The situation was degenerating rapidly.

The demonkin had taken the outer rims, helped to no end by the sheer destructive power of the massive wyrms, and had been pushing inwards ever since. Casualties seemed to mean nothing to them and if Yiazmat were to be brutally honest, more demons probably fell trampled beneath their comrades' feet than before Daim firepower.

They were pure killing machines, he thought grimly even as he blew open a raving gargoyle at point blank range with a standard issue riot shotgun, unhindered by intangibles such as homme compassion or morality. He was beginning to understand the hatred reflected in the Grand Magus's eyes when she spoke of the demonkin – these were truly creatures without any vestige of honor.

He discharged the last of his ammunition into a second fiend, smiling grimly as it exploded into a messy heap, before smashing the butt of the now useless firearm into a gargoyle poised to impale a fallen warden. The fiend's neck snapped with a dry crack as it fell lifelessly to the blood-stained ground while the warden's colleagues hastily dragged him out of harm's way.

"Sir!" a Doombringer called out as he tossed a pulse rifle to Yiazmat who caught it easily. He nodded his appreciation at the Myrmidon and set the weapon to semi-automatic burst fire. Accuracy would count more than the volume of firepower in such close quarters and ammunition had to be conserved; new supplies would be scarce in a siege situation.

He trained his scope on an onrushing demon and squeezed the trigger, punching a neat hole through the fiend's cranium. It continued to stagger forward for a few seconds before collapsing as more of the hideous gargoyles charged forward, trampling their fallen colleague almost contemptuously as they screamed their hideous battle cries.

"Hold your ground!" Grislow, his staff sergeant, bellowed before he opened fire on the foremost fiend, dropping it instantly with a precise shot. Yiazmat then took out a second as the wave of fiends faltered, their numbers being slowly decimated by the accuracy of the Myrmidon sharpshooters.

"Cocktail!" an unfamiliar voice cried out. Yiazmat sighted the grenade briefly before it disappeared into the massed ranks of the demonkin and shielded his eyes as the explosive promptly detonated, splattering the Daim with the black blood and rent flesh of the demonkin.

Survivors continued to lurch forward, snarling defiantly at the Daim defenders but these were quickly mopped up by the wardens wielding shorter range shotguns. The Myrmidons in the meantime trained their scopes on the dark shapes that continued to lurk at the far end of the corridor, clearly preparing for another futile charge forward.

Yiazmat shook his head briefly as he looked at the misshapen corpses strewn all over the war-torn passageway and at the gathering darkness beyond. Any other foe would have long withdrawn their forces to avoid such senseless slaughter by now, but the demonkin clearly cared little for casualties having committed their forces again and again at the Daim guns – a suicide attack of the first order. A grim smile alighted upon his face, as he contemplated the current situation darkly.

He knew that one thing at least was for sure – there could be no victory against an enemy willing to sacrifice lives indiscriminately and that had seemingly endless numbers.

Renewed screams shattered the temporary lull as the demonkin charged forward en masse, a shadow of darkness rushing to embrace them all.

The Baron aimed carefully and even as his finger tightened on the trigger, he issued a silent prayer to the Halar – for either a quick oblivion or an unexpected reprieve – and concluded just as the Daim guns thundered as one.

"Itta amen."

The Necrarch screeched and flailed helplessly as the earth collapsed beneath it and swallowed it whole, but Caine paid it no heed – his concern was more towards the young woman he was currently shielding behind him. Maia was gulping down deep breaths as she clung onto a nearby railing for support, her complexion paler than he had ever seen her before.

She had pushed herself to the absolute limit again, he thought grimly as he shifted the unconscious Atelier into a more comfortable position across his shoulders and urged both Maia and Elyanna on past the stricken Necrarch. There was no longer any point in pursuing further battles, not when their very reason for being in the forsaken catacombs of the Arcatraz was null and void.

Elyanna took the lead without a word, her roving eyes betraying her concern for the many comrades she had within the depths of the Arcatraz. She had good reason to be worried, Caine thought darkly as he urged Maia on past the sinkhole he had just manifested, with those foul hybrid abominations the Doctor had termed 'Necrarchs' on the prowl.

They were master predators, deceptively fast for their size and relentless in their attack. In the cramped confines of the Arcatraz, they would be exceptionally deadly – the limited space affording its prey little room to scatter, permitting the Necrarchs the full capacity of their vicious and methodical savagery while compensating for their lack of rational intelligence.

