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(Contains: nudity, sexual themes, violence/gore and strong language)
Chapter 8

12:01:11

They landed in the mountains just outside of Atlasur. Smoke tried to keep Que calm as Eric went over the plan again. The mercenary – Ophelia – listened carefully since it was the first time she'd heard it. In the time it had taken them to get to Atlasur, she had said only one thing. And it had been to Que when she had tried to ask Ophelia questions.

"Concentrate on Brogan. She is more important than your curiosity."

Now, the mercenary sat attentive to what Eric said. She clearly had every intention of saving Brogan. No matter what she was like, that alone bound her to the group.

"So is everyone clear on their positions?" Eric asked as he finished the recap. "Remember: no one is to be without at least one other person. If something happens and the mission needs to be aborted, you all know the drill."

"Smoke?" Que said, tugging on his arm. "I'm scared. What if we don't find her in time? It's been over a day since we found the buggy. What if she's really hurt?"

Smoke gave Que's shoulder a squeeze.

"She may be hurt, but she's still alive, Que. Brogan is tough. She won't die without a fight. As long as she's alive, we'll save her."

"You better fucking believe it," came Ophelia's voice from behind them. Her expression was dark.

"Brogan is alive and we will get her out."

Her tone said there was no reason for doubt.

Que smiled a bit, even though that odd bit of reassurance had come from the one person there who she liked the least. Ophelia was frightening, but for once, her fear had kept her from asking too many questions.

Liam took a drag of the cigarette he was smoking: his third so far that evening. The pilot put his hand on one man's shoulder.

"You'll take care of my ship, right? We'll need it to get out of here as fucking fast as possible."

"You have my word, sir," the militia man said. "I'm one of the best snipers in Croydon. No one will get within a mile of your craft unless I let them."

"Don't let it go to your head, Mark," Eric said. "Don't forget the flares if you spot danger."

Mark nodded.

"Everything is already set up and prepared to go."

Smoke nodded.

"Then let's move. Brogan needs us. The Enlightened think they got a victory capturing her. Let's take it away from them."

Ophelia was already headed off the ship. Smoke gave Que a nod, and motioned to Liam. He looked at Eric.

"If all goes well, we'll see you at the rendezvous with Brogan."

Then he turned away and followed after Ophelia.

Liam and Que were close behind, while Eric prepared the rest to move out. Their smaller group of four was to enter from a militia-made entrance further off; it had been a project of the Croydon militia for the last few months. The slightly larger group of five, the one Eric was leading, was to use a more well-known entrance, one they knew had a good chance of already having been discovered by the Enlightened.

The choice was deliberate. Eric's group was to be the distraction.

***

10:25:33

Mr. Ferdinand looked up as he saw the red alarm installed by members of the Enlightened beneath him after they had first taken over Atlasur. He went out of his lab to find the captain of the army they had accumulated and asked why the alarm was raised. The captain told him that they had intruders in the city. One of the guards had escaped an ambush by them and had sounded the alarm. He was on his way to check it out.

Ferdinand nodded and then summoned Zeta. When the homunculus arrived, Ferdinand didn't even look at him.

"Take a group of soldiers and find out where the intruders are. Kill the intruders. I want no one interrupting my research," he said.

Zeta tilted his head, looking at the red alarm.

"Why? Last I recall, you've been able to ignore most any distraction to continue your research. Besides, soldiers won't listen to me unless you tell them to."

"I already informed the captain I would be sending you with them to destroy the intruders. Go be useful. Don't come back until they're dead," Ferdinand said.

In his typical fashion, Zeta rolled his eyes and began to go about his task.

"I'm surprised you didn't want to keep at least one for interrogation."

Mr. Ferdinand didn't respond or comment. After all, there was no reason for him to explain his reasons to a homunculus. Right now, all he cared about lay before him.

Miss Romero's creation that hid its secrets from him.

***

09:39:48

"You ready men? This is what we were hoping for."

Eric looked through a pair of binoculars at the approaching soldiers. For as few men as he'd brought with him, he was still a little surprised at how few soldiers were being sent. He brought the binoculars down and handed them to one of his men.

"Gavin," he said. "Look at what they've sent. Does anything look odd to you?"

Gavin looked through the scopes.

"There looks like there's a young man with them. He doesn't look like a soldier either. His clothes are odd, but fancy."

He handed them back to Eric.

"A set-up, you think?"

"Perhaps."

Eric looked one more time.

"They're getting close. Remember, there will be more to follow, so use your ammo wisely and stick to melee if you can. There's a young man with the soldiers. Treat him with caution; we don't know what his purpose is. Understood?"

The men nodded, their faces grim. The youngest, Tom, gripped his rifle close.

"We'll follow you anywhere, Commander Gunner," he said.

Eric took a deep breath, putting the binoculars away and drawing a pair of daggers.

"Just don't follow me to the grave. If things go bad, draw them away. We aren't trying to decimate them, just distract them."

His grip tightened around his weapons. The soldiers were almost upon them.

"This should go quickly."

