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

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Neil continued laying down cover fire for Iron Squad, downing at least twenty inmates before they caught on to his location. This was made painfully obvious when a low-caliber round ricocheted off the vent, inches from his head, "Shit." He muttered under his breath as he dropped down onto his hands and knees, crawling down the vent as it was lit up around him. Before he turned the corner he felt a bullet rip right through sleeve, causing his heart to jump out of his chest.

Too fucking close.

He made his way back through the network of vents without further incident, eventually finding himself below one of the Lower Level walkways. His next course of action would be to get somewhere high. Somewhere he could cover Luka once he'd gotten out of the Hive. Inching through a crawlspace not much bigger than the vent he'd just crawled through, he made his way to the backside of the floor's infrastructure and began climbing up. Considering the narrow space that ran the length of this part of the Pit, Neil wasn't likely to run into anyone. It was so cramped, in fact, that his rifle kept getting caught every few feet.

Eventually he made it to the floor the Hive presided on and shimmied to the back of a nearby building. After scaling to the second floor of the small structure, he peaked through a tiny ventilation slot. It was abandoned. Carefully, he climbed around the side and peaked around the corner. The west entrance into the Hive was thrown into a frenzy. None of them would likely notice Neil climbing in through the building's side window from this distance.

Scooting closer to the window, he noticed it was mostly broken open already. Drawing his side arm, he held onto the corner of the structure with one hand while he bashed the remaining glass out of the window frame with the grip of his pistol. With the glass cleared, Neil threw himself onto the side of the building and climbed inside. The stench of death filled his nostrils almost immediately as his eyes adjusted to his new, dark surroundings. There were body parts everywhere.

"Fucking Christ..." He muttered as he held his hand up to his nose in a vain effort to shield himself from the smell. As he stumbled over the bodies, towards the front of the building, he heard footsteps from below. He froze.

"I swear! I thought I heard glass breakin' upstairs!" A man shouted.

"Then check it yer goddamn self! FUCK!" Another replied.

Soon after, footsteps began sounding from the nearby staircase. Looking at the pistol in his hand, he grimaced. Gunshots would be too loud. As the foot steps drew closer, Neil crept up against the wall, next to the staircase. Holstering his pistol, he drew his combat knife out of its sheath and pressed himself against the wall. Neil's blood was boiling by the time the first man came into view, his head popping up from the staircase. His face was full of boils and caked in dry blood.

Cannibals...

The man was brandishing a crowbar. If Neil was lucky, none of them would have guns. Just as soon as the cannibal had taken his next step, Neil was on him, lunging over the railing and landing his knees onto the man's shoulders. Neil plunged his dagger into the man's chest as they crashed down onto the cannibal's back. Riding the dying man to the bottom floor, Neil sprung to his feet, knife turned backwards in his main-hand as two more cannibals came into view. They both appeared shocked to see him. And they were unarmed.

Not wasting the element of surprise, Neil sprung into action, charging at the closest man and swinging his blade in a wide arc. The cannibal screamed and stumbled backwards, narrowly dodging the fatal blow. As Neil recovered, the second man lept at him. Stepping into his charge, Neil threw his arms backwards, catching the man in the side of the neck with his forearm. The cannibal went limp on contact and crashed against the concrete floor.

Before Neil could check to see if he was indeed dead, the first Cannibal was on him, tackling him to the floor. As they struggled on the ground with the knife between them, it became clear Neil possessed superior strength. Knowing he would lose the bout, the cannibal scrambled to escape, but was unable to when Neil grabbed the back of his head and pulled him in. The knife sank deep into his throat, covering Neil in a crimson ooze.

Getting to his feet once more, Neil bent down and slit the other man's throat for good measure. Though he'd have loved to take a breather, he was already running late. Proceeding up to the second-story window, Neil knelt down and scoped up on the Hive's entrance. It seemed to have cleared up quite a bit in the last few minutes, but there were still no signs of Iron Squad.

"Come on, Korovitch..."

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"Whoop," Lucia muttered as she was swept off her feet. She wasn't at all prepared for the impromptu ride and was forced to hold the crutches horizontally under her armpits so as to not hit anyone in the face. After making it into the barn, Nikolai carefully set her down. When their eyes could meet once more, Lucia cocked an eyebrow, "Thanks, Nikolai. But, uh, you should probably warn a girl before you just... pick them up." She chuckled.

"It's perfect, thank you very much. In fact, it makes me wonder what a talent such as yours is doing so very far away from civilization." The Commander smiled at Abigail as he spoke, though there was something about it which didn't seem right. "It's true, you're old Chief had been to very many places. Did he ever speak of them, or did his underlings ever whisper the stories in this haven that he would never frequent?" He leaned forward and spoke softly. "How much do you know of what he did?"

"Well, I certainly know a fair bit about his actions in Japan, what little of it is left after what he did, as he spoke of them himself when he came down here a few days ago, in fact, I think he sat in that exact chair you're sitting in now sir." Abigail remarked as she began to recall the meeting she had with Lee the other day, the day that things changed in her mind.

"From what I recall, it was his first campaign, back when he was a Lieutenant in the Tiger Republics. The reason that Japan became important, was that following the Cataclysm, what I'll refer to as America to forgo the long title, had lost much of it's power, and was looking East across the Pacific.

Japan had also been bombarded, diplomatically speaking by the Tiger Republics to become apart of it, though naturally they refused, and they did it in such a way that provoked conflict. As a result, Japan was secretly arranging an alliance with America to protect themselves from attack.

To turn the tide in the Republics favor, they began a long smear campaign to turn Japan's people against itself. In short it worked. And there wasn't much America could do to help without facing severe repercussions. Whilst the regime change was successful, taking over the once Land of the Rising Sun in about a week; there were pockets of resistance.

That is where Lee came in. For over a year and a half, Lee and the rest of his kind tore through Japan like a hurricane, stamping out dissent, burning down homes, quietly removing whole families in the dead of night, interrogations you name it. And he was proud in doing it. Just hearing about it sickens me to the core, enough to despise him." Abigail said with some degree of fury as she remembered every detail.

"However, I think a part of him regrets what he has done. Lee said he wished that the stories of him breaking in Bahrain, Pan-Arabia as many have said were true. In actuality, it opened his eyes, and he saw how broken he already was. To think, a man committing such acts was allowed to run a place like this, whilst there are people down there in the Pit who have done less, it's unthinkable. But like I said, I think a part of him regrets what he's done. I don't know whether to absolve or condemn him." She then added before calming down.

Korovitch and Fiona sprinted through the Hive's entrance. Combat has left them both blood splattered, but unwounded. Looking up at an adjacent window, he saw a familiar face watching him as a rifle passed over him. Good, Verner had kept his spine.

"We must regroup," he told Fiona. "We will head to the second floor and meet with Verner."

"You're really trusting him, sir?"

"We have no other choice. He has exceeded expectations thus far, at least. For now, I intend to find out what this 'mission' of his is."

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"Thanks, Nikolai. But, uh, you should probably warn a girl before you just... pick them up."

"Yeah," said Acolyte, laughing. "Usually I buy a girl dinner before I pull a stunt like that, big man."

Travis was running out of one of The Hive's few exits, this one was pretty much dead due everyone bum rushing Korovitch. With the heavy man hefted over his shoulder The Dragon was moving at half speed, and the random prisoners running up to him trying to take the warden back weren't helping. He shot them down one by one. Even if his aim sucked and they were running, he could put them down easily enough with a shot to the gut and the chest. He had no idea how much ammo he had left in the clip but he had at least enough to get out of the Hive. Mustering up all his strength he made one strong dash out of the Hive as fast as he could. He needed to get away from these greedy bastards who wanted the throne for themselves. The Pit is The Dragon's Lair! His domain and no one else's! And he knew that if he got out of The Hive alive there would be less people wanting to take this huge warden for their own, most would simply run past him looking for a good time and a good kill.

"Bastard he's mine!"

'Ah mother fucker its never easy is it?' Travis pushed on ahead as a prisoner was running behind him, brandishing a crowbar. Travis turned back and pulled the trigger only to be met with a disappointing click. 'FUCK!' He'd have to throw the warden down if he wanted to take care of this mother fucker, but that would be wasting even more time. He just kept on running, fleeing from the bastard and hoping he didn't catch up. If he did he'd beat Travis to death before he had a chance to become the all powerful Dragon of the Pit! What he was born to be! His birthright stricken away from him!

'FUCK IT!' He ran towards the nearest cover he could find in case anyone had him in their sights. He hid around a corner and crouched down with his knife in hand. His pursuer slammed the crowbar against the corner, just a tad too high. Travis returned the favour by cutting into his manhood, following up with a gutting that Travis had perfected long ago, when he was a young man hitch hiking and sailing as much as the world he could, even if it was only a few countries here and there. His guts spilled out deliciously as The Dragon smashed his brains against the wall with the crowbar. The warden was still unconscious, thank a non-existent god. Once again scooping him up he set off once again. Other inmates were swarming all around him trying to escape the Hive or searching for more Wardens. He would need to be sneakier now. With no bullets all he had to defend himself was a crowbar and a knife, and while that had worked so far it he needed more to defend himself with a warden on his shoulder. Taking a few deep breaths, he shot off like a bat out off hell, the crowbar in his free hand. He would do this.

