Terminal.png This article, Vadam Legacies: The Rift, was written by Sonasaurus and Maslab. Please do not edit this fiction without the writers' permission.
Vadam Legacies: The Rift
The Fallen have risen. They have declared war upon the Sangheili for taking sides with humanity. And their ruthless new leader will go to any lengths to win.
Protagonist Autel 'Vadam
Antagonist Isto 'Vadum
Author Sonasaurus
Date Published June 11, 2009
Length 8 Chapters
29,127 words
Author's Rating Violence
Mild Language
4.5/5 stars
Previous Story The Fallen
Next Story Shrugging Off the Chains
Story Series Vadam Legacies


Super optimal.png The author of this article, Vadam Legacies: The Rift, urges anyone who reads it to provide feedback on the quality of the article. Thank you!

Chapter 1

Time 16:22:37:09 (Accuracy 1/10 to that of Forerunner), tenth sunrise shift of the fifth month (Sanghelios Time Unit), 4th Age of Amendment (Covenant Time Unit, based on Forerunner Time Unit)

Location: State of Pyron, Sanghelios

0800 Hours, February 22nd, 2559 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Sangheili Minor Taszar 'Vadam moved quickly, evading the energy bolts that flew past him. He retaliated by firing his Plasma Rifle at his opponent, taking a few shots on his shields. He closed in, punching the enemy had on the shoulder, breaking the bone. As the other Sangheili dropped his weapon and moved to retaliate with his working arm, the minor domo lashed out swiftly with his leg, causing his opponent to lose his balance. The separatist managed to remain standing, but looked up just in time to see the young Sangheili cracking his weapon over his head. The assailant fell back and crumpled.

Taszar made sure the enemy was dead, and paused for a moment to think. How much longer would this war drag on? For six years, this conflict had been spreading throughout Sanghelios and other nearby systems. Many Sangheili had objected openly to their truce with the humans after the defeat of the Covenant Loyalists and their treacherous leaders the San'Shyuum, and created a rebel group called "The Fallen". Their belief had been that they had fallen from honour by taking the side of the humans, and although they were no believers of the delusive Great Journey, circumstances turned what should have been a triumphant return from the war to a bitter disagreement. After months of tense political dispute and suspicious activities from the Fallen, war erupted on Sanghelios. The protesters were unusually well-organized, and friends turned unexpectedly on each other. The conflicts were long and bloody, and although the original Fallen leader, Atsu 'Hidal had been killed three years ago, it was rumoured there was another one operating in secrecy. And now, although he hated the war greatly from the day he joined the battles, the fighting itself did not bother Taszar unduly. Killing another Sangheili was the same as any other foe, if there was a good reason.

Taszar swore as he saw more Fallen charging him. Where were those reinforcements that were supposed to be here? He couldn't take them all on his own. Unfortunately, the Sangheili were spread thin trying to hold down the separatist forces, and soldiers were being sent to and fro to wherever was needed most. Anyone put in a squad were most likely to be in a heavy skirmish, and would be lucky to have a leader rallying them. It looked like was alone for the time being, and there was nothing for it but to take them all out.

Opening fire, the young Sangheili cut down one of the separatists with a sustained burst, grimacing as he noticed his own shields were depleted. There was no time to take cover. Drawing a plasma pistol, he melted the head of a second with an overcharged shot. Raising his rifle again, he fired rapidly on the last enemy, but didn't manage to take him down before the gun overheated too and vented blue steam.

Taszar dropped his weapons, preparing to deal with the separatist with his own hands. The assailant's mandibles parted in a nasty smile as he aimed at the young Sangheili, but didn't move more than two steps before he screamed and jerked upward. Two energy blades appeared in his chest. The Fallen fell (Taszar smiled grimly at the irony), and another Sangheili appeared out of the air. It was his friend, Zehr'tul 'Sum.

"There are more enemies coming," the stealth soldier said, handing him his rifle back. "I managed to slow them down, but they seem to have something of importance in these facilities, because they keep sending soldiers to take this area back."

"Do you have a plan?" Taszar asked.

"Our reinforcements are almost here. They are coming by foot. Something shot their dropship down."

The Fallen were becoming increasingly resourceful, and their threat was heavier than ever. This war had to end soon.

"We should go," Zehr'tul said, turning around. "Tico 'Serul says he will hold the Fallen away from this area until he finds what they are trying to keep us away from. The Arbiter has a suspicion as to what it is. We are being ordered to destroy the hidden anti-aircraft cannons so that our Phantoms can make their way through here."

Tico 'Serul was one of the most renowned Special Operations Officers in the military. The fact that the Arbiter wanted a massive force placed here, a fairly large commando squad no less, meant that there was a good chance something of importance was around here.

"You should see how many units are being pulled over here," Zehr'tul said, reading his mind. "The battle here should be over soon."

Over? Taszar thought, following him down the street. Were it so easy.

Autel 'Vadam entered the Keep, carefully cradling a series of bundles in his arms. Usually the symbols and images engraved into the wall would interest him whenever he moved up or down the stairs, but today his mind was elsewhere. It had been for a while now. Upon reaching the fourth level, he easily found her room, and opened the door.

"Autel?" a voice called. "Is that you?"

"Yes, Cyla," he replied, entering. "I have returned." He handed the bundles over to her, and wiped the perspiration off his face.

Cyla sat up in bed, leaning against the wall. "Was there any trouble?" she asked, unwrapping the bundles, and looking at them.

"No. No one ventures here, and there is not much they would want from us." His calm demeanour tensed as he heard the sound of the main door opening and closing. Drawing a plasma pistol, he said, "Remain here."

The Vadam Keep was emptier than usual, because a lot of the soldiers were fighting the separatists, and the younglings and elderly were kept out of danger. He had long disapproved of the decision, although it had been ordered for everyone on Sanghelios. He himself felt there was little honour in abandoning one's Keep, which was not only a home but a representation of who any Sangheili was. But it was pointed out that the Fallen, despite their claims, did not always abide by their honour, and it wouldn't be put past them to slaughter those unable to defend themselves.