And to compound matters, the beasts were highly durable – being highly resistant to both physical attacks and magicks. Zhirkov had clearly excelled when creating monsters for close range combat, for whose employ there was little doubt.

Was he another daemon like Ares or Lucifer? Or was he a demon infiltrator in the vein of the Sin Greed? Or perhaps just a deranged homme, whose desires were more readily met by the demonkin?

Too many questions, so little time… And who was to say whether both the Church and the Order of Hyvanna had not been manipulated as well by their own 'Jerich Habsucht'? Could it have been that the demonkin had been the instigators behind the renewed hostilities that had erupted between the Imperium, the Church and the Aesir in the aftermath of the Lady Eve's disappearance?

A mechanical creaking from behind them and a soft snarl indicated that the beast he had just buried was stirring and he hastened his pace, tugging on the faltering Maia's arm to urge her on. Her breathing was ragged and he allowed himself a brief smile, remembering the times in the Yser when she had been on the brink of collapsing and the chagrined expression she had worn when Ares suggested to carry her.

He contemplated doing so again, with or without her permission, but decided against it. Maia was not all that heavy, but to bear both her and the unconscious Crusader could render him vulnerable – they after all had no inkling of what other horrors Zhirkov might have laid out in the labyrinth of the Arcatraz.

Maia slipped abruptly and swore in pain as she fell onto the hard concrete. Caine dropped beside her immediately, his eyes already casing the corridor for potential threats but the Necrarch had yet to emerge. "Are you all right?" he asked quietly as he took her arm.

"I will live," she smiled wanly at him, grimacing in pain as he helped her to her feet. She tottered for a moment and held onto the nearby wall as she regained her balance before nodding gratefully at Caine. And without another word, she then strode forward, chasing after Elyanna who was almost a shadow by then.

Caine smiled briefly as he watched her depart. She had always been easy to read, perpetually wearing her heart on her sleeve, and the elder knew that she had come to an important personal decision – though of what exactly he did not know.

But there was no mistaking the newfound steel in those tear-stained blue eyes, where there was once only remorse and self-pity for her weakness. At least this time there was no wallowing in despair at her failure to recover Ares, especially now when they required the full capacity of each of their functions if they were to survive this hellish scenario.

He was strangely proud of her – to have seen her mature from the child with a death wish that had constantly blamed herself for her inability to save her friends. Her capacity to care was tremendous, which he appreciated, but she had been channeling it negatively to her own detriment.

"Remember the dead, but fight for the living," he whispered after her. It had taken him so long to learn that lesson, and only then after hundreds of Corinthos and Hyvanna dead had been laid out before his feet and he had become the very monster he had sought to repress in the first place. His pursuit of vengeance had taken him down a very dark path, one that he knew he would never recover from fully, and he had no desire to witness anyone else walk along that road.

Not least Maia, whose idealism seemed a breath of fresh air in the cynicism, indifference and corruption that plagued their shared reality. She was perhaps the representative of a new generation – less inclined towards ancient prejudices, and far more open-minded if compared to most of the tottering fools that directed both the Church and the Order of Hyvanna these days.

That she still accepted his company despite knowing of his true nature gave him a slight hope of a world without conflict; provided of course they could all survive the coming holocaust.

A shriek ringed in the distance and Caine turned to look upon the Necrarch, just recovered from its nasty fall, bearing down upon him. The beast growled with a terrible hunger as it lurched forward, its blade arms already poised to hack at the elder.

Caine glanced around and found the corridor now empty of his two wards. Elyanna and Maia had probably taken a detour somewhere but it was of little concern – their scent had already been imprinted in his mind and it would not take long to track them down, hence the matter of greater import had to be the hybrid abomination that approached.

He smiled briefly as he eased the unconscious Crusader off his back and laid her gently against a small crevasse within the nearby wall, trying to fold her limp form in such a manner that she would not protrude forth and present an easy target for the Necrarch's deadly arms.

The beast stalked him all the while, its yellow eyes narrowed as it observed its prey at his task. While grateful for the respite, Caine had to admit the sudden change in the beast's disposition was somewhat alarming, recalling its tendency of charging rashly in the past. Perhaps it had tasted his magicks once, hence its sudden caution, but the very fact that the Necrarch was capable of adapting its tactics probably made it more of a deadly opponent.

