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This article, Halo: RED FLAG, takes place in a canon-following story in an alternate universe, and it should not be considered as part of any official timeline.
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Plot Overview

September, 2552. Reach, humanity's fortress world, has fallen. Most of the legendary SPARTAN soldiers are either dead or missing, and mankind is dangerously close to losing the war. In the wake of this devastating attack, the UNSC has been regrouping its assets in preparation for a possible invasion of the Sol System. In spite of these losses, they still have one plan that, had it not been for Reach's invasion, would have been carried out by the Spartans: RED FLAG.

This dangerous operation would entail the capture of a Covenant vessel, finding the location of and infiltrating their holy city, High Charity, and the capture of a Covenant Hierarch for the purposes of negotiating a peace treaty with the Covenant. For a mission that would potentially end the war, only the best were chosen to participate. Now, even after the Fall of Reach, the UNSC has gathered a small number of surviving SPARTAN-II's to act out this mission in a desperate attempt to cripple their foe and put an end to the conflict.

Dramatis Personae


Prologue

0340 Hours, September 12, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: UNSC Point of No Return, Sol System


"We're still getting reports, ma'am. Reach is totally lost."

"I see. Survivors?"

"We've got refugees and ships still coming in. Losses are in the millions, ma'am."

"That's expected. Dismissed."

The black-uniformed Lieutenant saluted, and left the room. Admiral Margaret Parangosky sighed, sitting back in her command chair. Reach was certainly a mess. Even ONI hadn't seen that one coming. Still, she'd already known everything that her latest messenger had told her. Various spy probes and Prowlers in the Epsilon Eridani System had kept track of the invasion and destruction of the UNSC's fortress world. They had lost so much there, Parangosky knew. Still, only one group out of the millions of human beings fighting there concerned her:

The Spartans.

She'd never liked Catherine Halsey. The woman was insufferable, but a useful asset for the time being. As for her soldiers, the Admiral had to admit that they were probably Humanity's best chance for survival. She idly tapped a few buttons on her console, and a screen flashed up before her. Once a secure connection was established, the face of a bald, middle-aged man in a white Navy cap came into view.

"Lord Hood."

"Admiral Parangosky," the Fleet Admiral replied. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"

"You've heard about Reach, I take it?"

"Yes."

"They you'll be aware of how bad our situation is."

"You wouldn't be calling me if you didn't have a plan."

"Straight to the point then. We need Spartans ready for an op as soon as possible."

"How many?"

"All of them. Halsey's SPARTAN-II's."

Hood frowned. "Admiral, I'm sure you're aware that-"

"I'm well aware of the losses incurred on Reach, and that there were survivors. Bring together any we have left. Those who can be recalled, those who were on Reach, and those we had working alone."

"We won't have many."

"We'll have enough. Get them aboard the UNSC Bright New Day ASAP. This may be our last chance before the Covenant find Earth, Admiral."

"I'll see what I can do. Hood out."

The screen flashed off. Parangosky immediately turned to another console, feeling weary. Though her mind was sharp, her ninety-one year-old body was still rather frail. That doesn't mean I can't butt heads with the best of 'em, she thought, feeling rather pleased with herself. It only took her a few seconds to bring up the files of every known SPARTAN-II. A minute of searching had come up with eight that could be used.

Eight.

They had at least twenty more in planning for Operation: RED FLAG, before Reach was attacked. Still, this would have to be enough. She looked through the list. 035, 029, 103, 116, 124, 132, 137 and 142. Their files each carried a fair amount of black ink provided by the censors at ONI, though Parangosky saw each one unedited and clear as day.

Ranks wouldn't matter much on a mission like this, but they would need a leader. 116 held an officer's rank, and had a file longer than the others. He'll do. The others could play to their own strengths. With any luck, some of them would make it back in one piece. She sent the files to Hood. Out of everyone else in the UNSC, Parangosky felt that he could be trusted to handle this. She finally sat back in her command chair, feeling exhausted.

Like it or not, Maggie, RED FLAG is the only option we've got at ending this war.

Chapter 1: Survivors

Upgrades

1324 Hours, September 13, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: UNSC Bright New Day, Sol System


"-So then the Grunt flies into the split-lip, explodes, and we get to go home early!"

Colin-142 laughed. He hadn't seen Doug-103 in years, yet his fellow Spartan was still the same. The pair were out of armour, their familiar MJOLNIR suits having been removed for repairs upon their arrival insystem a few days ago. It was very odd, he reflected, to be out of armour. Still, they'd be back in action soon. Since meeting up here, they had been swapping stories and discovered that they had both been on Reach during the invasion. The pair approached the armoury door, which slid open.

"Hey, there you guys are."

The room had obviously been cleared out recently to make room for a number of familiar machines, robotic arms protruding from each. One of them was active, whirring as it fitted a Spartan into an unfamiliar suit of armour. Colin looked over to see another familiar face looking down on them.

"Bailey, glad to see you're better."

"Yeah. Glad to see you made it off Reach." He was clad in a slightly more streamlined MJOLNIR suit, painted in the familiar yellow colour that Bailey favoured. His last suit had been scorched to pieces by a volley of plasma fire on Reach. Colin wanted a new suit, looking eagerly over to a rack of fresh armour on the other side of the room.

Catching his eye, Bailey smirked. "It's the Mark VI suit. Impressive, isn't it? Improved shields, faster reaction time, biofoam injectors-"

"You look like a banana," Doug said abruptly. Colin walked hurriedly away from the pair as an argument erupted, pausing for a moment as the other Spartan stepped away from the machine, clutching her new helmet.

"Colin, nice to see a familiar face around here." Sora-124 smiled, before carefully placing the helmet on her head.

"Likewise," he replied. "You were in a pretty bad way when we pulled off Reach. How are the injuries?"

"They're fine," the Spartan quickly replied. "I'll be up and sniping Covvies in no time. I was better than Bailey, at least."

"Yeah, if Marco and I hadn't dragged him out, he'd have died back there."

Sora nodded solemnly. "At least we're all here today."

It was good to see that some people had made it off of Reach in one piece. The whole thing had been an absolute disaster. Their group had barely managed to escape, a single Pelican lifting the surviving Spartans off the doomed planet. They had all lost far too many friends that day.

Colin nodded, and proceeded towards the armour rack, selecting one of the suits. They were all the default green of most MJOLNIR suits. That would have to be changed. Tapping a few buttons into a nearby console, one of the machines powered up, taking the armour from its place. He attached himself to one, and allowed it to slowly build the armour up around his undersuit.

Across the room, Doug and Bailey had finished their discussion regarding suit colours, allowing the latter to proceed and claim his own. A nearby door slid open and another SPARTAN-II stepped through, clad in tan MJOLNIR armour. He waited in silence for the other two to suit up before approaching. Sora and Bailey turned to greet him.

"Hey Marco," Bailey asked, crossing his arms. "Why are your suits always such a drab colour?"

SPARTAN-035 shrugged, expression unknown behind his opaque visor. "I don't know. Why do you look like a banana?"

Doug and Colin roared with laughter as they joined the group. Even Bailey cracked a smile. Considering their harsh upbringing and backgrounds, the Spartans were seen as stoic figures by many who fought alongside them. Among their own kind, they acted just like any other person.

Sora directed the other two towards an adjacent suite for armour customisation, leaving Bailey and Marco alone in the armoury.

"Any idea why we're here?" Marco asked. "I'm used to these missions, but ONI's given nothing so far."

Bailey shrugged. "No idea, I was about to ask you. They're bringing together quite a few of us, though."

"Yeah. Not surprising, considering what happened on Reach."

The pair of them stood in silence for a moment. A lot of Spartans had died defending that planet. It didn't take long for the others to arrive, quick-drying paint having been applied to their suits. It served little tactical purpose, but the Spartans seemed to love customising their MJOLNIR. The UNSC didn't complain as long as they got the job done.

"Well then," Colin announced, the Spartan looking over his suit. "I feel just about ready to take on the whole Covenant fleet."

The main door opened, the Spartans turning round. A single man stood there, his MJOLNIR suit coloured black, save for the identification number on his chestplate: 116. A number most of them hadn't seen in a very long time.

"Well Spartan," Felix-116 said, the slightest hint of a smile on his face. "You might just get your wish granted. We're wanted on the bridge for briefing."

Formation

1348 Hours, September 13, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: UNSC Bright New Day, Sol System


With the addition of half a dozen fully armoured Spartans, the Frigate's bridge was packed. The soldiers saluted the white-uniformed officer as they entered, taking notice of two more Spartans standing nearby, already clad in their new armour. Felix took his place beside the holotable, activating it.

"Welcome to Operation: RED FLAG, Spartans." Fleet Admiral Terrence Hood looked at each of them in turn. "In the history of Human conflict, this mission may be the most vital one of them all. The very existence of our species is at stake here."

At this, the Spartans seemed to stand a little straighter, focused solely on the speaker.

"Now, some of you will have been at the original briefing for this mission over Reach. Many of those present then are no longer with us. For the others, I'll let the Lieutenant Commander explain."

Hood stood aside, allowing Felix to bring up a holographic representation of a Covenant ship.

"First," the Spartan intoned, "We steal a Covenant ship."

Almost immediately, the Spartans reacted. It was subtle, with minor changes in body language and head inclinations. Felix noticed this, and looked around at the team.

"Questions?"

"Yeah, I've got one," a green-armoured Spartan spoke up, arms crossed.

"Yes, Joshua?"

"As far as I know, we've never captured a Covvie ship, sir. They usually detonate before the boarding parties can take the bridge."

Felix nodded. "You're correct, Joshua. We've fully prepared for this, with the addition of a new team member."

As the assembled Spartans looked around, a small figure winked into existence on the holotable in a flash of green. Its appearance was that of a long-haired warrior, clad in simple garments with a drawn sword. He smiled as they peered down at him. Joshua looked perplexed.

"An AI?"

"Team, may I introduce you to Caladbolg. He's the Smart AI that will be accompanying us as our mission specialist." Caladbolg waved his sword up at them.

"I'm looking forward to it!" he shouted. "I'll be sure to get ya through the Covvie systems in no time."

"Thank you, Caladbolg," Felix said hurriedly. He ejected small chip and placed it into the back of his helmet. The AI disappeared. "As for the rest of the mission, we're going to take the ship to the Covenant's base of operations, be it a home system, planet, or space station."

He looked round again. No reaction. "Finally, we're going to capture or kill a Covenant leader, known as a Hierarch. With any luck, we'll be able to secure a peace treaty and end this war."

The seven other Spartans remained impassive. Felix knew they had a million questions hidden behind those visors. One of them, Carris-137, edged forward.

"What are our chances of survival, sir?"

"I'm not going to lie to you. This will probably be the most dangerous mission ever undertaken by a SPARTAN team. There's a chance not all of us will return."

"Oh," Carris nodded, a hint of uncertainty in her voice. "I understand. Just making sure."

"So, this could be worse than Reach?" asked Bailey.

"Maybe. We're going right into the hornet's nest on this one, there's no denying that."

"Right."

Lord Hood stepped forward. "That will be all for now, Spartans. Operation: RED FLAG will begin at 1800 hours. Prepare accordingly."

The eight of them saluted, each knowing the risks of this mission.

"Dismissed!"

Green Light

1721 Hours, September 13, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: UNSC Bright New Day, Sol System


Down in the Frigate's spacious armoury, the Spartans prepared for the most important mission of their lives. Since they would potentially operating in enemy territory without backup for an extended period, they were taking everything they could. Weapons, spare ammo, communications equipment and foodstuffs would be essential for RED FLAG.

"Hey, I'll take the sniper," Carris called, snatching one of the rifles from a weapons rack, barely a second before Sora grabbed it. As she turned away, the other Spartan's hand closed around the barrel.

"Mine."

Carris turned to see Sora standing right behind her. "Excuse me?"

"The sniper. Its mine."

"Like hell it is." The problem with having various Spartan teams melded into one was that you would occasionally get two designated marksmen vying for the same position. That wouldn't do.

"I was about to grab it, you know that."

A yellow-armoured Spartan stepped between them, an assault rifle on his back. The two turned to face him. "Listen," Bailey-132 interjected. "What good is one of those things inside a Covenant ship?"

As Sora and Carris pondered his question, the sniper rifle was yanked from their grasp and placed onto the back of Felix-116's black armour. Not daring to argue with their commanding officer, the pair walked sullenly towards the weapon rack, picking over what remained of the rifles. Bailey shrugged, and strode away.

Across the room, Doug-103 was weighing up taking an expensive yet deadly 'Spartan Laser' or a missile launcher, in addition to the pistol, two submachine guns and assault rifle already attached to his armour. Though he was big even for a Spartan, he could only bring one.

"Hardest decision of your life, huh?" Joshua-029 commented. He and Marco-035 were sitting on a pile of crates nearby, having quickly chosen their fairly standard rifles the moment they entered. SPARTAN-103 eventually sighed, placing the powerful laser on his back and returning to the rest of the group. Joshua looked over at Marco, who had grabbed a shotgun from a nearby rack.

"You gonna need that?"

"When haven't I needed it?"

"Okay, you make a fair point. Just try not to charge in and get yourself killed, okay?"


Marco chuckled. "I've never been one for getting killed, Josh. I'm sure this will be just another day at the office."

"Like Reach?"

"No, Reach was what most people in our profession would call a 'clusterfuck'."

"Is that the official term for it, then?"

"Well, its certainly what was going through my head when I jumped out of that damn bird."

Joshua nodded. Whoever decided to cram the Spartans into a single Pelican and send them down to fight a losing battle was responsible for a lot of deaths. He'd barely crawled out of there and made it back to the other Spartans in time to leave, his armour almost falling apart, courtesy of a nuclear weapon and as he himself had termed it, 'ten-thousand pissed off bad guys'. It had been hell down there. Marco clapped a hand on his shoulder, snapping Joshua out of his reverie.

"Stay focused. I remember what you guys in Blue did back on Jericho VII. What we're doing is like that, only on a bigger scale."

"So, we're out for revenge?"

"Damn right. We'd better get a move on."

As the two Spartans moved back towards the others, who had more or less finished gearing up, the voice of Lord Hood sounded over the ship's intercom.

"All Sierras, please report to deck fifteen at once, we'll be entering slipspace shortly."

All conversation ceased as the eight SPARTAN-II's immediately turned for the exit. It would be a short jump, no more than a few hours at most. ONI's spy probes had located a lone Covenant ship repairing itself: A prime target for RED FLAG. The Day, accompanied by nine other ships, would quickly surround and keep it busy, just long enough for the team to gain control. The plan could go wrong in a million ways, something that each of them knew very well.

Still, the Spartans were made to go against odds like this.

Chapter Two: Hijack

The Drop

0823 Hours, September 14, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: UNSC Bright New Day, unknown system


The slipspace jump had been short. Standing on the observation deck as the battlegroup exited slipspace, the eight Spartans were impassive. ONI's intel had been absolutely spot on: One ship, a CCS-class battlecruiser, lay before them, without support or, if the readouts were correct, energy shielding.

"SPARTAN Team, report to the hangar bay at once to prepare for boarding." In spite of the massive danger they were in, Hood sounded extraordinarily calm. Placing a Fleet Admiral in charge of a mere frigate like the Day might have seemed like an insult to most, but with the disappearance of the ship meant for the original RED FLAG, Hood was one of the UNSC's best.

"Okay then," Doug broke the silence. "Looks like its our time to shine."

They crowded into the nearby elevator, metal doors clanging shut as it descended to the frigate's main hangar bay. The battlegroup were likely moving in to cut off the Covenant ship's escape, though they had been given orders not to cripple its engines, or render it unable to travel. With these restrictions, they would likely incur heavy losses just to give the Spartans a chance.

"Everyone ready?" asked Felix. "I want T-Packs and weapons secure for the attack. Can't risk any of you getting spaced."

"Just like Kurt..." Joshua muttered. After Reach, he wasn't exactly happy about another Pelican insertion. Nobody was.

"Hey, we'll be fine out there. Getting to the ship will be the hardest part."

The elevator shuddered slightly as the point guns began firing; Hood wasn't risking MAC fire unless the Spartan team was somehow wiped out in the attack. Marco steadied himself in the corner. "Sir, what's the battle plan for taking the ship? Last time one was boarded, Covvies self destructed."

"That's what we have our friend for, Marco." the black-armoured Spartan replied. At once, the green AI flashed up by Felix's shoulder. The Spartans turned round to look.

"Holoprojector," Felix explained. "Similar to the experiments done with Mark V armour plugins, but on a smaller scale. Caladbolg will be our key to success on this mission."

"How?" asked Sora, perplexed. "How will the AI help?"

The green-tinted hologram turned to face her, sword in hand. "I take it you've never worked this closely with an intelligence like me before?" She shook her head, and he smiled. "I'll be your support on the mission. Put me in a terminal, and I'll cause a bit of mayhem for our alien buddies while you guys do the footwork. Plus, I'm the one finding directions to the Covenant homeworld. So yeah, pretty much an indispensable asset here."

The elevator doors clanked open, letting the Spartan team out into the crowded hangar bay. With the rest of the battlegroup keeping the battlecruiser busy, the Bright New Day moved in closer and closer, ready to unleash its deadly cargo. Nearby, the UNSC Albusumar and UNSC Crimson Fist were pummelling their foe, guns flaring on the broadsides.

"Hey, I'm guessing you're the Spartans? Get over here, I'm your ride!"

Looking over, a young man in pilot garb was waving them over. Two other crewmen were already boarding his Pelican dropship, which had been heavily customised for the mission. Felix led them over, watching pilots running past towards their fighters.

"Lieutenant Sam Oros, UNSC Air Force." The man saluted, looking up in awe at the Spartans. "The Admiral wants us out as soon as possible, you'd better mount up."

Oros jerked his thumb back towards the Pelican's blood tray, stepping aside to allow his passengers access. The dropship had obviously been cleared out to allow access for the Spartans and their MJOLNIR, allowing for the eight of them to sit comfortably. Once they had settled in, the pilot clambered aboard, shutting the metal hatch behind him.

"We'll be launching in a minute, just sit tight." The door to the cockpit slid shut, the Spartans bathed in red emergency lighting.

"I don't like this," Joshua muttered, shifting uncomfortably. "This is too much like Reach."

There were a few nods at this. Nobody liked it, though only one of them was speaking up. Felix, who had not been among those dropped onto the falling planet, leant forward. "What happened back there?"

"Some genius decided to pack every single Spartan onto one Pelican, and send us to the planet. We had to jump when the bird was hit. Four KIA on impact, and the rest of us were wounded. As you can see-" Joshua waved an arm round towards the other Spartans, "-not many of us made it out, sir."

Felix nodded, sitting back in his seat. "I understand." How long had it been since he had actually seen his other Spartans? He'd been off doing wetwork for ONI when everyone else was recalled to Reach. No one else said a word as the Pelican's engines began to roar, Oros and his crew making the pre-flight checks.

"Okay then!" the pilot's voice called from the cockpit. "The Sierra One is ready for action. Hold on to your helmets, Spartans, 'cos this'll be a rough one!"

Breakthrough

0849 Hours, September 14, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Pelican Dropship Sierra One, unknown system


There was nothing the Spartans could do here.

As the Pelican took off from the Frigate's hangar, escorted by two dozen longsword fighters, all the armoured soldiers could do was sit and listen to the COM.

"-Albusumar is venting atmosphere-"

"Delta Wing, break left and take care of those Seraphs!"

"Sierras are go, repeat, Sierras are go-"

"Takeshi and Gearhead are gone, plasma cannons tore right through 'em!"

The dropship juddered and span, dodging plasma bolts from the Covenant battlecruiser as the pilot did his best to keep them from being incinerated. It was only so long before one of the Spartans stood up, clambering towards the cockpit.

"Hey pilot!" Carris shouted, "Open up, I've had enough of-"

There was an almighty flash from the cockpit, and suddenly they were spinning. The roar of decompression lasted for only a few seconds before eight armoured bodies were flushed out into the cold vacuum of space.

