Chapter 4:



Silence filled the room as Johannes and the white-haired woman took their seats across from Sulla.

“Should we leave you, boss?” asked one of the footsoldiers.

“It’s quite alright. You could learn a thing or two, you know!” Johannes replied.

The woman did not utter a word, still staring down Sulla with mistrust.

"Cordelia, this is a man that I trust with my life. Without him, I wouldn't be standing here today, so please try to not be too hostile!" urged Johannes.

"Sorry about that, she's very protective of me.  I took her under my wing a while back, she has no parents that she knows of and spent most of her time in the Enclosure. Now, where were we?"

 He pulled out a flask and took a long sip. He was ready to give Sulla the full story.

“As I’m sure most of you know already, I was born and raised in Level 33. Now, between all the crime, terrorism and government Blood Raids, I considered myself pretty lucky. My folks made an honest living; My old man fixed up those Interface conduits you see all around you, and my mother programmed sewing robots in the textile factories. If any of you ever find yourself in Level 74, you might see one of her designs still around!” Johannes said cheerfully.

“While you could say my parents were both upstanding citizens, my little brother and I were always getting into trouble. Funny enough, I was a bit of a runt back in those days and was always getting kicked around by the other kids in the neighborhood. So naturally, I turned to an older boy, around five years older than me for help. I knew him from one of my routes delivering parcels, and he took care to notice I was always on time. His father sold illegal weapons as an associate of the Bastard’s Brethren, one of the largest crime families in all of Veii. They ran information smuggling, illegal narcotics, gambling, and for the right price, even sold arms to revolutionary groups. This protection wasn’t for free, of course. Because my brother and I were already trusted with being delivery boys, we started to get involved moving…less legal merchandise for him.  Life was hard for everyone on the Level, but thanks to our side jobs we were able to get by.  Our parents knew we were up to no good, but they must have turned a blind eye.  We did help put food on the table after all, and they always gave us the freedom to learn from our own mistakes.  As the years passed, my brother and I worked our way up the chain of associates for the Brethren, eventually moving enough goods to earn as much as our parents!   Money no longer became a concern for us, and we were able to move in the same neighborhood as the mayor, close to the center of the Level. At this point, my smuggling operations had shifted to the virtual world; I was now an independent middleman managing deals in The Interface, no longer reporting to anyone in the Brethren. I was proud, thinking to myself that we were slowly making a better life for ourselves."

Johannes paused to let out a sigh. His eyes grew distant as his typically jovial demeanor began to fade.

"But one day is all it can take to change someone's life forever.  We were celebrating my brother's twelfth birthday as a family.  It was the middle of summer, and we witnessed a rare smidge of sunlight trickle down into Level 33.  We had figured it was a sign of good luck, but this notion could not have been more wrong.  Generally, being close to the center of the city meant you were safe. Because it's also the center of government and business, there was a strong military and police presence around the area.  On this day, however, these people were the exact target.  An armed cult by the name of The Children of Radiance launched a series of bombings in the center of town.  Half the city center was reduced to ashes, including the mayor's mansion and the military base.  I awoke to find our new brick house had collapsed on my entire family.  I tried to scream for help, but smoke and dust had already filled my lungs.  I was sure I was going to die that day, and a part of me wanted to.  But a hand reached out to pull me out of the rubble.  To this day, I don't know who it was. I regained consciousness in a makeshift hospital run by The Church.  To the left of me were three bodies lying under a sheet.  I didn't need to ask who they were.  Getting up, I pressed through the pain and tore off the plastic tubes they had put in my veins.  I knew there was nothing left for me in this life.  My parents had worked tirelessly for decades just for the chance that brother and I could find our way up the Levels and one day touch the sun. For being good, honest people, this was their reward.  I left the hospital, still bleeding and barely alive.  My head was a swirl of anguish, grief, hatred, and bitterness, but I had nobody to blame.  Sure, the Children of Radiance were the ones who planted the bombs.  But before that the government had massacred them and their families to punish their heresy.  So who was to blame here? It dawned on me that I now had no friends, no family, and worst of all - no enemies to exact my revenge upon.  I walked on and drifted aimlessly for miles before realizing my own feet had carried me back to one of the safehouses ran by the Bastard's Brethren.  Subconsciously, it seems I knew the only job I had left was to survive. So that's what I did.  They were familiar with my gifts, and welcomed me back in.  These are the very people who stand before you today, Sulla."

