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

 Pages PREV 1 . . . 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 . . . 76 NEXT
 

"I was wondering where he got to."

"Of course he wouldn't be in the thick of the fighting, that would mean having some goddamn balls." Lilith grinned. Finally! She'd get to beat the shit of that smug cunt and his smug cunt face.

Checking her pistol magazine, Lilith nodded at Florian. "What's say we convert our sexual frustration into violence?"

"You're good to go."

"Roger. Head back as soon as you can," Bennie replied into his comm. Turning his attention to Jesse, he put his hand on the boy's shoulder and gave him a light shake. "Stay hidden until Amy returns."

With that done, the big man stood up straight and nodded to his crew. "Alright kids, move out," he ordered. Gale and her two companions followed their captain as he led them out of the hangar at a swift pace, breezing by two guards patrolling the hall. Once they were out of earshot Bennie spoke into his comm once more. "Jake, be ready to hit the engine room. We're almost in position."

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

Once Tsubaki and Harper were clear of the main floor they found a quiet place to sit down and recoup. Harper had eyes on the hall while Tsubaki struggled to find a usable radio frequency. The enemy was using jammers, sending their official comms all out of whack. Eventually she managed to get a signal.

"Charlie Charlie, this is Moon. Radio check, over."

"Jun?!" she whispered to herself in disbelief. "Moon, it's Commander Saburo, do you read me? I repeat, this is Commander Saburo, over!"

Asad and his melancholy charge continued their trek to the bottom of the tower in silence. The sound of battle echoed all throughout the stairwell, and Asad had stopped them several times to make sure they weren't walking into the source. Smoke filled Elizabeth's nostrils as they descended another flight of stairs and rounded the corner.

"Crap," Elizabeth muttered, taking in the sight before her. A mound of twisted, burning metal was blocking their path, likely from an earlier explosion. They would have to turn back and find another route.

A sigh escaping his nostrils, Asad grunted before immediately turning on his heel and heading back down the way they came, not looking at Elizabeth. Now was not the time to berate the girl, that could wait until they were safe.

Like a child that knew she had made a terrible mistake, she silently sulked in tow.

"The longer we stay here, the more likely we are to get called out for not being at the rendezvous." He said out loud.

"Can you even get a signal right now?" she asked, a bit surprised.

"That's not the point." The Major replied, eyes still ahead. "Other soldiers have seen us, we weren't too far from where we're supposed to be, soon questions are going to be asked."

"Well... do you know another way out of here?!" she asked, clearly worried.

"Yes." Asad said matter of factly. "This route was the quickest and least likely to be used, there are others though, we just need to get back to where all the corridors connect." The man allowed himself a small smile. For all her talk of being strong, she was still acting like panicked civilian.

Not that he could blame her.

"O--okay," she muttered in reply.

After several minutes of walking, the pair had met no resistance as they came to a main connecting lobby and down another hallway. No words were exchanged as they moved, only the sound of their feet on the polished stone tiles.

Asad tensed as the sound of other feet began to echo towards them. From the front. They couldn't turn and run without revealing their own position, and there were no rooms in this part of the corridor to take refuge in. "Just keep walking." Asad mumbled, hand tightening on the grip of his pistol, but his stance remaining neutral. "And try not kill anybody this time." He allowed himself the little dig.

The group of soldiers were upon them before Elizabeth could feel bad about herself. As soon as they made eye contact with Asad they raised their weapons slightly, only stopping when their CO gave the signal. "Identify yourselves," he shouted.

Without missing a beat, Asad raised his head slightly, quickly determining the best course of action should things go sour.

'Guy on the far right has a weak ankle, surprised he managed to get that through training, unless...

"Major Asad Harel." The man nodded down at the girl. "And this is Lady Elizabeth Maribel." They probably already knew that, regardless of who they were fighting for.

The CO looked at his men and nodded. They lowered their weapons. "Lady Contessa sends her regards, M'Lady," the man said with a bow. "I take it the way you came from is a no-go?"

"Affirmative" Asad nodded once, hand still grasping his weapon firmly. "The ceiling has collapsed in, no way to get through." He stared at the CO for a few moments. "I take it you had no trouble this way?" He couldn't smell gunpowder, none of their weapons had been discharged.

His men chuckled. "Oh no," he told Asad, "not even remotely. We just stole these weapons from the armory on this floor. We've gone through too many clips to count now. There are Basilio men everywhere. If we head back that way we'll have to cut through a pack of loyalists." He sighed. "Not sure we have any other options though."

"Great." Asad mumbled as he glanced down at Elizabeth. "She's green as hell, I'd like to avoid combat if at all possible." He returned his eyes to the CO. "I take it you've been thoroughly briefed on the layout of the building, any suggestions?"

Elizabeth frowned at Asad's words. He was right.

Useless.

"Well unless we want to dig our way through the debris or repel down the side of the building our only real option is to head back and secure the stair well," he told them. "Well... maybe... do they know whose side you're on?"

"We're here aren't we?" Asad commented non-committally. "Not a lot of fighting is happening this deep in the tower, if we're lucky, we can sneak out without raising too many eyebrows, as long as we stay off the beaten track."

"Good plan," the CO agreed. "We'll find a place to hold up here for now and await further orders. We were all instructed to help you in any way we could, but it looks like we'd only endanger you further if we came with." Stepping forward, the man held his hand out for a shake. "Good luck, Major. You're going to need i---" The mercenary's words were suddenly drowned out by the thundering of gunfire. A squad of Basilio soldiers materialized out of seemingly nowhere further down the hall, and were raining bullets down on Asad's position.

The CO was dead on the ground before the Major had a chance to take his hand.

Terrified, Elizabeth scrambled to a nearby alcove and drew her weapon. "ASAD!" she shouted, waving him over to her.

"Shit!" Asad scrambled into the alcove, but not before grabbing the rifle from the dead man's hands. "Put it down!" Asad hissed at the girl, showing her arm aside. "We can still explain our way out of this, but not if you start firing on them!"

Elizabeth furrowed her brow and lowered her weapon. She was trembling.

He better be right.

The exchange didn't last long. Once all of Contessa's men had been wiped out someone ordered a cease-fire. The hallway was filled with smoke, but Elizabeth could see a few faint silhouettes approaching them.

"Stay here." Asad quickly whispered to Elizabeth, "If I tell you to run, you run okay?" His face was deadly serious, but there was a glimmer of concern in his eyes. "Understand?"

Elizabeth bit her lip and nodded.

"Who's there?!" a feminine voice called out.

"I'd like to know that answer myself!" Asad called back, placing himself between Elizabeth and the corridor.

"Harel?!" the voice called out. Stepping past her men, the figure crossed through the smoke and into the light.

Elizabeth cringed.

Fuck.

It was Mila.

"Oh Christ it's you." Asad breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped out to greet the woman. "I didn't know how long I could bullshit Lombardi's men." Asad chuckled as he looked at the corpses quickly appearing in the fading smoke.

"Lombardi?!" she gasped. "So it's true... shit, what the fuck's going on here, Harel?"

"I have no idea." Asad lied, shaking his head. "But there's pockets of them dotted throughout the tower, we just fought a group in the lobby under Elizabeth's room." He motioned behind him for the girl to come out of her hiding place.

Elizabeth kept her eyes glued to her feet as she stepped out. She couldn't meet this woman's gaze. Not right now.

Mila scoffed and pointed her thumb over her shoulder. "I've got good men with me," she said. "We can bring you where you need to go. What are your orders?"

"The rendezvous point near the old barracks." Asad nodded. "But last I heard, it might have been overrun, did you hear anything?" Hopefully that would be believable enough to explain why they were so far away from where they were supposed to be.

"I'm not sure," she admitted. "Comms have been hazy since the start of the attack. Jammers most likely. Last I heard, the ground level's a warzone, so I don't think heading out the front door's an option either. We could try one of the garages. Maybe take a crawler out of here."

"Sounds like a plan." Asad nodded. "Lead the way."

As soon as they were free of the tower, they could figure out what to do then. The Sergeant being here was an unlikely boon.

"What's say we convert our sexual frustration into violence?"

"I've been waiting so long to do just that!" Florian called back over the din as he leaned out of cover and peppered the side of the nearest pillar just to give their targets something to think about.

As wrecked as he was right now thanks to that lovely rifle butt to the back (thing still smarted like hell) but he was out and free to let out all that bitterness. He didn't have to go full on bloody Bejic but he could show some of the punks that were dragging his family name through the dirt how utterly outclassed they were.

'Just think back to all those old maiden jobs, all the nasty complications or spitting, asshole, security guards that you've had to smile and turn the other cheek to. Those guys. Now is a good time to let that out!'

"You want to pincer move? We seem to have good luck with that one." He leaned over to Lilith, smiling a little bit as the adrenaline started to really kick in. Florian didn't get to try and be quirky for long though as a fresh burst of bullets smashed into their pillar. "Or just move maybe!" He blurted out in a terribly undignified manner before springing off in a direction that didn't have bullets in it. It was going well so far.

He managed to get an opening and leveled some shots into the exposed body parts of the men shooting at him. Florian wasn't bothering to try anything fancy, with the gear he'd been given he just had to plant a shot in them and be done with it. Dead or alive they were going down and getting out of his way. He managed to down two of them (maybe winged a third it was hard to tell in here) before the small clip forced him to reload.

["You know, Flory boy."] Sergei called across the room. ["Back when you died I really hoping that meant you'd stop being a pain in my ass!"]

"Language, Sergei, we have guests!" Florian yelled back, firing some blind shots.

"Oh fuck you!" Sergei moaned, standing up to spray a clip in Florian's direction.

"Bringing a machine gun to pistol fight! Oh you have no honour sir!" Lilith's snark may have been rubbing off on him. It didn't help that Florian had been wanting to kick this tool's ass for a long time coming.
===========================================================

"Alright kids, move out."

Gale nodded and gulped down any leftover nerves that were making a knot in her throat. Their little group of four walked out of the hangar like they owned the place and breezed right on by some guards along the way. Well, at least the chief looked like he owned the place. That was probably easy when you were a big giant man. For her part Gale couldn't help but think how you she and the other two new bloods looked. And how tiny she was next to everyone.

But this was it, this was her hitting the big time. The big leagues. becoming a real merc warrior of the ash. All she had to do was calm down and- get rid of that damn strand of hair that kept getting in her face! Still she did her best to walk tall and straight, like she belonged. She'd tangled with her share of bruisers, she just had to look out for her own for now.

"Jake, be ready to hit the engine room. We're almost in position." The chief said into his comm. This was it. Way past the point of no return now.

Blazing past the last checkpoint, Bennie led his crew to a spot near the control room door that was outside of the security camera's view and whispered into his comm, "Now, Jake."

Bennie waiting for his cue. "Shit, we've got a live one!" a man shouted from behind the door. The big man grinned.

"Gale, Jonah, you're with me," Bennie instructed. "Follow my lead. Marcus, you're on look out."

"Gotcha." Gale nodded as she braced her rifle to herself, the same way she'd been told soldiers did it when they were on parade and conjured as grim a scowl as her soft features could muster.

Bennie slammed his fist against the door frantically. "Let us in!" he shouted. "Lord Talbot's in danger!"

"Open the door!" a voice on the other side commanded.

The door slid open to reveal a timid young man on the other side. "What's happening in---" his words were violently muffled by Bennie's fist. Staggering backwards and onto the floor, Bennie stepped into the room with a pistol pointed at the man's head. Gale and Jonah moved up to either side of him.

"No one move a goddamn muscle!" Bennie shouted. There were three other men in the room. Two of them had been too shocked to react while a third was frozen, with his hand on his belt holster. "You cooperate and no one, including Talbot, gets hurt." He nodded in their direction and looked to his subordinates. "Disarm them. Use the zip-ties to pin them to something sturdy.

"Right." Gale grumbled, sounding all stern like.

She stomped on up to the guy who had been closer to drawing his gun, he looked like the one to watch. She snatched the gun out of his holster, still keeping her rifle pointed in his general direction just to keep him on his toes before shouldering the thing and turning his own, smaller, weapon on him.

"Over there, move it!" She barked in a way less scary voice than the dudes she was working with, luckily her gun was pulling the strong silent type act and staring the poor guard down. She gave him a light shove and the guy reluctantly wandered over to the security desk. "Down, on the ground." Gale pointed with the gun and sat her hostage down on his ass, forcing his hands around the leg of the desk and rummaging around for the zip-tie before sticking him in place.

It took a lot less time than she thought it did. All the while Gale had been nervously going over what to do like a list in her head. After the first guy though the rest was easy as everyone did their part. It gave Gale time to pat each one down for hidden weapons and find a little side carbon. Every bit helps.

Bennie watched over his Maidens as they worked. He was impressed.

Gale isn't missing a beat.

Leaning over the main console, Bennie flicked the switches until he got a good view of the hangar. "Control room's secured," he said into his comm. "Amy and Jessie, y'all need to move." After flipping through some of the other camera feeds, Bennie was content.

"Alright," he announced to the room. Turning around to see his hostages, Bennie crossed his arms over his chest and groaned. "Where's Shostakovitch? I figured he'd be here, but I don't see him."

None of the hostages made a peep.

Bennie scowled. "Knock them around a bit," he told Gale and Jonah. "We need to make sure none of our people run into him without knowing it."

Gale hesitated. Why wouldn't she? Sure she could kick or punch a guy if she had to, hell, she'd done just that before. But they'd started it! Comin' at her at jerks for some nasty reasons. These guys were all tied up... that'd make her the jerk. Gale didn't wanna be a jerk, did she? No. But there was that Shoot-em-up-a-bitch guy running around the place. And the chief seemed to think he was pretty tough, enough to take down some of their own.

And if this was her caravan for now, then Gale had to step up and look after her own. She knew this wouldn't be pretty all the time. And who were these guys to her?

"You heard the man." Gale glowered and gave a swift kick to a sitting man's ribs. "Where's your head man?" They didn't say anything. It took Gale a moment to build up the guts before she stomped on his leg. She should have done it to his knee or ankle but she held back at the last minute and went for his calf.

"F-fuck, the old man?" he asked, wincing in pain. "I don't know, what the fuck do you want with him?"

"We wanna know where he is, numb nuts!" Gale yelled, properly this time. She readied her rifle and held it like a spear, letting them all see she was ready to bring the hammer down if need be. 'Don't make me do this guy. Please.'

The man stared up at the rifle, wide-eyed. Clearly he hadn't been trained for this. "I-I don't fuckin' know!" he cried. "I-I-I saw him earlier this morning. Like, an hour ago maybe? I don't know where he's at now."

Gale glanced over at Bennie anxiously. What did they do now? She couldn't look weak in front of them, then they wouldn't tell her anything. The others weren't doing anything. Was it all on her now? "Well who here does know?!" She turned on the other tied up guards.

Jonah grabbed one of the men by the collar and slammed him up against the steel bulkhead. "The lady asked you a question!" he shouted. "Spill it mother fucker!"

Looking over his shoulder, Bennie sighed. "Give it a rest," he told them. "These guys are green-as-fuck. If they knew anything they'd spill it after the first slap."

Gale looked over to Jonah for a second as the two of them floundered a little for what to do. Their first time out and they were already finding problems... and she wasn't even sure what the problem was. There were a bunch of people on the ship they didn't know the location of probably.

She stepped closer to Bennie, trying to keep up the tough act. "Is this old guy really that big a deal, Chief?"

Bennie nodded. "Yeah, probably," he told her. "Cranston's old intel is spotty at best, but if he really is here then he's going to be a problem." Bennie tapped his fingers on the control panel as he thought of a plan. "Gale, I need you to go to the bridge. I've got eyes on it from here, but I could use a pair of the real thing down there. Report to me if you see anything out of the ordinary. We can't make any bold moves until we've got Talbot hostage."

"Okay, sure." She hissed, the proper bandit.

In her head it was more like this: 'Me? Why am I going alone? I'm freakin' teeny next to half these guys! How am I a good solo person?!'

The fact that she'd been travelling alone for several months didn't matter at all right now! All that experience she'd got for herself went out the window as the nerves of her first day got their second wind. "No problem, I can do that." Gale patted herself down one more time, just to make sure she looked the part before going to the door. Looking one more time to Jonah and Marcus in a silent plea for luck. Man she wished she had her little fox right now, stupid disguises.

"Good luck," Bennie told the girl before she left the room.

She'll be fine...

A voice came a-crackling over the airwaves, " --bzzt-- Moon, it's Commander Saburo, do you read me? I repeat, this is Commander Saburo, over! -bzzt-"

In these conditions, it was easy to forgive the 'Commander' for thinking her rank and squad had been reinstated. The priority here was organising communication between the trio, after all. Jun frowned as a bit of static spat into his ear but his reply was quick, nevertheless.

"Roger, Saburo. Reading three-by-five. Current status? Over." He said.

Never thought I'd be grateful to hear his voice.

"I'm stuck on the fifth floor of the tower, trying to make my way up to the penthouse," she announced. "What's your position?"

"In the city. In a bar's attic." Jun replied, dropping voice procedure and internally cringing. No point going over the well-trodden track of getting wound up over not being able to do his job proper. He took a breath and waited for the barrage of questions.

Seriously?

"Good, stay where you are," she told him. "Do you know where O'Lafferty is?"

"In the compound." He stated. It was easy to see where this conversation would go...

Shit.

Pinching her nose in frustration, Tsubaki sighed and opened the comm once more. "Get a hold of him and tell him to get the hell out of here," she instructed. "He's in no condition to fight. Look, I need to get moving again. Do you think you can get him on the wire?"

A short reply, "Affirmative, over."

It would be done with all the dexterity of someone with spatulas for hands but at least it would be done. With a slow flick of a switch, Jun did as instructed.

Gale hummed away to herself and half sang under her breath, as she was want to do when her brain was outpacing her body. It was so tough to just slowly saunter down the halls, giving little smiles and nods to any guards she passed. Luckily there weren't many of the lonely bunch. She still really wanted to speed up though, the quicker she got this done the faster she could get back to the team. Even with all the training she'd gotten on the maiden Gale didn't have total faith in her skills. She'd never gotten into a 'real' fight on her own before, nothing beyond scraps with drunken assholes who took a shine to her butt or throwing things at people and running away if things got too hairy.

'Well it's like Chief said, these guys are all green, I can take them... no problem.'

She turned a corner and found the door to the bridge and walked through the big double doors that all the bridges on these ships seemed to have, as calm as if she belonged. Gale scanned the room for any old grizzly faces among the few people sitting at consoles or a security camera she could try signalling to her distant watchers with. She just had to spot an old guy, that shouldn't be too hard.

"Now, Jake."

"Your wish is my command," Ruffles replied. Nodding to Sprout, he reached into his holdall and produced his compact shotgun. Sprout booted in the door and they strode in, with Ruffles pumping a shell into the shotgun's chamber threateningly.

"Everyone remain calm," he yelled. "We're taking over the ship."

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

"I'm taking her to the infirmary, if that's okay. And if that's okay, do you wanna come with?"

"Y-yeah," Whiskey replied. "Sure. I'll carry her." Crouching down, Whiskey picked up her daughter as delicately as if the girl were made of glass and cradling her. "Let's go."

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

"Negative, O'Lafferty. Over."