Once satisfied, he rose to his feet and met the beast's level gaze. It was perhaps a hundred meters away by now and from what he had witnessed thus far, the beast would cover that distance with five paces – giving him approximately six seconds to react before the Necrarch would be upon him.

He smiled grimly, dropping his makeshift mace to the ground, as he began mustering his mana. Six seconds… That was more enough time, especially now that he needed not to hold back.

The Necrarch issued its ear-splitting scream as it charged even as mottled fur began to sprout from Caine's right arm. The elder's eyes then glowed with a brilliant green abruptly as he snarled, "Roar, Ursa!"

In an instant, he felt the savagery of the dire bear coursing through his entirety and he roared triumphantly before launching himself at his onrushing adversary.

A twisted smile affixed itself upon his face as he leapt into the air, his arms already manifested into the deadly paws of the bear spirit – it was time to let loose some steam.

The last of the demonkin fell with a strangled gurgle as hot lead tore through its flesh and splattered its black blood everywhere. A surreal silence seemed to envelope the passageway, which only moments ago had been filled with the thunder of Daim weaponry and cries of the fallen.

Yiazmat lowered the muzzle of his rifle slowly, his eyes taking in the carnage before him. Innumerable corpses were strewn before the Daim line, twisted and contorted in their final death throes as they wilted before the fury of the Daim guns, a mute testament to the ferocity of the battle fought there.

"Sir," Grislow called to him and he glanced around to meet the sergeant's bleak eyes. "We have had twelve casualties, three of them fatal. Another two can no longer fight."

He shut his eyes regretfully and nodded in acknowledgement. There were already so few Myrmidons aboard that the loss of even one would be felt keenly, and the nature of this battle compounded his irritation at losing such good men – being trapped like rats in a hole, fighting desperately against an enemy with seemingly no respect for valor or for the dead.

The Corinthos at least would have permitted him the bodies of his men, they respecting the skill of the Myrmidons as much as he did the courage of the Crusaders, so that he could send them back to their families to be buried with full honors – having died in the service of the Imperium.

The demonkin on the other hand seemed to think of corpses as a banquet. He had come across several gleefully feasting on the dead before he had dispatched them into oblivion, the initial repulsion without fail giving way to an emotion he had long suppressed till it had become almost alien to him – rage.

Even the Corinthos, who he believed to be the murderers of his father, never managed to inspire such hatred within him…

"Sir?" Grislow's question broke him out of his brief reverie and he raised his hand in a gesture of apology.

"Regroup the men, and form the perimeter here. Hold this line at all costs," Yiazmat said with a calm he did not feel before clapping his hand on the sergeant's shoulder, "If we fail here, then the Arcatraz is lost."

The sergeant flashed him a grim smile and turned to reorganize the shattered line. Yiazmat however called him back, "Grislow, one more thing…"

He proffered his borrowed rifle to the sergeant who accepted the weapon hesitantly. "Give this to someone who can make good use of it," Yiazmat said quietly.

"You will not be staying, Baron?"

"For the time being," Yiazmat replied, "I wish to meet with Elias; see whether he has any grand scheme to break us out of here…"

The grizzled sergeant nodded his understanding before chuckling briefly, a strange sight in the direness of their situation. Yiazmat cocked an eyebrow and asked curiously, "What is so amusing?"

"See if you can borrow some of his Crimson Guard, Baron?"

This time, Yiazmat shared in the laugh before he said, "Try getting them away from him!"

"Elyanna!" a relieved voice called out as the Witch rounded a bend and came face-to-face with a ragged group of survivors. All had clearly seen better days, even aboard the Arcatraz and her concern grew as she spotted a familiar face amidst the humdrum, belonging to the person who had first called upon her.

"Amos," she rushed over to the Aesir ranger who grimaced as he tried to raise a hand in greeting. His flank had been pierced with a sharp blade, she noted immediately as she came to his side, but the wound did not appear too severe. Nevertheless, if he was not given medical attention soon, his life could well be at risk.

He tried a brief smile and said, "Good to see you still kicking about."

"As is the case with you," she retorted with a dark smile. Much like her, he had been leader of one of the most successful cabals in the Eastern Front, conducting vicious guerilla campaigns against the Daim oppressors. It had been a huge blow to the Aesir cause when he had been captured, having been fingered by traitors during the Amaerskiv fiasco, and a cause célèbre for the Daim – his reputation as an untouchable had long emboldened the Aesir resistance.

