The Ashlanders - Chapter 6: The Blind Man's Last Gambit (Closed, Started)

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"And it's fuckin' Parker. There's no way she'll sit this one out. He'd been with us for over eight years."

Amy hung her head, she had almost forgotten about Parker. If she was a Maiden now, she supposed that she would be 'celebrating' with them. She was not without empathy, but truth be told she hadn't spoken so much as a word to Parker. In fact, she barely knew anyone here, and yet her life and the lives of her sisters were in their hands. It was all so confusing, how fast it had happened. The optimism that Amy had felt before about her induction to this new family was now soured by dread. Parker's wake would just be the first of many to come for her, she knew, and it was all so strange. Before now, Amy had had her sisters, and she had cared for and worried about them all, trying her best to give the security, and to give them all the same chance that The Gentleman had once given to her, to make the best of their shared situation; but deep down, Amy knew that sister was just a word. This, the camaraderie, the knowledge that every other person under your banner would have your back when they needed them, this was a real family, and the hard truth was that Amy didn't know if she was cut out for it. A handful of days in this environment and she was already starting to lose her grip, being recklessly impulsive and defying every rule of logic that had kept her alive since she was a little girl. What were these people going to do to her if she stayed around them for much longer?

Worse, what might she do to them?

Cradling Meredith closer, Amy whispered in her ear, her voice not carrying above the noise of the Crawler.

"I'm going to be brave for you. I don't know if I an ever be the person you want me to be, but I'm going to try. Please, just let me know I haven't made a terrible mistake. Don't give up on me, and... if I can't be everything you want, please let what I am be enough, because what I am is someone who loves you. That's all that matters."

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

"Gonna need some help, though."

Sandringham simply nooded, before turning to one of his men and saying "Winters, take care of him."

While Mendez and Farthing dragged the body into the bathroom, Sandringham turned to address the two women.

"There's no time to remove any trace of a fight. We're lucky police aren't on their way here already. All we can do now is make sure nobody who might want to follow us has anything to go on. My men will make sure nobody can ID the corpse. While they're doing that, you two have five minutes to clear this place of any personal affects you have that could be used to place you here. Anything that you can't take with you is getting burned. Understood?"

"...There have been some new developments on my end. Over."

"Roger that, Commander." Jun replied, then switched off the radio and began to walk back to base. Did he really give off the impression that he needed to investigate further? Or was there another meaning to those words? Too much bother thinking about it, anyway. Regardless, it was pleasing to see that at least one of the others had made some progress.

Not long after that little conversion, he had returned.

***

"Anything that you can't take with you is getting burned. Understood?"

"I'd better get my things then." Maria sighed and walked off to what had been her room for the last couple of days. The first thing she grabbed was the doctor's bag; without it, she would be at least a smidge above useless to Sprout and the others. Next were just the rest of what she had, including her coat. It was a small mercy that she hadn't been wearing it when that bastard had attacked. Still, it wouldn't have been the first time a drop of blood had touched it and had left a dark brown stain that was a bitch to get rid of. For one small moment, she collapsed onto the bed and closed her eyes.

'It's over, Maria, move on. ' With a stretch, she got off the bed and returned to Elizabth, Sprout and the suits.

"Why not both?"

Severa grinned.

"Find them, sister dear, and I'll set about dragging fatty here into the kitchen."

"As you wish, Brother," She chirped as she hopped over the bar, effortlessly. Crouching over the bartender's corpse, she retrieved a ring of keys from his pocket. Stepping out from behind the bar, Severa swung the key ring around on the tip of her finger as she came up to the door. Unlocking it for him, Owain proceeded to drag the fat man through the door. "I can hardly wait!" She mused.

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Tsubaki looked up from behind the files she'd been mulling over when Bryan and Jun entered the room. No sign of Asad yet.

"Any luck on the espionage, Commander?"

"Yes," She stated simply before looking to Jun. "Make yourselves comfortable. We'll start once Harel arrives." She nodded in the direction of the coffee maker on the counter.

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"Winters, take care of him."

Sprout said nothing as the man helped him out into the hall. Leaning against the wall outside the door, Sprout sighed heavily. The stress of the situation had taken a lot out of him. Winters looked to the boy and faked a smile, "Cheer up, kid."

"Yeah," He muttered, absentmindedly.

"I'll go get your stuff for you. Is it all in your bedroom?"

"Yeah," He repeated.

With that, Winters headed back into the apartment in search of Sprout's belongings.

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"... Anything that you can't take with you is getting burned. Understood?"

"Oh my," Elizabeth gasped.

"I'd better get my things then."

"So it would seem," Elizabeth forced a nervous laugh. "I will collect Lilith's things as well."

After combing their room, Elizabeth felt confident she'd collected all the necessities. Unfortunately, there had been far too many new outfits to bring along, so she picked out the cutest of each of their collections and shoved them all into one overstuffed dufflebag.

Coming back out into the main room, Elizabeth dropped the heavy sack onto the ground in front of her, "I think that's everything."

Joining the group with a large bag of his own, Winters spoke to his boss, "I have the boy's stuff. I think we're clear to torch the rest."

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"... Don't give up on me, and... if I can't be everything you want, please let what I am be enough, because what I am is someone who loves you. That's all that matters."

Pixie muttered something incomprehensible back. Had she been awake? No. She was dreaming, most likely. From the looks of it, it was a happy dream. Whether Amy's words had truly made it to her was unclear, but they seemed to make her happy nonetheless.

Eventually, she began to rouse, just as they were closing in on their destination. Looking up at Amy from her place in her lap, Pixie smiled, "Hey there, darlin'. Why so glum?"

Bennie ignored Pixie's newly found consciousness and looked to Whiskey, "Sorry, girl, but it's blindfold time." He handed her a black bandanna. "Can I trust you to do it yourself?"

Walking down the corridor to the meeting room, Asad's brain was ticking away.

Closing the door behind him, Asad's eyes fell on his three companions.

"You know, I could make sweet love to that coffee pot right now." He joked, a small smirk curling his lips. The hunter had told him some interesting information, he only hoped the other's had found something as well, or they'd still be no closer than they were yesterday.

=========

Gorgon's head jerked as he clutched his throat. He tried to scream but was unable. A torrent of blood had already filled his throat. He would die, certainly. There was no hope for salvation now. Whether from lack of oxygen or lack of blood, his time was nearing its end.

Lurching back, both hands wrapped around his throat in an attempt to stem the blood flow, he set his weary gaze on Lilith. She had beaten him. By the skin of her teeth, she'd beaten him. At the very least, in his final moments, he would die knowing that he'd at least made his point. He didn't hate her, not really.

He hated her weakness.

He hated her nature.

Perhaps this brush with death; this bout of helplessness, would teach her a lesson. Perhaps she wouldn't hesitate next time. Perhaps she had learned.

Or, perhaps, she'd die in her next battle. It mattered not, honestly, Gorgon wouldn't be around to see it anyway.

He collapsed onto his side, his eyelids getting heavier and heavier. He watched the rhythmic rise and fall of Lilith chest and the large pool of blood pouring out onto the floor in front of him.

It hurt.

He was in pain.

He grit his teeth. There was no point bitching now. It would be over soon, anyway.

Lilith gasped deeply as her lungs clawed at the air, coughing and sputtering as consciousness returned to her. Her eyes opened wide, her mind foggy as it quickly put the pieces together in her head.
'Where the hell am I?' After a few moments, she sat up quickly, still coughing as her mind flooded with the current situation.

"You son of a bitch." She whispered in disbelief as her eyes locked to Gorgon's rapidly fading gaze. "YOU FUCKING SON OF A BITCH!" She roared as she quickly crawled over to the man, pounding her hands on his chest. Gorgon's blood was pooling rapidly on the ground, the colour had already drained from his skin.

Tears began to stream from her eyes, mixing with the blood dripping from the gash on her face as her emotional recovery caught up with her. "Why?!" She sobbed, her hands grasping at the man's shirt as she looked down at his face. "It was over!" She squeaked as she failed to contain herself. "IT WAS OVER!" She screamed as she leaned closer to the hunter's face, her eyes wide as tears crawled gently down her cheeks. "Why would you do that? Why?" She quickly placed her hands over the hunter's, applying pressure to his neck.

"Why did you make me do this?!" She demanded, rocking back and forth slightly, "Why couldn't you let me leave?" Another sob escaped her throat.

The woman's anger was rapidly replaced with fear and regret, she didn't want to kill him anymore, she was done, why didn't he just let her go? It was over, she was done!

"You goddamn stupid son of a bitch."

Lilith's cries were suddenly interrupted when a loud pop sounded from the doorway. A small spirt of blood shot out from between Gorgon's eyes and splashed across Lilith's face. Lowering his weapon, Cranston approached the girl from behind, her jacket in his other hand. Clenching his jaw, he hesitated a moment before speaking, "Put this on. We have to go."

Gorgon was dead.

Lilith's eyes widened.

'He was already gone, there was nothing you could do, better he be put out of his misery.'
Her hands still firmly pressing against the dead man's neck, she slowly curled her bloodied fingers as she rested her hands on her thighs, her head hanging low as she curtailed her racking sobs.

"I didn't want this." She muttered, her voice lacking in emotion. "It was over, I tried to leave and..." She furrowed her brow, a perplexed look in her eyes. "I didn't want this."

Slowly getting to her feet, she grabbed the jacket from the old man's hands, her eyes avoiding his. She couldn't deal with his disapproving look, not now, she could feel it on her.

Putting on the jacket, she pulled the zip as far as it would go. her eyes following the blood trail, resting on a small scattering of broken metal next to where she had been pinned.

'Thanks Pixie.'

Wiping an arm across her face, she dried her eyes, wincing as the fresh cut on her face burned.

"I... I have to go." She said quickly as she walked away from Cranston. Without looking at the old man, she thrust her hands into her pockets, pausing at the exit of the room. "Tell... tell him I'm okay. I ju...just need a few hours."

Cranston had been staring down at the corpse while Lilith prepared herself. He wasn't sure how far it had gone, but he wasn't about to make her feel worse. Once she'd crossed the room, ready to leave, he turned to look at her. He was expecting to see Pixie standing there in Lilith's place. He expected to see the blood dripping from her fingertips and her teeth. He expected to see a maelstrom of emotions on her face and in her posture. Everything from rage, to pleasure, to regret.

He didn't see Pixie, however. Lilith had fucked up, that much was clear, but perhaps that was why Cranston was so... relieved. She was still Lilith. No matter how much she hurt right now, she hadn't become the woman who raised her. And perhaps this was a sign that she never would.

"Alright," Cranston finally answered. "Just be safe, okay? I don't need to remind you how much you mean to him."

"I know, I'm sorry." She whispered as another sob threatened to escape her throat, but she managed to keep it at bay. Opening the door, she quickly left the compound.

To where, she wasn't quite sure yet.

"MAYDAY MAYDAY! THE PERIMETER IS BREACHED! I REPEAT, THE PERIMETER IS BREACHED!" There was a muffled sound of gunfire and the radio cut out, dead.

"What the fuck?!" Every guard at outer post S-3 leaped into panicky life as they scrambled for their weapons. "What'da we do?"

"Double time it back to the towers! I'll check in with the other posts! GO-GO-GO!" He roared, flapping is arms at them like a madman and sending the rest of his group sprinting back to the looming spire. "This is outer post S-3, come in! Armory, this is S-3! Do you copy?"

No answer.

"Shit..." The solider cursed under his breath. He frantically thumbed at the radio controls, scrolling through other channels, trying to contact other stations. None of them answered. So either everyone was too busy to answer the radio's in near them... or they were all dead. "Shit." How had this happened?

An answer came in soon enough as the misty streets of Frostfall burst to life. The steady thrum of traffic and dome city life grew into vicious roars. Crawler after crawler came into view as they ran straight for the perimeter line, their engines screeching like banshees. Scattered along their lines were armoured APCs, trundling along like hulking beasts, safe among the guard of their more maneuverable cohorts.

"No, no, no, no!" The lonely guard's mind went blank as he slowly backed away into the far wall of the tiny office. Invading vehicles were streaming through their lines one after another, the flimsy out fences offering up little defense against the dozer like APCs. The armoured assault was swarming all around him as the little checkpoint was lost among all the noise and cold metal. Though he didn't notice it at the time the inner walls were being ripped apart at regular spaces allowing the crawlers to race through even faster than before and those that ran back to assist were trapped from both sides as ballistic fire and screeching tiers tore them apart. All the guard saw though was a darkly coloured APC passing by, for a moment it looked like it's top mounted gun was looking right at him.

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

"Sir! Enemy armour is approaching fast!" A young solider called over from his lookout point in the main spire as he saw another point around the perimeter burst into flames and rubble.

"Load the cannon! Fire at will!" His commanding officer barked as the various crews that manned the ivory tower's internal artillery scrambled to their positions as they frantically fought to defend their base. The cannons weren't meant for such short ranges but it was all they could think to do, at least they could hit those near the back of the attacking wave, maybe even disable their artillery.

Heavy shells reigned down on the attacks, the whole level was in uproar and everyone with stripes on their arms were shouting orders over each other. "How did they get so close?" Someone called out. "Where the hell are the plasma cannons?"

"Keep on task! Keep firing!" Their superior roared over them, sorely wishing he had a whip.

"What about the other crews?"

"Where are the response teams?" Other crew members and officers were running back and fourth going about their tasks or looking desperately for orders or some kind of clarification.

"Keep on task! Load and fire! You hear me? I do not give a shit what any of you have to say!"

["BREACH!"]

"What?" He paused, turning round to see what was going on behind him. Then the doors flew away and everything turned into burning light. Then that burning was in his chest. Then everything was black.

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

The crews around the expansive artillery positions quickly dropped while they were fumbling around trying to see. Some managed to get to cover or cower in awkward positions long enough to regain their eyesight as the team went about rooting them out like hounds at the hunt.

Some were wearing sidearms and managed to put up a paltry defense, peppering their attacker's positions with pistol fire and making them think twice about advancing as they ducked behind the monolithic defense guns. Unfortunately this team was working on a timetable and were quick to batter any counterattack aside with whither bursts of fire and healthy use of grenades. Each time Erik was at the front, dashing low and fast from cover to cover with surprising speed for a man of his age and size, sprinting under the safety of his men's suppressing fire and popping up just in time to get a good shot off at someone.