Gavin nodded. So did the rest of the men. Tom looked nervous, but determined.

In the next moment, they came out of hiding, ambushing the group of soldiers like they had done before. Three out of Eric's men were ex-soldiers themselves and fought well. They each took one or two men to fight. Their shouts blended with the sounds of metal on metal and fist on flesh.

The young man at first only watched.

"Do something, you idiot!" one of the soldiers shouted at him. The man shrugged.

"You seem to be doing fine on your own, but if you insist..."

He held his arm to the side, palm flat and fingers together, as he looked at one of the militia men fighting. With no emotion at all, he ran at him, and as he did, his whole arm from the elbow down appeared to solidify and take on a metallic sheen. When he reached him, the young man swung his arm – now looking in every way like the blade of a sword –  into his side, cutting a horrible gash through him. Before the militia man could even cry in pain, he swung again, this time severing his head.

This even left some of the soldiers dumbstruck.

The remaining three men stood in shock. Tom began to back away, his entire body shaking. Gavin lifted his trembling gun and aimed it at the young man. The rifle went off, the bullet aimed for the man whose hand had become a sword.

The young man had looked up about the same time the gun had been lifted, and just before it had been fired, held his other arm up to shield himself. There was an unusual ringing type of sound when the bullet struck his arm and ricocheted, striking a soldier instead. It was more difficult to see this transformation, it had happened so quickly. The soldiers resumed their fight with the militia after that, but Eric was quick in calling out orders:

"Fall back! Fall back!"

It had taken him a moment to recognize what this man really was, and after what he'd done to one of his men, he didn't want to risk the lives of the others, or himself. There was no time to explain that this was a homunculus...

"Think we should just let Zeta take them?" the soldier who'd been shot asked one of the others, since they easily outnumbered the militia now. "Could be amusing to watch."

Eric's men did as ordered. They moved away, fighting off the soldiers even as the soldier who had been shot said that. Gavin fired again in an attempt to keep the soldiers and Zeta at bay.

The homunculus (whether or not he heard the soldier's comment) didn't hesitate to move forward with the soldiers, moving towards Gavin first. He swung his weapon arm at the rifle, effectively destroying the gun, before turning to the militia man, ready to strike him next.

Gavin pulled out his sword quickly, in an attempt to defend himself against the young man's strike. He backed away, trying to get away before he was killed like Michael had been.

Their two blades met mere inches from Gavin's face, which seemed to amuse Zeta as a smile spread across his lips.

"That's much better," he said, chuckling a little in his child-like way. "It's more fun this way."

If Gavin didn't know any better, he'd think the man was talking about a simple game. He didn't have much time to think about it, however, as Zeta moved in to strike again, his expression returning to its original, emotionless stare.

Gavin paled, but he continued to deflect. His expression was grim as he tried to back away.

"Get out of here, Tom, Gunner, Alex!"

He stumbled back after a heavy parry that he had barely deflected.

But as he parried that blow, Zeta switched hands, morphing his opposite hand into a blade just as he returned his original limb to normal. He impaled Gavin through the chest with the new blade, smiling contently as the blood spilled from his chest and mouth. Zeta waited until the body stopped thrashing before he looked up at the remaining three.

"I win. Who shall play with me next?"

Tom broke into a run. Alex stared at Gavin and began to shoot at the man who had killed him. He shot at the young man until he had no bullets left.

Shaky hands don't help, though about half of the bullets did hit, and Zeta didn't have the reaction time to deflect them all. One skimmed his ear, tearing a nasty hole through it. Zeta grimaced in pain, cupping his normal hand over the wound, but soon smile again.

"That's not fair, fighting ranged against melee..."

When he removed his hand, the bleeding had already stopped. The homunculus pointed his blade at Alex.

"So you'll play next, then. Come on, now. Draw a melee weapon so that this is fair."

Eric stepped in front of Alex, holding his daggers at the ready.

"Go after Tom," he growled as quietly as he could. "Make sure the soldiers don't catch up to him."

They'd been focusing on Zeta so much, they almost missed the soldiers taking chase as soon as Tom had left. Eric popped his neck.

"I'll hold off this one."

Alex stared at Eric for a long moment, before he uttered a quiet, "Yes, sir." He dropped the now empty gun and ran in the direction Tom had headed.

Eric turned back to the homunculus as soon as his men were gone, tightening his grip on his two weapons. Zeta shook his head.

"Now that isn't really fair," he said. "A sword versus daggers. Wait one moment, please. I'll shorten my weapon."

The militia man raised an eyebrow as he watched. Zeta seemed to be very concerned with keeping things fair, which gave him an idea...

"You know," Eric began just as he finished shortening his blade-hand. "It really isn't fair that I fight with two weapons either. It would mean that you would have to morph both of your hands, and you can't just drop a dagger like I can. You might need a hand free. Let me put one of my daggers away."

The homunculus tilted his head to one side with curiosity, but nodded.

"That makes sense. I'll wait."

Eric's eyes never left him (just in case) as he put one of the blades away. He slipped his hand into his pocket as quickly as he could, feeling around for one of the stones he'd brought with him.