Sulla was at a loss for words.  While he knew that Johannes's brother had passed away, Sulla had still not heard the exact details of Johannes's background.  Johannes had always carried himself as a strong, uncomplicated man. 

"As I grew older and stronger, the more senior Brethren members knew my potential for combat was worth exploring.  They started training me, and sent me to the military under the guise I would stand with my country to hunt down groups like the Children of Radiance.  Of course, I was actually just there to acquire augments, not unlike you I suppose!  I was old enough to realize then that such petty things like personal revenge were a waste of time and effort.  Everyone is out to get everyone else in this world, reason be damned.  The Brethren and I look past this to focus on the only thing that matters: survival.  Anyone can blame others for their circumstances.  You could grow up in the Children of Radiance and watch as your parents get killed in Blood Raids. Returning the favor you could set off all the bombs you want, killing those you hold responsible for your circumstances, and you may very well be in the right.  Accordingly, the Church and government will push back and kill a few of your friends. Inevitably, you'll get killed and your kids will take revenge for you .  This sort of thing has been repeated so often that I don't think anyone really knows or cares who started it anymore.  In the end, all that matters is who survives until the end. Right now, it’s you and me, old friend.”

Having finished his story, Johannes turned to Sulla.

“So what did you come all the way here for? I rarely ever see a court martialed soldier survive, let alone find his way here.” He asked.

“I need to get into the Undercity where I can disappear for a while. Down there I can follow up on some leads I found on Ennoia.”

“So you finally found some clues about her? I remember when you first told me about her back in basic training; that was the only time I've ever seen you weep.”

“Nothing for sure, it’s more like a wild hope that might be true. I met a deserter named Ezekiel in prison who told me that his unit had been ambushed by cultists during a Blood Raid. They were chanting the name Sophia over and over again as they fought and died. Ezekiel told me that they were carrying small icons of Sophia; depicted a woman with dark hair and a mark on her neck shaped like entwined serpents. Are you familiar with this cult?”

“As it so happens, I am. You’re looking for the Shining Path. In truth, I don’t know much about them, we generally don’t do business with cultist types. But I do know that they’ve been operating in the Undercity for decades.”

Sulla had never heard of Shining Path despite being from the Undercity. But that was not surprising, the Undercity was vast and there were literally thousands of groups like them.

“They’ve always kept a low profile until about five years ago when they started spreading to the higher levels, directly attacking the military and the Church. They’ve been the target of many Blood Raids in the past couple years, some successful, some not. They get killed in droves but that only aggravates their fanatical propensities. I'd guess that the “Sophia” that’s linked to your sister has something to do with it; I don’t know much beyond that.” Johannes stated emphatically.

“This is a lot of new information.  I think I finally have some solid leads back to Ennoia thanks to you.” Sulla replied. “Do you have a way to get into the Undercity?”

“Our organization has operations that go down into the Undercity, so we have a few ways to move around. But our bosses are extremely protective of these routes; as you can imagine, they’re crucial to the business. The penalty for leaking information on our routes is instant death, no exceptions.” Johannes said with a sigh. “Even for me, a Vavasour, I can’t give you this information without the agreement of the Council of Nine. The Bastard’s Brethren has not flourished as an organization by being loose with information. Lucky for you, I think we can convince the Council to help you. Not for free, of course; they’ll want a favor in return. And with the magnitude of your request, it’s not going to be easy.”

“I’ll do just about anything. I'm pretty desperate to get to the Undercity. Syphax will definitely be looking for me and I don’t want to fight him up here.” Sulla replied with a pained smile. He knew that he would need every advantage possible if he was going to take on Syphax, he needed the home-court advantage that only the Undercity could provide him.”

“Looks like you have no time to lose. Follow me. We need to get to Level 35.”