She looked around at his companions, noting with an immediate caution that they comprised many different nationalities, only to be drawn back to Amos after he clapped a firm hand on her shoulder. "They are brave warriors all," he said quietly, as if reading her mind, "And we are all united in a common cause here regardless of our race, even the Daim in our ranks."

There were a few of those, Elyanna realized belatedly, though their clothes marked them as fellow prisoners rather than their jailors. So the Daim had imprisoned even those of their own kind who was in possession of magicks though in hindsight, it was hardly surprising given their lack of appreciation for human rights in general.

"What happened here?" she asked as she nodded at the appearances of many in his group, already dreading his answer inwardly.

The veteran ranger made to speak only to be cut off by a cry of surprise. The sudden tension that permeated the air was chilling, and Elyanna glanced around to see the Grand Magus standing by the corner, her blue eyes flashing with trepidation as she eyed Amos's companions who returned her uncertain gaze with suspicious glares of their own. Several had even dropped into defensive postures, their crude weapons partially raised.

"She is with me," Elyanna called out hurriedly, wishing to alleviate the ugly mood since Maia's sudden intrusion, "You can trust her, Amos."

The Aesir ranger grunted his agreement and several of those closest to him relaxed visibly. Elyanna turned to Maia who still drew herself up with caution and assured the Grand Magus, "They are friendly, Maia… It is all right."

The young woman nodded slowly, her shoulders sagging to reflect the weariness she felt. The Witch tried an encouraging smile but frowned as she recalled one other person who should have been there as well. "Where is Caine?" she asked with some concern after a few seconds – the elder should not have been far behind the Grand Magus.

Maia hesitated and glanced at the corridor from which she had just emerged. "He should have been…" her words trailed off as she looked behind, and her temple promptly knotted with concern.

Elyanna frowned but shook it off. If anything, Caine was more than capable of defending himself, even against those hybrid abominations. After all, had he not survived for more than two decades alone, singlehandedly defying all attempts of the Church and Hyvanna to silence him permanently?

She had wondered whether Maia had any inkling of Caine's reputation – he had embarrassed Hyvanna so often in the past that she would not have put it past them to deny all knowledge of him, simply to avoid admitting their failure to apprehend one of the most notorious Kyrian in history. After all, it was well known that Hyvanna had very little tolerance for failure and bad publicity, with its dissenters always being quickly silenced and potentially damaging news glossed over and shelved before even reaching the masses of Havan over which Hyvanna reigned supreme.

The Witch knew enough from her earlier conversation with the Grand Magus that Maia was not fully aware of the machinations that oft took place within Hyvanna – the naivety and idealism of the woman herself and the skilful political play of the Maesters had combined to paint a wonderfully rosy picture of the Order she represented in her mind.

Never mind the brutal purge of the Kyrian together with the Church, or that the Order had instigated to Church to annex the northern regions of the Vaj'ya in the first place to get to the Kyrian which had long been under the protection of the Hym. And that in return for their silence on the infringement of Hym sovereignty, the Order had promised no action against the Imperium if they mounted an expedition into Phacien which they had long desired.

It would undoubtedly shock Maia to learn that Hyvanna had been indirectly responsible for the Eastern Front, but that was the truth. And the reason that they condoned such madness – to destroy the Kyrian, the original inhabitants of the land on which Havan had been built whose blood had been shed to create the greatest megalopolis in the world.

All because Daran Geran'thul – Caine's father had boldly marched into Havan and demanded reparation for the Kyrian, who had been chased out of their ancestral lands. All because his rallying cry grew to exceptional proportions; shocking and galvanizing the masses against Hyvanna – the one thing the Order would not stand for over all others.

Convincing the Church that the Kyrian were heretics deserving of divine punishment had been easy, and that the exercise would involve land grabbing strengthened Corinthos resolve further. The Vizier might preach of satisfaction with one's lot but the truth was that the Corinthos was as greedy as the Imperium if not worse, and the opportunity to expand their jurisdiction – with Hyvanna's promise of recognition – while purging the unclean was too good to be passed up by the dreaded Inquisitors.

Promising the Imperium, the other Great Power, absolution over sacking Phacien had been easier even in return for withholding their condemnation against the Crusade and their support for the Hym. The Aesir had never been close allies with Hyvanna and the Imperium's desire for the abundance of Phacien's natural resources was very much evident, needing them for the war brewing on the Western Front.