"One more thing..."

He pulled out a stone and rubbed his finger over the smooth surface; it began to glow with a barely visible, yellowish light. Eric looked at his hand, hoping this would work, before looking back at the homunculus.

"Here, catch!"

He tossed the stone gently, not intending to strike him with it, but hoping that Zeta's curiosity would prompt him to catch it. Clearly confused by the militia man's actions, but as curious as expected, Zeta reached out with his normal hand to snag the stone.

As soon as his hand was wrapped around it, however, it suddenly crackled with electric energy. The zap lasted a few seconds, and the homunculus cried both in shock and pain as he collapsed to his knees. The alchemically charged stone had done its job, and Eric wasted no time taking off after his comrades while Zeta was out of the battle. The homunculus was only able to look up after him as he ran.

"Not... fair..."

By the time Alex got to Tom, the young man was already dead. The soldiers who had killed him came at Alex as he arrived. When Eric appeared, he was fighting them, and losing.

"Fuck."

Eric drew both his daggers again and lunged at one of the soldiers. He was thankfully not very heavily armored, so he managed to slip his blade into the man's side, landing a damaging blow. The two militia men were outnumbered, and even with Eric's help, the situation did not significantly improve.

"Get to safety, Commander!" Alex shouted. "You need to get out of here! If you die, all this would've been in vain. You have to escape!"

Eric didn't want to leave his last man behind, but he knew Alex was right. If they were going to have any success at all, at least one of them would have to get away and warn the others.

He still wasn't about to leave without one more attempt to help his friend.

Eric reached into his pocket and pulled another stone, rubbing his thumb over the surface, this time producing a reddish glow. He threw it with all his force at the soldiers, and only ran after it made contact, exploding in a burst of deadly alchemist's fire. He could only hope it would save Alex too.

***

03:55:22

It had taken Liam, Que, Smoke and Ophelia about nine hours (and several minutes) to get down from the mountains and to the rendezvous point in the city. Atlasur wasn't small, and they had to be careful every step of the way so they wouldn't be caught before. They noticed about six hours ago when the alarm went off, indicating that the diversion was in full swing. They had to double their efforts to remain hidden. The alarm was now silent, but still on alert because soldiers continued to walk the streets.

They were supposed to meet with Eric's group at the rendezvous point an hour ago. There was still no sign of them.

Smoke designated himself as look out. He timed the soldiers rounds, watched their routes and waited for Eric. Ophelia had made a brief comment about how trained Smoke was in espionage – and there may have been a hint of respect there.

As if she wasn't stuck in a group of complete fools.

But it had been over an hour. Eric still had to be all right because the alarm continued to run. But it had been too long.

"We need to get moving," Ophelia said, her voice icy. "We can't continue to wait for him. We need to get to Brogan before they kill her or do worse."

Que whimpered. She looked over at Liam (since Smoke was busy), trying to find some reassurance. The pilot was smoking a cigarette, and frowned a little when she looked at him, shaking his head. He didn't know what to tell her. He was just as worried as she that Ophelia was right.

Footsteps approached. Before any of them could say anything, Eric stumbled into sight.

"Everyone's dead," he told them, muttering the words softly. "You're not going to believe what they've got working with them..."

Smoke jumped down silently from his perch. Ophelia arched an eyebrow at him. Smoke moved straight to Eric, helping him.

"Something alchemical that you can't fight? I told you they had an alchemist with them. If the Enlightened hired an alchemist, you knew he had to be stronger than you."

"We didn't fight an alchemist," Eric groaned, rubbing his hand over his face. "We fought a fucking homunculus: a full-sized, human homunculus."

Liam cringed, but Que just blinked in confusion, tilting her head to the side.

"What's a homunculus?"

"It's an alchemical construct. A lot like a robot only made with alchemy instead of machinery. A human homunculus is supposedly impossible to create," Smoke said.

"Clearly not anymore," Ophelia said. She stood and turned to Eric. "If everyone is dead and a homunculus is hunting you down, we have no more time to waste. We need to get to the center in as little time as possible."

Liam nodded his emphatic agreement, quickly finishing his cigarette.

"Not that we had any to waste before."

Que moved as close to Smoke as she could as they began to set out again. Eric stuck one hand in his pocket, fiddling with the stones that had saved him twice.

"You know, I'm not sure he's their creation," he admitted. "He didn't seem overly eager to help the soldiers he arrived with, and (to be honest) acted like an innocent child. I'd expect something made by the Enlightened to be more... well, aggressive, at least."

"It's a human homunculus," Smoke said. "They're supposed to be mythical –
impossible to create. I imagine that if an alchemist accomplishes that it would be far from perfect, no matter what the intentions."

He kept Que close and his voice low.

They followed Liam, who had the map now. Smoke had guided them to the rendezvous point, but during that hour of waiting, he had given the map to Liam to calm him down. Plotting out a course that would keep them hidden with Smoke's regular reports on the routine of the soldiers seemed to calm the pilot.