Johannes led Sulla through the cramped passageways of the Enclosure until they exited through a manhole, revealing a sprawling crime-ridden district of run-down buildings housing a wide array of criminals and their illicit operations. They made their way down the street to an oval-shaped building with a large dome on top. It was a bland gray color but with his enhanced eyes, Sulla could tell that it had once been painted gold and silver. There were empty spaces carved into the walls that Sulla knew once held sculptures. They were on Level 35, having made their way ten levels down through the Enclosure; this level had once been an upscale entertainment district. Veii had expanded upwards level by level as the population surged. In the years before the Dynatoi coup, Veii had only 40 levels. Level 35 was the center of culture, art, and theater for Veii, it was frequented by the elite for leisure. The level had once held a languorous energy as the wealthy and powerful pursued their pleasure. As the city expanded ever upwards, the wealthy, cultured, and powerful naturally migrated accordingly while the dregs of society filtered towards the bottom. Over the centuries upper levels became mid levels which then became lower levels. Erstwhile upscale levels like Level 35 became crime-infested slums. The building that Sulla was looking at used to be a theater where ancient dramas and operas were performed. But now it served as the headquarters of the Bastard’s Brethren above the Undercity. All along the street was a row of similar dilapidated buildings: theaters, luxurious casinos and high-class lupanars.

They entered the theater. The stage was curtained, rows of seats that once overlooked the grand stage were now replaced by pods that linked to The Interface. Sulla felt chills run down his spine as he came across this hauntingly familiar scene. Johannes avoided looking Sulla in the eye, opting to walk down the side rows with his head stiffly pointed downward in silence. Sulla followed him to the backstage area. In the center of the room, he saw a supercomputer installed into the wall, linking and processing all the information from the Interface pods in the seating area.

Unbeknownst to most, the vast network of the Interface was originally intended to be a prototype for the Church’s idea of humanity’s ultimate ascension. The Techno-Theophylacts who had taken over the Holy Church in alliance with the original Dynatoi 351 years ago held that humanity’s spiritual salvation would come only with relentless technological development. That the Messiah would only appear when humanity achieved the ability to fully transfer a human brain into a computer matrix. The Interface was originally built over 150 years ago in preparation for this ultimate goal. However, technological development had stagnated since then, humanity had not achieved ascension, the Messiah had not appeared, and the Interface was left to become a permanent fixture of Minoan society. What was once intended to be just a temporary expedient on the path of a greater salvation became calcified in the human consciousness. Over the decades, the Interface had grown so vast and nebulous that it was impossible for any one group to police all of it, even the government. It had effectively become a world of its own.

This building was the central hub of the Bastard’s Brethren operations above the Undercity. It was where illicit information was processed, sold, and traded as the information trade was the lifeblood of the major criminal organizations. The Bastard’s Brethren was a massive organization; they had been established as one of the most powerful mafias in the Undercity for decades and also maintained a major presence above it. Before he had joined the army, Sulla had frequently worked for them as a small-time information courier. He had sold his brainpower to them to scrape together the means to support Ennoia and Kore in a setting eerily similar to this.

According to Johannes, the Bastard’s Brethren operated along a strict hierarchy. At the top was the Council of Nine, comprised of the nine most powerful members of the organization. Each one ruled over a slice of turf where they administered the operations of the organization. Johannes had told Sulla that there was a rumored higher boss to whom the Council answered known only as the Bastard though Johannes had never met this Bastard and wasn’t sure if he even existed. Directly below the Councilors were the Vavasours: subordinates who commanded large gangs of enforcers. The Vavasours were responsible for defending the territory of their superiors and engaging in gang warfare against rival mafias. Their practical authority varied greatly, they ranged from petty gang leaders to commanders of thousands of enforcers and each Councilor had several Vavasours under their direct command. Johannes was a Vavasour who commanded several hundred enforcers and answered directly to a Councilor. Below the Vavasours were the Captains who led individual squads of enforcers; they usually handled the street level enforcement and skirmishing. They were also generally in charge of the more traditional aspects of criminal profit: loan-sharking, drug-dealing, racketeering, robbery, smuggling of physical goods and prostitution. Below the Captains were the common enforcers, the violent street thugs kept on a leash by their Captains; they were usually expendable street scum. The Bastard’s Brethren also employed numerous couriers and information farmers like Sulla in his younger days who would navigate the Interface and lend their brains for processing power. In many cases these people were basically serfs, tied to their service with no way out. Organizations like the Bastard’s Brethren had a proclivity for recruiting the indebted and the impoverished.