He WOULD do this.

Aggie and Lewis looked to each other as Selina finished, realizing that hit would be a hard fight but that much was what they already knew. Then they stayed silent as armed soldiers stood outside their room. One of them demanded that Selina leave with them. Aggie gritted her teeth then stood up.

"How come she gets to have a walk around?" Aggie protested before coughing suddenly. She sunk to the floor before Lewis could get to her. He was too shocked by her question to the commanding officer to ask her what the hell she was doing but a part of him knew what exactly she was doing. It his turn.

Lewis looked to the commanding officer. "I'm sorry, sir. I think what my she means to say is that she needs medical attention. Please, she's suffering." He said, pleadingly.

If Aggie wasn't coughing, she would have rolled her eyes at Lewis' statement but at least he was doing somethin.g

General Hammond looked over the pair of them coldly.

"Your old medical wing took some damage in the takeover, but it's still partially functional. You can go there to be seen to. Alternatively, my men have set up a makeshift triage in the canteen. Don't expect to be seen to quickly though. We took a lot of casualties yesterday, and my medics will look after their own before attending to..." he paused to glare especially at Lewis, "others."

Just as he was about to disappear around the corner, Hammond poked his head back around.

"Oh, and see that you don't wander off to anywhere you're not allowed. I don't expect your health would improve if anyone were to catch you."

Selina stole one last look at the pair of them before she disappeared out of sight. She just hoped that, whatever the young duo planned on doing, they would be careful.

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"Usually I buy a girl dinner before I pull a stunt like that, big man."

Nikolai shrugged, not quite understanding what Acolyte was saying, before he was called upon to help carry more things into the house. The Songbirds were stacking crates of ammunition in what used to be the old kitchen. The Free Men were not the only cargo being carried south.

"He's getting better every day." said a thickly accented voice behind Lucia. The tall, athletic form of Natalia was speaking as she stepped through the threshold, her high-powered rifle slung over one shoulder, he machete over the other. "I have been watching. Before, he always walked around like he saw nothing accept what was right in front of him. Now, thanks to you, he takes the time to see things."

Natalia had to crouch down to be on a level with Lucia, as they looked back through the door at Nikolai, hauling more crates out of the back of the truck.

"You may not notice, he shows so little difference. It's in the small things, like the way he holds his head, and the split second longer he pauses when he sees something new." she said, wistfully. "You'd have to have been watching him for a long time to see the changes."

All of a sudden, Natalia blushed and bit her lip, as if she were afraid that she had said too much.

After a moment's pause, Acolyte followed Nikolai's lead in helping carry in crates of ammunition, glancing at Lucia and Natalia as he left. He was at the back of the truck when Nikolai came back for another crate, which Acolyte passed to him before hefting one himself and balancing a smaller one on top of it.

"I think you have an admirer, Nikolai," he said with a grin.

A subtle dread crept into Neil's mind as he kept his eye glued to the Hive's entrance. When he finally spotted what was left of Iron Squad, it was like a huge weight off his shoulders. Though they weren't completely out of the woods yet, it was a good start. Seeing a few prisoners hot on their trail as they passed by the building he was set up in, Neil made quick work of them. Two headshots and three more in their chests. Once Korovitch and his subordinate were clear, he packed up and and started after the two wardens.

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"You'd have to have been watching him for a long time to see the changes."

Was she... blushing? Lucia couldn't believe was she was seeing. Though the Freemen had within them their fair share of women, it was clear they weren't treated any differently than the men in the group. In fact, if there had been any sexual relationships among them, Lucia had been unaware of their existence. The very idea of it had never crossed her mind until now. Not until she saw the way this woman looked at... Nikolai of all people.

Then she thought of Nikolai naked.

Gross.

Snapping herself back to reality, Lucia looked back to Nikolai, "He's a strange one, that's for sure," She frowned. "I spent so much time resenting him. Wanting revenge for what he had done. I realize now how stupid it was. He didn't murder Samuel. They saved me... together."

Lucia looked to Natalia and smiled, "Underneath it all, he's a good man. I can tell. It may have taken me a long time to realize it, but now... I think I... we have a chance to help him out of his shell. I apologize," Lucia blushed slightly. "I understood you all respected him as your leader... perhaps, many of you even thought of him as a brother. I must have pained you all to see him making so many sacrifices on my behalf. I understand if you resent me for it." She furrowed her brow and looked back out through the barn door.

"I understand if you resent me for it."

Natalia shook her head.

"You weren't the first." she told the younger girl. "Nikolai has always stood up for those who did not meekly submit to others. That's how he found me. I was alone then, and I'd been set upon by the Cannibals. Eight of them cornered me in the Lower Levels. They did this," she turned her head and pointed at the mangled scar tissue that covered most of her left ear. "but I fought back. I'd killed three of them before they were ready to finish me off. That was when he arrived..."

Natalia's eyes misted over, and she sighed, surprisingly girlish all of a sudden.

"No Wardens ever answered my cries for help, but he did. When he saw what was happening, he fought them all off, all by himself. When he pulled the leader's head clean off his shoulders, all the others who remained ran away. Then, he helped me to my feet, and showed me the way back to his den. While I was healing, me kept all of the other Wolves away, to make sure none of them finished what the Cannibals started; and when the time came, he gave me the chance to fight to become their equal. He broke my nose and three of my ribs, while I broke his wrist, and gave him that big scar across his back. Do you see it?"

She sat down beside Lucia now, her knees tucked up close to her chest, staring out across the front yard with big eyes.

"Back when he made all of the others welcome me in to the fold, after I had survived the fight, I thought that maybe he would... but there was always something else that he would be thinking about. Like I said, he would only ever see what was right in front of him. Now though, he's staring to look at things differently... maybe he might look at me differently too."

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"I think you have an admirer, Nikolai."

Nikolai looked up in response, puzzled by why exactly the other man was smiling like that. Looking pack towards the porch, he saw Natalia and Lucia, both watching him. When she saw him looking, Natalia suddenly became very interested in her boots. That was odd, and why did he suddenly feel hot all of a sudden? It was warm out, yes, but it had been since they arrived.

"Natalia is good comrade." Nikolai answered, clearing his throat. "She fights well. Many times I might have died if not for her." he looked at Acolyte again. Why was the man still smiling like that? What was going on?

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"I don't know whether to absolve or condemn him."

"Don't you?" the commander pressed her. "Don't you think that he should have been punished? Does his regret, however sincere, allow those who suffered because of him to rest any easier?"

"Don't you?" The Commander asked forcefully. "Don't you think that he should have been punished? Does his regret, however sincere, allow those who suffered because of him to rest any easier?" Abigail let out a sigh as she placed her hands down on the table.

"How the hell should I know sir? I do not come from a military background, so I would have no clue on their procedure. But I can guess based upon my time here." She said calmly, stopping a moment to catch her breath and fix her gaze.

"No, it most likely doesn't make those who suffered by his hand rest any easier, but how are they to know of his regret? As for whether or not he should have been punished because of his actions; he wouldn't have been punished by his own people, he was simply following the orders that they gave him, and would have likely been punished if he didn't. Anyone else it would have likely been severe. Discharged from the military obviously. Life imprisonment at the best, the death penalty at the worst."

"But since you asked me whether he should have been punished or not. I think he should have. But whose to say he hasn't already been punished by having to live with that regret for the rest of his days. Punishment doesn't have to be physical, it can be psychological as well as the aforementioned example shows."

Lucia turned her head and smiled at the woman as she sat down beside her.

"Back when he made all of the others welcome me in to the fold, after I had survived the fight, I thought that maybe he would... but there was always something else that he would be thinking about. Like I said, he would only ever see what was right in front of him. Now though, he's staring to look at things differently... maybe he might look at me differently too."

"I'm not sure he's quite that far along yet," Lucia said, giggling. "But, I don't think he's too far off either." While Natalia sat there admiring Nikolai from afar, Lucia placed a friendly hand on her shoulder. "You know, I'm happy right now. In fact, I think we all are. When was the last time we were able to feel like... human beings? Like women?" She shook Natalia's shoulder lightly. "Give him some time and I think he'll come around."

She too looked at Nikolai now, "I think he's just now starting to realize that it's over. That he doesn't have to be that way anymore. That he can," She couldn't help but chuckled. "Appreciate a woman like a man should." She gave Natalia a knowing look.

"Appreciate a woman like a man should."

Natalia looked mortified.

"I-I'm not sure if he's ever... I don't think he knows..." She stared at her knees, crestfallen. "He was in that place most of his life. He says he remembers nothing else. I'm not sure he'd know what to do if we ever... or even worse, he'd remember what some of the other Wolves would do to women, and think that that was how it was supposed to be."

Seeing the much tougher woman wilt in front of her was an odd sight, indeed. Lucia offered her a smile and began rubbing Natalia's back.

"... I'm not sure he'd know what to do if we ever... or even worse, he'd remember what some of the other Wolves would do to women, and think that that was how it was supposed to be."