It could be a Vadam returning from the State, the albino Sangheili thought. But these days, it never hurt to be careful.

Autel silently padded down the stairs, pistol ready, but relaxed when he saw who it was. An exhausted-looking Sangheili was making his way towards the stairs. He wore a grey-coloured armour, with ancient symbols and patterns etched upon it. It was the Arbiter, Thel 'Vadam.

"How was your day, father?" Autel asked.

"Not good," Thel replied wearily. "The Fallen are causing more trouble, and I am not sure we can keep them down much longer." Thel had taken a political position on Sanghelios, and was trying to negotiate terms with the separatists.

"What about their leader?" Autel said, as they made their way up the stairs.

"We still do not know who it is. He refuses to meet directly."

"We are certain there is a leader, then?"

"Yes, but we cannot sense his intentions. He makes his moves very carefully." Thel looked slightly frustrated. "What have you discovered?"

"We have found more traitors among the families," Autel said. "Nadi 'Andal has also been recently acquitted following suspicions of assisting the Fallen. He claims he was set up by the Vadum family."

Thel frowned. The young Sangheili knew he was thinking about Fleet Master Rtas 'Vadum, whose honour would never lead him to betray them to the Fallen. But perhaps his family was not necessarily the same way. However, the Arbiter's expression faded into a slight smile when they reached Cyla's room.

"Greetings, Arbiter," she said, gently laying the bundles on the bed. "Please, come in."

The two Sangheili entered, and as Autel sat down beside his father, Thel said, "Congratulations. How many?"

"Three," Cyla said, looking down fondly at the sleeping newborns. "Two males, one female."

"I had just returned from the mountaintop," Autel said. "I was about to take them to the temple for the final blessing."

Thel examined each of the baby Sangheili. "Their appearances seem to be normal," he observed. The newborns were slumbering peacefully, looking completely untroubled. The female shifted as she awoke, yawned, and opened her eyes. The Arbiter inhaled sharply. Her irises were the same colour as Autel's. White, with a hint of red in them. Naturally piercing.

"That will not be a problem," Autel said. "No one in the Keep will know." After newborns were blessed, the males were kept in the Keep, while the females were sent into the State, along with the mother.

The doctor entered the room, holding a container. "Cyla, I must administer to you one last dose of the strengthening solution." Thel stood up, placed his fingers to his chest in the "best of luck" gesture, and left the room.

Autel stood up too. "I will return soon," he said. Cyla nodded, and said, "I will prepare to leave." Sangheili females lost a lot of blood upon giving birth, and she had spent the last few units trying to recover it. They quickly embraced, and he picked up the newborns gently and left the room.

Taszar stepped over the body of the last member of the rebel squad. It had been a quiet affair, and despite the Fallen's larger numbers, he and Zehr'tul had taken them down one by one without raising the alarm. They were only detected once, but it was a single guard. The minor domo had silenced him quickly, locking blades with the guard and headbutting him, goring his foe's face in with the spikes on his helmet.

The metal on the headgear gleamed purple in the low light along with his orange eyes, giving him an eerie appearance. But if anything, Taszar remained as calm as ever. Zehr'tul's blade, its energy vapourized any blood that came into contact with it, was as pure in colour as ever. It was hard to tell that the stealthy Sangheili had scored numerous kills in the past few subunits.

The Fallen hideout was ingeniously designed, hidden away into the face of a cliff. The separatists had been careful not to leave any traces, but thanks to Kei 'Oltem, who had a specialty for tracking, he identified the hidden entrance and gave an estimate as to the size of the structure inside. Taszar and Zehr'tul had entered surreptitiously, aware of the air patrols no doubt swooping hidden above them somewhere. They had to kill a few enemies, but by the time their bodies were found, the two Sangheili would be long gone.

The next room was brightly lit. Taszar and Zehr'tul took positions on either side of the doorway and peeked in. Many Sangheili, mostly Minors, loitered around. The room was quite obviously a dining hall, and the midday meal was in full swing. A few months ago, the young Sangheili had felt apprehensive at the thought of spilling the blood of his own race, but after several battles, he saw what they were up to, and his sympathy quickly vanished.

Their blood holds no honour, he thought. They have tainted themselves with self-deceit.

But their task right now was not to score kills. Taszar and Zehr'tul activated their camouflage and passed unnoticed on the catwalks above.

The adjacent rooms were all connected to a series of corridors leading out of the dining hall. Most likely dormitories. Leaving the long passageway behind, the next room was what they were really looking for: the armoury. The long-time friends nodded to each other and each moved to set the charges. Firearms were first to be rigged to explode, then the fuel cells and explosives. The last room was guarded by four Sangheili, however.

"We should set them out of sight," Zehr'tul said quietly.

"We cannot take the chance that they will discover it," Taszar said. "The key points to set the explosives are behind those two anyway."

His friend shrugged, and held his Energy Sword in his hand. The former dropped a plasma grenade discreetly behind one of the guards. The Fallen turned their heads to see the glowing explosive. The stealth Sangheili quickly cut down the one farthest to the back.

The grenade exploded before the second guard could react, killing him. Zehr'tul managed to take down a second enemy. The last one, however, reached for an alarm strapped to his side.

Taszar shot him several times, dropping him. But the alarm had been raised. Cursing, he said, "We must set the charges to detonate immediately. It does not matter whether we make it out or not, this place must be destroyed." His friend nodded, and they hurriedly completed their task. Quickly activating their camouflage, the two Sangheili ran back the way they came, bypassing many units of Fallen that may or may not have spotted them.

They reached the catwalk again, and noticed that everything seemed to still be normal. But another Sangheili was coming their way. The catwalk being only wide enough for one Sangheili at once, the pair had no choice but to kill him.

Taszar held a fist up to Zehr'tul, who nodded. The two backed up into the first hallway again, which was now empty. When the guard entered, the stealth Sangheili deactivated his camouflage. The Fallen's mandibles went slack in surprise, and reached for his weapon.