Bailey-132 wasn't sure how to react to this new development at first. One moment, he was sitting between Doug and Marco, waiting silently for their deployment, the next, Someone had slammed into him and he was hurtling off into space. Okay, he thought, his Spartan training kicking in. Stay calm, get your bearings. Activating the controls on his thruster pack, the Spartan finally stopped spinning and managed to get glimpse of the situation.

"Aw, crap."

The front part of the Pelican had been wholly incinerated by a blast of plasma, missing the Spartans by barely half a metre and spilling them out into space. The supercarrier was close now, very close. All Bailey could see to his right was purple-tinted starship armour. Banshees streamed from hangars like locusts, and for the first time today, he really regretted his choice of painting his armour yellow.

"132, over here!"

an IFF tag popped up on Bailey's HUD, identifying Sora-124 clinging to the hull of the Covenant ship. Glancing at the incoming banshees, Bailey rocketed forward, slowing down enough to touch down on the battlecruiser lightly. Without a word, Sora motioned for him to follow, the magnetic clamps on their boots allowing for a short spacewalk until they reached the top of the enemy ship. The other Spartans were gathering there, near a large piece of dented hull where several low-grade missiles had impacted.

"Nice to see you made it, banana!" Colin-142 called over. Bailey smirked, and crouched beside Marco and Joshua as the Lieutenant Commander gave his orders.

"Right, we're all here. That's the hard part over. Now all we have to do is get inside and take the ship."

Marco snorted. "That was the hard part? What does that make this part?"

"The fun part. You ready?"

The tan-armoured Spartan nodded, and allowed him to continue. "Once we breach the ship, we'll split into two teams. Alpha will take the bridge. That'll be myself, Colin, Joshua and Marco. Team Beta will close off the hangar and make sure reinforcements don't arrive while Caladbolg gets to work on their systems. Doug, Bailey, Sora and Carris, you're up for that."

With a resounding chorus of affirmatives from the Spartans, Felix and Doug immediately made their way towards the dented plate. It was blackened and weak from the repeated impacts, and would serve as a perfect way in. With the other Spartans forming a perimeter, the pair placed down four C-12 charges, arming them as they did so.

Doug gave a thumbs up. "Okay, get back!"

Considering the destructive potential of the explosive, the Spartans made their way to the side of the ship, well aware of the battle raging around them. All it would take is for a few banshee or Seraph pilots to notice them and it would be over. The C-12 detonated, the explosion vibrating along the unshielded ship's hull. That was their cue.

"Alpha, move up on me, drop in and take the left! Beta, right side, move!"

The weakened plate had been blown to pieces by the explosives, which had ripped through into a corridor, mid-way between the bridge and the hangar. As with many larger Covenant ships, an energy shield had immediately snapped into place around the breach to preserve oxygen. Marco leapt through first, disappearing through the shield into the blackened corridor. As Bailey and Carris hit the ground barely a second later, the familar sound of a MA5B rifle could be heard.

"Four down," Marco announced calmly as the other Spartans dropped through into the purple-tinted corridor.

They were in.

Control

0916 Hours, September 14, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Covenant battlecruiser, Fervent Devotion, unknown system


Taking the cruiser's bridge had been a lot easier than they had expected. With the surprise of an attack, the battlecruiser's crew were running around in a panic. A trio of grunts emerged from the bridge at a fast trot, only to freeze at the sight of four Spartans bearing down on them. They were dead in seconds, their killers creeping through the still-open door before it chimed shut.

"Caladbolg," whispered Felix. "You're up." Still crouched, he placed his palm on a nearby holotank, usually meant for ship-wide communication. The green AI flashed up, grinning, before drawing his sword and disappearing again. Immediately, every console and light on the bridge went dark.

"Go!"

As the crew looked around in surprise, the Spartans pounced. Colin-142 brought the butt of his rifle down on the head of a nearby grunt, before choking a seated Sangheili with it. Joshua and Marco moved around the sides of the room, spitting assault rifle fire on their foes as Felix fought the Shipmaster, dodging a wild blade slash before bringing his armoured boot up. The gold-armoured alien's neck snapped with a crack.

"Okay, I think we're clear." Felix looked around to see Joshua stamping on a dead foe, while Marco reloaded. Colin flicked purple blood from his rifle. As they regrouped, there was a shrill noise from the other side of the room as another alien drifted in. SPARTAN-035 immediately had his gun levelled at it.

"Marco, wait-"

The Spartan had already fired, rounds tearing through the bulbous, floating alien as it was ripped to shreds, deflating and collapsing to the ground. Felix grabbed his comrade's shoulder.

"What the hell are you doing? They're non-combatants!"

Marco reloaded his weapon before responding. "I wouldn't call 'em that, sir."

"Do you even know what they are?"

"Engineers, I think." Marco shrugged. "Anyway, even if they aren't armed, the little buggers have a habit of giving other Covvies a shield boost. Best to take 'em out first."

Felix hadn't seen Engineers, or to give them their actual name, Huragok, in combat before. Still, he didn't much like 035's rather uncaring attitude when it came to encountering them.

"Just don't shoot them on sight, okay?"

"Fine. I'll still fire if they've got bombs strapped to them, though?"

"What?"

"Split-lips have a habit of putting bombs on them. Stops us from grabbing some, I suppose."

"Fair enough." Felix turned away as the bridge lit up again. The holographic imagery of the battlecruiser and six remaining UNSC ships disappeared, and Caladbolg appeared once more, towering above the Spartans.

"Right," the green AI announced. "Weapons are offline, I've shut off the engines until you're ready to leave, and I'm ready to cut off oxygen in a few areas. Oh, and I've asked Hood to stop firing."

"Excellent work," Felix replied, taking off his helmet. Patch me through to him.

Caladbolg nodded, and after a few seconds, the image of Fleet Admiral Lord Terrence Hood appeared before them. Despite the harsh battle that had just occurred, he still looked immaculate in his white uniform.

"Sir, this is SPARTAN-116. We've taken the ship. You can call off the attack."

Hood smiled. "Copy that, Spartan. I knew we could count on you for RED FLAG. What's the status of your team?"

"No casualties, we're clearing out the hangar bay right now."

"Good to hear it." The Fleet Admiral's face suddenly became very grave, leaning forward to speak.

"You've already been briefed, but I want to make this clear one last time before you depart for the Covenant's home base. You'll be without any kind of support once you arrive, and no absolute way of getting home."

"I understand, sir."

"The mission takes priority over everything else, Lieutenant Commander."

"Of course."

"Glad to see we've got everything sorted out. Good luck, Spartans. Hood out."

Felix saluted as the image winked off. Caladbolg reappeared, arms crossed.

"Well, that was nice of him. We're ready to jump when you give the order, boss."

"Where's Team Beta?"

"Still in the hangar, by the looks of it. SPARTAN-103 is certainly getting creative in there."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, lets just say that using a live grunt as a sort of explosive football wouldn't be something I'd come up with."

"What?"

Creativity

0952 Hours, September 14, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Fervent Devotion, hangar bay, unknown system


"Doug, could you hurry up?"

"Keep 'em distracted. Shouldn't be hard for you, banana."

Taking cover behind a stack of crates, the Spartans were engaged in a vicious firefight with a particularly troublesome group of Sangheili across the hangar bay. On a platform above, Doug-103 punched the struggling Grunt in the head to keep it quiet, and shoved a grenade in its exposed mouth. Makeshift, but it'll do.

"Okay, bomb's away!"

Dropping the unconscious, explosive-laden alien to the floor, Doug stepped back a few paces before running up and kicking it across the room as hard as he could. Half a dozen heads glanced upwards at the peculiar sight, the split second it took allowing for Sora-124 to pop out of cover, sniper rifle raised. The explosion was tremendous, blasting through much of the deckplate and incinerating most of the Sangheili there in an instant.

"Well, that...worked," commented Bailey-132, stepping out as he reloaded his rifle. Looking around, the hangar was clear of enemies, aside from a couple of aliens quietly bleeding out nearby. It was oddly quiet. Carris casually strolled up between the dying, swiftly breaking necks beneath her armour-plated boots. Doug nodded towards the main door across from them and placed two fingers to the side of his helmet as the other three moved up.

"Sir, this is Doug. Hangar Bay's clear, they won't be getting to the bridge through here."

"Nice work," Felix's voice responded. "Stay there, Caladbolg is taking care of the rest of the ship."

"Got it." Doug switched off the COM. "Wait up guys, our little green friend'll take care of the others."

Bailey stopped in his tracks, and shrugged. "Aww, I was looking forward to dealing with the rest of them.."

"What, the thousand-odd Covvies swarming across the rest of the ship?"

"Yeah."

Sora snorted, keeping her rifle trained on a nearby door. "Don't know about you, but I'd much rather get through this thing alive, Bailey."

"Yeah, sure. How're you holding up?"

"Wounds are pretty much healed up, which is more than I can say for half of the others we lost back on Reach."

"You're telling me." Bailey turned away, casually strolling back towards Doug. On a nearby holotank, the holographic figure of Caladbolg appeared in a green flash.

"Nice work here, Spartans," the AI said cheerfully. "Oh, and fantastic use of explosives there, SPARTAN-103."

Doug gave an exaggerated bow. "I'm a creative man."

"Indeed." Caladbolg's voice suddenly became a lot more businesslike in tone. "I'll have to seal you guys in here for an hour or so while I flush the rest of the ship. Getting rid of the rats, so to speak."

He waved his arms, and every door into the hangar bay flashed red as they locked down. Caladbolg nodded at Doug, and disappeared. The big Spartan sighed, and sat cross-legged on the floor before removing his helmet.

"Well," he announced. "Since the bloody leprechaun has us trapped here, I suppose we'll have to pass the time."

Bailey and Carris sat nearby, while Sora crouched, still holding her weapon. "Well, what do you propose?" she asked.

"Story time."

Departure

1012 Hours, September 14, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Fervent Devotion, bridge, unknown system


"The others are safely sealed in the hangar bay, Lieutenant Commander."

"And the Covenant?"

"A few dropships were able to escape, but Lord Hood's fleet will take care of them. I'm venting most of the ship's corridors for now, too. We'll have the place to ourselves soon."

"Excellent work, Caladbolg. How are things in there?"

"Surprisingly roomy. Looks like the Covenant never expected to have an enemy AI in their system, so there defences were minimal. Oh, and I've managed to pinpoint their home base."

"Where is it?"

"Close enough to reach with a single jump. Oh, and it looks like the spooks were wrong."

"How?"

"It isn't a planet, its a space station. Massive, too. From what I've been able to translate, the Covvies call it 'High Charity', and see it as the destination for some sort of holy pilgrimage."

"So, the Covenant Hierarchs will be there?"

"Oh, almost certainly. Getting in will be tricky, but I think we'll be able to get close enough to gain entry before they realise something is wrong."

"Thank you, Caladbolg. That's all for now."

The green AI bowed and disappeared. Felix turned his back on the large holotank and looked around at the other Spartans milling around the bridge. Colin-142 was stacking crates against one of the exits while Marco-035 sorted through the Covenant weaponry they had captured in their attack. It had been surprisingly easy, really. To his knowledge, no one had ever captured a Covenant ship in battle before. Then again, no one had ever sent the Spartans on a mission like this before.

"Sir?"

Joshua-029 sat in a nearby command chair, idly playing with a combat knife. His helmet lay between his feet. Felix glanced at it for a moment before looking the fellow Spartan in the eye. It was strange, considering that they spent most of their time behind visors and armour plating.

"Yes, Joshua?"

"Now that we're pretty much ready to go, what do you think our chances are?"

"You were at the briefing. It will be dangerous, and-"

"Yeah, yeah, but what do you think, Felix?"

He didn't reply for a few seconds. "I think," he began, choosing his words carefully. "I think we'll just have to find out when we get there. Hell, even the original RED FLAG op would've been a shot in the dark."

Joshua nodded. "Thought as much. Still, at least this time we know that anything could go wrong?"

"This time?"

"Let's just say we tempted fate a little on Reach, and paid dearly for it."

Felix nodded, feeling slightly uncomfortable on this subject. "I know," he replied. The tiniest hint of a frown crept into Joshua's impassive face.

"I know you weren't there, and I'm not going to ask why. Heck, I can't recall seeing a few of the others on Reach even if they say they were there. Still, I don't think we're the last of the Spartans. Last transmission we got were a few signals by CASTLE Base, so perhaps some others made it out of there alive."

"I hope so, Joshua." Felix looked away, back towards the control panel he had been using. "Let's just focus on the mission for now."

The other Spartan nodded and sat up, grabbing his own helmet and heading towards Marco and Colin. Caladbolg's hologram flashed up in his usual miniature form next to Felix. The green-tinted Celtic warrior watched the Spartans for a few seconds before turning back to Felix.

"Coordinates are set and we're ready to jump on your go, Sir."

"Get the hangar doors unlocked, I want Doug's team back here."

"Already done."

"Good. Initiate slipspace jump."

The Journey

1028 Hours (estimation), September 14, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Fervent Devotion, bridge, en-route to High Charity


"-so then we had to explain to the Admiral exactly what we'd done with his ship!"

The door to the bridge chimed open as four laughing Spartans entered, Doug leading them. Both Marco and Joshua snapped their rifles up as another figure slipped in through the door behind them, floating through the air in the Spartans wake.

"Engineer!"

The creature froze at the sight of raised weapons, and let out a low pitch whistle. Both Spartans glanced at Felix, who motioned for them to stand down. The creature whistled happily at the sight of this, and bobbed towards the bridge's central control panel. Felix looked at it apprehensively before turning towards Doug.

"SPARTAN-103, report."

"We're all fine, sir," the big Spartan replied. "Found this one hiding under a crate in the hangar, saved it from our little green friend's purge of the ship.

"I see." Felix turned to the main holoprojector. "Caladbolg?"

The AI appeared, sword drawn. It seemed obvious that he didn't like the Engineer much, as it began to poke around the main control panel.

"Found a new friend, have we?" he remarked.

"What's it doing?" Felix asked, ignoring the question.

"Well, he's ignoring me, at least. Looks like he's doing routine maintenance and changing a few things."

"Such as?"

"That."

For a moment, every panel on the bridge winked out, only to relight once more. At a glance, they looked roughly the same. Felix peered closer, and was surprised at what he saw. The scrolling lines of alien script had been replaced by clear, readable human lettering.

"How the hell did it do that?"

Caladbolg gave a virtual shrug. "They're like floating supercomputers. They can fix things in addition to being very, very smart."

Doug smirked. "So we could replace you lot with them, if we wanted to?"

"Perhaps, but I think you'd miss me, SPARTAN-103. Besides, an Engineer wouldn't willingly asphyxiate a ship full of Covenant soldiers. I would."

"Heh, point taken."

Caladbolg continued. "Since it is willing to help us, I say we keep this one alive for now, he'll probably come in handy. Oh, and Commander? give him a tacpad if you've got one. It'll make talking a whole lot easier."

The AI winked out as Felix unclipped his personal pad from his MJOLNIR suit. He held it out to the Engineer, who immediately grabbed it and began to reassemble the device. The tiny cilia on its tentacles moved blindingly fast as components were moved, replaced, or tossed aside. Then, the creature handed it gently back to Felix. A line of words scrolled across it in a neat, printed font.

Hello, I am Slightly Vaporous. Pleased to meet you.

There was a few seconds of awkward silence before Felix held out a hand, which the Engineer shook. Doug and Bailey exchanged glances that although behind opaque visors, were almost certainly seeing this as a joke of sorts. Slightly Vaporous drifted off toward a side passage, emitting a low whistle as he did so.

"Well then," Doug announced. "That was odd."

The Spartans nodded in agreement before turning back to their duties. Felix sat back in the Sangheili Shipmaster's chair, looking over the modified datapad. This creature had suddenly made their mission so much easier without a single thought. He wondered if it had seen the corpse of its friend, Marco's handiwork. Not that this would be a walk in the park by any means, but at least they had a better chance than they did five minutes ago.


"How long did Caladbolg say we'd be?"

"About a day or two, probably less."

"Huh, and I thought these ships were supposed to be faster."

"He also said that it would take nearly three weeks with a regular UNSC Frigate."

"Right."

Sora-124 and Colin-142 strode down the corridors past the hangar, checking the dead. It wasn't a pretty sight to see dozens of aliens lying there, the life choked out of them. Sora wondered if any of the methane-breathing Grunts had survived, though chances were that Caladbolg had flushed as many as he could straight through the airlocks.

"So," Colin spoke up, breaking the silence. "What do you think our chances are with the mission?"

Sora sighed. "Haven't we both heard that question enough already?"

"Just trying to make conversation, sorry. I don't know what's worse, being told you're going straight into hell or having it surprise you."

"If you're talking about Reach, then none of us could have expected what happened back there."

"You don't know that. I heard that by the time the brass decided to pull us away from RED FLAG, Covvies had already been attacking the other side of the planet for weeks."

"Who told you that?"

"Marco. Apparently they didn't want to 'distract' us from RED FLAG."

"Well, they sure as hell did a fine job of that, didn't they?"

Colin chuckled. "Yeah. Still, I'd feel better if more of us had made it out."

"Me too. You think John's team completed their mission?"

"Maybe, but they aren't here, so who knows what happened? Doubt anything could kill 117, though."

The pair finally came to a single door. It opened as they approached, revealing row after row of ammo crates filled with alien weaponry.

"Huh, Jackpot." Sora walked straight in, checking left and right before she motioned for Colin to follow.

"You think this ship attacked Reach?" he asked. Sora just shrugged.

"Don't know, don't care. Just need to focus on the mission, Colin."

"Right, right. I'm just making sure, you know?"

"Good. Don't worry about me, I think if anyone is shook up over Reach it's Carris and Joshua."

"What makes you say that?"

"I'm good at spotting things. Let's just-"

The two Spartans halted as they turned a corner. Sitting in the middle of the armoury, spikes protruding from a long, bulbous shape. An antimatter bomb. Sora and Colin looked at each other, then back to the bomb. Sora activated her COM.

"Commander, could you send Doug and Marco down here ASAP?"

"What's the problem?" replied Felix, calm as ever.

"We've got something that requires a bit of heavy lifting."

Chapter Three: Infiltration

Preparations

Cycle 246, Seventh Age of Reclamation

Location: Covenant Holy City, High Charity

"Field Master, I'm surprised to see you back here so soon."

Stel 'Vadamee turned to see a Sangheili in black armour leaning against a pillar behind him. He recognised the helmetless warrior on sight.

"Rol. I'm more concerned about what you are doing here. Aren't your division deployed already?"

"Some of us, my friend. My group are waiting for reassignment, putting down Humans or Heretics, most likely."

"Aren't they the same thing?"

Rol chuckled. "So I'm told. I've heard your brother is being heralded as a hero for his actions on that Human world."

"We all play our part," Stel replied, "I've been forced do deal with the politics." He spat out the last word as if it were poison.

"I see. The Prophet of Truth is meeting with Tartarus at the moment, you might have to wait for him."

Stel was taken aback by this. "The Jir'a'ul leader? What does he want?"

"It seems that something has happened to the Unyielding Hierophant and the fleet surrounding it. Only whispers, but bad news all the same."

"So the Prophet meets with a brute like Tartarus rather than one of our own. Strange, is it not?"

Rol shrugged. "It isn't my place or yours to question the holy ones, brother. Speaking of which, I heard that my own blood brother was stationed in your Legion. Where is he?"

"Training. He's probably with 'Demalee and 'Cazalee aboard the ship."

"Ah, I will have to seek him out before Commander 'Vadumee returns. Thank you, my friend."

Stel watched Rol walk off before continuing on his way toward the Sanctum of the Hierarchs. As he approached the entrance, flanked by a number of guards known as the 'Lights of Sanghelios', it opened, revealing a massive, white-furred creature.

"High Chieftain," Stel nodded at the hulking Jiralhanae as it lumbered past him, carrying its hammer.

"Field Master," Tartarus grunted back.

Stel waited for the door to close behind him before breathing again. He didn't much like the smell that Jiralhanae seem to constantly emit. Before him sat the Prophet of Truth, sitting on his gravity throne at the centre of the room. The Sangheili lowered himself to one knee and bowed his head.

"Noble Hierarch."

