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

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Gale stifled a yelp as their sweaty quartet all got mashed together like they were a bunch of Millie's toys or something. What was this, did they hit a bump or something?

"We here already?"

"What?" Gale hissed, just managing to stop herself from saying anything more any louder. Gale's mouth suddenly felt very dry and her palms very moist. She nervously scanned the dark, looking over the metallic walls of their container, as if that might help. She hated feeling like this, that she couldn't do anything.
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'Shitshitshit!'

Erik sprinted for cover that was big enough to actually cover him. The mag in his rifle had just run dry and he found himself caught in the open, surrounded by hostiles. The first of a long list of vanguard problems he'd be facing today no doubt. Well when in doubt switch to your side arm. Erik, having no time to be fancy, let his rifle hang limp in his left arm as he drew his pistol and fired in the general direction of anyone trying to shoot him back. He didn't bother to try and see if he hit anyone, just so long as they backed down enough let him get behind something solid. A solid enough wall high enough that all Erik had to do was get his ass cold and curse his steroid infused genetics to get properly covered.

And he did it just in time to spy a rock hard dick getting shot to splinters. "Hehehe-he-he." You had to find pleasure in the little things in such hard times. It wasn't long before Erik had reloaded and the world around him devolved into a bitter blur of ear splitting noise and violent heat of bullets. All the while Erik was left to force himself into the role of a leader and drag his mind out of the bloody moment to where he could see the bigger picture.

["Where the hell are the nobles!?"] He called out, hoping that his nearest radio guy could hear him. ["They said they'd be here!"] Erik swore if those blue blood loving bastards had sold them out there'd be hell to pay.

He got his answer soon enough though as a fresh wave of gunfire kicked up and the loose masonry around him threatened to shake up a storm. It sounded like everyone was screaming for a new reason that Erik couldn't quite make out, all he knew was that the enemy forces were getting called elsewhere. Then the motherfucking tank smashed through the wall!

["Oh shit!"] Now that was playing it fashionably late!

The tank's front mounted machine gun tore through the courtyard like a vengeance fueled beast, cutting men down in swathes and sending everything else scurrying like rats. It wasn't letting up yet either as the main cannon raised its head with a rumbling creak... paused... and fired! It was like thunder and lightening as the front entrance of the tower was shaken to it's foundation. The doors were split open with a mighty crash, sending up a mass of cheers from Erik's ragged troops. More reinforcements arrived in the form of the loyalist infantry, rushing over the ruined barricades in all their tattered azure glory.

Erik rose from his spot on the ground and pushed forward, leading by example. ["Charge!"] He shouted again and again. ["Form up and charge!"] It would be a monumental slog up from the ground floor but he knew his crews were up to the task. Erik could only hope it would be easier than last time as his shock troops stormed the entrance and sprinted into the tower proper.

"I've got your back. If you aren't whole confident in yourself yet at least trust that I'll be there to pull your ass out of the fire. Every badass bandit out there started out like you an' you'll make it just like they---"

"Of cour--" 'Jesse' was about to reply before the truck suddenly stopped, pushing the already squished persons together. Enough waiting, now the mission had properly started. Even though the teenager couldn't see anything, he could hear a slightly muffled exchange going on. He waited with baited breath for Amy to get them past the first hurdle. All he had to do was look after the hostage, right? And hopefully not get recognised, damn Amy's predictions. Astor let out a sigh; his heart was thumping already and they'd hardly started. A gentleman had to have more composure than this, for crying out loud. Heaven help the guards, they were about to be infiltrated by the Iron Maidens and a jumpy kid who just so happened to be their boss's son.

Still, at least he would get to stick to the old man in style.

Lilith held an arm across her eyes as concrete and dust filled the air. A fucking tank?! Why the hell did they go in first if the loyalists had a goddamn tank?! "'Bout fucking time you wankers showed up!" Lilith cried out over the courtyard as she stepped over several bodies and joined Erik's crew before entering the tower. This was it, no turning back now.

Their combined forces rushed in and fanned out, covering as many angles as made themselves available, digging in their heels and daring anyone to drive them out of their new foothold. The shock Vasa's men had been given by their heavy armored pounding had given Erik some breathing room to gather his thoughts as he piled in with the rest of them.

His unofficial guard weren't far behind as he found himself hunkered down behind a luckily placed pile of crates sandwiched between Winter and Blonde Lilith. As fiercely as they'd barged their way in they were quickly finding themselves pinned down by scattered defenders and a mounted machine gun that had claimed the high ground in the level above.

"You having fun yet girl?" He chuckled hoarsely to Lilith.

"Hmm maybe!" Lilith grinned as she sat her her ass down on the cold marble floor, keeping her head as low as she could, back propped up against the boxes. "Needs something... I dunno." The girl pursed her lips as she removed a grenade from her belt and removed the pin from her teeth before casually tossing it over her cover. After the explosion rang out, mixed with the wails and cries of those unfortunate enough to be caught in the blast, Lilith nodded her head, a satisfied look on her face. "There it is."

["Southern girls are fuckin' crazy, man!"] Winter yelled over the din as he tried to smack the ringing out of his ears.

["Don't I know it!"] Erik returned some wild blind fire of his own. "You think you can hit that one?" He jerked his thumb the way of the gunner above them who was busy tearing the lobby apart.

Lilith glared at Erik as a hail of bullets tore overhead. "You gonna draw his goddamn fire?" Lilith raised an eyebrow. "'Cos I don't feel like getting bloody perforated today."

Could Erik draw his fire? 'Can I draw his fire she asks?' Oh he'd draw fire like a damn artist! ["Keep me covered!"] He yelled at Winter, not bothering to give him time to respond.

Erik heaved himself up and vaulted over there cover in a way his knees immediately regretted. Still he forced himself on, leveling his weapon and planting a burst of rounds into some poor shlub, dropping them like a sack of bricks. If there was one thing Erik knew that guys with big guns couldn't resist it was a big fat target. For the next few seconds every sight would be aimed at him.

"Show time!" Lilith grinned as she pulled a second pistol from its holster and held them both beside her head as she quickly got to her feet and began dealing out swift Maiden justice. Making the gunner her first priority, the girl started moving parallel to Erik, taking the right path as he took the left. Unloading a few of rounds into two men as her most immediate threat, dodging a few incoming shots, the girl found cover behind a narrow pillar as several more bullets found their home there.

The fire on her quickly died down as Erik began sweeping away anyone who was stupid enough to keep their head above cover for more than a few seconds. Even the Bejic behind he armored machine gun mount saw the bear of a man as the biggest threat in the fight right now. Something she would use to her advantage. As the gunner turned his weapon to provide himself with proper cover against Erik, Lilith could make out the man's bright hair behind a small view slit in one of the side panels. Licking her lips, Lilith dropped the pistol in her left hand as she brought the one in her right to aim, closing an eye as she lined up her shot. Stilling her breath for a few moments, she adjusted her aim ever so delicately before gently squeezing the trigger.

The machine gun was still firing when its gunner went limp in his chair, send the weapon veering to its left and leaving a trail of devastation as it slowly tore up one half of the room, killing three more enemy Bejics in the process.

Now that was how you got things done! Erik grunted heavily as he slumped himself against yet another pillar, panting heavily and feeling very aware of the sweat building up under all his body armor. 'Oh god I need to stop drinking so much.'

The girl had gotten her job done in good time though, with so much space left open to them his boys moved up with fresh force and quickly started claiming the lobby as their own. If things were going to plan then other attack groups would be moving in from other directions this very moment. It was a strange day when Erik was hoping he was meeting the heaviest resistance.

Erik rose from his spot, ready to dive right back into things when he saw one of his men hit square in the chest and get thrown clean off their feet, their wound still smoking as it glowed around the edges. What the hell was this? That was when he saw it. The enemy forces rallied again as their captain made to counter them. Erik had never seen anything like the gun in his hands but the streaks of burning light it was sending out gave him a good idea. Vasa had gotten those plasma weapons up and running after all.

"Bollocks." Lilith muttered under her breath as a a ray blazed past her and into the wall, radiating scorching heat. Why was she only seeing plasma weapons now? "Yo, Erik, you guys so fucking poor you only keep the good guns for special occasions?!"

["Oh because you're so great!"] Erik snapped back.

Their people were getting cut down around them with frightening ease as plasma rained down on them like the wrath of God. Looked like he'd have to do something crazy. Again. Then a chunk of masonry near his head got blasted into chunks of slag near his head. 'Oh sweet Jesus and soon!'

Erik dashed from cover in a frantic scramble, shooting at anything that looked at him the wrong way. Unlucky for him the plasma blasting bastard was wearing armor thick enough to stand up to a bomb blast and one of Erik's scattered shots only stumbled him back a few steps. He recovered soon enough and got back to driving Erik from cover to blasted cover.

"Shit shit shit!" Lilith hunkered down behind her pillar as bolt after bolt of plasma hit her quickly disintegrating cover. Disintegrating? Or melting? She could never quite tell what it did.

"COULD USE SOME HELP HERE!" Lilith cried out, gritting her teeth as sweat matted her hair against her brow.

They couldn't puncture this guy for shit! Where were all the big guns? Erik looked around for anything that might be able to blast their one man blockade into smithereens as quickly as possible. No such luck there but that was when he noticed that he wasn't getting zapped like a bug right now.

Because plasma boy had a riot helmet on... and couldn't see shit! Now was his chance!

Erik broke from cover and charged the bulky gunman from the side. The gunman wasn't slowed for long though as he spun to face Erik, not bothering with any melee nonsense and just aiming to vaporize Erik at point blank. It felt like a miracle that Erik was fast enough to grab at one of the guys arms and wrestled for control of the plasma rifle. The two of them struggled and staggered in the middle of the firefight.

It only lasted a few hectic moments until Erik managed to catch his impractically dressed foe off balance and the two were sent staggering back. Erik forced the gun up with even more force, smacking it into a pillar with a loud crack! The inner light of the plasma rifle flickered and gas started to seep weakly from its loosened core. Erik wasn't an expert on these things but his primal instincts had a pretty good idea as to what was about to happen next.

With one final grunt Erik booted the gunman in the gut and clumsily tried to back away as fast as his meaty legs could carry him. ["Fire in the whole!"] He yelled. The two of them opened fire again and Erik sprayed whatever bullets he had left in the rifle's direction. Then in a flash, literally, blinding fire engulfed the gunman and anything too close to him. Erik was sent flying away from the blast and landed bodily on a set of crates, face down and very still.

"Ma'am, I'm going to have to see some identification,"

Amy pushed the sun-guard of her baseball cap up off her face, and turned to look at the guard with a friendly smile. She reached into her inside pocket and drew out her fake ID, winding a lock of hair round the back of her ear as she did so.

"Here you go, officer." She said in a friendly voice.

The officer examined the ID, looked back up at her and nodded before handing it back. "What's a sweet thing like you doing in this business?" he asked as he looked past her at Brock.

Brock simply sneered in response.

"Oh, you know how it is..." Amy chatted "Bills to pay, and this pays better that being a waitress. Besides, Daddy was a hauler before he retired. I kinda developed a thing for engines, well, big ones anyway."

In case she was being a little too subtle, she winked and laughed, tossing her hair over her shoulder.

The man returned the grin and nodded. Before he could reply to her, however, his copatriot spoke up. "There aren't supposed to be any other deliveries," he explained. "Ship is stocked and ready to go."

The other guard cocking his head and shrugging his shoulders. "What're you dropping off this morning?" he asked.

"Glad you asked." Amy took the question in her stride "The back's full of exotic pets. Way I hear it, some folks make a fortune still breeding and rearing animals from the Old World that most folks think are extinct, and selling them to nobles as curiosities. I tell ya', I don't even wanna know how much carbon Lord Talbot dropped on some of this. There's a scorpion the size of my head, a barrel full of zapping eels, and I swear one of those monkeys has a second mouth in his tail!"

She laughed in a way that made it hard to tell if she was joking. In any case, hopefully the guards would be more than willing to just take her word for it.

"Anyway, trade of such things isn't illegal or anything, but stuff this rare and valuable, nobody wants to advertise it, so we got a message down the chain from your people to keep this delivery last minute, and off the books."

The two guards exchanged a curious look. "We'll need you to follow us to the boarding ramp," the closer guard said. "You're man can unload the cargo while we process the delivery. Should make it quick too. We're supposed to be in the air in an hour."

'I really hope the plan accounted for this...

"Uh... sure thing." Amy replied, and sat back in her seat as they were let through, and Brock drove them up to the boarding ramp, flanked by the two guards. In the shadow of the airship, Amy stepped out of the truck as they pulled up.

"See, here's the thing..." she announced, tossing her hair again and unzipping her jump suit just slightly. "I'm not sure if this is what your guys had in mind when they said 'off the books'. They were very clear on that point."

One of the guards groaned. "Why weren't we told about this?" he asked the other.

"Should I get the Chief? He should be able to clear this up," the other replied. "Would love to avoid the paperwork."

