be told to do something. Be beaten until you do it right.'

Unbidden, his thoughts returned to what had happened the day before. Nikolai did not even know why he was obsessing over it so much. Yes, it had been different, but so much of his life had been different lately, he supposed it must only have been natural. It was hardly the first time it had happened.

It had been so vivid though...

After exiting the Mess Hall, Abigail was escorted back to what remained of the Gates; which surprisingly to her at least remained mostly intact, sure there was some damage, but give her a few hours and she could clear it all up and fix what could be repaired as there was a tool box in the storage room. A hour or so later, Zachary turned up to help with things, as no doubt the new owners would want drinks at some point.

Abigail had heard little of what happened to everyone else, though she overheard a couple of the new guards saying that Aggie and Lewis were somewhere in the semi-ruins of the Ops Center. Perhaps if she found time later, she would go visit them, see how they were holding up. But right now that didn't matter. Right now she had to get the Gates in a workable condition.

24 Hours Later

Twenty four hours later, and things were certainly lively in the Gates of Pandemonium; the invaders were celebrating their victory, and were doing a good job at being very rowdy. Abigail swore she caught sight of a couple of them giving her a few dirty looks, no doubt some perverted thought had crossed their mind. Luckily the shift was more manageable thanks to Zachary being around to help prepare and serve drinks when necessary, as it took a bit of weight off of her.

It was like watching a train wreck. Despite detesting everything that went on below, Neil couldn't pry his eyes away from the anarchy that had gripped the lower levels of the Pit. Neil hadn't seen the worst of the riots when they happened three months ago, but he imagined the scene looked remarkably similar. Thankfully many of the more docile or... 'innocent' prisoners had been kept out of the violence. There were wardens to lynch, after all. Their comrades that had died on the surface had it easy.

Their suffering hadn't been prolonged.

Neil looked on from a rooftop as several wardens were wrangled up and executed; their corpses paraded around like trophies shortly thereafter. Even if he could act, what could he do against this. No one could stop this. No one could control this.

And then he saw it. A woman, perhaps in her thirties, garbed in warden gear and being dragged by the back of the collar by some deranged in-mate twice her size. Neil clutched the roof's ledge and gritted his teeth, "No..." Though he was a fair distance away, it was clear enough to him what was going on. The man had taken a knife and had peeled away her clothing before bending her over a rock. "NO!" He shouted. "NO! NO! NO! NO!" Fortunately for him, his protests had been drowned out by the roaring crowd below.

As more prisoners fell in on her he swung his rifle over his shoulder and took aim. He could stop this. He could stop this RIGHT NOW! Maybe she'd be able to slip away to safety after he took them down. Maybe she'd live to see tomorrow.

A lot of maybes, one of which being: 'maybe I will compromise my mission'. It had hardly been a day and he was already on the verge of throwing away their only chance at survival. Would this one woman be worth the lives of everyone in the Pit? "FUCK! FUCK ME! GOD FUCKING DAMMIT!" He spat as he watched them through the scope, his finger twitching on the trigger. "IT'S NOT FUCKING FAIR!"

He couldn't do it. She wasn't worth it. He had to tell himself she wasn't worth losing everything. Dropping to his knees, he looked down at the rifle in his hands. He had to remind himself that this wasn't his call. He wasn't doing this to her nor was he letting this happen to her. Lee was. This was Lee's call.

Turning around, he leaned his back against the ledge and buried his face in his hands. He tried to forget what was transpiring below. He tried to ignore the fact that a woman was being raped and murdered... a woman he could very well save. He didn't have the strength to stop it then and... as it turned out, he didn't have the strength to do it now.

"No..." He whispered to himself as he tried to calm his nerves.

It's not about strength, Neil. Under different circumstances you would save her.

Sighing heavily, he looked up at the stone ceiling longingly.

This was only the beginning.

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

Lucia nodded along with him, always smiling, even when he got stuck or made mistakes. It was remarkable, really. She'd never guessed he'd be able to pick it up so quickly. Though she'd never taught someone to read before, she didn't imagine it'd ever been this... easy. Then again, perhaps she was more patient than she'd given herself credit for. Despite the pain, she'd been in a remarkably happy mood. It had been so long since she'd felt anything like this. It had been so long since she felt anything close to... normalcy.