The center was still a ways away. With how cautious they had to be, it would easily take another couple of hours to get there. They had to get Brogan out before dawn. But without the rest of Eric's team, how were they going to get a distraction that would allow them to infiltrate the building without being caught and with enough time to get Brogan out?

Somehow in the next couple of hours as they made their way to the center and avoided the soldiers and the homunculus still chasing Eric, they had to figure out what they were going to do to save Brogan.

At about the halfway point, they stopped to consider their options for entering the building.

"Best thing I've got are my stones," Eric explained, pulling a few out of his pocket. "Maybe if we could give Que here a crash course in using a slingshot, we could set a few strategic fires for a distraction."

He glanced at the girl before turning to Smoke.

"Other than that, I'm drawing a blank right now. A homunculus was not something we were prepared for."

If Liam had any thoughts on the matter, he kept them to himself, going over the map again and again, muttering curses under his breath. Que rocked on her heels, staring at the stones Eric held.

"What are those?" she asked softly. The militia man held one up for her.

"Pre-charged alchemical formulas. I just have to rub my thumb over the surface, and the rock becomes an instant elemental bomb, waiting to detonate: the next thing it strikes sets off the effect, whatever I've prepared on the stone earlier. Basically, it transmutes the rock into another element, be it fire, electricity, water, or what-have-you. One use each."

Que took in the information and nodded as he explained.

"I can see how those would be useful."

"We don't have time to teach the girl how to use a slingshot and hope that she aims in the right direction," Ophelia said. "I can shoot them more accurately in the direction and place you want them with my arm. Brogan gave me a few nice perks when she built them. One of which is a targeting system."

"I'm a fast learner," Que said with a frown, a little insulted by Ophelia's remark. "I only need to fire it once to understand the physics involved. Then targeting is a snap."

"That isn't an exaggeration, either," Eric added. Que nodded emphatically in agreement.

"And my name is Que, not 'the girl'. That's rude."

"Do we have the time to be wasting discussing this?" Ophelia asked, incredulous that Brogan's life was on the line and the girl wanted to argue semantics and politeness. She approached Eric and lifted her metal arm.

"Either hand them over so we can get this done or I'll go blow up a few buildings by myself while you waste time teaching her how to do this."

Her eyes narrowed.

Eric actually seemed to jump back at her approach.

"I'd be careful bringing your arm so close to me," he warned. "Wouldn't want me to accidentally touch it. Mechanical things and I don't mesh well; they break if I so much as lay a finger them. I'm cursed."

Ophelia dropped her arm.

"So be it."

She started to walk away.

"And thanks for the warning. I'll make sure to keep a good distance between us then."

She disappeared into the darkness.

A handful of minutes later a building a block down exploded into flames. Soldiers ran from the streets toward it. The mercenary reappeared a couple of minutes later.

"Let's go," she said, before turning. This time, she led the way toward the center.

01:00:01

01:00:00

00:59:59

Smoke got ahead of Ophelia several minutes later when there was a congestion of soldiers before them. Like Ophelia had done, a building exploded about a block away, rousing the soldiers. They hurried toward it as Smoke returned.

"How did you do that?" Ophelia asked. The young man looked dangerous, but there was nothing on him that implied he could do that on his own.

Smoke shrugged, and they continued toward the center.

00:41:12

The closer they got, the more soldiers they encountered. The next cluster Que and Eric set about handling. He'd taken Ophelia's suggestion, however sarcastic it might have been, and taught the young woman how to use his sling shot while the mercenary went to blow up the building. Now armed with the weapon and one of Eric's charged stones, Que went off to ignite a building in one direction while the militia man went the opposite way to light another. Liam ran after Que, just to make sure she made it back alright.

00:19:34

They were almost at the center, the number of soldiers thinning thanks to the various infernos they'd set. There was another small group, unfortunately, blocking the path they needed to take. It was only four soldiers, and they'd be easy to take down, but they'd have to do it quick so that none of them escaped to draw the alarm back to them.

"I can take out two at range," Liam said, drawing his gun. "Smoke, if you and Ophelia can take out the remaining two, we'll be set."

"Not a problem," Ophelia said and lifted her cane. "Give us a moment to get closer."

Smoke nodded at Liam. He followed Ophelia and both waited for Liam's shots.

00:13:57

Liam's first shot was soon followed by the second, both hitting their targets. The second bullet didn't land a killing blow as the first had, and the pilot had a little trouble getting that deadly shot in. It took him two more bullets to bring the soldier down.

The other two men were taken down before they could react. One of Smoke's legs flew. It slammed into the jaw of one man and made a discernible crack. The soldier slumped to the ground.

A flash of light on steel glimmered in the air for a second. The man who Ophelia attacked also dropped, his head rolling several feet away from them. She held her cane horizontally in front of her, the way someone would sheath a blade.

Once the last man was dead, she looked up.

"Let's go."

00:07:07

They at last reached the door to the complex, significantly less guarded than it would have normally been, thanks to all the chaos they had caused. One, very frightened-looking guard stood at the post, practically shaking in his armor as he looked around for possible intruders. Liam raised an eyebrow at Smoke, as if asking him to do the honors.