It made his bloody day when he managed to flank a pair of gunners around their own cannon and put a couple bullets through one of them as well as close the distance and shoot the second near enough point blank through the chest. He did let his himself slip a little as he smacked the same man in the head with the butt of his rifle though, sending them sprawling backwards and nearly out the gaping hole in the wall that the gun stuck out of. Erik kicked their lifeless body out the rest of the way once the room was clear and hesitantly peeked over the edge to see it fall.

["Just got word, Blue Team are two floors up from us."] One of Erik's crew said, muffled by his mask.

["What about Red and White?"] Erik asked while the whole squad formed up.

["Red have encountered heavy resistance and suffered some bad casualties. White are hitting their targets as planned."]

Erik pondered it over for a second. Sergei's main wave were breaking through and would be rushing the lower levels. Least it looked that way from his view of things up here. ["Tell Red to fall back to a defendable position if they haven't already and hold out for reinforcements."] Erik's man went back to his radio. ["Double time. We've taken too long as is."] Erik ordered. The ceiling seemed to shake in response and a muffled rumble that seemed slightly closer than all the others. ["Fuck me, Blue Team, leave some for the rest of us!"] That got him a little laugh.

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

"I cannot suggest against this strongly enough!" Irena called out.

"I'm sure you can." Vasa waved her off, his eyes always wandering back to the spire.

"This is insane!"

"Sanity is relative." Vasa grumbled as one of his soliders gave him a hand up into the armoured car. "Onward my hussars, onward." The old man motioned forward halfheartedly. He'd be damned if he missed the chance to get a good seat to see this from.

"Can I trust you to do it yourself?"

"Sure thing, honey," replied Whiskey, taking the blindfold. Momentarily tipping Eddie's hat into her lap, Whiskey put the cloth to her face, and fastened the ends tightly underneath her ponytail. That done, she put the hat back on and turned blindly around, sweeping the rousing Pixie, Amy and finally Bennie with her blocked gaze.

"How's it look?"

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

"You know, I could make sweet love to that coffee pot right now."

"I can't help but reckon you've done that on a desperate night or two," replied Bryan with a grin, getting to his feet to fix some coffee.

"So," he said with his back to the group. "Someone start. Don't worry, I'm listening."

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"I can hardly wait!"

"Well then, I shan't be too long," Owain replied. With the comatose fat man deposited on the tiled floor, Owain returned for the cripple, who whimpered as he was carried. The man was in shock. Owain would have to bring him out of it before trying to get anything out of him. Bringing in a couple of chairs from the dining area, he searched the kitchen until he found a fat roll of duct tape, and set about binding both men to their seats.

"I think I'll start with the smaller one, seeing as he's awake," he said to Severa. "Unless you'd like to wake Sleeping Beauty and give him some attention."

Running a tap, he waited until the water was icy cold before filling a glass. Coming from the Frostfall water supply, this did not take long. Then he splashed his victim in the face with it. The man broke from his stupor, shaking his head stupidly. Owain crouched in front of him, drawing a Sykes knife from within his parka.

"Alright," he said kindly. "Tell me, does it hurt when I do... this?" He ran the tip of the knife down the man's thigh, staining his pants with yet more blood as he split them. At first the man's eyes widened, but then he blinked in confusion. No pain.

"Ah, well, that's very interesting," said Owain, shifting position. "And what about when I do this?" He took the man's hand, set the blade's edge to it and delicately carved a sliver of flesh from the side of his index finger. The man yelled at the top of his lungs and struggled hard, but he was securely bound, and Owain's grip on his wrist was like iron as he flayed the finger.

"Be aware that this is just the beginning," he said. "Now... this won't go any further until I meet roadblocks, you understand. But I had to lend some validity to any violent assertions I make down the line. But yes, no further unpleasantness unless you refuse to answer my questions. Understand?"

"Fuck you! Go fuck that sister-looking bitch over there!" snarled the mercenary.

"Oh, I'll get to that later, believe me," replied Owain. "But... you've put up one of those roadblocks I mentioned, so..." he knelt back down and took another sliver from the other side of the finger.

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Ruffles sat in the Crawler's backseat, checking his equipment. Everything was still in his bag, and he was just winding up the cable for the ADS rifle he'd tested out in that skirmish. With the wire coiled tightly, he removed the dish from the handle and put the pieces away.

Skylar had been driving in total silence as Austin sat in the back seat. He had been totally quiet since he had left his mother. After what felt like forever to a child, he tried to make small talk, "W-Where are we?" He was going to finish that sentence with the word 'going?' but he stopped when he realised he had no idea where he was even within the city.

"We're in, wow she really shelters you doesn't she?" Quipped the young woman.

"S-sorry." Austin replied as his head sunk low, feeling guilty for a reason he didn't know.

"Don't say sorry kid, you did nothing wrong." Spoke Skylar. "I know this is all fucked but-shit she'll kill me if she heard me swearing in front of you. Dammit I did it again, on sonofab-"

Austin cut off her forced attempts at humour with his original query, "Where are we going?"

She paused and continued looking ahead as the roads became less paved, more a reaction from people driving over them so many times. "We're heading out of the city. Cops are probably herding as many people outta the city as they can. This is the closest exit."

"W-W-W-" He began stuttering and stumbling over his words so much he decided to say none at all, despite clearly wanting to speak.

Skylar tried to guess what he was about to say, "I know a few friends who liked to knock about outside domes, call themselves "Sun baked Vagabonds." Fuckin' gay name to be sure but they'll let us crash." She whispered to herself, "stop cursin' in front of the fucking kid!"

Austin merely nodded and attempted to thank her, but couldn't. The rest of their drive was akward and quiet up until they could see their exit out of Yuteni. "Fuckin' finally." She said relieved, trying to break the awkward tension. There were police stationed at the gates trying to herd people out. Despite this area being a total ghetto, everyone was eager to get out of the city, even if it did mean co-operating with police. "You can fall asleep back there if you want, it might take a few hours getting to them."

Austin was about to respond when sudden gunshots caught their attention. Snapping her head forwards, Skylar saw the police retreating back into the city gates and firing outside. There were more of them. Acting fast, she put the car into reverse and began driving through some alleys that her car could fit through. If she went back into the city she would just be cornered, she needed to find some kind of hiding place before attempting escape again. Austin kept his head low as the bullets began flying, cowering as he could hear the screams of death from the officers at the gates.

The car pushed down the alleys before going down a ramp and down into the tunnels. If she could find a way out through there, then maybe they wouldn't need to hide at all. Speeding at a dangerous pace she was about to collide head on with the large grates when she realised she needed to slam the brakes. Stopping just short of wrecking the car, she got out and set to work opening them up when Austin heard glass shatter behind him, and saw a bullet whiz past his head.

Skyler shot up and drew her pistol, firing blindly into the darkness as bullets began coming from an unseen source. "Austin get outta here!" She yelled. He was torn between frozen stiff and running for his life. Thankfully his fight or flight instinct kicked in, he chose flight. Unbuckling his seatbelt he ran up to the grate, trying his best to open it while Skylar worked to defend him. Her first real gunfight was a short one as a two bullets lodged themselves within her chest and stomach. Falling back in pain Austin ran to her aide. She pushed him away and commanded, "RUN! FUCK THE TUNNEL JUST RUN!"

Austin knew he had too. He didn't have the strength to open up the gates, he truly lacked the strength his mother and father had. He whimpered before running off down one of the branches of the tunnel system, as Skylar sat up to cover his escape. The worst part of it wasn't when the gunfire started, it was when it stopped. He kept running, sprinting, desperately trying to escape an enemy he didn't even know, and would never hope to understand.
===========================================
The mad father glowed with pride at his family's conquest, beaming a disgusting smile as they salted the earth, decimating the terribly trained soldiers. "Leave no mercy, not a single one lives. After this we descend to the police stations. We must rescue your mother!"
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Despite wanting to do her duty as a police officer, protecting those in danger from those looking to take advantage of the situation, everybody in the street had to look up and see the ivory towers collapsing. It had been built so high it threatened to pierce the sky. And now it was gone. It was a common agreement that it was an complete eyesore, but to see it gone entirely, in its place just a floating castle of death...

She had to get there, to that bastard who she once foolishly loved. The people would have to manage by themselves, as bad as it was for a cop to think that, she needed to be there. With him. Killing him. Ending this before he caused anymore damage. How she would achieve any of this she had no idea, she wasn't thinking clearly whatsoever.
===========================================
Continuing to drive in his ever decreasing mood, Aesop finally broke the silence that had taken the vehicle. "Tallahasse you got any coke left? I feel like gettin' fucked up tonight."

"How's it look?"

Bennie grinned, "Reminds me of this one night where Pi--"

"Not the time, Carmine!" Pixie barked from the backseat.

Laughing, Bennie shrugged and looked back towards the road, "I'll tell ya' later." He whispered.

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"Tallahasse you got any coke left? I feel like gettin' fucked up tonight."

Tallahassee cocked and eyebrow and shook his head, "Naw, man. You know how the Queen is about hard stuff! Last time she caught me doin' an eight-ball I got a bruise so bad a hooker turned my ugly ass down!" He laughed. "Anyway, fuck man, she'd kill me if I gave you some. Ain't you s'posed to be on the straight n' narrow?"

"All I know is I'm gettin' fuckin' blasted tonight. Drrruuuuuunk!" Brock chimed in. "Parker would'a wanted it that way."

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Tsubaki ignored the stupid back-and-forth between Asad and Bryan; instead, focusing on getting herself a fresh cup of coffee.

"Someone start. Don't worry, I'm listening."

"Thanks for volunteering to go first, O'Lafferty," Plopping back down in her seat at the head of the table, she sipped her coffee and added, "I'm all ears."

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"Unless you'd like to wake Sleeping Beauty and give him some attention."

"Suppose I do just that, Brother." Severa suggested, a cruel smile plastered across her face. Dropping her case on the ground beside them, Severa mounted the semi-conscious man and began groping his nethers, all the while humming a lullaby her mother used to sing to her. It didn't take long for her to get a response, though, it seemed his body noticed before his mind did. As the blood-flow changed course, Severa's humming intensified. Eventually, the fat man's eyes opened.

"Wh-what's happening. Wh-why are you?"

"Shhhhh," She shushed him, a finger on her lips as she continued to work with her other hand. "Just relax, my cute, fat bandit. We're going to play a little bit. Is that okay?"

Confused pleasure was quickly replaced by utter terror as his senses returned to him. Panicking, he tried to pull himself out from under her, "G-GET AWAY FROM ME YOU---"

His words were interrupted by a sharp slap to the face, "DID I SAY YOU COULD SPEAK, SWINE!?" Scooting forward, she continued to stimulate him against his will.

"S-stop that!" He begged.

"Oh, but you're enjoying it, aren't you? Are you saying you don't like me?" She pouted.

The man's mind was a mess. Unsure of what to say, he muttered, "N-no, I---"

"DON'T LIE TO ME!" She screeched, grabbing the entirety of his manhood in her hand and twisting as hard as she could.

The bloodcurdling scream that followed was liable to shatter every window within a five mile radius. She held him at her mercy for awhile longer and released him only once his lungs had run out of air. Grabbing his jaw roughly, she planted a soft, devious kiss on his cheek, "Quiet, my pet."

He did as he was told, though his breathing was ragged and strained. Severa smiled, "Good boy. Now, tell me, we're looking for the Gentleman. Do you know who that is?" The man nodded frantically, too afraid to speak. "Good. Though I doubt you know where he is at this very moment, I was wondering if you'd be so kind as to inform me of your boss' whereabouts. Where's Vasa?"

"I-I don't---"

"TELL ME!" She shrieked, punching him hard in the ribs. For such a small woman, it was utterly shocking how powerful a punch she packed. She fractured three ribs like it was nothing at all. Screaming out once more, Severa wasn't about to savoir his pain again. She was serious now. Grabbing him by the collar, she held him close to her face. "WHERE IS VASA? TELL ME OR I CHOP IT OFF!"

"I-I---" Before he could tell her anything, a large explosion sounded from outside, followed by a prolonged exchange of gunshots.

Looking to her brother, Severa smirked, "Could that be our friend now?"

"I'll tell ya' later."

Whiskey laughed. "The best stories are better over drinks, anyhow."

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

"Anyway, fuck man, she'd kill me if I gave you some. Ain't you s'posed to be on the straight n' narrow?"

"Damn straight," chimed in Ruffles. "Fuck, man. Nose candy? What you want that for? You're crazy enough as it is."

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

"I'm all ears."

"Oh joy," replied Bryan, sitting down with his own cup. "Right, well as we thought, the nomadic population turned out to be a dry well, info-wise. Was just about to pack it in when I bumped into a few of our guys. Anyway, it's 'cause o' them I found out my dear old uncle were in town. Anyway, I tracked him down--" he put up his hands at Tsubaki's skeptical look. "He's an info broker. Sort of. Barely ever saw him even when I were a kid, 'cause he were always getting run outta some place somewhere by someone he'd pissed off. But he knows his stuff. Anyway..."

He took a sip of coffee before continuing. "Right, so I got on him about Elizabeth, and he said it were a mate o' his what picked her up off the Maiden. Said mate then went on to get tagged by Wilkes-Vines." He gestured to the Commander. "That confirms what we know. So anyway, he mentions that a couple Maidens been getting into a spot o' bother in our fair city. Not only that, but they packed it in and went dark right around the time we reckon Miss Maribel's trail fucked off. So he thinks there are a couple here. But the only one what has reliable witnesses is that right jammy blonde lass. So I guess it backs up the idea they've snatched her again."

"Anyway, fuck man, she'd kill me if I gave you some. Ain't you s'posed to be on the straight n' narrow?"

Aesop grumbled something unintelligible.

"Damn straight. Fuck, man. Nose candy? What you want that for? You're crazy enough as it is."

Aesop was about to respond, biting his gums, before Brock said the exact right words.

"All I know is I'm gettin' fuckin' blasted tonight. Drrruuuuuunk!" He chimed in. "Parker would'a wanted it that way."

Still looking ahead, Aesop pointed with his thumb at Brock. "If I can't drink... I ain't grieving sober, fuck that. Not booze, but something."

"Hey there, darlin'. Why so glum?"

Pixie's dazed smile was like being immersed in some kind of cleansing pool, all of the anxiety draining out of her, all the tension loosening.