"That was great, Nikolai!" She remarked as he finished the chapter. "You're brave to start with such complicated literature, you know. Most people would start with something far more basic, but you're taking to it like a natural. Maybe I need to start testing your reading comprehension a little earlier than I'd planned!" She teased, giving Nikolai a light shove.

Breaking eye contact, she looked past a Songbird who'd been looking out the back of the truck. Seeing the water glistening in the sun intensified her smile. It reminded her of home, "You know... maybe after we settle down in Holland we can visit Greece. The Mediterranean is beautiful. You'd love it there."

Felix had stayed in the vent for hours and hours on end. Hearing the cries and screams and shouts of violence unfolding beneath him. His heart was breaking. He couldn't take it anymore. He couldn't... but what could just one man do-

"NO! NOOOO! GET AWAY FROM ME NO NO!"

A voice was screaming, a woman's voice, soon followed by the sickening laughter of a man. Felix's eyes widened as he peeked his head down. The girl couldn't have even been twenty years old, yet here a man looking three times her age was choking her with his hands down his pants.

No more.

Leaping down from the vent, ignoring the dulled pain within him, he grabbed the metal grate which closed the shaft, ran up and slammed it as hard as he could over the man's head. "Forgive me for not having honour." He said before savagely beating the man until he was unconscious. He turned to the girl who was crying. "Are you okay?"

The girl sobbed and merely ran away from Felix. "Wait please! The vents are safe, hide there you can-"

"GET AWAY FROM ME!" The girl screamed as she kept running. Felix gave chase and couldn't help but feel like he himself was some kind of monster chasing the poor girl. He ran and ran as long and as far as he could until they had hit a dead end; however it wasn't a wall they ran into. It was a mass of huge hulking men. Within seconds they picked up the girl and snapped her neck like it was nothing.

"NOOO!!!!" Yelled Felix as he saw her die before him.

"Put the body away, we'll need it for later." Said her murderer.

"She's not enough for a full day's meal, look at her she's tiny!" Screeched another.

"This one might be though." Replied a third man as they approached Felix. He forced himself to focus, to push away the sight of such a grisly murder of an undeserving, innocent person.

Distance, a few metres. Four men, all massively outweighing me. Low railing, can use to my advantage.

"Forgive me..." Spoke Felix through gritted teeth as he stared upon the giant cannibals. "But I believe I may need to kill you, I wish I didn't, and I apologise."

The men didn't laugh at him, they smiled, but it vanished immediately. Still gripping the metal grate, he stood in a low stance, close to the ground, knees bent and ready for an attack. All men rushed him at the same time. He slammed the side of the grate into the knee of one man, ducking the swing of another before bashing him over the back of the head with all his force. He hit the ground, blood pouring from the back of his head.

1

Felix began running away from the three, giving chase to the man. He stopped and pushed off the other direction, turning back to them, jumping off the ground, kicking the leader in the chest before also clasping him in the face with the grate. As he fell back, another grabbed the grate and tried to pull it from Felix's hands. He allowed it, and in that moment of opportunity reached down and punched the man's inside knee, popping it out of place, swiftly elbowing the opposite knee and giving it the same treatment. The man fell to his knees and Felix rolled out the way of another man who went to stomp on him. Felix kicked the grate the man on his knees was holding into his own face, knocking him clean unconscious.

2

The last man approached and swung wild, horizontal punches to Felix. He dodged and weaved side to side, avoiding a few knee attempts as well. The man kicked forwards, Felix dropped down and grabbed his ankle, twisting and snapping all of the bones. The man lurched out in pain, giving the Spaniard a chance to jump forward, punching his Adam's apple into his throat with such force he lay on the ground, spurting up blood. He quickly stomped on his face to end it quickly.

3

The leader was now back on his feet and was ready to charge him. Felix stepped towards the railing, awaiting the man. In his bloody mess the Cannibal didn't think clearly, as Felix side stepped and flung him over the side to his death.