"Right then," Bryan replied. Moving through the compound, Bryan came upon a dense skirmish. There were at least a dozen soldiers he could see, and both sides seemed to be doing equally well. From this distance, he couldn't recognise anyone in the fight, one way or the other. They hadn't seen him yet. Keeping low, Bryan skirted the battle, keeping one of the compound's outlying smaller buildings between him and it, he tried to find a way around it.

His opportunity came in the form of the entrance to the underground motor pool. Hopefully the fighting wouldn't have gotten there, and if he got to the elevator, he could ride it up to whatever floor Tsubaki was on. Heading down the concrete slope, stealth was impossible, with his footsteps echoing down the huge rectangular tunnel.

In the motorpool itself, Bryan walked between the stationary vehicles, peering at shadows. He was about halfway, just coming to a gap in a line of crawelers that he fancied belonged to the one that had been in the training yard during the attack. Suddenly, there he was shaken from his vigilance by a break in Jun's monotonous repetition in his ear.

--bzzt-- Moon, it's Commander Saburo, do you read me? I repeat, this is Commander Saburo, over! -bzzt-

Bryan was taken aback, wondering how he'd gotten a signal underground. He supposed Dio must have some kind of emitter in the walls or something. His distraction was then suddenly broken by the piercing squeak of boot rubber on concrete. Throwing himself between two crawlers, Bryan heard the stutter of an assault rifle, and the sound of bullets dinging off of a crawler's metal hide.

Peering up, he caught movement in the reflection coming off of one of the crawler's windows. The shooter trying to change his position for a clean shot. Moving deeper between the crawlers, Bryan raised his pistol and squeezed off three shots. The shooter threw himself down to avoid them.

Reaching round, Bryan pulled one of his swords free with his left hand.

"Do you know where O'Lafferty is?" came Tsubaki's voice through his earpiece. He ignored it for the moment. Let Jun explain. Throwing himself over the hood of the crawler, Bryan came down on his feet, sprinting and firing at the crawler his attacker was hiding behind. Getting a foot on one of its door handles, Bryan leaped up onto its roof and fired at the soldier, who combat rolled out of the way. Jumping down, Bryan brought his sword down hard. The soldier caught it on the barrel of his rifle, sending a jolt up Bryan's arm. As he landed, he kept his sword arm locked to keep the rifle's muzzle away from him, drew his pistol to the hip and squeezed the trigger. The gun clicked empty and the soldier threw off Bryan's sword, stepping back. Throwing the empty pistol, Bryan struck him right on the nose, fouling his shot with a wet crunch. Following through, he rammed his sword through the man's gut.

As he pulled it free, he felt a twinge at the base of his neck. The fighting must have begun to tug at the not yet fully healed fiberglass part of his collarbone. As the adrenaline faded, he recalled overhearing Tsubaki and Jun talking. Thumbing his radio, he spoke, while pulling loose aspirin from his inside pocket.

"Past the point o' no return, Commander. Link up with you or head back, either way it'll be bloody." He threw the aspirin into his mouth and dry swallowed it. "I made it to the elevator in the car park. What floor ya on?"

Amy had met no further resistance on her way back to the cargo hold. Checking that the coast was clear, she slipped her glove back into her purse as she eased open the door before walking though.

"Let's go." she said, after finding only Jesse waiting for her. "I think M'Lord's been entertained for long enough, don't you?"

Astor shifted into motion and tried not to let his face screw up in disgust. His reply was brief, "Fine, let's be on with it."

Amy thought she should probably say something. However, nothing came to mind that promised to do anything more than make the boy feel worse, so she just gave a non-committal shrug and led the way.

"None of Talbot's bodyguards are going to recognise you, right?" Amy whispered out of the side of her mouth, as they walked through the hallways to the Lord's private quarters, acting like they belonged.

With every step, the butterflies in Astor's stomach became jitterier and jitterier. It was hard to remain composed. At least there was a chance for once last joke. He pointed at his hair and whispered back, "The dye deceives all. Well, hopefully... Besides, no one really paid that much attention to me back home."

"Good." Amy replied, as the rounded the final corner before the door to Talbot's chambers, which was flanked by two guards. They were both well-trained enough not to give the 'entertainers' any funny looks.

"Pass cards, please?" One of them said, with a polite smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.

"Of course." Amy responded, handing over the counterfeit she had been issued with. The guard took it from her and studied it for about two seconds, his eyes flicking back and fourth between Amy and the card.

"You're fine." he said, before turning to Astor, "And yourself, sir?"

"Just a sec." 'Jesse' mumbled as he fumbled around for his. The boy nearly panicked as his mind drew a blank to the fake card's location. But sure enough, in a blessed moment of salvation, he found it and presented it to the guard with a sheepish grin.

"Sorry for the wait."

"No problem at all." the guard replied, though there were a few creases on his forehead that hadn't been there a second ago. The guard probably thought that checking Talbot's concubines for clearance was a little humiliating. He gave Astor's card a little more scrutiny than he had Amy's, but eventually handed it back with a simple nod.

Turning round, the second guard pressed the discreet intercom button at the side of the door.

"Lord Talbot, Sir?"

"Yes? What is it man?" The Lord sounded out of breath.

"There are two more guests here to see you my Lord." The guard's monotone voice hid any embarrassment well, a sign of a lot of practice.

"Ah, yes, um..." There was some noise of what sounded like girlish giggling over the comm. "Yes. Fine. Send them in."

"At once, my Lord." The guards clicked of the intercom, and Amy and Astor were shown through the doors, that then hissed shut behind them. Nothing else between them and Talbot now.

There were a thousand words, and possibly more, Astor wanted to have with dear old daddy. His chest was bursting with them. Astor couldn't believe he once desired this thing's esteem. Not to mention what his mother would think. Always going off "working" on airship trips... Lord Chetwynd-Talbot certainly didn't enjoy family life. Part of Astor also wondered if Leonard and Quentin had taken after their father but that was a story for another day. Regardless, 'Jesse' glanced uneasily at Amy, unsure of what to do next.

Amy glanced sideways at Astor, and saw with clarity the disgust on the profile of his face. It was strange, he seemed both older and younger now than he had before. She felt another twinge of sympathy, as well as something more... This was the first time she'd seen something really get to him, and she respected it.

"It's a bit late to turn back now..." she said, glancing back to the door. "but you don't have to go any further. Tallahassee, Sandra and I can handle him. You don't have to see if you don't want to. It's your call."

It was tempting, but Astor could already see the legions of Maidens chiding the boy about running doing the big score. Between that and quite possibly being found out, it was a different choice. His gaze drooped down to the floor. Astor let out a small sigh and croaked back, "I'll... I'll stay. I need to."

Amy simply nodded at that. A month ago, she might have thought Astor getting stung over his fornicating fool of a father was a sign of weakness. Maybe she was changing too, in ways she hadn't quite anticipated...

No time to question it now. They kept moving through towards the bedroom, where they found Talbot, Sandra, and Talahassee all sprawled naked on the bed.

"What took you so long?" Sandra asked coquettishly.

"Have to been enjoying yourself that much?" Amy replied, her eyes lingering on Talbot's flabby bulk. The Lord was currently too preoccupied between Sandra's breasts and Tal's hands to have realised anything was wrong.

"Well..." Sandra said, nodding to Talahassee. A moment later, Talbot was face down on the bed, his arms and legs pinned by the pair of them. "I suspect it should get a lot more fun now that you're here."

Smiling, Amy strode over to the foot of the bed, drawing her pistol out of her bag and pressing it lightly to the back of the Lord's head.

"Be calm." she said to him softly "We're only here to rob you. However, if you scream, or struggle, or go for any kind of panic button, it will be my pleasure to put a bullet through your skull. Understand?"

"Oh, what sort of game is this, my dear?" Talbot giggled. However, when the crickets were able to stop chirping, the noble realised the seriousness of the situation and the smile slipped off his face. "How inconvenient. So be it."

Astor didn't know what to think about the image before him: his father, Sandra and Tal in a bed completely naked. He found his eyes wandering towards Sandra, needing something nice to rest on. However, the boy swallowed nervously, got the zip-ties out of his pocket and addressed his father, "Hands, now!"

The Lord silently obeyed the youth. With a sigh, he dug his hands off the other Maidens' naked bodies. Though, the wheels of Talbot's mind began to turn. "Have we met?"

Astor finished fiddling with the zip-tie and ignored the question.

"Pay attention to me, My Lord." Amy snapped, clipping him across the ears with her pistol "And speak when spoken to. This will be so much easier on all of us if you do..."

Once Talbot was appropriately bound, Amy turned to Sandra and Tal.

"You two can put some clothes on now," she said "Then go and keep an eye on the entrances. We don't want to be caught napping if things go south."

Putting a finger to her collar, she opened her channel to Bennie.

"Talbot is secure, status?"

Florian darted from cover to cover, each movement coming more easily and feeling more fluid as he went and his muscles warmed up and the ache of his wounds faded into the back of his mind. He and Lilith had run rings around their attackers, using every dirty trick the two of them had to use. It was a pretty considerable collection given who they were talking about. Sergei and his men were good trappers and (as much as it burned to think it) were probably good at the dirtier deeds that followed their usual antics, but they weren't up to much when caught off guard by a group as used to winging it like the maidens were.

But Florian wasn't even thinking of them as people at this point, just things in his way. They'd come so far in such a short time, so many people had giving all they had to help them succeed and bring something close to peace and safety, to help those that couldn't fight themselves, all the things he'd tried to do as a roaming bandit on the Maiden. On top of that, he'd finally gotten his personal life in order! A sense of genuine, uncomplicated, happiness and contentment and these assholes had to go and try and stand in the way of that! Putting up some weak fight that wouldn't even make his top ten!

'Oh god am I getting back into that kind of mindset?' Florian'd have to keep that in check or Erik would never let him hear the end of it.

They kept up their mad dash until Flroian was left within spitting distance of Sergei, the two of them were hunkered down under the gunfire going over their head as Lilith picked off the last few stubborn types.

["Y'know Kid, I heard about all that hero shit you were trying to pull earlier, that was a good laugh I gotta say."] Sergei yelled over the din. Florian answered with a few extra shots that pinged debris around the place. ["And you still suck at trash talk I see!"]

["And you still suck at fighting!"] Florian barked back petulantly.

["Aw there he is! Wolfy's still got some bite, maybe once you're done reliving your teenage years and getting your ass saved by women you can actually try and make use of all that special treatment you got."]

["That's just sexist right there, I'm not rising to that."] Florian sneered as he leaned out to wing a guy in the leg, setting him up for Lilith to finish off with ease.

["Oh cus you're SO much better than everyone else aren't you?! We're not so different, Florian, at least I'm honest about who I am!"] Sergei gritted his teeth behind his cover, put a fresh magazine into his rifle and waited. The moment Florian had stopped shooting he shoved himself to his feet and swung his aim round for where the floppy haired little prick had been. ["We both know the only thing this world respects is p-"] Where the fuck had he gone?

Sergei paused for a moment too long as he looked for his lost target. He got snapped out of his disbelief quickly though as searing pain shot through his side. His head turned in the direction of it to see Florian appearing from out of his peripheral vision.

["Not rising to that one either."] He said calmly before firing another couple shots into Sergei's torso.

'Still slower than me too.' Florian looked on as Sergei dropped into the dust. With the trickier one out of the way the remaining stragglers were easy to finish off and Florian and Lilith regrouped back at the doorway that had been denied them.

"Some people just never want to shut up, even here, I don't even get it." He shrugged as the two of them made their way deeper into the tower and Florian desperately tried to keep his mind off of what might happen when they reached his dad. The path was clear from here. The end was in sight.

"Let's go."

Maria nodded, let the mother pick the child up and led the way to the infirmary. One could find their way to it from the trail of the stench of disinfectant alone. Indicating a bed, Maria then said, "Put her there, I'll go and get the stitches ready."

Gently setting Millie down, Whiskey retreated to the other side of the room. She didn't want to get in the way. She just wanted to skip all the worrying and waiting, and see her daughter open her eyes.

Maria wiped the wound with a cotton pad dipped in disinfectant and began sewing it up, taking absolute care to ensure the best recovery. All was silent, and the atmosphere began to grow heavier.

Eventually, Whiskey grew tired of reading the labels of Maria's various bottles of medicines. Watching quietly while the doctor finished up her needlework, Whiskey waited until she was finished before asking, "she gonna be okay?"

Maria replied, "Yeah, otherwise I'm not much of a doctor. She should wake soon."

There was nothing left to do but wait. Possibly the worst and best part of any operation; on one hand, it was done and dusted, on the other, it was now out of her hands.

"So how'd you end up being one?" Whiskey asked. The other woman had been caught up in the Iron Maidens' affairs around as long as she had, but Whiskey had never been around for any heart to hearts she might have been apart of.

Maria smirked as a wave of nostalgia hit her, "My father was one, and you could say I was a little bit of a daddy's girl when I was young. He taught me so much, just because I just happened to show a bit of interest."

"Well I'd relate, but the closest things I ever had to a dad were Payton and the drunken underling who thought it'd be a good idea to name me Whiskey," she replied.

"So yeah."

"I thought it was an odd name." Maria said. At least that bit of curosity was finally satisfied. The mention of Payton and his ilk left a bad taste in the doctor's mouth but she brushed it aside. Best to keep things light.

"So," Maria began, sighing, "Are we playing the ol' tragedy competition now or what?"

Whiskey smiled. "Point taken. Good shit only, then. You and Jake, huh?"

"I guess we're a thing now, yeah." Maria replied, "So...?"

"So what's that even like?" Whiskey asked. "Don't get me wrong, Ruffles is awesome, I love the guy. But it ain't every day you meet someone like that, honey. Must make for some interesting pillow talk."

"One moment you're worrying yourself to death over your daughter, the next, you're trying to get gossip outta me." Maria tutted, hands on hips.

Whiskey snorted. "Bitch, I'm fuckin' freakin' out here. You used that stethoscope on me, you'd be hearing thrash metal. But... hey, if I clammed up every time scary shit happened, I'd be long gone."

Approaching the bed, Whiskey gently enclosed Millie's tiny hand in her own. "Besides, I thought doctors were meant to be good at distracting panicking loved ones."

'Wrong turn!' Maria cringed. The doctor walked up and stood next to Whiskey, "Hey, most of the time it's fixing up wannabe gangsters and badasses. You'd be surprised at the payout, 'specially when they're bleedin' out. Even got me a place here from it, y'know."

Whiskey chuckled. "Yeah, point taken. And it's a good thing you're so good at patching up badasses. If I get my way, I'll have one who's gonna need all the fixing ya got."

"Might even hafta get the scotch tape out then." Maria chuckled back, "Planning to bring the pain to Payton, by any chance?"

"Oh, there ain't gonna be anything left to patch up when I'm through with him," Whiskey replied. Looking down at her daughter, she said, "but when I haul her father's ass outta whatever dungeon Payton's got him in..." she tailed off, realizing she had started ranting.

"Yeah," she finished. "He's.... he's gonna need whatever help you can give him."

"Shit." Maria said under her breath, "Well, of course I'm gonna patch him up when you rescue him, it's all I'm good for, after all. Even Millie here could probably beat me when it comes to target practice."

"Well you'd win by technical knock out," Whiskey said. "But yeah. For the first few years of her life, I just kinda got used to her... not having a father. I mean I showed her pictures of him, and I told her about him. But then when we got her back with the ship, she told me she saw him. And she must have, it makes sense. And I just realized. I can't let her go back to not having him. Yeah, she might grow up fine and she might forget. But I don't want her to."

"Yeah, I understand." Maria replied, "My mother's face is just a blur to me now."

The doctor clasped her necklace, the sharp corners of the cross cutting into her palm, "She left back when I was around Millie's age, give or take. I always though - hoped more like - I would come across her someday. But that's nothing but a false hope now."

She turned back to Whiskey, "The less people who have to go through that, the better."

"Well from where I'm standing, it looks like you did great without her," Whiskey replied.

She was about to say something else when Millie's hand tightened around hers, and she looked down to see the little girl stirring.

"Still--" Maria was only to respond but Millie had finally begun to wake up from her 'nap time'. Maria couldn't help but smile.

"Hey there." She said to Millie.

"Um... hi," Millie replied, rubbing her bleary eyes with a tiny fist.

"Hey, sweetie," Whiskey said, grinning and throwing an arm around Maria's shoulders.

"Me and auntie Maria found you snoozing in the armory. Maria said there was a spare bed in here, so we brought you here so you could be comfy."

Millie narrowed her eyes at her mother shrewdly. Such a look of skepticism on the face of a five year old girl was nothing short of comical. "That's not right, mommy."

That definitely made Maria laugh, "I don't think she's buying it. sis."

Whiskey crossed her arms. "Well now ya mention it, doc, I do recall a couple of very irresponsible and now very unconscious teenagers that said they put a gun in my daughter's hands."

"Hmm... I put one of 'em on cleaning duty and I think she's still mopping corridors. Dunno about the rest." Maria shrugged.

"Geez, sounds like the ones I floored got off lucky," Whiskey replied. "Hard work..." she shuddered. "That's cold, doc."

"I figured I'd made a teenager do something productive for once, just to appreciate the rare sight. But unfortunately, a certain someone needed medical attention. Life is hard." Maria said with a mock-sigh, arms crossed.

"Sure is," Whiskey replied, before turning back to Millie, who was looking slightly put out.

"So those kids put a gun in your hands and made you shoot?"

"Mhm."

"And you got hit in the face by the recoil?"

"I guess so."

"Did you want to shoot?"

"They made me, mom."

"Ain't what I asked, sweetie. Did you wanna do it? You ain't in trouble, I'm just asking."

"Kinda. Yeah."

Whiskey knelt down by the bed and embraced her daughter. "Fair enough, that's all I wanted to know. You just wait a little longer, let me teach you to be safe first, and I'll teach you to shoot," she said.

"Aw, cool!" Millie cooed. "Maybe you can teach doctor auntie Maria to shoot, too."

Maria made a finger gun and and closed her right eye, "I'd like to see you try. Apparently it's harder that it looks. Maybe some other time, yeah?"

Dio's dining room, once the site of grandiose feasts and celebrations, was left a bloody, smoldering crater once the Bandit Queen was done with it. Another twelve men would be left in Pixie's wake as she and her partner cut their way through Dio's forces, felling each soldier foolish enough to cross their path. They were so close now. The study was two rooms away, and with the helicopter on the roof destroyed Dio had nowhere else left to run.

Pixie and Carlos had kicked down the door to the marble hall, guns blazing. No doubt they were facing down Dio's last line of defense. The two assassins split up, each taking cover behind massive marble pillars that lined the carpet in the center of the room. It was a long, rectangular room, with pillars and humanoid statues running the length of it. Pixie had run her rifle dry a long time ago and was using a plasma rifle she lifted off a dead soldier in the dining room. Its lack of oomph was jarring, but Pixie adapted rather quickly.

"SHIT!" Carlos shouted over the sound of battle.

Pixie shot him a worried look from across the room, but he didn't appear injured. "WHAT?!"she yelled back.

"THEIR COMMANDER!" he replied. "IT'S ORTEGA!"

Ortega... Pixie had heard the name before. Ex-Santiago, like Carlos. Apparently he was one of the best warrior's on Basilio's payroll. "SUPPRESS 'EM AN' I'LL MOVE UP!" Pixie ordered. "CUT THE HEAD OFF'A THE SNAKE!" Just as soon as she'd said that a hail of lead and plasma peppered the marble column she hid behind, forcing her to retreat into deeper cover. "FUCK!"