"You sure you didn't get a memo?" Amy asked, curiously. "I hope your Chief's having a good day. I know how much of a hard-ass my boss can be, and he's hardly military."

Putting he hand in her inside pocket, leaning forward slightly as she did so, Amy took a couple of steps closer to the two guards. A small carbon disk then danced through her fingers a second later.

"I could get in trouble for this..." She said "but I've got five more deliveries to make today, and you seem like decent guys. I think we can help each-other out."

One of the guards cocked an eyebrow as his gaze settled on the coin. Noticing his partner's interest, the other rolled his eyes. "Fuck it, whatever," he said with a sigh. "Clear out as soon as your man's done. We gotta get moving."

"You have places to be too, sounds like," the first guard remarked as he pocketed the coin. "Don't want to keep you."

"Yeah." Amy sighed disappointedly "I guess I wouldn't mind being kept for a little while, If I could get away with it. Some other time boys..."

Turning her back with a wink and a wave, Amy sauntered over to help out Brock.

"So far so good." she whispered to him.

"You have a way with words, I'll give you that," he admitted. "I've never been a good liar. Too honest or too stupid. Not sure which. Maybe both."

"Lying's all about perspective." Amy told him "Why? Are we not delivering a shipment of dangerous and illicit creatures?"

"Sure," he said, "but I think the most interesting specimen's not in a box with the rest." He held up one hand defensively. "Don't tell Sprout I said that. I don't want to get beat up!"

"It's alright." Amy laughed "If I bite, that just means I like you."

"You're going to get me in trouble Ms. Turner," Brock warned. "And I am very good at that sort of thing, as you know."

"Do I now?" she teased. "What kind of salacious gossip do you think I've heard?"

Brock laughed. "Probably all of it by now," he pointed out. Amy helped Brock load the "cargo"-filled crates onto dollies and dropped them off in the corner of the ship's hangar; far from prying eyes. "Alright, that's that." Dropping a small dufflebag on the ground, Brock crouched down and retrieved the garments from within. He handed them to Amy. "I'll be on lookout. Make it fast."

"Sure thing." Amy took the garments and dashed behind another pile of stacked crates, before sticking her head back around the corner.

"And no peeking!"

"Shall we get in one final romp before the adventure?"

Sandra smiled wickedly at Talahassee, before turning her attention back to their host.

"Aw, and me only just having got all dressed up again!" she pouted, before she winked and got up of the bed, shedding her clothes with each, deliberate step, before she stood naked before Lord Talbot, with a laugh and flourish of her hair.

"Hold still, my Lord." she whispered, as her fingers made short work of his robe, and she began to kiss her way down his flabby chest.

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They caught up with each other again on the helipad. Owain was busy finishing off two freshly made corpses when The Gentleman arrived, and briefly his first thought was that he had miscalculated, and that some of the men he's been hunting had slipped the net and found their target. On closer inspection, however, he didn't recognise either of them. Could they have possibly been...

"Well," The Gentleman chuckled "This has certainly been a more interesting detour than I had planned, but one should never regret an opportunity to keep one's skills sharp." In a rare gesture, he clapped Owain on the shoulder as he made his way back towards the waiting VTOL, now ready for take-off.

"Come along!" he called back "It wouldn't do to be late to your Aunt's party."

"And no peeking!"

Slightly flushed, Brock let out a small chuckle before getting to work. The crates were industrial-grade steel and were intended to transport volatile military hardware. Suffice it to say, it took some effort to get the damn things open. After sliding the safety bolts out of their locked positions, Brock stepped back to allow his fellow Maidens room to breath.

Bennie pressed up against the bottom of the lid, took hold of the edge with his other hand and slid it off carefully. They didn't want to make too much noise. Ruffles did the same in the second crate. Moving quietly, the rest of the Maidens shimmied their ways out of the cramped space until they were all out, huddled together in the corner of hangar.

"Good work, guys," Bennie told Amy and Brock with a swift nod.

Brock nodded in response. "Good luck, folks," he whispered before turning on his heel and jogging out of the hangar. They'd be taking off soon and they needed someone to drive the delivery truck out of the parameter. If things went well and they avoided a bloodbath Brock would have probably been bored anyway.

Once he was out of sight Bennie set his eyes on Amy. "You're up," he told her. "Once we're in the air make sure we have a clear path to security."

Sprout gave her hand a firm squeeze and grinned.

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Elizabeth sat alone in Dio's lounge, helplessly bored for what seemed like an eternity. If she failed in her escape tonight she'd probably be doing this a lot. Then again, that was assuming Dio would let her live if he caught her.

Not sure which outcome is worse.

As if on cue, someone entered the room the same moment a defeated sigh escaped her lips.

"Bored, M'Lady?" a familiar voice called out.

Fucking perfect.

"'Lieutenant'," she replied scornfully as she took in Mila's smug expression. "Shouldn't you be harassing the new recruits or something?"

Mila laughed. "Such sharp claws," she mocked. "I wouldn't expect anything less, 'Tigerman'."

"Shut the fuck up," the young noble groaned. "Dio will be back any moment and I need to practice my fake smile."

"It won't work, you know," the soldier said. "No matter how good you get at faking it, Dio will never buy it. He'll always feel it. Your disdain for him. Your pain. It will always be there, and he will never be able to ignore it." The Lieutenant approached the sofa slowly. Elizabeth could feel a chill run down her spine as Mila stepped closer and closer. "And finally, he'll get tired of fucking a husk of a woman and he'll end your miserable life."

It was a good thing Asad has taken the gun away from her earlier.

Elizabeth grinned wickedly. It was a kind of an expression anyone who knew her would be shocked to see. "That may happen," she admitted with a shrug, "but I'll be sure to bury a bullet between your eyes before it does."

Mila grit her teeth. "You smartass bi---"

"Sorry we were gone for so long," Dio suddenly announced as he and Asad entered the room. Taking in the scene before him, Dio paused for a moment and grinned nervously. "Sorry, are we intruding?"

Elizabeth's grin faded as she looked to Asad. "No M'Lord," she said. "Asad and I were actually just leaving."

"Oh?"

"Yep, come on Major," she beckoned. "I am feeling a bit lightheaded and would like to return to my quarters."

Though she didn't look at her she could feel Mila's eyes baring into her. Asad had to have noticed as well.

Gale never thought that hangar air conditioning could ever feel so cool and refreshing. Was this that real air had felt like, in the times long before? Like she would know, but right now this was pretty close to perfect after getting locked up in those crates. A claustrophobic experience even by Gale's standards. She took a moment to stretch and wipe the sweat from her brow. Good thing they were stealing this thing, like hell was she gunna make a return trip in one of those things.

"And to think I'd ever hate getting smushed up against my own harem of handsome fellas, huh?" She said to no one in particular as she made her way over to the others as they clambered out of their crates. "Speaking of which, how was your trip?" She smiled cheekily at Jesse, giving him a light punch on the arm.

Amy re-emerged just as everyone was climbing out of the crates, applying the final touches of make-up as she went. Her transformation in so short a time was astonishing.

"Once we're in the air make sure we have a clear path to security."

She nodded whilst adjusting the orchid in her hair, and smiled confidently at Bennie. When Sprout took her hand, she returned the pressure, and kissed him softly on the cheek.

"Nothing to it." she promised them.

Lilith winced, covering her eyes as debris and shrapnel from the explosion scattered everywhere. The ringing in her ears persisted for a few seconds before fading. A few alerted cries filled the air and the patter of feet before an eerie silence fell on the makeshift battlefield.

Peering from her cover, the girl's gaze wandered over the scorched remains of what was left of the defending line, before her eyes were drawn to a more concerning sight. "Erik!" Lilith called out, quickly hurrying from her cover to aid the old man. "Erik?!" She quickly holstered her weapon, dropping to her knees next to him and rolling him onto his back, albeit difficulty. "Don't die on me you Northern Bitch." She chuckled nervously as she went to check his pulse. Going strong, and his breathing was fine, although slightly ragged. "Oh thank god." A sigh of relief escaped Lilith's lips as she quickly leaned forward and kissed Erik on his sweaty brow.

Glancing around, Lilith caught one of the rebel's eyes. "You! Get a perimeter set up outside, I don't want anyone coming up behind us!" Turning her attention to Winter who was occupied brushing himself down, Lilith raised her head slightly. "Winter, grab a couple of men and guard the way into the tower, we need to set up here for a moment and regroup." Getting to her feet, the blonde woman rolled up her sleeves before lighting a cigarette. "Everyone else, tend to our wounded and get Mr Ablev here back on his feet." A sly smile curled the woman's lips as she blew smoke from her nostrils. "Just do it gently, and stay away from his fists if you want to keep your teeth."

A rather disgruntled loyalist stepped forward, hands resting on the rifle hanging from his shoulder as he eyed Lilith up and down. "Who put you in charge?" He sneered as he looked down his nose, his accent thicker than most "What makes you think we'd obey some skinny Southern whore? Lilith narrowed her eyes as her face hardened. Clearly this one didn't have the strongest opinion of women. Or Southerners. Or skinny people.

Placing her hands on her hips, Lilith tilted her head slightly as she slowly approached the Loyalist. "Because I'm the only thing standing between you and a broken jaw." With a neutral expression she stared at the man.

"I don't need some who-" In an instant the man sprawled backwards onto the ground, gripping his face with a look of shock.

"See?" Lilith said plainly, cracking her knuckles. After a few moments of stunned silence, Lilith glanced around the gathering of soldiers in the room. "Well?!" She shouted. "HAUL ARSE MAGGOTS!"

"I am feeling a bit light-headed and would like to return to my quarters."

Asad narrowed his eyes at Mila. The last thing he needed was someone else riling up the girl. "As you wish M'lady." Asad bowed his head slightly, his gaze lingering on the other soldier as he turned to follow after Elizabeth.

Elizabeth walked off in a huff; her hands balled into trembling fists at her sides. Mila had gotten under her skin, but that wasn't very difficult to do these days.

Was it ever?

At least she got one over on that bitch in the end. Once they were a safe distance down the hall, Elizabeth shook her head and chuckled. "I think I've given Mila the same threat twice now," she mused. "I wonder if she noticed."

Hands held behind his back, the Major looked down at the young womanly sternly. "It's not wise to antagonise anyone right now, Elizabeth. The last thing we need are more obstacles." He looked down at the girl's shaking hands. "You need to not let these things get to you."

The frazzled noble sighed. "You could at least pretend to enjoy my self deprecation," she whined. "I know. You're right." The rest of the trip to the apartment was made in silence. Neither of them were fans of speaking in code and preferred to wait until they'd returned to the safety of the Lady's quarters before they discussed the elephant in the room.

Once inside, Elizabeth plopped down lazily on the sofa. "Are you ready for tonight?" she asked the soldier.

"As I'll ever be." The man mumbled as he sat on the couch. "Don't worry about me, I'm a soldier remember." A small smile curled Asad's lips as he crossed his arms over his chest. "It'll be the easiest thing I've done since this whole thing started." He'd almost forgotten what it felt like, the thrill of combat. That fight at the wafflehouse, that wasn't a battle, it was a massacre. No, now he'd get to work off all the pent up aggression he'd been saving.

It was probably glad he didn't really know anyone who typically occupied the tower.

Made things easier.

"What about you?"

"If you said we were going right this second I'd be right behind you," she told him. "I don't think I can stomach sleeping another night in this prison."

"But...?" Asad led as he noticed the doubt in her voice.

"No 'buts'," she assured him. "I know what I am in for if I stay. I won't say I'm not afraid... I'm fucking terrified... I just know tonight's our best chance of getting out of this. I'm afraid, but I am not carrying any doubts."

"That's good." Asad closed his eyes as he nodded sagely. "I'm not expecting you to fight, not with the people we're dealing with." He paused for a moment before looking at the girl. "I'm going to need your help."

Elizabeth nodded firmly. "Give me a weapon and I won't hesitate to use it," she promised. "I won't lose my nerves. Not anymore. Not after everything that's happened."

"I'm not worried about your nerves." Asad leaned forward in his seat, hanging his arms over his knees as he gauged Elizabeth's reaction. "You've had little to no training, and we'll be dealing with soldiers. It's not that I don't think you have what it takes, you just simply aren't trained for this kind of thing. I know you ran with the Maidens, and they're good, they know their guerilla warfare." Asad's face hardened. "This won't be like that, it's going to be quick and brutal, we can't stop for breaks, we can't think about what we're doing. We have a mission, and we're going to do everything we can to accomplish it, understand me?"

Elizabeth nodded in silence. She still looked determined, but Asad's words had clearly shaken her a bit. Was she being too cocky?

"We're in a good position, we'll have the element of surprise and everyone is going to second guess firing on you until they've definitely been given the the go ahead by Basilio to engage, assuming we can keep ourselves hidden and dispatch anyone before they have time to communicate our intention, we may very well get out of here without raising a single eyebrow."