'That's what I needed to hear.'

"It's nothing." Amy said, quietly, before kissing her softly on the forehead. "Welcome back."

The rest of the conversation passed Amy by. She had eyes only for the woman in her arms.

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

"Looks like it's over." The shooter said to the spotter, as they both lay prone on the roof of an adjacent building. "We move in now."

"Copy that." His partner replied, before speaking into his throat mic.

"Approach the old man first. He already knows us. Package is unstable and likely to assume hostility. Let's make this nice and easy."

Out of the darkness below, four more men materialised, approaching in pairs from opposite sides of the street, closing in on Cranston. Through the radio, the sniper team could hear the conversation.

"Apologies. I hope this isn't a bad time, but you and your friend have to come with us. There's been a development."

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

"I think we're clear to torch the rest."

Sandringham held up his hand.

"Just a moment." he said, and as if on cue, Mendez and Farthing emerged from the bathroom.

"All set?"

"Affirmative." Farthing replied, "If the fire doesn't do the trick, the acid will."

"Good. Lawrence and Munford are bringing the van around now. Winters and I will escort this lot down to the street, you two finish up here and join us when you're done."

The journey downstairs was made in haste, and in silence, With Sandringham on point and Winters behind. When they made it down to street level, a white van emblazoned with Feroxi's official Dome Maintenance logo was just pulling up on the sidewalk. Opening the rear doors, Sandringham wordlessly beckoned them all inside, before shutting them in. A couple of minutes later, the doors opened again, and he, Farthing and Mendez all piled in too. Before Sandringham slammed shut the doors once more, the rest could see an orange glow rising behind the windows of what had been their safe house not long before.

"Drive." Sandringham ordered, and they sped away.

Everything was in bloody order as Vasa arrived to take in the battle scared scene. The compound grounds may have been beautiful once but the intrusive swarm of armored vehicles and the debris that had fallen from tattered sections of the tower had wiped away almost every trace. The open grounds were manic with activity as those taking up support roles went about setting up their stations, dealing with the wounded and maintaining communication stations. It almost sent a warm glow of satisfaction through Vasa's chest seeing everything come together like this. Maybe he'd feel better once he got a closer look.

The lower levels were theirs now. The bullet riddled, bloodstained, blast scorched playground of the Bejic family. Every hallway rang hollow like a tomb, cold and heavy. Whether it was attackers or defenders that killed so many of the generators wasn't known but it had left the emergency generators working overtime and bathing the walls in a hellish red glare. Bandits ran rampant as they helped themselves to every kind of spoils that wasn't nailed down. But the day was not theirs yet, The noble forces were fighting like cornered animals as they were pushed further upwards and further away from a possible escape. No doubt Erik was having a wonderful time right now.

Moving through the tower took far longer than Vasa would of liked as his guard kept a nigh on paranoid scouting pattern, forcing them to stop and start annoyingly often. Vasa tried to make the best of such a tedious situation and took in the sights now and then. Somehow I suspect I'm not seeing the place at its best. Somehow the sound of distant gunfire never seemed to get any closer but the screaming came and went as they passed the occasional wounded. They were far more bothersome than the bandits that were helping themselves raucously helping themselves to loot. Though the worst were without a doubt the Bejic fighters that were, instead, helping themselves to the servants and nobility that had somehow survived. Most require release after such bitter times. They should enjoy it while these days last.

It wasn't until seemingly countless floors later that Vasa and his retinue found an expansive viewing room, the far wall was completely dedicated to a vast window, leaning outwards to give the occupants a panoramic view of Frostfall below.

"Here. I'll stop here for now." Vasa waved to his guard, struggling for breath slightly. Fucking, stairs. I hope whoever cut the power died screaming. At least the room had some lamps and they wouldn't have to put up with that insufferable red light that was soaking the rest of the place.

Vasa found himself a chair to rest his weary bones in, never had anything felt so comfortable. "I have a task for one of you." He called over to those escorting him. "I need a runner to see if they can find someone."

* * *

Florian had just finished packing up what little he'd brought with him when sirens cut through the stale quiet of the safe house. Not something out of the ordinary until they were joined by a host of others along with the sound of shouting and arguments. Curiosity quickly lead Florian out the front door and into the street.

The road was flooded with cars and trucks, quickly trapping some emergency vehicles in the traffic and deafening everyone with obnoxious blaring horns and sirens. Onlookers were gather down the street as people huddled together in worried gossip.

"What is going on around here?" Florian muttered to himself.

He quickly got his answer as a flash of light burst from the side of the ivory tower looming in the distance, spraying out huge chunks of architecture and blooming orange flames. The onlookers all burst out in little yelp and panicked ramblings. Florian's blood ran cold.

"No... no y- you didn't..." His voice was little more than a pitiful whisper in his throat. "You didn't." Florian's mind was in a haze as he set off, running full pelt towards the tower. He didn't have any idea what he'd do once he got there, what could he do? He only knew he had to do something.

* * *

Vasa's peace and quiet was finally interrupted as the runner he'd dispatched knocked on the door and ushered in a disheveled looking man of fifty years or so. His clothes were torn and stained in blood. He offered no resistance as the masked bandits shoved him through the door, sending him staggering forward. He only looked off into the middle distance, his eyes glazed over as if they were still seeing something else entirely.

"We found him, sir."

"Excellent, excellent!" Vasa cheered as he beckoned in their unwilling guest. "Lord... Boykov, isn't it, yes? Vladimir I am told. What do I call you, is it My Lord? Or can I call you Vlad, what is the proper way for these situation's? I find myself at quite the loss - oh but listen to me rambling like an old woman! Sit down, you look tired. Can I get you a drink?" Vasa was smiling more than he had years, rambling on as if it were his birthday or something. "You may wait outside." He turned to his guards gathered at the door.

"Sir?" One of them spoke up as the other glanced from Vasa and each other uncertainly.

"Leave us!" Vasa ordered firmly. It was only once they were alone that he took a seat across from the disheveled lord, both hands firmly planted on the metallic head of his cane. "There is a right way to do these things, isn't there." He smiled softly over to Lord Boykov.

Vladimir refused to look the man in the eyes. He just couldn't, not after all that had happened. He had summoned every ounce of courage he had not to break down sobbing right then and there. Trembling, he spoke, "Y-y-you killed them. You killed my family. My daughters. I---" He buried his face in his palm. "Why?!"

"Whyyyy..." Vasa seemed to savor the word as he leaned back in the masterly crafted chair. "That is the big question isn't it?" The two of them fell silent for a moment with only the distant sounds of gunfire and screaming to fill the gulf between them. "There are so many answers I can give you. Really I should give them all if I was to do all this justice, after all things are rarely so simple... butt hen we'd be here all day and time is always running out."

Vasa slowly pushed himself to his feet and went about raiding the liquor cabinet. Fixing the two of them a pair of drinks took a little longer than usual as Vasa seemed reluctant to release his cane. But he managed in the end and placed down the glasses on the small drinks table by the viewing chairs with a clink.

"Why do you think I did it?" Vasa asked, apparently feeling mischievous.

"Power? Isn't that what it's always about for men like you?"

"Men like us, I think you mean." Vasa chuckled. "Come now my lord, it's a little late to start playing innocent. I suppose that's as good a reason as any. I already felled the other families... why not aim higher? Now your taxes can be my taxes, maybe now I can make it warm in this place! That would be something, wouldn't it?" Vasa sighed happily to himself. The thought of Frostfall's streets bathed in bright warmth was almost comical to him now. "You know... looking at you now... I expected so much more."

Vladimir gritted his teeth and shook his head, "You took everything from me. What did you expect? That I would stand tall and swallow this defeat? No, you give me too much credit, Vasa. I'm just a man. A man with nothing left in this world."

He sighed, "I must thank you, however. They were killed quickly. They weren't made to suffer. If I am to leave this city to you, I can at least be content in knowing you aren't entirely the savage I thought you were."

Vasa laughed bitterly and shook his head as if the weariness was beginning to finally catch up on him. "Leave it to me... leave it to me. What would I do with all this?" Vasa spread his arms out wide, sweeping over the cavernous room. "Who am I to leave this to, the dogs that follow me? No. I am a simple man of common birth, sir, I am made of base material. I do not belong in places like this and those animals out there would destroy themselves trying."

He drank deeply. "No, my time is running out and better domes than Frostfall could not recover from this." Vasa leaned in closer to his bitter prisoner. "You see now, why I had to see you? Because now we can talk like men, as true equals! As men with no future. You took my future from me... and now I have taken yours." Vasa's seemed to look far off into the distance for a time, his hand acting on its own as he reached into his coat and pulled out a metal chain with a dark and yellowing fang dangling from the end. "There is a right way to do things."

Vladimir's eyes quivered as he looked upon the fang. He recognized that old token. So, Vasa had clung onto it for all these years? Looking up at the old man before him, he frowned. Despite his victory today, he had no doubt it tasted bitter to Vasa. It was hollow. He had hung on all this time for this moment. To enact revenge.

Vladimir did not want to become like Vasa. He did not want to live the rest of his long, lonely life with nothing but hatred and sorrow in his heart, "Vasa," He started, pausing for a moment before continuing. "Where do we go from here? Is it too much to ask for you to kill me?"

"In time I suppose." Vasa sighed. Frostfall sprawled out before them, riddled in mist and fire. "I want you to know this isn't personal, not anymore. With no one to come after us we must think of what legacies we shall leave, of how we will be remembered. And I promise you they will remember us. You and I will leave scars on the rock that will never fade and fires that will never go out."

"You say these things like I should care. My legacy, my real legacy, is no more. I don't care about what happens to this city... you can burn it to the ground for all I care." His eyes were glued to his feet as he spoke.

"YES!" Vasa suddenly burst to life, thumping the floor with his cane in victory. "Now you understand! I knew you'd understand! They always said you were a smart man and you got their in the end!" Vasa left his chair and knelt before Vladimir as if he truly saw the man as his lord. "Here we are in the same shoes at last!"

The words sank in for both of them. Nothing ever seemed to keep Vasa's spirits up for long these days butt hen he never had been a very happy person. That was just his lot in life Vasa supposed. The old criminal rose to his feet and straightened out his clothes, after all he had appearances to keep up. If he was to end this he would do it right.

Vladimir didn't suffer long as Vasa moved with a disturbingly sudden burst of speed. The handle of his cane pulled away, drawing the masterfully crafted revolver into the light. The bullet tore through Lord Boykov's heart, painful but quick... and dignified. The lord's whole body flinched for a second before a wave of peace was forced over him and Vladimir slumped in his chair. If it wasn't for the bright red dot spreading over his chest you could have been forgiven for thinking he was asleep.

"This was on your terms." Vasa told the corpse. "And as good an end as any." No doubt it was better than most that were being met today and far from the last.

Vasa's guards quickly burst through the door, rifles leveled only to find a scene of complete calm in front of them. "Should... we move on now sir?" One of them asked hesitantly.

"I don't know." Vasa sighed as he looked over the burning city before him.

Pouring himself a cup of coffee, he held the mug underneath his nose as he took a deep breath. Sighing in satisfaction, he made his way over to the table, taking a seat next to Bryan as he relayed what he had heard.

But the only one what has reliable witnesses is that right jammy blonde lass. So I guess it backs up the idea they've snatched her again."

"Yeah, Valentine, Monroe's kid is here too." He furrowed his brow. "As well as The Cook." Shaking his head, a small smirk curled his lips. "He is trouble, big trouble, if the rumours are to be believed." Taking a sip from his coffee, he nodded his head, pursing his lips. "Not bad."

"So there's a group of bounty hunters, led by a man called Gorgon. Ran into two of his men at the bar and decided to ask them politely to divulge what they know." He winked at Tsubaki. "Turns out, this Gorgon had a run in with the three Maidens. Ended with the boy getting shot, whether he survived I don't know, but Valentine lost it and tore Gorgon to pieces, but he managed to escape, and now he's tearing up the city trying to look for the Maidens, the girl in particular."

Asad took a deep drink of his coffee. "Nothing on the Maribel girl, but if the Maidens have her, we need to hurry up and find them before Gorgon and his men do. No telling what a man like that will do in a fit of revenge."

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

Lilith winced, as she leaned closer to the bathroom mirror, gritting her teeth as she delicately touched her fingers to the cut on her cheek. It wasn't too deep, although she's probably need stitches, but it was clean enough. Running from just below the outer corner of her right eye, all the way down her cheek and stopping just above the jawline, it would be a difficult to hide reminder. "Another trophy." She muttered sardonically as she dabbed at it with a damp cloth.

Taping a clean dressing to the wound, she washed the blood from her hands and left the dingy room. The bar was pretty much empty. Plopping herself on a stool at the bar, she propped the side of her head up, her elbow on the counter top. Narrowing his eyes, the rough looking bartender put the finishing touches on sparkling clean glass, nodding to himself as he made his way down the bar and placed it in front of Lilith.

"Not too bad I hope?" He spoke softly as the girl looked up at him, there was a weathered look of concern in his eyes, the kind of look a person only gets after years of seeing things that are best not to be seen.
Nodding, Lilith averted her gaze downwards slightly. "Shouldn't be too bad." She said simply. "Thanks for the dressing."
"Well, if you don't mind me sayin', you were lookin' mighty distressed. It would have been remiss 'a me to not help."

Smiling weakly, Lilith's eyes found the bartender's. "Thank you. I'd like that scotch I wanted earlier now." Chuckling, the bartender bent over slightly as he pulled a bottle from beneath the bar.

"Yer, I reckon you can, now you're all cleaned up." Lilith's eyes lost focus as the man slowly poured the liquor into the glass. Raising a hand to her neck, she gently rubbed the sore bruising that was quickly forming around her throat. As the man finished pouring her drink, she reached out and quickly gulped down the scotch, slamming the glass down on the bar. "Another please." She muttered.

"Be careful with those, they have a habit of catchi-"
"I know how to drink scotch." Lilith snapped. After a few moments, she shook her head. "I'm sorry, that was rude, it's just..."
The bartender tilted his head slightly, furrowing his brow. "It's just been a rough night?" He suggested.
"Been a rough night." She nodded, smiling slightly as she locked eyes with the man.