They were focusing on Pixie now, no doubt by Ortega's orders. She wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. "I'M MOVING UP!" Carlos shouted before springing to his feet.

"DAMMIT!" Pixie cursed, realizing they had no other options.

Their attention on Pixie, Carlos dashed around the pillar and rolled behind a statue deeper into the room. Coming up from the roll, he brandished a knife and sliced a large gash across a soldier's chest sending him reeling backwards, out into the open. Pixie took this opportunity to fill him full of plasma from across the room before ducking low once more.

Carlos kept moving, springing out of the roll and taking cover behind the next pillar, closer to Ortega now. With the room focusing on him, Pixie moved up, gunning down two others as she advanced to the next pillar. Including Ortega, there were only six men left in the room and they didn't have the required firepower to keep the duo pinned for long. Realizing this, Ortega decided to change tactics. They couldn't afford to remain on the defensive. Each of them had sworn an oath to lay down their lives in Basilio's name. Protecting Dio from assassins was as literal as that oath got.

Sacrifices would have to be made. There was no way around it.

"FAN OUT!" Ortega ordered, waving his arm around the room.

"B-BUT, SIR!"

"IF WE STAY HERE WE'RE DEAD!" He shouted. "ALL OF YOU, FAN OUT AROUND THE WOMAN'S POSITION AND FLANK HER! I WILL HANDLE THE OTHER ONE!"

"SIR!"

"NOW!"

Ortega's men broke from cover all at once, spreading out around Pixie's position. Carlos cocked an eyebrow. Exposing themselves to him in such a way was tantamount to suicide, he thought.

What are you...?

Heavy footsteps suddenly sounded from further down the hall, but before Carlos could level his rifle in their direction it was already too late. Ortega was upon him. Grabbing his rifle, the larger man ripped it from his grasp and jammed his pistol in Carlos' side. The thief abandoned his rifle without a second thought and moved quickly to grasp Ortega's wrist and push before taking a bullet in the abdomen. With one arm knocked to the side, sinking under the weight of his rifle, and the other holding Ortega's pistol at bay, Carlos' was left wide open. Reaching forward, Ortega wrapped the fingers of his freehand around Carlos' neck and stepped forward, sending the two of them crashing to the floor. It was much easier to wrestle in the dark than it was to shoot, and Ortega had him outclasses in weight and brute strength.

Shit...

Meanwhile, Pixie found herself in a rather uncomfortable situation. She'd managed to take a potshot at one of her assailants as they advanced, but there were still four of them and they had her surrounded. If they managed to flank her it would be all over. Snatching her last two grenades off of her vest, she pulled the pins with her teeth and lobbed them on either side of the pillar.

"GRENADE!" one of the men shouted.

The two blasts rocked the room, forcing the men out of formation. Pixie didn't waste anytime. Leaping out of cover, she leveled her rifle and peppered two of them with a barrage of plasma, killing them instantly. A third man was right next to her, in her blind spot, and lept at her with a knife. He wasn't nearly fast enough. With inhuman speed, Pixie snapped the butt of her rifle at him, intercepting his attack and crushing his nose. The last man open fire on her, forcing her into a roll past the crippled man beside her. The soldier's comrade exploded into bits of super heated gruel, obscuring his view of Pixie. He ceased fire briefly, hoping to get a visual, but his target had vanished.

"Wh-where'd you---"

"Right here, darlin'," Pixie whispered in his ear before slitting his throat from ear to ear. Despite her poor vision, Pixie was used to fighting in the dark. These men never stood a chance.

The man crumbled to his knees and hit the floor like a sack of bricks. Flicking the blood off of her blade, she scanned the room, looking for Carlos. Where had he gone?!

Ortega said nothing as he stared into the thief's eyes, slowly draining the life out of him. Carlos kicked and flailed, even clawed at the larger man's arms and face, but it was for naught. He was going to die here. There was nothing he could do to change that. That didn't mean he wouldn't fight, however. He kicked and kicked and kicked and he hung on. Sneering at the soldier, he managed to gather enough saliva to hock a loogie in the man's eye. Ortega didn't like that. Squeezing his throat tighter, he pulled Carlos up roughly and slammed him back down against the marble floor. White lights flashed across his vision, disorienting him further. Again, Ortega bashed the back of his head against the floor. Again, and again, and again, until Carlos stopped struggling. He no longer had the strength.

As he began to fade, he recalled the look Pixie had given him earlier that morning. The look of acceptance. Of forgiveness.

As the life drained from his eyes, Carlos grinned. He was free now.

He was finally free.

"CARLOS!!!" Pixie shrieked.

Ortega was on his feet before she could attack, catching her forearm before she could slice his throat open. With his freehand he jabbed her in the ribs causing her to double over and followed up with a savage uppercut. Releasing her arm, he chased after her as she stumbled backwards and kicked her in the stomach. Her back slammed hard against a pillar, forcing her to her knees.

Ortega approached slowly. Whether out of caution or arrogance, Pixie wasn't sure. Her vision was hazy, but she could see him clear as day. Carlos. Between Ortega's methodical footsteps she spotted his motionless form and the pool of blood around his head. He was dead. This man had killed him.

This man had killed Carlos.

Reaching down, Ortega picked Pixie up by the hair and lifted the much smaller woman up off the ground. Grabbing her face, he ripped the night-vision goggles off her face and tossed them over his shoulder. He looked her right in the eye. "You killed my men," he whispered calmly. "Your death won't be quick."

Pixie's expression was surprisingly blank. "Neither will yers," she retorted. Before Ortega could respond to this Pixie tapped her boots together, snapping her hidden blade out from the sole of her right boot. Grabbing the top of his shoulders, she lifted herself up above him and swung her foot into his crotch, sinking the blade four-inches into his groin.

The veteran soldier screamed in agony and released Pixie as he dropped to floor, clutching his wound. The Bandit Queen casually stepped over him, picked her knife up off the floor and examined her friend's corpse. She didn't react in any visible way, and when she fell upon Ortega, butchering him like an animal, her stone cold expression remained.

By the time she was done with him, Pixie's forearms were caked in blood. A deafening silence hung in the air as she made her exit. She couldn't stop and say goodbye to her old friend. No, she couldn't face him right now. Not until Dio was dead.

She stepped out into the moonlit hall with no one between her and the door to Dio's study.

One way or another it would all be over soon.

"Talbot is secure, status?"

"Good to hear. Security's been neutralized and we have eyes all over the ship," Bennie replied. "Jake and Sprout are hitting engineering as we speak and I just sent Gale down to the bridge as a vanguard. No sign of Vanco yet."

One of the security guards cocked an eyebrow, "Vanco? Who's---"

"Shut up!" Jonah spat, holding the butt of his rifle up in a threatening manner.

Bennie continued. "Once Jake checks in I'm gonna need Tallahassee and Sandra to join me on the bridge. Y'all will need to lock yourselves in there tight once we start our landing. Over."

So far so good...

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

"We're taking over the ship."

Sprout knew he was supposed to look tough, but he couldn't help grinning when he saw the engineers fold so easily. None of them were fighters, and as intelligent people none would try being a hero. It wasn't their job to die for Talbot.

The two Maidens swept the small room, gathering all the engineers together, and went to work tying them up with zip-ties. "That's right, y'all ar' doin' good," Sprout told them. "Y'all keep this up an' this ain' gonna be nothin' but a bad memory. We ain't here ta' hurt nobody, we're jus' want the ship is all."

One woman, slightly younger than the rest, met Sprout's gaze as he tied her hands together. "Wh-who are you people?" she whimpered, clearly terrified.

Sprout grinned. "We're with the Iron Maiden, ma'am," he told her in an oddly considerate tone. "We're jus' here ta' move an item from one criminal to another. That too tight fer ya'?" He asked, tugging on the zip-tie.

She was too afraid to answer him.

No callin' me out fer my age? I can get used ta' this.

Once he was done tying them up, he signaled for Ruffles to examine the engine and radioed Bennie, "Engineering's secure," he said. "Jake's checkin' their systems. Over."

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

"Jake's checkin' their systems. Over."

"Roger that, Sprout," Bennie replied into the radio. "Stay hunkered down and report in if there's anything funky with the engine. We'll be moving on the bridge shortly. Over."

Walking over to the security terminal, Bennie flipped to one of the bridge monitors and spotted Gale scanning the area. "How're things on your end, Gale?" he said into the radio. "See Vanco anywhere?"

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

"... Y'all will need to lock yourselves in there tight once we start our landing. Over."

Tallahassee slipped a t-shirt on over his shoulders and eyeballed Jesse. "Y'all sure you two can handle porky over here by yerselves?" he joked.

The portly noble scowled. "Stay your tongue, mongrel," he hissed.

"Funny," the cowboy said, "you were a lot more polite when I was seven inches---"

"SILENCE!" the flustered (still completely naked) man howled.

Tallahassee simply laughed and turned towards the door. "After you," he told Sandra.

Flushed, the disgraced Lord Talbot looked up at Amy and Jesse. "Why me?" he whined. "What did I ever do to you lot?"

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

A young man standing near a viewing port on the bridge looked over his shoulder and spotted Gale. He watched her for a moment before heading in her direction. Then, when it looked like he was about to speak to her, he simply brushed by her and left the bridge.

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

"I made it to the elevator in the car park. What floor ya on?"

Bryan!

"O'Lafferty," she barked, "I need you to retreat to Jun's position! You're in no condition to fight!"

"Someone's coming," Harper whispered, reading his weapon. "We have to move."

Tsubaki grit her teeth. "Look, I've got to go," she told him. "I'll connect with you again when I can. Be safe, Bryan. Over."

Bryan?

Springing to her feet, Tsubaki and Harper managed to slip away from their pursuers and made their way deeper into the tower.

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

Just as soon as Tsubaki signed off another voice came in over the Samsara frequency. "This is Colonel Dapper, Tower Commander," the voice announced. "Do you read me? Over."

"After you,"

"Such a gentleman." Sandra purred as she sauntered past him, and they made their way back through the apartments and out the door, where the two sentries still stood guard. Unfortunately, just before the doors closed behind them, Talbot's protestations could be heard from the bedroom.

"What did I ever do to you lot?"

Sandra smiled apologetically at the guard to her right.

"Is he always this much of a baby?" she asked.

Before the guard could respond in any way, she struck out with a blow to his windpipe, sending him staggering back, clutching his throat. With one hand, she clamped down on the guard's holster, before slamming his head into the bulkhead with the other, once, and then again, until he slid to the floor in an unconscious heap. Brushing her hands together as Talahassee finished dealing with the other one, Sandra turned tail and headed off towards the bridge.

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

"What did I ever do to you lot?"

"Trust me, My Lord," Amy said, warning Jesse with a look "If this was personal, it would be a lot more fun for me and a lot less comfortable for you. So, you just sit tight and behave yourself, and the only thing that'll get hurt today is your pride."

Gale had been scanning the bridge since she got there, standing away in her little corner, just like any guard should. Near and close to hand but subtly out of the way. She should have stayed there but Gale didn't like the thought of getting caught with her back to the wall. Everybody kept saying how these guys were scrubs but that didn't change the fact that there were enough of them to just dogpile Gale's small frame if they wanted. Every time one of them made eye contact with her it made Gale want to back up to the exit and brace her rifle ready to fire.

"How're things on your end, Gale? See Vanco anywhere?" Buzzed her ear radio.

"All quiet up here still." She said quietly, raising a hand to her ear.

She froze a moment, trying to act casual as a young security guard locked eyes with her and walked right up to where Gale was standing. Kinda like those people you meet on the street who want to talk to you about God and stuff. Luckily he just kept on going until he left the bridge, must have had stuff to do elsewhere.

"No sign of him." Gale whispered once he'd passed, turning away from the bridge staff.
====================================================

They finally made their way to the study. The halls of the tower were eerily quiet here. The fighting hadn't spread up this high in force as the noble forces stuck to the base and the Bejic army had cut itself, quite literally, as The Hussarss threw everything they had into finishing this civil war in its first day. Even the echoes of gunfire and explosions struggled to follow them here, leaving Florian and Lilith to go on in silence. At least until they found Vasa in the study looking out the windows to the blasted compound below and nursing a glass of something dark, looking more casual than he had in a long time. Florian stepped through the threshold and slammed the door open.

["Someone's not in the mood for hellos then."] Vasa mused, his back still to them. ["You know when I did this I was at least civil towards poor- oh, oh you brought her with you."] He paused, taken aback as he turned to see Lilith standing next to his son. ["I thought it would be you and Erik that made it this far."]

The two northmen looked at each other, neither one really sure what to say or how to respond to that. It certainly wasn't what Florian was expecting to hear.

"Well this is awkward, now I have to switch so everyone knows what's going on, otherwise we just have her standing there gawking like a blonde bimbo." Vasa waved his hand around at Lilith, gesturing under the light influence of pilfered alcohol. "Could- could you maybe just go downstairs and fetch Erik? Honestly this feels like it should be a very private thing, for family and that, you know? I mean who even are you really? We can start this confrontation over if you like, Son, it's alright I wont tell anyone and, really, you only get so many chances at this kind of thing. There's no shame in stumbling on the first one."

"What are you talking about!?" Florian yelled at him in exasperation and disbelief. "Are you drunk right now?! There are people getting killed below our feet-"

"I'd call it tipsy more than anything."

"And you're getting smashed and making jokes!" Florian carried on through his father's interruption, seemingly not hearing it.

"Exactly!" Vasa cheered out the word as if he'd just won some long slog of an argument. "The family's in shambles and the city's on fire for the third time this week. It's laugh or cry, my boy and I've cried all the tears I can over you." Vasa's tone grew more melancholy as he took another swig. "I got my wish. This whole place is done and now it's time to drink up and enjoy the last act."

"That's it, you're just giving up... after all this?" Florian looked disgusted more than anything. Where was the last ditched fight or the cutting words?

"No, this isn't giving up, this is passing the baton." They didn't seem to understand. "Look at this... in so short a time you've managed to create what took me years. An army at your command and your gathered generals ready to lay down their lives and those around them for you. Just for you. You told them the only way out of the grave they've been given is to keep digging and they believed you, now I could never pull that off but you've somehow managed it. You took the syndicate that I built, that my father and his father built from nothing and in a few weeks you've gotten them all to eat each other like animals and praise your name while doing it! You want to be careful with whichever ones you've got left when this is all done."

It all sounded nice and menacing on the outside as Vasa viciously jabbed at Florian's buttons and closed in on the boy, having a lifetime of practise at making this particular bandit feel like a little boy in clothes five sizes too big for him. On the inside he was yuking it up big time! For all the talk he'd gotten of Florian changing he was acting like the same boy Vasa had known all those years ago. Maybe he was being more sensitive to the lives of others and trying not to go rushing around the place with no thought to the consequences but he was still the same stubborn kid who'd jump off a bridge if you told him he couldn't. Vasa could have some fun with this before the end as he laughed off Florian's distasteful expression and protests to the contrary.

"What, you thought you'd get to swing back into town and be the big hero? That you could just wipe your life's slate clean and there wouldn't be any repercussions?" Vasa gave a bitter laugh. "Big change always comes with a price, boy, and a bloody one in this case. But I'm not even angry, like I said, you've outdone me. The boy I made has come home, a man grown and realising his real potential. You've really outdone yourself this time, Florian."

"Shut the hell up!" Florian screamed, pushing Vasa back like some upset child and bringing a smug smirk to Vasa's face. How dare he make light of it? Trying to compare the two of them as people faught to try and take their lives back, to make their homes safe!

"Are these the charms that he won you over with?" He asked Lilith, his eyes not leaving Florian's. "And now he goes and drags you into this... a very bad vacation for you."

For all the joking Vasa kept staring at Florian, his eyes half lidded and unblinking. He'd skirted the topic, getting too caught up in getting Florian's blood boiling but they both understood what was really going on here and the question that Vasa kept poking Florian to remember. 'How are you going to walk this back? You can't take me in like some common crook, they will all want retribution, their own share of what comes next and however strong you are, you can't silence all of them or they'll turn on you like they did me. We've both come too far now... you know there's no turning back from this."

"Do you read me? Over."

"Well I still got one o' them Harry Potter books to finish, but I'll get round to it, mate," Bryan replied as he swept the motorpool for any stragglers.

"Is this O'Lafferty?"

"Aye," Bryan replied. "And what kinda name is Dapper, anyway?"

Before the other man could respond, Bryan heard the sharp squeak of boot rubber, and whirled to see a limping man struggling to steady his rifle. Bryan fired twice, and the man went down with fresh holes in him.

"Didn't catch that," he replied to whatever Dapper might have said.

"I have special instructions from Lord Basilio himself," Dapper explained. "Can you make it to the labs from your current position?"

"Depends," Bryan replied. "The service elevator go down that far?"

"Yes, it does," Dapper said. "I'm giving you clearance to access the labs. If you can make it to the elevator it should let you down there. We need you on B23 ASAP."

"Alright," Bryan replied. Coming to the end of his sweep, he turned back around and headed back to the far end of the motorpool. Pausing to scavenge more ammunition for his pistol, and an assault rifle.

Calling the elevator down, he reached into his jacket pocket, and produced his hip flask. Taking a swig, he thumbed his radio. "So, why'm I giving floor B23 the pleasure o' my company?"

"There's something there we need you to activate," the soldier said. "In light of the attack, Lord Basilio cannot trust anyone but his most loyal soldiers. No one else should be on B23 and if there is anyone down there kill them on sight. Once you reach the machine you're looking for I will give you the codes to activate it."

"Last one out get the lights, eh? Not much of a glorious assignment, but whatever," Bryan replied. "Never been one to complain 'bout an easy job."

Dapper ignored his attitude. "Follow the red line on the floor once you get down there and it should lead you to your destination," he explained. "Radio me when you're in position. Over."

"Aye aye," Bryan replied. "Anything I oughta know about this lab before I hit it?"

There was a long silence before Dapper finally replied. "The less you know about it, the better," was all he said.

Bryan pinched the bridge of his nose. "Look mate, I've lived by breakin' into places I shouldn't. These things always go smoother when I actually know what the shit I'm walkin' into."

"That information is on a strict need to know basis and you don't need to know," Dapper replied.

"Even though I'll physically see for myself in about thirty seconds?" Bryan asked, grinning.

"Just make contact when you find the machine. Over."

"Aye," Bryan muttered as the elevator halted, and the doors pinged open.

The lights in the corridors of the laboratory were only partially functioning, and even those were flickering ominously. Activating the mounted light on his rifle, he continued on.

There were several coloured lines on the floor, but the red one stood out. Following it, Bryan listened intently for the sounds of company, but the lab was dead silent.

Eventually, the line stopped at the foot of a door. Kicking it in, Bryan advanced and reached up to thumb his radio, but hesitated. Aside from the machinery, the laboratory was filled with several tables, the contents of which were covered with ominous white sheets. A room full of corpses.

Shaking his head, Bryan looked for his objective, and his eyes were drawn to the strangest machine in the building. What made it strange was that there was some kind of armour plated man encased inside.

"Ah... Colonel Whatsyerface, I think I got it. Ready for yer passcode any time you're ready. Also, if ya've come round on the idea o' telling me what the fuck this is supposed to be, I'm all ears."