"Rise, Field Master." He did so, casting his eyes upon the diminutive red-robed figure that symbolised the ruling class of their Covenant. The Prophet looked down on him from heavily-lidded eyes.

"I have news from your Fleet Masters, holy one. While most of our fleets have assembled by the Unyielding Hierophant as instructed, those that are not actively in battle are returning here."

"I see. Is that all?"

"The Fleet of Particular Justice is pursuing a Human ship from their world, Reach, but little else, Hierarch."

"What of you, Field Master? Are you little more than a messenger now?"

Stel tried his best to conceal his emotions at that. One wrong move in here could bring down dozens of swords on him. "I simply serve, holy one. I am suited for battle on the ground, and am little-needed at the moment."

Truth smiled at this. "In that case, I will require your aid in these coming days."

"How so?"

"These are dangerous times, Field Master. No doubt you have heard of these Human 'demons' in battle."

Stel had not only heard, but seen these enemies before, and realised what Truth wanted.

"I have, Hierarch. You want protection from assassination attempts."

"Not quite. While this isn't public knowledge, a Prophet was assassinated by one of these Demons some time ago, and there have been concerns between myself and the other Hierarchs that our guards may not be capable of protecting us all the time."

"We have always been your protectors-"

"-and always will be. I want you to gather a group of warriors like yourself, Field Master, ones who are brave, skilled, and above all else, loyal."

Stel stood up straight, nodding at Truth. "So, we are to be your closest protectors?"

"No, Field Master. You are to be our assassins, made to hunt and kill these demons."

Arrival

1802 Hours, September 16, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Fervent Devotion, bridge, unknown system


"Okay boys and girls, we're here."

At the edge of the system, the captured Covenant vessel exited the void of slipspace, and found itself facing the eye of the storm.

"Caladbolg, is that what I think it is?"

"Looks like it, Felix." The AI seemed to be just as impressed as the Spartans were. "High Charity, the Covenant's holy city."

Colin took two steps closer towards observation, gazing in amazement. "God...damn..." He mused, clearly impressed.

The other Spartans were as-dumbstruck, all of them staring at what was the Covenant's capital. This would be the ultimate test - infiltrating none other than the Covenant crown jewel. The zenith of the religious and yet vicious conglomerate.

"Well, ladies and gents, we have the omega of the genocidal alien empire right in front of us." Doug broke the silence, with his ever-so-casual demeanor.

"Spartans. Enough stargazing for now. We've got work to do. Caladbolg. Can you get us a plan of the city?" Felix tilted his head in questioning towards the green-tinted, floating, miniature Celtic warrior beside him.

Caladbolg simply took one glance at High Charity and then back at Felix, before exchanging his gaze between both.

"If there's anyone who can get through that hunk of metal, it's going to be me." He exclaimed, with brimming confidence, before flashing away. Felix turned back to the small, assembled group of Spartans, who in turn paid attention to him.

"Alright. Now you're all done staring in amazement, you were all chosen for RED FLAG for damn good reasons. They only wanted the best, because the end of this war, and the continued survival of mankind, is now in your hands. No pressure."

Felix turned his head away from the bridge as Slightly Vaporous hovered about nearby. A green flash appeared nearby as the rest of the team checked their weapons. Once the flash appeared, Caladbolg brought up the docking bay schematics, showing what High Charity's innards looked like. The miniature Celtic warrior's sword was pointing towards the plan.

Doug simply rolled his eyes at Caladbolg's display, though it was hidden behind his opaque visor. Instead, he simply moved his head with the motion.

"We're getting close. I'm rearranging Alpha and Beta teams for when we arrive - Alpha will consist of myself, Josh, Carris and Bailey, while Beta will consist of Colin, Doug, Marco and Sora."

The before-mentioned Spartans turned their gaze to one another, nodding at each other in affirmation. Doug and Colin in particular had not worked for quite the long time, and were often paired operators when things became especially dire. For good reason - the two, when paired together, are a force to be reckoned with. Felix again averted his gaze towards Caladbolg.

"I've an idea, "leprechaun". The ship was damaged. I'm assuming you can speak Elite, that way we could potentially call for repairs."

The little green holographic man's face formed into an expression of contemplation, before nodding and disappearing. Things were becoming tense for an eight-man Spartan outfit. Could eight super-soldiers truly turn the tide of the greatest war humanity has ever been embroiled in? This was no time for doubt. This would either seal humanity's fate, or save them from the brink of total cataclysm.

Colin, nearby raised his elbow and rested it on his knee, helmet slumping into his palm.

"So, Doug. About what happened on that one colony..."

"Oh, no, not again..." The big Spartan rested an open hand against his visor.

"Next time I'm on an op with you, I'm driving. We took the flatbed truck, you end up getting its engine caught on fire. We take another one, you make me almost throw up in my helmet after that three-sixty spin you ended up doing after that crazy ramp-off."

"Pff. Last time you took the front seat, I had to punch you out of a Pelican, and then jetpack five storeys downward to safety...right before tumbling down the snowy hillside.

"Still can't believe you did that." Colin opened his arms wide, exasperated.

Bailey chuckled, rolling his eyes behind his visor as he looked towards the tan Spartan hanging on to the Phantom nearby.

"What about you, Marco? Got any tales of glory to tell us about?" The yellow Spartan inquired.

"Eh...aside from being at Viery when the bigass cruiser showed up, at New Alexandria, Operation: DROPKICK, not much, really. Just a big clusterf--" Marco was distracted by a flashing screen nearby, and his eyes - hidden behind his helmet - widened.

"Well, it appears the Covenant equivalent of flight control has us on the line."

Gathering

Cycle 246, Seventh Age of Reclamation

Location: Covenant Holy City, High Charity

Three Sangheili sauntered their way into the brightly-lit chamber. Above them loomed a huge statue of a long-dead Prophet, arms outstretched. Sur 'Ranakee glanced up at it, and had to suppress the urge to laugh at the absurdity of it. He'd never been a very pious person, preferring battle to prayer, but the sight of one of the diminutive prophets cast as a giant in stone amused him. To his left, a warrior clad in the white armour of an Ultra turned to him.

"Brother, what do you think this is all about?"

Sur shrugged. He wasn't one to question orders. "Some mission," he replied.

"Away from our Legion? Why the three of us, anyway?"

The third Sangheili, slightly younger than the other two, slapped the Ultra on the back. "You worry too much, Sona."

"Caution is often the wisest option, Urei. It has kept us alive this long, and will do so in the future."

"If you say so, brother. What do you say, Sur?"

The red-armoured warrior gave a noncommital grunt and kept walking down the purple-tinted corridor. The others remained silent. Eventually they came to a large door, which chimed open at their approach. The room ahead was very spacious, and even housed an ancient, gnarled tree growing in the centre. Beneath it stood two figures. One wore the distinctive golden armour of a Field Master, the other in the black garb of a Special Operations Warrior.

"Sur, Sona, Urei. It is good to see you here, brothers." Stel 'Vadamee stepped forward and held out his arms in a welcoming gesture; it reminded Sur of the Prophet statue in the other room. The three of them knelt before him.

"You summoned us, Field Master?" asked Sona.

"Stand, my brothers, stand. This is a momentous occasion, truly."

The others exchanged glances before turning back to Stel. The black-armoured Sangheili had removed his helmet, and stood at the Field Master's side.

"Rol!" Sur exclaimed. He had not seen his blood brother in some time.

"Greetings, Sur."

"What brings you here, brother?"

"The same cause that brings you. The Field Master will explain."

Stel 'Vadamee leapt onto one of the nearby boulders, turning to face the warriors below him. His hand went for his sword, and drew it out, deactivated.

"My brothers, I bring you both good and bad tidings. I have been informed that our space station, Unyielding Hierophant, has been destroyed along with most of the fleet around it."

This caused some grumbling among the four assembled below him; they had all had friends there, preparing for the final push to erase the vermin of Humanity from this galaxy, as was the will of the Gods. When their muttering had ceased, Stel spoke once more.

"However, the most noble Hierarch, the Prophet of Truth, has tasked me with assembling a lance of the greatest Sangheili warriors I know. This is to create a group for the most noble of missions, brothers."

He paused for effect, taking in the looks of those below him.

"We have been tasked with the eradication of the unholy filth that has plagued our armies for so long, that has caused our great Covenant several costly defeats. I am talking about, of course, the Demons."

The assembled warriors stood there in stunned silence for a few seconds before reacting. Sur 'Ranakee laughed and raised his fist into the air.

"Let them come, brothers. I seek a worthy challenge!"

His roar was answered by the others as they raised their fists in the air as a form of salute. For a warrior, there was truly no greater challenge than to slay a demon. Their chanting was silenced by the sound of an Energy Sword being ignited. They turned to look at Stel, who raised his blade for all to see. The other warriors shifted uneasily. A drawn blade in Sangheili culture demanded that blood be spilled.

"This is what the Prophets demand of us, brothers."

He drew the sizzling blade of Plasma slowly down across his other arm, searing an excruciatingly painful line through his exposed skin, crossing the length of his left arm and ending at his palm. To his credit, Stel did not cry out, though he did stoop slightly when the deed was done. He deactivated the blade and stowed it on his belt.

"Sacrifice is demanded from all."

He could barely watch, but he had no choice. The Prophet of Truth had demanded this in order to 'display loyalty, obedience and brotherhood' in this new group of would-be Demon killers. In truth, Stel believe that Truth had demanded this self-mutilation on a whim. Some small part of him yearned to crush the worm in his chair, but religious devotion kept him in check. Soon, the ritual was complete. Sur was the last to finish, his blood red blade scoring a horrific scar down his arm. The red-armoured warrior grunted in pain before nodding towards Stel.

"My brothers, now we are truly bonded as warriors. Take time to heal while your new armour is prepared, for we shall take the Prophet's shining blade to these Demons and claim victory for our Covenant!"

Stel turned away from his companions, heading back towards his new quarters. While this new role was the highest honour a warrior like him could receive, the burning pain up his arm made some part of him think otherwise.

With pain like this, hunting Demons might be troublesome. I'd prefer it if they came to us.

The Shipmaster snorted at the ridiculous thought of Humans ever desecrating their holy city with their presence, and kept on walking. A few warriors milling about the entrance eyed his burn with some suspicion; a wound in Sangheili culture would usually be a grave dishonour, but Stel wore it as proudly as he could. Those marked were the best warriors he could find, and would hunt their hated enemies in the name of the Covenant. Such was their duty.

Approach

1810 Hours, September 16, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Fervent Devotion, bridge, unknown system


"How long do you think it'll take for them to realise we're standing in for the real crew?"

"Eh, I'd say twenty minutes, tops."

"Wanna bet?"

"I'll pay after the mission."

"Quiet, both of you!"

Felix looked back at Marco and Joshua, who had been sitting on a pile of empty weapons crates. Caladbolg was still conversing with the Covenant station control for some time, explaining their predicament. Apparently the Fervent Devotion was supposed to have been by something called the 'Unyielding Hierophant' following the destruction of a Human world, probably Reach. Caladbolg eventually turned back to the team, looking very pleased with himself.

"Well, they seem to have bought my story. We were attacked, which was technically true, but managed to destroy the human ships and escape. A little embellishment about honour and returning to the fight and we're in the clear."

The Spartans nodded in approval. Carris-137 grabbed her rifle. "How are we getting in then? Are they letting us dock?"

"Oh no, not for a warship like this. Turns out that the Shipmaster SPARTAN-116 kicked to death wasn't very high on the food chain. They're allowing our crew aboard the station while they send a few smaller ships in for repairs."

"And then what? We flushed most of the crew out into space, if you remember?"

Caladbolg snapped his fingers, and a holographic representation of the Covenant space station flashed up, as did their ship.

"I give you High Charity, ladies and gentlemen. This big Jellyfish is certainly the best-defended thing in the galaxy, at least from the outside. We get much closer, and we've got a few thousand plasma cannons pointed our way. So, we give them a little distraction, shake the hornets nest, and we'll slip in while they're still trying to work out what just happened."

"Let me guess," Marco stood up. "That is our distraction." He jerked his head towards the spiked antimatter bomb, sitting in the corner.

"Exactly. You've got a knack for distractions, 035."

"Not really, I just thought of ways to use it while carrying the bloody heavy thing up here."

"Hold on a second," interjected Bailey. "Even if we have it on a timer, wouldn't they just blast us to pieces if we set it off as we leave?"

"True," replied Caladbolg. Several holographic red dots appeared next to him, slowly getting closer to their ship. "I suggest that we leave before then."

Immediately, the Spartans sprang into action. Felix ran forward and placed his palm on the Covenant computer. Caladbolg winked out as he reintegrated inside his MJOLNIR suit. A shadowy ghost of the AI remained on the holotable, staring blankly at them.

"Subroutine, it'll keep them busy chatting while we leave." Caladbolg's voice spoke over their COM. Before exiting the room, Colin-142 turned and whistled. The Engineer drifted through a previously locked side door immediately. Slightly Vaporous whistled back and followed them out of the room. Felix was last to leave. Before he did so, he placed his palm on the antimatter bomb, which began to pulse red.


"Colin, did you have to bring that gasbag with you?"

"Could come in handy, Doug," replied the other Spartan, leading the friendly Engineer along by one of its tentacles. "Slightly might be of use to us."

"SPARTAN-142 does have a point," Caladbolg spoke up. "These creatures have an excellent understanding of Covenant technology, having one on our side will be useful."

"Fair enough," Doug responded. "But if it holds us back, we might have problems."

As they entered the hangar bay, Felix halted the group, looking round at the transports that remained there. "Each team will take one Phantom, just in case. We'll head for High Charity as fast as we can, and with any luck we'll have landed by the time the bomb goes off."

"Sir, how long have we got?" asked Colin.

"That's a good question. Caladbolg?"

The little green AI materialised next to Felix's suit, and crossed his arms. "Well, I'd say about twelve minutes, give or take. I thought you'd just get in and leave without the speeches."

Even with the threat of being atomised, Felix only sounded slightly annoyed. "Let's move, Spartans!"

Clambering into the side of one dropship, Doug turned to Colin, who was carefully leading the Engineer aboard. It was fairly spacious inside, even with their bulky MJOLNIR suits.

"So, you remember how to fly one of these?"

"Probably," The teal-armoured Spartan replied, cracking his knuckles. "No pressure, right?"

Caladbolg's voice spoke up through his COM. "If we deviate a few inches away from the planned flight path, they'll blow us to smithereens, SPARTAN-142."

Colin sat in the Phantom's cockpit, looking at alien controls.

"So like I said, no pressure."

Doug laughed. Slightly Vaporous let out a low whistle. Marco sat on the other side of the dropship, eyeing the Engineer suspiciously. He'd already shot one today, and would probably do so to the other one if it so much as looked at him funny. Following Felix's Phantom, their transport left the Fervent Devotion with little effort, slowly making its way towards the looming space station. They're lucky, Colin thought. Back there they don't have to look at the damn thing.


In the lead Phantom, Felix sat in the cockpit. He'd been given training on the operation of Covenant vehicles, though the AI was doing most of the work.

"How long have we got?"

"Seven minutes. Plenty of time."

"Good." He looked back into the troop bay, currently occupied by Joshua, Carris and Bailey. Even for Spartans, they were being unnaturally quiet. He wasn't sure if it was the mission ahead or simply the current inactivity that bothered them; He had been away from his fellow Spartans for a while now, so it was hard to tell. Bailey saw him looking, and swiped two fingers over his visor, imitating a smile.

Well, some of them haven't changed much.

Welcoming

Cycle 246, Seventh Age of Reclamation

Location: Hangar 207, High Charity

A small, orange-armored Unggoy Minor pushed his short, stubby arms against a large, purple Covenant crate with hexagonal patterning spread upon it. The Grunt was shoving this crate as hard as he could, giving one last final heave before the crate lurched forward. His task finally over, the Unggoy slumped against the crate, his triangular, orange backpack wedged between himself at the troublesome box.

A nearby, red-armored Unggoy came and sat down next to him. His red armor identified him as a Grunt Major - not like it meant anything to many others. Grunts were always mistreated by their superiors. Jiralhanae or Sangheili, it mattered not. The difference they could spot in them were either lots of hair or a lack thereof, in these two's eyes.

"Well well well, Bakbo. You look like you were kicked around by that big ol', fancy gold-armored Elite who was down here earlier." The Major said, commenting casually on his friend.

"Yeah yeah, Zapga. You couldn't possibly state the obvious any harder." Bakbo replied, disgruntled.

"Bee in your bonnet, huh?"

"Shhh! Don't be using human sayings around the Brutes. Or you won't be visiting the food nipple tonight."

Zapga just did nothing but rolled his eyes - yet another human gesture. Some Unggoy, recipients on the black market especially, were known for trading human communication files or learning about their culture. Such activities were frowned upon by races higher-up in the Covenant hierarchy, some of the more ruthless commanders punishing their subordinates rather harshly.

The red Grunt elbowed Bakbo on the shoulder and stood at attention as a Brute Captain Major, strode past the pair. His armor was also a shimmering gold, and the Captain gave nothing but a malcontent, passing glare at the Unggoy as he passed by. The two finally stood at ease, breathing a sigh of relief through their methane rebreathers.

"Phew. He looked even meaner than usual."

Bakbo turned his back and strode in the other direction, before stopping to peer at a monitor showing the schematics of a Phantom that was moving quite fast towards Hangar Bay 207. The orange-armored Grunt peered back at Zapga, his eyes showing worry.

"Uh...Z?"

"What?"

"There's...something weird going on."

The red-armored Unggoy could do nothing but sigh and come over himself, looking at the monitor.

"There's a Phantom that's coming towards us. Quite fast. Too fast."

"You...know what that means, right?"

Bakbo simply raised his arm, his hand now clasped around the grip of a Plasma Pistol quite firmly. He cleared his throat and took one, terrified gulp.

"Wowowowow, wait. Look at that! What's Fervent Devotion doing?"

Zapga could only take one, dumbstruck look at the observation window when he saw the ship Fervent Devotion flying not towards one of the hangars, but towards the holy city itself. The Unggoy pair gasped with nothing but pure, unbridled awe as the ship was enveloped by an enormous anti-matter blast, taking several other ships with it. Of course, it did little to High Charity, the shields being too strong for even an anti-matter bomb. But it had certainly got everyone's attention.

Then, the Grunt duo were again, dumbstruck. A pair of Phantoms had arrived inside the bay, setting down rather gracefully. The two Grunts, along with a large number of other dockworkers and Kig-Yar milling about, turned to the new arrivals from the destroyed ship. Then the doors opened.

That, was when they bore witness to a small group of the legendary 'Demons' they had all heard about. It was looked like an avalanche of munitions. Bullets and plasma blasts fired in every direction, blowing Bakbo, Zapga and dozens of others to pieces with overwhelming firepower. The amount of shell casings lying on the deck was almost comical as silence swept over the mostly empty hangar.

Carris-137 broke the silence. "And that's why I love fighting with you guys. Why shoot something once when we can shoot it about five million more times?"

"Hey, Marco. Nineteen minutes. You owe me."

The tan-armored Marco could do nothing but grunt in exasperation. "Oh well. Saving the entirety of the human race for a few credits isn't much."

Josh chuckled as the rest of the Spartan made their way on to the hangar bay. "Hey, Felix. How did the distraction go?"

116 whipped around to Joshua, completely no-nonsense. "As smooth as possible. Caladbolg says just about every damn one of these aliens is running towards it."

The Jiralhanae Captain burst through the door, clad in his golden armour. Having heard what was possibly every shot ever fired ever, the big ape rushed around the corner with what looked like an enormous hammer. Doug-103, the only Spartan to have gone through the bay door at the time, dodged the first blow of the hammer and delivered a surprise uppercut to the Brute's chin, before sending a below-the-belt, dirty kick to the Brute's groin.

As the Jiralhanae winced in pain and fell backwards, Doug stood in front of him, a grin present behind his helmet.

"You want a banana? Go eat Bailey."

As the rest of the Spartans rushed in, Sora nailed a shot directly through the Brute's head, splattering his grey matter and dark red blood all over the wall of the corridor they were present in. Many of the Grunt dockworkers had scattered, or were cowering behind crates and praying to their gods. A few ran for weapons, and were quickly gunned down by their armoured foes.