"If you want, I can talk to him about it," Lucia started. "I mean, I don't have that much experience, but if I can teach him to read I am sure I can teach him to..." Lucia blushed and the giggled. "... love."

'Running running running. Running running running. Running running running. Awaaaaay.'

Was that a nursery rhyme? He didn't remember. All Travis knew was he ended up singing that song a lot to his prey. He felt pretty humiliated that he was running away now, but hey at least he was running towards something other than outright fleeing.

The Hive now far behind him, Travis just kept on running with the warden over his shoulder. "Wha... whats going on?" mumbled the warden slung over his shoulder.

"Oh shit," Travis laughed surprised, "I actually thought you weren't gonna wake up. Thought you got fucked up too good." He laughed as he jogged with the man over his shoulder.

"I... let go of me..." The man could barely see, everything a wild haze. He felt sick as his groin was being pushed against Travis's shoulder. He lay his fists weakly and softly against The Dragon's back. "Fffucker."

"Hey watch your language you cheeky little boy!" He damn near squealed with joy. "Who says I'm not doing you a favour? Does this look like the Hive?"

"Ssstop fucking with me... you're just... what are you? Cannibal... rapist... you won't get me asshole..."

"Oh poor boy." Travis suddenly slammed the man down onto the floor with a spinebuster. "I already have you. Asshole." The man shouted out as pain shot through his back before Travis set upon him with a quick succession of ruthless fists. "You don't talk to me like... hey you awake man?" Travis slapped him a few times before noticing the man was bleeding from the back of his head, "SHIT!" Travis slung him over into a fireman's carry, speeding at full pelt down the corridors. He could see prisoners acting somewhat casual as he ran, much less chaotic than earlier. He was close to a sense of control, a place were fighting wildly would get put down by the new owners.

Unfortunately, that led to many prisoners with the same request as Travis had been given. They stared him down like animals. "Hey," they laughed, "thanks for doing the leg work for me." One approached Travis, but not getting too close.

"Fuck you cocklover he's mine!" Yelled Travis.

"Fuck off old man," said a young cocky looking skinhead. "Hand him over, don't wanna start something them old bones can't finish."

"Don't fucking talk to The Dragon that way you little ass fucker!"

They began laughing at him. "The Dragon. Please."

"Wanna test me bitch? I'll gut all of you and sell your innards to Cannibals." He returned. Just then one of the invaders showed up. "I got you your war-"

"Hey yo shut the fuck up!" Yelled another as they all faced the invader. "He was mine! This bitch took him."

"The fuck you say?" Travis challenged the man.

"You heard me bit-"

"Enough for fuck sake!" Roared the guard. "You all want to claim this warden?"

"Yeah. He's alive too, just fucked up." Travis spoke.

"Alright, give him to me. You want to claim this warden you fight for him." The man kept a hand on his gun, still in its holster. Each man gave a sickly grin as their eyes darted between each other. They nodded to Travis as he walked over slowly and handed over the warden. The invader checked the pulse. "Yep, still alive. You all better kill each other quick. I wanna watch this, and this sucker hasn't got long left."

Each prisoner glared at all of the others as they entered into a large circle. Batons, knives, knuckle dusters in their hands among other things. Travis licked his lips at the murder that was soon approaching. This was going to be blissful.

Felix followed close behind the warden who was leading him down into the lower levels. The woman was tall and extremely muscular with red hair tied up in a bun. Despite clearly showing some battle fatigue she appeared no worse for wear. Perhaps it was adrenaline, he thought. "You must have been here for a long time to know your way around this well." He said.

"9 years." She said flatly as she lead him through various shortcuts. "Prisoners used to always make shortcuts back in the bad days, well not as bad as right now, but when basically the whole prison belonged to them. Warden law wasn't so good down here."

"It sounds like they had their own society." He responded as he helped her lift up a fallen support beam as they cut through a dilapidated building. "I've heard of prison culture but it is like a city down here."

"Yup," she grunted as she pushed up the beam damn near by herself, "its a whole different world down here."

"No offence, but it doesn't sound like if felt like much of a prison," he tried to speak as polite as possible, knowing how rude his statement may have come out as.

The woman sighed and gave him a sideways look. "Honest to God, it kinda was that way. Even Korovitch couldn't control everyone down here. Just scared the ever living shit out of them."

"Korovitch?" He asked.

"I'll tell you about him another time, hopefully we'll get to meet him. He knows how to keep your lot in line. Dunno how much that'll count for now, but he's ruthless and right now we need more of that."

"My lot?" He queried. "I am not lik-"

"Yeah I know, sorry its a reflex. Like I said before, not every day you see a nice prisoner. Most who are end up as Pit slaves, or they just keep quiet enough to just live day by day. Come on down here." She began climbing down a ladder.

"Pit slaves? My Lord my naivety knows no bounds." He muttered.

"What?" She asked confused.

"Nothing." He spoke again as he followed her down the ladder. He truly did not know anything about this place. He knew it was a disgusting, vile place. But his knowledge of the world, all the world, was so limited. So introverted. 'As is the nature of the league'.

The league. The order. Dedicated to educating mankind, yet knew nothing about the world around them, instead going in blindly and hoping to change a few minds. It was only now beginning to hit him how, despite his homeland having such heavy political dealings with Ignite Solutions, a corporation perhaps such as ruthless as Venture Horizen...

That was the word! 'Perhaps.' He didn't know enough about these giants, despite how they practically owned the earth and could challenge world leaders as if they were their own nation. Yet he didn't know enough, he was in his own little shell. The entire league was in their own little shell! Just a bunch of hermits, crawling along a beach. They may have known the culture of the beach, but not the way it worked. Not how hard or how high the tide came in, not how many people visited the beach, or how many predators lurked in the water. Now they just plodded along content with ignorance. Even if they were strong little hermits, their shell blinded them. A self made shell, that was the worst part. He asked his leaders the ins and outs of this facility and his mission, yet all they told him was of the moral issue of suffering. They gave him no details because they didn't know themselves. If they did, then this whole thing could have been handled much better.

Why was he wasting his time thinking like this? The order knew what it was doing. So what if it didn't have all the fine details, they had right on their side! And that was enough to do good by the world. Yet, how could they teach knowledge to a world in desperate need of awareness and intelligence when they had such little themselves? He shook his head, 'Felix Theodore Maccalian, you are over thinking this. And you have a mission. Get to the lower levels.' He continued to follow the woman down the twists and turns of the mid levels, finally making it to the lower levels. The depths of the Pit.

"Okay," spoke the warden, "stick close to me and you'll be fine. Just a guess, but its gonna be a lot harder to hide down here." She gave a laugh so forced even she knew how ridiculous she sounded.

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Clementina stayed sat upon a table on the second floor of the building she was in, trying to regain her stamina. She was controlling her breathing, she was incredibly healthy, still the amount of fighting she had done and with absolutely no sleep was getting to her. She did not have the experience of such a battle-no battle was the wrong word. She was in a war. And like it or not she was on the losing side before it had even started. Teased with the prospect of victory by taking down a few small fries before having what might as well have been the whole fucking world fall on top of you killed morale faster than finding out your entire family was dead, and your dog had broken its legs, and your childhood sweetheart just got married to someone else, and your favourite book would never be finished, and your second favourite book series had a terrible ending.

"Hey, hey, Abreu?" Her fellow warden was trying to snap her out of her haze, whistling and snapping her fingers in front of her eyes, "you okay?"

"What?" She asked confused. "Um, yeah fine I was just kinda day dreami-um thinking about things."

"Like what?" She asked.

Clementina looked at her cynically. "Is now really the time?"

"Well things have gotten quiet out there for now." The even younger warden stated.

"Lets keep it quiet in here too then." Clementina shot back at her.

"Fine." The other woman rolled her eyes and walked back towards the window, hiding out of sight from anyone who could have been outside. Clem wanted to return thinking about her admittedly melodramatic fiction, but like she herself had said now wasn't the time. Even in a reprieve like this, letting your guard down was stupid and irresponsible to your own well being.

"She fights well. Many times I might have died if not for her."

"But I'm sure you could say that about quite a lot of the Free Men," replied Acolyte. Ordinarily such bluntness would be condescending, but to be fair to Nikolai, he hadn't exactly had the full life experience. So he said, "I mean I think she's interested in you. I mean you looked at her just then and it made her blush like a schoolgirl."

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Fiona and Korovitch were heading down a side passage when they heard footsteps. Coming to a halt and turning, they both listened. Korovitch held up one finger. One person. Fiona nodded.

Drawing their pistols, they waited. Seconds later, Neil came around the corner. Korovitch lowered his pistol, but Fiona hesitated to do so until he gave her a stern glance.

"Verner," acknowledged Korovitch in an undertone. "We need to get somewhere out of the way where we won't be found. You've been living here. Any suggestions?"

"Oh, and see that you don't wander off to anywhere you're not allowed. I don't expect your health would improve if anyone were to catch you."

"Thank you, sir." Lewis said. They both caught Selina's last look before she disappeared out of sight for the last time considering these chances. Once the general and left with his troops, Lewis turned to Aggie.

"Hey, were you really coughing?" Lewis asked sheepishly. Aggie laughed.