Asad sighed. "But I doubt it."

"Have you thought about what exactly we're going to do to get out?" she asked. "We don't have much information to work with here."

"Well I was thinking we'd just walk out." Asad smiled as he leaned back and spread his arms over the back of the couch. "Use the confusion to our advantage."

Elizabeth mulled it over for a bit and shrugged. "You play the part of the protective bodyguard and I'll be the terrified noble," she said. "That could work, but we're going to have to act fast. I don't know what orders you'll be given, but I doubt it will involve going to the base of the tower and walking out the front door. We're going to have to avoid running into superior officers."

"You let me worry about them." Asad's smile turned sly. "I have a few tricks up my sleeve."

"That's comforting to hear," she said. Squirming in place, Elizabeth snuggled up between the pillows on the sofa and rested her head on the armrest. "I'm going to take a nap. Get some extra energy for when shit hits the fan. Wake me up when this place starts exploding, will you?"

"Go to bed, kid." Asad's face softened as he got to his feet. "I'll keep an eye on things here." The Major made his way into the kitchen and began making coffee. "Want a hot chocolate or something?"

"I want some whiskey, actually," she joked. "Nah, hot chocolate would be nice."

"I even got you the marshmallow things." Asad chuckled as he began preparing the girl's drink. "The big ones."

The world swirled around him as Erik blinked back the flood of lights that were assaulting his vision right now. Everything sounded very far away right now, kind of like they were all underwater. Then it all went back to normal far too fast as Erik found himself being turned around and righted again like a very reluctant rag doll. Erik coughed and spluttered up half a lung as he came to his senses, belligerently shaking himself free of whoever was trying to right him.

["I'm fine! I'm fine!"] He grumbled. Struggling out of his daze, Erik ended up rolling himself down onto all fours for a second. he could do this! Just a deep breath! Never mind the smell of burning all around him, burning flesh, clothes and though he wouldn't realise it until later, burnt beard. Erik tensed his jaw and punched the stone ground with all the strength he could muster. Shaking the last of his dizziness away he slowly rose to his feet and surveyed the scene in front of him.

Blondie had pulled things together nice and sharp, what he'd give to have more captains like that around! All his boys were running around their business in good enough time. Winter was setting up a perimeter, White eye was having the wounded and the dead gathered up and seen to while Bleach... well that albino freak mostly just skulked around the place but he'd get busy later. Meanwhile each of their combined forces went about either stabilizing their fire base or scouring the outer courtyard for leftover resistance.

"You did good." Erik croaked to Lilith as he slowly made his way over to her. "Come on, day's just... day's just starting." He let out a mighty sigh at that one. Oh god it was just starting.

The two of them made their way over to the remains of the large map of the tower that adorned the centre wall behind the reception desk, no way was anyone finding their way around here without it. Erik started pointing out their various objectives to his small number of assembled captains, luckily for most of his crews this was just a repeat of lat time. He tried to ignore how sad that was when viewed objectively.

"Okay... so we want to get up here. This is where Vasa stays most days and he will keep Florian nearby." He pointed at one of the upper levels of the tower. "You see these rooms? You ignore these! These are gone!" He swept his hand over a pair of rooms over two levels on the eastern side of the tower. Although this was their first time here the others could have guessed which ones he meant. That was the part of the tower Erik had totally gutted on his first run. From the outside they looked like some giant monster had taken a bite out of the building. You couldn't miss it.

"Main force goes up there. We get horesman fire teams going down bellow, that where they were keeping Irena." He pointed out the dungeon level, it wasn't officially labeled on the public map here. "White Eye, you can get your boys on it too."

"I can do it instead." Winter chimed in. Everyone looked at him for a moment, Erik didn't seem to approve of someone trying to change his plans. "They might try and use her against us and you know I can get the drop on people better than Hansel can. No offense pal but you're better with the heavy stuff anyway, he'd be better up here in the open and holding the line." Winter quickly recovered.

"Fine." Erik conceded. None of the others seemed too bothered. Let Winter go down into the basement if he felt like it. "Bleach, you head up with me and Blondie, then you break off here and you take the security station here. Then we have cameras on our side. White Eye is covering defense down here, nobles are running separate teams to split defenders." He ran through the last few points of the plan nice and quick.

Erik turned to his small team of conspirators. "This our last chance to breath for a while I think, any questions?"

"This our last chance to breath for a while I think, any questions?"

Lilith raised a hand. "Is there like a PA system in this place? Ya know, might be good for a rousing speech about not being oppressed, or to raise morale, or I dunno..." Lilith tilted her head from side to side in thought. "Telling someone that his blonde, attractive, foreign girlfriend isn't dead?" She shrugged her shoulders. "Just off the top of my head."

The concern in her eyes betrayed her cocky smile. "We got this Erik." Lilith nudged the huge man's arm. "Reckon we can have this all sorted out before tea time."

"We just might, Girl. I remember some places you might find microphones, but I can't promise we'll have chances to stop." The big man sighed. His skull and chest were still killing him from the blast and leftover heat only served to add more stress on top of everything else. Still,Erik would do as he always did, grit his teeth and curse the house down with every step as he made his grim way forward.

He couldn't pause now. To do that would give him more time to think and dwell on what was happening. On the friends he'd let down here. On the one he was betraying. Erik wondered, how many of the people he'd already killed had he fought beside just a few weeks ago? How many might he have called friend if things had gone differently?

It didn't matter now. A man could tie himself in knots thinking like this. They had all made their choices and Erik was a man to stand by his choices. What was important now was to make sure he and those still close to him made it through to see the end of this. What they'd do when they got there, well, he still had no idea. They'd cross that bridge when they came to it he guessed. If they came to it.

'Which of course we will. I'm leading the charge!'

Damn right! Where was that world famous Ablev fighting spirit? This was no time for moping, this was a time for action. Let plans and schemes wait until he or those that stood against him were vanquished. Right now his goals and desires were clear and linked and the world was a simple place. He could let that be enough for now.

"Be ready soon. I won't keep them waiting." He ordered and the others scattered to their own preparations, leaving Erik to pat down his smouldering clothes.

"You excited?" He asked Lilith.

Pixie wasn't sure how long the silence had lasted. She'd spent the long wait in deep meditation; keeping her mind empty. Keeping it free of all the anxiety that had been suffocating her these past few weeks. She relaxed so well in fact, she almost dozed off.

"It's time to move," Carlos suddenly whispered as he unlocked the hatch on floor of the transport. "They just radioed in. They cleared us a path to the elevator."

Pixie nodded. Her expression was impossible to gauge under to visor of the helmet. "Good," she said simply.

The two assassins dropped through the bottom of the transport and snuck by the soldiers stationed in the hangar with relative ease. They could afford to be seen, but it was best they avoid any kind of direct contact with the enemy if possible. They were on a tight schedule, after all. Assuming everything was on track, the "new recruits" should be scattered throughout the tower by now, poised to attack. Though Pixie and Carlos were ultimately responsible for putting the bullet in Dio's brain, the mercenaries Contessa had employed were just as vital to the operation. If they fucked up it was Pixie and Carlos' asses on the line.

Just as Carlos reported, the halls leading to their destination were completely vacant. Even the guards that were usually posted in front of the emergency elevator were nowhere to be seen. As Carlos went to get the door to the nearby utility closet, Pixie peered down the hall to see a single foot sticking through a doorway. The guards were being dragged out of sight and would be replaced by two of the new recruits. It was a precaution in the event that Dio managed to get to the ground floor alive. "Quickly," Pixie insisted.

Once inside the small room Carlos got down on one knee to give Pixie a boost. Sliding a power drill out of her pack effortlessly, the bandit queen removed the bolts on a nearby air vent and caught it before it hit the ground. Another moment later and the two infiltrators were inside the vent. Pixie and Carlos belly-crawled five meters and crossed through a fork in the ventilation system before reaching the elevator shaft. With the grate on the vent removed, Pixie climbed out of the shaft and slammed both boots down on the concrete floor. After helping Carlos down, the two dropped to their knees to get their gear sorted.

After ensuring their climbing equipment was good to go they began making their slow ascent to the top of the tower. Climbing up an elevator shaft was a dangerous endeavor to be sure, but thankfully this particular elevator was only ever used during emergencies. It remained on the penthouse level at all times and could only stop on two other floors: the ground floor and one other in the center of the tower. It was quite literally Dio's lifeline if the tower was ever under attack.

It was a long, arduous journey, but eventually they reached the very top of the tower. A feat only made possible by the advanced repelling gear Contessa had given them.

I bet I could'a climbed all the way...

"Could use some help over here," Carlos whispered, breaking Pixie from her daydream. Wordlessly she moved over to his side and helped him mount plastic explosives to the bottom of the elevator. If Dio managed to get past them the first thing they'd do is blow the elevator. The two soldiers guarding the door on the ground floor were also given triggers... just in case.

Once the explosives were set they climbed up and around the elevator. Carlos looked to his partner. "Get ready," he instructed. Pixie nodded and immediately went to work unscrewing the bolts of the elevator's ceiling access hatch. "We're in position." The thief said into the radio.

"Roger," a voice replied. "Cutting power in 10... 9..." As the man counted down Carlos quickly scurried over to a panel above the elevator and opened it up. Pliers in hand, he groped around for the correct wires. "8....7....6...." Pixie crouched at the edge of the open elevator hatch with her rifle at the ready. "5....4....3...."

This was it.

Finally, after twelve long years.

"...2...1..."

Dio dies tonight.

"NOW!"

The lights in the elevator flickered for a brief moment as the penthouse level diverted power from its main source to the backup generator. During that short few second window surveillance would be down. Pixie dropped down into the elevator silently, hid against the control panel and hit the "open" button. Just as soon as the elevator doors finished opening Carlos cut the power to the backup generate, covering the entire floor in darkness.

"The fuck's going on?" One of the guards on other side of the door muttered. With surgical precision the two soldiers stepped into the dark elevator with their rifles ready. To their dismay, however, only one person in that small metal box had night-vision... and it wasn't either of them. The moment they entered the elevator their fates were sealed. Pixie stepped out from behind the control panel almost casually and embedded a bullet in each of the skulls with her silent sidearm. They didn't even get a chance to scream.

"All clear," she radioed to Carlos.

Suddenly several explosions rocked the tower and gunfire could be heard echoing up the elevator shaft. The tower had turned into a war-zone in a matter of seconds.

Pixie grinned.

The hunt was on.

"You excited?"

Lilith swayed her hips to the side playfully as she crossed her arms over her chest. "I better get laid after all this effort." The girl smirked. "When we get outta here we're gonna trash Lexie's bar." The girl closed her eyes as she nodded solemnly. "Not because we're killing fools, but because we want to."

Glancing over at small army they had gathered, Lilith's face hardened slightly. "How much of a fortress is this place going to be?" She looked back up at Erik. "Are we going to end up fighting for every step we take? Do we even have enough firepower to deal with that?"

"Are we going to end up fighting for every step we take? Do we even have enough firepower to deal with that?"

Erik ran his hands through his receding hair and puffed out his cheeks as he blew out air, the universal breath of 'Oh boy that's a tough one'.

"Maybe." He conceded. Not something he'd probably say in front of his men but he wasn't this girl's commander and she seemed smart enough not to blab stuff like this to the loyalists or people Erik might hate. "We have a lot of people. They have more. But I think ours are better mostly. Some were here first time round but so were some of them."

It didn't sound like it but the language barrier was coming down for him, however slowly. Maybe it was the blast that had knocked him for six clearing some of the cobwebs away or just the rush of everything going on around him. Erik had often found that a burst of adrenaline and mad activity could rid his mind of distractions and make the world and his mind seem all the more clear and spacious. As if the fog had lifted. Or, hell, maybe it was just coming back to him after all this time. Erik was an educated man after all, once upon a time he'd conversed in two languages with all the ease that a self respecting scholar should have. It had only been in recent years, when almost all need to use the second tongue had gone had he let his skills go to rust. He'd let a lot of good old habits slide over the course of all this fighting, he realised. Erik resolved to right that wrong if he was still alive and had the chance after all this. And then he tucked that thought away where it could wait until he was done here, so couldn't bother him until he was done.

"People know which parts of the tower are worth fighting over. Most aren't. We split up, we keep them busy where they don't want to be and we can win this and only fight half of them. If... uuh" He took a moment to find the words. "We take the top. We take Vasa and Florian. They hear he is back but if they see he is back then... we can..."

"We capture their leader and rub winning in their faces until they get scared and back down and then we shoot anyone who doesn't." Winter interjected as he walked past the two of them.

"Y-yeah." Erik nodded along, happy with the phrasing. "And we get Florian out and, well things calm down a little at least." Apparently his language skills hadn't recovered enough to properly discuss battle strategy along with the ins and outs of crime syndicate internal politics. Well he just had to keep things easy and to the point for now.