Smoke vanished into the shadows. In the next moment, the man's eyes rolled back, and he fell to the ground. Smoke looked up as the others approached.

"How are we going to do this? We can't just walk in."

00:01:17

"Break down a door?" Que suggested tentatively. "Pick a lock, maybe?"

00:01:10

"I think the point is that we can't really use the front door, and those could both draw unwanted attention," Eric explained. "We'll likely need another distraction once we find a means of entering."

00:00:58

"But what?" Ophelia asked. "We set fires and destroyed abandoned buildings all over town. Well, mostly abandoned except for a handful of soldiers here and there. Walking in through the front door will have them all coming after us in moments. But we don't have the time to be searching for another entrance. Just standing here discussing it minimizes our chances of not getting caught."

00:00:41

"If only we had a floor plan for this building like we did in Sylvora," Smoke said. He looked down at the soldier. "Or taken clothes off soldiers."

00:00:30

"That wouldn't have worked," Liam scoffed, shaking his head. "I'm too big; Que's too small."

00:00:23

"I can see what sort of stones I have left," Eric offered. "But I'm running low on fire, that's for sure."

He looked over at Ophelia.

"You got any ideas?"

00:00:13

"Other than risking it and killing everyone in sight as we work our way through the building?"

She shook her head.

"We don't have any other choice though. Even if we have to face that homunculus you saw, we need to save Brogan."

00:00:01

"We could – "

Half the building behind them exploded. The group got blown back, Smoke's statement left unfinished as the building erupted in flames, debris falling around an atop them.

Que practically curled into a ball to shield herself from the pieces of rubble that fell near her. When the air was clear, Liam looked back at the building.

"Well," he said, gesturing towards the building. "I think we got our distraction and our entrance all at once."

"Let's take advantage while we can," Smoke said and stood.

Ophelia also stood. She stared at the building.

"Brogan..."

Liam was the first at the newly opened hole in the wall, tearing away bits of debris that had landed in front of it to make the space wider.

"How well do we know the layout of this building?" he grunted as he moved a large sheet of metal out of the way.

"We don't," Smoke said. Ophelia moved beside Liam. With her left arm, she heaved off a large chunk of metal which opened a path into the building. She headed inside.

Smoke followed her and motioned to Que, Eric and Liam. Ophelia spoke as they went in, her voice a whisper.

"All the available men in the building will probably be working on controlling the fire and finding out what happened. We shouldn't meet with much resistance. But the first guard we meet we'll question him to find out where Brogan is."

She gripped onto her cane.

"And we'll take him with us to make sure he isn't lying."

"I still think she's scary," Que whispered to Smoke. Eric made his way up next to Ophelia, keeping to her right to avoid her arm.

"I think it's safe to assume we don't want to go right," he said. "Whatever exploded packed one hell of a punch."

Ophelia headed toward the left.

"My guess is that it was Brogan who created that explosion somehow. So she would have to be in the left wing. Don't dally."

Smoke took Que's hand.

"Stay close to me."

He didn't have to tell her; Que clung by his side as closely as she could without being underfoot. There was practically no one in their path as they made their way through the left wing of the complex. It was poorly lit, and looked barely inhabitable as is. Liam took a position behind the others, keeping an eye out for anyone unsavory.

The group moved carefully through the halls, Ophelia in the lead for now. There was no way to tell where they kept Brogan. For several minutes they stayed close together and worked their way down the hall. Ophelia saw a staircase ahead and began to head towards it, when a flurry of soldiers came running down the stairs.

The group as a whole moved into the shadows. Smoke let go of Que's hand and went ahead, despite the glares and hisses of the others. He moved closer to the stairs, still hiding in the shadows. As the last soldier came down the stairs, Smoke grabbed him, clamping a hand over his mouth and dragged him to the ground, grappling him in the shadows.

Eric kept an eye on Smoke in case he needed help (though he doubted that he would), while Liam watched for the other soldiers to get a good distance away.As soon as it was all clear, he signaled to the rest that they were free to ask their questions.

With a smirk, Eric walked over to Smoke and their captive, drawing one of his daggers.

"Now, we can do this the easy way, or the hard way. Your choice."

Smoke held the man down as Eric flashed his dagger close to his eyes.

"Where is the mechanic? The woman who was captured. Where is she?" Smoke asked, his voice like ice.

The man stared at the dagger and his eyes hardened.

Ophelia rolled her eyes.

"You two take too long."

She grabbed the man by the throat with her left arm, the metal fingers biting hard into his neck. She lifted him away from Smoke and Eric and into the air.

"You will take us to her. Otherwise I'll let the big man with murder in his eyes deal with you."

Her fingers squeezed tighter and the man gasped for air.

"Understood?"

The man gasped a "yes."

Ophelia dropped him. Smoke immediately grappled the man again. He brought the guard to his feet and pinned him hard.

"Lead the way."