"Of course I was, damn it!" Aggie exclaimed before getting up without his help. "Come on, we're going to the triage center. I have an idea."

"I don't like that tone." Lewis groaned, getting up and following Aggie but he stuck to her side in case any guards came running around the corner. In that case, Lewis would just have to put an arm over her shoulder and it would look like he was escorting an injured woman.

"Alright, we're going down to the triage to find some more friends." Aggie whispered along the way. They were outside now and the cold nipped at them while they moved around.

"What do you mean friends?" Lewis asked, huddling closer to her. "You're not exactly the friendly type."

"Shut up and I did make a few friends during my stay but I'm looking for your friends. Wardens." Aggie said, leaning closer to Lewis as a wind blew through but Lewis stopped in his tracks.

"Aggie, these guys don't look like the kind to take Warden prisoners." Lewis said to her, confused by her plan. "Plus with the exception of me, you won't find a lot of Wardens left."

"Who else would have injured them?" Aggie rhetorically asked. "We ask the wounded where the Wardens are or rather where they last got shot by them, we try to find them, organize a plan and get the hell out of here. The two of us can't make it out by ourselves. You're not exactly Rambo and I'm not exactly the Terminator, alright? Now let's go." Lewis shook his head before continuing the pace with her.

"This is a crazy plan, Aggie." Lewis remarked.

"Do you have anything else in mind, oh wise one." Aggie hissed. "Don't forget, it was you wanted to find me. Now here I am and you're going to do what I say. Listen, I'm sort of happy that you still cared enough to find me. Sort of because I don't anyone else I know and love to see let alone to live in a hellhole like this. But now that you're here, I'm more determined to get the hell out of here." Aggie stopped and looked to Lewis. "I love you Lewis, and I don't want us to be here any longer than we have to. Just follow my lead alright?"

"That's the thing, though. I've been following your lead for a while now. Now that I'm here I feel like I should look after you. You are sick and I need to get you out. Not the other way around." Lewis said, exasperated.

"Then help me out. I can't do this by myself. If I could then I would have done it already. You can still help me, you can still be my savior. Just for now, you have to trust me."

"Déjà vu, huh?" Lewis asked before continuing walking. He hated to admit it but Aggie always seemed to have a plan for everything from the very start.

The pair made their way to the canteen, taking a tour of the damage that was brought upon by the invasion. They saw the torn down towers, blown up towers and destroyed walls on their way to the canteen. The canteen didn't look any better as the smell of fresh and rotten wounds filled the air the moment they came close. The invaders took a heavy toll taking the facility. A Pyrrhic victory but a victory nonetheless, Lewis thought as they looked for an open spot among the bloody triage center. The guards looked at the pair, seeing Aggie's pale face. Then she let out a cough resulting in blood leaving her mouth. It was painful but it allowed the pair to pass.

"Is there a place we can sit?" Lewis awkwardly asked.

"Not for you prisoners. You're standing." The guard said, pointing to a spot which wasn't occupied by wounded soldiers.

Selina followed at Hammond's heels, as they made their way downstairs and outside. Even after the battering the buildings had taken, the drop in temperature was sudden and extreme. Selina did her best not to shiver visibly in front of the General, as she had a strong feeling she knew where they were going.

When she had been brought before him the first time, Selina could have convinced herself at first that she was back in Lee's office, despite the icy winds around them, and the sound of gunfire still raging in the distance. Not to mention, Hammond didn't particularly look anything like Lee. They did however, share an aura that was so similar at first that it had been eerie. Only now was Selina starting to grasp the key difference. Hammond was younger, exactly how young he was in years she did not know, nor was it particularly relevant. What mattered was that the calmness, and self-doubt that had come to temper Lee's ambition and ruthlessness was not present in this man. This one was still in his prime, and utterly committed to the cause he served.

It was a long road ahead indeed.

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

"I mean you looked at her just then and it made her blush like a schoolgirl."

Nikolai frowned, still unsure as to what Acolyte was getting at. Of course, growing up in the Lower Levels of The Pit he'd seen his fair share of sexual relations, people with all their dignity stripped away were not exactly shy. However, encounters where both sides were willing had been less common, and no-one in his life had ever approached him in such a way. While he could have taken his pleasure if he'd wanted it several times, Nikolai had never seen the appeal of playing with his food before he ate it. Maybe too much sun was changing things, making everyone strange...

"Natalia is brave and strong." Nikolai said gruffly. "If she ever wanted anything from me, she would take it."

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

"if I can teach him to read I am sure I can teach him to... love."

Natalia raised an eyebrow.

"What do you mean, 'teach'?" she teased. "Are you sure you're not trying to steal him away for yourself, make him fall for you while you're 'helping' me?"

She gave Lucia a playful shove on the arm, which almost knocked the other girl horizontal.

"I'll handle that part, if it ever gets that far. Besides, you're such a small thing, I think he'd break you."

Natalia laughed, before turning her gaze back to Nikolai.

"I'm not too small, but still... those arms..." she said, before crossing her legs and making a humming noise behind her lips.

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

The commander finished his drink in one long gulp.

"You're right. The Colonel was only ever following orders, and that is the problem. We live in a cynical world, Miss Nyte, a world that has become numbed to horrors and oppression, so that atrocities the likes of which that man committed can be dismissed so easily. There is no punishment that will bring back all the innocent souls that man has banished, but there are millions of innocents still, who live their lives in fear and submission, believing that no-one fights for them. That is the message we are sending by striking here. There is no greater symbol of the Few's gluttonous greed, and their disregard for the lives of the Many, than this facility, and we brought it to its knees in a day. The giants that we were all taught to fear have become old, soft and foolish. The desperate, destitute and dispossessed of this world are weak no longer, and now, we are legion."

His eyes afire, the commander suddenly looked a lot younger as he stood up and leaned over the bar.

"I know you are afraid. We have given you reason to be. However, if you were to consent to accompany me on a little walk tonight, perhaps we could talk further, without this barrier between us. I might show you a little more of the world as I have come to see it."

Travis stood in a full circle with the other convicts. Five in total including him, all eyeing each other up. Meanwhile the guard stood back, the warden at his feet, now handcuffed. The guard was doing a bad job of keeping him alive, but then again, he wasn't trying very hard.

The Dragon kept his knife sheathed, still holding the crowbar from earlier. He had made his target: The Skinhead who had insulted him earlier. The others had as well, but this one in particular really pissed him off. Of the other three there was a massive stocky one with a knife and an eye missing, a twitchy Mohawk with a warden issue baton (clearly not smart enough to keep his victim alive), and one thing that made Travis's blood boil. A woman. A tall, bald woman with no weapons, fighting bare handed. A woman trying to compete with men? Actually thinking she could beat men? That was not what a woman did. They were weak, they laid down, the only time noises should come from their slutty mouths should be from either screaming, begging, or asking how to further serve.

Certainly not to challenge someone such as himself, nor the other three assholes he would soon be killing. This woman, those soldiers who had brought him here, that bitch with the metal arm, who did they think they were challenging him? Hurting him. Defeating him! His rage was about to spill over when suddenly the white skinhead mean charge at him, brandishing knuckle dusters. Travis swung wildly with the crowbar. The skinhead ducked under and laughed as he swiftly popped two punches into Travis's gut. The dragon raised a knee into the man's jaw but reeled back, the sudden pain stopping him from following up. The skinhead darted up and was upon Travis once more. He kicked forward and the young ingrate who dodged to the side. The skinhead tried to punch Travis in his inner thigh but the Dragon swung down upon him, smashing his forearm before punching him in the face. The skinhead fell back but rolled to the side as the much larger man stamped down upon him.

Getting to his feet the smaller man used his good arm to strike Travis in the lower back. Grunting Travis shot his elbow back, missing the quicker man who was already punching Travis in the back of the knee. The Dragon was brought down and the skinhead was about to capitalise with a kick to the face. Desperate, Travis punched the man in the genitals as hard as he could. In the few moments of shock the skinhead felt, his head suddenly felt much worse, as in his distraction Travis had slammed the crowbar against the side of his skull. His hearing became a concert of ugly ringing as he felt the cold floor on his back. The last he felt was the man he had previously mocked mounting him. The last thing he saw was a black crowbar being forced down into his vision.

After savagely destroying the face of the skinhead Travis stood to observe what was around him. He expected maybe one of the others to be dead and to jump into the fray with a cheap shot. Instead what he found was the Mohawk dead on the ground and the giant man being finished off by the woman. The Dragon's jaw hung open as he witnessed the woman stand up and turn to him, barely a scratch on her. She grinned at him and rushed forwards. Before his mind could comprehend such a contradiction of logic, 'How could a woman be powerful?' she had flung the knife the massive man had at him. Travis tried to move out of harms way but the knife had already lodged itself in his bicep. "FUUUUUCK!" He bellowed, just like in the last riots, a knife thrown at him by a weaker person had nearly brought him down. At least it was just the bicep this time.