The time went by quickly as their ragtag band got themselves in order. Each captain gathered their people to them and readied themselves to make their individual pushes. Lilith was tagging along with Erik and the two squads he was taking with him, their group's objective was to secure the private route to the highest level of the tower. Erik wasn't willing to make the trek up to the top on foot, once the other team had secured the main security centre they could over ride the controls for the emergency elevator and ride it up to the top and go straight for the metaphorical jugular.

Everyone was ready and moving out. His boys had all their tech and hardware ready. It was now or never. ["Okay boys, this is it! Time to move out!"] And off they went, mask donned and in proper formation. "We make history today, Girl. One way or another." He gave her one last pat on the shoulder before heading off at a jog. Erik would be leading from the front, as was the proper way to do these things. They'd given Lilith a fresh rifle and stuck her in the back, each bandit making sure to crack his share of jokes about snipers liking it in the rear while they moved up through the tower. As was proper.

'Make history, huh?'

A small smile curled Lilith's lips. "I like the sound of that." The foreign girl with the platinum hair, who came to their downtrodden city and helped remove the heel from its neck. Lilith could see it now. She wasn't expecting a statue in her honour, but the thought was nice.

It was not time for thanks and possibly golden statues, first she had to do her job and make sure they all stayed alive long enough to reap the benefits of success. Not that liberating Frostfall wasn't its own reward of course. As Lilith followed up the rear 'He he.' She kept her eye out for trouble, the prestigious honour of being the rear guard 'He he.' was her's, and it would be a cold day in hell when someone picked her men off on her watch.

The girl was amazed Erik was up an about so quickly, the man was a juggernaut, she doubted anything could stop him once he'd made up his mind. She just hoped he could go the distance when it finally came to confronting Vasa.

But first they had to take of Sergei and his men.

Sergei.

'You're mine bitch.'

Once he was out of the crate, Ruffles straightened up and hefted his bag, setting it to hang at the small of his back before putting the strap of his shotgun over his shoulder.

Patting his holdall, he turned to Sprout. "For the record, what I have in here is awesome. I'mma bust this thing out when we get in that engine room, and you're gonna be all like, 'shit, Ruffles, how come you're so cool all the time?'"

Turning to speak to Bennie, he grinned. "Let's do this shit. Been a while since I got up in an antique like this. I wanna see if it has those old mark four feedback consoles."

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

Before the two now unconscious Maidens in training had hit the ground, Whiskey was skidding on her knees to get at her daughter. Her heart was pounding, and sweat was breaking out on her forehead as the put her fingers to the vein in Millie's neck.

Her pulse was fine. Her breathing was regular. There was, however, a bloody welt right on one of Millie's eyebrows that was flowing steadily. It wasn't much damage at all, really, but that wasn't how Whiskey saw it at all.

Those fucking morons! They'd given Millie a fucking gun, and the end result was that her perfect face was now marred. She was unconscious, and although she looked fine, there was a loud voice in Whiskey's head yelling that she would never wake up. That Whiskey was a terrible mother. That she could have stopped this.

Shaking herself, Whiskey gently turned Millie on her side, into the recovery position. Getting to her feet, she gave the two kids she'd beaten down a rather more cursory examination, concluding that they were fine. She was certain there'd been a girl here too, but she must have run out. Whiskey had been so shocked to see Millie lying unconscious that she hadn't even seen the Austinite girl leave.

Pacing while she thought, she noticed a can with a steady trail of smoke rising from a hole in it. Walking over, Whiskey picked it up curiously. Then she smiled, in spite of herself. Millie might have concussed herself doing it, but she'd hit the can dead center. Chip off the old block.

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

"It wouldn't do to be late to your Aunt's party."

"Oh, you know my aunt," Owain replied as he stepped up into the aircraft. "She keeps her guests spinning their wheels for a while, so she can watch them squirm before business. We have enough time to grow old and die, I'd wager."

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

Everything happened very quickly. One moment, Bryan was sat on the hood of an armoured crawler next to where Jun was stood, playing with his service pistol, and watching the recruits drill weapons protocol. Then there were explosions, and said recruits had their rifles aimed squarely at the two of them.

"Stand down, boys," one of the 'recruits' said. A particularly ugly looking woman that Bryan suspected might be able to lift the crawler he was sat on with one hand.

"Aye," he said. "No need for trouble." He looked around. The pistol was still obscured, under his hands and between his knees. None of them were telling him to drop it, so it must have fallen beneath their notice.

What could he do with it, though? A dozen bullets would find him before he managed to get more than a shot or two off.

"Me mate here couldn't do much more'n kick your shins, and I know when I'm beat," he said. "No harm, no foul, right?"

"Just take off the swords and shut up, and maybe we'll just tie you up somewhere," the woman replied. Somehow, Bryan didn't believe her.

"Long as I get 'em back," Bryan replied, before moving into action. Bringing the pistol up, he fired at a box of frag grenades still sitting on the weapons bench by the 'recruits', before throwing himself backwards over the crawler's hood in the midst of yet another explosion, substantially closer and more deafening as the box of grenades exploded.

"Jun!" he yelled. "Gimme your gun and fucking leg it!"

"Speaking of which, how was your trip?"

"Just jolly. Reminded me of my hitch-hiking days." 'Jesse' replied, stretching all the while. Even more lies. The little noble had spent his carbon on the best transport services available to commoners before he had been dragged into this whole mess. Sure, it wasn't exactly top of the range but it was better than being squashed inside a box with bandits. Then was the fact that the runaway noble had been worrying himself silly to the extent where the circuits in his brain had burnt out. Nevertheless, Astor wouldn't be a Casanova wannabe if he fake a bit of confidence, right?

"Though I'll admit, I would have preferred a bit of female company. But bandits can't be choosers." He quickly added, shrugging.

At the end of their long and tiresome expedition, The Gentleman finally stood outside the ballroom of Lombardi Tower. He was immaculately dressed even by his standards, and his smile was genuine. The party would likely be deathly dull, for the most part, as gatherings of the nobility tended to be. However, one way or the other, this party marked the end of this unfortunate little business. Working under anyone else's thumb, even Contessa's, evidently didn't suit him, and making alliances suited him even less. He was looking forward to getting back to what he was good at, being the world's adversary.

Owain had likely headed straight to his sister's bedside the moment the two of them had returned. Personally, The Gentleman hoped not to cross paths with either of them for a good long while...

Clearing his head of ruminations of what might lie ahead, The Gentleman adjusted his bow tie one final time, before pushing his way through the ornate double doors.

"Though I'll admit, I would have preferred a bit of female company. But bandits can't be choosers."

"Like hell they can't!" Gale grinned. "If this goes well I'mma choose me one of these big ol' bastards, bring it back to the caravan like a mutha-fuckin' queen!" She compounded the grandeur of that statement by stamping a foot on the metal floor of the old ship. "Queen of all nomad folks, me. You can come too if you want, Jess, I'll need someone to tell tales of my glory."

Gale was smiling like a damn cheshire cat, pointing a thumb at her chest as if she were already the wandering queen of the wastes triumphant. Yeah... fakin' it like a champ. truth be told there was a brick of pure dread making a nest in her stomach. Any second now it felt like her rifle would slip out of her hands from how sweaty they were getting. She'd never shot anyone properly before. The older folks in the caravan had always tried to keep her away from the worst of the violence.

She'd still seen her fair share, sure, not like dome folk were ever nice to her kind, let alone travelers of the young female persuasion. But still... all her fights had been hot blooded affairs. Nothing she'd start but happy to help finish, be it firing potshots at those who fancied themselves raiders or smacking the nuts of some drunk who didn't care for rejection. She'd never gone into a situation being the one to start aiming the guns at folks. These people here, they were just doing their jobs right?

Well it couldn't be helped. They'd come too far to turn back now. Working for a fella like Talbot how sweet and lovely could they be? Besides, it was like the chief said, if everyone did their part, nobody had to get killed or nothin'.
===============================================================

A few years ago when Florian was still fresh enough to the maiden so as not to be considered a raw recruit (but not yet an old hand) Lilith had come to him asking for some language lessons in his mother tongue. These had always been very casual things you understand, phrases and words they'd go over while on kitchen duty or on crawler maintenance. Quiet tasks where they could go over simple everyday words and phrases.

'Kak teb'a zovut?' What's your name?
'Kak dela?' How are you?

Simple things in their informal forms. But Florian wasn't much of a teacher and Lilith's curiosity quickly turned language of a more adult nature. Of course as a man of the clothe and ships chaplain he resisted at first, wanting to set a good example. But as a young man of the clothe it was also more than easy for her to flutter her eyelashes at him and lead the dusty cleric to temptation.

So she added words like cyka (bitch) or blin (shit) to her repertoire. she heard her fair share of those two today. But two that would be drilled into her memory thanks to these events would be "Razryv" (Breach) and "Pustoy" (Clear, well more like empty but the meaning was the same). She got to hear these again and again as Erik's crews swept through the endless maze of halls and doors that made up the latest floor of the tower with mechanical efficiency. It had been a long slog up with sporadic moments of mad, frantic, fighting at each choke point and crossroads they found. Until eventually they neared their objective.

"Here we are." Winter breathed heavily as he pressed up against the nearest wall. "We get to the end of this hall and we can ride the express all the way to the top." He didn't get time to dwell on that thought though as the latest wave of defenders sent a spiteful storm of bullets their way. "Aw delo dryan!" He cursed over the noise. Translations were getting harder to come by as the fighting got more intense.

One thing was for sure though, this was shaping up to be the most educational fight of Lilith's young life!

"Queen of all nomad folks, me. You can come too if you want, Jess, I'll need someone to tell tales of my glory."

That got a small, albeit nervous, chuckle out of Astor. How could she be so nonchalant about all of this us? Well, unless she was faking too. Though, if that were the case, it was perfectly understandable. Still, at least she hadn't caught her hands shaking and had stuffed them into her pockets in order to hide said shaking like some people. All 'Jesse' needed was a decent wall to lean against then he could go for that ol' badboy pose. Such a ladykiller. Nevertheless, it was hardly the time for that: this was super serious mission time! Didn't hurt to blow off some stress with snarking, though.

"Touché." 'Jesse' said, "Of course I would bear witness to your glory, Nomad Queen, but only as a king by your side."

He still had it.

***

Frustration turned to anger as Jun cursed how helpless he was. However, as soon as he heard Bryan's orders, his mind latched onto them. No time for anything else, not even questioning whatever Bryan had planned. If he had a plan. Nevertheless, the injured soldier tried his best to throw his pistol over, using his hands like tongs. Then, silently seething, Jun ran.

Firing blindly over the hood of the crawler, Bryan considered his options. Run with Jun? No. Without covering fire, they would both die.

Click, empty. He dropped his pistol, grabbed Jun's, and kept firing.

That left the Crawler he was using as cover. Opening the door, he ducked inside and kept low. In an instant, gunfire started drumming on the armoured hull.

Like all military vehicles, its ignition was secured with an access code rather than a key, and he thumbed it in and hit the accelerator.

The vehicle lurched forward, gaining speed. Turning, he drove straight at the squad of imposters. Most of them scattered, but one went over the top and hit the dirt, twitching. With a 180, Bryan sped off in the opposite direction, incidentally running over the fallen imposter, and set off after Jun.

A battered Crawler, along with its driver, came into view. Still running, Jun shouted over to Bryan, "Going to let me in?"

Leaning over and popping the passenger-side door, Bryan grinned. "Depends, you got taxi fare?"

The response to that was just a sigh, though Jun was extremely tempted to say something else entirely. Regardless, he got in. Staring out of the wrecked widescreen, Jun asked, "What now?"

"We get you somewhere safe," Bryan replied. "Our barracks and Tsu's apartment are here, so they're out."

As he drove through the checkpoint (unmanned in the chaos) he thought. "I got somewhere in mind," he said. "But you ain't gonna like it."

Of course, dump the load. And those last five words made it even better. Jun replied, ever so eloquently, with, "Whatever, just be quick."

Jun's sour reaction didn't escape Bryan. Putting on a grin, he said, "hey, don't be like that. I do need ya to do something for me. Could be at a time like this, Asad or Tsubaki might check the old Samsara radio frequency. We'll get you set up so you can try and get 'em to respond while I go back in."

With Bryan avoiding the main roads, it didn't take long for them to get deep into the more maze-like parts of the city. Eventually he came to a halt. Time to dump the car in case anyone was tracking it.

"...Roger." Was all Jun said to that. At least now he could look forward to pressing some buttons and fiddling with dials with his toes or something. When they stopped, he kicked opened the passenger-side door (which was in a sorry state) and got out, waiting for further instruction.

Wordlessly leading Jun through the alleys, Bryan eventually found himself on familiar ground. One of the perks of being an ex-street rat was a knack for navigating urban sprawl.

Their destination was the pub Bryan had brought Jun to after they'd gotten out of the hospital. It was mostly empty in the middle of the day, and Bryan walked right up to the bar, and asked for the owner.