4

Felix leaned against the wall, fighting the opportunity to weep as he he lay his eyes upon the young girl's dead body. He was about to pick her up when the sounds of more fighting were getting closer. Deciding he couldn't stand by as more people slaughtered each other in the droves, he set off to help any he could, and all he could, as the girl's face preyed upon his psyche.

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

Eleven. The knife had dipped in the blood of eleven victims as Travis cleaned it with his own clothing. He looked like a killer from a horror movie as he stalked the mid levels with his knife. Travis grinned as he held up his knife in surrender, approaching one of the invaders.

"I hear I can offer my services to our, glorious rescuers?" He smiled wickedly.

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

Clementina sat slumped against a rock, her rifle laying over her knees. She was with three other wardens. She didn't know their names, she didn't even know if they were in the same battalion, or if they were stationed down here, all that mattered was holding off the horde of prisoners that kept trying to kill them, and probably rape her and the other female wardens. She was with two women and one man, Clementina had run out of ammo for the rifle and didn't have the energy to keep carrying it around. She just had her sidearm, a baton and taser. One of the other warden's helped her stand. "Come on, we got a break, we need somewhere we can hide."

"Sure," said Clementina weakly as she threw her rifle aside, however another warden picked it up. "Leave it I'm out of ammo for it.

"You never know what you might find down here, keep it." she replied.

Clemtina sighed and hung the strap around herself again as they jogged into a nearby building. It was extremely small and only had two floors, but it would do for now. They checked the building and set up on both floors, two on the top, two on the bottom. The leiutenant set up on the top floor, sitting on a table and putting the rifle to one side, but keeping it with her.

"You think we can survive?" Asked the same female warden who picked up her rifle.

"Pfft, probably not. All I know is if one tries to rape me I'm gonna make them wish they had been good little boys." Said Clem, pulling out her pistol.

"But what if they overpower us? Should we not keep a bullet for ourselves?"

"You can. I'll face all those fuckers and not give them a chance to get their pants off."

How did it end up like this? The wardens stuck in the lower levels? An outside force ruling and winning within a day? None of this made any sense, the sheer numbers of the opposing force was baffling, how every soldier was expendable because a hundred would take their place. The jump from a favela to the pit was...

'Eu prefiro morrer em casa...'

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

By the following day, Felix was exhausted. He had to run from more opponents than finish the fight, and it was always the right thing to do to fight to the very end. But the end was frightening and he didn't want to see it. Things were beginning to die down anyway as he found a line of cells far removed from the general chaos. These were filled with those attempting to run, rather than those attempting to kill. He tried to pull open a cell door, but he just didn't have the energy, as he collapsed on the floor in front of it.

Lewis remembered when he first arrived at the facility. It was bristling with strong structures that were manned by equally if not more, strong men and women. The place had an air of confidence, a breath of impenetrability as it looked so. There were high-tech weapon systems, heavily-armed vehicles and trained men. It was intimidating but it was so for a reason. It was a prison after all but not like any prison he had ever seen. The place looked like it could withstand everything.

Now it was a crumbled facade of what Lewis remembered. In the room they threw him in there was the strong stench of death. There was a hole next to his bed with dried blood splattered where the hole was. No doubt the last resident met an unfortunate end here but now he had to live with it. The invaders came and occupied the place, wearing uniforms he didn't recognize but now see on a daily basis.

Lewis couldn't sleep. For the past 24 hours he sat in his room, sulking and thinking. He didn't even want to touch what they gave him. So he sat there. He didn't know where Aggie was. She could be in the same building but he didn't want to risk getting shot just by peeping out the doorway. He could hear her coughing.

That's when he noticed his neighbor. Lewis only caught glimpses of him as he paced about his room. He looked to be more worse for wear than he did. He appeared to be bald and maybe the same nationality as Lee but it was hard to tell. He probably was an executive judging by his worn out fancy clothes. Still Lewis minded his business, wondering what these men had in plan.

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

Aggie was given a room in one of the buildings up above. The cold blew through the broken windows and walls making warmth one of the things she missed from the Pitt. Suddenly she grew tired and weary and huddled in a corner in the room. Quickly she fell asleep, not realizing how sleepy she truly was.