So the Church had advanced, emboldened by Hyvanna's support and promise of Daim inaction. There was not much the hapless Hym, tangled up in a war of their own against their natural foes the Feldrakyn, could do against the superior Crusaders once bereft of Daim support and they had been forced to surrender their lands to the whims of the Corinthos, exposing the Kyrian to the brutality of the purge that soon followed.

And the Imperium struck deep into Phacien soonafter against the Aesir, beginning the second of the great wars of their generation.

Oh yes Maia, she thought with ill-humor, only those who do not know better like you think well of your Order… But for the rest of us, Hyvanna is hardly to be trusted – a snake that could turn on you the moment it felt that you were of no advantage to it.

Amos interrupted her thoughts as he said thoughtfully, "Caine Geran'thul? He too is here?"

Elyanna nodded, realizing that there was little point in denying the truth, and replied, "I encountered him and Maia sometime ago further in."

The veteran ranger spat contemptuously, "We are in good company then, that even the legendary Hunter of Men had been held captive in this foul place… I must admit I am surprised though, that they did not turn him over to Hyvanna for more concessions."

Several of the Aesir present shared in his dark laughter. Elyanna allowed herself a smile and caught the look of surprise etched upon Maia's face, which was soon replaced by a renewed wariness. Good, Elyanna thought without malice, she learnt quickly that to go about brandishing the name of Hyvanna freely would win her few friends in the catacombs of the Arcatraz.

"We have more pressing matters at hand than politics, Amos," she said decisively as she eyed the ragged condition of his group, "I take it you too have encountered the bastard Doctor's pets?"

The ranger's eyes clouded as he spat contemptuously, "He was probably delighted when we first broke free! I would not be surprised if I learnt that he orchestrated this whole fiasco just to let loose those foul monsters of his."

Elyanna smiled grimly. If Amos only knew how close he was to the truth, she thought darkly before she asked, naming fellow rangers of some repute who she had met earlier, "What of Sanya? And Ruon? They were with you earlier, were they not?"

Amos shook his head and replied, "We were scattered after fighting those abominations – I have no inkling of their fate." He sighed wearily before he continued, "There were at least thirty of us together at one point, but before we knew it, Zhirkov had loosed his scum on us."

She rubbed her temple wearily as a wild-eyed Hym stammered wildly, "We have no hope… The Doctor has the Ananya at…"

"You and your Ananya! I keep telling you, they are not incarnations of your deity, fool!" a nearby Aesir snapped irritably as he cuffed the nervous Hym, "Those were Daim creations – bred for the sole purpose of killing the likes of you and I!"

A second Hym squared up angrily to the unrepentant Aesir, "You dare tempt the vengeance of the Ananya? Your mockery of her is the exact reason why…"

"Enough with your Ananya!" the Aesir roared impatiently and shoved the Hym who retaliated in kind and before Elyanna could even react, a third ranger smashed a fist into the Hym's face and knocked him down. The underlying tension immediately gave way to open hostility as the myriad races present launched themselves at each other, snarling and cursing at each other.

The Witch swore as a loose backhand took her unawares and sent her staggering backwards. She could watch on in disbelief as the shaky alliance disintegrated with the inherent prejudices and anger of all present surfacing. Amos was pleading with them, hauling his fellow rangers off their opponents but to little avail, there were simply too many to stop…

The wild-eyed Hym from earlier abruptly launched himself at her, his eyes flickering irrationally as he hurled a punch at her. Elyanna grunted as she parried the blow with her right palm before smashing her right elbow into her assailant's face, knocking him cold before mustering her mana as she looked around at the chaos before her – if they refused to listen to reason, then perhaps they would listen to might.


The temperature dropped abruptly to near-freezing levels, a complete departure from the relatively warm climate of the Arcatraz catacombs, and Elyanna could not help but shiver as she looked around for the source of the sudden change in temperature…and found it.

Maia's eyes were glowing with a brilliant blue as she stared pitilessly at the brawl which was breaking up almost as fast as it started, with many of the contestants stopping to gape at the Grand Magus with a newfound reverence and wariness.

"To think that all of you are still capable of fighting each other even in the midst of this crisis," Maia said icily as she glared at all present, the glow in her eyes slowly fading away, "Who needs Zhirkov when we ourselves are more than capable of killing each other upon the slightest of provocations?"

"Do not liken us to him, youngling" the ranger who had instigated the first argument with the Hym snarled dangerously as he wiped blood-flecked spittle off his mouth.