The Council chamber was located behind the stage. It was a large room with a raised dais at the end; there were nine chairs on this dais: one for each Councilor. Only two Councilors were physically present: an old man and a woman slightly older than Sulla. The other seven were represented by robots. Sulla knew that they were probably in the Undercity and would speak through the voice modulators of the robots. Johannes pointed at the old man.

“That’s Rolf, my boss, he’s been a Councilor since before I was born.”

“And that’s Draga.” He said, pointing to the woman. “I don’t know much about her background, she was a Vavasour until a year ago until she got herself promoted to the Council after her boss Scorilo was found strangled to death. The obvious conclusion is that she had him killed, such a thing is not unheard of, but it could just as well have been someone else. Old Councilor Scorilo was hated by most people. Anyway the Council controls access to the Undercity routes, we’ll have to convince at least five of them to give you access.

“So this is the friend you were telling me about Johannes.” Councilor Rolf spoke. “You want us to grant him access to our vital Undercity routes?”

“Yes, Sulla here has agreed to perform any task we give to him in exchange for access. I can personally attest to his skills in combat and he possesses military-grade augments.”

“Hmm yes, people with military-grade augments are tough to come by even for us. We usually have to rely on lesser quality augments from the black market.”

“And how do we know that we can trust this man?” One of the robots spoke.

“That’s Councilor Cassander.” Johannes whispered to Sulla. “He rarely leaves the Undercity.”

“I’ll prove it to you.” Sulla declared. “Just send me to do whatever you need done. I assume that will be more than enough proof I am not your enemy.”

“You do realize that the task we have in mind is likely to be a suicide mission right?” Councilor Draga asked. “Indeed, if you manage to come back alive and successful we will consider granting your request, but chances are that you’ll die. Are you willing to accept that?”

“I am.”

“If you prove yourself to be an asset to us, we’ll have a compelling reason to help you.”

“How do I know that you won’t abandon me after I complete this mission for you?”

“You don’t.” Draga stated bluntly. “But it seems to me that you don’t have another option.”

“Alright fine, what’s the mission?” Sulla asked

“It’s quite simple actually.” Rolf spoke. “There’s a rival organization that has been working against us on this level called the Battlecrows. They’re a new organization that started only a few years ago but they’ve been extremely effective in resisting us on these levels. They’re led by a man named Hiero; your task is to infiltrate their headquarters and assassinate Hiero as well as his inner circle if you can. We need to decapitate them as an organization before we can fully expand above the Undercity.”

“So why haven’t you sent your own people to take him out?” Sulla asked.

“We have, and every assassination team we send fails. Hiero sent the dismembered bodies of the last team back to us.” Rolf replied with a sigh. “I suppose we could gather together an army of enforcers and declare war but the Council considers that a last resort. We would take heavy casualties and such a massive expedition would attract government attention. We don’t want to be targeted for a Blood Raid up here. This isn’t the Undercity where we can confidently brush off the government’s threats. In the worst case scenario, they’ll completely dismantle our operations above the Undercity.”

“We’ll send another team of assassins with you.” Draga said. “Hopefully with you leading them, they’ll be more successful. Now get going.”

The Battlecrow headquarters on Level 35 was located in an abandoned casino. It was a large, crescent shaped building where the wealthy once gambled; fortunes were made and lost inside. Of course, this was long ago, the building hadn’t been used as a casino for ages. Sulla could see Battlecrows patrolling along the balconies and the roof of the building. He turned to the assassination squad the Council had assigned him. There were twenty of them hidden in an alleyway surveying the casino. These people were all hardened killers, most of them had some kind of augmentations though none military-grade like him. It reminded him of the army squad he had led as a Staff Sergeant. Sulla wondered what his surviving subordinates were doing, Corporal Jax especially. Had the rest of his squad been punished by Syphax for his insubordination? Sulla sincerely hoped not.