While they waited, he turned to Jun. "Said ya wouldn't like it. But the owner and I go back a ways, and he's a mate. I dunno what the fuck's going on, but he'll keep quiet under heat, I reckon."

"I expected worst." Jun stated. He honestly wouldn't put it past Bryan to suddenly invade a closed strip club or the like. Still, Jun wasn't entirely convinced of the owner's trustworthiness. Civilians panicked all too easily.

One exuberantly loud hello was followed by a brief discussion, and soon Bryan and Jun were sitting in the bar's second attic room, where the best reception was.

Straightening up from setting the frequency, he put the radio's stand-mic on the desk. "Alright," he said. "Push that down and hold it to talk, I reckon. Bloody older models, eh? Still, I reckon you can still do that with a pair o' medical mittens on."

Jun demonstrated that he could. He turned to Bryan, "I can take from here. Go."

Bryan nodded. Slinging his swords across his back, he headed for the door. Just as he was about to leave, he turned.

"Hey Jun."

"Yer in a shitty position right now, and I know how ya must feel, not being able to do nothing. But just you wait, man. Whatever this is, it's big. Assuming the man who gives us our wage packets is still alive at the end o' the day, we're gonna be dealing with this.

"You might not be able to do anything right now," he said, "but you'll get your bloody chance, mate. 'Cause we are gonna fuckin' well get our own back fer this."

...That wasn't a quip. That was something else entirely. Jun wasn't really sure how to take it. Nevertheless, he sat himself down near the desk and the microphone and simply mumbled, "...Thanks."

"No problem," Bryan replied, and turned for the door. When he was back out in the streets, he turned and looked at Basillio tower in the distance. You could spot signs of violence and destruction even at this distance.

Reaching into his combat jacket, he pulled out a hipflask and took a swig of whiskey before setting off in the tower's direction.

***

With most of the Iron Maidens out on their little heist, there really wasn't much to do. Sure, Maria could just take it easy but there was this little piece of dirt which simply wouldn't go away. She'd gotten everywhere else so clean as well.

The doctor was almost about to give up when some girl entered the scene. Probably one of the Austinites or something. Maria sighed, it would probably have to wait until later. Vowing to vanquish that little caked-on bit of dirt, the doctor then turned to the girl with a stern, "What is it? Kinda in the middle of something here. Something very important."

"Um..." The girl squirmed, "Well..."

Another sigh, "Spit it out already."

"Okay." The younger of the two begun, "Me and the lads were shootin' cans, then we got Whiskey's girl to have a go. Then..."

"Yes?" Maria said.

"She pulled the trigger and kinda knocked herself out. Whiskey got sorta mad." The girl finally explained.

"Maldición." Maria replied while passing the cleaning equipment to the girl, "Alright, I'll take a look. Buuuut, you gotta clean this mess up as punishment."

The girl nodded but before she could make any comments about how there wasn't any mess, Maria was gone. Arriving at the armoury, the doctor found a very worried Whiskey pacing about the armoury floor and her daughter in the recovery position. Maria immediately began examining Millie, stopping only once to ask Whiskey something.

"Are you okay?"

Asad's brow furrowed, narrowing his eyes as he felt the echoes of something vibrate beneath his feet. "Elizabeth." He said calmly as he placed his drink on the counter top. "Grab your things, remember, anything you can keep on your person, no bags."

As if confirming his suspicions, the lighting in the room flickered slightly.

Elizabeth had been completed immersed in her sister's manifesto when she suddenly felt the tower shutter. Closing the book swiftly, she sat up and looked to Asad. "Okay," she replied simply.

The nervious blonde dashed into her bedroom, put on her coat and began stuffing things into her pockets: extra magazines for her pistol, her wallet, a bottle of water, a breathing mask and her sister's diary. Once she was ready she returned to the main room and held out her hand. "I'm ready," she whispered.

Hesitating for a moment, Asad looked down at the young woman's hand. Was he really doing this? Turning traitor? Was he prepared to kill whoever he needed to get this girl away from Basilio? If he was lucky, he wouldn't need to fire a single shot.

'You know things never work out that way.'

Glancing up at the Elizabeth, the Major brushed by her as he headed into the living room and pulled his jacket off the back of the sofa. Digging into one of the inside pockets, he pulled out the pistol she had been dismantling not too long. "Here." He said simply as she moved over to the girl and placed the weapon in her hand. "Keep it hidden, and don't use it until I give the word, understand?"

She nodded. "Okay," she repeated. As they moved for the door Elizabeth suddenly reached out and grabbed his arm. "Asad... can you do this? Once we're through that door, there's no turning back."

"I know." Asad mumbled as he gently pulled his arm from her grasp. Pulling on his jacket, the man ran a hand through his hair. "Just stay close to me and let me do the talking, I wouldn't be surprised if there were already soldiers heading this way, basic protocol, immediately place a guard on all VIPs." The man clenched his jaw. "I can talk my way past some random guard, but these guys will have been given explicit orders to guard you in case of an emergency, we have to leave fast."

Opening the door, Asad peered out casually. No sign of anything yet. "Stairs all the way, elevators are too risky right now." He motioned for Elizabeth to follow him as he headed out into the hall. "We have to assume we're on our own, I don't know if Lombardi has anything planned, and to be honest, I'd rather we get out of here before the shit really hits the fan."

They'd made it halfway down the hall before Asad's radio crackled to life. "Major Harel, do you read? This is Colonel Dapper with Tower Command, over," the voice over the radio said.

Asad glanced over his shoulder at the girl as he reached for his radio. "This is Harel, I read you loud and clear, what's the situation? Over."

As he kept moving, Elizabeth in tow, they headed into the stairwell to the lower floors.

"The tower is under attack by an unknown force," he said, his voice grim. "Where are you right now? Is Lady Maribel with you?"

Heavy footsteps could be heard directly above them as they entered the stairwell. "Asad," Elizabeth said, pointing above.

Asad paused for a moment. He would have to misdirect them, but as soon as they discovered the ruse, they'd know he was up to something. "We left the apartment about five minutes ago, but sir, there are hostiles in the area, I don't know how they've gotten this deep into the building without the alarm being sounded, the guard on security is dead sir." Asad continued to move down the stairs, Elizabeth in tow.

Glancing over his shoulder, the look he gave the girl was one of dread. "We'll continue to the rendezvous point, over."

"Roger that, Major," the man on the radio replied. "Hostiles are dressed in Basilio uniforms. Be careful who you trust. Over."

The men above them were getting closer now. Staying close to him, Elizabeth whispered to Asad. "I take it we're not actually meeting up with anyone," she said.

Asad narrowed his eyes, an unamused expression creasing his brow as he looked at the girl. "Keep close to me, things just got a little harder, we've had several new recruits, we have to assume that all of them are loyal to Basilio unless proven otherwise." Carrying on down the stairs, the pair entered the security checkpoint for the elevator to Elizabeth's penthouse.

Several gunshots rang out down the hall and into the stairwell. The checkpoint was a hotzone, and worse, the men descending the floors above them had picked up the pace. Elizabeth furrowed her brow. Where the hell were they supposed to go?

I hope you know what you're doing, Major.

Asad reached across Elizabeth, holding his arms in front of her as they both placed their backs against the wall. Asad furrowed as his brow as he tried to get a good view of the firefight. The Major was starting to lose hope that they could get through this without getting into a shoot out. "We have to get moving, we can't let them catch up to us." He nodded up towards the growing footsteps above them.

Elizabeth cocked an eyebrow. "So we should go through the firefight?!" she questioned. "How do we know who to shoot?"

"You won't be shooting anyone, Lombardi's men won't fire on us, and neither will Basilio's until we're found out, just stay close and we'll get through this."

"Okay," she whispered.

Moving out of the stairwell, the pair moved slowly behind one of the wide pillars in the room. "Fuck." The man swore under his breath as he peeked around the corner. It was a real clusterfuck, men from both sides were dead or dying. "They're blocking the damn hallway." Asad mumbled under his breath. "We don't have time for this." The Major thumbed the safety on his pistol anxiously.

The anxious noble pressed herself against her protector, hoping his towering form would mask her presence. She was completely out of her depth here. As Asad readied an attacked the young noble heard a sound coming from the stairwell.

"Back our boys up!" a man shouted. "They're pinned down!"

"Major..."

The Lombardi soldiers were in a bad way, Asad didn't like their chances of winning of this fight, especially with the arrival of the new Basilio troops.

Ultimately, Asad owed loyalty to nobody but Elizabeth, and the last thing they needed was a firefight they couldn't win. He had to make this quick, he couldn't give any of Lombardi men a chance to radio in. "Elizabeth, stay here."

Elizabeth's eyes remained fixed on Asad's weapon. "Be careful," she muttered as he left her side.

Glancing over his shoulder at the reinforcements by the stairwell, Asad nodded at one of the soldiers looking over before moving up and taking cover behind another pillar close to the hallway. He had counted four men who were still fighting. Reaching into his jacket, Asad removed a one of three flash bangs he had hanging from his pocket. He had hoped he'd be able to keep hold of them until he really needed them, but the situation called for discretion, and he couldn't risk leaving any Lombardi survivors. Pulling the pin from the grenade, the Major called out to the Basilio men as he tossed the grenade down the hallway.

Once it detonated the Basilio loyalists fell in on their enemy's position and made short work of those that remained. A pair of soldiers were sent down the hall to search for other hostiles while their squad leader turned to look at Asad and the force that had just arrived from the stairwell. One of them was guiding Elizabeth by the shoulder. She signalled toward Asad and the man released her so that she could return to his side.

The man leading the stairway squad surveyed the damage. "What the fuck's going on?" he asked.

"The new recruits... they're spies or something, I don't know," the other squad leader said before looking to Asad. "Thanks for the help back there. Are you and the Lady okay?"

"We're fine sir." Asad nodded at superior oficer. "But truth be told, I have no idea what's going on right now. Do we have any intel?"

The officer shrugged. "Fuck if I know," he said. "The building started shaking and we got an order to defend this checkpoint. Found soldiers already here, figured something was up and decided we'd start shooting before they did."

While they spoke the group from the stairwell grew increasingly quiet. Elizabeth turned around to see most of the squad gathered around one man. "Sir, I'm loyal to---"

"When did he join up?"

"I think it was, what, three weeks ago?"

"Are you a spy, Private?!"

"Asad..." Elizabeth whispered, tugging on his sleeve.

"Give the kid a break guys, let's just get to the rendezvous and figure out what the hell is happening here." Asad glanced down at the Elizabeth's worried face, subtly winking at her as he placed his hands behind his back.

"What's stopping him gunning us all down the moment we take our eyes off him?" one of the men spat.

"Fuck you, I'm not a traitor!" the accused man shouted.

The squad leader grabbed him roughly by the collar and pulled him in close. "How can we be sure?"

Their trigger fingers were itching. This wouldn't end well.

"Sir, I must insist we keep moving, this isn't the time or place, we can deal with the private in a more secure area." Asad was starting to get anxious, these men were supposed to be trained professionals. "It would be unfair to assume every new recruit is a traitor."

"Yeah, listen to that guy!" the recruit pleaded, pointing at Asad.

The squad leader eyeballed Asad for a moment, pursed his lips and looked back at the Private he had by the collar. "Shit happens in war," he remarked, pulling back the hammer on his sidearm. "We can't take any chances."

"No!" Elizabeth shouted. Without thinking she'd drawn her pistol and fired at the officer, hitting him between the shoulder blades. Two of his men stumbled forward, fumbling with his limp body while three others levelled their weapons at Elizabeth. A lot of shouting and cursing ensued.

The officer charged with holding the checkpoint cursed under his breath and aimed his rifle back at them. "You're pointing your weapon at a VIP," he told them. "Stand down, now!"

"Godammit!" Asad quickly drew his own weapon, levelling it at the other soldiers. "This is what happens when people start turning on eachother, everyone just calm the hell down!" The Major's eyes darted from one man to the next as he quickly noted their positions in relation to himself. Things were about to get ugly.

"She shot our fuckin' CO!"

"It's a coup! The girl's in on it!"

It looked like they would open fire at any moment. "I'm sorry," the petrified noble whimpered. Despite her sorrow, her stance remained firm. Moments later the two men sent to scout ahead returned to Asad's side. They clearly weren't sure what was happening, but they were at least pointing their weapons in the right direction.

Asad narrowed his eyes, ignoring the two new soldiers who had aimed there weapons at the riled men. "You are threatening Lord Basilio's fiancée, I very much suggest that you stand down now." Despite the Major's calmed voice, the threat was apparent.

"I don't give a fuck who this whore is going to marry!" One of the soldiers growled, tightening the grip on his weapon. "Why should I care that she's fucking Basili-"

A trigger flicked in Asad's mind, and without hesitation he fired three shots with laser-like precision, each of them finding their mark in the foreheads of the three soldiers aiming weapons at them. Before the two tending to their dead CO had time to react, Asad was silently towering above them before they could even think to grab their weapons.

