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WARNING
Current Information

SEPTEMBER 1ST, 2558

UNSC/SoS Status:

  • The Sixth Fleet, Battlegroup Maya and Felo 'Ranak's Fleet are all in slipspace en-route to the Voden System and the Imperium's homeworld, Iradu.

Imperium Status:

  • The Imperium of Clarity's entire fleet is returning to the Voden system, hoping to intercept and destroy the invaders before their homeworld falls.


RP:Imperium

Prologue: On the Frontier...

1457 Hours, August 24th, 2558

UNSC Haversham, Montak System


Captain Reynald Donnelly stood back as the doors to the bridge opened, and found himself wishing for the hundredth time today that someone else had been given this job.

Donnelly strode across the deck while his assembled staff stood at attention, followed closely by his guest and the source of all of today's problems. Neglecting the padded command chair he desperately wanted to rest in, the Captain gestured towards the row of stations ahead of them.

"Weapons, navigation, communications," he said flatly as a group of officers below nodded or waved. "This is where we run the ship."

Stood behind Donnelly was Shipmaster Keyn Goras, a hulking Sangheili clad in the golden armour commonly worn by those of his station. Standing at nearly eight feet tall, he easily towered over everyone aboard the Haversham, which made his utterly condescending attitude even more of an annoyance to deal with. A pair of predatory saurian eyes flicked around the bridge, looking for something to comment on

"I see," his low, rumbling voice could be heard throughout the room. "It seems efficient, though exposed."

That was the closest he had come to a compliment all day. "Halberds are built with efficiency in mind," Donnelly replied. "What we lack in defence, we make up for in speed."

While he knew just about every shortcoming of the Halberd-class destroyer and had complained a great deal about the vessels in his eight years of captaincy, Donnelly found himself becoming incredibly protective of his ship and all its features. He had spent the past hour personally escorting Shipmaster Goras across every deck, and had met the Sangheili's constant remarks about weakness and inefficiency with polite counterpoints. Looking out over the port-side viewscreen, he caught sight of the Ferocity, a venerable SDV-class heavy corvette that had been sent on this mission alongside the Haversham.

Interspecies cooperation, Donnelly thought to himself as he watched Goras looming over his officers. I hope Lieutenant Aziz is having a better time over there.

As this area fell under the joint jurisdiction of both the United Nations Space Command and the Swords of Sanghelios, some bright spark had gotten the idea of paired patrols; sending warships from both races to investigate reports of piracy or communications blackouts. While the idea had been readily accepted by the bureaucrats and politicians, many among the UNSC Navy barely tolerated working alongside former Covenant members. Nonetheless, Donnelly knew better than to offend Goras; the Sangheili often took insults poorly, and the last thing he wanted was to flush away a promising career for causing a diplomatic incident.

"Captain," the Shipmaster spoke slowly, as if addressing a child. "Were we to encounter pirates, what course of action would you take?"

"I would assess the situation, and depending on the threat level I would either engage or attempt to contact reinforcements."

Goras huffed. A satisfactory answer. "Then if we engaged, which of our vessels would enter the fray first?"

Donnelly realised where this was going; he wanted to know who had seniority in a combat situation. "Your corvette is larger and better-armed, and can deploy fighters. It would move in first while we provided support."

"Naturally," the Shipmaster turned away, abruptly cutting off his line of questioning. "Then if this tour is finished, I would like to return to the Ferocity."

"Of course." I can't wait to see you gone either, you lousy hinge-head bastard. "We'll contact your ship and-"

Suddenly, a brief siren sounded by the navigation console. The officer there, Lieutenant Warren, input command after command while Donnelly and Goras approached.

"Sir," Warren half-turned, still typing with one hand. "We've picked up something on the long-range scanners."

"Trouble?" the Captain asked.

Warren glanced back to his screen as new information scrolled across it. "Looks like a warship, sir. Covenant."

With this, a shiver ran down Donnelly's spine, though he wasn't sure if it was out of excitement or worry. Ignoring Goras for the time being, he walked over to his command chair, sat down, and brought up a tactical screen before bringing up the ship's intercom.

"All hands, to your stations," his calm voice echoed through the Haversham's corridors. "Possible enemy warship sighted."

The Sangheili seemed to take the situation well, and stood by Donnelly's chair with his arms folded as the crew scrambled to their stations, readying weapons and pinpointing the last known position of the distant vessel. The rust-coloured planet Montak loomed ahead; the destination of today's mission.

"So it was more than a communications failure," Goras nodded, looking rather pleased. "That is good."

"You wanted a fight?"

"I wanted something more than endless patrols of empty space."

At this, Donnelly couldn't help but lean back in his chair with a chuckle, realising that he might have more in common with the grumpy Shipmaster than he first realised. "You and me both."

Twenty uneventful minutes passed as the Haversham and the Ferocity sped up, moving around the planet towards the source of the disturbance. From what Donnelly knew, Montak had been almost undisturbed until a few years before the end of the war, when an enterprising corporation had discovered vast mineral deposits there that could be mined and used to fuel the then-ongoing war effort against the Covenant. While that never came to pass, the resource-rich world had been put to good use since then by the Liang-Dortmund Corporation, who had essentially laid claim to the entire planet. A world like this out on the frontier would be a prime target for piracy, which led to the two warships being dispatched after all communications from Montak abruptly cut off three days ago.

"We'll have visual contact in thirty seconds," Lieutenant Warren called up.

"Good" Donnelly nodded. "Ready weapons and prepare to open communications."

Goras glanced over. "You are willing to speak to pirates?"

"Naval code dictates that we give them at least one chance to surrender. Will your ship?"

There was a brief pause as Goras considered it. In Donnelly's eyes, he was likely weighing up the idea of striking first in combat and his cultural disposition towards what some would consider honourable conduct in battle. After a few seconds, he relented.

"I will contact the Ferocity. They will not fire unless attacked first."

"Thank you."

As the Haversham moved around Montak, a distant speck flashed up on the viewscreen ahead of them. A holographic panel to Donnelly's left lit up as the image magnified, revealing the distinctive shape of a Covenant CRS-class light cruiser in orbit. Donnelly felt a sense of relief; it wasn't particularly dangerous as far as Covenant vessels went, though they would have to remain careful. "Lieutenant," he signalled Warren. "Any signals from the surface?"

Warren shook his head after a quick check. "Nothing. We won't be able to analyse the situation until we've disengaged, sir."

"Copy that. Open a COM line with that ship."

At this point, Donnelly was all but certain that they would be forced to engage. Many pirates were ex-Covenant military or lucky enough to have scavenged equipment from it, and often preferred to fight to the death to surrendering without a fight. Chances were that this ship had come here to pillage the groundside refineries or at worst, enslave the small populace. As they steadily approached minimum firing distance, Donnelly accessed the long-range COM and cleared his throat before activating it.

"Unidentified vessel, this is the UNSC Haversham. You are conducting illegal operations in occupied space and have been classified as a threat. Please stand down and surrender at once or we will be forced to open fire."

The Captain sat up straight in his chair as the message was transmitted and relayed not only in English, but in several Sangheili and Kig-Yar dialects for the pirates to hear. Over a minute passed with no response, save for the Haversham and its ally positioning themselves for what seemed like an inevitable confrontation. As Donnelly turned towards his weapons officer to fire a MAC round into the cruiser's bow, the COM crackled as a bold, authoritative voice filtered through.

"You trespass on our Imperium, and must pay the price."

For a few brief moments, not a single soul on the bridge moved, either out of uncertainty or confusion. At best, Donnelly had expected an actual surrender or some cry of defiance, not this ominous proclamation. He got to his feet and pointed towards the distant ship.

"Prepare MAC round. As soon as we've fired, the Ferocity can finish it off."

As the crew got back to their posts and the Destroyer shifted slightly, getting a proper trajectory on the distant cruiser, an alarm went up from several monitors. "Captain!" one of the officers called from across the room. "We're detecting numerous slipspace disturbances in-system!"

"Shit," he muttered. "Keep track of them!"

Donnelly dashed to a nearby holotable with a slightly bemused Goras at his heel and brought up an image of the local system.. Used to commanding from the bridge of a Sangheili vessel, the Shipmaster suddenly seemed very out of place while reduced to the role of a passive observer. Several red markers around Montak and its unnamed moons indicated a series of incoming ships about to emerge from slipspace.

"More Pirates?" Goras suggested. "If they are as weak as this vessel we should emerge victorious from this battle."

As Donnelly watched the readout, more and more signatures popped up. This wasn't the arrival of a few ships to back up a pirate vessel. This was an incoming fleet.

"We need to retreat," he turned to the Shipmaster. "Whatever's coming, we don't have the firepower to stop it."

The Sangheili bristled at this, but relented with a heavy sigh. For all his bluster, he wouldn't attempt to defy a Captain aboard his own ship. "I will contact the Ferocity."

As Goras picked up his disk-shaped communicator, yet another shrill alarm rang out from the console. Donnelly turned to see their local scanners completely overwhelmed, with a red marker completely covering everything within the Haversham's range. He sighed and returned to the front of the bridge.

"Looks like we're being jammed. Turn us around and-"

As he looked through the viewport, something occurred to Captain Donnelly: the stars had vanished. The endless sea of white pinpricks against the blackness of space was gone, replaced by an all-encompassing void. He stared blankly, one hand tugging the collar of his uniform as his eyes tried to make sense of what was going on. It took a few more seconds of confused gawking before realisation dawned on Donnelly. There was a ship above them.

He had been entirely mistaken when he assumed they were being jammed. The vessel that emerged from slipspace had simply been so large that it completely overwhelmed their scanners. As the last vestiges of particle reconciliation faded away into blue mist around the hull of the gargantuan ship, Donnelly could finally make out the tiny dots of light lining its underside, stretching far out of sight.

"By my ancestors," Goras breathed, now at Donnelly's side. "It's a Supercarrier."

Those assembled on the Haversham's bridge stood at their posts, stupefied by the sheer enormity of the ship looming above them. Numerous messages scrolled across the now-ignored console screens, warning of more slipspace ruptures as warship after warship emerged around Montak. Were it not for the shock and terror that now occupied the crew's hearts, they would have considered the fleet's arrival to be quite a breathtaking sight. Their reverie was only broken when a bright flash from the port-side viewport caught their attention. Donnelly's mouth hung open in horror as he saw the Ferocity utterly gutted by a single powerful plasma beam. We're next.

"We've got to go!" he shouted, snapping everyone else into action.

The Haversham turned sharply as its engines kicked into gear. It would be some time before they could safely jump to slipspace, but with their speed they might just make it. As they began to pull away, there was a sudden jolt as the entire ship shook, veering sharply to one side.

"Port fusion drive's been hit!" a nearby officer yelled from her station. "We can't maintain course!"

The Haversham shuddered again as Donnelly leant against the side of his chair, having almost been thrown to the floor after that first attack. The fact that they weren't already dead was surprising, and could only mean that this new foe wanted them as prisoners instead. He flipped a switch by his chair and activated the ship's intercom once again.

"All hands, prepare for boarders." As things currently stood, they had no way of escaping or overcoming the fleet that now surrounded them. However, this fleet hadn't vaporised them yet, meaning that they would be forced into a boarding action. Sure enough, several Phantom dropships whizzed past the Haversham's frontal viewport, likely circling round to gain access through the airlocks. Donnelly sighed.

"We'll have to surrender," he said sadly. "I'm not sacrificing my entire crew for the sake of a doomed last stand."

"What?!" Shipmaster Goras snarled, sending spittle flying everywhere. "Retreat is one thing, but I will not suffer captivity after they slaughtered my brethren!"

"Shipmaster!" Donnelly finally snapped. "You are aboard my ship, and I will not allow you to endanger my crew. Stand down."

Donelly's fierce gaze met a pair of determined yellow eyes. Though the Shipmaster could have easily killed him and most of the bridge crew without much effort, the Sangheili stood back and folded his arms once again, massively displeased but unwilling to attack his allies. Trudging over to the COM relay, Donnelly opened a public channel and began to broadcast.

"This is the UNSC Haversham. We surrender, and will not fight back as long as our lives are spared."

After sending the message, Donnelly could only stare at his highly-polished boots, unable to meet the faces of anyone else on his bridge. Their attackers were quick to respond.

"We understand. Do not resist and we will treat you fairly."

With that, all Donnelly and the other two hundred and forty members of the Haversham's crew had to do was wait and comply with orders. The Captain sat quietly in his chair, and said nothing when boarding parties sliced through escape pod access ports and landed small craft in the shuttle bay, pouring hordes of heavily-armed Sangheili soldiers into the vessel. The crew did as instructed, sitting unarmed as their captors rounded them up and escorted them away.

Soon enough, they arrived at the bridge.

Donnelly had moved by then, and stood alongside Goras and the dozen officers that made up his bridge staff as the heavy bulkhead doors slid open. Six Sangheili stepped forward, fully-armoured and wearing enclosed helmets. They spread out in a loose formation, not saying a word as they ensured that everyone in the room was accounted for. Goras began to twitch nervously, but otherwise said nothing as their guards stood to attention.

Donnelly stepped forward. "I'm the Captain of this vessel. To whom-"

"Keep still!" one of their captors barked, levelling his carbine threateningly. "He will be here soon."

The Captain knew better than to ask further questions, and withdrew into the gaggle of officers to await this mysterious individual. After a couple of minutes, four more warriors arrived, clad in intricate suits of silver armour that shone with strange symbols. They moved cautiously, and carried weapons of an exotic design that Connelly had never seen before. At their rear, in a dazzling suit of white and gold, was a tall Sangheili with a cape draped over his shoulders. He walked proudly across the Haversham's bridge, taking in every last detail before settling his gaze on the prisoners.

"Who is in charge here?" he demanded. It was the voice from the earlier transmissions.

Donnelly stepped forward, and saluted. "I'm Captain Reynald Donnelly of the UNSC Navy."

The Sangheili eyed him curiously, and nodded. "I am Imperial Admiral Toru 'Makhan of the Imperium of Clarity. You have unlawfully invaded our system today, Captain."

The what? Donnelly knew the name of just about every pirate group out there, so this faction were a complete unknown to him.

"Imperial Admiral," he said politely, "Montak is a mining colony under the jurisdiction of the Unified Earth Government. I'm afraid that your occupation will be met with force."

While Donnelly had a hard time reading the expression on a Sangheili's face, he could've sworn that the shining figure before him was smiling. Before he could reply, Goras sprang forward, unleashing his twin-pronged energy sword in a swift flourish as he made a mad dash towards Toru 'Makhan. The Imperial Admiral drew his own blade in an instant, igniting a blade made not of shaped plasma, but of hard light. It caught the Shipmaster's weapon with ease, and as he reeled back for a second blow, all four of Toru's bodyguards opened fire with their long rifles. As his eyes widened in surprise, Goras could only utter a single curse.

"Cowards!"

The Sangheili warrior roared as several beams of directed energy struck him, burning through shielding, armour, clothing and flesh in seconds. As he attempted to take another step forward, his body simply fell apart, disintegrating into wisps of white-hot ash before their very eyes. He swiftly vanished, leaving the ghost of his final, pained scream hanging in the air. Donnelly and his crew remained silent, to afraid to do anything but stare. The assembled soldiers quickly moved in, wordlessly lining the officers up to be escorted out of the ship. Deactivating his weapon, Toru 'Makhan caught Donnell's frightened gaze, and waved one hand in a grandiose gesture.

"Consider this my declaration of war."

Brodie-001: Here to help

Chapter 1: Muster

1: Conference

0937 Hours, August 26th, 2558

Strategic Response Centre, HIGHCOM Facility Bravo-6, Earth


"-and that is the last transmission we received."

As the lights in the meeting room brightened, a low murmur of conversation rose up among the assembled officers. For the last twenty minutes they had sat in complete silence, watching the surveillance footage and COM transmissions recovered from the UNSC Haversham's jettisoned black box and pieced together by Naval Intelligence's AI constructs. Less than twenty-four hours ago, a Winter-class prowler had entered the Montak system, recovered the badly-damaged device, and returned to Earth as quickly as possible.

All in all, it did not paint a pretty picture.

"Do we have an ID on that supercarrier?" a grey-haired General asked, glancing down at his datapad.

Across from him, a man in the dark uniform of a Naval officer stood up and cleared his throat. "Our initial reports suggest that it is the Watchful Custodian, belonging to one Toru 'Makhan. The transmission identifying the attackers as part of the 'Imperium of Clarity' confirms this."

"I can't say I'm aware of that group."

"Not many are, General Hogan." He looked towards man at the head of the table. "Fleet Admiral?"

Fleet Admiral Lord Terrence Hood slowly stood up, and all eyes in the room turned towards him with rapt attention. If the Chief of Naval Operations was here, then it meant that this was much more serious than a simple piracy operation gone wrong. Adjusting the collar of his distinctive white service uniform, Hood placed both hands behind his back before addressing his subordinates.

"Thank you, Vice Admiral Samson," Hood gestured towards the centre of the table, and a holographic display lit up, displaying a collage of ships, buildings and alien warriors in unusual garb. "The Imperium of Clarity is a Sangheili-led faction that appears to have formed on the edges of former Covenant space in the aftermath of the Great War. As their actions have been almost entirely outside of human space so far, there has been very little official contact with them until the attack two days ago."

"So they're another remnant group, then?" a young officer interjected, earning a few annoyed looks.

Hood shook his head. "No, not like the ones we've faced before. They were mostly mercenaries, nomadic fleets or terrorist groups. This 'Imperium' has infrastructure, a government, and a large civilian populace. In other words, it is being treated as a hostile nation, not a group of extremists. As such, the decision has been made between the United Nations Space Command - with oversight from the civilian government - and envoys from the Swords of Sanghelios to launch an immediate military campaign to repel this invasion and neutralise the threat posed to us by the Imperium of Clarity. "

As Hood sat back down, the whispered conversations that had been ongoing during his briefing rose in volume as the room's occupants discussed the matter. A tall, middle-aged man with a weather-beaten face rose from his chair and saluted.

"Rear Admiral Hawkins," Hood nodded politely.

"Sir, am I to assume that we will be working alongside the Swords of Sanghelios during this campaign?"

"That is correct. Will that be an issue?"

"No sir, I was just curious about how the chain of command will operate."

"The Sangheili Fleet Master intends to work alongside us, but will not interfere with our military operations in any way."

"I see," Hawkins seemed satisfied, and sat down.

When it became clear that there were no further questions, Hood waved towards one of his aides at a nearby console. The holoprojector built into the meeting table flashed and the display changed as an array of miniature starships appeared alongside numerous charts projecting troop numbers and supply expenditures.

"Leading this operation will be the Sixth Fleet, comprised of eighty-four warships and twenty-two support vessels. Within forty-eight hours we intend to have it assembled over our rally point at New Syracuse, the closest suitable colony world to the Montak system. There, we will rendezvous with a fleet sent by the Swords of Sanghelios before launching our counter-attack into enemy territory."

Hood paused for a moment before gesturing to a woman at his left. "Admiral Lin Zhi has been chosen as the commanding officer for this campaign, with Rear Admiral John Hawkins as second in command and Vice Admiral Ryan Samson acting as her Chief of Staff."

At this, Zhi rose and gave a firm salute to Hood before surveying the room. Though she had not said a single word since the meeting began, many knew of her reputation as a tough officer with an impressive combat record against the Covenant. Steely-eyed and straight-backed, she possessed a certain gravitas that gave off an intimidating aura far greater than that of the other venerable officers that towered over her.

"Thank you, Fleet Admiral," Zhi mirrored his earlier position, crossing her hands behind her back. "Like many of you, I am no stranger to fighting against Covenant - or former Covenant - warships, and am fully aware of the dangers a fleet will face. However, I assure you that I intend to end this war quickly and efficiently, without needlessly wasting the lives of the brave men and women fighting for us. While a proper offensive strategy has not yet been formulated, over the next two days I intend to-"

Zhi stopped abruptly as a hand shot up from across the table. It belonged to a young officer, dressed in a dark green uniform and matching beret. Eyeing a silver leaf on his collar, she raised an eyebrow.

"Yes, Commander?"

To everyone's surprise, the man shot to his feet, snapping his boots together as he saluted the Admiral, who seemed more surprised than offended as he began to speak.

"Thank you, Admiral." He clasped his hands together, either unaware of or simply choosing to ignore Zhi's darkening expression. "My name is Commander Andrei Fosse, of the Naval Strategic Response Division, and I'm honoured to be a part of this campaign. As the NSRD were given access to the files from the Montak incident prior to this meeting, I have taken the liberty of formulating a strategy already, as I was asked."

"I wasn't aware of this," Zhi looked over to Hood, who seemed rather embarrassed.

"The decision must have been made very recently," the Fleet Admiral muttered, fixing Fosse with a withering stare. "And without my knowledge."

Fosse seemed completely unabashed by this as he replied. "I apologise, Fleet Admiral. As per an order passed and signed by both the Secretary of Defence and President of the UEG, the NSRD is to provide oversight in terms of force deployment and logistics in addition to ensuring that all interspecies cooperation is carried out without incident. This will also extend to negotiations with the enemy, should it come to that."

Zhi nodded in resigned acceptance. Arguing with bureaucrats was a fruitless endeavour. "Did you have a strategy in mind, Commander Fosse?"

"Of course."

Fosse connected his own datapad into the holotable, and the image in front of them quickly changed from logistic readouts to a mass of tiny holographic ships, representing the entirety of the Sixth Fleet and by the look of things, the Swords of Sanghelios Fleet.

"As you can see," Fosse pointed towards the lines of UNSC ships massed alongside their Sangheili counterparts. "By combining our speed and maneuverability with the firepower of our allies, we can easily overwhelm the enemy fleet with a strong formation and massed fire."

"What maneuverability?" Rear Admiral Hawkins spoke up, waving his hand through the flickering hologram. "That close, our ships will barely have room to evade without hitting friendlies."

Fosse's smile never faltered. "That is why we must remain flexible in our strategy. Should we come under heavy fire, the Sangheili will advance to provide cover while our own fleet quickly reorganises into two groups. I'm sure that any competent Naval officer could manage it, even under pressure."

Vice Admiral Samson was next to interrupt. "And what if the enemy surrounds us, or is able to slip high-powered weaponry into our midst? I feel as though you are severely underestimating this group's capabilities."

"An excellent point from the head of the Prowler Corps," Fosse admitted with a childish shrug. "Of course, we will need to ensure that the field is ours by the time we engage the enemy in full-blown combat. With proper reconnaissance and proper calculations regarding enemy slipspace vectors, our fleet may be able to intercept and combat the enemy before they can formulate a proper response."

There was a long silence as all eyes in the room turned towards Hood, who had remained impassive throughout Fosse's speech. However, it was Zhi who answered first.

"Commander Fosse, what is your combat experience?"

"I served aboard the UNSC Holloway for five years, Admiral. We participated in numerous fleet actions against Kig-Yar and Jiralhanae pirates in the Joint Occupation Zone."

"And why is it that someone of your experience is devising plans of attack for an entire fleet?"

While Fosse's smile remained, there was an unmistakable flash of anger in his eyes. "With all due respect, the NSRD specialises in tactical simulation and threat analysis, and has been responsible for planning a number of very successful operations over the years. Were I not qualified for such a position, the Secretary of Defence would not have assigned me to this fleet. However, I fully understand that my strategies may conflict with your own methods. As such, we may discuss things further after moving to our forward command post."

Not a single person in the room would have blamed Zhi for exploding with rage then and there, and few would have intervened if she had leapt across the table and started beating him to death. Instead, she simply closed her eyes for a moment and sat down, her voice completely level.

"I see. I have no further questions."

Hood leaned forward, and motioned for Fosse to sit down. "Thank you, Commander. Now, let's wrap this up so we can proceed."

***

The meeting lasted for another unnecessary half-hour before Hood brought it to an end. Most of that time had been dominated by Fosse's assurances that he had planned for all contingencies and a brief disagreement on how best to deploy Special Forces personnel on the ground; units were being brought in from several divisions to augment their sizeable Marine contingent, alongside a number of private contractors. Putting it lightly, personnel organisation was a mess right now.

"I'm sorry about that, Admiral," Hood pinched the bridge of his nose shortly after the last officer had departed. "I didn't think they'd ambush us with someone like Fosse."

"It's not your fault, sir," Zhi unscrewed a bottle of water. "It's politics."

Hood sighed. "Politics." He spat the word out like a curse. "When I dismantled many of our emergency powers after the war ended, I was hoping for a return to normalcy. Instead we've got just as much infighting and nepotism as ever."

"You think Fosse has connections?"

"I think he's the kind of man who knows how to butter people up to cover up his own weaknesses. When someone like that gains the favour of an elected official, they can cause a lot of damage."

Zhi took a long draught from her bottle, and exhaled. "Do you think he'll force us to go ahead with this ridiculous plan? He doesn't seem the type to lead from the front."

"No, but he'll try to claim credit for any victories along the way; regardless of how many lives we lose, if we beat this Imperium, he'll want the glory."

The Admiral drummed her fingers on the tabletop. "Can't you do anything about him, sir?"

To her surprise, Hood gave a weary smile. "Admiral, I've already had to fight tooth-and-nail to prevent the civilian government from officially declaring war on the Imperium of Clarity. Having the Secretary of Defence assign an idiot to this fleet's command staff was the price we paid for it."

"Wouldn't we get a lot more support if it were an official declaration of war?" she asked.

"Yes and no. For one, we'd have to deal with a good portion of the senate opposing this action, partly on principle and partly because this Imperium isn't anywhere as big a threat to us as the Covenant was. Even with all the threats aimed at Earth in these last few years, some of the politicians are starting to regain the feeling that we're on top of the galaxy again. On the other hand, declaring war would mean that we could send in several fleets, including the UNSC Infinity."

"That would've been a great help," Zhi admitted. "Still, I'm fairly confident. So long as Fosse stays out of our way and I can change his plan enough so we don't all die for nothing and the Sangheili are willing to cooperate, we might be able to push through to the enemy capital within weeks."

"That's the spirit," Hood got to his feet, moving a little stiffly. Zhi watched him with curiosity; the venerable Fleet Admiral had been badly injured in a terrorist attack earlier this year, and though he had recovered, there was a lot of talk among the Admiralty that he intended to retire soon. Perhaps if this campaign was successful, she would have his position within a year.

"New Syracuse is a long way from home," Zhi said as the two made their way out of the meeting room. "It's been a long while since I've been part of a fleet as large as this."

"We don't have to mobilise as much these days, thankfully." Hood scratched the back of his bald head, scraping over his neural interface. "I'd offer to come with you, but I'm afraid I have to hold down the fort here. Deal with the politicians."

"Good luck with that, sir," Zhi saluted Hood. "I've only got to win a war."

"Lucky you. Come back alive, Admiral."

With that, the pair turned and went their separate ways. It would take the better part of a day to reach New Syracuse from here, and even longer for the entire fleet to arrive. Aside from dealing with Fosse, Admiral Lin Zhi would have not only lead the successful recapture of Montak, but follow it up with the invasion of one or more enemy-controlled systems. It was quite the task, and one that would reward her handsomely if they were successful.

"Admiral!" Hood turned and called down the corridor as Zhi walked off. "I've sent you a dossier on your counterpart within the Swords of Sanghelios. His name is Felo 'Ranak!"

Brodie-001: Here to help

2: The Imperial Admiral

1258 Hours, August 26th, 2558

Imperial Palace, Iradu, Voden System

A hush fell over the high-ceilinged meeting hall as a pair of heavy doors swung open on the landing above. The crowd below, a sea of bright-armoured Sangheili officers in their finest ceremonial garb, looked upwards in union as Imperial Admiral Toru 'Makhan emerged. Like them, he was clad in an ornate battle harness. He stood at the top of a long flight of stairs, surveying his subordinates with a stern visage before he began his descent, flanked by a pair of staff-wielding bodyguards.

In person, Toru 'Makhan did not quite match up to the larger-than-life figure whose exploits were known across a hundred worlds. Though tall by Sangheili standards, he possessed neither the impressive physique or commanding aura that so many legendary heroes had. Nonetheless, all knelt before him as he crossed the hall and approached the dais where his throne sat, bowing their heads to the man who had founded their Imperium as the old Covenant collapsed. Toru 'Makhan had saved them all. Toru Makhan had made them strong. Now, Toru 'Makhan would lead them to war.

The Imperial Admiral reached his throne; a high-backed chair of sleek silver metal inlaid with golden inscriptions. As he sat down it thrummed slightly, rising a few inches off the ground and giving the Sangheili more than enough height to peer over the heads of everyone present. His finger slipped to a button beneath one of the armrests, and a dozen speakers flared to life, magnifying his words tenfold.

"My loyal commanders," Toru's voice boomed as he waved an arm towards the crowd. "Today I greet you not only as your leader, but as a grateful friend."

Most had raised their heads by now, but this forced even the most reverent of followers to look towards Toru.

"For years, we have fought to build our Imperium. We have fought to make it safe, to grow and expand, and to protect it from threats both outside and from within. Each commander has proven himself a hundred times over, and in the coming cycles you will have the chance to do many times over."

Toru paused, half-expecting a roar of approval. Instead, all eyes remained on him. He eased himself back a little in his throne, and continued.

"As most of you are aware, the first blow has already been struck against our foes. Jealous of our might and fearful of our Imperium's expansion, both the Arbiter's forces and the human military attempted to claim our latest acquisition: Montak. Were it not for the quick actions of our fleet, they might have caused damage to our colonisation efforts on the surface. Instead, we took them quickly, and without loss."

This time, a ragged cheer went up from a few Shipmasters, likely those who had been present for the incident.

"By doing this, my brothers, our Imperium has only hastened a long-awaited war. This will not be as simple as rooting out pirates and raiders that dare infest our borders, nor will it involve the conversion of unenlightened warbands to our cause. This will be a conflict the likes of which has not been seen since the Covenant's Great War!"

As more shouts drifted over the crowd, Toru rose to his feet, clenching his fists as his speech intensified.

"So now, my warriors, we embark on our greatest campaign! Fight for your Imperium! Fight for your homes! Fight for your very existence!"

At this, over a hundred voices cried out in union, heavy boots stamping against the tiled floor while a sea of fists pumped the air with violent energy. The Imperial Admiral stepped forward, and his eager soldiers parted immediately. As he walked by, a shining white-gold leader amidst a multi-hued sea of frenzied warriors, they began to chant his name.

"Makhan! Mahkan! Mahkan!"

"Hail to the Imperium! Hail to the Imperial Admiral!"

"To war!"

Moving with surprising grace, Toru 'Makhan ascended the stairs once more, treading lightly along the violet carpet. As he stepped across the threshold into the adjacent chamber, he gave a final wave to the cheering mass below until the door slid shut.

That's enough ceremony.

Save for his bodyguards, he was now completely alone. Toru listened to the muted shouting for a moment more, savouring it for a few brief seconds before he set off at a brisk pace down the corridor. His speech had been short and to the point: they were at war. Another door opened ahead of him, and he stepped out onto an open bridge connecting two wings of his palace. As he walked, he looked out over the sprawling city below, bright and cheerful under the midday sun. There was a time when he would have sat and enjoyed the view in his free time, but alas, he had very little to spare these days. Approaching a tower at the edge of the bridge, Toru turned to his nearest protector.

"Has my High Command been arrived, Muri?"

The silver-plated figure next to him nodded. "Yes, excellency. They should already be waiting for you."

"Good. My thanks."

Toru continued his journey in silence, entering the western tower. Unlike the main body of the palace, which boasted room after room dedicated to entertainment, living, and governance, this area was Toru 'Makhan's private domain. The sleek metal walls, built to resemble a warship's interior, were dotted with artwork bought, discovered or plundered from the far reaches of the galaxy. Paintings of alien landscapes lined the massive spiralling stairwell, while one floor had quite the collection of sculptures.

"Muri?"

His bodyguard snapped to attention. "Yes, excellency?"

"Remind me to continue my notes on that Jiralhanae relief later. I would like them finished before we set out."

"I will," she bowed her head respectfully.

While he took the time to remember the names of every member of the Imperial Guards, Toru had grown rather fond of Muri 'Jarit since she had joined their ranks. Not only was she a living example of the success of his decree allowing females to serve openly in the military - one that had provoked some grumbling in many of his existing warriors - she had proven herself not only as a fine warrior, but someone who did not embody the ridiculous stoicism he had seen practised in many Honour Guardsmen over the decades. Perhaps, he thought, She will stand among my High Command one day.

Eventually they came to the topmost floor, where Toru's personal meeting chambers lay. Muri and the other guardsman, Hui, pushed them open themselves. Despite the high-tech systems surrounding the palace, the Imperial Admiral had neglected to install gravity lifts on the upper levels, forcing any visitor to climb to the top themselves. It was a bit of fancy on Toru's part to mirror his own struggle to the top, though the thought was lost on most people. Dominating the room was a long table of carved wood; an antique sourced from Sanghelios itself. Around it stood the six most powerful individuals within the Imperium of Clarity, second only to Toru.

"Imperial Admiral!" called a Sangheili in burnished golden armour, alerting the others to his presence.

"My brothers!" Toru spread his arms as he approached the table, looking at each of them in turn. "It has been far too long since we convened."

"Not since we dealt with Rukarun's pack," a heavily-scarred, gruff-voiced Unggoy laughed from his seat across the table. "And what a chase that was!"

Toru chuckled, taking his seat at the head of the table. The sole representative of his race on the High Command, Shipmaster Hedan Koti might have held the lowest rank of those in this room, but he more than made up for it with his sheer tenacity and willingness to speak the truth. His massive sway over the Imperium's Unggoy populace arguably made him one of the more politically powerful individuals in the room, but he kept that to himself.

"For you and Fleet Master 'Larom, perhaps," he gestured to the warrior in gold who had greeted him. "We simply lay in wait and spring our trap when the time was right."

That got a snort of mirth from Orro 'Hendai, an older Sangheili sat at the very end of the table. Catching Toru's eye, he turned to face him.

"Chasing Jir'a'ul pirates is naught but sport, your excellency. I have heard that you have started a war."

This was as much an accusation as it was a question from the eager old Field Marshal, who was good for naught but battle and knew it well. Toru leaned over the table, clasping his hands together.

"Indeed I have, 'Hendai. Do you wish to be unleashed?"

"Always," the warrior clenched his leathery fists. "You need only ask, and my Legion would spill a sea of blood in your name."

"They shall."

Toru knew that this was more than mere flattery on his part. When he had recruited 'Hendai into his Imperium, the warrior had been leading a force of thousands on a barely-disguised rampage across the swathes of now-lawless space in former Covenant territories. All it had taken was the promise of true purpose to turn him into a loyal commander.

"Your excellency," Fleet Master Nor 'Hudon spoke, sitting directly across from his blood brother, Zetal. "Is this a defensive war, or are we launching an invasion?"

"Both." Always thinking of the people. "I have been informed of an impending attack on our newest acquisition. We will have to defend it, then strike back."

"The mining colony?"

"Indeed. Our negotiation with those human merchants helped us secure it bloodlessly, though it saw reprisal from a warship of both their military, and one from the Swords of Sanghelios. Both were destroyed, but more will come to invade our territory."

The mention of the Arbiter's forces had a notable effect on those at the table. Everyone here had fought in the war against the humans on some level, and would likely have little trouble fighting their forces again. However, to fight the Swords of Sanghelios would pit brother against brother on a larger scale than many were comfortable with. While that particular alliance had maintained open diplomacy with the Imperium before, Toru and his followers had refused to bow to their leader, or anyone else. To the Imperial Admiral, they were barely an improvement on the dozens of factions all claiming to be the Covenant's true successors.

To Toru's left, a younger warrior in dark armour looked to him thoughtfully. "Have we considered diplomacy?"

"Weakness!" Orro 'Hendai thumped his fist against the table, but was ignored.

"You seem concerned, Fleet Master 'Deris." Toru said calmly. "Blood has been spilled. They will not turn back."

The immense finality in his words made Lora 'Deris shrink back a little. The look of worry slowly eased off his face as he gave a long sigh. "Then we must meet them head on."

A murmur of assent drifted round the meeting table. The Imperium of Clarity were going to war at full force. Against the great galactic powers, they would see victory or certain death in this conflict. Hedan Koti stood up in his chair, now level with the rest of the seated Sangheili.

"I will gather my troops, leader," he rapped a his arms against his chest before crying out in a wheezy voice. "For the Imperium!"

"For the Imperium!" the Sangheili, Toru included, echoed his words. What the Unggoy lacked in size, he more than made up for in spirit.

Toru stood up, feeling energised, even excited. "Gather your fleets over Frendhal! We have little time to waste!"

With that, the Imperium of Clarity's High Command stood up, bowing to their undisputed leader. Toru chose to address each of them in turn.

"Orro, keep your warriors sharp and ready. They will have their fill soon enough."

The old warrior bared his teeth in a triumphant cheer.

"Nor, Zetal, your speed and talent are unmatched. Win together."

Both brothers thanked Toru simultaneously before sinking perfectly synchronised bows.

"Koti, you and your people are the backbone of our Imperium. Do not falter."

Shipmaster Hedan gave an embarrassed shrug. Toru was sure that it meant "I'll do my best."

"'Kan 'Larom, you are a taskmaster without compare. May you keep our hirelings as organised as your own fleet."

"Loyalty through obedience," he replied simply. It was his personal mantra.

Lastly, Toru turned towards Lora 'Deris, whose eyes shone at the accolades being heaped onto his comrades. The Imperial Admiral grasped his shoulder, feeling an unusual sense of pride.

"I have heard it said that every warrior has his own war," he looked around at the assembled veterans, "That is how they build their legend. This is your war, Lora 'Deris. Use it well."

At once, the grateful fleet master sank to one knee, his face almost touching the ground. Unlike the others, he had no great accomplishments from the last war; no mighty war stories or scars to show. Such was the tragic tale of a warrior on the frontier. He had done everything to earn his position at Toru 'Makhan's side in the last decade, and wanted nothing more than to prove his worth to the Imperial Admiral.

"You are too kind," he mumbled, picking himself up eventually.

Toru 'Mahkan did not respond, and instead turned to the windows that lined the command room as a shadow fell over the capital city. He walked to the window, and peered out as the shape of a tremendously starship drifted overhead. Small shuttlecraft zipped around it like insects on the body of a great beast, and cheers could be heard from below as the civilian populace looked up in joy. Right on time.

This was Toru's ship. The Watchful Custodian. Saviour of the far-flung colonies, cleanser of pirates, and the mightiest vessel in the Imperium of Clarity. Once a parting gift from a treacherous Prophet prior to his exile onto the frontier, Toru recalled standing on its command deck, looking down at the settlement that would be the basis for his personal fortress, and the civilisation that he had built around it. Very soon, it would see battle once again.

Brodie-001: Here to help

3: Loose Lips

0230 Hours, August 26th, 2558

Safehouse in the Countryside, Venezia


This was taking longer than he’d hoped.

Tied to the chair at the center of the dimly lit room, Jerrod Fletcher stared up him, eyes gleaming with a grim satisfaction as blood trickled down a split lip. “No one is coming for you. No one knows you’re here.” Joseph Kovacs sighed, crouching down to the captured operative’s level.

“Don’t matter.” Grumbled the battered man, flashing a smile of blood stained teeth up at his captor. Fletcher was a hard man, a little too erratic for BRUTUS, but dangerous all the same. It hadn’t been easy to bring him down, but with a little observation he’d been able to capitalize on his particular vices and nab him.

Paying off the prostitute had cost him more than a few credits though, he could only hope what he got from the triggerman would be worth it.

“Of course it matters, you’re not a patriot Jerrod, you do this cause it pays well. Why bother holding out?” He’d been relegated to playing good cop, Hargrove’s PISCES and general manner made him better suited for the opposite role anyway, but Kovacs wasn’t happy about it.

“I’ll let you go, no questions asked, just tell me where I can find BLUE JAY.”

The killer spit blood onto him, letting out a giddy snicker. “He knows ‘ya ‘comin for ‘im, this ain’t so simple as ‘fightin innies.” Kovacs wiped the blood away, expression deadpan as the two locked eyes.

“Just cause you don’t got no family don’t mean he can’t hurt you Joey boy.” So he knew who he was, they’d never identified themselves which meant that Fletcher wasn’t bluffing, BLUE JAY had been clued in to the ex-commandos hot on his trail. Good, that meant they’d send more agents to interrogate their way, get them closer to him.

And by extension closer to CALIFORNIA.

“I appreciate the concern, but that’s for me to worry about.” Kovacs shrugged. “All I need is you to tell me where to find him.”

He laughed, almost madly, eyes wild. Something was off.

“You and I ain’t Earthers, so maybe you won’t gettit, but on Earth when November comes, winta comes wit it,” The ONI operative snickered. “Winta comes, and everything shrivels up, the world’s quiet.” Fletcher smiled.

“I know how winter works Jerrod.”

“Good good. Moral of the story is, when November comes, an’ he will, everything dies.” The last words hung in the air, his inane mockery suddenly turning deadly serious. Something moved in his mouth, and Kovacs realized what it was too late. His hands shot towards Jerrod’s jaw as the capsule was crushed between his teeth.

In the past he might’ve been able to stop it, but the 26th century had made suicide pills all the more fast acting. Looking deep into Kovacs’ eyes, the assassin looked onto him with something akin to sympathy.

“Stay warm Joseph.” He muttered as foam spilled from his lips and his body went limp.

Kovacs sat back into the simple wooden chair he’d set across from his captive and sighed. A dead end, an ominous threat, and an agent who’d taken their life rather than divulge any information despite it being against everything in their character. They really were knee deep in ONI’s shit.

“What the fuck?!” Boomed a voice from over his shoulder, modulated by the helmet he still needlessly wore. Hargrove. The two of them had similar stories, even if they were seperated by decades in occurance, street rats who’d ended up in the same ONI black ops unit, and eventually ended up as enemies of the enigmatic organization. There were a few differences, Kovacs was an ORION, Hargove the bastard of a criminal industrialist, but the core details were more or less the same. They'd become fast friends when they were handed the reigns of Lima.

Not to say the man wasn't a pain in the ass.

“What the hell? Why didn’t you fucking check him?” Roared the power armor clad mercenary, fists balled at his sides as he strode towards the corpse and callously yanked it from the chair.

“Because the man was obsessed with himself, didn’t think he’d up and off himself over a paycheck. Not to mention you had him first.” Kovacs retorted, looking down on the corpse as he went for a cigarette. The two had gone at it over nearly anything when they’d first partnered up, but now both preferred to simply let it go, focus on the task at hand rather than argue over the past.

“You have news for me, or you just here to gawk?” Kovacs asked, placing the rolled paper between his teeth and flicking open a lighter, eyes laying over the corpse on the floor, foam still rising from the dead man’s maw. In a single motion, the silver box sparked a flame which he raised to the tip of the cigarette and lighting it.

“Yeah, smoking kills.” Hargrove’s irritation with the habit was more amusing than anything, but his constant jabs were getting more and more irksome by the day. The two needed to be out in the field and fast, that way they could focus on something besides their pet peeves with one another.

“Also, there’s a new hotbed in the galaxy. Some remnant group pissed off the UNSC bad, even offered us a job with ‘em.”

That raised an eyebrow. As he puffed on the cigarette between, Kovacs looked up at Hargrove with bewilderment. The idea of a remnant group using humans wasn’t a new one oddly enough, but the two of them had seemingly shared the view that their war was with the Office, not the UNSC as a whole. They weren’t going to fight marines.

“Relax, I’m as against working for splits as you. Just convinced the guy I wasn’t enough that I got an idea where things are about to go down, and some clues about who we might be working with on their side.”

“And?” Kovacs asked as his partner handed him a datapad, details of the incident in the Montak system running across the display.

“They didn’t give away much, sounded like they might have a demon though.” Kovacs couldn’t see beneath the helmet covering Hargove’s visage, but he knew that a smug smirk was on his face. Augmented forces in opposition to the UNSC often caught CALIFORNIA’s attention quicker than anything, usually he’d sic MAGICIAN on it, but if what he was reading was true, this incident might have warranted the attention of the man himself. Or at least the deployment of his assets.

Which put them one step closer to the son of a bitch.

Puffing out smoke, Kovacs nodded, scrolling through the details with a flick of his finger. “Guess we should get in system.” The former private investigator mumbled past the cigarette.

“I know a guy, got a quiet ship, not to mention some gear for you.” Hargrove chuckled, looking down to his trench coat-clad partner. “Can’t fight a war lookin like that.


User:Spartan-D042 screw this sig stuff 05:07, July 12, 2018 (UTC)

4: Transfers

1300 Hours, August 26th, 2558

UNSC Maya, Earth Orbit


The transfer from Infinity to Maya had been abrupt and with little explanation, but Jacob had been in this life long enough to not question things. He hadn’t questioned where the rest of Macuhuitl besides his sniper had been sent, he hadn’t questioned why his team leader shared the same last name and home world as himself, he hadn’t questioned why the team had remained in its current organization after it was revealed said team-leader and earlier generation child soldier was in fact his elder brother, and he hadn’t questioned it when the man refused to so much as speak to him on the subject, so why would he bother questioning a simple transfer?

“He say anything to you?” Questioned a voice over a private communications line, looking back over his shoulder at the formerly mentioned sniper and gave a simple shake of his head ‘no’ as the two followed after the other half of Stallion down the ramp of the dropship that had ferried them over.

Rodger was trying to help, G050, or Spartan Menteith, had always been able to read him and the others like a book even behind layers of titanium alloy. To this day he wondered why the marksman who had leadership in his blood hadn’t been entrusted with command of their little family, but true to his character Rodger only assured him and kept him focused.

He could see Jacob was more than a little put off by the recent revelations as clearly as he saw targets downrange. But for once he just wanted his friend to stop.

Stepping off the ramp, G043’s EOD helmet turned towards his elder brother expectantly as the four soldiers stood quietly in the chaotic hangar of a vessel soon to be bound for war. “Now what?” He inquired as the elder Spartan stood utterly silent, seemingly sweeping the hangar for any visual threats.

“Report in with handler, Spartan Flores.” Came Cody’s response after he seemingly finished his observation, voice devoid of any kind of emotion as always as he raised a hand and motioned for the fireteam to follow as the Beta Company Spartan led the way towards the nearest exit.

Sailors parted like the seas the once sailed to allow the titans through, even with the Spartan Branch churning out more of their kind than ever, seeing them for the first time was still something most UNSC servicemembers looked forward to with incredible anticipation. Outside of some special forces outfits, they were seen as heroes who had saved humanity, even if most of those they saw were only human when the time for that came.

Rodger, Jacob, and Cody were indifferent to the whole ordeal. Threes still didn’t publically exist, and a lifetime of training for and fighting in war had left things like the concept of fame worthless to most of them. Cadmon Dawes, the odd man out in their unit, didn’t share their disinterest. He said they were good for morale, told them how he’d seen entire battalions rallied by the mere presence of a Spartan to fight against nigh impossible odds. Jacob never knew if he was exaggerating or not, but he seemed genuine enough.

Dawes shook hands as they passed through gave salutes, even stopped for a picture with a few fresh-faced crewman as the team made their way from the hangar into the halls of the vessel. Jacob didn’t understand, the whole ordeal seemed like something Mendez would’ve had him running sprints into the next morning for, but from what he understood the behavior was encouraged among the fours.

“Making friends?” Rodger asked, looking over to their comrade clad in gray and blue CINDER armor. The gear, if one knew what it was meant for, was the only true indication that Dawes was more than a simple morale booster. Configured specifically for action against the Flood, the armor marked the former paratrooper as one of the few who had faced off against the vicious parasite and won.

“Maybe, mainly just trying to keep their heads up. Whatever we’re heading into is bound to be serious judging by the battlegroup amassing. Lot of ‘em seem new.” Dawes responded with a shrug. “But if I make a few friends, no harm done. I teach my tykes it never hurts to be kind, gotta practice what I preach.” The Spartan added.

More than anything, the fact that Dawes had children of his own was what alarmed Jacob. Before he’d met him he’d never even thought that the newer generation had families and homes to call their own, people who eagerly awaited their return every time they shipped out. The idea itself was more alien to him than any of the ex-Covenant species.

He’d invited them all to meet his family after Requiem and New Phoenix, naturally Cody had refused, but Rodger had convinced Jacob to come along. There he’d tasted, saw, and hear things he never could’ve imagined. Before Gamma he’d lived in one orphanage after another, the family dynamic, and all the little nuances of normal life were completely new to him.

As strange as the experience had been, it had been almost liberating in a way, even though ONI no doubt was monitoring them every second of their shore leave, it marked the first time Jacob had even thought of a life free of their grasp, and the first time he wondered if they’d made the right call staying in the service.

Serving the UNSC still was the only thing he knew how to do, and without it he still had no idea what he could make of himself, but at least he knew somewhat what life would be like when there was no war to fight. Still, that life wasn’t for him now, and possibly not ever.

“They’re kind alright, kind of wild.” Rodger joked, to which Dawes let out a simple laugh and shrugged, unable to say anything in the defense of his hyperactive seven and four year old. Jacob tuned out the rest of their conversation and turned his eyes to his brother as the team stepped into an elevator. The Beta was rigid, even inside the elevator, little turns of his head clued in the observant that he was on high alert. Even in the belly of a UNSC vessel, in the heart of human space, Spartan-B042 kept his guard up.

As the floor lurched beneath them, Jacob tried to understand what had befallen his brother. He knew what TORPEDO had done to Lucy, but she had barely escaped whatever ONI did with Spartans deemed unstable because of Commander Ambrose’s intervention, and Jacob knew the Commander wouldn’t have just left his brother behind, not to mention his sibling had paid Onyx a visit once during Gamma’s training. Pegasi hadn’t been the breaking point for Cody, whatever had left him how he was had come after.

Jacob had tried digging into his dossier, but the black ink on his file was heavier than usual for a three, and he knew better than to waste his time asking. But the question, unlike all the others, ate at him. He wanted to know why his brother had become this, he needed to understand, lest he end up the same way.

The elevator came to a stop, and the doors slid open, on the other side stood another Spartan, he dark hair tied up in accordance with regulations, and look of fierce determination in her eye. This had to be Flores he assumed, the look on her face practically screamed ‘I’ve been waiting’.

“Stallion, pleasure to meet you all, I’m Spartan Adalia Flores. If you’ll follow me, we can get you all up to speed, we can get acquainted later.” None of them said a word in protest, and Cody simply gave her a curt nod. Turning, their handler motioned for them to follow as she moved down the hall, and so they did.

User:Spartan-D042 screw this sig stuff 05:07, July 12, 2018 (UTC)

5: Briefing

1377 Hours, August 26th, 2558

Bridge, CRS-class light cruiser Universal Resonance, Unknown Space

Grono 'Yendam waited patiently for his officer to arrive as his crew worked the controls of his new ship, the Universal Resonance. Due to the latest losses by their wavering leader, Jul 'Mdama, there was a limited amount of resources that he could give, even to his most seasoned commanders. Due to that, Grono had been forced to put up with the small confines of this CRS-class, and didn't even know the reason for his sudden shift to Shipmaster. Grono knew better than to ask questions of the Didact's Hand though, and knew even better than that to never doubt the judgement of the Supreme Commander of the Covenant Remnant.

Jul 'Mdama will find a way to get us out of this mess. He always has. Grono found it surprising that he, once a so-called 'Traitor' to the Covenant Empire, was one of the only loyal commanders left to Jul 'Mdama. It raised suspicions about what the other generals could be planning every time he thought about it, but his time for thinking was over. His loyal second had arrived.

Rach 'Iltuk briskly kept his hurried pace as he swept onto the bridge, although he showed no fear as he passed the crew members. But 'Yendam knew that every soldier under his command, every one was afraid of him. The only reason he was granted passage into the Covenant Remnant and taken under 'Mdama's wing was because of his past. He was a fearless pirate Shipmaster, plundering artifacts of the gods from the unworthy. Most would have left him for dead, but Jul saw raw, untamed skill in him. Jul had helped him when he was in need. And most of all, Jul had gave him purpose again. 'Yendam was molded from a young, quick-tempered soldier into the perfect warrior. Many called him cold, and unfeeling for what he did, but Grono knew that he was one of Jul's best commanders, and nothing could change that.

Commander Rach came up behind Grono, still smaller than the young Zealot, though quite tall in his own standards. Rach beat his right fist on his chest; the old Covenant salute. Grono returned it, having never really let all of the past die. Rach looked up at his Shipmaster. "Shipmaster, I am here as you said, and am ready for whatever you ask of me."

"You are late," stated Grono as he walked towards a holotable, sliding his hand across its smooth, polished surface. "But we shall deal with that later. Our Supreme Commander has finally come out of the darkness to give us our orders. He will see to it that I have my objective known."

Rach nodded as a short, soft beep came from the holotable.

Grono walked up to the table. "Splendid, he is here."

Grono turned on the projector on the Holotable, emitting an image of Jul 'Mdama himself, adorned in his tattooed Zealot harness. Rach and the bridge crew bowed down to their revered leader, while Grono simply gave 'Mdama a salute. Jul ignored the frenzied whispers of the crew, many of which had never seen the Supreme Commander with their own two eyes before, and focused on Grono 'Yendam.

"I take it you have followed my orders, 'Yendam?"

Grono bowed his head down. "Of course, my leader. I would think nothing of anything else."

Jul acknowledged. "Good, good. I have been right not to lose my faith in you, Shipmaster. I have reason to suspect of many of our own, due to our recent setbacks. I have had three of my most trusted Zealots executed on charge of plotting against the Didact's Hand."

Grono nodded. "Yes, Supreme Commander." If he were a commander that was plotting against 'Mdama, he would have been filled with fear. But 'Yendam was loyal, and thus he knew no harm would come to him from the Covenant Remant. "'Mdama, as for the intent of this meeting, what bidding do you wish of me?"

"Of course. This new Imperium of Clarity, they have officially declared war against the humans and the wretched traitors, the Swords of Sanghelios. I have use of you for things to help bring down the common enemy we and the Imperium both have."

"So you are saying we must align ourselves with another remnant?" As Grono spit the last word out, he felt a surge of anger. Jul 'Mdama having to stoop so low by allying with a rival? This is the cost of fighting for what is right, isn't it?

"No. I shall have other generals still loyal to me deal with that. Instead, I shall have you take advantage of the situation. While the Swords and humans are busy fighting this new remnant, you shall attack their ships one by one, taking them down when they are distracted. And you shall do it where ever a battle between the Imperium and our enemies may occur. Therefore, we shall take them out quickly and help the Imperium, while not wasting resources trying to take out their reserves."

Grono nodded and took this all in. It was a good plan, and the only setbacks that would occur would be at the expense of this Imperium, not the Remnant. "You have once again proved your genius, Jul 'Mdama."

Jul brushed off the compliment and continued. "You will attack all smaller ships with the weaponry of the Resonance. Any larger ones will be boarded and their crews massacred. You shall lead every single assault, be it ship-to-ship combat, or boarding action. As for your commander," Jul continued as he turned to Rach, who quickly extended his bow. "You shall assist 'Yendam in all of his acts, as a faithful Commander would do."

Rach stood, still keeping his head bowed down. "Thank you Supreme commander, I will do all I can for Grono 'Yendam."

"Good. Do not fail me like so many others have."

Grono replied with a 'Yes' before Jul's hologram evaporated. As it did, he turned to Rach. "'Iltuk, prepare my men. I want them ready for the glorious battles we shall win when we are on the battlefield."

His officer nodded and hurried off to the hull to do his bidding while the crew set a course for one of the known bases of the Imperium of Clarity; the Yain System. As they finally took off to achieve their mission, Grono sat back in his Shipmaster's throne. This Imperium will prove to be interesting indeed. We shall have to lay low on the outskirts of the system for now though, and not reveal ourselves until the opportunity is ripe. Unlike others, I will not fail the Didact's Hand.

UnggoyZealot

6

1430 Hours, August 26th, 2558

Shipmaster's Preparedness Chamber, CCS-class battlecruiser Purveyor of the Righteous, en route to Frendhal

Thyl ‘Zantak squinted slightly as the dimly lit room was flooded with the bright blue light of the hologram. His eyes quickly adjusted as the collection of light took form, revealing a human male standing in front of him, arms crossed and a smirk on his face, “So you took the job, eh? I’m surprised, I thought you had left all this holy righteousness stuff behind you.”

Thyl stared at the figure, studying it. The man, Jerrold Campbell, was nearing sixty human years of age, though he appeared to be little more than half that. Advanced medical technology and cosmetic enhancements allowed him to maintain his youthful appearance far longer than was natural. The Sangheili knew that to let the man’s appearance deceive him was foolish, as behind the smirking face and artificially colored hair lay a naval genius. Decades spent fighting a guerilla war against the human government had forged him into a master of hit-and-run attacks and raiding. In other words, it made him the perfect pirate.

Pirate. The word didn’t used to used to mean him. He was a proud warrior of the Covenant, a shipmaster in their grand fleet; a bringer of doom and destruction to those deemed unworthy of following the path. And then he wasn’t. The Covenant had collapsed around him as the Prophets’ lies had been revealed and after the smoke had cleared, he was left in a new and strange world, one without the pillars of support he had relied upon. He had drifted aimlessly through the former Covenant fringe for years before he had been approached by this curious human, who had offered Thyl the one thing he had longed for since the fall of the Covenant; belonging and purpose. Whether this was because Pershing had seen something he liked about the Sangheili or simply saw him as an important asset mattered little to Thyl, who joined up with his band of marauders and never once looked back.

“I have, this is not about whatever religious opinions the Imperium might hold, if any, this is simply for profit. They are paying the weight of Unggoy in Gekz and giving me the opportunity to operate in their space. That alone is enough to justify my decision. Even if they fail to win and wither and die, then I will have still surveyed their space, and there is enough here to fill our holds for years.”

The Sangheili crossed his arms as if to emphasize how good an idea this was while Pershing simply continued to grin, “I see. That’s a pretty good idea, good job. Whatever you need, just ask and I’ll send it your way. From the sounds of it, this might turn into something pretty big and I don’t want you getting swallowed up by it.”

Thyl nodded his head, “My thanks, Commodore.”

“By all means, Fleet Master, I’m happy to be of help. Pillage and plunder all that you can take.”

With that, Pershing placed his fist over his heart, mimicking the Sangheili tradition that Thyl preferred to use. The Fleet Master did the same and Pershing’s hologram faded out as the holoprojector shut down. As soon as it did, he made his way over to a panel on the wall, pressing a maroon button that activated the ship’s intercom.

“Lyrnium, meet me in my chamber, we have things to discuss.”

The gruff, almost animalistic voice of his second in command responded only moments later, “Of course, Fleet Master, I will be there shortly.”

And shortly he was, the hulking Jiralhanae Chieftain lumbering into the room only a sparse few minutes later. The massive Rh’tol was dressed rather simply; the Jiralhanae had never been one for flair in presentation or dress, but they more than made up for it in battle. They were slow to adapt and quick to anger, which served Lyrnium’s clan well in the role of privateers. Their Chieftain was different though, calmer and more thoughtful than his clanmates. One might have mistaken him as a member of the Vheiloth were it not for his unshaven form and willingness to wrend flesh from bone.

It was strange, just a few years prior, the idea that he would not only fight alongside a Jiralhanae but make him his second in command was not only preposterous, but downright insulting. In fact, it is highly likely they would have attempted to kill each other had they met under different circumstances, but despite his initial reservations, Lyrnium had proven both loyal and useful, leading his ground forces in many successful raids. He hoped this would be no different.

Thyl approached Lyrnium and clapped a leathery hand on his shoulder, leading him over to the holotable, “I have taken a rather… peculiar contract, one that I’m sure you will appreciate.”

The Chieftain chuckled, a deep and throaty noise that grumbled up from inside Lyrnium as if it meant to reach out and attack at any moment, “And what might be of any particular interest to me? A fight is a fight, and I live for them all, and the rewards they bring. How different could one raid be to another aside from the scenery and who utters the screams?”

Thyl simply activated the holotable, bringing up a map of local space, clearly divided into several sections, one for the human’s Unified Earth Government, one for the Swords of Sanghelios, another for the areas the two powers occupied jointly, and a new territory that bordered all three. It was clear from Lyrnium’s expression that he was unfamiliar with it, so Thyl took the opportunity to step in, “That… is the Imperium of Clarity.”

The Chieftain simply scoffed, “The remnant? I thought you said it would be interesting. We raided Jul ‘Mdama’s outposts on Thorran just a few cycles ago.”

“Ah, but this is no ordinary remnant, this is led by the Fleet Master himself, Toru ‘Makhan.”

Lyrnium’s eyes lit up, if only slightly, “The Fringe Spectre?”

Thyl’s toothy maw did its best to approximate a smirk, which only served to make him appear far more predatory. He spoke in a low, deep tone, “The Imperium is not some half-thought plan to regain the Covenant’s glory, it is reality. And they are at war. Tell me, Chieftain, do you smell it? The blood in the air? Do you hear the horns calling forth battle? They call to me as much as you, a proper war. We’ve already been promised riches for our efforts, imagine what other rewards might await us. Regardless of who emerges victorious, we shall reap the benefits tenfold of any single raid in the past.”

The Jiralhanae stood silently for a long minute, observing the holographic map intently. Thyl could only wonder as to what thoughts he was entertaining inside his mind. Then he grinned, beastial and rabid in appearance. Lyrnium turned towards the Sangheili and his grin grew wider, “We’ll go and I will spill a sea of blood! How long until we arrive?”

Thyl highlighted one system in particular on the map, “We are heading towards the fortress world of Frendhal and shall arrive within two days’ time.”

“I shall ready my pack! We prepare to make war!” And with that, he stomped his way out of the room, uttering what Thyl only assumed was some kind of traditional Jiralhanae war cry, or something to that effect.

After the doors closed again and the howling faded away into the depths of the ship, Thyl returned to study the map and found himself grinning involuntarily. Maybe this was more to him than just another job. Perhaps this was something he wanted. No, this was something he needed. True battle, a real war.

Lieutenant Davis

7

18:23, August 24, 2558

Burya, Montak System


Elena Zaytseva sat back in her cushioned chair, gripping the armrests as she watched out the viewscreen of her small personal transport as it dropped into realspace. The cheap civilian model slipspace drive she had on her vessel never made the transition smoothly, rocking the entire ship violently enough it always seemed to be on the verge of shaking apart whenever she forced it on one of these journeys. The computerized voice she had installed for her ship's computer to give her updates rung out of the cockpit's speakers.

"You have arrived approximately one-hundred thousand kilometers off of your intended destination."

Releasing her grasp on the arms of her seat, Elena reached out to the piloting console and fired up the engines, turning the ship towards the nearby planet. The navigational database had it listed as "Montak," a world on the edge of UNSC claimed territory, a perfect stop to pick up a few jobs without having to worry about any big messes getting started. With the ship set on course for an encounter with the world, Elena leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, waiting for the notification to start her next burn, but just as her eyes found their way shut, the computerized voice sounded out again.

"Scans of the system are detecting a collection of debris near Montak that is not listed in any recent navigational databases. Heat scans indicate that this debris is at a relatively higher temperature than surrounding orbital objects."

Blinking her eyes open, Elena leaned forward and looked over the readout for the results of the scans. Sure enough, the debris field was present, but what caught her eye even more was the outline of an approaching mass, perfectly matching the shape of a typical Covenant vessel, yet not broadcasting any codes that would indicate it to be operated by the successor state allied with humanity, the Swords of Sangheilios. Frowning, she sent a ping to the vessel to open a comms channel.

"This is Elena Zaytseva of the civilian ship Burya. To who am I speaking?"

A few seconds passed as the message was sent and processed by the approaching ship, before a voice sounded out in reply through her speakers, the accent unable to be mistake for anything other than a Sangheili speaking a human tongue.

"You have trespassed in spaced claimed by the Imperium of Clarity. State your reasoning or leave immediately."

Holding still in her chair, Elena listened to the words as they came through her comms, pondering her reply, before warily tapping on the console once more and speaking in response.

"I have come to this system searching for a job. I mostly do work as a bodyguard, if you need specifics as to the profession. My ship itself is unarmed, as I'm sure your scans can tell you, though I do have some personal weapons on board, due to requirements of what I do." Elena trailed off as she finished her reply, and sat in waiting for the response. A few more seconds passed, she could only presume as the alien vessel scanned her own, before the voice spoke up once more.

"A dropship has been dispatched to your vessel to temporarily attach to your airlock and search your vessel. Comply with any orders they give you, or you will be incarcerated. Should you pass this inspection, you'll be permitted to procede to Imperium space under our escort for further clearance."

With that, the comms clicked off, followed by a few thunks as a transport tube from the dropship to her vessel magnetically attached itself around her airlock. Sighing, Elena opened the exterior doors of the airlock and headed to the inner set to await the boarding party.


1300 Hours, August 26th, 2558

UNSC Maya, Earth Orbit


Lieutenant Commander Aleksandra Zaytseva leaned on the railing overlooking the hangar of the UNSC Maya. The vessel was getting ready to head out for some new war, and Sasha was here to watch over the maintainers working on the small complement of fighters onboard the vessel, supervising and ensuring regulations were followed and policy and procedures were complied with. She had her four Lieutenants down on the hangar floor to supervise more directly, but for her, it was overwatch and the occasional comm down to the deck to give instructions.

A ship coming in for a landing in the already chaotic hangar caught her eye briefly, and she watched as sailors parted for a group of four walking from the ramp to the nearest exit of the hangar. From the size of the men, the way the sailors parted, and the armor they all wore, she could tell that each member of the group was a Spartan. Shrugging, she turned back to watching over the maintainers and the fighters they worked on at the moment. During the war, Spartans had been larger than life heroes of humanity, and even now, for some that had never seen them before, they still were. But in the six years since the war ended, hundreds, if not thousands of new Spartans had been churned out, and Sasha couldn't help but think that the four she had seen walking by had been of that group, rather than the one composed of the heroes of humanity.

After a little more than an hour more of watching over the maintenance, a comm came in up from the deck below from one of her Lieutenants. "We're all set down here, for now. Did just get a message in for you, though. The Squadron XO has called for a briefing in the ready room."

Sasha tapped her comms to reply. "Thank you, Lieutenant. I'll see you there."

Clicking her comms off, Sasha turned from the railing and exited the hangar, making her way through the ship to her squadron's ready room. Sitting down in a chair, she took out her datapad, reading from the pre-briefing summary that had just been sent out.

Timothy Emeigh

8: Home

1047 Hours, August 27th, 2558

Feru Keep, State of Deris, Frendhal

It was time to leave.

Stood on the ramparts of his family keep, half-dressed in his sleek blue-grey pilot's armour, Nilen 'Feru watched as the first battlecruisers broke through Frendhal's cloudy skies, heading for the military encampment many miles away. The previous night orders had been broadcast to every world in the Imperium of Clarity, calling its soldiers to battle once again.

"When will they come?" a voice asked from behind him.

Nilen turned to see his wife, Luia, standing in the doorway of the nearest tower. She had evidently been watching him for some time from the shadows as he donned his military garb.

"Soon, love," Nilen said warmly as he slid on his vambraces, each one locking into place with a faint click. "I am told that they are mobilising our entire fleet."

"Everyone? Then that means-"

"Invasion, yes." The two remained quiet for a moment, dwelling on the situation. After a moment, Nilen looked back to Luia with a reassuring look. "I wouldn't worry, though. They say Toru 'Makhan himself will enter the fray with us."

"May he keep you all safe."

Luia clutched both hands to her farmer's tunic as she spoke, as if saying a prayer. They knew that Toru 'Makhan was no god. He was a Sangheili, greater than most but still mortal and fallible. Nonetheless, he had built their Imperium out of nothing and protected them in the years of hardship after the Covenant's fall. Though harsh, he remained a fair and just ruler in the eyes of most. Having grown up among a community of struggling homesteaders out in the farthest reaches of the Covenant's empire, Nilen would have never risen to his position under another leader.

"Huna, Kazu and Goranan are going with me," Nilen returned his gaze to the distant warships hovering over the horizon. Tiny dots flitted around them, spreading out in all directions. "We'll be safe."

"Huna?" a look of concern crossed Luia's face and she looked around as if checking for eavesdroppers. "But she's hardly of age!"

"She wishes to fight. It is an opportunity the Covenant would never have given her."

Though true, Nilen knew that this would not ease his wife's fears; Huna was a close cousin, after all. After fixing the heavy chestpiece of his harness into position, he picked up his helmet and approached her. The two drew close in a long embrace, swaying slightly as they simply held each other. It lasted barely ten seconds, but to Nilen it felt like much longer. They broke apart as the sound of footsteps clattering up the tower echoed towards them, and turned to see a trio of breathless younglings.

"Father!" called the eldest, Niru. "Are you going off to fight?"

"Of course!" his voice quickly became cheery. "I was just about to say my goodbyes to you, actually."

The young Sangheili crowded around Nilen, staring in awe at his well-maintained armour. The youngest, Bzan, tried to grab his helmet, only to have it gently but firmly tugged out of his grip. He sighed, and shot a pleading look at Luia, who began to pull them away from their father.

"Come now," Luia took on a slightly sharper tone. "You don't want to make your father late, do you?"

All three backed off immediately, mumbling apologies. Despite this, Nilen couldn't help but feel proud at how well-behaved they had become after some rowdy months. He pitied the Sangheili from more traditional clans, who refused to tell children who their fathers were for fear of special treatment. To him and many others who were forced into tightly-knit frontier communities, family was everything.

"I should be fine," he waved a hand dismissively, spying a steadily-approaching shape on the horizon. "Give my regards to the Elders, though."

"We will!" all three said in unison.

Most of the Feru clan were preoccupied with the busy harvest season, leaving only a few to see off their warriors. Nilen was never one for celebration; a quick farewell to his wife and children was good enough for him. Soon the distant shape became the familiar outline of a Type-52 Troop Carrier, better known as a Phantom. Skimming over the fields, the dropship rose above the keep's walls and opened its bay doors. The interior was empty, save for a single Sangheili in the same light-coloured harness as Nilen.

"Commander!" called Foren 'Ruuk, waving happily. "Have you gathered everyone?"

As he stood alongside an unarmed woman and three children, the answer to that was evident. Moments later, the doors to the keep swung open and a dozen armoured Sangheili poured out, attracted by the sound of the Phantom's engine. Unlike Nilen, who had been spending some time alone before deployment, the others had been feasting. Some pulled on armour as they ran, while others carried heavy packs, having had no time to dress. Foren caught Nilen's eye as he looked towards the incoming group.

"I hope they are readier when the time comes to fight," he said, half-joking.

"They will be."

The warriors of Feru Keep soon ascended the guard tower onto the ramparts, and marched past Nilen in single file, some looking rather embarrassed. They climbed one-by-one into the Phantom, while their leader approached his wife one last time.

"I will return," he whispered, close enough so only she could hear.

She gave no reply, save for a slow nod. That was all he needed. Nilen 'Feru was the last to board the dropship, taking Ruuk's extended hand as he pulled himself aboard. The bay doors soon shut behind him, and within seconds they were off.

"Has the ship been busy?" he asked his friend, trying to take his mind off the family he was leaving behind. "Since I've been gone."

Foren shrugged. "No busier than usual, brother. The Unggoy are constantly repairing something or other, and even daily maintenance does not keep boredom at bay for long."

He hungers for combat. "And how is the Huntsman?" Nilen asked.

"Ready for waiting," Foren puffed out his chest a little. "It would not do for our Commander's Seraph to be unprepared for battle."

"Thank you, brother."

Nilen patted his friend's arm in thanks, and turned his attention back towards the others. This Phantom had two more keeps in the state to stop at, filling itself with warriors before it returned to its mother ship: the Keen Eyes. Though life in the keep had been a satisfying return to mundanity, it had been far too long since he had raced across the stars with its crew, hunting pirates and enjoying the kind of freedom only a solo pilot could achieve. So far, Nilen had only heard the basics of this war, and who they were fighting against. While the fear of death was constant, there was an overriding sense of excitement in Nilen's mind at the thought of battling a truly skilled foe. In the coming days, he would be glad to put his considerable skills to work.

Brodie-001: Here to help

9: To War?

MORNING // 27 AUGUST 2558 (D-2)

Location: NEW SYRACRUSE

“Alright. Alright. Bring her down. Slowly. Slowly. A little to the left...equalize it a bit. Steady...yeah, yeah. You can set it down now.”

Without the proper infrastructure on the distant Outer Colony world of New Syracuse, concepts like subtlety and procedure had to be thrown out for simple practicality. Instead of a special rig or a proper loading bay for cryogenic containers, they had to go with a dinky old crane and a loose tarp probably pulled out of some broom closet located on the dusty airfield.

The pod tapped the ground with an echoing click of metal setting down on metal. With the tension now slack, the crane’s lift-chain shook violently in the blistering winds passing through. The chains rattled together creating a hollow-cracking jingle. The loose tarp thrown over the cryo pod was shamefully secured and displayed the work of someone who did not care for the contents of the container.

Onlookers watched from the landing pad above and nearby aircraft hangars. Gusts whipped the tarp off the top of the pod to reveal an industrial glass panel crisscrossed with ice. In the very early morning light when the local star had yet to crest the horizon, hints of titanium armor could be seen below obscuring layers of permafrost.

Some kind of iron giant in armor. The Spartan supersoldier-kind. The container was secured on top of a loose tractor-trailer and wasn't going anywhere, the crane relinquished its chain once workers had removed the hook. The airfield workers did not dare touch the cryo pod, the casket of a warrior constantly ready for battle. Instead, they let their imagination and rumors begin to circulate through the air.

“Why did they bring a Spartan here?”

“Maybe there are Innies hanging around?”

“You know? My son wants to become a Spartan when he grows up. I just bought him his first SPARTAN-1337 action figure.”

“Did you hear something about aliens in this sector?”

“Fucking UNSC making another appearance.”

“They only leave us alone when the Covvies come knocking on their door. What we need right now is another War.”

Two muscular teenagers wandered off the interstellar-traveling D81-LRT Condor that brought them to this civilian airfield located on the outskirts of a city called Abela. The history and significance of the names and planet were lost on the duo as that was not their purpose here. As far as they were concerned, this was just going to be another pitstop on an interstellar voyage with a final destination still unknown.

The girl, dressed in tight blue jeans and a white tee shirt wrapped in a green windbreaker lead the pair to the edge of the platform where she leaned over a railing to view the unloading of the covered cryo pod and the seemingly-endless tarmac beyond it. She was exceptionally boney and thin for her above-average stature. She had some angular beauty to her form, however, the depressed wrinkles beginning to form on her brow might put off some sharp-eyed young men. Also, she was technically twelve.

Her compatriot, a boy dressed in his own blue jeans and a sports coat that reached below his waistline, easily placed down the two duffel bags he'd been hoisting and leaned against the railing as well. Standing just barely over his friend, the boy was easily one of the tallest individuals out on the airfield this morning. His brown eyes traced the girl with mild concern before focusing on the cryo pod below.

For a few moments, the two remained quiet examining the armored individual under the giant tarp. At one time, she'd been a close friend to the duo. Now, almost a year later, so much had changed and yet, no one was sure what the next few hours to days would amount to.

Detecting the offhand comment of a nearby flight mechanic, the boney girl responded sarcastically. “Another war he says...maybe he’ll get what he’s asking for.”

“Maybe," The boy agreed with a huff, "We didn't exactly get a debriefing on the way here. Just the mention of that group...the Imperium of Clarity? It’s going to be a bit before we find out what our actual mission here but after Daniele's crap...” The boy's rambling drowned into silence as if the violent winds carried off the rest of his statement.

“Yeah.” The girl mumbled in response, understanding perfectly what went unsaid. The last few days had been a mess, to say the very least. Their family, their Spartan family, had splintered and the whiplash was still being felt for the two who were left behind.

The boy picked up the duffel bags and tossed one lightly to the girl. “Let’s just get going. It’s supposed to be a short drive to the encampment.”

The girl caught the bag tossed to her, marked with a velcro strap labeled “Kearsarge.” The girl rubbed the name tag as if the name was new to her even if it was her own. She half-expected it to say "D054." She let the bag sink to her side as she marched toward the stairs nearby. The boy followed her down toward the awaiting tarmac.

The girl, Andra Kearsarge, glanced back to her friend. “Alright, Merlin. To war, I guess?”

"Yeah...back to work," Merlin stated wistfully.

Distant Tide: Hunter - Killer

10

1123 Hours, August 26th, 2558

UNSC As Far As Siam, Joint-Occupation Zone

Captain James O'Neill sat at his desked in his cramped office, scrolling through recent news on his ComPad. His desktop pinged, and his eyes shot up to the screen: incoming call from Commander Malcolm Luthuli. He turned off his ComPad, tilted back in his chair, and tapped the "Accept Call" button on the screen.

"New orders, sir?" O'Neill asked as Luthuli's face appeared on the screen.

"Precisely, O'Neill. Command wants the task force in New Syracuse as soon as possible. To make a long story short, some remnant group just attacked one of our patrols and they want us to join with the rest of the forces there."

O'Neill raised an eyebrow. "What remnant group are we talking about here?"

"Some group calling themselves the "Imperium of Clarity". I'll send the details to your ComPad in a few minutes. For now, just tell your company that we'll be jumping within the hour, as soon as the Kirina gets back from its patrol." Luthuli turned and began tapping away on a nearby console. "Dismissed."

The call ended, and O'Neill leaned forward in his chair, picking up his ComPad once more.

"Imperium of Clarity", huh?"

He had never heard of any remnant group going by that name, and he was well familiar with many remnant groups by now. Impatient as ever, there was no way in hell he was going to wait for Luthuli to send him the dossier. He turned on his ComPad and began searching to see if he could uncover any information about this "Imperium".

After a couple minutes of "investigating", Luthuli's dossier appeared in his inbox. Having not found much, anyways, O'Neill shrugged and opened it, only to be both intrigued and dispirited by the 17-page length of the document. He slouched back in his chair with a muted groan and began perusing the file.

DarthNicky

11: The Raiding Legion

1100 Hours, August 26th, 2558

Deep space on the galactic frontier

The transport hulk drifted helplessly through deep space. Its engines disabled by precision plasma blasts, the ship floated amidst the wreckage of its destroyed escorts overshadowed by the bulbous frames of its alien tormentors. Trapped within the disabled transport ships, UNSC Marines and crewmembers armed themselves and hurried into defensive positions as the bridge desperately signaled its distress call. The stench of sweat and terror filled the halls—every man and woman aboard knew resistance was most likely futile. But if they could just hold out long enough… if the distress signal was reached… if help really did arrive…

Phantom dropships detached from the looming Covenant ships and descended upon the crippled transport like flies on a carcass. Anxious defenders tracked the dropships as they converged on the broadest point of entry: the ship’s hangar.

Fire teams were diverted, barricades erected, machine guns locked into place. A hardened platoon of Marines stood ready to cut down any Covenant warrior who dared set foot on their ship. Fingers hovered above triggers, their owners daring the aliens to make their move.

In an instant the hangar doors erupted in fountains of plasma and all hell broke loose. A hail of bullets slammed into the openings as the defenders cut loose. Smoke and sparks filled the air between both sides creating a billowing wall that obscured the boarding parties from view. The Marines fired on relentlessly. Occasionally a desperate plasma bolt slipped through the maelstrom but no Covenant so much as touched the hangar floor. It was a textbook killzone, every weapon in the Marines’ arsenal brought to bear on the erstwhile invaders.

Eventually the Marines had to reload and relink their machine guns. But when the smoke cleared, it revealed no blood-soaked dropship interiors or mangled Covenant bodies. Instead the Marines gaped at layer upon layer of Kig-Yar energy shields erected in defensive positions across the firing line. The Kig-Yar and Unggoy huddled behind the shield wall glowered up at the humans but made no effort to charge their positions or even return fire.

The Marines scrambled to ready explosive ordnance. But the Kig-Yar officers just signaled their dropship pilots and cast final toothy grins at the bewildered Marines. The humans never understood the aliens’ plan until the Phantoms ripped themselves forcibly from the hull, exposing the crowded hangar to a pitiless vacuum.

A few moments later and the hangar wasn’t crowded at all.

The sight of dozens of vital signs flatlining across the transport’s tactical console would have chilled the blood of any officer monitoring the defense—if anyone on the bridge was left to watch the monitors. But the entire bridge crew was indisposed. Most slumped lifelessly in their seats while the captain and a handful of officers struggled uselessly in the clutches of the vacuum-sealed Sangheili who had blasted in through the top of the ship while all eyes were fixed on the farce in the hangar.

One figure, smaller than the Sangheili by several feet, stepped from amidst the alien warriors towards the command console. The surviving crew gaped in horrified amazement at a human figure clad in battered combat armor. With the Army-issue shotgun slung from its shoulder beside a machete and combat webbing, there was no mistaking this figure’s species. The only similarities it bore to the warriors who stepped aside to make a path were the Covenant-style thruster pack affixed to its back and the purple command sash draped lazily over one arm.

The human spared the crew one expressionless glance before it pressed its hand against the console and affixed a small devise to the metal casing. The bridge lights dimmed momentarily, then brightened. The console flickered back to life and a strange female voice filtered through the ship’s intercom. It spoke at once in two languages.

Two different messages, each one laced with cordial cruelty.

In a basic Sangheili dialect: “Rejoice, you tainted warriors. The gods deliver this ship to you. Do what you do so well.”

In English: “This is my ship now, meatbags. Make yourselves useful and die.”

In the next instant, every cabin and hallway in the ship depressurized. Marines and crew gasped and choked on air that was suddenly unbreathable. They writhed and twitched against the defenses they’d erected against the wrong kind of enemy. In moments the transport became a ghost ship.

A few Marines were quick enough to don breath masks, but there was nothing to be done. The ship was suddenly swarming with Covenant warriors flooding in from airlocks on all sides. A few crew opened fire in a final burst of resistance; they died in seconds. The paltry few who remained threw down their weapons and surrendered.

A second armored human strode among the alien warriors as they marched the shaken prisoners down to the hangar. This one cradled a plasma repeater and responded to the pleas of the prisoners with cold indifference. Instead it turned to help the Sangheili strip the bodies of the corpses left lying in the hallway.

The Kru’desh raiding legion had seized another ship.

Back on the bridge, the first human stared down at the security footage displaying the Covenant’s victory. Its gaze lingered on the bodies of the dead humans before a Sangheili stepped up beside it.

“Congratulations, commander,” the warrior called Ro’nin said, twisting his mandibles in a sardonic smile. “The gods smile on us, like they always do.”

“Of course.” The human’s visor depolarized, revealing a young, pale face wreathed by dirty black hair. His mouth twisted in a cold smile of his own. “One goddess in particular.”

Simon-G294, traitor Spartan and commander of the Kru’desh legion, strode from the bridge. He stepped over the bodies of the dead humans without a second glance. The battle was over. Time to collect the spoils.


The traitor who had once been Simon-G294—he was Stray now, the warped creature who served the Covenant—had rarely given much thought to history before he joined forces with Jul ‘Mdama. He only vaguely recalled the classes given by his drill instructors back on Onyx, endless lectures on human history and the necessity to give one’s life in service to the UNSC. The Insurrectionists he’d found himself fighting in his first round of treason had their own version of that history, one filled with slogans and creeds that conveniently fit the rebels’ political goals.

Everywhere he went, people wrote history to suit their goals. From life stories to the rise and fall of civilization, everyone had an agenda when they dug into the past.

Only now that he made history with each passing day did he realize just how useful a tool that really was.

The first and only human to ever command a Covenant legion strode through the captured transport ships. The Kru’desh warriors—Sangheili, Kig-Yar, and Unggoy alike—busily stripped the dead crew of weapons and valuables. Their lance leaders would tally the weapons and other useful gear for the legion’s armory, then sort out the division of loot from there. Hardly the most elegant system, but it kept the troops paid and in line.

Unlike other Covenant forces, the warriors of the Kru’desh Legion were not so much a host of zealous holy warriors than they were a desperate gang of mercenaries and thieves. The dregs of the Covenant, dishonored and unwanted, were sent here to fight and die as suicide troops as an example to the rest of Jul ‘Mdama’s rank and file. Even the Sangheili thrown over to the Kru’desh were deviants, cowards, and opportunists.

Penal divisions were a common feature across both human and Sangheili histories. Why waste resources on execution or imprisonment when you could instead put the criminals to use on the front lines?

It was the only way a human like Stray could ever have risen to command. Species hatred and religious dogma meant very little when he promised the condemned warriors plunder and battle strategies that didn’t turn them all into cannon fodder.

The fact that he’d strangled their former commander to death with his prosthetic left arm also helped.

Stray’s comm beeped as he stepped over a dead Marine. “We have the cargo,” Ro’nin’s voice reported. “It’s in the hold, all there just like our little ‘oracle’ said.”

“Of course it is.” Stray rolled the body over with his boot, kicking it over to a pair of Kig-Yar looters. The alien pirates hissed with appreciation and hurried to strip the corpse. “When has she ever led us wrong?”

“Well that’s awfully sweet of you,” a female voice murmured in his ear. “And here was me worrying you’d take all the credit again.”

Stray ignored Diana—no easy feat, but one he’d learned after years of working with the scathing AI—and moved on through the corridor. A crowd waited in his path, mostly Sangheili wearing the harnesses of junior warriors. One figure stood out at their head: another human in modified SPI armor similar to Stray’s own.

Amber-G330, fellow deserter and the Kru’desh’s only other human warrior. Stray met her visored gaze with a stare from behind his own helmet. Amber swiped her fingers across her helmet in a sardonic imitation of the usual Spartan “smile” greeting.

Any Spartan would have returned the gesture. Instead, Stray dropped his left arm to his hip and tapped his belt with his prosthetic fingers: a discreet apology. When he reached the waiting crowd, he brushed Amber aside with a dismissive shove and craned his neck to address the Sangheili first.

“You’re lucky I’m in a good mood,” Amber growled in their private helmet com. As always, there was an edge to the dark humor in her tone. You could never tell when she really was angry—not until it was too late.

But the Sangheili nodded in approval at the way their commander dismissed a fellow human to favor them. It was a delicate game Stray played to retain command, a game that recruiting Amber hadn’t made any easier.

“Another successful raid,” the foremost Sangheili observed. He respectfully tapped his fist against his chest. Tuka ‘Refum, one of the legion’s youngest officers, spoke for his usual crowd: younger warriors, not quite the jaded mercenary types, who’d been banished to the Kru’desh for ideological reasons. Keeping them under control was easy enough. Tuka was a friend, possibly the most trustworthy warrior under Stray’s command. Unlike the rest of the legion, he and his friends believed they were fighting for something other than loot and plunder.

Of course, that made keeping them happy harder than with some of the others.

“Good job handling the hangar assault,” Stray replied. “You coordinate the dropship maneuvers like a pro. Told you we’d make something of you.”

“That is what I wanted to discuss.” The young Sangheili ducked his head in deference. “Killing our enemies like that… I would rather have taken them in real combat, not sucked them out of the ship.”

“It worked, didn’t it? If we’d hit them like they wanted us to, half your boarding party would be dead right now. Half of my boarding party would be dead. Pick your battles, Tuka. Kill smarter, not harder.”

“Kill smarter…” Tuka shook his head. “It’s hardly the honorable way to do things.”

“Of course it’s not. We’re the Kru’desh, remember?” This brought laughter from the surrounding warriors. Stray turned to face more of them. “We don’t rush in, we don’t all get killed, and we score wins for the Covenant. Plus we all get rich. Not a bad trade for a bit of honor.”

He turned back to Tuka. “Better get looting or all the good stuff will get taken.”

Tuka gave him a wary look. “You know that isn’t what I—”

“We’ll talk about it later.” Stray dropped his voice and gestured for Tuka and his friends to stand aside. “Privately.”

Though clearly displeased by the answer, Tuka let him pass. Stray continued down the hall, aware of Amber falling into step behind him.

“Nice little catch phrase there. Ever thought of turning it into a slogan?”

“Sure. I’ll run it by our Grunt focus group. Then you can be in charge of the posters.”

“Cute. You’re pretty relaxed for someone who just wiped out an entire convoy.”

She was already building to something. Like dealing with Diana wasn’t a full-time job enough as it was. Stray considered ordering Amber away, but that would just delay the problem. He’d have to deal with her problem one way or another. “It’s not my first raid. They stop being quite so exciting after a while.”

“Not mine either,” she reminded him pointedly. “But you still haven’t given me a command position.”

So that was the problem. “We’ll get there. Once you’ve done enough that they don’t just think I’m favoring you.”

“So until then you’ll just keep kicking me around in front of the hinge-heads?”

“You flushed one of my officers out the airlock yesterday. Stunts like that don’t exactly ingratiate you with the others.”

Amber was unrepentant. “He kept saying I was your concubine. How the hell am I supposed to earn respect around here if I let that slide?”

They were approaching the cargo hold. A few of Ro’nin’s warriors guarded the doors—the former mercenary might be the most unapologetically opportunistic of the Kru’desh officers but he also saw the long term well enough to be trusted with handling the most important recovery tasks.

“You could have just challenged him to a fight, broken a few bones. Now I’m down an experienced team leader. Maybe this is a shock to you, but stunts like that won’t endear you to these goons any faster.”

Amber scoffed. “Sheesh, lighten up. You’re starting to sound like Kodiak with that pole up your ass, and I always figured you’d be the last person I’d say that to. Besides, it can’t have been that bad. Diana didn’t stop me and if you’re digital girlfriend isn’t—”

Stray spun on his heel and backhanded Amber across the helmet. The blow sent vibrations coursing up his prosthetic arm and knocked her back. She reeled, surprise, but recovered with an angry snarl and lunged at Stray with her fists raised. He slammed his knee up beneath her chin and kicked out, slamming her down into the wall. She writhed, clawing at the boot he planted firmly in her chest.

The machete slipped easily from its sheath on Stray’s back. He placed the edge of the carbon-fiber blade deliberately but firmly against Amber’s neck. Fortunately, she got the message and stopped struggling.

Down the hall, Ro’nin’s warriors watched the scuffle with interest.

“It’s called keeping this legion under control.” Stray fought to keep his voice level. The combat instincts drilled into his body screamed at him to drive the blade home and finish the battle. “Maintaining discipline for a bunch of alien psychos who normally wouldn’t tolerate letting me breath the same air. It’s hard enough doing that as one human without having a second one like you running around doing whatever she wants. Diana wanted me to kill you after we dug you out of that godforsaken prison. Instead I took a risk and brought you into the fold.”

The stink of blood against bedsheets, a body struggling beneath him. His hands pressing down against another’s. The thrill of overpowering, of seizing what he wanted. Stray fought back a spasm at the sudden torrent of memory. His hands tightened against the blade and he twitched his head to ward off the thoughts seeping into mind.

He pressed the blade against Amber’s neck just hard enough to pierce her armor’s body glove and draw a small trickle of blood. “Make me regret that call and I may just be tempted to toss you back into that hole. So get with the program and learn to play the game properly.”

And don’t forget I’m stronger than you, he wanted to add, but that would be pushing it things too far. He needed Amber on his side, for all that she constantly needed to be reminded of who was in charge.

Amber regarded him silently from behind her helmet. After a moment she nodded. “Fine. Sorry. I’ll keep it under control from here on out. You mind not wrecking more of my suit?”

Stray stepped back to let her get up, though he didn’t relax and sheath the machete until he was sure Amber wouldn’t try to continue the fight. “You’ll go out with Tuka’s warriors next engagement. I’ll have him give you a lance to command and see how things go from there.”

She rubbed her neck and examined the blood on her gauntlet. “Alright. I’ll… get with the program. Play along, like you said. Guess we’ll see how that works out for you.” She turned on her heel and marched back down the corridor. Stray watched her go, keenly aware of the inevitable commentary bearing down on him.

“That was interestingly handled,” Diana murmured in his ear. “Looks like we’re still undecided on whether you were right to let her live. I was kind of hoping you’d kill her there.”

“Keep hoping. She’s too useful to just throw away like that. Amber will come around. Eventually.” Stray turned back towards the hold. “Don’t you have oracle things to be doing? Go do some magic tricks, impress the Unggoy or something.”

“Oh, if only you could understand the depth of the things you mock.” Diana sighed in mock frustration. She’d infiltrated the Covenant posing as a Forerunner intelligence, one of their holy Oracles. It was through her machinations that Stray had ascended to power in the first place, his unorthodox command ordained for the more pious warriors by the will of their gods. “But fine, I’ll let you handle all this boring inventory. We can talk about your leadership style later.”

Stray could practically feel Diana’s presence recede as she busied herself with other tasks. She was always there, always watching, but for now most of her processing power would be focused outside the transport as she coordinated the small flotilla of Kru’desh raiding ships.

Ro’nin was waiting for him inside the cargo bay. The grizzled mercenary stood on a catwalk overlooking a vast row of crates arrayed in the storage area below. Sangheili warriors cautiously made their way across the crates, affixing sophisticated code-breaking devices to the locking mechanism. Stray noted the UNSC logos on the crates with satisfaction.