"Of course not," Maia said contemptuously, "You are not nearly smart enough to be compared to him."

"What did you say?" the man roared as he took a threatening step forward only to be restrained by Amos. No one else had made a move; their expressions unreadable as they extricated themselves from their respective tangles to meet the Grand Magus's pitiless eyes.

"Maia," Elyanna began cautiously, "It would not be wise to…"

"I call it as I see it, Elyanna," Maia interrupted brusquely before addressing the silent crowd coldly, "Congratulations everyone – you probably succeeded if it was your intention to entertain the good Doctor, because I can think of no other reason for this pointless brawl."

A brief silence reigned as all present digested Maia's words, even the brash ranger who shrugged himself free of Amos's restraining grip.

Elyanna had to bite her lip to conceal her amazement – she had never witnessed anyone capable of stopping a full blown brawl, especially one concerning race and religion, by sheer force of will before. Maia had practically dominated a room full of battle hardened and prejudiced warriors with but a few disdainful words and sheer presence, which was all the more impressive given her less than imposing size.

"You have picked up an interesting one, Caine," she smiled grimly before she glanced behind at Amos who chuckled as he rested against the wall, seeming to agree with her assessment.

"So what then would you suggest we do, Maia?" the veteran ranger then asked quietly, his eyes traversing to meet those of his group, "Where should we go next?"

"Which is of greater importance to you, Amos?" Maia replied as the blue gleam in her eyes started up again, "Vengeance, or survival?"

Elyanna stared at Maia in bemusement, not so much for the two options presented by the Grand Magus, but by the sheer ruthlessness the young woman was now displaying. She could even understand Maia's reasoning – for warriors such as themselves, the loss of their dignity could be tantamount to a life not worth living till at least their honor was restored.

But that Maia would be the one uttering such words… That the emotional girl who had been sharing her story freely but a few hours earlier could be as pitiless as she was now. Perhaps she had been too hasty in judging the girl's character and mental strength.

She glanced around at Amos who smiled in apparent understanding, "Tell me, Elyanna, do you remember the Doctor's whereabouts?"

She hesitated before replying, "I was always blindfolded before taken to him but…"

"You do not recall being taken up any elevator," Amos finished her sentence. Elyanna bit her lip and nodded in agreement and Amos chuckled again before announcing to the gathered survivors as he drew his makeshift blade, "I choose the first option. All of you – feel free to make your own decisions, but if you wish to chastise our good Doctor, then feel free to join me."

"Amos," Elyanna began uncertainly but Amos waved her off before clapping his hand on her shoulder.

"Elyanna," he said quietly, "I am bleeding inside... I won't be able to make it even if we do escape."

Elyanna's eyes widened in shock but she quickly regained her composure, "Surely there are healers?"

The ranger shook his head regretfully and replied, "Those here have rudimentary knowledge at best… Best I go out with a bang, hey?" He smiled wanly and said, "Just like old times."

Tears began to well up in her eyes as she clasped his shoulder firmly, "For Phacien."

"For Phacien," he repeated stoically before he glanced around at the assemblage and asked with a quiet authority, "So, what are your decisions?"

One of the strapping Hym replied with a rueful smile, "I would have been considered dead to my people already – at least now my death could be of some meaning."

The brash ranger then spoke with uncharacteristic soberness, "I died the day I departed dearest Phacien." He brandished the broken pipe he wielded as a blade before he met Amos's gaze, "I will follow you, Brother Amos."

Several others too murmured their agreement while others came forward without words and clapped their hands on Amos's shoulders. Elyanna's heart went out to all of them – they were almost her kindred, though perhaps unrelated via Aesir blood, but united in their experience and in their despair – but she now found herself in a dilemma.

Would she abandon Maia to join in the hunt for the Doctor? Or should she, armed with the knowledge of Zhirkov's true allegiance, choose to protect the Grand Magus instead to ensure that her quest to rally Hyvanna, and subsequently the Five Nations against the demonkin was successful?

The latter was of course infinitely more important, but the emotional scars left by her experience in the Arcatraz ran deep. Could she even sleep in peace, with the knowledge that the man who had tormented him for so long remained at large?

A bead of sweat tricked down her cheek as she contemplated her own decision as she watched Amos rallying those who had decided to join him in his quest for vengeance. Only a few had chosen survival and with these Amos shook hands and bade them safety as they wished him success.