"Damn," the checkpoint officer gasped, lowering his weapon. He signalled for his men to join Asad. "Restrain them for now. They didn't attack us like the rest."

As the two soldiers were taken away. The private remained on the floor amongst the corpses, his pants soiled and his face flushed. "Th-thank you... thank you for saving me," he croaked, looking up at Asad.

Asad's face softened somewhat as he looked down at the young private. "Don't mention it kid." Asad helped the boy up before turning to Elizabeth. "I'm sorry you had to see that, my Lady." Asad apologised, bowing his head.

'Just wait until we're alone, you stupid girl.'

The anger behind his eyes betrayed the Major's calm exterior.

Elizabeth averted her eyes, ashamed at what she'd done. Four men were dead because of her.

"Nothing to it."

Sprout blushed slightly and muttered, "Be careful," as she turned to leave. He wasn't sure if she had heard him, but the expression on his face likely got the message across.

"Let's do this shit. Been a while since I got up in an antique like this. I wanna see if it has those old mark four feedback consoles."

Bennie nodded. "You two go ahead and get in position, but wait until my signal to make your move," he instructed. "No doubt the engine room has tight security."

"Discretion is my middle name," Sprout said with a wry chuckle.

"Sure kid, whatever you say."

Sprout looked to Ruffles. "After you Jake," the boy said as he concealed his sidearm in his jumpsuit.

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

Six Hours Ago...

"Where do you fit it all?" Ortega asked with a soft laugh. He and Tsubaki had just finished eating and were on their way back to the barracks.

Tsubaki cocked an eyebrow. "Excuse me, Colonel?" she growled.

"Seriously," he said, "you keep in good shape for someone who can eat like that."

"I can afford to pig out sometimes, I guess," Tsubaki admitted sheepishly. "I'll be regretting it when my pants don't fit tomorrow though."

"Nonsense."

Tsubaki smiled. "You know, I was surprised to hear you're a family man," she told him.

"Why's that?"

"I don't know," she said with a shrug, "you're just so serious about your work all the time. It must be tough."

Ortega grinned. "You'll know someday," he said.

"Oh? You know something I don't?"

"I can tell just by looking at the kid," he told her. "The Major's a lot like me when I was his age. Might want to put your career on hold soon, Saburo... I can see it in his eye. That fucker plans to knock you up!"

Tsuabki shoved his shoulder and looked away, her face completely flushed. "Sh-shut up," she muttered. "Maybe he should knock you up."

"He should be so lucky!"

The two soldiers shared a long silence before a bashful smile appeared on Tsubaki's face.

Now...

"GET DOWN!" Tsubaki shouted as she took a comrade by the shoulder and pulled them both down to the ground, narrowly evading a hail of gunfire. The two soldiers scrambled to cover from there, finding sturdy marble pillar to hide behind. Unfortunately the enemy was using plasma and it wouldn't hold against bombardment for long.

"What the fuck's going on?!" the soldier asked, fumbling with his weapon.

Tsubaki peered around their cover and sprayed a volley of plasma at the enemy, catching one in the chest. "Looks like the new batch of recruits are on someone else's payroll!" she shouted over the gunfire. "This is a coupe."

"Fuck, really?!"

"Looks like it," she confirmed. Another barrage of plasma shook the pillar, forcing her back behind her cover. The fighting was thick in the lobby and it was becoming increasingly difficult to discern friend from foe. Not only that, but she was wasting her time here. She needed to get to the top of the tower. Dio was likely their target and she was supposed to be his protector. "What's your name?"

"Oh, uh," a bit of marble exploded next his head, forcing him to jump in his boots. "Lieutenant Harper, Sir!"

Tsubaki checked her weapon before scanning the nearby hall. "Okay Harper, I am going to need your help, okay?" she told him. "I need to get to Basilio's penthouse. He's in danger and it's my job to protect him, got it?

Another bit of debris exploded near the young man. "Y-yes, got it, Sir!" he shouted, clearly terrified. "Let's go anywhere but here!"

"Down that hall, I'll cover you," she told him. "GO!"

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

Contessa was sat among a sea of attendants as they labored tirelessly to conceal her flaws and enhance her beauty. She usually didn't go this far, but tonight was a very, very important night.

Tonight she'd topple two kings in one stroke.

A well dressed man knocked on the door before entering her salon. "Lady Lombadri," he began, "the attack on Basilio Tower is underway. The mercenaries are currently securing the ground floor. They say Monroe's made it inside the penthouse."

Contessa smiled, not bothering to turn around. "Brilliant," she replied.

"Also, the Gentleman has arrived. Shall I send for him?"

"Send him to the garden veranda," she instructed.

The servant straightened his posture. "Which one would please you, M'Lady?" he asked.

Contessa's grin grew wider. "The roof of course," she said. "I want to stand at the top of the world one last time."

"Discretion is my middle name,"

"I thought your middle name was Leslie," Ruffles said absent mindedly as he performed one last check on his gear.

"After you Jake,"

Some time later, the two of them were stood in the corridor to engine room.

"Alright," Ruffles said. "I got something to restrain the engineers, so this oughta be clean." Thumbing his radio, he said, "alright Bennie, we're in position."
=================================================================================================

"Are you okay?"

Sighing, Whiskey sat down on a crate of shotgun shells by the wall. "I... I don't know. But what about Millie? Is she gonna be alright?"

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

Speeding through the street on a stolen dirt bike, Bryan raced towards Basilio tower's compound. The checkpoint was occupied now, but it was hard to tell by who until he recognised one of the 'recruits'.

Despite how quickly he was closing the distance, a couple of them saw him coming and managed to get shots off. Turning the bike's side to them and leaning low to the ground, Bryan skidded through the checkpoint, shots pinging off the bike's chassis. The soldiers who weren't firing scattered, and the two who were got their legs taken out by the wheels of the bike for their troubles.

Coming to his feet with swords in hand, Bryan was greeted with a rifle muzzle pointed at his face. Crossing the blades under the gun's barrel, he pushed it up. Bullets arced over his head, and he kicked the offending soldier in the balls, slashing his throat as he went down.

Falling into a combat roll to evade gunfire he knew was coming, Bryan came up swinging, beheading two men before turning to the two he'd taken out with the bike. One was bleeding from the eyes and mouth. The other was reaching feebly for a sidearm. Bryan walked up to him and planted his blade through the man's chest. The questing hand fell limp.

Pausing to put his earpiece in, Bryan thumbed his radio. "Hey Jun, I'm in the compound. Any word from the others?"

"Fucking tossers." Lilith smirked as she took pot shots down the hall, keeping heads in cover. Stepping back around the corner, the girl shook her head, a sigh escaping her lips. "Freezing my arse off in a building, which I'm pretty sure is compensating for something." One of the soldiers gave her a confused look. "Dicks! Cocks!" Lilith slapped a hand to her forehead as if realising one of of life's great mysteries.

"I don't..." The soldier smiled nervously. Was it the language barrier or was she doing the thing again?

"It's all dicks! This tower is a dick, everyone fighting here is a dick! It's just dicks, fighting a dick, who owns the huge dick, so that they can be lord dick of Dickdome" That earned a few objections from the men around her. "It's true!" She cried, "Jesus, I'm here because of dick." Lilith shrugged her shoulders as she stepped out to take a few more shots. "And the handsome man it's attached to I guess." She sighed.

Stepping back into cover, Lilith called out to Erik who was on the opposite side of the hallway. "Erik! I figured it out!" She raised a hand as a few of the soldiers around her groaned with exasperation. "Dicks, Erik, life is dicks!" She chuckled.

"Is that why you're gay?!"

Yet another bloody fight came to its conclusion. Erik had long lost count of the number of bullets he'd spent today. Was this even the gun he started out with? He wasn't sure any more, he remembered switching for another one at some point after the first couple floors but he hadn't paid much attention to the thing. It was just the tool his bullets came out of and stopped the people who were trying to kill him. At least he still had his shotgun, and his- 'Hey, when did I pick that up? Shit, I am getting old.'

Lilith was doing that weird thing she did again, where she just... talked and her brain thought of words. Mostly about her and... her feelings Erik wanted to say. It didn't seem to have anything to do with the fight or battlefield tactics. Maybe this was a cultural thing that Erik wasn't savvy to. Or, more likely, this girl was just freakin' weird. The looks some of the others were giving her seemed to support that.

'Well it doesn't matter, we got this far, just another quick trip to the top and... wait...' Something she just said clicked home with him.

Their group was clearing up the hallway now, rearranging all the obstacles to better use them for cover. Going about their tasks in a quiet and tired haze. It was in his own haze that Erik found himself standing next to Lilith, looking down at her offensively blonde face.

"Life is dicks... is this why I am gay?" What did that even mean, how could life be a penis? Erik just looked at her. She seemed oblivious, maybe even proud of herself. Oh God how many times had Florian said something this ass fumblingly stupid in the past? A match made in heaven these two.

Erik didn't say anything, until he suddenly cuffed her round the back of the head. "Get in the elevator." He sighed. "You go up first, then Winter goes down. I will watch here and catch up to you." He gave her some quick directions to the area where he thought Florian was being held. Last Erik had heard anyway. "Bring some boys with you!" Erik called as a handful of his men entered the elevator with her. "Stay away from doors and don't go too far!" He carried on fussing over the bunch of them like a parent he would be damned if you said he cared!

Erik's guys all brushed off his advice, all saying their own little things. This wasn't their first rodeo. One of them pressed the button and the doors pinged closed. The small party felt the sudden bracing as the elevator sped upwards, through a staggering number of floors at lightning speed. They still felt the wait though.

"alright Bennie, we're in position."

"Roger. Standby for my signal," Bennie replied over the radio. "Still waiting for Amy."

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

"What the fuck's going on down there?!" one of Dio's escorts shouted a few minutes after explosions began rocking the building.

A smug chuckle escaped Lord Basilio's lips. "She's finally making her move," he muttered.

"Orders, M'Lord?" Colonel Ortega asked.

Dio's gaze wandered around his dimly lit office. "The penthouse is secured?" he asked.

"No sir, but we're working on it," he assured him. "We're getting some radio interference so--"

"Someone's up here with us," Dio said, grinning slightly. "Get this message to tower control." He handed a folded up piece of paper to Ortega who in turn handed it off to someone under his command. The subordinate nodded and went running for the stairs. "She's here."

"Who's that, M'Lord?"

Licking his lips, Dio reached into his desk and pulled out a jagged dagger. A very familiar companion of his. "A ghost," he mused.

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

Dio's penthouse was enormous. The floor layout they'd studied did not do it justice. Not that Pixie could stop to enjoy the view.

"Go check the elevator," a voice down the hall said. "We haven't heard back from anyone over there since the power went out." Carlos held a fist in the air, signaling for Pixie to stay put.

They'd managed to take out six men so far. The longer they could move without alerting the whole penthouse to their presence the better. Pixie knew it wouldn't be so simple, however. Dio was not the kind of man you could kill without making a stir.

Heavy foots steps approached. Pixie counted four sets of boots. Carlos held out five fingers.

Close enough.

The sly thief back-peddled silently until he was hidden behind the door to the room they'd come from. Once he was in position Pixie slithered underneath a nearby table. They would wait for the group to get between them and ambush them from both sides.

Seconds later five men came into the room, sweeping their rifle-mounted flashlights around the darkness. Three of them walked right past Pixie's hiding spot. Once the two at the rear got to her position she sprang into action. Appearing out of seemingly nowhere, she blindsided one of the men with a pistol grip to the nose. Wrapping her other arms around his shoulder, she held the cold edge of her blade against his throat and pointed her sidearm at the other rearguard, blowing him away before he could so much as gasp.

The others turned around, but hesitated when they saw Pixie using their friend as a human-shield. That moment of hesitation was all Carlos needed. He appeared in the doorway, facing the squad's back, and opened fire with his silenced pistol. Two others dropped before the third was killed by Pixie. The human-shield managed the words, "please God no," before Pixie slit his throat and dropped him on the ground.

Carlos moved passed her to peer into the hallway, leaving Pixie alone to confirm their kills. Instead of checking the squad's vitals, however, Pixie simply stood there and stared down at the man she had just sentenced to death. He was clutching his crimson-stained throat, desperately hanging onto what little life he had remaining. She felt a sharp pang in her heart, compelling her to put a bullet between his eyes.

She couldn't stop thinking about them... all the children that had been left for dead aboard the Maiden. So many of them had suffered prolonged deaths.

They must have been so afraid.

"Let's go," Carlos whispered suddenly, breaking Pixie out of her trance. "The hallway's clear."

They had to move fast. With eleven men down it was only a matter of time before they were discovered.

Moving quickly down the hall, Pixie pressed her back against the wall before glancing around the corner into the next hall. Again, the coast was clear. Even with their heavy boots and gear, Pixie and Carlos's swift steps barely made a peep as they approached the end of the hall.

This should be the dinin' room...