"Well, Ms. Valentine, I'm sure the poor son of a bitch had it coming." He winked at the girl as he began cleaning another glass. Blinking a few times as the man's words sank in, she narrowed her eyes slightly.
"Relax, I ain't sayin' nothin'." He leaned over slightly, cupping a hand against the side of his mouth. "Between you an' me, I think you and your friends do some mighty fine work." He returned to cleaning the glass, a smile on his face. "Mighty fine work."
Lilith shook her head slightly, a confused look on her face. "How did you?..."
"I saw you outside the cafe the other day." He paused for a moment. "I take it Gorgon and his goons won't be showing their faces around these parts anymore?"

A look of sadness creased Lilith's face. "I...don't want to talk about it." She muttered as she sipped her scotch.
"Say no more." The man said, tapping his nose. "But if ya don't mind me sayin'." He started, topping up the girl's drink. "There's a look in ya eye, one I haven't seen too many times before." He said sombrely as he locked eyes with the girl. "You might think ya fucked up, or that you could have done somethin' different." There was a knowing glint to his eyes as he continued to polish the glass in his hands. "You're not livin' the easiest life, it has a habit of burnin' people up inside, now that look you got there..." He nodded at the girl as he furrowed his brow. "That look tells me that hasn't happened yet." He crossed his arms across his chest. "Do me a favour kid, keep that look." He smiled warmly. "Too many folk stagger in here, so sure of themselves and the things they've done." He placed the glass under the bar before leaning forward, placing his hands on the counter top, his eyes searching the girl's. There was a sadness in their icy depths, there was regret, fear, and frustration.

But no anger.

"Who are you?" Lilith whispered, her eyes not moving from his.
"Just someone who knows what you're going through." He answered softly before pushing himself away from the bar and turning to pick another glass from the sink behind him. Lilith narrowed her eyes, a ponderous expression on her face. She opened her mouth to talk, hesitating for a moment, before she managed to form the words.
"How do you know when it happens?" She asked, the worry in her eyes growing.

The man paused for a moment, lowering his head slightly. "You'll know." He replied sombrely.

"You won't need to ask."

Cranston saw them coming before they'd made themselves known. In truth, he'd been aware of their presence since before he and Lilith had attacked Gorgon's hideout. Would they have stepped in under extreme circumstances? No, it wasn't likely, not for Cranston's sake in any case. It was his show, and they had been wise not to interfere in his battle.

"Apologies. I hope this isn't a bad time, but you and your friend have to come with us. There's been a development."

Cranston cocked an eyebrow, "Any casualties?" He spoke in a professional manner.

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

"Drive."

Sprout sat between Maria and Elizabeth. None of the three of them had spoken a word since filing into the van. Ignoring the chronic pain in his ribs, Sprout stared blankly at the ground between himself and the Gentleman's men. Noticing his sorrow, Elizabeth furrowed her brow and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.

Wordlessly, Sprout placed his hand on hers and continued to stare into nothingness. After some time, Winters pulled something out of his pocket and began flipping it in the air and catching it. It was Lilith's poker chip. Looking up at it as it bounced up and down off of the man's thumb, Sprout scowled and snatched it out of the air, "Where did you get this!?" He demanded, holding it up to Winters' face.

"Your room. Why?" Winters asked, legitimately curious.

"It's Lilith's." Elizabeth whispered, her eyes glued to the chip in Sprout's hand. "Did she give it to you to hold on to?"

Sprout's eyes moved from the man before him, down to the chip in his hand, "No," Sprout tried to swallow through the knot in his throat. "Well, I reckon maybe she did, but..."

She didn' say goodbye.

Closing his fingers around it, he squeezed and grit his teeth, "Come back ta' me, Lily. P-please, I-I--" Reaching around his back, Elizabeth pulled him in for a hug, his words melting into incomprehensible sobs as he buried his face in her shoulder.

Winters watched in silence, as did the rest of the Gentleman's men.

"It's okay, Sprout." Elizabeth assured him. "She'll come back. She's a tough girl."

Sprout nodded, but continued to cry. Though she too was worried for Lilith, Elizabeth was at the moment, far more concerned for her nephew. Her late sister's son. The only thing Margaret had left behind in this world. It was Elizabeth's responsibility to protect him now.

She really didn't remember Margaret very well. She'd died when Elizabeth was only a child, after all. But somehow, holding her son like this now, it felt like she was here again. The same resolve. The same passion. The same purity, lived on in this boy.

She tightened her grip around his arm.

No matter what, she'd make sure he made it through this.

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

"... No telling what a man like that will do in a fit of revenge."

Tsubaki nodded. After hearing both Bryan and Asad's stories, it was sounding more and more like Elizabeth was in fact with the Maidens, "Good job, you two." She said, allowing herself a small, appreciative smile.

Looking to Jun, she asked, "And what did you turn up?"

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

After such a long, tiring trip, it was jarring just how fast Pixie was moving upon arriving at their destination. Pixie barked orders in every direction as Bennie and Amy helped her out of the crawler and guided her towards the infirmary. Warren and Tallahassee were to prepare Parker's corpse for cremation. Aesop and Ruffles were ordered to take Whiskey to her quarters and to keep and eye on her. Brock was told to explain to Cameron what had happened with the ambush and Parker.

Protesting against their aid the entire way over, Pixie finally was able to free herself from Bennie and Amy's hold once they'd reached the infirmary. As Pixie made it through the doorway, Bennie turned to face Amy, a frown on his face, "Thanks, I've got it from here. We've got a few things to discuss, if you don't mind."

Looking at her from behind Bennie, Pixie smiled as she plopped down onto the operating table, "Don' worry yer purdy lil' head, hon. I'll be fine."

Whiskey's room was small, but cozy enough. There was a small cot in the corner with a plump looking pillow, and there were a few books on a shelf in the corner. John Steinbeck, which was good. Ayn Rand, not so much, but Whiskey didn't mind. She could use a laugh.

Ruffles looked around. "So, are we supposed to lock her in? I was away for most of this shit, I don't know how the Captain is with her."

"Honey," Whiskey replied, "do you seriously think a locked door would keep me in this room if I wanted to get out?"

"Fair enough."

For a moment, they were all stood in her room quietly. Then Whiskey grinned. "So, the black guy and the two Asians all grouped up. This bitch racist, or what?"

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

The beep of Eddie's heart monitor was so rapid it was almost blending together. Payton glanced at it. 187 BPM. Best ease off. He removed the clamps from the chain and Eddie slumped, groaning. Payton tousled his hair condescendingly, and then laughed when a considerable static charge shocked his fingers. "See, we're making up for lost time already," he said.

Eddie didn't reply. His heartbeat was falling rapidly back to non-lethal levels and unconsciousness was creeping in. For now, Payton seemed content to let that happen.

A hard slap across the face brought him back into consciousness. He opened his eyes and his vision focused, bringing Payton into sharp relief.

"Wake up, Mister Canton. Wake up, and smell the ashes."

The Gentleman looked down from his paper just in time to see Florian walking outside.

"I'm not sure that's such a good idea, my boy."

Whether Florian had heard him or just chosen to ignore him was unclear. In any case, The Gentleman was uncharacteristically irritable as he folded up his paper and followed his travelling companion outside.

"What is going on around here?"

"I think we can gu-" The Gentleman began, before his sentence was cut off by practically half of the Frostfall Tower exploding.

"You didn't."

"Blast! I thought he might be reasonab-Florian wait!" The Gentleman called after him, before rushing back inside.

'What a family of bloody stubborn fools! No, what a city of bloody stubborn fools! I swear, they all deserve each-other in this place!'

Nevertheless, a few minutes later, The Gentleman was outside again, setting off in pursuit of Florian.

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

"Any casualties?"

"Around ten minutes ago an assailant broke into your safe house and attacked your friends." came the emotionless reply. "He's dead, they're not. Agent Sandringham thought it wise to move them before the location was compromised further. We can no longer guarantee anybodies safety in this city, so we're leaving. You and the girl need to get a move on if you want to catch the last train out." The agent paused before adding "I understand her friend is anxious to see her again. it would be a shame for them to be parted."

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

Amy looked for a second as if she was going to argue, but yielded at Pixie's assurances. Still, she shot a dark look at Bennie before stalking off back to her and Pixie's room. Shutting the door behind her, Amy slid down to the floor, and for a while just sat there, listening to nothing but her own breathing. Her hands were still caked in blood, and upon inspecting herself in the mirror, Amy found that there was more flecked on her face and congealed in her hair. Shruggin out of her clothes, Amy stepped into the shower and turned the heat and volume up to full. It was a while before she was done.

After she had got out, dried herself, and washed the remaining make-up off her face, Amy simply stood there for a while among the steam. She stood in front of the mirror, naked and full-face, her eyes searching for the innocence. No dress-up, no coy angles and shy smiles. Unmasked and de-robed, what was she really made of? It had been a very long time indeed since Amy had looked at herself this way. Had she ever really? Well, now she was, and she wasn't quite sure what to make of what she saw. She had always feared that, stripped of the glamour and mystery of The Golden Rose, she would see that helpless little girl again, the same girl who had become a whore just so that nobody could ever again take by force what she chose to give away willingly. Pathetic, victimised... she couldn't afford to go back to that place. Equally, she had feared she would see the beginnings of a used-up hag before her time, submitted to her fate. What Amy saw in that mirror was neither of those things, but it certainly wasn't a grown, vibrant woman either.

What she saw was a ghost, a blank canvas, a shade of a person so afraid of being one thing or another, that she had instead become nothing at all.

Maria looked down at the floor of the van. She had nothing to say that would ease the pressure of the sombre atmosphere or was it that she wasn't in a joking mood? No, whatever she could say would just be a continuation of Elizabeth's words, though probably with a little jest thrown in. Her foot slid a bit as she thought more about the apparent topic on hand: Lilith. Maria couldn't do revenge. It just seemed so... bothersome. You get hit, you hide away and you heal and then you hide away some more rather than risk getting hurt some more. Kinda cowardish, but Maria was hardly the martial type. Sure, there was - as her father had put it - the gangrene which needed to be extracted from the body. However, said extraction still wasn't easy.

***

"And what did you turn up?"

Pieces of the picture were beginning to click together and now it was Jun's turn to show what pieces he had, even if it meant just repeating what he had said before. "In spite of being hunted," The soldier began, "it appears that Maribel, what can assumed to be Valentine and some other woman - a Hispanic - started some trouble in La Chaussure de Ciel. They demanded to purchase some goods and strong-armed their way in when the staff there refused them entry."

He paused, then added, "That with other evidence cements the fact that Maribel is with them, Commander."

Escorting the, maybe not, 'hostage' to her room, Aesop was still in a foul mood. She was a looker, but Aesop wasn't so much of a horndog that looks were the only thing to ease his mind.

"So, are we supposed to lock her in? I was away for most of this shit, I don't know how the Captain is with her."

Aesop was about to reply something rude about the Wilkes Vines when she responded. "Honey, do you seriously think a locked door would keep me in this room if I wanted to get out?"

"Fair enough."

Hot and snarky, he wondered if there was any other kind among the maidens.

"So, the black guy and the two Asians all grouped up. This bitch racist, or what?"

In that moment Aesop chuckled, forgetting his problems for a moment as the perfect opportunity presented itself. He grinned and pointed to Ruffles like an excited child. "See! See! I am Asian! Fuckin told you!" He laughed as he spoke before turning back to Whiskey. "I've been sayin' this shit for a long time. Team minority superiority!" He raised his fist in the air victoriously.
=====================================================
With the soldiers either scattered fleeing or dead, the 'richest' area of Yuteni was helpless as Austin tore it apart from the skies. Elsewhere his family from other cities were swarming all exits out of the city. His former beloved rushed to her precinct to find her brightest and best officers, while her son ran aimlessly through the dank, dreadful smelling sewers. Foul odours filled his nostrils as he stepped in all sorts of disgusting sewage. He wanted to be annoyed at how sick it was that his feet were covered in faeces, but he did not have that luxury. He wanted to be in a position to complain about the smell, but he did not have that luxury. He wanted to go back to his mother, tell her he wanted to go home, but not only did he not have that luxury, but if he was too loud he could have gotten killed. He did not know who was chasing him however, and that their intention was the complete opposite.

He squeezed between pipes leading around the underground as he kept running his absolute fastest. Turning a corner he slipped and went face first into the murky waters. Spitting and feeling like he was going to vomit, he shoddily ran up to his feet and grabbed a nearby metal door handle. He pulled and shook it as he so desperately tried to escape, as his pursuers were much too close for comfort. It wouldn't budge and he abandoned this exit, running back down the sewers. He heard rushing waters as he got closer and closer to an open area, with large tunnels leading down into some kind of pool. He didn't understand how these systems worked, and he didn't care. He could hear his aggressor shouting after him, and in his desperation held his breath and lay down in the waste. It was the most vile thing he had ever done, but it was dark and the water wasn't clear. He could hide. He held his breath, pinching his nose as long as he could, staying absolutely still until he couldn't take anymore.

He sat up, gasping for air as he used his fingers to wipe away the dirt, but his hands were just as filthy and all he was doing was spreading it. He couldn't hold his anguish anymore and began sobbing, crying through his dirty face. Why had this happened? What the hell was even going on? He had no idea, and for his first true experience alone he wished, oh he wished he could be with his mother again.
=========================================
Alex burst into her precinct, yelling the names of the top men and women under her command. Ordering them to follow her she let a cavalcade of police cruisers towards the remains of the noble tower. It was in pieces, barely even the size of her own house by the time she got there. Among the wreckage were so many body parts she doubted if they would ever find an intact corpse. Not worrying, or rather not caring about the status of the soldiers or nobles, they ransacked the place for any explosive weaponry. They couldn't match Austin in the sky, but if they could bring him down they might stand a fighting chance.

Most of the weapons had been destroyed, but there were a few that could be re-purposed as hand held explosive launchers. Throwing anything useful into their cars and crawlers, they were off, to bring down the demon in the sky.

Getting through processing had been simple enough. Ortega did little more than flash a badge before the guests were allowed into the facility. It was a short trip to the locker room where Carter was ordered to give Hannibal a new change of cloths and give him the privacy he needed to get changed.

Once he was, the group made their way through the winding, fluorescent halls of Basilio Tower's sub-basement until finally arriving at the briefing room they were to use. Sitting down on the other side of the metal table, Ortega gestured for Hannibal and Viola to take a seat. Everyone else left the room, save for Mila, who stood at attention by the door, "Either of you need something to drink?" Ortega asked.