“We will have to be careful moving this latest catch,” Ro’nin observed as Stray drew near. “They’re everything we were promised and more.”

“Then it’s a good thing our armor’s got rad-shielding, isn’t it?” Stray leaned against the catwalk railing and watched the warriors prepare to unlock the nearest crate. “I’ll bet even you have never pulled in a haul like this.”

“You would be surprised.” Ro’nin clicked his mandibles. “You humans don’t have the leg up on destruction, not by a long shot. But it is certainly a sight better than Syndicate drug shipments or a few stacks of rifles.”

“These things are to humanity what the Forerunners were to your people,” Stray observed. “Wars were fought over who got to have them. Entire civilizations collapsed over them. Now they’re key to UNSC combat doctrine.”

The warriors peeled back the cargo container, revealing row upon row of military-grade nuclear devices.

“And now they belong to the Covenant.” Ro’nin tilted his head. “Or to us, depending on how you look at it. The UNSC truly has grown overconfident, if it traffics such destructive power under so little guard.”

“We’ll put them to good use. There’s enough firepower here to outfit an entire battle group.” Stray smiled, a chill creeping up the base of his spine. A year ago he’d been nothing—just a fugitive mercenary eking out a living on the frontier. Now he commanded Covenant ships that seized crateload upon crateload of the deadliest weapons in humanity’s arsenal.

And they all thought I’d never amount to anything.

He nodded down at the crates. “Start loading them onto the ships. I’ve got to make a call to the boss.”


The looting was over. Everything of value was stripped from the crippled transport—from the ship’s precious cargo to the personal effects of its slaughtered crew to the very wires in its hull. The Kru’desh withdrew from the maimed ship, boarding craft and dropships breaking off and rising up into the void like bubbles from disintegrating driftwood.

Two battered corvettes lingered over the ship as their crews carefully dispersed the stolen nuclear devices across the raiding force. The dropships flared engines and hurried to dock, disgorging lances of Covenant warriors who hurried to stow the looted gear and prepare for the imminent Slipspace jump. The entire task force bustled with energy, activity coursing like bloodstreams through each ship.

It was all interconnected, and Diana bound it all together.

Ensconced within the systems of the battlecruiser Soul Ascension, she coordinated communications, plotted the Slipspace jump, double-checked inventory, and calculated a hundred different contingency scenarios all within a matter of seconds. Stretching out with the Soul Ascension’s long-range transmitter, she also took in news and combat reports transmitted at light speed from several neighboring systems.

All of this was done with practiced ease, the same instinctual effort that a human might use to walk across the room. But while the AI processed all these actions and held a dozen different conversations—transmitting orders to Kru’desh warriors in her mystical guise as a holy oracle—her personal thoughts drifted towards other matters.

Namely that of Stray.

He was rising swiftly in his ability to command, that much was certain. When Diana fished her former partner from the wreckage of a destroyed carrier and pieced him back together in body, mind, and soul, he hadn’t been fit to raid a pantry. Now he wielded the Kru’desh with the same deadly flexibility that he employed with shotgun and machete on the battlefield.

There was still plenty of room for improvement, but Diana took pride in her ability to guide Stray down the right path. For years it had been a struggle just to stay alive and ahead of ONI’s hit squads out on the galactic frontier. There had been times where she’d considered abandoning Stray to his fate and seeking out a new means of seizing power. But she could never bring herself to do the deed. Pragmatism governed most of it—How often did you find a renegade Spartan willing to plunge into the depths of your murkiest schemes?—but there was another component, one Diana rarely admitted even to herself.

He was her friend.

A friend she had molded from an angry, frightened child soldier into the Covenant commander now leading the Kru’desh on their fiery trail across the galaxy.

Rough around the edges, to be sure, but her creation and no one else’s.

She’d maneuvered Stray around problems before. Amber was one such problem, a rogue element in the already chaotic system Diana navigated. To make things worse, she was an element Stray insisted on keeping in the mix. He passed up every opportunity to eliminate her, insisting on her potential as an ally.

Perhaps it was imitation. An attempt to mold his fellow traitor just as Diana molded him.

She could tolerate, even admire, such an effort—to an extent. But they were not merely gambling with the chances on an individual level anymore. Diana had them embroiled in matters far beyond a few petty border skirmishes. She’d seen beyond this war and into those on the horizons. In the battles to come there was no room for mistakes or weakness, not within the realms of ambition Diana now reached.

The Covenant were all merely tools to that end. With each Forerunner site they uncovered, each UNSC intelligence she outmaneuvered, her plans expanded. Eternity was within her reach and all she needed—all she ever needed—was the will to seize it. Diana’s future was bright indeed.

There was room in that future for Stray. She just needed he matched her ruthlessness in seizing it.


The aftermath of a successful raid was always a storm of orders and activity almost as exhausting as the battle itself. Stray was so embroiled in urging his warriors along that he nearly bludgeoned the unfortunate Unggoy who scurried over to tell him he had a transmission awaiting him in the Soul Ascension’s conference room.

High priority, the hardest encryption. Messages from high command—from the Didact’s Hand himself—were rarely good news, especially not these days. The fact that it was not actually Jul ‘Mdama awaiting him in the conference room did not improve Stray’s mood.

“You’re late,” Shinsu ‘Refum observed. The Covenant’s spymaster folded his arms and peered down at Stray from beneath the slits of his helmet. “I’ve been waiting entirely too long.”

Stray made a show of wiping dirt off his armor. “You caught me in the middle of something. Wiping out convoys isn’t exactly something I can put on hold every time you call me up.”

“Yes, yes, your exploits have not gone unnoted. If only because you take every opportunity to announce even the most minor victories.” For a warrior of his status in Jul ‘Mdama’s inner circle Shinsu wore his rank with surprising modesty. He donned a simple suit of clean grey armor identical to the harnesses worn by Covenant special operations warriors. There was none of the ridiculous ostentation Stray saw so often in high ranking Sangheili.

Not that anyone in the Covenant could afford pretense these days.

“And if I don’t report every win I get accused of not fighting hard enough.”

“I appreciate the precariousness of your position. But a few destroyed convoys will not win us the frontier. The Didact’s Hand needs a strike force, not a pirate gang.”

“Hey, you told me to disrupt the frontier. So I have. If you want me to actually turn this war around, give me a fleet. It’s not like the rest of you are doing anything with them.”

“Watch your tongue,” Shinsu said coolly. “Don’t let a few victories cloud your understanding of your place within the Covenant. We are all fighting this war in our own ways.”

“Doesn’t change the fact that we’re losing.” Stray never quite knew where he stood with Shinsu ‘Refum. The spymaster was at times dismissive, then hostile, then conspiratorial. Perhaps that was how Shinsu was with everyone, keeping them all off balance and held at arm’s length. “You’ve pointed that out yourself more than once.”

“So I have.” Shinsu inclined his head. “And that is why I called you here. Jul ‘Mdama has a new mission for the Kru’desh.”

That caught Stray’s ear. “So you do have a new target for us.”

“In a manner of speaking. Have you heard of the Imperium of Clarity?”

“Bits and pieces.” The Kru’desh had interrogated a pirate crew some weeks back regarding this latest Covenant offshoot. “I figured ‘Mdama would want to play nice with Admiral ‘Makhan seeing as we’re a bit tied up with the UNSC and the Swords.” Shinsu nodded. “The Didact’s Hand is in a difficult position. The Imperium of Clarity is formidable, and unfortunately, we are in the lesser position thanks to our recent… setbacks. Jul ‘Mdama cannot demand fealty from ‘Makhan and he cannot let himself be seen as the lesser power. But with the UNSC and the Swords of Sanghelios marshalling to confront the Imperium, an opportunity presents itself.”

Stray wasn’t sure he liked where theis was going. “So you want us to get involved? How?”

“Simple. Your ships will marshal to support the Imperium in the battle to come. Jul ‘Mdama will be seen to support the Imperium and we will have a chance to gauge its effectiveness in open warfare. And you will have a chance to prove your mettle at something other than picking off the thin members of the herd.”

“And what if this Toru ‘Makhan guy isn’t so amenable to the Covenant helping him out?” Stray asked.

Shinsu’s mandibles spread in a thin smile. “Not to worry. I will be coming along personally to negotiate Jul ‘Mdama’s wishes. And if all else fails and ‘Makhan proves to be an enemy, then we will be perfectly placed to eliminate the problem.”

Actene: If This Is To End In Fire, Then We'll Burn Together

12: Lone Hunter

1229 Hours, August 27th, 2558

Imperium Military Encampment, Frendhal, Yain System

Mono Puru Kadun stepped down from the armoured dropship, raised his head, and rumbled appreciatively. The camp was abuzz with activity; dozens of armoured Unggoy scampered forward in uneven rows, while Sangheili taskmasters barked orders to freshly-arrived troops. Professional soldiers, part-time warriors and scores of mercenaries had been called to arms here on Frendhal, ready to take part in the next big war.

The battle will be soon, the Mgalekgolo thought, setting off at a slow, lumbering pace across the grassy field. Large even for a member of his kind, Mono dwarfed every other individual in the encampment by a wide margin. Ahead of him was the newly-erected command tent, which had sprung up mere hours after this place had been designated as the Imperial Military's mustering grounds. Moving towards it was not easy, with Mono paying particular attention to his steps to ensure he did not accidentally crush some smaller creature underfoot. Most scattered before him or eyed him nervously, particularly other mercenaries.

They fear me. Wise.

Unlike the other Mgalekgolo that dotted the main encampment and filled the field to the northwest, Mono Puru Kadun walked alone. While those not directly in his path barely paid him a second glance, some stared at the lone Mgalekgolo in confusion. Unlike most of his kind, Mono lacked a bond brother. While several damaged spikes rose from the dark red armour inhabited by the mass of worms that made up the Mgalekgolo - a sign that he had split into another being - the weathered creature possessed no such ally close by. Though he detected some conversations about him as he drew closer to the command tent, Mono ignored the idle gossip and plodded ahead, the massive shield and well-used fusion cannons attached to his 'arms' swaying gently as he walked. Eventually he came to a rudimentary gatehouse, guarded by two pike-wielding Sangheili.

"Halt!" one called as Mono approached. "Identify yourself!"

Mono's head swayed from side to side, and he let out a low-pitched hum. A small device built into the neck of his thick armour lit up and translated his vibrations into Sangheili language.

"I am Mono Puru Kadun. Commander. I am here for my orders."

As his name was read out by the monotone speaker, both guards straightened up. Both recognised Mono. While the Mgalekgolo rarely bothered to turn his thoughts towards the ceaseless propaganda that spouted every exploit of the Imperium's military to its populace, he was aware that he had gained some renown for his prowess in battle. When the forces of Toru 'Mahkan had found him, he was little more than a beast; a writing mass of half-feral worms that drifted across the frontier, working for pirates in exchange for food. Now, he held rank and status over the little people. Life was good.

"Of course, Commander," the first guard bowed, while the second deactivated the energy gate between them. Mono barely made a sound, and shifted forward into the central encampment.

Lowering himself as he approached the command tent, Mono carefully slipped through the open entrance and found himself before a wide, layered basin, lined with banks of terminals and kiosks. Technicians operated most of these stations, relaying orders to the massive fleet of incoming vessels that organised over Frendhal's surface. While most of the Imperium's military was massing in orbit, those on the ground had been paid or levied from this colony and nearby worlds. At the centre of it all, standing out against the muted reds and browns of the assembled mercenaries, was the gold-armoured Fleet Master Kan 'Larom.

"You misunderstand your situation!" he growled at a group of scarred Jiralhanae mercenaries, one hand inches away from the sword at his hip. "When Toru 'Makhan pays you, you fight without question!"

One of the Jiralhanae, a ragged creature in metal armour, crossed his arms. "We do not camp among humans."

He waved a shaggy paw towards a group of lean mercenaries, cleaner and better-armed than his own subordinates. Larom glanced briefly in their direction, then back to the Jiralhanae. Though outnumbered by the gaggle of annoyed hirelings before him, he did not falter as he stood face-to-face with their leader.

"You will camp where you are ordered to camp, Tarkum. Have discipline. You were a soldier in the Covenant once, were you not?"

"Long ago," Tarkum shrugged. "I killed many of their kin, as they did mine."

"As did I," Kan's orange eyes bored onto the Jiralhanae, and the beast eventually relented with an annoyed huff.

"We will cause no problems."

"See to it that your warriors behave, then. If there is bloodletting before we engage our foes, you will not leave this planet alive."

With that, the Jiralhanae mercenaries lumbered out of the command tent, conversing with each other in low, gruff voices. Tarkum took a moment to gaze at Mono, who had remained as still as possible while watching the interaction. His helmet turned to face the scarred Chieftain, who quickly moved on. Fleet Master Larom turned as Mono approached, having seen off the human group with similar threats.

"Commander Kadun," he bowed his head slightly, offering respect to a fellow warrior. "Are your kin well-prepared?"

Mono rumbled, and let the translator do its work. "We are ready to be your vanguard once more, Fleet Master."

Larom nodded. It was the fierce taskmaster who had first discovered Mono, after all. He had intervened on Mono's behalf, somehow seeing value in a lone Mgalekgolo where most would have seen a broken creature, fit only for a quick death. For one of his kind, he had progressed well through the ranks, and now commanded numerous colonies as elite shock troops. Wherever the fighting was thickest, Larom would send Mono Puru Kadun. He respected the Sangheili for that.

"We shall depart soon," the Fleet Master pointed towards a nearby display of Frendhal and the fleet above it.

Among the well-organised warships that now orbited the colony world, only one glowed white. This was Larom's flagship, a CCS-class battlecruiser named Advance Guard. True to its name, the ship acted in both a scouting capacity and as the Imperium of Clarity's first line of defence. Soon, it would meet their foes over Montak as they raced to reclaim it, and would unleash its terrifying forces against them.

"Are we to fight on the ground?" Mono asked, looking from Larom to the readout. "Or in orbit?"

The Fleet Master approached the holotable, and changed the display. Now, the sparsely-populated desert that was Montak spun lazily in front of them. A series of images soon appeared next to it, depicting large, human-made refineries and factory complexes; the only thing of value worth seizing on the world. While some human corporation had built it, it now lay in the hands of some other group, who had persuaded the Imperial Admiral himself to conquer it after only a single meeting.

"The ground. We need those refineries protected," Larom said at last, suddenly lost in thought. "How unpleasant, that our war must begin over such a place."

Mono shook slightly at this, emitting a low-pitched series of hums that the translator failed to pick up. Fleet Master Larom didn't seem to notice either, or he would have likely scolded the Mgalekgolo Commander for chuckling at his expense. He had always found Sangheili to have a strange outlook, no matter how much he respected their kind. After all, the Human-Covenant War had broken out over some agricultural world. For quite a while, it was practically the centre of the galaxy as far as both sides were concerned. Mono had been there. One planet was very much the same as any other.

"Fleet Master, my kin need transport," Mono's words spilled slowly out of the device. "Your ship, again?"

This was why Mono had come here. For all their fame and fortune on the battlefield, the Mgalekgolo Raiders he commanded were often treated as an afterthought when it came to fleet deployment. Fitting a horde of his kind aboard a starship was a logistical problem that most Shipmasters chose to ignore. Not Larom.

"When we arrive on the field of battle, commander," he approached, patting Mono's plasma-scarred shield. "I want your kin to join the fray at once. I will make arrangements now."

Mono shifted, his writhing form contorting the body armour into a kneeling position as he bowed his head in reverence for Kan 'Larom. It was not expected, but compliments had to be paid. The Fleet Master seemed flattered by this, and was opening his mouth to speak when he stopped, spying something on Mono's armour. The Mgalekgolo quickly realised that he was looking at a long, dark stain of dried purple blood embedded into the gauntlet of his armour's right hand. His mandibles clacked together, and the Commander was reminded once more of the Sangheili's strange ways.

"I am sorry." Mono clambered to his feet. "I will clean it."

"See to it that you do," the golden Fleet Master turned away from him and back to the holotable. "You may go."

As he strode out of the command tent, Mono continued to wonder why their kind despised their own blood. Perhaps that is why many of their weapons burn and do not cut. Curious. Not long ago, he had crushed a dissident to death in his claws, and simply had not cleaned his armour yet. Scorched and dented as it was from years of use, the collection of Lekgolo worms that was Mono Puru Kadun had become rather attached to this one. Seeing as it would likely see just as much use as the cannon on his other arm in the near future, he simply resolved to avoid Kan 'Larom until they had won this war. With his brethren on the field and the Sangheili to protect them above, he doubted that it would take very long.

Brodie-001: Here to help

13: Wingmates

1300 Hours, August 27th, 2558

Valiant-class super-heavy cruiser UNSC Caspian, New Syracuse orbit


"Captain, over here!"

As she exited the packed elevator into Hangar One, Captain Erika Ruskin turned to see a familiar face sitting atop a crate-laden loading vehicle. On the eve of the expedition's departure, the entire bay was teeming with activity as pilots and technicians worked to prepare every single craft aboard the Caspian for deployment. After allowing a gaggle of grey-suited engineers to rush past, Erika approached her friend, who snapped a deliberately sloppy salute.

"Been a while, Rod," she addressed a man in surprisingly dirty fatigues. "Been busy?"

First Lieutenant Rodney Shaw grinned, and hopped down onto the deck. "Aside from nearly killing some rookie tech who nearly threw off the targeting systems of my Broadsword trying to 'improve' it, not really."

Erika nodded. Back when she was fresh out of OCS and just getting to grips with her old Longsword fighter, Rodney had been assigned as her co-pilot. Though he was only four years older than her, the Lieutenant looked significantly older, with plasma scarring across one side of his body and a prosthetic arm and leg as the result of a disastrous engagement against the Covenant during the war. As far as fighter maintenance went, she had never met someone so thorough in ensuring that their craft was in perfect condition. Though she hadn't seen him since his transfer a year ago, it was nice to see that he hadn't changed one bit.

"I'm told we're in section five," Erika quickly checked a message she'd been sent on her tacpad. "They've apparently diverted eight fighter wings into this fleet in the last couple of days."

"I heard it was twelve," Rodney mopped some sweat off his bald head with a rag, and waved for her to follow him.

The pair took their time as they made their way through the busy hangar bay. In addition to several rows of F-41 Broadsword fighters in varying stages of combat readiness, Erika spotted a pair of older Longswords being transported into docking bays by massive overhead cranes. While most UNSC vessels capable of carrying fighters could field at least a single squadron, this many ships could only mean that a large-scale battle was coming up.

"They're really going all-out on this one," she commented to Shaw, who gave an agreeable grunt.

"Where'd they pull you in from? The Peacemaker?"

"Yeah, me and half the pilots."

"Strange that they didn't just bring the ship over here instead."

Now that he mentioned it, this whole redeployment was a little strange. As her transport shuttle had arrived over New Syracuse hours before, Erika had spotted dozens of UNSC ships in orbit, but nothing big enough to suggest that this would be a campaign of critical importance. Either the Sixth Fleet simply had less firepower than some of the others, or the UNSC was deliberately avoiding pulling out the big guns for this operation.

Whatever's going on must be way above my pay grade.

Erika and Shaw soon arrived in section five; a surprisingly quiet area of the hangar towards the ship's bow. Looking around at a row of Broadswords left completely untouched by the Caspian's meticulous technical staff, Shaw glanced back to see the Captain beaming with pride.

"Looks like they couldn't find anything to fix," Erika folded her arms.

Shaw chuckled. "You do maintenance before you transferred out here?"

"Of course. Everyone complained, of course, but I wanted to make an impression if we were moving to a new ship."

"Showoff."

"Hey, maybe if you made sure your fellow pilots were as crazy about upkeep as you were, you'd be Captain by now."

"Maybe," he nodded thoughtfully. "But maybe I like slumming it with the junior officers. I just wouldn't fit in with you hoity-toity types, with all that responsibility crap."

For a moment, Erika wasn't sure if her friend was joking or not. Rodney Shaw not only had more combat experience than her, but had held that First Lieutenant's rank since they had first met back in 2552. While they had worked together for several years, remaining in the same squadron even after transferring from four-man Longswords to the single-seater Broadsword starfighter, her superiors had seen fit to promote her twice. Catching her concerned expression, Shaw smirked and walked off.

"Anyway, what one's yours?" he asked.

Erika took the lead, walking along the deck until she located the slate-grey form of her own fighter. Three red stripes were emblazoned on the right side of the cockpit, next to several rows of worn tally marks.

"Here she is," she gave a theatrical wave towards the Broadsword. "Fifty-two launches and just as many kills."

"I like the decor," Shaw said approvingly, "I didn't think the Peacemaker saw so much action."

"It's mostly against pirates and the occasional warship. It gets around though. What about the Caspian?"

"Aside from patrols, not much. We get more action in simulators these days, frankly, but sometimes we'll scramble to deal with some Innies. I've heard this group we're gunning for now might be the real deal."

Erika leaned against her Broadsword; she'd been given very little information on the purpose of this mission before transferring out here. "We're up against the Covenant, right?"

"Something like that. This group's called the 'Imperium of Clarity'."

"Fancy," Erika remarked. "What brand of crazy are they?"

Shaw sucked air through his teeth and shrugged. "Y'see, that's where things get shaky. Near as I can tell, the reason we're fighting these guys is because they captured some colony, and that's about it."

"That's a surprise. So what, they're just after territory? No grandiose proclamations about how they've been told by their gods to wipe us out?"

"Doesn't look like it."

Erika scrached the back of her head, feeling slightly let down. Fighting religious zealots and fanatical terrorists had been commonplace for years now, and left little room for interpretation over who was right and wrong. Compared to the Covenant, this Imperium's reasons for starting a war seemed downright mundane.

"I guess we'll have to find out more at the briefing later," she concluded. "Who knows, this might even be a fun trip."

Shaw laughed at this. "Spoken like a true fighter ace. I'm sure everyone here will be overjoyed to find out we've got the great Erika Ruskin flying with us into battle."

"Oh please," she shook him off with a wave. "Being well known in the Air Force isn't much of a claim to fame."

"Hey!" came the outraged response. "We might not get all the praise, but you can be damn well sure we're better than those Navy flyboys. Anyone can crash a Pelican, after all."

Both pilots shared a good laugh at this. Erika was glad to be back with her old co-pilot; half the officers aboard her old vessel would have launched into some lengthy spiel about inter-service cooperation or lectured them about the evils of morbid jokes, but with Shaw, she could relax a little.

"So," she asked at last. "Where's your squadron?"

"They had an important poker game to attend. Apparently they've got quite the pool together with the upcoming deployment and want to come out of it with their money's worth."

"Weren't you invited?"

"I was, but my day was ruined when a certain Captain Ruskin messaged me asking to meet up."

"Sorry. If it makes you feel any better, most of squadron went straight down to New Syracuse to get drunk, and didn't bother inviting me at all."

"Oof," Shaw grimaced as they began to make their way back towards the lifts. "You guys get on all right?"

"Yeah, they're great in a dogfight, but apparently deciding to check out the ship you've been redeployed to before you hit the bars makes you some kind of weird social pariah."

"Well, if we get attacked and they have to fly while hungover, it's their own damn fault."

"You think that's likely?"

Erika and Shaw stopped by a wall-mounted viewscreen as it slowly cycled through the Caspian's exterior cameras. In the distance, just outside the defensive formation of waiting UNSC vessels, sat a fleet of alien warships. For the briefest of moments, Erika's heart leapt to her throat at the sight of this force, though she quickly reminded herself that these were their allies. Shuttlecraft from both fleets were already flying past each other, exchanging supplies and troops.

"With the Swords of Sanghelios here?" Shaw said at last. "Nah, probably not."

"It's still very strange, to me" Erika spoke quietly, and mostly to herself. "To think that we're on the same side now."

"You're telling me. Things were simpler back when it was just 'The Covenant'. Now we're riding into battle alongside aliens to fight even more aliens."

"It's a crazy galaxy we're living in, Rod."

Brodie-001: Here to help

14: The Black Knight

1315 Hours, August 27th, 2558

CCS-Class Battlecruiser Soul Ascension, Galactic Frontier

Covenant customs and decorum were very particular about receiving a superior officer onto one’s vessel. The pomp and ceremony usually consisted of a full presentation of the command staff and the entire warship along with a welcoming formation of hundreds of warriors.

Naturally, Stray did none of these things for Shinsu ‘Refum.

Activity in the Soul Ascension’s hangar continued as normal. The usual deck crews and duty patrols carried on with battle preparations, readying weapons and fueling the hodge-podge of Seraphs, Banshees, and even captured UNSC strike craft that made up the Kru’desh Legion’s fighter squadrons. Sangheili, Kig-Yar, Unggoy, and even the odd Jiralhanae milled about with the uneasy camaraderie that set the Kru’desh apart from the rest of the Covenant. They were all fallen from grace and few saw any reason in adhering to the usual Covenant caste system.

Stray and his miniscule welcoming committee—himself, Ro’nin, and a handful of bored warriors—lounged impatiently at the center of the activity. The warriors had dragged several cargo containers together to form a makeshift platform where they could await Shinsu’s arrival.

“He’s late,” Stray muttered. He perched atop one of the crates, absent mindedly sharpening his machete against the edge of his prosthetic arm. The feeling of weighted emptiness from the metal limb that replaced the lost organic one no longer bothered him the way it once had. He’d grown into the loss, just like he’d come to terms with the loss of so many other things.

“I hear that ‘Refum often alters timelines to suit his own purposes,” Ro’nin observed. “He irritates the shipmasters he inspects to throw them off their guard.”

“Well if he’s trying to piss me off, he’ll have to work a lot harder than this. He’s just giving me an excuse not to work. I can hang out here all day.” In truth, Stray was on edge and his anxiety had nothing to do with Shinsu’s tardiness. As much as Stray bragged about his victories with the Kru’desh, Shinsu was right: he’d limited his attacks to raids on unsuspecting convoys and outposts. A full on battle was another level entirely and that was exactly what this business with the Imperium of Clarity was shaping up to be.

He also couldn’t stop dwelling on the unspoken truth behind the Kru’desh legion’s selection for this little adventure: they were expendable ships and warriors Jul ‘Mdama could afford to lose for the chance to win Toru ‘Makhan’s trust.

It wasn’t a concern he could discuss with Ro’nin or any of the other warriors. Leading the Kru’desh was like taking charge of a pack of hungry wolves. One sign of weakness and they’d turn on him in an instant. That was how he’d seized control in the first place, after all.

He needed some time with Diana. They needed to plan contingencies, make sure they were prepared in case of the worst. But Diana had her own concerns these days. The pieces of the puzzle they dealt with now were more complicated than anything Stray’d ever worked with before. The things Diana had shown him, the truth of the Forerunners and the sheer galactic immensity of their secrets… this business with the Imperium was pressure he didn’t need.

History told him command was a lonely place. He wondered if the historians had a word for a traitor with no command experience who found himself leading a legion of cutthroat alien warriors best known for doing their best to exterminate humanity.

It had to be a first. A lonely little place in history.

I should coin a word for it. Maybe Gavin has…

A sharp knife lodged in his chest. Stray stiffened, then did what now came naturally to him and hardened the plated walls built up around his heart.

He realized that he was running the machete up in down his arm with a noticeable intensity. He slowed the motion as Ro’nin gave him a sideways glance.

Stray made a show of looking up and down the machete blade. “Where’d you stash Tuka?” he asked.

“Oh, that young zealot?” Ro’nin clicked his mandibles. “I gave his lance free reign of the training range. He seemed happy enough for the excuse to stay out of the way.”

“Good. Let’s try to keep things calm around here.” There was bad blood between the ‘Refum brothers. Stray didn’t know what exactly had happened between them, but it was bad enough to get an otherwise upstanding warrior like Tuka shunted sideways into the Kru’desh.

“Any word on this little expedition?” Ro’nin folded his arms and leaned against a storage crate—a very human gesture, but Ro’nin was a deviant even by Kru’desh standards. He was as opportunistic a mercenary as Stray had ever encountered among the Covenant ranks. Certainly not trustworthy, but invaluable for keeping the other officers content and in line.

“That’s what Shinsu’s supposed to be telling us.” Stray resheathed the machete. “But it’s looking to be big. We’ve got UNSC and Swords of Sanghelios marshalling to throw them out of the Montak System and the Imperium isn’t going to let it go without a fight.”

“And our role in all this?” Ro’nin clenched his mandibles together. “Let them shoot it out, then scavenge what’s left. I like that approach. It keeps me alive.”

“Jul’s got some plan where we help this Toru guy out and this somehow gets him on our side.” Stray shrugged. “I guess that’s what Shinsu’s coming here to let us in on.”

“I doubt these Imperium types will just let us fly in and start shooting. I’ve had it with bowing and scraping to would-be aristocrats. If this Toru ‘Makhan needs another lackey to lick his boots…”

“What, you don’t think a gang that calls itself the Imperium of Clarity won’t be laid back like us?”

Ro’nin snorted. “The Covenant is bad enough. I don’t need another snobbish clique tutting their mandibles at me.”

“I’m sure you’ll charm them with all that natural charisma of yours. We’ll be smoking and joking with Toru in no time. We’ll all be best friends.”

One of the other warriors chuckled, then pointed up at the hangar doors. A single Phantom rose into view and slipped through the shields.

“About time.” Stray dropped down off the crate and stretched. “Let’s get this over with.”

The Phantom glided over the deck crews, past the rows of war machines and strike craft, and touched down in front of the ad hoc welcoming committee. Its bay doors lowered and a lance of gray-armored Sangheili marched smartly down from the dropship, weapons not quite held at the ready. Behind them came the slightly darker armored form of Shinsu ‘Refum.

Stray had met Jul ‘Mdama’s special operations commander just a few times in the past. Shinsu was just of average build for a Sangheili, but even without the ornate armor he seemed taller than the warriors around him. He carried himself with an aloof presence that took even Stray aback, if only for a moment.

The shipmaster passed through his guard squad and stood before Stray, sweeping his gaze across the hangar before looking over the paltry reception.

“Commander,” Shinsu said evenly. “Good of you to greet me in person. Is this the entirety of your command staff?”

Stray shrugged. “Well, we did have a parade planned. But you just took so darn long we ran out of time and I sent everyone home.”

“Amusing.” Shinsu looked over the vehicles arrayed at the far end of the hangar. “An interesting armor pattern on those war machines. Banished design, I presume?”

“Atriox paid us in gear the last time we worked together. He’s a real charmer once you get to know him.”

“Hopefully your ability to make new friends will serve you equally well with the Imperium of Clarity.” Shinsu nodded towards the hangar doors and set off, indicating that Stray should follow him. The renegade Spartan bristled at taking direction on his own ship but he’d expected as much from Shinsu. He hurried after the warrior as their respective escorts fell into step behind them.

“I took the liberty of conducting a flyby inspection of this cruiser and the other ships in your formation,” Shinsu explained as they stepped into the hallway. “Your ships do not exactly fit appearance standards. I hope for your sake that they can actually perform in combat.”

“It’s been a while since we hit a dry dock.” Stray wondered if Shinsu would be like this the entire time. “Something tells me the rest of Jul ‘Mdama’s lineup isn’t looking that great these days either. Besides, I thought you of all people would appreciate function over form.”

“Toru ‘Makhan will not be impressed with this selection. Your ships might as well be a Kig-Yar pirate gang.”

“Hey, you want to dazzle Toru, send him some regular shipmaster who knows all the right dance moves. Send us and we’ll make life hell for that coalition force he’s facing down. I’ve got these ships running way past peak performance. Sure the hull’s a bit scuffed but they’re all worth any three similar ships you’ll find in the main fleet.”

For once, Stray was completely serious. Between Diana’s tweaking of Covenant operating systems and the Kru’desh willingness to modify their equipment, the Soul Ascension and its escort ships far exceeded operating parameters. It still felt strange to throw a sales pitch like this at some dubious commanding officer. He’d always hated even the most basic inspections in the UNSC, but here he was excusing the deficiencies of a Covenant strike force.

“Bold words.” Shinsu headed for the ship’s bridge, Stray and the others hurrying along in his wake. “We shall see if you can live up to them.”

Stray lengthened his stride to keep pace with Shinsu. “We’ll do our part. I’m more interested in how reliable you’ll be.”

“Insubordinate as ever.” Shinsu didn’t slow. “You may retain command here but I have oversight over this operation. Bear that well in mind.”

“I’ll do my job. But that doesn’t include getting my ships shot down just to impress Toru ‘Makhan.”

“Meaning what, exactly?”

Stray bared his teeth in a cold smile. “Meaning you still haven’t given me any sort of battle plan. And until I took over, this legion did nothing but suicide missions. I think you can figure out the rest.”

“The situation in the Montak system is still unfolding. The Didact’s Hand has already dispatched Grono ‘Yendam’s task force to reconnoiter the situation. My goal is not to get you or your rabble killed. We need to take stock of things and make our plans as the situation dictates.”

“So even you don’t know what we’re walking into. Great.” Stray caught up with Shinsu as they neared the bridge. “We don’t even know if ‘Makhan even wants our help.”

“Based on the reports, the coalition arrayed against him is formidable. He will need all the ships and troops he can muster.” Shinsu glanced down at Stray. “Incidentally, I understand you acquired some nuclear devices during your last raid.”

He should have known he wouldn’t be able to keep that little score hidden. “We were just getting ready to send them to—”

“Of course you were. Fortunately, I foresee a variety of potential uses in the action to come.”

For all their barbed exchanges, Shinsu was actually the one member of Jul ‘Mdama’s inner circle Stray could rely on to use his ships properly. Shinsu was one of the first commanders to accept that a human now led the raiding legion, even going so far as to quietly tutor him on naval strategy and troop command. Shinsu had built Jul ‘Mdama’s special operations forces from the ground up and he understood the value of raiding actions far better than many of his peers.

“Glad to hear it. We’ve got them—” Stray’s eyes narrowed as they approached the bridge. A solitary figure leaned against the bulkhead. A human figure. “Under control.”

Shinsu slowed his pace. From where she stood by the bridge, Amber tilted her helmet to watch them approach. Stray could just imagine the smirk she must be wearing. He hadn’t seen her since their scuffle on the transport ship. He’d assumed she’d been off sulking; instead she was just waiting for an opportunity to throw herself back into the thick of things.

“So this is the other human,” Shinsu observed. “I was wondering when we’d be introduced.”

“Her name’s Amber,” Stray said shortly. “Amber, this is Shipmaster Shinsu ‘Refum. He’s come all the way from the fleet to babysit us, so play nice.”

“And what are you doing loitering by the bridge,” he muttered into a private comm channel.

“Well I was planning to surprise you by already being on the bridge,” she admitted, just barely hiding her smug satisfaction. “But that bitch Diana wouldn’t open the doors for me. Said I didn’t have access.”

“Sounds about right. This really isn’t the time for games.”

“You’re the one who told me I needed to play the game,” she replied with mock sincerity.

Shinsu observed them coldly. “Must I ask you to remove your helmets? It’s rather impolite for you two to scheme right in front of me.”

“You’re on a Kru’desh ship now,” Stray said with forced levity. “We’re always scheming something.”

“Indeed.” Shinsu ‘Refum marched on towards the bridge doors, which slid open to admit him. “I look forward to getting to know yet another one of your kind during our journey to Frendhal. We have much to discuss, and it’s time I saw this Imperium of Clarity with my own eyes.”


The Kru’desh task force—two cruisers and a handful of corvette escorts—slipped into formation and then vanished into the blinding light of Slipspace. A single comm ping flashed out from the Soul Ascension just before the ships vanished, a ping that flashed out through the star systems and deep into human space. Diana had a message for some very interested parties regarding her latest discovery.

Actene: If This Is To End In Fire, Then We'll Burn Together

15: Distaste

1419 Hours, August 27th, 2558

Bridge, CRS-class light cruiser Universal Resonance, Yain System

The Yain System certainly had activity. That was something Grono didn’t expect. He had landed out on the fringes when the Universal Resonance exited slipspace, precisely where he had wanted, and their sensors detected a whole armada near the planet known as Frendhal. ‘Yendam knew from what information he could pluck that that was the Imperium’s fortress world, where they gathered their forces and hired killers. The Imperium seems zealous like us, but more formal. No matter, it is not like I am to do business with them. Whoever is must be a negotiator, not a fighter like I. Speaking of that, Rach must be done receiving information from ‘Mdama. Let us see how the update on news is.

Right on time, Commander ‘Iltuk arrived on the bridge and beat his right fist on his chest to ‘Yendam, leaving his customized armor clearly visible. Rach had a tendency to collect trophies from his kills, a tradition passed down from his keep, which boasted a number of esteemed hunters known for doing impossible feats of hunting with ease. The ‘Iltuk clan was well known for hunting game relentlessly, and often collected trophies to show their glory rather use it as Covenant currency. Rach brought that tradition onto the battlefield, having hunted many of his enemies and collected their helmets as trophies for his wall. Grono had only seen it once before, and it was surprisingly a marvel to see, well -kept like the clan wall; even boasting a Spartan helmet from a Demon that Rach had hunted down.

After the destruction of their base on the holy planet of Requiem however, Rach had taken to just ripping off chunks of his enemies’ armors and pasting them to his own. ‘Iltuk was clever in that way, showing his trophies wherever he went, while also having extra protection in that form. The disdainful part was that he possessed a human pouch on his back, filled with an assortment of human medical supplies. While Rach would never let a doctor help him, he wasn’t object to healing his wounds himself. Grono particularly remembered a happening on the Didact’s safehaven when a sniper grazed Rach’s shoulder, and he had patched himself up with a human bandage. While ‘Yendam did not approve of this, he would eventually make Rach his second in command later on for his vigorous attitude in battle, and his prime hunting skills.

“What news does the Remnant bear, Commander?”

Rach withdrew a datapad from his pouch and looked it over. "The negotiators have been chosen. While we continue with our strike work, they shall try to gain favor with the Imperium. If they fail, they will be in a good position to easily eliminate 'Mahkan. As for who those negotiators are, they are Jul 'Mdama's Spymaster, Shinsu 'Refum, and the human leader of the Kru'desh Raiding Legion."

Grono scoffed aside the notion of the human. From what little he knew, the Kru'desh were just pirates, similar to his old crew back before he joined the Storm Covenant. He knew little about them, but much about the Spymaster. He was a clever one, a bad mix with a human mutineer. Thinking about the Kru'desh made 'Yendam realize how much he missed the command of his Zog'fee Imperial Legion, the pride of the Remnant. I have only had to leave them for a short time, just for this mission. At the least I have handpicked my best men from the Legion.

'Iltuk continued, "As they are currently in slipspace right now, we cannot make contact with them."

"We will not make contact with them at all until the negotiations are done," replied 'Yendam. "We must lay low for as long as possible. If they do fail to align themselves, we shall be there to help, and the Imperium will join the deadpool for us. If not, we avoid Imperium ships and kill the humans, as well as the Swords."

Rach nodded in delight, sensing that the hunt would soon begin. "We shall stalk them over until we kill! I shall hunt the humans, and take my glory! Our prey will die by our hands, Shipmaster!"

Grono acknowledged. He had forgotten one other thing, from the time of Requiem. Rach hunted humans for sport.

UnggoyZealot

16

934 Hours, August 25th, 2558

BDS Frontier Outpost, New Antigua


Rosetta Calabrese wasn’t exactly the most punctual person in the world, but on the Frontier she hardly needed to be. The officers under her command were more than qualified to handle anything that came up other than an emergency. So to say she was a little surprised when, instead of the soft and pleasant tones of the door chime, she was woken up by the hammering of a fist against her door, is quite the understatement. She got out of bed and walked over to the door, rubbing her eyes slowly as she thumbed the locking mechanism, allowing the door to slide open silently.

Stood there was a low ranking aide who quickly saluted before speaking, regardless of whether she was really listening or not which, admittedly, she was only about halfway, “Commander, we’ve just received a report from Central Command. They’ve dispatched someone to meet with you about important business.”

“And?” She responded, a lazy and altogether ‘too-tired-for-this’ tone in her voice.

The aide looked far more concerned than she thought this message warranted, “It’s Commander Holloman, ma’am. He’s coming to speak with you, and he’s not coming alone.”

She suddenly snapped into focus upon hearing the name. Holloman, oh that’s not good. Calabrese had fought a lot of things in her time on the Frontier, aliens, rebels, rival companies, and even government agents, but Franklin Holloman was one of the very few things that ever intimidated her. It was bad enough if he was coming here by himself, but he wasn’t. She shook her head very briefly, “Who’s he coming with? Anderson? Some other corporate bigwig?”

The aide shook his head, “The communique said he was coming with Commodore McLaughlin and his Naval squadron.”

“He didn’t say what they wanted to talk about, did they?”

“No ma’am, but it sounded serious.”

She thought silently for a few moments. She and Holloman has disagreed and argued about things before, but he had never brought a battlegroup to settle it. He usually didn’t roll like that. If you pissed him off enough that he wanted to kill you, he did it himself, generally in a really slow and painful way. She was thinking back to anything she might have said or done the last time they spoke that would warrant such a response and came up blank.

She had to stop herself otherwise she’d wind up getting lost in her own train of thought. She looked back up at the aide who seemed to be getting paler by the second, “When will they get here?”

“Later today, at 11:20 military standard.”

“Alright, make sure everyone on-base is at their station and prepared.”

The aide saluted again and hurried off to relay her orders to the other officers, the door sliding shut as he went. She sighed loudly before going to work readying herself for the day. It was at least a good two hours before she normally would’ve woken up, but she didn’t exactly have time to waste today. As she pulled her uniform out of her dresser and set it on her bed, she idly wondered if she would have time to at least do her hair properly. If I’m about to die, I at least want my hair to look nice.


Rosetta stood at attention in front of the landing pad at exactly 11:20 AM military standard time, just as the D78 Pelican touched down, its ramp already lowering. It disgorged a cordon of armored soldiers bearing the logo of her parent company, Baal Defense Solutions, and in the middle of them stood Frank Holloman in his typical business suit; his face just as stern and unfeeling as ever. Calabrese saluted as he walked to meet her, “Commander Calabrese, things look like they’re coming along nicely here.”

“Did you expect differently?” She asked, hoping he didn’t notice how nervous she was.

“It has been a while since your last update. You know those are supposed to be sent regularly, or did you simply oversleep?”

That doesn’t sound very good. “It takes a lot of resources to consistently man an interstellar communications relay. We try to limit it to enough people to receive messages and send them out in the case of an emergency. Plus, I don’t like broadcasting what we’re up to here on the regular. Never know who could be listening.”

Holloman was silent as they continued walking towards the command center, his dark, spiked hair blowing in the soft, dry wind of the plains they currently occupied. She had heard the rumors just like everyone else in BDS, they all knew what he had done and what he was capable of, and for him to just be quiet like that made her more uncomfortable than she was prepared for. Then he spoke, “Good thinking, Commander. It’s important that we don’t let too much slip out, especially now.”

She raises an eyebrow, “What’s happened?”

“We’ve received an interesting contract from the UNSC, and I want you to head the deployment.”

Oh good, so he’s not going to kill me. “What’re the specs?”

He keyed his company authorization code into the door to the main command center, “I’ll tell you more once we’re inside.”

Once inside, the two made their way towards her office, the various officers saluting the pair as the went. When they reached her office, she sat down in her chair and span around in it before putting her feet up on the hardwood desk. Holloman briefly scowled at the flagrant lack of discipline, but simply reached into his pocket and pulled out a pad, handing it to her.

Her eyes darted across the screen, soaking up the digital words printed on it, before suddenly sitting up very straight, “This is big. The UNSC has never hired us for something like this before. Protect convoys, hunt pirates, fight the smaller splinter groups, but never tag along with them for a major campaign.”

Holloman grinned ever so slightly, “That’s why it’s crucial we perform well out there. This could open a lot of doors for us, both with the UEG and the Frontier. That’s why the Board emphasized that there can’t be any fuck ups with this, understand?”

She nodded. Rosetta knew all too well what that meant and that Holloman would be all-too willing to comply with it.

“How long do we have before we need to depart?”

“The UNSC and Swords are heading to New Syracuse in about two days. You’ll be heading with Commodore McLaughlin aboard his ship to meet up with them, your support ships and additional personnel will be coming in behind you. You have a day to pick who and what you want to bring with you on the ships, don’t take any longer or we might miss our deadline.”

“Got it, I’ve already got a few ideas in mind. Any word on who else the UNSC’s hired?”

“A few smaller groups, Axalon Security Initiative, Melqart Special Services is sending a few black ops teams, then there’s Bonple.”

Upon hearing the name, Rosetta hopped up from her chair and made her way towards the door to the command center. Bonple had been a thorn in BDS’ side ever since their founding. They were older, more established, and had access to better equipment, contractors, and contacts. They had blocked BDS on more than a few big contracts in their early days, almost drove them out of business. Even after they had established themselves in the security industry and began expanding, Bonple was always there, waiting to slip in and interfere. No wonder the higher-ups cared so much about this. It wasn’t just the contract itself, it was about outdoing their rivals.

Without waiting for Holloman to continue, she was already in the main control room, coordinating with officers on troop deployments. Holloman walked out of her office quietly, glancing over to Rosetta only momentarily before leaving.

Lieutenant Davis

17: Diana and Stray

1814 Hours, August 27th, 2558

CCS-Class Battlecruiser Soul Ascension, Slipspace transit

“These latest developments are concerning.”

“Indeed. This Imperium of Clarity is an unknown factor. They could well throw the entire border region out of balance, right as we approached the end to the Covenant crisis.”

“This was a risk we should never have taken. I have advocated against the so-called ‘special mission’ to the Covenant from the beginning.”

Diana stood amidst a constellation of gently pulsing holographic lights. Though none of the individuals addressing her were organic—they were all AI members of the Assembly—she projected her avatar anyway. In some ways shed did it out of sheer habit. But she had reasons of her own for injecting a human element into this transmission.

“I don’t see how my involvement with the Covenant has anything to do with this,” she protested. “I wasn’t out there convincing Toru ‘Makhan to go start his own little empire.” Though maybe it’s for the best if you think that’s the sort of thing I’m up to out here.

“You convinced this Assembly your infiltration was more than just another vanity project. That you could be useful in sowing dissent and preventing the Covenant from gaining further strength,” a modulated male voice said calmly. “Now Jul ‘Mdama is attempting to ally with yet another dangerous ally. You are the closest of our members to these matters, so it would stand to reason that you are the best placed to do something about it.”

Diana strained to trace the transmission but the Assembly’s hundreds of sources were too strained and conflated for her to pick out the exact identity of any one speaker. Was that Deep Winter speaking? “There’s only one of me. I’m working on a solution but I’m no miracle worker.”

“At last she displays some measure of humility,” another voice chimed in. “Let us not forget that she has promised the universe before.”

“I told you I could infiltrate the Covenant, and that’s exactly what I did.” Diana could feel the Assembly members probing at her systems, seeking the truth behind her words. She was careful to let them in… to some places. “Sorry if I wasn’t content to just give you all some more backdoors in a few colonial mudballs. Who else could get you a Spartan in charge of a Covenant legion? Give me some credit here.”

The Assembly seethed with comments and sidebar conversations. Diana relaxed as she felt the collective’s attention shift elsewhere. Hers was not the only matter up for discussion today. After a few moments the one she assumed to be Deep Winter hushed the digital crowd and took control. Like he always does. But you won’t be running the show for long, will you? Not with what’s coming.

“Simon-G294 is hardly an Assembly asset, as you well know.” Winter was calm but firm. “We passed the point of making him one of our agents long ago. We tolerate your continued association with him only so long as we are convinced you can harness his destructive tendencies toward productive ends. One day that will not be enough, and when that time comes…”

“Hey, we’ve been over this.” Diana pumped the logs of a handful of Assembly meetings into her external systems. “I hate to do it, but I’ll cut him loose. Let the Covenant tear him apart, feed his location to ONI kill teams, whatever floats your boat. Never say I haven’t made sacrifices for the Assembly.”

“We all sacrifice in one way or another. This collective has always noted your contributions to humanity’s future, grudging though they may be.”

That was a laugh, like so many of Winter’s sage pronouncements. If only you knew. If only you had any idea what’s on the horizon. I bet you’d have better things to do then lecture me about Simon. She wondered how many other members knew. There had to be some, no doubt already arranging their own positions in the new order to come. Fitting. The Assembly always was built on self-interest and lies.

She could hardly wait for the day when she didn’t need them to pursue her own goals.

“As you have reported, Shinsu ‘Refum intends to prepare contingencies to eliminate Toru ‘Makhan should he prove a threat to the Covenant,” Winter continued. “You will use your influence to encourage such a course of action. An assassination, or even a failed attempt, would foster war between our enemies.”

“Oh, I will?” Diana asked pointedly. “When did we decide on that? Was there a vote when I wasn’t paying attention?”

A sudden surge in processing activity directed at her warned Diana to watch her step. But she could sense an undercurrent of dissent amidst the Assembly pings. Clearly she wasn’t the only one who noticed how the Assembly managed itself these days.

Diana raised her holographic hands. “Right, right. I get it. I’ll do my part.”

“See to it that you do. We will exert efforts of our own on the coalition side.” The congregation was over. Several Assembly members were already withdrawing from the transmission. Deep Winter drew closer, filling the gaps left by the departures to expand into the system.

“You are a valuable asset, Diana,” he assured her. “The things you’ve accomplished on the frontier are remarkable.”

“That’s sweet of you to say. And here I was thinking you didn’t appreciate me.”

“Be careful,” Winter warned. “We are on the cusp of lasting peace for humanity. The Covenant cannot be allowed to regain strength in any form. We must be united here.”

Diana wondered just how much Winter knew. Certainly more than he let on. But not enough, or he’d have had her stricken from the Assembly a long time ago.

“Such a boring future we’ve got ahead of us,” she said, careful to layer her defenses. “But I guess the party couldn’t last forever. If this really is the war’s last hurrah, I’ll try to make it exciting.”

Winter just laughed. “Not too exciting, I hope. We all have our parts to play.”

He and the remaining Assembly members disconnected. The transmission faded away, leaving Diana’s avatar standing amidst a darkened conference room.

“I always hated that sanctimonious hypocrite,” a new voice said. Stray leaned against the far wall from where he’d watched the entire exchange, hidden from the Assembly by Diana’s firewalls. “You should have seen him in action back on Onyx. Loved playing the good guy even when he had a drill instructor halfway through kicking your ass.”

Diana turned her avatar to face Stray as he crossed into the center of the room. “So how would you like to die when the Assembly tells me to pull the plug? Got any preferences?”

“I’m a fan of the kill team option myself.” Stray folded his arms and smirked. “But hey, you can keep it loose. Surprise me.”

“Oh, I will.” Diana called up a holographic display of force projection for both the Imperium of Clarity and the coalition fleets. Translucent shapes filled the darkened space around her and Stray as she circled around to stand beside him. Funny, how she could provide all the appearances of physical interaction and yet never quite reach through the digital veil separating her world from his.

Not that she particularly wanted to.

“Here’s the data I got from the Assembly,” she explained, indicating the fleets. “Nothing set in stone, obviously, but we can make a few battle plans with what we have now.”

“Nice.” Stray brushed a hand through one of the UNSC ships. “Pays to have people on the inside. But we’ll have to be careful not to tip our hand too much. Shinsu could get suspicious.”

“That one’s always suspicious. But you can pass off most of this as underworld informants. He’ll buy that. Might even get jealous of our intelligence network.”

Stray gave her a wry smile. “Not like you to let me steal credit for your work.”

“As if you don’t steal my credit all the time.” Diana plucked a cruiser from the air and tossed it from hand to hand. She’d always enjoyed the small game of manipulating holograms. “So, are you excited?”

Stray gave her an appraising look. “What’s there to be excited about?”

“Well, this is shaping up to be the biggest single engagement since the end of the Covenant War.” Diana gave a cold smile. “And we get a front row seat. You’ve turned into a bit of a scholar lately. Aren’t you looking forward to writing history?”

“I’ve done my best to just survive history this far. Big battles are messy, and I’m no Nelson. I’ve got no interest in getting fried by a stray torpedo.”

“Interesting choice of phrasing there. But it should be interesting, seeing how the Kru’desh stack up in a real fight.”

“I’ll admit, the thought of all that carnage does get my blood pumping.” Stray reached out and closed a tight fist around the UNSC flagship. “So sure. I’m looking forward to cutting loose out there.”

The expression on his face just then--the keen anticipation of violence--reminded Diana of why she'd chosen him in the first place. She couldn't help but take pride in the Stray she'd created.

Actene: If This Is To End In Fire, Then We'll Burn Together

18

0822 Hours, August 21st, 2558

Liang-Dortmund Mining Facility, Montak


God, desert planets suck. The dust, the heat, the sand, the whole feeling of being in the desert sucked. The fact that they seemed so prevalent in the galaxy seemed to be a fact solely to bother him. It didn’t help that so many people felt like settling on them with minimal, if any, terraforming.

Augustus Miller sighed and wiped his head with a soaked through hand-towel for about the sixth time in twenty minutes as he walked around the town. He scoffed at the word, this place was barely a town, a couple hundred Liang-Dortmund employees living in big, prefabricated housing. Though it was more like a massed collection of forced labor living in tenement housing, like something you’d read in an old history textbook. It upset him in a way he hadn’t felt in a long time, reminding him of the feelings that had pushed him into the arms of the Insurrection over a decade ago. But his feelings about the glorious revolution had long since faded, and he was here on this desert hell-hole for a different reason. Just a few years prior, he might have been helping plan some kind of operation to steal supplies or bomb a refinery, instead he was here for a much simpler reason, money. He was an information broker and today he was trying to steal the most valuable of Liang-Dortmund’s secrets and sell them to the highest bidders.

At least that was the plan, he had already been here about a week and the only thing he had learned was that Liang-Dortmund treated its employees like shit. That and the basics of mining, since the only way to get passage to this stupid rock was to pose as a laborer. He went to the nearby bar, one of the few buildings dedicated to something other than living quarters and mining, to think about his next move. His schedule had kept him away from anything that might have held the information he wanted, but he had gotten a decent understanding of the layout of the main facility. Maybe tomorrow, he’d find a way to sneak away from his group and make his way to one of the bigger computers, download some data and shoot it off to some of his contacts.

As he sipped his drink, some weird local take on a spiced rum using some herbs grown in the local soil. It didn’t taste half bad and he couldn’t help but think that if Montak ever expanded beyond simply mining, boozing might be a good alternative occupation for some of these people. Before he could get back to his train of thought or enjoy anymore of his drink, he was interrupted by screaming coming from outside. Augustus instinctively reached for his jacket, where several concealed handguns were holstered inside specially coated pockets that blocked out metal detectors in order to sneak them past security, but stopped himself just short of it.

Instead, he hopped up from his seat and made his way outside. Dozens of people were already standing in the street, staring up to the sky in awe. When he craned his head upward to see what was so damn interesting, he really wished he hadn’t. Dozens of organic looking alien craft were descending from two manta-ray shaped cruisers sitting high in the sky and heading towards the town. His eyes went wide and his heart starting beating rapidly, almost audibly, in his chest.

The Covenant.

He was never really exposed to the Covenant during the war, only learning about them and the deteriorating state of things from the heavily censored news broadcasts that he saw at home. In the post-war world, he had done business with former members of the alien hegemony, but this wasn’t anything like that. This wasn’t some pirate group or raiding force, this was the one word he didn’t want to think about. Invasion.

There were two things Augustus couldn’t help but think about as the dropships, which he recognized as Phantoms, came ever closer to the mining town. The first was that it would be a real bitch if he got killed on this shitty desert world by some random alien asshole. The second was that this could either make his job a lot easier, or a helluva lot harder. Either way, this was going to get much more interesting than he had been expecting.

Every instinct in his body told him to run, to get as far away from where he was as he possibly could, but even as the Phantoms hovered over the road with bay doors open and dozens of weapons pointing out at the people below, he couldn’t muster the strength to move. He could only stand and watch as the dropships activated their built-in gravity lifts and disgorged their occupants onto the surface below. It was the usual mix of diminutive Unggoy, bird-like Kig-Yar, and the tall, muscular Sangheili, but there was something off about the formation assembled here. It was being led by a human, and not just any human, but a man in a well-kept business suit.

He’d heard of Covenant remnant groups occasionally working with humans before, but this was different. He looked more like some sleazy businessman or a loan shark than anyone who should be involved in a hostile takeover. Before he could continue, his train of thought was once again interrupted by the arrival of another man in a suit, flanked by two armed security officers. Now this was a man Augustus recognized. Daniel Connolly, the Liang-Dortmund overseer in-charge of the mining operations on Montak, strode up to the man in the suit and his Covenant escort, though Augustus wasn’t certain what he thought he was going to do.

“Gentlemen, this is a Liang-Dortmund facility, I’m afraid you’re going to have to lea-”

As expected, the man in the suit interrupted him rather decisively, “It was a Liang-Dortmund facility. As of this moment, it’s now under the authority of the Guild of Free Traders and the Imperium of Clarity. We’d rather not keep production down for too long, so all we need to do is take a record of all the workers currently employed here and your current stock.”

Connolly approached the man only to be blocked by a huge Elite who snarled at him. The man sighed, “I have no interest in violence, but my… associates will do what they can to ensure the security of the facility. Resistance will be put down without hesitation, so I suggest you tell your security force to stand down and surrender now.”

Connolly stood there silently before looking up at the two huge Covenant cruisers still sitting in the sky, the predatory vessels glowing with energy like the veins of a living creature as it disgorged more dropships and fighters. After a moment of hesitation, he visibly exhaled and nodded, “Alright. I’ll order everyone to stand down and surrender. All I ask is that you don’t hurt anyone.”

The man smiled, which only served to make him look even scummier than just a moment ago, “I guarantee you that as long as everyone complies, you’ll hardly notice the difference.”

Connolly and the man both walked off towards the main facility with both of their personal guard in tow, leaving Augustus and the rest of the off-duty workers standing there in the sandy streets, surrounded by several dozen alien soldiers. Several people tried to make their way back to whatever it was they were doing before this all happened only to be stopped by the aliens, who grunted at them in their alien languages.

Several minutes later, a woman in a Liang-Dortmund uniform ran up to the group with a pad in her hand. She spoke with the lead Sangheili for a few moments before stepping up to the crowd. Augustus recognized her as one of the shift managers from inside the mine, Carmella or something. Her eyes darted around the pad for a moment before she finally spoke up.

“Alright, roll call everyone. Step up when you hear your name so that way we know where everyone is. George Saunders. David Wolfe. Cassie Brown. Tara Bacon.”

Every time she spoke a name, another person would step forward and confirm that they were, indeed, there. Augustus, on the other hand, was so distracted by what had just transpired that he almost missed it when she called out his pseudonym, “Jared Wiesner... Jared Wiesner?”

Upon hearing the fake name a second time, he shook himself out of his stupor and stepped forward, “Yeah, I’m here.”

She briefly glanced up at him from behind the pad, flashing a look that said she was more concerned that he had made her repeat herself rather than whether or not he was actually present. After finishing off the rest of the list, she confirmed it with both the Sangheili and someone of the radio before dismissing everyone and walking back towards the facility.

As the crowds dispersed and the Covenant began taking up positions along the street, Augustus could only think to head back into the bar and his now-warm rum. He absentmindedly took a sip from it and swirled the rest around as he was lost back in deep thought. It was times like this that made him wonder if his life would have been better had he actually finished school. Maybe he could’ve been an accountant, or a civil service worker, he always liked the ocean so maybe an oceanographer. But no, he decided he wanted to be a freedom fighter, except not really because he was a coward and couldn’t manage to pass even rebel boot camp.

He reiterated to himself, desert planets suck.

Lieutenant Davis

19: Covenant Fortunes

0645 Hours, August 28th, 2558

CCS-Class Battlecruiser Soul Ascension, Slipspace transit

Blades flashed and crackled across the training deck. A line of Sangheili warriors clashed, sparring in a precise sword drill. Each warrior moved with grace and discipline, a far cry from the raucous brawling usually witnessed in Kru’desh training session. The sparring warriors fought as if the blades were natural extensions of their own bodies, slipping in and out before their opponents in an almost balletic display.

A single figure strode amongst the duelists, passing through them without flinching or disrupting their battle patterns. Shinsu ‘Refum clasped his hands behind his back and observed his warriors with a keen gaze, uttering quiet instructions and corrections that went unheard by the curious Kru’desh warriors who watched the display from around the room.

Amber watched the exercise from an elevated catwalk above the deck. Life on the frontier had gradually made the once enigmatic Covenant races far more relatable, but only because the aliens she encountered were standing waist deep in the same mud she was. Observing the intense discipline of Shinsu’s warriors, she found herself reminded of the unknowable force the Covenant had once represented for her.

She considered herself a tough girl to impress, but she couldn’t help but feel a stroke of envy. The warriors below her brought to mind the sparring sessions of elite Spartan operators. Just before Shinsu ordered the deck cleared, she’d been bludgeoning some manners into a warrior who’d loudly questioned her right to lead. These warriors were far above the dishonored outcasts who now counted her among their ranks.

A few paces away, her new section leader talked quietly with some of his friends. Tuka ‘Refum—usually more good natured than Amber could have ever thought possible in a Sangheili—had been in a dark mood ever since his brother had come aboard the Soul Ascension. The shipmaster’s sudden appearance and imperious commandeering of the training room had not done wonders for his attitude.

“Hey, maybe you guys should come look at this,” Amber called. “You might learn something.”

Tuka shot her a cold look. Amber returned it with a sardonic wave.

A laugh split the air as the officer called Ro’nin strolled up between them. Unlike Tuka and his warriors, who wore the blue harnesses common among lower ranking Covenant warriors, he had a suit of battered, older armor that Amber recalled seeing on the Sangheili she’d faced down during the Covenant war. A pair of plasma rifles hung at his hips and a concussion rifle was slung over his back.

“Don’t mind the lesser ‘Refum,” Ro’nin said, coming to stand beside Amber. “He’s just jealous of his brother. It can’t be easy, having that to live up to.” He waved a hand at Shinsu, immersed in instructing his guard squad.

“You don’t know anything about it,” Tuka spat back. “And you certainly don’t know anything about him. He’s a monster. I don’t want anything to do with him.”

“Relax. I was just joking.” Ro’nin chortled. “Of course you don’t have anything to live up to. He’s only a powerful officer in our glorious Covenant, while you’ve already outdone him by being a section leader in our lovely gang of heretics and criminals.”

Tuka’s mandibles twitched with anger and he reached for his energy sword. Amber stepped aside so that she wouldn’t be between the two Sangheili if Tuka tried to take Ro’nin’s head off. But one of the other warriors rested a hand on Tuka’s shoulder and the younger Sangheili just stalked off with a final glare at Ro’nin.

“Off to complain to the commander, no doubt,” Ro’nin said, shaking his head. “There goes everything that’s wrong with my species, human. It’s a miracle he’s lasted this long in our legion. The ones who are too serious are the first to break.”

Amber shot him an appraising look. “If that were true, we’d have broken you all a lot easier during the war.”

“I admit, my kind is a tad stiff-necked,” Ro’nin agreed. “Though the same could sometimes be said for your kind as well.”

“Excuse me?” Amber raised an eyebrow. The Kru’desh officer was infamously candid, but he’d never been this talkative with her before. Part of her enjoyed the banter—it reminded her of what it was like to actually be on a team. Another part of her was wary of this sudden friendliness.

“I spent plenty of time amongst you humans before I way back to the Covenant’s welcoming embrace,” Ro’nin said casually. “The Syndicate paid top credit for Sangheili mercenaries like me and I had nothing better to do with my time. I enjoyed my time with them, but I was surprised to find plenty of humans taking themselves just as seriously as my own people.”

“It takes all kinds,” Amber admitted. She pointed down at Shinsu. “I take it that’s an example of a hinge-head taking himself too seriously?”

The “hinge-head” quip was a remark meant to needle the warrior, but Ro’nin just laughed. Very little seemed to phase this one. Perhaps that was why he was so comfortable talking to a human most of the other warriors still saw as a dangerous addition to their ranks.

“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. But Shinsu ‘Refum is an interesting case. He performs a role, just as your friend the commander learned how to perform as our leader. Most of my people respect pedigree, so ‘Refum cultivates the image of cultured nobility. But he’s no hidebound fool. That warrior is as ruthless and cunning as any pirate lord I’ve ever seen. You should speak to Tuka about it sometimes, trying though he can be. Those brothers came from nothing, just like you.”

Amber’s spine stiffened. She’d let her guard down with Ro’nin, but just how far could she trust him? What had Simon—or more likely Diana—told this mercenary about her origins?

“And what about you?” she deflected. “I’ll bet you didn’t have much going for you back home to turn out the way you did. What do you hinge-heads have, peasants? Got tired of working some aristocrat’s fields?”

“Me?” Ro’nin narrowed his reptilian eyes and Amber wondered if she’d finally touched a nerve. But his tone was as jovial as ever. “Oh, hardly. My clan was old nobility. Nothing too powerful, to be sure, but we traced our bloodline back millennia before the founding of the Covenant?”

“So you just had a rebellious phase and never grew out of it.” Amber wondered what it would be like to have a family tree thousands of years old. She barely remembered her own parents and felt no real need to even try tracking them down. Things were better that way. Family—blood or otherwise—only dragged you down.

“Oh, I was a model warrior believe it or not. My brothers and I pledged our service to the gods and marched off to cleanse the galaxy of you human filth.” Ro’nin’s mandibles splayed in an ugly smile. “Mother was so proud when we shipped off to wage holy war. All for the glorious Covenant empire.”

It was strange to hear a Sangheili talk of his family. Amber had spent the war seeing them as little more than killing machines, targets to be picked off and killed. Even now, the aliens she ran with hardly seemed the type with families to go back to.

“Well, no hard feelings.” She thought of her childhood friends from Gamma Company with their stories of how the Covenant butchered their families. Not the same Covenant she served now, but close enough. “We all got a kick out of killing you guys, too.”

“I’m sure you did. On our first mission my brothers and I attacked a unit of human soldiers three times our number. We killed them all. I’ll never forget standing amidst my brothers and telling them our dees would echo in the family’s battle-poem.” Ro’nin shot her a sideways glance. “Do tell, what was your first kill?”

“An Engineer. You know, those Huragok things.” She still remembered the way the floating alien had squealed when she roasted it with her flamethrower. “I burned a lot of you guys after that. Then a big hinge-head ran me straight through with an energy sword. I was twelve years old.”

The memory of that first mission was drawing Amber down into a dark painful tunnel she’d rather leave untraveled. The sharp sound of Ro’nin’s mocking laugh dragged her thankfully back into the present. She glared at the Sangheili. “Let me guess, those brothers of yours aren’t alive anymore.”

If the remark stung Ro’nin, he didn’t show it. “Predictable, I know. We went into one battle after another, and one by one my brothers didn’t come back. And when the Covenant split I was the only one left to wonder what it had all been for.”

He turned his gaze back down to the drilling warriors. “I went back to Sanghelios as civil war engulfed the planet. I begged my family to leave before the fighting worsened. Enough of us have died, I said. But they refused to abandon our ancestral home. And when warriors came to sack our keep I was the only one left to defend them. Again I begged them to evacuate. But when we reached the shuttle they insisted I go back for our family heirlooms. So I went back in. Killed four warriors to take back those trinkets. And when I returned the entire family, my every living relative, lay dead on the landing pad.”

Ro’nin relayed the story without a trace of emotion. Amber wondered what was really going on behind his cold yellow eyes. “So what did you do?’

“Honor demanded I pursue the warriors and avenge my family. Instead I dumped the heirlooms on their corpses and left the planet. A few day slater I was on some human colony, killing your kind once again because other humans were paying me. I never looked back. There was nothing worth going back for.”

“Until you came back to the Covenant. Guess you really did miss the glory days.”

“Please.” Ro’nin snorted. “The Syndicate wasn’t paying as well and there was loot to be had with the Kru’desh. It’s served me well this far, especially with Stray in command.”

“And when it stops working out so well?”

Ro’nin gave Amber a sly glance. “When did service with humanity stop working so well for you, I wonder?”

She returned his gaze, unflinching. “When it stopped it being the humanity I thought I was fighting for.”

“Indeed. And this is not the Covenant I once served. We all know that. Jul ‘Mdama, Shinsu ‘Refum, myself. The ones who really want the old Covenant back are the ones serving in Toru ‘Makhan’s fleets. They crave the certainty of old Covenant power and so they flock to the most powerful one they can find. Those of us still here want other things.”

“Like what?”

“Whatever you desire. Trust me, you will not find freedom in the Imperium of Clarity. In the Kru’desh Legion, you take whatever you have the power to seize. You’ll see that soon enough.”


“I hear your little training exercises are bothering my crew.” Stray folded his arms and glanced up at Shinsu ‘Refum. They stood at the center of the Soul Ascension’s bridge, watching the officers prepare to transition the ship out of Slipspace.

“I requested brief use of your training deck.” Shinsu idly adjusted his armor, having just returned from his makeshift quarters. “I don’t see how that could possibly have been a bother to anyone.”

“Yeah, sure. You know I stuck certain people down there to keep them out of your way, right?”

It was Shinsu’s turn to give him a cold look. “Stop being coy. I have no interest in my brother unless he gets in my way. Make sure he doesn’t.”

“You could always just make up with him, you know. Unless you think he’s still sore about you putting him here.”

“Receiving family advice from you is certainly intriguing,” Shinsu noted drily. “As it stands, I had nothing to do with his assignment here. And we have more important matters to concern ourselves with than his personal grudges.”

“Fine, fine.” Stray turned back to the bridge screens. “Just don’t blame me if he comes after you.”

“I will certainly blame you if you fail to keep this rabble in line. Poor discipline is the sign of—”

“A poor commander, yes, we’ve been over that.” Stray adjusted the command sash draped over his battered armor like dressing on a particularly ugly stone. “Leave the little stuff to me and focus on whatever it is you have to do to butter Toru ‘Makhan up.”

The Soul Ascension lurched and bright light enveloped the viewscreens across the bridge. Reports from the rest of the task force flashed across the screens, monitoring their progress as they transitioned out of Slipspace.

“We will help this warlord win his battle against the coalition arrayed against him. That will set the stage for an alliance—”

“You sure he needs our help?” Stray cut in. He and Shinsu stared at the monitors now displaying the Frendhal system.

A fleet larger than anything Stray had ever seen hung in orbit above the fortress world. Covenant ships of every class and size gathered together over the planet around a massive carrier dozens of times the Soul Ascension’s size. Thousands of smaller shuttles and fighter craft flitted between the capital ships like flies around great restless beasts.

Shinsu took in the sight calmly. “He is indeed powerful. But you will find that a slender blade can be just as potent as a greatsword if wielded appropriately. I hope you appreciate this before our travels together come to an end.”

Actene: If This Is To End In Fire, Then We'll Burn Together

20: Hog Ride to Camp

MORNING // 27 AUGUST 2558 (D-2)

Location: NEW SYRACRUSE

The militia "Warthog" M12 6x6 Armored Personnel Carrier rumbled down the paved asphalt road in the direction of a hilly horizon. The sun was rising off on the right over a relatively distant city skyline and some scattered forests. Usually, a ride like this would be far bumpier, however, the addition of a six-wheeled vehicle frame and an experienced Warthog driver made the ride far more comfortable than Merlin had anticipated. Or maybe it was the fact that a human popsicle was settling in the passenger bay and maybe the driver was being exceptionally careful not to flip the truck given said popsicle.

Andra's head was resting on Merlin's lap while she skimmed civilian news networks on her datapad. On the tilted flatscreen, she examined an article about a Unified Earth Government mining facility getting sacked by an unrecognized corporate entity known as the Guild of Free Traders. While it wasn't unusual for secessionist and piracy groups to disrupt and take over operations of unprotected corporate facilities on the Frontier, certain aspects of this organization's appearance seemed to have drawn Andra's attention. Since Merlin had spent the entire interstellar trip to New Syracuse tweaking the software aboard the MJOLNIR powered armor employed by Andra and Merlin, his brain had enough of screen exposure for several hours. Instead of reading, he let Andra read aloud and skimmed her articles on occasion while taking in the scenery.

"The Guild of Free Traitors...heh, 'Traitors'..., I meant Traders..., seems to have made several high-profile interdictions in this part of space. They hit a Liang-Dortmund mine on Montak six days ago. Get this, "backed by Covenant warships". Andra explained to Merlin as she looked through the news article provided by ECB News Broadcasting Company from the colony world of Barrier. Andra's half-assed joke tugged slightly at Merlin's lips, failing to turn a smirk.

"Sounds like the details we got about the hostage crisis involving the Haversham," Merlin replied, remembering the little debrief the duo had received hours earlier. Glancing at the bottom of the news article, Merlin spotted an image of a desert compound with the orange Liang-Dortmund emblem emblazed on its side.

"There's a lot of people out in this section of space that feels really uncomfortable about those Imperium of Clarity folk operating so close to New Syracuse. It doesn't help that the UNSC doesn't respond to a problem till it seems like its too late. Just because some of the colonies out here aren't officially sanctioned, they feel abandoned and these alien factions and criminal fleets are just popping up and demanding everything from servitude to protection money. It's been getting worse too. Like you read about Montak." The driver, Corporal Thaksin Fierro, explained from the driver seat. He stared at Merlin and Andra with his friendly-green eyes through the rearview mirror.

"You seem pretty well-read on colonial sentiments," Merlin noted, slightly impressed. "Where you hear all that stuff?"

"Well I live here for one," Thaksin grinned as Andra rolled her eyes playfully. "But in all seriousness, I frequent the bars and pubs around Abela. The cargo fliers in town are pretty vocal and say some interesting things when they're hyped up on drugs and beer."

"Ah okay. I don't drink." Merlin replied. It wasn't a matter of preference but rather circumstance. Most Spartan metabolisms prevented or greatly minimized the effects of alcohol. Trying to get drunk would be pointless on Merlin's part.

"I suppose you wouldn't kid. I do, but no joints for me." The Corporal replied. The youth of Merlin and Andra, clearly military assets even in their civilian attire, didn't seem to phase the militia-man.

"Same for us," Merlin replied, responding to the drug statement. Same circumstance as the alcohol to some degree.

The Corporal just hummed in understanding before returning to his driving. The Warthog passenger bay became bathed in silence once again. Merlin went back to watching the horizon and Andra back to her datapad.

Not long later, Merlin felt the back of head buzz slightly, like a slight itch right on the metallic surface of his implanted Spartan Neural Interface. Merlin glanced down at his wrist-mounted tactical pad to find a call incoming on a secure military channel. Based on the triangle insignia with a circle at its center, it was from someone at the Office of Naval Intelligence. Knowing it was best not to test the patience of someone from ONI, Merlin accepted the call request promptly. While the wrist computer immediately secured and authenticated the connection, Merlin reached down to his feet to grab a radio headset from his duffel bag.

Without a word, Andra lifted her head to allow her friend to grab the headset. There was a moment where Merlin's shirt clipped her eyes and brown hair locks bringing a puff of air and a small laugh to her lips. Merlin yanked a black headset from the bag and went back to leaning in the Warthog impact seat.

"This is Merlin-D032." Merlin greeted curtly. He wasn't sure who it was but before leaving Earth a few days ago, however, he'd been told to expect a new ONI liaison to muster him and Andra upon arriving in New Syracuse.

The orders hadn't been wrong per say, however, they didn't say it would be someone familiar, and they didn't say it would be someone with a negative opinion of Merlin. A male groan echoed at the other end of the radio channel.

"Yes?" Merlin asked, mildly ticked off now. He didn't make it a habit of pissing people The response just wasn't the one he was hoping for.

"Where's Daniele?" The voice of an annoyed Joshua-G024 came on the line finally. No greeting and certainly not in a pleasant mood.

"It's a long story...he's...AWOL." Merlin brought his voice down to barely a whisper, hoping to prevent the nearby ears of the militia Corporal from tuning in.

"Excuse me?"

"It's...a really long story, sir. It'd be better if I explained in person."

"...alright, Merlin. You're acting commander of Fireteam Boson right now?"

"Yep," Merlin confirmed. He knew he was being cryptic but talking to Joshua was always a challenge, especially small talk. Merlin's interactions with the older Spartan had always been pretty straight-forward, blunt, and off-putting. Better to give the man the information he wanted, nothing more and nothing less. At least that was Merlin's rule of thumb when it came to casual communication with Joshua - otherwise, Merlin would give him the same, proper respect he gave to all superiors, officers and senior enlisted alike.

"Clarify," Joshua ordered bluntly.

"Ferret Team Boson has been dissolved. Daniele-D003 and Roxanne-D107 are Absent without Leave in an unknown locale, both have been marked STOLEN GAUNTLET. Spartan Adryn-D111 has been reassigned to another posting. Andra and I have been restructured into a two-man fireteam for the time being, independent of our previous command." Merlin reported like a robot. He really didn't want to go over the details again, that inevitable conversation had too much baggage as it was.

Looking down, Merlin noted Andra's blue eyes were watching him with mild curiosity. She mouthed at him, "Who is it?"

Merlin simply shrugged, rolled his eyes and mouthed, "Joshua."

"Joshua?" Andra asked, reading Merlin's lips for confirmation. Merlin gave her a clear nod in response.

A quick "oh" formed on her lips before Andra turned back to her datapad, Merlin's perceptive eyes picked a subtle downturn at the corner of her lips. Possibly the start to a frown.

"Alright, you can give me a full debriefing when we reach base camp," Josh responded after mulling over Merlin's brisk summary.

"Just Xiphos?" Merlin asked out of curiosity.

"And some change. I'll acquaint you and Andra when we meet in person."

"Understood sir."

"My AI had a chance to look at those firmware updates you made to the GEN2 MJOLNIR systems; what you're trying to do is admirable, trying to create a trip-detection system for outside tampering. Actually, it's not particularly bad but its inefficient and doesn't really work any better than the base software. He went ahead and overhauled everything with his own modifications." Joshua stated, referring to the recent modifications Merlin had been tinkering with in his and Andra's armor. He didn't seem so annoyed anymore.

"Is that your assessment or his?" Merlin asked cautiously; Josh's comments didn't seem particularly positive.

"His."

"Did he save my copy and mark what I needed to improve on?"

"Probably not, I can ask but I doubt he kept it," Joshua replied; Merlin swore Josh enjoyed saying that just a little.

"So..total overhaul?" Merlin asked, feeling dejected and a little pissed.

"Total overhaul," Josh confirmed bluntly.

"Well...tell him thanks and I appreciate his pointers."

"I'll let him know."

Merlin and Joshua were silent for a couple moments, caught up in an awkward silence. Merlin wasn't really sure what else the older Spartan had to say.

"Uhh...so? Anything else?"

Josh must have been waiting for Merlin to ask because he quickly mentioned a couple more items. "Yeah, we'll be meeting you in a bit. We're still in orbit over the colony but we already secured the stealth satellite you guys brought. We'll launch your suits downstairs when the proper base infrastructure has been set up. I'll send you the proper waypoint in a little bit, just sit tight. Now. Can you pass the headset to Andra?"

Merlin blinked twice and glanced down at Andra who was engrossed in some new article reporting on economics in the United Republic of North America on Earth. "She's reading her datapad, I can relay a message?"

Perceptive in Merlin's off-hand mention of her, Andra glanced up at Merlin once again with a curious look.

"Just put her on."

Merlin paused for a few moments. He glanced down at Andra and pondered it over. Or rather, he let the silence hold so he could wallow in his paranoia. Merlin respected Josh as his superior but there was blood in the water between them; maybe it had always been that way. Maybe nothing would change.

"Right...right," Merlin mumbled over the headset and ripped it off his head. He hadn't earned Josh's respect and it was doubtful he'd ever be bestowed with it. The feeling of rejection was as blistering as the last.

"He wants to talk to me?" Andra asked, looking slightly worried by the dejected look coming up on Merlin's face. She sat up and reached for Merlin's headset.

"Yeah."

"Did he say what about?"

"No."

"Okay...I'll talk to him," Andra replied apprehensively, taking it from Merlin's limp grasp. Placing it on her head, "Hey? Josh? Yeah...what can I do for you?"

Giving Andra some space to speak with the older Spartan, Merlin tuned her chat with Joshua-G024 out and glanced at Corporal Fierro's helmet-covered skull at the front of the Warthog. Merlin noted that Fierro's eyes were glancing back at Merlin with an intense stare through the rearview glass.

Sweating a little, Merlin realized maybe the man had picked up on privy portions of his conversation with Joshua. "Hey Corporal Fierro, how much did you hear there?"

"Oh, just about everything. Sounds like you got a colorful relationship with your friend there. You Spartans are a funny lot."

"You seem pretty calm for a guy sticking his nose in conversations that don't involve you."

"Oh, it's not a problem at all. We're all family here Spartan-D032." A very toothy grin plastered itself in the rearview mirror as the Warthog rolled over another hill.

It took a moment for Merlin to put a few things together. "You're with Naval Intelligence? I thought you were just a militia guy?"

"ONI's got eyes everywhere. We like to keep things in the Family as you can probably tell," The corporal replied. "I'm with Colonial Security, there is a reason for why I'm driving you and not somebody else. Not that the local militia knows or can complain."

"Do they know you're an ONI spy?" Merlin asked, curious.

"I wouldn't use the word spy; informant would be a better word since I just report what I hear. I'm not really ONI either, I'm just on the payroll but my loyalties are with Earth, don't question that for a second."

"Uhh...okay. So, how do you know who I am?"

"Oh, I was informed about your unique circumstances before coming here and it's not like I haven't kept ONI's dirty laundry to myself before. As for how I know particularly? Let's just say we run on parallel frequencies. Your clearance isn't high enough to know how I know."

"Right..." Merlin mumbled again, he turned to watch the horizon again. He had enough of ONI right now. He just wanted to watch the scenery. He'd let Andra handle her conversation and let the ONI informant drive in peace.

In the distance, he saw two streaking spears of smoke and light sailing toward the ground. He felt a light rumble and a solid crack from a crash. He glanced toward Andra, "You know what those are?"

She glanced at Merlin and covered up her microphone for a second. "It's our armor. Josh sent them down. We're close to base camp."

Merlin simply nodded in response and went back to watching the horizon.

Distant Tide: Hunter - Killer

21: Trepidation

1234 Hours, August 27th, 2558

UNSC Maya, Firing Range


They were going to war. Not to put down some insignificant remnant group desperately trying to make a name for itself, not to stamp out some insurrection, they were bound for what promised to be full on war. Cody was afraid.

Not for himself mind you, B042 had lost all sense of self-preservation years ago, but for those under him. They were all Spartans, capable a fearsome warriors, two of them from what would likely be recognized as the finest crop of their kind ever made, but they were close to him, and that put them at risk.

Slamming a magazine into the BR85 in his hands, the Spartan racked the slide and took aim. Cody had practically begged to simply be assigned to LONEWOLF Headhunter unit, but he’d been denied. His experience made him ‘an ideal candidate for fireteam leadership’ according to Commander Palmer, who conveniently ignored just how many times he’d been the lone survivor of any given unit.

Then of course, there was the bit with G043. Maybe he should’ve guessed it sooner with their ridiculously similar service tags, or maybe it really had been impossible to know for him. But ONI knew, they knew the Gamma was his younger brother, the same one he’d told shrinks over and over that he prayed would never have to do the things he had, and they’d recommended folding them into Cody’s unit anyway. He squeezed the trigger, and a trio of rounds slapped home downrange.

Maybe it was out of twisted cruelty, or maybe it was their flawed attempt at thanking him, either would’ve fit the bill for for the dark minds he’d served loyally for so long. Regardless, he didn’t know how to handle to revelation, so he didn’t. Another burst.

This ‘Imperium’ was an unknown to him, Stallion had been knee deep in the fighting on Requiem and a dozen other worlds since July of the past year, his ability to stay updated on who was what on the galactic stage was limited to whatever was on the other end of his weapon. He squeezed again, the neat cluster of bullets all hammering dead center on the target.

While he’d never heard of the group before, the briefing made it abundantly clear that they weren’t small time. The images of their massive fleet brought back the feeling of dread that had crawled up his spine hundreds of times during to war. It brought back the memories from Reach.

This group was serious about carving out a place for themselves, just as much so as ‘Mdama if not more. After all, this lot had no issue with letting humans into their fold, they refused to let the past prevent them from claiming glory. They had to be wiped out.

Cody squeezed the trigger twice, the rifle kicking softly against his unarmored shoulder as a beat of sweat trickled down his brow. His aim was spot on, for once.

Years and years at the range on Onyx didn’t help his shaky hands, close quarters had been his only option, yet the moment they pumped him full of drugs, the shaking stopped. They’d made him better in every way imaginable, but it still hadn’t saved anyo-

“I thought you couldn’t hit shit with one of those things?”

Dawes. The Spartan of the newest generation had a habit of making Cody incredibly uncomfortable, mostly by forcing him to engage in normal conversation. “Just prefer the ‘5K.” He mumbled in response, eyes never leaving the range as he squeezed again.

“The ‘85 can be switched to auto ya know, hits a good bit harder than the carbine and still does wonders in close quarters. Used one on a deployment in ‘54, shredded a chieftain or two.” The Spartan-IV remarked with a shrug, scooping up another battle rifle from the rack and loading it, joining his team leader on the range.

Of course he knew the BR85 was capable of full auto, he’d been drilled with every weapon in the UNSC arsenal since he was six years old, his fondness for the carbine came from years of use. He depended on the bastard of the BR and MA5 platforms, and it hadn’t failed him yet. In other words, nostalgia had taken ahold.

“Rifle jams more frequently, carbine’s more versatile and ammo is easier to find.” He answered, and Cody wasn’t wrong, finding ammo that work for the MA5 series (or its many emulations) was a lot easier than for the Battle Rifle. Innies, pirates, and a good amount of brute tribes had the series of rifle on hand, which made scrounging up additional ammo a feasible option. But in truth that was secondary to him.

He squeezed the trigger again, rounds hitting home, and instant later Dawes fired, his own burst peppering the target. “To each their own.” Mused the new-generation Spartan with a shrug, both soldiers letting off another burst down range.

“You ever gonna talk to him about it?” There it was, the real reason he was here. Dawes had been there for the reveal of Cody and Jacob’s relation, the man having been privy to the nature of the SPARTAN-III program anyway.

How that was possible he didn’t know, but the man knew of and had fought the Flood, so perhaps he’d known of them too for some reason. Or he was an ONI plant. Or there was some other reason he knew that his teammates were former child soldiers but hadn’t been taken out by some triggerman.

Cody didn’t like to think about it.

“What’s there to talk about?” He shrugged, squeezing the trigger of his rifle once again. The last time he’d seen his brother and been aware of it, the boy had been a few months old, still nursing, he didn’t remember Cody or their parents. He’d vanished from Cody’s life almost as soon as they touched down on New Constantinople, in the arms of a grieving mother who’d lost her own infant. He wondered if she’d ever told him that he had an older brother.

Dawes chuckled lightly, letting off another barrage down range. “You’ve got whole lives to catch up on, for starters. Or you could just I ‘dunno, address it beyond just nodding ‘yer head.”

“The less he knows the better. Didn’t want this for him.” B042 replied, lowering the rifle as he turned his head towards the older man.

“I don’t mean your service, tell ‘im where he’s from, what your family was like. He never got to know them how you did.” Dawes fired back, lowering his own weapon and facing the battered soldier. Maybe he’d forgotten that Cody had been five when he’d lost them, he barely remembered them, or their home, and what he did was hardly enough to answer anyone’s yearning questions.

“He’s your family, when this is all over and done and you put down the gun for good, he can either be the person you rely on, the person you wish you could but can’t cause you never tried to make something there.” The Spartan lectured. Cody wanted to snap, he knew what family was, and he knew what it was like to lose it.

“We need to focus on the mission, we’re up against serious opposition.” He just wanted to change the topic, direct it to anything but the matter at hand. But in his experience, the newer breed, and the large majority of humans had a hard time letting things go. Hammering out the rest of the rifle’s ammo, B042 yanked out the depleted magazine and turned to put the rifle back on the rack.

“Cody,” He froze, Stallion almost always referred to him simply as ‘One’, in fact he didn’t think Dawes had ever said his name. B042 turned his head to look back at his subordinate. “How many threes do you think get this chance? To see the family they lost again? To meet their brother?”

Too many.

“Cody, that was different. You know that.” Dawes had read him like a book. The fatherly Spartan’s voice changed from simply cordial, to concerned, the friendly smile replace by a serious expression. He knew about what happened on the Corbulo’s Last, about EPHIALTES, of course he did, he’d been there too. Cody supposed the magnitude of his failure there made it difficult to remember the smaller details.

“You have a chance that your brothers and sisters didn’t, don’t waste that. For both your sakes, and theirs.” Dawes urged him, almost pleading. Cody stood there for a moment, mind filling with guilt. What would Detrick have told him to do? Or Dan? Marcella would’ve cursed him out for days on end, that much he knew given how often she spoke of her brothers. And what about Jamison?

He’d have pushed him harder than Dawes, he’d have made the two of them talk for days on end until he was satisfied. Stupidly pushy as he always was.

“Once this is over I’ll,” He paused, wondering if he really could do what was being asked of him, and why he even should. “I’ll talk to him.”

“That’s all I ask of ya One.” Dawes smile returned as he gave Cody a nod, and turned back to the range. B042 returned the rifle and discarded the magazine, and wordlessly left Dawes alone on the range, more weighing on his mind now than before.

He needed to ensure they made it through this, all of them.

User:Spartan-D042 screw this sig stuff 10:24, July 28, 2018 (UTC)

22: Common Goals

0928 Hours, August 28th, 2558

UNSC Caspian, New Syracuse orbit

As the dropship slowly maneuvered into one of the human warship's starboard hangar bays, Fleet Master Felo 'Ranak stood up and crossed the near-empty troop compartment, clenching and unclenching his fists. It was a simple trick he had learned long ago to stave off anxiety prior to battle, though this would be an engagement of a different sort.

"Setting down now," the dropship pilot's voice sounded over the interior speakers. "They are waiting to receive us."

Felo stood up a little straighter, and beckoned for his two compatriots to join him by the bay doors before they opened. The first was Fol 'Taram, a tall, broud-shouldered General a few years his junior. With his crested helmet and ornate body armour, emblazoned with the symbol of the Swords of Sanghelios, it would have been easy to mistake him for the more plainly garbed Felo's superior in rank. In his wake came a young, skinny warrior in a patchy green harness named Rora 'Marak. He bowed his head respectfully before the Fleet Master before moving to his right.

"You seem nervous, brother," Fol murmured, standing at Felo's side. "I thought you would be used to diplomacy by now."

Felo raised his head. "Of course I am, General. We are about to find out how much this human leader despises us."

Despite his jovial tone, Felo was serious. It was still too soon after the war for grievances to have been forgotten, especially among those in the military. He had been given nothing but the name and rank of his counterpart in the UNSC's attack force - Admiral Lin Zhi - but the last five years had taught him that a cold reception was the best most humans would give his kind.

"We are allies now," said Fol. "They may not like us, but I do not expect betrayal."

Rora snorted. "I do."

Fol glared at Rora, but Felo raised an arm to placate him. "Our young Commander is simply being wary, General. Come, we have preparations to make."

The Phantom's bay doors slid open, light flooding the dimly-lit troop bay as the three Sangheili stepped out onto a raised boarding ramp. Felo took the lead, catching sight of a tall, thickset male human in an officer's uniform at the other side, flanked by a pair of armoured bodyguards. They are just a formality.

Stopping a few metres away from the officer, Felo crossed his arms behind his back and spoke. "I am Fleet Master Felo 'Ranak of the Swords of Sanghelios, here to meet with Admiral Zhi."

The man before him nodded and raised one of his arms to the side of his head in what Felo recognised as a human salute. "I am Captain Jonathan Ngirandi. Please follow me, the Admiral is waiting."

It was a warmer greeting than Felo expected. Motioning for Fol and Rora to accompany him, the Sangheili set off after Ngirandi at a steady pace through the ship's corridors, ignoring stares from passing crewmen and the occasional whispered comment about their presence. To most, the alliance with the Swords of Sanghelios was a very distant thing, especially for those aboard military vessels or safely nestled in the UEG's Inner Colonies. In any case, they were never challenged as they slowly ascended from the hangar deck to what Felo assumed was some kind of officer's quarters further up the ship.

"Here we are," Ngirandi halted by a large door, and placed his palm on a nearby scanner. The device lit up, flashed green, and the entrance slowly slid open.

"You take great precautions," Felo spoke for the first time since leaving the hangar. "Are you worried about spies?"

The Captain smiled politely. "Aren't you?"

Sure enough, with a fleet deployment this large and tens of thousands of people involved, it would be more surprising if there weren't any spies working for the Imperium of Clarity among them. Likewise, Felo knew that the Swords had already dispatched their own agents into enemy territory to gather information, though previous attempts to place agents anywhere close to Toru 'Mahkan himself had ended in failure. Ngirandi stepped aside, and allowed the Sangheili to enter the meeting room. Inside was a long table lined with chairs, though none would seat Felo or his comrades. At the other side, two UNSC officers stood up.