Bailey casually shot down a trio of Grunts, and turned to a Jackal creeping up on him. He smiled, and pulled the trigger.Click. Empty. Sighing, he smashed the butt of his rifle over the head of his screaming foe, the force of which cracked its skull and killed the creature immediately.

"Ammo out!" he called, stooping to grab a plasma rifle from a nearby corpse. They had a limited supply of ammo with them in the first place; the Spartans might have been a bit too overzealous in their actions here.

"Yeah, I'm out too," responded Carris, who was choking two Grunts to death. "Felix, what's the plan?"

SPARTAN-116 was last to leave the Phantom, stepping out onto a blood-soaked walkway. By now alarms would be sounding throughout High Charity and the Covenant Hierarchs would probably be sending out their best. He'd planned to enter the station elsewhere, but this would have to do for now. Caladbolg's avatar appeared next to his suit, and crossed his arms.

"Well, we certainly do know how to make an entrance," he remarked.

Felix nodded. "Think the bomb did any damage?"

"Probably not. This place is unbelievably well-guarded. We were lucky to get as close as we did, most things get vaporised before they even go near this place."

"Guess we got lucky. We'll need a map."

Felix waved the others over as Caladbolg brought up a holographic representation of High Charity and their current positions near the bottom. The AI looked round, and noticed what appeared to be a holotank nearby.

"Hey, plug me in over there, wil ya?"

The Spartan placed his palm on the tank, and Caladbolg reappeared there. Immediately, icons and marks began to appear all over High Charity. The hologram became much more detailed as the AI took in information from around the massive space station. Before it could reach the centre, the hologram flashed red for a second, an odd symbol appearing for a moment. Caladbolg cocked his head.

"Interesting, seems I've been locked out."

"How?" asked Felix.

"No clue, it was like hitting a wall. Still, got enough info to get us a path through the station, though it'll take a while, days even."

The Spartan nodded. two lines, one red, one blue, appeared on the map, leading from the lower hangar area they were in to one of High Charity's higher districts.

"Right then, I've mapped out two of the best paths available to us at this time. I'd recommend each team taking one path before regrouping at the top. That way we should be able to keep the Covvies guessing."

A nearby door slid open, revealing a group of startled Brutes. The Spartans dived away as spikes and explosives rained down on their position. Caladbolg and the map disappeared. Marco and Colin dived behind a stack of weapon crates as Sora returned fire, quickly dropping one of the bestial aliens with a well-placed sniper round. After combined fire brought down a particularly large enemy, one of the Brute pack howled with rage, leaping over cover and jumping directly onto Marco. The Spartan struggled with his foe for a few moments, throwing the Brute to the ground before scrambling to his feet and unsheathing his knife.

"C'mon then, monkey!" He shouted, dropping into a combat stance.

The Brute dashed forward, roaring as he tried to tear the Spartan apart. Quick as a flash, Marco sidestepped and brought his knife up in an arc across the throat of his foe. Dark blood splattered across the floor as Marco kicked the dying creature down, before grimly advancing on the others. A quick burst of speed had him at the throat of one of the others, whom he threw into two more of his packmates. Doug, Colin and Bailey ran forward, ripping them apart with bursts of fire.

"Well, that was easy," Marco remarked as he sheathed his blade. What's the plan?

Felix reloaded his rifle, mindful of his remaining ammo. They would have to get moving if they had a chance of seizing one of the Covenant Hierarchs in time.

"Okay people, this is Phase Four of RED FLAG. From this point onwards, we'll split into our two teams and work our way up the station. Caladbolg will stay in the system to give us a hand and keep track of enemy movement."

The AI popped up again on the holotank, looking slightly worried.

"Bad news, guys. Looks like this 'lockout' thing was a bit more widespread than I thought, and staying in the system might not be the best idea."

"What do you mean?" asked Joshua, who had been busy looting corpses with Marco.

"I'll only be able to help one team in a limited area, opening doors and so on. The other team will have to use other methods."

"Like what?"

As if on cue, there was a shrill whistle from inside one of the Phantoms as Slightly Vaporous floated out above the corpses.

"Like that," Caladbolg finished. Felix placed his palm on the holotank, allowing the AI to re-integrate with is MJOLNIR suit. The Engineer floated around the Spartans, looking curiously at them.

"Wonderful," Doug spoke up. "You get the invisible AI that opens doors, we get a big floating target that hides at the first sign of trouble."

Colin shrugged, patting the Engineer. "Hey, Slightly shouldn't do too badly, Doug." The Engineer drifted towards one of the exits. "We'd better get going."

At this, the eight Spartans snapped back into action, grabbing what weapons they could as they made for two separate exits. Doug, Colin, Marco and Sora accompanied Slightly Vaporous, while Felix led Joshua, Carris and Bailey. They were now deeper in enemy territory than any human had been before. The Spartans could not afford to fail.

Chapter Four: High Charity

Alert

Cycle 248, Seventh Age of Reclamation

Location: Hanging Gardens, High Charity


Stel 'Vadamee sat upon a stone, looking out at the monolithic Dreadnought, which sat at the centre of their holy city. It had been two full cycles since the alarm had sounded, and most of High Charity had gone into lockdown. A ship had moved towards the station seeking repairs, and had then exploded, destroying a number of nearby craft in the process. While the station's shields guarded it from the blast, rumours were spreading like wildfire throughout the city of heretics daring to attack High Charity, the safest place in the Covenant Empire.

The reality was much, much worse.

The Field Master's elite lance had been summoned to the High Council chambers and presented with footage of an attack in one of the lowest docking bays. Two Phantoms had landed, only to reveal a complement of the very creatures they were supposed to be hunting: Demons. A chill had run down Stel's spine as he watched them slaughtering the workers and their guards. Finally, the Prophet of Mercy himself had turned to him.

"Field Master, this is the greatest threat to our Covenant in living memory. These demons defile our holy city with every step. You know what must be done."

"We will hunt them down like the animals they are, holy one. For the Covenant, and the Great Journey!"

The others had repeated his mantra before exiting. Each of them bore their new scars with pride; they were symbols of their absolute devotion to duty. Nonetheless, Stel had checked each one in turn once they were out of sight of the Prophets and their guards. His brothers didn't say a a word. Stel had been ordered to wait for instructions from the Hierarchs, and had spent most of his time sitting around here. His scar itched.

"Field Master!"

Stel turned to see Urei 'Cazalee and Rol 'Ranakee approaching him. The two were proficient warriors in their own ways; Urei was an accomplished swordsman, Rol was a master tactician and favoured ranged weaponry. Some may have viewed this as abnormal or even dishonourable, but Stel saw the pair as a good balance.

"What is it, Urei?"

"News from the Hierarchs. We were to lead a Legion to the middle districts in search of these demons."

Stel was rather surprised at this. "A whole legion for eight demons and a treacherous Huragok?"

"It is the Prophet's wish, brother."

"True, true," Stel nodded. It seemed a bit much, though he knew better than to question his superiors. "Is there anything else? Where are the others?"

He could tell that both Urei and Rol were desperate to tell him something, though orders came before idle gossip. He looked at the pair of them in turn. Rol spoke first.

"We have received news that the Fleet of Particular Justice has discovered one of the holy rings, Field Marshall. They pursued a Human ship there following the fall of their fortress world."

"A Halo?!"

Rol nodded. This was truly a momentous occasion in Covenant history. These ancient constructs had been much sought after for centuries, and were an integral step on guiding their Covenant towards the Great Journey, something that their entire religion revolved around. Stel was certainly a believer, though he had not been a religious zealot in his time. Something like this was certainly enough to rekindle the faith of any who doubted the Journey. His mind quickly slipped out of celebration, and focused on the task ahead.

"Brothers, we shall talk more of this once we have exterminated the demons defiling our holy city. Our duty comes first right now."

The warriors grunted their approval. Stel turned round as the familiar whine of a Phantom dropship drew closer to them. He immediately began making his way towards the end of the floating platform, suspended many miles above the lower districts of High Charity. The dropship hovered near the edge, doors opening to reveal Sur 'Ranakee and Sona 'Demalee waiting inside with a cadre of Special Operations Sangheili. He allowed Rol and Urei to board before clambering onto the crowded dropship himself. They had been waiting far too long.

Now they were on the hunt.

Skirmish

0849 Hours, September 18, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: High Charity Lower Districts


The blinding flash of a plasma grenade hurled through the air by a Kig-yar sniper detonated in the cover nearby where Sora had leaped from and behind Doug-103, the latter of which was holding the line for the other Spartans using a plasma cannon - one of those cumbersome, large Covenant mounted machineguns which he had torn off its mount.

"I swear to God, if I see any more of those damn thi--" Doug was interrupted by Sora landing right next to his feet, strafing to the left to cover her. "Better get up, Sora, and get ready. This wave's done for the time being but they're not gonna relent." The plasma cannon's hail of fire sizzled to a stop, with smoke billowing from the barrel.

Marco, with his drab armor caked in Unggoy blood, emerged nearby with Colin as well, the latter of which is also enjoying an extra coat of teal to his armor. The pair of Spartans took a glance at the carnage nearby, before the two readied their weapons. Marco was toting a shotgun and Colin his assault rifle.

"Looks like we're clear for now, but we need to keep movin'. Converging on the objective n' all that." Colin states before glancing around. "Wait, where's Vapourous?"

The Engineer's head poked around the nearby pillar from behind them, Marco turning around with an exasperated look on his face. "C'mon, gasbag. You're smart enough to stick behind cover, at least." The Huragok hovered about behind the group, Doug checking the cannon still in his arms.

"Bollocks, looks like this thing's outta charge. A shame." The large Spartan tossed aside the weapon as Sora walked forward amongst the hallways of the alien metropolis, before emerging in a very large open space with a bridge covering it. A group of Elites at the end of the bridge, in crimson armor and wielding large staffs and a very large contingent of assorted Covvies including standard Sangheili troops, Unggoy, Kig-yar, Jiralhanae and even a Mgalekgolo pair.

The four Spartans along with Slighty Vapourous immediately fell behind cover as not to be seen, Vapourous mushed up next to Doug. The latter shook his head.

Sora lifted a hand to her helmet, with a whisper to her tone. "Hey, Felix?"

The sounds of gunfire, plasma shots and the screams of dying Covenant soldiers were overtaken by Felix's voice through comm channel. "Say it now, Sora!"

"In the two days we've been scouting this place, we've come across this big bridge that is heavily guarded. We'll be screwed if we try to go over it. We've got half an army down here."

"They'll be guarding something! Do what you can!" Felix's voice ceased, and Sora lowered her hand and fixated it on her rifle.

Colin spoke up. "We should pick off the snipers first and keep Vapourous in cover." The Huragok's head turned towards the former. "Doug, get their attention when you're ready."

"Shotgun's not gonna be much use at that range, either." Marco stated, before something in his head clicked. "Wait, Doug. You still have it?" Marco pointed to Doug's back, the latter of which who slid off the weapon off.

"I can't believe I didn't use this yet." The white-and-blue Spartan simply gazed at it, an almost childlike glee overcoming him as he gazes upon it.

"I think the Hunters - they always hunt in pairs, and when one dies, the other one always goes berserk, and usually end up killing most of their own guys." Advising Doug, Marco shuffled about behind the cover.

"Alright. Sora, you go for one of the fancier looking Elites first and I'll hit the Hunter. On the count of three."

Sora gripped her sniper rifle handily while Doug prepared the weapon - it was none other than the Spartan Laser he had carried off just before the mission. The entire time he legitimately forgot to use it. From behind the cover of the pillars Vapourous stayed in the cover with its tentacles splayed across it, with Marco and Colin along with on the opposite pillar. Colin prepared his assault rifle and Marco waited patiently, knowing that the Covenant soldiers would close in on them soon. A red laser beam started whirring from the barrel of the Spartan Laser and the tall Spartan stepped out of cover, letting the beam release itself. It sizzled for a moment before the long red blast smashed directly into the face of one of the Mgalekgolo, severing the head all together and thus, hell broke forth.

Even better, their plan had actually worked. Colin, with his steady aim and hard grip, fired controlled bursts in the direction the tiny Unggoy with hails of assault rifle fire while Sora took the hat clean off one of the Honor Guard Sangheili, then the two Kig-yar snipers. The rampaging singular Hunter was abundantly furious about the lose of its bond-brother, plowing through the Sangheili at the end of the bridge with impunity, slaughtering them in a fit of rage in which the Mgalekgolo lost all rational thought.

"Watch out for the angry can a' worms!" Doug shouted, attempting to warn Colin.

The Hunter charged forward like an angry bull, with the intent to reduce Colin to a pile of broken bones and a sack of organs. Firing its Assault Cannon blindly and harmlessly into the walls of the other side of the bridge, the Mgalekgolo caught Colin by surprise, bringing its shield up to charge Colin. Suddenly, a handful of Yanme'e buzzed out from the chasms below and confronted the other Spartans with hails of plasma and needle fire. The incessant battering of their wings droned through the room.

"Damn roaches! Watch your heads!" Sora called out, blasting one of the Drones clean out of the air with a sniper rifle shot.

Closer to it than he imagined, Colin's eyes widened with surprise as he saw the rampaging Hunter's shield ripple towards him. But not through the white-armored hands that had just grabbed on to it with the firmest of grips. The seven-foot-eight super-soldier was a surprising match for the Hunter, so much in fact that Doug's incredible strength, the strongest of all Spartan-IIs, was pushing back the lumbering beast, the Hunter's boots causing sparks across the floor. The Hunter lurched forward, pulling the shield out of his hands. Instead, the Lekgolo gestalt brought the shield crashing down, with the intent to crush Doug. The latter however, had other plans. The Hunter made a terrible, terrible mistake.

The SPARTAN-II's hands flat-palmed caught on to the surface the shield and the Mgalekgolo was in a very bad situation. It heaved with all of its might, the other Spartans completely focused on removing the Drones from the land of the living. The Hunter's strength however, was used against it. Doug suddenly strafed to the right and now the Hunter's back was facing the edge of the bridge. 103's plan was outright ingenious. As he turned the Lekgolo colony's strength on itself, he ran forward, bellowing mightily as his final push commenced, and the Hunter was reduced to nothing but a small splatter of orange and metal plates at the bottom of the chasm.

The very last Drone fell face-first in front of Doug, who had turned to face the others and pulled out his assault rifle again. The drone's body was nothing if not riddled with bullet holes. Marco, Colin and Sora stood opposite Doug, who just looked behind himself to see legions of dead Covenant, before turning back.

"What?" He shrugged, arms open in confoundment. "Just another day at the office for me."

"Man, if you ever wake up on the wrong side of the bed, I am going to be from here all the way over to Earth." Sora jested, shaking her head. Colin chuckled heartily, and Marco smirked behind the polarized visor.

"Alright, c'mon. We still got an E.T. to catch. Vapourous!" Colin called out, and the Huragok's head peeked around the corner before it joined them.

"Atleast the gasbag hasn't gotten in the way." Doug remarked, looking at him. As it passed, Slightly Vapourous' tentacle, one of many, backhanded Doug's helmet. "Hey! Sassy bastard."

Supply

0912 Hours, September 18, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: High Charity Lower Forges


Felix deactivated his long range COM. They couldn't risk making any long transmissions within High Charity, but it was good to hear that Doug's team was still surviving out there. In the two days since their arrival, his group had spent a great deal of time moving through the sparsely populated industrial districts of the massive space station. They had encountered dozens of patrols on their way up, however, and were running low on ammunition. Currently, the four of them were taking cover in some kind of large air vent, hidden from their roaming foes.

"Hey boss," called Carris-137, who had been looking through a nearby grille with a fiber optic probe. "Another Split-lip patrol just left, we've got a window to move on."

Felix nodded, and grabbed a Covenant Carbine he'd picked up yesterday. "Right, lets go, we haven't got much time."

Joshua-029 and Bailey-132 got to their feet, edging towards the grille with weapons drawn. When she was certain it was clear, Carris booted it open and dropped down into the dimly-lit corridor. The others followed suit, keeping an eye on their motion sensors.

"Clear!"

The group moved up as quickly as they could before arriving at a locked door. The Covenant had increased their security greatly in the last few days, with hourly code changes and constant patrols. Still, the Spartans had their own handy little tool: an AI. Felix placed his palm on the control panel, and after a few seconds the door chimed open.

"This is far too easy," Caladbolg said smugly, speaking through the COM. "You'd think that a station as old as this might have some defence against cyber attack. Guess they never expected me."

"Where are we now, Caladbolg?" asked Felix.

The little green AI materialised on his shoulder, and cocked his head. "Some kind of factory, I'd wager."

Bailey checked his ammo count; he was the only one in the group who hadn't been forced to grab a Covenant weapon yet. "A factory means we can resupply. Oh, and blow shit up, of course."

"Naturally," Caladbolg replied. "We haven't got very long though."

"Why's that?"

"Covenant comms have sparked up lately, looks like they're sending an army down here to get you."

Felix crossed his arms. "How many are we talking about?"

"A few thousand, at the very least. We've pissed them off."

"I see." He motioned for Carris and Joshua to move through the unlocked door, with Bailey taking up the rear. The four Spartans moved out into a much more open area; Grunt workers and the odd Engineer drifted about among a large machine. Above them was what appeared to be some kind of assembly line. Felix gave the slightest of nods and watched as Carris unsheathed her combat knife, creeping up on the first worker and plunging it into the diminutive alien's neck. Joshua followed suit, stowing away his gun and silently taking down several others. Within a few minutes, the Spartans had wiped out every alien in the area; the Huragok had fled at the first sign of trouble.

"Clear!" called Carris, flicking blue blood off her knife. Bailey and Felix quickly swept past the corpses and up to a large door, which chimed open at their approach.

"Jackpot..." Bailey whispered, lowering his rifle.

They had stumbled right into a warehouse of sorts, lined with hundreds of purple crates containing weapons ready to be shipped out to the front. Bailey eagerly kicked the panel off one, revealing several Beam Rifles. While Joshua stood guard outside, the group grabbed as much as they could carry, stuffing empty ammo pouches with plasma grenades and charging plasma weapons.

"Sir!" Joshua called from outside. "Patrol's back, looks like they found the bodies!"

Felix loaded a needle rifle and ran for the door. "Right, we'd better torch this place before more arrive. Bailey, keep looking around in there, we'll buy you some time!"

"Got it boss," the yellow-armoured Spartan answered before retreating further into the warehouse. The other three began to spread out in a defensive line around the area's central structure. Felix was well aware that they wouldn't last long against an entire army if and when it showed up, so they'd have to act fast.

"Joshua, how are your demo skills?"

"I'm no Grace, but I can manage. What's the plan?"

Glancing up, Felix could make out a large piece of metal moving along the assembly line above them. Then he realised. Those are damn Scarab parts. They must have stumbled into some kind of assembly area where the fearsome war machines were constructed. Something flashed into his mind, and he grinned.

"Joshua, forget the demo. I'll need technical support."

"Ah, now that I can do!"

By this point, the patrol had been shot to pieces by Carris and Joshua, and the familiar whine of Covenant dropships could be heard in the distance. Felix motioned towards a control panel at the base of the main construct, above which the piece of Scarab armour was suspended.

"I need you to get over there and turn off that assembly line. Got it?"

Joshua swiped two fingers over his visor and began to move forwards, dropping off a ledge and creeping towards the exposed panel. He didn't have much protection out there, so Felix and Carris moved up to provide support. More enemies had begun to pour out of the entrance and straight into their killzone, though the Spartans were sitting in front of a whole damn warehouse of ammo.

"Left side!" Carris called, swinging her beam rifle round and immediately nailing a Sangheili warrior in the head as he led a group through the side door. Joshua knelt by the panel, working with unfamiliar controls. A lucky plasma shot hit him in the leg, making his energy shields momentarily flare. Cursing, he picked a needler in one hand and sent a hail of pink shards towards the offender, who promptly exploded.

"One sec, I think I've got it!"