“Boss, we’re ready on your signal.” One of the assassins said, interrupting Sulla’s reminiscence.”

“Alright go, try to not die, and remember the plan.” Sulla ordered.

Several loud gunshots rang out and Sulla saw four of the Battlecrow guards fall; that was the work of the snipers that he had positioned in the buildings across the street. Their job was to clear out enough of the guards so that the rest of the squad could enter the building without being shot to pieces.

They moved swiftly across the street with sniper fire ringing out, Sulla saw more Battlecrows fall but he knew it would get much harder once they were inside. He could see enemy defenses set up in the atrium, dozens of Battlecrows and two machine gun nests were waiting for them. Sulla knew that those machine guns would cut through them like a scythe through grain, no amount of augmentation would save them. Which is why the plan called for them to scale the walls instead.

Upon approaching the walls they equipped their grappling hooks and fired them upwards, finding purchase on the railings. They began to climb, leaving them completely vulnerable; It was up to the snipers to cover them. If the snipers missed or were taken out, they would be helpless. Fortunately for Sulla and his team, the snipers proved up to the task and most of the squad made it onto the fourth floor balcony safely. Though Two of them had been killed by guards whom the snipers couldn’t take out fast enough, enough of the squad had made it to carry out the mission.

Sulla led them through the hallways of the casino, leaving a trail of Battlecrow corpses in their wake until they reached a large room that had once been a gambling hall. There were still some leftover slot machines and card tables around. He spotted a group of Battlecrows taking up positions along the upper balcony of the room. They began firing down at Sulla’s squad, taking out two before the rest took cover.

“What do we do now boss?” One of the assassins screamed above the sound of gunfire.

“You guys cover me.” Sulla ordered the bulk of the squad. “You two follow me.” He commanded, pointing at the two closest members of his squad.

The three of them lept out from under cover, Sulla saw one of them go down with a bullethole in her forehead but Sulla kept moving forward. They reached the staircase and sprinted upwards. Four Battlecrows rushed down to meet them, Sulla shot one, then two. Out of the corner of his augmented eye he saw his subordinate wrestling with the third before collapsing with a dagger thrust into his chest. Sulla rushed over, pulling out his own shortsword, he stabbed the Battlecrow through the back of the neck, she went down with a hideous gurgling sound as he retracted his blade and spun around just in time to shoot the fourth Battlecrow through his mouth.

As Sulla raced up the stairs and onto the balcony he took out more Battlecrows, shooting, slashing, and stabbing. Their black-market augments were no match for him. Sulla was stronger, more agile, and had faster reflexes than any of them. He used the bodies of their comrades to shield himself against oncoming attacks in close combat before closing in with shortsword in one hand and pistol in the other. By the time it was over a dozen Battlecrows lay dead or dying on the balcony. As the rest of the squad moved up he could see the incredulity in their eyes.

“They told me you were good boss, but I didn’t realize how good.” One of them said with equal parts astonishment and fear.

Opting not to respond, Sulla led the squad beyond the balcony overlooking the gambling floor and into the hallways, offices, and hotel rooms of the abandoned Casino. He surmised that following the attack, Hiero would likely move to the most secure location inside the building: the vault that had once held the casino’s funds. To get to him Sulla expected to encounter his strongest guards protecting him in thick blast-proof safes the size of a room. Sulla had always memorized his surroundings whenever he would clear out a building of hostiles, and this was no exception. They were still around the perimeter of the building, and he needed to get close to the center to find the vault.

As they made their way to the center, one assassin recalled Sulla’s urgent instructions from before the mission started. Sulla had ordered them to continuously muffle their footsteps, silence their weapons, and take out all security cameras. Even though there was no way to avoid alerting Hiero the second they scaled the walls, their precise location would be impossible to pinpoint as no enemies would survive long enough to alert the other Battlecrows which way they were going. This tactic proved extremely effective, and the team of assassins were stunned at the brutal efficiency of Sulla’s techniques. Battlecrows scoured the hallways hunting for them in teams of six, with the Captain positioned towards the back of the team. Using their black market augments, they could react, aim, and shoot in half the time of a normal human. One such team near the vault encountered Sulla.