Viola took off her hat and coat, hanging it on the back of the seats they were shown to when they arrived at one of the briefing rooms. She took a moment to adjust herself to the rigidity of the chairs before answering Colonel Ortega's question. "A glass of water will be fine Colonel." She said stoically, waiting for the questions to begin.

Hannibal has never been in a place so... clean. The place was immaculate, everyone was clean and bathed, and spoke with proper grammar and punctuation. Were his vocabulary not so limited he would have said more than 'This place is so clean.' However, he was still shaken from that woman touching him earlier that only slow breaths escaped his lips. He appreciated the change in clothes, yet his mind kept trailing back to worse days. Much worse, no matter what happened now, nothing could compare to those days.

"Uh..." he could only mumble, he wanted to ask for water, but instead chose silence.

Ortega nodded to Mila, who left the room. Moments later, she'd returned with two glasses of water. After placing them on the table, she took her place by the door once more.

"Now," Ortega began, leaning forward in his seat. Flipping open a file on the table, Ortega glanced over it before looking to Viola. "You have quite the track record, Greaves. Though, I can't say I see anything in here that implies you're an assassin. No offense, but I don't think you've got the stomach for that kind of work. So, why do you think the Sandringham approached you for the Pym job?"

"Funny, I asked him a similar question during our talk the other day." Viola remarked with a smirk as she responded.

"I asked him, since he has put so much time and effort into planning this hit, why doesn't he just do it himself. Agent Sandringham replied that, whilst they could very well do it themselves, and without much hassle, they wanted to put as many steps in the assassination of Doctor Pym between them and Lord Basilio as humanly possible, hence outsourcing the contract to me. He did also offer the whereabouts of Lady Maribel as collateral."

Hannibal remained quiet and sipped his water as they spoke of matters much above him.

Ortega nodded along to her words. He didn't show it, but he was pleasantly surprised at how easy it had been to get her to talk. Then again, she had no real, tangible loyalty to the Maidens or the Gentleman. Perhaps he'd do what he could to ensure her cooperation was not leaked to anyone outside the facility. It was the least he could do. Retribution would be swift and merciless if the Gentleman were to catch wind of her "betrayal".

Folding his hands together, he nodded once more as he spoke, "Oh, so they told you where she is? Tell me now and I'll see what I can do about getting you your payout in full. Though you don't have Monroe's head, you're more than helping us on other fronts. Lord Basilio will be happy to pay you the full bounty."

"Slight problem with that Colonel. I was to receive Lady Maribel's location after I had dealt with Doctor Pym. Apologies for letting you think otherwise, it was a poor choice of words on my part earlier." Viola said with a slightly saddened look on her face as she took a sip of water. "Like you said, assassination's aren't part of my usual repertoire of skills."

Ortega nodded, "Understood. At the very least, we've got confirmation that she is, indeed, still alive. So, just to set the record straight: Maribel is alive, but you are unsure of her whereabouts. We also don't know why Pym was being targeted. I very much doubt they gave you that information, but if you have any insight on that, I am all ears."

Viola shuffled about in her chair a bit before responding. "Alright, but keep it strictly between everyone in this room. He mentioned that your employer, Lord Basilio was planning something important, didn't exactly say what though. If I was to guess, I imagine that Doctor Pym plays a big role in these plans, like a key component as it were. Spoke highly of their intelligence. That's all I could gather based on the cryptic nature of the Agent's words, though such a nature is expected of someone that works for The Gentleman."

Hannibal's curiosity was bubbling under the surface, and through the dryness of his lips he managed to force out, "W-Why would he kill him?" His words were nervous and ragged.

This wasn't good. Perhaps the Gentleman knew more than they'd been led to believe. Still, if they had fully understood Pym's importance, they wouldn't have brought in an untested third party. The Gentleman wasn't that sloppy when it came to the more important power plays. Looking to the boy, he grunted in thought, "Well, he's one of Basilio's top scientists. I am not privy to any information regarding their projects, but it's likely the Gentleman either wants to halt production on whatever it is Pym is working on, or perhaps, he may be looking to further the position of a mole inside the R&D department."

"What if the Gentleman's goals were one in the same? Slow down the rate of Doctor Pym's work via a puppet or proxy in his employ."

Hannibal didn't want to admit he didn't know what R&D meant, so he just sunk back into his seat with a confused and embarrassed look on his face.

"It's possible, but at this rate it's just conjecture." Ortega thought for a moment before shifting gears. "What about the Maidens? We know you have been in contact with them and we know they have been working with the Gentleman as of late."

"My business with the Maidens has mostly been in the pursuit of Lady Maribel; as a result, I know next to nothing of their dealings with the Gentleman, only that they've been burned by him in the past. As to what I've been doing in the presence of the Maidens, well some mercenaries lead by a man named Gorgon are giving them some trouble as of late. I figured the logical thing to do would be to help, and perhaps gain their trust."

Ortega frowned. It was clear he didn't like her answer. It could be that he'd already run the well dry. Sandringham and the Cook had been wise to leave her in the dark. Before he could press her on the matter, however, the door swung open. Carter stepped inside, "Sir! There's been a development! We need you right away!"

"Sure," He agreed, getting out of his chair. "I'm sorry, but we'll have to continue you this a bit later. Mila, bring them to the mess and get them some food."

"Yes, Sir." She replied unenthusiastic-ally.

Ortega burst through the threshold, followed closely by Carter. A chorus of footsteps began to fade down the hall as Chimera squad hurried to the main level.

Sighing, Mila crossed her arms and looked at the unlikely duo, "Want a hotdog or something?"

"Uuuhh, uh yes?" Hannibal replied awkwardly, the sudden rush of actions and terms in his head confusing him, the thought of food warmed him.

"It might be a good idea for us all to have a reprieve whilst Colonel is busy." Viola remarked as she downed the remainder of her water before standing up from her chair and putting on her coat and hat.

Stepping outside the bar, Lilith took a long deep breath, tasting the slight chill on the air as it licked at her wounds, the gentle violet glow of the night kissing her skin. As the door to the bar closed behind her, she tapped the pack of cigarettes against her palm before, opening it as she lifted it to her mouth, grabbing one with her teeth.

Reaching into her pocket, the woman pulled out a small matchbook. Grasping it between her fingers, she held it up to the light as she looked at the design on the front flap. A red headed woman, brandishing two revolvers, straddling a shooting star, winking with one eye, and a 'come hither' look in the other.

The Outlaw Star

Lilith smirked, shaking her head in disbelief. "No way..." Turning slightly, she looked up at the flashing neon sign above the entrance to be greeted by the same red headed woman, winking at her knowingly. "Well I'll be..." She chuckled as she flipped open the matchbook, snapping out a single match and lighting it on the attached striker. Holding it to her mouth, she inhaled deeply as the cigarette took the flame. Shaking the match out, she flicked it over he shoulder, a trail of silver smoke marking it's flight.

Lilith closed her eyes for a few moments as the smoke stroked her lungs, a content sigh escaping her lips as the smoke crawled from her mouth. Opening her eyes, she looked back up at the neon sign, her face lit up as her mouth widened into a rare toothy grin. Raising two fingers to her mouth, she blew the red headed woman a kiss, holding her fingers aloft as she turned around and began walking down the street. "See you, space cowgirl." She called out, lowering her hand, she ran it through her hair before thrusting it into the pocket of her jacket.

As she walked down the street, slowly heading back to the apartment, the rough looking bartender's last words echoed through her mind.

"You can't change the world." He smiled at the girl. "But you can refuse to let it change you."

Lilith furrowed her brow, the cigarette hanging loosely from her lips. Things were going to get rough in the coming months, Axel was going to need her more than ever.

She was ready, ready to be the buffer between him and this life. Tonight had been a pivotal moment, she didn't indulge petty vengeance, she had stayed her hand, and despite the eventual outcome - she raised a hand to her cheek - Lilith had done the right thing.

"Be water." She whispered, taking a deep drag of her cigarette. "I get you now, Bennie." She smiled warmly.

"I get you."

"I understand her friend is anxious to see her again. it would be a shame for them to be parted."

"I'll handle the girl," Cranston said, scratching his goatee and looking off to the side. He was thinking. "We won't be long. Pick us up at the brothel. Sandringham will know which one. Also," He gestured down the street, in the direction of the factory. "You may want to clear out now. Basilio's men are already on the scene." And with that, Cranston was off.

It didn't take too long for him to find her. She hadn't gone far. He just followed the smell. "Ace O' Spades", Lilith's favorite cigarette brand. Her room on the Maiden reeked of the stuff.

Catching her walking down the dark, empty streets alone, Cranston called out to her from behind, "Lilith," he clenched his jaw. "It's time to go. He's waiting for you."

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

"That with other evidence cements the fact that Maribel is with them, Commander."

"Agreed," Tsubaki simply stated. "The next step then, is confirming whether or not they are still in the city. I---" Tsubaki's words were cut off when her pager went off. It was McAlister. Without a word, Tsubaki hit the speaker button on the conference phone in the center of the table. After punching in his number, they were greeted by classical music as the landline made the connection to the Intel department.

Dio Basilio had classy taste, indeed.

"H-hello, Commander?!" McAlister's nervous voice cracked over the speaker.

Getting up from her seat, Tsubaki planted her hands firmly on the table and leaned over, "What is it, McAlister?"

"Hey, sorry to call you out of the blue like this, but we just got word of an incident in the manufacturing district. You said you wanted me to report anything strange that---"

"Yeah, yeah, I remember. Get to the point, McAlister!"

"Well," He swallowed nervously. She really did set him on edge. "One of the bodies has been identified as the bounty hunter, Gorgon. You know, one of the guys Lord Basilio---"

"Holy shit," Tsubaki interrupted, once more. "When did this happen?"

"About twenty, maybe thirty minutes ago?" He guessed. "There's something else too." He added. "An apartment in the Cloud District was apparently raided by a lone gunman. He's dead and the occupants of the apartment are nowhere to be found. A homeless man on the scene said he saw a few men in suits escorting a kid and some women into a van a little over a half and hour ago."

"Dammit it!"

"Hey, Commander, is there something---"

Tsubaki hung up on him abruptly and frantically dialed another number, "Commander Saburo, what's the meaning---"

"General! I---"

"No," The General spat. "Warn me before you just call me out---"

"With all due respect, General, shut up for a second! I need the city on lock-down, NOW!"

"Wh-what!? WHY!? And don't you tell me---"

"Lady Maribel is being taken out of the city AS WE SPEAK! Do you want me to explain to Lord Basilio how you wasted precious time---"

"OKAY! Okay! But you better be fucking right about this, Saburo, or it's your ass!"

Thanks for omitting the usual "fat" descriptor, General.

"Roger that," Tsubaki said unenthusiastically as she hung up the phone. Looking up at her squad, she simply stated. "Let's move."

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

As Amy turned down the hall, Carlos came racing into the infirmary, behind Bennie, "Is everything okay? What happened?!" Carlos questioned frantically, looking between Pixie and Bennie.

"It's okay, Carlos, only a flesh wound," Pixie assured him.

"Let me take a look at it. Bennie's not trained---"

"Carlos," Pixie stated, firmly. "Get out."

His jaw hung agape for a moment as if he had words he wouldn't dare say, then he clenched his jaw and nodded, "Of course." Brushing by Bennie, he closed the door on his way out.

Bennie watched him as he left and turned to face Pixie. Always a difficult man to read for those that didn't know him well, Pixie could see the rage as clear as day hidden behind his sunglasses, "Hey, don' worry about him."

"That fuckin' scumbag---"

"Bennie!" Pixie barked. "Not now, I've got a fuckin' open wound over here!"

Bennie sighed and moved over to her side, "Fuck, I'm sorry." He apologized. Gathering up supplies from the nearby cabinet, Bennie continued. "If he had..." Bennie stopped his train of thought. Best banish it all together. Returning to her side, he began to unravel the impromptu field-dressing. "How's it feeling?"

Pixie laughed through the pain, "Fuckin' hurts like hell. Whadda' you think?"

"Well, it's about to hurt a lot more here in a second." Bennie warned.

"Stitches ain't shit!" Pixie joked. Despite her bravado, she did her fair share of wincing, groaning and cursing as Bennie went to work, cleaning, closing and dressing her wound. When all was said and done, Bennie had done an admirable job fixing her up.

After taking a few minutes to lie down on the operating table and relax, Pixie sat up and looked Bennie in the eye, "So, I reckon you wanna talk about Wilks-Vines, don' ya'?"

"Among other things."

"Well," Pixie forced a smirk, "What's up?"

Bennie leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, "No matter how we play it he will find a way to screw us sooner or later. His word doesn't mean shit. The first chance he gets to sell you out he'll take it. I can guarantee that."

"So," Pixie cocked and eyebrow, "Then we jus' kill 'im before that can happen."

"You make sound easy."

"Why can' it be? Right now we focus on gettin' ar' ship back an' blown that fuckin' maniac outta the sky. Then what? We turn 'ar guns 'round on the man 'imself at the first signs of trouble."

"That's the thing, Pixie," Bennie shook his head. "By the time we see the first sign it will already be too late."

"Speakin' from experience, Carmine?"

"What do you think?"

"Fine," Pixie sighed. "Sorry, Bennie, but we need 'is men. We can' fight a war on 'ar own. We jus' don' 'ave the numbers."

"I get it."

"Do you?"

"What's so goddamn important about that ship, anyway!?" Bennie snapped.

"It ain't about the fuckin' ship, Bennie," Pixie shot him an icy glare. "It's about Austin. We let 'im run wild on the ashlands with that kinda fire power an' there's gonna be a lot of dead innocents when it's all said'n done."

"And?"

"And what? You know what I'm on about!"

"I do, and it's fuckin' troublesome."

"Oh, really? An' how do ya' figure that?" Pixie's tone hardened.

Bennie bit the inside of his lip and shook, "You've always been like that. Willing to sacrifice yourself and your people in order to do what? Protect the innocent? Save the world?"

"Bennie..."

"We're bandits, Meredith! CRIMINALS! Have you forgotten that?!"

Déjà-fuckin'-vu.

"No," Pixie whispered. "No!" She repeated, louder now. "But ask yerself this: ar' you willin' ta' stand by an' let that psychopath lay waste ta' countless families? Ar' you fine'n dandy with 'im marchin' 'is goddamn child army all over? exploitin' those poor kids? Brain washin' 'em an' sendin' 'em out ta' die?!"