"I copy you, O'Lafferty," Dapper said. "That's classified, though you'll get a pretty good idea in a minute. The passcode is 'Saburo'. And you may want to step back once you give the command. Over."

"Sab... Right," Bryan replied, clicking off curtly. Sliding out the machine's keyboard, he brought up the access code screen and typed the password with a grimace.

There was a brief pause, and then the humming of the machine loudened, and the blank screen filled up with large green words saying 'PASSCODE ACCEPTED'.

Stepping back, Bryan surveyed his work and sighed. "This'd be one o' them lines what man weren't meant to cross," he muttered, crossing himself. "Always reckoned I'd have a hand in one o' them."

Reaching over his back, he unsheathed his swords and propped the naked weapons against a desk next to him, out of any line of sight the man in the tank might have. It had already occurred to him that this might be one of those assignments where the operative miraculously goes MIA completing it.


Lombardi Tower's assembly hall was the largest of its kind on the planet. Completely covered in gold, a clever thief could live one-hundred lives in extravagance if they could carry it all out the door. With twenty-thousand seats and several balconies overlooking the stage, the room could easily fit the Rock's entire oligarchy, along with most of their retainers. Encompassing the entirety of the 13th floor, the grand hall was the highest base floor, and served as a threshold to the tower-proper. If anyone wanted to ascend any higher they'd need proper authorization.

The Gentleman had such authorization, of course.

The hall was completely filled, naturally; with representatives from every house present, both greater and lesser. The Basilios were the only family not in attendance. Considering the way she had threatened Dio earlier that week, it came as no surprise to Contessa. His family had always been spineless, save for his sister perhaps. It was too bad what happened to her.

The room was alive with chatter when Contessa approached the podium. She required no one to introduce her as her presence alone was enough to silence the room. With all eyes on her radiant, sparkling form, she stood firm before the most powerful men and women in the ashlands and offered them a wicked grin.

This is it.

The most daring gambit of her life was now underway. There was no turning back.

"Lords and Ladies," Contessa began, "guardians and handmaidens. Sons and daughters. I, Contessa, welcome you all, children of the Rock." The room exploded in applause but was quickly quelled by a subtle hand gesture from the Golden Empress. "We are gathered here today because we are tired. Because, no matter how much we bleed and sweat for our brothers and sisters, for our charges, we can never completely protect them from harm. Bandits roam the ashlands unhindered; robbing caravans and killing innocence indiscriminately. Yuteni, once a bustling, free city, was left a smoldering crater thanks to a single madman. Even the ancient city of Frostfall is not safe from this growing scourge. Like animals, the families of their great houses were butchered in the streets and displayed like trophies in the tower they once ruled. As much as it pains me to say it, we can no longer protect our people from these horrors. We are simply not equipped to handle the darkness that has gripped our once prosperous civilization, and I fear if nothing is done to turn the tide, we will have lost the right to claim it as such.

"That is why I propose this: let use, the leaders of this free and delicate world, come together and break bread. Let us forget our petty grudges. Let us learn to share. Let us learn to love." A slow wave of applause began to rise under her thundering voice. "Let us cast aside ancient rivalries, unjust laws, and needless war and suffering. We shouldn't just strive to build a better tomorrow for ourselves, but for all those we share this world with." The applause got louder. "They deserve more from us and we deserve more from each other. Right now we are a world divided, and as such, we're vulnerable to the machinations of ravenous monsters who would see our civilization burn. In spite of their vile whims, we must stand united. Only together can we triumph over these godless devils."

The room was absolutely booming now. Contessa allowed herself a small smirk before continuing. "I stand before you tonight to start this much needed dialogue," she explained. "Over the coming days, weeks and months, I hope that..."

In the middle of the Lady's speech the Gentleman got a sudden page. It was the mercenary captain, William.

While Sprout talked to Bennie in the background, Ruffles pushed past a couple of the engine crew and knelt down. Pulling an electric screwdriver off of his belt, he started opening up various access panels, marking each screw that fell into what rapidly became a mound, and filing them all at the back of his mind for when he had to put it all back.

"Well the good news is she'll fly," he said with a grimace. "But this engine's been reconfigured a couple times. These guys ain't exactly been preserving the antique setup. Damn savages, huh?"

"Trust me, My Lord. If this was personal, it would be a lot more fun for me and a lot less comfortable for you. So, you just sit tight and behave yourself, and the only thing that'll get hurt today is your pride."

That remark, coupled with the look, was as subtle as a sledgehammer. 'Jesse' rubbed his forehead in response, he didn't need reminding. The situation was bad enough already, bad enough that all of the boy's bravado had dissolved away. Before the sight of a naked and bound Lord Talbot burned its way into Astor's mind forever, the runaway noble grabbed a tossed aside blanket.

Naturally, it was of the finest quality. His eyes turned to the embroidered Chetwynd-Talbot crest on the top right corner: a proud lion standing within a red shield. There was no pride here. Astor draped it around his father while continuing to avoid meeting eye-to-eye with him, "There, have a sliver of diginity."

"Oh, a bandit talking to a noble about dignity. How droll." Lord Talbot chuckled, "Do tell me, will this airship be given to the poor as well? Or perhaps you'll throw me to those vultures?"

Astor was having none of it, "You didn't have to be here. What's one airship to a noble?"

"I'm afraid I'm quite attached to the old girl. Besides, there's a joy to airships I doubt you appreciate." His father shrugged. Well, shrugged as much as he could. He was quickly finding out that having one's hands bound stopped any overblown gestures right in their tracks. Afterwards, Lord Talbot turned his head towards 'Jesse', "Again, have we met?"

Astor simply turned away without answering again, eyes set on the entrance to the room. Amy's previous words echoed in his head, "It's a bit late to turn back now..."

"Are these the charms that he won you over with? And now he goes and drags you into this... a very bad vacation for you."

Lilith had stayed her tongue for all of the confrontation up until this point, but something about the old man's comment rattled her.

"To be honest, I've never had a vacation." Lilith chuckled as she crossed her arms over her chest. "It could do with less bullets and more booze." The girl paused for a moment. "And more sun, definitely more sun."

She paused again, looking up at the ceiling.

"And less people trying to kill me."

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

Why did it have to be her?

Elizabeth's eyes remained glued to her feet as she followed behind Mila and Asad. The Sergeant hated Elizabeth's guts, but had made no attempt on her pride since they'd joined up. No, Mila was focused on the mission, and nothing else. Petty grudges would have to wait.

That said, Elizabeth took extra care to keep her weapon hidden.

They were moving at a steady pace, making sure to check their corners each time they entered a new area. Despite their efficiency there was still a lot of ground to cover.

"How did this happen?" Mila muttered as they continued forward. "How could such a large force infiltrate us so easily?"

Asad shrugged his shoulders, keeping his eyes forward as he ran every likely scenario through his head for their escape. All but a couple of them made him unoptimistic.

"Lombardi was saying she would do something, and she did." A small smile curled the man's lips. "Remind me to never call her bluff."

"That woman scares me more than Basilio ever could," Mila hissed. "I can't even imagine what kind of influence she has to pull something like this off."

Scarier than Dio? Sure, whatever bitch.

"Mhmm." Asad mumbled, sounding unconvinced. "Leave the kings and Queens in their castles and hope they don't feel the need to notice you." The man clenched his jaw.

What did he do to deserve the attention of both of them?

Mila grunted, seemingly agreeing with the man. "It's funny," she began, peeking around a corner before giving the all-clear, "not too long ago you and I were hunting the girl down. Now we're her escorts. I don't imagine she makes it easy."

Elizabeth kept her head down.

"Lines in the sand are always being stamped out and redrawn." Asad looked back at the girl, his expression stoic. "Best to keep your friends close and everyone else at the end of a rifle barrel."

It was unclear whether he was talking to Mila or Elizabeth at this point.

Mila chuckled. "Can't argue with that logic," she replied. "Anyway, if memory serves we shouldn't be too far from the eastern elevator. The explosions we heard on our way up here sounded like they came from that direction. If it's bombed out we could repel down the shaft. It's risky, and we'll need to use breathers for the smoke, but it's better than taking the stairs."

"What's the radio chatter like?" Asad asked. "Do we know where they're most focused?" Asad was asking questions he already knew the answers to.

'Basilio'

"Hell if I know," Mila said with a shrug. "Like I said earlier, comms have been a mess. We get snippets here and there, but until someone take out their jammer we're flying blind." Coming up to another turn, Mila threw her back against the wall and peered around the corner. "Five men halfway down the hall, by the elevator." She explained in a hushed tone. "I don't recognize any of them."

Asad leaned in next to Mila, taking a look himself. "Me neither." He whispered, quickly falling silent as he tried to make out what they were saying.

"We've advanced too far, Commander," one of them said. "We should double-back and meet up with the rest of the squad."

"These fucking jammers are dicking us over too," the apparent commander whined. "But no, we can't go back now. We need to secure this floor incase things go south upstairs."

Mila signalled for Asad and the three other soldiers to prepare an ambush. "Stay put," she whispered to Elizabeth.

"Yeah," the noble agreed.

"You ready, Harel?"

"Affirmitive." Asad clenched his jaw as he brought his rifle to bare, glancing at Elizabeth quickly before aiming down his sights.

"NOW!" Mila shouted. All five soldiers leapt out from around the corner and covered the hall in a blanket of lead. The carnage lasted only a few seconds before Mila ordered them to cease fire. Contessa's men didn't stand a chance. "Make sure they're dead." She told Asad. "We'll check the elevator shaft."

Without saying a word, Asad moved up the corridor, never lowering his rifle as he gently flipped a couple of the soldiers' faces into view.

The second one groaned, looking up at Asad with waiting eyes. Not a rookie this one, there was fear there, like in all men who know they're about to leave the world, but also a grudging acceptance. This one had been a soldier for a long time.

The soldier stared at Asad, blood dripping weakly from his mouth as he struggled to even cough. It was then that recognition filled the man's face.

'Of course he knows who I am, they would all have been briefed.'

Asad should have felt remorse, but he knew he should have, but he didn't. The longer he and Elizabeth could keep their cover, the better.

Asad moved his eyes to the side, as if to indicate something behind him. It took a few moments but the soldier seemed to understand what the Major was hinting at.

Asad could swear he saw the touch of a smile as the soldier closed his eyes, swiftly followed by a bullet in the brain.

"All clear." Asad called out.

Elizabeth was there, right behind Asad when he turned around. She was looking down at the fresh corpse with a sullen expression. Glancing up at her savior, she offered him a weak smile.

You're not alone, Major.

This was a lot more than she bargained for. Though Austin's attack on the Maiden was more terrifying, she hadn't been responsible for any of the lives lost in that battle. Here though? Every drop of blood spilled may as well be on her hands.

This better be worth it.

"SHIT!" one of the soldiers choked, stumbling away from the smoke-bellowing elevator shaft just as soon as they'd pried the doors open. The elevator had in fact been sabotaged.

"Masks on!" Mila barked. Leaning over the edge, Mila pointed her rifle-mounted flashlight down the shaft. "Looks clear. Get the gear ready. Doubletime, people!"

"You going to be okay doing this?" Asad asked Elizabeth as he wrapped a safety harness around her waist.

Holding her sides, Elizabeth watched her soldier work. "'Ready' is no longer in my vocabulary, I fear," she joked. "Have you done this be--eek!"

"Relax, kid." The Major chuckled. "It has to be tight." his eyes not meeting her's as he double checked the straps. "You'll be on my back, so you should be fine but..." Asad paused as he took a step back and crossed his arms over his chest. "Always prepare for the worst, I always say."

He imagined she'd find that more poignant in their current situation.

"Not sure if I'll be able to reach around you, but okay," she replied with a small grin. "I've never been the big spoon before."

Once they were properly strapped together and everyone else was ready, Mila connected her gear to the end of the cord and started her descent. Asad and Elizabeth were up next. "Let's move," Mila barked.

Clipping his cord to the zipline, Asad turned his head to look at Elizabeth's from the corner of his eye. Her perfume smelled familair, like something Tsubaki would wear, same brand maybe?

"You holding on tight?"

"Y-yeah!" she yelped, her voice trembling slightly. Elizabeth had had a lot of practice holding on to things for dear life, so she was confident she wouldn't die here. Well, as confident as you could be about something like that. She closed her eyes when they descended into the dark shaft.

"Tell me when we get to the bottom," she mumbled.

"Relax" Asad chuckled as he leaned backwards into the shaft and began his descent. "I've done this a dozen times, even more in training, and I've only fell like three times." Maybe lightening the mood would help her calm down.

"OH GREAT! I AM SO RELIEVED!" the frazzled noble blurted. Peering over her shoulder, Elizabeth took in the vast darkness below. She immediately closed her eyes once more and pressed her forehead against Asad's vest. "Remind me to kiss the ground when we get down there."

"Stow the chitchat!" Mila ordered.

"Last time I checked, Sergeant, I outranked you, I'll make all the inappropriate jokes about falling to our death I want." Asad chuckled as he turned his head. "What a buzzkill." He whispered to Elizabeth.

Mila simply sneered at that.

Two of the Sergeant's subordinates had climbed into the shaft before a loud explosion shook the hall above. "SHIT, WE HAVE COMPANY!" one of her men shouted before getting torn to shreds by a hail of plasma. Having not connected himself to the cord yet, the man's limp form tumbled into the shaft, narrowly missing Asad on the way down.

"WEAPONS READY!" Mila shouted in a panicked tone.

This is bad.

Before they knew it Contessa's men were pointing their weapons down the shaft, raining superheated death upon Mila's men. One bolt punched a hole straight through the soldier in front of Asad, spraying hot gore all over him and Elizabeth.

It was miracle the cord hadn't been severed yet.

Without even thinking, Asad flattened himself against the wall of the shaft from which he was repelling, quickly spinning around to put Elizabeth between him and wall, his feet planted firmly so as not to crush the poor girl. They'd have to lean pretty far into the shaft to get a good shot. Quickly pulling out his side arm, he aimed up towards the entrance of the shaft. "Shhh." He whispered calmly as Elizbath whimpered behind him.

As the two soldiers shifted around to get a better view of their surviving prey, one of them grabbed the other by the shoulder a pulled him back. "SH-SHIT!" he shouted. "CEASE FIRE, CEASE FIRE! LADY MARIBEL'S DOWN THERE!"

Wait... what?

Without a line of sight on the enemy, Mila lowered her weapon. "Asad," she started, her voice quiet. "What's going on here?"

Elizabeth's squeezed Asad tighter and turned her head to see Mila. Did she know?

"The fuck should I know?" Asad whispered loudly, not taking his eyes from the shaft entrance. "Maybe they're not just here for Basillio, it makes sense right?"

'Stop asking question Sergeant, don't make me kill you.'

Mila stared up at the pair in utter disbelief.

They couldn't... he wouldn't...

Elizabeth's eyes narrowed.

"Is the lady alright, Major?" one of the men above called out. He must have missed Mila in the darkness.

"Asad..." she whimpered. "No..."

Traitor!

Mila's fear and anxiety quickly turned to anger. "THIS IS SERGEANT MILA!" she screamed into her radio. "LADY MARIBEL AND MAJOR HAREL ARE COMPROMISED! I REPEAT, LADY MARIBEL IS PART OF ALL---WAIT, STOP!"

Grasping the cord connecting them, Elizabeth pressed the barrel of her pistol against it and squeezed the trigger. The cord snapped.

The young noble said nothing as she watched the defenceless woman plunge into the darkness below. A feint "bang" echoed up the elevator shaft. Mila was dead.

Slipping the pistol back into her vest, she laid her trembling hands onto Asad's shoulders once more. "Let's keep going," she whispered.

Asad swore under his breath, lowering his head as he glanced down into the darkness.

Mila was a good soldier, she deserved better than that.

'You can mourn later.'

"You up there, soldier!" Asad shouted up the shaft. "Our cover has been compromised, we need to extract immediately, me and Lady Maribel will continue this way, there's no other way to the bottom levels from here, feel free to cover our six, but we'll be moving fast, you got that?"

After a few moments one of the soldiers called out "Understood, Major! We don't have the gear for this kind of descent, we'll keep guard here until you reach the bottom and then continue on this floor!"

"Very well!" Asad responded as the pair began descending.

After a few silent moments, Asad sighed. "You did good, kid."

Elizabeth said nothing.

Tsubaki and Harper had managed to avoid most of the fighting by the time they reached the seventh floor, but if she wanted to make it to Dio's penthouse before sunrise she'd have to pick up the pace. She thumbed her radio and signaled for Harper to watch her six. "This is Commander Saburo to Tower Command, do you copy? Over," she said.

After a brief silence someone replied. "---zzzzttt----We c------zzztttt-----y you, Commander," the man said.

"I need a route to the penthouse," she told him. "Hostiles are swarming the lower floors. How bad is it up top? Any word from Colonel Ortega's unit?"

"---zzzzttt----mmander," the man started, his voice hard to make out due to the jammers, "we'll try to f---zzzttt----a safe route for you."

"What about Ortega's unit?"

There was another brief silence before the man replied. "----zzztttt----tting no res----zzzzttttt-----," he said.

"I didn't copy that, Tower Command," Tsubaki said, her voice wary. "What is Ortega's status?"

"They---zzzztttt----one dark, Commander."

Oh no...

Clearly rattled, Tsubaki practically ate her radio when she replied. "GIVE ME A CLEAR LINE TO THE PENTHOUSE, STAT!" she demanded. "IF LORD BASILIO'S LIFE IS IN---"

"----zzzttt-----S SERGEANT MILA------zzzzztttt-----ARIBEL AND MAJOR HAREL ARE COMPROMISED! I REPEAT------zzztttt-----IS PART OF ALL-------zzzttttt------

What the fuck was that?!

Was Asad....?

No way. There's no fucking way.

"What's Major Harel's position?" Tsubaki barked into the radio.

"------zzzztttt-----tered an elevator shaft on the twenty-third floor," the operator told her. ----zzzttt-----ping an eye on the elevators below and will inf-----zzzztttt----ere they come out."

Suddenly Dio wasn't even a factor. All the Commander could think about was her lover.

And his possible betrayal.

"Good," she said. "Keep me posted on their position."

"Roger that."

"Alright Harper, we've gotta move fast," she told the recruit, her eyes fixated on the stairwell further down the hall. "Stay right behind me, okay?"

"Looks like Harel fucked up," Harper said in an oddly droll voice. "Oh well, at least we tried." Almost casually, Harper pressed the barrel of his pistol against the base of Tsubaki's skull.

Tsubaki calmed her nerves and sighed. "You too?" she whispered.

The young man shrugged. "Nothing personal, Commander," he said, pulling back the hammer on his pistol. The moment Tsubaki heard the click of the hammer she was on him, grabbing and breaking his wrist in one fluid motion before spinning around and bringing her own pistol to bare. She blew a whole through his face without a second thought.

She took a moment to wipe the blood off her face before proceeding down the hall.

Asad had a lot to answer for.

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

Compressed air poured out of the titanium container as it slowly opened, revealing Masakado's imposing form. The synthetic titan stood completely still as the machine he was connected to ran a series of diagnostic tests. Before they could finish, however, the behemoth sneered in an oddly human fashion, opened his eyes and ripped the cords out of his back. He stepped out of the container and reached for his sword on the wall nearby, ignoring Bryan's presence entirely. While fastening it in the sash around his waste, he took in his dimly lit surroundings and proceeded down the hall towards the elevator.