Taszar stepped behind him, wrapping a purple garrote wire around the Sangheili's neck and wrenching it tight. Blood poured out of his neck and he crumpled to his knees, dropping his gun and grabbing at his throat instead. The separatist struggled with the wire for a moment, unable to make a sound.

"Be quick," Taszar said. "It will not be long before the next guard comes here."

The friends ran off silently, leaving the single enemy to writhe dying on the ground. Behind them, they heard the sound of the charges detonate. They managed to reach the exit in time to see Fallen aircraft coming in towards the structure. As they cleared the area, the rumbling echoed through the mountains as half the cliff face collapsed.

Autel walked down the steps of the keep carrying the three tiny bundles. He was a father. The thought had been in his mind all morning, but it still filled him with a great joy. He knew that the males would never know that he was their ancestor when they became older, but he would be able to watch over them and ensure they became great warriors.

Thel had looked worried when he saw the female's eyes. He himself had been thinking about it more than once. It was one of the many signs that would mark her as different as she become older, no doubt. But perhaps it was also an indication of something special about her. He had seen Cyla's far-away look when she gazed on her daughter. He could never tell what she was thinking when she looked like that.

Autel's hooves clicked on the stone as he reached the bottom of the stairs. He spun as he heard a rustling, saw a flash of armour and ducked. Without giving time to pause, he left the newborns on the ground as he rose again, activating his Energy Sword. It was strange that there were intruders inside the Keep at this time, but long-time experience had taught him to remain alive during the moment of crisis and find the answers later.

Air whistled behind him, and he spun and blocked the energy staff. With a twist of his wrist he destroyed the weapon. Another twist, and his attacker's head flew off.

More of the Fallen rushed out of the other rooms, each of them carrying armfuls of bundles. With a horrible realization of what they were doing, he looked down, and saw that the bundles no longer lay at his feet. In the doorway, a Sangheili was holding them. His children.

The separatists were running out of the keep, and Autel gave chase. He cut down as many of them as he could, but kept his eyes on the one trailing behind. Leaping through the air, he drove his energy blades deep into his back.

The rest of the enemies were gone. Pulling his weapon out of the dead Sangheili, he looked down and realized that there were not three bundles, but two. Looking them over, he realized that they were not his children. Slowly and carefully, he headed back towards the Keep, picking up all the newborns he could find. Fortunately, none of them were hurt, but he felt hollow inside. His own offspring were gone. Taken.

Cyla jerked up as she heard a mighty roar, and the sound of an Energy Sword activating. She knew something was wrong.

The doctor looked up. "Is there a problem, Excellency?"

Cyla twisted to look out the window, where many Sangheili were running down the path, with Autel running after them, cutting them down. "What has happened?"

She watched Autel disappear down the path for a moment, and headed back inside holding something. There was the sound of urgent conversation downstairs, and after several minutes, he entered the room, holding a deactivated Energy Sword. His normally pale eyes were a deep shade of crimson, and his mandibles were bared in anger.

His hands trembling, he placed the weapon back on his side. Breathing erratically, he looked at Cyla slowly and said softly, "They have taken them." His expression held great pain.

The doctor awkwardly left the room, and a moment later, Cyla felt tears running down her face. She cried out in despair and squeezed her eyes shut, feeling Autel's arms around her. She could almost feel his sadness. Cyla tried to stop her weeping, but could not, and wished that her hearts would stop beating.

Chapter 2

Time 16:22:37:09 (Accuracy 1/10 to that of Forerunner), fourteenth sunrise shift of the fifth month (Sanghelios Time Unit), 4th Age of Amendment (Covenant Time Unit, based on Forerunner Time Unit)

Location: In Slipstream space

1652 Hours, February 26th, 2559 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Thel 'Vadam walked to the head of the bridge, next to Rtas 'Vadum.

"I just received a communique from Sanghelios, Arbiter."

"What is it?"

Rtas blinked and clicked his mandibles. "In your quarters. Autel wishes to speak with you."

Sensing something was wrong, he walked slightly faster back to his quarters.

Sealing the door, he activated the holo-table and opened a channel to Sanghelios, tuned to Autel's COM.

He responded a subunit later. "Father, thank you for answering quickly."

Thel was startled. Autel's armour was on, except his helmet, providing him a good view of Autel's face, white, with the two purple scars on his right cheek.

"What has transpired? You should still be travelling with your children!"

Autel hung his head. "The Fallen have committed an act of great disrepute." Quickly, he explained what happened.

"They have slaughtered several Vadams at the Keep, and attempted to leave with every newborn inside. I brought back about a dozen of them, but the rest have been taken...including my own."

Thel resisted the urge to break the door in. "We will return to Sanghelios at once!"

"No, we must find help! The Keep is losing hope, and our warriors are spread thin. I will personally be tracking down my children, but you must bring the help of the humans."

Thel was humbled by his son's calmness and strength. "Very well. How is your mate?"

It was Autel's turn to be humbled. "Not well, she has taken ill from grief and cannot travel. I have assured her all is well, but the physician says that retrieving the children is of utmost importance, for her and the Keep." He snorted. "Like I needed to be told that."

Thel nodded. "I should not keep you any longer. Go, and bring down the fury of Vadam onto the usurpers!"

Autel nodded and shut off the holotable.

"Katana, you are cleared for drop," said Lieutenant Hannah-201 over the COM. "Good hunting."

Joey-G148 replied: "Aye aye, prepping for drop."

The five Spartans of Katana team seated themselves in the drop pods and buckled up. A few minutes later the hatch slid shut in front of them, and darkness engulfed the inside of the pods. Lights flickered on, and a team com channel opened, as well as one to the STARS satellite. Joey watched as the mission parameters scrolled down in front of him:

//Stellar System: Zeta-9//

//Mission: Inspection of old UNSC emergency code//

//The following is a transcript of the emergency beacon://

This is ODST squad[static] of the 105th ODST division. We are stranded on planet Zeta-9, coor[static] Are running low on [static] and need assistance. Broadcast repeats.