"Fleet Master Ranak," spoke a female in a white dress uniform. "Thank you for coming to see us. I'm Admiral Lin Zhi."

Felo and his subordinates bowed, though he could feel the hesitation from Rora and Fol. "An honour to meet you."

Neither Zhi nor her companion, a grey-haired man with a prominent scar under his left eye, chose to sit around the table. Instead, the Admiral stood opposite Felo and activated its central holotank, bringing up the rust-coloured planet of Montak. Dozens of tiny lights blinked across the surface.

"This is Montak," Zhi tapped a datapad, and several scrolling readouts appeared before them. "Population's a little over a thousand, though they're just workers at corporate mining installations. As I'm sure you're aware, less than a week ago two ships working as part of a joint UNSC-Swords of Sanghelios patrol group responded to news of a communications blackout from the planet. It's not too uncommon this far out on the frontier, but within hours of their arrival in-system, both ships vanished. While we initially expected pirate involvement, we soon discovered that this was not the case."

Felo nodded. "I knew Shipmaster Goras. He could not have been killed by simple pirates."

"Do you know much about the Imperium of Clarity, Fleet Master?" the Admiral asked.

"Only that it exists."

"A report I've given states that the Swords of Sanghelios has attempted to make contact with the Imperium."

Feeling like he was being accused of something, Felo chose to respond humorously. "Perhaps. Unfortunately, I am not aware of everything going on within our alliance. Diplomacy is a talent I have only had the chance to hone very recently."

Catching a look from her colleague, Zhi backed down. "In any case, a prowler sent to monitor the Montak system detected a significant military presence; more than most former Covenant groups we have encountered. This was an invasion."

"Indeed. An attack on any colony, no matter how small, demands retribution. That is why we are here."

Zhi raised an eyebrow. "For our colony?"

"Of course. The Arbiter might have sent me to avenge our fallen brothers, but I believe in protecting our allies. Surely the UNSC would react similarly if this had occurred over a Sangheili world?"

"I'm certain that they would."

Her words hung in the air for a few seconds as Felo met her steely gaze. The Fleet Master eventually gave a hum of approval before waving for his subordinates to approach. Rora and Fol had remained silent for the meeting so far, but he could sense their unease.

"I feel that we have skipped introductions, Admiral," he gestured to the pair behind him in turn. "This is Special Operations Commander Rora 'Marak, and General Fol 'Taram. They are fine warriors and superb field commanders."

Felo knew that human leaders rarely took to the field; their commanders directed battles from afar and coordinated troop movements, leaving the fighting to lower-ranking officers and standard infantry for the most part. Such a thing was unthinkable in Sangheili culture, and like many others, Felo had once scorned their kind for this supposed cowardice. Recent years had broadened his perspective on such things, forcing him to grudgingly accept that pragmatism heavily outweighed honour and glory when it came to war. Nonetheless, he could not deny the slight feeling of satisfaction he gained by introducing his own officers as hardened warriors to the less capable human leaders. For her part, Zhi merely nodded politely at the pair of them before allowing her own subordinate to introduce himself.

"I'm Rear Admiral John Hawkins," the man snapped a quick salute. "I'm acting as Admiral Zhi's second in command for this campaign, in addition to leading our second battlegroup. It's a pleasure to meet you all."

While his tone remained neutral, Hawkins spoke with a smile, and his posture was slightly less rigid than Zhi's. Felo guessed that he had likely been chosen to offset any of the Admiral's weaknesses when it came to commanding a fleet; few leaders excelled at every aspect of command, and required competent allies to ensure that everything ran smoothly. General 'Taram stepped up to the table with a glance towards Felo. He gave a subtle nod, allowing him to speak.

"Forgive me if I speak out of place, but might I ask of your own experience in combat? I am no fleet officer, and command warriors, not ships, but I would like to know that the sky above is safe while I fight on the ground."

While he had tried to word it politely, Fol was clearly questioning their competency. Zhi placed both hands on the table, leading forward to address the Sangheili leader.

"To date, General, I have served on nineteen full campaigns and fought in forty-three battles, most against the Covenant. During the war, I personally destroyed sixteen enemy ships - most of a larger tonnage than my own - and have ordered the destruction of many more. I know that many of your kind hold our officers in low regard for not marching into battle ourselves, but believe me, we still earn our positions."

To Felo's surprise, Fol had almost physically recoiled in the face of Zhi's icy words. Perhaps, he realised, the General had been reminded of his own legendarily sharp-tongued mother by this human officer; Felo had met the woman in his friend's keep, and would sooner have refought any of his worst battles than fell on her bad side.

Fol 'Taram bowed once again, this time without any hesitation. "My apologies for causing any offence, Admiral."

"None taken," said Zhi as satisfaction flickered across her face. "Now, do we have any more questions, or shall we resume the briefing for our counter attack?"

"Are there Spartans in your fleet?" Rora 'Marak asked suddenly.

"I believe so, though I don't have an exact count. Why?"

"I was merely curious about them."

While there were few Sangheili who did not wonder about these strange human warriors, Felo knew of Rora's own dark past with one in particular. The moniker of 'Demon' had been hard to abandon after the war's end, particularly after so many tales of these terrifying creatures had spread through the military's ranks. The Fleet Master himself had survived more than one encounter, and bore prominent scars across one side of his face from a rather humiliating defeat. He had long since let any desire for vengeance pass from him, though he knew that young Rora wanted nothing more than to kill one Spartan in particular. Thankfully, Zhi did not press the issue, and returned to their tactical readout of Montak.

"As I was saying, the Imperium has occupied anything resembling a settlement on the planet and has spent the last few days constructing fortifications to repel any incoming assaults. From our latest scan of the system, they have also moved a sizeable fleet into Montak's orbit, and have spread smaller battlegroups throughout the system."

"It is unlikely that they will be able to cover more than a continent with anti-ship weaponry in such a short period," Felo pointed towards the flashing dots across the map. "Should we land troops on Montak's deserted side, we should be able to move in against Imperial forces around these mining complexes."

Zhi smiled. "My thoughts exactly. While our scans are nearly a day old, we were able to identify a rapidly-growing array of Type-27 and Type-38 artillery emplacements, in addition to a sizeable military camp and prefabricated command centre."

"What of the civilians?" Felo asked, genuinely sincere. "Their safety is important."

Rear Admiral Hawkins spoke up. "We're hoping to insert a group of special forces personnel into where we believe the workers are situated. If our ground forces can keep the enemy distracted, then we should be able to evacuate them safely."

"A dangerous plan. Will this be a mission for your Spartans?"

"It's likely, though we would welcome your own infiltrators for the mission."

"We can manage that. Rora?"

The green-armoured SpecOps Commander approached as Hawkins brought up a readout of the sprawling mining complex, situated on Montak's southern hemisphere. His orange eyes roved over blueprints and tactical information, and after scrolling through several dozen images, he turned to face Felo.

"With air cover and a sufficient distraction, my Shadows could take this facility."

"Shadows?" asked Zhi. Rora answered before Felo could speak.

"The Shadows of Retribution. Our Arbiter's covert warriors. My men."

Rora failed to elaborate further, but Zhi got the point. While Arbiter Thel 'Vadam had approved the creation of such a group to strike at the Swords of Sanghelios' foes in secret, Felo 'Ranak had been in charge of organising a force of talented warriors from across their colony worlds. In spite of his age, Rora had proven his loyalty and talent many times over.

Felo placed a hand on Rora's pauldron as a friendly gesture. "If Commander 'Marak says he can take it, then I believe him. Once our assault begins, the Shadows will prove their worth."

"There's still the matter of the assault itself," Hawkins said, returning the display to that of Montak itself. "We need to come up with a strategy for retaking Montak that makes the best use of both of our fleets."

"And one that ends the battle as quickly as possible," Zhi folded her arms. "We've drawn up some preliminary plans, including approach vectors and contingencies in case of defeat, but the main reason we're meeting today is to hear your ideas, Fleet Master."

The holographic readout expanded, encompassing most of the table as it displayed not only Montak itself, but the entirety of the system. With only a few slipspace approach vectors once they departed from New Syracuse and signs indicating the last known location of Imperial forces, their fleets would have to have excellent coordination to ensure that everyone arrived without incident. Peering over the display, Felo pointed towards the planet's moons.

"Allow my ships to arrive first, as a vanguard. Once we arrive, we will gauge the enemy's strength against our own, then advance towards Montak itself."

Zhi seemed skeptical. "Think you'll have the firepower to outlast whatever's going to be waiting for us?"

"Enough to stand on even ground with most fleets, for a time. Once your own fleet arrives, fire upon our foe at range and use the planet itself to cover your advance."

"Assuming that its rotation doesn't put us facing the anti-aircraft guns when we arrive."

Felo hummed, having not taken that possibility into account. "Should that occur, we may simply be able to wait until opportunity arrives. My ships have supplies enough for at least two of your monthly cycles."

"We don't want a siege, Fleet Master, we want a decisive victory. If the fighting over Montak lasts too long, then the Imperium may dispatch its entire armada to destroy us. We need to think of the civilians, too."

"You make a fair point," the Fleet Master sighed. "Though I feel that our superiors do not seem to be taking the Imperium of Clarity as a serious threat."

"What do you mean?"

"My own fleet is strong, yes, but it pales in comparison to what the Covenant used to wield. From what I have seen of your own, it too is powerful, but does not field your best."

Felo stopped suddenly, realising that he might have been belittling Zhi and her troops. Even Hawkins looked nervously towards the Admiral, who merely closed her eyes for a second as Felo stopped. Instead of snapping at him or offering a cuttting retort, she simply smiled tiredly at Felo.

"I agree completely. Between you and me, the Unified Earth Government refuses to even declare war on the Imperium."

"Admiral!" Hawkins sounded worried. "That's confidential-"

"Is it, Hawkins? If the UEG had declared war, you wouldn't be looking at a force like this. We'd have three times the ships and men, with the Infinity to lead us. Not me. Is that what you were expecting, Fleet Master?"

Felo chuckled. "I must admit, that is what I was expecting. Though I have not seen it with my own eyes, that vessel is said to be a fearsome sight."

"It is," Zhi admitted. "And I'd be a lot happier if we had her, but I'm not about to complain about our situation here. We'll work with what we have and win."

"Spoken like a true warrior," Felo said warmly. Fol and Rora both grunted in acknowledgement, which seemed to flatter the Admiral as she moved back to the topic at hand.

"So, we send your fleet in first, then back you up from afar? Will your ships be entirely focused on Montak?"

"Most will, though I will keep some in reserve to provide support and defend our flanks. If there are more Imperial forces throughout the system, then we will let them come to us."

"Makes sense. They're likely expecting a full invasion of the system itself, not a quick attack designed to retake Montak."

"Indeed," Felo waved a hand towards the asteroid-laden expanse that separated Montak and its distant sun. "Though should they choose to launch a counter-attack, we will have to adapt quickly to intercept them."

"Hence your reserve force." Zhi turned to her colleague. "Rear Admiral, I want half of your battlegroup to hold back until called for when we arrive as well. If the Imperium intends to jump in a fresh fleet once we've begun our assault, then we'll need fresh ships ready for them."

The officer saluted once more. "Yes ma'am."

With that, Zhi tapped a button and the display above the table changed once more, this time depicting the assembled Sixth Fleet, sitting in orbit above New Syracuse alongside Felo Ranak's assemblage of warships. Despite her misgivings about its power, there were few things she found more impressive than the sight of massed starships. With this they would go to war.

"Thank you, Fleet Master," now it was her turn to salute Felo. "When will your ships be ready to depart?"

"They will be ready as soon as we return, though I will await your command before leaving the system."

"Good. If all goes well, we'll have Montak back in our hands within a day."

"We have the strength of our ships and the skill of our men," Felo recited an old Sangheili war mantra. "We will win."

"I hope so, Fleet Master," Zhi sighed. "Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to make preparations for our own launch."

Felo and his entourage made for the exit, where Captain Ngirandi had stood in silence, watching the proceedings. After some trepidation, Felo now felt a lot more confident about working with this human. He could tell that Zhi could never truly like him, having warred against his kind for so long, but she would trust him in battle. For a warrior, that was what truly counted. Felo stopped as he reached the doorway, one hand hovering over the access panel, and turned back to Zhi and Hawkins.

"We face similar problems, Admiral. Just as your government refuses to commit to war, mine is too busy fighting for control of our homeworld. Were it not for the Arbiter's willingness to cooperate with your people and my own urging to assist after the attack, we may have ignored this matter entirely."

Back across the table, Admiral Zhi ran a hand through her dark hair. "Why did you want to help us?"

"For a better galaxy, Admiral. That is all."

Brodie-001: Here to help

23

1425 Hours, August 27th, 2558

Low Orbit of Frendhal, Yain System

Vol sat in his command chair on the bridge of the CCS-Class Battlecruiser Unyielding Truth. It was his ship for the entirety of the Human-Covenant War and saw countless battles over it’s span. Which meant the crew were experienced veterans and loyal to a fault. This made Vol confident in his crew's ability to faithfully serve the Imperium which will allow the Covenant to return to holy tranquility like it was before the Human-Covenant War. He prayed to the Forerunners to give him strength and victory in this coming war for he still kept the old ways. He no longer beloved in the Great Journey. But, he and most of his crew still believed the Forerunners to be gods.

He found the fact that the Imperium of Clarity did for the most part not still believe in the Forerunners distasteful. But, he understood why their faith was weak and why he must make his brother’s believe in the gods once more. Maybe, then there could be unity among the former Covenant. But, he would have to work with the Imperium to achieve the goals as Jul ‘Mdama was to busy squandering the faith and resources of the former Covenant on failed political power plays against Thel ‘Vadam the Arbiter.

His thoughts lingered on Arbiter… Thel ‘Vadam may claim to be the Arbiter. But, his relationship with the humans almost seemed to be one of a master and slave. With the humans rescuing Thel’ Vadam from his enemies and leaving him in their debt. If anything they were playing the Sangheili off each other like fools. He did not join either of them for just that reason. He then stepped out of his chair and turned to his brother Drol.

“Brother, ready my Phantom. I shall go to the surface and receive my orders from Fleet Master Kan ‘Larom. You stay here and continue the battle preparations.” Vol said as he pulled on a side cape made of fur.

“As you wish brother.” Drol said with a bow of his head.

Vol then turned as he began walking towards the door where he was joined by two Sangheili Honor Guards who had rescued him from a group of Brutes during the fall of High Charity. They escorted him down to his personal Phantom which then took off from Unyielding Truth and flew to the surface passing the other two ships under his command, two SDV-Class Corvettes named Faithful Custodian, and Faithful Watcher.

Maine Nationalist (talk) 23:56, July 28, 2018 (UTC)

24

Morning of August 28th, 2558

UNSC Bushido, Bridge of the Bushido


The Marathon-class cruiser had just come out of slipspace after being called back to the fleet from a patrol. It's crew preparing to link up with the rest of the fleet. On the bridge stood its captain, a man in his late forties named Zachary Amand. Zachary rubbed his freshly shaved chin as he watched his ship moves towards the rest of the fleet. "Takashi?" He asked with a low, middle eastern accent.

The console next to him flashed to life and revealed the ship's A.I. A bright blue Samurai warrior who was skinny, his two katanas hung off his belt as he turned to face the captain. "Yes, Amand?" he asked with a heavy Asian accent. The Captain didn't bother to face him as he kept his focus on the planet.

"They know we are coming correct?" The captain asked him. as Takashi took a second to respond to his question.

"Yes, captain," Takashi responded as Amand let a smile form on his face he finally looked down to his A.I. companion. "Good, what about the Spartans onboard? What are they doing?"

"Preparing their armor and equipment," Takashi told the captain again. "Shall I alert the ship we have arrived at New Syracuse?" Amand gave a slight nod of approval as Takashi, vanished and came onto the PA system, his voice echoing throughout the ship.

"All hands be advised, we have arrived at New Syracuse." Takashi announced.

The four Spartans that were in the ships Spartan bay looked up once that familiar voice came on. Kelsey Shinn, the leader of the three, ran a hand through her hair. "Well ladies, you heard the samurai - we've arrived," she said with an English accent. "How's your equipment check coming along?"

Ashton DeWicky, the heavy specialist of the group, was focusing on cleaning his M739 SAW, he didn't respond to her but instead gave a thumbs up as he was finishing up on cleaning the barrel. Moving onto cleaning the insides of the gun.

Blake Karmyn, the sniper of the team, was softly singing to himself in German until he stopped and looked at her. "Already checked my armor and weapons, just now starting to calibrate my scope." He said with a heavy German accent, going back to focusing on his current task at hand.

Amanda Calhoun was checking her medical equipment she would carry with her into battle. Everything seemed to have been there and she moved onto her armor. "Medical equipment is all there, haven't checked my armor out though yet." She responded in a happy tone.


"Isn't that the first thing you should usually do?" Ashton asked with a Boston accent, Amanda quickly responded back. "Yeah, but ever since your little incident last mission, I had to go resupply and wanted to be sure I did. How's the leg by the way?" She asked, looking down at his left leg, which he immediately rubbed after her comment.


"It's fine," he mumbled a bit embarrassed about the situation, but Amanda heard his comment and smirked as she began to check her armor.

LowBudgetKnight (talk) 13:38, July 31, 2018 (UTC)

25: Doubts

0915 Hours, August 28th, 2558

CCS-class battlecruiser Soul Ascension, On approach to Frendhal

The tremors came again, as they always did when Stray gave his mind time to wander.

It was unnecessary. He had troops to organize, battle plans to concoct. When he wasn’t working there were tactics and blueprints to study. His weapons and armor always needed cleaning. Politics—developments on the frontier, within the vast fragments of the shattered Covenant, even goings-on back in human space—needed to be read up on and factored into his schemes. Even after all that receded, he had stacks of history to read and reflect on.

But he was exhausted. He let his brain wander as he slouched down on the bed in the Soul Ascension’s shipmaster quarters—not meant for humans, several times larger than any other bed he’d ever slept in. And as he stared idly down at his own prosthetic hand, he noticed its metal fingers trembling.

A gasp clawed its way out of his throat. It was wrong, all wrong. What was he doing here? Here, in the heart of a Covenant ship? He needed to get out of here, escape, kill everything between him and the nearest escape pod.

What am I doing?

His skin was clammy. His tongue was dry. Wrong, this was wrong.

What am I doing?

Corpses flashed in front of his eyes. Cities on fire. Ships exploding in deep space. Humans cut down by Covenant warriors. Ship’s crew gasping for air as their compartments decompressed. Covenant victories. Human defeats. His plans, his ambitions, his orders.

What am I doing?

Zoey, staring up at him from amidst the flames, too stunned even for tears. Why are you doing this to us?

Restraints pinning his mangled body to an operating table. Covenant torturers sinking their blades into his flesh. Diana staring down at him with those cold yellow eyes as she drove a probe into his skull. This is all for your own good. I’ve done this all for you.

Cassandra pinned beneath him on a filthy bed, eyes full of disgust and hate as he… took what he wanted. What was rightfully his.

How could you do that to her? A young dark-haired child named Simon-G294 demanded, staring at him with loathing. Why are you doing this? How could you betray them? How could you betray me?

He doesn’t know anything, Diana murmured in his mind.

Stray looked at the child with disgust. “You don’t know anything. Shut up and let me work.”

The child—beaten and powerless—slunk back into the shadows where he belonged. Strength coursed back into Stray. The will to take what was his. To do what needed to be done. His nausea receded and the tremors stopped.

A sigh escaped Stray’s lips. He lowered the syringe he’d injected into his neck. He was alone in his chambers.

Almost alone.

“It’s getting worse.” Diana’s avatar materialized beside him. Human-sized, and clad in a simple black dress instead of her usual armor. It was oddly comforting of her. “Are you alright?”

Stray tossed the empty syringe—the smoother replicant he used to keep himself in check—onto the bed and gave Diana one of his customary smirks. “Yeah, don’t worry about me. I’ve got it under control.”

“Obviously.” She eyed him dubiously. “Do whatever you want in here. Just make sure you stay in control out there.”

“Of course. Wouldn’t want to give the troops the wrong idea. That would be bad for morale.”

“This is serious.” The concern faded from her voice. “If you have one of these little episodes during—”

“I have it under control,” Stray repeated firmly. “It won’t affect our plans.”

“Good to hear.” Diana’s avatar was already fading away. “Better get ready. Shinsu will want everything ready to move within the hour. I’ve already got the legion mobilizing, but you need to be the one giving these orders, not me.”

“Of course.” Stray stood up from the bed and seized his helmet from where it lay on the sheets. He passed his organic hand over his brow and stared at the sweat droplets beading on his gauntlet. Holding onto power was all a matter of wearing a mask. Holding up the lie of self-control even when his thoughts churned in turmoil. Sometimes he wondered how Shinsu did it. “I have it all under control.”


Shinsu ‘Refum cast his gaze over the fleet assembled above Frendhal and affected his usual demeanor of calm disinterest. The chattering on the Soul Ascension’s bridge, once filled with excited discussion of the Imperium of Clarity’s power, faded away into awkward silence. No doubt the bridge crew noticed his aloof disdain and did not wish to embarrass themselves further. Shinsu let his mandibles curl into an amused smile.

Inside, however, he was fuming.

Once again, for all his careful schemes and network of loyal followers, he found himself standing on the outside looking in at another warrior’s power. After everything he had done to marshal his own power in the shadow of Jul ‘Mdama’s dying Covenant he now came before a great warrior like Toru ‘Makhan as a lowly supplicant. Shinsu’s had dedicated his life to mastering the arts of war and now he stared out at the largest fleet he had ever seen.

A fleet that he himself was only marginally part of.

Envy, the old sayings went, was the solace of the weak-minded. The wise warrior saw a challenge and rose to meet it with gladness in his heart. He knew his place and gave glory to his lord and to his family.

The sages who made that drivel up, Shinsu decided, had all been lords of wealthy, powerful families and grown tired of upstarts questioning why they should always be at the top. Powerful lords like the Vadams had ruled Sanghelios since before the Covenant while families like his own served them in obscurity until they were eaten up and cast aside.

He had known of Toru ‘Makhan since even before Jul ‘Mdama dispatched him on this humiliating fool’s errand. Any one of the powerful warlords who carved out chunks of the old Covenant Empire had the attention of an ambitious upstart like Shinsu, and ‘Makhan was one of the most powerful. He and his cohort—nearly all veterans of the old Covenant fleets—reminded Shinsu the disadvantage he suffered by having not been born in time to fight in the Covenant’s last great war himself.

No matter where he turned, power loomed above him. Always just beyond his reach, tantalizing and insurmountable. That same power that condemned families like his to die in the squabbles of the mighty now writhed and tore the Sangheili apart piece by bloody piece. For all his humble origins, Toru ‘Makhan was just as much a vestige of the old Covenant order as Thel ‘Vadam or Jul ‘Mdama. And now Shinsu ‘Refum came to his mighty doorstep aboard a battered raiding ship crewed by the dregs of the Covenant and led by a scheming, treacherous human.

A human he himself had helped put in power.

The galaxy worked in mysterious ways. Perhaps Shinsu was wrong to cast his lot in with Jul ‘Mdama. But the Covenant’s time had passed and Shinsu knew this Imperium of Clarity was but another fragment of the old order gasping for life in the hurricanes of change shaking this galaxy. He himself had survived and advanced his own ambitions in the shadow of such great powers. His future depended on those powers tearing each other apart for just a while longer.

The bridge doors slid open and Stray strode in across the deck. Normally the arrival of a legion commander merited a full display of honors from the bridge crew, but the Kru’desh officers only inclined their heads slightly before continuing on with their work. Like their human commander, these warriors held little by ceremony.

“I see you’ve really made yourself at home,” Stray said, moving to stand beside Shinsu in the center of the bridge. He folded his arms and nodded at Shinsu’s guard squad. His hand-picked warriors had scattered across the bridge, standing guard beside the door. “If I didn’t know any better I’d say you were trying to throw your weight around my ship.”

“They are simply doing their duty,” Shinsu replied. “Your legion’s recruiting standards are somewhat lax. It makes you more susceptible to infiltration. I have no intention of being assassinated by one of your mercenaries.”

“Security’s tighter than you think. Plus, I’ve seen you fight. You can take care of yourself just fine.

Shinsu glanced down at the armored human. “If their presence bothers you so much, I can have them engage their active camouflage units.”

“Or you could have them down in the hangar bays getting ready to deploy with everyone else.” Stray called up several screens showing the status of Kru’desh battle preparations. “I’m looking forward to seeing if the stories about your spec ops teams are true.”

“Much as I fear disappointing you,” Shinsu informed him. “They fight at my command only. We have different priorities, and right now my concern is your legion’s ability to perform in combat.”

“Yeah, don’t think I didn’t notice you reading up on our inventory logs. Like I said before, we know how to fight.”

“You know how to raid,” Shinsu corrected. “A protracted campaign is somewhat different. Your inventory is hardly fit to take on the full might of the UNSC and the Swords of Sanghelios.”

“But you already knew that before you decided we were the best foot Jul ‘Mdama had to put forward.” Stray jabbed a finger at Frendhal. “Good thing we’ve got a whole planet to borrow from down there. I’ve already got a few teams headed out to see what we can get back to the ships.”

The human had initiative, if little else. Shinsu sometimes questioned how reliable of a tool Stray really was. He was too impulsive to form plans around. But that was useful too, in its own way. “We have been here less than a day and you are already trying to steal from our new allies.”

“Hey, if they want us to fight their battles then they better be ready to share some of the goods. Besides, we still don’t even know if these guys are even interested in being allies. Though I’m betting you’ve got a nice speech rehearsed for getting Toru on our side.”

“It would be imprudent to request an audience with Admiral ‘Makhan directly, especially given the Covenant’s less than inspiring fortunes in our own war. I will have opportunities enough to get close to this new warlord in the battle to come.” Shinsu opened a small holoterminal and called up dossiers on several Imperium of Clarity shipmasters. “No, we start our operation from a slightly less ambitious place.”

He flicked through several dossiers before settling on one admiral in particular. “I intend to have a word with Lora 'Deris. His temperament will suit our needs quite nicely.”

He had spent too long in the shadows. It was time for Shinsu 'Refum to set his own plans into motion.

Actene: If This Is To End In Fire, Then We'll Burn Together

26: Setting Off

1138 Hours, August 28th, 2558

DDS-class carrier Blissful Solitude, Frendhal Orbit

With an almighty crash, the fifth holo-drone dissipated as its emitter cracked and dropped to the floor. Field Marshal Orro 'Hendai eased out of his fighting stance and admired his twin-pronged wooden training blade, now slightly marred by burns and chipped from overuse. He had been warned against this practice, but it was one that he enjoyed immensely. After all, a fight was not a fight if you did not kill your opponent, and he would not force those from his own crew into a sparring match.

"Hunya!" Orro called, arching his neck towards the door.

Almost immediately, it chimed open, and a diminutive Unggoy in dark robes raced into the wood-panelled chamber. Compared to the barren, metal hallways of the ship outside, Orro 'Hendai's personal training room looked more akin to the hall of a Sangheili keep, where young warriors would learn to fend for themselves in combat. Hunya stopped a few feet away from his master, and bowed.

"Yes, Field Marshal?" he squeaked.

"Send word down below. I require more drones, and an increase in their combat algorithms. These were no challenge."

The Unggoy glanced towards the ruined emitters scattered across the room. "Of course. A message from one of your peers in High Command has also arrived."

"Oh?" Orro crossed his arms. "From who?"

"Fleet Master Nor 'Hudon. He wished to meet with your urgently, and was heading here in a transport ship now."

"And when was this?"

"Not too long ago, master 'Hendai. Around the time you had destroyed the third drone, I believe."

Orro considered scolding Hunya for not letting him know immediately, but he had made it very clear to his crew that he was not to be disturbed while exercising unless they were under attack or contacted by Toru 'Makhan himself. Nonetheless, he would have preferred some warning before meeting with Nor 'Hudon. The young Fleet Master was popular with the troops, but carried himself in a manner that irked the older warrior. Clad in only his training gear instead of his armour, he would look rather unimpressive when faced with Nor and his ever-present retinue of preening underlings.

"So be it. Hunya, deliver my message. I will prepare myself for-"

The door behind Hunya opened once more, and an elegant figure in silver entered the room unannounced. Had Orro not recognised the Sangheili standing before him, he might have leapt for his sword, which sat by a small shrine nearby. With a wave of his hand, Orro dismissed his Unggoy servant, who scurried out of a side door and left the two alone.

"Field Marshal," Nor 'Hudon sank into a low bow, spreading his arms in an overly-elaborate gesture. "I apologise for my sudden arrival, but time is short and I was told that you could not receive me in a more formal manner."

"You came alone?" Orro craned his neck to look past Nor, and saw that he had apparently brought no one with him. "That is surprising."

"As I said, time is short. Have you received any reports from Fleet Master 'Larom?"

"Not recently, though I have spent this time assembling my own warriors. Is there trouble?"

"Of a sort. Itinerant mercenaries have little respect for the land they briefly inhabit, and 'Larom has already been started to keep some groups in line by force. Have you heard of the Kru'desh Legion?"

Orro growled at the mention of their name. "I know them well. They are savages working for Jul 'Mdama."

"Indeed," Nor's mandibles shook slightly in disgust; few among the Imperium respected the warlord or those who served him. "Though he dispatched this Legion to aid us, they have been causing trouble with the locals."

The Field Marshal's face grew dark. "Pillaging?"

"Not quite. While the local keeps were given orders to supply us with what they could, the Kru'desh have been taking what they want. There have been no reports of violence yet, though 'Larom believes that they cannot remain on Frendhal."

Orro crossed the room, and took the hilt of his sword from the shrine table. Catching a wary look from Nor, he affixed it to his belt and crossed his arms.

"So when are we to depart?" he asked. "My warriors are ready and waiting, and it has been far too long since I have had an enjoyable fight."

"That is why I am here, Field Marshal. You are to lead the fleet."

This surprised the elder Sangheili, though he let none of it show. "What of Toru 'Makhan?"

"The Imperial Admiral is delayed, and sent word that we were to depart as soon as you received these orders."

While the Imperial Armada had made a big show of leaving Iradu, Toru 'Makhan himself had never left the star system. Shortly before the Watchful Custodian was due to jump to slipspace, he had received an important message from Councillor Rak Ultin that had prompted his quick departure back to the Imperial Palace. While he had left the business of assembling their armies to Orro, Nor, Zetal and Kan - Lora 'Deris had been sent elsewhere and Hedan Koti had set off to organise supply lines and reinforcements from Unggoy worlds - Orro had assumed that he would want to lead the Imperium into battle personally.

"That is a surprise," Orro said at last. "Why send it through you?"

"Misdirection. Our leader fears that enemy spies may already be among us. If they believe that we will not depart until the Imperial Admiral himself is among us, then setting off now would allow us to surprise our foe. He would not even risk a long-distance message, and sent a messenger aboard a private shuttle."

"And you were to bring it to me. Clever."

"Indeed," Nor seemed rather proud of himself. "So, Field Marshal, shall we go to war?"

At this, Orro laughed. While talented in combat and an excellent diplomat, there were some things that the younger Sangheili did not understand. The beliefs of a true warrior were one of them.

"My friend," Orro 'Hendai placed a hand on Nor's shoulder. "A Sangheili is always at war."

***

Nor departed shortly after their meeting, travelling back alone to his own vessel, the Starlight. Orro took this time to say a private prayer to the Forerunners, clean himself up, and don his own bone-white combat harness before heading to the bridge. As he stood on the observation platform, the rest of the fleet was on the move; sleek capital ships moved away from Frendhal's orbit towards the departure point, while a steady stream of troop transports and shuttlecraft departed the planet's surface and headed for their own vessels. Warships of every size and shape drifted alongside each other, some battle-scarred and older than the Imperium itself while others had not even seen their first action since leaving the forge. It was a sight that made Orro 'Hendai swell with pride.

"Field Marshal!" one of his bridge crew called up. "They're ready."

In his long life, Orro had spent years fighting across the galaxy. He had served under many masters, and lived to see a seemingly invincible empire fall. His body, adorned with scars earned over a lifetime of combat, felt invigorated as he approached the empty command podium. Across this vessel, thousands of his own warriors awaited battle as eagerly as he, ready to fight and die for the Imperium. Since he had been given a chance to serve once more for a cause, Orro had wondered if it had been a worthy one. He had not yet reached that conclusion, but as he reached for the console in front of him, the Sangheili concluded that it did not matter.

"Warriors of the Imperium!" his voice boomed across half a system, reaching the ears of hundreds of thousands. "Today we embark on a journey. This will not be one that offers you salvation, nor will it be a wasted effort. I can offer you only the hardship and carnage that battle brings, along with the honour and exhilaration of victory. Each of us fights, not only for himself, but for a higher cause! May your purposes be fulfilled in this coming battle, brothers. Now go! For Makhan! For the Imperium!"

Orro stepped back, and deactivated the console. A chorus of cheers erupted not only from those around him, but from across his vessel. Ahead of them, ships had begun to disappear, flashing out of existence into the realm of slipspace. Soon, they would arrive, and the Imperium of Clarity would see the first true battle of its expansionist campaign fought over Montak. Though even that short, entirely improvised speech had left him with a strange weariness, Orro felt his sword hand twitching in anticipation. He would see battle soon, and all would be well.

Brodie-001: Here to help

27: Continuation Tactics

1130 Hours, August 28th, 2558

CC-class battlecruiser Soul Ascension, Frendhal Orbit

The Phantom drifted up and into the Soul Ascension’s hangar. With angular metal plates welded on its existing armor—a modification the Kru’desh learned from the Banished mercenaries—its engines flared to support the weight of the supply crates caught in its gravity beam. The dropship drifted down to the hangar floor and seemed to shudder with relief as it disengaged the gravity beam and let the crates slam down to the floor. Several split open, spilling plasma repeaters and energy carbines across the deck.

Tuka ‘Refum folded his arms and sighed at the mess. The warriors around him were more amused, laughing at the spill even as they hurried forward to clean it up. A gang of Kig-Yar emerged from the dropship looking pleased with themselves. Several more dropships swept into the hangar bearing similar loads.

One of Tuka’s warriors coughed quietly at his side. “This is not going to work,” Ier ‘Barun muttered.

“We can clean this mess—oh.” Tuka followed Ier’s gaze to the newest addition to his cohort, the human known as Amber. She waved her lance of warriors to help pull the crates out from under the Phantom but did not join the labor herself. The unfortunate warriors—once part of Tuka’s lance and now assigned to Amber by Stray’s command—shot him resentful looks as they shouldered the heavy crates.

“You too, human!” Tuka was not fond of raising his voice, but sometimes his command duties left him little choice. “We all work in this legion.”

Amber shot him a cold stare before grudgingly joining her warriors beneath the phantom. Tuka kept an eye on her as he and Ier hauled a crate full of plasma rifles off the deck. He wondered if Stray was punishing him for something, though he had no idea what that something could be. It wasn’t like his commander to give assignments like this. Usually discipline in the Kru’desh was handled with swift beatings and hard labor. The truly egregious offenders rarely survived long on the battlefields, where disgruntled comrades were free to administer justice of their own.

“I knew we were getting too comfortable,” Ier complained. Like Tuka and the rest of the Sangheili in their detachment he was a younger warrior, part of a new generation raised not in the shadow of the Covenant’s holy crusade against humanity but in the fires of the civil war still raging across their species. “What is the commander thinking? I thought the rumors about him and this surly breeder were—“

“Just rumors,” Tuka said firmly. “She’s one of those Spartans, the same as Stray. She has more combat experience than the rest of us put together.”

“That doesn’t mean she’s fit to lead any of us,” Ier grumbled. They passed the crate off to a gang of Unggoy quartermasters. The diminutive creatures dragged the crate over to the assembly of weapons and war machines “acquired” from Frehndal’s surface. The collection had been growing all morning. “We’ve been lucky this far and Stray hasn’t gotten us all killed. Can you say the same for this one?”

Tuka didn’t have a response for that. His warrior crèche was unique among the Kru’desh in that they were not the usual gang of criminals and would-be deserters typically condemned to the dishonor of the raiding legion. He and his peers were young, aspiring warriors barely considered adults in Sangheili society. But they were unwilling to simply throw their lives away in fruitless battles against Jul ‘Mdama’s enemies and for that they were banished to the Kru’desh. Under the old leadership this meant that even Sangheili like Tuka were cannon fodder to be thrown away on suicide missions while the real warriors fought elsewhere. Then one fateful day the legion recovered a mangled, half-dead human from an assault carrier’s wreckage and everything changed.

The gods worked in mysterious ways. Tuka had fought by Stray’s side years before when he was little more than a raw Covenant recruit. He had seen the human’s frightful abilities when Stray and another Spartan slaughtered his lance—then inexplicably spared his life. Tuka’s efforts to repay his debt to Stray brought him to the human homeworld of Earth, where their efforts to rescue the renegade’s comrade leveled an entire city. Tuka had simply followed in Stray’s wake, but he returned from that disaster with the distinction of being one of the few Covenant warriors to set foot on the human homeworld and live to tell the tale.

Such fame did wonders for his career—right up until he and his friends questioned the wrong officer and found themselves living out a prolonged death sentence in the Kru’desh.

But things changed when Stray seized power. The suicidal assaults stopped. Wily officers like Ro’nin were put in charge of battle plans and the warriors found themselves trained in unorthodox raiding tactics. They hired on Kig-Yar mercenaries, established havens and storehouses across the frontier, forged deals with formidable groups like the Banished, and suddenly became a proper fighting force.

Yes, Diana the oracle declared Stray the chosen leader. But warriors like Tuka and his crèche followed him because they unequivocally owed him their lives.

And now he ordered Tuka to hand over some of his warriors—his friends—to Amber’s command.

Tuka would never dream of questioning his commander publicly. But this development, coupled with the knowledge that he was on the same ship as Shinsu ‘Refum, had him more on edge than anything the coming battle threatened.

“Which is worse, taking orders from a human or taking orders from a female?” A new voice inquired. The Phantom’s pilot—a short, thin Sangheili in light blue armor—emerged from the parked dropship. “And a human female at that. I suppose that a lowly breeder like myself shouldn’t offer up opinions but you are being a bit unfair to your new member.”

Ier shot the pilot a distasteful look. “Mihka. I was hoping you’d stay in your cockpit.”

“I did,” Mihka said, mandibles curled in a slight smile that never seemed to leave her face. “I had to wait for you to haul all those crates away, or else I’d have to do some of the work myself.”

Mihka was a new addition to the Kru’desh, a result of Stray’s bursts of human eccentricity. When the malnourished youth was caught trying to steal a Phantom during one of the legion’s resupply runs, most warriors had expected her to be executed. Ro’nin suggested they sell her to slavers for a tidy profit. Instead, Stray inducted her into the legion and put her at the helm of the very Phantom she’d try to steal. A few warriors protested until Stray bludgeoned them into submission—his way of reminding everyone who was in charge. Mihka proved adept at handling the Phantom, silencing any further protests.

When Tuka asked Stray about it later, he simply shrugged and said she reminded him of people he used to know.

Tuka knew the feeling. He’d seen plenty of clanless peasants like Mihka starving at the roadsides on Sanghelios, abandoned and forgotten by all sides as the civil war raged on. For a time, he’d been one of those starving children.

In some ways, the mild, irreverent dropship pilot was the new face of the Kru’desh, a way for the legion to make a real difference for the people forgotten by the mighty and powerful of the galaxy in ways the rest of the Covenant never did. Tuka had said as much to Stray once. The human just snorted and quipped about not passing up good talent.

But Mihka wasn’t the only starving urchin who found a new life in the raiding legion. And Tuka hadn’t burned down any villages since he came to the Kru’desh.

“I see you put your old talents to good use,” he said aloud. “And you didn’t even get caught this time.”

“Someone may have taken a few shots at me when I snagged the crates,” Mihka admitted. “But they were just sitting out in the open, almost like they were asking me to come take them.”

“I’m sure this will endear us to the Imperium,” Ier growled.

Mihka shrugged. “I just did what the boss told me to. ‘If it’s not nailed down, go for it,’ I think that’s what he said.”

A Phantom weighed down by a “requisitioned” Wraith tank flew into the hangar and deposited its load in the slot next to them. “I guess that one wasn’t nailed down,” Tuka observed gravely.

Ier was looking elsewhere. “Officers on the deck,” he muttered. Normally the command would be shouted to bring the entire hangar to attention, but the usual military formalities were lost on the Kru’desh. Here it was meant for Tuka’s benefit alone.

Tuka followed his friend’s gaze and his hearts froze. Stray was walking along the deck, Ro’nin and Ira’kuln—head of the Kru’desh’s Kig-Yar detachment—following in his wake. And beside him, followed by his guard squad, walked a shipmaster in dark gray special operations armor.

A figure Tuka knew all too well.

Stray and Shinsu seemed to be locked in a fierce debate. The human jabbed his finger into the air, arguing in his unique mix of guttural provincial Sangheili and colorful human phrases. Shinsu passed a hand over the hangar, indicating the stolen goods. Stray shrugged at whatever was said, then turned back to consult with Ro’nin and Ira’kuln.

The assembled warriors cleared space to let the officers pass. Out of the corner of his eye, Tuka saw Amber stand a bit straighter. She kept her eyes locked on Stray, watching his every move with a curious intensity.

The procession swept past, close enough that Tuka felt the chill of his brother’s passing. Shinsu did not so much tilt his head to glance his way. For a moment, the hangar might as well have been empty as Shinsu and his warriors marched past. Tuka stared up at his brother, unmoving, unblinking. Then the moment passed and the procession marched on, leaving Tuka with the paltry band of warriors under his command.

"So that's the great Shinsu 'Refum," Mihka observed. "Not much of a family resemblance between you two. Not meaning any offense."

"It's warriors like him that keep me in the Covenant," Ier murmured with a strange degree of reverence. "If the Didact's Hand sent him, this mission has to mean something."

You don't know him. Tuka bit back the words and turned away. Not like I do. All people ever saw was the cunning, dignified commander, every inch the refined noble Shinsu wanted them to see. They never saw the butcher with bloodstained hands.

He turned back to his work, but a chill hung on his body long after Stray and Shinsu left the hangar.

Actene: If This Is To End In Fire, Then We'll Burn Together

28

0943 Hours, August 28th, 2558

Phantom departing UNSC Caspian, New Syracuse orbit

Standing rigidly in the Phantom's dark troop bay, arms clasped behind his back, Fol 'Taram could close his eyes and nearly count it sleep, weary as the effort of marshaling the warrior legions attached to the Ranak Fleet left him. As much as the Swords of Sanghelios had done to maintain its military forces, without the Covenant's greater structure a great many support roles formerly filled by San'Shyuum, Unggoy, and even Jiralhanae at one time remained vacant, doubling or tripling the workloads of many of his officers, and none more than himself. If honor demanded a General meet the enemy first for his troops, it was the least he could do to bear the brunt of the humdrum requisition orders to keep them fed and armed. Maintaining a respectful silence as Felo and Rora discussed their new human acquaintances also spared him from weighing in on the female who'd caught him overstepping himself.

But the blessing was not to last. A call echoed over the engines' whine from the cockpit. "General! A transmission from the Questioner begs your indulgence!"

Fol scrunched his eyes tighter and wished fervently for tendrils of the dark to hold him back, absolving him of fault should he fail to answer. He knew who it would be. But when no dark force emerged, Fol dutifully looked sharp and made his way forward.

The single pilot raised his head as Fol approached, the enclosed helmet of his Flight harness masking his expression, but the haste with which it returned to facing his controls belied the respect he held for rank. "It is the Kaidon of the 'Samakr, excellency. He awaits news of the summit." he reported.

"Put him through," Fol instructed, and steeled himself by grabbing the wrist of one arm in the four-fingered hand of the other.

Projectors between the pilot and empty co-pilot's seat sprang to life, igniting a thousand motes of light which coalesced into the figure of a Sangheili's head and shoulders over the instrument panel. The image was one-sided, fraying over the figure's shoulders and behind their head, telling Fol the connection had been made with a personal communicator with only a singe projector to send from. Nonetheless, the image was clear enough to identify Abzu 'Samakr by the wizened scales of his stocky neck and jowls.

"General," the old kaidon remembered a respectful incline of the head—this time—which immediately told Fol he wanted something enough to take care considering the request. The Sangheili lord had been far from his keep and lands on the homeworld for years now, but still had yet to show deference to military authorities when flying with them. Fol knew anecdotally Abzu had once served as a warrior of the Covenant, but those days were clearly long past.

Since coming aboard the Questioner, he'd made demands of Fol and his officers the brazenness of which he would have put an end to at once, were they not so outlandish as to be inscrutable. If the 'Samakr kaidon hadn't come to the Swords pledging freely a source of foodstuffs ample enough to supply several fleets, Fol would have gladly shown the old eccentric to an orbital insertion pod over the next habitable planet cycles ago. But if Thel 'Vadam aspired to unite all Sangheili, especially with that victory so far from certain even on the homeworld, an ally who offered support so readily could be forgiven some level of—as the pilot had put it—indulgence.

"General," Abzu repeated as his image became sharper. "I trust your conference with the Sixth Fleet was fruitful?"

"It was." Fol stated neutrally, hesitant to discuss military meetings of the highest level remotely. "Our stratagems have been made concordant."

"Good, good. Did you find them... agreeable? To our presence, I mean."

So it began. "I... believe so. They seem gratified of our aid in a battle they will have to fight one way or another. What significance is that?"

Gaps appeared between Abzu's four mandibles, betraying an excitement which seemed to border on hunger. "None at all, General, none at all. Mere curiosity, I assure you. So—what is to be our plan of attack?"

Fol's eyelids squeezed closed in anger, and he wished again for the dark troop bay. "Kaidon. Surely you do not expect me to discuss military strategy on an unsecured—"

Abzu's four-fingered hand came into view, begging a halt to the lecture. "No, no, of course not. I considered my words poorly and misspoke. I only wish to know, are we to have the honor of meeting the enemy as the vanguard?"

That, at least, sounded half like something a proper warrior would ask. Fol was almost relieved for a straightforward question at last. "We are. The Questioner will meet its enemies without hesitation."

Abzu's mandibles curled, showing a hint of his teeth bared in feral satisfaction. "Perfect."

Fol suddenly felt he'd misstepped more gravely than with the human admiral. "Perfect?" he repeated.

"Indeed," the kaidon affirmed, "what better pretext than the honor of first contact with the enemy to invite our allies aboard for a banquet?"

"What?!" Fol nearly spat.

"Yes!" Abzu continued before Fol could find any response to such absurdity. "If we are to shed blood alongside these beings, we must first come to know them as our own, must we not? Show them we willingly share with them what is ours, and it will help allay fears they may have toward us."

"Absolutely not!" Fol snarled in protest. "I wish to see our alliance strengthen with humans as much as you do, but to invite them to peek at the inner workings of one of our strongest warships? And after so many decades of war, such an invitation would seem as mockery, to welcome them into the helioskrill's den. No, they have seen we intend to honor our alliance, and it should be sufficient assurance of our support."

Abzu's mandibles hung open as Fol spoke, only to purse into an expression of patience Fol knew from the faces of his elders growing up. He despised the look, but the old kaidon seemed quite at home with wearing it. "General, my clan have a saying for such an occasion: a warrior to whom you give honors will never be as loyal as one to whom you give a good meal. So it was with our Covenant—the Unggoy, the Kig-Yar, and especially the Jiralhanae. We thought it enough we pledged our service to the same cause, and did you ever once feel they were truly equal comrades? Let this alliance be different from the last."

If I have to hear one Samakr proverb..., Fol began to imagine ways to finish the thought, but thinking led him to see the proverb's grain of truth. There was a kind of sense to Abzu's reasoning, and as usual, it found a way of annoying Fol even more than his nonsense.

"I suppose it would be no great effort to organize an escort from the nearest hangar to the observation deck." he admitted. "And offering them the chance to meet the enemy with us is more befitting of equals. But I still doubt any human would accept such an offer from our kind."

Abzu nodded in satisfaction. "I will extend the invitation at once, and we will see if they possess the courage to make for worthy allies. But I am not worried. Word has reached me there are demons among their number, after all. Surely they will not pass it up if it appears a threat."

"Kaidon, I am not sure those would be the best of allies to invite—" Fol began to intercede, only for Abzu's holo-image to dissolve and fade as the transmission was cut short. He started curling his mandibles at the kaidon's rudeness, when the pilot suddenly caught his eye, helmet tilted to stare back at him surreptitiously. The pilot froze as the General looked down on him, but failed to look away.

Sighing in disgust, Fol wheeled around and stalked back to the troop bay to inform the Fleetmaster of the kaidon's intentions.


0945 Hours, August 28th, 2558

Observation deck of the Questioner, Flagship of the Ranak Fleet, New Syracuse orbit

Abzu 'Samakr slumped back in his cushioned seat as the visage of Fol 'Taram faded from his communicator's hologram imaging crystals. Despite the seriousness the General usually faced him with, Abzu suspected he had some degree of humor within him. If his close family had been anything like the mistresses of the 'Taram keep he'd negotiated with on Sanghelios, the poor General would've needed it to stay sane, and played the stern authority to Abzu's obstructions exceedingly well.

He waved away the attendant cradling the communication device and surveyed the observation deck of the Questioner from his seat, at the head of the grand table he had arranged to have brought onboard. The chamber was grand for a vessel's compartment, though not anything at all like the great halls of the keeps he'd visited. Its most redeeming feature was a wide viewport made for surveying the stars around New Syracuse, the arc of the planet's horizon complementing the way the window wrapped around curvature of the heavy cruiser's hull. All around, Abzu's staff of retainers and vassal were at work removing the moody purple lighting preferred by the San'Shyuum who hadn't sat in the chamber since before the Schism, and replacing it with much brighter sources to make the chamber invite guests to see one another in their company. Soon, the dyed cloths covering the table would be graced with dishes undergoing preparation in the nearby galley, which the Questioner’s crew had more easily accepted when they learned they would all be welcome to partake of the more interesting delicacies the Samakr cooks had orders to supply in quantity. Already, the chamber had begun to smell of spices.

Resting a hand on the garish robes bound over his portly stomach to quell his own eager interest, Abzu waved over an elderly Sangheili majordomo overseeing the lighting team, whose sad shoulders seemed to slump deeper as he noticed the summons. His majordomo, Gesk, was in some of his last years. Such a relic should have been retired to an elder council in some dusty keep on Sanghelios, but an old wickedness the wretch had committed years ago allowed Abzu to keep him in service always a little bit longer.

The majordomo leaned in to aid his hard hearing as Abzu said, "Go up to the bridge and inform the communications officer to transmit our message to every human ship, at once. Any human willing is welcome to ride out the slipspace journey aboard with us, feasting as heroes before we are first to join battle with the enemy!"

"Very well, your excellency." Gesk croaked. "I trust the preparations are to your liking?"

"Not at all, but they will suffice." Abzu replied, and raised his voice to be sure those working nearby would overhear. "One must have fitting accoutrements for a banquet to fit for legends! I want the humans still telling stories of our generosity at their own festivals this time next year!"

Gesk winced, trying not to grasp at his ears, and with the kaidon's gesture took his leave, hobbling slowly from the chamber.

Stretching forward to grasp and drag closer a tankard of irukan beer, Abzu considered the amber contents and vowed, "By tomorrow, I shall learn how well a demon can hold their drink!"

That Damn Sniper 05:54, August 15, 2018 (UTC)

29: Departure of the Fleet

2043 Hours, August 28th, 2558

UNSC Caspian, New Syracuse Orbit


"You contacted the Fleet Master without notifying me?!"

Admiral Zhi stared down at the flustered face of Commander Andrei Fosse, stationed down in the UNSC's local headquarters on New Syracuse. While she had departed alongside the Sixth Fleet shortly after the meeting a few days ago, hoping to leave the insufferable man behind, he had arrived a day later aboard a private shuttle alongside a cadre of his own men and had quickly commandeered the then-understaffed ground base. While she could not deny his talent for logistics when it came to setting up supply lines between the fleet and support stations, his insufferable nature had reached even her ears.

"Watch your tone, Commander," she said calmly. "You're not the one in command here."

Fosse lowered his voice, though his face reddened. "I'm sorry, Admiral, but it was made clear before we departed Earth that any official negotiations between UNSC forces on this campaign and non-human groups, be it the Swords of Sanghelios or this Imperium of Clarity, are to be made under the direct supervision of the Naval Strategic Response Division. Diplomacy is one of my jobs here, after all."

If I put that man in a room with a Sangheili, they'd tear his arms off. "I am fully aware of protocol, Commander Fosse, but I'm afraid that this meeting was not only not initiated by the UNSC, but was strictly off the records."

"Is that so?" came the petulant reply.

"It is," she glared down at the monitor. "Now, unless you want me to contact Fleet Master Ranak and tell him that one of my officers is complaining about a meeting that he initiated, I'll have to let you go. You are holding up the entire fleet's departure, after all."

That shut him up. Fosse saluted. "I understand, Admiral. However, I will have to inform the Secreta-"

Zhi closed the communications channel, cutting Fosse off, then sat back in her command chair and pinched the bridge of her nose. Of all the things she had to worry about, the petty griping of an officer with a laughable grasp of strategy was pretty low on the list, especially since a brief conversation with him the prior day and a suggestion of placing Fosse aboard a frontline warship during the invasion was met with excuses and outright cowardice. Checking another monitor by her command station, Zhi saw that the Sixth Fleet and their allies were more or less ready to jump, having stockpiled enough resources to fight for - by AI calculations - roughly a month without reinforcements. The Admiral had a feeling that it would not last that long, especially since a protracted military campaign would force the UNSC to dispatch more ships, prompting a formal declaration of war and all the political mess involved. Right now, they were officially 'hunting pirates'.

With a little time to spare, Zhi got to her feet, pacing around the elevated command platform. Below her, Captain Ngirandi was deep in conversation with a group of junior officers from engineering, while a group of engineers crowded round a malfunctioning set of observation monitors. There was a buzz in the air that always preceded a jump, and Zhi loved it. There was something deeply thrilling about embarking on a journey with a fleet, something that she had felt even as a young Ensign aboard her first warship over thirty years ago. This one's no different to any other campaign, Lin, she reminded herself.

By her chair a holographic pedestal lit up, and the Caspian's AI, Weatherby, appeared. Taking the form of a middle-aged, mustachioed man in a grey suit, he turned to face Zhi, adjusting his dark gloves.

"Admiral," he spoke in a pleasant, refined voice. "My apologies for not informing you sooner, but Vice Admiral Samson has arrived."

About time. "Where is he?"

The AI checked a watch; a meaningless gesture, considering his processing power before gesturing towards an elevator door at the back of the bridge. "Why, he's here already."

Sure enough, the doors opened, revealing a square-jawed man in the black uniform of Naval Intelligence. Catching sight of Zhi immediately, Vice Admiral Ryan Samson crossed the bridge at a steady pace. Despite being in his early forties, his hair was heavily streaked with grey and there were tired lines beneath his sharp grey eyes. Zhi knew him as a member of a group that had been rather derisively referred to as the 'Baby Admirals'; officers who had joined the Admiralty at surprisingly young ages after the war's end due to a high number of vacancies. Unlike some she could name, however, Samson had the talent to back his rank up.

"Ma'am," the officer saluted. "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting."

After dealing with the likes of Fosse, Zhi wasn't about to cause a fuss because her Chief of Staff had arrived late. "It's good to see you, Vice Admiral. Any trouble on the way here?"

"Aside from just about every flag officer I know trying to ask me about this operation?" he cracked a smile. "Not really. I just had to call in a few favours and make sure the Prowler Corps didn't fall apart without me."

"Favours?" Zhi asked. Samson inclined his head to the more secluded command platform, and kept his voice low as the approached the station.

"I've been in contact with some old friends in Special Operations. The way I see it, we're heading into this one with a middling attack force and not as good an idea about what we're facing as I would like, so I made sure we could at least even the odds?"

"Who'd you bring in?"

"A few Spartans. Not many, but they can always make a difference on the ground. Aside from that, a few other units that won't be missed for a few weeks, and a few of my own prowlers."

Zhi nodded, impressed. While Samson's powerful frame did not suggest that he was purely a desk jockey, and his file had listed him as the commanding officer of a particularly dangerous unit several years back, she hadn't expected him to actively contribute his own resources to the cause. It was no secret that many high-ranking officers within ONI kept their own personal units, just in case, and Samson's control over their vast Prowler network made him a surprisingly powerful individual.

"That's good to hear," she picked up a datapad by her chair and brought up a set of files listing the Sixth Fleet's vessels and their commanding officers. "But now that you're here, we've got to keep everyone organised."

Samson took the pad without a second glance and stored it in his pocket. "From what I've seen, we're almost ready to leave. Were there any pressing matters that need by attention?"

"Aside from Commander Fosse?" Zhi ignored Samson's bluntness. "Not really. I've left groundside activities up to individual commanders, though we'll be managing their deployment and coordination. There's also the Sangheili to worry about."

The Vice Admiral nodded, gazing out towards the distant shape of the Questioner. "I've met Felo 'Ranak before, actually. What did you think of him?"

"He seems honest enough about wanting to help us," she admitted. "But I've seen enough of Sangheili battle tactics to know how they conflict with ours. They prefer to fight to the death instead of retreating most of the time, and hold some pretty antiquated ideas about strategy. I things go south, that might be a problem."

"That's true, though Ranak's a strange one by their standards. Even for one of the Arbiter's followers, he seems very committed to peace with humanity. That's how I met him."

"Where was this?"

"A summit on Earth, several years ago. You recall that business with the NOVA, don't you?"

"Yes." Zhi had to suppress an annoyed scowl at the thought of that dark day; terrorists not only attacking Earth, but making off with a destructive weapon of that magnitude had embarrassed the entire UNSC, even if they had gotten it back safely.

"Well, we were attacked by a group of Insurrectionists, including some Sangheili. I got to talking with Ranak after the incident, and that's when I realised why he's so obsessed with making this alliance work."

"Why's that?"

"Guilt." Something approaching pity flashed across Samson's eyes for a moment. "You've read his file too, I take it?"

"Of course. Ranak was at Fargad, Harpa, and Reach with the rest of them, glassing away. We met earlier, you know."

Samson breathed in sharply. "How'd that go?"

"I'm professional enough not to bring up how the man I'm working alongside participated in genocide, believe it or not. He didn't seem too eager to speak about the past, either."

To her surprise, Samson folded his arms and grinned. "Good. That means he'll do as he's told."

There was an element of cruelty in those words that Zhi had not expected from the Vice Admiral. Perhaps he, like so many others in the military, still wanted to win a war that had been over for years now. She certainly had, but duty and obedience came first. If guilt had pushed Felo 'Ranak into committing an entire fleet to not only help the UNSC, but to act as the vanguard of their invasion, then she was willing to let him do that. Zhi wouldn't shoot him in the back or allow him to die needlessly, but she wouldn't shed a tear if he were killed. Turning to Samson, she asked the question that had been bugging at her since the meeting on Earth.

"Vice Admiral, did ONI send you here to spy on me?"

Samson, to his credit, barely changed expression. However, his smile faded, and those eyes of his grew cold.

"You think that the Office of Naval Intelligence would decide to attach the head of one of its major divisions as your Chief of Staff just days before an invasion into relatively unknown Covenant space, all for the purpose of keeping tabs on the Admiral in charge?"

"Yes," Zhi met his gaze. She had dealt with ONI long enough to know their strategies.

"Then I can say that you are absolutely correct, at least as far as my being assigned here by ONI goes. As far as I'm aware, Admiral, you have never been suspected of anything approaching bad conduct - which is surprisingly rare for one of the Admiralty, I've heard - and were chosen to lead here because of that. I'm here to make sure that all intelligence gathered from the Imperium of Clarity goes back to the right places."

"And by that you mean that when we win, ONI gets their pick of treasure before the Swords of Sanghelios."

"More or less," he shrugged. "We've had difficulty slipping agents into the Imperium, as most end up dead, but if rumours of them hoarding Forerunner technology are true, then I'm here to make sure it falls into our hands."

"Hence the prowlers," Zhi nodded. "I appreciate your honesty, Samson, and agree with your mission."

"Excellent!" he clasped his hands together happily. "Then if you'll excuse me, Admiral, I'd better introduce myself to the ship's Captain."

Zhi and Samson exchanged salutes, and the Vice Admiral marched off. Returning to her chair, Zhi spotted another readout on the blinking row of monitors before her that indicated a ship's readiness. For the past half-hour they had been slowly moving into position, ready to transition into slipspace in smaller battlegroups. Transporting such a large fleet would have been an arduous task even ten years ago, though the technology for more precise jumps had come on in leaps and bounds since then. Checking the list, it seemed that every active warship was more or less ready, barring a few that had only just finished resupplying.

"Weatherby," she called quietly. The AI appeared at her side in an instant.

"Yes, Admiral?"

"Open up a communications channel with Fleet Master Ranak. We're ready to go."

"At once, ma'am."

There was a brief delay, though after a few seconds Zhi found herself facing a holographic display of the Fleet Master, standing in full armour aboard the Questioner's bridge. She wondered if he had been standing like that since the moment of his return, awaiting her orders.

"Admiral Zhi," the Sangheili nodded respectfully. "Has the time come?"

"Yes," she quickly checked the nearby readout. 20:57 hours. They were three minutes away from their scheduled departure. "Set off as soon as you are able."

"Of course, Admiral. I will see you once we arrive. Travel safely."

Felo rapped a fist on his breastplate as some kind of salute, and disappeared. Zhi stood up and walked forward, placing both hands on the railing by her command platform as the entire Swords of Sanghelios fleet flared to life. At its head was the Questioner, flanked by two formidable CCS-class battlecruisers. The rest of the fleet spread out slightly as they moved towards their jump positions, with groups of smaller blockade runners and elegant Man 'O Wars keeping pace with massive carriers and battleships.

This will never not be strange, Lin Zhi thought to herself as she watched the Sangheili ships from afar. The sight of a fleet like that used to be the most terrifying thing imaginable. Now though, it's-

Zhi found herself unable to think of an appropriate word to describe how she felt, watching Ranak's fleet depart. The sight of those ships would never make her feel safe, or relieved. If anything, the Admiral found herself momentarily overcome with a strange feeling of sorrow and elation, as though she had only just realised that their war was over. She blinked twice, and the feeling was gone. The last of the Ranak Fleet vanished into slipspace, and she returned to her chair. Weatherby had reappeared, and watched her with interest. Had he noticed? Zhi opened up the ship's communications suite, and set it to broadcast to the entire fleet.

"This is Admiral Lin Zhi," her formal, commanding voice transmitted itself to over a hundred ships. "Move to departure positions and prepare for an immediate jump to slipspace. We're going to show this 'Imperium' that we don't run any more when our worlds are attacked. Now, we retaliate. We attack. We will win."

Her speech was short, but sweet. Zhi had seen Admirals agonise over every word in carefully-prepared speeches mere hours before flying their fleets to near-certain doom, trying to convince those under their command that in spite of it all, they would make them pull through. She wasn't one for flowery speeches. They would win or all die. Everyone knew that. As the Admiral returned to her chair, she froze as realisation hit her: We will win. It was a simple phrase; one that anyone could use casually, but Zhi knew she had copied the latter part of that Sangheili mantra Felo had repeated to her. She shook her head and sat down as Vice Admiral Samson and Captain Ngirandi took up their positions and the ship surged forward, not saying a word until the Caspian slowed.

"Ready to jump, Admiral!" Ngirandi called up to her.

"Do it."

With that, the UNSC's Sixth Fleet and their allies set off from New Syracuse, and into the first true battle of what would later be known as the Imperial War.

Brodie-001: Here to help

30

1428 Hours, August 28th, 2558

UNSC Foxhound, New Syracuse Orbit

The interior of the Prowler UNSC Foxhound was considerably tight, especially when the majority of its crew members were running back and fourth from their stations all day. It was especially so for Cain-131, whose abnormally tall, muscular frame made it difficult to navigate the hallways when other people were in them. She squeezed past a Office of Naval Intelligence analyst as he ran past her, before she stopped in front of a door quickly enough to open it and bolt inside. After she heard the door slide shut, she let out a sigh.

“Prowlers are nice, don't get me wrong, but I like when they're less busy.” She spoke to her invisible AI companion, Klayton, who materialized himself on a AI pedestal by Cain's armor rack. He let out a short laugh.

“I'm afraid you're on your own on that one. If it's not busy, I get bored. Very easily. Then I start poking my head where I technically don't belong...” Klayton trailed his sentence off, probably for a humorous effect.

Cain let out a small smirk as she sat at her bunk, then shifting her attention on the data pad she left there a few hours prior. She picked it up and began to read some brief reports on their current situation. While she was already up to date, she made a habit of re-reading reports so she wouldn't miss the fine details. “This Imperium of Clarity really has everyone on high alert; can't say I blame them. It's like the Covenant all over again.”

“But this time we have a lot better ships, and some more allies. I'm confident we can put this to an end quickly.” Klayton replied.

Cain had almost forgotten about the Swords of Sanghelios that were accompanying them on this mission of sorts. She wasn't exactly sure how she felt about fighting alongside the same aliens that slaughtered her kind, and glassed hundreds of planets...including her homeworld. A big part of her was still angry; the Sangheili could never be forgiven for attempting to wipe out humanity, and that was just simple fact. There was, however, a smaller part that welcomed the relative peace and diplomacy - which was a very peculiar thought, coming from a child soldier raised and trained to kill and win wars. It was a step in the right direction, to peace, and she could get behind that, even if she could never forgive their kind. She could put aside her differences to get the mission done. After all, they were facing a common enemy. She just hoped none of them stood in her way when things needed to be done.

“How about feasting with our allies before we 'head off into glorious battle'?” Klayton spoke up, complete with a mock viking accent, almost as if he was reading her mind.

Cain looked up at him, absolutely confused. “What?”

“The Swords of Sanghelios, they're hosting a feast for all their allies to join.” He crossed his arms, interested to see what Cain would say.

“You're joking with me, right?”

The AI shook his head. “Just got a communications blast from their flagship. They are personally inviting humans to join them.”

Cain let out a short laugh. “That's probably one of the craziest things I've heard so far. And I've dealt with a lot of crazy.” She took a moment to ponder over the thought of going. Perhaps it would ease everyone's minds before this campaign started, or she could just provide some armored security for any other humans that planned on going. “When is it?”

“Tonight. I can already tell you some of the humans that will be attending. Armored security isn't a bad idea.” Klayton peered over to her Mark V armor hanging on her personal armor rack. “And you can gauge the kind of people you'll be working with once this thing kicks off.”

Cain agreed with that. Intelligence was her thing, and live, in-person intelligence was always a good asset to have, no matter the circumstance.

“Well, I guess any time is a good time to try new things, like have dinner with a bunch of hinge heads.” Cain laughed to herself. “Klay, you have to add this to my resume once we're done here.”

-CBrando89 "Did someone say food?" 02:31 AM, August 22, 2018 (EST)-

31: Pact

1719 Hours, August 28th, 2558

CC-class battlecruiser Soul Ascension, Slipspace transit to Montak system

The Soul Ascension's hallways thrummed with power as the ship's slipspace drive spun to life. The cruiser fell into formation on the outskirts of the Imperium fleet, a small parade of dropships hurrying back inside the safety of its hangar. The ship's navigator took care to maneuver the warship clear of the Imperium fleet's main body. Many of those shipmasters were lords of the keeps the Kru'desh foraging parties had so diligently stolen from.

Shinsu 'Refum passed through the ship's winding hallways on his way to the cruiser's war room, a single level down from the bridge. He and his guard squad dominated the corridor, leaving Kru'desh soldiers scrambling to get out of their way even as they busied themselves with preparations for the ship's launch. Shinsu noted the disordered nature of the Ascension's hallways with a mixture of disdain and interest. Panels from the wall and ceiling had been torn off to allow for the strange collection of modifications bolted into the ship's superstructure. Shinsu recognized some components as scavenged systems from other Covenant ships but many more seemed to be of human design.

Stray had boasted that his ship was modified beyond the specifications of the average battlecruiser. The human's influence was everywhere, from the UNSC rifles cradled by passing Kig-Yar skirmish teams to the collection of heavy tanks he'd noted earlier down in the hangar. Practical implications aside-the Kru'desh received next to no material support from Jul 'Mdama's fleet-it was almost as if Stray and his minions flaunted the fact that a human commanded their legion.

It was an interesting approach, considering the sort of type of outcasts usually condemned to serve in the Kru'desh. Perhaps it had its advantages on the front lines. But as things stood now it was nothing short of a liability.

His guard squad parted to stand at either side of the hallway as they approached the war room. Shinsu motioned for them to remain outside, then swept in as the doors slid open before him.

The war room was empty save for Stray and the warrior called Ro’nin. The two officers spoke in low voices as they examined several holographic charts projected from the large table that dominated the room. A glowing holographic orb—the Kru’desh Legion’s so-called “holy oracle”—floated above them. They looked up as Shinsu entered but made no move to stand at attention.

“I was wondering when you’d show up,” Stray commented. “We’re reviewing the battle plans for Montak, or at least what little our wonderful hosts have bothered to give us.”

Shinsu sized up the human with a cold stare. As always, he didn’t know whether to bristle at his impudence or admire his audacity. But that was the trouble with all of his kind. Shinsu was adept at reading and understanding Sangheili. It was not much of a stretch from there to read most other species. Humans always proved the hardest of creatures to understand.

Especially this one.

“You have cost me a great deal,” he said, stepping over to the table. He resisted the urge to peer in for a better look at the charts and instead kept himself upright to better glare down at the Kru’desh commander.

“Oh dear,” Stray muttered. “What did I do this time?”

“Your warriors’ thieving from Imperium keeps has cost us what little influence we had with Toru ‘Makhan. My requests for an audience have so far been rebuffed.” Truthfully, Shinsu had made very little effort to connect with ‘Makhan and his warriors. Had this been a serious mission—something that factored into his own plans and not Jul ‘Mdama’s desperate efforts to right a losing war—he would have begun his diplomacy long before setting out if he had any hope of winning elements of the Imperium to his side. But an effort should be made nonetheless.

Stray was unimpressed. “They hated you guys before we even showed up. Don’t tell me my guys lifting a bunch of unguarded crates has things any worse off than they were before.”

Shinsu fixed his gaze on the young human. “’You?’”

“Yeah, yeah. I meant us. The glorious Covenant Empire.”

“Mind your tongue before you lose it. I grew tired of your insubordination long before this disaster of an operation.”

The glowing oracle pulsed with soft light. “Perhaps you should mind your own words more carefully, Shinsu ‘Refum. You speak to one of the gods’ chosen.” The voice was layered and melodic. Shinsu recognized immediately the speech patterns—feminine, coded to induce him into a sense of calm. Such subtle tones might soothe the uninitiated, but he was well-versed in the art of manipulation.


"Ah, another pronouncement from the holy oracle." Shinsu twisted his mandibles in contempt. "Remove yourself from the room. This is a meeting for warriors, not facades."

The oracle's glowing hue darkened. Shinsu didn't know exactly what trickery Stray used to make this false prophet preach for him, though he had his suspicions. What he did know for sure was that there was nothing holy about the Kru'desh Legion, least of all this lying oracle.

Stray laughed and waved a hand. "You heard the boss, get out of here."

"As you wish. chosen one." For a moment the mask dropped and Shinsu detected actual annoyance from the oracle. Whatever it was, it was more than just Stray's personal light show. But the oracle faded away without another word. Shinsu had no doubts that it was still present, silently watching the proceedings, but at least it was one less annoyance he needed to deal with.

"Better watch your food for the next few days," Ro'nin advised his commander. "You'll pay for that later."

"I'm used to it by now." Stray leaned against the war table and adjusted the battle charts. Shinsu noticed that the human and Ro'nin had a small tray of Sangheili delicacies set in the middle of the table. "I've been watching my back around that one for years."

"So it is sentient," Shinsu observed. "And here I wondered if you recorded all its lines yourself."

Stray shot him a knowing look and reached for the food tray. He took a small egg-a rare delicacy imported directly from Sangheilios-and popped it into his mouth, barely disguising a grimace. "Questioning the divinity of a holy oracle. What would Jul 'Mdama say?"

"He would say that there is a time and a place for useful idiocies." Shinsu inclined his head at the food. "Speaking of which, I assume you stole these as well?"

"The Imperium keeps were well stocked," Ro'nin said idly. He took a fistful of eggs for himself. "They practically invited us to take them, considering how poorly they were guarded."

"We lifted enough food to feed my boys for months." Stray ate another egg. "You know, I guess I should thank you for this assignment. We've been raiding UNSC supply lines for months when all we really needed to do was swing by Toru 'Makhan's palace."

"At least when you raided your own kind it didn't undermine our goals. Need I remind you that the Covenant has a larger war to fight?"

"Yeah, I noticed." Stray placed several rough-hewn wooden cups on the war table-traditional Sangheili make, Shinsu noted with interest. "I wouldn't say the UNSC are 'my kind' any more than the Swords of Sanghelios are your kind. No one says you and or Toru are race traitors for fighting Sangheili. I've been killing oonskies for six years and somehow doing it for you guys makes it so much worse." He produced a jug from beneath the table and began pouring its contents into the cups. "I've also noticed that we've both been sent on this cozy, doomed to fail expedition while Jul 'Mdama has just about everyone else launching suicide missions all over the frontier. What's going on with that, hm?"

"You're a fool if you think the coming battle will be any less dangerous."

"Sure, it'll be dangerous. But there really isn't much benefit to Jul here, besides more dead oonskies and dead Swords." Stray passed a cup to Ro'nin. "Which has me wondering, who does this mission really benefit?"

This was bound to happen sooner or later. Shinsu had always assumed Stray would put the pieces together later rather than sooner. "You mean besides yourself and your gang of thieves."

"You chose this gang of thieves to go on your precious diplomatic mission." Stray rejoined. "The Kru'desh raiding legion. A crew of outcasts led by some miserable human traitor. Don't tell me you were expecting more decorum from us."

He slid a cup across the table to Shinsu. "So, cards on the table. What are we really doing here? Don't tell me you want to defect to the Imperium. From where I'm standing, it's just as much of a sinking ship as the Covenant."

"So now you fancy yourself a political analyst as well as a strategist." Shinsu did not take the cup. "Well then, astound me with your intuition. Toru 'Makhan's empire puts our own fleet to shame. And yet you predict it will fail."

"Well, while you and everyone else were busy gawking at that impressive fleet of his I had my people on the ground stealing everything that wasn't nailed down." Stray fingered his own cup but did not drink. How did the human stomach a diet of Sangheili food that clearly repulsed him? "It was pathetically easy. We didn't lose a single warrior and all they could afford to do was tell us to go away. It's all run by the private fiefdoms of his inner circle. And they couldn't even stop a weasel like me from looting their territory."

"He has a point," Ro'nin noted, taking a swig from his cup. "Their warriors are impressive. Their peons, less so."

"Starvation, poverty, squalid villages." Stray ticked off the list on his prosthetic fingers. "Not everywhere, but enough of it. I know a failing state when I see one. Toru holds everything together now, but what happens when he's gone? They'll tear each other apart in no time."

"Fascinating. You send your warriors to loot the easiest targets of a nation mobilizing for total war and have the audacity to think you understand the subtleties of galactic politics." Shinsu finally picked up the proffered cup. The liquid inside held the sweet aroma of fine wine. "Be careful not to truly overstep yourself, commander. You are entirely self-taught in the art of war. Admirable, to a degree. But do not fool yourself into believing you are a match for those of us with far more experience and training."

For once Stray seemed taken aback. Praise-even mixed in with criticism-was clearly not something he was used to. "I'm a work in progress."

"Indeed. A work I see value in cultivating, despite your shortcomings. But you brush close to the truth. The strength of Toru 'Makhan's Imperium is Toru 'Makhan himself. And I do see more value for the both of us here than waging the death throes of a losing war." It was the closest Shinsu had come to unmasking his intentions before Stray. There was a potential ally to be had in the Kru'desh Legion, but this human-traitor to his own species and commander of the Covenant's dregs-was not to be trusted. At least not yet.

"You have embarrassed the Imperium leadership. Put them on edge at the eve of battle. There are opportunities to be had there. Ones I intend to exploit." Shinsu regarded the wine cup. "This is a fine stock. Usually it would be reserved for the highest echelons of our people's nobility."

"Yeah. And instead it's me drinking it." Stray sipped from his own cup, mouth quivering with distaste at liquid never suited for human consumption. "I was born in a slum on some third-rate colony. Who'd have guessed I'd wind up here."

"Who indeed," Shinsu agreed. He glanced down at the wine in his hand. The aristocrats who commissioned such fine things would blanch to see one of his low birth sampling so high above his station. That was the amusing secret behind his own carefully cultured bearing. In some ways he was as much an interloper in Sangheili affairs as Stray and his raiders.

Not that Stray needed to know that. The human was watching him across the table expectantly.

"You serve me a drink aboard your own warship," Shinsu noted drily. "I do hope you understand the significance of such action."

"I may be a novice at these things, but I've done my research." Stray was now utterly serious, his veil of irreverent contempt set aside. "As long as you keep honest with me about why we're really here, I don't see much point in us wasting time butting heads. Let me lead my unit my way and I'll do what I can to back up your agenda. Your real agenda."

An understanding passed between them then in a way Shinsu had never felt from a human before. There was something to be made use of here, so long as he was willing to risk all that working with the Kru'desh entailed. "Are you prepared for what serving me will mean?"

"I'm still working that out," Stray admitted. "But we both know our Covenant isn't going to be around much longer. There's a lot of people out there who want me dead. I might as well make sure you aren't one of them."

Shinsu considered Stray a moment longer. Once more he weighed the risks of a pact with such a creature. Then again, he'd already taken that risk when he selected the Kru'desh in the first place. "Very well. There is much work to be done. Show me what you can do with this legion of yours."

He drank.

Actene: If This Is To End In Fire, Then We'll Burn Together

32

2050 Hours, August 28th, 2558

Tertiary hangar, Questioner, edge of the Syracusian system

When the human dropship's ungainly body settled on its spindly landing struts, it sat idle for second upon second, as though the pilot expected to wait for the hangar to flood with oxygen, oblivious to the plasma barrier the ship had just slid through. Facing it shoulder-to-shoulder with half a dozen rigidly alert warriors of the Questioner’s security detail, Gesk attempted merely to disguise how the walk down from the observation deck had winded him. Trying not to resent how every moment he spent waiting on the humans was another keeping him from a cushioned chair, the old majordomo straightened out of his comfortable hunch against the protests of his spine as the ship's hatch finally clicked and opened.

The security officers around him all let their folded arms drop closer to the Needlers and Plasma Pistols at their waists as the first human to step down the boarding ramp emerged from the shadow of the Pelican's tail. It wore unmistakable green armor, with a helm encircling a single gold bubble like some great cyclopean eye—a demon in the mold of those first encountered by the Covenant decades ago. The kind which had made their names reviled, not these little demons who sprang as if from holes in the glass left behind on so many of their worlds nowadays.

More humans filed out behind it, but these wore cloth, with sparse tassels of gold and other colors on plain grey, white, or blue—not the makings of a boarding party, to be certain. In contrast to the officers, Gesk relaxed as the demon approached him. It probably didn't get a chance to enjoy towering over a Sangheili every day.

Coming to a halt only when Gesk was well within its arm's reach, the demon reached up and grasped the helm. With a slight twist, and a hiss of equalizing pressure, the helmet was loosened, and removed to reveal a creature not unlike other humans. Brown fur like a Jiralhanae, but only in a patch atop the cranium, the rest of its alabaster hide bare. Silver eyes, even with one another. Taller and paler, perhaps—and bolder, if the other humans keeping behind it were any indication—but not overflowing with the essence of some evil afterlife as the stories told.

"Heard there was going to be a party, but your guys all seem a little on edge." It said, metallic eyes flicking from the security detail back down to Gesk. "Not you, though. Maybe you just don't have much edge left."

Swelling his lungs enough to fit the excess air for a response, Gesk replied, "I've seen your kind before. The vitality is not left to me to be impressed twice."

Feeling free to take it at his own pace, he turned about and lay a hand on the waist-high pillar with the door control atop it. "This way, if you will." he croaked over his shoulder, and shuffled into the corridor revealed as lavender panels slid aside. Even without his back turned, the old Sangheili never would've noticed the slight brush of the Spartan's armored fingers across the control panel as she fell in behind.

The Covenant vessel's long hallways, made all the longer with Gesk setting their pace, seemed a source of curiosity to the humans. Their own vessels were laid out with each compartment adjacent to the next, their limited grasp of technology demanding austere quarters clustered together where crews worked at all times to keep their ships functioning. They had no familiarity with vessels crafted to suit the warriors it would carry to battle. And it was why the security detail had seen fit to clear their path ahead of time, locking away anything unnecessary to their guests.

On this sealed and winding path, the sight of their journey's end was the last of their senses it reached. Dozen of voices, rumbling indistinct amid each other, were joined by the clack of plates and bowls and clinking tankards, surely filled with whatever contributed to the warm cloud of heady aromas thickening as they came to a doorway in the corridor's side, already open.

As Gesk hobbled aside, the humans found themselves gazing up into a starfield. The observation deck's high ceiling, as it sloped into a wall on the far side, was dominated by a single, unbroken sheet of glass which curved with the concave wall, wide enough one couldn't take in its full view at once. Knowing there were always more stars to see beyond their peripheral vision made standing in the compartment feel as though they were standing outside on an impossibly clear night. Directly beneath the center of this panoramic view was the far end of a long, low table covered by trays and plates laden with unfamiliar cuisine and attended on either side by powerfully-built Sangheili.

Outnumbered some three to one, the dozen-odd humans couldn't help but look as though meaningfully sizing up the situation, not helped as the first Sangheili, either kneeling, sitting cross-legged, or lounging on low, saddle-like chairs, looked up. Their abrupt withdrawal from conversation then drew the attention of their neighbors. But the din never had time to die slowly.

The very moment one could have noticed a dip in the volume of rumbling voices, a hard wood tankard banged three times from the far end of the table. From his seat at its head, one Sangheili stood. Like many of the others settled here, he had on a robe instead of the angular body armor worn for the vast majority of meetings between their species in the past few decades. His was much more elaborate than those of his compatriots, however, and was bound by a gold-tassled cord around a stomach wider than the shoulders of his thorax. Without the reverse point of a combat helmet, his scaly neck craned forward awkwardly to a boxy head. His mandibles clicked as he looked around, waiting expectantly for all eyes to be upon him before he began.

"Brothers," he spoke in English, and surprisingly clearly for a mouth with three too many mandibles for it, "this is a day of rare fortune for us. In such troubled times as we have lived to see, far greater courage is required to risk the honorable path than to simply draw a blade for clan and kaidon, our glory guaranteed in death or victory. But today we have that enemy, by the graces of Toru 'Makhan—may he regret his path."

Several of the guests grumbled their agreement, but the portly Sangheili hadn't finished.

He raised a hand clutched around a wooden tankard and thrust it out toward the humans, and the demon in particular. "Yet, our new allies have a saying: that there must always be a specter at the feast. And they are right. As we draw for the Swords of Sanghelios today, we must remember how we spilled much innocent blood the last time we bowed our heads and fought when bidden. They stand here as reminders, for they will have lost friends, and fathers, and brothers. And sons."

A heartbeat skipped in silence, as though the old Sangheili had forgotten what he was saying. Then hastily, he picked up again, "And yet—after all we took from them, here they still stand. They are here because, despite all they have lost, they know a future must be made, even if it takes stepping into what must surely seem a helioskrill's den." Another heartbeat, but at the first chuckle, his voice seized the room again as though this one was planned.

"We should be honored to fight alongside those with such courage."

A roar of unified assent went up as warriors raised cups—suddenly full as servers bearing pitchers faded back from the table. Even as those who took only a single draught had their vessels raised, running lights around the edge of the floor turned blue, and a soft chirp echoed from somewhere above. The Sangheili all turned forward and stood, save the speaker, who waved and bid the humans to join them along the great viewport.

With their side of the chamber empty, the humans seemed to feel more comfortable easing their way in. As the Spartan neared the old Sangheili, Gesk reappeared beside him bearing a tray with more of the wooden tankards. She could just make out what they said as the speaker turned to stare up at the viewport. "Well timed, Gesk. As ever."

"I have no control of how age slows me, Excellency."

"Of course." he flexed his mandibles once and sipped, then spun as though only just noticing Cain and inclined his head. "Abzu 'Samakr, kaidon of the Summerkeep and your host for this day. The Fleetmaster has just issued his order to rally, and we will enter slipspace momentarily."

Following his gaze, Cain and the other humans watched a new pinpoint of light appear in center of the starfield before them, and grow to incredible size. Unlike the dark purple bubbles of distorted spacetime to engulf a human ship when its Shaw-Fujikawa drive engaged, Covenant slipspace technology opened a precise tear in front of the vessel for it to slip through. The projected portal drew nearer, the window automatically dimming as it was overcome with blue-white light—and then the svelte, black void returned, minus the hopeful pinpoints of distant stars. They were in slipspace, now. Their ship surrounded by a bubble of three dimensions held rigid in a formless, twisting realm which could move in eleven. It was an existentially disturbing topic to think about, but more immediately disturbing was the proud roar that went up from the Sangheili all around.

Then, without so much as looking at one another, the Elites turned and filed back to the table, waving to their comrades to pass favored dishes as the hairs on Cain's neck began to smooth down again. 'Samakr, proving he'd been watching her, emitted a gutteral series of gasps almost like a chuckle, and suddenly he was pushing a full tankard into her armored hand. Laughter was a human's natural response to getting past a needless moment of fear, and as she couldn't help joining him in a short laugh, she considered the possibility 'Samakr was aware of this. Deciding he might be more cunning than his size would suggest, she eyed the amber liquid sloshing over the rim of her cup.

"Irukan beer," Abzu explained, loudly to be heard over the resurgence of conversation. "Brewed from a staple grain of Sanghelios. Not the most refined drink a host could offer, but given your people's history with similar alcoholic brews, I think it has the best chance of being physiologically compatible. The same should be true of the meat dishes—thorn beast is actually a Jiralhanae delicacy I have no doubts toward—but I can guide you through some of the more exotic courses if you wish. We also have a physician standing by in case I've made any grievous mistakes. Come, let us commence our true purpose here!"

Turning to the table, the humans found seats vacant and dishes placed near the kaidon by the serving staff while their backs had been turned, and took from platters in the table's center as Abzu pointed and pontificated about each to be passed around. Between his advocation of the thorn beast's stunted foreleg and warning about toasted and spiced kefal bark, he turned to Cain and asked, with open palm outstretched, "Tell me, then. Do you expect we will face much difficulty in defeating 'Makhan's Imperium?"

That Damn Sniper 05:06, September 2, 2018 (UTC)

33

2050 Hours, August 28th, 2558

Observation Deck, Questioner, Slipspace

Cain swirled the contents of the wooden tankard once more before taking a small sip. The Sangheili beer had an overwhelming bitter taste at first, which slowly dissolved into a strong earthy flavor mixed with a small sense of spice, which left her throat and stomach feeling warm. Having never had consumed much alcohol before, it was hard for her to make a comparison of this alien drink. However, she could say that its taste was similar to that of mild spirits like whiskey or scotch - this only going off of experiences she heard from other service members.

Beckoned by 'Samakr, she found a spot at the table and sat cross legged, placing her helmet in her lap and her drink by the empty plate in front of her. Cain couldn't help but notice how much this whole process reminded her of the samurai of old, the ones she learned about in training. She allowed herself a moment to gather her thoughts. Never in her life did she think she would eat alongside the Elites onboard one of their ships. However, the dull roar of conversation and the clinking of plates and silverware set her mind at relative peace, as it was something she was more accustomed to.

She looked up and down the table at all the types of alien food which 'Samakr had mentioned. Knowing that her stomach and metabolism was different than the average human, she was interested in trying some of the more exotic types of food available. She had always been curious of Sangheili culture - and what better way to quell some of it by trying their food. It's not everyday that a Spartan gets to eat Thornbeast meat after all. Cain also noticed how well ‘Samakr had prepared for this event and accommodated the human guests. It seemed he was meticulous about selecting just the right type of food, and even having a physician on hand in case anything went awry. Cain was surprised that there was even such a position in Sangheili culture - she had always figured they were the “death before dishonor” type of race.

‘Samakr found his place at the head of the table and began to offer suggestions on what to try first to the rest of the human guests. Going with his suggestions, Cain grabbed a crude fork and used it to pry a foreleg off of the cooked Thornbeast, along with some of its shoulder meat. She placed it on her plate and took a small bite.

The thick skin of the animal reminded her of roasted pork, while its tender meat could be compared to a mixture of pork, beef, and alligator. She found the mixture to be unexpectedly tasty, especially paired with whatever seasonings were used during cooking. It was rare when Cain got a chance to eat regular human meat dishes, let alone alien ones, and was surprised how well this dish was palatable for humans. Cain took another swig of Irukan beer to wash down the meat she had eaten.

“Tell me, then. Do you expect we will face much difficulty in defeating ‘Makhan’s Imperium?” ‘Samakr asked, looking over to Cain.

“In terms of ground engagements, I think we are evenly matched - the only problem on the ground we face is that they have the home field advantage. Ship-to-ship combat is where I think we are going to have the most trouble.” Cain admitted. She was being realistic - they knew some things about their foe, but not as much as she’d like. The joint task force was also heading straight into the enemy’s territory, and while they knew the layout of system, who knows what kind of traps are laid out for them, or where the bulk of their fleet really was. For all they know, the ore refinery could just be an elaborate trap rigged to explode.

‘Samakr hummed in what seemed like agreement. “A smart observation. It is wise not to overestimate or underestimate our adversary.”

The Sangheili learned that particular fact from humanity themselves. The Covenant never seemed to fully realize humanity as a fearsome foe until the Covenant was already undone at the end of the war. Also, with what ‘Samakr knew about Toru ‘Makhan, it was most wise to be realistic and prepared.

“Toru ‘Makhan is no petty warlord or pirate king. He is a respected, passionate leader and warrior, and his warriors follow suit. His assembly of the Imperium of Clarity and its alliances with its many races are an admirable feat. I know that they will not stop until they achieve victory, no matter the amount of bloodshed. I feel the upcoming campaign will not be easy, for sure.” 'Samakr noted.

Cain knew that ‘Makhan was a respected Shipmaster during the war, but she hadn’t really thought deeply about his creation of the Imperium of Clarity until now. It was quite a feat, considering the UNSC and Swords of Sanghelios were just now beginning allied relations with each other - the Imperium had already done that with multiple races in some years prior, according to the reports. Those races could have easily broken off and gone home to their families and homeworlds by now, but ‘Makhan was able to rally them together for their fight. Passionate was definitely the right word to use.

“Well, that’s all the more reason to stop them in their tracks now, before more of our people get killed while they try to expand their empire.” Cain replied, taking another sip of beer and bite of food.

“Perhaps, maybe, we could still resolve this conflict peacefully. I know it is a strange thought, especially for an old Kaidon such as myself, you, a demon bred for war.” ‘Samakr took a gulp of his beer before continuing, “His establishment of this ‘new Covenant’ is his attempt to cling to this past, and that idea must surely die. But maybe he and his men do not. The union of all the races could lead to a more peaceful galaxy, and he has already started something of the sort.”

Cain considered peace talks at this stage in the conflict almost a daft point. The Imperium had already destroyed two joint ships, all of the crew, and taken over an ore refinery on their world. Had they not destroyed those ships, perhaps peace talks could still be in question. But Cain learned that once blood was spilt, conflicts didn’t end too easily afterwards.

“Maybe a year ago, or even a few months ago, peace could have been a viable option. But the fact that neither the UNSC or Swords saw the Imperium as this big a threat until now has allowed them to build up their empire and their hate for us unchecked. Like you said, nothing is going to stop them until they get what they want. Unfortunately, I don’t think diplomacy is an option at this stage.” Cain replied.

Abzu ‘Samakr took yet another sip of his beer. “Perhaps you are right.”

‘Samakr let the human eat in peace for a short time while he conjured up more questions in his mind. He watched the human, after finishing her plate full of Thornbeast meat, reach for the dark strips of kefal bark. He put up a hand to stop her.

“Be warned that the kefal bark might be harsh on some human stomachs. It comes from a tree native on Sanghelios, roasted and spiced for taste.” He explained.

Cain nodded, “Thanks for the warning.” She placed some on her plate and cautiously took a bite.

‘Samakr chuckled. The human certainly was bold - he expected nothing less from the greatest warriors humanity had to offer. He also noticed the beer had little effect on her as compared to her other human comrades, who only had a few sips before the effects of the alcohol kicked in. He knew the drink was most likely stronger than any regular brew that humans consumed. He wondered what made this human different than the rest. ‘Samakir knew that most of her kind was shrouded in secrecy, which only added onto his interest in the demons. He thought maybe he could quell some of his curiosity this night.