From the Battlecrow Captain’s perspective, it must have seemed like a blur of a man emerging from the shadows in the corner of the hallway. Not a single footstep was heard. Almost instantly, a series of suppressed shots rang out. The Captain raised his weapon and took aim as the rest of his subordinates crumbled to the ground. Those fools perished from being too sluggish, but they did their purpose of slowing down the enemy he had in his augmented sight: a man with piercing green eyes and black hair staring right back at him. He was tall with an intimidating, lean muscular body and a disturbingly blank expression. Smirking, the Captain was midway through pulling the five pounds of force needed to pull the trigger before his vision went black. A bullet had passed through his skull.

In this particular engagement Sulla had lost control of his mental state, accidentally pushed his augments to their limits which forced himself to recuperate for a few seconds. His mind was uncharacteristically racing with doubt over whether he would find Ennoia alive, instinctively pushing his body on with a compelling sense of urgency as he unknowingly got forty paces ahead of his squad. Usage of these augments aggravated this state of mind, as they forced his circulatory system into overdrive in order to clear room in the brain to enhance the senses. Sulla took a few deep breaths, clearing his mind and calming his body before the rest of the squad caught up.

“I got a bit too far ahead of you all, so for that I apologize. But I ended up saving you a couple rounds.” joked Sulla, putting on a smile.

Laughing in disbelief, one of the more experienced assassins spoke up.

“You’re something else, boss. Do you even need us here for the rest?”

“Don’t relax just yet. I’m reading a significantly cooler temperature ahead of us. At the end of this hallway is probably reinforced metal. This is the vault of the casino, which is exactly where I’d be if I were Hiero. The toughest fight is waiting for us once we blow those doors. If you can, avoid getting yourself killed, because I’m going to need all the help I can get. Are we ready?”

“Yes sir,” answered the squad in unison.

They wasted no time getting up to the sealed doors. Two assassins set explosive plastic charges on the weak points of the vault doors. Sulla and the team braced behind the corner, weapons ready.

“Detonate.” Sulla commanded.

The force of the explosion reverberated through the Casino and suffocating smoke momentarily filled the halls as blind gunfire erupted from both sides. Three members of the squad died instantly, lifelessly sprawled out on the floor. With his eyes in infrared mode, Sulla was able to roughly read the enemy heat signatures through the smoke. He emptied his clip, dropping the handful of Battlecrows that raced to the door. The smoke slowly cleared away, and the team stormed The Vault.

The interior was an enormous metal room full of hard drives, stockpiles of guns, drug paraphernalia, and discarded Interface pods. The vault entrance was linked to a hallway full of smaller rooms where Hiero and his inner circle were likely holding out. Sulla led the team through each room, eliminating members of the inner circle and their bodyguards before they could react. At the very end of the hallway were two Battlecrows, remarkably different from the others. At a glance Sulla could tell they were ex-military like him. They were a pair of twins with lean, sleek builds, deranged eyes, and no hair At their sides were two razor-sharp swords. Their augments were almost as extensive as Sulla’s, but he could tell they were designed primarily for speed. No time was wasted, and the bodyguards charged. They both took on Sulla, who barely took out his sword in time to deflect their ferocious slashes. Because the sheer speed at which the three were battling was nigh-untraceable to the human eye, the assassins watched on, unable to shoot at the twins without potentially harming Sulla. While they were under no obligation to keep him alive, their earlier observations of his fights had instilled in them great fear and respect for their leader. Upon seeing Sulla face fellow ex-military soldiers, they felt compelled to let him handle it himself, letting the end result speak for itself.