The double doors were closed and they couldn't hear anything coming from the other side. Kneeling down, Carlos searched his pack for a fiber-optic cable while Pixie stood watch. Once he found it hhe stuck it under the door and began scanning the room. "Shit," he whispered.

"What is it?" Pixie asked.

"Room's full of hostiles," he said. "They must have a secure path to the other elevators already. They know this is the only direction we could come from."

"How many we talkin' 'bout?"

Carlos took another moment to scan the room. "Twelve," he said. "There is another way to get to this wing, but..."

"Then let's split up an' attack from both sides," Pixie suggested.

"No, I don't think so," he replied. "There could be even more over there. I know you could probably handle it, but we should stick together."

"Is the door locked?"

"Too risky to confirm," he said. "We should probably just blow it."

Pixie chuckled. "I was tired of all this sneakin' 'round, anyway," she said. "I'll get some frags ready an chuck 'em into the room as soon as those doors swing open."

"Sounds good," the thief replied before getting to work on the door. Once the plastic explosive was wired to the door handle Pixie plucked a grenade off her vest and flattened her back against the wall.

"Ready when y---" her words were suddenly drowned out by a burst of rifle fire from the other side of the hallway. Had they been flanked?

No.

Fuck me!

One of the hostiles from the last engagement survived his injuries and had barely managed to hold himself up long enough to fire a burst in Pixie's direction. Thankfully her reflexes were quick and she managed to roll out of the way before any of his bullets found their mark.

So much fer an ambush!.

"BLOW IT!" She shouted, the grenade in her hand cooking. Carlos nodded and a blew the door open. The enemy's response had already begun before Pixie's grenade left her hand. It skipped under the dining room table and detonated a couple moments later, sending shards of metal and mahogany all around the room. With another man on their flank, they were sitting ducks in the hall and the grenade blast had given them the opening they needed. During the lull in the enemy attack Pixie rolled into the room, her rifle at the ready, and sprayed half the clip around the room. Carlos followed suit with a plasma SMG.

And so the carnage began.

"Be careful,"

Amy didn't reply. They'd dawdled too long already. However, she smiled when she turned her back on Axel, setting off in the direction of security.

A few minutes later...

Two guards stood at attention outside the security office. They were well trained, but still, Amy caught a few tell-tale signs of tiredness and boredom as she approached from their right down the corridor. Her drunk stagger was very convincing (she'd had a lot of practice), and as she drew level with the guards, her heel landed crookedly and she slipped, saved from falling face-first tanks to the guard with the quickest reflexes, who now had a hold of her.

"Woah there Ma'am!" The guard said, in the friendly-yet-rehearsed tone in which he was accustomed to speaking to Lord Talbot's guests. "Watch yourself there."

"Oh, thank you officer." Amy slurred, and all the guards caught the smell of alcohol on her breath (A quick spay on her tongue from a little vial in her bag was enough to pass for several drinks).

"Are you lost?" The other asked, almost entirely masking his tone of suspicion. "Lord Talbot's quarters are not on this deck."

"I know I know, I'm sorry." Amy said as she was helped to her feet. "I'm a little new to, um... entertaining, and the party was getting heavy. I just had to step out for a moment..." Behind the intoxication, the distress in her voice grew. "I only wanted to be gone for a minute, but now I can't find my way back!"

The guards exchanged a glance. Helping Amy meant leaving their post. However, letting her continue to wander didn't seem like a better idea. Not to mention, if their Lord started missing his "guest", and he found out they hadn't shown her the way back...

"I suppose it will only take a minute." The first guard decided "Hold on to me Ma'am, we'll get you back to the party."

"Thank you so much." Amy murmured in relief as they began escorting her back down the hall. The second guard stayed a few paces behind, keeping watch. That one was smart, but unless he was as fast as his friend, it wouldn't be a problem.

Their was a restroom in the adjacent hallway, and Amy had already ascertained that no security cameras had a view of it. When they passed it, Amy struck.

"Hold on a moment! I should freshen up..." she said as they passed the door, reaching into her bag as she did so. The guards didn't have to time decide whether or not to let her, before Amy withdrew her hand, now wearing a black, fingerless glove with some unusual contours, and a small metallic disk on the palm...

The one with the fast reflexes was still holding on to her, When Amy twisted and clapped her gloved hand to his shoulder. He convulsed, a cry of surprise dying halfway up his throat, before he collapsed unconscious. By then, Amy was already moving. The second guard reacted immediately, reaching not for his side-arm, but rather the radio clipped to his uniform, to alert the whole ship. He almost got his finger on the button, before Amy's hand clamped down on his wrist, her fingers digging in to the pressure point. Ducking under his arm, she twisted his shoulder around, kicked out the back of his knees, and pressed her black glove to the back of his neck.

After that, it took her a little over a minute to drag their bodies into the restroom, and lock them in cubicles, taking their radios and their guns for good measure.

"All clear." She said, touching her finger to her ear. "You're good to go."

Lilith winced as her stomach churned slightly. Were elevators supposed to be this fast? 'Shit heap's probably fucked like everything else in this dome'.

Glancing at the handful of soldiers around, none of them seem the least bit worried that their ride felt like it might get to the top of the tower and then just keep going until it eventually hurled into the goddamn sun. "So..." Lilith chuckled nervously, a few eyes falling on her. "You guys having fun?" There was no response as the men went back to their own thoughts. Lilith pursed her lips and nodded her head gently. "Me too."

The elevator reached its destination, and very much to Lilith's surprise, didn't kill them all. As the doors slid open, her and the other soldiers poured out into the corridor, taking up defensive positions as they surveyed the immediate area.

"I think we're clear." One of them said.

"All clear here." Said another.

"Sweet fuck all here." Lilith smirked as she glanced away from the corridor she was aiming down, a couple of the soldiers sighing at her less than military jargon.

"Sweet fuck all here."

"I cannot understand people who can joke at times like these." One of Erik's men muttered to his comrade as their group made their way down the curving hallways. "You think cus she's an outsider or something?"

"Maybe she uses humour to deal with traumatic situations?" Another one mused, his voice muffled by his mask.

"Maybe, I guess everyone has their own way. How about you?"

"I use it to deal with humorous situations."

"That's not what I- aw fuck you, Jerry!" The line was filled with some immature snickering. Everything seemed to be pretty quiet on the upper levels. It looked like nobody was around.

Until they came across what looked like a lone guard arguing with a door.

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

["You should just let me out, I can put in a good word for you!"] Florian yelled through his side of the door, still busying himself with looking for something that could maybe pry the door open. So far he was having no luck.

["I just got this one job, I aint failing it. You know what happens to people who fail the boss?"]

["Do I- is this guy kidding me?"] He muttered under his breath. ["Well then you can just unlock the door and make a run for it, I wont rat you out."]

["Yeah, like they're even gunna get up this high."] The guard scoffed.

["They obviously are, think about who you're dealing with here, guy. How many names men do you think Erik and his could take down by now? You wont have much luck on your own, hell, do you even have a name badge?"]

["We don't wear name badges!"]

["Well that's a big no, then."] Florian figured if he couldn't break out he could at least sass this guy so much he opened the door just to kick his ass.

["How 'bout you just... oh crap..."] The voice on the other side went very quiet.

["What? What's happening out there?!"]

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

"Take him down!" Someone yelled. With all their faces covered by masks it was almost impossible to tell who.

Gunfire was quickly exchanged as the lone guard ran for cover, awkwardly shouting something into his radio. He tried his best but there was no way he was lasting long not with their numbers, experience and shit ton of automatic weapons. The last gunshot rang out and the hallway fell quiet except for two voices. One, the buzzing crackle of an enemy bandit on the other end of the radio's line. The other, the muffled and indignant tones of Florian knocking at the door of his cell like an angry domestic cat.

["Hello!? Is anyone still out there?"] He wasn't sure what answer he wanted to hear right now.

["Hello!? Is anyone still out there?"]

As one of the soldiers cautiously stepped over the dead schmuck who was guarding the door, he almost yelped as Lilith barged by him. It was Florian! They'd found Florian! The girl could barely contain her voice as it threatened to break free of her throat from the sheer relief she felt.

Almost banging on the door herself, she hesitated for a moment. Lilith would only get one chance at this moment, how many times did you get to reveal to someone that you're not actually dead? 'Not many!... I hope.'

Nonchalantly brushing herself down, the girl cleared her throat, gently knocking on the door. "Knock knock!"

Glancing over her shoulder, she winked as the soldiers looks at her with a mixture of confusion, and just plain incredulity.

Florian was staring down the door as if it might attack at any moment or explode into bullets and shrapnel, he was just thinking of ducking to the side so as to hide behind it if the thing swung open when he heard the voice. Wait a minute, that wasn't a Frostfall accent.

That almost sounded like... no... he couldn't let himself hope. But still.

"L- Lil... is that you?" He asked, pressing his ear against the door and forgetting his caution for a moment.

"Knock knock!" Lilith repeated, it was really him! The girl almost squeaked, biting her bottom lip as she glanced at the closed peephole in the door.

"LILITH! Oh my god it is you! You're okay!" Florian's words kind of blurred between languages for a moment as he recognised his lover's voice and tried to get a view of her through the peephole. For all the times Florian had been compared to a dog by his native friends, he was truly embodying the role now. "How did you get away? I think the guard has a key! Or you can- can you knock the door down I'll be fine!"

The poor man sounded exhausted, probably not the best time to play games, no doubt he was emotionally vulnerable right now.

"Knock knock!" Lilith said again, changing the inflection in her voice as she pushed herself against the door and peered through the peephole, her eyes meeting Florian's as the smile curling her lips grew even larger.

"Knock knock." She said softly, almost whispering. Florian's eyes were bloodshot, and he clearly hadn't slept recently.

What was- was this a code thing, was she under duress? That was her eye though, he'd know it anywhere! "Who... who is there?" He asked hesitantly.

Lilith stared at Florian for a few moments, before frowning. Closing the latch on the peephole, Florian could hear some rustling, then the sound of metal on metal, and then the tell-tale clunk of the door's heavy lock being open.

As the door swung open, Lilith's hands were on her hips, head held high as she looked down her nose at Florian, an unamused expression creasing her brow.

"Who's there?!" Lilith growled. "It's me ya fuckin' dumbass, Jesus Christ, some boyfriend you are." She could not keep up the act forever, as a small smirk cracked her frown. "Wanker." She narrowed her eyes playfully.

She didn't have time to think of any more quips before Florian was on her, wrapping his arms around her tight enough to crush the air out of them both. Laughing or sobbing or just making quiet sounds of sheer ecstatic joy. "I thought I lost you there." He squeezed her tighter. If that was possible.

"Please." Lilith chuckled as she returned Florian's tight embrace. "I can't die, you know how much Merry would kick my ass if I let some schmuck waste me?" The girl ran a hand through her lover's hair, kissing his cheek gently. "Did you miss me?"

"Like crazy." Florian's smile stretched to breaking point as he leaned in and kissed her deeply, only leaning away to rest his forehead against Lil's, letting out so much tension in one long breath and just taking a second to enjoy the feeling of having her with him again. The warmth of her, the feeling of safety and certainty and- and the silent looks of the assembled bandits assembled behind her...

"Ugh, hi guys." Florian stuttered, suddenly very aware of where he was again.

"Hi!" "Hey!" "Glad you're not dead anymore, Boss!" And various other shouts of hello followed.

"Don't worry." Lilith whispered into Florian's ear. "I got this." Reluctantly releasing the man, the girl span on her heel, once again taking up her proud stance, arms crossed over her chest. "You did good today, men." Lilith nodded, a stern look on her face. "I'll see to it that each and every one of you is paid in more hot ass and booze than is feasibly possible to survive."

"Don't get any ideas though." Turning her head, she caught Florian in the corner of her eye, a very suggestive smile curling her lips as she narrowed her gaze. "This whelp is mine."

"Okay!" "That's a good pay plan!" "No fatties!" The boys all said.

They got Florian armed and readied with any guns they had going spare. "What are you all doing here anyway? I heard the gunfire from here but how'd you manage to get all the way up here?"

Lilith nuzzled Florian's cheek as she helped him into a kevlar vest. He looked like he'd been put through the ringer. She have to give him a good massage when they got the chance.

"After I left the restaurant, a couple of Vasa's men lead my into an alley and try to... well." She looked into Florian's eyes. "You know." She shrugged her shoulders casually. "Erik showed up, beat their asses and took my scarf, the plan was to make Vasa think I was dead, and then Erik would tell you that I was okay."

"The way Erik tells it though, Sergei got his hand on the scarf and took credit for it, before Erik could tell you, Vasa told him that he knew Erik was going to betray him, and gave him a day to leave the city." Lilith brushed a curl of hair from Florian's eyes, a warm smile on her face. "We weren't going to just abandon everything we planned." Lilith pushed away from the man and lit up a cigarette, taking a deep drag before offering Florian one. "Oh, and you I guess, didn't want to deal with the guilt of leaving your arse to rot in here too." She winked at him.