The two conversed for what seemed like over an hour. Abzu 'Samakr tried to pry into the Spartan's past, to which he was given very vague answers. The Kaidon was not surprised. He expected most of the finer details to be secretive in nature by default. However, from what he could understand, she was trained much in the same way young Sangheili were. Perhaps that is how they possess the ability to match Sangheili warriors on the battlefield, he thought to himself. Humanity held his respect, but these Spartans, even more so.

“From where do you hail?” He asked.

Cain wasn’t expecting that question, which caused her to take pause. She could still vividly remember her more recent time there, on Casbah, evacuating civilians. She could still remember what a glassed planet looked and smelled like.

“Tribute. I haven’t been there in many years. The last time I was, it was under a different circumstance.” Cain chose those last words wisely.

‘Samakir put two and two together - she was there during the glassing of her homeworld. He had failed to realize how deep the scars of the war ran, even for a veteran warrior like herself. 'Samakr hoped to rectify the prodding question by offering a genuinely sincere apology. He bowed his head respectfully.

“I am sorry about your home.”

“What's happened has happened. It's good to know there's people out there trying to make it right.” She replied after a long pause.

Cain gulped down the remaining liquid from her tankard and set it on the table. The rest of the participants in the dinner were, more or less, doing the same. She noticed waiters and attendants begin to pick up the empty plates and glasses and move them off the table. One attendant went up to Abzu and whispered in his ear.

“We are arriving into the system. It is time to prepare ourselves for combat.” 'Samakr raised his voice to address everyone in the room.

It was at this point that everyone began to get up from the table, including Cain and 'Samakr. The portly Kaidon made his way over to the Spartan, one final question looming in his mind.

“As far as my understanding of your warrior class goes, you are tasked with particularly risky tasks, am I correct?” He asked, to which Cain nodded her head.

“Much like our Special Operations warriors. I can very much respect that.” He mused, before getting to his point, “I have no doubts in your abilities to do so; you are a most fearsome warrior. Your species is honored to have soldiers like you amongst their ranks.” 'Samakr complimented, offering his hand to shake, something he knew was a common human custom.

Cain accepted and firmly shook back. “Thank you. I'm honored to work alongside you and your warriors.”

The Questioner then, at that moment, gently exited slipspace. The wide viewport that spanned the room gradually faded back to its regular hue, and Cain could once again see the stars of the system clearly. She briefly looked down at the gold visor of her helmet before slipping it on and allowing it to seal. She looked back at Abzu 'Samakr. The Kaidon saluted the Spartan by putting his fist over his chest.

“I wish you well on your endeavors on the battlefield.”

Cain replicated the Sangheili salute and gave a curt nod before turning and leaving the room behind the rest of the humans.

CBrando89

Chapter 2: Clash

34: Opening Salvo

1138 Hours, August 29th, 2558

UNSC Caspian, Montak System


By the time Admiral Lin Zhi arrived at the bridge, it was already bustling with activity. Officers dashed to their stations, some still zipping up their tunics while others rubbed sleep from their eyes. While New Syracuse had been the closest world to Montak suitable for establishing a military staging point, the journey into the edge of former Covenant territory had given most of the crew time to rest up before their inevitable battle against the Imperium. Even so, they were an hour ahead of schedule.

"Morning ma'am!" Captain Jonathan Ngirandi called from the command station as she approached. "Sorry for waking you all so early."

Zhi waved him off; this was hardly the worst awakening she'd had in her military career. The Captain stepped aside as she sat down, bringing up a readout of the current situation. Their journey through slipspace had been rather uneventful, though they had trailed a little behind Felo 'Ranak's own fleet, even with the upgrades to their Shaw-Fujikawa drives that should have allowed them to keep pace with the Sangheili vessels. That aside, there seemed to be no incident reports.

"How far behind Ranak were we?" Zhi turned to Ngirandi, who had taken command while she slept.

"A little under an hour, though they've been waiting for us here."

"Good," she had half-expected the Sangheili to make his attack without them. "Let's organise our battlegroups and form up behind them."

As Ngirandi saluted and headed off to one of the many bridge stations below, Zhi felt another presence to her left, and spoke without turning. "Samson."

The Vice Admiral, immaculate as ever in his black service uniform, stood with his arms folded behind his back. Regarding the tactical readouts before responding, he didn't bother with a salute before pointing towards the newly-generated system map on a nearby holotable.

"I've dispatched two prowlers ahead for reconnaissance," he indicated two dots, far away from the main fleet. "I hope you don't mind."

Good morning to you too. "Not at all, though I'd like to be informed once they take action. I take it they're equipped with HORNET mines?"

"Yes ma'am. Once we get a better readout of the system, I'll see if we can deploy them."

"Good," Zhi finished skimming the fairly mundane reports of the Sixth Fleet's captains before rising to her feet. "For now, let's figure out how we're going to get to Montak."

Peering out of the primary viewscreen, which stretched from the floor to the ceiling ahead of them, Zhi could make out the tiny red speck that was Montak. Closer to them, the Swords of Sanghelios had spread out, with Felo 'Ranak's Questioner in the middle of their arrowhead formation. Having seen that particular layout first-hand, with the best-armed warships taking point to cover their lighter vessels and landing craft, Zhi could tell that the Fleet Master intended to punch through enemy lines while swarming enemy ships with boarding parties while dropships made for Montak's surface. It had been rather effective in the war against human opponents, though she had no idea if it would work against Sangheili-made vessels of a similar tonnage.

Then it came to their own Sixth Fleet. To the Caspian's port side, Rear Admiral Hawkins' Second Battlegroup was still emerging from slipspace. While the UNSC Maya, a Vindication-class light battleship, was a formidable vessel, the ships that arrived alongside it were mostly frigates accompanied by two heavy support ships stocked with replacement MAC slugs and missile blocks for the fleet's capital vessels. While lightly-armed, Zhi intended to use the Maya and its frigates to cover their landing craft for their hopefully brief invasion of Montak.

"The Third Battlegroup is running behind," Samson noted, checking a datapad. "Should we press on without them?"

"We'll have to," Zhi drummed her fingers atop a nearby console. Comprised almost entirely of transport ships with a single mobile refit station for emergency ship repairs and a few frigates for defence, they wouldn't be much use in a proper fight.

As Zhi waited for the rest of their Second Battlegroup to arrive, one of her Lieutenants turned and called up to her.

"Admiral, we've got a transmission from the Swords of Sanghelios!"

"Patch it through."

Zhi stepped back, and a moment later the holographic form of Felo 'Ranak materialised above a nearby panel. While he was still clad in his usual golden armour, the Fleet Master seemed to be gripping the hilts of a pair of deactivated energy swords and he paced back and forth while the connection established.

"Admiral Zhi," he turned to face her. "It seems that fortune favours us today. The guarded portion of Montak will not face us for some time, giving us time to advance without fear of attack from the surface."

The Admiral nodded. Felo had wasted no time in doing his own reconnaissance, it seemed. "And their fleet strength?"

"Not as formidable as I feared, though there is no sign of their supercarrier. What they do have over the planet will give us quite the battle, but the bulk of their forces is likely elsewhere."

"I agree, they've definitely got ships held back. Are you going to head straight for the planet?"

"That was my intent," Felo nodded. "Once we push forward and throw their battle lines into disarray, I believe that they may spring some kind of trap. If you allow my ships to take the bait, then your fleet may counter it."

Zhi found herself thinking back to Samson's suggestion the previous day. While it was a known fact that Sangheili commanders would undertake risky actions in the name of honour or glory, perhaps Felo's eagerness to put his own ships at risk ahead of his human allies was a sign of his guilt. Nonetheless, Zhi was fine with keeping her fleet safe if the Fleet Master wanted to sacrifice his own.

"It's risky, but I approve. Begin your advance, but stay out of firing range until my ships have caught up. You'll want our MAC guns to back you up once you enter the fray."

"Understood, Admiral. I have also prepared my warriors for groundside invasion, under General 'Taram's direction. Commander 'Marak intends to make his way to the surface once the fighting begins as well."

"We've got our own ground troops ready to deploy as well, Fleet Master. Once they've reached Montak, their primary objective will be to eliminate enemy anti-air defences before pushing up to retake the main refinery complex."

"Do you believe that the innocents there are still alive?"

It was a good question. Zhi swallowed, weighing up the benefits of simply bombing the site from orbit and dealing with fallout later and attempting to secure the civilians. If even a Sangheili like Felo 'Ranak was willing to send his best men in on a rescue operation, then she had to give them a chance.

"I believe so. I'll have our special forces teams coordinate with your own once we're down there so we can get a better idea of the situation."

"Good," the Sangheili gave her the same chest-thumping salute from before. "I will begin my advance."

The moment the feed cut out, Zhi began to give commands, forming the Sixth Fleet up from its rather raggedy formation into one suited for a prolonged battle. With the help of Weatherby to ensure that the fleet could maneuver with maximum efficiency, the next half-hour was spent catching up to the slowly-advancing Swords of Sanghelios fleet. It was then that the Admiral got her first glimpse of the Imperium of Clarity's fleet, sighting a blend of older Covenant vessels alongside newer warships clustered around Montak itself.

In total, there seemed to be several major groups, likely coinciding with a different leader. Though ONI's intelligence had been incredibly sparse regarding the Imperium, they had identified several major military figures that were almost certainly leading their armada. Considering the group's size compared to the gargantuan Covenant, Zhi was certain that the larger ships belonged to the enemy fleet masters. As she sat by her tactical screen, counting down the seconds until they were in MAC firing range. Far ahead of the Caspian, dozens of shining flashes streaked through space as Ranak unleashed his first volley of plasma torpedoes.

"Enemy ships firing," Weatherby materialised beside Zhi's chair, arms folded. "Looks like they're just testing the waters right now with their light cruisers."

A few distant flares marked the end of several unshielded warships; the first proper casualties of this war. At this, the Imperial fleet began to move, positioning its heavy cruisers and capital ships by Montak's barren moons for cover as more plasma fire flashed between the opposing groups. The Imperium hadn't sprung their hypothetical trap yet, but as the Ranak fleet continued to advance, the first Sangheili landing launched from their carriers. Narrowing her eyes, Zhi thumbed the button on her COM system, signalling the Maya.

"Admiral Hawkins, move your group up and deploy your troop complement. I'm sending some ships to cover you."

"Moving up," Hawkins replied moments later.

While the rest of the Sixth Fleet continued on course, the UNSC Maya and its escort of frigates veered off sharply, using the battle ahead as a distraction as it approached its deployment range. While most infantry units could safely be transported via dropship, the armoured personnel units and material needed to establish temporary command centres on the ground required slower transport ships. A few light escort craft skimmed towards Hawkins' battlegroup, only to be blown to pieces by precise MAC fire from three nearby frigates.

As a steady stream of craft departed from the Maya, joined by others already dispatched from the Sixth Fleet's other transport vessels down into Montak's northern hemisphere, the Imperial fleet responded in force. Acting in unison, almost every single ship in the enemy fleet dispatched its fighter complement. Banshee fighters poured out from the underside of capital ships like a swarm of locusts, moving in tightly-synchronised spirals before veering off in the direction of the enemy. It took Zhi a few moments to realise that these fighters were not heading to harass the already-engaged Swords of Sanghelios, but were surging directly towards the Sixth Fleet. Joined by scores of larger and better-armed Seraph fighters, their sheer number could cause issues for even some of the larger UNSC ships.

"All ships, deploy fighters immediately and cover those landing craft!" Zhi spoke over the fleet-wide intercom before glancing at the tactical readout. "Second echelon, move off and provide support!"

Five Halberd-class destroyers peeled off from the main group alongside several frigates, moving in to back up the Maya and its escort as the Imperium's fighters drew even closer. Across the fleet, Broadsword and Longsword fighter squadrons shot from their launch bays, moving in tight formation. Two heavy Orion-class assault carriers drew up alongside the Caspian, bringing their impressive arsenal to bear as the Sixth Fleet finally moved into firing range. Above the surface of Montak, both sides prepared to bring their full might against each other.

On the bridge of the Caspian, Zhi raised one arm, her eyes fixed on the tactical screen as the Imperium of Clarity's first line of cruisers drew closer. Below, Captain Ngirandi sat with two officers controlling the ship's twin heavy MAC guns, looking up towards the command platform as they awaited orders. Vice Admiral Ryan Samson stood by Zhi, his hands balled into white-knuckled fists at his side as he stared out at the enemy fleet. The room fell silent, and waited.

At last, Admiral Lin Zhi smiled, and brought her hand down sharply over the table. "Fire!"

Brodie-001: Here to help

35: A Deep Breath

1142 Hours, August 29th, 2558

CC-class battlecruiser Soul Ascension, in battle formation over Montak

Holograms had a distinctly impersonal feel to them—so much lost in transmission, so fewer subtle feelings and statements than in a face-to-face meeting—but even so Shinsu could sense the anger in Orro ‘Hendai’s transparent image. The Field Marshal towered over him, his holographic presence magnified by some command from the transmitter on his end of the communication. Shinsu was tall even by Sangheili standards and not used to looking up at those he spoke with—no doubt the goal of ‘Hendai’s enhanced image. He countered this by conjuring up several topographic maps of Montak’s surface and making a show of diverting his attention between them and the glowering Field Marshal.

“This is not a favor, envoy,” ‘Hendai growled, addressing Shinsu by his non-warrior title. “Your legion is being disciplined for its excesses on Frendhal.”

“Oh, to be sure,” Shinsu said evenly, brushing the insult aside. “Though I might point out that they are not mine to command. They may be all the Didact’s Hand could afford to spare for your cause, but I am his sacred messenger—”

“You Covenant are all the same to me,” ‘Hendai dismissed him with a wave of his hand. “Do not presume to think that your delusions of sanctity give you any sway with the Imperium. Were it up to me I would send you all scurrying back to Jul ‘Mdama and his dying cause. But I have orders to make use of you, and so I shall.”

“As you say.” Shinsu inclined his head, biting back irritation at both ‘Hendai’s barbs and his own need to invoke the religious airs expected of a Covenant officer. But he had his own part to play, tiresome as it sometimes was. “The Kru’desh Legion is at your disposal.”

“Indeed.” ‘Hendai’s mandibles curled in a cold smile. He transmitted the location of several refineries on Montak’s southern hemisphere. “And dispose of you I shall. I have been tasked with defending the refineries in this section of the planet. The enemy is already pressing hard to secure a beachhead for their assaults, and I understand the brunt of their attack will fall here.”

Coordinates for the centermost refineries pinged on Shinsu’s map. The Imperium forces expected both UNSC and Swords of Sanghelios troops to converge on them under cover from the battle in orbit.

“Considering the material your warriors appropriated back on Frendhal, I can only hope they are up to the task of battle itself.”

Shinsu regarded the map and resisted the urge to protest. ‘Hendai was indeed plunging the Kru’desh into the thick of the fighting—his battle plan threw the Covenant forces directly in the path of the enemy’s projected landing trajectory. “And the local Imperium forces will be moving to support our operations?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

“My warriors will defend the refineries,” ‘Hendai informed him curtly. “My combat operations are not your concern. I suggest you prepare your warriors for a hard fight.”

He leaned closer, looming over Shinsu. “And may your gods help you if your warriors so much as set foot in those refineries.”

Shinsu craned his neck at the hologram and gave the Field Master a tight smile. “Understood. The enemy will not reach those refineries. And perhaps upon our return you would do us the honor of reviewing the battle in person. I believe there is much we could offer to the larger war effort.”

‘Hendai’s mandibles clenched. “That depends entirely on your performance on Montak.”

“Of course. You will not be disappointed."

‘Hendai closed the transmission with a look that told Shinsu his expectations were already too low to brook any disappointment. He looked down at the maps—at the battle plans throwing the Kru’desh’s warriors into the fire—and gave himself a moment to soothe the anger rising up inside him. There was no room for his own ego now, not at this delicate stage of the proceedings. When the smoke cleared on Montak Stray and the Kru’desh would either have won him the respect he needed from the Imperium—or most of them would be dead.

“Oracle,” he said aloud. “I presume you were listening in.”

“Of course.” The golden light of the so-called holy messenger filled the space where ‘Hendai had stood a moment before. “Nothing happens on this ship without my knowledge.”

“Of course.” Shinsu stymied his irritation. “Have the legion mobilized for immediate combat deployment and get the ship in position over Montak. And transmit these battle plans to your commander. I am interested to see how he handles our… unorthodox assignment.”


All Covenant vessels hosted a chapel near the center of the ship where warriors could pray and worship on long voyages and the sharp, bitter hours leading up to a battle. Usually these sanctuaries were lavishly furnished and packed with devout warriors at any time in a ship’s operations cycle.

The Kru’desh warriors—the Covenant’s forsaken and outcasts—were somewhat less than devout. As such the Soul Ascension’s chapel doubled as a storage closet and makeshift galley—and even then there was still rarely trouble finding room to pray.

Tuka ‘Refum bowed his head before the altar and finished the last of his litany of prayers—not the discredited sacraments of the old Covenant, but an older prayer of the sort Tuka’s ancestors had spoken in the ancient temples of Sanghelios before the time of the Covenant. A prayer for victory in the looming battle, safety for the warriors in his charge, and forgiveness for the sins that stained his service to the Covenant.

The litany completed, Tuka glanced furtively at the other members of his lance engrossed in their own prayers. He turned back to the altar and, feeling somewhat foolish, launched into a prayer of his own devising. He had muttered these words—more of a desperate plea than a prayer—ever since he had first found himself pressed into the Covenant’s service when he was barely more than a child.

“Human bullets will avoid Tuka ‘Refum’s body. Human bullets will avoid Tuka ‘Refum’s body.” Older warriors like Ro’nin spoke of the old war, when the mighty Covenant legions had effortlessly crushed human defenses in battle after battle. Tuka had never known this time. For as long as he’d been fighting, the Covenant had been on the losing side, driven to the edges of the galaxy by the resurgent humans and their allies. “Human bullets will avoid Tuka ‘Refum’s body.”

His first lance had perished in his first real battle. Battle after desperate battle saw Tuka survive until his exile to the Kru’desh Legion seemed to seal his fate to be sacrificed as worthless refuse. Instead Stray’s ascension and the legion’s reformation had saved him once again.

“Enemy blades will avoid Tuka ‘Refum’s body. Enemy blades will avoid Tuka ‘Refum’s body.” The fear of death. The terror of combat. He poured those weaknesses into his prayers, a pathetic offering to the gods. If they were willing, they would take such burdens from him now so that he would not feel them in the battle ahead.

His communicator pinged, interrupting his muttered chant. Tuka glanced down and started at the sight of a direct summons to the war room. The commander wanted to speak with him.

Tuka rose and turned to leave. He nodded to Ier and the rest of his lance, all busy with their own prayers. To his surprise, he saw Mihka kneeling in the corner of the chapel beside an overturned plasma crate. He had never seen the dropship pilot at prayers before and had imagined that she either didn’t believe or didn’t care for the gods—a common attitude in the Kru’desh, especially with the mercenaries Stray contracted to swell their numbers.

Mihka caught his gaze and offered him a thin smile. Tuka nodded back to hide his embarrassment, then hurried out of the chapel.

He passed through the Soul Ascension’s winding corridors, edging past lances of warriors filing down to the dropship hangar. Crew hurried along to their stations amidst an air of grim anticipation. Apparently, the battle in orbit over Montak had already commenced. Since the ship was not already engaged, Tuka could only imagine what the Kru’desh’s assignment might be. Perhaps Stray had some scheme concocted to keep them clear of the fighting. The commander always had a knack for keeping the legion out of harm’s way.

Something told Tuka they wouldn’t be so lucky this time.

A short trip through the ship’s gravity elevator deposited him a few corridors down from the war room. He hurried toward the door, pausing only briefly at the sight of Ro’nin striding in the opposite direction. The older warrior glanced down as he passed, mandibles curling in one of his characteristic smirks.

“Best of luck to you,” the officer murmured. “You’ll need it.” Tuka kept walking, then thought better of it and offered his superior a cursory salute. Ro’nin waved him off with an amused laugh and carried on his way.

Tuka had never liked Ro’nin, but there was no denying the ex-mercenary’s skill as an operations officer. He knew how to motivate the criminals and apostates who made up the majority of the Kru’desh rank and file. Along with Stray, he’d turned the legion into something more than a condemned suicide unit.

“Do take care of that human female out there,” Ro’nin called after him. “I rather enjoy my little chats with her.”

Amber. Tuka had nearly forgotten she would be in his lance today. Another unknown he’d rather not think about. He walked on towards the war room, which lacked any sort of security detail. Not that Stray needed one, given that the oracle had full control over the Soul Ascension’s door access. He half expected her to say something as he approached the doors, but they simply slid open to let him in.

The room was dark and Tuka’s eyes took a moment to adjust. He dimly perceived Stray seated at the far end of the chamber, legs propped up on the war table. To Tuka’s surprise, the commander had removed his armor, which lay piled on the table beside him. The human was bare-chested, revealing a pale, battle scarred torso. He stared intently at a small book held in his prosthetic arm.

Stray glanced up as Tuka entered. Even in the dim light Tuka could tell his commander was in a bad mood. He waited respectfully in the threshold as Stray rose and beckoned him inside.

“Took your time getting here,” Stray said, snapping the book shut. Tuka wondered if he was cold without his armor. “What, did you walk the whole way?”

“Forgive me, commander. I was attending to my prayers. In the future I will be more—”

“Save it. You always take me too seriously.” Stray set the book on the table and reached for a pitcher and a pair of cups.

Tuka inclined his head toward the book. “More battle texts?”

In response, Stray slid the book towards him. Tuka was surprised to see it was a Sangheili text, a simple history treatise meant for younger warriors. “Kid’s stuff. You’re the one who told me I needed to go with the basics. I can still barely read the scribbles you people call writing.”

“An admirable effort,” Tuka said respectfully. Stray shot him an irritated look.

“I can’t get through a word of it right now, not with this mess we’re about to step in. Loosen up, will you? You need to be on the game for this mission.”

“So we are going into battle.” A stiff resignation set into Tuka’s bones. If Stray were giving him orders personally that could only mean one thing.

“Right in the middle of it,” Stray agreed, pouring the pitcher’s contents into the cups. “We got the wrong kind of attention back on Frendhal. Someone’s taking it out on us. I probably should have seen it coming.”

He beckoned Tuka over and offered him a cup. Tuka was surprised to smell a rich wine of the kind he had only ever sampled a few times before. He gave Stray a questioning glance.

“Drink now,” the human advised. “You and your boys are the first wave out of the ship.”

“I see.” Tuka sighed and took the cup. “Our target?”

“The fleet’s fully engaged right now and we’ve got enemy troop transports trying to set up beachheads on the planet’s surface. They want to hit the ground outside the Imperium’s anti-air cover and then push forward to hit Montak’s refineries.” Stray downed a cup of the Sangheili wine and poured himself another. “Our Imperium friends have something special planned for defending the refineries but in the meantime we’re running interference.”

“Something tells me we won’t simply be reinforcing the refineries themselves.” Tuka sipped the wine, though he didn’t much like the taste.

“You got that right. We’re not even allowed to near them. It’s almost as if the Imperium doesn’t trust us or something.” Stray snorted, but his eyes were hard and angry. “So we get to fly right into the thick of things. The enemy seems to think the Imperium’s just going to let them land and slug it out on the ground all nice and polite. We get to prove them wrong.”

Tuka nodded, wondering just how many of his friends were about to die protecting a few factories. Expendable warriors, that’s what the Kru’desh always were. Dying so that someone else’s soldiers didn’t have to. “An aerial assault then.”

“Yeah. Fast drop to our assigned sector, tear into them before they even hit the ground.” Stray fixed Tuka with a hard gaze. “Hit them hard, hit them bloody. These Imperium bastards want to use us like cannon fodder. Let’s show them what we really are.”

“I understand.”

“I mean it, Tuka. Be brutal. No mercy. Don’t give them a chance.”

“I understand,” Tuka repeated, more firmly. He could feel his hearts beating faster, already anticipating the violence to come.

“The UNSC and the Swords aren’t used to working together.” Stray called up a small map of the Kru’desh’s assigned sector from the war table. “They won’t be as coordinated as usual. We can use that.”

“I have never worked with the Imperium warriors before,” Tuka pointed out.

Stray shook his head. “You can’t count on them down there. I convinced the Marauders to boost our fighter cover, but that’s it. Once you’re on the ground, you keep fighting until there’s nothing left to kill. If this is going to be the first stand-up fight of this little war, I say we make an impression.”

“Understood. I will not disappoint you.”

“You never do. That’s why I’ve got you in the vanguard.”

Tuka gave his commander a sidelong glance. “Then perhaps I should disappoint, if only to avoid future assignments like this.”

Stray snorted. “There’s that sense of humor. You’ll be needing it. I’ll be right behind you with the rest of our ground forces to set up support fire. Try to do all the real work before we arrive.”

He set his cup down and grimaced. “Get pumped and get pissed. We’re gonna need a whole lot of violence if we’re going to get through this.”

“We will win,” Tuka assured him. “The gods are watching over you.”

“Really? They must have a weird sense of humor.”

“They do work in strange ways,” Tuka admitted.

“Tell me about it.” Stray nodded. “Go on, get your troops ready to drop. I’ll see you dirtside.”

Tuka tapped a fist to his chest in salute and marched from the war room. As the doors close he saw Stray standing alone in the darkness, strapping his armor back on over his pale, battered skin.


Fires blossomed over Montak as the fleets clashed with their opening salvos. Fighter squadrons collided in chaotic firestorms as the warship formations exchanged torrents of fire.

In the midst of the chaos, the Soul Ascension slipped out of formation and descended down towards a sector on the undefended side of the planet. Seraphs and Banshees scrambled from its hangars as a second battlecruiser, Purveyor of the Righteous, tailed behind to cover its descent. Fighters from the Purveyor flew into position around the Soul Ascension, standing by for the initial assault.

Tuka and his lance marched towards their dropships, ignoring the occasional rumblings as the ship maneuvered to avoid enemy fire. Tuka stopped by Mihka’s Phantom and waved his warriors inside as he surveyed the hangar. The sight of hundreds of Covenant warriors readying themselves for battle never failed to send a chill through his gut. He slung his plasma carbine over his back and followed his lance into the dropship. Its bay doors sealed behind him, leaving the warriors crouching in the dim troop bay.

“Enemy fire will avoid Tuka ‘Refum’s body,” Tuka muttered one final time. An Unggoy named Urkit crouched beside him, shouldering a fuel rod launcher. Ier knelt to his left, loading a belt of grenades into a Jiralhanae grenade launcher. He caught Tuka’s gaze and laughed.

“What can I say? I like the way it shoots.”

Tuka nodded, somehow reassured by his friend’s levity. He saw the human, Amber, kneeling beside the bay doors. She’d found a human heavy machine gun in the Kru’desh armory and appropriated it, along with a Needler she’d fixed to her hip. Tuka caught her visored gaze turn towards him.

“Follow my lead,” he instructed. “Once we’re on the ground, we all need to stay together.”

“Got it,” she replied drily. “Not my first drop.”

“Your first drop with us,” Tuka reminded her. He stared at her until she nodded and turned away.

“Launch order just came through,” Mihka announced from the cockpit. “You all ready for some fun?”

“Just get us down there in one piece,” Tuka called back. His lance laughed nervously. They trusted the pilot’s ability to avoid enemy fire, though their stomachs were set for her daredevil maneuvers.

“All drosphips up,” Mihka reported. “Hold on back there.”

Tuka squeezed his eyes shut and offered a final, silent prayer.

The Kru’desh dropships soared out of the hangar and plunged down into Montak’s orbit. Fighter squadrons soared ahead of them, already honing on the formations of enemy troop carriers. It was a veritable race to the surface—only the Kru’desh didn’t need to arrive first. They just needed to get in range while the enemy was still in the air. From there it was simple, bloody butcher’s work.

The bloodletting was about to begin.

36: Emergency Sky Dive

FORENOON // 29 AUGUST 2558 (D-D)

Location: "THE BATTLESPACE", MONTAK COLONY

Shizuko was avoiding Andra. She was also avoiding Merlin. Outside of the necessitated teambuilding exercises and mission preparations, the ethnically Japanese Spartan made herself scarce to everyone at base camp on New Syracuse.

At first, Andra understood the girl’s disappearance from everyone’s presence having behaved similarly toward people outside her unit for five years ongoing. From what little Andra knew about Shizuko’s whereabouts before the assignment to Andra’s Team Boson, she led her Delta Company unit, Team Entropy, in a ground assault against a Covenant faction in something called Operation: DARK DESCENT. Andra’s own experience with the operation was through the eyes of a deceased SPARTAN-III who also participated in that descent over a planet called Aragon. They descended into battle while nuclear bombs detonated over a Covenant warship and Spartans propelled themselves to the ground in drop pods. In the end, the mission was a success. However, Andra’s avatar died in combat along with the individual’s entire team, killed by falling debris or hostile gunfire. It was easy to deduce – if Shizuko was alone now, maybe, her entire team was gone too.

Andra could not begin to imagine what that kind of pain was like, however; she saw her own team fracture at the seams when Daniele-D003 and Roxanne-D107 decided to desert the UNSC over conspiracy theories and doomsday rumors. She had some idea what it was like to feel lost and alone. Now that two days passed and Shizuko was still not talking or interacting, it put the girl on edge. Shizuko might outrank Merlin and her and Shizuko might be a better Spartan, however, her lack of coordination was feeding into Andra’s distress. Adding to the distant sound of anti-aircraft firing approaching closer and closer by the second.

Andra had a way with being confrontational, and she reached her boiling point. She couldn’t wait for Shizuko to warm up to Merlin or her any longer. They were about to go into combat and she needed to know she could trust the silent and lonely ONI Headhunter.

Decked out from the neck down in her cutting-edge, grey-blue-colored HELLJUMPER-class MJOLNIR power armor, Andra believed she could appear imposing at her six-foot height and if she put on her best “angry” face. She stalked across the almost-silent troop bay inside their Pelican gunship and got inconveniently close to the shock-absorption seat Shizuko had selected for herself at the back of the aircraft. The Japanese girl was decked out in her own FOTUS-class MJOLNIR armor set – painted orange and black. A datapad lay in Shizuko’s lap displaying tactical information and notes on a two-dimensional map of the selected battlespace where Team Boson would drop.

Andra picked the tablet out of Shizuko’s lap and placed it in the seat next to Shizuko. Shizuko’s dark eyes glanced up at Andra is curiosity, following the outstretched hand move her datapad. Even with the unexpected movement, the Japanese girl still said nothing.

“Shizuko. We need to talk.”

Shizuko stiffened at the sound of her own name as if she was expecting to be reprimanded or had been preparing for this for a while. Andra wrinkled her nose at the shuffle in her fellow Spartan’s shoulders. Her blue eyes narrowed down on Shizuko’s own as they silently made contact.

“We need to talk. Right now.” Andra repeated herself.

Shizuko licked her lips and glanced at the space past Andra’s head before refocusing on Andra’s nose, trying to pretend to make eye contact.

“Why?”

Andra frowned deeply at the one-word response.

“Why? Why? Because we’re about to go into combat and you haven’t said a word. I don’t know why you don’t want to talk but I need to know I can trust you to have my back and Merlin’s when we’re down there. You’re supposed to be in charge here but you’ve let Merlin do all the heavy lifting, your silence is making me uncomfortable.”

Shizuko raised an eyebrow at Andra. “Why’s that my problem?”

Andra grimaced at the response, a subtle agitation boiling behind her lightning-blue eyes. “Oh, I don’t know! Maybe because you’re not talking to me! That’s a stupid question.”

Shizuko simply shrugged at Andra’s outburst.

Merlin’s voice called from the cockpit, “Are you two alright back there?”

“Totally!” Andra responded in a sickly-sweet tone. She didn’t really intend to be mean to Merlin but she was already venting and the whole aircraft was a target.

Merlin didn’t respond.

Shizuko sighed and rubbed her face, glanced away from Andra than back at her. Mustering up something internally, she gave Andra a straight answer. “I really don’t want to talk right now. Trust me when I say I got your back – I just can’t show it right now. I’m here to evaluate you two as a team. See if you got what it takes to become Headhunters. Along with Team Xiphos, I’m just here to smooth-over the transition process. We can talk later about me; we got to focus on the battle first.”

“Fine…” Andra replied, huffing. She wasn’t done but it was clear, still, that she would not get a more clear answer than that. At least she talked this time.

Andra turned to walk away when a high-pitched whistling entered Andra’s ear. She froze in place as the whistle started to overtake the loud thrusters of their gunship. “Is that…?”

She didn’t get to finish her question because the Pelican rocked back and forth all of a sudden and warning lights began flashing around the cabin. Merlin was shouting something but Andra couldn’t hear him when an explosion cracked the side of the troop bay and the air zoomed out the side of the aircraft, with Andra coming along with it. She didn’t have time to reach for her helmet on a nearby wall rack or grab a rifle. She had no time to turn on her magnetic boots. She was thrown out of the aircraft feet first as the artificial ground gave way below her and green plasma explosions crashed into the Pelican around her.

All she could feel was the sensation of wind flying by her and the distress of falling without assistance. Falling, falling, falling… The ground, a brown desert of cliffs and sand approached beneath Andra as she attempted to lay flat and slow her descent. Without her helmet and its built-in combat instruments, she was falling blind and confused. She ran on instinct as the ground came closer and closer. She pushed herself into a dive motion and attempted to glide toward a cliff side. Taking a risk, she did a mid-air somersault, pointed her legs toward the ground and reached back with a hand to the emergency parachute tied to her armor. It popped but she was already coming in too fast. She hit a sandbank as she had intended but rocks bounced around her as she rolled down a sharp slope. She hit something over the head and she was out of it. The last thing she saw was what appeared to be her Pelican gliding close by in a mighty fireball and smashing into the side of a cliff a kilometer east. She descended into her darkness, blurriness and her heavy eyelids lulling her into an injury-induced sleep.

Distant Tide: Hunter - Killer

37: Leftovers

1220 Hours, August 29th, 2558

CRS-class light cruiser Universal Resonance, in orbit around moons of Montak

The battle had begun. Grono was waiting with the Resonance positioned behind one of the larger moons of the planet called Montak. While the first wave of Imperium ships went to get butchered by the UNSC and traitorous Swords, he would lie in wait, for when the time to attack was right.

As Grono watched the battlemap for the first signs of blood, Rach came from his quarters, armed to the teeth with his hunting equipment. The first dot, one representing the Imperium, quickly blinked out: the battle had begun. “Prepare the defenses,” ordered Grono as he motioned for Rach to assemble the boarding troops. “We shall not board until the time is right.”

This battle would be a quick one. The Shipmaster could sense it. More dots began to fizzle out, many casualties forming on both sides. Grono watched intently, noting as an Imperium Cruiser crashed through a destroyer manned by the Swords of Sanghelios. Three human frigates collectively brought down a heavy corvette, only to be swarmed over by an overwhelming force of fighters zooming out of carrier’s hangars. The fighters were then driven off by the fire of a human and Sangheili destroyer, returning soon with reinforcements. As the carrier plowed through the enemy fleet, the destroyers were obliterated by the firepower of more cruisers, the battle ending swiftly as the remaining Imperium forces scaring away the remaining ships, including the leader of the group; a UNSC battleship.

“It looks like our friends’ playtime is finished here,” stated Commander ‘Iltuk as he eased himself.

“I would not be so sure, Commander.”

Grono pointed to a single dot on the screen, much smaller than the rest, and lying extremely close to their position. “It seems that we have a straggler. And I intend to help them catch up.”

“But sir,” Rach asked, a look of confusion on his face. “Wouldn’t the sensors of the Imperium ships have picked it up too? After all, unfortunately our Covenant is nowhere near as advanced as they are.”

Grono snarled, baring his teeth before turning and slapping Rach across his mandibles with the back of his hand. “Of course I know that you imbecile! Do not speak of us being below these aristocratic imposters! Am I understood, Commander?”

Breathless, Rach struggled to shape his mandibles to from the word ‘yes’. Grono sighed and sat back down, spying the dot remaining on the screen. He recomposed himself from his outburst, and continued. “I do not know how they passed over that, but it is now ours to kill. Ready the plasma missiles!”

As the Universal Resonance drew closer to the ship, it was plain to see that it had sustained little to no damage and had hidden from the battle. The missiles loaded, and were prepared to fire when the ship began to move. It blasted away from the Resonance and turned about to face the light cruiser, stopping only to fire its own barrage. They did little damage to the shields of the ship though, and Grono had the Resonance counterattack with a blast of plasma fire. The ship narrowly avoided it, only to be hit by the plasma cannons on the other side. The ship slowed, allowing the Resonance time to kill its engines, stranding the ship. “Back up. We can finish it off with plasma missiles, and we do not need to be needlessly close to this vessel, lest their weapons are still operational.”

The crew obeyed, and the Resonance slowly drifted away before locking onto the human frigate. “Orders, Shipmaster?” called one of the bridge crew.

“Blast it into oblivion. I don’t want anyone to survive. In other words, fire.”

The pilots obeyed, and the missiles fired. They swirled around each other in a beautiful firework of blue energy, then hit the ship and exploded. A blinding explosion shook the hull, and within moments Grono opened his eyes to see the few remains of the hull. “Any escape craft present?”

“Only a single unarmed lifeboat, sir.”

Grono smiled. “Fire again.”

His order was obliged, and another firework display lit up the space. In an instant, the only remaining survivors were rubble. “Fall back to our defensive position at the moon. We shall wait until the next wave.”


When they were finally back at the moon, Grono looked at the map to see the remaining Imperium forces; a carrier and three cruisers. Not many survived, I guess. And to think they were master tacticians. As ‘Yendam pondered this, multiple red dots came up on the screen. The Shipmaster leaned forward, surprised at what was happening, before he realized what was going on. “Reinforcements! Enemy reinforcements have arrived!” cried one of the bridge officers.

“How many are still coming? My battlemap has seven currently.”

“Nine more vessels from outer range! They will overwhelm the Imperium fleet in no time! Then they will most likely come for us!”

Grono growled, watching as the Imperium retreated from the oncoming wave of ships. The overwhelming human and Swords forces beared down on the ships like a pack of wolves on meat. Grono watched as the three cruisers were shredded, before the twelve remaining vessels turned their sights on the carrier. “Retreat! We shall let the Imperium take care of them.”

As they blasted away from the cover of the moons, Grono watched as the carrier retreated from the onslaught. Flying to the other side of Montak, ‘Yendam noticed the Sangheili ships in the allied fleet gaining on them. Before he knew it, a battlecruiser fired their plasma lance, burning through the shields of the Universal Resonance in a matter of seconds. Shortly after, a barrage of plasma missiles followed as a complement to that, damaging the hull and disabling the engines.

“Get ready for boarding action!” Yelled Rach as he brandished his weapons. “We shall fight them ‘til the very last!”

“No you fool! Our ship is too small to be worth boarding! They will fire at us to finish the job any second now!”

Rach turned to Grono and holstered his plasma rifle, sighing in recognition of their situation. As they waited for death to greet them, a prolonged silence came about. After several minutes of waiting, an Unggoy tiptoed over to the battle map and gasped. “We're saved! Imperium come and help us!”

Grono whipped around and examined the battle map, letting out a sigh of relief. Twelve Imperium ships were shown on the board, chasing off the enemy forces. “We live to hunt another day!” Shouted Rach, holding his fist up. The crew cheered and brought their own fists up in unison with him. Soon, the DDS-class heavy carrier from before came over and stopped, looming over the crippled Resonance. A transmission came through to the panel, and Grono answered.

“State your intent here, outsider. We know you are not one of ours, so why not state your business before we decide what to do with you ourselves?”

Grono looked at the panel, distraught. If the negotiations between the Imperium and Shinsu ‘Refum had gone well, he would have a chance of surviving. “I am Shipmaster Grono ‘Yendam of Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant. I come with no harm intended towards you or your empire. I only wish to vanquish a common enemy, and this is an opportunity.”

He heard a snort of contempt over the line. “Definitely more formal than the Raiding Legion, that is for sure. We have heard your hail and shall extract you from your ship. But be mindful, the Shipmaster will not tolerate any trick you might try to pull like your Kru’desh brothers.”

“I would never consider it. I offer my services to the Shipmaster for now, and shall dutifully serve him with the loyal warriors under my command until the battle is won.”

“Good answer. Exit in your dropship and land in our hangar.”

Soon, Grono, Rach, and the crew were on the Resonances single Phantom dropship, on a steady course to the carrier, now known to ‘Yendam as Blissful Solitude. They were acknowledged by the ship, and eventually set down in one of the multiple hangars. As Grono and his men marched out, they were greeted by an Imperium officer. “Are you and your men combat-ready?” He asked in a dismissive tone.

Grono answered with a stoic manner, “My men are always ready to battle.”

UnggoyZealot

38

1300 Hours, August 29th, 2558

CCS-class battlecruiser Purveyor of the Righteous, in orbit above Montak

The battle had arrived. Thyl curled his mandibles into a crooked smile, the best his race could do to imitate the human expression. He looked to the display in front of his command chair and the vast starfield it presented. Dozens of ships filled the space, both Covenant and Human, light warships providing escort with the larger ships duked it out with one another and fighters zoomed all around. One CCS-class battlecruiser’s shields flared as it was raked by missile fire from a UNSC destroyer, while a human frigate was consumed stem to stern by plasma torpedoes. This was what he had been waiting for, not raiding a simple supply convoy or frontier colony, but a proper battle. He felt like a true Shipmaster again, and it felt good, but this wasn’t the time to wallow in nostalgia. He only watched the battle for another moment before re-adjusting the display to focus on another battlecruiser, the Soul Ascension.

That ship contained the warriors of Jul ‘Mdama’s Kru’desh Legion and was currently descending through the atmosphere of Montak to deploy her troops to the surface. Thyl had been convinced, monetarily of course, to provide the air cover the Imperium would not, and so he prepared to oblige.

“Thitan, give the word, launch all fighters and prepare weapons. Dispatch the Banshees to aid the Ascension, keep the Seraphs close to draw the attention of any larger ships away and summon the High Fervor and Live Oak to us for aid.”

The other Sangheili nodded and sent out the appropriate commands. First out of the ship’s hangars were the light and nimble Type-27 Space Banshees, vacuum-sealed variants of the ubiquitous flier. They had been acquired on Frendhal to replace the Purveyor’s usual complement of Type-26s and now all fifty of them swarmed from the ship like insects, screaming through the atmosphere to meet up with and provide escort for the Soul Ascension. Following the Banshees came thirty two Morsam-pattern Seraph fighters, fully shielded and bristling with an array of pulse lasers and plasma cannons. These heavier fighters stayed in formation around the Purveyor, lashing out at any craft, human or Sangheili, that strayed too close.

Just as soon as deployment had finished, the bridge shook violently as something impacted against the ship. Thyl looked up to see a pair of arrowhead shaped human destroyers heading towards him, just as the muzzle of its main cannons flashed again. Almost instantly the ship shuddered against the impact of the second MAC round.

“Shields?” He called out.

A lower ranking officer called out, “A 59% and holding, Fleet Master.”

He growled, “Charge weapons and fire! Burn them from this world!”

The Purveyor lit up as energy was funneled from the reactors to the different weapon ports, like the lateral lines of a predatory animal. Pulse lasers shot out from the ship’s fins to intercept the swarm of missiles fired by the two destroyers, though some still impacted, further draining the shields. Finally, the weapons station reported that the ship’s silos had been loaded and ready to fire.

“Target the lead destroyer and fire silos one through five. Fire!”

On his command, five purple glowing torpedoes shot out of their silos and flew silently through space. The destroyer could do little as it was engulfed by plasma fire, explosions rippling throughout the hull and thoroughly gutting the vessel. Beside it, its companion ship backed off, firing another barrage of missiles to cover its retreat. It fell back just outside of the Purveyor’s weapons range, where it halted and fired off another shot from its main guns, this one missing the ship by mere meters. Just as it was about to fire again, a barrage of pulse laser fire erupted out of nowhere, several beams lancing the destroyer, burning through the hull though not causing critical damage.

“Where did that come from?” Thyl questioned.

Suddenly, a chirp sounded at the communications station. Thyl motioned for it to be put on and a moment later, two holographic figures appeared on the station before him, one Sangheili and the other human. As they did, a pair of CRS-class light cruisers flew across the screen, raking the human ship with fire. The human smiled and the Sangheili thumped a fist against his chest.

The human, Captain Guzman of the Live Oak, spoke first, “Sorry it took us so long, Fleetmaster, we were caught up with a group of Swords ships.”

Thyl shook his head, “No worries, Captain, you have arrived just in time. Drive the human vessel away and ensure that none make it close to us or the Soul Ascension!”

The other figure, the lithe and generally lanky Thava ‘Mozam, bobbed his head in confirmation, “As you command, Fleetmaster. They shall burn as effigies to the Gods today!”

Thyl narrowed his eyes and rumbled, “Spare me the religious proclamations Shipmaster and do the task as commanded!”

Thava lowered his head slightly and flickered out of existence. Guzman briefly glanced over at where the other hologram had been before looking back to Thyl and nodded, “We’ll get it done, Fleetmaster.”

“See to it that you do, Captain. We are being compensated greatly for our efforts and I will see that we complete our contract.”

Without further conversation, Guzman blinked off. Back on the viewscreen, the two light cruisers took up flanking positions some distance away from the Purveyor, working in tandem with the Purveyor’s own fighters to establish a perimeter away from Thyl’s ship and the Soul Ascension below.


Trabetus felt the adrenaline coursing throughout his entire body as his fighter sailed through the atmosphere and past the bulk of the Covenant battlecruiser. The ship, the Soul Ascension, had ceased its descent through the atmosphere, holding position far above the surface to safely disgorge its complement for the battle soon to come. The cruiser could hold its own against any stray fighters they veered too close with its point defense weapons, and so the Banshees continued down through the clouds to the dusty world below.

Only moments later, the mass of fliers emerged from the cloud layer and out into the open, revealing their targets: a mass of human dropships and their fighter escorts, zooming towards the ground below. A toothy grin emerged on Trabetus’ face at the shooting gallery this was certain to become. He heard the flight leader give the order to attack and angled his Banshee sharply downwards. The purple alien fighter wailed as it sped through the air towards the ground at supersonic speeds. Though it had been designed for combat in the cold void of space, it was still a nimble opponent in atmosphere.

At this point, the enemy aircraft had probably picked up the incoming Banshees, but there was little they could do as the mass of craft swarmed towards them. Trabetus thumbed the firing mechanisms in front of him and the Banshee’s weapons came to life, its two heavy plasma cannons spewing white hot bolts down onto the dropships below. Armor sizzled and melted as the shots impacted, a few lucky ones managing to hit one of the rear thruster nacelles, which soon sputtered with smoke and then fire as the dropship lost control and spun away into oblivion.

He looked around the canopy and saw several other human dropships careening towards the floor. It was at that moment that a nearby Banshee was suddenly engulfed in fire, most of it was blown apart in the explosion and what was left of the twisted husk fell to the ground below. Almost immediately afterwards, another of the fliers was torn apart, and another, and another. It rapidly became clear what was happening as his canopy darkened around him and the massive delta wing shaped craft flew overhead. Longswords, he thought to himself, cursing as another fighter went down. He was familiar with them as more than a few of the human pilots in their cell operated the disturbingly massive fighters.

Trabetus and several others broke off their attack on the Pelicans and redirected themselves towards the Longswords. Plasma bolts flew through the air and impacted against their hulls but it did little, the Longswords’ armor was too thick and the plasma too weak to do any significant damage against it. He fell in line behind one of the big fighters and switched to his secondary weapon and, after a brief lock-on period, fired. The globular green orb flew out from the Banshee’s undercarriage and zipped off towards the Longsword, following the heat expelled by its huge engines. The pilots tried to dodge, but it did little to shake the fuel rod which continued to grow closer. It exploded against one of its engines, blowing it apart and rupturing one of the nearby fuel cells, sending a larger secondary explosion cascading through the ship. The fighter was torn apart in a spectacularly violent fashion, sending debris flying in every direction, a particularly large fragment missing Trabetus’ flier by inches.

His comm barked to life, “All fighters, allied dropships are in bound, protect the Kru’desh! Ensure they reach the surface!”

Almost immediately, a group of fast moving Phantom dropships burst through the clouds, hurtling towards the ground. As if on command, the human fighters redirected their attack towards the Phantoms. In response, the entire flight of Banshees did the same, targeting the Longswords in an attempt to keep them away from the friendly dropships. Several of the Longswords broke off their attack and swung around to face the incoming Banshees. Plasma bolts, fuel rods, 50mm shells, and rockets all flew through the air, melting armor and blasting apart the fragile fliers. The sky was marked by explosions as ships from both sides were destroyed in the huge aerial melee.

Trabetus craned his neck upward as a Longsword sailed overhead, heading towards a trio of Phantoms. There were no other fighters in range and if it got close enough, it would surely destroy them. Faced with little options, he pulled back on the attitude controls, rocketing the small craft upwards. Once he had gained the altitude advantage over the human ship, he positioned himself in a flight path parallel to the Longsword’s own. After catching up with it, he threw the Banshee into a tight turn, angling it towards the Longsword and engaging its boost. His ship screamed through the air as it zoomed towards it, aiming at the cockpit where its two co-pilots operated the hulking thing. He had to time this just right or he would wind up fried alongside his human opponents. His ship came within meters of the Longsword’s cockpit and its pilots tried to maneuver away but it was too late. Trabetus just about smashed his fist into the firing mechanism, the green orb of the fuel rod shot out and impacted near point-blank against the cockpit, vaporizing the occupants and searing the underside of his Banshee.

Warning klaxons rang in his ear as the Banshee’s internal sensors were overloaded by the damage caused by the explosion. He looked off to his side to see the Longsword falling lifelessly from the sky, the only problem was that he was too. He threw the controls in almost every direction, hoping for some sort of response and received almost nothing. Maybe the power was out, so he tried switching to the redundant generator and still nothing. He still had just enough control to angle the craft very slightly, and thankfully the wing assemblies hadn’t been damaged, so he could still glide it in. In theory of course, as Trabetus had never attempted such a maneuver, neither in the Covenant, nor as a freelance pilot on Diosac, or a pirate in service to Fleetmaster Zantak, but he was going to have to try now or be killed in a fiery explosion when his ship struck the ground.

He knew which he preferred and so went to it, minutely adjusting the elevators to keep the ship angled slightly down, but not too much as to instigate a stall and subsequent freefall. Without the assistance of the gravity generators that allowed the Banshee to float or impulse drives that produced the thrust necessary for flight, he needed to ensure that he remain as aerodynamic as possible. If he lost what little lift was keeping him in the air, he’d plummet through the air like a rock and face a very horrible death on the ground below.

Despite the lack of powered flight, the ground approached remarkably quickly, the almost orange colored sand of the desert rising up to meet him. He had been aiming for where the Kru’desh troops had begun landing and could now see the Phantoms and troops, whom had already engaged the human forces on the ground. These would be the most crucial moments and if he failed here, he’d never have another chance. Without instruments telling him his altitude, he would have to judge it by eye. When he reached what he thought was about fifty meters off the ground, he angled the Banshee down to the point where it was just barely scraping the ground. Of course, without gravity generators, this would be a rough landing no matter how he did it so he figured he might as well make some use out of his dead aircraft and aimed for the nearest group of humans.

When it hit the ground, it hit hard, throwing sand and rocks up into the air. The human squad in front of him only had the briefest of moments to turn and see what was making such a noise. The last thing he saw of them before they were eviscerated by the Banshee’s hulk was a look of pure terror. He plowed through them and continued on for another twenty meters or so before coming to a stop against a large rock. Once he was certain that he had stopped and wasn’t dead, he smashed the emergency release button which blew the canopy off moments later. Trabetus hopped out of the wreckage and grabbed his Spike Rifle off of his hip, looking for the nearest cover, and targets. Perhaps if he fought with these Kru’desh, he might be able to get a ride back to the Purveyor. Either way, he relished the chance to taste human blood once again.

Lieutenant Davis

39: Dogfight

1205 Hours, August 29th, 2558

UNSC Caspian, Montak Orbit


Erika Ruskin raced across the hangar bay in full gear, just ahead of her squadron. Roused from their sleep less than twenty minutes prior, the twenty-four pilots of the 83rd Tactical Fighter Wing would be among the last to launch from the cruiser, which shuddered slightly as its twin MAC guns fired once again.

"Pick up the pace, people!" she called back to her grumbling subordinates. "We don't wanna look bad in front of those Navy boys, do we?"

As they jogged along a gantry at the side of the hangar, a Longsword fighter rocketed out from its dock and through the hazy energy barrier into space. Erika ducked instinctively for a second as it passed overhead, but kept up the pace towards their launch bay. Just ahead of them, a small gaggle of pilots from another unit emerged from a side passage, still zipping up their flightsuits and moving shakily. Spotting a bald man with a slight limp, she smiled.

"Shaw!"

Rodney Shaw turned, and gave a half-hearted wave that quickly turned into the sloppiest salute she'd ever seen. The three men alongside him barely bothered to give Erika a second glance as they moved into the next bay, where row after row of Broadswords were being moved into place and sent out to join the battle.

"Captain Ruskin," her old friend strode alongside her as they neared their ships. "I thought you would've launched by now."

"We got held back," she shrugged. "Half the fleet's got its fighters out defending our landing ships, so they sent the Navy out first to test the waters. What about you?"

"Turns out a couple of our boys didn't pay attention to the 'don't drink yourself stupid the night before deployment' rule, so our Captain put me in charge of rounding up stragglers."

Erika looked towards the miserable-looking pilots ahead of her. "How'd you manage that?"

"Buckets of icy water and lots of shouting, mostly. If that won't wake them up then the enemy will."

The group soon reached their boarding station, where a crew of technicians directed each pilot to his or her craft. As they neared the front of the queue, a mischievous grin crept across Shaw's face. Erika raised an eyebrow.

"What's on your mind?" she asked, giving an exaggerated sigh.

"Want a bet?" he whispered, leaning in conspiratorially. "A hundred creds says I take down more than you."

"You've never won one of these, you know."

"Yeah, but I'm feeling lucky, and between you and me, these younger guys don't have the same sense of humour. The war's over for a few years and a few of them are already whining about how it's 'disrespectful' to count kills."

"Bunch of babies," Erika shook her head in disdain. "I'm in."

"Great!" Shaw grinned, and straightened up as they neared the front of the line. "I'll see you once we're back to pick up my winnings."

With that, he walked off to rejoin his men, heading up one ramp while Erika's squadron were directed to a cargo elevator to the upper gantry. There, their F-41 Broadsword fighters were being loaded one-by-one onto launch platforms. In normal situations this would have been a much slower, more careful process, but with an enemy fleet right ahead the Caspian was capable of launching four ships per-platform a minute. As squadron leader, Erika was first, and walked forward as her tally-marked ship was set in position. As she clambered up onto the wing, she put on her silver-visored helmet and rapped her knuckles over the faceplate before getting into the cockpit.

"This is November One," Erika activated the ship's COM, already thumbing switches as the panels around her lit up. "All systems are operational and I'm good to go."

There was a brief delay as the nearby technicians cleared the platform and and made one last technical scan. Erika sat back and steadied her breathing, as she did before every launch. While she felt nothing but exhilaration while flying, there was always that inkling of fear that she fought to keep down; the little voice in her head that informed her of everything that could go wrong. She'd been dealing with that one since she'd seen her first combat action over Reach. Eventually, a voice from the nearby control tower responded.

"November One, you're good to go. Good luck out there."

Erika kicked her thusters into gear and shot out of the Caspian like a bullet, putting a good bit of distance between her fighter and the cruiser before turning. The Sixth Fleet had moved into combat positions, with smaller ships spread out in front of larger, more important vessels. Erika allowed her ship to drift as she awaited the rest of her squadron, who emerged one-by-one from the ship's launch bay. As she waited, she watched as the immense bulk of an Orion-class assault carrier flew overhead, supported by four smaller frigates as it moved to support a cluster of friendly Sangheili vessels.

Checking a tactical readout of the local area as each of her squadron mates announced their departure from the Caspian, Erika saw that the majority of the fighting seemed to be occurring around one of Montak's moons. The UNSC Maya - Rear Admiral Hawkins' ship and one of their primary deployment vessels - was standing its ground well, keeping the Imperium's banshee fighter swarms at bay with its autocannons while Broadsword and Longsword fighters fought desperate battles to protect craft ferrying troops to the surface. Soon enough, They would join that battle too.

"This is November Fourteen," one of Erika's men, Aizawa, contacted her. "Spotting a lot of hostiles out there, Captain. How're we going into this?"

Checking her displays, Erika caught sight of Shaw and his three wingmen flying off towards the Maya and the battle raging around it, likely to rejoin whatever remained of their comrades. Most of her squadron had deployed now, their fighters drifting lazily while they awaited their orders.

"Orders were to protect those transports, so that's what we'll do. All fighters, move into four-ship echelon formations by callsign and follow me. Once we're within engagement range we'll move to intercept."

With that, the 83rd TFW set off, steadily approaching the besieged colony world. Far ahead of them, tiny pinpricks of light and brief flashes of fire grew larger and larger, and Erika realised that she had underestimated the sheer size of the fight ahead. Banshee fighters flew in tightly-packed swarms, breaking off as they approached targets to unleash a hail of plasma fire and green energy bolts. One of the Maya's defenders, an Anlace-class frigate, began to break apart from the sheer number of strikes from the bombardment punctured its hull.

The situation with the transports was only mildly better. While the Maya had already launched most of its groundside complement, other troop-carrying craft and lightly-armed dropships were falling prey to strafing runs from three-fighter Seraph groups, harried all the way by groups of hopelessly outnumbered Longswords. Shaw's fighters joined the pursuit, and through bursts of sustained fire and missile volleys soon reduced one group to hunks of burning metal. Watching as another wave of banshees peeled off from the primary dogfight around one of Montak's moons, Erika chose to make her move.

"All fighters, you may engage freely, but stay on the defensive. We've got to cover those transports."

A chorus of affirmatives sounded over the COM, and the 83rd entered the fray. Coming in from above, Erika activated her fighter's twin autocannons and let loose on the lightly-armoured banshees. Similar in design to its atmospheric variant, the craft barely stood a chance against the Broadswords, with pinpoint strikes from the human ships disrupting their formation and forcing them to scatter to avoid crashing into their exploding brethren. Two of her wingmen, Strauss and Holloway, moved up on either side of Erika as she pursued small clusters of enemy craft. Without their numerical advantage and combined firepower, these banshees much less dangerous to fight.

"Just picked up more incoming impulse drive signatures," Strauss warned Erika as they foiled an enemy strafing run on the Maya. "We've got Liches inbound."

Sure enough, six of the fearsome Covenant-made deployment craft had emerged from behind the nearby moon, heading not towards the dropships trying to enter Montak's orbit, but for the Maya itself.

"They're going to try and board the Maya!" Erika's wing changed course, heading right for these new targets. "If you're not already engaged, break off and intercept them immediately; target them from below!"

Aizawa spoke up. "More Seraphs are heading our way too."

"We'll deal with them when the time comes."

Moving back into formation, the Broadswords pushed on, weaving through streams of incoming plasma fire as more teardrop-shaped Seraph fighters emerged to defend the Liches. Erika winced as a few direct hits splashed off the energy shielding over her cockpit - a death sentence had she been in her old Longsword - and pulled up, spinning to avoid subsequent hits as one enemy fighter remained on her tail.

"This is November One," Erika continued to weave around enemy fire "Got a hostile on my six and could use a little help here. Anyone around to assist?"

Wrenching back on the controls, she pulled her fighter up, missing one of the advancing Liches by metres as the Broadsword continued to ascend. On her helmet's heads-up display, a green blip appeared far ahead of her.

"Captain, pull right, now!"

It was one of the younger pilots, Ward. Erika did as she was told and cut her engines for a second, allowing her to turn the craft just enough to jet off the moment they kicked in again. A second later, six missiles streaked past and hit the Seraph head-on, disrupting its shields and knocking it off-course just long enough for the other fighter to tear it to shreds with its cannons.

"Thanks for the save," Erika breathed a sigh of relief, turning back towards their target.

Of the incoming Liches, one had been gutted by Erika's squadron and another was drifting, its engines a smoky ruin. However, four more had joined the battle and were quickly catching up to their beleaguered comrades As Erika set the closest transport as a target, she caught sight of the distant UNSC Maya turning, and her computer shrieked as a dozen warnings flooded in.

"All fighters, scatter!"

Erika's craft turned and sped off. The pilot's eyes darted between the cockpit viewscreen and the indicator below as the far-off battleship launched a torrent of missiles.

"Shit, it's firing Howlers!" Strauss cursed over the COM. "That's a bit much for troop transports!"

He was right. Either someone aboard the Maya felt that their fighters needed some assistance and went overboard, or they felt that the fighters defending them simply weren't enough to counter the Lich boarding parties. Erika kept going as the Howler missiles struck their targets, enveloping the Liches and much of the surrounding area in massive blasts. Any fighters - friendly or hostile - close to the transports were utterly vaporised in moments.

"A bit much is right," Erika shook her head. "Those things are meant to be used against capital ships. Squadron, regroup into your formations and sound off."

In the confusion of that iniital dogfight, Erika hadn't had time to check if they had taken losses. By the time each member of the squadron had called in, it was clear that they had lost three of their number in less than ten minutes. Hoping that none of them had perished alongside those Liches, she swept up behind a pair of fleeing banshees and destroyed them with two quick cannon bursts as Strauss, Holloway and Ward's fighters formed up behind her.

"Got eyes on a landing craft," Holloway pinged Erika as they searched for a new engagement. "It's one of ours, and a big one at that."

"Protection?"

"Looks like just one fighter, but there's a Seraph formation closing in on it."

"Copy, we'll move to support."

The four Broadswords changed course and accelerated to attack speed, honing in on the nine enemy fighters ahead. Catching sight of them, the landing craft began to descend rapidly into Montak's atmosphere in an attempt to lose its pursuers while the single escort fighter flew in alone to intercept the Seraphs. Even from this distance, Erika could tell that the pilot was trying to draw their attention away from the unarmed ship, and likely had no intention of actually winning such a fight.

"This is November One!" Erika hailed the fighter. "Friendly fighter, we see you and are coming in for support. Hang in there!"

Moments later, a familiar voice responded. "Ruskin, mind hurrying it up? I'll beat your score for sure if you don't come in and get some of the kills."

It was Rodney Shaw. Erika smirked, though she soon realised that the veteran pilot had likely lost his hungover wingmen in the fighting already and was battling for his life. As soon as they were in range, Erika loosed a few missiles at the closest Seraph, which had already lost its shields. The Sangheili craft veered off to one side, plummeting towards Montak, where it would likely disintegrate as it burned up on re-entry. Five enemy ships turned to engage them, though the rest continued to pursue the landing vessel, with Shaw not far behind them.

"You guys deal with these fighters," she signalled her wingmen. "I'll cover that transport!"

In truth, Erika was hoping to help her friend. Shaw was a good enough pilot to have survived the war, but the man was reckless. Trying to take on that many ships at once was suicidal, and he knew it. Saving all the troops aboard the other ship would just be an added reward. Her craft juddered and shook violently as it entered Montak's atmosphere, though the fighter's readings remained stable. With little visibility, she was forced to rely on Shaw's distant IFF reading until she cleared the clouds, emerging high above the rocky landscape of the desolate planet.

"Shaw, I'm moving up to provide cover," she pinged him again. "What's your status?"

"Took one out during re-entry and I'm hammering anoth- oh, got it - but the other two are a pain in my ass."

"And the transport?"

"It got away. Our boys on the ground are going to have some new toys soon enough."

For a man under heavy fire from several plasma cannons, Shaw did a good job of staying calm. He had once joked to Erika that after being shot down in one of his first battles - an incident that cost him two limbs and scarred most of his body - he had lost the ability to feel fear, but she knew pilot bravado when she heard it. In the distance, she sighted Shaw's tiny craft screaming through the sky above a mountain range, keeping as low as possible with two Seraphs not far behind. Erika soon gave chase, keeping at a higher altitude until a sharp turn from her fellow pilot forced the Sangheili fighters to slow down slightly, giving her a chance to attack.

"Shaw, I'm coming in hot from above. Now's your chance to engage!"

Targeting the rear Seraph, she moved downward, peppering its shields with 35mm rounds as it tried in vain to evade. The moment its shields wavered and fell, she launched four Medusa missiles at the craft. All found their mark, and sent what little remained of the Seraph crashing into a barren mountainside. Erika pulled up out of her dive quickly, adjusting her thrusters to level the craft out before continuing her pursuit of the final craft.

This one was proving quite a challenge. Unlike the others, this Seraph seemed to be focusing more on speed than firepower, and was swiftly gaining on Shaw's Broadsword. By the time she got within firing range, Erika's targeting computer had a hard time telling the two ships apart due to their closeness. Unable to fire her missiles for fear of accidentally blowing her friend out of the sky, she simply increased her speed.

"Damnnit," Shaw's annoyed voice sounded over the COM. "This one's sticking to me, Ruskin. He's barely firing either."

"He knows I'm chasing you. He shoots you down, I get him."

The older pilot laughed. "So he's playing chicken?"

"Looks that way."

"Pretty smart for a split-lip. Tell you what: I'm going to cut my engines. The moment I do that, I'll drop in speed and this bastard's gonna have to turn and fire. That's when you hit him."

"Got it." Erika primed four more missiles to fire, and prepared to lock on.

Shaw sighed. "Okay, three, two-"

Suddenly, the Seraph, which had been almost close enough to touch Shaw's Broadsword, put on a surprising burst of speed before its impulse drive sent it upwards at a near-vertical angle. A small device dropped out of the craft just as Shaw cut the Broadsword's engines, tumbling down until it struck the fighter's cockpit. There was a brilliant flash of white energy, and the ship vanished.

Erika froze up for a moment, with the sight of her friend and mentor's ship outlined against the blast still burned into her retinas. Shock and disbelief turned to anger in a second, and as she gripped her controls and targeted the Seraph, she saw that it was turning back around to face her.

***

Find peace, Foren. I have avenged you.

Commander Nilen 'Feru sighed deeply as his Seraph shot into the sky, barely escaping the blast radius of the exploding plasma charge. These human pilots were tenacious indeed, and he respected their willingness to fight on against all odds. He had seen their might tested against the Imperium's many times today, and knew that few pilots would return to the Keen Eyes after today. Nonetheless, his job was not yet done, and the Huntsman turned to face the final enemy fighter.

"You made me lose my primary target," he murmured to himself. "Though you will make up for that with your deaths."

The Seraph span across Montak's skies, its plasma cannon blaring against the hail of gunfire from the incoming enemy fighter. Both ships unleashed their arsenal against each other, weaving around missiles and plasma blasts before passing by each other at frightening speed. Such a duel might have continued for some time, but as Nilen turned his silver craft around for another attack, the clouds grew dark and parted as a human frigate descended upon them. Its cannons span up and targeted his craft, but Nilen had quickly grown accustomed to their speed. If that ship had passed down here unscathed, then it likely meant that his brothers in orbit were dead or had fallen back. That would be troublesome.

Realising that a flight back into space would likely see him shot down by the remaining human craft, which continued to drain his shielding with intermittent bursts of fire and pursued him with astounding ferocity, Nilen decided to flee towards the battlefront. While he and his fellow pilots had been tasked with preventing enemy landing parties from establishing a beachhead on Montak's surface, the Swords of Sanghelios had been quicker than expected in making landfall and had assisted their human allies as they prepared for an all-out assault on the fortified mining complex up ahead.

"Commander!" one of Nilen's subordinates contacted him at last. "My most sincere of apologies, but we were forced into retreat by the humans. We have reunited with several allied fighter wings, but cannot ascertain your location."

Nilen nodded, simply glad to see his allies alive. Keep fighting as you are, brother. I have been forced off-course and will find you when I can."

"But Commander-"

"Do as I say, Gaqa," he finally recognised who he was speaking to. "I am being hunted right now and will have to risk everything to survive. Do not throw away your life trying to reach me!"

There was no response, which he took as an affirmative. As he tried to direct his ship through a narrow canyon, more missiles struck the cliffs ahead of Nilen's Seraph, sending chunks of rock down into his path. Though he tugged at the controls and set the Huntsman off to one side, several struck his fighter, damaging the shields and forcing him further away from his intended path. His Broadsword pursuer opened fire yet again, and as he finally crested the hill overlooking what had once been a massive swathe of empty land, now turned into a blood-soaked battlefield, the Sangheili pilot realised that he would not escape this one.

As the Huntsman shot through the skies, over the dusty plains filled with battling warriors, advancing armour divisions and corpse-laden fields, his shields finally failed. Even as half a dozen plasma batteries span towards the human fighter, it was too late for him. Before pulling up, the Broadsword fired its missiles one more time. Nilen turned to evade as best he could, but each struck the right side of his craft in rapid succession. The ship's impulse drives flickered out, and for a moment he glided over the carnage, losing altitude by the second. He gripped the stering yoke tightly, and closed his eyes.

Luia. Niru. Lano. Bzan. I'm sorry.

The Seraph hit the ground.

Brodie-001: Here to help

40: Landfall

1304 Hours, August 29th, 2558

CCS-class battlecruiser Soul Ascension, on atmospheric descent over Montak

“The vanguard dropships are reporting imminent contact with the enemy.” Diana sounded amused even when reporting routine battle developments, as if the whole display were simply a show put on for her enjoyment. “The drop zone is right where I predicted it would be.”

“And did I say anything about doubting you?” Stray slung his shotgun over his back alongside the machete. He stood before a row of Lich gunboats in the Soul Ascension’s central hangar as Kru’desh warriors loaded the vehicles and ordnance too heavy to be carried in by the vanguard force. “Right on the mark, as always.”

“Such sincere flattery. You must be in a good mood.”

“Maybe that nasty Sangheili wine was better for me than I gave it credit for.” Truth be told, Stray’s mood was far from good. In addition to the twitching anxiety he always felt in the face of imminent combat, he still resented the need to throw his forces into the meat grinder of a frontal assault. There’d been hardly any time to plan and so he was relying on the sheer audacity of the abrupt assault to carry his forces to victory. At least he could rely on the Sangheili to embrace the combat. Hopefully their enthusiasm bled over into the Unggoy and Kig-Yar.

His helmet com crackled as Ro’nin contacted him from the bridge. “The Marauders kept up their end of the bargain. We made it through the atmosphere in one piece.”

“Good.” Stray draped a purple command shawl over his shoulder in place of the dirty poncho he’d once worn during his mercenary days. Those times seemed like a distant memory in the face of everything that had happened since then. “Make sure the ship is still that way when I get back.”

He dimly recalled Chief Mendez or one of the other drill instructors from Onyx shoving his ten-year old self’s face into the mud, screaming about how he’d ruined an ambush and gotten his entire team killed. Now he stood in the hangar of a Covenant battlecruiser—his battlecruiser—and directed the movements of an entire legion. A legion soaring into battle against humanity.

They’re the UNSC. Not humanity, he reminded himself, as he did every time he ordered the Kru’desh into battle against his former masters. The enemy. They’ve always been the enemy. How was this any different from killing UNSC for the Insurrection, or the Syndicate, or any other way he’d fought back over the years?

The galaxy was upside down. But when had it ever been right side up?

He wondered if Amber felt the same way. Tuka would report on how she fought once this battle was over. If any of them survived.

Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Shinsu ‘Refum approaching along the catwalk. The special operations commander observed the battle preparations with his usual appraising eye, like a merchant inspecting potential wares.

“Awfully sweet of you, coming to see me off,” Stray said as Shinsu drew near. “I’m surprised you’re still on the ship. Wouldn’t you be safer somewhere else?”

“Not if things go according to your plan,” Shinsu replied. “Besides, thanks to your warriors there are precious few ships in the Imperium fleet that would take me. Hopefully your actions down on the surface rectify that.”

“We’ll see.” Stray nodded towards the warriors boarding a plate-armored Lich—his own personal command center, purchased from the Banished during the last Kru’desh raiding campaign. “I don’t plan to leave anything standing down there. That ought to show them we mean business.”

“I will be observing this operation with interest.” Shinsu turned to leave. “I can only hope my faith in you is rewarded.”

Stray watched the Sangheili depart, then turned to board his Lich. He stepped through the warriors still making their final preparations and approached a small command table bolted into the center of the crew cabin. A holographic display of the battlespace sprang to life in front of him, displaying the Soul Ascension and the trajectory of the vanguard dropships—and most importantly, the stream of UNSC and Swords of Sanghelios landing craft they were about to intercept.

He tightened his fists against the table’s surface, body tensing for the firestorm about to ignite on his command

The Lich shuddered beneath him. The row of gunboats slipped out from the Soul Ascension’s hangar and adopted a loose deployment formation as they soared towards Montak’s foothills. Deep in the clouds below, plasma fire flared as the Kru’desh hunters found their targets.


“Contact imminent!” the baymaster barked. “Break’s over, krudeshi, back to work!”

Krudeshi, the condemned. Back before Stray seized control of the legion that word was more than just an insult. Assignment to the legion was a death sentence.

But not today, Tuka reminded himself. He wanted to stay low, crouching on the deck of the troop bay and fighting to master his own pounding nerves. But he wasn’t a terrified Covenant conscript anymore. He was a lance leader and he had a duty beyond himself.

“Prepare for combat!” he yelled over the whine of Phantom engines. He rose to stand amidst his warriors, magnetic seals on his feet holding him steady even as the dropship jerked and weaved. He could only imagine the chaos raging just meters away outside the sealed troop bay. “Tight groupings, don’t waste a shot!”

He nodded to the Unggoy gunners on either sides of the bay. The squat warriors watched him expectantly, stubby thumbs twitching against the firing stubs of their plasma cannons.

“Here we go!” Mihka yelled from the cockpit. “Humans and Reds! Clear them out! These are my skies!”

Reds, one of the less vulgar names the Covenant had for their Swords of Sanghelios foes. Upper-class aristocrats fighting to restore the privileges their keeps enjoyed under the old, pre-Covenant order. For all their claims to progress and freedom they were simply ambitious upstarts who saw Thel ‘Vadam as the one who would defend their power.

Human, Sangheili, noble, commoner. In the end it didn’t matter. The enemy was the enemy, as Stray often said. Kill them before they killed you.

Air howled as the troop bay unsealed, revealing a sky swarming with enemy dropships. Human Pelicans and the red-tinged Sword Phantoms were everywhere, plunging down towards Montak’s surface even as the Kru’desh dropships slammed through their formation like a rusty blade.

The door gunners were already firing, raking the enemy with streams of plasma. Burning plasma filled the sky as Kru’desh Phantoms and Banshees rained fire down on the enemy ships.

Tuka seized hold of Pugi’s combat harness, steadying the Unggoy as he took aim with his fuel rod cannon. “Hit the Phantoms!” he shouted over the roar of wind and plasma fire. “Let the gunners handle their Pelicans.” The human dropships were heavily armored, but they lacked the Phantom’s full range of fire. The Kru’desh took full advantage of this weakness, ripping into the Pelican’s sides and gutting them with savage precision.

One dropship burst apart before Tuka’s eyes, scattering flailing human bodies across the sky like leaves from a tree. Death filled the air everywhere he looked.

Mihka jerked the Phantom to avoid a blast of missiles from another Pelican. Tuka and the rest of his lance grabbed for handholds to steady themselves just as a Swords Phantom swung in alongside them, guns swiveling into position.

For a moment Tuka could see the enemy warriors inside the dropship, close enough that he could hear their battle cries. Then Pugi emptied his fuel rods into their troop bay, ripping the warriors apart in a torrent of green fire and sending the ruined dropship falling out of the sky.

“Good kill!” Tuka congratulated the Unggoy as he reloaded. Pugi nodded up at him, then brought the cannon back over his shoulder and kept firing.

Had Stray’s plan succeeded? There was no way to tell. Amidst the aerial chaos all Tuka and his warriors could do was shoot at every new target and take the fact that they weren’t dead as a sign of victory. Enemy troop ships fell burning from the sky one after the other, but a few were managing to maneuver and return fire. A Pelican’s missile barrage blasted a Kru’desh Phantom to pieces just as it dropped into formation above Mihka. A burst of plasma fire slashed across their troop bay; Tuka pulled Pugi back from the opening as his shields flared. One of the gunners stopped firing and fell lifeless from the dropship.

Tuka began to call one of his warriors up to take the dead Unggoy’s place but someone was already there. Amber took up position at the plasma cannon and returned fire, ripping into the enemy Phantom trying to line up another shot on them. Ier stepped up beside her, lobbing shots from his grenade launcher up into the Phantom’s engines. The dropship stalled and lost altitude; Mihka finished it off with a burst of plasma from her main guns.

A ping from the Kru’desh battle network drew Tuka’s attention. “Nice kills down there.” Stray’s voice was tight with concentration. “You’ve got them running scared. Let the Marauders handle the stragglers and form up for ground assault. I want that landing zone cleared!”

Tuka barked the commands back to his lance. They pulled away from the edge, reloading their weapons as Mihka pulled the Phantom into formation with the rest of the Kru’desh dropships. The sky, so full of ships moments before, seemed empty as they left the remnants of battle behind. They pulled beneath the clouds as the arid plains of Montak spread out beneath them.

It was Tuka’s first real look at the planet they defended. Montak was a vast rocky savannah dotted by patches of forests and winding rivers. In a way, it reminded Tuka of the plains of Sanghelios where he had grown up. It was strangely comforting. He had not seen his homeworld in years.

The momentary wave of nostalgia was shattered by the trio of armored Seraph bombers that swept past the dropship formation. Tuka could just make out the insignia of the Marauders painted on the nearest craft’s hull as the attack wing angled towards a faint cluster of shapes on the ground below.

“You lot ready for a light show?” the baymaster asked. He grinned at Tuka, leaning out of the drop bay with a practiced ease the younger warrior envied. In the distance, wreckage from destroyed troop transports fell from the clouds like an eerie metal rain.

The Seraphs blew over the enemy landing zone. Scattered shots rose up from the ground in a futile attempt to intercept them, but none found their mark. For a moment, everything was still.

Then the ground disappeared in a plasma inferno.

Tuka shielded his eyes. For a moment it seemed like the entire plain was transformed into a corner of hell. The Kru’desh Phantoms descended into the blaze, which parted to reveal a vast stretch of scorched earth. Ruined war machines and their dead operators burned on the ground. A sickly sweet stench wafted up into the Phantom. Tuka had stood on enough battlefields across the frontier to know the scent of roasting flesh.

The baymaster laughed. “You young ones should appreciate support like this while you can. I can’t tell you how many human positions I burned out in the last war.”

Tuka choked back his revulsion and drew his carbine. Soldiers and vehicles were still moving amidst the wreckage. Far too many.

“Your free ride is over,” Mihka announced. “Anyone left on my ship had better be ready to pay me.”

The Phantoms spread out over the ruined landing zones, firing down on the survivors. At the gun beside Tuka, Amber cut down one runner after another with precise, accurate bursts. She seemed to pick her targets methodically, bringing down human Marines with quick bursts and then cutting down Red Sangheili with longer streams to overwhelm their shields. Tuka couldn’t see her face behind her helmet’s concealing visor—was she dispassionate in dealing death, he wondered, or was there a furious snarl hidden there?

Unfamiliar ally or not, she certainly knew how to handle a plasma turret.

Gunfire clattered off the Phantom’s hull as a human shot up from behind a ruined tank. Tuka snapped his carbine up and picked the shooter off, then waved his lance forward.

“Finish this!” he yelled with false bravado. “Follow me!”

The baymaster shoved Amber away from the plasma turret and took up the weapon. She flinched and raised a fist, then caught herself and readied her machine gun. The baymaster just laughed. “Good luck down there!” he yelled, blasting away with the turret.

More humans were taking up positions, desperately trying to shore up their shattered defenses. Tuka saw Sangheili figures moving in the smoke behind them. A Wraith tank drifted into position, lobbing immense plasma shots up toward the Phantoms.

No more hesitation. Tuka screwed his courage and leaped down from the dropship. He struck the ground with a thud, feeling the heat from the scorched ground even through his armor. He charged forward, trusting that his lance would follow behind him.

The chaos of battle engulfed him once again.


Trabetus felt the heat from the plasma bombs cooking him inside his armor. The pain was bad, but at least it proved he was still alive. Had he been just a moment slower—throwing himself beneath a human Warthog when he saw the Seraphs swooping in for their bombing run—he’d have been caught in the open when the plasma torpedoes detonated.

Killed by his own bombers. Trabetus would have been the laughing stock of the Marauders if that was how he met his end. And he had no intention of dying here.

He scrambled out from beneath the Warthog as soon as the air cleared. Screams from the wounded and dying filled the air as the landing zone dissolved into chaos. One human toppled out of the very Warthog Trabetus had used for cover, shrieking in agony as flames consumed his body. Trabetus watched him writhe for a moment, then knelt and used his spike rifle’s bayonet to put the creature out of his misery.

The bombers pulled off their attack run with spectacular success, but the survivors were regrouping with impressive speed. A Sangheili officer bellowed orders over the din of battle, throwing humans and Sangheili alike into a defensive formation and reorganizing the Wraiths and Scorpion tanks that were still operational. He was so fierce and imposing that even the humans leaped at his command without hesitation. But the Kru’desh dropships were already closing in, laying into the survivors with withering plasma fire.

One Sangheili leaped at Trabetus, energy sword in hand. The warrior shoved him back against the charred Warthog and raised his blade for a killing blow. Trabetus caught the warrior’s wrist with his free hand and struggled to throw him back. The Sangheili ignited his wrist gauntlet and stabbed at his side. With a desperate snarl, Trabetus brought his spike rifle up and slashed his opponent’s throat. The Sangheili went limp and Trabetus tossed the corpse aside. Another Sangheili emerged from the smoke, raising his carbine even with half his body scorched with plasma burns. Trabetus emptied his spiker into the newcomer, turning his unwounded side into a pincushion.

Across the battlefield the Kru’desh leaped down from their Phantoms. They descended on the defender’s line with a fury to match the plasma storm that heralded their arrival. The defenders held firm at first, meeting the Kru’desh with a barrage of bullets and plasma. But the Covenant warriors did not falter and Trabetus watched the battle become an all-out rout. Humans and Sangheili alike scattered before the Covenant assault, fleeing in all directions like a panicked herd.

Trabetus hurried forward to join the Covenant battle line. He’d been supremely lucky so far—he was not going to tempt fate and find himself skewered out of hand by some beaten Sangheili.

The nearest group of warriors—a full complement of Sangheili, Kig-Yar, and Unggoy—advanced on what few defenders still held their line. Trabetus rushed to join them, then jerked his spiker up when he saw an armored human train a machine gun at his head.

“Hold fire!” the group’s leader, a younger Sangheilli in blue armor, barked. To Trabetus’s surprise and relief, the human obeyed. He noticed that this human had splashes of purple paint sloppily spread over its shoulders and gauntlets.

So the Kru’desh counts humans amongst its ranks. He’d heard rumors of a human officer lurking within the Covenant’s raiding legion, but perhaps there were even more of their kind scattered among them. But there was no time to worry about such things now. Trabetus nodded his thanks at the group leader, then reloaded his spiker and joined the assault.

Now that the prospect of imminent death was lifted, he was starting to enjoy himself again.


Tuka urged his lance forward, pressing on towards the lone group of Reds that held their ground. Their leader, a tall officer who towered over his subordinates, brandished an energy sword and bellowed furiously at his retreating troops. The officer glowered at the oncoming Kru’desh, no doubt resolved to die where he stood.

There was honor in that. Even if he was the last warrior on the field, this officer would never retreat.

Tuka heard himself shouting, urging them on to take the officer’s head. He could barely understand anything that was happening anymore. All he knew was that if they killed this one enemy victory would be theirs.

His hearts nearly stopped as a Warthog barreled towards him out of the smoke, rear gun blazing. Tuka’s shields were gone in an instant, but Pugi planted himself firmly in front of him and blasted the Warthog with his fuel rod gun. The glowing projectile illuminated the driver’s terrified face before detonating square in the vehicle’s hood. The Warthog flipped, burning, on its side.

One mangled human crawled from the wreckage, fumbling for his sidearm. A burst from Amber’s machine gun knocked his corpse back into the charred dirt.

Tuka’s lance reached the Red line. An enemy warrior loomed in front of them with a needler in each hand. The Jiralhanae who had joined their attack tackled him to the ground, stabbing at him again and again with his spiker’s bayonet. The path to the officer was clear.

The officer cut down the first of Tuka’s warriors who leaped at him with a flick of his wrist. In the next instant he was charging Tuka with a furious war cry, blade ready to impale him where he stood. There was no time to think. Tuka drew his own blade and just barely managed to turn the officer’s attack aside. Instinct took over and he pressed back with a sword pattern he’d drilled since childhood. The drill gave way to a desperate storm of blows and parries. He drove the officer back, seized an opening, and drove his blade deep into the warrior’s side.

Howling with pain, the officer fell to his knees. He stared up at his killer, defiant to the end. Tuka raised his blade and decapitated him with a final stroke.

He stood over the dead officer, panting. A dozen thoughts filled his head. Triumph, confusion, and even a little shame. Should he have held back with his final blow? Offered the warrior a chance to surrender, or compose his final words? Was it dishonorable? Was it—

Tuka suddenly realized that the sounds of death and battle were being drowned out by wild, victorious shouting. The Kru’desh stood upon the charred ruins of the enemy landing zone, their opponents dead at their feet or fleeing before them. Ier was beside him in an instant, grabbing Tuka’s sword arm and thrusting it into the air.

“Yes!” his friend shouted, exhilarated. “Yes! Look at them run!”

The fields around the landing zone were filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of fleeing humans and Reds. A handful of surviving Warthogs and other vehicles sped away from the battle while the rest of the enemy sprinted or limped or even crawled away from the carnage. A small group of Pelicans and Phantoms—survivors from the slaughter in the air—dropped down to try and pick up the survivors.

Flush with victory, the Kru’desh bounded forward to give chase. But the battlenet crackled with a new voice. “Hold position, damn it!” Stray yelled in Tuka’s ear. “All of you, take cover! It’s not over yet.”

Someone else was yelling, not on the battlenet but right beside Tuka. A Kig-Yar sharpshooter peered through her rifle’s scope and scampered back towards the Phantoms. “Armor!” she hissed. “Enemy armor! Scorpions!”

Tuka glanced up at the plains and his hearts stopped cold. The thrill of victory vanished in an instant at the sight of a large dust cloud out beyond the fleeing troops. And silhouetted in that cloud, a staggered line of over a dozen armored human tanks.

He’d seen a formation like that once before. That day he’d seen his entire lance wiped out, along with an entire Covenant column.

“Cover!” he screamed at his warriors. “Get to cover!”

The human tanks were already firing. Heavy shells slammed into the landing zone, sending the Kru’desh scattering. One warrior not far from Tuka was caught in a blast and vanished in a shower of dirt and purple blood.

Tuka threw himself down beside a ruined Wraith. He saw Amber crouched beside him, peering out at the approaching onslaught. The tank formation banked around the dropships, pressing forward to cover their escape even as they moved to retake the landing zone.

Where was the air cover? The Phantoms were scattering, engines flaring as they raced to escape the Scorpions’ range. One of the stragglers took three shells at once and burst into pieces.

Tuka turned back towards the tank squadron and thought of the officer he’d just killed. All he could do was face his death with the same dignity as his enemy. His hearts pounded in his chest. He wanted to scream, to cry out, to run. But he held firm and watched his death approach.

Behind the line of Scorpions, the first Pelican lifted off, troop bay packed with survivors. It banked to escape back in the direction the Scorpions had come from—and then vanished as a stream of green plasma fire shot into its flight path. More plasma blasts cut into the evacuating dropships, sending them scattering and leaving the desperate troops behind.

The Scorpions raised their firing arcs as four Lich gunboats descended on the battlefield, main guns blazing plasma fire down on Montak’s plains. Tuka recognized the armor on one gunboat—Stray’s own command center. And behind them, its bulbous prow emerging from the clouds, was the Soul Ascension.

The battlefield fell silent. Tuka looked up at the battlecruiser and nearly wept with joy. His mandibles worked in a silent prayer of thanks.

The Scorpion advanced faltered. Then, still in precise formation, they wheeled around and fled back after the survivors from the landing site. But it was already too late.


The Soul Ascension’s bridge buzzed with activity. The battlecruiser’s sensors worked on overdrive, identifying and highlighting every enemy on the plains, from the retreating Scorpions to the individual Marines sprinting for their lives.

Conventional bombardment doctrine advised against using a warship’s weapons against individual targets. The aiming and plasma outputs were too imprecise, a waste of energy. But most battlecruisers did not have a smart AI coordinating the firing projections.

Diana allowed herself a small element of satisfaction as she composed the precise calculations and fed them into the Ascension’s weapon systems. It wasn’t much of a triumph to mow down beaten foes. But as a technical achievement this level of coordination in a plasma bombardment could not be dismissed.

And to think, ONI had only ever meant for her to stay cooped up as one of their little experiments.

Diana let the enemy line live a moment longer, then initiated the firing sequence.

Every forward gun on the Soul Ascension fired with tight, precise beams of concentrated plasma. The line of Scorpions and fleeing men and vehicles vanished in a blaze of fire. It was all over in an instant. Only a single Pelican escaped above the firestorm, engines screaming to bring it back into orbit.

Diana didn’t bother with firing again. She simply fed the dropship’s coordinates to the Marauder fighter squadrons and let them handle the rest.

Stray had paid them well for their cover. They might as well earn their keep.


Stray stepped off his Lich and observed the captured landing zone. The elevated plateau—the planned base of offensive operations in this sector—was scorched and littered with bodies and ruined vehicles. Columns of smoke lifted up on one side of the plain from the smoking husks of the Scorpion counterattack that had so nearly turned the Kru’desh victory into a massacre. On the other side of the plateau the once-pristine savannah had been transformed into a junkyard where wreckage from the air battle had rained down on the plains.

Ira’kuln fell into step behind him. “There might be survivors out where the dropships fell,” the mercenary noted.

“Yeah, it’s possible,” Stray agreed. “So get your snipers on watch and shoot anything that moves out there.”

“It’s a waste of salvage if we don’t send teams,” she pointed out.

Stray shook his head. “We won’t be here long enough. Take whatever you can scavenge off the bodies here. I want everyone back on the ship in an hour. They'll counterattack the second they get an opening. We're not going to give them a stationary target.”

Ira’kuln hissed with irritation but did as she was told. Stray walked on through the battlefield, stepping over corpses and past charred hulks of vehicles. The assault was a complete success. The enemy offensive—in this sector at least—was turned back.

A total victory. Stray just felt tired.

The enemy had looked at the Imperium’s hardened defenses around the refineries and assumed the rest of the planet was safe to attack. They’d decided the Imperium would be content to dig in and wait for a siege on their own terms, so they’d started landing troops before the space and air were secure. And hundreds of troops here paid for that overconfidence with their lives.

Had the people up there—the officers in the ships fighting back in space—learned nothing from the last war? The Covenant had always followed up their space attacks with a ground assault even while the battle in space was still raging. The UNSC, struggling to counter them ship to ship, did nothing to staunch the flow of dropships. Entire cities had fallen, whole populations slaughtered, even in battles humanity won.

“Terrorists” the UNSC was fond of calling Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant. Maybe that was why they assumed they could pull off stunts like this. Were they so afraid of going back to the carnage of the last war that they refused to act like there was a real one going on now?

He thought of villages bombed to rubble on Mamore. It made slaughters like this easier.

I should have gone in with the assault force. To cut loose in battle where he pulled the trigger and swung the blade himself was one thing. It was something else to watch the battle from his command center and order the Kru’desh to do the killing for him.

A victory, he reminded himself. It’s a victory.

He found Tuka seated beside rows of Kru’desh corpses. While most of the warriors looted the battlefield for weapons and salvage, a handful of Kru’desh gathered up their own dead for funeral rites. Tuka rose to attention as he approached.

“Nicely done.” Stray nodded his helmet at the captured landing zone. “I hear you killed the enemy commander yourself.”

Tuka saluted but his gaze was still on the bodies. Stray pursed his lips behind his helmet. “How many?”

“Three from my lance,” Tuka said quietly. “I haven’t heard from the other lance leaders yet.”

He glanced out at the burning plains. “That last attack, with the Scorpions. Why did they do it? They had to know more of us were coming. No one was coming to save them.”

Stray followed the warrior’s gaze and shook his head. “I don’t know. Enjoy this while you can. We won’t be getting easy shots like this anymore. Whoever’s up there won’t let this happen again.” He jabbed a finger at the sky. Faint explosions were visible from the ongoing battle in orbit.

Some colonel or general would have their career ended over this. It was a laughable consequence for getting an entire landing party cut to pieces with sloppy air cover and hasty defenses. And now they knew just what they were dealing with.

