- "Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? myself? there's none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the high'st degree
Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, Guilty! guilty!
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?"
- ―Richard III, Act V, Sc. 3
As rain pours down upon a city rooftop, they clash. Two figures clad in near-identical armor, faces hidden behind broad-visored helmets, trade blows through the drenched night air. The crunch and thud of armor striking armor reverberates across the roof and down into the foggy streets below. Each fighter tears into the other with every ounce of strength. Nothing is held back. They punch and kick, grapple and throw. Each time one of the combatants falls they rise from the rain-slicked rooftop to throw themselves back into the battle with even greater ferocity.
Each sees the other’s attacks before they come. They know every move, every form, down to the slightest twitch. They’ve sparred countless times, teaching each other techniques, learning together until they know the other’s moves better than they know their own. They’ve sparred, but never fought.
Not like this.
Perched atop even higher rooftops, dozens of alien eyes peer down on the spectacle. An entire complement of Sangheili warriors, battle hardened killers armed to the teeth, watch the humans fight through the night. The rain soaks through their armor and into their skin but not one warrior moves away or tries to interfere. They know that this is one fight that has no place for them.
Their commander is down there, and this battle is his alone.
Clad in battered brown Semi-Powered Infiltration armor, the warrior called Stray slams a fist into his opponent’s chest and drives her back into the center of the rooftop. His suit is faded and scoured, scarred by countless dents and cracks. It has seen countless battles serving as its master’s second skin. The armor hides any trace of the young Spartan once known as Simon-G294. He is Stray now, commander of the Kru’desh raiding legion. The only human in history to ever hold a command within the alien Covenant.
He was once known as the worst trainee in Gamma Company. Now thousands of alien warriors follow him into battle. Entire worlds have fallen before his warriors. Fleets and armies have burned at his command. His war-torn armor is covered in weapons and combat pouches, each part of an arsenal that has kept him alive across years of endless fighting. A prosthetic left arm marks his ability to overcome even the most crippling of injuries. The best killers in the galaxy have tried and failed to bring him down, and he has killed plenty of them in turn.
But now he does not call his warriors down to help him, does not even try to draw one of his weapons. His hand does not so much as twitch toward the hilt of the machete slung across his back. Normally he would never pass up an advantage in battle. He has fought and survived and won through trickery and cunning and murderous determination. But here and now, against this one enemy, he cannot win through some ploy or trick. This battle must be won with his bare hands.
It is the only way to prove he is no longer the frightened, helpless boy he still sees in his dreams.
His opponent rises, fists out before her in a defensive stance. Like Stray, she wears Semi-Powered Infiltration armor. But Cassandra-G006’s suit is better maintained, harboring only a few scattered battle scars. The armor’s original military green still shows beneath her combat harness and she sports none of the modifications grafted onto Stray’s armor. Aside from a few pouches slung across her tactical rigging and an M6 pistol at her hip she has nothing to match Stray’s untouched arsenal. But like her opponent, she makes no move to draw her pistol or combat knife. Instead she surges forward with a blow to Stray’s helmet followed by a kick to his midsection that drives him back across the rooftop.
Like Stray, Cassandra is a traitor. A renegade guilty of desertion. But she has never served the Insurrection, much less the Covenant. Not even the Syndicate’s criminal empire has ever bent Cassandra to its will. She has left no mark of her own on the galaxy save for the lives she has saved out of her little medical clinic somewhere in the streets below. A life of healing, free from the violence she was raised for, is her life’s ambition.
But this city is hers to defend. Cassandra lacks Stray’s power and weaponry, but she is no stranger to combat. And tonight she is angrier than she has been in a long time.
The former teammates stagger back, reeling from each other’s blows. Stray plants his fist in the rooftop hard enough to crack the rain-drenched panels. “You need to get out of my way.” His voice is ragged, strained. The battle is taking its toll on him in more ways than one. “Just walk away. Stay out of this. That’s what you do best isn’t it?”
“You really think I’ll just let you do whatever you want?” Cassandra steadies herself, trying to find her center through a haze of rage. “You should have known better than to come here.”
“I need to do this.” Rain pounds across his armor. His fists clench as he searches for an opening. “We’ll be gone before the night’s over.”
“So you can come back with an invasion fleet. The Covenant’s had its eye on this planet for a long time. And now they send you to scout things out for them.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. What’s in that vault—”
“I don’t care.” Her words cut through the night air, hard enough to make him flinch visibly through his armor. And that slight recoil only fuels Cassandra’s rage. “What you’ve done… You’ve betrayed everyone you knew. Sided with our worst enemies. And why? Because Diana told you to?”
“Shut up!” Stray throws himself at her, throwing a barrage of kicks and punches flying through the rain. Cassandra blocks every blow and this time does not even give ground. Because even through the pain and rage she already knows how to beat him. She has to beat him. Because the mere sight of the creature before her rends her heart in two.
And so with every punch Stray throws Cassandra lashes back with two more. Her blows channel every betrayal, every broken promise, every excuse she has ever made for Stray. She breaks his offense, shatters his guard, and drives him back through the rain. Stray reels, even his bestial ferocity unable to match the righteous fury driving in on him now.
He has outwitted every foe. Clawed his way up through countless battles, doing whatever it took to survive and win. But now his own savage nature weighs down upon him like an anvil around his neck. He cannot escape retribution. Not anymore. Because this is the one person in the galaxy whose judgement matters, and in front of her he can no longer hide his guilt.