He disappeared into the darkness without saying a word to the man that had released him.

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

"But this engine's been reconfigured a couple times. These guys ain't exactly been preserving the antique setup. Damn savages, huh?"

Sprout shrugged. "So long as you can keep the ol' girl runnin', I reckon it don' matter what shape she's in," he replied. Scanning the small collection of hostages, Sprout sighed. "Looks like we got the easy job. Wonder how the others ar' doin'."

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

"No sign of him."

"Roger that, Gale," Bennie replied before heading towards the door. He knocked once. "Marcus, get in here." Once the boy was inside, Bennie thumbed his radio once more. "Tal, Sandra, meet me outside security and we'll head to the bridge together. We have weapons for y'all."

"Sounds good, Captain," Tallahassee replied. "Be there in two shakes of a lamb's tail."

The big man pointed to the security terminal. "Keep your eyes open boys," he told his Maidens. "Our lives are in your hands now."

"No pressure," he added.

Marcus and Jonah nodded firmly.

"Don't let anyone in here," Bennie ordered. "Got that?"

"Roger that, Captain," both men said in unison.

Bennie grinned and headed out the door.

A few minutes later Tal and Sandra had arrived. "Keep these holstered until we're ready to move," he instructed as he handed them both standard-issue glocks. "There are two armed guards on the bridge. Tal and myself will neutralize them. At that moment I need you on the door, okay Sandra? Our boys in security will lock the automatic doors behind us, so it shouldn't be too much trouble." As they continued down the hall towards the bridge Bennie whispered into his radio. "We're headed your way, Gale. Be ready."

Still no sign of Vanco.

"We're headed your way, Gale. Be ready."

"Yeah, yeah will do." Gale said under her breath, giving a bored glance around the bridge. Cus she was meant to be here. Cus she was just waiting for her shift to end.

A few minutes later and they had arrived. Bennie spotted Gale immediately but avoided eye contact. "Get in position," he whispered into his comm. "By the navigation console in the center of the room. Ever see bank heist flick?"

"I lived my life in crawlers and convoys." Gale whispered back once she was clear of anyone who could hear. "I aint never seen no flicks." All the while she was getting in position next to the console. Growing up in a zoo worth of all the people carrying vehicles the Rock had to offer she knew a navigation console whatever the shape and size it came in.

Bennie had to suppress a laugh. "Well what I'm askin' is simple, really," he replied. "When we take out the guards just step up on that console and wave your rifle around the room. Scream and hollar a bunch. Do whatever comes natural."

"Don'chu- I heard that. I heard that snigger, don'chu be bringin' that snob ass domer shit in here an' now with me." Gale whispered through gritted teeth as she chided a man three times her size like he was some whipper snapper who tried stealing her fresh made biscuits. "Do what comes natural, I'mma take those girly girl shoes of his that's what's natural. Shit, look better on me anyway."

Bennie and Tallahassee nodded to one another and split up, leaving Sandra alone by the door. Casually, the big man approached one of the guards with a grin on his face. "Hey man, check this out," he said, getting the guard's attention.

"Hey, I haven't seen you a---!" The man's words were met with a swift right hook across the face, sending him crashing onto his ass. Bennie followed up swiftly, kneeling over him and hitting him twice more for good measure. Once he was on his feet again he looked across the room to confirm Tallahassee's success. Terrified eyes were on them now. "DO IT!" Bennie barked into his comm.

Moments later the automatic doors slammed shut behind Sandra.

You're up, girl.

Ugh, watchin' guys punch each other never gets any less gross.

Gale grimaced internally. This wasn't the time to tire of mach displays for power though, this was the time to put on some of her own. Yes sir, now it was Gale's turn to spray metaphorical shit and piss all over the walls so people knew she was cool. Quicker than her frame would have suggested she leaped up, planting one foot on one of the bolted down chairs and leveled her rifle in the general direction of people who were frozen in fear.

"This is a fucking hijack!" She yelled at them all, fierce as her young voice could manage. "Nobody move a freakin' muscle! We own this ship! We own YOU!" She locked eyes with one guy and pointed her rifle closer to him as if to ask if he wanted any. He did not.

Bennie grinned, wiping a phantom tear from the corner of his eye.

They grow up so fast.

The crew were taken by surprise and the bridge fell quickly. With Bennie and the others taking the lion's share of the work, all Sandra had to do was pick up the spare, as one of the junior officers chanced trying to bolt for a security console on the bulkhead by the door. A jaw-full of the heavy end of Sandra's pistol later, and the young man was flat on his arse, cradling a few broken teeth, the business end of the Glock now aimed squarely between his eyes.

"tsk tsk tsk." Sandra clicked her tongue at him "No no. You go sit in the corner now, there's a good boy."

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

"Again, have we met?"

Amy pistol whipped him again, harder this time, so that a trickle of blood began slithering it's way down Lord Talbot's temple. She didn't want to beat on Jesse's dad too much, not in front of him anyway. On the other hand, she needed to strongly discourage His Lordship from antagonising the boy further.

"What did I say about talking too much!" she said sternly "If I have to stitch your mouth up, I will. We've got plenty of time."

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

"Only together can we triumph over these godless devils."

The Gentleman was torn as to whether he wanted to roll his eyes or nod in appreciation, so his expression remained guarded as ever. The speech was a load of nonsense, no doubt about it. Not even the most snivelling, sycophantic fool in the room was cheering because they honestly believed a word she said (How could they, while a man like himself had a place of honour in the room). That was the beauty of it. The point Lady Lombardi was making wasn't that she could make them all believe her, but that she could make them all applaud her regardless. It was a less ostentatious display of power than the military rallies of Feroxi, and The Gentleman approved as much as he fretted.

At the sound of the page, something in The Gentleman knew that the die was being cast.

"William..." he answered softly. "Is Feroxi progressing as planned?"

Bill Martin made a guttural noise at The Gentleman's continued abuse of his name.

"Be''er than I feared, worse than I 'oped." He barked "Ye know I'm narght inclined to wartch my men fightin' from the sidelines, Gents! Lombardi's inside man 'as the girl, I know tha' much. Never mind tha'! Pay attention to the Lady o' the moment, you see?"

The Gentleman studied the platform more closely, and he caught Bill's meaning. From so far up in the rafters, the sleight of hand had passed him by for once. He saw it now, the near-imperceptible flicker of interference...

Lady Lombardi wasn't in the all. Everyone around him was cheering a hologram.

"So, that's how it is..." he whispered. Despite everything, he couldn't help but smile. He'd suspected something, but even he would have doubted his adversary would be so brazen.

"Thank you, William." he said calmly "I suggest you move to extract your men as soon as possible, and then lay low until I can contact you again."

"Gent's, ye daft bugger!" Bill Martin yelled down the line. "Ye need te' ge' ye' arse outta-"

The mercenary was cut short as The Gentleman terminated the call. All in one swift motion, he stood up out of his seat, drew his pistol, and fired. Any cries of shock at his actions, were replaced with a moment of astonished silence, as the bullet passed clean through where Contessa's head would have been, had the image been real, and for a second her image shattered into static.

"EVERYONE OUT! NOW!" The Gentleman bellowed, for once raising his voice to fill the entire cavernous hall. He'd done everything he could to prepare. Now all that was left was to brace for the impact.

"Ha! Good luck with that!" Vasa laughed. "See she gets it, you should learn to lighten up more, son, staying grim like that all the time it'll put you in an early grave." He carried on snickering.

But Florian was close to his limit. He lunged forward and grabbed Vasa by his shirt collar, pulling him close and fighting off the urge to punch his face in. The part of him that still loved this man was shocked at the thought.

"You don't get to joke! No one gets to joke, not while people are dying below our feet. Because of what we've done." Florian practically spat in his face.

Vasa simply grabbed up his cane and swatted the boy's hands aside. "Don't give me that." He sneered. "Rights don't mean a damn here and in the end none of these deaths will matter. The world will go on turning and people will forget. Those that deserve to survive will not let themselves be dragged down by the dead and move on. She understands that." Vasa turned his attention to Lilith. "I know one of my own when I see them. To Hell with any price so long as you got what you wanted. So long as you and yours were fine you won't lose sleep over the rest. I saw you in the graveyard, girl. You could have shot every man there and laughed it off. So long as they learned their mistake, so long as they knew they were weaker than you. You chose well with her."

"You're wrong." Florian contested. He was wrong about all of it, he hoped.

"Well it doesn't matter now anyway, does it? The family's ash and you can leave this city in a worse state than you found it. Maybe not how you'd put it but hey. Agree to disagree." An explosion went off some floors below as to hammer home his point. Vasa had always been lucky when it came to dramatic timing.
==========
Jesus, this place was a maze. Conrad panted for breath after his latest encounter with the ghouls Sergei had left behind him in the dark. There couldn't have been many of them but they knew the lower levels better than Conrad and his men who were forced to check every room and corner. He was beginning to lose hope, until he barged open the latest heavy metal door and saw a lone figure in the darkness. It was her.

He ran to her side, crouching down on the floor. Irena had been left in whatever rags were close to hand and even in the dim light he could make out some of the marks they'd left on her. Irena dragged herself away,lashing out pitifully between whimpers.

"Renny, Renny it's me, it's Conrad." He whipped off his breather and reached out her. "I'm getting you out of here. Come on we'll get you home. " He edged closer, putting his coat around her.

Irena just shivered and choked on more sobs as she clutched his hand. Conrad couldn't think of anything that wouldn't sound trite. The best he could do was help push her on.

"I'm sorry but you have to get up."

"I can't. " She managed to rasp out into his ear.

Conrad didn't understand. He could have guessed any reason after what she'd been through but they didn't have time for him to try and play medic. That was until he looked down and drew back the blanket that had been protecting what was left of Irena's modesty. Looking down at her leg, Conrad's blood ran cold and he knew he'd be carrying her out.
==========


Erik was alone now, left to look over the wreckage of his handiwork. He'd found his way out onto a lower balcony so he got a good view of it actually. The tank was on fire, well, one of them. They'd multiplied at some point, Erik wasn't sure when. Lots of things were smouldering at this point. The damage wasn't as big as the last time he'd done this but people were still feeling it he bet.

Not many men could boast that, Erik pondered. Setting a city on fire. Twice. He didn't feel very proud as he looked out over it all. His legacy. With his ears ringing and his head pounding. The sounds of gunfire and screaming in the distance. He wasn't sure how he got here. He remembered guarding the elevator but then something had called him away. There'd been a lot of loud bangs and booms, that must have been why he couldn't hear good now. Everything was muffled, like he was under water. He had to fight people which was why he ached right now. And he was pretty sure blood was running down his head. It felt sickly and warm anyway. The view sure was pretty though. In a terrible kind of way. Why was he out here again?

Where were the others? He was supposed to meet Renny he thought. That was it! Renny and Florian and Lexei and the boys and that blonde kid with the funny voice. He had to go make sure they were safe. He said he would so he will- would. He had to shake that hit to the head off too.

The fog in his head was starting to clear though and Erik could clearly feel the weapon in his hand and taste the blood in his mouth. He couldn't stop yet. He wasn't allowed. The fires had to go out before he did.

Pixie approached the door cautiously; a million doubts and fears running through her head at once. What would she find on the other side? Was there another squad waiting for her? Would it be Tsubaki--her friend--standing by her charge, ready to kill anyone to protect Dio? Would Dio even be there?

Could he have escaped already?

Pixie looked down at the digital readout on her plasma rifle and sighed. The damn thing was on the verge of overheating. "Worthless piece of shit," she spat before dropping it on the floor and drawing her sidearm. Standing before the moonlit door now, the bandit simply stared at it, breathing heavily. Why was she hesitating? Why was she so afraid?

The Bandit Queen feared no man.

Get it together.

Pixie closed her eye and exhaled sharply.

It was time.

Now!

Pixie kicked the door in, nearly ripping it off its hinges. The room was rather large for a study, and oddly empty--with little more than a few shelves lining the walls and a large desk near the back. There was an enormous window on the eastern wall, opposite the desk, that stretched the entire twenty-feet between the floor and ceiling. The moon was low on the horizon, bathing the study in a silvery hue.

Pixie's good eye darted around the room, looking for her prey. She said nothing as she slowly stalked the marble tiles.

"It's been a long time, Meredith," a voice suddenly said. Pixie's eye widened, but she didn't jump or flinch. The acoustics of the room worked against her, masking the voice's origin. Cautiously, Pixie scanned the dark corners of the room. Where was he hiding? "Isn't this nostalgic? It's just like it was twelve years ago. Well, my study in Boomhower was a closet compared to this one I suppose. It's a good thing though. I imagine we'll need the extra room."

Pixie pulled back the hammer on her pistol and pointed it this way and that, preparing herself for an inevitable ambush. "You won' be walkin' away this time," Pixie hissed, her voice trembling slightly. "I'm a different person now. I'll finish the job."

"You didn't come of your own volition this time though, did you?" the voice remarked. "Contessa, that insufferable bitch... she sent you, didn't she?"

"That's not why I'm here."

The voice laughed. "No, you're right, it's not," it agreed. "You're here to pay tribute to a dead woman. To deliver on a hollow promise you can't even remember making. Tell me, what's it like? To be consumed by something so petty?"

"Maybe if ya' come out an' play I'll show ya'," she whispered. A single bead of sweat trickled down her forehead.

"What would Margaret think of you now?" the voice continued. "She worked so hard. Bled and sweat so much for you. To see what you've become; this... blood-crazed lunatic! This thief! How would she react to this betrayal?"

Pixie scoffed. "Margaret's dead," she countered, "Ya' can' betray a ghost. Yer gonna have ta' try harder if yer gonna get me rattled."

"And what of this 'Sprout'?" the voice said. "He seems like a strong lad."

Pixie's blood ran cold.

"Is it true, Meredith? Is he really my son?"

"SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Pixie spat. Her composure had crumbled.

How did he know? Had he always known?

Pixie pointed her pistol around the room frantically, trying to get a bead on her foe. "WHERE THE FUCK AR' YOU MOTHER FUCKER?!" she screamed. "I'M GONNA RIP YER FUCKIN'---" Before she could complete her threat Dio suddenly appeared out of the darkness, striking from her blind-spot. Pixie spun around and fired her pistol, but he was too fast. Dio delivered a swift chop to the back of Pixie's wrist, knocking the pistol from her grip and kicked her in the ribs, sending her reeling backwards.

Dio chuckled under labored breath and drew something from his jacket. The moonlight reflected off the winding surface of his dagger as he held it up for Pixie to see. "It's your old friend," he whispered with a cruel chuckle.

Pixie regained her footing and sneered. He was treating this like some kind of game. He was so confident in his abilities, so blinded by his own ego that he couldn't imagine how much danger he was truly in. Or maybe he wasn't? Perhaps his bravado was actually disguising a profound fear. Pixie had no doubt this man harbored ill memories of his near death at her hands.

Despite their brave words, they were little more than two frightened animals fighting to survive.

In that, Pixie had an advantage: she was a survivor. She always had been. Her whole life she'd been pushed around and spat on by those that would use her for their own gain, but in the end she always came out on top. She always took what was hers.

This confrontation would be no different.

Before the night was done she'd take his eyes for the price of her own. She'd rip his beating heart from his chest.

Pixie unzipped her tactical vest and tossed it to the floor. Dio looked as if he were about to remark on it before Pixie suddenly lashed out, throwing a dagger at him. Dio dodged too late. "SHIT!" he cursed as the small blade buried itself in his left shoulder. He would have ripped it out and tossed it aside as a show of strength, but Pixie was already on him, cutting through the air in a series of savage knife attacks.

The larger man furrowed his brow as he struggled to dodge and weave out of her attacks. One misstep and he was dead.

She was much better than he'd anticipated.

FUCK! he thought as he felt his heel hit the wall behind him. He was cornered. He had no choice, if he didn't strike back now he was a dead man. Gritting his teeth, Dio took a gamble and dropped low, throwing unwounded shoulder at Pixie's abdomen so as to tackle her to the ground. Her blade didn't intercept him, so that was good, but why then did he not have her pinned to the ground?

This question was answered when the base of his spine slammed hard against the marble floor. Pixie had rolled with his tackled and kicked him up and over her head, sending him soaring several feet across the study. She was up before he was. Dio rolled across the floor and sprung to his feet, his cruel dagger still in his hand. "COME GET ME, BITCH!" he called out as Pixie charged.

Pixie ducked low under Dio's attempt to intercept her and pressed her attack, swinging in wide arcs in front of Dio. "FUCK YOU!" he spat out of frustration, attempting to grab her forearm between attacks. Before he had her though she'd managed to toss her blade to her off-hand and sliced a gash from his jaw to the bridge of his nose.

"FUCK!" He screamed, releasing her arm and clutching his face. With his knife hand he lashed out in a barrage of reckless attacks. Pixie weaved in and out of his strikes effortlessly, pushing Dio further over the edge. "I'LL CUT YOUR FUCKING HEART OUT, BITCH!"

"What makes you think I'll ever let you touch me with that knife ever again?" Pixie asked as she caught it between its cruel grooves with her own bowie knife. They struggled for a moment, their blades locked together, before Pixie suddenly drew a second blade from her belt and jabbed it in-between his ribs. He suppressed a scream and grabbed her wrist before she could remove the dagger. Gritting his teeth, he lurched backwards slightly and delivered a sudden, savage headbutt, throwing Pixie off balance and sending her staggering into the desk.

As the woman fought to regain her composure, Dio put his blade between his teeth and tore out the two still buried in his flesh. After tossing them aside he took his cruel knife in his hand once more, and approached his foe. Propping herself up by the elbow, Pixie managed to intercept his attack just in time by catching his knife arm on the way down. Using his momentum against him, she slammed his forearm against the desk and brought her own knife down, barely missing his artery. His fingers spasmed, forcing the knife from his hand.

The marble chamber shook with his anguished screams, but before she could rend his flesh further he reached out with his other hand and grabbed the side of Pixie's head. With stunning force Lord Basilio cracked her head against the desk twice before she released her grip on the knife and staggered out of his reach.

Dio roared as he pulled the large knife out of his forearm and dropped it carelessly on the floor. He was covered in his own blood now, but looked like he had plenty of fight left in him. Pixie slapped herself in the side of the head in an attempt to pull herself out of her daze. She was out of knives, but was in much better shape than Dio was. She had him on the ropes, as it were.

A long, awkward silence filled the room. Dio laughed, clutching his deep stab wound. "I hope you don't mind if I make a quick call," he muttered between ragged breathes.

Pixie narrowed her eye. What was he up to?

Grabbing a walky talky off the desk, Dio opened the channel and spoke. "Major O'Lafferty, do you copy?" he asked. "This is your Lord speaking. Are you in position? Over."

The worn-out bandit spotted her discarded pistol on the floor in her periphery. It was close.

She didn't have time for his games...

She'd end this now.

Asad quickly shimmied open the elevator to the fifth floor of the tower after uneventfully repelling their way down the shaft in silence.

With a pistol in one hand, The Major quickly checked down each side of the hallway before proceeding to unbuckle Elizabeth from his back. "Coast is clear, take a breather now if you need one, we can spare a couple of minutes." He'd rather push on, but he thought it best he make sure the girl was okay. Last thing they needed was for her to not be mentally prepared for what was ahead.