What woke her up was a coughing fit although not quite as violent as her past ones. She slept through a good part of part of a day and awoke to a frigid temperature. She shivered as she rubbed her hands for heat. It reminded her of her lovely stay in Denmark where the prison camps never had warm fires for their inmates. Aggie tried to remember her time there but it was more of a blur than anything else. The cold took away her memories and it began to take her again. She needed to find warmth.

Aggie pushed herself up and towards the door. She looked through the keyhole to see if any of the guards were around and to her surprise there were none. Carefully, Aggie opened the door and stealthily wandered the hallways searching for a some sort of blanket or anything. As she looked around, she noticed there were barely any guards guarding the hallways. She figured most of them would either be setting up shop or killing more Wardens in the lower levels.

She moved quietly until a coughing fit hit her hard. She coughed and wheezed loudly as her illness decided to come back in full force.

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

Richard paced nervously around his given room. Part of him was scared to death considering the fact that he was an executive of the company that the invaders clearly hated but another part of him perplexed him too much. There were too many questions floating around in his head to sort through. The fact that he was left to a room to himself didn't help either. Now he couldn't do anything but think and try to connect the dots one by one.

Someone coughed loudly outside but he didn't pay any attention to it. He dug in his pockets for something when he found a small, plastic pen in his pocket. It wasn't much of a weapon and he couldn't really fight either but it allowed him to do another thing. He ripped a piece of the sheet from his worn out blanket. Richard began writing but the as fate had it, the ink died only after a one word.

"Songbirds"

"You know... maybe after we settle down in Holland we can visit Greece. The Mediterranean is beautiful. You'd love it there."

Acolyte had been silent for some time, watching Lucia instruct Nikolai, but now he had something to contribute. "That sounds great. I've been to a lot of places, but never Greece."

With that, he looked back down at what he was doing. The piece of wood he was whittling was beginning to take the shape of a hawk. Holding his knife like a pen, Acolyte began detailing the beak delicately.

As Nikolai continued to stumble over the first page of the book, he became distracted by the sight of Acolyte's whittling. He had seen the man make similar shapes out of wood before, and given not much thought to them. Now, however, he was beginning to see the appeal of such things. He made a note of one more thing he would like to learn, although he was not sure if he possessed the aptitude for it. Nikolai had tested Acolyte's strength first hand, and yet he could also be so delicate. Not that Nikolai wasn't also nimble, but this would require a different sort of finesse.

"We'll be coming up on a village about an hour down the road." their guide spoke up again. "We'll be making a stop there to take on some supplies and speak with the locals. Our journey will be a lot easier when we know how things stand with the tribal communities further south."

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

Selina was broken out of her timid stasis by the sound of somebody having a violent coughing fit not too far outside her room. It was difficult to tell from how aggressive the fit was, but it sounded like a woman's voice. For a while Selina stayed still and silent, debating whether or not she should do anything. General Hammond may have agreed to spare her life and the lives of her fellow Executives (the five that remained), for now, but Selina needed to be extra careful not to cause any trouble. This wasn't over yet.

The wheezing and spluttering continued however, and there was only so much Selina could stand of just sitting there, twiddling her thumbs and pretending not to hear. All that did was make her think of how many souls were making worse noises underground right now. In a flurry of motion, as if she had been coiled up like a spring for the past several hours, Selina rose and strode out of her room into the corridor. There, at the end of the blasted, blackened hallway she saw a woman that she did not recognise. She did not where any uniform, and the way she held herself spoke of someone who had spent years surviving by not drawing unwanted attention. She was an Inmate, what little that meant any more, Selina would have staked, if not her life, then surely someone else's on it. What was an Inmate doing up here though? If she was looking to join the ranks of the new Wardens of RACDI-Alpha, then she would likely be sorely disappointed, the state she was in.

"Excuse me? Are you alright?" Selina asked tentatively.