"I swear," Liam growled, walking right next to the soldier to make sure he heard him loud and clear. "If you don't take us straight to her, the first thing I'll do is rip your fucking balls off."

With the men covering the soldier, Que had to resign to standing near Ophelia, a little frightened by how drastically different Liam seemed. She wasn't about to ask exactly what he had meant by his threat; she knew it would be unpleasant.

The man nodded, his eyes shifting back and forth between Liam and his pistols and Eric and his daggers. He led the way up the stairs, Smoke's grip on him never lessening.

The guard led them down the hall of the second floor toward the back of the building. There was smoke in the halls from the destruction of the right wing. A series of guards came out one door. In an instant, Ophelia had another open and the group was inside. Smoke had clamped his hand over the guard's mouth so he couldn't call for help.

Ophelia stayed close to the door, listening until the guards had passed. Then she nodded and opened it again. Once more, they were headed down the hall until the guard stopped by a door.

"She's in there," he rasped, his voice damaged from Ophelia's earlier grip. "There's a hall and a then a door and then a room. The doors are locked," the guard said.

Smoke tossed the man at Liam.

"Make sure he stays alive until we can confirm." Smoke tried the door. Locked like the guard had said. In thirty seconds, he had the locked picked. He opened the door. A small hallway. He checked the hall and found a hidden alarm. It could be easily avoided, if you knew where it was.

"The third tile is an alarm. Avoid it."

Smoke moved over it and got to the other door. Ophelia was right behind him.

The lock on this door was harder to open. And there were two of them. It took Smoke a full two minutes to open the door. A figure lay on the floor, dark auburn hair splayed about her head. Ophelia pushed passed Smoke fast and ran toward Brogan.

The mechanic lay naked and unconscious on the floor.

"Brogan," Ophelia said, putting down her cane as she knelt next to the mechanic. She ran a hand over Brogan, looking at her. She spoke when she felt the others coming closer.

"Both her legs are broken. At the shin. Clean breaks."

Ophelia's fingers danced gently over Brogan's torso.

"She has cracked ribs and bruised ones. God, they beat her badly," she said as she touched Brogan's face. She looked down the length of her friend and her eyes – a moment ago soft with worry – became hard and fierce.

"She was raped too."

She looked up at Eric.

"You. Your coat. Now. Pilot. Get that chair and take it apart. I want eight solid pieces of wood so I can put stints on her legs once I put the bone back in place. Boy. Get these manacles off her. Now."

Eric removed his coat quickly and handed it to Ophelia so she could wrap Brogan in it before moving to Liam to take hold of the soldier so the pilot could make some splints. Que tried to read his expression: much like Ophelia's it had gone from worry to anger the instant he knew Brogan had been raped.

The young woman was quiet while the mercenary barked orders. When she didn't give Que anything to do, she hesitantly asked, "How can I help?"

Ophelia looked up at her. She paused a moment and then looked back at Brogan.

"Hold her down. Putting the bones back in place is going to hurt," she said. She looked back at Eric.

"Give me one of your daggers."

He drew one and handed it to her while Que walked over and knelt beside Brogan. Her brows furrowed as she turned to Ophelia, on the verge of tears.

"She's going to be alright, isn't she?"

She was very careful as she placed her hands on the mechanic, ready to hold her still when the bones were being set.

Ophelia took Brogan's clothes which lay in a neat pile and tore strips from them. Smoke finished with the manacles and pulled them away. She put a hand on Brogan's forehead. The mechanic was still unconscious but Ophelia spoke to her anyway.

"This'll hurt, my friend. But it'll be over soon."

She waited until Liam gave her the splints before she moved over to Brogan's left leg. She felt around for the broken bone, found the two pieces. With a careful jerk she put them back together.

Brogan awoke with a scream, her body jerking upward against Que. Ophelia worked fast. She got four pieces of wood and braced them around the left leg, tying them quickly into place.

"It's going to be ok," Que said gently, giving Brogan a soft smile as she brushed some of the hair out of her face. "We're going to get you out of here."

She looked over at Ophelia again.

"Just one more to go, right?"

Ophelia nodded.

Brogan looked around, her vision blurry with pain. God, everything hurt. She recognized Que, then Smoke, even though they were fuzzy.

"What are you two doing – "

CRACK.

Brogan screamed again, tears streaming down her cheeks as Ophelia wrapped the second leg with the splints and cloth. She took a deep breath.

"This will hold for now until we can get her to a doctor."

She looked at Liam.

"Carry her."

She didn't need to say a word as Liam stepped forward and scooped Brogan up in his arms as gently as he could, careful not to move her legs too much as he wrapped Eric's coat around her tighter.

"Let's get out of this Hell-hole before any more of us get killed," he growled.

"What do we do about him?" Que asked, gesturing towards the soldier Eric still held tight. The militia man shrugged.

"Don't ask me for suggestions on this one. I say we slit his throat and leave him here. I lost four good men tonight to his leaders."

"Sounds good to me," Ophelia said. She tossed Eric the dagger.

Brogan blinked.