Elizabeth suppressed a cough after taking off her breathing mask. The smoke from the smouldering elevator at the bottom of the shaft was nauseating, even with a breather. "No," she croaked while dusting the soot of her clothes. "I'm okay, Asad. I can keep going."

Taking off his own breather, Asad let out a sigh before letting a small smile curl his lips. "Good, but I still need one." The Major leaned inside the elevator entrance alcove. She couldn't really argue with him now.

Elizabeth offered a weak giggle. "Could we at least find a bench?" she whined.

"I thought you were okay?" Asad teased, raising an eyebrow.

"No reason to act tough when my knight in shining armor is the one asking for a time out."

"I'm old, what's your excuse?" Asad waved his hand dismissively as he led the girl down the corridor. There should be a foyer ahead if this was anything like the other floors.

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Old?" she scoffed. "Are you even in your thirties yet?"

The two of them found the foyer littered with corpses. Fortunately it appeared the fighting was over... at least on this floor. Elizabeth kept her eyes ahead, ignoring the gory mess surrounding them as they pressed forward. Asad seemed to know where they were going.

"ASAD!" a voice suddenly called out from down the hall they'd just come from.

Elizabeth spun on her heel, ready to defend herself. And then she realized who it was.

Tsubaki? Fuck...

Her rifle pointing at the Major, Tsubaki stood in the entrance of the foyer, visibly trembling. "Asad..." she repeated, her voice weak.

Asad didn't turn as he hear Tsubaki behind them, his eyes wide for a moment. He wasn't the type of man to assume that word of his betrayal had been lost in the jamming signal, but he had hoped he could have gotten out of the city without having to explain himself.

He wasn't that lucky.

Exhaling audibly through his nose, The Major closed his eyes, smiling sadly. "Hello, Commander." He muttered.

"Is it true?!" Tsubaki spat, tightening her grip on her rifle. "Are you two... why?!"

"Is what true?" Asad turned to face the woman, his eyes soft as his pistol hung loosely at his side. He wanted her to say it.

Tsubaki furrowed her brow. "Don't---don't you fucking insult my intelligence, Asad!" she snapped. "You had something good here... why... why are you throwing that away?!"

Asad's expression hardened as the grip on his pistol tightened. "Throwing what away? This was going to happen regardless, I'm just making sure she's not caught in the crossfire." Asad nodded towards Elizabeth. "The man's a fucking sociopath, Tsubaki, I don't doubt Lombardi is much better, but I doubt she'd make me cut up a little girl to 'prove my loyalty!" Asad almost spat the words.

Tsubaki bit her lip and looked to Elizabeth. "I promised you," she whispered, "I swore I would protect you."

"I'm sorry," Elizabeth replied. "But you couldn't protect me. Not from Dio. It had to be this way."

"BULLSHIT!"

"It's not too late, Tsubaki. You can come with us," the young noble explained.

Tsubaki shook her head, tears streaming down her face. "No," she whimpered, "no, no, no... I made an oath. I have a duty."

"You made an oath to a mad man." Asad said simply. "You think you mean anything to him? You think you're not just another tool to be used and thrown away?" The man chuckled sarcastically, "We're soldiers, we've always been tools, the difference is a good soldier can see which way the wind is blowing and get the fuck off the ship when it starts sinking, especially if the captain is a raving goddamn lunatic."

"DON'T SAY THAT!" Tsubaki roared. "Ju-just stop! He treated us right! We-we had a good thing here, Asad. We did. Both of... both of us..." It took everything she had to fight through the knot in her throat. "I love you, Asad... why would you do this to me? How could you betray me?"

Elizabeth looked to Asad but remained silent. She'd never forgive herself if she made him pull the trigger.

I want to throw up...

Asad paused for a moment. No, that wasn't fair, she didn't get to say something like that and expect him to drop everything.

"I'm not betraying you, Tsutsu." Asad said softly, smiling gently. "Come with us, you don't owe Basilio anything, you've seen what he's capable of. Just come with us." He already knew what her answer would be, but that wouldn't stop him from hoping.

Tsubaki looked frantically between Asad and his charge, desperately wishing a miracle solution would come to her. "N-no," she mumbled, "I can't, I..."

Dio had saved her--given her a life. Given her a purpose. She couldn't throw that away now. She may have loved Asad, but Dio was like a father to her.

And look at how he exploits that fact.

"I--I don't... I don't know---" It was unclear what Tsubaki was about to say, but before she could finish a bang echoed down the elevator shaft behind her, shaking the entire structure slightly.

"----zzzttttt-----Mayday, mayday!----zzzttt-----asilio's helicopter's been sabot----zzzztttt-----house NOW!----zzzztttt-----"

Tsubaki's eyes widened in shock.

Asad slowly moved and stood in front of Elizabeth.

"What's it going to be, Commander?" Asad raised his pistol and set his sights on Tsubaki. He couldn't trust her to not make any brash moves in her current state. "Both me and the kid, we know first hand what kind of 'man' your lord is, come with us."

Asad's eyes narrowed as he clenched his jaw. "Or we part ways now and you run back to your master like the good lapdog you are and figure that out for yourself, except when that happens, it'll be too late."

Tsubaki averted her gaze. "I-I should.... I need to go protect him, I---I'm sorry," she whimpered. The Commander lowered her weapon and turned around, sprinting back down the hall towards the elevator shaft. She couldn't bring herself to look him in the eye. She couldn't say goodbye.

It hurt too much.

"I'm sorry," Elizabeth whispered to Asad, unsure of what else she could say.

Asad stared after Tsubaki as she hurried away, slowly lowering his weapon as the resolve melted from his face.

"I love you too." He muttered, barely a whisper. A few silent moments passed as Asad gathered his thoughts, his shoulders slumping slightly. He expected more of her, he thought he had finally swayed the woman's thoughts, planted the seed of doubt, maybe that was still the case, it just hadn't had time to bloom yet.

Slowly drawing breath, Asad closed his eyes, reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and over the next several minutes, smoked in silence.

Dropping the butt to the ground, Asad slowly exhaled, smoke swirling towards the high ceilings of the foyer. Without looking at Elizabeth, the man quickly turned and began walking quickly down the opposite corridor. "Let's go." He seemed visibly reinvigorated, the power back in his stride as he holstered his sidearm and grabbed the rifle at his side.

Masakado made his way to the elevator, punched in the access code and began ascending to the tower's ground floor. Every move the lumbering synthetic made was so methodical. So... robotic. For those who knew the man before the machine, this honestly wasn't much of a change for him.

He stood there perfectly still. Waiting.

"---zzzzttt----asakado, do you copy? This is---zztt----Command! I repeat,--zzzttt---Tower Command---zzzttt---!"

"I copy you, Tower Command," the cyborg replied in a gravely, metallic voice.

"---zzztttt----ood, identify and clear all hostiles on your way to---zztttttt---hit! They're here! ---zzztt----r the door! Mayday, may-----zzzttttttt----"

The radio went silent.

Objective Unclear. Radio Contact Compromised. Toggle Interpretation Matrix? Y/N?

....

Y - Situation Level Red, Immediate Intervention Required.

Objective: Identify and Eliminate Hostile Forces And...

Interpretation Matrix Working...

Retrieving Orders from Archive...

Revised Objective: "Identify and Eliminate Hostile Forces." "Do Not Allow Harm to Come to Lady Maribel."

Masakado tightened his grip on his katana's hilt. The digital readout on the wall read, "L".

The doors opened.

The swift samurai sprung through the door, his artificial eyes darting this way-and-that, scanning his terrain--collecting data. There were one-hundred-fifty combatants actively engaged on the ground floor as far as he could tell. Rounding a corner, he approached a large group of soldiers from behind, scanning each of their faces as they turned to look at him. It took his cybernetic brain mere moments to process their faces and cross-reference them with the Tower's database.

They were Basilio's.

"Who the fuck is---" before the soldier could finish his statement, let alone raise his weapon, Masakado had already lunged over their group. "Holy shit! Did you see that?!"

Landing in the middle of the no-man's land between the two forces, the samurai continued forward, scanning the other group as he dodged and weaved through a barrage of super-heated plasma and lead. His speed was hard to fathom. By the time he'd reached their position, he'd determined where their loyalty lay.

They were dead men.

Snapping the blade out of its sheath with his thumb, Masakado drew his katana and decapitated two of the soldiers with one fluid motion. The other nine scrambled away, some turning to shoot back. While bullets had little effect on him, plasma could still do damage. But then, the cybernetic swordsman didn't plan on getting hit by either. Following through with the momentum of his previous attack, he dodged another plasma bolt before swinging his blade vertically, splitting a man clean in half from his hip to his shoulder. He lept through the gory mess and cut down two others before leaping into the air to avoid the group's counterattack.

He cleared them easily, landing on the perimeter of their foxhole. From there he moved along the outside of their group, picking them off one-by-one as they scattered. It was a slaughter. Not only was Maskado too fast to get a bead on, most of his foes didn't even know they were dead until he'd already cleaved through them three times. After taking out three men along the perimeter only three others remained. He'd smoked them out of their position, resulting in two of them eating a plasma bolts to the back.

The last remaining soldier hurled a cooked grenade at the swordsman, which detonated the moment it hit the ground. Had it been plasma it may have actually hurt him. Masakado shrugged off the attack with little cosmetic damage to show for it. He turned slowly, locking eyes with soldier. His cold, inhuman gaze sent chills down the man's spine. He'd even pissed himself.

"FUCK YOU, DEMON!" the man screamed as he unloaded his LMG on the cyborg.

Masakado sprung forward with his blade sheathed once more. Bullets whizzed right past him as he weaved in-and-out of the man's barrage and unsheathed his sword just in-time to intercept a bullet before it found its mark in his artificial eye. Masakado's blade sliced clean through the bullet and the man's face, cleaving his head in half.

It was done.

The CO of the Basilio group approached Masakado slowly. He was covered in gore, much like his surroundings. "Uh, are you on our side?" the soldier asked, utterly terrified.

"Where is Lady Maribel?" the warrior asked in an emotionless tone.

The soldier shrugged.

Masakado grunted. "Don't try to keep up," he said before disappearing down the hall.

Contessa's forces on the ground floor were completely exterminated minutes later.

"If I have to stitch your mouth up, I will. We've got plenty of time."

Another pistol whip to the dome. Lord Talbot hissed with pain, his hands squirmed underneath the bindings, instinctively trying to rub his temples. He was nothing more than an old caged lion, toothless and mangy-maned. Even the poor blanket couldn't save him from the humiliation. Still, unrelenting noble bravado broke through. Just barely.

"Then all the closer I'll be to that pretty face of yours, my dear." He spat.

Astor continued to impassively stand with his back to his father. Couldn't risk any more contact. Though, the ticking time bomb would go off eventually...

Charming" Amy replied sarcastically, before walking over to stand by Jesse, though still keeping a beady eye of Talbot.

"Maybe you wanna step away for a minute..." she whispered "check the entrances or something."

"What do you think I'm doing?" 'Jesse' hastily whispered back, before quickly adding while slightly shuddering, "Don't be too rough, okay? He might grow to enjoy it."

"I could just cut out the middle man and send him to sleep?" Amy suggested, taking her goodnight glove back out of her purse and slipping it on. "Solve all our problems?"

"Fine with me." Astor shrugged.

Holding back a smirk of satisfaction, Amy sauntered back over to the bed.

"We're almost finished here, My Lord." she said. "I hope you had time for a bathroom break. You're going to feel a little tingle, and then we'll be gone by the time you come round..."

"Oh? A good tingle, I hope?" Lord Talbot enquired, leaning right towards Amy with his feet on tiptoes.

Even after being captured, beaten and humiliated, the randy little sod was still pushing his luck. Amy could only sigh and click her tongue.

"You tell me." she replied derisively, as she pressed her palm to the flabby skin beneath his ribcage. Talbot spasmed and made a gargling noise, before keeling over backward onto the bed.

"I am going to need a long shower after today." she complained, grimacing at her own hand after she had touched him.

A sudden and swift knock sounded from the door. "It's me," a voice that sounded like Tallahassee called out.

Amy looked to Jesse, puzzled. The plan didn't say anything about sending anyone back...

"Hey, Tal..." Amy replied as she walked through the suite to the door, taking her purse with her and keeping her glove on. "How's it going over there? Is Sandra okay?"

"Yeah, I reckon she's got the bridge locked down," he said. "Bennie wanted me ta' come back an' collect y'all. Says he don' wanna spread the group too thin an' wants Talbot on the bridge with the rest of the hostages. He didn' radio head 'cause he thinks Vanco's tapped our comms."

'Oh great!' Amy thought, groaning out loud 'I just put the big lump to sleep, and now we have to haul his naked, sweaty arse all the way up to the bridge? Perfect!'

"Okay..." Amy said as she unlatched the door "But you're doing the heavy lifting."

"What does that m---oh," Tal muttered when he spotted Talbot. He stepped into the room and clenched his jaw. "I'll wake 'im up."

Astor was just as puzzled as Amy. This wasn't in the plan, as far as he knew. Still, as a newbie, 'Jesse' was pretty sure it was far from his place to question his superiors. He sighed, "At least let him keep the blanket."

"You were saying about Vanco?" Amy asked, apprehensive "We know he's here then? Has anyone seen him?"

"No," Tal said. "He could be anywhere, that's why we wanna get all the hostages in one place. Don' wanna spread ourselves too thin."

"Okay." Amy said. Gritting her teeth, she stood ready to help get Talbot up to the bridge.

"Hey," a familiar voice suddenly called out on their comms. "This is Tal, y'all copy? Get Talbot ready for the landin'. We're takin' this bird down soon."

The Tallahasseee in the room with them tensed up.

'Jesse' shifted as his face contorted into a mess of confusion as he turned towards the cowboy, "What in the blazes?"

Amy put two and two together very quickly, her mind working overtime to cram as much critical analysis as she could into the moments she had to act. Now was not the time to be stunned.

In a fight, Amy wasn't so bold as to assume she stood a chance against Vanco. In about two seconds from now, both her and Jesse would likely be unconscious, or worse. Despite that, she wasn't afraid...

She'd promised herself along time ago that she'd never cower in fear again.

She couldn't overpower Vanco, but she could warn the others, if she could get a message out in time. Amy had only one tactical advantage... Vanco didn't know about the glove.

As the man turned to face her, she didn't attempt to strike him or shield herself. Instead, she stepped closer, her eyes full of vindictive determination, and grabbed him between his legs with the most viciously tight grip she could muster. If the ball-crushing wasn't painful enough, the electrical current did the trick.

As Vanco was paralysed in front of her for a second, the holographic façade shorting out to reveal his true face Amy screamed into her radio.

"VANCO! HE'S HERE!"

Vanco clenched his jaw, forcing himself to weather the excruciating pain. It didn't take him too long.

He moved quickly, grabbing Amy's wrist and squeezing, relinquishing the radio from her grasp. In the same motion he pulled her closer and buried his elbow into her nose, eliciting a satisfying crunch. Amy hit the ground hard and before she could recover from her dazed state, he drew his pistol, pulled back the slide and pointed it at her head.

The colour drained from Astor's face as Vancho retaliated. The only combat-competent person in the room had just been KOed and was about to die. He had to do something. Talbot's head of security against a kid... There was no chance of victory. Seconds slowed as Astor's fear-frazzled mind tried to come to a decision. Something had to be done.

His thoughts screeched to a halt. There was only one thing to do. 'Jesse' ran and tackled the head of security. He couldn't win the fight but he could at least try and knock the gun away from Amy's head.

Vanco's weapon discharged, buring a bullet in the floor right next to Amy's head. The small chamber amplified the gunshot, violently waking Talbot from his slumber. Jesse had saved Amy but didn't offer enough force to knock Vanco off his feet unfortunately. Grabbing the boy's forearm, he snapped his head backwards, hitting Jesse on the forehead, and threw him over his shoulders and onto the bed. He raised his weapon but couldn't fire without risking Talbot's life.

Astor yelped as he tumbled onto the bed, right in front of the father. Now he was the target. The runaway noble screwed his eyes shut as he awaited death. After a few heartbeats, Astor opened them and turned around, finding his father staring right back at him.

"Yes... yes..." Talbot muttered before almost yelling, "Astor Horatio Catamitus Beauregard Chetwynd-Talbot IV! That's it!"

"Took you long enough, Father." Astor muttered in response.

Talbot cleared his throat, "Vanco, do not shoot. He is family. Now I believe an escape is in order."

Vanco cocked an eyebrow. Just what the fuck was going on here?

He looked back down at Amy, who was beginning to stir. He wasn't sure what she was to the young Lord, so he'd play it safe. Crouching down, he punched Amy across the face, knocking her out cold. She wouldn't be a problem.

"As you wish, my Lord," he said as he reached out to help Talbot off the bed. Astor appeared unarmed. "Will I need to worry about you?"

"N-no sir." Astor managed to sputter out as he pushed himself off the bed, groaning. End of the line.

"VANCO! HE'S HERE!"

Before the radio cut out, the unmistakable sound of a gunshot made Sandra's blood run cold.

"Boss!" she yelled, trying hard to keep her voice from quivering "We have to go back!"

"You've gotten all your say." Florian said through tagged breaths, trying to control his heartrate and get ready to do what he had to. But he was still a child yelling at their parent and damn if he wasn't feeling it right now. Whatever he was doing it now.

"You'll get on the mic, and call of your men and then you're coming with me."

"To what?" Vasa taunted him, what do you think is going to happen once you get down there?" Of course all three of them already knew what would happen once one side gave in and they marched down to the ground floor. "You're only fooling yourself, boy. I assume that's why you needed her for this..."

Lilith raised an eyebrow in confusion. "Needed me for what?" The girl shook her head slightly, glancing at Florian, a nervous smile curling her lips.

"Stop trying to drag people into this." Florian snarled. "This is between us now, just us!"

Vasa sighed, shrugging his shoulders back and letting his shoulders slip down until he was holding it in one hand. "And yet you refuse to take part. I shouldn't have to teach you this lesson again, but a father's job is never done."

Florian was getting more on edge, he was far too calm, far too easy going. But of course Vasa could afford to be this way, he didn't have anything left to lose. So he could do things the way he wanted now.

'Thank you for letting me do it on my terms.' Father and son looked at each other, no noise between them but the distant noise of their war. And for a moment it looked as if Vasa's eyes were watering as a sad smile crept onto his face. The second genuine smile Lilith would have seen him make, after the moment he'd seen Florian alive.

["You'll hate me for this. Like the other times, but this is a lesson you need to learn. Some day you'll realise this was done out of care."]

Florian was about to tell him to stop talking nonsense but he'd never get the chance, as Vasa threw his jacket to Lilith and struck the moment she reached out to catch it.

"Luckily you I don't give a shit about." His free hand snatched up the handle of his cane, the one that hid his gun and drew it on the young woman, his old reflexes still razor sharp. Leaving Lilith to stare down the revolver barrel. Maybe it lasted a while for her, for Florian it lasted a split second. And then the gunshot rang out.

Vasa smiled, still holding the gun out at arm's length. He seemed awfully smug. Then he stumbled back, taking a hand away from his chest, his fingers wet with blood. "Huh..." He seemed a little bemused... before he fell backwards. Leaving Florian to look on in disbelief, the gun in his hand was still smoking.