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

The Songbird was getting bored. The battle had been truly something, and he had cried with elation along with all of his brothers at the moments when, after such a struggle with so much blood spilt in the name of The One Truth, when the Warden's resolve had fractured, and one by one their front-lines began to dissolve as most turned and ran, the inevitability of their defeat gripping them. Since then however, it had just been butchery. Not that he didn't take satisfaction from any killing of these scum who worked for the enemy, kicking other human beings like dogs at the command of their masters... but it was much better when they fought back. He wasn't particularly fond of the Inmates either. Turning them loose had been fun at first, but now the Songbird was hoping that things would settle down into some kind of rhythm soon. It wasn't that he had any sympathy for their victims, of that there would forever be none. However, some of these people were an even more shining example of why the world must change, and why their glorious leader was the only one with the strength and vision to make it happen.

"I hear I can offer my services to our, glorious rescuers?"

Here was one now, covered in blood and with a satisfied smirk on his face. The Songbird returned the smile but kept his rifle at the ready. The Inmate sure as hell want going to get within ten feet of him still holding that knife. He might not work for the bastards who built this place, but for some of these Inmates the bloodshed had nothing to do with revenge. They just loved killing. Such could still be used, but the Songbird was never going to get comfortable around them.

"Maybe you can..." he said in reply. "but it's a buyer's market right now. Plenty of people just like you looking to increase their lot, and we're only taking the best. I'll tell you what. Go find me a Warden, a big one with a mean look on their face so I know it wasn't easy, and bring them back here alive. You can't just drag back any old corpse and claim you made it. Anyway, bring them back alive, and give me a demonstration of your willingness to join the cause, and maybe we'll see about taking you upstairs."

"That sounds great. I've been to a lot of places, but never Greece."

Lucia was beaming, "It's warm!" She laughed, causing a sharp pain to rattle her midsection. She shrugged it off and continued. "You and Nikolai should be fine though. Neither of you two seem to be huge fans of shirts anyway."

"We'll be coming up on a village about an hour down the road. We'll be making a stop there to take on some supplies and speak with the locals. Our journey will be a lot easier when we know how things stand with the tribal communities further south."

"Great," Lucia chirped. She looked to Nikolai and Acolyte. "Don't know about you guys, but I'm starving. If one of you goes to the market be sure to pick me up something scrumptious." It suddenly occurred to her that Nikolai may not have ever heard the word 'scrumptious' before in his life. Having lived his entire life in the Pit, what reason would he have had to hear such a word?

Though he'd have no clue what compelled her to do it, Lucia reached out and patted Nikolai gently on his enormous forearm. She smiled, "I'm excited for you, Nikolai. You're finally going to get to see what the rest of the world is like."

"Our journey will be a lot easier when we know how things stand with the tribal communities further south."

"I suppose you'll be sending Riley to handle that? The man's half tribal himself." he asked, mildly.

"Don't know about you guys, but I'm starving. If one of you goes to the market be sure to pick me up something scrumptious."

Acolyte laughed idly. "Sure thing."

He thought he and Lucia might be best left for handling the purchasing of things at the moment, though. He wasn't sure, but he thought there was a good chance Nikolai hadn't had any experience with currency before. Usually in the Pit, people traded and trafficked various resources. Food and medicine, and suchlike. The two weren't fully comparable. Still, he wasn't going to embarrass the man by inquiring about that possible gap in his experience in front of other people. If Nikolai needed to learn, he would probably ask someone.

"Upstairs eh? I sure would love feeling the snow on my face. I'll fine one, but the condition might not be too good, alive though!" Travis laughed as he cleaned his knife with his own clothes, wiping it. Where he could find living wardens in the Mid Levels of the Pit. In the small break he took from killing he remembered standing next to other killers like himself, laughing and spitting and revelling at the misfortune of the Wardens as they ran, unable to pause for even a moment to kill them since their enemy was in hot pursuit.

No. No if he wanted to find Wardens he would need to travel to the very depths of the Pit. And where oh where would be an excellent place to hide from their invaders? Old Wolf territory? Perhaps, but many like himself would want to lay claim there, becoming the new King of the Pit. Abandoned buildings would be a safe bet but they'd see him coming. Any running about would get wasted by the horde. Mines would be full of either running cowards or Warden's trying to make a stand.