"Li-Liam?"

He looked down at her and his expression softened.

"Hey, we're gonna get you out of here. Just rest. We'll be back at my ship in no time."

"Do we have to kill him?" Que asked as Eric brought the dagger to the soldier's throat. "He helped us like he was supposed to. Does he really have to die?"

Her brows furrowed as she tried to understand.

Smoke took Que's hand.

"Even if we knock him unconscious, when he wakes up, he'll report us to his superiors. He will tell them what we look like, and then they will be after us all. And most likely, they'll kill him anyway after he has given them the information."

He pulled her away and toward the door.

Ophelia went up to Brogan and put a hand on her forehead.

"We'll get you out of here, Brogan, and to a doctor. If you know anything that can help us, you have to let us know now."

Brogan's glazed brown eyes shifted toward Ophelia.

"'Phelia? You're here too, but...?"

Ophelia shook her head.

"Later."

Brogan took a deep breath.

"They have a homunculus working for them. He isn't Horace's – the alchemist – he was created by someone else. He's dangerous because he does whatever they tell him to do."

"All right." Ophelia looked at Liam. "Let's get out of here."

They had to wait a moment for Eric, who lingered until Que was out of sight before slitting the soldier's throat, making good and sure the man was dead. Once that was done, it became a reverse game of when they entered, working their way backwards from where the soldier had lead them. More clusters of guards appeared now and then, the chaos of the last explosion beginning to dwindle.

"Well, well, well. I heard there was a little band of militia causing chaos – more than what it seemed since we had fires propping up after good little Zeta had killed a handful of them – but I didn't expect such a rag tag group."

The voice came from beside them and was smooth as silk.

Brogan groaned softly against Liam's chest.

"Horace..."

The alchemist stepped out in front of them, his golden hues and mask glittering in the dim light.

"As much as I don't care about the little engineer – despite her incredible robotics designing – I'm afraid she's going to have to stay."

He lifted his hands.

"And so is the little blond bonbon. The rest of you can just die."

A wall came up behind him from the ground. Another came up behind the group.

Smoke pushed Que behind him.

"There are a hell of a lot more of us than there are of you."

"Please. The most dangerous one here doesn't even know what she can do, does she, boy?" Mr. Horace said.

Smoke stiffened, his body tense with cold rage.

Ophelia moved beside Smoke.

"Alchemist or not, you're underestimating us."

"Oh?" Horace said with amusement. "Is that so? Then I better kill you all quickly."

"Protect Que," Smoke whispered to Ophelia.

"What?"

"He's going to go after Que. Protect her."

Ophelia opened her mouth to say something else, but Smoke sprang forward.

"Oh, please," Mr. Horace said. He instantly created a spike from the floor to impale Smoke. But before it reached Smoke it suddenly shifted and stabbed through the wall on the right.

"What–?"

Smoke landed in front of Horace and suddenly a tunnel of floor came up and surrounded Horace as it connected with the roof.

"Hurry!" Smoke said as he moved past the trapped man. He got to the wall ahead of them, put his palm on it and it fell over.

"Let's go before he gets out of there."

Just as he said that, the wall of stone and wood surrounding Horace blasted apart.

Que shrieked, staying close to Ophelia since she was nearest. Eric was up next to Smoke as they worked on escaping the alchemist.

"You've been practicing, I see," he remarked. "Got any more genius plans?"

Liam shielded Brogan, not in a position to fight Horace like the others were. The best he could do is act as a barrier to anything he might try.

"How fast can you build walls?" Smoke asked as he formed one to hold off the alchemist again.

The center began to melt away as if acid spread from its center.

Eric turned and formed one of his own.

"About as fast as you can," he said nonchalantly, as if they weren't in a life-or-death race against a mad alchemist. "Can't build these all the way back though."

"Keep doing it."

Smoke moved fast, leaving Eric to continue building walls as fast as Horace got through them.

"You're becoming annoying!" the alchemist shouted as he began to destroy another wall.

Smoke moved past Ophelia and Que, Liam and Brogan. He got to the left wall, put both his hands on it. Then he pulled them back and punched it. The wall cracked in a square shape and began to fall back, away from Smoke. He crouched and transmuted the falling wall into stairs heading down to the ground outside. He got up and turned to the others.

"Let's go!"

He ran back to Eric and with a slam four more walls – not as thick as the others, but still, four of them – sprang up blocking Horace.

"Out now!"

At this point, Que was having trouble keeping up, falling a few steps behind Ophelia. To keep things from getting any more complicated than they already were, Eric simply grabbed onto her waist and hefted her over his shoulder as he passed. Smoke had seemed pretty adamant about protecting her, for whatever reason, and he wasn't going to lose anyone else on this mission. Que squeaked when lifted, but certainly didn't object to being carried faster than she could run.

Liam quickly took the lead, taking long strides despite carrying Brogan. He didn't know what that alchemist could do, and Smoke had said to get out of there, so that was exactly what he was doing.

Horace blasted through remaining walls as Smoke took the rear going down the stairs fast. He looked behind him and saw Horace walking toward the opening.