Lilith stood there wide eyed in horror as her life flashed before her eyes, why did she try and catch the jacket? Why?! it was the oldest trick in the book! Hell she'd done it before, but before she even realised her mistake, it was over. Her eyes didn't move from the smoking hole in the old man's chest as he fell backwards for what felt like an eternity.

A few silent moments passed, and she was suddenly reminded that hadn't taken a breath in a while, sharply breathing in as she looked over at Florian, eyes still wide in disbelief. "Florian?" Her voice cracked as her hands began to shake, the jacket falling from her fingers as reality began to hit her like a crawler.

He didn't say anything. He couldn't say anything. Florian just... he just... he couldn't get believe what he'd just done. How calm his firghtened breathing had become or how steady his hands were. He ran and knelt by his father's side, vasa was still breathing, however poorly, blood was beginning to bubble at the back of his throat.

Florian's shock evaporated in an instant as his eyes began to well up. The two of them whispered to each other, just a few words as neither one was capable of real speech. In their native tongue and in such quiet tones there was no way anyone was getting a good ear of what they were saying. This was private, jsut for them. Vasa seemed something close to happy here as he reached out to cup Florian's face, his voice sounded as reassuring as it could.

With all the strength he had left his placed his hand over Florian's and guided the revolver over his chest. They never broke eye contact. Florian's protests died weakly, he didn't resist. Vasa wrapped his hand around Florian's and forced himself up just long enough to give his boy a kiss on the forehead before falling back, letting himself rest.

They pulled the trigger together.

Florain drew a hand over Vasa's face, closing his eyes and wiping away the blood. Wordlessly he got to his feet and went to the announcment system, picking up the mic.

"This is Florian Bejic. Any man here that swore loyalty to my father, lay down your arms. Your leaders are dead. Your cause is lost. Surrender now and your life will be spared... it's over." His commands given, Florian put down the microphone and looked down at the desk in front of him... and punched it as hard as he fucking could! Florian let out a howl of frustration as he beat the hell of of this inanimate object. He just had to hit something, hurt something.

Llilith watched in silence at silent exchange, arms limp at her sides. This wasn't what was supposed to happen, they were supposed to make up somehow, the old man was supposed to surrender. Not... this.

The girl's eyes lingered on Vasa's body as she began to turn and walk towards Florian, beating his knuckles raw on the desk before him. Slowing her pace as she approached, Lilith raised her hand to Florian's back, retracting her fingers hesitantly for a moment before gently placing her palm against the back of his shoulder. She said nothing as she looked up at his form, shaking in both anger and grief.

Florian's petulant punching came to a pathetic halt as he felt Lilith's hand on his back. He couldn't help the shaking, it only made him feel more pathetic. He turned to face her. She looked so shaken. Florian clenched his hands open and closed, hardly feeling the pain in his knuckles.

"I'm taking him away." He finally managed to croak out.

He spread Vasa's jacket over him, covering his face. As he picked it up two letters fell out, one with his name on it, the other with Erik's. 'Must be why he threw it... he didn't want them to get bloody.' Florian felt sick thinking that. he pocketed the letters and picked Vasa up in his arms, with as much dignity as he could. He felt so light.

Florian left their guns behind and headed to the elevator, pressing the button for the ground floor. He'd have to face them all like this.

A solemn look on her face, Lilith stood next to Florian as they waited for the elevator. Maybe it was good they did this quickly, before it all really had time to settle in. Florian would need her now more than ever.

As the distant hum of the elevator drew closer, Lilith looked at the man from the corner of her eye. "Thank you." She said quietly, her voice soft.

He didn't say anything for a while, just stepped in and rode the elevator down. His arms were getting tired and all he could think was that it shouldn't be this way. After all they'd done they should have been walking away together, heads held high. The family should have been made whole, not this shattered mess. Florian should have been able to look on those wings with pride. They should have been leaving with their pride. Not like this.

'He was right in the end. What would I have done, keep him like some caged fox?'

The doors opened and they made their way out into the aftermath of the conflict. Erik found them soon, his clothes were splattered with ash and blood and he looked down at them with a thousand yard stare. Bit by bit they were joined by others from their group all sporting their own injuries. Out in the courtyard, Conrad was getting Irena into a crawler and screaming at any and all medics to see to her. She was still huddled under the coat and blankets they'd thrown over her.

As more people gathered around them and looked at Florian in the light, corpse in his hands, he paused and looked straight at the assembled crowd.

"I am taking my father! Any man who wants to stop me make himself known so I can kill him now!" He called out in challenge. No one tried to stop him as he loaded Vasa into the back seat of a crawler.

Lilith glanced around at the surprised faces before hurrying after Florian.

Asad was done with this fucking tower, done with Feroxi, done with everything and everyone in it. The quicker they could get the fuck out the better. Walking with long quick strides, he tightened his fingers around the grip of his rifle.

"Keep up." He muttered behind him to Elizabeth

"Sorry," Liz whispered. She hurried to his side and pursed her lips. "Look, I know now's not a good time, but if you ever want to talk about... just, you know, I'm here for you."

"No offence, kid." Asad's eyes didn't move from the path ahead. "But what the fu..." He caught himself before it went any further. Sighing from his nose, the Major nodded his head a few times. "I know you're trying to help, Elizabeth." He stopped in his tracks, gently grabbing the girls arm as he looked down at her. "This isn't the time for anything like that, later, maybe, but right now it's a distraction that could get both of killed, you got that?" There was almost the hint of a smile.

"Yeah, yeah, you're right. I'm sorry," she admitted. She held her pistol close to her chest and nodded down the hallway. "We'll make it out of here. We will, and once we do we can girl talk."

Now there was a smile on the man's face. Asad nodded once, ruffling the girl's hair. "Kid, once we're outta here, we'll hit the nearest bar and I'll give you a crash course in guy talk, it's like girl talk, but with more swearing, less emotions, more booze, then more emotions, then questionable food from the side of a truck, then vomiting, then sleep." He tapped Elizabeth on the shoulder as he began moving again. "You know, like the last time you embarrassed yourself." He smirked as he winked at her.

"Guess I'm already an expert then," she quipped with a grin.

Now on the third floor, they'd managed to avoid contact with the enemy since running into Tsubaki earlier. As they continued forward the sound of battle grew louder and louder. A firefight seemed inevitable at this rate. If there was any benefit to being found out it was that they'd at least know friend from foe. Basilio's men were under orders to shoot on sight.

Asad had told her there was a garage on the second floor and from what Elizabeth could tell they were getting close. Mila might have been dead now, but her plan was still their best shot.

"Hold up." Asad whispered, putting an arm across Elizabeth as they reached a turn in the corridor. He could hear voices, after a few moments he determined they were stationary, he'd just need a few more moments to figure out how many there were.

Elizabeth swallowed hard. "What do we do?" she whispered. "We can't bullshit them. Do we go in shooting?"

Never thought I'd say something like that seriously...

"You don't do anything." Asad grumbled, his ear still to the corner.

Asad clenched his jaw. five, maybe six guys. Knowing the layout of the floors, the corridor they were in led into a small lounge area which they would have to cut through.

After listening in for a few moments, Asad knew they were definitely Basilio soldiers, and he had a pretty good idea of each individual's general location, certainly a margin for error. Could they risk it?

"Yo." one of the soldiers spoke up. "I'm gonna go to the john, hold the fort."

"They said not to travel alone, I'll come with you." Another said.

As two sets of feet began to draw closer, Asad's body tensed, gently lowering his rifle to his side as he pulled out his pistol, this was it! He couldn't have asked for a better moment. The soldiers took a few more steps closer and as they were about to turn the corner Asad was upon them.

Stepping out faster than Elizabeth could have ever expected, Asad kicked a leg from underneath the closest man, knocking his rifle from his hands as he fell to one knee. Before the other man could even react, there was already a bullet in his head. The surprised shouts of the men further into the lounge alerted Asad to the urgency of his next move.

There were seven guys in total, one already dead and another about to become well aquainted with the difference between a rookie and and an elite operative. Grabbing the soldier by the throat, Asad pistol whipped him across the side of the face before turning him around and lurching forward with his new human shield.

"HOLY SHIT!" One soldier cried as it quickly dawned on him that he was the target of the incoming rush, hastily firing off a few clumsy rifle shots wide as Asad went crashing into him, sending the other soldier crashing to the ground along with his shield, which he put a bullet in just as he toppled foward.

Asad was thankful for such close quarters, there wasn't enough breathing room to quickly aim a rifle effectively, let alone by these amateurs.

With a roar, Asad quickly turned from the two soldiers on the ground, almost instantly closing the gap to the next soldier, with just enough time to pull out his knife, he slashed it across the man's throat before he even had time to bring his rifle up. Keeping his momentum, the Major stepped towards another three men, shooting the one furthest away twice in the chest before plunging his knife into the closest. The man in the middle had just enough time to let off a few shots, but not before Asad hastily blocked the shots with the man screaming on the end of his knife.

Quickly wrenching the blade from his shield, he tossed it at the last man, finding itself in his throat.

Elizabeth watched all of this from the corner of the connecting hall. Asad was right to keep her out of this fight. Considering the tight quarters, she'd just get in his way. She was about to call out and ask if the coast was clear when she spotted the lone survivor of Asad's assault roll out from under the weight of his dead comrade. He had his weapon ready and the Major's back was turned.

"Asad!" Elizabeth called out before taking aim with her pistol. The man turned just in time to catch a bullet between the eyes. He was dead before he hit the ground. Liz stood stunned for a moment, reconciling what she'd done in her mind. After banishing the pit in her stomach she approached her protector. "Are you okay? Are you hurt?"

Asad had turned just in time to find himself at the end of a rifle barrel, and just in time to see the wielder's brains explode from the back of his head.

"Wha, What?" Asad shook his head, as Elizabeth began pawing over him, his quickened breath slowing gradually as he blinked a few times. "Kid, you just..." A breathless chuckle escaped his lips as he squatted slightly to get at Elizabeth's eye level. "Good fucking shot, kid!" He holstered his weapons before placing his hands on the girl's shoulders.

Elizabeth averted her gave and blushed wildly. "I, uhhh...." she muttered. He was like a proud father.

It was weird.

"D-don't mention it?" she said. Even she was unsure what context she meant that in. Unfortunately this wasn't a good time for a celebration. Several heavy footsteps sounded from down the hall, right outside the small space they occupied.

"IN THERE!" one voice called out.

Elizabeth panicked. They were cornered. "Wh-what do we do?!" she stammered.

Quickly getting to his feet, Asad pushed the girl behind him before bringing his rifle to bare. "Go! Get moving, down the corridor, I'll be right behind you, GO!" Laying down suppressing fire into the corridor they entered in, Asad began quickly backing out the room before turning and following after Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was terrified, but it didn't mean she had to run screaming for her life. Half turned as she ran, she emptied her clip down the hall. It was hard to tell since Asad was using an automatic weapon, but it looked like she tagged one of their attackers in the throat. Before making it to the safety of connecting hall a bullet whizzed by, grazing her shoulder. She hissed in pain before throwing herself around the corner of the hall. Before checking her wound she quickly reloaded her weapon. Not may clips left to spare.

"Are you okay?!" Asad cried out as he dove into the corner next to her, blind firing his rifle as he kept the incoming soldiers at bay around the bend in the corridor.

"Yeah," she shouted over the gunfire, "just a scratch! Worry more about how you plan to get us out of here!"

Repeatedly glancing at her arm, Asad, was eventually satisfied, it wasn't bleeding enough to be anything serious. "Okay, just keep an eye on it, tell me if it gets worse." Quickly chaging rifle magazines, Asad swore under his breath. He didn't have that much ammo left. "Better make it count." He grumbled, as he prepared to aim out of cover, just as a blood curdling scream echoed down the hallway. "What the...?"

"I advised you to stand down Private Thomas R. Kalligan," Masakado said as he cleaved the rookie in twain. His core programming dictated that he protect the lives of Basilio soldiers, but it was of reletively low priority. When conflicting with a primary directive; a current mission, his programming allow for a... flexible response. If these soldiers continued to attack Lady Maribel he would be inclined to dismember them.

"TAKE HIM DOWN!" a terrified CO commanded. The remaining soldiers turned to fire on the swordsman, but were far too slow.

"So be it."

Blood-curdling screams echoed down the hall, piquing Elizabeth's morbid curiosity. "What the hell's going on down ther..." the young noble's words died in her throat.

It's him.

Elizabeth grabbed Asad's arm. "We need to run. NOW!" she commanded.

Asad's eyes were fixed on the carnage in front of him. Just what the fuck was this... thing?! "I'm inclined to agree..." The Major's words trailed off as he let himself be dragged away by Elizabeth.

Masakado watched through infrared sensors as the duo scrambled down the adjoining hall. He'd made quick work of the squad. In such a tight space they didn't put up much of a fight. He watched the multicolored blobs move further and further away--his cybernetic mind confused as to why they would do such a thing.

The human part of him knew exactly why.

They didn't get very far before the cyborg caught up with them. Before they could even make it halfway down the hall he was already upon them, his weapon sheathed. "Halt!" he commanded. "All hostiles in this sector have been neutralized."

"Elizabeth get behind me." Asad said, pushing the girl. This may have been the first time she had heard genuine terror in the man's voice. "Who... What are you?! Who do you work for?" Was this was of Lombardi's toys?! If so, they may have gotten themselves involved in something far beyond what they had realised.

"Masakado, cybernetic infantry, a division of Basilio R&D," he stated formally, now standing completely still before them. "You are Major Asad Harel, former Samsara, Lady Maribel's protector. We are on the same side. Major Bryan O'Laffertey activated me fifteen minutes ago to protect Lord Basilio's assets. I am also under orders to protect Lady Maribel from any and all harm."

Elizabeth furrowed her brow.

"Do not let any harm come to Lady Maribel."

Dio would regret that command if he lived to see tomorrow.

Masakado's gaze fell upon Elizabeth's wound. "Minor flesh wound," he observed. "Take note to clean it thoroughly once you are safe, Lady Maribel."

"Masakado," she began hesitantly, "we're trying to make it out of the tower. Make it to safety. Can you cover our escape?"

"Yes."

"Well that was simple," Elizabeth said with a nervious chuckle.

Masakado looked down the hall they'd just come from. "The ground floor is secure, I can take you---"

He must not know why Basilio's men are after us...

"No," she interrupted him, "we need to escape through the garage on this floor. Can you take us there?"

"There are still hostile forces in that sector," he replied. If he was capable of a confused tone that would have been the time to use it.

"That's why we have you," she remarked.

Masakado nodded. "Very well," he said.

Asad furrowed his brow as the pair followed after the strange machination of man and metal. "I hope you know what you're doing." The man mumbled, glancing down at Elizabeth, making sure to keep a firm grip on his rifle.

"I'm making it up as I go," Elizabeth whispered back. "Besides, it's not like we have much of a choice."

"My ears are capable of detecting frequencies humans cannot and at a far greater distance and fidelity," the samurai told them. "I can hear you."

Elizabeth furrowed her brow. "Makes sense," she muttered nervously. "What, can you see through wall too?"

"Nothing more than six-inches thick."

"Lead the way then, I guess..." Asad chuckled nervously.

Sprout bolted out of the engine room the moment Amy screamed over his comm, without a word to Ruffles.

Shit! Shit! Shit!

His heart was pounding. He was terrified. She could be hurt, maybe even dead. He needed to be there. He needed to be there now!

The young bandit lept into Talbot's chambers with reckless abandon, itching for a fight. It appeared he was too late, however. Vanco moved fast, apparently.

It didn't take him long to find his unconscious lover sprawled out on the floor. Dropping to his knees, he quickly rolled her over--taking her head in his hand--and checked her pulse. She was breathing.

Thank fuck.

"Amy," he whispered, "Amy, are ya' okay? Amy, wake up!"

The first sensations that informed Amy that she was returning to consciousness, was everything being very loud and very bright, the blow to her head had left her too spaced out to feel pain specifically, everything was just... fuzzy, and her mouth tasted like copper.

She'd felt worse, considering.

"Urgh, Axel..." she slurred. "That you?"

"Amy!" was all Sprout could manage before he pulled her into an uncomfortable embrace.

Unfortunately, Sprout's affection jammed Amy's fractured wrist between their two bodies. Pain came back to her with unwelcome clarity.

"OW! OW! Owowowowow!" Was all she could manage

"Shit! Sorry!" Sprout squeaked. "A-are you hurt? What happened here?

"Not too bad." Amy winced. For one thing, the pain had helped her overcome the fuzziness, and she was now beginning to recall why she'd been knocked out.

"Vanco's got Talbot!" she exclaimed "Jesse too. Gotta get up... gimme a..."

As soon as she tried to stand up though, her vision swam and she almost passed out again.

"Okay! Okay, not a good idea!"

Sprout helped her onto the bed, but didn't sit down himself. "W-wait, what?! Jesse? Why the fuck's he got Jesse?!"

Unfortunately, Amy was sure that she couldn't think of a convincing lie right now. Regardless, they didn't have the time.

"Promise... Promise me you won't freak out, okay?" she said.

"I'm already freakin' out here!" Sprout said with a forced laughed.

"Axel!" It was hard for Amy to give him her 'This Is Serious' face when she didn't know which one of him that she was seeing was the real one.

"Amy, the ship's landin' right now. We're outta time, here. Jus' tell me!"

Amy sighed.

"He's his son." she answered, resigned. "'Jesse' is Talbot's son. I don't think Talbot really understands why he's here, but he recognised him and it's the only reason Vanco didn't kill us both."

"Yer shittin' me..." Sprout muttered. "An' he's tryin' ta' take 'im back?!"

"I don't know!" she insisted "Talbot really isn't the sharpest tool in the shed. I don't know if he thinks he's rescuing him, or if Jesse's a hostage, or what."

Sprout clenched his jaw. "An' he jus' went with them?! He didn' try ta' fight back? Was he a mole? or somethin'?!"

"No! I..." Amy furrowed her brow, exasperated. Her head was still pounding. "He saved my life. When he went with them it wasn't like he had a lot of choice."

"He what?!"

Sprout was legitimately surprised. Jesse had bigger balls than he'd ever given the kid credit for. Looking towards the door, Sprout sighed. "Reckon I gotta save 'is ass," he muttered. "You stay here, Amy. Yer in no condition ta' fight."

"Yeah, I think I'm-wait, you're going alone?!" Amy grabbed his arm, briefly forgetting her own wrist was broken, making her withdraw with a hiss of pain.

"Axel, you can't!" she pleaded "Vanco will kill you!"

Sprout cocked an eyebrow. "Even if Jesse's a lil' piece of shit, he's still a Maiden," he said. "We don' abandon ar' own. I'm sorry, but I gotta prince ta' save." He grinned like an idiot, kind of hoping she'd try to stop him. Vanco did sound like a scary mofo, after all.

"Okay, just... follow them, but promise me you'll wait for backup." she said, before using her uninjured hand to grab him and pull him in for a kiss.

Now he really felt like an action hero!

Either this ends with the best blowjob ever or a bullet in the brain.

"Reckon I learned how ta' gamble from the best," Sprout whispered to himself. "Don' worry 'bout me, Amy." he kissed her again. "I gotta job ta' do."

With a cocky wink he got back to his feet and started for the door.

He'd never felt cooler.

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

"We have to go back!"