Above the central machine, the main assembly line flickered and died. Joshua's enhanced reflexes kicked in as he leapt backwards before the massive scarab piece dropped onto him. Gouts of fire burst from ruptured pipes as metal screeched and tore apart, crushing several aliens underneath before the rest could retreat. The three Spartans fled, rushing back into the warehouse as a fireball enveloped the area. Felix placed his palm on the door control, and it promptly locked behind them.

"Well," Carris dropped her empty rifle. "That was one way to hold them off. Now what."

Felix hadn't thought much beyond the plan, in all honesty. Before he could reply, Bailey emerged from behind a stack of crates. Though the opaque visor concealed his face, he had a feeling that the other Spartan was smiling.

"I take it you've just blown the place up."

"Didn't know you were psychic, Bailey," Joshua remarked.

"I know an explosion when I hear one. Found something we could use, too."

He turned and led the three others through the warehouse, and out into a very small docking bay area with a sealed roof. A number of platforms sat immobile at the bottom. Bailey strode forward and leapt onto one before tapping a control panel. It immediately lit up, and rose several inches off the floor.

"Its an anti-gravity platform," Caladbolg spoke up as he materialised on Felix's shoulder. "From what I can gather, unggoy workers use them to travel about. Nice find."

Bailey gave a thumbs up. "Shouldn't be too hard to fly us out of here, either."

"Where to?" Carris asked. The sound of dropship was getting much, much closer.

Caladbolg brought up a tiny holographic map of High Charity, and traced a finger going up towards the highest towers. "Well, as far up as we can go. The Covenant Hierarchs should be situated around there if I'm not mistaken. I rarely am."

"Sounds good to me."

Felix noticed a panel on the nearby wall, and tapped it. The roof began to open up, artificial light flooding into the docking area.

"Everyone aboard, we're moving out."

The platform was surprisingly sturdy, and provided ample cover for the Spartans as it slowly rose off the ground. Bailey seemed to grasp the basics fairly quickly, and after a few moments they had shot up and out of the factory area, whizzing past idling Phantoms and a few circling banshees. They would give chase soon enough, but for now the Spartans were entirely focused on the distant towers on the upper levels of High Charity.

Hunt

Cycle 248, Seventh Age of Reclamation

Location: Assembly Forges, High Charity

Stel 'Vadamee walked among the corpses and looked at the destruction the Demons had wrought. Dozens of corpses lay around the half-empty forge station, blood seeping across the metal walkways. A number of Unggoy workers moved across the wreckage, picking through rubble and pulling out the occasional body.

"Field Master, there is no sign of the Demons ahead. They've escaped!"

He nodded at the Major and turned back to his brothers. They had been so close. Had their foe not brought down the assembly line they would have had a number of Mgalekgolo, supported by his own Lance, upon them. Sona 'Demalee stood on what remained of the fallen Scarab armour, looking up at the higher districts of High Charity. He turned as Stel approached.

"The Hierarchs."

"What?"

"The Demons are going after the Hierarchs."

"Brother, are you sure?"

"Why else would they be here? They seek to kill or capture our leaders."

Stel froze. It was strange that he had not considered it yet; so far they had been more preoccupied with exterminating the Spartans and not with finding out why they had come here. The entire defence fleet had clustered around the station after the captured ship had been destroyed, and anything larger than a pebble was vaporized before it could get anywhere near their holy city. Stel clenched a fist, ignoring the faint pain from his burned arm.

"Back to the Phantom."

Sona nodded, and ran with his leader to their transport. Rol, Sur and Urei waited inside. The warriors looked restless as the pair approached.

"Brother-"

"Not now!" barked Stel. "Take us up. I want every unit we have scouring the skies of our holy city until the Demons are annihilated!"

As the Phantom rose, accompanied by many others, Stel 'Vadamee activated his energy sword. He would have blood.


"They're gaining on us!"

Joshua turned round at Felix's shout and levelled his needle rifle. It wouldn't be much use against a Phantom, but if he timed it right he could take down a banshee. Carris knelt by the side of the flying platform, a grenade primed in one hand. It hadn't taken too long for their pursuers to find them, and judging by the sheer number of red dots getting closer on his radar they'd really kicked the hornet's nest.

"I've got a lot of hostiles closing in on us," he called.

"Got a count?"

"I'd say a dozen Phantoms, minimum. Hundreds of Banshees."

"Piece of cake, right?"

Felix knelt between them, hefting a large orange weapon. A Fuel Rod Gun. He'd swiped it from that armoury at the last minute. Joshua edged away slightly as he discharged it, a sizzling orange bolt catching the lead flyer full-on and sending it plummeting into another. At the front, Bailey-132 cursed as he tried to steer them upwards.

Though their antigrav platform was fast, the banshees soon drew level with them. Plasma bolts streaked past, a few catching their MJOLNIR armour and making the shields flare. Carris' plasma grenade stuck to one and detonated, only for two more to take its place.

"Shit!" she shouted. "Bailey, hurry this thing up."

"Fine, keep 'em off me!"

"You got it, banana."

"Don't call me-"

The rest of his sentence was cut off as a large purple shape slammed into the platform, causing it to swerve violently. Carris and Felix were able to magnetise their boots quickly enough, but Joshua was thrown clear. His rifle dropped and fell from view.

Oh no.

He fell...

...and fell...

...and fell...

Then, he reached out. An armour-plated fist slammed into the side of a Banshee's cockpit as SPARTAN-029 tore it open, the other hand unsheathing a combat knife. The Sangheili pilot could barely react as the blade violently slammed into his neck, the corpse being thrown down as Joshua took control. He couldn't shake the feeling of deja vu here. He'd been here before, not so long ago. The Banshee rose, streams of plasma cannon fire raining down on those ahead.

"SPARTAN-029, are you okay? Josh?!"

That was Felix. He hadn't seen the guy for a few years, and at first glance he seemed like a spook in MJOLNIR. Now, he sounded genuinely worried for an old comrade. Joshua couldn't help but smile at that. After taking down three more flyers, he activated his COM.

"I'm fine. I'll cover you guys."

"Copy that. Meet you at the top."

"Got it."

The Spartan couldn't shake the feeling of déjà vu as his banshee whizzed forward. The last time he'd been in a situation like this, he'd dragged himself out of a smouldering crater and barely escaped Reach alive. Bolts of energy shot through the air, Joshua evading and moving his transport back a little until he was positioned directly behind a group of pursuing ships. Gotcha.

Joshua took a deep breath, and opened fire.

A few banshees fell back, having noticed their fellows being gunned down from behind. There wasn't much he could do but dodge them as they rose further, getting closer to the high towers containing what he assumed were the Covenant Hierarchs. Joshua weaved through the other banshees, and hovered momentarily over a Phantom, which soaked up enough plasma fire to begin smoking. That was when he saw the ambush. Bailey's voice sounded over the COM.

"We've got two Spirits ahead, gonna try to evade them!"

Joshua tried to accelerate past the swarm of flyers around him, but it was too late. The transport doors on the older Covenant dropships opened, revealing lines of Sangheili wielding fuel rod guns. Green bursts filled the air as the little anti-gravity platform desperately tried to weave through. Before it could get past, several blasts caught it on the side, sending his team's transport veering off to the side. Joshua fired his banshee's own cannon at one of the Spirits, a fuel rod hitting one squarely in the side with a bright green burst and sending it plummeting downwards.

"Felix!" Joshua called as he saw their lifesigns momentarily fluctuate on TEAMBIO. "Bailey, Carris, are you okay?"

It was a few seconds before Felix responded, coughing. "We're fine, regroup with us ASAP!"

He gave a sigh of relief and steered his Banshee towards the large bay where their platform had skidded to a halt. A large number of pillars along the side gave them some cover, but with an entire army converging on their location he doubted it would last long. As he drew closer, a flurry of plasma rounds scored his wing, making the craft shift violently. Joshua swore under his breath and shifted it into maximum speed, streaking towards a Phantom as it attempted to land nearby. He stood up as he drew closer, looking for the opportune moment to get away. Tensing his body like a coiled spring, Joshua sprang forward.

The Banshee impacted against the Phantom, the explosion twisting and burning the metal with an almighty screech as it brought the dropship down. The flames burned through the shields of the warriors aboard, incinerating some and propelling some out over the abyss towards the lower city.

Joshua landed, rolling as he did so.


Even Stel couldn't help but watch in horror as their support Phantom burst into flames. Those aboard died horrible, burning deaths, unfit for a warrior. Before his own dropship had even touched down, he and his brethren had already leapt forward, running towards the sounds of plasma fire. Beside him, Sur 'Ranakee laughed.

"Now we move in for the kill, brother!"

He nodded, keeping an eye on Sur's crimson blade. A berserker like him was a danger to everyone on the battlefield. Ahead lay the charred husks of banshees and what remained of the stolen antigrav platform. Some infantry had landed ahead of them, judging by the scattered bodies. Then, their targets came into view.

Demons.

There were four of them in total, faces hidden behind opaque visors and strong armour. They were even coloured differently; two were similar shades of green, one was clad in black and the fourth wore a very bright yellow, something to offend his eyes no doubt. Watching them fight filled the Field Master with rage, and perhaps somewhere in his soul, fear.

"Go, chosen brothers, kill them for our Covenant!"

Stel slowed down, waving his blade and allowing the others to move past him. He wasn't stupid enough to charge in blindly, and instead kept back. He would wait for an opening. At the sight of four Sangheili warriors, the Demons turned to face them and opened fire, driving his brothers into cover. Oddly enough, they seemed to be retreating towards a side door. The one in black armour had placed a palm on the pedestal, and a small holographic figure appeared.

"RAAAAAAH!" Sur 'Ranakee roared, drawing his second blade as he leapt forwards, a maelstrom of destruction. His prowess might have felled a single demon in this encounter, but in this situation he faced four. Stel moved his eyes away from the human construct for a moment to watch Sona and Urei keeping the humans at a distance with their blades. Rol 'Ranakee had opted for a needle rifle, and was slowly pushing them back with well-placed shots. Stel glanced back and saw a number of white-armoured warriors approaching him. The Ultras.

"Field Master, we are here to aid you." Their leader bowed without looking ahead. Stel looked at the situation below, and hesitated for a moment.

"Circle round the Demons, brothers. Use your rifles to hem then in and move in with your blades when I command it!"

The Ultra leader nodded, and waved his warriors forward. They began to take up positions around the pillars, slowly encircling the fight happening below. A roar of anger moved Stel back to the fight as he watched Sur backing away, one arm bleeding profusely. The yellow-armoured Demon held one of his blades. Urei instantly darted forward, leaving Sona and Rol to contend with the other three. The young warrior's first wild swing was easily evaded, allowing the Demon to bring his own blade forward, impaling him through the chest. Then, Stel ran in.

He knew that the Demon would make short work of the enraged Sur, and leapt forward before they could continue their fight.

"Come, Demon. Face me!"

His use of the human's language got its attention long enough for him to lunge forward, driving his foe back out towards the wrecked platform. Sur followed in spite of his damaged arm, trading blows as they moved closer and closer to the edge. Cut him off from support, bring him out where they can't save him...'

"DIE DIE DIE!!!"

Sur 'Ranakee continued his tirade of abuse at the Demon, which seemed to be treating their sword battle rather casually so far. Leaping back to avoid a violent slash, Stel glanced back to see the previously locked door opening, giving the Demons an escape route.

"Now, open fire!"

The Ultras, who had been diligently awaiting instruction, leapt from cover and rained down plasma on the three other Demons. The one in black armour was pushed back last, evading a swipe from Sona as the Ultras swarmed the closing door. The Demon they were fighting leapt to the side, kicking Sur to the ground and almost gutted Stel had he not evaded. The Demon drew out a smaller metal blade and lifted it above his head, aiming for a blow that would finish off the wounded warrior. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Stel tried to reach his comrade. Before he could do so, a flash of blue energy sliced through the air ahead of him, searing through the Demon's arm.

"Rol!"

Rol 'Ranakee deactivated his camouflage and stood over his blood brother as the Demon staggered back, gasping in pain. Stel pounced on his foe, lunging and driving his blade through its midsection to the hilt. Though a deactivated blade dropped from the Demon's fingers, they soon curled into a fist, striking Stel again and again in the chest. His armour dented inwards and he could feel bones starting to break before a stream of plasma fire from Sona and Rol sent it staggering back, scorched and ruined. The Demon lingered on the edge for a brief moment before slipping backwards.

"We killed it."

That had come from Sona 'Demalee, who stood panting by Stel's side. The Field Master tried to ignore the sharp pains in his chest as he turned to look at the sealed door behind them.

"You let them get away."

"I saved your life."

That was true, at least. A few more seconds and the wounded Demon would have taken him too. Stel began to move forwards, casting his gaze upon the corpse of Urei 'Cazalee. He had died a warrior's death. Rol helped Sur up, and moved up by him.

"Brother, our Legion will soon hunt down these Demons. Together we slew one, even if it cost us one of our own. What is a little blood compared to killing a Demon?"

On the blood of our fathers, on the blood of our sons. Stel knew the oath. Their band of marked warriors had been created for this very purpose. Today would be one of celebration were it not for the other Demons. Ignoring his injuries, Stel signalled for his Phantom.

"We have to warn the Hierarchs."

Breakout

1156 Hours, September 18, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: High Charity Detention Block


"Shit!"

Marco spat, his helmet off his face, his face clenching up. Colin was rubbing the side of his helmet and Sora was not sure what to think of the situation. Doug held his Mark VI helmet at his side, shaking his head.

"Look, Marco," Colin finally spoke. "We'll talk about it later. Now's not the time."

"I know that, Colin." Marco responded.

Doug sighed, a sad frown coming across his face. "See you on the other side, Banana." The bulky Spartan slapped his helmet on his head, and Marco did the same. Sora came to her senses and walked through the door on the other side of the bridge, leaving the scene of chaos they had left beforehand.

"We all knew what were getting into." She finally added, looking back over her shoulder.

"What about the others, though? It's only us and the other team that the UNSC knows are still alive..." The white-and-blue Spartan inquired.

"Like I said," 142 interrupted again. "We'll remember him when the mission is done."

Doug looked to the other three. "Ammo check?"

"Spent."

"Ditto."

"Then let's improvise." Doug took one of the dead Elite's carbines and threw it to Colin, and a pair of plasma rifles to Marco.

They all switched on the flashlights mounted on their suits and headed through the spacious corridor, eventually moving up into what looked like some sort of control center. Only now it became clear as to why only this particular door was so heavily guarded. Their lights came off, the corridor's alien lights finally flickering to life again.

Sora worked forward and inspected the terminal. "It's something alright, but I'm not sure what. Definitely some kind of control panel."

Slightly Vapourous whistled, hovering past the group and to the terminal. He pulled a part a datapad from the control panel and slipped one of his many tentacles around it, showing it to Sora. The datapad quickly translated to English. She read it out loud.

"It's the control panel for the whole brig," She began. "The Covenant has detained many of its enemies here, including Unmutual Yanme'e." She stopped to ask with curiosity; "The hell's an Unmutual?"

Colin stepped forward and explained. "Unmutuals are drones who've split off from the hive. They're psychopaths by their standards. It's related to multiple personality disorder."

Doug turned around and depolarized his helmet, arching a brow. "Since when did you know so much about drones?"

"What do you think I do in my off-hours, big guy?"

"I don't wanna know." Doug replied. Colin chuckled.

Slightly Vapourous' datapad continued translating lines of text, "I can unlock any and all of the cells in this entire brig. Once they are free, the entire brig will be in chaos. We could all slip out of here at a moment's notice." It finally stopped.

Marco gave a simple thumbs up to the Huragok. "Do it."

Vapourous' tentacles went to town on the terminal. Before long, a loud, alien blaring was heard in the brig and the voice of a Sangheili speaking his native tongue was heard over loudspeaker. Every single door in the brig immediately raised. Sangheili war criminals, Kig-yar pirates, Unmutual yanme'e, even rampant Mgalekgolo were released from their cramped cells. Pouring out like a wild tsunami the renegade Covenant prisoners squabbled with each other, destroyed much of the brig and clashed with the security forces still inside.

"Let's go, team. While the Covvies are busy killing each other, we can take a few potshots at them and sneak by."

"WILCO." Colin responded.

Marco raised his plasma rifles as if ready to fire and Colin ejected the cartridge from the carbine, inserting a new one at a moment's notice. They quickly made their way out of the room with Doug and Marco in front, Colin in third and Sora at the back. They took the door down to the left into a large room filled with corridors and entrances, likely to different areas of the brig.

Said chaos was already in progress. Several mostly bare Sangheili had already brawled with several of their brethren and taken their armour, along with their weapons. The corridor adjacent to the team had a swarm of bickering drones passing by, taking the weapons from the deceased guards before turning on each other as quickly as they scavenged their armaments. Marco, in front, released twin plumes of plasma fire at them, assailing their unprotected bodies and dropping them dead.

"Still got split-lips in the back!" Sora called out and snapped up her sniper rifle, nailing two of the Elites with the same bullet, right through their necks. Dual geysers of purple blood flowed forth as they came to their demise.

"And another bloody Hunter in the front!" Doug called out as he made his way around the corner of the next corridor and heading through the door. Rampant Mgalekgolo are Hunters without their bond-mates, causing them to be in a perpetual state of rage and thus unfit to have with Covenant soldiers.

As the dead Covenant followers at the back entrance to the brig would testify. However, even an enraged Mgalekgolo was not a chance for the strongest Class-1 SPARTAN-II in the entire program. This Hunter was stripped of its assault cannon and shield, leaving only its durable blue armour. The armour had the addition of shackles, unsurprisingly.

Doug let loose a powerful uppercut to the Mgalekgolo's unprotected head, sending it reeling. "Smile, motherfucker!" He gestured for Sora to take another sniper shot, blasting the entire Hunter's head apart and sending orange tatters and blood flying everywhere, like lunchbreak gone wrong.

"Spaghetti, anyone?"

"Oh, that's dark, even for you, Marco." Colin remarks dryly as the team continued down the second corridor. All the cell doors had already opened, as if it had been intentionally kept empty. They passed through to the exit, to find themselves in a large hangar with a glass overlooking. Now it came together - the control panel room was decentralized, the Covenant had assumed anybody who would attack High Charity would look to the main room for the button that released all the cell doors.

Several Unggoy leaped to their feet as they saw the Demons coming, while one particular Sangheili in gleaming golden armour stood behind the glass, above the scene. There seemed to be nothing but Unggoy below, who fired their weapons in completely random directions, not knowing what to do without any Unggoy majors or the Sangheili field master telling them what to do.

It's almost like he's playing a sick game with them, Marco thought.

Firing his plasma rifles again, Doug firing his assault rifle, Colin popping skulls with his carbine and Sora with her sniper rifle fell them in mere seconds, turning a majority of the room to the cyan tinge of Grunt blood. With that, Slightly Vapourous emerged from a nearby piece of cover.

The five gazed up at the zealot behind the glass.

His alien mandibles parted into a sick, twisted smile.

Grief

1248 Hours, September 18, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: High Charity Upper Districts


"Lieutenant Commander, SPARTAN-132-"

"I know, Caladbolg."

"If I may-"

"You may not. Get to work on those doors."

"As you wish."

Felix turned his back on the little green AI, finally coming to face his team. It had all happened so fast back there; the crash, the fight, and Bailey...

"We could've gone back for him," Joshua said. Their tech specialist was sitting cross-legged on the floor, a Covenant Carbine across his knees. "We could've saved him."

Carris, who was crouched opposite him looking over tactical readouts, shook her head. Joshua glanced up at her. Though they were both wearing helmets, Felix felt like he was watching a staredown.

"Bailey got separated from the group, Josh. There was nothing we could have done for him."

"We could've blasted our way through and brought him back. We don't leave people behind."

"Yeah, and got shot to pieces by those Split-Lip bastards." Carris stood up, deactivating her TACPAD. "I know you're still cut up about Reach, but now isn't the time to lose focus on the mission."

Joshua clambered to his feet, standing less than half a metre away from his team mate. Felix began to edge closer, a palm closing on the plasma pistol attached to his leg.

"Cut up? I was nearly nuked, Carris! We still don't know what happened to Fred and Kelly, or John's team. We might be the only Spartans left, so excuse me if I'm little concerned over the fact that we just let Bailey die."