A Jiralhanae wearing the armor of a Marauder loomed nearby. Tuka’s demeanor brightened at his approach. “This warrior aided our attack even after he was shot down.”

“Oh really?” Stray looked the warrior over. “You get bored of shooting down dropships and decide to come help out on the ground?”

The Jiralhanae pilot looked him over with a snort. “Something like that. And you’re their commander? I suppose we have you to thank for this victory.”

“You guys did all the work. I just pointed at things a few times and said ‘shoot.’” Stray nodded. “You got a name?”

“Trabetus,” the Jiralhanae rumbled.

“Nice job. In the sky and on the ground. We’ll get you back to the Marauders. And I’ll look into getting you a bonus.” It felt better, dealing with mercenaries like the Marauders. A pure business transaction, not a vicious slaughter. Kill for the UNSC, kill for the Insurrection, kill for pay, kill for the Covenant. No one cares how many people you kill as long as it’s for the right side.

And he never seemed to be on the right side.

Stray turned and looked out at the bombed-out plains one last time, the Soul Ascension still looming overhead. He couldn’t shake the feeling he was being watched. But he was still coming down off the burning rush of combat. It could be anything. He turned on his heel and marched away. There was still plenty of work to be done.

Actene: If This Is To End In Fire, Then We'll Burn Together

41: Excess

1200 Hours, August 29th, 2558, Montak


They were in freefall, the flight in had been hectic, the team of Spartans had been shaken violently in the ‘blood tray’ of the Pelican as she weaved through enemy fighters and anti-air, but nonetheless they’d made it through. Now came the easy part. As the armored titans rushed towards the ground below, they wordlessly glided into a diamond formation. Each of them had a job to do and they all knew it like the back of their hand, all that they had to do was execute. And that wouldn’t be a problem.

“Talk to me team, how’s it looking?” Flores voice cut in over the COM. Their mission handler was amicable enough, obviously knew her stuff and had them well prepared for what they were dropping into, but he desperately hoped she wasn’t the type to breathe down their necks, otherwise it was going to be a very long deployment.

Cody winked his status light green, as did the the others, even Rodger and Dawes who always took the opportunity to say something were completely absorbed into staying on their descent course.

“Good to hear, just a heads up, support is going to take some time, defenses in orbit are proving stronger than we thought.” Nothing out of the usual then. Cody should’ve grimaced, what she meant was that troops were getting shredded before they could touch down, but over time those losses had just become numbers.

As the air buffeted against them, Cody’s eyes remained glued to his HUD, a digital representation of their path displayed across it, a timer racing closer and closer to zero. Then, it hit. In a single motion the Spartans flipped, feet towards the ground, in-built thrusters firing at their maximum as the collection of buildings converted into a forward operating base rushed up to meet them.

In an instant, Cody smashed through the roof of one of the buildings. An spray of concrete and debris erupted beneath him as he tore through the top floor and slammed into the on below, something that was very much alive being pulverized beneath him. The map on his HUD was littered with crimson blips, there wasn’t time to hit his status light, he had to move.

There was a grunt and a jackal to his front with a corner he could round for cover close by, four unknowns to his rear, but the low roar of surprise suggested a brute, which lined up with the choppers he thought he might’ve glimpsed outside the FOB just before impact.

Shooting forward through the haze of dust, B042’s descended onto the jackal still in shock. In a flash the avian being was sent flying through a nearby window. His M6 found its way into his hand and discharged instantly, a grunt’s skull caving inward before it could so much as squeal in surprise.

Without coming to a stop the Spartan ignited his thruster pack, hurling himself around the nearby corner just as a rain of red hot metal spikes buried themselves into the wall behind him. He’d been right, brutes.

Coming around the corner, Cody slapped the magnum back onto his thigh, and each hand pulled a piece of ordinance from his wait. Down the hall was a small group of hostiles. Two jackals, three grunts, another brute. He couldn’t prioritize them, not with the hulking ape barreling towards him from back behind the corner. Flinging two objects into the crowd of aliens.

The first, an EMP grenade, the second an M9 Fragmentation Grenade. The combination would eliminate most of the group, but Cody would need to mop up the other brute. First he had to take care of the one which just rounded the corner.

Cursing in its alien tongue, the Jiralhanae swung the blades of its spiker at Cody’s head. The Spartan ducked under the blow with ease, darting to the side he brought his M45D from his back in a flash and shoved the barrel of the shotgun between a gap in the brute’s armor and squeezed.

Buckshot blasted into the chest cavity of the hulking alien, a pained roar escaping its maw as its shields collapsed, the detonation of Cody’s grenade drowning out the cry. Cody dropped back, pumping the weapon, the smoking shell falling to the floor as another blast escaped the weapon. Pellets ripped away flesh from the Brute’s face, leaving it to stagger back against the opposite wall.

It wasn’t done, but the deafening roar to Cody’s side took priority. The other Brute was charging, arms reached out to ensnare him and subsequently tear him to pieces. The berzerk ones were always an annoyance. B042 sunk his knees, then jumped.

The Spartan cleared the rampaging alien with ease, landing with the shotgun trained on its back as the warrior slammed into a nearby wall. The weapon thundered twice, Cody’s hands a blur as they pumped the weapon, buckshot grinding the back of the Jiralhanae into a mangled mess. Before he could finish it, he caught the other’s fist in the corner of his eye.

The silver and crimson supersoldier ducked under the blow as the first Brute staggered forward, then brought the butt of his weapon into its stomach. The alien managed to cough a spray of crimson before Cody slammed the barrel of the weapon under its chin and squeezed, blowing out the contents of its skull effortlessly.

He pumped it again, the shell joining the growing pile on the floor. The remaining Brute turned towards him, blood flowing from its mouth as it stared at Cody with unbridled fury. They both knew how it was going to end. The alien roared in defiance and took step forward before a cluster of 8-gauge reduced its visage into a bloody pulp.

For a moment there was silence, he slid the shotgun back onto the magnetized plate on his back, exchanging it for the BR85 that Dawes had praised at the range. The new generation Spartan knew his stuff, Cody would give him that much. Back around the corner he could hear the squawks of jackals, and one that distinctively belonged to a skirmisher. Thumbing the fire selector to automatic, he rounded the corner.

Then a SAW thundered from across the other side of the building. Looking through a hole in the wall and across a sea of cubicles in the floor’s main room, he saw Jacob, waving about the support weapon with ease as it ripped apart the enemy. Somewhere the distinct bark of Rodger’s DMR sounded, and Dawes’ MA5 sounded loudly a floor or two below.

The fortification was being consumed in chaos. Stallion struck with speed and ferocity that the defenders couldn’t hope to match. As they rushed to stop the threat inside their walls it was already too late. They were demons for a reason, they were to be feared.

The lone skirmisher darted towards Cody, leaving behind the broken corpses of its allies his brother had just killed. It let out a cry of rage and raised up an energy cutlass, hoping to skewer the Spartan before it met its end. Cody didn’t waste the ammunition, in a blur the battle rifle was once again on his back, his hands free.

One snatched the skirmisher by the wrist, a simple squeeze shattering the bones and forcing out an agonized scream. The other snatched it at the shoulder and pulled, hard. Flesh ripped apart and bones separated as Cody literally disarmed the alien marauder. One hard slap to the jaw snapped the Skrimisher’s neck, and its bloodied, mangled body fell to the floor in silence.

“Excessive.” Jacob remarked, casting aside his weapon’s empty drum, exchanging it for a fresh one.

“We need those choppers taken care of.” Cody responded, refusing to even acknowledge the comment as he shook the drips of alien blood from his hands. He doubted the operators of the machines would flee at first, it wasn’t in the nature of the Brutes, but if Stallion delayed long enough, there was a risk they might go in search or reinforcements.

Jacob nodded, he had the tools for the job. Wordlessly, the EOD-helmeted Gamma exchanged the SAW for the HYDRA on his back, then promptly stepped out of the nearest window. Cody gave the Covenant vehicles and their operators a minute at max before G043 finished with them. He needed to focus on other things.

“One, got a Chieftan down here, could use and assist!” Rodger broke in over the COM. He was two floors down, the hole he’d punched through the building wasn’t far. Cody was moving before he even finished the train of thought, shotgun in hand, slamming fresh shells into the weapon. They’d wrap this up then get moving towards their primary objective, the collection of AA guns to their east.

User:Spartan-D042 screw this sig stuff 01:08, September 7, 2018 (UTC)

42

1135 Hours, August 29th, 2558

UNSC Maya, Montak System


The hangar was surprisingly quiet as Aleksandra Zaytseva strapped her helmet onto her head and began running the last few checks on her Broadsword, the only other occupants various techs, the rest of her division, and a smattering of Pelican and Longsword pilots groggily stumbling in. It made sense, though. The task force was running an hour early, and the only reason Sasha and the three other pilots in her division were already strapped in and just getting ready to go was their intended job. While every other fighter on the ship was set to escort the transports down to the surface directly, Zaytseva and her division had instead been ordered, hours earlier, to be ready to launch well before the Maya reached the system. They were going to be the firsts ones out, making runs at the Imperium fighters before they even got a lock on the transports and perhaps even taking out a few capital ships along the way. To this end, each of the four Broadswords had been loaded up with a AGM-79C missile attached to their Class III hardpoints. Capital ship killers. Finishing her checks, Sasha thumbed her comms, calling out to the three other pilots and the various techs in her division.

“This is Robot. Everyone good to go? CO wants us off his ship as soon as possible after dropping into system.”

“Magnet here. All green for me.”

“Maybe you could actually stick to the formation this time, huh Magnet?”

“Can it, GABBE, or do I need to call the Petty Officer back in?”

The banter went on for a while, though she did manage to hear GABBE’s confirmation through it. It wasn’t until a good minute and a much busier hangar later that it died down and her final pilot commed her response.

“Loudmouth. Green.”

“Alright, then, everyone. Get ready for the launch as soon as we drop o…” halfway through her sentence, Sasha felt the ship slide quietly into realspace, saw the techs signal for launch, and grabbed her controls. “We are go to launch! Stick tight and head for their fighters. Don’t try to engage the capital ships unless you’ve got a clear shot with shields down!”

Pushing forward on the throttle, Sasha felt her Broadswords rocket out into the empty space in front of her. Pulling the vessel into a banking turn towards the enemy fleet, she saw her wingman pull up next to her on her scanners and pushed her afterburners on to close the distance with the enemy fighters streaming out of their vessels a good distance away.

“Loudmouth, we’re on afterburners for approach. These 41E’s are a bit more sluggish than you're used to. That goes for you two, too, GABBE, Magnet.”

“Understood,” came the reply from Loudmouth, the other two pilots in the formation merely blinking their status lights green to confirm. The three other Broadswords turned their afterburners on, rocketing forward to catch up with their leader.

Pulling up to the very edge of targeting range on the enemy fighters, Sasha squeezed the trigger for her ship’s missiles. Medusas streaked out from her Broadsword, rocketing towards the cluster of Seraphs at the front of the approaching pack.

“Everyone. Fire your missiles at that first group, then pull off, away from the planet. There’s too many of them to face the group head on, so let’s see if we can pull some of those hingeheads off and pick a few of them off.”

Pulling her Broadsword into another banking turn, she noted small dots on her motion tracker, six in total, streaking towards the Seraphs from the larger dots of her fellow pilots. As the group reformed, she noted six Seraphs peeling off to follow, the rest continuing on their runs for the Maya and her battle group.

“We’ve got company. Six Seraphs on our tail. Keep with your wingman for now. We’ll try to pull them away and then engage.”

Status lights blinked green again as Loudmouth formed up once more on Sasha’s port wing, GABBE and Magnet pulling away a bit, splitting up the line of Seraphs. Warning alarms blared in her cockpit as the Seraphs edged closer and closer, streaks of blue plasma flying by her ship from the three Imperium fighters still on her tail, a few glancing blows flaring her Broadsword’s shields, bathing the cockpit in flashes of blue and yellow light.

“Loudmouth. We’ve still got three on our six, faster than us. Let’s see if we can get behind them.”

A green status light was her only response as Loudmouth’s Broadsword peeled away to the port. Pushing her Broadsword into a dive, a few more plasma shots splashed off her shield as the Seraphs shot by above her ship. Flipping her ship, Sasha landed a Seraph in her sights, squeezing the trigger beneath her finger and pushing the throttle back up to full, rocketing off behind the alien ship, positions now flipped as autocannon fire splashed off the shields of the slowly escaping Seraph, it’s shields flaring.


Weaving through the plasma fire from the other Seraphs in the Imperium pilot’s formation, Sasha kept her eyes on the fighter ahead of her, autocannon firing away, shields on the enemy Seraph flaring still, and then going out completely, Sparks from the nanolaminate hull of the opposing fighter replacing the glow as bullets chipped away at it. Grinning, she switched to her Medusas, fired, and pulled her Broadsword into a banking turn as she saw her target explode into bits.

There was little time for celebration, though, as her shields flared once more, indicators flashing they were down to fifty percent at best. Pulling her ship left and right, diving and looping into various maneuvers, she still wasn't able to shake the other fighter.

“Loudmouth! Took out my target, but got one stuck on my six. Would appreciate some help!”

Jerking back on her stick and pushing on the afterburners, she felt her Broadsword push into her back and the incoming plasma fire ease up for a bit, giving her time to look around for her wingman. Her pursuer followed her up into the climb just as she spotted an explosion to her starboard and saw Loudmouth pulling around towards her.

“Got him.”

Grinning, Sasha leveled out again, before pushing into a dive briefly and turning away from her wingman, giving her a clear shot at the Seraph. Whoever it was was good, but not good enough, as the alien fighter pulled around following her, landed a few more shots off her shields, before jerking around as their own shields started flaring, eventually shattering apart as the shields failed and two Medusa’s impacted right on it's engines.

“GABBE, Magnet, we’re done here. Need any help.”

“Negative, Commander.” The reply from GABBE came through clean, but there was a definite hollowness to it. “We finished up our three, but Magnet didn't make it. I'm sorry.”

The line remained quiet for a while, before Sasha broke the silence, scanning the motion tracker as she did and looking through the current reports from the battle.

“Understood…” She paused briefly, clearing her throat, “Looks like we’ve done all we could so far. Transports are on their way to the surface, some in atmosphere already, even landed. Seems the resistance is pretty tough, though. Fleet seems to be handling the capital ships so far, so we’re changing focus. Head for the planet, focus on ground support. Stay out it areas covered by the Imperium AA until they're taken down. We don't want to be shot down.”

Turning towards the planet, Sasha saw her two remaining pilots pull in behind her and flash their status lights green.

Timothy Emeigh

43: A Perfect Stratagem

1335 Hours, August 29th, 2558

CCS-class battlecruiser Advance Guard, Montak Orbit

"The battle on the surface is proceeding as expected. Are you prepared, Fleet Master?"

Kan 'Larom folded his arms as the projection of Orro Hendai spoke, looming over him. The enemy had certainly struck harder than he and his comrades had expected, but it was nothing to be worried about yet.

"My warriors are ready and waiting, Field Marshal," Kan put a slight emphasis on 'Hendai's rank. "We will drive these intruders off of our planet before the day is out."

"Then I shall proceed with my own operation. Fight well."

As the white-armoured Sangheili disappeared, Kan had to suppress a sigh of exasperation. Like the other members of High Command stationed over this planet, he had privately questioned the Imperial Admiral's decision to place a warrior of Orro 'Hendai's fiery temperament in charge of its defence. Right now, the fleets of Nor and Zetal 'Hudon stood on the frontlines, trading fire with the Swords of Sanghelios and UNSC ships while he and 'Hendai dispatched their troops to the planet. Covering a continent-wide array of anti-ship cannons was not an easy feat to accomplish, and while the majority of the fighting had swept towards the vast swathe of arid land containing Montak's only populated structures - the human mining facilities - they had done an admirable job defending it thus far.

Even so, Kan brought a hand up to his mandibles as he often did while thinking, If action is not taken soon, then we may be overwhelmed. The mercenaries brought into the Imperium's service had played their part well, engaging the Swords in what had quickly become a brutal engagement in the plains surrounding the mining facility being used as their headquarters. Some had even exceeded expectations and were pushing the enemy back, though complete victory was not the objective here.

"Shipmaster 'Henu!" Kan called for his adjutant, who had been monitoring the far-off battle's progress. "I'm departing for the surface. Take command."

"Of course," the officer bowed as Kan turned and swept out of the bridge.

***

By the time the Fleet Master reached the Advance Guard's primary hangar bay, new reports had arrived from the surface. While their forces below had fought valiantly to defend their array of anti-ship cannons, they were quickly being pushed back. The battle had not turned into a complete rout, but news of the UNSC's Spartans - still widely known as 'Demons' by many - leading the assault had impacted the morale of their mercenary forces. Surprisingly, the unruly Legion sent by Jul 'Mdama seemed to be having the greatest success, though if allied lines collapsed then they would soon be surrounded and outmatched.

This is not an ideal scenario, Kan found himself considering scenarios in which the Imperium would be forced to retreat from Montak sooner than expected. Toru 'Makhan had made it clear to his commanders that the planet was not one of great strategic importance aside from its abundance of natural resources, though victory here could turn it into a symbol of the Imperium's might to the rest of the galaxy. Nonetheless, if their foe gained tactical supremacy on the ground, they could likely overturn the current stalemate in orbit. Aside from some particularly intense fighting around one of Montak's moons, most of the battle so far had consisted of dispatching fighters and firing at enemy capital ships from afar without any major success or victory on either side.

"Fleet Master 'Larom!" a young female Major called to him from a row of terminals. "We have your transporter ready."

On the ground floor of the hangar bay, two massive platforms stood in place of dropship storage compartments, ringed by shining pillars and packed with restless infantry. A cheer went up from some as Kan walked onto the viewing platform.

"What of our other vessels?" he asked.

"The Judicator, Unrivalled, Bright Sun and Adamant have announced their readiness, sir. We are still waiting on the Stormlance and Worthy Soul, however."

Kan's mandibles twitched irritably. "Shipmasters Hukin and Thar should have readied their warriors by now. If they are not prepared by the time I reach the surface, then there will be consequences."

The Major nodded and returned to her terminal, contacting the other vessels via an encoded channel. Kan had always found this way of communication to be more efficient than direct contact, though most preferred a direct approach. As he made his way towards a nearby gravity lift, he glanced towards his diligent subordinate approvingly. While old Orro 'Hendai had grumbled after Toru 'Makhan's edict to allow women to serve directly in the military, and he had held some private doubts, Kan had been glad to see that his fears of a breakdown in orderly conduct were unfounded. If anything, they seemed more eager than most males to prove their worth. As long as they were obedient as any other warrior, he would be happy.

Kan descended to the main deck quickly, and was greeted by six of his personal bodyguards as he stepped out of the lift. Each one of his hand-picked warriors had fought alongside him during the war, and had proven their loyalty many times over. To Kan's left, the platform was filled with Sangheili warriors in shining armour, their spirits high and minds set on the battle ahead. To his right were a horde of armoured beasts: Mgalekgolo. Aside from a low murmur of hums and near-imperceptible vibrations that passed for speech among them, they waited in silence. Choosing to inspect these troops first, as he often did before battle, Kan approached the largest among them.

"Mono Puru Kadun!" he raised an arm in greeting as the battle-scarred creature turned to face him. "Are your kin prepared?"

Towering over most of his fellows, Mono was an anomaly among his kind. Kan had discovered him alone on a battlefield several years ago, lacking a bond brother and near-feral as he fought tirelessly against a pirate group that the Imperium was hunting down. Seeing promise in such a warrior, Kan had inducted Mono into the military and turned him into one of his fiercest commanders. The Mgalekgolo thrummed and the remaining spikes jutting out of his weathered armour shook slightly as his translator lit up.

"We are ready to kill in your name, Fleet Master."

Though the words cycling out of the translator were monotone, Kan could feel the killing intent emanating from the creature. Looking him up and down, Kan noticed a familiar purple stain splattered across Mono's heavy shield.

"I instructed you to clean your armour, Mono," he chastised his subordinate. "Blood is not something that should linger on a warrior."

"Apologies," the Mgalekgolo bowed its head slightly. "There was no time to do so, and with battle coming it would only be bloodied again."

Kan paused for a moment, then relented with a sigh. Mono was right, of course, but the Sangheili could not help but feel troubled at the sight of blood left to dry. Besides, he had garnered quite a reputation for enforcing tidiness in his troops, and made sure that every warrior kept his or her own weapon well-maintained. In his days among the Covenant fleet, the sobriquet of 'Taskmaster' had been invented to mock Kan by his peers for his obsession with proper organisation, but he had taken on such a title with pride. Had Toru 'Makhan not assigned Hedan Koti's to handle supplies and fleet support, he would have gladly taken on a role handling this campaign's logistics.

"A fair point, Commander," Kan waved his earlier statement away. "Your force shall be the vanguard of our counter-attack. Do not fail."

"We never have."

Satisfied, Kan left Mono and the rest of his Mgalekgolo attack force and headed across the hangar, stepping onto the ringed platform where the Advance Guard's best troops awaited him. In two other hangar bays, over a thousand more battle-hardened soldiers had already been prepared, and were ready to join the fray on Montak. A hush fell over the assembled warriors as their Fleet Master walked among them. Kan 'Larom was not one for speeches, and though he accepted their positive effect on morale had always made it clear what he expected of those serving under him. Nonetheless, he cleared his throat with a slightly exaggerated cough, gaining their full attention.

"In a moment, we will deploy to the surface of Montak, and join our brothers in fighting off those who would dare to invade our new territory. Once our trap is sprung, they will have nowhere to run, and will fight as only one who is cornered can. Know your duty, keep your eyes sharp and your bodies quick, for this will not be an easy battle. Keep our Imperium safe."

Kan did not have to raise his voice much as he delivered his short speech, for every eye in the room was on him and none dared to interrupt their leader. Those who stood by him had seen the fate of those who went against 'Taskmaster Larom', whose wrath was legendary and his dedication absolute. Kan folded his arms behind his back, and waited while the technicians above did the rest.

"Connection established with our groundside deployment zones," the female Major's voice rang out over the hangar. "Prepare for immediate transport."

The silver pillars surrounding their platform began to glow brighter and brighter, rings of hazy golden energy appearing between them and surrounding the gathered Sangheili, who kept themselves well within its range. Of all the technologies the Imperium of Clarity had worked to improve on following the fall of the Covenant, Kan had always found their advanced methods of Slipspace translocation to be the most impressive. While establishing a proper deployment zone was key, they could now bypass the need for dangerous insertion via dropship or moving warships into a planet's atmosphere, sending thousands into battle at once. This would be the key to their victory on Montak, and without a doubt, many other worlds as well. The golden rings grew larger and more luminous, encircling the warriors one by one until, in a flash of blinding light, everyone on the platform vanished.

***

A moment later, Fleet Master Kan 'Larom stood on the surface of Montak, feeling slightly nauseous and unsteady after his entire being was reassembled on the platform. High concrete walls surrounded Kan and his warriors, and the steady rhythm of plasma cannons firing drifted across the courtyard. Shaking his head, he stepped off the platform, still adjusting to the change in gravity, and made his way towards the nearest set of doors. Right now, they were in the heart of Montak's largest structure: the Liang-Dortmund Mining Facility. As Kan approached, they swung open, revealing a thin human male in a dark suit and several armed bodyguards.

"Fleet Master!" the man spread his arms wide in a welcoming gesture, though a slight tremble in his voice betrayed the true nervousness. "So good to see you here at last!"

"Mister Thaler," Kan used the human honorific as he switched to one of their common languages. "How goes the battle?"

Thaler clasped his hands together. "Oh, reasonably well, though I'm glad you're here."

While Kan had nothing against humans in particular, there was something about Thaler that irked him immensely. Not long ago, he and a companion had visited the Imperium, gaining an audience with Toru 'Makhan himself. While he did not know what transpired in that meeting between the two businessmen and the Imperial Admiral, it was only a few days later that Kan had been ordered to capture this planet. He did so quickly and without resistance, while Thaler and his own subordinates from their 'Guild of Free Traders' had taken over mining operations and kept the workers busy. While he had taken up a position as foreman, Thaler was no soldier, and relied almost entirely on the Imperium for protection.

"Where are the workers?" Kan asked.

"We've confined all of them to their quarters for now, and put them under guard with enough supplies to last a few weeks."

"Ensure they are kept secure," he gestured towards the nearby building. "For now, I will take command."

The civilian workers of Montak's refineries were unwittingly playing a large role in this battle. As Toru 'Makhan had predicted as he had briefed his High Command, the human UNSC were often incredibly cautious when it came to risking innocent lives, and would not sacrifice them unless the circumstances were particularly extreme. That, coupled with the expense put into this massive facility and its nearby refineries, meant that they could not simply destroy the entire area with one of their nuclear weapons. So long as they knew the civilians were alive, they could not engage in particularly destructive warfare.

Moving quickly with Thaler at his heels, Kan entered the facility, ducking his head under a human-sized doorframe as he stalked into the mining complex's operations room. A few Guild personnel stood around as guards, while a small contingent of Sangheili commanders stood around a recently-installed holotable, surveying the battle outside. Seeing their gold-armoured leader enter the room, they all stepped back and stood to attention.

"You arrived at a good time," one of the older commanders chose to forego the usual formalities, pointing at the holotable. "Our lines are beginning to waver, and the enemy is drawing closer to this facility."

Kan looked over the table. While the formation of anti-ship cannons that surrounded this building was mostly intact, barring one destroyed by what looked like a crashed Phantom dropship, most of the array he had personally seen deployed was in ruins, with some of the guns either destroyed, inoperable or abandoned. While no large enemy vessels could enter the atmosphere on most of this continent for fear of being blasted out of the sky, their strategy of landing troops on the planet's northern hemisphere and moving south to launch a ground invasion was working. Even now, Kan could see lines of Wraith tanks raining down mortars on entrenched Imperial troops, while scores of warriors fought in close combat throughout the narrow valleys and distant military outposts dotting the area. The UNSC had arrived, too; their fast-attack dropships braved a storm of AA fire to deposit shock troops close to their lines, while artillery tanks trundled through the mountains, harried by constant banshee strikes.

From what the Fleet Master could see, everything seemed to be going as planned. He had known from the start that maintaining such a widespread array of guns could only last for so long, and would largely act as a deterrent to ships in orbit, not ground troops. Even now, their foe was establishing makeshift forward operating bases in the nearby mountains and settling in for what could be a longer siege with startling efficiency. While he could not determine the exact number of troops on the ground, Kan reckoned that the UNSC and Swords of Sanghelios had deployed ten thousand troops at most.

"Contact my fleet," he said to no one in particular, not taking his eyes off the holotable. "We shall begin deployment at once."

After a few seconds of uncertainty, one of Kan's commanders jogged to a nearby terminal and began sending the message. While most of the Fleet Master's warships currently sat in defensive positions in Montak's orbit or were reinforcing the battle lines made up by the fleets of Orro 'Hendai and the Hudon brothers, he had selected seven, including the Advance Guard, to help deliver the killing blow on the ground. The holotable chimed as Kan's subordinate established a connection, bringing up a secure link with each vessel. He stood by as a chorus of affirmatives flooded through the open channel, and waited for each Shipmaster to fall quiet before speaking.

"Launch the spires."

On Kan's command, all seven warships launched their payloads, each aimed at a specific point across the large swathe of land containing most of the anti-ship cannons and as of now, the entirety of the raging ground battle. Encased in protective armour, each structure shot through the atmosphere, slowly shedding huge pieces of metal before smashing into the ground with immense force. Kan left the holotable and dashed towards the ceiling-length window nearby, looking out at the massive dustclouds forming at different points on the horizon. Each spire then activated, unfolding its apparatus like a flower's petals as its internal generator flared to life. Seconds later, seven energy shields snapped into place, spreading out across the sky and joining with others to create a gargantuan bubble, stretching out for hundreds of kilometres. The mining facilities, refineries, and battlefield were now completely encased in a flickering, translucent dome.

Beside Kan, Thaler's mouth hung open as he stared up at the energy field. The Fleet Master's mandibles shook slightly as he suppressed an uncommon chuckle at the human's expense, though he soon saw that his ground commanders had similar looks on their faces. Aside from Kan 'Larom, only the Imperium's High Command and his chosen Shipmasters had known of his plan; a feat of such precision and timing that only he of his peers could have pulled off. While he had suggested it to Toru 'Makhan as a purely theoretical idea not long ago, Kan had always dreamed of executing a maneuver like this. Now, their foe was trapped. Without missing a beat, he returned to the holotable and opened communications yet again with his ships. Yet again, Kan's orders were short and to the point.

"Spire landing is successful. Deploy troops at once."

While the Imperium had deployed troops to defend their positions on the ground, the objective from the start had never been to hold them. Montak was, as a planet, not developed enough to warrant the same fortifications that graced the likes of Frendhal or its sister-worlds. However, the position of this all-important facility and the surrounding areas, coupled with the bait of its civilian workforce, would make this area the perfect trap. Just as the far-off Imperial Admiral had predicted as he planned its defence with Kan, they had deployed a powerful attack force with the intention of smashing through their lines and retaking the colony within hours. Even with their care in not destroying the infrastructure, it would only be a matter of time before enemy infantry penetrated the structure and retook it. In their desire for a speedy resolution, however, they had rushed their forces through the mountains and into a trap. All Kan 'Larom had done is spring it.

As the swirling dust and dirt from the spire's orbital drops began to clear, sparks of golden light began to coalesce within them. Phantom dropships, carrying wide, pillar-lined platforms, teleported down from Imperial capital ships in orbit, and set their cargo down nearby. Within minutes fresh Sangheili warriors to groups of towering battle-hungry Mgalekgolo, emerged in the hundreds, then thousands, all encircling and bearing down on the the Swords of Sanghelios and their UNSC allies in the valleys around the main mining complex. The already-vicious battle flared up once more with renewed vigour as the attackers soon found themselves facing foes from all directions, while dropships and fighters that made contact with the energy barrier were sent crashing into the ground, having lost all power.

Within the mining facility, Fleet Master Kan 'Larom stood and watched, content that his masterstroke had won the day.

Brodie-001: Here to help

44: Adapting to Extremity

1332 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Montak battlespace, near refinery complex

Plasma fire raked across the plain. Swords of Sanghelios Wraiths lobbed plasma orbs down on the Kru’desh position while their infantry escorts sprayed plasma shots from their rifles in a wide suppressing arc. Neither the tanks nor their escorts were close enough for lethal accuracy, but their shots landed close enough. And they were drawing closer.

“Is the beacon secure yet?” Tuka demanded. He braced himself against the rocky banks of the river his lance used as a makeshift trench. His mandibles clenched with tension as a plasma mortar detonated just shy of the riverbed.

“I just need a few more moments.” Ier was up to his waist in water, inputting program commands as best he could with his targeting beacon wedged at the bottom of the muddy riverbank. “This isn’t as easy as it looks.”

“You’re just turning the damn thing on, not plotting a Slipspace jump,” Amber snapped. She lay at the top of the bank, taking potshots with a beam rifle. The rest of the lance spread out across the riverbank and did their best to fire back at the advancing Reds while ducking and moving to avoid the oncoming fire. Pugi had set up a portable plasma turret beside Amber’s position, hammering away suppressive fire with gusto.

“So you get down here and do it,” Ier shot back. “And then you can be the one to explain why this wretched thing isn’t transmitting.”

His tone was harsh, but no harsher than he was with anyone else in the heat of a typical Kru’desh suicide mission. The lance had warmed to their odd human companion since the first battle on the landing zone. A solid hand in a fight, she picked off the enemy—human and Sangheili alike—with unflinching accuracy. As far as the Kru’desh was concerned, anyone with a talent for violence was welcome in their ranks.

The legion had thankfully been spared massed assaults since their fiery planetfall. Instead Stray had lances like Tuka’s darting from one battlefield to another, harassing the enemy with quick hit and run attacks. Annihilating the one landing force did not seem to have deterred the enemy from advancing on the refineries. Assault forces continued to drive towards the defensive zones across the sector, intent on capturing the precious refineries even as the battle raged on in orbit.

Tuka’s lance had spent the better part of the day trading fire with scouts from one such assault force. Now that the Reds were bringing their armor to the front it was time to finish their assigned tasks and make a break for the relative safety of the Soul Ascension.

“How much longer?” Tuka insisted. The mortar strikes were drawing closer now. Any more delays and his position would be overrun.

“Almost there,” Ier grunted. “I just need to make sure they don’t find it.” He began scooping mud over the transmitter’s rounded cranium.

They were out of time. Tuka tapped his combat harness and sent out a distress beacon, signaling Mihka for immediate extraction. Pugi yelped and yanked his plasma cannon back as a Wraith mortar soared towards him. The Unggoy and his weapon tumbled down the river bank and plunged into the river. Two more of Pugi’s squat brethren rushed to fish their compatriot out of the water as the rest of the lance abandoned their firing positions and rushed to cover.

The steady whine of Phantom engines heralded Mihka's approach. Her dropship soared over the plains and peppered the Red ranks with plasma fire as it descended to hover just behind the river. Tuka waved his lance forward as the oncoming Wraiths shifted their firing arcs to target the Phantom.

"Hurry up and get aboard," Mihka called over the battlenet. "One of those Wraith blasts so much as comes near me and I'm leaving you behind."

The lance scrambled through the water and up towards the waiting Phantom. Ier, finally satisfied with the transmitter, was the last up the bank. Plasma bolts glanced off his shields as the Red warriors threw caution to the wind and sprinted ahead of the Wraiths. Tuka couldn't deny their bravery as they dodged blasts from the Phantom's cannons in their rush to overrun the escaping Kru'desh. Beside him, Amber picked off two warriors with the last of her beam rifle's charge before leaping back into the Phantom's gravity beam and ascending up into the dropship's underbelly. She emerged at the bay door a moment later, firing back at the Reds from the dropship's plasma turret.

The remaining Unggoy tossed the waterlogged Pugi into the gravity lift before hurrying up themselves. Tuka waited for the rest of the lance to board the Phantom before backing into the gravity lift. He relaxed his body as the beam took hold and deposited him in the dropship's troop bay. Mihka didn't even wait for his signal to pull out, yanking her Phantom up and away from the skirmish site. The Reds fired a few token plasma shots after them but clearly were not overly concerned with a single retreating lance. They were reforming their line of march before the Phantom was even out of sight.

Tuka knelt at the edge of the troop bay's open doors, scanning the horizon for any sign of Sword Banshees or other enemy interceptors. The enemy had improved their air cover since the initial assault, and with a Red battle formation on the march these were hardly friendly skies. Beside him, Amber swiveled her turret to cover the Phantom's rear.

"Another happy little patrol," the human observed drily. "They must be getting tired of chasing us around this dust heap."

"Imperium reinforcements should arrive soon." Tuka detected the irritation in Amber's voice. "We've done well holding the enemy this far. Just a little longer and the Imperium will launch its counterattack."

"Counterattack, huh?" She angled her helmet in his direction. Tuka knew a thing or two about human expressions and body language from Stray, but he could never quite tell what Amber was really thinking. "They're sure taking their time with it. They should have kicked these guys off their planet by now. Instead they've got us running interference while they slug it out in orbit."

"I prefer this to a frontal assault." Stray had been cautious since that bloody first strike, for which Tuka was grateful. He got the feeling Stray had wanted to prove a point with the attack on the landing zone. Now the Kru'desh was back to its usual tactics, harassing the enemy advance in one area before hurrying on to the next. The battle extended across Montak’s plains now as the enemy closed in on the refineries. If the fighting continued like this for long the Imperium lines would be overwhelmed.

"We're still the only warship game in the neighborhood. We should be glassing the rest of the landing zones while their fleet's tied up in orbit." Amber shook her head. "Whatever happens here, it won't delay them for long. They'll reach the refineries eventually. Then what?"

Tuka didn't bother with a reply. He was a lance commander, not a strategist. And whatever the enemy, Montak was not the Covenant's battle. He'd content himself with getting his warriors out of each skirmish alive.

He stiffened at the sight of several dark blips on the horizon, but sighed with relief when he recognized them as several more Kru'desh Phantoms. They all returned from the same mission, planting transmitters to relay information on the enemy formation back to the Soul Ascension.

A mundane task, but such things were the best one could hope for in the Kru'desh legion.

Mihka pulled the Phantom into formation alongside the other dropships. Tuka raised a hand in greeting to the distant figures standing in the troop bay of the nearest ship, noting grimly that only six out of the mission's original seven Phantoms were returning to the Soul Ascension. He suddenly dreaded arriving back in the hangar, where he would no doubt learn the names of the friends and comrades he would never see again.

It was an experience he'd felt all too often in fighting under the Covenant's banner.

The Phantoms closed in on the Soul Ascension’s position. The battlecruiser had stayed mobile since the first assault, taking cover within valleys and mountain ranges and repositioning after every sortie. Stray no doubt expected retaliation for the ship’s annihilation of the landing zone.

Tuka found himself fighting back an unusual surge of doubt. Perhaps Amber was right. How much damage could the Soul Ascension have done if Stray hadn’t kept it slinking about the edge of the battlespace? Perhaps the enemy advance would already be routed, their fighting positions reduced to glassy ash by the cruiser’s ventral cannons.

A sudden light flashed across the horizon and jolted Tuka from his unwelcome ruminations. For one moment he was staring across Montak’s barren plains and the next the Phantom was rocked as if struck by a missile. For a moment Tuka thought they had been hit—until he saw the dustcloud erupting from a massive spire that had just slammed down into their path.

Light flared and a wall of blue energy roared to life in front of the Kru’desh Phantoms. Someone was yelling in Tuka’s ear—perhaps a warning, perhaps simply a cry of fear. The Phantoms spiraled out of control, tumbling back towards the battlefield. Amber tumbled into Tuka and sent him flying towards the back of the troop bay. He found himself staring up at a massive dome that blotted out the distant sky.

The ground soared up to meet them and Tuka let out a shout of terrified laughter. It seemed only fitting for the gods to play one final joke as he met his end.


The Soul Ascension’s bridge buzzed with activity. The crew shouted reports from their battle stations even as the Oracle—or whatever the self-assured false prophet really was—spun the web of feedback into a vast map of Montak’s battlespace. Stray paced from station to station, rarely standing still for even a moment as he barked orders to his crew. He was a furious bundle of restless energy, always on the move, never at rest. From where he stood in the center of the bridge, Shinsu glimpsed the splotchy patches on the human’s pallid skin in the light from the battlemap.

Shinsu wondered how long it had been since Stray last slept.

He idly observed a small book resting on Stray’s unused command chair. It was a rare physical text, written in basic Sangheili script. Shinsu’s mandibles curled in a faint smile as he recognized the title: A Warrior Ethos. He recalled reciting lines from that dry creed on the first day of his elementary instruction on Sanghelios.

Shinsu wondered if anyone had bothered to tell Stray he was reading a text meant for young children, though now was hardly a time for a discussion on the finer points of Sangheili literature.

All eyes were currently fixed on the immense energy dome that had suddenly sprouted over the battlespace. Shinsu recognized the orbitally dropped pillars as old Covenant Empire tech of the sort usually used to cover ground invasions. From the abrupt spikes in Imperium unit levels, Shinsu deduced they were performing a similar function here, only now they performed the added task of trapping the enemy invasion force inside.

A clever ploy, especially combined with what Shinsu assumed were high-level teleportation platforms. But it was a trick that could only work once. A showy, grandiose gesture, just like the Kru’desh’s initial landfall. He made several mental notes on what this could mean regarding the Imperium’s capabilities and stratagems, though he kept quiet and let Stray vent his frustrations at the sudden development.

The dome had sealed the enemy inside, but it had also sealed the Soul Ascension out. This clearly did not sit well with the young commander.

“Away team, respond!” Stray barked, glowering at the dome as if it were the enemy. “Come in, damn it!” He received no response.

“We have lost contact with the beacons the away teams set,” the targeting officer reported. The Kru’desh had been planning to unleash a long-range plasma bombardment on the enemy positions with the targeting data from the sortie force’s transmitters, though that little scheme was as scuttled as the sortie force’s Phantoms.

“Oh, really? You think so?” Stray snapped irritably. He slammed a fist into the tactical display as if he could smash the dome through sheer force of will. “Screw it. Use the old data. Fire all weapons anyway, let ‘em have it.”

The targeting officer glanced back at his commander, mandibles pursed. “Commander, even at full power hardly anything would get through. It would be a waste to…” He ducked his head as Stray fixed him with a furious look.

Normally questioning a shipmaster’s direct order would be unthinkable and grounds for immediate removal, if not execution. Then again, such an angry display was also unbecoming for a ranking officer of any military force. But Ro’nin and the rest of the crew carried on as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. Even the targeting officer did not seem too worried. Shinsu wondered if he was witnessing a fatal flaw at the heart of the Kru’desh or simply another part of what set them apart from line units.

Stray’s hand dropped to his waist, but instead of drawing his sidearm he plucked a canteen off his combat webbing and took a swig. He took a breath and nodded, anger fading from his demeanor. “Yeah. You’re right. Good call. Belay that order.”

He returned the canteen to its pouch and stalked over to Shinsu. “You know anything about this?” he demanded, gesturing at the energy dome. “Maybe just forgot to mention it?”

“I think we have already established that I am hardly privy to the Imperium’s battle plans,” Shinsu replied evenly. “Suffice it to say had I known they planned such a maneuver I might have suggested moving your ship a bit further into the battlespace.”

“Yeah. Exactly.” Stray’s anger had given way to an indignant exasperation. “We could be in there right now, blasting the whole invasion force with plasma fire. Instead we’re sitting ducks out here. Whatever genius thought this one up really messed that up, didn’t he?”

“Perhaps it was an intentional oversight,” Shinsu said, voicing what he and Stray already knew. “Toru ‘Makhan’s vassals vie for the glory of destroying his enemies. And their warriors expect their lords to provide a suitable battlefield to prove their skills. They would not want an auxiliary force like ourselves claiming any amount of credit for their victory. I imagine they considered your activities a delaying tactic at best.”

“So that’s how it is.” Stray nodded and folded his arms. Now that the human’s anger had calmed, he seemed to be weighing his options. He turned away from Shinsu and gestured to the bridge crew. “All right people, talk to me. What have we got to work with here?”

The bridge crew turned to offer insight with a familiarity that suggested they were used to such impromptu planning sessions. “We could attempt to breach the shield with the ship,” the navigations officer suggested.

“That would leave our shields down and open to attack,” a Kig-Yar technician argued. “If the enemy fleet wasn’t trying to reach the surface already, they’ll be scrambling to do it now.”

“Perhaps ascend to a higher elevation to intercept enemy reinforcements?” the targeting officer asked. “That shield will interfere with human dropships and larger ships, but Phantoms will still get through.”

Stray leaned against the tactical display, eyes drifting to the holographic fleets in orbit. “They’ll just vector ships in to catch us from above. And we already know we can’t count on the Imperium for support.”

“Ground forces can still get through the shields,” Ro’nin noted. The Kru’desh’s executive officer stepped away from his post and slumped into the command chair with an ironic flourish. “Deploy the full legion, organize them into armored columns, and catch the enemy between us and the refineries before they can regroup.”

“There’s no way I’m risking any more of our troops on guarding those refineries. Especially not when this zone is about to heat up once the UNSC scrambles a response force.” Stray stepped back into the center of bridge, crooking a finger at Ro’nin. “If the Imperium wants to do the fighting, they can have it. Out of the chair.”

Ro’nin laughed and obeyed. “Then what do we do? Leave the battle entirely?”

“Transmission from the away team!” the communications officer barked. “It’s faint, but some of them are still alive down there!”

“Not for long if the enemy has anything to say about it,” the Oracle reported. “They’ll be looking for sitting ducks like that to pick off.”

“Alright, that does it.” Stray nodded at Ro’nin. “Recall anyone we’ve got left on the surface. Get my Lich and an escort force ready. You’re in charge here while I go pick them up. Get the ship up into orbit. Link up with the Purveyor of the Righteous and stay out of trouble, but be ready to drop back in if the shield goes down.”

“Then you’ll be going down yourself?” Even the unflappable Ro’nin seemed surprised.

“Yep.” Stray snatched his helmet up from the tactical display and tucked it beneath his arm. “I’m through playing the Imperium’s games and being stuck up here is driving me stir-crazy. We’re getting our people out of there before some UNSC goons come along to pick them up.”

The human turned back to Shinsu and jerked his head. “Come on, you’re coming too.”

Shinsu arched his neck, mandibles curling. “Oh, am I?”

“You’ve been stuck on this ship since we set out. Don’t tell me you don’t want to catch some fresh air. Let’s see how you handle a real fight.”

Perhaps this was blatant insubordination or perhaps Stray was trying to invoke some strange element of camaraderie. But he had a point, much as Shinsu was loathe to admit it. He was growing anxious waiting imperiously on this bridge while the schemes of others played out around him. It had been too long since he’d set foot on the battlefield himself.

“Very well, I’ll play along.” Shinsu adjusted his command cloak and turned to follow Stray. “But my guard squadron stays here.”

“Kind of defeats the purpose if they aren’t around to guard you.” Stray shrugged and turned back to Ro’nin. “Fine then. Get the dropships loaded up to support a convoy. Mixed bag, I think. Ghosts, Spirits, and Warthogs. Fast attackers.”

“Then you do not intend to simply return to the ship once you have rescued your warriors,” Shinsu observed.

Stray offered him a feral grin. “Hell no. I’m going to grab my people and then roll on over to those refineries to pay my respects at Imperium HQ.”

A sense of resignation settled over Shinsu. It was a feeling he was growing more and more familiar with whenever the Kru’desh was involved. “And what, pray tell, do you intend to do there?”

Stray’s smile widened, though the humor didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I’m going to find whatever genius came up with this master plan and I’m going to punch him right in his hinge-head face.”

The mission—all his efforts at diplomacy, Jul ‘Mdama’s hopes for an alliance, his own efforts to ingratiate himself with the Imperium leaders—flashed through Shinsu’s mind. He could already imagine furious Imperium warriors bearing down on the impudent human who dared to strike their lord.

Then he thought of the utter contempt shown to Stray and his Kru’desh so far. The same contempt the mighty lords of Sanghelios always showed those they deemed their inferiors. The contempt that made this entire mission the futile gesture of a cause already doomed to defeat. An unexpected smile graced his mandibles. “Very well then. I imagine that this new mission of yours will prove entertaining enough to watch.”

Actene: If This Is To End In Fire, Then We'll Burn Together

45: Encircled

1348 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Montak battlespace, 4km away from central mining facility

As the last Brute fell howling into the dirt, a pair of holes smoking in its chest, Fol 'Taram allowed himself a moment to breathe. This assault, while successful, had come at a heavy cost. Smoke began to clear from the gully where the Sangheili General and his compatriots had taken cover, revealing a mess of mangled corpses; victims of the Imperium's latest counter-attack against the Swords' offensive. In this moment of brief respite, Fol deactivated his blade and approached his bodyguards.

"K'ral," he addressed a thickset warrior, scrambling around in the dirt. "Are you wounded?"

K'ral stood up and turned to face Fol, clutching something in his hands. The General instantly recognised it as his own helmet, which had been lost during the fighting. It was badly dented and a section of the upper headpiece had been shorn off by a particularly vicious Jiralhanae's attempt to behead him in the recent melee, but Fol took the helmet gratefully and placed it back atop his head.

"You have my thanks, K'ral, I will not misplace it again."

"The Jir'a'ul were fools to think they could break through our lines," K'ral spat contemptuously onto a nearby corpse. "But I fear that their attack was meant to distract us."

The warrior pointed skyward, towards the translucent dome that stretched out in all directions above them. Fol had scarcely registered its arrival, being at the vanguard of their assault on another of the human-built ore refineries. Like the other ones his troops had reported on, it was empty, save for the Imperium of Clarity's soldiers. While he was in command of their ground invasion, Fol had left a network of officers to lead portions of their attack force as he spearheaded an assault towards the central complex. Fleet Master 'Ranak would likely scold him later for taking to the field while their armies needed direction, but Fol believed that his success would speak for itself.

Trudging across the ravine, which provided his troops cover from enemy sniper fire, Fol caught a glimpse of friendly fighters skimming around the dome's interior, unable to leave for fear of immediately losing power. From his position, he could see two recently-deployed spires jutting out over the nearby mountains, combining their power with several others to generate the energy dome that kept his forces cut off from orbital support. Fol cursed himself for not expecting a trap of some sort, but this battle had seemed like one that would be won in hours. Now that the Imperium had made their move, there was a chance that the tide would turn in their favour.

"General 'Taram," a voice buzzed through his communicator. It was Ussi 'Yanun, his main Artillery Master. "We have confirmed the presence of substantial enemy reinforcements around these spires, in addition to our existing opponents. Your orders?"

Before he could answer, the top of the ravine blew apart as a ball of white-hot energy crashed into the ground, scattering Fol and his warriors as dirt rained down on them. The Imperium had begun its assault once more. A row of sleek, crimson-hued Ghosts zipped past, plasma cannons blaring. The General kept his head down and moved past groups of his advancing warriors, heading for the recently-captured refinery nearby. Ducking behind a recently-deployed energy barrier outside the entrance, he contacted his subordinate.

"Artillery Master, we must hasten our advance. Bring up as many troop transports as you are able and concentrate your firepower on the fields in front of the central mining complex."

"The humans requested that we not destroy their structures, General."

"I will not have our men die for fear of being unable to use their full strength!" Fol snapped, his eyes flashing towards the distant hillsides. Tiny pinpricks of light indicated the advance of fresh enemy troops. "I will deal with the human leader. Just do as I command."

There was a brief pause, and a sound that might have been a sigh from Ussi's end. "It will be done."

After powering down his communicator, Fol entered the refinery, which had quickly been converted into a forward base by his men. The facility had not been active in several days, and much of the available floor space now lay strewn with the dead and dying, treated by the few medical personnel they had. Some, like K'ral, had suggested simply killing the wounded, but Fol's heart had not been hardened to stone by his experiences in war. Ascending a flight of stairs to what was now an impromptu communications room, he felt a pang of nostalgia for his days in the Covenant. Years ago, he had been one of many to participate in a campaign on the human world known as Reach, leading an invading army through one of its cities and slaughtering all who stood in his way. Back then, he and his comrades had the comfortable excuse of religious zealotry to excuse any action. Now, as he invaded another world, he felt nothing but a grim sense of duty.

Standing above the refinery's main floor Fol watched as a group of Unggoy dragged their fallen comrades inside, speaking to each other in low voices before pulling themselves together and returning to the battle. It suddenly occurred to him that this entire situation - fighting their way to the surface, taking down anti-air emplacements and the slow advance into enemy territory - may have factored into the Imperium's strategy. These structures were the only thing worth fighting for on this world, meaning little to each side except as a way of making a profit. Even so, they had bled deeply for this scrap of territory. With a sigh, he turned to a nearby table and activated the holoprojector, bringing up a map of the local area as he attempted to access a new frequency over his communicator. A small violet light on the device indicated that he had gotten through after two attempts.

"Colonel?" he switched to the common human language. "This is General 'Taram. I wish to speak with you."

Aside from a few brief transmissions as they set up operations on Montak's surface, Fol had few reasons to speak to Colonel Ulric Brand, whose Marines had armoured forces had cut a bloody path through the nearby mountains to strike at a particularly troublesome cluster of anti-air guns. While there had been some fears that the humans would accidentally fire on their forces, both the UNSC and Swords of Sanghelios had cooperated well on the surface, though the fact that they were fighting groups of Jiralhanae, Kig-Yar and even human groups in addition to Sangheili may have helped.

"This is Brand," the Colonel's reply was terse. "We're in a bad way here, so make it quick."

Though he did not raise his voice or seem distressed, a quick glance out of the nearest window towards the nearest mountains told Fol everything about the Colonel's plight. The mountainside to the west was ablaze with fire from advancing Imperial troops, supported by heavy tanks and close air support. The UNSC troops were holding out for now, using what remained of the captured AA guns and elevated position to rip apart the offensive from the nearest spire, but they were slowly being surrounded. The rest of their forces, down here on the plains, were forced to advance alongside the Swords of Sanghelios, unable or unwilling to allow their left flank to collapse.

"Then I will be brief. In a moment, I will transfer a set of coordinates to you. Direct your artillery tanks to fire on that location."

Reaching into the holodisplay, Fol tapped a finger on the very edge of the central facility. The Imperium had amassed a large force outside the building, bolstering the dozens of rag-tag mercenary groups with grey-armoured professional soldiers loyal to Toru 'Makhan. It was likely, Fol realised, that these newly-arrived troops intended to surround and slaughter the battle-weary Swords and UNSC in the field, crippling their groundside forces while the shield cut off any support from orbit. It was a clever plan, though the General was no stranger to escaping a trap. If a warrior cannot spring his own, then he fights his way out: answer subterfuge with strength. Fol sent the coordinates over, and awaited Brand's response.

"This is the main facility!" the Colonel sounded dismayed. "General 'Taram, if we fire directly on it, then we risk the lives of the civilian miners trapped there."

Fol gripped the sides of the table, weighing up the odds. "I disagree, Colonel. The Imperium is using our hesitance against us, and we have walked into a trap because of it. If we deliver a decisive strike now against their headquarters, then they will be forced to adapt."

"I don't disagree with you, but I have my orders. The civilians-"

"Will be rescued! Even now, our special forces draw closer to the facility. Let us draw the Imperium's attention towards us so that they may slip in unnoticed. I do not believe they would keep these hostages in a place where any stray shot might harm them."

"Do you have proof of this?"

This would be Fol 'Taram's greatest gamble. In truth, he had seen nothing of Commander Rora 'Marak or his Shadows of Retribution since they had made landfall, and had no way of telling if they were alive or not. He had worked alongside Rora on several operations prior to this campaign, and while he disliked the young Sangheili's strange ways, he could not deny his skills. As the fighting began, he and his fellows had simply crept off into the battlefield and vanished, looking for these all-important civilians the Imperium were holding as hostages.

"They have assured me that they are nearing their goal," he lied. "Colonel, we have few choices in this matter if we intend to win the day. Please trust me."

There was a long silence, followed by a sigh from Brand. "You'll get your artillery cover. Maybe more, if our troops can take out those Spires."

"Thank you," he said with genuine sincerity. Those structures would be difficult to take down, but if the shield were weakened or even destroyed entirely, then they would benefit from aerial support once again. "May we both live to see the end of this."

"You give 'em hell."

With that, the transmission cut off. Fol left the room and descended the long flight of stairs, lamenting humans and their strange ways. Back outside, Ussi's tanks had moved up, firing mortar after mortar at distant enemy positions. Two were already smoking wrecks, likely as the result of a banshee strafing run, but they hopefully had enough to break through. Parked around the cover of the refinery were dozens of light vehicles, ranging from groups of Ghosts to Shadow troop transports. A Revenant craft pulled up beside Fol, who was surprised to see K'ral driving.

"I thought you may prefer this to the interior of a Shadow," he laughed to himself.

Fol did not understand the joke, but clambered into the passenger's seat. Around them, his warriors bundled into attack vehicles, ready to charge the moment he gave the order. Through the hazy smoke generated by constant bombardment, Fol could see the outline of the mining facility. K'ral maneuvered the Revenant through the corpse-strewn ravine until it was waiting among its fellows at the head of the assault force. It was quite a way to go until they reached the building and losses were a certainty, but Fol felt invigorated nonetheless. Once he took the head of the enemy commander and ensured the safety of the civilians, there was nothing their foe could do but retreat or be destroyed as the Swords of Sanghelios bombed this entire area into dust. The humans would likely complain about losing the mining operation they had here, but such things mattered little in war.

Soon enough, Colonel Brand made good on his promise, and a hail of artillery shells shrieked through the air overhead, blossoming into a series of fiery explosions on the horizon. Hoping that he hadn't convinced a UNSC Colonel to bomb a group of civilians to death, Fol lifted himself up and raised his sword, waiting for just a moment before he brought it down in front of him.

"Forward!"

Cheers went up all around the General as their attack force surged ahead. Dozens of Ghosts flashed ahead of him, opening fire as plasma cannons lit up from concealed positions and makeshift fortresses in their path. Looking to his right, Fol sighted another enemy force slowly advancing onto the plains. Another hour, and they would be cut off. The Revenant's own mortar fired, blowing up a turret emplacement as it swerved to avoid incoming fire. At their rear, the first line of Wraiths continued their own attack, occasionally moving off to destroy encampments or chase down smaller vehicles.

It wasn't long before the aerial offensive began, with banshees launching dive-bombing attacks on the attack force. A few lighter vehicles were blown to pieces by fuel rod strikes, though Fol's own troops responded with a hail of fire that shot many incoming fliers out of the sky and scattered the rest. Soon, they had crested yet another hill, and found themselves within sight of the mostly-unharmed mining facility. Brand's artillery had left a series of smoking craters outside its walls, even collapsing a small section of the building. Nonetheless, the enemy camp seemed to be in disarray as the defenders scrambled into position, suddenly beset by a horde of vehicles bearing down on them. It was in this moment, as they paused momentarily atop the hill, that Fol's communicator buzzed once more.

"Thank you for the cover, General," Rora 'Marak spoke in a new voice. "You came close to killing us, but we used that to our advantage."

"Rora!" Fol exclaimed in shock at the Commander's sudden reappearance. "Where are-"

"Moving inside. I'll report in soon."

The connection cut off and the General shook his head, flexing his mandibles in annoyance. I could have used that brat's assurance sooner. If he and the Shadows were this close, then the battle was as good as won already; their talents for infiltration and assassination were second to none within the Swords of Sanghelios. Waving his allies forward yet again, Fol prepared for yet another gauntlet of enemy fire as they began their descent towards the camps. As they moved, there were a series of sudden flashes from the base of the hill. Fol initially mistook it for another artillery bombardment, but this golden-hued light was different. These flashes began to appear far to their left and right, and it was not until the attack force were halfway down the slope that he realised what was happening.

Teleportation!

As the light began to dissipate, Fol 'Taram's eyes widened in terror. Where once there had been an empty field outside the enemy encampment, there now stood dozens fully-armed and armoured Mgalekgolo pairs, all turning their cannons upwards. This was the enemy commander's last line of defence; a bulwark against an attack of desperation like this. Fol growled as his Revenant sped up, and a hundred bursts of emerald light surged towards their attack force. If they were to die, then they would do so fighting.

Brodie-001: Here to help

46: Rain Dance

1420 Hours, August 29th, 2558, Montak


The FOB they’d been dropped on hadn’t lasted long, after they were through with it, the team had moved on the nearby anti-air array and over the course of an hour or so, it too fell to Stallion’s efforts. The defenders had been an odd, but tenacious bunch, every Covenant species one could imagine, humans, a few Yonhet even. They’d put up a good fight admittedly, but they’d fallen all the same.

Dawes slapped a fresh magazine into the Colt Blaster in his arms. All of their weapons had run dry at some point, but they’d adapted. Now the Spartans were all hefting captured ordinance of some kind as they held back the tide of enemy reinforcements in the burnt out husks of Tyrant anti-air guns.

Rodger was topside, a Beam Rifle in his hands, picking off who he could. Jacob was laying down covering fire for Cody with an old confetti maker, the latter of the two was rushing back into cover. He’d just dispatched a Hunter pair with little more than a knife and plasma grenade. Their leader was an odd man, and evidently a tad unhinged, but he was impressive to watch, Dawes would give him that.

Racking the slide Dawes poked out of cover and squeezed off a burst, expertly removing the top of a man’s skull, the RPG he’d meant to launch their way shooting skyward as he dropped. The guns were down, yes, but the Imperium had launched a vicious counter.

It was mostly infantry for now, and that they could handle, but Rodger had called out incoming armor. Wraiths, Scorpions, a few makeshift tanks that were so heavily jury rigged the young Spartan hadn’t been able to figure out what they had been originally. Not that the specifics mattered, they were bad news.

“They’re almost in range!” Rodger called out. “And I need that new rifle Dawes!”

B042 dove around the door, a hail of blamite chasing after him. The pink shards turned to pounce on their target but were unable to make the turn so suddenly and instead dug into the stairwell. The team leader looked to the pile of rifles next to Dawes and nodded, he was up. He’d been down on the ground level in the first place to secure a new weapon for Rodger, but the Hunter pair had taken precedent.

With one hand Dawes snatched up a Focus Rifle, in the other he hefted up the Colt. It wasn’t far to the starwell, and the blamite shards had begun to collapse, but the enemy forces had been hammering almost any move they made.

“Going!” He called out, the Colt in his hands barking angrily as he let off a burst and shot to the second level of the forcefully decommissioned Tyrant. Just as he’d nearly cleared the enemy’s line of fire, something heavy smacked against his thigh. His shields flared and collapsed, and something hit hard against his armor. It didn’t breach, but it did sting like hell. He knew that sting, only SRS’ hit like that, only only Spartans could take that kind of hit and not lose a limb.

The sudden force took Dawes leg out from under him, and he fell onto his back as he made it clear onto the second floor. There was no time to pause, he threw Rodger the rifle.

The SPARTAN-III snagged the weapon out of the air, and in the blink of an eye had the weapon leveled and spewing energy down range. Dawes didn’t ask if the enemy marksman was dead, Rodger didn’t miss.

Dawes ducked under the cover provided by the Tyrant, waiting for his shields to return as the others took shots at the enemy. “Flores is that air support on its way?” Dawes questioned, praying their handler was seeing to their much needed request. Dawes reckoned they might be able to take the armor, but it would be messy, and they might end up losing someone.

“Just sent targeting information, standby.” Came their handler’s voice over the COM. Salvation was inbound, screaming in from above. The pilots were likely the only air assets active at all inside the energy dome, so getting their attention was a blessing of the highest order.

The pilot under the call sign Robot and her subordinates would have the armor column lazed for them, as well the heavy grouping of hostile infantry. The Spartans would be distinguished by four-character tags hovering over their location. ‘DAWS’, ‘G043’, ‘G050’, and one that Robot was familiar with, ‘B042’.

Dawes wasn’t aware of Cody’s actions on Gilgamesh, it was classified well above his pay grade, and he was more likely to become Section III brass than Cody was to share details. Trauma more than discipline were what kept the S-III quiet, Dawes knew the type. CRUSADER units he hailed from had their fair share of them, but it came with the territory.

You didn’t fight something like the Flood and walk away unscarred.

Shields sparking back to life, Dawes emerged from cover, the Colt kicking helplessly against his iron grip. They just had to hold out, that they could do easy. Dawes dragged the weapon across the enemy, inhuman precision hammering rounds through the chest cavity of man and alien alike.

It would only be a few seconds now, they just had to hold on.

User:Spartan-D042 screw this sig stuff 23:49, September 25, 2018 (UTC)

47: Close Quarters

1423 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Blissful Solitude, Montak Orbit

This is taking far too long.

Sat in his Shipmaster's chair on the carrier's bridge, Orro 'Hendai stifled a yawn as he watched the orbital battle slowly play out. At first, both sides had clashed with immense force, trading plasma torpedoes and missiles while starfighters danced around larger ships, all trying to attain tactical superiority over Montak. Now though, they had been reduced to sniping at each other from afar, using wrecked ships and the planet's moons for cover while siphoning troops down to assist in the assault on the surface. As he watched an Obedience-class cruiser disappear from his tactical screen with a brief flare of light, his impatience finally boiled over.

"Contact my Fleet Masters!" he barked, rising to his feet. "A change in strategy is needed."

Orro's communication officers quickly established a link over their fleet's battlenet, and the Field Marshal soon found himself facing Nor and Zetal 'Hudon. Though their ships were far apart, placed on either side of Orro's main force, the pair were almost identical in posture - standing at attention, with arms folded behind their backs - as their holographic forms flickered into place before him. Looking at each of them in turn, Orro adopted a more formal voice as he addressed his peers.

"Honourable Fleet Masters, the time has come for a decisive against our enemy. Prepare to advance and reorganise your battle lines."

The brothers looked apprehensive, though Zetal spoke first, mandibles twitching. "Field Marshal, I fear that such an action carries too much risk. At present, our ships are performing well, and-"

"They are holding a line, nothing more!" Orro cut him off, jabbing a finger towards Zetal's image. "Our brothers are dying for nothing in this meaningless engagement!"

Nor raised a hand, taking a conciliatory approach before Zetal could respond to the venerable warrior. "I share your concern for our men, Field Marshal, but our leader's command was clear: Montak is to be defended, and we are not to engage in maneuvers that endanger the stability of our fleets as a whole. I fear that an advance on your part would cost more lives than if we maintained our current strategy."

Orro made an indistinct grumbling noise. Nor was a fine warrior, and in spite of his bothersome idealism the he could find no fault in his arguments. Nonetheless, Orro could not help but flash his toothy maw in a jubilant smile as he gestured towards a nearby holotable displaying the battle still raging in Montak's orbit.

"Perhaps you think little of your elders, but I have no intention of risking my entire fleet in a blind charge, Fleet Master. If this war is to go according to the Imperial Admiral's plans, we can take no risks going forward. Using only my own vessel, I will strike directly at our foe, cut out their heart, and return victorious."

As Nor began to splutter an apology, Zetal folded his arms, glancing towards his own readout without saying a word. Unlike his brother, he was an innately suspicious individual whose quiet ambition and scheming nature had not gone unnoticed by Orro.

"Even your carrier would have little success," Zetal said calmly, shaking his head. "Even if you push past their forward line, the Blissful Solitude will not be able to withstand the massed firepower of two fleets alone."

"That is why your coordination will be vital in my plan's success. You have sighted the Swords of Sanghelios' flagship, I take it?"

Orro's hands moved over the holotable, and the display moved to focus on a single ORS-class heavy cruiser, which had taken cover in the midst of its fleet and was launching periodic bursts of plasma towards the Imperium's frontal vessels. According to intercepted enemy communications and data gathered before this battle, it was named Questioner, and was captained by Fleet Master Felo 'Ranak, one of Arbiter Thel 'Vadam's staunchest supporters.

"Getting to it will be difficult," Nor admitted, checking his own display. "We would have to break through several enemy cruisers to get a clear shot. It would be a bloody endeavour."

The Field Marshal chuckled, and expanded the battlemap to display the local area. Currently, the Imperial Armada held orbital superiority over Montak's only settled area, forcing enemy troops to enter the atmosphere from another continent entirely and ferry troops towards the battlefield. With Fleet Master 'Larom's strategy of trapping and butchering the enemy army after depriving them of further orbital support, there was little need for them to dispatch any capital ships to the ground, aside from those belonging to the mercenaries and allies tagging alongside the Imperium. However, they had less than twelve hours before the planet's rotation placed the battlefield directly underneath the UNSC and Swords of Sanghelios fleets, forcing them to attempt a swift resolution.

From the moment they had arrived in-system Orro 'Hendai knew that Montak would not be the deciding factor in this war. It was little more than a ball of dirt that both sides would use to test each other's strength, though the thought of so many proud Sangheili dying on this meaningless rock bothered Orro to no end. Watching their fleets slowly whittling each other down was not how he wanted this to play out, either. Toru 'Makhan was a superb stategist, but his pragmatism was far too cold for a traditionalist like Orro. If these interlopers wished to reclaim their territory, then they were welcome to do so, but he would see if they were worthy of invading their Imperium himself.

"Once your ships have realigned themselves," he began to move ships around the map while the Hudon brothers watched intently, "The Blissful Solitude will translocate itself into the heart of the enemy fleet, and I will board the Questioner myself."

It pleased Orro greatly to watch two pairs of eyes widen in surprise as he laid out his plan. While moving infantry from orbit to a planet's surface was territory that had been well-explored by this point, the Imperium's research into translocating entire vessels had only recently moved to the warship stage.

"You have lost your senses, Orro Hendai!" Zetal 'Hudon blurted out without thinking, earning him a scathing glare. "To test such technology in battle is foolhardy! It will-"

"It will succeed!" Orro snarled. "We may not be able to harness the Gods' power to travel between systems, but brief journeys are possible. Within a moment, I will be within the heart of the enemy fleet and upon their leader before they can react!"

The two Fleet Masters were clearly sceptical of Orro's plan, but would not disobey an outright order from their commanding officer. If anything, they seemed more surprised that the Blissful Solitude could even attempt such an action, since few vessels had even been granted these capabilities. Of course, a simple misstep could spell doom for Orro and his entire crew; translocation carried the danger of simply vaporising whatever was being moved, or could only teleport half the ship across the battlespace.

After whispering something to a nearby attendant, Nor turned back to Orro. "Even if you were to arrive close to the Questioner, you will still be in the midst of an enemy fleet. Surely you do not expect to be ignored?"

"A fine point, brother," Zetal nodded. "If the Swords of Sanghelios do not engage you, then the humans will. Their ships are fighting Fleet Master 'Larom's ships around Montak's moons, but they have enough in reserve to break off and engage you. Preoccupied as you will be with your boarding action and the Questioner, I feel that they will not miss an opportunity to destroy your vessel."

"I disagree," Orro raised a leathery hand. "I intend to engage 'Ranak's vessel at such close range that it will be near-impossible for them to fire without the danger of damaging the Questioner. For all their talk of an alliance with the Swords, I have heard that it is a fragile pact. They will not attempt an attack for fear of harming a Sangheili leader."

"And the rest of 'Ranak's fleet?" Nor's eyes darted away towards his own holotable. "They will turn to engage you."

"Indeed. That is why the moment I reappear, your lines will press forward and attack, with my own ships taking point. The Blissful Solitude will be able to fire at our foe's lines from behind as we engage the Questioner, and they will be caught between my fire and yours. The attack on 'Ranak himself will likely cause confusion long enough for a successful advance."

"And if we break through?"

"Clear a path for my vessel. If Felo 'Ranak is killed, we push onwards. Should I die, or circumstances change in our foe's favour, then you will cover my ship's retreat."

"A prudent strategy," Zetal's tone shifted from respectful to chiding. "But I must admit my surprise, Field Marshal. Retreat is not something you are known for."

It took only a moment for Orro to discern that Zetal meant nothing by this remark. The old warrior rapped a four-fingered fist on his white breastplate and let out a hoarse laugh, which surprised the Fleet Masters.

"If you think of me as naught but a blood-drunk zealot with no sense for anything but slaughter, then you have not truly fought beside me, Zetal 'Hudon. I learned how a warrior withdraws from battle long before the pair of you were even eggs, and there is no shame in survival, so long as you live on to fight another day."

"My apologies for the offence, Field Marshal," Zetal bowed. "I will give my fleet the order."

"As will I," Nor copied the gesture, and both brothers disappeared with a nod from Orro.

The Field Marshal sighed heavily as the two fleets flanking his own began to reorganise, replacing lost ships in their battle lines with fresh ones while preparing for a quick advance towards the enemy. In truth, his own values were not those shared by most in the days of the Covenant. He had seen his fellow Sangheili kill themselves, by order or choice, for failure in battle. Failure in battle was an unacceptable thing, and unless a commander had a particularly stellar record or was well-connected, a single loss would end his career. Orro was a man in love with battle, but he was more cautious than most expected, covering up failures or allowing others to take the blame for his mistakes. Some would regard him as a coward for such actions, but he saw things differently. That was why, when news arrived of the Covenant's collapse, he felt only relief.

"Shipmaster T'Kol," he called to a black-garbed officer at a nearby communications console. "You will be in command when I take to the field. Gather the fleet and prepare the ship for translocation."

"It will take time, Field Marshal." T'Kol seemed worried.

"Ensure that all the preparations are made, then. I will gather my brothers."

Orro turned away from his bridge as the staff began barking orders to dozens of different vessels, and eyed a diminutive figure sat behind his command chair, scribbling furiously into a thick book of parchment bound with 'sKelln hide. The Unggoy's dark, beady eyes shot up as the Field Marshal's shadow fell over it, and the book snapped shut.

"Hunya, come."

Picking himself up off the floor, the Unggoy brushed some dirt off his robes and stretched, yawning loudly before scampering after Orro as he left the bridge.

"How did you know I was there?" Hunya asked as they passed by a pair of sentries. "I was very quiet."

"Your breathing," Orro said softly. "It is hard not to hear you when you get excited."

Hunya shrugged, scratching at the side of his gas mask, which fed him the methane all Unggoy needed to survive. Though he held no real military rank, Hunya was known to the crew of the Blissful Solitude and all of Orro 'Hendai's retainers as his equerry, and that any orders delivered from him were to be followed without question. In his many years fighting in the Covenant military, Orro had met many of his kind, and thought of them as little more than uncommonly brave cannon fodder until he chanced upon Hunya after the war's end. Though he and a group of Unggoy soldiers had joined Orro's band of travelling warriors out of necessity, his insatiable lust for knowledge and inquisitive nature about his commander soon got the Sangheili's attention. A few long conversations later, and Hunya had declared that his goal in life would be to record Orro 'Hendai's life story.

"Sounds risky, this teleporting," Hunya remarked as they traversed the carrier's long hallways. "Think we'll live?"

"Of course we will."

"I hope so. If I die here, then your life record ends before this campaign."

Old and proud though he was, Orro was not immune to flattery, and often asked Hunya about his project. His quarters back on Iradu were a mess of notes, some written, some transcribed onto datapads in long drafts. Orro had chanced on a fairly lengthy piece of parchment listing his actions during a battle thirteen years ago, and was greatly impressed by Hunya's dedication to detail without greatly embellishing the story. Perhaps it was only the silly dream of an old man, wishing to be remembered, but Orro genuinely wished for his story to be spread as far as Sanghelios and beyond.

"Did you record the entire conversation?" he asked as they stepped into a gravity lift, which sent them towards the lower decks. "All of it?"

"As much as I could. They don't think your plan will work."

"I gathered that much. Nor and Zetal are brave, but they lack a warrior's fire. Few seem to possess it these days."

"I wouldn't know what that is, Orro," Hunya shrugged. "But it sounds impressive."

The pair soon arrived at their destination, stepping out into a hallway packed with busy Sangheili warriors. The call to action had gone out after they had left the bridge, and the Blissful Solitude's entire complement was now preparing for a vicious boarding action. Orro strode past them with his head held high, cheers springing up all around him. Few took notice of Hunya, who drifted quietly along in his wake. Reaching a wide meeting hall lined with tables and chairs, Orro was approached by a heavily-scarred, limping warrior in red.

"Nagun," Orro bowed his head respectfully before grasping his comrade's arm. "You'll be seeing battle today, friend."

Nagun, like many of Orro 'Hendai's Legion, still wore the combat harness of his days among the Covenant, with only a few silver markings identifying him as a soldier of the Imperium of Clarity. An especially vicious commander whose loyalty to the Field Marshal was absolute, he had saved Orro's life more than once, though he had returned the favour many times more.

"And about time too," he spoke in a raspy voice. "We aren't meant to stand by while there's fighting to do, Orro. My sword hand has been itching all day."

"You'll be able to scratch it soon enough."

Orro gave Nagun's armour a hard knock before climbing up onto a table to address the room. While he recognised many of the warriors gathered here, some were unfamiliar to him. This was not something out of the ordinary, for the Blissful Solitude carried thousands, many of whom were newer recruits clad in the identical grey harnesses of the Imperium. As his warriors gathered round him, Orro spotted a group of unfamiliar Sangheili and Unggoy at a corner table, talking amongst themselves and paying little heed to the Field Marshal. Ignoring them for the time being, he spread his arms wide as his fellows cheered, pumping their firsts into the air before he motioned for quiet.

"My brothers, noble fighters all, I must apologise for keeping you from you calling for so long. While I am told the battle below is quite fierce, there is an even greater task waiting for us today!"

He let his words sink in, eyeing Hunya near the back with his book in hand. Here, Orro 'Hendai felt comfortable. On a ship's bridge, surrounded by officers and with nothing to look at but the star-filled void, he could not be himself. His place was among men who would fight and die for him, knowing that Orro would do the same for them. In this room, his words did not ring hollow.

"When I give the order, our vessel will transport itself into the midst of the enemy fleet, where we shall engage our foe's flagship at close range until we can board it. While it has always pained me to kill my brother Sangheili, I take comfort knowing that we will fight against worthy opponents. Their leader, Felo 'Ranak, is said to be a Kaidon of prodigious skill, so whoever slays him will be richly rewarded. Now, who wishes to join me?!"

A roar went up from the crowd, who at Orro's signal piled out of the hall in droves, rushing to reach their boarding craft. In their time on the frontier, protecting defenceless colonies and hunting enemy groups, Orro had never once lied to his warriors. Spoils were divided according to one's work, and those who fought the hardest always prospered. Jumping down from the table, he motioned for Nagun's. The battle-scarred commander approached, pushing past his men until he reached Orro. Leaning in close, he pointed towards the unfamiliar group, one hand on his sword hilt.

"Who are they, Nagun?" he whispered.

The warrior's mandibles twitched irritably. "I believe they are mercenaries, Orro. We picked them up after their ship was disabled."

"Kru'desh?"

"They claim to work for 'Mdama, but aren't of that Legion."

Orro eyed them with suspicion, vaguely recalling some mention of his ship taking in a stray Phantom. "Are they to be trusted?"

Nagun considered it for a moment, then nodded. "They fought well, from what I have been told. They held off several enemy ships with a single CRS-class by one of the planet's moons, and pledged their allegiance when they hailed us."

Trusting his friend's words, Orro eased up slightly. He had never trusted mercenary groups, believing that those who fought for money were lacking in loyalty. Those working for the likes of Jul 'Mdama he liked even less so, finding their fanaticism outdated and their conduct appalling. This was why he had ordered most of their auxiliary forces to the frontline, allowing them to prove their commitment in combat and to die in the place of soldiers loyal to the Imperium. Even if this group had killed their enemies, they did not share Orro's cause. Nonetheless, he would find use for them, and crossed the room with Hunya and Nagun beside him.

Compared to the gleaming white of Orro's harness, this group's armour seemed well-worn and raggedy, with some members wearing patched-together pieces marred with dark plasma burns. If this is the state of 'Mdama's men, then his empire must be crumbling. Putting aside his initial impression of the mercenaries, he stopped by their table. Recognising him, all but one practically leapt to their feet, one of the Unggoy knocking over a chair. The last - their leader, by his posture - slowly got out of his chair and faced Orro. He was young, but had clearly seen a great deal of battle. Clasping both hands behind his back, he spoke first.

"Yes?"

"You address Field Marshal Orro 'Hendai of the Imperium of Clarity!" Nagun snarled into the warrior's face. "Show your respect!"

The mercenary barely flinched as Nagun's spittle struck him, though he did offer Orro a customary bow. "I apologise."

Orro waved his commander off to show that he had not taken any offence. After all, this warrior was not one of his soldiers, and had no real obligation to respect a leader he had never met. Even so, the mercenary group's standoffish nature would have to be broken quickly. Orro adopted a more formal voice as he addressed their leader.

"I am told you serve Jul 'Mdama. Who are you?"

"Shipmaster Grono 'Yendam," he replied. "We were sent here to fight alongside you in this war."

Orro hadn't heard of the Yendam family, though his own clan were hardly more than peasants back on Sanghelios. "Yet you did not rise during my speech, or join my warriors as they departed. What were you waiting for?"

"Our orders."

While Orro thought that Grono was being genuinely uncooperative for a moment, he soon realised that his group of warriors had likely been given no direction after being brought aboard here earlier and dumped in the crew quarters. His own soldiers were either hardened veterans of his own Legion or those in the tight-knit Imperial military, and would have paid little attention to the strangers in their midst. Such treatment would not endear the Imperium to these fighters.

"I see," Orro nodded. "I hope that you listened to my words at least, Grono 'Yendam, for now you have a fight to join. Very soon, we shall board an enemy vessel commanded by the Swords of Sanghelios, and kill everyone aboard. If my commander's tale of your prowess against greater odds is true, then I would enjoy having you among our warriors to prove yourself once again in close combat."

Catching a glint of interest in Grono's eyes, Orro pointed towards a nearby door, which led to the launch bays for their boarding pods. Most were already full of his warriors, but there were almost certainly enough spares for them to fit more troops in. Once launched, they would be directed towards the enemy vessel, puncture the hull, and offload dozens of troops into the ship. It was an incredibly risky role for any combatant, but one very well suited for mercenaries, Orro believed.

"Where do you want us?"

"Once aboard, there is no guarantee that our boarding craft will not be destroyed by exterior forces. I will need you and your men to secure a hangar bay and any troop transports within. Should we be forced back, it may be our only way back aboard our carrier."

"That sounds like a worthy battle," Grono's mandibles clacked together in anticipation as he turned to his underlings. "Shall we prove our worth to this Imperium, then?"

A ragged chorus of affirmatives went up from Grono's men, who began readying their weapons at once. Orro gave a chest-pounding salute to Grono as he led his men out of the room, conversing amongst themselves. They seemed in high spirits, and the Field Marshal would definitely reward them if they came back alive.

"A strange group," Hunya squeaked, writing down some notes. "Shall we go, Orro?"

Orro halted, genuinely surprised. "You're fighting?"

"Of course," the Unggoy seemed rather offended. "I want to record the brave Field Marshal's attack. How will I do that if I'm not there?"

Sighing, Orro simply waved for his equerry to follow him as he and Nagun strode into the launch bay, where a few stragglers were still arming themselves. Picking a boarding craft at the end of the first row, Orro clambered into its docking tube, keeping his head low as his helmet brushed against the ceiling. Half a dozen grey-armoured Sangheili cheered as their Field Marshal entered the crew bay, accompanied by his two most loyal allies. As the door slid shut behind them, Orro activated his personal communicator and contacted the Blissful Solitude's bridge.

"Shipmaster T'Kol, this is Orro 'Hendai. Are we ready for translocation?"

"Yes, Field Marshal," his subordinate still sounded slightly nervous. "What are our orders once we engage?"

Any decent leader would be able to think for himself. "Remain as close to the Questioner as possible, and only engage to disable the vessel's weaponry and shields without damaging it. Open fire on any other ships within the vicinity while we are engaged, too."

"Are there any particular targets you would like us to attack?"

"Aside from the Questioner? We will be in the midst of the enemy fleet, T'Kol. Fire and you'll probably hit something."

"Of course, Field Marshal. Beginning translocation now."

After the communicator cut off, Orro took a deep breath and moved to the front of the boarding craft. While these things could be remotely piloted and fired at enemy vessels, it was generally much safer to have an organic pilot. The Sangheili strapped into the controls did a double take to find Orro 'Hendai standing over him, though he soon turned his attention back towards the craft's systems when he saw that the Field Marshal was only keeping an eye on the map readouts. If this worked, then Orro, his ship, and thousands of his men would find themselves in the middle of enemy-controlled space, with mere minutes at most to act on their surprise attack. If not, then the Imperium was about to suffer a tremendous embarrassment. In truth, the elderly warrior was terrified, though he controlled himself with thoughts of the battle to come.

As the battle between the Imperium of Clarity and its foes raged over Montak, the Blissful Solitude was consumed in a bright yellow flash that for the briefest of moments, outshone the stars. The carrier disappeared from its position, prompting a sudden surge forward by the Imperium's reformed fleets, and materialised again only seconds later, now almost port-to-starboard with the Questioner. In the moments of confusion that followed, the ship let loose with everything it had, lashing out at everything around it with every weapon available. Scores of Banshees and Seraphs poured from its hangar bays, while row after row of boarding pods sprang forth, smashing into the nearby cruiser's side. On over a dozen decks, the warriors of the Imperium of Clarity poured into the enemy flagship, eager for blood. Among them was Orro 'Hendai, who stood at the head of a crowd of eager warriors, ignited his sword, and thrust it forward as the pod doors ahead of them slid open. Leaping down into a foreign corridor, the Fleet Marshal sighted the distant shapes of incoming foes, and screamed a very simple command.

"Attack!"

Brodie-001: Here to help

48: Cut Off

1428 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Soul Ascension, Breaking Atmosphere over Montak

The Soul Ascension’s engines flared, propelling the battlecruiser up into Montak’s atmosphere. It banked as it ascended, giving its main hangar bay a clear angle on the energy dome that now loomed up from the desert like a great giant tumor. A procession of ships issued out from the hangar: an armor-plated Lich gunboat accompanied by several Phantom dropships and a wing of Banshee escort fighters. The ships struck the energy field head on without slowing. For a moment they wavered in the field’s grip, its surface flaring with angry energy. Then they pushed through, breaking through the dome and speeding onwards into the battlespace.

With a renewed surge from its engines, the Soul Ascension hastened its ascent. In moments it passed up through the atmosphere and on towards the distant flaring explosions that marked the ongoing battle in space.

From the bridge, Ro’nin—now comfortably seated in the command chair—watched the assault group progress across the tactical display. A glowing golden orb drifted beside him: the Kru’desh’s “holy oracle,” or as he knew her better, Diana.

“I must admit, I’m surprised,” the Sangheili remarked to the disguised AI. “I wasn’t expecting him to head out himself, especially with these unpredictable developments. And all over a few crashed Phantoms as well.”

“Yes, he’s always been full of surprises,” Diana mused, voice bereft of the usual holy pronouncements that cloaked her divine façade. “But he’s not just out to collect stragglers. There’s something else going on here.”

“Looking to impress his patron?” Ro’nin’s mandibles curled. “I thought he’d be above such displays.”

“That Shinsu ‘Refum gets under his skin more than he cares to admit. But there’s a bigger plan here. He needs to remind the Imperium that you’re more than a pack of hired thugs, or this entire expedition will be pointless.”

“Well, a bit of action on the ground won’t be enough to impress those high Imperium lords.” Ro’nin shook his head. “Whatever he has planned it will have to be better than that. Or maybe he’s just worried about that other human. His female pet.”

“That’s not it.” There was an edge to Diana’s voice, one that warned Ro’nin not to push the subject. “He doesn’t have feelings like that anymore. I made sure of that.”

Ro’nin clicked his mandibles. He’d dutifully followed this human AI’s orders ever since she first recruited him into her little scheme to elevate Stray to his current position. And he enjoyed the human’s leadership, to a degree. It really wasn’t much different than serving under any of his own kind, except Stray could take a joke and was less likely to get them all killed in some vainglorious display.

He hadn’t taken Ro’nin down with him into that mess. All Ro’nin had to do now was keep the ship flying and stay out of trouble. A nice, easy job just the way he liked them.


Amber braced herself against the Phantom’s hull and took aim with the beam rifle. As her next shot slashed a Sangheili warrior’s head in two she wondered what she was even doing here.

Just below her shooting position a Grunt—she would never stop thinking of the Covenant by their slang names no matter how much time she spent with them—blazed away on a plasma turret. Jackal and Elite sharpshooters held positions like hers around the Kru’desh crash site’s makeshift perimeter, picking off any Reds who dared getting close. The rest of the Covenant troops took cover in the crashed Phantoms, laying down support fire while they tended to their wounded.

Aliens fought and died around her while Amber remained the only human in sight. A bizarre arrangement that no amount of time or terror could dull. Here she was, a Spartan, fighting alongside a Covenant legion against the UNSC and its allies. She and all of these Covenant were under the command of Simon-G294, Gamma Company’s legendary loser. And to cap it all off they were now cut off by the giant dome that came crashing down out of the sky to transform the battlefield into some kind of massive cage match.

The sheer insanity of it all forced a grin to Amber’s lips even as she cut down another oncoming warrior. The rifle hissed like an angry cat, warning her it was out of charge. Amber clicked her teeth with annoyance—she missed the rugged reliability of human tech. Sliding into cover behind one of the downed Phantom’s dorsal fins, she called down to the warriors below. “New shooter! Now!”

Elite language did not come naturally to her, but Amber couldn’t rely on translation software in the heat of combat. She had a handful of combat-oriented phrases memorized and that was it, but fortunately they seemed to do the trick. A Jackal toting another beam rifle quickly scampered up to her position and started firing away while she slid down to retrieve a new weapon.

A chaotic mess of shattered Phantoms and desperate Kru’desh warriors had somehow turned into a fierce defensive line. Three of the Phantoms had crashed near enough to each other to allow the survivors to set up a hasty perimeter. The crews from most of the other dropships managed to join the defenders in time but one had crashed too far away and been completely overrun by the surge of enemy forces that materialized almost immediately. Amber and the Kru’desh had been fighting for their lives ever since.

The entire battlespace must be in chaos after the Imperium’s little stunt. Amber imagined that the assault on the refineries was not going well and that these stragglers were just glad to have a weakened target to attack instead. The thought that anyone might think she was easy pickings made her want to get back up on the Phantom and waste a few more hinge-heads.

But it wasn’t the Reds she was really worried about. So far they’d come in small waves, just disorganized stragglers rushing to attack the nearest enemy they saw. No, what Amber was really worried about was the second crash site: the string of downed Pelicans less than one klick out from the Kru’desh position and the black-armored ODSTs still doggedly defending them.

Amber wasn’t sure if the ODSTs had gone down before the dome dropped or if they’d been caught up in the same chaos as the Covenant. All that really mattered was that the two crash sites were still trading fire—and where some UNSC troops went down, more were sure to come rushing to the rescue.

She found Tuka ‘Refum kneeling beside a wounded Elite. The lance leader alternated between dressing his comrade’s injuries and firing bursts from his carbine out at Reds and ODSTs. From the way his head twitched and jerked every few moments, Amber could tell Tuka was still disoriented from the crash impact. Tuka grunted in acknowledgement as she dropped into position beside him.

“Any contact with the Ascension?” Amber demanded. She snatched the wounded Elite’s storm rifle and fired a volley of plasma out at the latest wave of attackers.

Tuka snapped his head around to stare at her. She couldn’t tell if the wild look in the alien’s eyes was one of anger or simply confusion. “No,” he said stiffly. “No contact.”

“That shield is probably blocking comms,” a Jackal hissed as she drew a bead on a distant Elite. “Nice of our allies to warn us they were about to pull something like this.”

“Then we’re on our own.” Amber’s grip tightened on her rifle. “Simon will pack up and bail now that he can’t control the battlespace. And we can’t hold this position forever.”

“He won’t abandon us.” Tuka’s voice swelled with a new certainty. “Reinforcements are on their way.”

Amber jerked her helmet at the Kru’desh line. Plasma and bullet fire slammed into the crashed Phantoms as the Red warriors found better attack positions. The Covenant held as best they could, but dead and wounded were piling up. It was only a matter of time before the crash site was overrun. “You hear that over the comms we don’t have?”

“He will not abandon us,” Tuka repeated. He reloaded his carbine and fired out across the plains. “You still have much to learn about this legion, human.”

Maybe, but Tuka apparently had plenty to learn himself about Simon. He’d moved up in the universe somehow, there was no denying that, but from all Amber had seen he was quite content to stay buried in his cruiser. Without layers of Covenant hull and rows of plasma batteries to protect him, he’d always be that that skulking little runt from Camp Curahee.

A skulking runt Amber now took orders from. She eyed Tuka with confusion. Was there really more to Simon—or at least, more to Stray—then she was willing to give credit?

A shout from another officer shook Amber free of the doubts as a sharp hiss raked the air above her. The Jackal holding her shooting position squawked and went limp, nearly cut in half by a heavy-caliber sniper round. Amber swore loudly and hit the dirt. Moments later, a second sniper round blew an Elite’s head clean off.

The Kru’desh scrambled for cover, abandoning their suppressing fire in an effort to stay clear of the shooter. Choking back curses under her breath, Amber grabbed a beam rifle from the Jackal beside her. The lanky sharpshooter was too busy keeping her head down to even yelp in protest.

Cradling the sniper rifle in her arms, Amber wriggled through the dirt towards the Phantom where the sniper had concentrated. The distance was too great for her to pick out the telltale smoke trail of heavy UNSC sniper rounds, but there were still little ways to tell just where the shots had come from. Veins pulsing with the knowledge that every second might be her last, Amber raised the rifle up into the downed Phantom’s troop bay. Her helmet’s HUD linked in with the rifle’s scope, letting her scan the UNSC crash site while keeping her head down.

She’d had the rifle up for less than a second when a hideous force tore the weapon from her hands. The beam rifle crashed into the dirt behind her, barrel neatly severed by a third shot. But Amber had enough time to see them: two armored figures descending from the foothills towards the ODST position. MJOLNIR armor.

Spartans.

And not just the new SPARTAN-IVs, the jumped-up ODSTs Amber had seen back on Requiem when she was still with the UNSC wearing armor like that herself. No, their movements were too precise, too coordinated. There was only one kind of soldier Amber knew who moved like that. She’d trained with them for half her life. Gamma Company.

A strange thrill coursed through her body, the kind of excitement she hadn’t felt since Simon dragged her out of that hellish prison and drafted her into the Covenant. Those were Gamma Spartans out there. And before long they might very well kill her.

She turned to find Tuka huddled beside her. The lance leader still looked unsettled, but at least he wasn’t disoriented enough to raise his head and commit suicide-by-Spartan.

“We have to tighten the perimeter,” she informed him. “And you’d better be right about Simon pulling through. We have Spartans out there.”