A flurry of blades was unleashed as Sulla barely blocked the coordinated strikes from the twins. Their swift dual attacks left no room for a counter, forcing Sulla on the defensive. With only one sword to block, he had to dodge the rest of the fatal strikes. As he continued evading the attacks, small cuts started slicing open his skin; his augmented brain could barely calculate the right blocks and weaves to minimize the damage. Coming to the realization that this was the toughest close-quarters fight he had faced in years, Sulla activated his top combat augments. Enormous amounts of air filled his lungs like a supercharged engine. His heart pounded, his blood vessels expanding as the maximum amount of oxygen was delivered to his brain. Time seemed to slow, and he found himself thinking and moving at inhuman speeds. He carefully observed the onslaught of slashes and stabs by the twins. Such well-coordinated attacks meant there had to be set attack patterns and forms. For the moment, Sulla gave up on looking for openings, instead concentrating all his focus toward blocking and dodging to discern the rhythm of the attack patterns. The assassins looked on, confused as to why he wasn’t counterattacking. From their point of view, Sulla calmly rooted himself firmly in the ground, continuously deflecting a blur of blades faster than their eyes could track.

After fifteen more seconds completely on the defensive, Sulla had amassed mental data for the pattern and timing of ninety swings before finally finding his opening: Right between a diagonal swing of the left twin aimed at his neck and a straightforward stab from the right twin aimed at his liver. Right after the left lunged, there was an eighty-five millisecond window where he was open. In the blink of an eye, the edge of Sulla’s sword sliced open an artery on his neck. Panicking, he put as much pressure on the wound as he could, but his artificially elevated heart rate led him to bleed out in seconds. In a blind fury, the remaining Battlecrow roared and charged Sulla with wide, powerful strikes. With only one enemy left to worry about, Sulla eased up on his breathing and brought his heart rate down. The broad wind-up of the last twin’s attack made predicting his movements easy, and Sulla effortlessly dodged each swing. In desperation, the elite Battlecrow prepared one last thrust aimed to puncture his skull. Right before the attack, Sulla smoothly stepped forward and knocked him off-balance before calmly impaling him through the heart. As the life in his eyes faded away, Sulla turned to face his squad. Mouths agape, they were still processing the events of the fight they just witnessed. Twin Battlecrows easily capable of annihilating their entire team had just been methodically dismantled by the man standing in front of them.

Following the skirmish Sulla was forced to rest momentarily. Despite remaining calm and avoiding an overload of strain on his organs, he had still pushed his physical body near the edge of peak human performance. His limbs were screaming in pain as he contorted and leapt in ways that would rip apart a normal human. Once Sulla settled down he looked back and observed his team of experienced assassins. Following the fight, these professionals appeared uncharacteristically frightened; many were in a state of shock, whispering and speculating amongst themselves over the chance of surviving the next battle. Seeing his team morale start to crumble reminded Sulla that as the commander for this mission it was his responsibility to keep the squad focused on their goals regardless of how exhausted he was.

“Men! How long are you going to stand there? I hope you all remember my earlier instructions; even with this many of you alive I’m still going to need all the help I can get. Hiero’s waiting for us right behind that door, and I don’t know what he’ll be capable of. Get your weapons ready and let’s finish this mission.! If that isn’t enough motivation for you, remember the massive sum of florins you’ll be paid for this mission.” ordered Sulla.

“Yes sir!” shouted the squad in unison.

The team assumed their formation as Sulla primed himself to kick down the door. Suddenly, to the surprise of all, they heard a mechanical whirring through the door. It had unlocked itself and slid open. Greeting them on the other side was an old, thin man in a motorized wheelchair wearing a neat suit.  He was frail, with no signs of augments or any kind of fighting ability. However, there was a fierce intimidating intelligence behind his eyes.  Sulla could tell that this was the most dangerous man in the compound.

“I commend you for making it this far. You truly are an impressive warrior.” The man rasped.

“I am the one they call Hiero. I assume you were expecting someone a bit more...robust. But I’m afraid that I'm not much of a fighter.  You have already killed my best soldiers and all of my subordinates, and I suppose that I am next.  It was only a matter of time before the Brethren would send someone like you to end me. But before you send me off, Sulla, I would ask that you listen to an old man's last words.”

“Wait, how do you know my name?” 

“Oh you have been watched for quite some time. I have eyes and ears all over Veii. And they tell me you are a most fascinating specimen. The soldier who disobeyed orders, the man on a mission to find his lost sister. ” Hiero spoke pensively.