Travis dropped the crowbar as his grip loosened entirely as the woman ran up and kneed him in the sternum, sending him flying backwards. His weapon was down, his arm screeched out in pain, and she was about to slam her boot down onto his throat. He needed to fight dirty, get a quick cheap shot. 'Thank you Mr Reaper.' Unsheathing his blade concealed beneath his clothing with his other hand his stabbed her with such force through the side of her shin that the tip came out the other side. She yelled out in surprised pain as he gracelessly dragged the weapon out of her leg, tearing away flesh as he did. Turning over to get on his knees he stabbed the woman in her opposite leg, right in the thigh, once again ripping out skin and muscle as he did.

Her voice exploded in anguish as he pushed her forwards. She crumbled with her face down, her knees buckling and her backside stuck in the air. Smiling insidiously The Dragon sliced off her hand from the palm upwards, removing the fingers and most of her thumb. The woman stuck her other hand behind her in an attempt to gouge out his eyes, but unfortunately Travis had the advantage and forced the blade up through her wrist. The width of the blade damn near cut off her whole hand and her fingers were suddenly no longer in her control. Glee painted itself upon the hideous canvas of his face as he realised this was the perfect opportunity to fulfil one of his sickest fantasies.

Eventually she had died of blood loss, but she would have preferred the blade had killed her quicker. Travis wasn't that merciful though as he mutilated her in ways that would make it that if she survived, it wouldn't just be impossible to ever have children, but she would need such major surgery that every single organ in her abdomen down to every ligament in her thighs would need replacing. It was at this point that the warden had regained consciousness, witnessing the last moments of this woman's life. Whether she was a prisoner or not, she could have been the worst war criminal the world has ever seen, no one deserved the torture she had just been put under. The Dragon stood proud and grinned at the invader. "I pass now?" He kicked the much smaller blade that lay on the floor that had previously pierced his skin, the temptation to lick the one he held was getting him excited. The warden who lay on the ground was disgusted at the sight of Travis's 'excitement' visible in his pants.

"If she ever wanted anything from me, she would take it."

"I wouldn't be so sure," said Acolyte as they made their way between the truck and storage. "Because I think she's thinking the exact same thing as what you just said." With that, he slipped into a surprisingly nuanced Russian accent. "'I wonder if he's interested? I hope so, but if he was, he'd have said something or done something! Am I over thinking things? trakhat' eto!'" finally slipping into the language.

Setting down a large crate of ammunition with a grunt, he straightened up. "I wasn't always some frigid monk. And in my experience, the women that jumped my bones were the ones just looking for something casual. Besides, you grew up in underground hell. She probably isn't sure what you're like with women. But hey, I'll stop lecturing. You're an overgrown man, you can figure it out yourself. But try not to be so oblivious about her, it'll just make her feel bad. Like she doesn't exist."

Neil stopped dead in his tracks, staring blankly at the woman beside Luka.

She's okay... thank God...

"We need to get somewhere out of the way where we won't be found. You've been living here. Any suggestions?"

After a brief moment of bewilderment, Neil snapped out of it, "Yeah, uh," He sighed as he started for the old church. "But, you're not going to like it." Glancing over his shoulder, he furrowed his brow. "Did anyone else make it?"

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

"... Are you sure you're not trying to steal him away for yourself, make him fall for you while you're 'helping' me?"

Lucia had almost gone pale before Natalia's playful gesture assured her she was only kidding around.

"I'll handle that part, if it ever gets that far. Besides, you're such a small thing, I think he'd break you."

Wincing, she nodded in agreement, "And now that imagine is in my head, thanks for that." She chuckled.

"I'm not too small, but still... those arms..."

"Not too small?" Lucia giggled. "If there's any woman on the planet tough enough for him, it's certainly you!" She smiled. "I'm happy for you. Really. I think we can work this out."

She blushed a bit, "I bet we can make you the best thing that's ever happened to him." She mused.

"I pass now?"

The soldier that Travis addressed, the same one that had sent him out on his mission, had watched the whole thing silent and impassive. Upon receiving the question, he turned the the two subordinates that flanked him and gave short, curt nods.

As one, the both of them moved forward, closing the gap to Travis in quick strides. They each grabbed an arm and twisted them behind Travis' back until he dropped his knife, before forcing him to his knees. Walking forward, the soldier drew his sidearm, removed the safety, and pressed the barrel square between the Inmate's eyes. The man hungrily drank in Travis' expression, as it morphed from triumph, to shock, finishing up as fear. He even allowed himself a cruel little smile, at the sight of the victory salute between his legs wilting to nothing. Things stayed still for several moments, before the soldier re=applied the safety of his weapon, and turned away, before tuning back again, quick as a flash, to pistol-whip Travis hard across the cheekbone, almost knocking him out cold.

"You pass." he spat, disgusted. "Now get this filth the fuck away from me before I change my mind, and see that you put two guns on him at all times when he's brought before the General, in case he forgets his manners."

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

"I bet we can make you the best thing that's ever happened to him."

"No." Natalia said, a little sadly. "That will always be you."

With that, she left Lucia alone. She'd chatted long enough while the others were working.

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

"it'll just make her feel bad. Like she doesn't exist."

Nikolai grunted in acknowledgement, not really sure of what else to say, before depositing the crate he'd bee carrying and going back for another. When he reached the back of the truck once more, and clapped his hands round the sides, his hands found Natalia's as she had bee reaching for the same crate. Nikolai looked up, and for a few moments they just stared at each-other. He was all of a sudden acutely aware of how big her eyes were, and of how warm her hands felt beneath his.

The gears in his head turning slower than usual, Nikolai had to try very hard to summon up what Acolyte had said to him, before twisting the lower half of his face into an uncomfortable smile, barely visible through his beard. Perhaps then his beard was a blessing, concealing the worst of it, because Natalia smiled back, before blushing and pulling away, picking up a different crate and dashing off.

But the time Nikolai had dropped of his crate, the trucks were virtually empty. Having nothing more immediate to do, Nikolai went in search of Lucia, finding her still sitting on the step.

"You want to go to market now?" he asked her, motioning towards the clear skies.

The Commander finished his drink unceremoniously in one gulp. He went on to explain a little of his ideology; that the time of big corporations was slowly coming to an end, and soon those that lived in fear would rise and take their place. Whilst Abigail could sort of agree on some of those points, she feared what would be brought upon the world if these invaders were allowed to go unchecked, if the facility was but an example.

"I know you are afraid. We have given you reason to be. However, if you were to consent to accompany me on a little walk tonight, perhaps we could talk further, without this barrier between us. I might show you a little more of the world as I have come to see it." He then added, the Commander's eyes slightly alight as he stood up and leaned over the bar.

"I guess I could find time to accompany you, Zachary can always cover the night shift; it's usually quiet around that point. Plus this talk might help me to understand you people a little better, and to why you'd go to such lengths to make your message heard. And your right, some of your troops do scare me a little."

Travis's grin soon turned sour. He thought the nod was to take him away, what a fool he was to think that he would be spirited away as such (even if he would never admit his foolishness).

"Ah mother fu-" He was brought to his knees, his knife dropped in front of him. His left arm ached from the small knife that had stabbed him earlier. Looking up, he saw a sight that he had feared he'd see ever since the purge. An unforgiving barrel. He removed the safety and stood there, staring down at the inmate. The excitement Travis had felt was withering away and his eyes widened. He had done what he wanted, he brought a warden and killed the other inmates as per his request. Why was he being punished now!

This wasn't fair. It wasn't fair! As he came to realise the situation, possible outcomes began running through his mind. Was this all a game for him to want another warden to kill? Were the prisoners sent out to do the bitch work? Was this guy just bored? What was this asshole's fucking game?

Thankfully instead of hot lead, he felt the lash of a cold pistol being swung into his cheek, damn near hard enough to break the bone. He barely stayed up onto his knees and not fall to the floor after such an attack, yet inside he couldn't help but feel good. Now he knew, he was just fucking with him.

"You pass. Now get this filth the fuck away from me before I change my mind, and see that you put two guns on him at all times when he's brought before the General, in case he forgets his manners."

Travis laughed and spat out a loogey of blood onto the floor, he smiled at the man before being pushed onto the floor by the other two. He slowly raised himself up. "I'm just gonna pick up my knife, keep this baby sheathed don't worry fellas." He tentatively picked it up and sheathed the massive blade before being lead by the rude guards.
===================================================
Felix and the warden could hear the yells of violence and even distant gunfire as they entered the lower levels. "Stick by me and stay quiet." She spoke, leading him through a deserted corridor. Their feet were heavy on the metal grating which scared the both of them in case of any nearby psychopaths. She pinned herself to a nearby corner wall, listening for any movement. Felix stood behind her, copying her motion. Without even needing to look she knew when to run. She nodded in the direction for the Spaniard to follow as they kept low and sped off into the opposite cell block. They stopped as they found an air vent system. She whispered to him, "Alright, I'm gonna crawl through here down to a fabrics factory, you go on foot and we'll rendezvous down there."

"Wouldn't it be better for me t-" She cut him off.

"Shut up. As long as you don't piss anyone off, you should be fine. Just keep walking, and uh, try not to look so..." she had trouble thinking what to say next.

"So?" He asked.

"Um, not scummy."

"Thank you... I suppose?" He answered.