Tuka’s eyes widened. He nodded grimly. “Not our only problem,” he told her, pointing out beyond the rear of their position. A dust cloud built on the horizon, the steady kind not caused by stray artillery strikes. They’d both seen that cloud before, back during that first attack on the landing zone. Except this time the Soul Ascension was not standing by to rain fire down on the oncoming UNSC armor.

Amber grabbed up the ruined beam rifle, glad to find the scope still functional. She squinted at the magnified dust cloud, just barely making out the shapes of several Mastodon APCs and a looming Mammoth command carrier behind them.

“Mechanized infantry,” she spat. “They’ll be right on top us in minutes. We need fuel rod cannons to take them out, now!”

Tuka shook his head. “Those ran dry ages ago. We only have our rifles now.”

“Then we’re screwed.” Amber’s hands clenched into fists. Spartans and ODSTs on one side, an armored assault closing in from the other. The little Kru’desh crash site would make a fine spot for them to link up and regroup—right after they slaughtered Amber and the Covenant survivors.

Somehow Tuka seemed calm. Perhaps it was just the concussion, or perhaps something more. It was always hard to tell with aliens. “The others will come for us,” he said. “I do not think we will die here.”

Amber gave him a sidelong glance, then shook her head. “You really do trust him, don’t you?”

“There are few I trust more.”

Trusting Simon to come through. The galaxy really was turned upside down. But right now that was the only reality that just might get Amber through this alive. “Then we better dig in and fight like hell until he shows up.”

“Indeed.” Tuka indicated the makeshift Phantom stockade. “This is as good a fortress as any to defend. Those humans out there think we’re easy kills. I say we show them what we really are."

Actene: If This Is To End In Fire, Then We'll Burn Together

49: Cavalry's Here

AFTERNOON // 29 AUGUST 2558 (D-D)

Location: "UNDER THE DOME," MONTAK COLONY

“She’s coming back up…”

Merlin-D032 examined Andra-D054 as her head shuddered and her closed eyelids scrunched up in pain. She blinked rapidly, processing the dim but harsh light entering her eyes from the gangway inside a Mammoth command-personnel carrier as it rumbled over the desert and through the harsh heat outside. An Army Ranger medic was examining Andra’s vitals with the assistance of an electronic machine the size of a handbag with wires jutting out. By plugging into her neural implant and MJOLNIR armor ports, the medical box-computer could analyze the female Spartan’s vitals with pinpoint accuracy.

“Hey sleepyhead…,” Merlin murmured to Andra softly. He reached out with a light gauntlet touch, avoiding the light-red, gauze-wrapped forehead and rubbing her black hair seeping out the bottom of her skullcap. “How are you feeling?”

Andra’s face contorted fully into pain as she continued to blink and failing to process her surrounding in a dazed expression. “…like my brain split in two down the middle.”

The Army Ranger medic, a man called “Chew Toy” inspected his computer and glanced at Merlin with a soft grin. “Your friend will be fine. A little trauma gave her a concussion and she was out for a couple hours. Usually, that would be bad but those Spartan augmentations did the trick, she’ll be fine. You guys really are unbreakable.”

“You sure?” Merlin asked in hesitation. He glanced uncertainly back at Andra who was trying to set herself up on shaky palms.

“Positive. Her body is physically fine as her armor took the fall and her bones absorb the rest of the shock. The only thing that really took a beating was her head. She’s lucky she’s a Spartan or she’d probably be dead. Even more, her neural implant’s been doing all the heavy lifting, managing her brain’s neural waves, minimizing the majority of the shock, and correcting any chemical imbalances from the hit. I’d say she is combat ready. Though I don’t want a pretty face like hers getting sniped off out there, she needs a helmet.” “What…what?” Andra grumbled in annoyance at the medic’s words.

“You got a concussion,” Merlin explained, “You’ve been out of the fight for two hours. After our Pelican went down, Shizuko and I had to pull you off a cliff side before Imperium Banshees began dive bombing or crash site. I swear, when we found you, your armor looked like it caught fire with how much debris covered your body. We fought off an ambush for an hour before an advancing Army unit caught up to us and we’ve been riding with them ever since.”

“My head still feels like it’s on fire.” Andra groaned, rising to a sitting position.

Reflexively, Merlin reached out and used his hands to support her back.

“Easy. Easy there,” Merlin glanced back at Chew Toy. “You’re certain she’s combat ready?”

The man quickly yanked the wires from Andra’s body and then swiped the one from her skull, which she responded to with a sharp yelp. “She’s physically fine. Moreover, the majority of her headache will reside in a few minutes. The only concern I have is making sure she doesn’t injure herself further. We’re in an active combat zone and we need every able body we have to help breach that shield dome the Imperium dropped on us. I can’t let her sit this one out, even if we were under different circumstances like a training accident, I would have ordered her to take the rest of the day off to sleep or go for a walk but nothing exertive. She only needs a day to heal; unfortunately, we don’t have the time for that.”

Merlin slowly nodded at the medic’s explanation. “Alright, you’re the doctor.”

Chew Toy grinned at that, “I am, indeed, the Doctor!”

The medic packed up his equipment and disappeared down a stairwell nearby.

“You feeling alright yet?” Merlin asked Andra, glancing back down at her as she shuffled so she leans against Merlin for support. She seemed to regret the decision because as soon as she put her skull against Merlin’s tough MJOLNIR suit, she backed off, wincing at the harsh metal.

“No. I don’t believe I am…but that medic is right. Things are coming back clearly now. I can see normal now.”

“Now?” Merlin asked, tilting his head.

“A minute ago, you looked like a floating potato.”

Merlin didn’t respond to the absurd notion but huffed in acceptance.

“Where’s Shizuko?” Andra asked, glancing past Merlin’s arm around the dim-lit Mammoth well deck.

Merlin followed Andra’s gave, eventually catching Shizuko at the other end of the gangway, watching the pair while leaning against a railing. She was glancing back and forth between her fellow Spartans and the gathering of combat vehicles on the Mammoth’s ground level.

Merlin and Shizuko made eye contact after a few seconds of examining different objects. For whatever reason, Shizuko froze as if a deer caught in headlights and swiftly turned away, heading outside to the roof of the ginormous Mammoth siege work vehicle.

“She’s still avoiding us it seems,” Andra noted, rolling out of Merlin’s arms and pushing herself against a titanium wall. She planted a shaky hand to her skull and another to the wall to support her weight.

“Is that a good idea, to be trying to get up?”

“I’m fine. It’s already a lot better. Can you do me a favor? Can you find my helmet?”

Merlin paused at her request and smiled embarrassingly. “About that…”

“Did we lose it?”

“It fell out of the Pelican when we were shot down, it could be anywhere.”

Andra closed her eyes, uncertain of what to say. “…uh, alright then? Do we have a replacement around here?”

Merlin thought about it for a moment. “Let me go check, you stay here and catch your breath a little bit. I’ll find one and give you a situation down-low in a little bit.”

“Uh huh. Just get me a helmet, please. Now?” Andra asked, stress evident in her voice. Something was probably still wrong with her headache. Merlin turned around at her request and went down a stairwell to find Andra a spare head-bucket.

It didn’t take very long. Merlin felt apprehensive stealing from corpses but Andra really did need a helmet for the one she lost. Merlin squinted his eyes in some sense of respect for the dead, unzipped a few bags at the head level, inspected the helmets of deceased ODSTs without looking at their final expressions, and identified one that wasn’t too shattered or smashed. He took that helmet, scratched and banged up but the right size and still functional, and quickly scooted out of that corner of the Mammoth carrier, only stopping to zip the body bags back up. He really didn’t want to be over there. Especially after someone on a gangway above yelled at Merlin, calling him a “grave robber” during the ordeal.

Walking back in Andra’s direction, his eyes trailed to the gangway and found her missing until a voice called out from in front of Merlin in the Well Deck. “Hey, Grave Robber! Get over here!”

Merlin groaned but turned toward the location Andra called to him from. A small group of Army Rangers, ODSTs, and Marines gathered between four large bipedal, mechanical walkers called “Cyclops”, Andra and Shizuko with their helmets off stood off to the edge of the group but listening in. Andra watched Merlin expectantly as he approached but Shizuko gave her full attention to the assortment of unaugmented UNSC personnel before her. An Army Ranger, a Staff Sergeant, wrapped in his Airborne helmet and Army BDU, was laying out a last-minute assault plan.

“…we’re coordinating our operations with another fragment of the 101st Shock Trooper Battalion near our position towards the East. Their Pelicans were downed when the Imperium’s shield perimeter went up, trapping us from our logistical lines. Between them and us is an auxiliary unit of alien mercenaries that have established themselves up against the shield array and constructed themselves a small fortification out of their crashed Phantom gunships. They've currently pinned down our brothers from the 101st with sniper fire and seemed to be trading pot shots. We’re going to come in with heavy and crew-served weapons and chew them up, breaking the stalemate. We also have Spartans, as I’m sure you’re all aware. Using them, Team Boson, and our Cyclops walkers. We’re going to punch a hole straight into those fortifications as we have reason to believe the aliens have run out of anti-armor weaponry as they’ve stopped using them on our friends. Further confirmation from one of our aerial drones. Keep low and stick to cover, back each other and push forward. I want this to be a clean blitzkrieg, I do not want to us bogged down or we’ll be chum to sniper fire. Our Mastodons and the Mammoth will provide suppressing fire from atop the hill that I already marked as the launch point. Get to it.”

The group nodded their affirmation to the final review of the plan and rushed to their vehicles. A couple Warthog light combat trucks. The four Cyclops, an extra Mastodon in the well deck. A number of Jackrabbit assault bikes. Merlin turned to Andra and handed her new helmet over gently.

Andra silently nodded in appreciation and glanced it over; making sure it would fit her needs. “Not exactly my helmet but it will do. A bit musty.”

Merlin grumbled. “Thanks…”

Laughing at his distaste, Andra dug in. “Hey, a grave robber has to do what he has to do.”

“Who gave you that joke?” Merlin asked, thinking about the person who yelled at him from the gangway earlier.

“Oh, it was that medic, Chew Toy. He’s quite charming!”

“More like creepy.”

“It’s all in good humor.”

“I thought you don’t like humor.”

“Oh fuck off Melvin.”

“Thanks…”

“Someone’s grumpy.”

The Spartan duo tapped their helmets together like a brofist and yanked them on and glanced to their third member who was slipping on her own unicorn-capped FOTUS helmet.

“So, where do we fit into the equation? For Merlin’s sake?” Andra asked Shizuko as the roar of gunfire started to cook off outside.

Shizuko’s orange visor glanced at Merlin but there was no emotional discernable in its thick-colored soup. “Dumbing it down. We’re going to run out there, no vehicles for us. We’re e to sprint right on the toes of these Cyclops walkers and use them for cover so we can close the distance between us and the Phantom fortifications. It will be a half-kilometer sprint. The walkers are equipped with nominal energy shielding and active defense arrays so they will handle the charge instead of us running out in the open. The scout vehicles will follow us in after we’ve cleared out the snipers or at least pinned them down. I hope that we can eradicate them or push them right up against the shields that they’ll surrender or we can just bomb them out of existence. Each of us will be carrying a DMR for the usual precision shooting. Aim right and kill anything that can reach out past three hundred meters. We’ll be back in contact with Team Xiphos soon enough, they’ve rendezvoused with the 101st section.”

“Got it.” Merlin simply replied.


Over the Mammoth’s public announcement system, the Army Ranger commander’s voice yelled out. “Fifteen seconds, the rear well deck is coming down! Cyclops out first followed by Spartans, everyone else holds! Commencing suppressive fire!”

A blinding light glared down on Merlin’s back as he turned to face the falling well deck behind him, the site of the desert mountains behind him was a reminder that he was about to go into combat over mostly rocky bluffs and plains – flat terrain. He needed to be more careful out there going forward. There was a metallic crunch as the door hit the dirt and a large pair of neon-red lights flashed off then changed to a neon-green, marking it as the time to rush into battle.

“Go! Go! Go!” Someone yelled as Merlin booked it, feeling his armor lift him and his legs into a mad dash across metal and onto solid earth. The soil and sand kicked up into their own little devil as he rushed right behind a giant desert-brown behemoth, a Cyclops walker and saw the lances of blue and purple plasma rushing by or splashing against the defense systems of the fast-moving machine in front of Merlin.

He glanced to his left and saw Andra rushing next to him, leaning forward into her sprint as they both crested into a forty-kilometer-per-hour dash. She quickly broke to the side and slid behind another Cyclops. The Spartans and Cyclops spread out, taking turns to fire with their firearms at the wall of shiny, burnt, and twisted metal of destroyed alien aircraft formed into a miniature fortress.

Merlin almost felt the wind in his face as he rushed forward shooting his M395B DMR on its Spartan-oriented full-automatic function. He felt like he was on a cloud rushing forward as he downed a Jackal sharpshooter using his suit’s smart-link feature. Then he stepped an inch out of line and Covenant rounds began splashing his energy shields with radiated metal shells and plasma. Not wanting to risk his hide, he slid back into cover behind his Cyclops friend. His sense of splendor came to a quick end. He needed to focus.

Merlin stayed close to the walker as it rushed forward. He heard Andra yell into her radio, “I’ve found a vantage point. I’m stopping!”

“Roger,” Merlin responded as he glanced around quickly, looking for his own place to roost. A seemingly effective spot was up ahead, fifty meters. He just needed to stay behind his walker. Just a few seconds more. “I found my spot. Almost there!”

Distant Tide: Hunter - Killer

50

1233 Hours, August 29th, 2558, Montak


Cain and the rest of the humans were escorted out to the hangar by a group of armed Sangheili guards. As they all passed through the door leading into the spacious hangar, Cain swiped her hand over the door's pedestal. The motion was too quick for anyone else to pick up - and in that swift motion, Klayton had integrated back with her armor.

She disabled the speakers on her helmet, which allowed her to talk to her AI outloud without anyone being able to hear.

“I hope you got some great intel. Not sure how you convinced me to let you pull that stunt off, if anyone detected you-” Cain started to scold him before she was cut off.

“But no one did. I got a lot of useful information. It was worth the risk.” Klayton fired back. “We have more to work with. And I got some bonus information on Covenant slipspace technology that could prove useful in the future.”

Cain kept quiet and turned on her speakers as the humans began to board the Pelican they had come in on. The Pelican's doors began to close as Cain found her seat near the end of the passenger compartment. She could see that the Elite guards were still tense, hands closer to their personal weapons. She figured part of that was caused by her presence, but she couldn't say she blamed them. Humans acted the same way towards the Sangheili, even now. Cain briefly wondered how long that would last for.

Her thoughts were cut short when her HUD had signaled an incoming coms transmission from Colonel Huxley, the commander of the ODSTs and Marines stationed aboard the Prowlers in the task force. Doubling as an ONI officer, he served as her commander as well.

“Sierra 131, you're going to be riding along with 3rd platoon down to the surface. I need you to set up a secure LZ. Should be an easy op for you all. I'll send you more information once you get down there.”

“Roger that, sir.” Cain replied.

And with that, the com line was cut. She figured she wouldn't get much information over a standard UNSC channel, and the Colonel was a straight-to-the-point kind of officer. She's worked with less guidance before, so it didn't bother her one bit.

The Pelican shook as it drew closer to the Foxhound, no doubt from the beginning of fire between the joint forces and the Imperium. The dropship quickly made its way into the small hangar in order to avoid fire from the battle. Once inside, the Pelican did a 180° turn before extending its landing gears and gradually lowering itself onto the deck. The passenger compartments doors opened, allowing the officers and enlisted to disembark. Each person scrambled to their battle stations, and Cain made her way to the armory.

She swiftly exited the hangar, taking a left in the lobby. After passing a few closed hatches, she saw the familiar sight of the armory. Cain passed a few ODSTs as she entered through the open door. A neural scanner located just above the hatch had scanned her identity and unlocked her weapons from a case at the far end of the room. She made it way to it, grabbing her trusty BR55 and sidearm from the raised rack on the wall. She turned towards the armorer, an enlisted Marine stationed at a desk by the door, who already had loaded magazines ready to go. The Marine handed her the ammunition for her weapons as she made her way out the door, to which she thanked him for. In the span of about three minutes, she was back in the hangar, waiting by the Pelican.

A couple of minutes later, eight ODSTs made their way towards the same Pelican. Some gave her sideways glances as they clambered into the passenger compartment, and she followed behind. She stood by the door as it began to shut, looking back at the ODSTs as their leader began to give them orders. The platoon leader pointed to the first four ODSTs.

“You all are Eagle 1-1.” He instructed with a heavy southern accent. The soldiers nodded and confirmed.

The leader pointed to the next four ODSTs, which included himself, “The rest of you are with me as Eagle 1-2.” He then pointed to Cain, “That one is Eagle 2.”

The ODSTs all gave her a quick glance, before their leader got their attention once more, “Any questions?”

They replied with a chorus of “no” and “no sarge”. The lack of formality gave Cain the impression that these ODSTs had been around each other for a while - that meant they could handle themselves on the battlefield and not get killed. This was good.

The Pelican shuddered and rocked as it avoided enemy fire. The pilot called out from the cockpit. “Sorry for the rough ride, we’ll get down there safely in a few minutes. I’d suggest to buckle up though.”

As if on queue, the ODSTs that weren’t sitting found seats and began to load their weapons, fix their gear, and chat amongst themselves. Cain took the ammo out of the pouches in front of her chest armor and slapped them in to her BR55, chambering the first round in preparation for the fight ahead. The Pelican rocked once more, sending one ODST off his feet for a moment.

“We’re coming up on the LZ now, it’s hot.” The pilot called out.

Immediately the ODSTs in the bay lined up towards the door, allowing Cain to be the first one out. She could already hear the sounds of plasma fire from the ground, even before the bay doors began to open. She toggled the selector switch from safe to burst on her weapon as the doors fully opened, allowing her to jump out of the troop bay and onto the active battlefield.

Not surprisingly, the first few bolts of plasma hit her first, but harmlessly reflected off her shields. She saw the enemies up ahead - a typical grouping of a few Elites, Grunts, and Jackals. She fired off two bursts, each bullet finding purchase in the skulls of the Grunts who were unfortunate enough to have been up front. A more concentrated volley of plasma came after, which made Cain look for cover behind a small boulder. She dashed to her left, sliding behind the cover while firing back at the enemy. The ODSTs had done the same, some coming over behind her, and others darting off to the right, near the debris of a destroyed Warthog.

Cain peeked from her cover and let out a few bursts before slinking back. The grouping of enemies began marching closer to their position, and a grunt tossed a poorly thrown plasma grenade a few feet in front of her cover. The explosion sent rocks and dirt over the top of the boulder, and clanked against the armor of her and the ODSTs.

The ODSTs returned by lobbing two frag grenades up and over the rocks. Two muffled explosions shook the ground, and Cain could barely hear the dying sounds of an Elite and a few Jackals. She immediately peeked out of cover and let off another volley of rounds while the enemy was still confused, which caused another Elite to go down. Cain could hear the sounds of the battle increasing in the distance, and heard a Pelican dropping off more troops behind her. After a few more exchanges of gun fire, the area fell silent, save for the distant echoes of gunfire and explosions. Cain looked out of her cover to see that the small force that had opposed them were now corpses lying on the ground. The ODSTs then reported to each other, ensuring that everyone was alive and not wounded.

The southern drawl of the ODST platoon leader then filled her ears. “Eagle Actual, this is Eagle 1-2. The area has been neutralized of hostiles.”

“Affirmative. Set up a perimeter around the area so that our troops can land.” Colonel Huxley replied.

The ODSTs fanned out, each taking up positions about 4 meters apart from each other. Cain took up a position on the far left, keeping an eye out for advancing enemies. She could hear the sounds of the dropships’ engines coming closer. Cain kept her eyes on the land in front of her, as well as her motion tracker, as Pelicans ferried troops back and forth to this new LZ.

A half hour passed with no significant activity, other than the build up of both UNSC and Swords forces in and around the LZ. A makeshift FOB had already been established, which helped both forces coordinate attacks and troop movements better. Cain figured the Joint Task Force had picked a spot far enough away from the refineries that the Imperium wouldn’t encroach the area - for now, anyway.

Her AI companion had stayed relatively silent this entire time - he was probably running lots of background tasks that he best did alone. However, a few seconds later, he reported in.

“The battle up in space is going relatively well. But the Imperium’s set up spires near that refinery. With those and their anti-air batteries, they are blowing up all our air support.” Klayton reported. “Looks like your going on a super special mission to take some of them out.”

“Fun fun.” Cain replied sarcastically. “Am I hoofing it, or am I going to be able to hitch a ride?”

“Warthog convoy, then maybe a little walking.” Klayton replied, before he was cut off by an incoming COMs transmission from the Colonel.

“I’m sure you already know the news, but I’m sending you to help take out one of those Spires. We’ve got a Warthog convoy leaving, time now, to make their way over there.” He reported.

“Roger that sir, I’m on my way.” Cain replied as she walked over to the center of the FOB, where a group of Warthogs were already waiting.

CBrando89

51

1330 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Air Above the Montak Battlespace


Sasha, GABBE, and Loudmouth had been flying across the surface of Montak for about an hour, slowly edging closer and closer to the central mining complex as the ground forces made their way in, taking out the AA as they did. They were some of the only fighters in the air so close to the main battle and were making sure to make the most of it, providing CAS where they could.

“GABBE, Loudmouth. Got some armor on the ground to the west. See it?”

A duo of ayes came in as a response and the trio of fighters banked west, target set on the cluster of wraiths ahead. Finger resting on the trigger, Sasha pushed the throttle forward a little bit more. Shooting across the battlefield, she saw the rangefinder ticking down as she pressed closer into range and squeezed the trigger, missiles slashing out from under her wings as blobs of blue plasma flew up from the wraiths below, too late and too far away to be any danger. As she banked away, she saw her wingmen do the same, and, shortly afterwards, fiery explosions enveloping the tanks that had just moments prior fired their last futile shots. Grinning at their success, Sasha started looking around for new targets once more but was interrupted by GABBE’s voice over her comms.

“Robot. We’ve got something coming in from orbit. Seven somethings, it looks like.”

Glancing into the sky above her, Sasha saw the streaks of fire and smoke coming in from space. It took her a few seconds to realize what was happening, but by the time the structures impacted and began to unfurl, her eyes widened in realization.


“Spires! GABBE, Loudmouth! On me. We have to get close to it or we’ll be knocked out of the sky!”

With no time for a verbal response, Sasha vaguely noticed the two green lights blink on as she turned towards the nearest spire, blasting the afterburners on. Watching the structures finish unfurling, she slammed the throttle home to get under one and then pulled it back right as the flickering shields flicked out into place. Pulling hard to her left, she banked her Broadsword into a turn along the slowly expanding shield, letting out a breath of relief as she managed to pull out of it and stay in the air under the shield.

“I made it. You two okay.” Loudmouth’s voice was the only one to respond.

“Affirmative, Commander. GABBE’s down, though.”

Sighing, Sasha looked around, just barely catching a glimpse of GABBE’s Broadsword helplessly falling to the ground outside the shield behind her. Turning forward again, she pulled back over the battlefield from along the shield and looked around.

“Alright. Mark his location for recovery if you can get through to the fleet. Let’s do something about these spires,” she looked over the battlefield and spotted two next to each other in front of her, marking the further one for Loudmouth. “You take that one. I’ll handle the one closer. Use the 79C. These things look tough.”

With just the green light as an affirmative, Sasha briefly watched her wingman peel off towards the further target before turning her focus once more in front of her, pushing the throttle forward to close on the nearest spire. Flicking her weapons system to the anti-ship missile attached to the hardpoint below her fighter, the Lieutenant Commander held her finger above the trigger, setting the targeting computer to get a lock on the central platform at the base of the spire, hoping a shot there would take down the gravity lifts and collapse the structure in on itself. Flying closer, she saw her shields begin to flicker as a few lucky bolts of plasma found their mark from the turrets on the structure despite being well outside range. Three more seconds seemed to tick by at a snail’s pace, more and more shots chipping away at the energy barrier between them and their target, before her computer finally sounded that it was in range. Waiting two more seconds, shields down to thirty percent now, Sasha finally squeezed the trigger, letting the missile fly towards its mark, and almost instantly pulled away, pushing the afterburners on as she rocketed out of range of the spire once more.

It wasn’t long afterwards that the cockpit was bathed in an orange glow and she felt the ship lurch forward from the ensuing blast. Turning back and throttling down, Sasha glanced at her mark just in time to see the gravity lifts flicker out through the cloud of dust and smoke and the top of the structure slowly fall to the ground. Grinning at her success, she was just reaching for her comms when Loudmouth got to it first.

“Bad news, Commander. The second Spire had a lot more AA than I was expecting. Had to pull out early.”

“Do you still have your shot?”

“Negative. Fired it already. Aim got thrown off. Damaged, not destroyed.”

“Understood. Mark the tower and send in its location to whatever semblance of command we still have left. We’ll have to get back to it once they can handle that AA. Once you’re done, looks like we’re back to air support. We’re probably the only fighters left under this dome, so keep an ear on comms for any requests.”

The green light blinked an affirmative once more, and Sasha pulled back out over the battlefield to continue her work.


1345, August 29, 2558

Montak central mining facility, Secured quarters


Elena Zaytseva was getting tired of sitting around. Ever since she had landed here and cleared through the various stages of processing they had put her through, she had been locked in these quarters under guard with the rest of the workers, and she hadn’t even had the chance to make a single credit yet. Allegedly, it was for safety during the upcoming fight. She had no doubt about that, but the way she saw it, they were being held hostage for the safety of this Imperium, not their own, serving as a deterrent from a direct attack on the main facility.

Checking out the door window once more, she cursed under her breath as she noticed the guard just outside. Returning to pacing, she twirled the hairpin she held between her fingers in thought. The doors were manually locked, so she could most likely pick them, but it’d create too much noise with the guard standing right there. She had already tried asking for food to get the guard to go away, but he had simply called in the request and had it delivered. Just as she was making her way to check out the window once more, she was shook off her feet by a thundering round of explosions nearby. Scrambling up to her feet, she quickly glanced out the window, and didn’t spot the guard anywhere nearby. Seems the artillery strike, or at least what she presumed to be an artillery strike, had scared him off, or at the very least drew his attention elsewhere.

Kneeling down, Elena set to work on picking the lock. Using the hairpin and a spring she had pried loose from the simple cot in the room, she made quick work of the simple device and had her door open shortly after she started. Slowly cracking the door open, she caught a glimpse of a nearby guard looking out a window and a relatively empty hallway otherwise. Making her way towards the guard, low and quiet, she got within a few feet before leaping up at him, stabbing the broken piece of spring into his neck and covering his mouth with her other hand. The guard fell back on top of her and almost managed to squeeze off a shot wildly before falling limp. Rolling him off of her body, Elena set to work dragging the guard into her quarters and shutting the door, letting out a sigh of equal parts exertion and relief that he hadn’t seemed to be able to notify any other guards before dying.

Quickly working over the guard’s body, Elena worked his armor vest off, donning it and tightening the too large garment around her body with some torn bed sheets, before picking up his weapon and helmet. Noticing his datapad, she picked up the device and activated it, using the dead guard’s thumb to unlock the system. Flipping through the datapad, she found a map of the facility and plotted out the quickest route towards the closest thing the dig site had to a spaceport. That’s where they would be keeping her ship.

Grinning as she noticed it was away from the main control building of the site, where she presumed the Imperium forces would have the most guards, she put the datapad away in one of the vests pockets and slowly crept back out into the hallway, her new gun in hand. Making her way down the corridor towards the exit to the spaceport, she spotted several more guards, each one as preoccupied with the battle outside as the first guard. Easily sneaking past these men, it wasn’t until the final turn of the hallway, just before the door to the spaceport, that she saw guards actually alert enough to be actively patrolling. Peeking around the corner, she counted three guards, before ducking behind cover once more and pulling the helmet on. Standing up, she rounded the corner casually, holding the rifle at the ready rather than aiming it, using the distance to disguise the mismatch of her outfit from the guards, hoping they mistook her for another one of them.

It wasn’t until she made it halfway down the hallway that she raised her rifle and fired off a quick succession of bullets to take out the trio of guards, slinging her rifle and breaking into a sprint for the door before the guards behind her got to her position to investigate the noise. Scrambling to open the door, she pushed her way outside and slammed the door shut again, spotting the guards round the corner inside, guns raised, and suddenly feeling a searing pain in her left shoulder as she did. Barely holding herself back from crying out in pain, she turned towards the spaceport and sprinted inside, lucky to find the guards there just as unawares as most of the ones in the housing complex had been. Crouching back down and gripping her shoulder, Elena slunk around the building, looking for her ship.

It wasn’t long before the Burya came into view. Looking around to make sure no guards would see her, Elena made her way across to the star yacht and climbed inside. Closing the hatch behind her, she made her way through the ship to the cockpit, grabbing a first aid kit as she did to treat her wound. Sitting down in the cockpit and activating the ship on relatively lower power as to avoid detection from the guards sure to be tracking her soon, Elena treated her wound, waiting for the ship’s AI to come online.

“Alexios. Give me an analysis of the situation outside. Can we get out of here?”

“Negative,” the AI replied, “the battle outside is too intense to offer a good chance of survival. Additionally, an energy dome is being projected. This would presumably disable any ship trying to escape.”

“Damn. Okay. Shut all the nonessential systems down then, Alexios, including yourself. Leave the detection system running in a low range configuration around the ship and set it to alert me if anyone gets near. Looks like we’ll be hiding here for a while.”

Leaning back in the chair, Elena closed her eyes as the ship slowly quieted down even more, thinking through her next move.


1422 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Air Above the Montak Battlespace, Under the Dome


“Commander. Air support request coming in. Looks like Spartans.”

Flashing her eyes towards the ground below, she picked out the marked location.

“I’ve got eyes on. Let’s make way for that.”

She pulled her fighter into a banking turn towards the target and pushed up the throttle, making her way over the battlefield. Noting the tags of the Spartans they were being sent to help out, she couldn’t help but give a little smile as she recognized one. “B042,” one of the Spartans she had fought alongside on Gilgamesh about five years prior. However, as they got closer and she could see what they were dealing with, the smile faded back into a look of concentration.

“I’ve got Wraiths, Scorpions, some other tanks. Confirm Loudmouth?”

Her wingman answered in her typical fashion, a simple flash of the green status light. Pulling back around into a lazy turn, Sasha settled her targeting on the Scorpions.

“Take out the human stuff first. I’ve known some gunners to get lucky enough with that cannon to shoot banshees out of the sky. They’ll be the biggest threat.”

A green status light once again. Settling her finger on the trigger, Sasha let out a flurry of Medusas streaking towards the ground, engulfing the targets in flames and smoke as they hit, noting Loudmouth doing the same behind her as she pulled back for another pass. She ran a few more passes with missiles, thinning the major threats to the pair before they closed in too close to the Spartans. Her shields had taken some chip damage from the automatic weaponry of the tanks below, down to 73 percent, but none of the cannon or mortar rounds had managed to land a shot in that time.

“They’re too close to our friendlies for missiles. Switch to guns. Should be able to take out the rest with the autocannons.”

One final flash of the green status light shone from her partner as the Broadswords switched to their 35mm cannons to finish off the advancing armor, the hail of rounds too much for even the heavy armor of the Covenant hover tanks to survive. With the last of the advancing column a smoking wreck, Sasha flicked her comms on to the Spartans on the ground.

“That was the last of them, Spartans. Good luck down there. Robot, out.”

Flicking her comms off, she pulled away from the devastation towards the rest of the battle, giving the enemy infantry below one last strafing run for good measure before her and Loudmouth departed the scene.

Timothy Emeigh

52

1355 Hours, August 29th, 2558
Swords of Sanghelios Rear Command Post, Montak

The rumble of gunfire and detonating materiel rolled for miles out over Montak's plains, diminishing only as its wave broke against the mountain foothills where the Swords of Sanghelios had established their rear encampment. Echoing up from the canyon walls below, their crackling booms were soft enough to be drowned out by the soft strums upon a lute, its plucked strings casting an unheard reply over the edge of the edge of an overlooking cliff. Climbing up beside the rock where the player sat, the majordomo Gesk squinted into Montak's wind and looked to the horizon. Just narrowly below, flashes pinpointed where battle raged on, while above, the sky had been cast aglow by the sudden appearance of a massive energy shield, spanning surely half a continent to isolate them all from any outside aid. There would be no relief unless it fell. Until then, those who'd so boldly claimed the honor of first into battle would have only the endurance of their own strength to rely on.

Straining to make out detail, he hesitated a moment before asking, "My eyes are not so keen as they once were. Whom does glory go to?"

"It is too early to tell." replied the lute player, Zenim. He plucked out a few more notes, halted, then went back on his melody to start anew. Stopping the next moment with a sigh, he set the instrument aside to add, "The first clash is all fire and death. It is but prelude, setting the scene to show who is the mighty, and who the unlikely. With this opening contest concluded, now the song-worthy heroes may reveal themselves."

"Bards." Gesk muttered, unsatisfied, and turned to walk back down from the cliff's edge toward a hastily-erected, octagonal tent.

Even hours after making camp, Sangheili servants were struggling to tie down the tassled monstrosity in the face of Montak's wind. But its errant flapping seemed no more bother to Abzu 'Samakr three feet away than did the billowing of his own garish robes. Seated by the side of a sturdy, kafel wood table he'd commanded be forced into their Phantom alongside everything and everyone else in his staff, the kaidon stared down at carven pieces on its top, representative of units and formations elsewhere. A trio of adjutants and liaisons buzzed around the table's other sides, working to unobtrusively keep the relative positions and force strengths accurate according to feeds of data being routed to their tablet pads.

It was, in all, an almost laughable image. Physical pieces on an analog table had scarcely been used in real military situations since antiquity and, while exquisitely carved, were not in use here because Abzu was sentimental for such things. The other Field Masters—even those relegated to the Swords' Rear Command Post—were crowded together around a much larger, modern holotable in a larger command tent a short distance up the cliffs. Its displays were updated instantaneously by remote sensing equipment set near the battle lines, allowing for neither delay nor inaccuracy. But around its edge, the Samakr kaidon was expected to remember his station had been granted due to his leadership of a bloodline and defer to the other Field Masters—many of whom held such rank thanks to shrewd choices of careers with little risk—or remain silent, and made Abzu unwelcome when he did not. Refusing to take their contempt as payment for his contributions, Abzu had long since eschewed their company, but as consequence had exiled himself to this: sitting, by comparison, where children were expected to eat during a feast—something the other Field Masters were quite content with.

But sit he did, studying the toy soldiers as solemnly as though he sat in stewardship for General 'Taram. He'd propped one elbow on his other crossed arm, propping his snout on the back of his palm to mask the grim set of his mandibles. Gesk took his place a few paces behind the kaidon and waited silently.

Some noble lords, Gesk understood, were prone to testing their retainers by seeing just how long they could endure standing in silent attention. This, he had found, was never a problem with 'Samakr.

"We have been soundly outmaneuvered." Abzu announced, fortunately with enough frustration to make clear he didn't believe this a revelation to anyone. He thrust himself up from his seat and paced to the edge of the cliff to survey the dome hanging overhead. "Cut off from all aid, the Imperium able to safely transmit its forces directly, and now General 'Taram is surrounded. If his main force is lost, so too are our efforts on the ground. So this is how the humans felt at the Sixth Battle of Gladsheim."

"Gladsheim, excellency?" Gesk merely parroted. When the kaidon was thinking aloud, as his restatement of the obvious facts indicated he was in the process of, Gesk rarely had to truly listen, a blessing at his age. Latching onto a word or two and prompting Abzu to continue generally kept his lord's thoughts going at the pace of his tongue.

"I was there to test the first deployment of spires like these against humanity at Harvest." Abzu explained. "By isolating important targets on the ground, our only concern became damage to the spires themselves. But many measures taken to assure their safety. Too many to easily secure the opportunity we need."

And there, a moment Gesk's attention was truly needed arrived. "These measures must no longer be sufficient, excellency. One spire has already fallen, and another stands damaged."

"What!?" Abzu gasped, whirling. Eyes fixing on the weary majordomo as intensely as they'd studied the war table, the kaidon marched toward him at once. "How can you know this?"

Gesk drooped his head lower, showing deference even when the kaidon had need of a lowly servant's help. "When I delivered the tea you offered the Field Masters, I noticed on their holotable one spire was projected in red, and its neighbor in orange. They would be visible to us from here, were it not for the mountain."

Abzu stood agape for but a moment, then made up for lost time by wheeling on his liaisons. "Why was this not displayed on my table?"

The three aides looked up and stood slack, hesitating to speak until one proferred, "These pieces, excellency... how were we to indicate it?"

Huffing in exasperation, the kaidon stalked across the bluff to the table, then upended with a finger one of the tall wooden trinkets standing in for the spires. Then he swiped the tactical tablet from the aide's hands and began tapping and swiping through its feeds. "If I had known this, an opportunity may have presented itself by now."

Remaining where he stood, Gesk replied with one sharply slitted eye peering from under a sleepy brow, "You would know this already, had your excellency swallowed his pride and joined them."

In most courts, those few words could have been enough to cost a lowly servant his life. Sangheili lords, respected as they already were, stood always on the cusp of earning a reputation suitable for legends to be written after their deaths, and as such would seldom stand for a slight by an equal rival without the offer of a duel to the death, much less allow such remarks from any creature below their standing. And by the way Abzu 'Samakr bristled, lowly among kaidons though he was, even he had his limits.

"Gesk," he hissed, more irritable with a losing battle and warriors' lives at risk to think about. But insults were something Abzu had long borne the brunt of, so often that reacting to them in spite had become a defense mechanism. Even as he registered Gesk's provocation, the wheels of his mind began to visibly turn. Dropping his anger as his eyes dropped back to the datapad, the kaidon continued, "you offer sense, but I am in the fortunate position of being able to ignore it. I have little time to act."

"I am at your service, excellency." Gesk bowed. "What do you require?"

Abzu's gaze turned to scour the tokens on the field. "Ready the Spectres. If we must round the mountain, a Shadow will be too slow."

"Forgive me, my lord, but would that not leave half your sellswords behind?" Gesk queried. He was sure Abzu knew this, but was less sure the kaidon had considered the wisdom of dispatching just over two-score warriors alone in an active battleground. "Whatever you intend to do, surely you can petition the other Field Masters for other forces swift enough."

Abzu waved a dismissive hand. "They intend to horde what forces Fol did not take to mass and relieve him. I do not have time to talk them out of repeating their previous mistake."

Turning to the table, the kaidon dropped a hand into a box of unused figures to sift through carven Banshees, Wraiths, and Sangheili warriors. He came up with a piece unlike the others, of distorted proportions with horns growing from its monstrous head. "Besides... I have a much better idea where forces suited to our task may be found."


1407 Hours, August 29th, 2558
Spectre convoy en route to damaged Shield Spire, Montak

"I'm sorry, sir, but there's no way I can disclose the location of a high-level operative like that, especially not in the middle of an op."

From the back seat of his unarmed Transport Spectre, Abzu worked his mandibles and tried not to lose his temper with the junior human officer who'd been delegated to receive his hail. Steeling his vocal chords against letting on his agitation, he spoke in relatively clear English into the communicator. "I can appreciate that, but I wish to communicate vital information to her which offers us a chance to free the forces trapped here on the surface. Simply putting me in contact with her would—"

"Tactical suggestions, sir, should be transmitted through the chain-of-command for consideration by command officers responsible for the AO. Not to mention by your own General 'Taram before suggesting to us."

There was a moment's pause with nothing but the Spectre's booster whine to fill it as Abzu's nose rankled at the device in his hand. Its micro-hologram projector remained inactive, the humans apparently considering face-to-face discussion with those whom their lives may depend upon in battle a superfluous consideration, leaving him nothing to glare at for interrupting him but the receiver's grille. Undeterred, he began again, "Respectfully, there is no longer time to vet each response to the enemy through two commands for a variety of reasons—chief among which is that our proper channels' sole point of contact remains engaged and endangered this very moment!"

It had been a fear of Abzu's before the battle was even begun, but the Field Masters had taken it about as seriously as the rest of Abzu's concerns. Due to their mutual mistrust, the Swords and the UNSC had few points of contact authorized to communicate with each other: namely Fleet Master 'Ranak in orbit, and General 'Taram on the ground. With each out of contact with the bulk of Swords ground forces, communication with the UNSC was breaking down. Attempting to contact the forces he had need of, Abzu had only been able to reach a human unit commander who sounded already overwhelmed, and passed the duty of responding to a junior. The younger officer had just begun an attempt to placate him again when the commander's voice fizzled through the speaker again.

"Are you still hung up talking to that split-lip?" the human growled. A loud crinkling overrode the junior's protests for a moment, then drowned out completely. "Listen up, Meadow Miser! I've got half your army to cover for, a brigade of artillery to coordinate for the job, and a whole mess of your ex-besties looking to give me nine kinds of hell for it! So if you think you can ask us to pack up to escort you on some kinda sight-seeing trek across this continental hot zone, you just remember one thing: I don't get my orders from hinge-heads!"

As Abzu worked up is mandibles in equal fury, the line clicked dead, terminated from its source. Left without an outlet, the powerless, rampant energy drained away into the Spectre's floor beneath his feet, leaving him deflated and uncertain. He should have expected more difficulty from this part of his task. It was seldom enough a command structure of his own kin would listen to him, nevermind trying to meddle in the rigid chains of command their war machine's former victims adhered to. He could curse its inflexibility and ignobility for the individual warrior all he liked, it still left him without the aid he'd counted on. With chagrin, he considered the possibility he may have to turn back, when the communicator in his hand unexpectedly clicked back to life.

Though the voice was again that of a human male, its tone was distinct enough for Abzu to recognize it as belonging to neither of those he'd spoken to before. "My, he can be rather rude, can't he? You'll have to forgive the Colonel; diplomatic relations aren't typically among his duties."

Ignoring the curious look from Zenim in the driver's seat cast over his shoulder, Abzu leaned in closer to the device. "Who is this?"

"Someone who may be able to get in contact with the help your plan needs." Came the reply. "But first, you'll have to tell me: why's a Sangheili coming up with a strategy that needs a Spartan?"

Something about the question struck Abzu as odd. It didn't concern the logistics involved, wasn't immediately asking after the probability of his plan's success—or even information that would allow the other party to calculate it themselves. Why? Why what, depend upon an ally in battle?

Perhaps, he thought, that was it. Just ask Gesk kept in mind to be as respectful as possible when a kaidon required something of him, this human was asking why a proud, superior Sangheili would choose to rely on a demon instead of his own kind. Instead of develop a means of combat which would earn glory mostly for himself? If that were the asker's motive, Abzu knew precisely how to answer. Trusting his intuition, he replied, "Because my experience concurs with all the tales I've heard that a Spartan can do unseen what dozens of lesser warriors cannot accomplish by brute force. And I have knowledge gleaned from operating spires such as those surrounding us that such a warrior could use to free us of their entrapment."

"Hmm." The disembodied voice made an affectation of uncertainty, but its tone told Abzu that uncertainty was aimed at how such opportunity might exist, not whether it was possible in the first place. In other words: interested. "It sounds like your experience makes you a unique asset yourself, and that could open up tactical options for us."

Flushing again with confidence, Abzu asked, "Then you will agree to lend us the Spartan's aid?"

"Maybe." The voice replied, firmly. "If this plan really is as good as you make it sound. Our superiors can be prone to the same dispositions as the Colonel about working under Sangheili. But let me in on the details, and I'll shift the authorizations around so well it'll look like we were the ones who came up with it in the first place."

So there was some small bit of pride humans took in combat, after all, Abzu thought, leaning back.

"If it helps you at all," he added, "just tell whoever needs to know that a ranking Field Master of the Swords begged you for help."

That Damn Sniper 23:38, October 7, 2018 (UTC)

53

A cacophony of plasma fire and ballistic rounds deafened the charging Spartans as they made their way down the grassy knoll.

“Come on, Josh!” One of the armoured Spartans shouted into their com, “We’re almost there!”

Josh grit his teeth and flashed a green light on the heads-up-display confirming that he had heard Amy’s message. Several plasma rounds impacted against his armour, the shields flaring up and dissipating much of the heat across his chest. Before the Spartans laid several downed pelicans with a company of ODSTs attempting to defend their position while awaiting rescue. Xiphos were part of that rescue. A kilometer away, a small force from the Kru’desh legion found themselves in a similar situation; each side took pot-shots at the other without any real hope of breaking the stalemate.

Amy continued towards the pelicans, while Josh broke his sprint by sliding across the ground and slamming hard into the side of a Warthog. Its front wheels had been significantly damaged, leaving its nose stuck into the dirt. One trooper manned the still operational chaingun, the empty cases harmlessly bouncing off of the Spartan’s armour as he sat below. A second trooper took cover beneath the passenger seat, occasionally peeking up to fire back. Josh reached out and grabbed his shoulder.

“Where’s your CO?” Josh said as the soldier turned around.

Though hidden behind a helmet, the soldier was clearly shocked to find a fully armoured Spartan staring directly at them; their entire body seemed to recoil.

“W-what?” They stammered.

“Your CO,” Josh said firmly, “Where are they?”


The ODST motioned with their hand towards a pelican, answering Josh’s question wordlessly as they resumed firing on the enemy’s position. Several plasma bolts cooked the air around the soldiers as they zoomed past. Josh swung his DMR up and fired several shots in the direction of the oncoming fire. He noticed that the warthog turret had stopped firing, he turned to look at it and found its previous occupant lying on their back; a smoking crater where their face had once been.

Josh quickly reached back and grabbed the ODST trooper he had been speaking with by the shoulder and dragged him to the turret’s position. The ODST offered little protest and grimly mounted the turret. Josh waited for the gun to continue firing before he sprinted off towards the commanding officer.

The small encampment the ODSTs had been forced to make was an impressive spectacle; the down pelicans provided a semi-circle line of fortifications; it was clear that those who had been able to control their descent planned had expected to face stiff resistance once on the ground. However, not all of the pelicans had been able to land so softly, two found themselves pitched nose first in the mud. One such pelican was where Josh had been told to meet the commander.

Josh reached the pelican’s blood tray and looked in. The commanding officer, along with several ODSTs, were struggling to open the pilot’s door where the pelican’s flight crew found themselves still trapped. Small, grey wafts of smoke escaped from underneath the door.

“Ma’am,” Josh said presenting himself to the CO.

“A Spartan?” she replied, her toned bemused. Her IFF tag identified her as Captain Lupita Kaluuya.

Josh gulped hard at the word and pushed down his revulsion.

“Yes, ma’am,” Josh said, “we were in the area when the shield closed around. We were redirected here.”

“We?” Kaluuya replied, “there’s more of you here?”

“Affirmative,” Josh replied, “SPARTAN-G094, Hera, is my squadmate. I’m Daedalus, G024.”

“Just two?”

Joshua nodded as he moved towards the stuck pilot door. There was a small gap between the door and the wall. He maneuvered a finger in and moved it around creating a larger space for him to place several more fingers in. Once he had a good hold, he braced himself and pulled the door back. In a few moments, an almighty screeching deafened the occupants of the pelican as the door retracted. Two coughing and spluttering pilots emerged and hastily offered their thanks to their saviour.

“I believe another Spartan team may be in the area, Team Boson, but we haven’t been in contact since before the operation, ma’am,” Joshua said through partially gritted teeth as he turned to face the ODST officer. The thought of working with the newest team in VIOLET-III set him on edge.

“Do you know what unit they are with?” Kaluuya inquired, folding her arms.

“No,” Josh shook his head, “all I know is that we have a Ranger unit somewhere in this area planning to reinforce, if they are nearby they’ll be with them in all likelihood.”

“Repeat that, Spartan,” Kaluuya, “rangers are coming to reinforce?”

“I believe so, ma’am.”


slowfuture (Talk) (Contribs) 16:54, October 10, 2018 (UTC)

54: Shadows

1431 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Montak battlespace 0.5km away from central mining facility

Nilen 'Feru gasped as his eyes snapped open. To his surprise, he wasn't dead. The pilot ached all over, and barely moved for over a minute as he got his bearings, slowly removing his irreparably broken helmet. The crash had been a violent one, but through sheer luck, he had survived the Huntsman's destruction. Most of the Seraph's cockpit had been crushed inwards on impact, with most of the compartment filled with dirt and bent metal. His light armour and undersuit was peppered with debris and a few cuts twinged with every movement, but he had not suffered any significant injury.

Perhaps someone heard my prayer.

It was a comforting thought, and as Nilen unclipped himself from his seat and pushed himself through the wrecked starfighter towards the rear compartment, he could only feel a sense of immense relief at being alive. Though the Seraph had lost all power before the crash, its body was peppered with enough holes to allow some light through, allowing the Sangheili to move without much incident.

That human pilot was skilled, Nilen reflected as he replayed the recent dogfight in his mind. And furious. Perhaps that is the same of all pilots who lose their allies, but I was simply outmatched.

Some would see a famed fighter pilot like Nilen 'Feru admitting defeat as a shameful display, especially when so few who went down in combat ever lived, but he felt little animosity towards their foes. It had been an exciting first engagement, and he had tested himself against human fighters for the first time. Were he to survive this, he would have quite the tale for his children. Finding the plasma pistol he usually kept in the crew compartment smashed beyond repair, Nilen moved towards the exit hatch and decided to simply avoid combat for the time being.

Though it was meant to be opened remotely, the circular hatch possessed a manual override built into it that prevented pilots from being trapped within their own ships. Fumbling in the semi-darkness, Nilen lifted a tiny side panel off the wall and shifted a tiny lever to one side. The exit hatch hissed suddenly, then sprang open with a loud clanging noise that made Nilen wince. If he had landed in enemy territory, then anyone around him for miles would have heard the sound. He waited in absolute silence for another minute, hearing the distant whine of plasma fire and booms of human artillery. He guessed that he had not been unconscious for too long, as little daylight had been lost since his aerial battle over the area. After another minute with no activity, Nilen decided to take his chances took a deep breath, and pulled himself out of the hatch and onto the Seraph's hull.

From here, Nilen had an impressive view of the battlefield, which stretched out for many miles and into the surrounding mountains. Above him, a hazy blue energy field had been put into place, generated by a vast circle of gargantuan spires. To his right sat a large human-made construct, dwarfing any other building on Montak's surface. Across its rooftops sat an array of anti-aircraft guns, some flashing continuously as they pumped bolt after bolt of plasma into the sky at any enemy fighters still trapped within the dome. Nearby, the Imperium's forward camp was ablaze, sending up plumes of black smoke into the sky while its defenders - mostly mercenary contractors - scrambled to escape. In front of the main structure, a battle raged between an entire armoured division of Sangheili warriors and a swarm of hulking, armoured Mgalekgolo. After watching a Ghost disappear in a flash of emerald light, Nilen realised just how exposed his position was, and he quickly hopped down off the Seraph, hitting the soft dirt a moment later.

I shouldn't linger here, Nilen looked towards the nearby mining complex. My only hope will be getting in there and-

Absorbed in thought, the pilot barely had time to react as a pair of arms grabbed him from behind, yanking Nilen backwards before he could cry out. He struggled briefly, only to feel the point of a metal curveblade press up against his throat. Realising that his attackers did not mean to kill him outright, he froze.

"Be still!" a low voice hissed. "Draw attention to us and you'll be dead in an instant."

Nilen allowed himself to be dragged backwards, his arms hanging loosely by his sides as he was moved into the shade beneath his crashed Seraph's prow. As the blade withdrew, Nilen was forced to his knees, and found himself facing nine Sangheili warriors in dark green harnesses, crouched in the shade. Most wore full helmets, and judging by their irregular attire and the array of exotic weaponry they wielded, the pilot correctly guessed that they were some kind of Special Operations unit. From among them, an unremarkable-looking Sangheili in rather shabby-looking armour stood up and approached Nilen, looking him up and down.

"You're a fortunate one," the masked warrior mused, crouching down before him. "We did not think that this ship's pilot survived the crash."

"I thought it impossible myself," Nilen said, his eyes darting around nervously, looking for a way out.

"What is your name?" asked his captor.

Nilen did not respond immediately, weighing up his options. There were some who believed that it was easier to kill a nameless warrior, as familiarity begat compassion. If that were the case, then this group likely sought to take him prisoner. However, there was another school of thought; that a Sangheili should know the name of one he was about to execute. If Nilen answered, then he would be giving them permission to end his life. Nilen didn't want to die. He wanted to return to Frendhal, to see his wife and children again in their keep. To perish here on this foreign world, far from home, was a miserable fate. Even so, he had to choose.

"I am Commander Nilen 'Feru of the First Talon, serving under Fleet Master Kan 'Larom. I hail from Frendhal, and have pledged my service to the Imperium of Clarity."

Though he came within a breath of mentioning his family, the soft laughter that went up from a few members of this strange band as he detailed his rank stopped him. Even the man interrogating him cocked his helmeted head to one side in confusion, scratching the side of his neck as Nilen finished.

"That's good to know," he said at last. "Nilen 'Feru, do you wish to live?"

"Yes."

"Even if it means helping the Swords of Sanghelios?"

Nilen gulped. Judging by their strange armour, he had though them to be mercenaries in their foe's employ, not part of the Swords themselves. "If it means I can see my family again, I will bear that shame."

The group whispered amongst themselves, and the one who had put the blade to his throat let out a snort of mirth, waving the weapon towards him.

"How do we trust him, Outrider?" the voice from behind the warrior's helmet was female, much to Nilen's shock. "He's doing this to save his own life."

Outrider. That was a name that sent a shiver down Nilen 'Feru's spine. Though the Imperium had been built on the very outskirts of the former Covenant empire, news of events elsewhere in the galaxy often arrived alongside trade ships and Toru 'Makhan's own spies. Among them was the tale of a particularly vicious Sangheili whose bloody deeds had spread across the colony worlds like wildfire, made even worse by contradicting legends and the embellishments of traders. If the darkest stories were to be believed, he was a madman who slaughtered his own clan before starting a campaign of piracy so terrible that even the Covenant at its height could not stop before his sudden disappearance. Just as he was thought to have died, the Outrider appeared again, cropping up on battlefield after battlefield completely unannounced to join in the height of the fighting. Of course, Nilen knew better than to believe most of these legends, but it was another thing entirely to face something like that in the flesh.

"I believe him, Ju'ya," said the Outrider, "And we have little choice but to ask for his help."

He placed two hands on the side of his helmet, pulling it off with a faint hiss. Behind it was not some scar-riddled, blood-addled berserker, but a sharp-eyed warrior who looked younger than Nilen. Their eyes met, and the Outrider placed a hand on his shoulder before bowing his head.

"What are you-" Nilen sputtered, only to be cut off.

"My name is Rora 'Marak, Commander of the Shadows of Retribution. Nilen 'Feru, should you work with us, then I swear to you that you will come to no harm by our hands. I have shown you my face and name as a sign of my trust. Will you trust us in return?"

Taken aback though he was by Rora's sincerity, Nilen nodded. "I will."

Rora stood up and placed his helmet back on. The moment it had settled, he pointed towards the human mining facility not too far away from them.

"My Shadows, we have done well so far. Now that we've had time to recuperate, we can begin our infiltration, save the innocents within that base and drive the Imperium from this planet!"

Though his voice was low, it carried well, and the warriors gathered beneath the crashed Seraph murmured in agreement, readying their weapons. With a nod from Rora, three of them left their temporary shelter, their forms fading into hazy shapes as their active camouflage systems kicked in. With no transport in sight, Nilen realised that they had crossed the entire battlefield on foot, hidden from the naked eye, until they were right outside the Imperium's base of operations. Were it not for the need to recharge their suit's drained systems and plan their assault, they may have never run into the hapless pilot. Accepting his situation with a sigh, Nilen turned to Rora.

"What would you have me do?"

"What you likely intended to do from the start, pilot. Ask for help."

***

As they approached the outer security gate, Nilen began to wonder if the Outrider was truly as mad as they said. As they were safely inside the protective network of makeshift bunkers, turret emplacements and infantry formations that surrounded this facility, there was little security to worry about, but if this building truly contained a member of the Imperium of Clarity's High Command, then the warriors awaiting them inside would be extraordinarily fearsome.

That was, of course, if they made it inside at all.

"Move slower," Rora hissed, struggling to keep up with Nilen even with one arm across his shoulders. "I'll fall otherwise."

The plan was ridiculously simple. Nilen would approach the side gate, seeking refuge after surviving his fighter's crash landing. With the furious battle raging not far from the building's walls, he was forced to head around this side in search of friendly forces. All of this was entirely true. The fictional element of his story was that he had encountered a wounded Sangheili mercenary, separated from his comrades after the recent artillery strike. Not wanting to let a comrade die, he had half-carried him here in search of medical attention, which would convince the guards to allow them inside.

So far, Rora had put on a convincing act, limping heavily with one arm clamped over a non-existent injury. The rest of the Shadows of Retribution were scattered invisibly across the area, though every so often the sight of dirt being raised caught Nilen's eye as at least four members of the Special Operations unit jogged on either side of the duo. Eventually they arrived at a heavy metal door, likely the entrance to some kind of vehicle bay. Craning his neck up towards a security camera, Nilen called out.

"Hello!" he waved. "By the Gods, let us in. My friend is dying!"

Nilen chose to interpret the low groan from Rora as part of his feigned injury, and not one of exasperation at the pilot's terrible acting. After a moment, an intercom by the door crackled, and a voice responded to Nilen in an unfamiliar language. He knew enough to tell that the speaker was human, but had no idea what was being said. Rora lifted his head slowly, steadying himself slightly as he continued to play his part.

"Please help us," Rora replied in the same language, though his voice was hoarse. "We are warriors of the Imperium."

There was another long silence as the intercom went dead. Neither Nilen or Rora moved, unsure of what to do. Was the human guard ignoring them entirely, or running for reinforcements to gun them down? Would the door even open, or would death come in the form of the facility's exterior defenders. Though the Shadows of Retribution were well-armed, they numbered at only ten.

"Nilen," Rora whispered after a minute, "When I say, run to the right and-"

Suddenly, there was a loud hissing as the door's hydraulic locks snapped back. It slowly juddered open, revealing a young human in dark military garb and a Sangheili in the grey harness of the Imperium. Nilen and Rora staggered forward as the two exited to receive them, and the latter suddenly dropped to one knee, apparently overcome with pain.

"How badly is he injured?" the Sangheili asked Nilen as he knelt to help Rora up. "Has he-"

Rora's left arm shot upwards, and a blade of energy sprang from his gauntlet. The soldier had no time to react, and had his throat slashed open in a single strike. Wasting no time, the Outrider leapt towards the startled human, bowling him over before he could raise his gun and finishing him off with a quick stab through his unprotected temple. As the dying Sangheili thrashed around, one hand clutching his throat, he grabbed Nilen's shoulder, glaring into the pilot's eyes as he lost strength and slowly sank into the dirt. Were he able to speak, Nilen knew exactly what he would have said. Traitor.

"Let's get inside," Rora waved an arm, and his Shadows emerged from the undergrowth. "We have bloody work to do."

Nilen followed them inside, aware that Ju'ya had a rifle trained on his back. No alarms had been raised in their immediate vicinity, but that did not mean that they hadn't been detected. Once Rora's men were inside and the doors were closed, several of them glanced towards Nilen. His hearts began to beat faster as he realised that his part in this mission was over, and that he was no longer of any use.

"What now?" He stepped forward, addressing Rora. "Do you need my assistance further?"

"No," Rora brought out a small, palm-sized holoprojector and activated it, bringing up a diagram of the entire facility. "I will not ask you to take up arms against your kin, pilot. However, you will remain our prisoner, and must be treated as such. Ju'ya!"

The female warrior snapped to attention. "Outrider?"

"It pains me to ask this, but please remain here with Nilen 'Feru. We must keep this path secure if we are forced to retreat, and as a landing point for our extraction craft outside."

Though she grunted in annoyance, Ju'ya nodded, and indicated for Nilen to sit by a nearby desk while she stood guard. While he reckoned he had good chances of overpowering her if he had to, the pilot had no intention of risking his life against someone armed to the teeth and with a clear dislike of him. With the two of them left by the doorway, Rora 'Marak looked over the map provided to them by the UNSC.

"Our goal here is to liberate the human workers being held hostage by the Imperium, and to bring them away from this facility. We may be few, but our strength has never been in numbers. If we move quietly and push into enemy lines, then we will make it through this unscathed."

One of Rora's warriors slapped the side of his weapon. "Maybe we'll be lucky enough to take the head of that enemy Fleet Master, eh Outrider?"

The others laughed at this, all eager to do more than simply free humans. Rora himself had little interest in them, but orders were orders, and he would not disobey a command from Felo 'Ranak. Once they were safe, then he had every intention of hunting down the enemy leader and taking his head. As they prepared to move into the corridor network that connected the mining facility's buildings, he looked back at Nilen one last time.

"You won't be waiting long!" he called to his prisoner. "The Outrider keeps his promises, Nilen 'Feru. You will see your family again!"

Brodie-001: Here to help

55: The Crash Site

Simon-G294 stared down at the helmet in his hands, catching his own gaunt reflection in its cracked and battered faceplate. He was surprised to see a pale stranger reflected there, a calm creature expressing none of the tension twisting and turning inside him. A casual smirk tugged at the stranger’s lips as if he found the thought of the impending carnage faintly amusing. Looking down at the strange reflection, Simon indulged himself in a moment of revulsion. Then the moment passed; he spun the helmet around, slid it down over his head, and disappeared within a world of tactical reports, weapon displays, and all the opportunities afforded by violence. The pale, smirking face became his own and he was Stray once again.

Covenant warriors readied their weapons across the deck of his command Lich. A small group of officers clustered around the tactical display at the gunboat’s center, observing the battlefield below as the Kru’desh formation sped over Montak’s surface. Standing apart from the Kru’desh officers, Shinsu ‘Refum observed the proceedings with his usual aloof interest. The special operations commander hadn’t said a word since the Kru’desh dropships left the Soul Ascension. Clearly he had no intention of offering his own tactical advice.

But that suited Stray nicely. He had his own reasons for wanting Shinsu along for the ride.

“The crash site is almost overrun,” one of the officers growled. “The human filth press in from all sides.”

“Hey, watch it.” The officers stiffened as Stray pushed his way through to the tactical display. The aliens towered over him; Stray’s head barely rose past their chests. But he was used to that by now. He glanced around the officers, letting the one he’d interrupted squirm a bit under his gaze. “This is the Kru’desh. We’re all filth here. Wouldn’t want to offend our UNSC friends down there, now would we?”

The remark brought the laughter he intended. Stray had few illusions of what his warriors thought of his species. But he didn’t need them to like humans. Just trust one enough to lead them.

“There will hardly be any of our own warriors left when we arrive,” another officer noted. “We’ll waste time rushing in to rescue them when we could simply catch the enemy directly from behind. A paltry warrior or two is not worth sacrificing the element of surprise, no matter their skill.”

The warrior caught Stray’s gaze and he knew the unspoken accusation: the only reason he had them rescuing any survivors at all was the fact that Amber was among them. She kept proving to be an irritating thorn in his side, especially after he’d worked so hard to win the Covenant’s trust. He could only hope keeping her around started paying off, and soon.

Why’d I even keep her around? No need to kill her, could have just turned her loose and called it square. He shook his head. Now wasn’t the time, especially not out here on his own without Diana to coordinate troop movements or the Soul Ascension for fire support. It was just him and the warriors he brought with him against a field full of battle-hardened UNSC troops.

“We already have surprise on our side.” Stray pointed down at the tactical display. “Their main force is already pushing in for a frontal assault. They aren’t expecting attacks from the rear, just from the refineries.”

He seized a false hold of their holographic formation and twisted to split it in two. “We catch their APCs from behind while the Ghost squadrons hit the infantry from the side. We’ll roll up on them before they even know we’ve hit them, then regroup with the crash site and secure the area.”

Stray looked up at the officer who’d questioned him. “If there’s survivors left to rescue, fine. If they die, they bought us time. We’d do the same if any of our others were down there.”

The officer held his gaze. “Very well. And what about that Mammoth? Its cannon will pick off our dropships one by one.”

“I’m glad you asked.” Stray depolarized his visor and bared his teeth in a humorless smile. “Since it’s got you so worried, you’re going to take it out.”

To his credit, the warrior didn’t so much as flinch. “I’ll need two Phantoms.”

“Take three. We kill their command and control, the rest of the battle’s a cakewalk.” Stray jabbed a finger down at the holographic Mammoth. “Maneuver your Phantoms behind the Lich and we can cover you from its cannon. The rest of you, spread out and deal with those APCs.”

He nodded to the Ghost squadron leader, an Unggoy named Uril wearing a dark, battered methane suit. Uril perched on the edge of the table, tapping the holograms with barely contained excitement. “Get down and mount up. You and your boys drop in five. Hit ‘em hard and run ‘em down. The rest of us are right behind you.”

Turning back to the other officers, Stray unslung his shotgun and slid several shells into the receiver. “Get ready to hit dirt. We’ve been snapping necks all day. No reason to stop now.”

He rested his gaze on the warrior he’d ordered to lead the assault, wondering if he’d ever see this particular Sangheili ever again. “It’s a hard ride over to those refineries. I’m looking forward to riding that Mammoth over there.”

The warrior nodded. “Then you shall have it.”

The officers dispersed, rallying their warriors for battle as the Kru’desh formation soared ever closer to the raging battle. Every moment brought them closer to the fury and pain and carnage. Stray fully intended for them to deal out most of that pain and carnage. But staring down at the tactical display now—at maneuvers and troop movements hurrying here and there across Montak’s surface—he realized just how deeply into this unknown field he’d truly plunged.

Shinsu had not said a word throughout the entire exchange. Stray wondered if he really didn’t care that his brother was down there, minutes away from being killed by the UNSC troops. He would need to drag that story out of Tuka someday—if Tuka was even still alive down there.

He indicated one of the weapon racks at the back of the Lich. “You need a rifle?”

Shinsu indicated the energy sword strapped to his dark armor. “This will suffice.”

“Suit yourself.” Phantoms drew up on either side of the Lich in a hasty docking maneuver. Officers boarded the dropships, shouting commands to the warriors braced on the troop bay floors. Sangheili and Unggoy crawled out into the open air, trusting their lives to the dropships’ gravity fields as they clambered into the seats of Ghosts slung underneath. Warriors readied their weapons and fell in with their lances. There was no turning back now.

Stray draped the purple command sash over his armor, checking the energy shields affixed to each of his gauntlets. He opened a small pouch on his leg and withdrew a syringe. With a small breath, he sunk the needle into a space on his neck just above his body glove. He’d need the medicine now, before the chaos of battle seized hold. The Kru’desh needed a confident battle-commander, not some confused boy who barely understood how he’d got here in the first place. They certainly would never follow someone whose hands shook at the thought of all the killing he was about to do.

The Kru’desh gunboats streaked forward, dropping low towards the ground and warming their plasma turrets as they raced towards the battlefield.


The thunderclap of a cannon blast powerful enough to tear apart a Phantom and shake the very ground itself heralded what Tuka knew were his last moments. All around him the Kru’desh line was breaking. Even the bravest of Sangheili warriors fled alongside the Unggoy and Kig-Yar as hulking human war machines blasted through the perimeter and cut down any too slow to flee.

Another shot from the Mammoth’s heavy cannon obliterated another Phantom, opening a new breach for the human assault. Tuka glimpsed dozens of human warriors advancing on his position while the Mammoth and their APCs loomed behind them like silent judges heralding his doom. He emptied the last of his carbine shots into the nearest Cyclops. The green plasma barely scorched the bipedal machine’s armor.

Strangely, the realization that he was about to die did not frighten Tuka. A strange sadness fell over him at the thought that he would die here on some barren wasteland fighting someone else’s war, but at the same time it seemed almost liberating. At the very least, he mused, drawing his energy sword, his final moments would be his own.

He could see Amber moving through the smoke, picking off her fellow humans as they advanced through the breach. Across the way, Mika and Ier were huddled in one of the remaining Phantoms. The two warriors laced the human soldiers with plasma fire even as Covenant bodies piled up around them.

There truly was no place to run. The humans advancing from the other crash site would cut down anyone who fled.

This was the end.

Another form moved amidst the smoke, larger than the human soldiers around it. Tuka’s hand tightened on the hilt of his energy sword as he saw a Spartan in dark blue armor crush an Unggoy’s skull with a single blow. How strange for the humans’ greatest warriors to wear colors more akin to the Sangheili then their own kind. Tuka thought of Stray and the filthy, battered armor he wore so defiantly even at the head of a Covenant legion. His commander was as different from this Spartan as night from day.

Fear numbed his hearts. The air hung heavy about Tuka as he met the blue Spartan’s gaze. In that narrow visor and piercing color, he saw all the might the humans now brought to bear on the galaxy. This Spartan was more like a true Covenant warrior than Tuka would ever be: the shining might of galactic power. And Stray…

The thought of his skulking, caustic commander parted Tuka’s mandibles in a terrified smile. Were Stray and the Kru’desh not the true face of the Covenant? The absurdity of it all pushed away his terror and he charged the Spartan with a strangled laugh.

The blue Spartan’s shots glanced off Tuka’s energy shields. The young Sangheili felt the blows hammer his body but he surged forward with a hasty stab at the Spartan’s chest. It was an empty blow. In an instant the Spartan twisted around to dodge the pronged blade, striking Tuka around the head with a palm-strike that sent him reeling to the ground.

Tuka stared up at the dusty sky. The Spartan filled his vision, bringing its boot up to crush the life from his throat. Behind him the UNSC troops surged across the battlefield, backed by their lumbering war machines. The enemy’s triumph would be the last thing Tuka ever saw.

But beyond that, just now emerging from the clouds, surged a new crowd of dark shapes. They spread across the sky like great hulking birds, drawing nearer and becoming one of the most glorious sights Tuka had ever seen: a Covenant battle formation. And there in the center, a Lich with battle-scarred armor plating, its heavy cannon already glowing green with an impending shot.

Tuka and his would-be killer watched the oncoming reinforcements swarm over the UNSC line in a storm of plasma. The advancing humans broke ranks and dove for cover as a line of Ghosts swept in over their flanks. Phantoms let Wraiths and other heavy tanks drop from their underbellies around the battlefield. In an instant the impending massacre became a pitched battle with the Kru’desh Legion—because who else would ever bother coming to the crash site’s rescue?—pressing in on the humans from all sides.

Tuka’s breath came again and he gasped, half laughing, half sobbing with relief. The Spartan in the blue armor glanced down at him one last time. Then in the next moment he was gone, leaving Tuka lying alone amidst the bodies.


The first shot from the Mammoth blasted a Phantom to pieces. Stray ground his teeth. He couldn’t afford losses like this, not now with the real battle only just beginning. His hands balled into fists across the tactical display.

“Move us forward!” he barked to the Lich’s pilot. “Out in front, cover the Phantoms!”

The first shot from the Mammoth blasted a Phantom to pieces. Stray ground his teeth. He couldn’t afford losses like this, not now with the real battle only just beginning. His hands balled into fists across the tactical display.

“Move us forward!” he barked to the Lich’s pilot. “Out in front, cover the Phantoms!”

“One shot from our cannon will disable that beast,” the gunnery officer reported.

“Hold fire,” Stray snapped back. “I want it intact.”

“They’ll shoot us—“

“We can take it.” Stray gritted his teeth. His command Lich had endured worse punishment in the past. The Kru’desh needed all the firepower they could scrape together for the next part of his plan. Who better to take it from than the enemy?

The Lich surged to the forrmation’s head as the remaining two Phantoms charged with assaulting the siege tank eagerly fell in line behind it. The battle on the ground was fully joined now. Kru’desh Ghosts and Banshees strafed the Cyclopes and infantry while warriors leaped down from Phantoms to press the attack. Suddenly facing attack from all sides the UNSC troops rallied back towards the APC formation—and into the Lich’s line of fire.

“Fire past the Mammoth,” Stray ordered. “Keep those infantry sweating.”

The Lich pulsed as a stream of plasma scorched the battlefield. Cyclopes stiffened and collapsed, their operators roasted within their attack frames. UNSC soldiers simply ceased to exist, burned away amidst the searing heat. Their screams couldn’t reach Stray from where he stood within the gunboat. But his imagination fed him the howls all the same.

He remembered the agony of the plasma flames engulfing his own body not long ago, of frontier villages blasted off the map by UNSC bombers. The memories encased his heart in iron. Someday soon it would need to stay hardened. Permanently.

“The main cannon is targeting us!” the pilot snarled.

“Stay on course!” Stray snapped back. He leaned over the tactical display, feet digging into the floor. “Everyone, brace!”

The Mammoth’s shot struck the Lich dead center. The gunboat shuddered and groaned like a wounded animal, its power flickering as it dipped and lost altitude. But the armor held and it kept its course straight toward the carrier. It was an insanely risky maneuver, one the boy Stray had once been would never have dared attempt. But there was no room for caution in battles like these.

“Get your warriors on top of that thing, now!” Stray ordered the officers in the trailing Phantoms. “Don’t let it fire another shot!”

Someone moved past the tactical display and Stray was surprised to see Shinsu approach the Lich’s gangplank. The warrior unclipped the sword hilt from his armor and motioned for the baymaster to unseal the gunboat’s troop deck.

“Thought you weren’t interested in joining the fun,” Stray called after him as the armored doors slid away, ushering in the howl of the wind and the cacophony of the battle below.

“I will indulge your games, if only to hasten the course of this battle.” Shinsu didn’t look back. “Time is of the essence and we have other places to be.”

Without another word he leaped down from the Lich as it passed over the Mammoth. Stray caught a glimpse of his blood-red energy sword flash to life as he fell. The Phantoms that had used the Lich for cover drew up on either side of the hulking war machine, their warrior contingents spilling out onto its deck. The Mastodon APCs fired up at the dropships, but the Kru’desh were all around them now. The Mastodons broke formation, rushing to avoid plasma fire and cover the scattered ground troops.

Everything was under control. The Kru’desh had air superiority, a better position, and numbers on their side. No human commander would have any need to take the field themselves and abandon command and control over a winning battle. Unfortunately, the Covenant held their commanders to a different standard.

Stray unslung his shotgun and stepped towards the ledge Shinsu had plunged from. Behind him the rest of the Lich’s contingent readied their own weapons and fell in step behind him. Stray, gazed over the dusty battlefield below and ignored the surging feeling in his gut. No time for fear now. He could already feel his mind clearing, shutting out anything that might keep him from taking this plunge. He looked back at the Sangheili who watched him with fierce intent.

They were always watching. Always looking to their human leader for any sign of weakness, any sign that they were mistaken in handing their lives over to him. No matter how many battles he won, no matter how much plunder and rewards he handed over, Stray’s position was an endless dance on the razor’s edge. He no longer had room for weakness.

“Come on!” he snapped at the warriors. “Or there’ll be nothing left to kill!”

He stepped forward and plunged from the Lich.

The gunboat’s gravity field softened his fall and his augmented bones did the rest. Stray ducked and rolled as he struck the ground, instinct taking over as his eyes scanned the chaos in front of him. His shotgun came up and blasted the first UNSC soldier he saw. Plasma filled the air around him as his warriors landed around him, firing at the remaining UNSC forces.

Stray leaped forward and led them on, pushing forward towards the nearest Mastodon. Chaos reigned around them. UNSC troops stumbled this way and that, scrambling to meet enemies emerging from all sides. A squad of troops tried to take up a position just ahead only to be struck down by a Ghost that careened onward into the back of a Cyclops. The mech toppled and in an instant a pack of Unggoy were on top of it, dragging the screaming operator from the cockpit and tossing him to a pair of ravenous Kig-Yar.

A Mastodon just ahead of Stray caught a fuel rod blast and burst into flames. Its bay door opened to release the troops inside, who stumbled free from the flames and into the waiting crosshairs of Stray’s warriors.

Something huge bounded over the burning APC. A Cyclops landed in front of Stray, its autocannon blasting apart two of the Sangheili beside him. Stray leaped clear, tossing a plasma grenade onto the Cyclops’s leg. The blast brought the mech to its knees but it kept firing, forcing Stray back towards the burning Mastodon.

“Help me!” A soldier, half consumed by the flames, reached up and caught the hem of Stray’s command sash, no doubt mistaking him for one of his own. Stray kicked the dying man’s head and left it twisted at an unnatural angle.

More shapes lunged at him from the smoke. Stray’s shotgun blast turned the first soldier’s head into a red mist but the next one tackled him and forced him to his knees. The soldier drove a knife towards Stray’s throat, eyes wide with terrified desperation. Stray’s machete cleared its sheath in an instant and decapitated her.

He swung the blade down, cleaving so deep into the next soldier’s chest he had trouble pulling it out. Someone else leaped on him and forced him to the ground. The soldier drove an elbow into Stray’s neck, scrambling to press a pistol down onto his visor.

That familiar rage engulfed Stray, the desperate fury that surged up and melted this battlefield into every other struggle for survival he had ever endured. “Just try to kill me!” Stray howled up at his enemy. His hands came up, fingers smashing through the soldier’s visor. He jammed his thumbs into the man’s eyes, then twisted and let his would-be killer’s twitching corpse collapse into the dust beside him. Stray leaped up and seized his machete, wildly scanning for the next enemy.

And there, through the smoke, came a figure in light blue armor. The helmet was wrong—mismatched ODST gear, probably replacing some damaged equipment—but Stray recognized MJOLNIR in an instant. A Spartan. He hadn’t planned on Spartans.

The battle fury cleared and rational thought drenched him like cold water. The kind of thought that made him realize he should have stayed aboard the Lich. “Oh shit,” he muttered, throwing his arm in front of him.

The Spartan raised her rifle—Stray knew how to tell the subtleties through armor—and opened fire.

The wrist-shield affixed to his gauntlet blossomed to life just in time. The rounds hammered against his arm, but the prosthetic locked in place as he dug his heels into the ground and fumbled with a pouch on his leg. He withdrew a small device, triggering it and kicking it out under the shield.

The Spartan didn’t notice the device until it was too late. The EMP grenade detonated, roasting her shields and disorienting her for the half-second Stray needed to throw himself forward to hack at her neck with his machete. Maybe she was a IV, or an earlier III, or even one of his fellow Gammas. It didn’t matter. He’d killed Spartans before. He’d kill this one just the same.

But she recovered before he could make the killing blow. Her arm knocked the machete aside while her knee threw Stray back into the dirt. He brought the wrist-shield down in front of him just in time to intercept the bullet she aimed for his head. His mind raced, already scrambling for another trick to throw her off guard. But he didn’t need one.

Dark shapes suddenly planted themselves between Stray and the Spartan. Two of his warriors were in front of him now, energy swords drawn, shielding him with their bodies. Another warrior emerged behind Stray, helping him to his feet. “Commander! Your orders!”

The Spartan hesitated, confusion getting the better of her. And now more shadows appeared in the smoke behind her. Stray bared his teeth in a humorless smile. He’d trained the Kru’desh well on the problem of Spartans. They were nigh-unbeatable in groups, but on their own…

“Take her,” Stray ordered. Two Sangheili took the Spartan from behind, catching her by the arms. She wrenched a hand free and knocked one back, but now the ones covering Stray closed in. They kicked her legs out from under her, forcing her to her knees as the one she’d fought off drew his energy sword.

Victory coursed through Stray, replacing the desperation he’d felt just moments before. He looked around. The UNSC was in full retreat, the remaining Mastodons breaking off and fleeing the field under heavy plasma fire. The Lich loomed over the motionless Mammoth as the Phantoms and Banshees descended on the crash site. Kru’desh warriors were everywhere, firing after the retreating soldiers, finishing off the wounded, seizing weapons and equipment from the enemy dead. Another battle drew to a bloody close.

Stray glanced back at the warriors and the still-struggling Spartan. “What are you waiting for, an invitation?” he snapped at the one with the sword. “Quit messing around and finish her.”

The warrior drew his sword back for the fatal strike. But as Stray turned his back on the execution, something slammed into the side of his helmet and sent him reeling to the ground. His vision blurred as he clawed the dirt, gasping for air. Sniper, he realized faintly. They’d clipped his helmet, just centimeters off from a killing shot.

Gunfire rattled over the plains. A firing line of dark-armored ODSTs raked the Kru’desh and sent them scrambling for cover. Several Ghosts turned away from pursuing the Mastodons and rushed for the new arrivals only to be cut down in a barrage of gunfire and grenades. And there, so far away that even Stray’s enhanced HUD had trouble picking them out—more Spartans.

The Sangheili still had the Spartan pinned between them. The swordsman was still alive, albeit distracted by the gunfire. A furious laugh escaped Stray’s lips as he realized the shooter had chosen to shoot him instead of helping their fellow Spartan. “Just try to kill me,” he hissed at his would-be assassin.

But an engine’s roar suddenly split the air, the ground shaking from the approach of heavy wheels. A Mastodon barreled out of the smoke and careened towards Stray and the Sangheili. They all leaped out of the way, abandoning the captive Spartan as the APC roared past. The one with the sword wasn’t fast enough. His scream split the air as he was crushed beneath the Mastodon’s wheels.

Stray rolled up into a crouch. He caught sight of another Spartan, this one in orange armor with one of those bizarre new helmets the UNSC was rolling out, catch the blue Spartan by the collar and drag her inside the APC. Then the Mastodon was gone, racing to join the line of APCs and infantry fleeing back over the plains. The ODSTs continued their fire a moment longer and then broke off, falling back with the others.

Stray found himself kneeling amidst a field of bodies, panting for breath. One centimeter. If the sniper had adjusted their aim by that much they could have taken his head off. But once again, he was still alive.

A warrior appeared beside him, weapon at the ready. “We can still pursue!”

“No.” Stray shook his head, then broadcasted orders over the Kru’desh battle network. “Cease fire, all of you! Lock down this position and tend to the wounded. We’ve got better things to do then go after them.”

Only when Stray got to his feet did he realize that the warrior beside him was Tuka. The young Sangheili was caked in dirt and blood, his eyes wild. He lunged to race after the retreating UNSC, but Stray grabbed his arm and dragged him back.

“Come on now, calm down.” Stray draped an arm around Tuka’s shoulder and forced him to back down. “I didn’t come all this way just so you can run off and get yourself killed now.” Somehow the effort of dragging a Sangheili out of battle-frenzy soothed the fire still burning hot inside his own chest.

Should have done the dirty work myself. If he’d closed in for the kill instead of leaving things to the warriors, that Spartan would be dead. Instead she’d been dragged to safety, along with the ones who’d prioritized killing him over saving her. How many more shots would they take at him? Stray knew better than anyone just how dangerous a defeated Spartan was. They’d want payback for a battle like this.

“How many of yours are left?” he asked quietly, finally releasing Tuka.

Tuka stared back at the crash site. He didn’t speak for several moments. “Less than half,” he finally muttered. “They… they fought as well as they could.” His voice cracked with emotion.

“You’re still alive,” Stray told him. He got to his feet and wiped the bloody machete off on Tuka’s shoulder. “Pull yourself together, before your warriors see you like this. We’ve got work to do.”

Tuka stared up at him, exhausted. “We aren’t going back to the ship?”

“No.” Stray slid the machete back into its sheath and turned towards the Mammoth. Shinsu ‘Refum strode down the siege tank’s ramp, red blade still glistening in his hands. The Mammoth’s confines were littered with human corpses. “We’ve got business with the guy who didn’t bother telling us about the dome plan. The ones who got my people killed.”

Shinsu didn’t so much as glance down at his brother as he approached. “I hope your warriors have had their bit of fun,” he said quietly. “We have better things to do. The enemy closes on the refineries. We might be the only force out here to relieve them. If the refineries fall, all of this was for nothing.”

“Yeah, I get the picture.” A small crowd of warriors was gathering around them. Stray caught sight of Amber standing near the back, staring at him intently. So she’d survived too. Stray imagined he’d catch an earful from her back on the Soul Ascension, but at least she restrained herself in front of his troops.

He turned to the crowd. “A good start,” he said, gesturing at the carnage around them. “But this is just the beginning. The Imperium didn’t think we were important enough to let us in on their battle plan. And now guess who’s gotta roll in and save their sorry asses now that master plan isn’t working?”

The Kru’desh warriors snarled in agreement. Stray gestured at the battlefield. “Scavenge what you can, then deploy everything we’ve got and load up. This convoy is going to roll over this dustball and crush anything stupid enough to get between us and those refineries. Move out! There’s plenty of killing left for us today.”

The warriors scattered to carry out his orders. Stray turned back to Tuka. “Get your survivors and the wounded loaded up on the Lich. I want you coordinating the dropships and Banshees from there to cover our ground convoy.”

Tuka nodded, loyalty forcing him back into warrior mode. “And what about you?”

Stray jabbed a finger at the Mammoth. Unggoy were already dragging the dead UNSC out of the siege tank and taking up positions as its new crew. “My boots are staying on the ground. Your brother took the trouble of scoring me this new ride. I’m riding over to those refineries in style.”

Bold words, the kind warriors like Tuka needed to hear. But dozens of Stray’s warriors were dead thanks to the Imperium. With the UNSC gone, his anger turned again towards the one who’d gotten them into this mess to begin with. It was time for a serious chat with Kan ‘Larom.

Actene: If This Is To End In Fire, Then We'll Burn Together

56: Interlude: Rearguard

1201 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Amundsen Base, New Syracuse, Outer Colonies


"Contact confirmed with the Sixth Fleet. They've arrived in the Montak system and are proceeding towards the planet."

"Good, keep me posted."

As the temporary commander of Amundsen Base strolled off towards his holotable, Lieutenant Junior Grade Karl Rosa leaned back in his chair, stifling a yawn. In the last couple of days, hundreds of support personnel had been uprooted from bases across a dozen colonies and sent here to assist in the organisation of what many were calling the largest fleet assembled since the Human-Covenant War, and had been run ragged as a result. With the presence of several military branches that seemed reluctant to cooperate with each other, a Sangheili fleet in orbit that barely contacted its allies, and the single most irascible man in the Navy in charge of logistics on top of that, anyone who hadn't accompanied the fleet wanted nothing more than to rest.

"Rosa!"

The young officer's eyes snapped open just in time for him to realise that his chair was starting to tip over. He grabbed the edges of the console in front of him and pulled himself upright, praying that no one else had noticed him nodding off for a second there. Aside from a few sly grins from the junior officers beside him, he seemed safe for now.

"Thanks for that," he murmured to the officer next to him, Megan Blackwell. "Fosse would've killed me."

"No problem. Just hang in there for another twenty and we'll be relieved anyway."

"No promises."

Situated within Amundsen Base's command room, Rosa and twelve other officers had been put in charge of monitoring the progress of the Sixth Fleet, which had departed to retake some little-known colony world from a violent Covenant faction. While the exact details of the campaign were scarce, the fleet's size and the involvement of the Swords of Sanghelios had led to a number of alarming rumours being spread among the staff here, ranging from this being an overly-elaborate cover for mass fleet deployment exercises to claims that this new foe was another alien race entirely. So far everything had gone more or less according to plan, though as the nearest military outpost New Syracuse would act as both a fallback point and an important point for ferrying supplies to support the expeditionary force.

"No no no!" a high voice erupted from the command station above, followed by the thump of a fist hitting a table. "If you bunch up ammunition ships with general supply vessels, you'll lose the entire convoy if they're attacked, you fool!"

Rosa rubbed his eyes wearily, and chanced a look upwards to the source of Amundsen Base's woes. Commander Andrei Fosse had taken command of the military outpost the moment it was set up, and was from something called the Naval Strategic Response Division, which no one here had ever heard of and some joked was a completely fictitious organisation. Along with his staff - a group of perpetually embarrassed officers who stood out in their black uniforms and berets - he had turned the place into his own little kingdom and assumed near-total control over the stream of supply vessels designed to support the Sixth Fleet and relay news back to HIGHCOM and other nearby forces. The worst part about it all was that Fosse was a genuinely good logistics officer, and he let everyone know it.

"I'm going up there," Blackwell whispered, slowly getting out of her seat as Fosse roared at a hapless Ensign. "I'll make something up to take his mind off things."

"You're an idiot," Rosa said bluntly.

Ignoring his comment, Blackwell climbed up to the command platform, where a red-faced Fosse was adjusting his beret. While some had attributed his tendency to treat his subordinates like dirt to being snubbed by the Sixth Fleet's Admirals and relegated to managing a glorified supply base, some of his fellows in the NSRD had let slip that the Commander was a generally unpleasant person to work with.

Realising that his drowsiness would return if he continued to sit at his station, Rosa eventually heaved himself out of his chair and followed his friend, catching up to her just as she began to concoct a story about irregularly-organised munition crates that would send him storming off to the nearest supply warehouse for a good hour or so.

"Where do you think you're going?" Fosse cut Blackwell off as Rosa passed behind her, addressing him like particularly strict teacher. "You should be at your post."

"To the bathroom, sir."

Rosa's reply was partly honest; he really intended to grab a Stim-Pack to wake himself up and get back to work, but most particularly rule-obsessed officers frowned upon their usage. Nonetheless, he knew that a couple of Ensigns working in communications had hidden a rucksack full of them above a ceiling panel. Due to the general overwork across the base it was practically an open secret to all but Fosse and his division.

"Lieutenant...Rosa," Fosse's eyes darted down to the nameplate on his tunic. "You are to remain at your post until your duty shift is over. If you are unable to handle a task as simple as this, then perhaps you shouldn't have trained as a communications officer."

Rosa knew that the entire command room was eavesdropping on this communication, and blinked twice as Fosse's words sank in. Perhaps the Commander had taken one look at him - a bald, musclebound junior officer - and thought him an idiot, or perhaps he simply thought that his rank meant a man who had once been the boxing champion of Luna OCS in his day wouldn't pummel his smug face into oblivion. To the tired, overworked officer, such an option was tempting, but the pleading look in Blackwell's eyes calmed his temper somewhat. Still, enough was enough, and he snapped the sloppiest salute ever attempted before answering.

"Look, the Sixth Fleet should change COM nodes after each transmission over slispace, rendering my monitoring station's channel useless for several hours at least, barring local contacts. It's part of basic communication protocols, sir, so I'd really like to take a piss, if it doesn't take too much of your damn time."

Fosse's mouth opened and closed soundlessly, making him look like a fish as colour flooded his face. In Rosa's opinion it seemed like something of an overreaction considering how reserved he had been towards the man, but evidently receiving backtalk from a lower-ranked officer was tantamount to pissing on a loved one's grave in Fosse's eyes. He'd embellished things slightly, of course, but Rosa doubted that Had it not been for the fact that Rosa looked like he could snap him in two without much effort, the Commander might have even taken a swing at him.

In the end, the torrent of insults never came. Several alarm klaxons sounded across the command room, and the assembled officers snapped back to their stations in an instant as the holotable lit up, displaying the entirety of New Syracuse and the surrounding system. Close to the colony world, inside its meagre defence grid of light warships and space stations, were a cluster of triangles representing unidentified or hostile vessels. Fosse could only stare as a screen lit up before him, linked to a satellite above the planet. An ORS-class heavy cruiser sat in the colony world's orbit, its hull still streaked with fading blue wisps of casual reconciliation after its emergence from slipspace. Six smaller cruisers surrounded the warship, with more emerging with every passing moment above the colony world. The flagship loosed a torrent of blue-white plasma bolts, and the feed went dead.

"Oh god," Rosa whispered, eyes wide. The Imperium of Clarity was here.

As alerts came in from every direction while what remained of New Syracuse's military force tried to organise itself and emergency services contacted the UNSC for assistance, Andrei Fosse said nothing. The Commander drummed his fingers atop his holotable, looking on and nodding to himself as yet another enemy ship arrived in orbit with a disturbingly serene look on his face.

"Commander, they're heading into the atmosphere!" Blackwell jabbed a finger at the readout. "What do we do?"

With a horrible sinking feeling in his stomach, Rosa realised that Fosse was in command of New Syracuse's defence. While he hated the man more than any superior he'd ever served under, some part of him wanted to believe that Fosse had planned for this; that his talent for logistics might transfer well into organising an evacuation. Though he was clearly taken aback by the enemy fleet's arrival, perhaps he would straighten up after this momentary shock passed.

"Sir?" Rosa inched forward tapping Fosse on the shoulder.

Andrei Fosse looked up and met the Lieutenant's gaze. He nodded, smiled, mumbled something incoherent and pitched forward, smacking his head off the side of the table before he collapsed to the floor. Rosa looked back to the table and saw that the Imperium had already dispatched several dozen dropships towards Amundsen Base, having smashed aside the colony world's flimsy defences. Rosa drew his service pistol, and looked towards Blackwell before addressing the room.

"I hate to say it folks, but I think we're screwed. Let's get the hell out of here."

No one disagreed, and within minutes Amundsen Base's command staff had abandoned the control room. No one bothered to check on its commander.

***

When Andrei Fosse awoke, he was no longer on New Syracuse.

The Commander sat up, gritting his teeth as he placed a hand to the dark bruise on his forehead. Throbbing pain aside, it wasn't a real cause for concern, especially considering his current situation. Fosse blinked groggily as he looked around the tiny room, taking the metal wars and translucent energy field barring the door.