"How's what you're doing any different?!" Bennie snapped. Pixie recoiled back in shock. "Seriously? Why did Parker have to die today?! Tell me that! We were there, makin' a deal with a man we should have never gotten into bed with in the first place and got caught in the crossfire of a dispute we had no part in! You sent Parker out there! You did! How the fuck is what you do any different!?"

"H-how... dare you..." Pixie muttered, trembling. "How could ya' say that to me? I-I-I loved that boy..." A rogue tear escaped Pixie's good eye as she grabbed her forehead. "I-I-I---"

"Fuck," Bennie muttered. "Goddammit. Look, I'm sorry, I---"

"If you 'ave a problem with my leadership, Carmine..." Pixie started, her head bowed.

"No, look I'm sorry. Today's just been... tough." He reached and put his hands on her shoulders. "I shouldn't have said those things. I didn't mean any of it."

Pixie fought for a long time not to meet his gaze, but eventually gave in. Her brow furrowed, her eye watery and her lip quivering; Bennie could see clearly how much he'd fucked up. True, Pixie was a master of manipulation, but this was the death of a friend they were talking about. She wouldn't feign sadness just to get under his skin if it meant she was dishonoring Parker's death.

After a long moment of silence, Pixie finally spoke, "I'm sorry 'bout Amy. Did she hurt you?"

"No, I'm fine," Bennie assured her, leaning back in his seat once more. "Don't know about her though."

"Yeah," Pixie looked off to the side. "She's, uh, well..."

"You really have a habit of attracting the crazies. You know that?"

Pixie offered a sad laugh, "Maybe. Amy's a complicated girl. I feel for 'er, I really do. I can relate to 'er."

"You love her?"

Pixie considered her answer for a moment, though in truth, she already knew it, "I care for 'er, sure. Like one 'a my own. But love? Romantic love?" She sighed. "No."

"But she loved you?"

"Yeah," Pixie found Bennie's eyes once more. "Bennie..." She furrowed her brow. "She said she'd die fer me. Said all sorts 'a stuff, actually. I dunno... I dunno what ta' do. She needs someone, ya' know?"

"Does she need someone twice her age, though?"

"Hey!" Pixie frowned. "Yer the one in 'is thirties! I still 'ave a few months, dammit!"

"Well, am I wrong?" Bennie tilted his head, inquisitively.

"Bennie," She pressed her fingers hard against bother her good and bad eye in an attempt to banish her anxiety. "I feel like I'm 'elpin' 'er, or... at least I thought I was. Maybe what she's goin' through now is necessary, ya' know?"

"Yeah, sticking a knife to your girlfriend's ex is all part of the process, right?"

"Bennie..."

"Admit it. It's all about you."

Why do ya' always 'ave ta' challenge me, Carmine?

"It was at first," Pixie admitted. "But, no. Not anymore! I really care 'bout 'er! I wan' 'er to be happy! I wan' 'er to recover!"

"Sounds familiar."

"Beg yer pardon?" Pixie narrowed her eye.

"You say it isn't about you, but then you say things like, 'help her recover' and 'she reminds me of myself'. Could it be that, and I am just guessing here, but," He sighed. Clearly he didn't want to complete his thought, but if his time with Cranston taught him anything it was...

No half measures.

"Could it be that you're hoping to fix her in some vain hope you'll find salvation for yourself? If she can get better, anyone can, right? Even you." Bennie frowned, obviously upset that he'd had to say what he did.

Pixie went stiff. Jesus... he was right.

You fuckin' sick, bitch, Pixie.

"B-bennie, I-I--"

"It's okay, Pixie. We're all human. We're all fucked up in some way. You don't need any fixing. You know that, right?"

"You're wrong!" Pixie snapped. "You have no idea what it's like in my head..."

"When we were together," Bennie started. "Things were good. You were happy. Both of us were happy."

"Bennie..."

"So why not go back to that?" Bennie pressed. "Look, it's not too late. We can go back to---"

"Bennie!" Pixie interrupted.

"We can---"

"Stop!" She shouted. "Please, I-I... I jus' wanna be alone for awhile. I need ta' get some rest."

Bennie stared at her in silence for a long while before nodding, "Right." Getting up from his seat, Bennie stormed out of the infirmary. To where, Pixie didn't have a clue.

Laying back down on the operating table, Pixie painfully slipped her flask out from her pocket. After unscrewing the top, she downed its contents and tossed the tin to the ground. After wiping her mouth, she sighed and closed her eye.

That went fuckin' well.

It didn't take long for Amy to dress. She wore a cocktail dress, as simple as she could find in her wardrobe, not bothering to re-apply any make-up or style her hair beyond simply drying and combing it, so that it now fell simply, though not quite straight, down her shoulders. She wouldn't be a doll, not for this.

When she was ready, she took the short walk back to the infirmary, before knocking on the door and peering inside.

"Can I come in?" she asked quietly, after ascertaining that Bennie was no longer there.

Pixie had been half asleep when the knock came to her door. Blinking a few times, Pixie took a second to rouse herself before replying, "Yeah, sure. Come on in', sweetheart."

"Thanks." Amy replied sweetly, before coming closer and sitting on the edge of her bed.

"How are you?" She asked, taking hold of Pixie's hand.

"Well," Pixie forced a smile, "I've definitely had worse before. You don' always get ta' walk away from a bullet wound, ya' know." She looked the girl over, her smile fading. "How 'bout you?"

"Me?" Amy replied. "Well... I'm okay, now, I think, but..." she looked into Pixie's eyes, searching for something. "Not that I'm not glad you're okay physically, but I meant about Parker. Are you okay?"

Pixie's gaze wandered, as she shifted uncomfortably on the edge of the table, "Well, yeah, I think I'll be alright. I mean, I've lost plenty'a Maidens these past couple weeks." She sighed. "What's one more?"

Amy gripped her hand a little tighter.

"You don't have to pretend you know, when it's just us." she said, before changing tack. "How about you tell me a story about him? Your favourite memory maybe?"

Pixie shrugged, "Well, there was this one time I'd promised Sprout I'd take 'im in ta' town ta' see the fair. We were in dry-dock, fixin' ar' shit when this stupid-ass fair came into town. The night before I get blasted, right? So, I'm feelin' like shit in the mornin' an' I'm purdy sure I'm comin' down with somethin'. I don' wanna disappoint Sprout though, so I tough it out."

She paused for a moment and smiled, "Right before we leave the ship, Parker stops me an' offers ta' take Sprout in my stead. An' there ya' 'ave it. We didn' even spend the day together, it's just... I dunno. I guess I didn't realize how much of a good guy he was until that day. He didn' get anythin' out of it. Hell, he probably thought it was jus' as gay as I did!" She laughed. "But, ya' know, he did it outta the kindness of 'is heart. Nothin' more."

"I wish I could have known him." Amy said, after a few moments of silence. She broke eye-contact with Pixie, and started at her own feet for a bit.

"Pixie." She continued eventually. ""I've come to a decision."

"Oh," Pixie's eyebrows shot up in surprise, "An what's that, darlin'?"

"Well..." She replied, apprehensive "I've decided that I'm not going to do, you know, what I do, anymore. I know you said you wouldn't object if I did, but I'm doing this for me. I always thought that I was being strong by doing it. I figured that I was taking control of my situation, using what I had to earn a living, but I know better now. I wasn't taking control, I was relinquishing responsibility. If I was willing to sell my body to anyone, then no-one could steal it from me, not any more. I was afraid... and I still am, I guess, but I don't want to be afraid anymore. I don't want to let others define who I am anymore, because I'm too afraid to look in a mirror and figure out who I really am."

With the hand that wasn't holding on to Pixie's, Amy gripped the edge of the bed, hard, the hairs standing up on the back of her neck. She wanted to run, to go away inside herself again and pretend none of it was real, but she'd started now. She had to finish.

"I didn't mean to sound like I was shutting you out before, and I'm sorry. The truth is, I do want to get better. It's just not your responsibility to make me better. It's mine, and I have to do it at my own pace, starting with this. The Gentleman won't be happy, but he'll still have my sisters to make money for him, and I'll continue to take care of them, but I'm done with that life now. The Golden Rose is dead."

Amy looked back up at Pixie, tears forming in the corners of her eyes.

"I don't know who I am right now, and I can't say for sure who I'll be at the end... but I've decided what I want to be; and if and when I get there, I don't want some pretend little girl with flowers in her hair standing between us."

Pixie searched her eyes, unsure of what to say. Placing a hand on the side of Amy's cheek, she smiled, "Amy," She started, searching for the right words only after she'd begun speaking. "I... We will accept you no matter who ya' choose to be, ya' know that, right?" She wiped a tear off of Amy's face with her thumb. "I don' wan' you ta' feel like I, or anyone else, has the right ta' tell you who you are. If yer gonna stop bein' the 'Golden Rose' 'cause that jus' ain't yer thin' anymore, well, more power to ya'. Yer fellow Maidens'll be right here, supportin' ya', regardless."

Looking over Amy once more, Pixie began rubbing her arm for comfort and chuckled, "What brought all this on, sweetheart?"

"Thank you." Amy gasped "That's good to hear."

She laughed, despite herself.

"I guess I'd best start learning how to shoot better now." she said "I've still got to earn my way somehow."

More serious now, Amy leaned over and kissed Pixie, her lips lingering long and soft on her lover's.

"I owe all this to you, you know that. I mean it when I say I'm doing this for me, but you're the one who's helped me see things clearly, and given me the strength I needed. You might not always think a lot of yourself, but take it from me Pixie, the way you never let anyone else define who you are is a much rarer beauty than anything I've ever achieved. If I can just be at your side, following your example... then maybe being happy doesn't seem so impossible after all."

Pixie lost herself in Amy's eyes as she spoke. Part of her was overwhelmed with joy. Not only was Amy improving her outlook, but Pixie really had tangibly helped her! It was assurance that, despite the doubts she carried, she had done more good than harm for the girl. But then, that was the problem, wasn't it? If Pixie really didn't feel the same way about Amy... if she had to break her heart at some point down the line...

Would she undo everything that they'd achieved together?

You're treadin' on a mighty fine line you fuckin' crazy-ass bitch.

She couldn't let Amy see her doubt. Her fear. Not now. Not in this moment. She had to be strong for Amy.

And she needed to find a way out of this.

Coward.

"Yer such a flatterer," Pixie blushed. "Hey, so after we return ar' ol' friend to the ash we're gonna throw a party of sorts. Kind of a Maiden tradition, I guess. I wan' you ta' be yerself there. Whoever that may be. Whoever you wanna be. Don' worry about impressin' nobody 'er nothin' like that. Just do what comes naturally." She ran her fingers through Amy's hair and giggled. "Don' think. Feel."

Amy nodded, trying to make sense of what she was feeling right now. It was a good feeling, but not the euphoria she had felt this morning, after their night together. This was more subtle, but at the same time, warmer. Contentment.

"I'd like that."

Though she knew she shouldn't, Pixie couldn't help herself. After planting a soft, kiss on Amy's lips she met her gaze and offered a smile far brighter than any Amy had seen since this morning, "Yer one of us now, Amy. Today, you stop thinkin' of yerself as an outsider lookin' in. Today, yer my friend, my comrade, my sister and..." She paused for a moment, before adding. "And my lover."

I need to get drunk. Now.

"Alright," She patted Amy's shoulder. "I'm tired'a lyin' around while everyone else is doin' important shit. Let's see about this funeral, alright?" She asked as she slid off the edge of the table and used Amy for support.

"See! See! I am Asian! Fuckin told you!"

"Fuck that," replied Ruffles. "You're like... second class citizen Asian. You hear people talking about hot Asian chicks, they mean her," he jerked his thumb at Whiskey. "Not whatever the hell you are, man!"

Whiskey laughed at this. "Jesus, the mouth on your mechanic, huh?"

Walking over to her bed, she gently hung Eddie's hat from the bedpost, and then pulled the black bobble from her ponytail, shaking her coppery hair loose so it cascaded down her back. "Anyway, I see they gave me an en suite, so if you guys don't mind, I'mma go wash the Bejic blood off myself. Talk later, boys."

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

"Could that be our friend now?"

"Who knows?" replied Owain, drawing his pistol. "I'll go and take a look while you fetch the little lady."

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

"Let's move."

"Aye ma'am," replied Bryan, swinging his sheath across his back.

"Not whatever the hell you are, man!"

Aesop clenched his fists and looked away frustrated, loudly forcing out air. "That is so fucking racist!" His voice even squeaked in mock anger, "and I'll have you know there some hot 'second class' Asians grease monkey!" Aesop then realised the massive mishap of words he just made. "...wait not that kind of monk- FUCK YOU YOU STARTED IT!" He kept pointing an accusatory finger at Ruffles when Whiskey spoke.

"Talk later, boys."

"Sure thing," he turned to leave before adding, "one sec, did ass hat give a reason why security sucked dick. Parker died cos his help sucks, and I'm not sure I trust him to take down Austin if some frost fuckers with axes could wipe 'em out like that."
=======================================
Alex was fast approaching the ship on the ground as it lay waste to the financial district. Leaning up out of the sunroof, many cops were aiming their damaged weapons up at the ship. It was unlikely they would do much damage since these very same weapons couldn't bring it down earlier, but they had to try.

Rolling up a winding street that went up a hill, the small convoy stopped and took aim at the Iron Maiden. They arched their shots, the advantage of free holding these weapons rather than being mounted increased mobility at least, even if it was a bitch to carry around. Balancing them atop their vehicles it was extremely difficult to control recoil as many shots flew right past the ship. Gritting her teeth, Alex yelled, "Aim for fuck sake! You're doing his job for him!" their shots crashing onto the street below.
======================================
A few of the shots hit their mark, however just like when the weapons were in the hands of the nobles, surface damage was the maximum amount of damage that could be achieved. Turning their attention towards the fire the snipers took aim.

"Hang on!" Austin commanded as the cruisers came into view. 'Not a great plan, but one born out of desperation...'
"Hold your fire!" He commanded as he was lost in thought. Grabbing a set of binoculars he looked out through the deck to see who was daring to attack the saviour of the world. And he saw, the father at long last had seen the one he had dreamed of for eight long years, the only one who could live alongside him not just below him. The only person, the only woman in the whole world, nay the whole universe who was not a daughter, yet not a pretender.