Carris visibly stiffened at this remark. Her voice dropped to a threatening hiss. "You think I don't know that? Baiey was still recovering from the wounds he'd taken on Reach. Marco dragged him into that Pelican, in case you've forgotten."

Joshua began to take a step forward, but halted as Felix appeared between the two. He'd only read the reports from Reach, having been elsewhere at the time. Years of operating alone had left him out of the loop a little with his Spartan comrades, but he was still their commanding officer. He had to act.

"Calm down, the pair of you." Felix kept his tone level, looking at Carris and Joshua in turn. "Bailey's death wasn't the fault of anyone. We were outnumbered and outgunned back there, and we paid the price."

Joshua stepped back a pace. "Sir, that's why I'm worried. We're Spartans. We aren't supposed to be outgunned."

"He's right," spoke up Carris. "We're supposed to be the best."

Felix nodded. "We are." He stepped forward and placed a hand on the shoulders of his fellows. "We're not invincible either, but we're not easily defeated. We're going to fight our way through this place, kill as many Covvies as we can and end this damn war, understand?"

"Yes sir!"

"Got it."

Felix couldn't help but smile behind his opaque visor. "We're going to avenge Bailey and every other Spartan that's died to get us here today. We're going to fight on."

There was a chime from behind him as the passageway ahead finally unlocked. Caladbolg's avatar sparked into view, waving his sword ahead. Felix looked back and swiped two fingers across his visor. The others returned the gesture.

"Lets go."

Joshua took point, moving through first followed closely by Carris. As Felix exited he placed his palm on the control panel and allowed the AI to re-enter his suit before switching to a private COM channel. He still couldn't contact the other team, though he was sure that they would have found out about Bailey by now via TEAMBIO. If they're still alive, that is. Felix had to talk to someone else.

"You did that on purpose."

"What?"

"You waited until I'd sorted out those two before opening the door."

Caladbolg laughed. "Am I that obvious? SPARTAN-029 and SPARTAN-137 have had the worst psychological damage following Reach, you had to get them to make up."

"It worked, didn't it?"

"I suppose, Lieutenant Commander. For a lone operative, you're surprisingly good at heroic speeches."

The Spartan didn't reply. He merely shouldered his carbine and continued on down the corridor after the others, his mind immediately settling back into the mission. As the way was clear for now, he brought up the team roster on his HUD, and selected SPARTAN-132. It was horrible, but it had to be done. He sighed, and marked his comrade down as MIA. Missing in Action. Bailey wouldn't ever die, officially, though doing this made Felix feel as if he'd killed his old friend.

"Woah."

The trio emerged from a side door, and found themselves looking out over the Covenant city of High Charity. It had a strange beauty to it, Felix admitted. The lower districts they had fought their way through was dominated by a massive tower-like structure bathed in light. Dropships filled the sky around it, some forming a defensive circle while others searched for the Spartans.

"Caladbolg, any idea what that is?"

The little green AI materialised on his shoulder, sword sheathed. For the first time, the intelligence seemed genuinely unsure of what he was looking at. Felix and the others ducked behind a row of stone pillars as a Phantom swept past before moving out again.

"I'm not sure," Caladbolg finally admitted. "Looks important, in any case."

"Do you think the Covenant leaders are there?"

"Probably not, the schematics I've been digging through have shown me one location that's interested me. Its called the 'Sanctum of the Hierarchs'."

"Sounds nice," Carris remarked. "Where is it?"

"About halfway along the outer wall, and a few stories above us. We've got a long way to go yet."

"Right, no worries then."

"Can we get a marker?" asked Felix. After a few seconds, a small triangle appeared on their HUD's. It was far away. A door at the other end of the platform chimed open, revealing a group of very surprised Unggoy. Felix, Joshua and Carris turned to face them as they were joined by several Sangheili. Then, the shooting started.

"Spartans, we're moving out!"

Information

Cycle 249, Seventh Age of Reclamation

Sanctum of the Hierarchs, High Charity

They have increased the guard. Stel barely cast a second glance at the row of white-armoured Sangheili that stood by the entrance to the High Prophet's quarters. He had briefly stopped at a medical station, leaving Sur there to recover from his injuries before proceeding to his destination. Silent and unmoving though they were, Stel knew that these elite warriors could and would cut him to pieces before he could draw a weapon. He stopped before the inner door and spoke to the guards there.

"Field Master Stel 'Vadamee, here to meet with the Hierarchs."

"The holy ones are meeting with the Chieftain of the Jiralhanae. You will have to wait."

Stel shifted uncomfortably. Behind him, Sona grunted in annoyance as Rol stepped forward.

"Field Master, we really cannot delay. The Demons approach even now."

"You're right," Stel nodded, and straightened up. "We haven't got the time to wait for the Jir'a'ul." He stepped forward, and held out his arm for the guards to see.

"Do you see this?"

"Yes."

"We are the hand of the Prophets, chosen to do their bidding. This mark displays that, brother. Let us pass."

The guards looked at one another for a moment, gripping their energy staves tightly. After a few moments, they stepped aside and allowed the door to slide open. Stel and his companions entered the inner chamber, looking around warily. By a large holotank in the centre stood Tartarus, the grey-furred Chieftain of the Jiralhanae. He turned as they approached, crossing his arms.

"Field Master. I'd have thought that your marked lance would be busy fighting Demons by now."

"'Marked Lance'? Is that what we're being called now?"

"Its what I have heard."

A side door slid open, revealing two frail figures atop floating gravity thrones. Tartarus and the Sangheili dropped to one knee as they approached. Stel glanced up to see the High Prophet of Truth looming over him, hands clasped together.

"Tartarus, leave us. You have your mission."

"Yes, Hierarch."

Stel and his companions rose as the hulking Jiralhanae lumbered out of the room. He was surprised that the High Chieftain was allowed to visit the Hierarchs alone, armed with his massive hammer. Tartarus glanced back at Stel once before the door shut. The Field Master bowed his head as a sign of respect before speaking.

"Most noble Prophets of Truth and Mercy, we come with grave tidings."

The elderly Prophet of Mercy gave a hacking cough before looking down at the gold-armoured Sangheili. "What news do you bring?"

"We believe that the Demons have come to our city to assassinate or capture you, the Hierarchs."

"Is that so?" Mercy raised an eyebrow. "Do you not trust in the strength of the Sangheili, our protectors, to defend against these Demons?"

"We have always protected you, holy one, but I would advise you-"

"Advise?!" Mercy waved a frail hand towards Stel. "Do not presume to advise us, Field Master. You are a talented war leader, yes, but not of the council. Do not forget your place."

Truth smiled. "Wise words, my friend, wise words. Do not fear for our safety, Field Master. I have recalled the Lights of Sanghelios from their posts to defend our inner sanctum. Nothing will get through here, trust me."

Stel bowed his head once more. "Thank you, I only had your safety in mind, Hierarch."

"What of the Demons, then?" Truth asked. "I see only three of you here from the five chosen. Has your Lance seen battle with our foes?"

"Yes. Urei 'Cazalee fell in battle and Sur 'Ranakee is wounded, but we were able to slay one of the demons as they tried to reach the Tower District. Our entire Legion is pursuing the others through the city."

"Your fallen comrade will be remembered as a hero of the Covenant, I assure you. I take it that you have noticed the Prophet of Regret's absence?"

The Sangheili nodded. It was indeed strange not to see their Covenant's leading triumvirate together, though he had not brought it up. Truth and Mercy's thrones turned and drifted towards the large window, which looked out on the assembled Fleet. It had grown massively in size since the Fervent Devotion's destruction. Stel approached, noticing the satisfied smile that adorned Truth's face.

"Right now, my esteemed Hierarch Regret is assembling his own fleet to search for one of the most revered artefacts our Gods left behind. Even in times of war the three of us work tirelessly for our Covenant."

"Your work is appreciated by all."

"Once our ships have assembled and this Demon problem is dealt with, we shall follow Regret, and take yet another step on our Journey."

Stel did not reply. The Prophet of Truth had a far-away look in his eyes, staring out at their massing fleet before continuing.

"We are close to victory now, Field Master. The Humans have been crushed on planet after planet, and a Halo has been found. All those who walk the path like you, those who remain loyal, shall join us on the Great Journey."

Stel bowed. It was inspiring to hear such words from the mouth of a Hierarch, though deep down, he felt a slight twinge of doubt. Truth turned to him.

"Leave us, Field Master. Kill these Demons, and defend our Covenant with your life."

"I will, holy one."

Standing up, the Sangheili motioned for Rol and Sona to leave. The Field Master exited with his comrades. As they walked out onto the landing pad where their Phantom waited, Rol spoke up.

"The Chief Jir'a'ul meets with the Hierarchs armed and alone. Strange, brothers."

"True," Stel replied as he stepped aboard the Phantom. "I wonder how they handle the stink."

The others began to laugh as the dropship doors closed. They would pick up Sur, and head right back into the fight. Stel would have to put aside any doubts to focus on the fight ahead.

Chaos

1305 Hours, September 18, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: High Charity Holding Chambers


The Sangheili Zealot stepped away from the glass and paced up and down inside his large room, overlooking the lobby of the Holding Chambers. He waited patiently for this chaotic camaraderie of so-called 'Demons' to enter his room, hopefully the one in the lead. A nearby, rather convenient staircase led them up, while Marco took the lead.

"That bloody Zealot-class splitjaw's plannin' something. I'll go ahead." Marco made a step forward to the stairs, but Sora placed a hand on his shoulder and promptly froze in place.

"You're right. What if it's a trap?"

"Only one way to find out, Sora--"

"And? What if you end up like Bailey, back there?"

Colin intervened while Doug gazed back at the strewn-about bodies of the Unggoy, standing right next to the perpetually curious Slightly Vapourous, the Huragok's head tilting slightly.

"You're both right. What about what you said earlier, Sora? "We all knew what we were getting into"? If he goes in, he goes in. No stopping him." Colin finishes.

Marco contemplates this for a moment, before heading up the stairs with his plasma rifles seemingly glued to his hands. "Wish me luck..."

The tan-armoured Spartan stepped inside, the door splitting in two and sliding open. The room seemed deserted, as if the Zealot left. When he turned his head around the corner, he was just standing idle, eerily. Marco called out.

"Fancy a fight, Splitlips?" Most bizarre is that the Zealot flickered.

It was a hologram.

"Oh, shit." The Zealot uncloaked nearby and slammed his fist down on the screen that was at the front of the room, accompanied by a floating desk chair. The rooms were promptly locked tight, and Marco turned around in a gasp.

The guttural Elite bellowed, "Let us see if your ability to fight extends to that of wielding a blade," and tossed the hilt of an energy sword towards Marco, who caught it after holstering both plasma rifles. The Field Master's own blade ignited. Marco glanced downward at the sword and at the Field Master, his teeth gritting.

"You'll regret that."

"You must hope I will, or your friends will not survive."

With those words, several Special Operations Sangheili, and Stealth Sangheili, uncloaked or unhinged themselves from the nearby walls and ceilings of the lobby room, taking the three plus Slightly Vapourous by surprise. As a gunfight ensued below, the seven-foot-two Zealot charged forward, sword raised.

Marco, having never really been brought up in an honourable fight-to-the-death warrior culture, did the best he could with the luminous energy sword, successfully parrying a blow from the Field Master. The swords clashed with sparks flying, the Zealot reeling for another swing. Marco delivered a quick, decisive jab at the Zealot's neck, sending him backwards. Marco let loose with a flail of his own, striking upwards. The slash connected, the Zealot's shields flaring and breaking. He let back, a small wound inflicted by the edge of the blade, immediately cauterized by the searing weapon.

"You fight better than I anticipated," He clicked his mandibles. "Pity more of your kind had not joined our noble creed!" He pounced like a quadruple-jawed seven foot tiger. Marco parried the second blow.

"Maybe you shouldn't 'ave glassed most of our colonies for more shiny bits to worship, you religious nutcase!" In his short ranting the Zealot took a moment to strike, thrusting his blade forward. The Spartan side-stepped just in the nick of time.

"Your heresy will stay your feet!" His eyes now bulging and almost bloodshot, the Sangheili flew forward in furious swings, bringing them overarm towards the tan-armoured Spartan. The Zealot's said furious swings were side-stepped numerous times by Marco, who was being pushed more and more to the back of the room. He noticed something attached to the golden-armoured Elite's thighplate.

A helmet. Mark IV, [G] variant with an Up-Armor attachment. For his trouble, Marco, while gazing at the helmet, received a savage punch from the Sangheili to the helmet, cracking his visor slightly and sending him reeling. With Marco stunned, the Zealot stepped forward, a smug look of self-satisfaction coming on to his expression. He raised his sword in a position as to bisect Marco down the middle.

"Meet your end, Dem--HLURGHK...arlgh..." In his gloating, he had forgotten one minor detail.

He had just received an energy sword through the abdomen, courtesy of Marco.

He twisted said sword, grinding the Sangheili's internal organs to a bloodied mess. With the geyser of indigo blood flowing like a waterfall, the Field Master fell, gurgling.

"Drown, you bastard." He pulled the sword out and threw it on the Elite's corpse, heading over to the terminal at the far end of the room. Thankfully the Sangheili field master had let the screen which had locked the doors completely unattended. He gave the push of a button and the doors slid open yet again, hurrying down the steps.

Sora fired one last shot as the last Stealth Sangheili fell, his cloak shimmering before falling backwards on his backside and on to the ground, a ragged purple hole where his head had once been. Doug turned to look upward at Marco, adjusting his bracer. He received a few shots, but nothing serious. Sora on the other hand had a rather large puncture in her suit. Colin looked mostly unscathed aside from a fist-sized denture in his chestplate, and gash on his shoulderpad.

"He ended up locking the doors. Sorry I couldn't get back to you."

Doug sharply turned his head to Marco, waving a hand. "It's alright. We keep moving. Sora, will you hold?"

Sora nodded. "For now. I have to keep my distance, a sniper rifle's no use when you're staring a gator right in the face with it."

Colin shook his head. "Need to be more careful, next time. Blundering into a trap like that could do us in..."

Slightly Vapourous emerged from his hiding spot on the ceiling, floating downwards to meet the group. Marco rolls his eyes, stepping towards the Engineer. "Now where were you half this time? Should have given the guys a bloody shield boost or something, like you do to the Elites." Marco threw up his hands and headed up the stairs, plasma rifles still attached to his thighs.

Doug and Colin exchanged glances and each other, shrugging shoulders in comical unison, and headed up the stairs themselves, followed by Sora and Slightly. The team reached the end door. "Doug, if you'll do the honours?"

The white and blue Spartan nodded. He clapped his hands together and wiggled his fingers, before thrusting his hand right through the reinforced door. He pulled the doors apart, the metal crumpling in his hands like styrofoam.

Doug's jaw dropped behind his helmet, as if it had come unhinged. The figure in the room was clearly wearing some MJOLNIR armour, albeit battered and worn. The scars of a past battle were present, and the colours were washed. The chestplate was a dull sort of orange colour.

"Jó látni, barátaim."

Chapter Five: One Final Effort

The Tower

1320 Hours, September 18, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: High Charity Hanging Gardens


Were it not for the scattered corpses, plasma burns and smashed architecture, the famed 'Hanging Gardens' of High Charity would have been rather peaceful. The last Sangheili dropped to the floor, a hail of spikes embedded in its side.

"These things aren't half bad," remarked Joshua-029 as he reloaded the weapon. "Say what you like about the Brutes but you can't fault their weapons."

Carris-137 moved forward, scanning the area with her carbine. "We're clear for now."

The Spartans had spent a while working their way through the Covenant city's upper districts, re-arming themselves after a recent encounter with a large patrol before continuing towards their objective. Clad in black MJOLNIR armour, Felix-116 waved the other two forward before checking the waypoint on his helmet's HUD. We're close now. No time for any more mistakes.

"Sir, got incoming banshees, we'd best take cover." While the enemy fliers did pose a serious threat for the SPARTAN-II team, Joshua seemed to note them as little more than a minor annoyance.

"Keep moving, Caladbolg's got them distracted."

"You sure the little guy's okay in there?"

"I'm fine, SPARTAN-029."

Felix had deposited his AI companion into High Charity's computer systems not long ago; Caladbolg had assured him that he would be much more useful if he remained there to assist the team from there and track the Covenant Hierarchs if they made a move. The Spartan had noticed a slight reduction in his reaction times since the AI left his suit, though it was not a major concern. Before them was a bridge, suspended in midair over a large chasm. The Spartans ducked momentarily as several banshees screeched overhead, flying off towards the tower-like structure in the centre of High Charity.

"Banshees are gone, lets move."

Carris tossed an empty plasma pistol forward. It dropped and fell from sight.

"Huh, power's out," she remarked. This was their only way forward.

Felix activated his COM. "Caladbolg?"

The AI took a second to respond. "Oh yes, I'll get that for you." The bridge activated, a thin sheet of purple-tinted energy flickering to life. Joshua took a tentative step forwards before giving them a thumbs-up. Felix made a fist, indicating that they hold their position.

"Caladbolg, are you all right?" The fact that he hadn't immediately activated the bridge for them made the Spartan curious as to what he was doing in their system.

"I'm fine, why do you ask?"

"You took a second there, what are you up to?"

While the AI was essentially a computer program, he seemed to take a deep breath before replying. "The construct in the centre of the city had me interested, so I've gone a little deeper into their systems. Now, while I thought that it was some kind of holy icon, It seems to be so much more in reality."

"What are you saying?"

"That is a ship."

The three Spartans looked out at the city's central structure, now surrounded by hundreds of dropships and other fliers. Carris let out a low whistle.

"Is it Covenant-made?" she asked.

"No, this is far beyond even their capabilities. I think it may have something to do with ruins we've uncovered on a number of colony worlds. I think if I look into it-"

"Negative," Felix said abruptly. "We need you to be focused on the task at hand, Caladbolg. Once we've completed our mission, you can get back to that."

"Of course, sir," came the mildly annoyed reply. At this, Felix motioned for Joshua and Carris to move forward, the trio traversing the energy bridge towards a monolithic, tower-like structure. As they drew closer to it, figures began to emerge from a doorway, brandishing weapons.

"Brutes!"

Felix dashed alongside the others before diving into cover as the first wave of spiker fire came streaking towards them. On his left, Joshua downed two of the hulking brutes while Carris lobbed a grenade towards a group of grunts. The Spartan leader opened fire with his own plasma rifle for a few seconds before ducking back into cover.

"Jackal sniper, left side."

"I see him, taking a shot."

A few well-placed spikes sent their foe shrieking to the floor, allowing them to move forward. A terrified Grunt scampered for safety behind a large door, which shut and locked behind him. All the Spartans had to do was approach before it unlocked and slid open again thanks to Caladbolg.

"Looks like this is the last push," Joshua remarked as gunned down the diminutive alien.

"Just keep moving and we'll-"

Oh, no.

Felix was cut off mid-sentence as a stream of green energy streaked toward their little group. The Spartans dived once again into cover as a number of hulking figures ambled through into their corridor. Carris fired off a few useless shots before speaking.

"Now we've got Hunters. Wonderful."

Grasp

Cycle 249, Seventh Age of Reclamation

Phantom Dropship, en-route to Holding Chambers

"It is imperative that you contain this uprising, Chieftain. With the Demons running amok we will need order within the city."

"Yes, Hierarch. It will be done."

Tartarus switched off his communicator. The Phantom was filled with warriors from his pack, all hardy veterans of many battles. His second in command, a black-haired Captain named Duramus, was nonchalantly sharpening the blade on his grenade launcher. He looked up as the Chieftain turned to him.

"I have heard that the Demons are responsible for this breakout."

"So have I."

"Good. We shall see how strong they are when they face my blade."

Tartarus snorted. His subordinate was bloodthirsty even for one of his pack, though youth and impetuousness often led to mistakes. Nonetheless, the white-haired Chieftain was glad to have warriors like him by his side, especially when going up against these armoured abominations. The pilot's voice crackled through the dropship's speaker.

"Chieftain, we are nearing the holding chambers, shall we touch down?"

"No," Tartarus replied, taking hold of his hammer, the Fist of Rukt. "Allow for others to land first. They can take the fire while we move in."