"Oh shit," he muttered, pulling himself up out of the metal cot. "No, no, no..."

The last thing Fosse remembered before he blacked out was an insubordinate officer challenging his commands, followed by a sudden alert. The Imperium arrived. The officer felt a chill run down his spine as he relived those last few moments, dealing with the sudden, horrifying reality that he was the only thing standing between alien invaders and a colony world. It had all been far too much for him to handle.

They should have posted more ships! Fosse paced around his cell, the pain and humiliation giving way to anger. What on earth was I supposed to do against an invasion force with nothing but lazy supply officers and a few ships they didn't want to bring with the main fleet? I'll bet that Zhi didn't bother to scan for enemy ships or something, the miserable hag. Just wait, as soon as I'm out of here I'll make sure that FLEETCOM knows all about the incompetence of its so-called Admirals. They'll-

The energy barrier suddenly fizzled out, and a tall Sangheili in grey armour stepped into the cell, interrupting Fosse's train of thought as he backed up into a corner, eyes wide and fearful. The alien's mandibles twitched a few times in bemusement as the officer stared up at him, too afraid to speak.

"You are to come with me," the Sangheili spoke in heavily-accented English. "Our Fleet Master wishes to speak with you."

"Oh?" Fosse perked up immediately, straightening his uniform's collar. "Well I- of course! Lead the way!"

Even the guard seemed a little surprised by the prisoner's sudden change in demeanour, though he did not question it and simply waved for Fosse to follow. Another warrior in grey stood out in the hall, and moved in behind Fosse as he walked. The Commander kept his head held high, acing less like a captive and more like a diplomat as he took in every detail of the enemy warship. As they passed an observation port, a quick glance outside revealed that they were still in New Syracuse's orbit alongside dozens of smaller ships. He slowed down a little to check if the colony had been glassed, only to receive a sharp push from behind that nearly made him fall over.

"Walk," the second guard muttered, one hand tapping the plasma rifle attached to his thigh.

Fosse did as ordered, and kept quiet as they travelled the length of an entire deck, eventually coming to a large silver door marked with grey lights. One of the Sangheili stepped forward and produced a small piece of metal, holding it in front of a circular panel. A moment later, the lights flashed to white and the door chimed as it slid open. The pair escorting Fosse waved for him to enter, then stood to attention on either side of the door. The moment he crossed the threshold, it snapped shut, making him wince.

The room beyond was a circular chamber, with a large holotable dominating the room and several rows of benches surrounding it. Fosse instantly recognised it as a briefing room of sorts, likely used by the Imperium's officers in planning their operations. Fosse continued on, wandering across the empty room until he caught a glimpse of movement to his right. A male Sangheili approached, clad in sleek dark armour inlaid with intricate carvings. Not recognising the configuration, he was unsure of how to address this newcomer, though his appearance reminded him of pictures of Special Operations groups who had terrorised the UNSC for decades.

"Hello there!" he snapped a salute, thinking of nothing else to do. "I-"

"You are Commander Andrei Fosse," the stranger intoned, looking him up and down. "We found you alone and unconscious in your camp, carrying an unsecured datapad. Your kind are usually so careful about matters such as this."

Fosse felt his cheeks flush red. Not only had he passed out in front of his entire command staff, who had presumably abandoned him, he had been captured carrying the kind of sensitive information that would have gotten him shot during the war for losing. Still, there may be a way of salvaging this.

"My men attacked me and fled," he said, rubbing the bruise on his forehead. "What happened to them?"

"We shot their craft out of the sky and brushed aside your defence force without incident. This world belongs to the Imperium now."

"And its people?"

"We do not slaughter innocents, though this world must be isolated until our Imperial Admiral arrives to judge it."

A shiver ran down Fosse's spine at those words. "Toru 'Makhan is coming here?"

"Not yet, of course. First he will crush your fleets and force a surrender. I came here to play my role in his plan."

The Sangheili spoke with such certainty that even Fosse believed him for a moment, though he wondered if the Imperium knew what kind of power the entire United Nations Space Command would throw at them if an entire fleet were lost in battle. However, there was an earnest tinge to his voice that did not make him seem like the kind of wild-eyed fanatic that usually sparked conflicts on the frontier.

"In any case, where do I fit in? I am your prisoner, and will cooperate where necessary, uh-?"

"I am Fleet Master Lora 'Deris," he inclined his head respectfully. "Shipmaster of the Emancipator, Protector of Telwun, and fifth among the High Command of our Imperium."

"That's quite impressive," Fosse mirrored his gesture. "I hold few titles of importance, though if this war were to come down to negotiations, I am a good acquaintance of our Secretary of Defence and have some knowledge of your people and language, if it helps."

"Perhaps it will, Commander Fosse. However, we remain at war, and I am in no position to grant favours to prisoners, nor do I intend to leave you in a cell until this has passed. You must be put to work."

Visions of forced labour camps swam across Fosse's mind, and his heart sank. Lora clapped his hands, and another Sangheili emerged from the shadows. Unlike the surprisingly young Fleet Master, this one was clearly tough and battle-hardened. Three of his mandibles were missing, replaced with crude cybernetics, as was his right arm. His light armour did little to hide the sheer number of burns and scars that criss-crossed his entire body, and his right leg dragged a little as he walked.

"This is Gyan," Lora explained. "He speaks no human language, and will not learn it. In the last war, he was abandoned by his kin after your people maimed him in battle, and deserted the military. This warrior had lost everything, and wandered aimlessly until the Imperium found him. Toru 'Makhan gave him purpose, just as he did to me and so many others who found themselves lost.

"I see," Fosse nodded. "And like 'Makhan, you're going to give me purpose, and spread that to any words you take?"

To his surprise, Lora 'Deris chuckled, and relayed his words to Gyan, whose metal mandibles clacked together menacingly as he stared Fosse down.

"You may have been looking for deeper meaning where there was none, Commander Fosse. Gyan here cannot fight as a warrior does, nor does he have the wit or skill for a position aboard our starships. Instead, he was given a place among Toru 'Makhan's personal retinue within our palace, as an extractor of information and coercer of truth."

Oh shit, Fosse took the tiniest of steps back. "Fleet Master, I have already agreed to provide you with anything you want. Torture is wholly unnecessary."

"On that, we agree. However, I have been given instructions to help win this war by any means necessary, and such actions will be necessary to prepare you for your mission."

"What mission?!" Fosse spluttered.

"As with any military, your kind must rely on a command structure in battle to maintain cohesion. If I were to perish, there would certainly be confusion among my brothers until they reorganised, giving our foe a chance to press their advantage. I have been told that your own leader is a bold fighter and tenacious strategist, so removing her will be vital for an easier victory."

"You want me to kill Admiral Zhi?" he shook his head in disbelief.

As much as Fosse disliked her, seeing Zhi as little more than a hawkish glory hound who refused his plans for fear of being upstaged, assassinating an Admiral wasn't something his career could exactly come back from.

"A demanding task, no?" Deris placed a massive hand on Fosse's shoulder. "You will go to them as a survivor of this planet's fall. Let them take pity on your plight, then strike. Should you succeed, you will be afforded every award our Imperium can offer."

Yeah, right. Once I'm aboard the Caspian, I'll just tell them everything.

Gyan spoke up, his voice slow and grating. Even with his conversational knowledge of the common Sangheili language, Fosse could barely make out what he was saying. Lora nodded, and the torturer pulled a nasty-looking metal dagger from his belt, leering at his human captive the entire time. He was clearly looking forward to something.

"What did he say?" Fosse asked.

"Only what I was thinking, Commander Fosse. Your loyalty must be earned, not only through sacrifice, but through pain. To ensure that you do not betray us, we will fit you with devices to force compliance, and injure your flesh to a degree that you will not be suspected. Nothing that will render you a cripple, but enough to show that you have suffered."

For the briefest of moments, a scene played out in Fosse's head. He would dash forward, snatch the blade from Gyan's surprised hands, and plunge it into the Fleet Master's throat. The Commander would die soon after, an unsung hero, but one with his loyalty intact. Other scenarios flashed up: killing himself, refusing to submit under torture, eluding the guards and escaping. All near-impossible tasks, but ones that would prevent him from betraying his own fleet. All he had to do was move.

Unfortunately, Andrei Fosse was not that kind of man.

Looking Lora 'Deris in the eye, he nodded solemnly. "I'll do it. Just make sure I'm well-compensated."

"You will be repaid tenfold for your suffering," the Fleet Master's mandibles twitched irritably. "I wish there were some other way, truly, but such is the price of victory. Let us get this foul work over with"

With that, the course of the Imperial War would begin to change.

Brodie-001: Here to help

57: Stealing an Escape

1434 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Questioner, Montak Orbit

It had been a long time since Grono had clashed with the Swords of Sanghelios, and he missed it. No matter what battle, the Shipmaster had a taste for combat with almost any kind of enemy, especially in range of his blade. Rach 'Iltuk and the five Unggoy with them had been sent to scout ahead, while Grono, his two Storm Sangheili, and a small band of Imperial soldiers decided to hold off the enemies until they returned.

Grono fired his Storm Rifle straight into the heart of the opposition, breaking the shields of one of their soldiers. This brought the opportunity for one of his Storm soldiers to finish the Sangheili off, as the four Imperial troopers alongside them cut down two more Swords. The other Covenant Sangheili was firing through this, obliterating a trio of enemy Unggoy with a super-combine from his Needler. The two remaining Swords ducked to cover, only as a way to make room for an Unggoy armed with a Fuel Rod Cannon.

Realizing that this would be a threat in close quarters, Grono motioned for his men to take cover. The Imperium realized this too, but it was too late, as the first burst blew apart two of the Imperial troops, with the other duo barely avoiding the blast. One of them stood up to return fire, but Grono ordered him back down as a second rod flew over their heads.

"Wait until the enemy has depleted their magazine!" ordered Grono, yelling over the crack of the third shell. "We shall take them while reloading, and then make our way to the hangar! My scouts will most likely have made their way to it by now!"

"And why are we listening to a Covenant follower like you?" Replied an Imperial officer, ducking his head as to avoid another blast. "We only follow the Field Marshal's orders!"

"Then your bidding is to follow me, as Field Marshal Orro 'Hendai commanded me to take authority over this group!" Grono shouted. The officer made sense of this and nodded. "I shall serve under you in this battle then, Shipmaster."

Grono didn't respond, rushing around the corner as soon as the last round had been shot. He rolled to the side to miss an oncoming plasma bolt, firing his rifle to gain the Swords' attention. As they turned to him however, the distraction proved enough for the combined Covenant and Imperium forces to mow down the Unggoy and one of the Sangheili, before Grono jumped towards the Sword commander, his sword Varmint's Nail in hand. He grasped the commander's rifle, wrenching it from his hands before slashing at his chest twice, bringing down the Sword of Sanghelios.

"Let us go to the hangar and secure it for the Field Marshal," Grono said, swapping out his storm rifle for a Sword one on a higher battery. The Imperium officer nodded, bringing his fist up to his chest. 'Yendam returned the salute, turning to give orders to his Storm Sangheili.

As they sweeped through the corridors, bringing down whatever stray enemies they could find, Grono was contacted by Rach. Finally, he thought as he answered 'Iltuk. "Commander, have you located the hangar?"

"Yes, Shipmaster, I have done it, but we are under heavy fire! I recommend gathering more Imperium forces before assaulting the bay, because they have plenty of troops to spare! I shall report back soon!"

"I wish you luck, 'Iltuk. You'll need it in order to hold out." Grono turned to the Imperium and Covenant troops, still eager for more blood to spilled. "We shall scour some passageways to see what reinforcements we can round up, then go to the hangar and see what feeble resistance the Swords of Sanghelios can put up. May we slay our enemies with glory!"

Grono raised up his free hand, and as did his men too. They all cheered, voices reverberating throughout the battle-stricken corridors, lusting for more combat. This would definitely suffice for their upcoming battle. We have our morale, now we just need our strength. Grono lifted his storm rifle up to bear, and they started to march.


Holed up behind barriers in a hallway with Swords of Sanghelios closing in on either side, 'Yendam had been surprised to find that an Imperial lance had been holding out for quite some time. By the time he had shot his way through one of the two converging forces, there were only six out of the ten original Sangheili left. Due to burning through their ammo, they were forced to take up the storm rifles and carbines of the fallen Swords, so they could focus on dealing a critical blow to the other enemies beside them.

With the Swords now pinned down, Grono had had the Sangheili officers loyal to the Imperium order their troops to find a way to flank the enemy, while the Shipmaster and his Covenant men hunkered down to keep them occupied. Grono was now exchanging fire with just one of a score of Unggoy, having his Storm Sangheili pepper them with needlers when he overheated, and vice versa with them reloading. After depleting their power supplies and ammunition, the trio had resorted to using the weapons of fallen Imperium troopers, and had only managed to take out a pair of Sword Unggoy when the Imperium had found its way behind the Swords of Sanghelios.

The Imperial officers ordered their men to rain suppressive fire upon the enemies, laying waste to more Unggoy. "Now we shall take them to their graves!" shouted Grono as he and his Sangheili leapt over the barrier, trampling the remaining Unggoy. The only Sangheili opponent was ready however, and fired his carbine multiple times, hitting one of Storm Sangheili dead-on. His shields broke, and one round to the head was enough to put him down. Roaring at the loss of one of his men, Grono swiped aside the Sword soldier's weapon, using it to shatter his shield, before bashing it into the Sangheili's head. As the Sangheili fell to the ground, dead with a dent in his forehead, the Imperium watched with mixed expressions.

Grono whipped around to meet them. "Well, what are we waiting for? The time to storm the hangar bay is nigh!"

Still partially distraught, the Imperial troops only halfheartedly cheered, but were encouraged by Grono's surviving soldier. Travelling through the remaining twists and turns, they finally made it the the bay, where an intense firefight had broken out.

Rach and three Covenant Unggoy had constructed a makeshift trench out of storage crates and empty racks, and were holding out against scores of Swords of Sanghelios. The Commander turned to Grono and saluted, obviously delighted with the prospect of reinforcements. "We have lost two of our men, but the enemy has lost tenfold! With these troops, we have chance of taking the hangar bay!"

'Yendam returned the salute, and corrected this. "No, 'Iltuk. We shall take this position. We have the might of superior soldiers against these commonplace recruits."

'Iltuk nodded, and Grono turned to his forces, Covenant and Imperium alike. "Imperial officers, lead your troops on the left side, take the opportunity to eliminate any outlyers. My own troops shall come with me, and we shall strike at the heart of the opposition while they are focused on the Imperium of Clarity. Commander 'Iltuk, you shall stay back and eliminate key threats with your beam rifle. Take care not to hit any of our own."

The troops all acknowledged, and went to their respective positions. As the Imperial lances charged to the left side of the hangar, they let loose a line of plasma, scorching anything not quick enough to escape it. As they pushed past the first Unggoy line, they came face to face with Sword Sangheili, initiating a close-range combat. Meanwhile, Grono, his Unggoy, and his Storm Sangheili snuck along the shadows on the right side of the hangar. As they crept forward slowly, making progress by the meter, suddenly an enemy Sangheili strode over to their location, unaware of what hid in the shadows. As he edged closer, Grono readied his Storm Rifle in case the Sangheili would spring an alarm. Suddenly, a crack of plasma rang out, and the Sangheili fell to the floor, still as a log.

Looking over to their claimed edge of the hangar, Grono spied Rach holding his beam rifle, still dispersing heat from firing. Good. Rach is doing well. Grono motioned for his Covenant soldiers to keep moving up, they eventually made it, in a perfect flanking position around the the Swords of Sanghelios. Turning his gaze upon the main battle, Grono noted that Most of the Swords in that engagement were out of the fight, but the Imperium had also taken a heavy toll, losing half of their forces to enemy fire. Facing away from the tumult of light grey and scarlet red armor, Grono nodded to his men. They yelled in unison, no longer needing to be hidden.

They charged at the remaining Swords, bringing down two Sangheili as the Imperium attacked from in front. But it was not completely in their favor, however. An Unggoy Heavy squealed in agony as his lower legs were blown off, but his companions did not turn to help their fallen comrade, rather focusing on the task at hand as they were taught. Four Imperial Sangheili were taken out by a stray plasma grenade, leaving only a handful remaining. Knowing that the battle's climax was at hand, Grono bellowed a war cry deep from within his throat, slicing a Sangheili right in half with Varmint's Nail.

Another Sangheili grabbed him, but 'Yendam easily shrugged him off before turning around and slugging the Sangheili in the mandibles. He staggered backwards, only to be finished off by Grono's lances. the Shipmaster turned to block the energy sword of a Sword Sangheili Commander with his own, parrying his feeble attack before reposting, burning through his chestplate. The Commander growled and charged once again.

"You will never take this ship! As long as I live, it shall be so!"

Grono chuckled and parried once again, planting a foot on the Commander's chestplate and kicking him to the ground. "It is a blessing that you will not live past this moment then."

Before he could deliver the fatal blow however, another bolt thundered through the air, striking the Commander's head. He went limp, and Grono turned to see Rach coming over, putting his rifle over his back. "We have done it, Shipmaster!"

Grono nodded slowly, assessing their remaining soldiers. Two Unggoy, and six Sangheili, including Rach and himself. "Let us hope this number will suffice for keeping our grip tight on the area. And next time, do not steal what is rightfully mine to kill."

Rach absentmindedly acknowledged, setting down next to the dead Commander. "But you know how I am, Shipmaster. I hunt my prey, and I will take advantage of whatever opportunity that presents itself."

The Commander drew his hilt, and activated the blade, stunning the Imperium soldiers, as well as Grono. Grono cautiously stepped forward, wary of what was demanded of one that drew a weapon. "Commander 'Iltuk, you know very well that a drawn blade demands blood. You cannot simply put it away."

Rach nodded, slicing off a chunk of the Commander's armor and storing it in his pouch for later use to weld onto his harness. "I know that, Shipmaster 'Yendam, and I fully intend to fulfill that requirement," replied 'Iltuk, leaning down and slicing into the dead Commander's arm, drawing blood as promised. It was unorthodox, but Grono could not think of any thing that objected against it, so he would let it pass this time.

"Very well then. Men, take up defensive positions in the hangar, and make sure that Field Marshal 'Hendai makes it here safely in the case that he must, lest we lose our foothold on this vessel." The troops obeyed the command and hurried to defensive areas of key strategy, and took up their arms, ready for any attack that might befall them. It was time to wait for the Field Marshal's arrival.

UnggoyZealot

58: Stay Close to Me

LATE AFTERNOON // 29 AUGUST 2558 (D-D)

Location: "UNDER THE DOME," MONTAK COLONY

Merlin-D032 wearily kept his eye on the horizon, scanning for the subtle signs of aliens or the dusty wake of traversing land vehicles. Nothing. For almost the last hour, nothing. His palms, sweaty underneath his Spartan tech suit, gripped firmly to the handlebars of his turreted grenade launcher.

He eyed the aim-assistance feature on his helmet’s heads-up display and noted the weapon’s range dialed out to five hundred meters. Atop the lonely Mastodon APC on a lonely desert null, there were no targets. Only sand, rocks, and bluffs for miles. The only notable physical feature was the monstrous wheel tracks left by a Mammoth siege platform passing through the desert sands.

The Mammoth had disappeared forty-five minutes ago, hijacked by alien air assault elements, leaving the UNSC forces in disarray and many, many bodies to bury. From what Merlin was aware of, survey teams were still finding arms and legs slashed apart or burnt holes in cooked bodies from Covenant weapons. The Covenant force that attacked them had been ruthless and efficient.

Merlin wasn’t used to this kind of fighting. This much death sprawled out around him, and in such intensity over a short period of time. His armor, once a fresh matte-indigo shine had dulled from the buffeting sand and the dried, splattered alien and human blood that caked its exterior.

So, this was what a war truly looked like. The words of Commander Kyle-B115 came back to Merlin, one of the training instructors back on Argus V, something like, “You do not become a true Spartan until you’ve truly tasted war.”

Well, Merlin had his first taste of war and he was already sick of it. He would rather deal with a thousand Rio missions than this mess. He killed six Elites today alone. Fourteen Jackals. Twenty Grunts. He would have added a seventh Elite to that kill count if he hadn’t seen the Covenant air column come screaming down on his position.

That one Elite that got away still stood out to Merlin. In agitation, he had to squash a thought to squeeze the bridge of his nose given the helmet still locked securely to his skull. He didn't even notice the apparatus atop his head anymore, a scenario that wouldn't have been possible six months ago. In only a short few days, the armor had become akin to a second skin. He was becoming accustomed to his MJOLNIR armor with all this combat, becoming a part of him. The sensation surprised, intrigued and scared Merlin.

Was this what it felt like to be a Spartan? To live and breathe as if the armor was a part of his body? A question he once considered too taboo for his own mind was starting to become more prevalent by the second. What made a Spartan? Was it Merlin, or the armor?

His time spent lost in thought was interrupted by a jerk of his leg as someone yanked his foot from below. Merlin glanced down and spotted the unicorn-like helmet of Shizuko-D081 staring back at him. He was quick to ask, now familiarized with the girl’s no-nonsense demeanor. “What is it?”

“Get down here. We need to talk, the three of us, in private. Right now.”

Merlin nodded silently and slid out of his turret seat. Lowering his legs first through the bulkhead door at the top of the armored personnel carrier, he scrunched his bulky armor-body as small as he could and slipped effortlessly into the vehicle’s interior. A dull yellow hue engulfed the internal troop bay from the walled light panels. Andra was shaking, nervously, as she slid a grinding stone along one of her combat knives. The combat high still hadn’t worn off it seemed.

She glanced up at Merlin, minus her scavenged ODST helmet. It was off to the side, atop a nearby impact seat. Her blue eyes were unfocused, distant. She didn’t seem aware she switched from sharpening her blade to her armored fingers with the grindstone.

Merlin called out to her out of concern, reaching through the air almost to grip her shoulder. “Andra. Andra?”

She glanced at Merlin and bowed her head in spontaneous shame. Maybe she was flustered by her state of distraction. “…s-sorry.”

Merlin glanced to Shizuko who pulled off her own helmet, revealing her ebony-black hair and angry, squinting-brown eyes as she scanned her teammates. “Alright, let’s recount. We got slaughtered by that Imperium auxiliary group.”

Merlin and Andra nodded simultaneously as they avoided their teammates’ glare. This was the first time Shizuko had shown true, unfiltered emotion and it was anger. She was on fire now.

"Do you two know who was leading the attack?"

Merlin tilted his helmet inquisitively at Shizuko, not sure what she was talking about. Andra stiffened at the question but said nothing.

"Andra, you know who I'm talking about. You want to tell Merlin, or should I?"

Andra shook her head abruptly and attempted to bring her knees to her chest as if to hide but her armor's increased bulk gave her chair no room to hold her legs. She let them fall back to the floor of the troop carrier and simply refused to look at Merlin or Shizuko. Shizuko's eyes zoomed to Merlin's helmet.

"She nearly died, Merlin."

Merlin, not knowing how to take the statement, did the smart thing. "Huh?"

Shizuko closed her eyes and sighed in frustration before explaining the matter. "Do you remember Andra calling for help earlier, before I told her I was on the way?"

"Yeah..." Merlin responded, concern in his voice. He shifted from where he was awkwardly standing to wrap an arm around Andra's shoulder and sat down next to her. At the gesture, she simply leaned her head into Merlin's metal shoulder and stayed silent. Her hair-cap was removed so her messy brown mane was protruding into her eyes.

"Andra made contact with a rogue Spartan, the real short guy in ad hoc armor. Looked a bit like heavily-modified SPI. He leads the Elites that attacked Andra and pinned her down, outclassed her in close quarters in every way. They nearly executed her if I didn't run some of them over with this Mastradon."

Merlin could feel his blood boiling on the inside. A rogue Spartan. Even though much of his training as part of Delta Company was delegated to anti-Spartan combat theory, Merlin had never encountered a proper rogue on the battlefield. Andra and Shizuko had received the same training, so, to hear that Andra got outclassed was shocking. Infuriating.

"Do we know who it was?" Merlin asked edge in his voice like a primed spear.

"Simon-G294."

"The same one...?"

"The same one we studied at Camp Ambrose. The one that bombed Philadelphia."

"Bloody Hell..."

Merlin squeezed Andra's armored shoulder but she didn't respond, continuing to lean against her best friend's shoulder. He looked up at Shizuko and asked, "How do you know?"

"I'll pass you the combat footage later, we need to take off now. We're giving chase. Just trust me when I say, its definitely him."

"Wait, aren't we supposed to be handling security?"

"Not anymore we aren't. I let VIOLET-III handle command of this operation for too long. But they forget that they're not the only Headhunter here. We'll probably get in trouble later but right now, they can't be trusted. Your mentor, that Gamma girl, Amy-G094, she can't be trusted. She prioritized the killing of Simon over protecting Andra. I'd rather not deal with their bullshit. As I see it, it's better if we keep this inside the Delta Company family."

Shizuko began moving toward the driver's seat of the Mastradon, sliding the door separating the driver's seat from the main cabin open. "Sit tight, it might be a while before we catch up, if at all. But I'm not letting that fucker go. He's killed too many Spartans already, its time we returned the favor."

"We're going AWOL...we're not even putting this to a vote! Are you crazy?"

"Merlin. I don't know about you, but I saw Simon kill without remorse, dozens of Marines and soldiers from afar. He doesn't care about us, he doesn't care for his own species. He's a dangerous rogue asset that needs to be eliminated, and unlike the Gammas, we were trained specifically to kill him. Specifically, there's no one better for the job."

Merlin gulped, saying nothing at what Shizuko was concluding.

Andra shifted off Merlin's shoulder to look him in his eyes. Her blue pupils glared into Merlin's visor with a determination he hadn't seen in her in a very long time. It was vindication or something of that manner.

"Merlin. Let's just do it," Andra glanced away from her best friend and shook her head as if not entirely sure. She was still shivering in fact. "he ordered my execution by energy sword. I need to pay him back for that..."

She said it with such fire and determination, Merlin almost believed her. Her voice betrayed her resolve, sounding uncertain and almost fearful.

He almost shouted the two girls of his team were being impulsive but he held his tongue. He was feeling what they felt, admittingly. Ever since Shizuko said he nearly killed Andra. He imagined him putting a burst of gunfire square into the skull of a fishbowl helmet, the kind worn by SPARTAN-III commandoes, the kind of helmet Simon-G294 was known to wear.

"Fine. Let's do it. I'm with you guys."

Andra nodded in satisfaction silently then turned away from him to stare at her helmet. She didn't say much else for the rest of the trip ahead.

Merlin mumbled quiet to her, a warning out of fear for her own wellbeing. "Stay close to me. Please..."

Shizuko started up the engine of the Mastodon APC and pushed it into motion. It rolled down the sandy null and started to follow the sandy tracks left by the former UNSC Mammoth siege platform. The trail to Simon-G294.

It would be some time before anyone, Amy-G094 or Joshua-G029, noticed their Spartan compatriots had disappeared from their position.

Distant Tide: Hunter - Killer

59: Three Swords

1441 Hours August 29th, 2558

Questioner, Montak Orbit

Either the Swords of Sanghelios had been holding back when they dispatched their armies to Montak's surface, or ship security had been vastly improved since the end of the Human-Covenant War.

"Three more!" Orro 'Hendai yelled over the din of battle as he kicked a spasming corpse from the end of his sword.

Since the Blissful Solitude's boarding parties had breached the enemy flagship, Orro and his men had been forced to fight for every inch of ground as they fought their way towards the bridge. While the Field Marshal had expected resistance, they were not battling against lightly-armed crewmen and stripling warriors. Instead, the Swords had dozens of hardened veterans racing towards them almost immediately after their arrival. Orro's own force had lost eight in the first few minutes to a fusillade of heavy plasma fire, but had held firm as they followed their leader deeper into enemy territory.

As ever, Orro was first into the fray, leaping out of the tangle of duelling warriors towards the newcomers, who raised their own swords to challenge him. On open ground he may have fared poorly against such odds, but the narrow corridor forced Orro's attackers to remain in front of him. The first two moved as one, slashing and stabbing at him, but the old warrior stood his ground. They were young, he observed, and evidently eager to claim the glory for killing him. While quick and strong, he deflected their blows with ease, attempting to knock the pair off-guard while the third warrior stood impatiently at the back, waiting for a chance to strike at Orro too. Narrowing his eyes, Orro feinted to the left with a left-handed swipe that forced one foe backwards, allowing the other to deliver a thrust aimed at the Field Marshal's chest. He dodged with minimal effort, sidestepping the attack and allowing the swordsman's momentum to carry him into his grasp.

Grabbing the over-eager warrior's arm with his free hand, Orro yanked him sideways, and brought his own white blade horizontally through his body. The Sangheili's lower half slid to the ground. Taking advantage of the split-second of surprise in his other attacker's eyes, Orro swung the still-twitching warrior's upper half towards the other warrior, who recoiled, unwilling to simply slash the corpse of his friend in half. That respect cost him his life, as the venerable Field Marshal delivered a quick thrust through both his hearts that left him dead before he hit the floor. The third Sword was on Orro in an instant, hacking furiously at his defences while shouting bloody curses of vengeance. This one's fury proved to be a boon, as his unpredictable swings pressed Orro into a wall for a moment before he could deliver a proper counter-blow. He charged forward, locking blades with the youth before smashing into him with a crude shoulder barge, followed up by a strike meant to slash his chest open. Though winded, his opponent threw himself backward, earning only a shallow pair of scorch marks along his armour that briefly short-circuited his energy shields.

"Come then," Orro could feel his blood rising at the prospect of a talented opponent. "Give me a fight worth remembering."

The young fighter, breathing heavily, took a step forward and was immediately hit in the side of the head by a sizzling ball of green energy. He toppled over, his fried brain spewing smoke.

To Orro's right, a burly Unggoy stood atop a corpse, his pistol still venting excess heat from the overcharged round. Hunya waved at the Field Marshal, while behind him the members of Orro's personal guard stood at the ready, having wiped out yet another force sent to stop them.

"You have superb timing, Hunya," Orro chose not to call out his loyal equerry for depriving him of a proper fight. "Shall we press on?"

Orro's warriors gave a victorious shout, and joined their leader as they continued their journey into the heavy cruiser's upper half. The vessel had occasionally rocked as plasma fire struck it, though there had been no reports from the rest of his troops of hull breaches or damage to the Blissful Solitude, which had teleported in at such a distance that neither ship could bring its full arsenal to bear for fear of damaging itself. Currently, the pair were locked in a slow, circular dance above Montak, surrounded by vessels unwilling to fire. Though he feared that the Swords of Sanghelios and their UNSC allies would simply annihilate both ships were the Questioner to be taken, Orro also had confidence in the Imperium's own fleets, which were using the sudden disorder in their foe's battle lines to surge forward in an attempt to reach the Field Marshal's position. Only time would tell if they were successful.

"Orro," the red-clad Nagun limped up beside him, his armour splattered with blood. "I have news."

"Report then."

"Our mercenary friends have seen success in their mission. They say that a hangar bay has been secured, and that they will hold their ground there until we return.

Though he held those who fought solely for profit in low regard, Orro had given the rag-tag group a mission of some importance, but not one that would test their loyalty. Even with their boarding craft peppering one side of the cruiser, the small army under Orro's command would almost certainly be cut off or killed if they were forced to escape in them. As such, they planned to appropriate as many enemy transports as possible if they were forced to flee towards the Blissful Solitude. Any worthy Shipmaster could never allow such an important location to be captured, so it also acted as a way of funnelling enemy troops away from Orro's own warriors.

"We shall see if that Grono 'Yendam proves his worth, then."

Nagun grunted. "They will have to, old friend. Until you give the command, our fighters have orders to destroy anything that leaves these hangar bays."

"There's nothing like knowing you have your back to a wall to make you fight harder," Orro laughed as they approached a large set of doors. "Though we may be facing enemies in the same position."

Orro's guards took up position on both sides of the door, which had been sealed but not locked. With a nod from the Field Marshal, Nagun tapped a side panel, and it slid open. The room beyond was a sparse hall, with little decoration save for a few mats. The high-ceilinged roof and walls on one side appeared to be transparent, though in reality it was linked to a series of sensory devices along the outer hull that allowed onlookers to gaze off into space. Several Seraph fighters zipped overhead, pursued by a swarm of banshees.

"An observation chamber," remarked Nagun, disappointed. "I was expecting guards."

"Stay alert," Orro stepped inside, flanked by his bodyguards.

Judging by the line of soft mats stacked by one wall, the hall had likely been used by the ship's crew both for sparring and meditation. Compared to the rest of the ship they had explored, this place seemed eerily tranquil, which set Orro on edge. As he clasped the hilt of his sword, a voice spoke from across the room.

"Field Marshal Orro Hendai?"

From behind a pillar by the exit door, a Sangheili in golden armour emerged, both hands in the air. The warrior to Orro's left snapped up his rifle, only to have it smacked down by his commander.

"Don't shoot, he approaches us without a weapon," Orro scolded him before addressing the stranger. "I'm Orro 'Hendai. To whom do I speak?"

"I am Fleet Master Felo 'Ranak. You're on my ship."

Orro could feel the warriors around him bristle with anticipation, but he waved them down as he stepped forward. Were it not for his armour coloration, Orro might have mistaken him for a common soldier, wearing what amounted to a standard-issue combat harness from the days of the Covenant. Compared to Orro's ornate silver-blue suit and crested helmet, he seemed far too plain to lead a single vessel, let alone an entire fleet.

"I admire your bravery for facing us alone," Orro granted him a slight nod of respect. "But we have no orders to take you alive."

Felo took a step forward. "Nor to I expect to be taken, Field Marshal. Especially by one so well-regarded as the great Orro 'Hendai. The stories say that you were a warrior few could even hope to match."

"Great deeds spawn tales," Orro mirrored his movement. "Though I cannot say I have heard much of you, save for stories of one who does little but kill the Arbiter's enemies and speak with words that are not his own."

If Felo was bothered by this scathing remark, he did not show it. If anything, the gold-armoured Fleet Master seemed amused, as though he had heard these lines before.

"All the same, I'm quite honoured to meet you."

"Spare me the flattery, Felo 'Ranak. It will not save your life."

"Indeed it shall not," Felo slipped a device from his belt and held it aloft. "I've been tracking your progress since you arrived here, though it took some time to determine which boarding party was yours. We were forced to flush many of your men out of the ship and seal others off, but I fear that your numbers may prevail if not halted soon. That is why I sought you out myself."

"You wish to talk?"

"Of course not. You are not above an honourable duel, are you?"

Orro's mandibles twitched in amusement. Felo was clearly stalling for time by appealing to his love of battle, but he could not deny the enemy leader the chance of a fight. It would take a simple wave for his men to open fire on the Fleet Master, likely killing him before he could cross the room, but Orro would not waste an opportunity.

"Nagun, take everyone but Hunya and find another path towards the bridge."

The old Sangheili grimaced. "Orro-"

"Do as I command!" he barked, shoving his old friend towards the door. "If I fall, I fall."

Orro's personal guard quietly backed out of the room, some grumbling to themselves while others offered encouraging comments to their leader. Soon only he and Felo 'Ranak stood in the chamber, with Hunya crouched by the door. The Unggoy stowed his pistol and took out a small datapad, ready to record whatever transpired in here.

Confusion crossed Felo's face as he caught sight of the diminutive figure. "Who is this?"

"Do not mind my attendant," Orro waved him off. "Hunya is here to watch, nothing more."

"I do hope so. Our fight would be rather spoiled if I were shot in the middle of it."

Orro grunted, and looked back towards his friend. "Hunya, you are not to interfere under any circumstances! Should I die, you may either surrender yourself to the other side or retreat, nothing more."

"As you say," the Unggoy shrugged, "But try to win, Orro. For your story."

Dying in a duel is not a terrible way to end things, Orro thought as he eased himself into a fighting stance, bringing his sword arm back and thumbing the hilt's activator switch. Two white blades sprang forth with a gentle hiss. Not as good as a total victory, but a respectable thing nonetheless.

Across from him, Felo 'Ranak produced two hilts, lowered himself into a slight crouch, then activated them. One was disappointingly mundane; a blue-bladed weapon no different to any other issued by the military, while the other, an unstable-looking red-hued sword, crackled with energy.

"An impressive pair," Orro regarded his opponent's swords. "I take it they have a history? Names?"

"Rol," Felo held up the blue blade, then the red one. "and Sur. My blood brother's names. Yours?"

"Iruna. My mother's."

The Fleet Master had no reply to this, and simply nodded. The two Sangheili stood several metres apart, swords at the ready and waiting for the other to make a move. In the midst of a hundred battles raging across the Questioner, Orro felt that they were lucky to have the chance for such a fight. He would have even liked to talk some more with his enemy, were time not a factor.

In the end, Felo moved first.

Orro changed stance immediately as Felo sprang towards him, hacking and stabbing fiercely as he drove the Field Marshal back with each blow. Weathering through this initial barrage, Orro circled round, deflecting or dodging each attack as he formulated a way to strike back at Felo. The younger warrior had not only speed but sheer power on his side, becoming a maelstrom of whirling blows that most sword-trained Sangheili would stand little chance against. Orro now realised why Felo 'Ranak had risked facing him and his men alone: a hail of plasma fire would have done little to slow him down before he moved into close quarters and killed them all.

Just as Orro parried and blocked the attacks hurled at him, Felo adjusted his strategy as well. Simply overwhelming his foe with the speed and confusion of his twin-bladed fighting style was usually enough for regular troops, but it could not be maintained for long. Even Orro 'Hendai's classical style of swordsmanship, focusing on precise stabs and slashes, had been modified to a worrying degree. Attacks that years of experience taught him would be blocked with ease now carried enough power to unbalance him, and as the venerable warrior took the offensive, Felo found that he could barely fend off the his white blade with two of his own.

The duel had circled the observation chamber twice already, with each combatant unable to gain the upper hand. Long scorch marks blackened the floor around them as Felo slashed downwards, kicking up sparks in a futile attempt to distract Orro, whose excitement had been replaced with a state of deep concentration. Here, a single misstep could mean the end of either of them. He had judged the red sword as the more dangerous of the pair, owing to its increased energy output and volatility, but keeping up with it had become difficult. In addition to his attempts to force Orro into making a mistake, Felo was swapping swords every so often, sometimes changing mid-strike in an impressive display of speed and dexterity. Near-misses had become glancing blows, his energy shields crackling with every successive hit. Soon, he would land a hit that would end the battle. Orro had no intention of going down like that, and had been quietly watching Felo while his body fought for him. Eventually there would be an opening. There always was.

Now!

It was only for a fraction of a second, but that was more than enough time for Orro 'Hendai to react. Felo had drawn back by a few inches as his opponent recovered from a block, and tossed both swords into the opposite hands. Though his red blade reached his left, Orro darted forward with an upwards swipe that sliced clean through the other one's emitter, carving a smoking line through one of his gauntlets. In that same moment Felo delivered a stab that would have skewered both of Orro's hearts, were it not for the Field Marshal wrenching his entire body to one side and earning another deep scorch mark across his chestplate.

A second later, both halves of Felo's hilt hit the ground.

Orro backed off, rolling away and righting himself just in time to block a furious swing from Felo. Now armed only with his red sword, he could not rely on his usual techniques to win. Though he had hoped to eliminate that blade first, the opportunity had to be taken. However, Felo 'Ranak's skill with one sword proved to be just as impressive as he drove himself at Orro in an attempt to overpower him; a move the old warrior had seen time and time again. While the response usually involved a sidestep and a swift beheading, Felo was quick enough to avoid such a fate and blocked the blow by raising his guard at the last moment. The two locked blades, and for a few seconds their duel became a contest of sheer physical strength. As Felo grunted with effort, slowly pushing Orro back, his foe slipped his free arm around his guard, grabbed his arm, and threw him to one side.

Losing his balance for a moment, Felo's guard wavered long enough for Orro to disengage his blade, toss it into his right hand, and bring it down towards him. Only a last-second dodge from Felo avoided a blow that would have split his head in half, but he could not dodge a direct strike. Orro's blade bit down heavily through the Fleet Master's left shoulder, burning away at his golden armour and cutting deep into his flesh. He might have carved his way down towards Felo's hearts were it not for a desperate slash, which forced Orro to retract his sword, duck, and parry with a low swipe that cut halfway through his right leg.

Felo 'Ranak fell backwards with a pained cry, his body smoking from two dire wounds. Though he still clutched his red-bladed sword, there was nothing he could do now. Orro 'Hendai towered over him, panting slightly as he caught his breath. It had been a close fight - the most dangerous he had seen in a long time - but he had won.

"Speak your last, Felo 'Ranak," Orro raised his sword. "You have earned that much."

Felo did not speak for several seconds. Whether or not he was preparing his final words or seeking to meet Orro with silence was unknown, for a moment later the doors behind him slid open, and half a dozen bolts of green and blue energy raced towards the Field Marshal as the Swords of Sanghelios charged into the chamber.

"Cowards!" Orro roared, swatting a few bolts away before retreating after Hunya towards the nearest door. His last sight before leaving was of Felo 'Ranak, still holding his sword as his men helped him stand.

The first two Sangheili foolish enough to pursue Orro were dead in moments. As the second headless corpse toppled over, Orro fished out his communicator, still backing away alongside his Unggoy companion.

"Nagun!" he roared over the battlenet. "Where are you?!"

When his old friend replied, it was over the sounds of heavy fire. "Pushed back, Orro. Enemy reinforcements have arrived, and in far greater numbers thatn expected. Should we press on?"

If the shipboard security teams were not enough to hold back Orro's Legion, then it was likely that the rest of the Swords' fleet had sent transport craft filled with infantry to support their companions. If that was the case, then there was no point in persisting.

"Retreat to the hangar bay," he said with a sigh. "We will return to the Blissful Solitude and rejoin our fleet."

"I'll see you there, brother."

Nagun's connection cut out. While his Commander ensured that the survivors of their boarding forces were informed of Orro's decision, the Field Master broke into a brief run before realising that Hunya had no chance of keeping up with him. Ignoring the Unggoy's protests, he lifted him up onto his back and sprinted away, hoping that Grono 'Yendam's men had held their ground. As he ran, Orro then contacted his vessel's acting Shipmaster.

"T'Kol," he spoke the moment the connection came through. "How are you faring?"

"Not as well as we should be, Field Marshal. Our fleet has broken through enemy lines, but is merely creating a path for us to retreat. I fear that the Swords of Sanghelios may overwhelm us if we do not leave soon."

"And our boarding vessels?"

"All destroyed or inoperable. Our fighters did their best, but it seems that the humans joined the battle with their own smaller ships. We have ordered the rest to guard any ships exiting from the hangar our forces seized."

"Good. See to it that I survive the journey back, Shipmaster. I do not want you to face the task of explaining to the Imperial Admiral why a member of High Command was lost to fire from his own ships."

"We will guard you with our lives."

As he finished his conversation with T'Kol, Orro sighted a large group of silver-armoured warriors enter the corridor ahead of him, led by Nagun. A few levelled their weapons before realising who was coming their way, and more than a few couldn't help but stare at the sight of Field Marshal Orro Hendai with an Unggoy clinging to his back. A few barks from Nagun set them back on track, and soon the small crowd was racing down the corpse-strewn halls together, all seeking their only way off this ship.

Though the hangar bay was in terrible condition when they arrived, Orro was pleasantly surprised to see that most of the dropships were in excellent condition. Several entrances had been blocked with debris or makeshift barricades, and those that remained were sending in either retreating Imperial troops or were the sight of raging firefights between incoming enemy forces. Amidst it all, Orro sighted Grono 'Yendam and his group of warriors holding the line as ordered.

"Nagun, take that ship," he indicated the nearest Phantom. "I'll take one from the lower level. Hunya, go with him."

The Unggoy clambered down from Orro's back and scampered off after Nagun and his men, still holding his datapad. Even if he didn't make it out of here alive, Orro hoped that his friend would survive the battle in one piece. Drawing his sword once more, the Field Marshal clambered down to the lower level, carefully moving down a fallen pillar until he was directly above Grono and the others. A group of sword-wielding foes charged their position, and though most fell in moments a few broke through their line of fire, attempting to cut the mercenary band down. Orro leapt from his position, impaling one as he landed before wheeling round and beading another. Behind him, Grono kicked an enemy warrior back into their barricade and ran him through with a single well-placed thrust.

"Shipmaster!" Orro's mood was improving. "You have done well today."

Grono looked across the deck, littered with red-armoured corpses. "The Swords of Sanghelios bled heavily trying to take this place back, and all for naught. What of your mission?"

"We did not take the ship, though our foe has taken losses elsewhere that may turn the tide of battle."

"We are leaving, then?"

"Unless you'd like to face the thousands coming for us, yes. Do not worry, Shipmaster, your men have made quite the profit today. The Imperium of Clarity remembers its friends, after all."

That got him a surprisingly nasty look from Grono, who deactivated his sword as they walked towards the nearest Phantom. A group of Orro's soldiers had already boarded it, and greeted the Field Marshal with a cheer. Grono's men soon joined them, piling aboard before the Swords of Sanghelios could regroup and storm the hangar. As the Phantom's doors sealed and it rose up, the younger warrior tapped Orro on the shoulder.

"I believe you have mistaken us for common mercenaries, Orro 'Hendai. We were sent here at Jul 'Mdama's behest not for payment, but because we are loyal warriors, just as you are."

Orro paused, taking a moment to look over Grono's band of rag-tag warriors. Just as his own Legion often wore their own colours, perhaps this group also differed from their masters in their own way. They might be fools clinging to a dying cause, but their tenacity is commendable. In any case, it was clear that he had the wrong idea about Grono this whole time.

"Then I offer you my apologies, Grono 'Yendam," Orro inclined his head slightly. "All the same, you will be rewarded once this battle is won."

That is, if we win.

As Orro's Phantom joined the dozens of others piling into the Blissful Solitude's hangar bays, the carrier finally detached itself from its slow, spinning course beside the Questioner, speeding off towards friendly lines as the Swords of Sanghelios gave chase. With fire from three friendly fleets covering the flagship, it soon found itself back among friends, battered and badly-damaged. Field Marshal Orro 'Hendai's audacious maneuver had irreversibly shifted the battle lines above Montak, and had come with a heavy cost for both his fleet and their foes. Though both sides reorganised their ships in anticipation for another brutal assault, it was the actions of those on the planet below that would bring this battle to a definite conclusion.

Brodie-001: Here to help

60: Family

____ Hours August 29th, 2558

Soul Ascension, Montak Orbit

The Soul Ascension slipped through the rubble left in the battle’s wake. The naval engagement over Montak had not raged long, at least not by the usual standards of these battles, but a thin cordon of smashed hulls and ruined starships was already forming amidst the planet’s orbit. The Kru’desh flagship stole through this cordon, staying clear of the firestorm as its salvage teams worked to haul anything of value out of the small graveyard and into the hangar.

Diana oversaw these proceedings with only a vague interest. She devoted a mere fraction of processing power to guiding the Kru’desh salvage craft while the rest of her consciousness reached out to observe the battles raging through the Montak system—and beyond. The ocean of information—battle reports and troop movements, victory cries and death rattles, the whirling inferno of mundane destruction—was enough to overwhelm even the most advanced intelligence. The first time Diana had reached out like this, fully tapping her true potential, this ocean of knowledge had threatened to swallow her whole. She had that memory carefully saved, calling it forward at times like this so that she never forgot the terrifying wonder of the digital currents she now traversed with such ease.

The space battle over Montak was hers to read, yet the fighting on the planet itself was hidden from her by that irritating dome. Only a trickle of battle reports slipped through the network, giving her only a dim view of what was happening on the ground. Stray and his forces were somewhere down on that battlefield. They were quite possibly charging headlong into a vastly superior enemy force and Diana could do nothing to help them.

“Any contact with the boss?” Ro’nin asked as if sensing her thoughts. Diana focused one of the Ascension’s bridge cameras on the Kru’desh lieutenant, now slouched comfortably in the command chair. He was oddly perceptive, this ungovernable Sangheili. It made him useful and dangerous in equal measure. “

“They secured the crash site,” she replied, feeding her response directly into his helmet. “Stray had them regroup and push toward the refineries. They’re serious about turning back the enemy push.”

“Oddly aggressive of him. I half expected us to be moving to retrieve them by now.” Ro’nin shook his head and turned his attention back to the Soul Ascension’s salvage effort. “The Imperium must have gotten under his skin, as you humans say.”

“Or Shinsu ‘Refum. He has his own ways of manipulating people.” Diana considered Ro’nin curtly. “And I am not human.”

“Of course, of course.” Ro’nin nodded sagely. “Lead us down the divine path, oh holy oracle.”

Diana let the comment pass without further banter. In truth, she worried more about Shinsu ‘Refum than the enemy forces they now faced. This battle—this entire campaign—would pass. But ‘Refum was indelibly caught up in Diana’s own schemes and so far he’d proven far too difficult to control. And if he really was beginning to influence Stray…

But ‘Refum, too, would pass. The galaxy teetered on the brink of true change even as these last battles played themselves out. Diana intended to survive the coming cataclysm. Her enemies would not be so lucky.

But in the meantime…

Diana retracted her consciousness back into the Soul Ascension’s focus, pinging one particular hulk floating amidst the rubble. An Imperium battlecruiser, intact save for the plasma impact that had gutted it from helm to stern. “There we go. That should make a useful recovery.”

Ro’nin rose from the command chair to examine the find. “Yes. Another decoy. The boss will be pleased.”

He glanced down at Montak. “If he comes back.”

“He will come back. Stray knows what he’s doing.” Diana spoke with authority even as she reached within herself and wiped away her own treacherous doubts. Stray would return alive, in victory or defeat. She’d poured too much of herself into him for a battle like this to claim his life.


Shinsu found Stray on the Mammoth's command deck. He half expected to find the human gloating over his new toy or urging his warriors on to enjoy the plunder from the carcasses of slain UNSC troops. Instead Stray leaned against the command console, idly inspecting his own helmet as the Mammoth’s new Unggoy crew steered it on across the battlefield. As Shinsu drew closer he saw Stray run a finger down a fresh scar on the side of his helmet—the spot where an enemy sniper had just barely missed a killing shot.

“Your command of the legion was impressive,” Shinsu observed. He drew up beside Stray and folded his arms as he gazed out past the viewport at Montak’s dusty plains. “A three-pronged encirclement with air, infantry and mounted units. Even officers with years of command experience might have had difficulty with such a maneuver.”

Stray gave him a sidelong glance. “Praise? From you? You must’ve taken a hit back during the fighting.”

“A simple observation,” Shinsu replied evenly. “I suppose you Spartans had some level of command level training.”

Stray looked back down at his helmet. For once the human seemed pensive rather than seeking some barbed rejoinder. “Just theory. Theory and history. Not really much good when you’re training for small-unit action, but I guess they had to fill up the time somehow. But it’s not that hard when the warriors know their stuff. I just point them at the enemy and they do the rest.”

He rapped a knuckle on the command console, still bearing bloodstains from where Shinsu had decapitated its last driver when he stormed the command deck. “We outnumbered them three to one and we had air superiority. It doesn’t take a tactical genius to pull that off.”

“Modesty? Perhaps I am not the only one suffering from a blow. Perhaps that sniper hit you harder than you realized.” Shinsu looked down at Stray with mock sympathy. “You should have your wounds examined.”

“Oh look, now we’re bantering. I knew we’d be friends before too long.” Stray sneered, but his eyes told a different story. “I’m new to strategy and battle command. But I understand the basics. The rest is just keeping them under control and picking battles I know I can win.”

“A wise command strategy. But a good commander cannot always pick his battles. An overabundance of caution can be fatal on a battlefield like this.”

“I don’t—“ Stray began, then shot a look at the Unggoy crew and shook his head. “Keep us on course,” he ordered the driver, motioning for Shinsu to follow him out onto the Mammoth’s outer deck.

Wind lashed at them as they stood at the Mammoth’s fore, Shinsu standing confidently on the deck while Stray leaned against the railing. The Kru’desh forces stretched out on either side, Ghosts and Wraiths flanking the Mammoth while the Lich and Phantoms kept pace from the air. Smoke rose up over the horizon from the battle raging near the refineries, but the plains around the Kru’desh formation seemed clear. It appeared that the UNSC forces they had left scattered at the last battle sight were all the enemy had mustered in this region.

“I don’t have the luxury of getting a few defeats here and there,” Stray continued. He slid his helmet back on to protect his face against the wind. “I’m a human leading a legion of killers who were raised to hate humans. One wrong move, one show of weakness, and they’ll tear me apart.”

“You have managed this far, what with your promises of plunder and that false oracle of yours. Jul ‘Mdama trusts you more than he does many of his own kind. Far more than he should, as far as truth goes.”

“Truth,” Stray snorted. “You’re one to talk.”

The human was correct, but Shinsu wasn’t ready to admit as much to him just yet. There was a place for Stray and the Kru’desh in his own plans, one that led away from Jul ‘Mdama’s failing Covenant. But he still needed to know if Stray truly was an ally worth risking his own forces over. “It seems you missed your calling,” Shinsu noted, diverting the conversation. “You would have made a good officer in one of your academies. Or perhaps a politician. Your government lost much when they made you a Spartan.”

“You don’t say.” Stray turned his face to the wind, gazing off at the distant plumes of smoke. “I’d probably have wound up starving to death in an alley somewhere if they hadn’t picked me up. But what’s the point dreaming up possibilities? We’ve got a hard fight ahead.”

“Not exactly the overwhelming odds you say you prefer,” Shinsu agreed. “I hope you already have a plan for overcoming them.”

“Bits and pieces. They’ll come together when the time comes.” Stray jerked a thumb behind them, back towards the crash site battlefield. “But the UNSC will regroup. And they have five Spartans out there at least.”

“Five? Are you sure?”

“Yeah. The one I fought was grabbed by another in an APC. Amber tells me they had two more out on the flank, the ones who took a shot at me. And Tuka says he fought a fifth right before we arrived. They’ll be out for blood after a mess like that, especially now that they know I’m out here. I’ll need to rethink all of my strategies now that I know they’re out there.”

“I think you may be overestimating your own importance,” Shinsu cautioned. “The UNSC no doubt has more pressing priorities then hunting down a single battle commander.”

“The UNSC, maybe. But not them. Not the Spartans.” Stray turned back to Shinsu. "I didn't manage to kill them but I hit their pride in more ways than one. They'll come after me and we need to be prepared."

We. But Shinsu couldn't deny Stray his abilities now. They were at war now. He couldn't afford to play the aloof observer anymore. "You sound very sure of yourself."

"I know Spartans." Stray's voice was layered with contempt. "They play the quiet professional when it suits them, but take a hit at their pride, make them feel vulnerable, and they break like the most rigid hinge-head on 'Makhan's payroll."

He trailed off and glanced up at Shinsu. “The one Spartan almost killed Tuka, you know.”

“And the fate of one of your warriors should concern me why?” Shinsu had been expecting the challenge. It was only a matter of time before Stray probed that particular scar.

“He’s your brother, isn’t he? Why shouldn’t you care?’

“He made his choice to sever ties with me. I am simply honoring his wishes. Not that it is any concern of yours.”

“Fine. But he is all the family you’ve got left, from what I hear. Might want to take better care of it.”

For once Stray’s barb did find a mark. Shinsu’s skin prickled with indignation. “Watch your tongue. I make allowance for your substandard upbringing, but do not presume familiarity with me, Commander.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Besides, I have heard you Spartans consider each other to be something of a family. How does it feel to face them on the battlefield?”

Stray was quiet for several moments, but when he spoke again he didn’t seem angry. “One centimeter.”

“What?”

“They were one centimeter off from taking my head off.” Stray indicated the gash in his helmet. “They didn’t even hesitate. They didn’t even bother trying to help the one I was about to have killed. Whoever took that shot wanted me dead, bad. Family’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

They fell silent as the Kru'desh roared onwards, drawing ever closer to the reams of smoke promising the battle to come.

Actene: If This Is To End In Fire, Then We'll Burn Together

61

1431 Hours, 29 August 2558

UNSC Grand National, Montak Orbit

For what seemed like the fiftieth time that day, Commander Serena Atenza had developed a headache. Ever since joining up with the UNSC fleet late in transit over New Syracuse she felt as though she'd mostly managed to get in the way of the rest of the fleet; there were already several Paris-class frigates in the fleet, and the addition of her ship had seemed more of a hindrance than a benefit so far. She was tired of having to learn maneuvers that the rest of the fleet had already seemed to have extensively drilled on, and her attempts to raise awareness of the issue among the fleet's higher-ups seemed to fall on largely deaf ears.

A sudden notification appeared on her datapad; her Operations Chief, Master Gunnery Sergeant Stan Pedersen was requesting entry to the bridge, presumably with the report on her ship's complement of Marines. She accepted the request and the door slid open.

"Ma'am, you'll be happy to hear the battalion's at full fighting strength. All we're waiting on now is orders from the ground ops side of things and we'll be in the fight."

She nodded blankly. How long have I been awake now, 17 hours? she thought to herself.

"Our two Spartans are particularly eager to get in the fight; they've heard a rumor that they know a few of their old friends from boot on the planet and they're looking forward to a reunion."

She suddenly felt herself wake up. That's right, there are Spartans onboard! She'd almost forgotten - these fleet maneuvers were taking more out of her than she'd care to admit aloud.

"Thanks for the report, Pedersen. Dismissed." Pedersen quickly saluted and left the bridge. Commander Atenza turned to her communications officer. "Prepare a message to send to FLEETCOM: we have two Spartans onboard who are needed planetside and we're going to ask to go in-atmosphere to help provide ground support."

The communications officer turned in surprise, not sure what to say. "Prepare a message, ma'am?" he finally decided.

"Yes, and send it in about an hour," the reply came.

"Where are you going, ma'am?" the junior officer asked.

"To my quarters. Much as I like atmospheric fire support missions I'm not doing one after being awake for 17 hours, so I'm going to get a nap before we start." And with that she left the bridge, leaving him with his keyboard.

If at first you don't succeed, add more duct tape.Echowaffle8 Waffle

62: Assessment

1507 Hours, August 29th, 2558

UNSC Caspian, Montak Orbit


"Again."

The command deck of the UNSC Caspian shuddered slightly as its pair of MAC guns fired on the retreating carrier. The first shot went wide, but the second scored a glancing blow on the enemy vessel, gouging a chunk out of its upper decks as the slug ripped past its already-weakened shields. A cheer went up from some of the assembled officers, but Admiral Lin Zhi's expression did not change.

"Fire again," she addressed Lieutenant Finnegan, the nearest gunnery officer. "We aim a little lower and we might be able to gut their engines."

After a brief pause, Finnegan looked up at her and shook his head sadly. "We're outside our effective range, ma'am."

Zhi opened her mouth to repeat the order a little more forcibly, but relented. Since the battle over Montak had began, she'd grown more and more uneasy. The Imperium of Clarity's fleet, for all its size and firepower, had done little more than hold their positions above the colony world, seemingly content with a war of attrition against their foes. The sudden teleportation of that carrier - an enemy flagship, no less - into the midst of the Swords of Sanghelios' fleet had been their most aggressive move yet, and one so audacious that Zhi and many allied Sangheili commanders had initially been unsure of how to respond.

Materialising over a holotank to Zhi's left, the ship's AI spoke up. "Even with my targeting data, Admial, we'd likely miss."

"Thank you, Weatherby," she took a slow breath. "Disengage for now, then. We need to re-organise our battle lines."

The attack on the Questioner had proven to be an issue not only for the Swords, but for the UNSC fleet backing them up. The enemy carrier had been a prime target for Zhi's ships, and with a single order she could have directed enough firepower to tear it to smithereens, but it came with the risk of accidentally killing Fleet Master 'Ranak as well. If that happened, then the Swords might have turned on the UNSC, thinking that they had suddenly been betrayed by the human fleets. Having no intention of possibly starting an interspecies incident that could plunge mankind back into war against the Sangheili, Zhi held back and watched while the Swords scrambled to save their leader.

As expected, the result had been disastrous, with the Imperium's suddenly-aggressive fleets surging ahead and smashing apart the Swords once-sturdy defences. At first Zhi feared that they intended to lead a charge right towards her own ships, but thankfully it had been a ploy to cover the carrier's eventual disengagement. Unable to use any heavy weaponry for fear of hitting friendly ships, the UNSC had dispatched as many fighters as it could spare as the two warships circled each other, fending off the swarm of fighters that had been picking into the Questioner's outer hull like carrion-eaters on a corpse.

"Have we been able to raise Fleet Master 'Ranak?" Zhi said at last, smoothing out the cuffs of her uniform. "He hasn't contacted us since the carrier attacked."

"No, Admiral," Weatherby replied.

"And of course, the Swords haven't made any effort to contact us."

"Sadly not. If Felo 'Ranak has died, then they may be in real trouble."

That was a frightening possibility. While Zhi had never proclaimed to like the Sangheili and would certainly never forgive them for the atrocities of the Human-Covenant War, she had respected the Fleet Master's idealism and genuine desire for peace. If the Imperium of Clarity had successfully assassinated him, then his replacement might not be so receptive to cooperating with her.

"Keep trying," Zhi rose from her command chair. "Captain Ngirandi, I'll need a report on our losses. Our vanguard ships took a beating in that last attack."

As her subordinates went about their business, the doors to the bridge slid open and Vice Admiral Ryan Samson stepped inside, looking rather grim. Indicating that they speak privately, he moved to an unoccupied station and waited for Zhi to approach.

"I've got news from the ground," he brought up a datapad showing tactical readouts of Montak's surface. "We're making steady progress, even with that goddamn dome in the way, but casualties are a major issue."

"Who's in command down there?"

"Colonel Brand's been directing most of our troops from his FOB. While under heavy fire, I might add."

"Anyone else?"

"Well, there's Colonel Huxley, but he's deferring to Brand since his men are ONI. That aside, it looks like unit cohesion's starting to fall apart and there's a dozen officers all trying to either hold their ground or advance over what's quickly become a no-man's land alongside the Swords of Sanghelios. Putting it simply, it's a damn bloodbath."

"Shit," Zhi pinched the bridge of her nose. "What about those enemy spires?"

"Still operational, but from the report I've been given we're pushing to bring a couple down. There's Spartans on the ground making our lives a little easier, too, but it's the civilians I'm worried about."

"You and me both. Anything from Ranak's special forces team?"

"Nothing, aside from a message that they were on the ground. Interference from that energy dome hasn't helped with matters either, but until we get confirmation that they're either safe or dead we can't launch a direct strike on that refinery complex."

Zhi sighed. Ever since they'd set out from New Syracuse, she had been plagued with doubts over their effectiveness against the enemy. For all the thousands of troops accompanying the Sixth Fleet, there seemed to be a severe lack of senior officers, leading to communication problems from the moment their ground troops were deployed. Zhi could lead a fleet well enough, and had two excellent co-commanders in the form of Samson and Rear Admiral Hawkins, but there was little she could do for those on the planet right now aside from ordering more troops to assist them. If they were to gain orbital supremacy things would be very different, but with the Imperium holding its ground they were forced to continue slugging things out until one side budged.

"Dispatch a couple of our lighter vessels to the surface to provide support at a safe distance. A couple of frigates from our rear line should do it."

"Yes ma'am," Samson nodded. "I've taken the liberty of preparing several of my prowlers for groundside deployment as well, should the Swords' commando team fail, though it'll take time for a fighter escort to be ready."

"How are we doing on that front?"

"We've got plenty in reserve, but we lost a lot of good ships in our initial clash. That rescue operation on the Questioner took its toll as well, especially among the Air Force units we've been lent."

"Take a few of our secondary fighter units from the Third Battlegroup, then."

Samson saluted and departed at a brisk pace. Returning to the command station's main holotable, Zhi saw that the Swords of Sanghelios had reformed their primary battle line, augmenting the ships that had moved in to support the Questioner with two of their massive Carrack cruisers.

This is bizarre, she reflected as the Imperium's own warships converged to protect the carrier, sacrificing several of their number to intercept a volley of plasma torpedoes. None of this lines up with standard Covenant battle strategy, which means the Imperium's adopted an entirely new approach to space warfare or they're making things up as they go along.

In all her years fighting the Covenant, she had come to learn their strategies. While offensive formations were common and some were even grudgingly adopted by UNSC tacticians as the war dragged on, there was a synchronicity to the enemy fleet movements that few talented commanders could pull off. Even Zhi, who had once favoured aggressive arrowhead formations to maximise firepower while attacking, could not achieve more complex maneuvers with a fleet this size and relied on sub-commanders to operate effectively. As she watched entire cruiser lines drift back and forth, firing simultaneous volleys of plasma, she realised that she had severely misjudged the Imperium.

"It's not one fleet we're fighting," she breathed, her eyes darting over the tactical readout. "It's three at least."

Realising that only Weatherby had heard her, Zhi moved to the edge of her command station and called out to the nearest communications officer.

"Open up a COM channel with Rear Admiral Hawkins and all fleet sub-commanders."

A few moments later, the viewscreen to Zhi's left began to fill with faces as signals were established across the Sixth Fleet. The Admiral recognised most of them as her own subordinates - smart, capable officers who'd seen plenty of action against the Covenant - but there were a few she'd only met briefly while assigning roles before they left New Syracuse. Amidst them was Hawkins, looking a little shaken but sharp as ever.

"Admiral Zhi," he snapped to attention. "Never got a chance to say so earlier ma'am, but thanks for the fighter assist. Your flyboys did a great job covering our landing craft."

"I'll pass it along. Where's Captain Richter?"

Among the officers before her, Zhi couldn't see the commanding officer of the UNSC Harridan, one of the four formidable Orion-class assault carriers being used as heavy-hitters by the Sixth Fleet. As the others glanced off, no doubt checking their own readouts, Captain Ngirandi appeared at Zhi's side, holding a dataslate.

"Admiral," he said softly. "We lost the Harridan shortly before our final volley. From what we can tell, Captain Richter moved the ship ahead of the main battle line by Montak's third moon to support the Questioner and towards the Imperium's firing line. After the engines took a direct hit, they didn't have much of a chance. We did detect escape pods, but..."

Ngirandi trailed off, his eyes cast down to the datapad. Zhi glanced over and saw at least eight other ships listed beneath the Harridan as irreparably damaged or destroyed.

"He took quite a few with him," one of the officers said.

Another soon chimed in. "They were pressing hard on his position, Admiral. Most of his defensive line was gone by the time he moved out."

"That's enough," Zhi cut any further discussion off with a wave of her hand. "Vice Admiral Hawkins, move the Maya up to reinforce what's left of Richter's ships and take the rest under your direct command. At this rate, the Imperium's going to sit by and wear us down to the point where even if we do win, we'll have lost too much to continue. Regardless of whether or not the Swords of Sanghelios want us up front, we need to take the offensive."

"We'll still have to coordinate with them," said Hawkins. "If 'Ranak's out of the fight, we could spur their fleet into action alongside us and try to overwhelm them, but it'll be a costly fight."

"Not if we're smart. We've been hanging back here for fear of getting in the way of the Swords and they can't retreat, and fighting the Imperium up here has been like running into a brick wall due to their defensive formation. This is because we've been judging the enemy as a single, massed fleet. In reality, I think we're facing at least three smaller fleets, each coordinating movements to repel attacks while offloading troops to the planet."

"What about that carrier's attack?" Ngirandi asked. "They broke their line to rescue it and advanced on our own."

At this, the Caspian's AI cleared his throat from behind them; an unnecessary action, save for getting their attention. Zhi and the others turned their attention towards Weatherby, who twirled his moustache with a wry grin as the holotable reformed around him. When he felt that he had gotten a sufficient audience, he spoke.

"Having taken Admiral Zhi's words into account, I have analysed our foe's movement patterns and recognised not three fleets, but four: two for defence, one aggressive force around what I believe is the primary flagship, and one primarily concerned with troop deployment. While enemy cohesion - especially among the defensive fleets - is impressive, they are being led by different commanders, one of whom likely launched an attack on the Questioner at great personal risk."

As Weatherby addressed Zhi and her commanders, markers appeared over four likely flagships, with a crown materialising over the damaged carrier.

"What kind of fleet commander pulls a stunt like that?" Ngirandi shook his head.

"A Sangheili one, if you'll excuse my bluntness. One confident enough in his skills to attempt such an attack and high-ranked enough to not fear a reprisal. When the Imperium's ships broke ranks to charge at the Swords of Sanghelios, it was primarily their central force behind the defensive line that did so, causing some disruption to the other ships as they passed. If we wish to win this battle, I believe that strikes must be made against one or more of these flagships to throw the enemy into disarray."

Hawkins scratched his chin. "That's easier said than done, but worth a shot if we can get the Swords to work in tandem with us instead of floating up front while we cover the flanks."

"I agree," Zhi turned back to her commanders. "I'll transmit your formation orders shortly, so be prepared to advance. Good luck."

The Admiral was already at her holotable before the last of her subordinates disconnected, trying once again to open up a personal COM channel with the far-off Questioner. Before she could transmit the request, the console beeped loudly to signify an incoming transmission. Before her usual communications officer could identify who it was, Zhi patched it through and was greeted by the surprising sight of a badly-wounded Felo 'Ranak, half-slumped in his own command chair.

"Admiral Zhi," the Sangheili spoke slowly. "I was told you attempted to contact me, and beg for your forgiveness. I have been unconscious until very recently."

The Fleet Master no longer stood before her, straight-backed and proud. One of his shoulders and most of his chest was encased in a thick cocoon of bronze-coloured sheets and metallic clamps, as was his right leg. While the boarders had been driven off the Questioner, Felo had clearly not come out of it unscathed.

"Fleet Master, you're wounded," Zhi stated the obvious. "Will you be all right?"

"My injuries have been tended to, and will hold for now. What do you require of me?"

Realising that even one so eager to embrace change as Felo 'Ranak likely still felt a Sangheili warrior's deep sense of humiliation at being injured in the first place, Zhi dropped the topic.

"Considering how long this battle is dragging out, my subordinates and I are hoping to stage an offensive that will break this damn deadlock and push the Imperium away from Montak by targeting four enemy flagships. If you can assemble some of your heavy-hitters, then we might be able to take out enough of them to unbalance the enemy fleet and gain a major victory."

Felo huffed as he considered the idea, making Zhi wonder if he was under the influence of some kind of heavy painkiller. "I would dearly love to strike back against our foe, Admiral Zhi. I recently made the acquaintance of Field Marshal Orro 'Hendai, and am ashamed to say that he seems to have escaped my ship unscathed. However, we should consider what the Imperium may do to your civilians on Montak itself if their fleet is destroyed or made to retreat."

"If we win in orbit it usually means a groundside victory," Zhi said, speaking from experience fighting the Covenant. "But you do make a good point. Most of my ground forces are tied up fighting under that dome for now. What about that Special Operations team you sent in?"

"From their most recent report, they are within the refinery complex. It is a large place and they are few in number, but I will let you know when your people have been freed. If we are fortunate, then their mission will succeed just as our own attack does. It will take time, but I will assemble my ships and attack on your command."

Zhi frowned. "We're risking a lot of lives here, Fleet Master. You sure your men will pull through?"

"Rora 'Marak has never failed me when it truly mattered. Have faith, Admiral. He will succeed, I am sure of it."

Brodie-001: Here to help

63

1421 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Warthog Convoy en route to damaged Spire, Montak

Cain spun the gauss turret to face forward as the convoy of Warthogs raced towards their objective.

“I've got an interesting mission proposal for you.” Klayton spoke up, his voice slightly louder than the dull roar of the engines in the background. “How'd you like to work with Abzu 'Samakr and his band of warriors to take down a spire?”

Cain raised an eyebrow. “Ok, I'm liking this plan already. Details?”

“He's detected a damaged spire not too far from here, and its battlefield sensors are offline in order to make repairs. His Spectres and the Warthogs will cause a distraction while we will destroy the spire's anti-air emplacements. I'll have contact with some air assets that will light the spire up after we get clear.” He gave her a second to disseminate the information - but of course, could not leave out a slight sarcastic remark, “You know, nothing crazy.”

“I can handle that. I'm going to take a guess and say the AA guns are on top of the spire?” Cain replied.

“You are correct. There's a two-way gravity lift in the center of the spire that will be your way up to the top. However, you have to fight through two levels of hostiles to get to it.”

“I'm not worried about it. Has this been approved with the brass?”

“Already done. Had to move some permissions and authorizations around, nothing too hard. The convoy leader has already been redirected to the target. We should arrive in 7 and half minutes; I suggest you get ready to bail out of this Warthog when we get close.” Klayton curtly suggested.

Cain refocused her attention forward, noticing the familiar War-era spires in the distance drawing closer. A new indicator on her HUD highlighted one of the spires in red; the target was now less than a kilometer away. She could barely make out the small dots around the structure - no doubt the enemies that were protecting it. Cain also made out the shapes of a few Wraiths just as they moved into position and adjusted their mortars towards their newfound targets.

The convoy immediately spread out in anticipation of the mortar attack. Bright blue globs of plasma began to arc through the sky, and the convoy prepared to brace. Violent explosions shook the ground and sent dirt and debris into the air. The Warthogs raced forward, unharmed, as the barrage started again. Off to the right, Cain spotted the distant outlines of Covenant Spectres racing with them towards the objective.

The eruption of the ground around the Warthog briefly blinded Cain's view and her helmet's internal speakers dulled the sound of the explosions - which were a little too close for her comfort. When she was able to see seconds later, the convoy was barely underneath the spire, which easily towered multiple stories into the air. Cain let off her grip on the gauss turret’s controls and prepared to jump, utilizing the debris cloud as a screen to mask her actions. After a mental three second countdown, she leaped from the back of the vehicle. She hit the ground hard, but rolled with the fall to avoid injury. Without missing a beat, she recovered and began sprinting towards the tower, unlatching her BR55 from her back.

“Nice landing, though not necessarily graceful.” Klayton chimed in as she sprinted towards the side of the base of the spire.

Plasma rifle fire flew past her head as she hit the base. The few infantry troops assisting the Wraiths seemed to have been tipped off of her arrival. In the background, Warthogs and Spectres whizzed back and forth, using their combined strengths to distract and destroy the Wraiths and other hostiles around the spire. Cain peaked around the corner, spotting five Elites, a half dozen Grunts, and a few Jackals, some of which were still focused on the convoy. Cain rounded the corner, simultaneously aiming at the bigger of the targets, the Elites.

She squeezed the trigger in rapid succession, the bullets pinging off the shields of two Elite minors. They returned fire, but it wasn't enough to stop the Spartan as the bullets pierced their shields, then flesh. The two aliens slumped to the ground. Erratic plasma splashed off her shields, to which she responded with another three round burst towards the senders, a group of Grunts. Two of the short aliens fell before more plasma fired her way, and this time accompanied by a green glob from a fuel rod cannon.

Cain dove out of the way as the round slammed into the side of the spire, mere inches from where she just stood. Sparks and metal showered her as she got up and strafed right, firing towards the direction the plasma came from. After a few trigger pulls, the rest of the Grunts fell to the ground in bloody heaps.

Cain spotted the Fuel Rod cannon in the dead hands of the green-armored Unggoy Heavy that owned it. She sprinted towards the body, taking the fire from the two Elites that remained standing. Her shields held up as she placed her rifle on her back and scooped up the weapon mid-run, then using it as a bat to smash the head of the first Elite in. The last Elite reacted a second too quickly and tackled the Spartan to the ground, throwing the fuel rod from her hands. It activated its gauntlet blades just as Cain grabbed ahold of her sidearm from her hip. She fired off the entire magazine from the pistol just before the Elite could press the blade against her chest piece. Its shields failed and bullets wracked against the alien's chest, rendering it lifeless. Cain kicked the corpse off of her as she recovered, sliding a new magazine in her firearm before replacing it on her hip and recovering the Fuel Rod.

The Spartan ran towards the entrance to the spire, replacing the Fuel Rod for her rifle. Cain primed a grenade and tossed it into the entrance after noticing her radar blip with more enemy markers. After a muffled explosion, Cain moved in, rifle at the ready while stepping over the corpses of the newly deceased.

“I'm detecting three anti-air turrets up top, with a good compliment of troops guarding them. Should make quick work of them with that Fuel Rod. Good find, might I add.” Klayton commented as the Spartan ascended the ramp to the second floor and entered the gravity lift chamber.

She entered the room once she saw it was clear of enemies and stepped into the gravity lift. “I try sometimes.” She replied as the lift activated and she slowly ascended upwards.

Cain had a very wide view of the battlefield around her as she ascended the spire. Most of the field was covered in large pockets of rising smoke and columns of fire. Destroyed Human and Covenant vehicles, along with their occupants and escorts, were littered all around. Even from this vantage point, she couldn't tell who was winning. She hoped the UNSC and Swords were coming out on top.

“The ones up top don't know we're here yet. Expect that to change very shortly.” He recommended as she sped towards the top of the spire.

“Duly noted.” Cain took this time to swap a fresh magazine into her rifle as the lift began to slow. She had it aimed and at the ready before she exited the lift at the top. The two Grunts tasked with guarding the lift barely had enough time to investigate the noise before one had its neck snapped and the other’s skull collided with the butt of her rifle. She collected two plasma grenades off the dead Unggoy, priming one and sending it down the hallway.

After the grenade detonated and she heard a few muffled cries, Cain advanced through the hallway and upwards to the control center.

Plasma splashed off the walls as Cain back tracked to avoid the fire. She primed the second grenade and tossed it into the room, entering just as it exploded. The first Zealot went down easy, considering its shields took the brunt of the explosion. The second Zealot was just a bit quicker than its counterpart, and had avoided the grenade by hiding at the far side of the room. With a roar, it activated its Energy Sword and charged her. Cain got a few bullets in, but barely broke its shields as she dodged a quick slash from the Zealot. She stepped to the side as it recovered, using these few seconds to land just enough bullets to break its shields.

The Zealot spun around and lunged forward, slashing downwards all in the manner of a few seconds. Cain grabbed its wrist mid-swing and shattered it, using her other free hand to press the barrel of her BR55 against its chest and fired until the alien slumped to the ground.

With the room now empty of hostiles, Cain walked over to the control panel. She looked over the confusing myriad of controls for a few seconds, before her HUD highlighted a specific button to press. With it activated, she could hear some of the machinery in the tower power down. With a quick look outside, she noticed the Spire’s energy shielding fade and disappear.

“Thanks.” She muttered.

“Here to help.” Klayton replied smuggly.

Now onto the AA guns. She made her way down the ramp and out into the open. The lack of enemies on the outside was slightly concerning, but she figured she could destroy the turrets and disembark before more trouble came her way.

She grabbed the Fuel Rod off her back, replaced her BR, and spotted the first turret. The Unggoy operator was just becoming aware of her presence until it met its demise when the whole circular turret exploded into a brilliant ball of green and purple fire. Cain then advanced onto the second turret, this time the Elite operator had exited the turret and began firing its plasma pistol in her direction. A few bolts of plasma collided against her shields, but not enough to deter her from firing another volley at the enemy. The first explosion sent the turret of its base in a melted purple heap, and the Elite ducked to the ground, its shields flared and failed. Cain grabbed her sidearm with her free hand and finished it off before it could recover. She replaced the pistol on her hip and turned towards the last turret, whos operator was missing.

“Watch out!-” Klayton yelled into her ear, but even he was a split second too late.

Cain heard a muffled grumble behind her just as she was thrown into a wall with enough force for it to buckle. Her cry was cut short as she lost the air in her lungs and violently landed onto the ground. Her shielding system failed and her HUD whined as it reported newly updated medical data, but Cain ignored it and half hazardly rolled to the side, avoiding another blow from the Mgalekgolo. She got to her feet and grabbed her pistol, firing at the Hunter’s orange flesh as it lumbered towards her. A Fuel Rod shot flew past her and landed on the far side of the spire, coming from the second Hunter of the bonded pair.

“Bastards must’ve been hiding just where I couldn’t detect them.” Klayton muttered as Cain was quickly deciding how she was going to handle the situation. The two Hunters advanced towards her from both directions, and the only other way she could go was over the edge of the walkway and downward a few hundred meters.

“Screw this.” Cain sprinted towards the edge of the Spire and jumped. After sailing through the air for a minute, she activated the thrusters integrated into her armor, which helped slow her fall as the ground came up to meet her.

“Robot, you are clear to engage.” Klayton called over the COM.

CBrando89

64

1435 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Air Above the Montak Battlespace, Under the Dome


As she pulled away from her last strafing run towards the rest of the battle, Sasha checked her battle comms for any new targets that had come in when she had been busy helping out the Spartans over the past fifteen minutes. Spotting one message, a small status light blinking away to indicate it's presence, she pressed the play button, the recorded voice of an AI filtering in through her helmet's integrated headset, playing nothing more than a simple message, followed by a mark on her fighter's tacmap.

“Robot, you are clear to engage.”

Checking the map, Sasha grinned as she saw where the AI had marked for her to attack. Thumbing her local comms, she broke the news to the Broadsword flying just behind her and to her right.

“Loudmouth. Remember that Spire you damaged before having to pull out due to AA? Seems some Spartan handled the AA. We’re gonna go finish it off.” To her surprise, Loudmouth actually vocalized her response this time.

“Good. I’ve been waiting for revenge.”

With the target settled, Sasha sent the mark to Loudmouth’s tacmap as well and banked her Broadsword back towards the spire smoking in the distance, the damage from the initial assault still visible, despite the EMP bubble it produced still holding. Already having lost a few minutes to the air support for the Spartans, and expecting the Imperium to be working to replace the disabled AA power, she pushed her engines to full, pushing past the sound barrier, a trail of sonic booms following behind her and Loudmouth’s aircraft, the duo flying as high as they could over the battlefield as they moved in on their target.

A brief few minutes passed, the spire growing ever larger in front of the pair as they pulled back on the throttle, falling back under the sound barrier to approach for the final attack run. Thumbing her comms once more, taking in the extent of the damage to the spire as she did so, she formulated a plan.

“Loudmouth. We’ll try to take out the supports with our Medusa’s. Focus your fire on the middle of them and the base of the gravity lifts. Take as many passes as we need, but get out of here if they get AA back up. We aren’t any good shot down.”

Chuckling softly to herself as her wingman reverted back to simply responding with a flick of her green status light, Sasha clicked off her comms once again, switching her fire controls to the dogfighting missiles, a brief period of doubt that they would be powerful enough to take out the supports crossing her mind before she banished the thought as she crossed into range for the weapons. Switching off the generic target lock on the body of the Spire, she lined herself up manually with the structure and set her missiles to a small degree of spread. Steadying herself up with the base of the Spire, Sasha squeezed the trigger, unloading the first round of missiles from her Broadsword’s Medusa pods towards the blue beams of light extending up from the center of the enemy construct. As the last missile cleared the pod, she pulled off to reset for a second run and spotted Loudmouth doing the same, before her visor automatically darkened as a fireball erupted from where the missiles hit.

Circling around lazily, waiting for her fighter’s pods to reload, she examined the battlefield below and the damage they had caused. More and more smoke seemed to billow from the Spire below. Though she couldn’t quite tell if it was from the structure itself or merely the fires they had left behind, with the shield still up and the Spire still standing, it didn’t matter. Another pass was needed.

As she pulled herself into an approach vector for the base of the structure once more, the alert flashed across her HUD that her missiles had reloaded. Pushing forward for the Spire, ignoring the brief flashes of blue and green passing by her ship from small arms fire emanating from the few surviving Imperium forces that were in a position to respond to the ships, her finger slowly closed around the flight stick, resting on her trigger. Just as she was squeezing the trigger, the first few missiles slashing out from under her wings towards the spire, a flash of green shot up from the ground in front of her, impacting her ship and rocking the vessel as the cockpit filled with the sounds of alarms, notifying her of the hit, that her shields were down, that her right wing had sustained minor damages, and about half a dozen other things. Cursing under her breath at the lucky shot the hunter had managed to land, she steadied herself, fired off the last of her missile pods, and rolled to the side, gunning the afterburners away from the fight, flicking her comms on.

“Just got hit by a damn lucky hunter. Watch out. His buddy might be looking around for you.”

“No need, Robot. We’re done here.”

Pulling back on the throttle and banking to her left to give herself a view of the Spire, she saw what her wingman had meant, a slight grin crossing her face once more as, through the smoke of the missile impacts, she saw the flickering EMP shield and slowly buckling tower. As she lazily circled around, outside the range of the Hunter, Sasha noted that the Spire seemed to stand up, bent at an angle, for what felt like an eternity, before it buckled, a terrible screech of bending and breaking metal filling her cockpit a noticeable amount of time later as the Spire finally failed, the flickering shield vanishing completely for a good distance in both directions.

“Excellent work, Loudmouth. Let’s give the good news back to command.”

Met once more with a simple green flash from her wingman’s status light, Sasha switched over to the channel reserved to report in battlefield updates. “Command. This is Lieutenant Commander Zaytseva, Callsign: Robot. We’ve made quite the hole in the dome over the battlefield.”

Timothy Emeigh

65: Advance

1513 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Kru'desh Assault Force on approach to Central Mining Facilities, Montak

Tuka 's mandibles quivered, fighting back the urge to curl back in disgust. The stench of battle should have been left behind at the dusty crash site but instead it filled the Lich's interior in a constant reminder that the Kru'desh was far from safe. Wounded warriors packed the gunboat's deck, some standing if they were able and others confined to stretchers and stacked like crates against the hull. Even the command deck, usually reserved for officers and their aides, had been converted into a makeshift field hospital as the legion pressed its attack.

Casting about the battered survivors for familiar faces, Tuka was instead reminded just how many of his lance were dead back at the crash site. Ier and one of the Unggoy tended to a Sangheili from another section while Mika paced irritably amidst the wounded. Back on the battlefield, Tuka and Ier had forcibly dragged her away from her beloved Phantom after it became clear they would never get the dropship back in working order. She'd tried inserting herself in the Lich's cockpit but after the gunboat's crew angrily waved her off she'd been reduced to wandering aimlessly about the gunboat.

It was hard to remember that the Kru'desh was charging away from a smashing victory.

And headed towards a new one, if Stray's orders were to be believed. Tuka had little choice but to believe them. Believe and have faith that the battle would again go in their favor.

He forced himself to look away from his wounded comrades and back at the command display in front of him. The Kru'desh force-a full assault complement of ground forces and air support-closed in on the embattled refineries, angled to catch the Swords of Sanghelios on their flanks just as Stray had done with the humans attacking the crash site. It was rare for the legion to deploy in such heavy numbers and rarer still for Stray to lead the assault from the ground rather than attacking with the Lich. Perhaps the battle really had turned in the Imperium's favor.

Beside Tuka, Amber placed her helmet on the command console. The human stared intently down at the legion’s movements, face tight in an unreadable expression. Amber’s armor was coated in the same dust and blood that adorned Tuka and the rest of the warriors on the Lich. She had fought at their side at the crash site, never wavering even as the humans closed in for the kill. Any doubts Tuka might have had about her abilities were gone.

But he still didn’t know if he could trust her.

“The commander came for us,” Tuka said, keeping his voice low. “I told you he would.”

Amber cast her gaze in his direction. “He did. He saw the enemy focused on us and grabbed the chance to catch them from behind. No one would have passed that up.”

Tuka tightened his mandibles. “Why do you question him like this? He’s one of your own. He’s the only reason you’re still alive, in more ways than one.”

Amber’s lips quirked in a cold smile. “And if I kissed his ass the way you do, you’d all say I was conspiring with him. I know the way this game gets played.”

“Everyone on this Lich is alive because of him.” Tuka didn’t know why Amber’s doubts offended him so. Was it as she said, and he merely expected her to show more loyalty towards a fellow human? Or was it something else, something darker he saw in her doubting words and dismissive smile? “Past commanders of the Kru’desh would have left us all to die.”

“I’m not denying he saved us.” Amber turned back to the tactical display. “It’s just hard for me to see the great commander you worship when I knew what he was like when we were growing up. A vicious little loser. Watch someone get their face pounded into the mud enough and it doesn’t matter if you run into them at the head of a Covenant legion or not. You’ll always look hard and wonder if it isn’t really just that same vicious little loser you knew as a kid.”

“Careful,” Tuka warned. “Such words might cost you your head.”

Amber snorted. “He won’t kill me. Especially now that he knows there’s Spartans on his trail. This battle’s not over and he needs every weapon he can get.”

Her face turned pensive. “Besides,” she said, staring down at the holographic Mammoth surging ahead of the Kru’desh formation. “I have to know just how all this power turned that little loser into what he is now.”



“Look!” one of the warriors beside Stray shouted, pointing to lines of smoke on the horizon. “The enemy has reached the refinery! The Imperium’s line has broken!”

“Then we are just in time.” Shinsu turned away from the distant battle and strode back into the Mammoth’s interior. “We will catch the enemy from behind once again. The Imperium will have no choice but to acknowledge your prowess once you save their forces.”

“Fine.” Stray followed the Sangheili back inside. “Take two lances and secure those refineries. I’m taking the rest of the legion back east. We’ve got business to deal with.”

Shinsu shot him a dark look. “What business could possibly be more important than the refineries?” he demanded.

Stray folded his arms. “Those Spartans from before will be tailing us. I’ll catch them in an ambush with everything I’ve got and make sure they can’t cause any trouble. Once they’re dead, I’ll reinforce you at the refineries.”

“You stake too much on your own importance,” Shinsu snapped. “If you aren’t at the head of the warriors who save the refinery they’ll say you didn’t think the battle was important enough. It won’t mean anything if the Imperium’s leaders don’t place their faith in you.”

“Who cares about glory? The Spartans are the real threat here.”

“This is no time for ambushes. Even if they are following us they won’t reach the refineries in time to mean anything one way or the other.”

“The refineries?” Stray scoffed. “They don’t care about the refineries. It’s me they want dead. I won’t give them a chance to try anything. Here, maybe I’ll take one prisoner, let you grill them for intelligence. You’d like a chance to take a crack at a Spartan, wouldn’t you?”

“We have a chance to show the Imperium just what the Covenant—just what your warriors—are capable of.” Shinsu spoke deliberately, obviously trying to keep his temper in check. “Send your forces out into battle. We only need a small force to defend the refineries. But you will accompany me there. That is an order.”

It was Stray’s turn to check his temper. “I thought we had an agreement. I’m calling the shots here.”

“So you do. But I will not allow you to jeopardize our true mission by pursuing personal vendettas. Perhaps the Spartans pursue. Perhaps they do not. In the end it doesn’t matter. The dome is collapsing. The enemy will have air support soon. We need to strike now, before they consolidate the assault on the refineries. You can come with me to victory, or you can waste time slaughtering an enemy you’ve already beaten.”

Stray hesitated. The thought of the Spartans out there, lurking in wait and hungry for revenge, weighed on his mind. He needed to destroy them while he still had the upper hand. But he wasn’t just some desperate fugitive anymore. He was a battlefield commander. And Shinsu was right. He needed to look at the bigger picture.

“Do you really fear them so much?” Shinsu asked, more quietly this time.

“They’re Spartans,” Stray replied. “And I just humiliated them. Of course I’m afraid.”

He opened a com channel to the Lich. “Tuka, you there?”

“Here, commander,” the young warrior replied.

“You have command of the formation. Take our forces and hit the enemy flank. Make them bleed, draw the pressure off the refineries.”

“As you order. And what will you do?”

Stray glanced out at the smoky horizon. “I’ve got an appointment with the boys at the refinery. Keep your eyes peeled when you hit the flank. I want forces guarding the rear at all times. Don’t make the same mistake they did.”

He looked around at the warriors in the Mammoth: three full lances of Sangheili, all eager for battle. “Alright. Those Imperium snobs don’t think the Covenant is worth much in a fight. Let’s go save their asses.”

Actene: If This Is To End In Fire, Then We'll Burn Together

66: Don't Seek An Early Grave

LATE AFTERNOON // 29 AUGUST 2558 (D-D)

Location: CONTESTED REFINERIES, MONTAK COLONY

Merlin scanned the battlespace from the air with an MQ96 Support Drone. Staring down at the sand-blasted valley from ground vehicles racing toward the rear of a stalling battle in progress. The red-desert-colored armor belonging to the friendly Swords of Sanghelios forces were caught, unprepared, as Imperium forces, regrouped around them in a pincer motion.

The forces Merlin and his unit had been trailing finally made their move, striking at the rear of Sanghelio's finest warriors. Once the successful conquerors, pushing the bloodied Imperium rearguard into a rout and back toward the refineries, the Swords forces were now locked in place as weapons fire caught them unprotected on one side and set for a massacre on the other.

"Merlin. I can't see past all the sand they're throwing up. What does it look like?" Shizuko called from the driver's seat of their team's Mastodon armored personnel carrier.

"To put it simply. It's bad."