The father had at long last, found the mother. "Lower the ship." He spoke with much less enthusiasm than before. "We approach them on the ground."

"But father they have rocke-"

"Its your mother."

His daughter gasped as the cogs began to turn in her head. A nervous chill spilling through her body, she nodded and lowered down the ship. Austin meanwhile sped off down the ship to the hangar, ordering a contigent of sons and daughters to follow him. They filed into various crawlers as the doors opened up, a huge portion of the ship now in vehicles and combating the police head on while the ship raised back up into the sky. "Oliver, command your sister at the wheel," Austin spoke through a handheld radio, "I'm putting you in charge. Do not disappoint me once more Oliver."

"Yes my father," he answered shamefully, "I wouldn't dare." The ship ascended as it headed off to another district of the city as the family engaged the police.

"This is a rescue mission!" The father boomed out. "We kill the rest, but your mother we save. If she is hurt then you have revealed yourself as a pretender, understand!"

"Yes father!"

"He's waiting for you."

"Where'd you think I'm headin'?" Lilith chuckled as she glanced at the old man. Something was odd about his expression.

"The apartment's been compromised. Someone attacked it. They're fine, don't worry, but we need to rendezvous with them at the brothel. We're leaving Feroxi. Tonight."

"What?! What happened?" Lilith demanded, holding her cigarette between her fingers. "Why the hell are we bailing tonight?" She clasped a hand to her mouth. "It wasn't Gorgon was it?"

"No," Cranston shook his head. "We don't know who it was, the Gentleman's men didn't think it was important enough to say. That, or they weren't sure themselves. In any case, we've made too big of a mess tonight. If we don't leave now we won't be leaving at all."

Lilith's eyes shifted slightly. 'The Gentlemen? Of course he'd have men stationed here, he was the bloody Gentleman, probably doing it as a favour for Pixie.'

Placing the cigarette between her lips, she nodded her head, a small smirk curling her mouth. "Okay, let's blow this scene. Tired of this damn city anyway."

"Follow me," He ordered as he turned and dashed down the street. Thirty minutes later, after navigating the winding alleyways of Feroxi, they'd reached their destination. Standing by the side of the building, Cranston turned to Lilith. "We wait here."

"Hah, back here again?" Lilith looked up at the familiar brothel as she leaned against the opposite alley wall. Her expression hardening, she glanced at Cranston. "So, where are we headin'?"

"Carlos' hideout. I have the coordinates. If we can get out of here we'll be there before dawn." Glancing up and down the street, he muttered under his breath. "Where are you?"

Lilith grinned, "We're gonna go see the others!" The girl almost started bouncing. "Sprout must be pissing his pants, seeing Bennie after all this time!" She managed to compose herself, coughing slightly before leaning back against the wall.

"Not me though. Nope. Still haven't forgiven him." She frowned mockingly.

"Lilith," Cranston stated plainly as turned back to face her. He sighed. "We're not out of this yet, okay? For all we know they have all of Feroxi riding their ass. Focus on the now. We can't afford to make any mistakes."

He was right, as excited as she was to be going back to Pixie, she couldn't rest on her laurels, not yet. "Yeah, okay, sorry." She muttered as she reached into he pocket. Lighting a cigarette, she shook her head slightly. "I don't get it, why are we leaving the city in such a hurry?" She furrowed her brow. "Is this about Liz?"

"Everything has been about her," Cranston rubbed the back of his head in frustration. "With our safehouse gone and Gorgon dead, it's only a matter of time before they put the pieces together and sniff us out." He sighed. "Assuming they haven't already."

"Okay then, so we clear out tonight, get her to Carlos' place, they wouldn't have put the pieces together yet, surely? And even if they did, they'd have to lockdown the entire city." She narrowed her eyes, Cranston looked worried.

"They're totally gonna lock down the bloody city aren't they."

"That's what I'd do." Cranston muttered. Glancing down at the cigarette in Lilith's hand, the old assassin groaned. "I need a fuckin' smoke."

Lilith raised an eyebrow. Cranston didn't smoke. Cranston never smoked. "Oh shit, this is serious isn't it?" Reaching into her pocket, she handed the man the pack of smokes and matchbook. "Just how much trouble are we in?"

Like an old pro, Cranston lit the match, the cigarette and then took a long, deep drag before exhaling, "Not sure. Could be a lot. Could be a little. I tend to avoid taking unnecessary risks. Leaving the city comes with its own risk, of course, but with things they way they are now..."

He took another drag, "Damned if we do, damned if we don't. You know?" Noticing the growing concern on her face he patted her on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Lily, I've got your back. I'm glad. You know that?"

Lilith pursed her lips, keeping the girl was a massive risk, but it wasn't one she doubted for a second. If they had to leave the city to keep her safe, then so be it. Smiling weakly as Cranston grabbed her shoulder, she tilted her head, resting her cheek on the back of his hand.

"Glad about what?"

"How you handled yourself back there. Yeah, you fucked up more than a few times, but you..." He broke eye contact for but a moment as he searched for the right words. "You didn't lose sight of yourself. I won't lie to you, Lilith. I was very hesitant about bringing you with me. I thought I'd just being creating another Pixie."

Staring past her, he shook his head and took another drag.

Lilith diverted her eyes as she blushed slightly. "I don't know about that..." She laughed nervously. "I didn't... want it, as much as I thought I did, you know?" She locked eyes with the man. "I just needed to find that out." She leaned forward, kissing the old man on the forehead. "Thanks for having faith in me, sentimental old bastard"

"Yeah, yeah," Cranston chuckled. "Faith's all we've got left, kid."

The world was going mad all around him and all Florian could think to do was to keep running. The roads were packed and the streets were going haywire as people tried to make up their minds between fleeing, barricading themselves inside or gawping at the light show. Get there, just get to the tower.

The closer they got the more intense the looting got as people took advantage of the chaos. How many of them were lesser members of the Bejic family? Street level thugs who joined up once they saw which way the tide was going just to get a quick slice of security and gain. Fire's had been set all over the place and smaller skirmishes were breaking out in spots unseen, but Florian felt like he could hear them all.

Frostfall was being smothered in mist and dark smoke, with only flickering streetlights and blazing flames to light the way. Flashes of gun muzzles pierced through the darkening shroud and the weight of a city crying out dragged down on Florian with every step he took.

Not like this. This wasn't supposed to happen. It wasn't supposed to be like this!

He had to pause at a crossroads, having been turned around in all the chaos. Florian turned and turned again trying to find his way, anything short of a star to guide him by but the sky was being choked half to death and the tower was so shrouded it looked no different from any other tall building at this point.

Florian ran his hands through his hair in sheer frustration. Fuck fuck fuck fuck FUCK! what do I do? What do I do?

And all of a sudden he was a little boy again, battered and bruised among the ash. His mind racing with fear and anger and praying for help that wasn't coming.

"Its coming down!" Yelled an officer as they peppered the ship with a light drizzle of fire, their weapons damn near falling apart. Alex was confused, why would they come to ground so easily? There was no way they would...

"Its him..." she whispered. "ITS HIM!" She shouted.

Austin sat in the back of his crawler, his .500 Smith & Wesson resting in his giant hand. He wasn't the only person who could obviously, but he personally only knew one other who could carry such a cannon with one hand.

"Fire everything you got!" Yelled Alex as she launched a barrage of fire against the oncoming family, her officers following suit. It would have been a massacre were it not for the faulty weaponry.

"Cannon jammed!"

"Fucking thing's fallin' apart!"

Shouts like these echoed among her squadron, only a few were able to attack with consistent explosive fire. Alex cursed her luck, and her evil husband as he was approaching fast. As they got closer the quakes of shells against the ground was getting louder, throwing the police off balance and knocked off their improvised mounted weaponry. A few crawler's managed to get blown apart by the police, but it was not enough as they were now too close to fire without danger.

"Go time." Austin spoke eerily calmly to his children as he exited his crawler.

"GO TIME!" Boomed Alex as she leapt out of her vehicle, .500 S&W in hand.

Alex rushed forwards against the oncoming family, firing her pistol ahead of her as she did. One shot, and the head of the driver of Austin's personal vehicle exploded in a mist of crimson mass.

Hopping out, Austin fired twice at two officers covering his wife, their chests being burrowed through by the massive cartridges. The police pushed up along with Alex, firing their primitive weapons. They may have been extremely well maintained, but against the might of the Iron Maiden's armoury they were no match. That said, the disciplined officers stood strong against the horde of ravenous children. Even in a situation like this, controlled breathing and well aimed shots proved to be a better match rather and angrily spraying high powered machine guns.

Alex pushed up against one of the crawlers, a young teenage girl coming up on her right with a shotgun in hand, she wasn't even twice her son's age. The luxury of hesitation was not hers to be had however, as she blew the young girl away.

"Candice!" yelled another grunt as he vaulted over to face Alex.

'And now she has a name. God damn you Peter.'

The older boy shot wide with an SMG, hoping to just hit something, as she dodged past him and severed his spine with a powerful close ranged blast.

Austin meanwhile was already among the officers, his children covering him as he barged his way through the supposed authority. Kicking his gargantuan boot against the chest of an officer, crushing the air out of his lungs, Austin shot him in the forehead, which now was no longer even there. A cop ran up to Austin's right, flanking him. He didn't even turn to address him as the man was shot down by the loyal sons and daughters. Marching like an angry soldier, Austin walked with his children as they surrounded a smaller group that had split off. They were riddled with so many bullets it would be impossible to identify to their families, if their families would survive Austin's wrath.

Alex kicked the side of the head of a, thankfully, older looking woman before destroying her stomach with her destructive ammo. However, a much younger boy came up behind her brandishing a large knife. Seeing him at just the last second, the Sheriff kicked back against the boy's face. Turning to engage her enemy she finally gave in and hesitated. This boy looked the same age, hell maybe even younger than her son.

But those eyes, those eyes were rabid and wrong. Sick and twisted, just like Peter would do to their son, the real Austin. Regretfully Alex raised her pistol and sent herself to hell as she ended the life of the child. She could blame Austin all she wanted, and true he had pushed her, but her conscience would always remember how many children she had killed today.

Austin meanwhile had a vicious smile on his face as he shoulder barged a man into a wall, shooting his foot and destroying it before elbowing the man and finishing him off on the ground, his wails of pain like an opera of justice to the great father.

Alex heard these screams and realised to her shock, she was the only one left. Her blood boiling, her skin shaking in wrath, her voice brought up a battlecry she never wanted to scream again in her life.

"PETER!!!

His head snapped back as he heard, for the first time in so long, his wife's beautiful voice. But she was saying the wrong name. Austin ran atop a crawler and boomed as he saw her finally, "Alex... my beloved." His voice was soft, as if they were on a romantic date long overdue.

"SCUM!" Was the last word her mouth formed before she raised her magnum and fired at her once loved boyfriend. Austin chuckled as she was out of ammo. He was too however, and he re sheathed his weapon as he jumped down to approach his wife.

"My love, lets not fight in front of the children." He managed to get just that sentence out before she was on him, jumping up and kicking him in the chest. Austin recoiled back before blocking her punches with one tree trunk like arm. She slammed a few kicks into his hips before he slipped to the side to punch her in the face. She dodged, and followed up with two quick hits to his arm pit. Austin flinched as she got a weakpoint, before she leapt into the air and punched him in the back of the head. She had the upper hand, she could do this. She could finish this!

She kicked the back of his leg, before he swung his bad arm behind himself, crushing against the side of her head. Alex fell down, a ringing in her ears before she used her magnum to whip his knee. He flinched once more before she upper cutted him with the hilt of her weapon.

"Enough!" He boomed before suddenly and swiftly punching her gut with incredible force. The wind was knocked out of her but she had to continue, she had to fight. Flinging the weapon at his face, he dodge it before she super man punched him in the face. He rushed his knee and crushed her against the car, before she clapped his ears. He walked back a few steps, this couldn't work. He didn't want to hurt her but she could hurt him, it needed to end. She pulled out her baton when suddenly every single child jumped on her, grabbing her arms and legs, her torso held as she tried to escape.

She bit and kicked and scratched, breaking out of their grip before they had to crack her over the head with various weapon hilts. It seemed like forever until she went down, but she did.

Panting, his nose bleeding again and pain rushing through his face he commanded. "Take care of her, tie her up, make sure she can't escape." He leaned in close and kissed his unconscious love on the forehead. "There now my love, you've worked so hard. Time to rest."

"I'll go and take a look while you fetch the little lady."

Severa giggled like a schoolgirl before leaping across the room. Her mind already set on the excitement outside, she'd completely forgotten about the half-dead fat man she'd left behind. Grabbing her case, she followed Owain outside the bar.

It was magnificent.

Balls of fire streaking across the sky. Bodies, burned to a crisp, littering the streets. The howls of men and woman dying by the sword in every direction.

Armageddon had found its way to Frostfall and Severa couldn't be happier.

Looking to Owain, she grinned, "Looks like we picked the right time to come here, Brother! Whoever finds the Gentleman first gets unreciprocated pleasure for the rest of the night!" She squealed, before literally skipping down the street, towards the war-torn tower in the center of the city.

Turning around a street corner, Severa came face-to-face with a large group of Bejic men in the midst of a skirmish with their milk-drinking counterparts. Holding it out in front of her, Severa caressed the metal case and began singing a tune,

"~My dear, Mir-an-da,
for how long must I wait?
My girl, Mir-an-da,
I'm filled with seething hate!~"

She unhinged the latches on the case.

"~My darling, Mir-an-da,
do not resent me for my rage.
Won't you be the light that guides me,
As I release you from your cage!~"

Dropping the case to the ground as it opened up, Severa now had within her hands an massive weapon. Her deranged laughter caught the attention of a few Bejic soldiers, prompting them to turn around, "Ho-holy shit! Is that!?"

"GET THE FUCK DOWN!"

It was too late.

Severa laid into Vasa's troops, her LMG, Miranda, singing a heavenly chorus of mechanical death as its 5.56mm rounds tore through their flesh. Severa swayed her hips back and forth, sweeping the area with a blanked of hot metal. As the bodies fell, one-by-one, her toothy, dark grin grew ever wider.

This is what she lived for.

Once the dust had settled, she began searching for greener pastures.

Thank you, Dear Aunty.