"Yeah, you're welcome." she said awkwardly as she made her way inside the ventilation shaft. "Follow this shaft, eventually they interconnect but just keep going straight, when it splits off into two separate directions, head east. By then you'll be in old White Star territory, I imagine some survivors will be banding together. Of all the gangs those could be called one of the most, 'civil', I guess. Just try not to piss anyone off okay."

"Right." He nodded.

"Keep going and it should lead to a row of buildings, the fabrics one should stand out a bit, less black and drab than the others."

"No."

Hmm?

"That will always be you."

With a look of disbelief, Lucia watched as Natalia left to help with the cargo. Had she really changed Nikolai that much in the brief time they'd been together? Just a few days ago she felt as if she hadn't made a single dent in his nihilistic outlook. In fact, she had almost given up entirely. Lucia had been well on her way to adopting his own way of things. And why was that? Was it out of necessity or did she actually begin to believe that what he was saying was true?

Or was it as simple as loneliness? Perhaps she'd been willing to sacrifice her values out of a need to belong. When had she gone from wanting Nikolai dead to wanting nothing more than his acceptance?

She watched his and Natalia's interaction from afar. Even from where she sat, she could see he felt something for her.

Lucia smiled, though it didn't last long.

How long has it been, Lucia?

She was happy, yes, but she was still profoundly alone.

After a time, Nikolai appeared by her side.

"You want to go to market now?"

Her smile returned as she nodded, "Yes! Let's not waste the remaining sunlight!" She chirped as she struggled to her feet with the aid of her crutches. Nikolai had tried to help her up, but she made it clear she wanted to do it on her own. Once she was up and ready, she pointed towards the town. "Lead the way, big guy."

The pair stood for what felt like hours. Only the stretcher-bearers and the amount of soldiers being carried in was their only semblance of how much time had passed. Gradually the amount of wounded decreased usually by their doctor's quick patch-up job of them being led to a bloody cot. At least its warm, Aggie mused as she watch the surgeons go on their bloody business. The more wounded were being treated first and every now and then a doctor would go up and down the line for a quick diagnosis of the wounded. Sometimes the doctor would do a quick procedure right then and there. The man next to them had his limb put back in place after a nasty fall. The audible sound of a limb being set wasn't the best sound to hear. Then the doctor gave the pair a cursory glance. Noticing the prisoner attire, he moved on much to their frustration. None of the other soldiers would talk to them either. They would give them cold stares along with their cold shoulders.

Half an hour had passed since the doctor made rounds on the line and now that the line had partly dwindled for the most part the doctor paid attention to them. He was a beady-eyed looking doctor with half his profile covered by a bloody face mask. The rest of him was also caked in blood although Aggie eyed the pair of scissors hanging out his pocket.

"Open your mouth." The doctor commanded to Aggie, noticing her right away and fetching a flashlight out of his pocket. Aggie complied and opened her mouth. Without no more than a few seconds of light the doctor negatively clicked his tongue. "Not good...not good..."

"What's wrong?" Lewis asked. The doctor noticed him too. He quickly compared the two before looking to the guards then back to them. With quick and nimble hands, Aggie nabbed the scissors while the doctor looked away. When his gaze returned, the scissors were out of sight.

"How the hell did you survive for this long?" The doctor asked. "Close your mouth."

"What do you-"

"Literally keep your mouth shut, alright? I can't have the likes of you here. You could get everyone sick. Guards!"

Lewis' eyes widened. Aggie concealed a smirk. "No, please!" He said.

"I'm not gonna risk an outbreak." The doctor curtly said. The guards took the pair with an iron grip. "Take them back down. We can't infected prisoners up here!"

The guards took them out of there in a hurry, hearing that Aggie was infected with some sort of sickness. Lewis tried to struggle but all he received was a smack to the stomach. Eventually he followed Aggie's lead and stopped resisting. She knew that resisting would useless in certain situations but to Aggie, this was part of the plan.

The pair of soldiers led them down to the prison. Once more they were down below to the pits of hell but this time there were some new blood in the mix. Wardens were now among the prisoners and the new rulers took a liking to this change of fate just as much as the prisoners did. They were in the upper levels now. The machines weren't running quite as loud as they remembered mostly because the new landlords hadn't quite gotten everyone settled down yet which worked quite fine for Aggie.

They rounded a quiet corner behind the refinery, close to one of the corridors that led downwards. Then, as if on cue, Aggie's coughing fit returned. She doubled over.

"Stupid, infected bitch!" The guard said. Her sudden attack left him unbalanced. He was about to pull her up when Aggie sent her scissors into the man's neck. The dirtied blade plunged deep into his throat before he knew it. Aggie reached for the man's pistol all while she coughed. Lewis only saw the tail end of the attack with the blood of the soldier start to spray. His comrade saw it too but Lewis brought his shoulder to the man's nose. It connected with a grizzly crack. Lewis wrestled free of the man's grip as the man's hands went for his nose in an effort to stop the bleeding. Aggie yanked the scissors out of the first guard and charged the second, then lodging the the blades into his throat as well. They both bled out quickly but they had to hurry.

"Their guns. Get their guns!" Aggie wheezed, out of breath from faking an attack and dispensing of both guards. Lewis fetched a shotgun and a submachine gun from the soldiers along with a pistol but they didn't have time to fetch any extra ammunition. "We need to go to the lower levels. Come on!"

"Was this part of your plan?" Lewis asked, slinging the weapons over his shoulder.

"Maybe not the scissors part." Aggie said, taking the pistol.

Lewis helped Aggie as the escaped into the dark corridors of the prison.

Lee's indeterminate spell of solitary confinement was ended once again with the arrival of General Hammond. This time, however, there was a familiar face in his entourage. Though she kept her expression stoic. The twitch at the corners of her eyes and the slight tightening of her jaw muscles told Lee that he must look as bad as he felt. His shoulder ached and pulsed worse than ever, his throat was raw, his eyes swollen and puffy, and a fever was roiling inside of him, plastering his usually severe hair to his forehead, slick with clammy perspiration. Still, he managed to resist trembling too obviously. He inclined his head politely to the pair of them, the insolence of such a gesture apparent from the still-full bottle of whiskey in front of him. Even in the face of everything else that was happening, Lee couldn't help but be proud of that one, small victory. The effort of resisting had cost him almost as much dignity as he would otherwise have, but resist he had, and it was worth it to see Hammond grinding his teeth.

"Ms Hernandez." Lee greeted her, his tone still clipped despite the toll pain and dehydration was starting to have on it. "I would stand, but, in present company..."

"You look unwell." General Hammond remarked, coldly. "I imagine even if you tried to stand, you would have limited success. We have no shortage of water, nor food and medical supplies. I have been prioritizing the treatment of our own casualties. However, rank has it's due. All you need to do is co-operate, and it would be a matter of military honour on my part to see that your recovery was given our full and immediate attention." he leaned closer. "Your co-operation would ease the suffering of your men as well. Any still out there who would see fit to come forward and surrender would be treated with dignity, if only you were to give me what I require."

"I see." Lee replied, irritated. "What you require wouldn't happen to be this apparent knowledge of a magic button which will restore this facilities crippled communications? A fiction which we have already discussed several times, and each time I have given the same answer? General, you are aware of the definition of insanity?"

That earned Lee a strike from one of Hammond's guards, bringing back all of the dulled pain of the boot to the face that he had received before. His vision swam, and he had to bite his lip to the point of drawing blood to keep from crying out. Once his attention was fully returned to his surroundings, he found Hammond to not be impressed with the actions of his subordinate.

"Go on! LEAVE US AT ONCE!" the man barked, before turning back to Lee as the Songbird retreated.

"I apologise Colonel, that was unchivalrous."

"It's quite alright General. Far be it from the man forced to sit in his own feverish excretions to stand on ceremony."

Hammond's tone became unsympathetic again at once.

"You know what I want, and I am tired of dancing around the issue. You knew of the existence of Project Condor, and you cannot hope to keep me in ignorance. How else do you think we were able to take you unawares? You're a brilliant man Colonel, far more brilliant than your employers deserve. I do not believe for a second that you did not anticipate this, and create counter-measures accordingly."

"I fear you give me too much credit, General." Lee shot back.

Hammond looked positively sour now.

"Do you want to know why I have brought Ms. Hernandez here?"

"I have a notion. A notion I suspect shall be confirmed shortly."

Hammond gave a cruel little smile.

"When my forces penetrated into this facility, to the point where it became clear that the battle was lost, Ms. Hernandez abandoned your lines for ours. She actively sort out one of my elite fireteams to surrender to them, and since then has given me her full co-operation."

In the pause, Lee looked over to Selina, an enigmatic expression in his eyes.

"The darling of Venture Horizon," Hammond continued. "the only person in this facility further up the food chain than yourself, cast off her badge and joined the winning side at the first sign of trouble. You see Colonel, this is not Bahrain."

"I noticed. Bahrain was warmer."

The General narrowed his eyes impatiently.

"We're both soldiers, and I do believe we both retain a certain respect for the old way of doing things, valuing military honour over mercenary politics. However, you must understand Colonel, that this is not your brave last stand. You have lost, and your paymasters have abandoned you. There are no orders left to follow, no cause left to defend, if there ever was. All your life you have served faithfully, willing to give all of yourself in the name of those who stood above you, and in exchange, those people have served you ingratitude and abandonment at every turn. You are on the wrong side of this fight, Colonel. You must see that!"