Wait! Old gang turfs! Not the massive ones like the Wolves or the Crips or Zulu, the smaller ones like the White Stars or the Yakuza. Former members may flock there, but they were small enough that perhaps a small troop of Wardens could flood in for safety. There he could surely find one and take them head on in a one on one fight.

However, before he descended into the biggest ghetto of the Pit, a more cowardly thought had come to mind: The Hive, from a fighting ground to an execution stage for prisoners, no doubt the more theatrical prisoners would bring Wardens there to execute. Surely, surely he could grab one that has been beaten down, a big one, a scary one, and most importantly, one who had already been beaten down for him. Not that he needed that of course, he kept telling himself at least. But a pre battered Warden was certainly welcome.

"Excuse me? Are you alright?"

Aggie looked to the figure down the hall. Even with the limited light of the destroyed building, Aggie could tell it was a woman and the voice confirmed it. She also knew that the woman wasn't a Songbird by the fact that Aggie wasn't being shot or yelled at. Recovering from her fit, Aggie stood up.

"I'd be lying if I said yes." Aggie said groggily. Aggie walked carefully towards the figure but only to get a better view. She didn't encroach on the woman more than she had to. Aggie didn't want to find out if the woman was armed the hard way. She stuck close to the doors along the way, pretending to use them as some sort of support but really it was in case she needed to retreat in a hurry. She could just turn the handle and jump into the room if someone opened fire on her. These were the things she learned in the Pitt and it seemed more like second nature now.

"Would you happen to have a blanket or two?" Aggie asked the woman, still expecting nothing short of a no. "It wouldn't really brighten the place up if there was another dead body here, now would it?" Aggie joked although she feared that by the way things were going with her health, that may be a possibility.

"Would you happen to have a blanket or two?"

Selina opened her mouth to make her apologies. Unfortunately there was nothing she could do for the poor girl. While she did have blankets, she needed them for herself if she was going to have any hope of keeping warm up here, and she didn't want to do anything that might get her in trouble with the General.

What actually came out however, was "Of course. Follow me, I'll see what I can do." and so she turned tail and went back into her room, now with the strange girl in tow.

"It wouldn't really brighten the place up if there was another dead body here, now would it?"

If the scars weren't proof enough, this remark cemented Selina's certainty that the girl was an Inmate. Selina imagined that to her, this must all be some kind of sick joke, to escape the captivity she had been held in for who the hell knew how long, only to end up a prisoner above ground as well.

"Here." Selina said, stripping the top blanket of her bed and draping it around the girl's shoulders, where she stood shivering. "I hope you don't mind if I ask... what's your name?"

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

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

The young Captain stood upon the high hill, binoculars scanning the terrain below him, a steely expression on his face as he watched the civilians mill around in the village below. A jeep rolled in behind him, and out of the plume of dust that followed in its wake, one of his platoon leaders stepped forward.

"No sign of Protectorate forces Sir. It seems that they were forewarned of our arrival and retreated."

"No doubt to regroup and consolidate their forces at some more valuable choke-point to the West." replied the Captain, displeased by the hin of satisfaction in the Lieutenant's voice. "This is no victory."

"We made sure to cover our advance with the sandstorm. How did they know that we were coming?"

"Collaborators." Lee spat out the word as if it tasted unpleasant. "The tribes here are sympathetic to the Protectorate, mistaking their weakness for fair treatment. They can navigate this land faster than we can."

"What are our orders Captain?"

"If the Arabs have indeed retreated West, then we need the knowledge to flank them. That knowledge exists in this village, in these people."

"They are refusing to speak to us, even to our translators you use their language."

"Then we must speak in a more universal tongue."

***

The Tigers gathered them all in the market square, a sea of sullen, impudent faces, with the exception of the children, who peaked out from behind the skirts of their mothers with expressions of mixed fear and wonder. Lee spoke to them all in their dialect, much as it shamed him.