"As you command."

Duramus gave Tartarus a confused look at this order. While charging into battle against rogue Kig-Yar, Unmutuals and Demons would seem like the bravest thing to do, the older Jiralhanae knew the benefits of sending in cannon fodder first to see how things went. He tapped a panel, and the dropship's side doors opened up. One of his packmates manned the plasma turret, opening fire on a number of Yanme'e swarming around the block. One of their dropships was already taking fire from a number of freed prisoners, though against trained soldiers the criminals would not last long.

"Pilot, set us down on the secondary pad."

The Chieftain looked down upon the landing zone, which was a battle-scarred mess after the fighting there. A number of Kig-Yar were wandering about, dragging crates of weaponry back into the block with them. One gave a screech at the sight of Tartarus' Phantom bearing down on them and dashed back inside. He chuckled, and hefted his hammer as the dropship descended.

"We are the new arm of the Prophets, my brothers. Let us quell this uprising and be done with it!"

Tartarus leapt from the side of his Phantom, roaring as he smashed into a group of escapees with his hammer. The others followed their leader, blasting apart any foes as they made their way inside the holding cells.

Harcos Vissza

1322 Hours, September 18, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: High Charity Holding Chambers


"No way...how'd you even survive that?" Doug-103 asked excitedly as his group paced through the mostly empty prison block. He was glad to have one of his old friends back, having thought him killed in a rather rambunctious operation to destroy the Long Night of Solace in orbit over Reach.

The SPARTAN-II sat down on a crate in front of him with his rather disheveled and battered armour. He now had his helmet back; it lay beside him.

"To tell you the truth, Doug, not even I really know." He began. "One moment the bomb had gone off, the other, I'd found myself drifting through the shipwreck. I'd expected that I would have died in the transit, but...turns out I didn't. Found my helmet easy enough, one thing led to another, now I got locked up in High Charity. The hell are you guys doing here?"

Sora hung her sniper rifle over her shoulder. "Operation: RED FLAG. Our last opportunity to stop the Covenant, by stealing one of their Prophets and holding him hostage so we can negotiate surrender."

He looked up, a chuckle escaping his mouth. "Negotiate...with the Covenant? That sounds a little far-fetched."

Colin glanced up from where he was, fixing his gaze on the Spartan. "We're getting desperate, Jorge. Either this, or we let them find Earth."

Jorge-052 hung his head again, contemplating this for a moment. "...Good enough. I'll go with you." Jorge helped himself to his feet and made his way through a door not far from cell he'd been taken out of. There was a lot of confiscated UNSC equipment, as well as weapons, inside. His eyes widened, and he nodded upwards when he found his modified M247H machine gun, with accompanying ammunition pack. It was half-empty. Walking out, he had his helmet back on his head.

"You all got some nice new armour, by the way." He stated dryly.

"Mark VI, now. Pretty fancy stuff, but armour's only as good as the wearer." Doug retorted.

Marco finally came back, having checked the terminal at the far end of the corridor for anything else. The deader than dead zealot was still lying on the floor, his blood having dried up and his expression twisted into that of permanent surprise.

"Found a way out. We can go through the door at the far end of the room we came in before this one." He said.

"Let's get to it, then." Jorge agreed, hefting his machine gun up.

Marco jabbed his finger against his helmet. "Marco to Felix. Repeat, Marco to Felix. How are you holding up?"

On the other end of the comms, Felix and his team were involved in a wild cacophony of gunfire, the sound of Hunters screeching and the discharge of heavy weaponry. Through the commotion, Felix managed to yell back.

"Make it damn quick, Marco!"

Marco glanced back at his team while they were heading down the stairs. "Two things; we're getting to you, ASAP. Second thing? We've found someone."

Jorge tapped into the commline. His helmet was surprisingly unhindered, despite numerous scratches. The zealot never damaged it himself, keeping it in shape as a monument to his skill. Skill that could not save him from his ultimate fate.

"Üdvözlet, Felix. A nevem Jorge-052."

"...Zero-five-two. Nice to see you're alive."

"Hasonlóképpen. Good to meet you, one-one-six. We'll meet you there." Both Marco and Jorge dropped out.

Marco soon led the team out of the room and back into the brig, or more appropriately, the fire. The prison had become an absolute mess and a confounding one at that. Purple fires and plasma littered the place, and several Unmutual drones buzzed around, pummeling each other or otherwise squabbling.

"Contact." Jorge muscled through the column and fired several well-placed bursts of heavy machinegun fire, swatting the unshielded drones like flies from the air. One Unmutual attempted to close the distance, only to be met by searing hot lead flying through its cranium. It landed on the ground in a bloody mess, skidding across the metal floor rather gruesomely.

Doug stepped back a little, raising his arms. "Okay, you win, Jorge. You're better at using the big guns." He shook his head, and Jorge snuffed a laugh.

"Ah, you were always second best."

Doug chuckled himself. "Yeah, yeah. Get movin'." Marco shook his head at the two and continued forward. As they did move they came to a familiar three-pronged room. What reeked of dead Mgalekgolo laid around the corner, splatters of dried orange blood still strewn about the once pristine corridor. Luckily none of them couldn't smell it.

"Colin, Sora. Take position up by that door. You two have the precision stuff." Sora and Colin looked up. Doug actually looked back. "Uh...guys?"

"Yes, Doug, what is it?"

"...Where's Slightly Vapourous?" At that, the Huragok floated out of cover and to them, next to Doug. Jorge almost pulled the trigger before Colin intervened. "Wowowowow...slow down, Jorge."

"Bloody Engineers can never decide what side they're on." Jorge had notable trigger discipline, but it slipped further down his weapon when the Huragok had came into sight.

"...As I was saying," Marco continues, "Colin, Sora, get up there. Jorge will stay in the middle. You two move in first, drawing their fire, and then we surprise them with the big guy."

Colin and Sora sounded off in unison. "Alright." The two made their way to the right door, and took up their positions. They both dropped to a knee and crept through the door, into a short corridor, and then through another door. They came into the Holding Chambers for the worst criminals the Covenant Empire had to offer - not murderers, but heretics, people who had called out against their religion. And all the cells were empty.

Colin's finger etched closer to the trigger of his carbine and Sora's eyes narrowed. She stepped forwards. The room was quite large - the floor they were standing on divided into two separate staircases leading up to a large balcony, with cells on both sides. The doors on the balcony shifted open to reveal a pair of Brute Majors, both armed with the deadly Brute Shot. Firing twin volleys of grenades, Colin called out.

"Contact! Jorge, give 'em hell!"

On that command, the big Spartan trudged through the door, his M247H ripping apart the shields of the two Majors, allowing both Colin and Sora to take the last shot. "Brutes are starting to pop up," She began. "...I got a feeling something's co--"

"So, these are the so-called Demons we have failed to destroy!"

Calling out from the balcony, an even larger, white-haired Jiralhanae with what looked like a gigantic hammer on his back was clapping contemptuously. The three had stopped firing. It was none other than Tartarus and his retinue of Brute Bodyguards, most of them armed with Maulers or Spikers.

The rest of the Spartans came charging through, stopping their tracks when they saw him.

"Well, Demons...perhaps there will be time for talk in the afterlife, non-believing scum." Drawing the Fist of Rukt, Tartarus leaped over the balcony and brought it behind his head, aiming to smash it into the ground, Scattering out of the way, all hell broke loose.

There were too many Brutes to handle. Despite the Spartans' valiant efforts, they began to take some serious hits, and Slighty Vapourous did what he could to keep everyone's shields up. Marco and Jorge fought side-by-side with blazing shots of machinegun fire and plasma bolts, Sora and Colin kept their backs covered with their more precise weaponry, while Doug engaged the Brutes in melee, dealing savage blows to the apes.

Tartarus swung the Fist of Rukt downwards, blasting Colin and Sora off their feet. Bodyguards were still present, but everyone was starting to loose ammunition. All except for Jorge, still firing his machinegun like no tomorrow.

Sora's shields had been pierced and her wounds had began bleeding again. She sounded off; "Guys, go! They're trying to slow us down, we need to get to the other team!" She was faltering somewhat. A Bodyguard swung his Spiker at her and she blocked with with her sniper rifle quickly, cutting it in half, but giving her a crucial moment to stab him right between the eyes with a newly unsheathed combat knife.

"...Go without me, if you have to. I'll only slow you down."

Jorge called over his blazing machinegun in comms. "No Spartan gets left behind!"

"He's only going to chase us. I'm already dead."

The rest of the group glanced around, even while still fighting. They had fallen silent in their fighting, before Colin broke the silence.

"If she wants to, guys..."

"Then we go. Sora...buy us some time."

Doug, Marco, Colin and Jorge all broke off anyone they were fighting, Slightly Vapourous floating in close pursuit. Tartarus looked somewhat bedazzled, but with eight bodyguards left, an injured SPARTAN-II with a dinky combat knife and his Fist of Rukt, he looked like he was going to claim at least one of their lives. Breathing heavily, Sora tore off her battered helmet to stare Tartarus right in the eye.

She charged forward. A Mauler blast singed her shields as she sunk her knife deeply into the belly of one of the bodyguards, before sliding it upwards into the Brute's chest, creating a ragged red hole where his abdomen was. As the knife brought itself from his flesh, it collided with the cranium of another, plunging the blade into the top of his head. Without so much as breaking a sweat she kicked the dead ape in the chest, bringing the knife out and slicing the throat of another.

It all happened in a flash. Wild Mauler and Spiker blasts and ferocious, inhuman grunts. A flash of bone-white, the great big cudgel swinging towards Sora's middle was the last thing she ever laid eyes on.

Gauntlet

1348 Hours, September 18, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: High Charity, Tower of the Hierarchs


"Sit down."

Felix crept out of cover as the Hunter collapsed, its midsection torn apart by well-placed plasma shots. He waved Joshua and Carris forward, bringing up the rear as his comrades took down a few lingering Grunts at the end of the wide corridor. The Spartans moved slowly, stepping over corpses and the charred husks of several Hunters.

"Felix," Joshua spoke up. "There's still another Hunter."

The black-armoured Spartan cast a glance over the room. They had only taken down three of the hulking Covenant foes during their firefight; Hunters always moved in pairs.

"You think it retreated?"

"Not likely, when you kill one the other usually goes berserk."

"Right, keep an eye out."

The door was,, unsurprisingly locked. Felix placed his palm on a pedestal nearby, allowing Caladbolg to flash up for a moment. The door shone white and chimed open, Joshua and Carris creeping forward with weapons raised.

Ah.

Outside was a wide, circular platform that linked their building to the main tower. The three Spartans stood at one end. At the other stood half a dozen Hunters, numerous Grunts and Jackals, a number of Elites and two active Shade turrets.

"Shit!"

As the air filled with plasma, incendiary gel and needle projectiles, Felix's team dived into cover. The doorway they had been standing in crumpled and melted under the barrage that rained down upon them. Carris' shields flared as she ran behind a pillar. She let off a few blind shots with a plasma rifle before turning to the others.

"Well, any ideas?"

Felix chanced a glance towards the enemy, and ducked down again to avoid a plasma bolt. "We might be able to sprint it if we move apart."

"No chance," Joshua replied. "Too many Hunters, and those Shades would tear us apart."

This was bad. The green figure of Caladbolg flashed up a few inches away from Felix's helmet. The Celtic warrior held a blade in one hand, and looked up at the fire raining down around them.

"Caladbolg, anything?"

"Yes," the AI replied. "There is a Phantom dropship heading this way at high speeds."

Felix wanted to reach out and crush the smug little man, but he found himself settling for sarcasm. "Oh, thanks for that."

Across the platform, the Hunters began to advance in formation, safe behind their shields. A flurry of plasma bolts from Felix and Joshua impacted harmlessly on the thick metal as the lumbering foes drew closer. By the time they were halfway across the platform the Spartans had begun to run low on ammo, Joshua flinging an empty plasma pistol towards them. Felix glanced up.

"Is that a-"

A massive purple shape smashed into the platform, scorching trails across the metal as it slammed into the Hunters. The flaming hunk of metal screeched to a halt, leaving a trail of corpses. One of the side doors creaked open, and a voice crackled over the COM.

"Looks like you needed some help, sir."

A figure clambered out of what remained of the Phantom, kicking away a charred panel before jumping down onto the platform. He tossed a plasma grenade towards one of the Shade turrets, incinerating it as he blasted the second gunner with a plasma rifle. The remaining Covenant foes, still reeling from the surprise landing, were quickly eliminated by the Spartans. Felix approached the Spartan as he leapt from the wreckage.

"You do like to make an entrance, Doug."

"Saw you needed the help, sir," the white-armoured Spartan replied. One of the half-crushed Hunters attempted to move, and was immediately shot to pieces by Marco-035, who had emerged from the Phantom's remains. He was followed by the friendly Engineer, Slightly Vaporous, Colin-142, and a familiar figure in battered armour. After a few seconds, it became apparent that no one else was leaving the wreck.

"Sora-"

"She was wounded, and stayed behind to hold them off."

Felix brought up TEAMBIO. SPARTAN-124's readouts were in the black. Nothing. There was a chance that she had simply moved out of range or had lost her helmet, but he'd been fighting far too long to be that optimistic. Felix simply nodded and approached the group.

"Now that we're all here, it's a straight shot up to the Hierarch's chamber. This won't be easy, but failure is not an option here, Spartans."

His comrades replied with a chorus of affirmatives and turned as the main door opened up. A group of Elites dashed out, an opening volley of plasma scattering the Spartans as they opened fire with their Plasma Repeaters. The Engineer gave a shrill shriek of surprise and attempted to head for the crashed Phantom, only to be dragged down into cover by Colin.

"Stay down, will you? We don't want to lose anyone else!"

Marco took down another Elite with a well-placed shot to the head and turned to Colin, noticing the struggling creature still trying to move away.

"Colin, get your pet out of the way and focus, will ya?"

The Spartan nodded, and loosened his grasp on Slightly's tentacle. The Engineer drifted off to the right, narrowly evading several plasma bolts as it flew upwards. The combined firepower of seven Spartans quickly put the remaining Elites down, Felix ordering Jorge and Doug to take point as they moved through the door into a well-lit hallway. Once they were all through, the black-armoured Spartan placed a hand on the panel and allowed Caladbolg to lock behind them.

"Okay," he breathed. "Right up this corridor, we'd better move!"

As they thundered toward a massive set of locked doors, Felix's AI companion spoke up over a private COM.

"Felix, what was the plan once a Hierarch is secured?"

"We negotiate a truce and end the war."

"That's rather vague."

"Those were our orders."

"I see. Well, if we-" The AI stopped for a second before speaking in a slightly worried tone. "Alert: Multiple Covenant vessels heading directly for this location."

"How many?"

"I don't want to exaggerate by saying all of them, but...all of them."

Felix took a deep breath. For the first time he truly wondered if they would make it out of this place alive. The original RED FLAG op was planned with nearly thirty SPARTAN-II's, an AI more advanced than Caladbolg and a specially-refitted ship in mind. Even if they captured a Hierarch, they wouldn't dare kill one. Would seven Spartans be enough to get out of High Charity alive?

"Caladbolg, how long will it take to get through the lock?"

The little green AI materialised on a nearby holotank. "Longer than I'd like. The Covenant threw everything they had at keeping this place secure, it'll hold even me up for a couple of minutes."

"Right then." Felix turned to face the other Spartans. "I want this hallway secured, understand? We're going to hold the line here for now, be prepared to throw everything you've got at them!"

The others immediately moved into position, Marco and Carris taking cover behind pillars while Jorge set up his heavy weapon slightly above them. Felix was amazed that SPARTAN-052 had conserved his ammunition so well, that field case on his back likely holding a few thousand rounds ready for use. Joshua tapped Felix on the back, holding out a small charge.

"Sir, think I'll be able to put this to use?"

"C-12? I'm surprised you had one left."

"I was saving it, just in case things went to hell. Now seems like a good time to use it."

Felix nodded. It wasn't like Joshua to conceal something like that, and he had a sneaking suspicion that the Spartan was saving it for himself as a last resort. Still, now wasn't the time to bring it up.

"Set it up halfway down the hall, on the ceiling if you can. We'll cut this place off if we have to."

By the time Joshua had planted the charge, the unmistakable sound of Covenant dropships could be heard outside. The hall was wide and spacious enough to fit several squads in if necessary, though the Spartans had the high ground and a clear killzone set up. Caladbolg had appeared once more, muttering about how he'd be a little longer than expected with the door. Felix, however, wasn't worried. He'd put aside the thoughts of what would happen later and was focusing entirely on the mission at hand; he couldn't afford to let his mind wander.

The door chimed once and slid open, a group of squad Unggoy tumbling in closely followed by a number of white-armoured Sangheili. Felix took aim.

"Open fire!"

Oath

Cycle 249, Seventh Age of Reclamation

High Charity, Sanctum of the Hierarchs

Charging down the corridors of the holy Sanctum, Field Master 'Vadam stopped in his tracks right outside the door to the central chamber, with Sur, Rol and Sona falling in behind. Stel turned around and rose his arm forward, to his right.

"Deliver yourselves to Mercy. We cannot afford to waste any time." The Field Master grunted, his mandibles twitching.

The trio of Sangheili warriors all curled their hands over their chests in the traditional salute and left, casting curious glances aside at the Jiralhanae bodyguards outside of the Sanctum doors. The big apes were all suited up in brand new gear, most similar to that of the Sangheili Honour Guardsmen.

Strangely, there were no Sangheili either than the four who had just arrived, seeding most paranoid thoughts into the Field Master's mind. Without another word he looked back at the door and pushed it open once the guards had stepped aside, his left hand curling into a fist. The energy sword at his hip stayed deactivated and the plasma rifle he held in his right found its home on his thigh plate.

A gangly and frail creature in an anti-gravity chair sat nearby in the center of the room, gazing out into space. The Prophet of Truth. He formed a most stark contrast with Stel, a warrior without peer and likely at the peak of physical health for his species.

Truth spun around on his anti-gravity chair to face the Sangheili, who in turn adjusted his left, robotic prosthesis. It was not visible at this point, thanks to the membrane sheath over it disguising it as his normal arm.

"Noble Prophet, I have come for you. The Demons have made their way from the Holding Ch--"

The San 'Shyuum waved his finger in dismissal.

"Perhaps you should give me some credit, Field Master? I know already. Tartarus is paying pursuit already. While you fled here in favour of reason rather than your Sangheili honour, Tartarus has given pursuit and now, he has already slain one. Not to mention you interrupted my meditations."

Stel's head shot upwards, gazing firmly at the Prophet with his miscoloured eyes. "They are swifter than I previously thought."

"Indeed."

"What is left of my Lance has gone for Mercy, Hierach." Stel stated flatly, which provoked a spike in Truth's attention towards the Fieldmaster.

"Then I shall come with you, Fieldmaster."

Truth stated, with more than just a hint of reluctance to his voice. Stel immediately caught wind of it, but kept his mandibles bound. If anything, Stel was adept at hiding his true thoughts and emotions, having masked them for most of the war.

As the veteran Sangheili led Truth out of the Chamber and into the corridor, the Jiralhanae Honour Guardsmen stiffened, standing at attention and gripping their energy staves.

Meanwhile, the three Sangheili warriors from earlier arrived right outside Mercy's chamber attempted to open the door, only to discovered it locked. Pulling on it again, Sona's eyes darted to the two beside him, before glancing back at the door.

"Mercy is locked inside."

Rol gazed at Sona with urgency. "We have to go back. Tell Stel that Mercy is imprisoned inside - we cannot afford to waste any time."

Sur agreed, nodding his head. "Most curious. Who would lock one of the holy Prophets inside?"

"...it could not have been Truth's work, could it?"

Showdown

1422 Hours, September 18, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: High Charity, Sanctum of the Hierarchs


"Another wave, give 'em hell Spartans!"

Felix tossed his empty plasma rifle away and reached for his sidearm. He'd been really conserving ammo on his Magnum, and now seemed like the right time to use it. A trio of rounds dropped one white-armoured Sangheili's shields, allowing Marco to finish it off with a well-placed needle.