Stray’s movements slow, his muscles slackening. His body realizes the impending defeat even if his mind does not. His breaths come in shallow gasps as his body betrays him. Even his prosthetic arm moves slower as if its metal frame is rebelling against its master. His eyes widen, confused, as Cassandra sweeps his feet out from under him and sends him slamming into the rooftop.
He shouldn’t be losing. Not against her. Not like this.
The eyes of his warriors glisten from above. There is shock in those eyes, shock and anger at their commander’s poor display. But none holds even a shred of pity. None come to his aid. There is no mercy for the weak in the world he has pledged himself to. There is only power and those too weak to hold on.
A snarl of rage escapes his lips. He cannot lose here! He can’t let everything he has worked and killed and sacrificed for come to nothing over her!
He is on his feet in an instant. Finding his strength once more, he slams his metal left fist into Cassandra’s chest. She gasps and falls to one knee, neck momentarily bent before him.
Stray sees his chance, his one chance, to win. He finally reaches for his machete, drawing the battered blade from its sheath in a practiced motion. The blade rises like an executioner’s axe, poised to fall on Cassandra’s neck. To end this fight, his failures, and her.
How many has he killed like this? How many times has the blade struck home without a twinge of mercy? Stray has pondered these questions before but they have never stopped him in a fight. It has always been him or the enemy and this time is no different.
But now, in this moment, he stops. His arm twitches, spasms, but refuses to descend. Because this is not an opponent, not an enemy. There’s no mission any more, no alien warriors waiting for him to make the final blow. Just the two of them. Stray and Cassandra.
And through a distant memory he sees her from a different angle. Not in armor, not kneeling before him, but an arm's distance away, smiling at some joke or story. A different time. A better time.
He cannot touch her.
A shuddering, gasping sob escapes Stray’s throat. He lowers the machete and backs away. He needs to get away from her. He needs to escape. He needs to run far—
Her next punch hits him hard enough to break his jaw. His helmet cracks and bends beneath her punch. He staggers back, machete falling from powerless hands. She rains the punches down, blow after blow, and now he cannot even raise his arms to defend himself.
“Weak.” He hears her voice, rage making it harsh and unfamiliar. “Without focus you’re nothing.”
He tries to rise but a blow from her boot sends him sprawling. He can’t see the city lights anymore. He can’t feel the rain beating down on him. The world has become a dark, swirling nightmare he cannot escape. But hasn’t it always been like that.
“And that’s all you are. Nothing.” She kicks the machete past him, sending it tumbling off the roof and into the fog below. “You aren’t my friend. You aren’t a Spartan. You're nothing.”
Stray makes one last attempt to rise. Cassandra’s boot strikes his leg hard, cracking bone even through his armor. A wordless scream rips through the night air. Even the warriors perched above flinch back in shock. Years of training and experience desert him. His schemes and ambition, his triumphs and victories, even his brutal drive to survive are worthless now. Rage surges through his pain, but it is impotent and directionless. Because the person inflicting this humiliating defeat is the one person he could never use that fury to destroy.
“Just a pathetic murderer,” Cassandra hisses through her teeth. “Just like everyone says you are. And you know what? I think you’ve always been like that, right from the beginning. I just took this long to finally see through you.”
The words should rend his very soul. They should destroy him. But he is beyond that now, lost in a daze of pain and guilt. How can those words hurt him? They’re just facts, facts he has known for years now. But a small part of him fights on, feebly thrashing on that lonely water-soaked roof. Because he can’t die here. It can’t all end here.
“Cass…” he pants through the pain. “Wait… listen…”
He has never begged. He always knew it would never save him. And this last desperate plea earns no mercy.
“No.” Her foot connects with his chest. “Never again.”
And Stray falls back the final few steps. His feet catch on air and he falls. A hand stretches out to catch the roof—his organic hand, still bent on survival. It should be a simple task to pull himself up, but he is exhausted. Drained. A lifetime of guilt weighs his body down even as his legs feebly thrash, finding no purchase on the rain-slicked wall.
His fingers are already starting to lose their grip. In a few seconds he will plunge into the darkness. How far down to the concrete below? The fog and night shroud everything. Perhaps the fall will be a long enough he will die instantly and not lie broken on the street for hours until his body finally gives out.
He can still see Cassandra, just over the roof ledge. She kneels in the center of the rooftop and stares after him. She makes no effort to cross over to the ledge, to drag him up or kick him off. She just kneels in silence and watches him die.
There is no more use in begging. He should just let go and save himself a few more seconds of pain. But he cannot let go anymore than he can pull himself up. He can only cling to survival like he always has.
He cannot see behind Cassandra’s helmet. He cannot see the pain, the tears, her face twisted in a madness of her own. Because this is the hardest thing she has ever done. The hardest—and the easiest. He cannot save himself. She knows that, and she is the only one who can do anything about it. But she will not.
This is not killing him. It is simply choosing not to save him.
But that is no difference at all. She wanted him dead just moments before. It would have felt good to wring his treacherous neck then. It will feel good to let him fall now. But if he dies, a part of her dies with him. And she would not feel this agony if she truly wanted him dead.
A few more seconds of hesitation. It could have all been different if she’d acted sooner. But as she rises and dashes for the ledge, hand outstretched to grab hold of his, Stray’s fingers finally give out. Cassandra’s hand closes on air.
Stray, commander of the Kru’desh Legion, falls from the rooftop and is lost in the darkness.
Book One: New Heaven
Main Article: New Heaven
Book Two: New Earth
Main Article: New Earth
Book Three: Heaven and Earth
Main Article: Heaven and Earth