//End transcript//

//Select this to hear the full transmission//

He switched off the message and checked the countdown. Thirty seconds. As the Helljumpers would put it: "Time to shove the cork in your ass."

Five... four... three... two... one...

A loud thump was heard, and he accelerated incredibly fast from the belly of the cruiser.

"Katana, we're predicting that you'll be split up by about two kilometres, and about one klick from your predicted landing site."

"Copy that, ma'am."

The pod began rumbling as they hit atmosphere. The Spartan waited calmly, easily putting aside his thoughts on their perilous descent and thinking instead about the mission they were given. If the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers could make a fast drop onto a planet on a fragile metal pod, then he, a supersoldier, would have no reason to be afraid.

"Thirty seconds to landing."

Joey braced himself.

"Deploying chute."

He jolted in his seat as the chute unravelled and slowed his downward velocity.

"Fifteen seconds."


His pod hit the soft earth hard, and he felt his spine stress with the inertia of his body. He checked the external sensors for hostiles, then hit the eject button. The front of his pod shot away from him with a bang, and he leaped out on to the moist ground of Zeta-9. Syncing with the GPS from the STARS satellite, he took off to the RV point with the rest of Katana Team.

He was second there. Dennis was first, seated on a tree stump, cloaked. The rest of the team got there within ten minutes, with Sara lagging behind the others. She ran up, explaining that her pod hatch had stuck shut. Thus reunited, Katana team activated their camouflage and set off in to the undergrowth, towards the source of the signal.

It was twenty-two klicks to the signal location. It was going to be a long walk...

Corporal Aqil Hafsa finished shaving and shook the shaving cream can. Almost empty. Damn.

He checked for any last stubble before washing his face and slinging his weapon over his back. Marching out of the makeshift latrine, he spotted Gunnery Sergeant O'Brien coming down off the ridge. When O'Brien saw him he pumped his arm, and Hafsa's blood ran cold.

Ever since they'd landed on this planet seven years ago they'd acted out guerrilla warfare on the Covenant troops stationed here. When they'd run out of bullets they'd hauled off Covenant weapons. Unfortunately the aliens, weather, and constant food shortages had whittled their numbers down from their original 36 to just 19 of them. Among the dead were Staff Sergeant Donald and Sergeant Major Anderson. Donald had been cut down by a Brute with a grenade launcher, literally blown to bits. Anderson had gone down under a slew of Jackals, who poured over him in an attempt to break the ODST line.

At first morale had been high, but as the years passed and boredom really set in, things were starting to look bad.

Now things couldn't be worse. Half the remaining men were close to mutiny, and now the Covenant were on their way once more to bring the fight to the Marines.

Hurrying from shelter to shelter, Hafsa roused the ODSTs and got ready to move out. They bundled up all the essentials, doused the fires, and packed the small tents. They left the more complicated shelters, like the lean-tos and the small caves. They'd been in this particular location for about three months, and had built more permanent shelters. Now they had to abandon them.

The company was ready to move within six minutes. By that time Hafsa had learned that the Covenant forces were only a couple minutes out. They had to move or get screwed to the wall. The nineteen remaining ODSTs double-timed it out of the depression and made for the heart of the woods. Hafsa took rearguard, watching for the enemies that would be pursuing them. The company travelled for two kilometers before bumping into another search party.

It wasn't as if Hafsa expected to get away clean, but it wasn't as bad as he thought it would be. There were twenty or so Grunts and two Brutes, and the team immediately engaged. Despite the lack of hope that weighed down the ODSTs, they still took the initiative to take tactical positions and worked as a team. Grenades were thrown in lines, taking out masses of Grunts, and snipers hung back, trying to take down the Brutes. O'Brien didn't even have to issue orders, the troops knew what to do. Still, it was pretty simple: stay together or die.

One ODST took a spike through the leg, and stumbled towards a rock, ducking behind it as medic rushed to help him. They'd had to resort to using Covenant medical equipment, their own having been used up years ago. A trio of Grunts rushed towards them, their sound of their footsteps easily heard padding across the ground. Without turning, the injured Marine poked his sidearm around the corner of the boulder and squeezed of a few shots. The bullets that hit took one Grunt in the chest twice, dropping the tiny alien. Hafsa quickly took aim and shot the other two in the head.

A few minutes later, the Brutes had been sniped down, the Grunts neutralized, and the area was clear for the time being. The medic finished treating the ODST, and helped him up. The team re-orientated themselves, and moved on.

Joey held up his hand and the team halted.

He cocked his head and listened hard. Sure enough, he heard Covenant weapons fire off in the distance.

"Let's check it out."

They followed the sounds and found themselves at the site of a small battle.

"Sara, where's the beacon now?"

"Half a klick due east, sir."

"Move out."

The ODSTs had walked into the middle of another firefight. This time there were thirty Grunts, fifteen Jackals, ten Brutes, as well as a swarm of those Drones.

Hafsa gritted his teeth in frustration. They had hardly moved out for more than five minutes before they were tracked again. This time, the numbers were bigger.

One ODST screamed as he was picked up by a Drone. The alien flew twenty feet into the air, and dropped the Marine. The Corporal winced as he heard the sound of the soldier's bones breaking as his scream was sharply cut off.

"Take out the fliers, damn it!" O'Brien shouted. The Marines raised their guns and shot many of them out of the air. But this gave the Covenant ground forces a chance to rally and pour gunfire in from all sides.

The team was beginning to lose cohesion. Some fired wildly, while others tried to run. More than one was cut down by the ruthless onslaught.

Hafsa was aiming at a trio of Jackals, trying to shift his line of fire around their energy shields, when he heard O'Brien grunt behind him. The Sergeant, who had been providing covering fire for a pair of Marines as they tried to disengage from a particularly nasty swarm of Drones, had been hit by a flurry of spikes fired by one of the Brutes' deadly one-handed Carbines. The Corporal turned around, primed a plasma grenade, and paid the gorilla-like alien back in kind by attaching the explosive to his armour. Without waiting for it to detonate, he fired in sustained bursts at the Jackals' unprotected fingers, unwilling to let the Covenant get to his Sergeant.