Any minute now, his attention would be turned on her. She gritted her teeth and exhaled slowly, trying to decide when…

"I am joining him, Elyanna."

She gaped at Maia who stared at her with an unreadable expression. "But your mission…" Elyanna began, only to be waved off by Maia who chucked softly.

"You sound exactly like Caine, always impressing on me the importance of my mission," the Grand Magus said quietly, "I am well aware of that, but regardless, Hyvanna should already be aware of the situation in the North by now."

Elyanna took her hand and said fiercely, "Nevertheless, your testimony is crucial to convince Hyvanna to muster their full authority over the Five Nations…"

"It could be," Maia conceded before she met Elyanna's stare calmly, "But then again, I cannot stand by idly as the demonkin capture what is currently the most dangerous weapon in existence."

Elyanna grew stricken as she insisted, "Then let me go in your stead, but you… You ought to…"

"Like master, like pupil," Maia smiled and shook her head firmly, "But I have made my decision, Elyanna – I will go to find the Doctor, together with Amos and those with him."

The Witch remained silent for a brief moment before she exhaled deeply, "I can understand now why Caine calls you a stubborn one." She took a deep breath and asked, "Are you sure this is altogether wise? You realize the importance of your word, yet you keep throwing yourself into the frontlines where the fighting is the thickest."

Maia replied grimly, "This station is a threat to all homme, Elyanna. If unchecked, the demonkin could easily use the Arcatraz to destroy Dai'vyaz – the last bastion of strength in the North and I dread what it could do if it were deployed southward in Havan."

"Hyvanna has the Grand Cannonade."

"Its range is not too great that it could destroy the Arcatraz before this platform even ventured into our airspace," Maia immediately retaliated, "And by the time it did come within range of the Grand Cannons, millions would already have been withered away beneath the strength of its firepower."

"And most of those millions would be Daim scum," Elyanna muttered irritably, "Perhaps that would be divine justice, considering that they were the ones who first created this behemoth."

Maia's eyes flashed immediately and the Grand Magus promptly snapped, "The Daim would at least exercise some restraint and use it tactically – the demonkin on the other hand are far less indiscriminate in who they slaughter!"

"You would be surprised, Maia, at what actually happens in war," Elyanna retorted darkly, "And you probably have more faith in man than our kind deserves."

Maia hesitated, clearly mustering a new retort, but Elyanna waved her off decisively before she could issue another word. "Enough already, Maia," the Witch tried with a calm she did not feel, knowing well that neither of them would back down on the matter if allowed to continue, "Dai'vyaz can burn for all I care, but I will concur with you on one point: this station is a threat to us all."

She then said darkly to the now disquieted Maia as the air around her crackling with electrical discharges, "And I will most definitely not say no to an opportunity to destroy this place."

"You called, Elias?"

"Yiazmat," the Hierarch acknowledged with a slight incline of his head, "We have a situation."

"Would you be referring to the current demon infestation or a situation concurrent to that?"

"Concurrent," Elias clarified as he lounged comfortably in his seat, as if he was anywhere else but in a battleground. The Hierarch glanced at the chief warden, Magellan, who was sitting behind his desk with a careworn expression etched upon his face, "Perhaps you would care to explain to comrade von Kampf?"

Magellan said wearily, "The self-destruct mechanism for the Arcatraz has been deactivated."

"By who?" Yiazmat said grimly, "Can we identify the culprit?"

"He was not exactly discreet about it, leaving his online signature all over when he tampered with the system," Magellan scowled before he swore aloud, "Damn that Zhirkov, what is he thinking?"

"The Doctor," Elias confirmed matter-of-factly to Yiazmat who found himself less than surprised at the identity of the traitor. Somehow, he had taken an instant mistrust to the Doctor when they had first met earlier, though it now appeared to be justified given the circumstances.

The Baron grunted his understanding and stated calmly, "So you wish me to tag along as you administer some chastisement to the good Doctor."

Elias chuckled mechanically and nodded his agreement. "No time like the present," Yiazmat then said as a dark smile creased his face for what seemed the first time in the whole damned day "Shall we depart then?"

Author's Notes:

I am decidedly rusty. It's been around one and a half years, and there have just been so many things to do, but here's the latest chapter of Flameheart.

All I can say is that I hope you enjoy it, and perhaps drop me a review or two letting me know what I could improve about this chapter.