"All my idea of course." She looked over at the other soldiers. "Ain't that right, men?"

"Jesus Christ!" Florian looked at them all in disbelief. "We better get moving then."

One of the hussars said something to Florian in their native language after looking over the corpse of his unlucky guard.

"No you get out of here, make sure we have a way out later and keep things clear." He said to him while giving a final tug on the straps of his holster. "I need to have see my father before all this ends."

"Cameras say we have enemies coming for us." One of their men said after getting some words in from his own radio.

"All the more reason for you all to get moving then!" Florian checked his gun one last time and got ready to head off, assuming Vasa was still in the same place he was before.

"Good luck!" Lilith called after the men, saluting casually. As soon as they had left the pair's sight, Lilith quickly pushed herself against Florian's chest, moving forward until she had pinned him against the wall with her body, kissing his deeply as she grabbed his face.

Breathlessly, Lilith kissed the man's neck. "God, I was so worried about you, it must have been terrible."

"Taste of my own medicine I guess. As long as you're okay." Florian smiled through the exhaustion of the day and the dull aches his generous helpings of rifle butts had given him. He ran his hands over Lilith's shoulders and gently pushed the two of them away from the wall, as much as he wanted to indulge in the perks of being a freshly minted boyfriend-

'Holy crap she called me her boyfriend. Has that ever happened before?'

Anyway, that would have to wait! A war was raging around them and he knew there was no way this was going to get any easier before the end. There would be time for this later, he'd make sure of that.

"When this is over, Lil, let's get away for a while. Just the two of us."

"I'd like that." Lilith said softly, nodding her head.

"I... I don't know. But what about Millie? Is she gonna be alright?"

"Yeah. Don't worry, children are tougher than they look." Maria replied, giving a reassuring smile. Knocked out and bleeding, Millie's state would concern anyone, let alone her own mother. However, fortunately this time things looked worse then they actually were. Even so, the doctor made a mental note to give those kids a good telling off. Regardless, Maria began to pick Millie up and looked to Whiskey once again, "I'm taking her to the infirmary, if that's okay. And if that's okay, do you wanna come with?"

***

"--bzzt--- Hey Jun, I'm in the compound. Any word from the others? --bzzt--"

"Negative, O'Lafferty. Over." Jun responded and continued with the task of trying to get in touch with the others, sending out a message of, "Charlie Charlie, this is Moon. Radio check, over."

Focussing on the task at hand only blocked some of his concerns.

They carried on, just the two of them. This tower seemed to go on forever. Granted, the whole time Florian had been in the tower had been hectic to say the least but it seemed as if you could fit the population of a small dome inside this place. What could they have been thinking when they first made these places, what purpose did half these rooms or floors even serve?

A stupid thing to think about right now. But right now it was all Florian could do. Even here he could hear the sounds of the fighting drifting up from the levels below them. The family he grew up in was tearing itself apart and for what? A few years ago he'd have charged in along with them for no other reason than having someone to fight, because those he trusted and looked up to told him to. Because what else was he supposed to do with his life? He'd never known anything else, he didn't want to know anything else. Until the possibility of it had been shoved in his face, like something he'd tried to ignore and hide in the shadows for so long. Even then, as inciting as it was, he was afraid and fought it at first. But you can never unsee something and as crappy as it could be sometimes, Florian would never want to now. He'd never want to go back to the man he was before.

What about Frostfall though? While he'd been off walking The Rock, looking for what he thought was salvation, this place hadn't changed at all. It had only become more brutal and bitter. He'd abandoned his responsibilities here, walked away from his own mess like a petulant child and returned, a stranger in his own home. He couldn't say what each of the men and women fighting and dying below him were doing this for. Honour or gain, or because they were like him and it was all they could do.

'What have we made of this place, Father? This wasn't what we dreamed of.' At least, Florian thought not. He thought he knew Vasa better than that, if the two of them ever really knew each other. Florian couldn't even put into words how he felt about the man now. All he knew for sure was that this had to end.
===================================================================

Vasa loaded a bullet into his gun and causally angled it upwards, sending a shot into the clock mounted on the wall. Thank god for that, if there was one thing he couldn't stand it was a ticking clock in a quiet room. Tension of the day's events aside those things just got on his nerves. They had masted the creation of artificial living areas and plasma technology, but they couldn't make a silent clock?

'Oh my brain is all over the place right now.' Vasa shook his head and helped himself to some more liquor. This was the problem when your job demanded you be aloof and feared. Sure you hide all those pesky human weaknesses and could gain a better mental foothold against your enemies, but it sucked for making and keeping friends. No one ever came to him to just hang out anymore, no one ever wanted to just talk. So many things he'd missed over the years, all those little simple pleasures.

He threw the glass back again. 'I'm not going to be able to feel my fingers at this rate. What is taking them so long?'
======================================================================

["Son of a bitch!"] Erik growled as he quickly ducked back behind some cover. he was running out of ammo much faster than he'd have liked. This hallway was turning into a giant void of rubble and shell casings.

["This bottleneck! Was supposed to work! In MY favour!"] He forced himself to his feet one more time and spitefully kicked the grenade that had rolled to his feet back to the sender. Much to their horror. ["And you're mother!"] Erik sneered through the blast.

The monitor on the elevator showed it had made it to the bottom and was heading back up. Winter and his men would be making their way to Renny now, God willing they wouldn't meet much resistance. He just had to hold their crossroads a little longer. he could do that.

He was mother fucking Erik Ablev!
==========================================================================

Lilith and Florian carried on for a while, checking their corners and keeping their eyes open for trouble until they came across a wide open room scattered with columns. Because of course there were columns. These towers were insane!

Things had been pretty quiet though. Florian took the chance of this rare private moment and turned to Lilith as they walked on. "Lil... I'm not sure what'll happen soon but after all that's happened... I just have to tell you -"

The radio strapped to his vest crackled obnoxiously, interrupting Florian's train of thought. "Ugh sorry." The two exchanged some static filled words in the northern dialect, Florian's expression getting even grimmer. "We may have trouble coming our way."

At which point the doors burst open, right on time! "Aw come on guys!" Florian yelled as he and Lilith ran for cover. He just managed to poke his head out in time to see Sergei stride in after his little squad of goons, guns at his side.

"I was wondering where he got to."

"Excuse me, Mr..." the attendant was unsure how to continue.

"No matter, dear fellow." The Gentleman answered, turning from his conversation. "Where is she waiting for me?"

"Um, the rooftop veranda, Sir."

"Very good." The Gentleman replied, before turning back to his original conversation.

"I hope we can continue this conversation later, Lady Hague." he lied, before gesturing to the attendant to lead the way.

"How old are you, Arthur?" The Gentleman asked, smiling at the look of terrified surprise on the young waiter's face, as they left the ballroom. "Your name tag doesn't mention your age."

"I am 18, S-sir." Arthur replied uncomfortably.

"And how long have you worked in Lombardi Tower, Authur?"

"4 years Sir." Arthur said, sounding a touch more confident "My family have served the Lombardi's for generations."

"I see." The Gentleman paused for a moment in thought "Arthur, I want you to use what I'm sure is a well-cultivated instinct for obedience to do exactly as I ask of you without question. If it helps, you can pretend I am relaying these orders secretly from Lady Lombardi herself. Nod if you understand?"

He felt Arthur gulp beside him, before nodding.

"Very good." he continued "Now, as soon as we finish talking, I want you to calmly and silently leave the building, and then put as much distance between here and you as you possibly can. You may stop only to find the most important person to you among the rest of the staff here and to give them exactly the same instructions I have just given you. They in turn may only pass those instructions on to one other person, and by no means are any of you to alert any of the guests, or any of the guards, to what's happening. Confirm for me that you understand."

"I-I understand, Sir."

"Just so. You can run along now Arthur. I can manage the rest of the way."

A couple of minutes later, The Gentleman strolled out on to the veranda, where Contessa stood alone.

"There are never quite enough of these moments..." he said as he approached "Where the die has just been cast, and we all watch to see how it will fall. I love these moments, because even the most brilliant tacticians and schemers are forced to admit they know nothing."

Stopping beside her, The Gentleman kept his back straight as he looked out over the city.

"I've fought against Meredith Monroe almost as many times as I've fought beside her. I know full well what she's capable of. However, do you really think she can do this?"

"Faith is a difficult concept for people like us to reconcile," she mused. "In a perfect world we wouldn't need to trust anyone but ourselves. Alas, our ambitions are simply too big to realize without aid. I don't trust Meredith, but I acknolwedge her skill and I appreciate her passion. No one else on the planet wants Dio dead more than she does. If she fails, she fails. Regardless of Dio's fate, we will have dealt a massive blow to his empire."

She looked to her guest and smiled. "What outcome would you favor?" she asked.

"You need to ask?" The Gentleman said playfully "I've waited years to see that despicable man brought low. Had you ever simply thought to ask me, I'd have considered doing the job myself free of charge. Only considered, mind! With Basilio it is tempting, but I resolved long ago to never take such actions into my own hands. Toppling dynasties? Changing the world? It's all a little involved for my tastes. I prefer to be in demand."

The Gentleman took a moment, as his face flickered into a smile.

"I do hope Meredith is able to put it all behind her after today. She's been fighting this battle every day for over ten years, it must have become dreadfully tiring by now; and, truth be told, I find her affections far more interesting than her hatreds."

"Those two things seem to compliment eachother rather well in her case," Contessa pointed out. "Her hatred of Dio stems from her devotion to that poor girl's ghost. Considering all that she has to lose... it says a lot about her that she's willing to throw everything away for Margaret." A wry grin broke across her lips and her eyes wandered away from the Gentleman's. "She did have that effect on people, I suppose."

"I'll admit, I didn't know her as well as I should have done." The Gentleman added "One of a small handful of mistakes on my part. I was younger in those days, and focussed on making a name for myself in higher circles. Perhaps it's for the best, or it could well have been me in Meredith's crosshairs tonight. Still, I've always enjoyed dangerous women, and I believe I'm already acquainted with the three most dangerous women alive. I'm sure it would have been interesting to see how she measured up."

Looking across, The Gentleman studied Contessa's profile with a steely gaze.

"Truth now." he said "Is tonight about revenge, or ambition?"

"Those two things aren't mutually exclusive, my old friend," she replied with a wicked grin. "Besides, do I look like a woman that would act on vengeance alone? No, you know me better than that I hope." Turning away from her guest, Contessa walked over to the small table in the center of the veranda and poured herself a glass of wine. "'Ambition'. The word weighs heavy on people like us. In a way, that's all we have."

"Why do you remain perpetually convinced that we understand each-other?" The Gentleman asked plainly "Can either of us truly know just how many different conversations are taking place right now? I, for instance, would beg to differ that revenge and ambition can marry. Both are all-consuming vices in their own right, one concerned with gain, the other concerned with loss. Forgive me, but if I were remotely ambitious, we'd be standing atop my ivory tower at this moment; and if Meredith were ambitious, no offer could have persuaded her to accept a mission that, win or lose, she knows will bring her only more pain."

Contessa chuckled. "I'm sorry, but no man could get as far as you have without a want for power," she replied. "No, you're ambition isn't so simple as tall buildings and piles of money. If you think that's what I get up in the morning for, you are sorely mistaken. I know your mind better than you think I do. If I didn't I wouldn't have you where I want you right now." She told him cryptically. "Power; it's a means to an end. You, me, Meredith... we all need it to get what we want. You cultivated the most sophisticated intelligence network in the world, Meredith became the most notorious bandit in recent memory and I... well, as I said, I built really tall buildings. The buildings themselves are hollow, they are not my ambition, and I am willing to topple any and all of them if it means I get what I want."

Stepping forward, she wrapped her fingers around the Gentleman's forearm and grinned. "You're not a spineless man," she purred. "Stop acting like one. It's not worthy of you."

"And how would you dress me instead?" The Gentleman challenged her "If you're truly the expert, and you have me pinned down, then what are you waiting for? Who am I? Where did I come from? What do I want; and how am I beaten?"

"'You know I have little interest in those petty details. It doesn't matter where you've come from; it's what you do and who you defy that makes you who you are," she told him. "And you are exceptionally skilled at besting all whom you've challenged." She caressed his arm as she walked past him and stood by the railing once more. Gazing down at the city below, she sipped her wine. "How is someone like that beaten you ask? Well, I have some ideas, but that would be telling."

"Well then..." The Gentleman bowed low at Contessa's back "If that's everything, my lady."

"Going so soon?" she pouted. "Fine, but do try to enjoy yourself, would you? I don't throw events like this everyday, you know."

"As far as I can while on my best behaviour, of course." The Gentleman answered, before turning to leave.

Contessa watched him leave in the corner of her eye. She did hope he survived the night's proceedings. She would hate to lose such a compelling rival so soon. She sipped her wine anxiously and continued to peer at the city below.

She would miss this view.

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