Five green-armoured Spartans charged into the fray, pressing in from the opposite side and breaking the Covenant circle. They shot Jackals in the back, and took down the Drones with deadly accuracy. One of them killed three Brutes in a matter of seconds.

Immediately, the fight turned in favour of the humans. The ODSTs cheered themselves ragged, and fought with fresh vigour. In a few minutes it was once again over.

"We did it, Sarge," Hafsa said, grinning. His smile faded when he turned to see O'Brien lying on the ground, completely still, his rifle still gripped tightly in his hand.

Joey looked the Helljumpers over. There were thirteen left. Some of them were standing over the bodies of their fellow soldiers, others looking at the Spartan with interest. He realized that they were wearing old ODST armour, most of their gear battered and cracked. The unhelmeted ones looked as worn-out as their equipment.

He marched up to a young Marine. "Where's your CO, Private?"

The soldier looked up at him, ashen faced, and jerked his head towards two ODSTs, both with their helmets off. One was on the ground, dead.

Hafsa looked up from the body of O'Brien. "I'm in command now. What took you so long to get here?"

"We just picked up on your transmission a few hours ago. We got here as soon as we could. What's your division?"

"105th, assigned to the Pillar of Autumn."

Joey was shocked. From what John-117 had told him, the 105th had been wiped out on Alpha Halo, how could...unless...

Katana's COMs crackled and the voice of Commander Evelyn Feng filled their ears.

"Katana, we are extracting you on the double. A message just came from the Sangheili requesting assistance. SPARTAN-116 has requested we meet in-system, we're going to rendezvous at best speed and Commander Montrose is going to take you to Sanghelios. A Pelican is coming in to bring you back to the Aurora Borealis."

Katana looked at each other and then at the bedraggled ODSTs.

Joey clicked on to respond: "Yes, ma'am. By the way, we just found our objective. You're not going to believe this..."

Chapter 3

1900 Hours, February 26th, 2559 (UNSC Military Calendar), aboard UNSC Aeolus-class Frigate Independent Crusader, in Slipstream space

Lieutenant Commander Felix Martel paced the floor back and forth, thinking. He was dimly aware that the Independent Crusader entered Slipspace, but he couldn't help but feel that it wasn't quick enough.

"Are you certain that the transmission reached Zeta-9?" he asked. Cortana's hologram flickered on at a nearby pedestal. She still seemed different after she had been modified by the Forerunner technicians. She had opted to remain without a physical form, but had a tinge of silver to her purple-blue image. But she didn't seem as obstructed by memory space anymore, which could only be an improvement.

"No, I'm not certain," Cortana replied. "Once a COM probe is sent through Slipspace it is impossible to track down. Even with our developing technology it'll still be decades before we figure out how. But I'm ninety-three point six four percent certain the transition was successful, and a ninety-one point two seven percent chance of exit without anomaly."

One thing never changed about her though. She was still as smart-mouthed as ever.

"Thank you," the Spartan officer said dryly. Out of the corner of his eye he saw John's helmet twitch slightly, behind which he was sure held a knowing smile. No doubt the Chief had received many of Cortana's cynical comments before. The senior Spartan decided to sit down instead.

Assembled around the room were the other Spartans. Blue and Grey Team of the SPARTAN-IIs, and Beta Company and Team Sabre of the SPARTAN-IIIs. If Ezekiel received the transmission, he would have gathered Team Katana to meet them at Zeta-9.

Felix thought back to the message. It seemed odd that the proud, honourable Sangheili would do something like wage wars upon themselves. He knew what caused it, and felt a slight twinge of guilt for the Sangheili. They still remained allies to the UNSC, even after the separatists threatened war.

"How long until we arrive?" he asked.

"You're rather jumpy," Cortana said, but decided to give an answer. "Including our first exit to pick up the others, we will reenter normal space at Sanghelios in fifteen hours."

The Spartan's hands tightened. Fifteen hours was such a long time. And he owed a favour to the species that had pulled him out of dead space and saved Earth, twice.

"Relax," the AI advised. "With our old engines it would have taken us days."

The Lieutenant Commander sighed. She was right. They were headed for Sanghelios at maximum speed, and there was nothing he could really do about it to get there faster. He had to accept that and put it out of his mind, like any other Spartan.

It was difficult, because he wasn't a Spartan. Not really. He hadn't been trained like everyone else, and only the Forerunner chemicals injected into his body kept him alive through the past three years. Still, he decided to distract himself by examining the upgraded weapons. Despite the newly claimed Forerunner weapons and intelligence, the UNSC had not wanted to overkill their tech with ultra-powerful weapons, as such objects could cause problems if there was ever trouble for humanity again (if the Insurrection were reformed, to say, or perhaps a greater threat). And seeing what had happened on Sanghelios, Felix didn't really blame them.

The senior Spartan surveyed the team. He had found and gathered the survivors of the supersoldiers in 2556, and they had been through a lot since then. The UNSC must have understood the urgency of the situation, because sending every Spartan they had was a bit much for most ops. Then again, it wasn't like they had anything to do at Earth anyway.

Blue Team were the most well-known SPARTAN-IIs alive. Lieutenant Frederic-104 was the leading officer, although he cared a bit too much about his subordinates. Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy John-117 was probably the most known of his team, after his accomplishments on Installations 04, 05, and the Ark (although Cortana often liked to call it "luck"). Although Fred outranked him, he held that air of leadership about him. Petty Officers Kelly-087 and Linda-058 were almost complete opposites. Kelly liked cracking jokes, preferred close range combat and worked well with anything that fired full automatic. Linda was often quiet, had a serious, almost cold personality, and posted as a sharpshooter unless ordered otherwise. However, to say that Linda was just a sniper was like saying a Warthog was just a car, or the UNSC was just a group of soldiers.