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

After the preparations had been completed, it was time now to see their old friend off. Standing in the center of the main room, Pixie called out to her fellow Maidens, "Listen up! It's time, people! Grab yer breathin' masks and head up to the surface. It's time we return ar' brother to the ash."

She and Bennie exchanged awkward glances as she walked over to his side and helped him lift Parker's body. He'd been wrapped head-to-toe in linen. Though she'd usually leave heavy lifting of this sort to someone like Brock or Warren, dealing with a dead comrade was a completely different story. He died under her watch. She was his captain. It was her responsibility to see him off.

To ensure he made it across the river okay.

Once they'd marched up to the surface, Parker's linens were taken apart with care and he was laid out, prostrate on the ashlands. In his hands, he held his favorite weapon, an old hunting rifle his father had given him. Everyone stood gathered around the corpse of their old friend. After a long period of silence, Pixie spoke, "I don' reckon anyone 'as anythin' ta' say 'bout 'im before we light 'im up?"

Bennie shook his head in amusement. That was Pixie's way of saying, "Does anyone have any last words for Parker?"

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

Samsara wasted no time as they ran down the pristine halls of Basilio tower, en route to the main hanger. They'd collect a crawler and head to whichever gate they were needed at. Though there was no way to know where they'd try to leave the city from, Tsubaki had a good guess: wherever they'd have the slowest response. The furthest gate from the tower.

Just as they were entering the hanger, a booming voice echoed down the hall from behind. Looking over her shoulder, her eyes grew wide in surprise, "Colonel Ortega!" She called out. Turning around to face him, she saluted. "I don't believe I've ever had the pleasure."

"Save it!" Oretga snapped. "What's going on!?"

"We have reason to believe the Iron Maidens present in the city are trying to escape with Lady Maribel. We were about to head to the South Gate and---"

"No, we need to cover them all. We can't leave it to the gate guards to handle the rest. They're in league with Sandringham, one of the Gentelman's top agents. They'd cut down a legion common soldiers without breaking a sweat." He glanced around the hall. Including himself and Samsara, there were eleven of them. There were six gates. Mila was babysitting Viola and the boy. "One of us will have to cover one of the gates alone."

"I will," Tsubaki announced, without missing a beat. "Harel, you're with the Colonel. O'Lafferty and Moon, stay together."

Ortega cocked an eyebrow, "Are you sure about this?"

Tsubaki nodded, "I've never made an order I didn't mean."

"Sure," Ortega smiled. "I've heard a lot of nasty rumors about you, Commander." He shrugged. "Glad to see they don't mean shit."

"Let's not waste anymore time, Colonel."

"Agreed."

As they filed into the hanger, Tsubaki looked to her squad, "O'Lafferty and Moon, you two are heading to the South-East gate. Harel, you and Ortega are hitting the South Gate. Any questions?"

"one sec, did ass hat give a reason why security sucked dick. Parker died cos his help sucks, and I'm not sure I trust him to take down Austin if some frost fuckers with axes could wipe 'em out like that."

Whiskey chewed her lip for a moment in contemplation. Then she took a breath, her expression leaden and said, "look, Aesop, let me give you a piece of advice. This goes for you, your crew mates, your Captain, everyone, 'cause you seem like good people. Never, ever assume incompetence or ignorance with that man, or you'll get yourselves killed. Payton is a god damn snake, and he plays the long game so much, even his morning piss is a move in a chess match."

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

"Looks like we picked the right time to come here, Brother! Whoever finds the Gentleman first gets unreciprocated pleasure for the rest of the night!"

"You still owe me for our previous interruption," called back Owain as he headed off in the other direction. A few Bejics called out at him, advancing with guns and knives in hand, but their threats were cut off by the staccato pops of Owain's silenced pistol. Each man went down with blood erupting from his head, excepting the last, who took his in the throat.

As he lay there gargling, Owain stopped briefly to observe the dead. "Oh my god," he said, "DON'T JUST SAY YOU'RE GOING TO SHOOT ME! ACTUALLY FUCKING SHOOT ME!" he yelled, a manic grin on his face. His raised voice attracted an investigator, who came around the corner holding a pair of pistols. Owain flipped a knife at him, and watched him go down with the blade through his eye. Clapping a hand to the side of his head, Owain raked his fingers through his hair, laughing. Incompetent bastards, the lot of them.

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

Bryan shrugged. "Alright, Jun. Let's get going. Maybe we'll actually get this feckin' thing sorted."

"Harel, you and Ortega are hitting the South Gate. Any questions?"

Asad nodded his head firmly. "Aye commander." Turning on his heel, he started towards Ortega. Approaching the colonel, Asad made a hasty salute before crossing his arms over his chest. "Rules of engagement, sir?"

The Cook, he had no problem with, but he really didn't like the prospect of killing the younger bandits, especially the Monroe kid.

Of course Jun didn't have any questions, there wasn't any time for questions.

"Alright, Jun. Let's get going. Maybe we'll actually get this feckin' thing sorted."

"Right." Was his reply. Bryan didn't have to tell him twice, he was more than ready to finally end this. Though, annoyingly enough, it seemed like it was going to last a little longer.

No matter, they would fulfil their orders, or at least Jun would to the best of his ability.

With any visual point of guidance covered up Florian was left to go by sound and the closest thing he could think of was to do what he'd done all his life and headed towards the sound of gunfire (or at least where it sounded thickest). With any kind of sick luck he'd manage to find the Bejic family host and... and... well he'd try and find them anyway. The streets were swarming with possible combatants though, forcing Florian to weave in and out of fights, pushing his tired and rusty skills back into their waking state.

When was the last time you got this kind of exercise? Blood pulsing like a flood and the air feeling clearer than it had in a long time. Every quiet little feeling of satisfaction that the past few years had given him paled in comparison to the high of the life. Florian could hardly see ten yards in front of his face and yet the clouds were rolling away as if he was waking up after a long slumber. Was this what it felt like to truly come home?

But before he could take off even a little Florian was brought crashing back down as a nearby storefront exploded into a shower of broken glass and blazing shrapnel, knocking Florian clean off his feet. The priest staggered to his feet, coughing up a lung and trying to blink the world back into focus. A searing pain was flaring up in his left side as Florian was given an angry reminder of the young bullet wound in his shoulder, the same shoulder that had just taken all his weight.

"[Goddammit!]" Florian cursed through gritted teeth, holding his wound tight and trying to ignore the familiar feeling of blood trickling down his face.

Forward. he just had to keep moving forward and to hell with the rest.

"I don' reckon anyone 'as anythin' ta' say 'bout 'im before we light 'im up?"

There was a silence. A group of skilled public speakers, the Maidens were not. After a pause, Ruffles stepped forward, immediately feeling all eyes on him.

"Um..." he cleared his throat. Taking a breath, he spoke. "I've been here about as near to the beginning as you could be. After Pix and Cranston, I guess I'm pretty fucken senior... that always seems weird. Anyway, give or take a couple people, Parker was pretty much one of the first to join up after yours truly. And he was a real good guy... I know there's not much otherwise you can say about someone at their funeral, but he was. Always had a corny joke on his lips, and he was always happy to keep an eye on Sprout if the rest of us were busy, or help me degrease the engine even though it wasn't his job and he came out needing six showers after 'cause he didn't have a jumpsuit." Ruffles sighed, looking at where Parker's body was lain.

"Eight fucking years, man. It ain't gonna be the same. I only wish I'd talked to you more, buddy. Save me a seat and we'll light one up when I get over there."

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

Bang. Dead. Bang. Dead. A Bejic with a large hunting knife charged Owain. Seizing the bandit's arm, Owain moved with him, redirecting his momentum. The Bejic cart-wheeled through the air and landed sprawling on his back. Owain took possession of the knife and buried it hilt deep between the man's ribs.

Straightening up, he slotted in a fresh clip and headed around the corner. Various innocents were trying to run, trying to avoid the carnage of the Bejics. Owain didn't particularly cared if the people escaped or were slaughtered, but the Bejics were his particular target for now. Two shots. Two dead bandits. Then he turned to find more, and was confronted with an alternative source of amusement. A rather disheveled looking man in a priest's collar. Owain leveled his pistol.

"Forgive me, father, for I have sinned," he said, his grin expanding until he thought it might split his head. "Ohhh, I've sinned a lot. And I'll probably sin some more tonight."

A second maintenance van pulled up in front of the brothel, tires squealing slightly as it turned in a braked. The back door opened, and black-suited figures leaned out, silently beckoning Cranston and Lilith inside. As soon as they were on board, the van sped away.

"Put these on." One of the men inside said, handing them each a set of Dome-Maintenance coveralls, complete with full-face breathing apparatus. Beyond that, no words were spoken, as the rest proceeded to slip the same outfits on over their gear. It wasn't long before they were pulling into a parking lot, occupied already by Sandringham's van. When the occupant's of both piled out, everyone was in disguise, and The Gentleman's men were holstering suppressed machine-pistols beneath their suits.

"Any sign of trouble?" Sandringham asked one of the men who had picked up Cranston and Lilith.

"Negative. Have you been able to contact the Boss?"

"We can't risk it, They could be listening on the frequencies by now. It doesn't matter. We follow the orders we're given until such time as they change."

From there, Sandringham beckoned everyone in.

"Listen up. It's radio-silence from here-on out, so everybody needs to be clear on the plan. We're leaving by the South Gate. We're following a scheduled maintenance time-table, so we should have no problem getting through unless lock down's already in place when we get there. If it is, then we won't have time for finesse. We take no chances. We kill everyone on the gate, and then we bust out before backup arrives. We can change vehicles once we're beyond the dome, and then it's straight on to the objective."

Sandringham handed a spare SMG to Cranston.

"If we'd had more warning, I would have liked to find out who was on gate duty, and work out some leverage." he muttered under his breath. "But we've got to play the hand we've been dealt. If things turn ugly, you stick on the NC's like glue while the bulk of my men try and draw fire away from you. Though, I don't reckon you need telling twice on that count."

He turned, his eyes darting between Lilith and Sprout, standing on opposite sides of the group about 20 yards apart, while everyone else checked their gear.

"Make it quick." He said, as he walked past the boy and back towards the truck. "We don't have a lot of time."

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

"I really am sorry about this!" The Gentleman exclaimed, as he shot dead his sixth man for the day, as he made his way through the dust and smoke. Bejic's, Loyalists, he had no quarrel with any of them right at this moment, but they both insisted on shooting at him whenever he tried to ask a simple question. He let out an exasperated sigh. Pitched battles really weren't The Gentleman's scene. All he wanted was to grab Florian and get out of this accursed dome while they could still get away clean. In fact, if Florian persisted in being a fool he may well have to be content with just the second part. He could always make up an appropriate story for Meredith later, though really, why had the man even bothered to come back here?

As he was in the middle of that thought, he was bull-rushed by another Bejic. Whether this man was just a street thug joining the fray, or had lost any more advanced weaponry he had been given was hard to say. All that could be discerned was that the man was taking part in the battle around them armed with nothing more than a length of lead pipe, which nevertheless he appeared to wield with gusto.

"Excuse me!" The Gentleman began, before he was forced to duck a savage slice aimed for his head. The conversation continued in this manner, as the man continued to advance, swinging wildly.

"You wouldn't..." *dodge* "happen to have seen..." *dodge* "a priest around here would you?" *dodge* "Young man, local..." *dodge* "somewhat on the gruff side?" *dodge* "Oh, for pity's sake!"

As the man tried to bring in a lethal down-cut, The Gentleman side-stepped, and caught the man's wrist before he could raise it again. Twisting, his fore an middle fingers digging into the Bejic's pressure-point, The Gentleman sent the pipe tumbling out of his foe's grasp. A kick to the back of the knee brought the man down, before he was finished off with the bullet through the back of the head.

Shaking his head in dismay, The Gentleman was about to move on, when a sliver of white caught his eye. Unfortunately, that wasn't the only thing that did.

"Fancy meeting such an... esteemed, member of the Lombardi household all the way out in the Sticks like this." The Gentleman announced, His gun trained at the back of Owain's head, at just far enough of a distance to be out of arm's reach. "I seem to recall you come as part of a matched set, Owain. Am I to assume that dear Severa is close by?"

"I seem to recall you come as part of a matched set, Owain. Am I to assume that dear Severa is close by?"

"'I'll spin a great web',
the spider did claim,
'To catch the unwitting',
'The fools and the lame',"

Severa chirped as she strode in from around a corner, her LMG pointed squarely at the Gentleman's back.

"In his hubris,
the spider believed,
he could best all his foes,
and all they conceived,"

Severa's eyes wandered to the priest. He returned the gaze like a deer caught in headlights. She licked her chops.

"Too bad for the spider then,
when he figured it out,
he'd been entrapped by his own web,
like a dim-witted lout,"

Her eyes found their way back to the Gentleman as a toothy grin spread across her face.

"As he lay helpless,
sprawled out on his back,
the vermin came crawling,
poised for the final attack,"

Her finger twitched on the trigger.

"The spider did scream,
and the spider did cry,
but not single soul cared,
that the spider... would die."

Brushing her hair over her shoulder, Severa giggled, "I spent the entire train ride over here looking for an apt tale to tell. Did you like it?"

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

"Happy hunting, everyone." Tsubaki said to her men before turning towards her crawler. The streets would be crawling with soldiers within the hour.

Sitting down in the driver's seat, Tsubaki sighed as she watched her squad spread out across the hanger. She didn't like splitting them up like this, but she didn't see any other option. Hopefully, Asad would get some insight into the Colonel while under his command. He seemed like a good enough soldier, but there was something... off about him.

Focus on the mission, Tsu.

Seconds later, Tsubaki was out of the hanger and flying down the streets of Feroxi. Hopefully they weren't too late.

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

"Rules of engagement, sir?"

Ortega turned to look at him as he approached, "Shoot to kill all but the young Lady. If he is present, we'll try to take the assassin alive. Our main objectives, however, are to apprehend Lady Maribel and wipe out Sandringham's cell. Is that clear?" He asked as he plopped down into the driver's seat.

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

Cranston nodded in agreement and went about preparing himself in silence.

A smile came to her face when Elizabeth saw Sprout hobble over to Lilith, falling into her embrace. She was really glad to see her friend alive.

After the frantic, emotional hug, Sprout looked up at Lilith and gasped, "LILY! YER EYE!" He furrowed his brow. "What happened!?"

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