"Your mistake." Lee wheezed, looking more tired and weak than ever. "Is believing that the uniforms we wear dictate that for which we fight."

"The enlighten me." Hammond replied, scenting blood. "If you have no loyalty to Venture Horizon, then why do you continue to resist after all hope of victory is lost? Why do you subject yourself to all this unpleasantness, when you could in one sentence transform yourself into one of the most valuable brothers of a cause that would not take you for granted. A cause that seeks to rid the world of the sort of men who have spat on you while they sent you to your likely death time after time? Tell me truly, what is it that you fight for?"

Lee raised his head to look Hammond directly in the eye, the pain behind them all too visible.

"I fight for sanity, General. So, while I congratulate you on your new ally, I'm afraid I must continue to resist you."

The General was furious, knocking his chair back wards as he bolted from his seat, nostrils flared.

"I will return only one more time, Colonel. Before then, ponder this. I will find a way to get what I want, with or without your help. Your belligerence gains you nothing, and the souls you have had charge over until now will suffer for it. I wanted to do this as gentlemen, but if you leave me no choice, then you had best believe that I will turn over every last body until I possess what I need! When I return, co-operate, or else go to your death with the knowledge that your last act achieved nothing but a longer, more painful defeat, for you and all your allies!"

Briskly, Hammond pointed to Selina.

"Leave the both of them together, for now." he commanded "Give the Colonel more perspective with which to ponder his choice in friends. Corporal Hansen, remain with them."

"But, you're not going to like it."

Korovitch scowled thoughtfully at this. He knew exactly where Verner intended to take them. Still, it was probably one of the few safe places left for them.

"Did anyone else make it?"

"I don't know," said Korovitch. "We were... separated. Fiona?"

"I'm not sure either," she said. "We got divided again after you fell. Wickers, Tanner and Stark were falling back into the mines, last we saw. There's plenty of unmapped places for them to hide in, but I guess... they could easily have been backed into a dead end and killed. I just don't know..."

There was a brief pause. Then she gave a confident grin that looked only a little forced. "They were leaving a shit ton of bodies in their wake, though. Going through psycho inmates like copy paper."

"That's Iron Squad for you," replied Korovitch.

It was a short walk down to the market square, Nikolai leading a handful of the Free Men, along with a Songbird guide, and Lucia keeping up with the pace without complaint. When they reached the market, a few street sellers and passing locals closest to them stopped what they were doing to eye their party warily. It was clear that the local population of this place only tolerated the Songbird presence because they daren't refuse, and now the nomadic fighters brought with them a pack of convicts and savages. Thankfully, most carried on crying their wares after only a moment's pause.

Nikolai was once again out of his depth. He'd never really experienced anything like this before, or if he did he couldn't remember. As far as he knew, he'd never been in such a large gathering of people that didn't involve a fight, or preparation fr a fight, and thus he was tense. These people were making too much noise, and there was nowhere he could stand that didn't leave him exposed, with his back to dozens of others.

"Where now?" he asked Lucia, frowning. He needed to give himself some purpose, some specific direction to pursue.

Checking over her ammo Clementina couldn't help but be extremely disappointed in her ammo count. She knew how little there was, but with nothing to do and being stuck hoping no one bothered to look in this one building she needed something to occupy her mind. It didn't occupy her mind, she was exhausted from all the running and she had never been this vulnerable before. The other three wardens she was with had to save her as she was running low on ammo and energy. It was humiliating. They didn't even seem as motivated as her, the other woman even made stupid one liners after she killed someone. How could these people be more professional than her? And more skilled?

She slumped back over the table as she realised just how immature she was being. Why was she acting like this? They were fellow soldiers with more experience, who cared how they acted. Picking up the ammo clip she attempted to slot it back into her pistol, but her shaking hand made it slip out of her hand. She got on her hands and knees, slowly shoving the clip back into the gun. But it needed force to go in, she slipped it in and slammed it, her hands shaking the whole time. Her breathing was becoming haggard and she had goosebumps from more than the cold. Despite never admitting it to herself, and especially not out loud, she was scared.

She hit her forehead with the ejection port of the gun and closed her eyes. There was no way out, it was only a matter of time before those bastards came for them. She refused to kill herself, but if they overwhelmed her...

"Fuck off asshole." Whispered her fellow warden as she peeked out of the window.

"What is i-" Clementina asked, a little too loudly.

"Ssshhh!" The other woman hissed back as she readied her weapon. She looked to Clementina and put up three fingers before signalling her to come over to her. Clementina nodded and crawled over, so not to be seen from outside. Taking cover underneath another window. She hit the back of her head against the window sill softly. Now was not the time to act like this. Who cares if this whole situation was out of her league, she hadn't died yet.
===============================================
Felix walked underneath and alongside the vent his warden ally was crawling through. Nerves shot through him, he was in the pen with the animals, what if they set their sights on him. He could surely defend himself, but even then if too many were on him what would he do? Run perhaps? But what of his ally, he couldn't lead them to their meeting point. What if they heard her crawling through the vents? He'd have to distract them somehow, most likely it would end up in violence-as seemed to be the way in this place.

Trying not to look suspicious, he made his way towards his destination. Sometimes he could hear the bumps and bangs as she made her way through the tight spaces. He meanwhile just needed to avoid the more psychotic of the prisoners, which was an extremely vague statement. He just hoped that they would leave him alone, what was he to them? Just another murder, or rapist, or thief, he wore the outfit so why would they think he was anything else?

Alas it was not his safety he needed to worry about. It was his conscience.

Ahead, he could see a large group of men brutalising each other. With their bare fists the broke each others bones, forced blood out of each others mouths, noses and eyes, crushing the life out of each other with remorseless abandon. He had seen various fights off in the distance as he travelled, but this one was so close. And not just that, he could see the clear winners and the clear losers.

A whistle came from above. He looked up to see the warden's face through a grate, looking stern. He had been stopped dead in his tracks for a few moments now. She pointed ahead for him to keep walking as she continued on her path, but he didn't know if he could. He could intervene, he could help, but he needed to move on. He couldn't afford a distraction such as this.

Maybe just a quick one.

"That's Iron Squad for you,"

Neil nodded, but said nothing. Though they were speaking among themselves, he could feel the both of them staring daggers into his back. He could feel them both breathing down his neck. They hated him, and for good reason. He was a coward and a traitor, but none of that mattered now. He hoped they could see that.

He led them deeper into the Pit in as discreet a route as possible. Eventually, the old church came into view. Stopping by the cliff-side, Neil knelt down an examined the area where the French specialist had broken her shins all those months ago. He had tried to keep her out of his head since all of this had gone down, but it was becoming increasingly more difficult as time went on. Worse than that still, there was a possibility Korovitch knew of her fate.

He couldn't help himself. He had to ask, "Did they evacuate her before the attack? Is she still alive, Luka?" He remained crouched on the ground, looking at the spot where he committed his last, true sin.

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

Lucia caught onto his confusion rather quickly and gave him a warm smile, "Now we look for the goods we want to buy. If you see a stall or a merchant hawking something you want, you go up to them and ask them how much they charge for it. Then again," She gave the market another scan. "They probably barter in a village like this. You'll have to find a price you are willing to pay and one they are willing to accept."

She giggled as an absurd thought occurred to her, "Don't let them bully you into a price you don't want to pay, but also, don't be too demanding yourself. In the end, you're both trying to help each other out. It's not a competition." She watched his expressions closely as she spoke. He appeared to get what she meant for the most part. "Come on, I'll show you what I mean."

Moments later, Lucia was already cutting deep into the thick crowd, despite the crutches.

"Did they evacuate her before the attack? Is she still alive, Luka?"

"I don't know," replied Korovitch. "The only intelligence reports I was given before I went in concerned the advance of the enemy troops."

As they came through the double doors into the chapel, the three soldiers raised their guns and cast about.

"Verner, stay here," said Korovitch. "Fiona, check the tower. I'll check the back room."

The sweep didn't take long, fortunately. Fiona reported the tower clear, and Korovitch found nobody hiding in the back room, sternly ignoring the bed with its bloodied sheets.

With everyone back in the main room, he set about barring the doors of the church with chairs and stools. The pews, thankfully, were shoddily made as well as old, and came apart under the blows of Korovitch's kukri. While he was doing that, Fiona happened upon boxes of nails, perhaps left over from some long gone attempt at renovating the church. They used these to nail lattices of broken timber across the mostly broken windows, hammering them in with the butts of their pistols.

With the chapel now incrementally more secure, Korovitch finally sat on a stool opposite Neil.

"Now, Verner, you're going to explain to me in great detail the assignment given to you by Colonel Jin-Oh."

Fiona gave Neil an incredulous look at this remark. The idea that that man had been given a mission, by Lee personally no less, surprised her greatly. But she said nothing. Best not to interrupt now.

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

Riley made his way through the stronghold with Odin on his heels. Eventually, he came to a stop outside the door of Talon's quarters. After a moment's consideration, he didn't go in. It would likely be an abottoir in there by now, and in any case, the Talon didn't like to be disturbed.