Grey Team were trained under the same class as Blue Team, but were more discreet. Petty Officers Jai-006 and Adriana-111 were a bit more on the loose side than most Spartans, and their pilot Mike perhaps a bit too much so. They had not seen as much action as most SPARTAN-IIs over the course of their career, but that was not to say they were incompetent. The Lieutenant Commander had found out just how much he could trust them in 2556.

Tom-B292 and Lucy-B091 were the senior SPARTAN-IIIs. Although their combat strategies were similar to one another, Felix had never heard Lucy say a word. He knew that she wasn't merely quiet. Not even Linda kept such a long stretch of silence in the three years he knew her. Something was obviously wrong with her ability to speak, but he didn't want to ask if she wasn't willing to tell. Then again, she never told anyone anything.

Ash, Olivia, and Mark were the Gamma Company SPARTAN-IIIs, under Team Sabre. They were a bit rough around the edges, but worked well as a team, and had proven their worth in combat. Team Katana was no different.

Ezekiel-254 was a Class II SPARTAN-II. He was given the rank of Lieutenant a few years ago, to train what was rumoured to be a fifth company of SPARTAN-IIIs, Delta Company. The Lieutenant Commander knew that Delta Company had never been trained, but there were a few hundred SPARTAN-IIIs from Gamma Company Missing in Action. No one could find them yet, but with the UNSC's new technology, it would not be long. He had also recently been regrouped with his teammate, Lieutenant Hannah-201.

Currently, the Spartans numbered to a score, which was good considering the fact that they were thought to be wiped out in 2553. Twenty Spartans could do a heck lot of damage on any enemy, and Felix was glad they were here. And pretty soon, so would the Sangheili.

Autel kept pace with the Fallen without difficulty, making not even the slightest noise from his hooves. He kept his eyes on the separatist, and knew that Fira was behind him. If he looked away for a moment, they could lose the enemy. It had taken them long enough to find him in the first place.

He knew that the Fallen would most likely notice the active camouflage he and Fira were using as well should he turn around, as all Sangheili were trained to enhance their already sharp vision. But for the moment, it kept them a bit less conspicuous.

Autel could make out the vague outline of a sack hefted over the Sangheili's back, and felt repulsed. Never had the Fallen resorted to such immoral methods of war. When they were formed during the first Age of Amendment, their leader Atsu 'Hidal was ruthless, but kept his faction within the bounds of honour and never declared war on the Sangheili. The new leader, whoever it was, didn't have a problem with going to any lengths to achieve his goals. The sight of seeing the younglings being kidnapped to provoke the families tempted him to free the newborns he was sure was inside. But if they waited, it was more likely they would find all of them.

After many subunits, the Fallen arrived at an aircraft factory, and slipped inside. Autel blinked. Hidden in plain sight. It wasn't even abandoned. Just how much control over Sanghelios did the separatists possess?

Autel hefted a Plasma Repeater. Fira took his Needle Rifle off his back. They entered before the doors closed, and—

Thick, white powder sprayed them. Alarms rang through the factory. Autel swore as he realized that they didn't even take the time to check for security. They must have tripped a scanner.

He hadn't been thinking straight since his newborns were kidnapped. Without telling anyone, he found Fira, who agreed to help him. Apparently several newborns from his family were stolen as well, although the latter currently had no offspring of his own.

After many units of searching, they had spotted a blur moving quickly down the street. Sometimes stealth made you an obvious target. After following it for all day through various states, the separatist never realized he was being followed. And after the painstaking trail, their chance at stealth was just squandered by the single mistake.

Fallen rushed in, firing at them. The powder had coated them completely, rendering the camouflage useless. Autel tried to take down as many as he could, but knew they would not last long. There was also no way around them. He and Fira started to back up, but more Fallen blocked the exits. They were trapped.

Autel clenched his fists around his weapon. Everything had gone wrong. Now there was nothing for it but to fight to the death. He primed a plasma grenade and was about to throw it when an explosion tore the main door open. Dozens of Sangheili rushed in, firing at once. In a single heartbeat, the tables were turned, and soon the Fallen in the room were eliminated.

Autel wiped some of the powder off his face, and gaped in surprise. "How did they know we were here?"

Fira smiled. "I tend to think ahead, my friend. And I found many willing to help me."

Autel saw his step-brother approach them and hand them cleaning units. "You look even paler than usual," he teased. Autel returned the smile, grateful that they had been there.

Fira was conversing with a silver-armoured Sangheili. Autel knew that the Ultra was Fira's older cousin.

"This is where they have taken them?" he asked.

"I think so, Sona," Fira replied, activating the cleaning unit and watching it restore his armour back to its original crimson, "although there may also be other locations they hide in."

"Then we shall find the scum responsible for this and wring out their innards until they reveal the truth to us," the Ultra growled.

Autel was surprised. He knew that Sona 'Demal was a formidable warrior, but was also known for his lack of unnecessary aggression. He had never heard him speak with such venom in his voice. Then again, the Fallen had committed a great sin, and in addition abducted twenty-one newborns from the Demal line.

Autel checked that his armour was free of powder, and re-entered invisibility. Fira did the same. "We shall investigate," he said. "If you remain here, the Fallen may think they held you up." A moment later, another door opened, and more Fallen entered.

"Fire!" Sona ordered, and the Sangheili engaged the separatists. Autel and Fira moved through several empty rooms, and found a gravity lift in a parallel hallway, heading for the top floor. They stepped into it, and caught glimpses of the rooms they passed containing what looked like weapons and supplies clustered around magnetic containers and gravity belts. Autel heard a pipe explode below him as plasma melted a tube on the first level. He got a glimpse of fuel spilling all over the floor before they reached the top and were thrown out of the lift.

They were in a docking bay, where ships were launched after construction. The testing passages were removed, and a stealth corvette parked below the exit. Groups of Fallen were taking opaque sacks and loading them onto the corvette.