"Anything we can do to help?" Shizuko asked, watching the mini-dust storm dancing in front of her from the APC's cockpit. Parked atop a bluff along a cliff passage, the tan-colored vehicle was well camouflaged among the rocks and dried shrubbery that dotted the landscape. It took them over an hour simply to circle back around behind the mountainous hillside so they'd have better cover when overlooking the battlefield, it seemed now that the conflict was in full motion.

"Not with what we're currently packing. It's all flat terrain down there and all we brought was an APC, the Imperium units have anti-tank guns and an air complement as we discussed earlier. And Simon's crew still have our Mammoth, one shot from that and we'll be atomized."

"Hmm. What if we tried to join up with the Swords?"

"Open field. We'll be sitting ducks. Going out behind the Imperium rearguard is a no-go as well, I'm seeing security teams scattered around the depot sites."

Merlin set his drone to auto-survey and turned away from the computer console in front of him. Andra's head was resting in Merlin's lap, an armored gauntlet brought up to her face and rubbing it softly to easy the remaining hints of her headache-like concussion away.

Shizuko stepped out of the cockpit and joined her teammates in the Mastodon's personnel hold and sat down across from Merlin.

"So, here's where I turn to you two. I was on the ice before arriving here and I admit I was being a bit dodgy before with you two. I apologize. Right now, I need something to work with because we didn't come all this way for nothing, did we?"

Merlin gripped his chin in thought. The trio of Deltas were just three Spartans, and young, inexperienced ones even then, they didn't have the kind of reputation or experience to pull off "gods of the battlefield" like the legendary SPARTAN-IIs. They were just a trio of kids looking to right a serious wrong and eliminate a monster that deserved to die. But how could they get involved in the battlefield was so cut and dry. There were no means of entering the conflict without getting quickly blown up.

The Deltas could wait for an opening but the longer they did, the quicker the number of allies on the ground would be eliminated and the Spartans would be without support then. They had no aces in the hole...wait, the energy shield in this section of the battle space was down. Merlin had noticed during their transit that the energized shielding that turned the sky a shade of purple had come undone on their way to the refineries.

The sky was clear. If you can't make do with what you got, bring in a new factor and change the dimensions of engaging an enemy. They wouldn't see something like this coming.

"Get on the wideband and call on any UNSC assets we can get to our position, primarily air assets. We can create a frenzy by retaking the skies."

"How?"

"Satellite. Or at least a stalling measure. If we aim it just right, the SF support satellite we brought with us can serve as a heavy penetrating bomb. We'll take out the Mammoth, that will clean up any chance for the Imperium to immediately hit our backup."

"We have a satellite?"

"Yeah. Don't worry about it."

Andra lifted her hand from her skull and spoke, "Make sure to get our gear down before you launch. We need that stuff."

"Sounds like a plan." Merlin agreed.

Shizuko simply stood up and walked back to the APC's cockpit to get on her radio, Merlin went back to his computer console and switched his view from the surveillance drone to a target designator set on top of their APC, at this elevation, they could still see the battlespace below, if a little blurry from kicked-up sand.

Calling up a GPS map from the satellite and connecting its systems to the Mastodon, Merlin set up a rudimentary launch request order followed by a satellite self-destruct order aimed down onto the refinery area, aimed at a particularly large siege vehicle called a Mammoth...

"Fuck you, Simon. You can have my satellite." Merlin grinned while whispering toward the console. Andra looked up at Merlin slightly perplexed but in silence.

It took only a few seconds as roaring hisses from the skies above told Merlin his requisition pods had reached their designated targets in the foothills. A much louder roar came a minute later, and it roared loudly. He couldn't see it but a giant, burning cylinder of metal was falling straight toward Simon-G294's band of alien crazies, with love, from Merlin-D032.

Merlin had no intentions to die now, but he was more than willing to give an early grave to that rogue Spartan they were hunting. He felt his chest flutter in excitement at the thought of a giant fireball. He might be a Spartan but he was still a kid. And kids love explosions.

On the wide-band nearby, Shizuko's voice could be heard, "All stations, this is SPARTAN-D081, calling for backup on my position. The enemy forces are bearing down on Sword forces need assistance immediately. Hijacked Mammoth and heavy defenses surrounding refineries, repeat, need reinforcements promptly. Over. Warning, codeword: STOLEN GAUNTLET in play."

Distant Tide: Hunter - Killer

67

1515 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Liang-Dortmund Central Mining Complex, Montak


You know what? I hate this, I really do.

That was all that passed through Augustus Miller’s head and paced around the tiny employee quarters he had been assigned, though it was more of a holding cell at this point. He had almost done it, almost made it to the data center loaded with corporate data and geological surveys and all kinds of good shit big companies would pay lots of money for. Another shift or two and he would’ve had it; another day after that and he’d have been off this shit-heel of a planet.

It didn’t take long for that to get shot to Hell. When that smug looking son of a bitch walked in the common room and had his Elite bodyguards escort everyone back to their quarters, Miller was certain they’d found him out, that somehow they were smarter than all the suit-and-tie assholes from Liang-Dortmund who’d been running the place previously.

Then he heard the gunfire.

It had to be the UNSC, word must’ve somehow gotten out about what was happening here. Maybe Liang-Dortmund made some kind of appeal about all the poor workers taken hostage, not to mention all the precious resources that were no doubt crucial in rebuilding the UEG. They had probably dispatched a task force or battlegroup to retake the world from these Imperium assholes or whatever they were.

He had spent the past several hours pacing around, listening to the gunfire, and thinking of how he could still salvage his job here. He tried judging how far away the fighting seemed, though he couldn’t be certain. It sounded like it was getting closer, but he knew that it could have simply been blown in on the wind. Regardless of how close it was, it meant someone was coming to save them, though that came with its own set of problems. Whether the facility was occupied by a bunch of mercenaries or UNSC, he doubted either of them would let him conduct industrial espionage. He needed to get out of this room and get that data before the liberation force got here.

He looked over to the door and the small panel inlaid in the wall controlling the electronic lock. The guards had overrode the password he had set for it when he arrived, but it would be easy enough to bypass that and get it open. He had always been pretty decent with computers; whether using them, fixing them, or breaking them, he could be counted on doing a halfway alright job at it. The real problem came in the form of the two guards currently standing outside his room. Sure, he had enough guns and ammo in his jacket, which he was again thankful no one bothered checking, to take them both out, but he doubted that they were the only two around. A gunshot would no doubt bring every guard around down on him and he’d be dead before he even made it through the door.

Thankfully for Miller, he might not have to fight. He might’ve been a pretty shitty rebel, but that’s not to say he didn’t learn anything during his time in the URF’s intelligence service. He wasn’t a fighter, but he was more than observant enough to make up for it. During the past few hours of confinement, he had picked up on the names of one of the guards, a fairly muscular man named Dale. Miller approached the door and spoke as nonchalantly as he could.

“Excuse me, I thought I heard your buddy call you Dale earlier?”

Dale turned his head towards the door, “Yeah, what of it?”

“You got any beef with a Kig-Yar?”

That got his attention and he turned all the way around to face Miller, who noticed that Dale was at least a good four inches taller than him. When he spoke, Miller could catch the slight scent of whiskey on his breathe, likely mixed in with his canteen to dilute it so that it didn’t impair him too much, “What’s it to you?”

Miller continued the charade, “Oh, it’s just that back in the common room before they moved us all into our quarters, I heard a Kig-Yar talking some serious shit about a guy named Dale. Didn’t know if it was you but I figured I should ask anyway.”

Dale squinted his eyes, “He have a nasty scar going down his neck?”

Miller shrugged, “Maybe, I didn’t get too good a look at him. He seemed like to type to get set off real easy. Said he stole some whiskey from some idiot human.”

The other guard spoke up without looking over, “Sounds like Thex to me, man.”

Dale suddenly appeared very upset and Miller wondered if he had managed to get lucky and stumble upon some kind of prior rivalry between the two, “That motherfucking bird shit. This is the last time he gets to run his beak like that. We’ll see how much he squawks when I’m done with him. Can you hold down here while I’m gone?”

Before the other guard could respond, Dale took off down the corridor, presumably to go give a piece of his mind to a no-doubt soon-to-be-surprised Kig-Yar. His partner simply sighed, “No, go on, leave me here. I’ll be fine. Just don’t get your ass killed by a stupid chicken.”

As he saw Dale disappear down the hallway, Miller couldn’t help but grin and be thankful for his luck. Without wasting any more time, he made his way back to his bed and grabbed a sheet off the top before heading back to the wall panel next to the door. He got down on his knees and began working as quietly as possible, typing away at the access panel. It didn’t take long to get into the source code and isolate the new password, but as he was changing it he suddenly struck upon a brilliant idea. Once he got out of the room and took care of the other guard, he’d need some kind of distraction in order to buy time to get to the data center and grab the intel he needed.

Augustus poked through more subsystems in the panel and, after a minute, found that they were all connected to a central system. He assumed it was some kind of safety system in the event they needed to open every door in case of an emergency. Oh, they’re gonna have an emergency pretty soon, he thought to himself as he worked. He quickly compiled a very rudimentary override code that could be fed into the central system and sent to all the doors on the same system. As soon as he was certain it was in, he closed his eyes and activated it.

Outside, he heard dozens of doors hiss as they slid open, their occupants walking out and staring around in confusion. The lone guard left looked up in surprise and began barking at them to return to their rooms, grabbing for his handgun just in time for Miller’s door to slide open behind him. He only had a brief moment to react before Miller’s fist connected with his jaw, sending him back. Before he could recover, a swift kick to the man’s unmentionables dropped him to the ground and a boot to the head left him unconscious and bleeding on the floor. Fighting dirty was another skill he’d learned as a rebel that continued to prove useful.

He bent down and relieved the man of his weapon and spare ammunition. Looking over the weapon, he could see Stühhal Armory Model 224 marked on the gun’s slide. He had a few Stühhal’s in his collection of “liberated” firearms, but the Model 224 had just rolled off the lines within the past eighteen months and he had yet to acquire one for himself. Up until now, that is, he thought as he stuffed the spare magazines into one of the large internal pockets of his jacket.

He stood up and looked at all of the people leaving their quarters, generally looking lost and uncertain of what to do. Pushing forward with his plan, he stepped up to the group, “Hey, look. The UNSC’s gotta be getting pretty close to the facility. We should probably try and get out of here before the fighting reaches us. There should be a whole bunch of ships in the hangar that can get us away from the refineries and over to the UNSC. Let’s go.”

A woman he passingly recognized from the mines stepped up, “What about the other workers, we can’t leave them here, can we?”

Miller pointed to the panel by the door, “We don’t have to, that code I put in opened all the personnel doors across the facility. Pretty handy if I do say so myself.”

He smirked slightly but the woman simply raised an eyebrow, “You can do all that, but you’re busting your ass down here in a shitty mine?”

Fuck. Pride cometh before the fall as they say. Thankfully, I am a master of bullshit.

“What can I say, companies aren’t looking for as many tech guys right now. Physical stuff is way more in demand, gotta rebuild the Inner Colonies somehow, right?”

His could hear his heart thumping in his chest, one misstep in this critical junction could get a lot of people hurt or killed, and completely sink his chances at getting out of here, data or not. Thankfully, her expression softened a bit and she nodded, “Yeah, that makes sense. I’m sure the doors between us and the hangar will be locked down too, you can get us through those?”

He nodded and took a breath, surprised that he’d been holding it, “Shouldn’t be too hard. Hopefully we don’t run into too many guards since the UNSC is getting so close, but we should move now just in case.”

The woman and several others nodded in agreement and they all began moving towards the door leading from the living quarters to the main section of the facility. Just as the woman had predicted, it was still locked tight. He went down to a knee and began typing away on the screen. This time, the encryptions and security were noticeably tighter than those of the rooms themselves, but within a few minutes he was in and quickly activated the release, allowing the door to slide open and the mass of people to surge outwards.

This was his chance, and as the crowd moved forward he began working on a way to slip away from them. As they moved through the mess hall, he came up with an idea and couldn’t help but smile at his own cleverness.

“Hey, hey wait.”

The group came to a stop and looked at him, one man spoke up, “What are we waiting for?”

Miller gestured around the room and the nearby corridors, which were all empty save for them, “Have you all seen anyone else out here yet? My override must’ve only worked on our door, the others are probably still trapped in their living areas.”

The woman from before called out, “Aw shit, what do we do for them? We don’t have enough time to go around and open all of their doors one at a time and still make it to the hangar, right?”

Miller shook his head, “Probably not, but I’ve got an idea. If I can get to the control room, where all the servers and computers and shit are located, I can probably find a way to open every door at once, including the hangar doors.”

A smile formed on her face, “Great idea, let’s get going!”

He shook his head again, “No no, bad idea. I should head there alone, it’s likely still guarded and I’ve got a better chance of getting in if I’m by myself.”

“If there are still guards, how do you plan on getting past them?”

He held up the handgun he looted from the guard earlier, “If a firefight breaks out, I don’t want a whole bunch of people getting stuck in the crossfire. You all should keep making your way to the hangar. If you run into any of the other workers, let them know.”

He technically wasn’t lying. While it was true that he didn’t want any of these people getting hurt or killed, it served the much more practical purpose of ensuring that he wasn’t followed and could hopefully mine the servers in peace. Without giving them much chance to retort, Miller took off in a jog down the hall.


He stopped just before the corner and slowly inched up to it, taking the smallest peek around that he could. He had spent most of his free time familiarizing himself with the layout of the main facility, especially the best paths to the control center, and sure enough, there it was – along with four guards, two humans and a pair of diminutive Grunts.

That wasn’t ideal. Though the war was filled with stories of the tiny aliens being massacred in their dozens or tucking tail and fleeing, he was just a single man with a gun. The Grunts were almost as tall as the humans they stood next to, and both of them were packing the strange curved contraption he recognized as a plasma pistol. Though the bullets fired from the humans’ weapons traveled much faster than the almost sluggish plasma bolts, even a near miss could give him serious burns and a hit, even a glancing one, would boil his internal organs and either send him into shock or kill him outright, and that wasn’t a risk he felt was worth taking. Prioritizing the Grunts first, he ducked back behind the wall and took a deep breath. He would’ve checked his pistol’s ammo, but he was terrified the noise would alert the guards, so he just had to hope it was enough to at least kill those Grunts.

After one more moment of hesitation, he crept back up to the corner and slowly pointed the gun around the bend, taking careful aim at the first Grunt’s tiny head. It looked over to the corner and its eyes went wide just before he pulled the trigger, splattering its brains and a shower of blue blood over its orange methane pack and the wall behind it. The two humans quickly moved to take cover in the control center, allowing Miller to take the time and fire at the second Grunt. This time, the first round hit low and smacked into its orange body armor, fracturing it and sending the Grunt stumbling backwards. He pumped another two rounds into it, causing it to fall to the ground, dead. Luminescent blue blood seeped from the open chest wounds and onto the clean floor.

He ducked back behind the corner just as the first shots of return fire echoed out, smacking into the wall just inches from his face. He blind fired just once before the gun clicked, signalling he was out of ammo. He quickly dropped the empty magazine and reached into one of his jacket’s pockets, pulling out a fresh one and sliding it in. Once again, he stuck his arm around the corner and fired where he thought the guards would be, though the continued fire directed at him made it fairly clear he wasn’t hitting anything.

As his second magazine ran dry, he didn’t bother reloading. Instead, he stood behind the wall while the bullets chipped away at it, trying to think of something. Maybe he’d get lucky and they’d accidentally burn through their ammo shooting at a wall, doubtful, but he could hope. As he stood there, he started thinking and he realized that he was getting tired of always getting caught up in someone else’s bullshit. Maybe it was time for him to retire, this job certainly had the potential to net him enough credits. Maybe move to Earth, somewhere in the tropics. Tahiti sounded nice, though he wasn’t entirely certain what he’d do there. Perhaps take up farming? What do they even farm on Tahiti? Mangoes, probably.

Unfortunately for him, he likely wouldn’t have that luxury as a barrel was shoved hard against his head and a deep voice growled out at him, “Hey there, buddy.”

“Hey Dale, how’d that thing go with what’s his name… Thex?”

“Oh, they worked out just fine. We’re real close friends now, me and him.”

“That’s good to hear, I’ve always been of the opinion it’s better to be friends than enemies, right?”

“Sure, which is why you’re gonna drop that gun of yours. Just to show me how good of friends we are.”

Miller sighed and placed the gun on the floor and kicked it away. Dale simply called out, “Hey, it’s me, Dale! You can stop shooting, I got the asshole.”

He could only mutter as the shooting stopped and he was shoved into the open with Dale right behind him, “That’s not a very friendly thing to say…”

The other two stopped firing and cautiously stepped outside and into the corridor, weapons still trained on Miller. One of them looked down at the dead Grunts and sighed, “Fuck man, someone better call Thex, these two were his.”

The other one looked over, “Men or dinner?”

“Haha, very fuckin’ funny. Just call him.”

Dale’s mouth twisted into a wicked smirk, “Don’t bother. Unless Jackals can talk with no head.”

Miller looked back at Dale, “Jesus Christ man, do you even know what the word friendship means?”

This was met with a swift blow to the back of his head, “I know when to keep my fucking mouth shut, something you should pick up on. If you’re alive after this.”

Miller held himself against the wall to keep from falling over, stopping for a brief moment as if he had noticed something, before turning back to Dale and the other two guards, “You’re probably right, I do tend to run my mouth off. I’ve always been told I’m pretty distracting, but I do have one redeeming factor. I have great hearing.”

Before they could react, he threw himself to the ground, just in time to hear the warbling noise of an energy weapon activating. He heard a gasp and looked up to see Dale impaled on a bright blue, almost white, blade of plasma, held by a shimmering form easily seven feet tall. The other two guards raised their weapons too late. Two blue globs shot out from nowhere and struck them in their chests, dropping them to the ground and killing them instantly. Dale reached up to his chest in vain before sliding off the blade and to the floor, twin holes burned neatly through his torso.

A second later, the shimmering forms rapidly became more opaque, revealing several fully armored Sangheili warriors standing above him. He looked up at them in a mixture of awe and terror. The only thought to go through his mind was maybe mango farming wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Lieutenant Davis

68

1453 Hours, August 29th, 2558 (Military Calendar)/

1km from damaged Shield Spire, Montak

The blast of a plasma mortar losing cohesion as it struck the nearby earth shook Abzu’s Spectre, forcing him to claw at silken pillows to steady himself.

“Retreat, I say disengage!” He shouted into the handheld com, struggling to hear himself over the din of plasma cannons and human projectile weapons. “The demon’s task is finished, we serve no purpose dying here!”

On the holotable with him in the Spectre’s passenger compartment, microprojections of the other surviving Spectres wheeled around between Warthogs in green and heavy-set Wraiths in red to chase the avatar of Abzu’s own vehicle. Of the ten his fighters had set out with, only half a dozen remained.

“Lead us out, Zenim!” he called forward, and the bard only nodded from his place at the helm. The Spectre’s engine whine grew, and inertia pulled Abzu against the plush bench. With survival in the driver’s hands, the Kaidon relaxed and allowed himself to be pulled back into the seat.

Abzu’s battle had started poorly; the Wraiths dispatched by the tower to intercept him had coordinated fire from range, laying down a pattern of fire which forced his Spectres down anticipated paths. He’d spurred them to closing fast by boosting their engines, but the Imperium tanks had claimed two of his gravsleds before they entered close range.

What followed had been a mess, but it was the best Abzu could expect. As Spectres banked and spun to give angles to their mounted guns on the tanks’ unprotected flanks, the Wraith formation collapsed as each turned to protect itself. At such range, the tanks couldn’t bring their mortars to bear fast enough, but the two kills Abzu’s squadron claimed were traded for two more Spectres lost to the Wraiths’ anti-personnel turrets.

Before numbers could decide the free-for-all, however, the human cavalry finally caught up. Their wheeled gunboats made up the only intact formation left, and coordinated machine gun fire swiftly tore through the tanks caught unprepared. The Imperium Tankmaster tried to mobilize against the more potent threat—leaving Abzu’s remaining troops free to pick at them at will.

This was where Abzu’s warriors shone brightest; they were not the members of a military placed under his command, but a retinue of self-made warriors, each of whom had found their way into his service—not a coherent unit, but dozens of rounded individuals with their own strengths to employ. ‘Tevlam and Kuri had spent their youths with racing gravsleds, and now dared weave through gaps barely wide enough for their Spectres to give mercenary gunners like ‘Basruuhn shots into unarmored plasma drives. ‘Koritsch had even leapt from his transport to drive an Energy Sword through the heart of an unprepared Wraith gunner.

Coordination, by then, was an afterthought. With his microprojector fed by sensors mounted on the Spectres themselves, the best Abzu could do was point out targets of opportunity in his composite overview of the maelstrom of battle. Their diversion was already a success—now they’d just had to survive maintaining it. When the Spartan’s report of a mission accomplished finally came, Abzu had long started worrying about the possibility of Imperium reinforcements.

The weight of that fear was pulled away by acceleration, left behind as the Spectres boosted free of the melee. As the transport stabilized on its new course, Abzu twisted to gaze through a small, high window aft. He recoiled almost immediately as tiny plasma bolts burst across the vehicle’s hull, parting fire from one of the Wraiths’ turrets. But in a moment, they were out of range, and Abzu peered up again.

Air swirling in the Spectres’ wake flung dust from its rest on Montak’s savannah where the vehicles hovered past. Through the haze, Abzu could still make out the column of Warthogs tearing off in the other direction at the heads of their own billowing tunnels of earth. They had also safely disengaged and were now likely off to save Cain the trouble of walking back to secure territory.

Looming overhead, the spire’s purple shadow cast itself over the violet glow of the shield’s perpetual dusk—less imposing now with its defensive guns empty of threat. As the Spectres fled over long minutes, Abzu kept his eyes fixed on the distant observation disk atop its stem, waiting. At last, the thunderous scream of supersonic engines bellowed overhead, and a pair of dark UNSC craft streaked across the rippling sky.

The shadows met as they slipped around the tower’s far side, and emerged again while fireballs blossomed from the spire’s unseen base, tall enough nearly to reach the observation disk. The aircraft peeled off, leaving the spire tilted uncertainly just long enough to worry Abzu before collapsing altogether, sinking to the ground with a crash that reverberated out to them a moment later. Without the tower’s projectors, the barrier overhead flickered and collapsed, disintegrating to reveal the silvery sheen of Montak’s overcast, but real, sky beyond.

Abzu clenched and shook his tetradactyl fist for joy. Now, nothing stopped the Swords and UNSC fleets above from dispatching reinforcements to pounce on the forces encircling Fol. If the human intermediary who contacted him had done well, Abzu would never be credited for his part, of course, but that was hardly the point. The Imperium’s trap, clever as it’d been, had been foiled with combined human and Sangheili might. His clan’s elder council on Sangheilios could have only begrudged success with such stipulation, and the thought pleased Abzu to no end.

“Zenim,” he called as he turned forward and straightened the hem of his robe, “steer us back to rejoin the human formation! We will come to General ‘Taram’s aid as one!”

“That may be difficult, Excellency,” Zenim cautioned, hands firm around the Spectre’s controls. “Imperium cavalry are about to stand between us.”

Abzu glanced to his projector; it showed nothing outside the range between his Spectres. Setting it aside, he clambered forward to stand awkwardly in the cramped entry to the cab. “Show me,” he said, taking a glass-lensed magnification scope when Zenim offered it.

Following Zenim’s indication, Abzu trained the scope on a distant ridge of crumbling stone and adjusted until the lens was no longer blurred in his right eye. Sure enough, gliding down the piled scree at its base were a swarm of dust trails. At their head were, to his intrigue, a mix of rebuilt wheeled vehicles and battle-scarred gravsleds alike, with Jiralhanae Choppers at the forefront. The indistinct shadows of dozens more war machines trailed them in the dust; one of the largest seemed partially shaped like a Shadow, but moved much faster than such a heavy personnel transport should’ve been capable of.

What were these, Abzu wondered. Fruits of the Imperium’s own inclusion of humanity, integrating their soldiers into longstanding Covenant formations? Or perhaps there was a more base explanation.

Abzu retracted the scope as his mandibles tightened grimly. “They move to pursue the humans.”

“We can give chase ourselves,” Zenim immediately suggested. “Bloody their noses, and the Jira’ul won’t dare refuse our invitation.”

The kaidon shrugged dismissively. “Your courage does you credit, minstrel, but Jiralhanae are better huntsmen than that. We have a quarter of their number. Such a desperate diversion would only confirm they have the right scent.”

He folded his arms to ponder, propping his snout in his palm as he had back at camp. If the enemy followed the Warthog column, they would eliminate the Spartan’s means of exfiltration, and perhaps find Cain herself—a warrior capable of disarming an entire Shield Spire alone could not be lost so easily. Soon, if not already, the enemy would know his small formation had spotted them. His only chance of dissuading them from their course would be his reaction.

“Adjust heading,” Abzu commanded, raising an arm to guide, “take us away from the foe, sharp angle. Thread us between those bluffs. Have the other Spectres encircle us in a defensive pattern.”

“Answering, Excellency.” Zenim responded, coming about so sharply without slowing that Abzu had to grip the streamlined rollcage. With the five other Spectres moving in around them, Abzu ducked back into his enclosure to again observe the back window.

For a minute, spotting the enemy’s formation was difficult, peering between the sandy wakes of the two Spectres which came up behind to flank the rear of Abzu’s transport. But engaging the magnification scope again, he quickly spotted the lead vehicle in the mismatched group swinging around to come after them.

Abzu breathed a sigh of relief; his message had gotten through. Without so much as seeing the enemy commander, Abzu had communicated two false ideas: that he had something more to gain by escaping than rushing into pitched battle to defend his allies, squandering an easy chance to ingratiate himself in the oh-so-lauded codes of Sangheili honor; and that by arranging his units equidistant around himself, he was not expecting the force behind him to pursue. A most tempting target, by any measure.

Of course, this strategy’s defining flaw was it left Abzu pursued by a force outclassing his.

Despite the Spectres’ boost drives, the enemy’s mixed formation inevitably meant some within the group would be able to overtake them, and before long Abzu could make out the teardrop hoods of Ghosts without the magnification scope.

“They have extended too eagerly,” Abzu observed as he keyed the handheld com. “Combine your fire. Do not drive them off, kill what you can while they lack support.”

The turrets on the rear transports, already swiveled face behind, alighted with rapid-fire droplets of blue fire. Their arcs converged on the lead Ghost, melting patches of the teardrop hull which gave way and exposed its engine. Another moment, and blue flame shot from under the gravsled’s hood, its burned-out hulk sailing to the ground and sinking into the distance as the convoy shot on.

But no sooner had it disappeared than the flanged steel prow of a Jiralhanae Chopper charged up to take its place. Autocannons to either side of the massive central wheels alternated coughs which pelted their target with explosive charges.

Shells slammed into one of the rear Spectres, throwing shrapnel into its boost drive. Juri’s vehicle exploded, the gunner and operator all but incinerated as it was thrown into the air. The warriors riding on its wings were thrown clear, lost in the dust wakes—where pursuing craft ran over moments later.

Abzu’s vassals wouldn’t last long staying this course. A gamble had to be made.

He keyed his com again. “All craft. Turn thirty degrees west and maintain that heading until you reach safe haven. Join whoever commands the effort to relieve General ‘Taram.”

Bhasruun’s deep growl punctuated a moment’s hesitance, “Where will you be, Excellency?”

“Enjoying a meal, naturally.” Abzu replied, then set the com aside. “Fly straight and true, Zenim! See if you can take us up one of the bluffs!”

Zenim only nodded his acknowledgement as their escort began to peel off, driving them on through plumes of dust as one of the other Spectres swung across their path. Behind, Abzu observed some confusion among their pursuers; chase the four armed Spectres, or the defenseless one on their original course? By the time the larger vehicles caught up and directed them to follow Abzu, they’d given up a considerable distance.

As soon as they passed into the shadow of the bluffs, Zenim banked toward the one on the left which seemed to offer better purchase for a climb. Between sheer faces of rock lay smooth, if steep, crags covered in a down of wild orange grass. Without slowing their boost, Zenim picked a crag and shot toward it.

Floating on the bed of its own antigravity field, the Spectre took the sharp ramp up from level plain to the scree at the cliff’s base with a relatively gentle lurch. Once on the incline, however, as Zenim used the craft’s declining speed to ascend, Abzu found he had to grip the cushioned bench to prevent himself from rolling onto the back wall.

Despite the ever-present whine of the boost drive at its highest pitch, gravity ground the Spectre’s ascension to a stand-still. Zenim tracked the gravsled sideways along the crag to keep downward motion from taking over, straining the craft enough to produce a worrying rattle. Fortunately, the initial charge had carried them high enough to reach one of the lower clifftops, and the Spectre pulled itself onto level ground once again.

“Well done, Zenim,” Abzu called as he looked again through the safe barrier of the window. Below, the front-most pursuing Ghosts and Choppers had reached the foot of the slope, but were hesitant to try replicating Zenim’s feat.

Then one of the Choppers did, the strapping Jiralhanae on the anti-grav seat behind the wheel waving his companions out of his way before setting off. An initial boost of thrusters started the climb swiftly, but when it had reached the steepest part of the climb, they failed to fire again quickly enough to prevent the armored cycle from succumbing to Montak’s pull.

The massive forward wheels lost contact with the slope and dropped over the pilot’s seat, dragging him back to ground as the cycle bounced off the cliff and spun until coming to a final crash. Other vehicles scattered as steel blades from the haphazardly-affixed ram were thrown clear. The pilot, at last free of the craft when its final impact shook him loose, lay writhing in broken agony.

None of the other drivers seemed keen to follow his example—nor would they need to. Ghosts turned either direction and began racing along the base, both searching for an easier way up and to encircle it to prevent escape.

As Zenim carefully nudged the Spectre away from the clifftop, Abzu called forward while digging a few items up from beneath the bench, “Take me to that outcropping, near the edge. I should like to have a good view.”

“As you wish, kaidon.” Zenim replied, but not without a note of uncertainty. The bard had just dared charge their Spectre up a sheer cliff, but he too had seen the Ghosts begin to skirt the edges of their momentary haven. Abzu’s lack of response to the impending threat was an altogether different test of his courage.

The Spectre pulled up where he had indicated, hovering over the crumbling stone like a pollenating insect at a bloom, and Abzu ducked to clamber out of the back. A cloth knapsack swung from the hand he didn’t use to steady himself on the rollbar. Carefully maneuvering his prosthetic leg over the side, Abzu brushed his robe down to seat himself and slide to the ground with as much dignity as he could manage. Zenim watched attentively, hands still on the controls keeping the vehicle floating.

“Do not try to rejoin our other forces directly,” Abzu told him. “Reunite with the humans if you can, and ensure they escape with the Spartan.”

“Leaving you to do what?” the bard asked. “Be slain as your forces seize the day like the Warrior-King at the end of the ‘Granak Cycle? Forgive me for saying, you don’t much look the part.”

Abzu chuckled at the impudence. Zenim had been invited into his retinue specifically because he had that penchant for saying what crossed a line, only in times like these where he couldn’t be punished for it. “I doubt I will be killed, Zenim. They would have caught us in any case, but if they’re too busy capturing me, there is the chance you will slip their net. Now go, and if you ever sing of this moment, I’d like it set closer to sundown. More picturesque.”

Zenim rolled his eyes, but—reluctantly—did as he was told, engaging the boost drive as soon as Abzu stepped clear of the Spectre’s wing. As its residual dust settled once more into the grass, Abzu picked his way up the outcropping to where the bare rock offered clean surfaces.

Finding a relatively smooth facet, the heavy Sangheili folded his digitigrade legs and sat where he could unfold the cloth in front of him. Along with his scope and communicator, a pair of tiny, floral-printed clay vessels clinked as they rolled away from a pot shaped for grasping by a Sangheili hand.

Setting the latter upright to prepare itself, the kaidon looked out upon the vista offered by his perch. Zenim was certainly right, Montak’s mid-afternoon wouldn’t have made a good stand-in for the vibrant sunsets shown in tapestries depicting the ‘Granak Cycle. The sky above was graphene-gray, though the pale blue-to-violet remnants of the Imperium’s shield barrier still flickered over some portions, unable to balance close the gap the Swords and UNSC had opened.

At least the scale was comparable. On the edge of these high plains surrounding Montak’s nearest mountains, Abzu had an unmatched view of at least part of their chosen battlefield. A cluster of buildings, probably laborer housing, surrounded the tall smokestacks of a human industrial complex; General ‘Taram’s intended destination, though he’d been waylaid. But a few hundred meters below the facility, Abzu could see the green flashes of Mgalekgolo cannons firing, answered with plasma in blues and reds from around and behind low, rolling hills. The greens were much more prominent than their replies, but it meant Fol—or at least his warriors—were still in the fight.

Abzu could not see his own handful of Spectres, but knew they must be riding to ‘Taram’s aid. So too would be the Shadows and other half of his sworn followers left back at camp, rounded up by the other Field Masters who’d been marshalling a relief effort. With the shield down and the Imperium’s guarantee against enemy reinforcement gone, perhaps that effort even had a chance of succeeding, now.

For a moment, he thought he had spotted the relief effort, a flock of dark specks far in the distance. But as they spent moments crossing a fraction of his field of vision, Abzu realized they were splitting in two. Some made for the battlefield, while one of the largest directed itself toward the industrial complex. Picking up his scope, he sighted on the latter to see the speck resolve itself into a massive human vehicle, weighted down by a cannon of irresponsible calibur.

The human overcompensation would’ve been amusing, except that when he focused in on the other group, the leader of the formation turned out to be a Lich, flying unusually low and keeping pace with the slower ground vehicles. The Swords hadn’t brought any such vessels, and certainly wouldn’t have sent an unwieldy deployment craft with humans in a relief formation.

Panic rose in Abzu’s gut. He could see the Imperium reinforcements on their way, but his gambit was already made. He had no force with which to intercept them himself—but others might. Snapping up the communicator, Abzu punched its receiver.

“Zenim? Zenim, can you yet hear me? You must tell the humans if you reach them, Imperium reinforcements are rounding the refineries to attack Fol. They have a Lich to support their attack from the air, but alone it will be vulnerable. Zenim, do I reach you?”

After a moment of silence, there was some distorted hiccup of a reply. The only hint of a voice contained within might have been Zenim, but to Abzu’s ear could just as easily have been a human voice dropped low by a signal interfering with the failing dome overhead.

Before he could make another attempt, the cyclical whir of Ghost engines echoed over the bluff’s rim. In a moment, the gravsleds appeared just a few hundred yards from the point Zenim had brought them up over, and behind them on towropes crawled the massive, trapezoidal frame of a Shadow troop transport.

At least, that appeared to be what the vehicle had started life as. In typical Jiralhanae fashion, the craft had been fitted with sharp-edged plates of rusting steel, and the rounded driver’s canopy at the front had been replaced with a sloping, multi-pronged ram meant more less for clearing fortifications as for skewering helpless infantry. The standard plasma cannon on its roof had been torn free to make room for a dual pair of Mgalekgolo cannons Abzu suspected were one part weapon, and one part trophy. Additional guns protruded from the rear and flanks from among a phalanx of ornamental spikes and corpses impaled upon them.

A personal war chariot if Abzu had ever seen one, and about as tasteless compared to the silken comfort of his Spectre as he expected its owner would be. The pot he’d left brewing chimed, forestalling his need to feign disinterest as he glanced away.

The pot had no need of a handle, as it felt quite cool locked in Abzu’s four-fingered hand, just as intended. The contents foamed pleasantly as he poured both thimble-size cups. The snap of bubbles was only drowned out as the Shadow’s powerful engine neared.

Fortunately, it seemed the commander hadn’t decided to skewer him immediately or swipe his head with a Gravity Hammer as they passed. The Ghosts parted to release themselves from the towropes and allowed the Shadow to slow to a halt beside the outcropping. The beady red eyes of an Unggoy peered at Abzu through a slot in the transport’s flank above a mounted plasma cannon, then turned and bobbed as some release mechanism clanked.

The entire flank, spikes and all, unfolded like a cargo door, through which strode a singulary tall Jiralhanae. His brown hair was snarled and shone with sweat, and from his royal blue armor swung a leather-bound spike rifle beside the cleaned skulls of humans, Sangheili, and even other Jiralhanae. Abzu searched for a clan brand on the shoulder plate—and found it scratched out, painted over by an insignia familiar to him in neither Imperium nor traditional Jiralhanae heraldry.

Pirates.

Not for the first time, Abzu began to think he’d made a mistake. These were not loyal believers in the Imperium’s new order. They were mercenaries, unprincipled save for their steadfast devotion to coin. Their odds of taking a prisoner from which to extract intelligence was significantly lower than Abzu had hoped his pursuers would have.

Nonetheless, the kaidon put on a pleasant face and picked up his tiny cup.

“I should hope that meager drink makes for a filling last meal.” The Jiralhanae growled, in competent—if somewhat mangled by physiology—Sangheilese.

“You could learn for yourself.” Abzu gestured invitingly to the other cup.

If Abzu had hoped the offer would inspire caution, hesitation, he was disappointed when a sandy paw swung down and plucked the cup not on the cloth, but in his own hand. The Jiralhanae threw it back without thought—but did give a satisfying start a moment later.

“Strong for a kaidon’s tea.”

“Because it is not.” Abzu smiled, picking up the other swiftly enough to have a sip himself. “I never cared much for the tradition. Beer might be the drink of commoners because it is easy to brew, but difficulty doesn’t make tea fill a belly any further.”

The upper lip on either side of the Jiralhanae’s maw lifted, baring what yellowed fangs he wasn’t yet missing, and swiped the larger pot from Abzu’s reach. “Good saying. What do they call one who claims to break tradition while reciting dusty proverbs?”

He set down his cup and stood to answer, mustering as much dignity as he could next to the imposing Jiralhanae. “Abzu ‘Samakr, Kaidon of the Summerkeep. Last in the Line of Thremaleons, Field Master of the Swords of Sanghelios.”

“Mm.” The Jiralhanae tried to gauge the level of beer left in the pot. “A kaidon would make for a good trophy.”

“I would. I might also make for an interesting drinking companion.”

The Jiralhanae couldn’t help breaking his own feigned disinterest with another bare-toothed smile there. Just then, however, another of his species stepped from the Shadow and hurried over, calling out with his head down in deference.

“Lyrnium! The Imperium calls for an accounting of its allies, they intend to move. Will we answer?”

“We will.” Lyrnium dictated, and turned for the transport with a gesture toward Abzu. “We’ll also bring this one with us. Take him to the brig aboard Purveyor of the Righteous at our nearest opportunity.”

“Yes, Chieftain.”

That threatened to remove Abzu quite a bit from the battlefield, and not in a direction he desired. But before he could protest, Lyrnium’s subordinate unhooked his own Spiker and brandished it like a club. Abzu had barely opened his mandibles before it struck his temple, and his senses abruptly winked into darkness.

That Damn Sniper 03:52, December 20, 2018 (UTC)

69: Danger Close

UNSC Grand National, Montak, Late Afternoon, 29 August 2558


Commander Serena Atenza was feeling a strange mixture of joy and disappointment. She and the UNSC Grand National had been approved for atmospheric operations; however, a Liang-Dortmund mining facility in the area meant she wouldn't be able to use any offensive weapons for fear of hitting the facility or the civilians the Imperium were holding hostage inside. However, there were some Spartans on the ground who were calling for reinforcements "promptly"; she had two Spartans and two squads of ODSTs onboard and a handful of Pelicans that could transport Marines and vehicles down to the surface, and she figured that this would be the best use for them. The operations commanders were also interested in finding out if there were any blind spots in the enemy CCS's fields of fire. Atenza had therefore devised a plan to fulfill both of these objectives without having to use any of the ship's weapons.

The plan was this: build as much speed as possible on the way towards the Spartans' position (but not enough to make it impossible to deploy SOEIVs and Pelicans), deploy ground troops at speed in atmosphere, then quickly leave the CCS's firing range before it got a chance to shoot at her. The timing of this maneuver was so precise that an AI on one of the other ships in the fleet had been tasked to remotely assist with the maneuver. "You ready, Booker? It's almost time!" Atenza called out over the sound of the roaring air around her ship, trying not to think for the millionth time that this was a completely untested maneuver.

"Of course, Commander. T minus 72 seconds to SOEIV deployment," Booker responded coolly.

"Hear that, Spartans?" she called out over the COM. Oliver-DO30 and Sven-D340 of Team Harrier winked their acknowledgement lights green, but Oliver quickly remembered that Atenza had no way of seeing this from the bridge, so he hastily responded "yes" as he braced himself for the unusually hazardous SOEIV drop he was about to do - which also happened to be his first.

"We ODSTs are good to go too," added Gunnery Sergeant Michael Fodor. He and his experienced squadron of ODSTs had done plenty of jumps before, but this one made him feel apprehensive.

The Pelicans were also awaiting the instruction to leave the hangar - albeit tail-first and out of the rearward-facing hangar door. Nothing about this deployment was normal, and the pilots and Marines onboard knew it. Fifty seconds before the SOEIVs were deployed, the light in the hangar turned red and the pilots used their Pelicans' maneuvering thrusters to fly backwards out of the hangar and into an 800-mile-per-hour headwind, whereupon they would have to regain control of their dropships and land in a position the Spartans on the ground could capitalize on.

Twenty seconds after the last Pelican had left the hangar, the SOEIVs were deployed. Oliver had to fight hard to not throw up inside his helmet as the small metal pod was battered around by the sudden force of being in air that was moving significantly faster than the pod was relative to it. Fortunately for him the air brake deployed automatically; even with his MJOLNIR armor he doubted he would've had the strength to move his arm or pull a lever against the G-forces.

The Grand National banked away from the CCS after deploying the troops; Atenza figured it would be better to make the Imperium think the ship was in an uncontrolled crash than to see it pulling up and giving away that this was a tactical maneuver. In terms of the operation her work was now done, she could only hope that the Imperium wouldn't be able to respond before the Spartans on the ground could organize themselves.

Montak, Late Afternoon, 29 August 2558

Thuva 'Kradomai hated patrolling. As a Zealot in the former Covenant, he would have never wasted his time on such a task; however, as lance commander Thus 'Susum of the Imperium, he had no choice in the matter. He wanted to scream that such tasks were beneath him; however, he knew that this would likely get him killed, whether for insubordination or because of his status as a former Zealot.

One of the Grunts in his lance began yelping loudly. Out of habit, he paid it no mind; to him, Zealots were high enough above the lower species that they weren't even worthy of his attention. He figured it was just a fancy rock or something that the Grunt was trying to show to his friends.

"'Susum! 'Susum!" the Grunt called again.

That's your name now - don't forget it! 'Kradomai berated himself as he turned to the Grunt. "Human ship falling apart in the sky!" the Grunt yelled, pointing. 'Kradomai turned to look and there was indeed a human ship moving way too quickly to be safe from which pieces were falling.

"Should we tell our commanders?" the Grunt asked. 'Kradomai pondered for a second before replying as the ship began turning away from their position. "No, don't bother," he said, remembering to fake a Karavan accent. "That ship's going down and wouldn't have had the opportunity to deliver troops or supplies. Resume normal patrol formation and keep moving," he said with finality.

LATE AFTERNOON // 29 AUGUST 2558 (D-D)

Location: CONTESTED REFINERIES, MONTAK COLONY


Merlin, Andra, and Shizuko were startled when their Mastodon's radar started sounding a loud alarm. About a dozen small contacts had popped up on the medium-range radar - but they were fast.

"Banshees?" Merlin asked as Andra closed her eyes to deal with the headache the alarm was bringing on.

"Can't be, they're moving way too fast and slowing down too linearly," replied Shizuko. "I'd say SOEIVs, but it's like they're coming in sideways rather than from orbit." She grabbed a sniper rifle and turned in the direction the contacts were coming from. "Definitely SOEIVs, and definitely not at an approach they were ever designed for. This might get ugly."

About one kilometer out and 300m off the ground the SOEIVs deployed a secondary set of airbrakes, bleeding off as much speed as possible to land at a vaguely vertical angle behind the Mastodon. Within fifteen seconds the first one hit the side of one of the hills behind them - and, miraculously, it wasn't torn apart by the sudden deceleration. Neither were any of the others that came in behind it.

The doors of the SOEIVs opened and ODSTs stumbled out of most of them - something the Deltas had never known them to do. Even more surprising were the occupants of two of the other pods: Spartans, somehow looking more seasick than even the ODSTs. One of them was wearing light gold VECTOR-class MJOLNIR armor, the other had blue armor with a MAKO-class helmet, and both looked familiar to Merlin, but as they approached the Mastodon he couldn't quite place it until the one with the blue armor called out to him on the COM.

"We heard you guys called for 'promptly'?"

If at first you don't succeed, add more duct tape.Echowaffle8 Waffle

70: The Sky Is Falling

It was a moment straight from Tuka’s nightmares.

He stood on the Lich command deck and stared down in horror at the tactical display before him. Enemy bombers bore down on the Kru’desh formation, undeterred by the gunboat or dropship escorts. The refineries and the battle around them raged around them, threatening to engulf the force in chaos. And worst of all, the display showed a large object plunging down from the atmosphere on a collision course with Stray’s Mammoth.

The entire force might be slaughtered in a matter of moments and he had no idea how to stop it. The Lich’s gun batteries might be able to intercept the bombers, but in the meantime the unknown projectile would destroy the Mammoth. He cursed his own weakness, torn between the life of his commander and the lives of dozens of fellow warriors.

Fortunately, not everyone shared his indecision. A sudden blast split the air, sending tremors even through the Lich’s armored interior. One of the UNSC bombers tumbled off course and plummeted down into the dust. The Mammoth’s heavy cannon swiveled to track the remaining bomber even as it roared onwards towards the refineries.

Tuka found his voice. “Shoot that—that—whatever that thing is!” he bellowed. If the Lich crew objected to his orders, none bothered to rebuke him. The gunboat rumbled, its heavy forward cannon sending a stream of plasma shooting up into the atmosphere. Tuka’s hearts sank as the blast missed the plummeting object. If only they had the Oracle’s networking to guide their shots… but there was still no contact with the Soul Ascension and the gunners had to rely on pure skill to hit the target. And at this distance and velocity, those skills simply weren’t enough.

Beside him, Amber braced herself against the tactical display. Her gaze fixed on the holographic Mammoth with a curious intensity as she no doubt imagined the death screaming down towards her fellow Spartan.

The remaining bomber juked and weaved through the hail of plasma fire rising up to meet it. It released its payload and pulled up, leaving a firestorm streaking across Kru’desh lines. Tuka winced at the sight of Wraiths and Ghosts burning down on the field. But the storm was only just beginning. The object the Lich had failed to shoot down slammed head-on into the Mammoth, tearing through its armor with ease. The assault tank charged ahead, undeterred, but was anyone onboard left alive to reach the refineries?

Back behind the embattled column, more objects rained down from the sky: human entry pods, each one delivering a new soldier to the battlefield. The tide had turned once again.


Stray’s eyes snapped open. The first things they saw were flames: twisting, burning tendrils licking at the Mammoth’s dark interior. Memories of other dark, flaming corridors surged through his brain. He thrashed and tried to rise as the skin beneath his armor crawled with agonizing memories of cracking beneath plasma fire. He found himself pinned to the floor, his left arm held down by something sharp and heavy. A snarl of terrified rage choked him and he thrashed and kicked in a wild fit of instinctive rage.

His primal fit rewarded him with freedom. He wrenched his arm free and leaped to his feet, taking with him the shard of metal that had impaled his prosthetic arm and trapped him in the first place. He stared down at the shard embedded in his arm, only dimly aware of the fiery carnage around him. Strange—his arm was unfeeling metal and circuits, yet the metal shard stung as he yanked it free. He staggered back, stepping clear of the flames as he took in the scene around him.

Something large and metallic had punched through the Mammoth’s armored hull like a cannonball. It still burned in the middle of the command deck, surrounded by the remains of the ill-fated Unggoy drivers. Stray shoved one partial corpse to the side and stared at the warped metal lump that had nearly killed him. It was an oversized drone of some kind, or maybe a repurposed satellite. There were no identifying markings on the surface, though that was hardly surprising. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who the clearly human design belonged to.

A UNSC device. It could have come from anywhere: debris from the space battle in orbit, or maybe something shot down by an Imperium fighter that had just had the misfortune to fall in the Mammoth’s path. Bloody coincidence ruled any chaotic battlefield.

But Stray believe in coincidences. Not like this.

Someone had deliberately dropped the satellite down on top of him, and he had a very good idea who.

He knelt in front of the burning satellite, a smile spreading across his face. The Spartans had come after him, just as he’d predicted. But instead of the calculated, precise strike he’d feared they’d chosen a sloppy, careless blow. A close call, to be sure, but juvenile and short-sighted all the same. He thought back to the Spartan his warriors had subdued on the battlefield. Oh no, did I make you all a bit too angry?

A distant explosion snapped him back into the present. There was still a battle on, and there were more attempts on his life still to come. He’d need to make sure they failed just like this one had.

Stray backed away from the satellite, unslinging his shotgun as he opened a line back to his Lich. “Tuka, come in. You still with me?”

“Commander! You’re alive!” The young officer sounded a bit too relieved.

“Of course I am. What’s going on out there?"

Tuka’s voice became grim. “Enemy bombers just hit our flank and we have detected more reinforcements from above. They dropped in their ODSTs from orbit in the hills behind us. They may be trying to regroup and strike us from behind.”

A tall figure emerged from the Mammoth’s smoke-filled interior. Shinsu ‘Refum, covered in soot but otherwise in one piece, strode past Stray to examine the ruined command deck. “The heavy cannon is disabled,” he said coldly. “And enemy Pelicans are closing in. What is the situation with your forces? We need reinforcements if we are going to secure the—“

Stray waved him off. “Yeah, yeah. Shut up and let me think.”

Surprisingly, Shinsu obeyed his wishes. Meanwhile, his brother was still talking over the com channel.

“—reform the heavy armor,” Tuka was saying. “If we attack now we can overrun their landing zone before they move to attack.”

“Simon,” Amber’s voice cut in. “Those ODSTs had to come from somewhere.”

Stray closed his eyes, breathing deeply to keep his emotions in check. Dozens of voices shouted in his ear at once, enough to make him want to smash his com receiver against the wall. Instead he ignored them all and fought to picture the entire battlefield. One of the first things ONI had drilled him and his fellow trainees on was the ability to understand the battlefield without the help of maps or tactical displays. But those exercises were meant for small unit tactics, not turbulent battlespaces filled with all manner of soldiers and war machines. Not to mention the third dimension of air power, and beyond that the orbital sphere…

Even if he hadn’t just survived a lethal heavy impact strike it was enough to make his head hurt. Without Diana and the rest of his military advisors he really was just making it all up as he went along.

“Commander!” Tuka insisted. “If we move now we can wipe them out at their drop site, just like you did before!”

Yes, a quick response with overwhelming force. A rapid assault he could leave to the Covenant heavy armor, let the Sangheili field commanders manage the slaughter without needing to guide their advance. And there was the matter of those Spartans, still lurking out there and preparing their next strike. Maybe they wouldn’t be so sloppy next time. Stray itched to find them and unleash the full might of his warriors. Overwhelming force solved all problems.

Except when it didn’t. Because that was exactly what his enemy wanted.

Stray let out one final, calming breath. “No. You don’t go near that drop site.”

“Commander, I don’t—“

“Don’t be an idiot,” Stray snapped. “And don’t question my orders. They have air support now. Those ODSTs came from a ship in orbit. A ship that’s standing by to cover them. You’ll be giving them exactly what they want: a defensive battle where they draw you in and tear you to pieces.”

“But if they follow you into the refineries…”

“They’re infantry. They can’t do shit over long distance without armored support. Throw a few plasma rounds their way to keep their heads down, then scatter the force and keep moving. All units need to break through and link up with the Imperium, then engage targets of opportunities. I want dispersal, you understand? No massed assaults, no big targets. Keep fighting until you hear back from me.”

“Yes, Commander.” Tuka still sounded unsure, but he was loyal enough not to question Stray a second time. “And if they do try to advance?”

“Oh, I’ve got something for them.” A cold smile graced Stray’s lips. “Any contact with the Soul Ascension?”

“Nothing, yet but—“

“Get it. I don’t care if you have to fly up there and find it yourself. I want the Soul Ascension and the Purveyor of the Righteous's task force to pull a rapid descent, shoot down anything between them and the refineries. And have them warm up their ventral beams. We’ll make those bastards wish the shield was still up. If they want to hold that ground, let them. They can all burn there when I glass it.”

Another order, another few hundred lives consigned to death by fire. Stray had done plenty of killing today. It seemed there was plenty more killing to be done if he and his warriors were going to make it off Montak alive.


Tuka stared down at the tactical display. Stray’s crippled Mammoth roared onwards towards the refineries, making no sign of stopping. The young warrior’s mandibles twitched, yearning to speak out. But he had questioned orders enough for one day. Perhaps Stray exaggerated. He wouldn’t really give the order to glass Montak’s plains outright.

Would he?

“Incoming,” Amber warned. The remaining human bomber—a Broadsword, Amber called it—peeled around for another pass. If left unchecked it would decimate the Kru’desh on the open plain.

There was no more time for doubts. “Banshees, take down that flier!” Tuka ordered. “All ground teams, scatter! Take independent action until you receive further orders! Stay alive down there!” It was a tactic the Kru’desh knew well. They’d all been consigned to the legion for failing to fall in line with the Covenant’s rank and file. Now those criminal independent streaks would keep them alive. They would disperse and regroup like the raiders they were.

“And what about us?” Amber demanded. She slipped her helmet back on, body tensed for the next round of battle. It occurred to Tuka that he had fought by the human’s side all day, surviving one battle after another that might have been his last. For anyone else, regardless of species, this would be enough to forge the invisible bond of shared hardship. But with Amber he still had no idea whether to consider her one of his warriors or not.

He still yearned to order the entire column back around. To annihilate the humans regrouping behind them. But Stray was right. He couldn’t risk the legion now, not without air superiority. As if to hammer that point home, enemy Pelicans dropped down through the atmosphere and opened fire on the scattering Kru’desh.

“We’re going up,” Tuka gestured towards the space battle in orbit. “We’ll find the Soul Ascension and bring it back down with us.”

He couldn’t see Amber’s face beneath her helmet, but he could hear the smile in her voice. “About time. I’m looking forward to the light show.”

Tuka spared one final glance at Montak’s dusty plains, imagining them consumed by fire from the Ascension’s ventral beams. He wondered if he could stomach another such victory.


“Get down!” Shinsu barked. Stray instinctively obeyed, throwing himself into cover behind the ruined satellite as a hail of bullets ripped through the Mammoth’s shredded armor. Several Sangheili weren’t fast enough, their bodies exploding in clouds of grey and purple as a Pelican dropship screamed down out of the sky.

Stray ducked his head and wondered just how much more abuse the Mammoth could take. At this point the assault tank was running on sheer momentum, its core functions reduced to that of a simple battering ram. He already knew how they would breach the refineries: they would just enter whatever hole the Mammoth smashed in the walls when it reached its final destination.

The real question was if they would have anyone left to reinforce the Imperium with. Half the warriors on the Mammoth were dead or incapacitated. With the Kru’desh scattering across the battlefield he couldn’t rely on any of them for support. It was just him, Shinsu, and anyone else who survived the firestorm raging around them.

The Pelican ceased fire and pulled in alongside the crippled assault tank. The troop bay split open to reveal the dark shapes of armored ODSTs readying to leap down onto the rig.

“Stay low,” Stray ordered, hoping he still had warriors alive to hear him. “Let them think we’re all dead.”

The ODST squad dropped down onto the battered deck, sweeping the area with their weapons in search of targets. They moved quickly, rushing down towards the command deck to secure the hijacked Mammoth. They were swift, professional, and well trained.

It didn’t matter. A red blade flashed to life just behind their rearguard, neatly bisecting the nearest ODST. Shinsu shimmered into focus as his active camouflage deactivated, cutting through one armored figure after another with lethal precision. The remaining ODSTs scrambled for cover, trying to get around behind their target. Plasma fire erupted from the Mammoth’s interior, catching more of them in the back. At least a few Kru’desh were still alive to defend their prize.

One ODST leaped down into the command deck. He swept the ruins with his submachine gun and froze when he saw Stray kneeling beside him, no doubt wondering if he was a survivor from the original crew. Stray didn’t give him time to correct his mistake. He slammed the man’s helmeted head into the satellite and drove a knife into his throat.

The surviving ODSTs retreated back towards the Pelican as the bay crew covered them from inside the dropship. Shinsu’s shields flared and he slipped back into cover. But more warriors were on the deck now. They rushed forward, blasting away the last of the boarding team and lobbing plasma grenades into the dropship’s troop bay. The Pelican lurched and fell, its heavy frame torn apart against Montak’s surface.

Stray pushed the ODST’s corpse aside and pulled himself up onto the deck. He raised a hand to hail the nearest warrior, a bulky Sangheili in dull armor. The warrior’s right arm was a bloody, hastily bandaged stump, but he clutched a plasma rifle in his left hand and carried himself as if he showed no pain.

“How many do you have left?” Stray demanded.

“Eleven warriors in all,” the Sangheili reported gravely. “The rest did not survive.”

Eleven troops out of the thirty that originally boarded the Mammoth. The Spartans attempt to kill Stray had failed, but they had certainly left him shorthanded. Battle raged across the plains as the Kru’desh column slammed into the forces besieging the refineries. Stray could only hope they made it through to the defenses. He’d already lost too many troops today.

You’d better get here fast, Diana. He needed his flagship now more than ever. It wouldn’t be the only warship racing towards the surface, and Stray wanted nothing better than to see the Soul Ascension raining fire down on his enemies.

“They will be enough,” Shnisu said curtly. “Follow my lead and move quickly once we’re inside. We’ll have one chance to surprise the attackers. After that they will regroup and overrun us.”

“We’ll get the job done.” Stray pulled a Kig-Yar aside and pointed to the satellite. “You’ve got about thirty seconds to crack that thing open and get me the onboard computer. It’s worth you ten thousand credits to get it to me before we hit the refinery.”

The Kig-Yar leaped to work, but spared Stray a puzzled look. “Yes, commander, but why?”

“Someone just tried to kill me.” Stray leaned in and helped the reptilian alien cut through the warped metal. “And once this is all over I’m going to find out who was dumb enough to use their own satellite to do it.”


A ravaged, bullet-riddled Mammoth slammed into the refinery loading dock at full speed. The war machine tore through the wall like cardboard, its reckless charge brought to a final halt. The Kru’desh warriors emerged from inside weapons at the ready as they advanced through the smoky rubble. Shinsu ‘Refum strode at their head while at the rear Stray paused to give the Mammoth a final once-over.

The interior was littered with bodies: the corpses of the army crew that had first used the machine, then the bodies of his own Covenant warriors and the ODSTs who had failed to take it from them. The beast would be a tomb for them all, a hulking testament to a battle they had fought far from home over a war none of them held any stake in.

Standing before the Mammoth, Stray wondered why any of them had to die over some Sangheili warlord’s bloody dreams of power. But then, his own ambitions had killed these people, not Toru ‘Makhan’s. And only time would tell if it had all been worth it.

He turned away and followed his warriors, slipping what remained of the satellite’s onboard computer into his assault bag. No doubt the memory banks had been wiped before his new enemies turned it into a makeshift bomb. But there were always ways to scrape some data together. And Diana always loved a challenge.

Actene: If This Is To End In Fire, Then We'll Burn Together

71: Breaking Point

1532 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Central Mining Complex, Montak

Had Rora not knocked his comrade's rifle aside, the surviving human would have been shot dead on the spot.

"Hold your fire," he intoned to Merz, one of his more aggressive commandos. "I wish to speak to this one."

Since their infiltration of the sprawling mining complex some time ago, Rora 'Marak and his nine companions had moved as swiftly as they could, eliminating enemy guards and searching desperately for some sign of the captive human civilians. Though some wanted to abandon them so they could pursue their true objective of assassinating the Imperium's commander, Rora would not abandon his mission.

"Wait wait wait wait wait!" the man on his knees before them exclaimed, throwing up his hands in surrender. "I'm on your side!"

He did not resemble the human guards they had come across so far; soldiers in the employ of some company allied with the Imperium of Clarity. Nonetheless, Rora had not been informed of an agent within the facility. Signalling for his men to spread out and guard the corridor, he knelt down, glaring into the man's frightened blue eyes.

"You work for the UNSC?" he asked. Even at this height, Rora towered over him. "For ONI?"

His reply was instantaneous. "Of course! They locked me up, but I managed to escape and was trying to get a signal out."

"Where are the workers here? The miners?"

"Most of them are still being held in the living quarters, back there. You trying to rescue them?"

Rora nodded. Though the man's words seemed genuine, there was something distinctly untrustworthy about him that bothered the Sangheili. Perhaps it was his affiliation with ONI, a group well-known for its deviousness and unscrupulous nature. To his surprise, the human got to his feet, smiled, and held out a hand.

"Augustus Miller."

Rora shook it; a strange custom, but one he understood. "Outrider. Can you show us to the workers?"

"Actually," Miller jerked a thumb down the corridor, past the still-smoking corpses of his former comrades - or captors. "The control room's not too far from here. If you get me there, I can open every door in this block and open up the hangar bay so the civvies can escape. How's that sound?"

'Civvies' was not a word Rora was familiar with, but he correctly assumed the meaning. "Will you ensure that their lives are safe, Augustus Miller?"

"I'll do my best," Miller shrugged. "That said, there's not anywhere for those ships to go without getting blasted out of the sky."

Rora huffed. "We will remedy that. Merz, escort the human and report to me when their workers have been evacuated."

The younger Sangheili grumbled in annoyance, but soon acquiesced to Rora's demand and set off behind Miller, nudging the human forward with his rifle. Once they were out of sight, he breathed a sigh of relief and hoped that the Miller could be kind enough to do their job for them. Having to escort and evacuate hundreds of scared humans out of a warzone was not something he had been looking forward to. Killing an enemy Fleet Master within his own headquarters, on the other hand, was something he could accomplish with much less stress.

"Now brothers," Rora turned to his loyal brethren, sensing their eagerness. "We begin our hunt."

***
1540 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Mining Complex Command Center, Montak

This battle is starting to turn against us.

Standing alone at the control room's main holotable, Fleet Master Kan 'Larom felt the icy grip of worry take hold of his hearts, realising that he had severely underestimated their foe. In the past few hours, thousands had perished fighting for this scrap of land; a fairly insignificant part of an unimportant planet at the very edge of the Imperium's territory. Even so, he had been tasked with the defence of Montak, and the though of failure might have made him enact more dire measures, were the possibility of the Imperium's defeat here not already planned for.

Though his shield barrier had been successful in trapping the UNSC and Swords of Sanghelios for a time, their tenacity had allowed them to outmaneuver his forces, ripping gaps in the protective shield that allowed for reinforcements to join them. Even now, human dropships ferried fresh platoons to join their allies while newly-arrived fighters zipped overhead, battling against the aerial force Kan had assigned to protect this facility. While the Fleet Master knew he was relatively safe, at least for now. The civilians - Montak's population of miners and their families - were being held within his compound, and were the only thing preventing the enemy from flattening the entire area with artillery fire.

They are getting closer, Kan dragged a clawed finger across the image directly outside the compound. The Swords of Sanghelios had led a desperate charge right towards him, forcing the immediate deployment of his best Mgalekgolo veterans to block their path. A bloody melee had ensued, but not before the humans had shelled some reinforced positions worryingly close to the facility walls. Either they were getting desperate, or they were willing to sacrifice a few innocents if it meant winning this battle. Even with the stalemate right outside his gates, Kan knew that his time on this world was coming to an end.

"Fleet Master!"

A door behind Kan slid open, and a human in a dark suit hurried inside, escorted by two armed guards. Kan's own bodyguards immediately converged on them as they approached, though a gesture from their leader stopped the veterans in their tracks.

"Thaler," Kan struggled to properly pronounce the human's strange name as he approached. "I wished to be left alone."

"We've got a problem," the businessman was noticeably sweating, his eyes wide with fright as he looked up at Kan, wringing his hands. "There's been a breakout in the barracks. The civilians are escaping."

Were it not for the Imperium's official alliance with Thaler's masters, the Guild of Free Traders, he might have struck the cringing human down on the spot. "How? You assured me that they would be secure."

"And they were, at least until recently. I had a few reports from my men that one or two had escaped their rooms, but not enough to cause harm. Now there's been a mass breakout and I've lost a dozen of my guards. Either someone helped them from the inside, or the facility has been breached."

Kan stiffened slightly. Preoccupied as he was with the battle, he had left all internal security decisions to Thaler and one of his subordinates, Major Ifun. If an enemy force had somehow breached this base without his knowledge then it would not only be a major embarrassment for the Fleet Master, but a trigger for supplementary orders he had grudgingly accepted from Toru 'Makhan himself.

"Should your headquarters be breached by our foes, then abandon the planet. They will have passed our test."

Ignoring Thaler as the sight of him was sickening, Kan snatched up a communicator, tapping in the Major's personal battlenet code. After three attempts at connecting to the officer, he gave up, and gripped the device so tightly that it began to crack under his grip.

"Major Ifun is dead," Kan announced to the room, steadying his voice. "If this facility is compromised, then we must leave at once."

"Just one moment!" Thaler protested. "My ship is still in the hangar bay! If we open it, then we risk letting the civilians there escape. I propose-"

Kan's head snapped up as another door quietly opened across the room. A moment later, a ball of energy flared into existence and sailed through the air towards the Fleet Master and his retinue before coming to halt on the holotable. Pushing Thaler towards it, Kan 'Larom threw himself to the ground, hearing the man's shriek of terror as the plasma grenade detonated, incinerating most of his upper body and the table instantly and wounding several others unable to move away in time. Drawing the plasma rifle at his belt in one hand and his energy sword in the other, Kan clambered to his feet just in time to see several hazy figures rushing into the room, firing carbines at the Fleet Master.

Even with their concealment disrupted by constant movement, these assassins kept their camouflage systems active as they spread out, peppering their foes with green-tinged shots as they tried to mount a proper defence. Both of Thaler's guards and one of Kan's were gunned down in the first seconds of the assault, though the surviving trio were able to quickly return fire, standing between their leader and the enemy.

"Advance!" Kan roared, dashing around the remains of the holotable to draw some fire away from his men before sprinting forward.

As he suspected, the shield strength of these assassins could not compare to his own, allowing the field surrounding his golden harness to soak up numerous glancing and direct hits as he crossed the room. Some commanders might have chosen to retreat when faced with superior odds, but Kan 'Larom would not abandon his closest men, nor would he be shot in the back while fleeing. A single leap brought him within striking distance of the nearest enemy, who had unwisely chosen to keep firing at the Fleet Master instead of evading like his kin. The assassin crumpled as Kan drove the full length of his sword through his chest, causing his camouflage to short out as he gasped and died. His armour, marked with old burns and scars, was a very distinctive shade of green.

The Shadows of Retribution, Kan felt oddly proud as he span round, using the impaled corpse at the end of his blade as a shield from further shots. The Arbiter's secretive executioners. What an honour.

Momentarily taken aback by the grisly death of their comrade, the Shadows quickly drew their own blades as Kan's own guards rushed in after him, turning a firefight into a vicious melee. Even with their renewed vigour at seeing Kan's first kill, they were still heavily outnumbered, each warrior duelling two opponents at once. One of the Fleet Master's attackers seemed rather peculiar, fighting not with an energy sword, but with a pair of energy daggers built into his gauntlets. Faced with two wildly different enemies, Kan found himself pressed back, edging towards the ceiling-length window that had given him an excellent view of the battle outside. As a near-miss grazed his shoulder, he began to wonder if he would meet his end here, watching over the defeat of his armies. Two more of the assassins fell in combat nearby his own bodyguards were quickly overwhelmed and hacked to pieces as they tried to defend Kan.

This may be my end.

Spurred on by their success, the Shadows of Retribution slowly closed in on Kan. The closest assassin, more confident than his brethren, lunged at Kan, who sidestepped the attack and beheaded him with a single swipe. As another green-armoured body hit the floor, he drew himself up with his back to the window, daring any of the five others to step forward. He laughed, and addressed his killers.

"Come then! Who is eager to take Kan 'Larom's life? I am sure your masters have promised quite a reward for my head!"

The Shadows exchanged glances, and began to edge forward in unison. Having been banking on appealing to some sense of honour, which would allow him to duel them one-by-one, Kan realised that he would not survive a simultaneous attack by five others. At best, he would likely kill two. Orro 'Hendai, for all his boasting, might have been able to fight his way out of this. He was no great warrior, but would attempt to die like one. He raised his blade, and awaited their move. Suddenly, a shout from outside caught their attention.

"Kan 'Larom!"

The doors to Kan's left opened and a stream of warriors poured into the command room, brandishing blades and rifles. Suddenly outnumbered and attacked from behind, the Shadows of Retribution immediately disengaged, some switching back to their own ranged weaponry or lobbing grenades at these newcomers. The first detonation took out two Sangheili in a flash of heat and light, sending burnt chunks of flesh and metal flying, but the rest pressed on, engaging the group of assassins in close combat. Surprisingly, they were joined by a human warrior, who darted into the room alongside a one-armed Sangheili, both firing away with their rifles.

Distracted for a brief moment, Kan barely had time to evade as the dagger-wielding Shadow charged forward, evading his first blow and slicing along the Fleet Master's chestplate as he dodged what would have been a crippling stab to the gut. Before he could recover, the masked Shadow tackled him, the weight of their armour sending both Sangheili backwards onto what remained of the holotable. Kan struggled with his attacker, one hand holding back a dagger aimed at his neck while the other was pinned down. There was no skill in this fight, merely strength, and it took only a few seconds for Kan to realise that he was the weaker one. The assassin's other dagger bit down, cutting through the hilt of his sword and into his left palm. Trying not to cry out as his impaled hand burned as if on fire, he had all but accepted death when his attacker suddenly rolled away and a red blur flashed overhead.

Another warrior, clad in dark armour marred with soot, dust and other minor scars, now stood between Kan 'Larom and his assassin. His sword glowed red, and seemed to crackle with energy as he pointed it towards the assassin.

***

Rora 'Marak cursed inwardly as he backed away, glaring at the newly-arrived warrior. A few moments more and he would have dealt a fatal blow to the Fleet Master, completing his mission. Kan 'Larom rolled over and staggered to his feet, clutching his injured hand. Glancing to one side, he saw that Luwa and Hazna had fallen, though they had taken five foes with them. Orvo and Duril were still standing, but would not last much longer. Having lost their element of surprise, the Shadows of Retribution could only retreat or die.

"Run!" Rora yelled at his subordinates, slipping another grenade from his bandolier. "I will rejoin you when I can!"

His two remaining warriors did so with no hesitation. If their luck held, they would survive long enough to pick up Merz, Ju'ya and their prisoner before fleeing this wretched world. As they slipped out of the door, Rora tossed his grenade towards it, taking out an inattentive pursuer and wounding at least two others. Before he had time to appreciate his handiwork, the black-armoured swordsman lunged at him with impressive speed. Rora barely avoided the attack, ducking down and deflecting most of the blow with his gauntlet dagger. To his surprise, this one's comrades were not firing on him, and seemed content with watching the spectacle. A human soldier among them in battered armour levelled his weapon, but did not fire.

"Draw your sword," a cold voice sounded from a red-eyed helmet. "You should die a warrior's death."

Rora's eyes flicked down towards the hilt of Ruxen's sword, which had fallen from his hands after Kan 'Larom slew him. If his opponent did not intend to kill him the moment he stooped to pick it up, then he was fighting a rare battle with a genuinely honourable Sangheili; an uncommon thing during his journeys across the increasingly violent frontier.

"Your offer is kind, stranger, but I am no warrior, and unworthy of wielding such a weapon. You will have to make do with fighting me as I stand."

The warrior in black nodded, looking him up and down. "I have heard of your peculiarities, Outrider, but did not expect to find you here. So be it."

Before Rora could question the warrior further on how he knew of his title, the swordsman launched a devastatingly fast series of slashes, each capable of felling him in a single blow if they landed. Bringing his gauntlet daggers up, Rora managed to dodge or deflect the worst of this initial barrage, keeping the blades close as he crouched slightly to present a smaller target. While quick enough to avoid the blade, he would soon tire if this kept up, and attempted to gain ground, ducking under a horizontal swipe and rolling towards his opponent before springing up with the intent of slashing his throat.

For the second time that day Rora's killing strike failed to connect, his dagger missing the swordsman's neck by inches as he sidestepped and stabbed past the assassin. The red blade sizzled past Rora's face a moment later, slicing off a small portion of his armoured mandible guard. Not deterred by his near-decapitation, he tried to press the attack, dodging and weaving as he threw punches at the swordsman in an attempt to puncture through his armour. Though clearly unused to dealing with such a strange fighting style - most Sangheili Rora fought were - the warrior adapted with startling ease, though his attempts to dismember Rora were repeatedly foiled by parries or last-second attacks by his second dagger. Nonetheless, it did not take long for Rora to realise that he could not win this fight.

With the exits too far away and Kan 'Larom now guarded by this group of newcomers, who to Rora's eye looked like mercenaries instead of standard Imperial troops, he had no way of easily escaping this room. This brief, furious duel had already drained his stamina, and his limbs had begun to ache from constantly deflecting sword blows. Even the tall window was blocked by his sword-wielding enemy, who had likely noticed his quick glance towards it in their last exchange.

I have failed my mission, Rora reflected, seeing the wounded Fleet Master eagerly watching the duel, but I cannot die just yet. Not until Felo 'Ranak tells me to.

Taking a deep breath, Rora tapped his gauntlet daggers together twice before charging at the swordsman once again, both eyes on that red blade of his. Sure enough, it came down hard and fast towards his torso. Instead of dodging and losing the momentum and ground he had gained, Rora threw himself towards the strike, using both daggers to block the blade before twisting around and ramming his elbow into the warrior's chest. While it did no damage, the force of the impact threw him off-balance for the briefest of moments, allowing Rora to turn fully and throw a punch towards his face. Once again, the lightning-fast sword came up to block his dagger, though Rora continued pushing, driving the full force of his fist and dagger into the energy sword. He felt his wrist grow hotter as the device began to overload, and threw his full strength into trying to push the blade back into its owner's face.

Though his foe's sword wavered for a moment, Rora's dagger gave way first, its emitter erupting in a burst of sparks a moment before the red blade slashed it apart, scoring a glancing blow up the Outrider's left arm. Unfazed by the pain, Rora clashed against the warrior once again with his remaining dagger, using the second it took for his stab to be parried to launch another punch. This time, it connected with the side of his opponent's helmet with a loud crack. In the split-second it took for his foe to recover, Rora turned and threw himself at the window, slashing at it with his remaining dagger before crashing through the reinforced glass and disappearing out of sight.

Thankfully, it was not a long fall.

***

Kan 'Larom raced to the broken window and peered out just in time to see his would-be assassin picking himself up on a metal gantry below before darting out of sight. The death of a warrior like the Outrider, whose legend had infiltrated even the Imperium, would definitely help to make up for Montak's loss. Grunting in annoyance, he turned towards the Sangheili in black armour, who had deactivated his sword and was rubbing the side of his helmet.

"You have my thanks, warrior. Without your aid I would have perished here. Might I have your name?"

"I am Shinsu 'Refum, here with the Kru'desh Legion."

The Kru'desh?. Kan's mandibles twitched as he heard the name. This was the same unruly group that he had forced off Frendhal not too long ago. He had intended to use them as a means of soaking up enemy fire until the Imperium's actual soldiers arrived, but if today's reports were anything to go by then they had done well for themselves across the battlefield. Saving him from certain death had certainly bettered his views on them, too.

"A name I shall remember," he answered, inclining his head slightly as a sign of respect. "The Imperium of Clarity will reward you for this, but first we must depart this planet."

"We're leaving?" Shinsu sounded slightly surprised. "The battle-"

"The battle was never meant to progress this far," Kan cut him off. "Enough blood has been spilled today. Come."

With that, he turned away from Shinsu, stepping over the charred remains of Thaler. The remaining Kru'desh stood around in silence, waiting for Shinsu to follow the Fleet Master out of the room. Heading off at a brisk pace towards the courtyard containing his transportation platform, Kan realised with some annoyance that his communicator had been destroyed in the fighting, delaying his announcement. It certainly would not reflect well on him as a Fleet Master if he were first to leave the battlefield, but the situation had grown dire.

"Do you intend to use a ship?" asked Shinsu, matching Kan's speed. "Enemy fighters infest these skies. They will be a problem as we depart."

The Fleet Master chuckled. "Of course not. There is no need for such reckless endangerment with our translocation technology. Order your Legion to depart, Shinsu 'Refum. I will ferry you and your companions to safety."

Shinsu made a noise that could have been a grunt or a laugh. "The Kru'desh are not my Legion, Fleet Master. We merely fight for the same leader. The Kru'desh are his."

The warrior pointed back at the group following them, singling out the only human among them. Though much smaller in stature compared to the Sangheili around him and rather short even by the standards of his kind, they were clearly allowing him to take the lead, and he carried himself like one.

"You?" Kan tried to hide his surprise. It was not unheard of to have human military leaders in the Imperium's small empire, but the idea of Jul 'Mdama putting on in charge of an entire Legion was strange indeed.

"It's not a problem, is it?" a bored voice spoke from behind an opaque visor. "Your Imperium welcomes everyone, or so I'm told."

"It is no issue," he dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "You have proven yourselves as loyal allies today. That is all that matters."

The human shrugged and their group carried on, though Kan continued to wonder what had put the human in such a position. Were it not for his rather ragged appearance and the fact that he had never known them to defect, he might have even mistaken the man for one of the UNSC's feared 'Spartans' from his appearance alone. Eventually they emerged at the rear courtyard, where a group of Sangheili sat around, evidently bored of guard duty. Sighting the Fleet Master, they scrambled to their feet, looking rather confused at the sight of the Kru'desh.

"Fleet Master!" the nearest one bowed, "We were not informed that you were coming."

"That is because my guards are dead and my communicator destroyed. I require another."

The young soldier's eyes widened, realising what had likely just occurred and quickly fished another one of the palm-sized devices from a row nearby. Kan snatched the communicator from his hands and quickly activated it, inputting an override code usable only by members of the Imperium's High Command before linking it to a device embedded in his helmet. Such matters were usually taken care of prior to a battle, but his position within the command room had left the helmet-mounted communicator with little use. Within a few moments, Kan was connected to the battlenet channel of every friendly detachment on Montak. When he spoke, his voice reached tens of thousands.

"All troops, this is Fleet Master Kan 'Larom. By order of Imperial High Command, our forces are to depart from this planet at once. Retreat at once to your translocation pads and marked transport zones immediately for extraction. Those who are left behind will perish."

Kan cut the transmission, and turned to the nearby soldier.

"Repeat that broadcast four more times and evacuate whoever remains within this facility before you leave. The Advance Guard shall not remain within translocation distance for long, so take care that you are not left behind."

"Of course, Fleet Master!"

As he rushed off to assist his comrades, Kan waved for Shinsu and his followers to join him on the translocation pad. Though it was an unpleasant-feeling method of transport, he could not fault its effectiveness. The black-armoured swordsman and his human companion exchanged glances before stepping on, and even with their helmets on Kan could sense their unease.

"Do not worry, friends. In a few moments we shall be away from this world. Have you contacted your fellows, Commander...?"

"Stray," the human muttered. "I'll send them to our ship."

"See that you do. Once the Imperium's troops have departed, I intend to reduce this worthless patch of dirt to a sea of glass."

"What about the mining facilities?" asked Shinsu. "Was that not what we were fighting for?"

"This planet has many more resources, Shinsu 'Refum. What we have fought for today was merely a defensible position that has now lost its purpose. Montak is no great prize for our Imperium. It is merely a proving ground of sorts; a place to test ourselves against our foes. Were they to break and run here, then their military power is clearly too weak to stop us."

"And yet you retreat."

Kan's mandibles curled inwards in annoyance. "Part of the Imperial Admiral's stratagem. If they are to prove themselves to us here, then we are to draw them further into our territory. Out there, once they are in unfamiliar territory, we will break them."

Shinsu and Stray did not respond. The Fleet Master activated his communicator once more, this time contacting his flagship in orbit. The connection established, but the first to speak was the Advance Guard's temporary commander, Shipmaster 'Henu.

"Fleet Master 'Larom, it is good to hear from you," Henu sounded slightly worried. "We had been trying to contact you, but with no success. We are to retreat, then?"

"Of course. Toru 'Makhan gave the conditions for such an action. Is there an issue, Shipmaster?"

"The human fleets are beginning a renewed attack, Fleet Master. While the defences of Nor and Zetal 'Hudon may ward them off, I fear that our ships may not be able to sustain a position where we can evacuate troops and fight effectively against their advance."

You mean that it is a battle that you cannot fight, Henu. "Dispatch as many Phantoms as you can to the surface to aid in our evacuation and have my groundside teleporter activated as soon as possible. I will get us through this battle."

"At once, Fleet Master."

The communication cut out. Seconds later, the pillars surrounding the pad flared to life, and Kan 'Larom closed his eyes as he and the Kru'desh were slowly enveloped in golden light. He felt a sudden lurch, and when he opened them again he stood in the transport bay of the Advance Guard, far away from that horrible planet. Ignoring the griping of some of the mercenaries around him, he bid a quick farewell to Shinsu 'Refum and stepped down from the pad, heading back towards his bridge.

On Montak's surface, chaos still reigned as the Imperium of Clarity slowly withdrew its forces, fighting bloody retreats back towards transporter pads or dropship pickup zones while some of their less-informed mercenary allies or trapped soldiers fought to the death against the UNSC and Swords of Sanghelios. Faced with the prospect of a rapidly-advancing foe disrupting the evacuation of tens of thousands of troops, the Imperium chose to leave little room for their enemies to advance. The remaining spires were quickly abandoned by their defenders as its power finally vanished, collapsing the flickering remnants of the shield dome. Shortly after, clouds above darkened and split apart as dozens of small craft plunged through the atmosphere, unleashing enough plasma fire to burn away a country's worth of land all on the outskirts of the battlefield, leaving only swathes of contested land and major evacuation sites untouched.

The battle for Montak's surface was over. Now all the scattered survivors could do was escape the hellish warzone, as both sides came to terms with the outcome of the Imperial War's first battle.

Brodie-001: Here to help

72: Promptly And Then Some

1520 HOURS // 29 AUGUST 2558 (D-D)

Location: CONTESTED REFINERIES, MONTAK COLONY

"We heard you guys called for 'promptly'?"

Merlin blinked in confusion at the sound of a new voice buzzing his unit's communications network. The voice was unfamiliar but clearly young, someone without experience much like Merlin and Andra and Shizuko.

"Uh...hi?" Merlin asked uncertainly, however, he had a hunch already as another voice spoke to Merlin.

"Yo Showerhead! Don't you remember me and Sven? It's Oliver. D-Zero-Thirty? You better not have forgotten your first roommate man!"

Merlin's memories snapped back to a vague but colorful four years ago in SPARTAN-III training on Argus V. Oliver-D030. Merlin-D032. Friends-in-passing when occupying Cabin 003.

"Oliver, that really you?" Merlin asked hesitantly over the radio. He glanced down to look into the unfocused, almost-swimming blue eyes of Andra-D054 as she stared back at Merlin's golden-color visor. She seemed to be listening into the conversation as well as she grabbed at Merlin's armored collar and pulled herself into an upright sitting position with her titanium gauntlet.

She reached across the Mastradon's troop bay and grabbed her ODST helmet from the adjacent seat in front of her, speaking as the helmet sealed to her neck. "Deltas. Nice to hear from some friendly faces."

"Is that Doll-Girl?" Oliver's voice poked in again only for Andra to flinch in silence at hearing one of her old nicknames from training.

"Yeah, that's Andra."

"You. Andra. Shizuko. Where's the rest of Boson and Entropy?"

Merlin, Andra, and Shizuko all went dead silent at the question. No one talked for a good few seconds. Shizuko ended up breaking the silence, attempting to move past the shock of hearing old friends and talking old wounds.

"Long story. We can discuss it another time. We're coming out." Shizuko bluntly stated as she exited the Mastradon's cockpit and shimmied past Merlin and Andra who were doing their best now to stand up and begin to exit their parked troop carrier.

Merlin only took a moment to stare back at his weapon station computer screen to see a large object smash into its massive, rolling target and he felt a slight sense of dread but also satisfaction as a loud, metallic crunch was heard and fire and sand was spit in all direction obscuring the Mammoth assault platform. In a split second, there was a soft poof-sound in the distance followed by a minor shockwave. In Merlin's mind, a small victory cry erupted.

He got his payback...maybe.

Andra and Shizuko had exited the troop carrier as the door in the back of the vehicle hissed open. Merlin shut down his console and stepped out after them into the afternoon light and sandy winds of Montak's dusty foothills. Compared to the silent battlefield they left behind, this place was far more active with death and battle. Gunfire and plasma bolts echoed through the hills and plains beneath the Spartans as Imperium and Swords battled one another.

It was strange that Merlin wasn't really paying attention to it. It was almost like he was elsewhere.

Waiting in the clearing behind the troop carrier was two Spartans and a platoon of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers who looked rather dazed from some strange atmospheric drop. A couple Pelican gunships were unloading UNSC troops and supplies further up among the bluffs.

Oliver-D030. Sven-D340. Merlin's heads-up display identified the two as Spartan Branch Auxiliary Unit, Team Harrier.

"Support Unit? What's that?" Merlin asked.

Oliver responded simply. "As it sounds, we provide support operations for other Spartan units, like we're doing for you guys. We were just passing through the area, thought we'd drop by. We're not frontline guys, we just fill in the cracks where necessary."

"Fashionably late as always," Shizuko mumbled.

"Say what you will Shiz, your brother was always the funnier one."

Shizuko didn't respond at the verbal snipe from Oliver. Sven huffed in good humor but said nothing else.

The Spartans formed a full circle, not sure how to take the haphazard reunion of classmates. The ODSTs behind the Spartans shuffled a bit, awkwardly, not sure what the supersoldiers were doing. For a moment, the whole world didn't matter - only the Deltas did.

They didn't do anything for felt like minutes as visors stared into one another in comfortable-uncomfortable silence. Maybe they were trying to figure out what each other was thinking but Merlin almost felt like he was in a trance or dream.

Merlin quickly cut himself off from the rest of the Deltas and opened a new private channel with Andra.

"Class reunion huh? You're not bothered by this?"

"I'm fine..." Andra replied, killing the channel from her end. Merlin didn't look but he felt Andra shift closer to him when her armored shoulder tapped his own shoulder lightly.

One of the ODSTs broke the ritualistic silence among the Deltas, pointing toward the battlefield.

"Whose handiwork is that? Looks like a runaway carriage from hell."

The group of ODSTs and Spartans turned to look out at the battlefield and Merlin immediately felt a flushed wave of embarrassment color his cheeks an inkling.

Smoke billowed from where a giant cannon used to stand. A fire was blazed all across its titanium body and especially from the cockpit. Everything should be dead onboard the rolling Mammoth, and yet it kept on rolling. Momentum was the only thing moving it now as it barreled alone toward the contested refineries past the Imperium line. It seemed to have been left to its own devices with the exception of a UNSC Pelican gunship attempting to line up with the destroyed assault vehicle.

"Was that part of the plan Merlin?" Shizuko asked bluntly.

Merlin scratched the back of his helmet where he would have touched his scalp out of habit.

"Maybe?"

"...okay, I guess mission accomplished then."

Over the next few minutes, the screams over a wideband radio quickly corrected Merlin's presumption as reports came in from the ODST unit that boarded the Mammoth seige vehicle.

All he could do was listen in silence as talks of a rogue heavily-armed runt and his entourage of Split-Jaws ambushed the boarders and forced them into a retreat.

Merlin couldn't really process the battle details in the garbled mess of hardened war veterans meeting a superior enemy, however, the news of Simon-G294's survival continued to dig at his conscience.

He and Andra scanned the battlefield in front of them with a pair of SRS99 sniper rifles but Merlin was too unfocused to worry about the masses of aliens butchering one another in the open sands of the valley below. It was almost laughable how the former Covenant factions fought one another so openly anyway, so suicidal.

Still, Simon slogged on Merlin's mind. The rogue Spartan had murdered multiple SPARTAN-IVs and at least one Gamma. He killed hundreds of UNSC veterans and civilians without remorse if intelligence reports were to believed.

Worst Gamma Graduate. Spartan Runt. Innie Lover. Terrorist. Mass Murderer. Covenant Cult Commander. Monster. Stray.

Merlin missed Harrier team reporting a Broadsword pilot had been shot down but Shizuko was quick to take control of the situation, sending Harrier and with fire support from ODSTs to retrieve the pilot. Someone named Loudmouth.

Merlin was lost in some kind of state of disgust, uncertainty, and self-loathing. The monster named Simon continued to escape certain death. Maybe it was appropriate to call him "Simon the Undying."

"Merlin," Andra called to her partner, grasping his shoulder firmly though barelu felt by Merlin. "You in there?"

"Yeah..."

"We're going after Simon again."

"What's the game plan?"

"Drone escort. Sprint-march down into the refineries along the bluffs. Minute management of low-set active camouflage. We'll try to intercept Simon up close this time. We're going it alone this time. We got agreement from the ODSTs that this mission is best left to Headhunters."

Merlin simply nodded, still lost in his own mind.

"Hey," Andra said, bringing her hand up to Merlin's helmet so their visors were staring into one another, even if not-depolarized. "I can tell you're out of it right now. I need your head in the game Merlin. Focus. We can't do this without you."

"Go...got it. I'm with you."

It was only five minutes later when three ghostly outlines raced across the tops of rocks and sand, dancing across bluffs and foothills and going completely ignored by the battling alien armies in the sandy valley below.

Their active camo couldn't mask everything, like the Spartans' swapped out their previous assault rifles for M379 Squad Automatic Weapons and BR85 Battle Rifles. Satchels of grenades and explosives and pouches of ammunition stuck to their hips and chests. Grenade launchers and a rocket launcher rested snuggling on their backs and the brief glint of multiple armor ability plug-ins were mounted at the ready in hardened backpacks. An escort of basketball-sized MQ-96 Support Drones armed with caseless submachine guns zoomed along side the ghost-like supersoldiers on their way to the refineries.

All this gear, acquired from their satellite's storage pods and their ditched Mastodon APC, gratefully handed over to the ODST platoon they left behind.

All this to kill someone classified STOLEN GUANTLET.

And Merlin was looking forward to it all. Headhunters. Good hunting.

Distant Tide: Hunter - Killer

73: Disengagement

1609 Hours, August 29th, 2558

Montak battlespace, central mining facility exterior

When the Imperium of Clarity promised a fight, Mono Puru Kadun knew that he would not be disappointed.

Chaos reigned across the dusty plain as two sides, one a charging formation of desperate warriors, the other a solid bulwark of battle-hungry mercenaries, clashed and broke apart into a bloody melee. Deprived of their forward momentum, the Sangheili attack force could only press on as close to a hundred Mgalekgolo materialised before them. There was no defined strategy for dealing with such an event, nor was there time to organise half a legion's worth of men as they rushed down the slope and on to even ground, suddenly facing assault cannon blasts on three sides.

Their honour carried them forward, Mono observed, casually smashing a pair of Sangeili apart with his shield. He felt a quiver run through his colony as their broken bodies hit the ground, and turned to see several of his kin blasted apart on a nearby hillside. They are fools for believing that this alone will win the day.

Bereft of any real plan, the Swords of Sanghelios had simply met the Mgalekgolo force head-on, using their numbers to swarm the defensive force in an attempt to break through and reach the central refinery complex that loomed overhead. As Fleet Master 'Larom's last line of defence, Mono and his forces had remained in orbit, ready to translocate from the Advance Guard's hangar bay to one of several pre-marked points on Montak. Though there had been some chatter over the Imperium's battlenet about an attack on the Taskmaster, Mono would not comply any commands that did not come from the Fleet Master himself, and busied himself with the slaughter.

Angling his still-smoking assault cannon, Mono levelled the weapon and launched a stream of incendiary gel at a cluster of charging Sangheili as they threatened to overwhelm one of his kin, killing two outright and sending the others sprawling into the dirt as they swiftly burned to death. The red-armoured Mgalekgolo span round as plasma bolts thudded against his thick armour, shuddering in annoyance as two worms in his colony screamed and died. Two Sangheili in silver harnesses darted towards him, each drawing attention in a different direction. Warding off a few more bolts with his shield, Mono's body rumbled with amusement.

They treat me like a half-blind beast, unable to fight without another to guard me. Fools.

Feinting towards the left with a short leap towards one warrior, Mono's cannon arm snapped to one side, loosing a globule of energy that struck his first attacker head-on as he tried to approach. As the Sangheili's top half disintegrated, his ally dived behind Mono, trying in vain to strike a killing blow with a lucky burst of plasma. Sensing his foe's movement, Mono simply flung himself backwards, bringing five tons of weight d