"Jump!" Smoke shouted just as the stairs crumbled beneath them.

Liam made it to the ground before the stairs were gone, but Eric had to jump to make up the extra distance. Que squeaked again when they landed. Another alarm sounded, and there was no time to stop and think of what to do next. They had to book it if they were even going to get close to the airship before too many soldiers than they could handle arrived.

Unexpectedly, however, a large shadow began to loam towards them after several minutes of running. It was Liam's ship, and from the looks of it, Mark – the sole remaining member of Eric's group –  was having one hell of a time piloting it. He was flying it too low, and by the time they were several yards away, he landed it with an unceremonious thud, sending it sliding several more feet before it stopped.

"What the fuck are you doing to my ship?!" Liam shouted at the militia man when he appeared near the railing.

"It looks like I'm saving your ass. Hurry up!"

Mark dropped the ramp for them, keeping hold of the rope so he could pull it back up as soon as they were all on board.

"No!" came the shout from the opening. The earth started to rumble.

"Hurry, hurry!" Ophelia shouted as they ran to the airship, the ground shaking beneath their feet and beginning to crack.

"I'll buy us some time! Get on board," Smoke shouted. He stood and faced the alchemist. Arms and hands outstretched, he countered the other man's alchemy, the building beginning to shake and fall around Horace.

Liam was on deck just after Ophelia, setting Brogan down as carefully as he could before he ran to man his vessel. Next was Eric and Que, though he refused to release his charge, especially when she began fighting to be put down.

"Smoke!" Que called to him, trying to free herself from Eric's grasp, desperate that he wouldn't get left behind.

"I need to lift off!" Liam called. "Get your ass on board, Smoke!"

Mark was torn between pulling up the ramp and waiting, knowing that either could be disastrous if the timing was bad.

Smoke delayed only a moment more, just as the building began to fall. Then he ran to the ramp and leapt on board. He got up fast to help Mark bring up the ramp.

"Get us into the air, Liam! Now!"

The ground around the airship began to cave in on itself, as if it began to clench to hold it in place. Horace ignored the falling building his focus on the airship.

"Fuck..." Liam growled as he pushed his ship to its limit, forcing it to take to the air faster than he ever had before. The airship shook as rock and wood tried to keep it earthbound, but it lifted free from the ground and cleared the trees just as the surface beneath them vanished in the quake. Liam took them higher and higher until once again they were in the clouds, and didn't breathe any sigh of relief until they were well away from Atlasur.

"Holy fuck," he said. "No wonder they took Sylvora so quickly. Did you see that shit he pulled? Holy fuck..."

"Smoke!"

Eric finally released Que now that they were in the air, and she ran to the newsie and clung to him like he might suddenly vanish.

"You scared me so much!"

Smoke blinked, his hat almost falling off as Que tackled him. Then his arms came up around her and held her.

"It's all right, Que," he said softly. At least she was scared for him, not of him.

Mark walked solemnly over to Eric, placing a hand on his leader's arm.

"And the others?"

"What do you think, Mark?" was the only answer he would give him before he walked over to where Liam had set Brogan down, kneeling beside her. "How're you doing there, Miss Romero? You alright?"

Brogan, still in extreme pain, took a moment to focus. It was hard to see with two black eyes now practically swollen shut.

"Who are you?" she rasped. "How did... Why...?"

"Eric Gunner," he introduced himself briefly. "I'm a friend of Smoke's. He and your other friends came calling when you vanished, and we tracked you here. Just sit tight and we'll get you a doctor as soon as we land."

Que walked over to Brogan as Eric stood, sitting herself cross-legged beside her.

"Are you going to be alright, Brogan? I was so worried they would kill you..."

She sniffed a little, fighting back tears.

"How badly are you hurt?"

"Really bad," Ophelia said, answering Que for Brogan.

"I can't believe you came too, 'Felia," Brogan said. "How did you...?"

"I came to see you for a check up. The girl and the boy found me in your shop in Croydon and told me what happened. I wasn't about to let you get killed."

She knelt by Brogan and gently lifted her, most of Brogan's weight on Ophelia's metal arm.

"You need to rest."

She looked at Que.

"Does this hunk of junk have any real beds to put Brogan on? Or at least a cot with pillows?"

Que nodded.

"There are bunks below deck. Is there anything I can do to help?"

The young woman searched Ophelia's face. Ophelia had to see how worried Que was for Brogan's well-being.

Ophelia looked at Que for a moment.

"Yeah. Get the bunk ready. I'll follow you."

With a nod, Que rose and headed for the bunks below deck, pausing once to make sure Ophelia really was following.

With Que's help, Ophelia made sure Brogan was comfortable. She helped the woman get to sleep and then returned on deck to find a seat to rest herself.

The entire experience had been... illuminating.
And we finally learn what that countdown means...

I must say, I really do like this chapter. It became a little tedious at times, but over all, I enjoyed working on it.

This story is posted on :icondulcis-absinthe:'s page too. She formats a bit differently.
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