One of the sacks moved, and a separatist held up a can of tranquilizer. Facing away from the opening, he sprayed into the sack. The movements stopped.

Another Sangheili stood at the base of the corvette's gravity lift. He was obviously in command. "Hurry," he snapped. "It will not be long before they find us." He turned to one of the Fallen. "Have the reinforcements been sent?"

"Yes, Excellency," he replied.

"Then deactivate the gravity lifts," he said. The Fallen complied, and the lift dimmed and shut down.

There was something familiar about his voice. Autel realized who it was.

"Isto 'Vadum," he whispered. Isto was infamous for his brutality, and had a well-known rivalry with Fleet Master Rtas 'Vadum. Although he was widely suspected to be a part of the Fallen, nothing had ever been proven. Until now. It was possible he could even be the leader of the Fallen.

"What is our plan?" Fira asked. "Sona and his squad cannot reach us."

"We should enter the ship," Autel said. "Perhaps we can disable it. Then we will reactivate the gravity lifts and convince Isto to surrender."

"I do not think he will surrender," Fira remarked, but they moved for the ship. They would have to slip past Isto, but there was no other option.

A Fallen carried three sacks and approached the gravity lift. "These are the last ones," he said, "and the storage facilities are full."

"We shall carry them ourselves then," Isto said. He grabbed one of the sacks and moved for the gravity lift.

There was a thud as the sack swung around and hit Fira in the shoulder. Isto's eyes flashed. He dropped the sack, pulled a concussion rifle out, and fired.

Autel moved to help him, but his friend made a subtle gesture as he retaliated. It was their signal for "don't wait for me". He was obviously willing to give up his life for the newborns. Without allowing himself to hesitate, the former moved around them. He had to disable the ship. With any luck, the separatist would assume Fira was alone.

Autel ran for the lift, but the other Fallen fired at Fira. The bolts connected with Autel's armour, and his camouflage vanished.

Fira was returning fire, but Isto moved very quickly. He lashed out, catching Autel across the gullet with his rifle. He fell back, and plasma fire ripped around him. He accidentally let go of his gun, and saw it fall down the deactivated gravity lift.

"Get aboard the ship!" Isto shouted. "I shall deal with them." Fira's needle rifle clicked empty, and he grabbed the Fallen in a chokehold. Isto flipped him over his back and sent him sprawling to the ground. He activated an Energy Sword, and was about to finish him, when Autel ran forward and slide-tackled him. He grabbed for the Energy Sword, and Fira found Isto's rifle.

The Fallen leader stood up, backing towards the corvette's gravity lift. Autel lunged at him, but Isto ducked, knocking him on his front with a kick. Fira aimed the rifle at him.

Isto saw the sack he dropped lying a few feet away. He couldn't get to it now. Smiling maliciously, he activated a plasma grenade, and threw it at the sack.

Without hesitation, Fira stepped in front of the grenade. The explosive adhered to his chest, and he moved fast, away from the sack so the explosion would not harm the newborns. There was no fear in his eyes.

Autel turned away as he saw the blue-white explosion consume his friend, and saw Isto running for the gravity lift. With a roar of fury, he threw the Energy Sword at Isto. One of the blades stuck into the Fallen's side, and he flinched, but disappeared up the gravity lift. The corvette lifted up and flew out of the hangar, flying up and out of the atmosphere.

Autel ran to Fira, who was lying in a pool of his own blood. He looked around, feeling completely helpless, not knowing what to do. Then he stood up, and ran for the main controls. Autel reactivated the gravity lift, and Sangheili soldiers began rushing up. Sona approached him, and knelt beside his cousin. His eyes looked over the numerous open wounds upon Fira's body, and the remains of his armour stained purple. He was silent.

Taszar opened the sack, checking over the newborns inside. There were a dozen unconscious newborns, and he checked to make sure they were alright.

Autel turned back to Sona, who still did not speak. Finally, he said grimly, "He will live."

I cannot say the same for that traitor, he thought. He watched as Sona gingerly lifted Fira, and headed back down the lift. He followed the squad out of the factory.

Chapter 4

0834 Hours, February 27th, 2559 (UNSC Military Calendar), aboard UNSC Aeolus-class Frigate Independent Crusader, in orbit above Zeta-9

The two Pelicans glided slowly into the hangar and nineteen ODSTs in antiquated armour jumped out. Katana Team was last out, with the body of Sergeant O'Brien wrapped in a blanket and carried on a stretcher.

Felix saluted the ODSTs and Katana, and walked up to Joey.

"How is this possible?"

"They were assigned to the Halcyon-class cruiser Pillar of Autumn. When they were ejected from it in their pods, they missed Halo and wound up on one of Threshold's moons. They were able to find heretic Sangheili and escape to this planet using a damaged Covenant ship, where they've been fighting to survive for seven years."

"Sounds like something a team of Spartans would do."

"Remember Grey Team, sir. They did it, too."

"But they didn't do it in constant threat of discovery. Go get cleaned up, Sanghelios is our next stop."

The Lieutenant Commander approached Ezekiel and Hannah, who upon seeing him, saluted. He returned the gesture. "What have you found out?"

"I did a little snooping, sir," Ezekiel said. "Hannah gave me some intel on some transmissions she's picked up around here. It's Covenant, but they look like they're here for more than just finding the Marines here."

That makes sense, the senior Spartan thought. It would be very odd for hundreds of Covenant to be at a planet to hunt down a team of ODSTs. And there was no doubt more of the bastards they didn't pick up on. "And?"

"I found a structure hidden in a valley. Looks like a refinery, and I took a few pictures. It caught Commander Feng's interest, and she says she'll send in some Marines off her ship to see what the Covenant are up to."

"Good work. We might come back later to see if they find anything. But for now, we need to get going to Sanghelios. Are those the survivors of the 105th?" He looked towards the ODSTs.

"Yes sir."

"Okay, you and Hannah should get prepped for our upcoming mission. I'll talk to the Marines."