Instead, he knocked curtly. "The Phantom is packed and redistributed for travel. We're ready to leave in a matter of minutes."

"Now, Verner, you're going to explain to me in great detail the assignment given to you by Colonel Jin-Oh."

"Lieutenant Verner will do no such thing."

As the voice spoke, it's origin, a small, lithe man, ethnically far-eastern, stepped out from inside the confessional cubicle, the same cubicle that Korovich had made a point of checking inside mere minutes ago. As the wooden door clacked shut behind him, it was accompanied by the low, but deceptively quiet rumble of the concrete wall beyond that sliding back into place.

Snakehead tattoo's covered much of his exposed torso, and he was sporting bruises to his face as well as a deep gash across his right bicep, bandaged up with now-soiled bits of shirt. He seemed largely unperturbed by these injuries, his posture straight and his stance alert. There was however, a slight edge to his voice and shallowness to his breathing that suggested he was in more pain than he was letting on. A 9mm handgun was tucked into the waistband of his trousers, and the man made no move to either conceal it nor draw it.

"My name is Chen." he said calmly. "You can relax, Captain. However, until I deem otherwise you and your..." he raised an eyebrow at the singular female companion. "'squad', are rogue elements in all this. You do not have access to classified intel."

He looked at Neil.

"It didn't take long for your misplaced guilt to overwhelm your better judgement. You could have ruined everything before it had even begun. However, in hindsight, you succeeded in bringing us Captain Korovich. Well done, just don't do it again."

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

"We're ready to leave in a matter of minutes."

Breaking her long silence instantly, The Talon gave her orders.

"Have everyone assemble at their places in the motor pools ready top depart. I will speak to them all before we leave."

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

Hammond was back on the Upper Levels, on his way to the Atrium, When one of his captain's came to him and his guard.

"General." the man said, snapping into a crisp salute. Hammond was proud of that. He made a point of running his cell tight. Most of the men his leader sent to him were ex-military, and he was determined that they be a liberating army, rather than a rabble of freedom fighters. It was what made them a cut above the rest, with the only possible exception of her own personal strike force, and what made them the only true candidates for this mission.

"We have 36 more Inmates gathered for processing. Will we be attending to them now?"

"Lead the way, Captain." Hammond replied with a frown. He hardly expected to make soldiers of even a fraction of these convicts. Nonetheless, appearances must be kept up. The facility could not be allowed to fall back into enemy hands before the rest of the plan had reached its terminus. However, Hammond was now faced with the same problem as his predecessor, not having enough man-power to simultaneously maintain control both inside and outside. Hearts and minds must be won underground, if Hammond was to hold the line as long as his leader needed him to. That meant directing the bloodthirsty and institutionalised, if not into a proper army, then at least into a halfway-organised militia.

Riley snapped off a salute and then left. The Talon wouldn't have seen it through the door, but she would know. She always knew.

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

Korovitch was awaiting Verner's answer when there was a strange grinding sound. "Lieutenant Verner will do no such thing."

Korovitch turned to face this newcomer. Best ignore his sudden appearance for now.

"You do not have access to classified intel."

"Alright," replied Korovitch to this newcomer. "So assuming you are an agent of the Colonel's, and that Verner here really is familiar with you, what exactly is the strategic value of keeping the Second Lieutenant and I in the dark?"

"what exactly is the strategic value of keeping the Second Lieutenant and I in the dark?"

"Iron Squad and it's leader are no longer as trusted as they once were." Chen replied, his tone was blunt, but official. "The stakes are higher than ever, and we can no longer guarantee that you won't place personal loyalties, and grudges, over the importance of the mission. Should you make a judgement call based on those loyalties that could lead to you being captured, anything that you had been told could be passed to occupying forces, compromising us all. Until I conclude that your head is in the game, all you need to know is that Verner's life is now more important than any other soul down here. If we fail in protecting him, the consequences will be severe, and felt far beyond to confines of this facility."

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

"some of your troops do scare me a little."

The Commander frowned a little, looking more disappointed than irritated.

"Many of us have spent the majority of our lives, or at least the last few years, fighting, running, and hiding. It has hardened us, and now for the first time, we have properly struck back. Some individuals getting carried away is unfortunate, and unavoidable. Still, General Hammond is always insistent that we treat collaborators with respect. You need only come to me if you feel that you are being mistreated, and he will hear of it. His integrity is sadly a dying breed in the world of warfare today."

With that, the Commander rose from his seat, and stood at ease behind the bar.

"For now, I have other duties to attend to. I will return when you are done with your shift."

A few hours later...

Evening was setting in, and the bar had mostly cleared out, by the time the Commander retuned. He looked pinched from the cold outside, but his expression was friendly nonetheless.

"It is very good to see you again, Miss Nyte. I am happy to wait here while you finish up, if that is alright with you?"

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

Lee's hands had been tied once more, and an age had seemingly passed since Hammond's last visit. However, considering that his company was so silent as to be practically worthless, it could have been ten minutes for all Lee could tell. Selina sat opposite from him, unrestrained herself, in reward for her co-operation. She did not, however, appeal to or interrogate Lee in the way that Hammond had done. They simply looked at each-other, unspeaking, and always waiting until the other party had looked away before they resumed their gaze, so that their eye's never once found each-other. Lee got the sense that Selina did not much want to look at him, the state he was in. In contrast, Selina seemed to have escaped any sort of visible injury, since the last time Lee had seen her. There was something about her though, that seemed shrunken, if not quite deflated. Despite being treated well, her status as a hostage hung heavy on her. Should she anger the General, or simply cease to be useful to him, then the enlisted men had just as much, if not more reason, to want to see her suffer than was the case for Lee. As for the Inmates... Lee might have been their unsmiling, unflinching overlord, and he imagined many would dearly love to rip his to shreds, but the things that would occur to some of the lifeforms here were Selina thrown to them...

For the first time since they had been shut in the cell together, them, and the two guards who moved so little it would have been so easy to forget they were there, Lee and Selina looked directly at each-other at the same time. No other interaction occurred. No words, nor so much as a silent nodding of heads passed between them, and the moment was gone again within the second. A few heartbeats later however, Selina stood up, seemingly uncomfortable, and moved to stretch her legs.

"How long does General Hammond intend to keep me cooped up in here?" she said irritably to the guard by the door, his uniform displaying the lower rank of the two.

"As long as he sees fit, ma'am." The guard replied, coldly.

Selina made a derisive noise in her throat, striding over to him.

"This is pointless! I have nothing to offer here. What is Hammond-"

"General Hammond." the soldier corrected.

"Oh fine!" she snapped. "What is General Hammond hoping that I will accomplish here? Why is he expecting this man to be any more forthcoming to me?"

"That's not for me to say, ma'am." the soldier replied, clearly struggling with his orders to treat Selina with respect.

"Please!" she said, becoming more animated with exasperation. "I'm sick of being cooped up in here! I would be of more help back on the surface, assisting General Hammond more with his enquiries. Besides, I still have staff being help up there, and I want to check that..."

As the soldier on the door became visibly more frustrated with Selina, the other guard towards the back of the room moved in to intervene. As soon as the attentions of both guards were distracted from Lee, he set to work. Ever so slowly, he tipped his weight forward in his chair, so that the two back legs rose an inch from the ground, and held them there as he began to reach downwards. The pain in his wounded shoulder flared, and Lee had to grit his teeth hard as he stretched his joints to breaking point, but, slowly and surely, his bound hands passed under the gap. Taking care to lower the back legs silently, Lee then did the same at the front. The balance was more awkward here, but the worst of the pain was over. Inch by inch, Lee's arms found their way forward under the chair, until they were sitting in his lap, and he could now rise from his seat unimpeded.

"Ma'am, I wont say it again. Sit back d-"

The orders of the higher ranked guard were cut short, as a heavy bottle of whiskey collided with his temple, the force enough to shatter the glass, sending shards and droplets of amber liquid flying. The second guard barely had time to flinch in shock, before Lee had lunged at him, thrusting the jagged remains of the bottle into his neck, and sawing crudely. The soldier's legs gave way, and he spluttered and gargled as blood streamed from his throat and mouth. In the space of a few seconds, and with barely a sound, both guards were dead.

Injured, and after so long without food, water, and proper sleep, even such s quick flurry of action caused Lee's head to spin. He doubted that he would have been able to over-power them both without the element of surprise, and the handy improvised weapon courtesy of General Hammond. However, he wasted no time. Leaving the neck of the bottle lodged in the Songbird's throat, Lee relieved from his corpse a combat knife and a sidearm, both of which he holstered, along with the keys to the cell.

Selina, meanwhile, had thrown herself back into the opposite corner as soon as the violence had started. That didn't stop her from now being drenched in whiskey, and spattered with blood, however. Now, she shakily took a step forward.

"Lee."

Without hesitating, Lee lashed out with a sudden elbow-strike to the right temple, and Selina's entire body went limp. Lee caught her as she began to collapse, and helped her down as graciously as he was able with his remaining strength. Leaving Selina's unconscious body among the dead, Lee stood up, unlocked the cell, and slipped out quietly.

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