"There are those among you who have aided our enemy." he announced, clearly and authoritatively. "This land is ours now, it's riches and it's people belong to us by right of strength. The lives of each and every one of you are mine, and you should consider the fact that you all still breathe a reward from me, a reward that you have yet to earn. We are, however, not without mercy, and I am prepared to fogrive these transgressions against us, all of them, if just one of you steps forward now and performs the same service for us, as you did for those who preceded us."

No one spoke.

"The Protectorate fled, abandoning you to your fate." Lee continued after the pause. "They knew we would come, and they made no effort to fight for you, or else take you with them so that you might escape us. Answer me, what have they done to earn your silence? What is it that makes them more worthy masters than we?"

Still no-one spoke. An old man at the front spat on the dirt, looking insolently at Lee.

The Captain's face showed no emotion as he said "So be it." and nodded to his men.

Roughly, the Tiger troops barged their way through the crowd, silencing cries of protest with the socks of their rifles. As Lee had instructed, the separated out first the women, and then the children, marching each group off to either side, and penning them each into a different house, adjacent to where Lee stood in the centre of the square. Once they had all been herded in and the doors barred, more Tigers brought forth stacks of dry, brittle wood, that they began piling at the bases of each house, before dousing the wood in petrol.

That was when people began to cry out.

"These mud houses that you build will not catch fire." Lee called out above the anguish. "Instead, the walls will heat and heat, until the insides become an oven. The people inside will roast slowly, and you will hear their cries for hours. Either you people offer me your full cooperation, or you must choose who to cook first, your women, or your children. Refuse to answer me again, and I will kill them all."

"Please!" One man cried out, stumbling forward and falling to his knees before Lee. "I beg of you, do not hurt my family! I helped the Protectorate, and I will help you."

Lee looked down at the snivelling creature, clutching at the legs of his uniform, and smiled.

***

A few hours later, the recon team, with their new guide, returned from the West.

"He was not playing us false Captain." The Sergeant who led them said. The Protectorate is there, and they know nothing of our approach.

Lee looked satisfied, and turned to the local man.

"You should know that it is a great honour to Serve the Tiger Republics. You have not repaid my mercy with treachery..."

Lee drew his side-arm and shot the man in the head.

"and nor will you."

As the cries went up behind him, Lee turned to the Sergeant.

"Shoot the men first, but waste no more ammunition on the rest."

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

Back in darkness, and back in pain, Lee awoke shivering. He was glad of it.

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

"The man's half tribal himself."

Their guide looked a little puzzled.

"Oh, that is not necessary. Everyone here has experience of this route South. Besides, the Wolf Brother has stayed behind with our Leader. He is one of her most adept followers, and she is keeping him close for their own journey.

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

The Talon sat cross-legged, in the centre of her chambers, concentrating hard to keep her mind clear. While the usefulness of this mountain network could not be denied, she hated this place. Walking through its rough-cut walls she felt an itch, and itch at the back of her skull that she could not abate. A single itch that contained all that was inflicted on her in that place long ago. She longed to claw her wall out, killing anything that got in her way, just as she had done before. It was hard to keep her connection to the One Truth down here, hidden from the beauty of life above. Down beneath the soil, there is nothing but corpses and corpse-feeders. Only death lives underground.

A muscle at the corner of her eye jumped, when one of her men announced his presence in the doorway by clearing his throat.

"Excuse me... my Lady." The man's voice quivered a little, as if what he saw in the room made him queasy. A soldier of her's should know better. "You called for someone?"

"I did. Send for the Wolf Brother. I have need of his report on our progress. I do not wish to remain here a minute longer than I must."

"Y-yes, my Lady."

When he was gone, The Talon looked up from her seat to the figures that kept her company. There were eight of them in the chamber altogether, suspended from the walls and ceiling by a hundred strips of their own skin. At least three of them still groaned and rattled with waning life.

The Talon could not see what unnerved them so. It was not as if she did this to other Songbirds. All of these were prisoners who had already been interrogated, serving all but their ultimate purpose. No-one but her would ever truly understand. Down here, the connection was so weak, and with the Great Revolution so close, she needed to touch their souls, make sure that her path was still clear. It was the only way she could stay sane.

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