Bennie gestured for Sandra to hold and turned his head to the side. "Marcus, do you have eyes on Talbot?" he asked in a hushed tone. "What the hell's going on down there?"

"Someone--Vanco I guess... he took down Amy," Marcus replied over the comm. "I think she's alive. He's escorting Talbot into the hall--Jesse too."

"Jesse?" Bennie asked, dumbfounded.

"I'm sorry, Sir," Marcus said. "We dropped the ball. We should have---"

Bennie shook his head. "I need constant surveillance on their position," Bennie ordered. "Where are they headed?!"

"The hangar I think."

They were about to touch down. If Vanco moved fast enough he could get a crawler out of there before they were in the sky again. "Shit!" Bennie hissed.

What could they want with Jesse?!

"You think she's alive?!" Sandra yelled down her own radio, distraught and furious. "What the fuck kind of an answer is that!"

One of Talbot's crew on the bridge failed to supress a snigger of amusement at their captor's distress. His snort quickly turned into a scream of pain as Sandra's heel shattered his kneecap, that was muffled when she shoved the barrel of her gun between he's teeth.

"Go on..." Sandra hissed "Give me a fucking reason. What's the matter bitch? I thought we were having a giggle here!"

If she'd lost Amy too, so soon after Georgia...

Bennie rushed over to the girl, grabbed her shoulder and tore her away from her victim. "CALM DOWN!" Bennie ordered.

Sandra was about to yell back in his face, but stopped herself just in time. Watery-eyed, she shoved her gun back in her holster with as much attitude as she could.

"With respect, Captain..." Sandra's voice was shaking "Why are we still standing around here?"

"Because these folks can't hold themselves hostage," he told her. "We all have a job to do."

After looking over the man's shattered knee, Tal walked over to the pair of bandits. "I'll handle Vanco and get our boy back," he told Bennie. "We can't leave 'im behind."

"Agreed, but you're no match for Vanco," Bennie explained. "I'll go."

Suddenly Sprout's voice came in over the comm. "I've got a visual on Vanco," he said. "In pursuit!"

Shit!

"Stand down, Axel! Do not engage!"

"Sorry, can' hear you," Sprout lied. "Think the comm's down!"

"DAMMIT!" Bennie swore. "Give him backup, Tal. Sandra, go check on Amy. Bring her here if you can. Gale and I will have to make due by ourselves."

'Finally!' Sandra resisted the urge to say out loud.

"Keep up!" she snapped at Tal, as she punched the console for the bridge door.

They found Amy sitting on the side of Talbot's bed, head bowed. She looked woozy, but alright considering. Before Sandra's exclamation of relief had made it half-way out of her mouth, Amy cut her off.

"I'm fine, really." she told them "But Vanco's taken Jesse and Axel's gone after them by himself. Go after him, make sure they're both alright, please!"

Smiling, Sandra nodded, and bolted back out of the door.

The captains and veterans they'd brought with them did their best to keep order among the troops and the surrendering forces. That part wasn't actually as hard as they expected, whatever bad blood had existed between these two sides on a personal level they were acting as a part of the syndicate now, the family. They could be professional about things right now, it was everyone's only chance at stopping things from descending into total chaos and most were in their right minds enough to not want that to start fresh all over again. And right now Erik was thankful for that because there was no way in hell he was dealing with anyone else right now.

He trudged towards Florian, his hearing was beginning to get less muffled now. His eyes were still stinging like crazy. Erik had been around so much smoke today it was a miracle that he wasn't caked in dust and ash. Disheveled wreck that he was he stood next to Florian and looked down at Vasa's body. He looked disheveled too, most people did after being shot, Erik thought as he looked at the dark splashes of red that pooled around Vasa's chest. His face was still hidden to the world. Florian had laid him out as neatly and tenderly as he could. He was still fussing over him now, smoothing out the crinkles in his shirt just so he didn't have to look Erik in the eye or get in the crawler. He knew what he had to do though and he'd do it... just walk away... just go on auto pilot and do what he had to do.

["Are you alright?"] Erik asked him. A stupid question, he knew, but every other question he could think of felt worse.

Florian visibly tensed up and lowered his eyes even further. ["I... I did it... I killed him."] And he said it. Said it out loud. He didn't know why that mattered so much. Most people say if you say something out loud it makes it more real but Florian was looking down at his work right before him. It wasn't going to get any less real.

It cleared the who's for Erik though. He reached out and put a hand on Florian's shoulder, firmly but gently turning the boy to face him. ["Are you hurt?"] He kept things quick and simple, both for Florian's current state and for his raw throat.

Florian raised his head a little and looked straight ahead into Erik's chest. ["I'll live."] He said grimly, as if he might regret the fact.

Erik knew things would end poorly for someone. He'd resigned himself to the fact that he or his friend might fall here today the moment he'd rallied back at the bar. He pulled Florian close and wrapped him in a tight embrace. Acts of kindness can be harsh things for people on the edge though. With his face hidden away from the world Florian felt himself starting to shake, the beginning of a sob forcing their way from the back of his throat as his arms hung limply at his side. He couldn't, not here. Florian forced his emotions down and pushed himself away from Erik. The man offered no resistance.

["I need to take him away... to see to him- send him home. I wont let them have him, I wont let him get strung up or put in some ditch, I wont!"] He steeled himself, buried the aching heart in his chest and remembered the man he was raised to be. Florian would act and keep moving. There was still so much to do. ["I'm going to burn him, he deserves a vigil."]

["The troops might-"]

["They can look after themselves for a few goddamn hours"] Florian growled through gritted teeth.

'Was what I was going to get at.' Erik sighed internally, knowing better than to push the subject. Florian climbed into the driver's seat and headed out alone, leaving a dusty trail behind him. Erik called his closest men to him and gave them some quick orders. Most had been around for the aftermath for the first time they'd stormed the tower, they knew the drill, some of the few people who did. For the rest he'd have to trust their initiative. He did the rounds, talked to some people, Irena was stable and in no mood to talk to him. He couldn't blame her. Erik'd pay for this later and he'd have it all coming.

It wasn't long before he commandeered his own crawler. He put one foot up on the vehicle and seeing Lilith had been left behind he called out to her. "You are coming right?" He sounded calmer than he had any right to be in this situation. It was probably because he was so damn tired. "Come on. No one's getting left behind." He waited until she got in before the two of them set off, followed by a couple other crawlers.

Florian was driving slower than expected and with limited working roads it was easy to catch up to him. Erik gave his crawler some space as their group drove on behind him, a ragged and tattered funeral procession.
=================
An involuntary noise of disgust leaped out of Gale's mouth as she heard the poor bastard's knee shatter under Sandra's foot. How did she even have the strength to do that? the girl was built like a string bean! Gale stifled the nose as best she could but it sure wouldn't stop her stomach churning. Were those someone's teeth scattered across the ground too, when did that happen? They were supposed to take these people prisoner not cripple them all. Or was that just how business was done? This was Gale's first real job after all, it could have been for all she knew. The only other gig she'd had with the maiden's so far was the weapon pickup... which had lead to Axel beating a man bloody and talking about how he liked watching people die.

'Oh god what have I gotten myself into?'

At least Bennie was keeping a level head. "Gale and I will have to make due by ourselves." Aw crap.

Well she wasn't about to back down now. Doing that'd probably get her thrown out a window or something, besides, her best chance at getting through this mess was probably by sticking to Bennie's side. So Gale followed after him without a word, her hands sweating as she checked her weapons one last time.

Bryan stood rooted to the spot as the strange metal man strode past him. He had the feeling as though he was going to live to regret his actions in this room quite a lot. He felt as though he had aided and abetted some kind of violation of nature. Admittedly there wasn't any nature to speak of on the planet, but still.

Then a thought hit him. Whatever that thing was, it had once been a man. And that he wielded a sword was oddly particular. If this was Dio's creation, that meant he had gone to great lengths to find a skilled swordsman for the procedure, surely. Well that was fucking bullshit, wasn't it? Bryan was right there. Not that he'd have ever chosen to undergo something like that, but it still stung on principle.

"Don't matter who they found, if I'd had a crack at him, I'da wrecked his shit," Bryan muttered, and activated his radio. "Hey Dappy, that crime against all that's feckin' holy you wanted's been set loose."

The was a long silence before Bryan's radio came alive. "Copy that, Major," the officer replied. After providing Bryan with directions to his next objective there was another pause, this one not quite as brief. "You will be going to the Cook's holding cell. You are to remain there on standby until Lord Basilio calls you. You are not to engage with the prisoner in anyway, do you understand?"

"Aye, simple enough," Bryan replied. Turning and exiting the lab, he began picking his path down the corridor, he paused at a door with some scientist's name on it that he didn't bother reading.

The instructions Dapper had given him made it sound like he was going to be waiting for a while. The Cook wasn't going anywhere, so surely that meant there'd be time to kill. A few minutes, at least.

Approaching the office door, he stooped to get a better look at the security code box on the wall by the door's side.

An old hand at robbing nobles, Bryan was used to seeing security systems like these. This one might be a little more hardcore, but it was the same basic premise.

Using his bootknife as an improvised screwdriver and prybar, he began opening up the box's casing. Soon, he was looking at the mess of wires inside. Reaching in, he found the wires he was looking for, and went to work.

By a stroke of luck, his first attempt worked. It was a technician's trick that was implemented in a surprising number of different makes of security box, where in two particular wires could be switched and then switched back. Security firms liked it because when their technicians got a call out from someone who had idiotically forgotten their password, or 'broke' it, the technician could bleed the hourly rate a little before fixing the problem in the space of two minutes. Uncle Beard had claimed that'd been one of his ideas.

Jabbing in four zeros, Bryan opened the door. Pausing long enough to make the new code a random sequence to cover his tracks. 'Broken'.

The office was cosy, but there was stuff everywhere. Bryan's eyes were drawn to the filing cabinet by the desk. He thought he'd have to pick the lock, and that would have taken too long. He did actually need to get to the Cook's cell. But fortunately, whoever used this office hadn't locked it up, and to Bryan's surprise, it pulled smoothly open when he tested it.

Flicking through the names on the files, he cursed at the strange codenames the projects had. If there was anything about freaky robot men in here, it'd take him too long to find out.

Closing the cabinet, he looked around for anything that wouldn't make this break in a total waste. There was a lab coat slung over the back of the desk chair. Rifling through the pockets, he found only a hip flask in the inside one. Unscrewing the cap, he sniffed it and winced. This wasn't even alcohol. It was... embalming fluid. Fucking weird.

Replacing the flask, he turned and noticed something on the desk, next to the computer's keyboard.

An I.D. keycard. This guy must be one forgetful bastard. Bryan pocketed it, and headed for the door.

Eventually, he found Cranston's cell, and entered.

The small room was shrouded in darkness, with but a small overhead light shining down on the figure below. Cranson sat slumped over in a chair with a series of tubes running all over him, connecting his frail form to several machines placed around the room. He didn't even look alive save for the subtle rise and fall of his disfigured chest. If he sensed Bryan's precense in the room he was doing a good job hiding it.

Then again, that may not have been by choice.

Bryan had pulled out one of his swords before he entered. He had no idea what kind of condition the old man would be in, and for all Bryan knew, he was lively. If that were the case, Bryan wasn't sure that even being chained to the wall would hold that man for long.

So if he made an attempt, Bryan could use the reinforced door as a shield, and if the old man tried to force through, he'd run himself onto Bryan's sword. Legionary tactics.

As soon as he saw what lay on the other side, all of that drained from his mind. The sword spilled from his grip and clattered deafeningly on the floor. Bryan didn't hear it.

"Wha..."

His thumb flew to his radio, oaths flying to his tongue. But he stayed his hand inches from the earpiece. If he questioned this, if he made known the profound sense of outrage and disgust at what was in front of him, at best, they'd shrug him off with bullshit and rhetoric, or worst, kill him. And he was far too angry to go down easily.

"Is that you, Dr. Pym?" the old man croaked, his voice hardly a whisper.

It took Bryan a moment to find his voice.

"...Not quite, mate." He sounded like something fundamental inside him had broken. The bullet he'd planted in Cranston's leg seemed to have reappeared in Bryan's throat.

Cranston's head remained bowed. "What are you doing here?" he asked, as if he knew who it was just by the sound of his voice.

"Orders," Bryan replied, but the sound of it was too much. "Dammit!" he yelled, savagely beating the wall. "Fuck, fuck FUCK!"

"The compound's under attack," he said in an uncharacteristic monotone. "Bunch o' new recruits were imposters. They started takin' out the command structure. They nearly got me and Jun during an inspection. Seein' as Jun's wrists are still in casts, I reckon if you'd left me in much worse condition, we wouldn't o' made it outta there. So uh... y'know... thanks fer not double tappin'."

Cranston almost chuckled. "Seems I've grown too soft," he remarked. "Pulled my punches on your CO too." Though his voice was weak he was surprisingly articulate.

While Cranston was saying this, Bryan had picked up his fallen sword and sheathed it, locking it into its shared scabbard with a click.

Dragging a chair out of a dark corner of the room, he sat reversed on it with the chairback between his legs, so as not to disturb the swords on his back.

"Yeah..." he forced a laugh. "Thanks fer that too."

After that, he wasn't really sure what to say, so he just blurted out the first thing that came to mind. He felt a powerful urge to spite the order not to engage with Cranston as much as he could.

"My uncle told me about you when I were a kid," he said. "Dunno if you know him. Big beard, voice like sandpaper. He said ya were the most hardcore son of a bitch on the Rock."

"Mostly just a 'son of a bitch', I reckon," Cranston chuckled, followed by a violent coughing fit. "At the end of the day I'm just another killer, son. Not really something to take pride in."

Bryan shrugged. "Aptitude's aptitude, me mam always said. Or she would if she knew what three syllable words were. I were a house breaker an' a pick pocket before I were feckin' gladiator." He produced a hipflask and took a swig. "'s important to take pride in your work, else ya just end up doin' it half arsed."

Cranston let out a high-pitched groan. "Yeah, well I suppose I felt that way once," he said. "Not anymore though. I take pride in... other things these days. In other people. It's all I really have left in this world."

"Well unless I'm adding two and two and getting thirty seven, I'd say whoever's yours up there is giving ya plenty reason to be proud, mate," Bryan replied.

"Which brings us to the nub o' the matter to my way o' seeing." Bryan gestured at the mess of life support machinery, then at the lab at large and finally at the ceiling, indicating the conflict above their heads.

"Feels like I've been ignorant a long time. So before whatever happens, happens, and I get asked to do what I imagine I'm here to do, I want ya to explain all this to me."

Bryan shook his head. "I wish I had an answer for you," he croaked. "Dr. Pym was never explicit in his intentions, but I know he was trying to brainwash me. Not in the traditional sense, but by using machines... trying to override my free will with brute force. Hasn't been working out for him." His voice was weak, but there was a small degree of pride in it.

"Well I reckon he found someone it did work on," Bryan said, and he explained briefly about what he'd seen of Masakado. "They ain't payin' me enough far this."

"You could always just quit," the old assassin offered. "You may not even have an employer by the end of the night."

"Always a possibility," Bryan replied. "Except it ain't about me anymore. I got someone I'm lookin' out for."

"We've all got one of those."

"Then you know why I'm ridin' this out."

Cranston considered his words for a long moment before replying. "Do you think she's up there right now?" he asked. "The woman I would die for. Is she what this is all about?"

"I reckon she's up there," Bryan replied. "As fer what your lass figures in all this, I ain't the faintest feckin' clue."

"I don't imagine she does either," Cranston muttered. Most of the pain was dulled thanks to his fried nerve endings, but all this talking had drained him immensly. He didn't know why he'd struggled for so long to keep his own mind. Perhaps it was for this night. For this moment.

"Don't blame yourself for your role in this," he told the soldier. "You'll be showing me a mercy."

"Yeah, that's a bit self evident,mate," Bryan replied glibly. "Don't make it any easier though. Still, I'm meant to stand on ceremony, so uh... I guess I gotta keep you waitin' fer a bit."

"Major O'Lafferty, do you copy? This is your Lord speaking. Are you in position? Over."

"Then again," Bryan muttered. "Big man himself." In spite of all the bravado, a faint chill was still working its way down his spine. Sighing, he thumbed his radio.

"Aye, I'm with the old man now..." he hesitated, with disgust contorting his features. Bryan was a man who loathed authority at the best of times.Growing up, he'd ditched school, self-taught, actively burgled, stolen, and mugged his way through childhood and adolescence. It was a mark of his feelings for Tsubaki that he let her assert any authority over him. Even when Asad seconded for her, Bryan hadn't so much obeyed his orders as considered his suggestions. He had been reported for so many cases of refusing to use rank honorific that eventually, they'd stopped trying. The fact that it was now Dio, someone he now realized he'd been nurturing a soft hatred for even before now, made it almost physically painful.

And Bryan would break before he'd bend. If nothing else, the old man had set the bar pretty fucking high on that one. "...over."

Lilith sat in silence, cheek resting on her fist as she stared out the passenger seat window, her eyes occasionally drifting to Florian's crawler. With her free hand, the girl reached into her pocket, and raised a cigarette packet to her lips. Grabbing one with her teeth, she retrieved her lighter and took a long drag as the cigarette ignited.

They had won, they had liberated the tower, by all rights she should be happy, but she was more miserable than before, but no matter how bad she felt, that would be nothing compared to what Florian was going through right now. He needed his space right now, he needed to do this alone, and when he needed her, if he needed her, Lilith would be there in whatever capacity he wanted.

Part of her couldn't help but think it was her fault Florian had to put the old man in the ground, if she hadn't fell for that stupid trick, things might have been different.

'You can't blame yourself for that, neither of you expected the old man to put up a fight.'

Turning to look at Erik, Lilith smiled sadly. "How you holding up, big guy?"

Erik had driven on in silence, unsure of what to say or do, his eyes fixed forward. He knew he should hang back and give the boy space. Whatever he was going through right now it would be dwarfed by however Florian was tearing himself up right now, that seemed to be what he did these days from how Erik interpenetrated things. Blame himself for everything and feed on his own guilt. Something Erik could never truly understand. He only had a handful of things in his life he could 'blame' himself for, to really regret. The rest were just things, experiences, maybe they didn't work out the way he wanted but he could move past them and keep going forward. This was one of those.

It was hard, sure. He and Vasa had been through so much together how could he not feel some kind of pain at this? But he'd been hurting for a long time, the initial shock and turned into a dull ache as the endless fights dragged on, as he lost Florian, Petrov, Anna and had watched the man Vasa had once been slowly disappear before his eyes. His friend had burned their bridge a long time ago, Erik had just been too weak then to admit it. But now he'd almost lost the boy all over again and watched Irena brutalized before his eyes. They'd saved her though, by the skin of her teeth. And they'd save him too. Erik had his people back. He had something to fight for in earnest again, he would be strong again, he would endure this and find a way to save them from whatever would follow here. Somehow.

"How you holding up, big guy?"

"He was my best friend." Erik sighed. He needed to say that, he didn't want to forget it no matter what had passed between them. "And then he threatened to kill me and people I love and now he is dead. It's a busy day." He shrugged wearily before looking side on at Lilith. "Are you okay?"

He resisted asking how it happened for now at least.

 Pages PREV 1 . . . 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 . . . 76 NEXT

Reply to Thread

This thread is locked