"Caladbolg, what's the status on that door?"

The AI popped up for a few seconds on a nearby pedestal. "Seems that they're throwing down more barriers than I expected. They really don't want us in there."

"How long?"

"I'll have it open in a minute or so, but not for long."

"That's fine by me."

Caladbolg winked out. While the combined force of seven SPARTAN-II's covering a single door from an elevated position gave them an immediate advantage, their alien foe could afford to send in waves of disposable infantry to tire them out and waste their ammo. Jorge had removed his bulky machine gun and ammo pack to give him more room, and was blasting away at a mob of Grunts with a couple of plasma rifles.

"Lieutenant Commander!" he shouted. "Ammo situation's not great over here!"

Felix nodded. "Hang in there Jorge, Caladbolg's nearly done."

Some way down the hall, Colin looked back towards the others. He made a fist with one hand and slapped his palm into it thrice. They all knew the signal: Special Forces. Seconds later, a group of Sangheili clad in ornate white armour rushed into the hall, energy swords blazing. While the first few fell easily to a barrage of fire, more swarmed in to replace them. Colin leapt back to avoid one blade before breaking the arm of the second Sangheili to face him. Joshua and Doug moved together, cutting a bloody swathe through their foes while Felix and Marco provided cover from above. Even the large Spartan was starting to sound worried, a note of concern cracking through his usually confident voice.

"Sir, there's too many, we've got to fall back!"

"There's nowhere to fall back to!" Marco shouted before Felix could respond. Across the room, Carris ducked to avoid a fatal swing while Jorge beat down another foe. The black-armoured Spartan expended a few precious bullets to fell an incoming enemy before grabbing an energy sword for himself; at least he'd have a chance this way. He backed away a few feet, and heard a chime as the door behind him finally opened.

"You'd better get inside," Caladbolg said dryly.

The Spartans didn't have to be told twice. The power-armoured soldiers fell back, fending off Sangheili with plasma fire or stolen swords. Felix was through first, closely followed by Marco and Carris. Jorge paused on the threshold, slamming a Sangheili into the ground before casting a glance towards his comrades.

"Come on, we're moving!"

The other Spartans were struggling to hold back the incoming tide of Sangheili, both of them slashing through armour and flesh and bone with stolen blades. Felix moved back and opened fire, only to spot a small, circular device on the floor. The detonator. Colin seemed to have spotted it as well. His aqua MJOLNIR suit was spattered with indigo blood and dented from near-misses. After beheading a nearby foe, he dived for the device and grabbed it, rolling up to stab an enemy that was giving Joshua trouble.

"Move!" Jorge roared, opening fire with his rifle as the others ran to support him. Waves of the white-armoured Sangheili were still pouring in, and were close to overrunning the team as they fired in vain. Colin, who had been slowly backing away, was knocked to the side as a large foe cannoned into him. The Spartan struggled for a second before planting his combat knife in it's neck, lifting the body up as a shield while Joshua moved back through the threshold.

"Colin," Jorge called. "Get in here, now!"

SPARTAN-142 didn't so much as glance back. The door chimed once and shut before the others could react. An energy shield popped into place immediately, as a muffled thump rang out. The door buckled inwards and the metal glowed white-hot for a second before settling. Caladbolg flashed up on a nearby holotank.

"SPARTAN-142..."

Felix didn't say a word. He and the rest of the team had seen Colin's lifesigns wink out just after the door closed. He brought up the team roster and moved his name under the MIA section.

"You closed the door," Marco said, his voice low. The tan-armoured Spartan was staring right at Caladbolg. While Felix couldn't see his face it was clear how furious his comrade was. Doug set a hand on his shoulder.

"Look, he saved us from those split-lips. He sacrificed himself for the team."

"Yeah." Marco's voice was cold. "I just don't think a hundred of those bastards was worth Colin's life." Behind him, Carris nodded in agreement. They had already lost three of their comrades during this mission, not counting the Huragok that had wandered off during their last battle. Caladbolg simply bowed his head and winked out.

"Well, we're here," Felix announced. The Spartans were in a wide, circular room dominated by a large holotable and three pillars in the centre. The other side was taken up by a massive window. Felix and the others approached it, only to find that they were not looking out into the starry void of space; it was pitch black. Doug looked to his team mates, sounding uncharacteristically surprised.

"We're in Slipspace!"

"How is that possible?" Joshua said. "I'd have thought that a station this size would be immobile."

Felix crossed his arms. "I guess that explains why we could never find the Covenant's main base; it was mobile." The black-armoured Spartan turned to face the holotable in the middle of the room. With the main entrance destroyed, there were only two locked side passages remaining. Marco walked with him, looking around warily.

"Where the hell are they?" he asked.

"I don't know, Marco. This is the Hierarch's chamber, maybe we'll find some info on their wherabouts in here."

His comrade nodded, and turned to survey the exits. With the other Spartans still milling around by the window, he'd check for data here. While Felix didn't want to say it, he had a bad feeling that they had completely missed their targets. The mission as a whole was an act of desperation, but to think that the Covenant leadership wouldn't immediately leave when threatened was foolish. The table lit up as he approached, Covenant glyphs flashing. He reached out with one arm to activate it.

"Felix, right!"

The Spartan jerked back as Caladbolg's shout came through the COM, moving faster than any normal human could as a sizzling blade of energy flashed through the air. While it missed the spot where his head had been less than a second ago, the second slash burned straight through metal, flesh and bone.

Felix's left foream dropped to the floor, a snarling white-armoured Sangheili looming over it.

"Contact!"

As SPARTAN-116 reeled back, gasping in pain, Carris and Jorge dashed forward, plasma bolts striking the shielded alien before he could re-activate his camouflage. Two more materialised nearby, one wielding two blood-red blades while the other carried a carbine.

"Marco!" Doug called. "Cover Felix, that one's mine!"

The big Spartan charged at his foe, who nimbly leapt aside and attempted to cut him in half. Doug ducked under the first strike and twisted to avoid the second before delivering a blow that sent the Sangheili flying back, a noticeable dent in his armour. The warrior roared in anger and dashed forward again.

Across the room, Joshua dashed behind a pillar to avoid another volley of carbine shots that had already smashed through his energy shields. This one was more cautious than the others, by the looks of it. One was keeping Carris and Jorge at arm's length while the other was slashing everything in sight while trying to kill Doug.

"Josh, catch!"

The Spartan turned to see a plasma pistol flying through the air towards him, courtesy of Marco. His friend had dragged a protesting Felix behind a second pillar, and had borrowed his commanding officer's sidearm. Even behind the opaque golden visor, Joshua could tell that Marco was smiling.

"The old one-two?" Marco called.

Joshua swiped two fingers across his visor in response, and began to charge the pistol. The glowing green ball of energy grew brighter and brighter as he held down the trigger. Eventually his HUD display indicated that the pistol had reached maximum charge, and he leapt out of cover. Marco did the same, the sharp-eyed Sangheili immediately firing on him.

"Get the bastard!"

The Spartan locked onto their attacker and released the trigger, letting the unstable ball of energy fly forth. It struck the Sangheili squarely in the chest, staggering him for a brief moment and frying his energy shields. Marco fired once, and the Sangheili slumped to the floor.

"Gets 'em every time," Marco remarked smugly.

Doug had no intention of admitting it, but he was worried. For all his speed and immense strength, he just couldn't touch his foe, who seemed more like a berserker than your typical Sangheili warrior. On his motion sensor, one red dot winked out as his team mates brought down one of the trio. His enemy seemed to notice this too, charging straight for Doug as he backed away towards the central holotable. The Spartan was able to sidestep a deadly lunge, only to step backwards and lose his balance as he stumbled over Felix's prone form. The big Spartan reached out with one hand, only to tap a holographic panel as the Sangheili flew over the holotable.

"Ah."

A white light had begun to emanate from the holotable, suspending the red-armoured Sangheili in mid air. Doug paused for a second, staring in disbelief at the trapped alien. He had activated some sort of containment field, similar to the ones used in Covenant prisons. The Spartan picked up a plasma rifle from the floor.

"Well," he chuckled, "That makes things easier."

He took aim, and blasted the Sangheili to pieces, searing bolts of plasma tearing through the warrior and killing him instantly. Doug kept firing until the gun overheated, and deactivated the field. The remains of his foe dropped onto the holotable, indigo blood spilling out onto the floor.

This one is a problem.

Jorge and Carris were more concerned with staying alive to notice the other Sangheili fall, ducking and weaving to avoid the relentless flurry of blows coming from their opponents. As he backed away from a wild swing, Jorge felt himself tiring. Spartans or not, they had been fighting their way through High Charity for a while now with only a few hours of sleep or rest during the mission. This foe was obviously fresher, skilled, and determined to kill the Spartans no matter the cost, so it was all the pair of them could do to evade his blows for now.

"Carris, go left!"

"Right, got- damn it!"

The female Spartan dived out of the way a half a second too slow, and received a long scorch across her chestplate as a result. Momentarily staggered by this attack, Carris attempted to crawl back, only to have the Sangheili lunge forward once more. One of his energy sword's prongs pierced through Carris' armour, spearing into her gut. She groaned in pain but finally grabbed the Sangheili's arm, holding her foe in place with a tight grip. Jorge sprinted forward and tackled him to the ground, smashing two of the alien's mandibles with a single blow before plunging his combat knife into it's unprotected neck. He twisted it until the Sangheili stopped moving, and leapt up to help Carris.

"Jorge-"

"You're gonna be okay," came the automatic reply. While her armour's automatic biofoam systems would numb the pain and seal the wound, she had been hit in a vital area and had already lost a great deal of blood before her suit went to work. A shadow loomed over the pair of them. It was Doug.

"You think she'll be okay?" Jorge asked.

"Let's move her over there," Doug replied. He didn't answer the question.

The three Sangheili were dead, but had done a number on the team in their brief battle. Felix sat against one of the pillars, staring at the cauterised stump of his left forearm. He'd momentarily passed out from the pain, but could at least fight if he had to. Joshua and Marco ran over as Doug set down Carris' body next to Felix. She was alive, but in terrible shape.

"So, what now?" Joshua asked.

"Carry on with the mission," Felix said, slowly dragging himself to his feet. "That's all that matters."

Doug glanced at the others. "Sir, you've been wounded. I think you should-"

"I'm fine," Felix snapped. The Spartans stood up a little straighter. "I want you to secure this room, and find out where those exits lead. That's an order."

Doug and his comrades saluted before spreading out around the room. One door appeared to be behind several levels of heavy encryption, Doug calling upon Caladbolg's help to get through it. As Marco approached the other one, a number of heavyset aliens lumbered through it, led by a scarred, white-furred Jiralhanae.

"Oh, fu-"

Marco raised his pistol, but was stuck in the side by a massive hammer and sent flying off into a nearby wall. The Brute leader strode forward, and flung a helmet into the room. It bounced off the metal floor before coming to a halt by the holotable. It was Sora's. He then spoke a single word in booming, guttural English:

"Demons."

Marco's flashing vital signs had already alerted the other Spartans, who immediately returned fire. Even deprived of one hand, Felix let off a stream of shots with a plasma pistol that felled one of the Brutes before it could level it's grenade launcher. While the hulking Covenant infantry fell under the wave of plasma fire from the Spartans, it was their leader that was the main problem. A flurry of shots from Joshua's newly-acquired Carbine had little effect, deflected by an incredibly powerful energy shield.

"Concentrate your fire, take the bastard down!"

This was bad. The Brute leader kicked Felix to the ground with little effort, and seemed to shrug off fire from Joshua, Jorge and Doug even if his shield was slowly being depleted. Grinning, he raised his colossal hammer high above his head, and brought it down on Carris' prone form.

"No you don't!"

The hammer stopped before it could reach it's target. Doug-103 had leapt toward the towering Jiralhanae, and had stopped the impact with only his armoured hands. The Spartan grunted with exertion as he held the hammer's stone head aloft. The Brute merely laughed as he began to force the hammer down towards Doug, who fell to one knee. He might have been the biggest, strongest Spartan in their group, but as the huge stone cudgel moved downwards it became clear that there was no stopping it.

"Die," Tartarus hissed.

Doug looked up at the Brute's bestial face, locked in a fearsome snarl as he bore down on the Spartan. Suddenly, it shifted from surprise to pain as a large blade burst through Tartarus' neck, finally breaking through his enhanced shielding. A familiar visor appeared over the Brute's back. The hammer dropped from his fingers as the blade slid sideways, severing his head.

"Stay down, you fuck." Marco-035 held a captured Brute grenade launcher in one hand, it's bayonet slippery with blood. Doug allowed himself to breath out and kicked the headless corpse away from Carris. Then a notice flashed up on his HUD.

"No."

Doug turned to Carris as the other three ran over. Felix knelt by her side. She was gone. Even after all their efforts, the Spartans had lost another friend. He stood up and faced the others. Their armour was dented, scorched, and covered in alien blood, but they were still alive. The mission, Felix reminded himself. The mission matters. Nothing else. Caladbolg's avatar flashed up across the room, by the other door. The rather talkative AI didn't say a word. He merely gestured as the door chimed once and opened. Felix, Doug, Marco, Jorge and Joshua raised their weapons, ready to face whatever came next.

Truth

Cycle 249, Seventh Age of Reclamation

High Charity, Tower of the Hierarchs landing pad


The Field Master brought his finger away from his helmet, exhaling a sigh from his mandibles. Stel adjusted his combat harness' collar as he came out on to the landing pad, with the Prophet of Truth falling in behind him. The landing pad was rather large and a Phantom laid at the very end of the pad, as the pair walked down the stairs.

Given the position of the Tower, it was quite high up from the base of High Charity. The Field Master gave a glance downwards from the height, remarking at the halls of High Charity. Yet something was stirring inside his head like venom, like there was something he needed to say. He mustered up the courage, and let his train of thought continue.

Something in the back of my mind tells me this is not right.

"Noble Prophet?"

The San'Shyuum's head perked upwards, paying attention.

"What is it, Sangheili?"

'Vadamee made a mental note of how the Prophet failed to call him by rank or even by name. His curiosity was seeping closer to suspicion, even though he thought that the Covenant had lost much today, having already lost something when the Holy City was discovered by the enemy.

"I have noticed the Jiralhanae have grown increasingly ornate." The Fieldmaster adjusted his left pauldron and turned to his left, looking at Prophet square in the eye.

"Is there something you are not telling me, Truth?"

The San'Shyuum turned his gravchair to Stel's direction, shooting a gaze at him back that could pierce a weaker-willed warrior.

"Or is this related to the fact that, Sur, Rol and Sona discovered Mercy's room...was locked?"

"That is none of your business, 'Vadamee. Cease the flapping of your mandibles." Truth glared at the Sangheili intensely.

"I think you have hidden things from us for long enough, Prophet." Stel's hands curled themselves into fists.

Truth lifted his head up, looking at Stel as if he had just grown a second head.

"The Prophet of Truth, telling lies and keeping secrets? Oh, nonsense, 'Vadamee..."

"It would be ironic, indeed. Truth telling lies. Yet, tell me, did Regret show any remorse? Did Mercy ever relent?" Stel's mandibles drifted together into a faint smile.

A click was heard from Truth's chair. The mounted fuel rod cannons had armed themselves. Stel's heterochromatic eyes darted towards the Jiralhanae, his smile dropping. Some of the Brutes had their energy staves in an offensive position, rather than defensive. The Field Master's gaze shifted back to the Prophet.

"Well done, Field Master. Your admirable service to the Covenant Hegemony will be remembered."

Stel's right arm delved for the hilt of his energy sword, only to come a nanosecond short of activating his blade. An orange blast soon engulfed him point-blank, obliterating his left arm and sending him several feet away. He slumped to the ground upon the landing pad, his gaze blurring, his ears ringing and the world around blackened like the left side of his armour. It was smoking and he was in pain, but the Sangheili barely made a sound as he crashed to the floor. The Honor Guard Jiralhanae stepped off the Phantom and pointed their energy staves at him, their snarling faces blurred to the wounded warrior.

"Leave him. We shall depart," Truth stated flatly. There was no sign of emotion in his voice. The Hierarch moved aboard the Phantom, his Jiralhanae guards following in suit. The Phantom's hatch slid shut and the ship flew elsewhere, drifting up into the colossal halls of High Charity.

Stel laid where had had fallen barely conscious as the Prophet's dropship shifted out of sight. As his vision dulled and he found himself fading away, the Sangheili heard a shrill whistle, a blue tentacle drifting into view as he passed out.

Mercy

1447 Hours, September 18, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: High Charity, Sanctum of the Hierarchs

"Doug, take point."

"Yes sir."

Marco glanced over at Felix. If the Lieutenant Commander was in any pain, then he wasn't showing it. His left arm had been severed just below the elbow by the Sangheili's energy sword, which had also cauterised the wound. Still, Felix's vitals weren't great at this point and he had already passed out once from the pain. Nonetheless, the black-armoured Spartan waved the others forward, a pistol in his remaining hand.

"Felix," Marco spoke up. "How're you holding up?"

"I'll manage," came the quick reply. Felix had been caught off-guard by the Sangheili and was obviously pissed off about it, so Marco didn't press the issue further. As Doug edged into the next room, a burst of green light shot out of the darkness. The Spartan ducked as it flew overhead and dashed forward, closely followed by Joshua and Jorge. After a few seconds, the trio emerged from the room carrying a frail-looking creature.

"Look what I found," Doug said smugly. "Little bastard had a cannon on his chair."

The alien he held in one arm seemed unbelievably ancient, looking up at the Spartans with heavily lidded eyes. Doug strode to the centre of the room and set it down on the table; it seemed incapable of walking by itself. Felix knelt down to face the Prophet as the others gathered around him.

"Do you understand me?"

"Yes."

"Do you know who we are?"

The Prophet extended a robed arm, one of it's long fingers pointing towards Felix's visor before he spoke.

"Demons." Old and frail though he was, there was no mistaking the venom in the Prophet's voice. "You defile our holy city with your very presence." He paused for a moment. "I am the High Prophet of Mercy."

The five Spartans glared down at him. Marco in particular had to resist the urge to snap the Prophet's long neck. This is the Covenant leadership? This tiny, frail thing gave orders to burn planets and kill millions? He clenched a fist as Felix spoke.

"Where are the others? There are supposed to be three Hierarchs."

"Gone."

"Where?"

The Prophet smiled. "To your homeworld, Demon. To purge your filth from the galaxy once and for all."

Felix simply nodded. Jorge knelt down beside him and removed his battered helmet. Mercy seemed surprised to see a relatively normal face behind the opaque visor. He didn't appear angry or even worried that Earth was in peril, though a look of determination had set in over his scarred features.

"If that's the case, then we're going to stop you."

"There is nothing you can do," Mercy glared back. "We shall fall upon your world and cleanse it with righteous fire. Kill me if you wish, Demon, but know that I walk the path. When the Great Journey begins, I shall ascend!"

Jorge looked to Felix, who stood up, towering above Mercy. "We're taking you as our prisoner. Your forces will stand down or we will kill you."

"Oh?" Mercy shifted slightly. "You think that we will cease our battle just because you hold me? Even now, my 'brothers' Truth and Regret are preparing to end this war. You have accomplished nothing."

That was it. Marco took a step forward, only to have Doug place a hand on his shoulder.

"Leave him, Marco. He's trying to provoke us."

Marco looked from Carris' body to the feeble creature that sat before them, smiling. "He'd better be worth it," the Spartan grumbled. Felix nodded, though even he didn't seem so sure. They had lost good friends to get here, only to find a single decrepit Prophet out of the trio they expected. Caladbolg's green avatar flashed up on a nearby holotank.

"Spartans, the station is exiting Slipspace."

The five battle-worn, exhausted Spartans turned to face the massive viewscreen as the pitch black view of slipstream space disappeared. Instead, a massive object loomed before them. It was a giant, ring-shaped construct, metallic on the outside and distinctly planet-like on the inside. No one spoke for several seconds; even Caladbolg had nothing to say.

"What the hell is that thing?" Doug muttered.

The High Prophet of Mercy looked up, reaching out with frail arms towards the far-off ring as he spoke.

"That... is Halo."

THE END
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