Hiero pressed a button on his sleeve and in unison the remaining assassins in Sulla’s squad screamed and fell to the ground.

“What did you do to them!?” Sulla shouted.

“Oh don’t worry, they're not dead, just unconscious. I'd just like to have a private conversation with you.”

“If you think there's anything you can say to convince me not to kill you, don’t bother.  I'm going to the Undercity and I'm not betraying Johannes's trust."

“I know better than that, but before the deed is done, perhaps a word of warning.” Hiero said with a sigh.  His relaxed look darkened into a stern expression, as if he were about to scold a troublesome pupil.

“Now, Sulla, do you really think the Bastard's Brethren would truly let you go, off to do as you please after this one mission?  Do you seriously believe that they would let someone who knows their operating routes in the Undercity just walk away, independently, no strings attached?  I can already tell you that they know much more about Ennoia and the Shining Path than they let on.  You should be intelligent enough to realize this, I can see it in your eyes.  Those eyes are like mine; always questioning, always doubting the nature of the world, always in search of the truth.  You should already know that from the nature of their business, the Bastard’s Brethren have no enemies or friends. Only business partners. Their contracts extend to both both the Shining Path, the Holy Church, and anyone in between.  Anybody worth anything wants a piece of Brethren’s information services and more.  If you doubt what I say, why don't you return to your temporary masters and ask about a former member of the Council of Nine by the name of Scorilo?  I would hope that I made a lasting impression on some of those fools.”

That name struck a bell with Sulla.

“But Johannes told me that you were dead, poisoned! And that people suspected it was your replacement, Draga.”

“Well they were half right. I was poisoned, but here I am standing in front of you.  As for the one who poisoned me, it wasn’t Draga.  She was a good subordinate, loyal. Instead you should look to Rolf, Johannes’s boss.” Hiero said sadly.

“Him and I had grown up together in the streets of The Floor.  We joined the Bastard’s Brethren and rose through the ranks together, expanding it far beyond the Undercity and even attracting the attention of the military.  Who knew that a pair of Floor Boys could go so far as to be worth the attention of the Dynatoi?  But as we grew older, we ascended to the Council and found ourselves rivals.  My faction was growing a bit too powerful for the Council's liking, and Rolf saw the opportunity to have me removed. But he could never have done it without the support of the rest of the Council.”

“Johannes told me that most people in the Brethren hated you.”

“Well that’s probably an exaggeration, but there is some truth to it. Most of the Council and even some of my own Vavasours resented me. Not only did I command of one of the strongest divisions of our soldiers, but I was also constantly raising objections to the more unethical aspects of the business.  I'm no saint, but Rolf and I had entered the Bastard’s Brethren with the intention to change it from inside into a more respectable organization.  After all, it is natural for a business with a distinguished reputation and well-known, consistent standards to flourish above the competition. But at some point it looks like the short-term profits of human trafficking, the drug trade, and the willingness to sell weapons to just about anyone swayed Rolf away from the ideals we used to share.”

"That's a fine story, but why should I trust anything you say?"

"Well, naturally, you shouldn't. But as we both know, I am about to die.  As for me, I have achieved a lot of what I set out to do in this life.  There is no realistic incentive for me to lead you astray.  I can only hope that what I tell you here would set the Brethren on the right path, or destroy it entirely.  Both options are preferable to what it has become.  I just ask that you heed my advice, from one Floor Boy to another.

“I see. Is that everything you have to tell me?”

“From my decades of experience with the Brethren, I cannot reiterate this enough. Do not trust anyone in that organization, especially Rolf. This extends to anyone who works under him, including Johannes. He might have been your friend in the past, but even before meeting you his loyalty was to Rolf and the Council.”

One of Sulla’s assassins stirred.

“It looks like our conversation must come to a close.  My only regret is not being around to see how far you will go.  You eerily remind me of my younger self.  Now, don’t forget what I told you. And please, make it quick.”

“Thanks old man. I won’t forget this.” Sulla said sadly.  Two rapid shots rang out from Sulla's sidearm, and Hiero lay dead on his chair, resting with a tranquil expression on his face.