A few Helljumpers looked his way with worried eyes. They had set themselves up on the floor of the hangar, and had torn their armour off. Several had tear tracks running down their faces. It was obvious they had been close to breaking. Felix didn't know if he had the heart to tell them what was happening next.

"Who's in command?"

And ODST with the double chevrons of a Corporal on his shoulders stood. "Aqil Hafsa, sir."

Corporal? Things must have gone bad. Then again, it was a miracle these Marines survived for seven years on their own like this.

"Very well, I'm giving you a field promotion to Sergeant. I'm SPARTAN-116. Please come with me. We have a lot to discuss."

Felix strode back to the Spartans' quarters, where the others were getting ready.

"Hafsa is briefing the rest of the ODSTs on our mission, and advising that, for them, its strictly voluntary."

John looked over at him, his pale skin still not having darkened after being in his armour for so long.

"They'll all volunteer. They're tired, spent, and at their limit, but they're ODSTs."

"They're always in whenever there's a good fight," Kelly said. "And the Sangheili are going to need every soldier they can get."

The senior Spartan nodded.

"I've sent Grey Team to the Aurora Borealis to see what the Covenant are up to on Zeta-9. I have a feeling they'd be best at this kind of mission. The rest of us are proceeding en route to Sanghelios. Commander Montrose says we'll be there in about five hours."

Space bent, stars formed, and the Independent Crusader forced its way back into reality.

From inside the Pelican dropship, Felix looked down on the red tinged planet through the hangar bay, punctuated by blue waters and backdropped by reddish-orange landmasses.

Linda was standing behind him, her sniper rifle attached to her back. "So that's the Sangheili home world."

Fred strode up from behind. "Almost like it's stained red from human blood."

The Lieutenant Commander understood the sentiment. For all the human blood they spilled over the years...

Autel entered Cyla's room, where Urei 'Cazal was speaking to his sister. She was still ill, and answered quietly. Hearing him enter, he squeezed her hand gently, and turned. "So this is what the Fallen's proclaimed honour has led them to, Autel 'Vadam."

"Isto preaches hypocrisy," Autel said. "He would feel no shame in killing newborns, and would have done so if there were no one of veneration to stop him. Long have I disagreed with the Fallen's motives, but they have always stood by their beliefs with the honour they say they hold."

"See the effect he has struck upon us. Our offspring hold no guilt, yet they are the victims; the mothers spilled no blood, and being deprived of their children they become haunted; and those in the military will have no intention of stepping down, they will vow revenge and try harder to overcome the Fallen. Isto is a fool, and one day he will see judgement."

Autel approached Cyla. "I must go now. The humans will be here soon, and I swear that I will find them, no matter how long it takes, I will bring our children back." He stood up, looked at Urei, and clenched his fist over his chest, which was returned. He quickly left the Keep and ran down the mountainside.

So much had happened over the last few days, and everything was becoming more turmoiled. Thel was still trying to negotiate with the Fallen, and was trying to hold down the fact that they were now at war. But soon everyone would know anyway, and at the moment, it was best for the Arbiter to feign ignorance as to what was really going on while the matters were attended to inconspicuously.

When he reached the Demal Keep, an elder allowed him to enter, and he headed for the medical facility. Sona was striding impatiently up and down the hall, while Zehr'tul and Taszar stood by a pillar, conversing quietly. The subject of their conversation was obviously Isto 'Vadum. Fira had been in surgery for hours now, and nothing had been heard.

Presently the door slid open, and a blood-soaked Sangheili and a Huragok floated out. As both approached Autel, Sona, Zehr'tul, and Taszar walked over to hear the discourse.

The Huragok started whistling and gibbering, and the Sangheili translated.

"Fira 'Demal has sustained major burns to most of his body, and almost half his organs are dead or failing. One of his hearts was destroyed. He will require a lot of blood and several transplants. He has a slim chance of survival, but he's in a coma, so he won't bleed quite as much from his reduced heart rate."

This was not necessarily bad news. His friend had a sliver of a chance to survive, but he had already survived the explosion of a plasma grenade. Maybe he could beat the odds twice.

"Thank you."

The Sangheili surgeon nodded, and the Huragok twittered, then both reentered the room to continue the work.

Autel slumped into a seat, drained of energy. He didn't know whether to return to fighting the Fallen or help track Isto's corvette to what it was right now. Perhaps everything would be sorted when the humans arrived.

Footsteps reached his ears, and everyone turned to stare down the hall.

Autel looked up, and saw three humans in luminescent green armour.

They approached him, and he stood.

The front most one spoke first. "You're Autel 'Vadam?"

Autel nodded, and the Spartan continued. "I'm SPARTAN-117. The Arbiter told us you were here. We're here to help you."

Ezekiel looked around at the Sangheili around them. They did not look distrusting as he had expected, but hopeful, and also desperate. And from what Felix told him, he couldn't blame them.

The Lieutenant glanced sideways slightly. Hannah was silently observing the Sangheili, just as he had. It was curious how they could sometimes read each others' minds. But it had proved handy during sticky situations in the occasions they were assigned together.

Tom and Lucy were standing absolutely still, no doubt also gazing at the aliens from behind their wide, curved visors. They had a lot more training than most SPARTAN-IIIs, and were ready for anything. At least he hoped so, for everyone's sake.

The grey-armoured Sangheili known as the Arbiter spoke. "We are glad you have come. We are in a rather dire situation."

"What do you need us to do?" the senior Spartan asked. He didn't waste time on small talk.

"The Fallen leader has left many of his legion behind. He thinks he will return successfully and rally them again. We are to track down the remaining Fallen, discover where the leader has gone, and stop him before he returns."

"We can handle it," Felix said. If the Sangheili don't get in our way, Ezekiel thought.

The Lieutenant Commander paused, and activated his COM. "Chief?" He listened intently for a few moments, and said, "Understood. Get the others ready to move out." He turned back to the Arbiter. "Autel told the Chief that he had found out who the leader was. Someone named Isto 'Vadum."

A silver-armoured Sangheili behind the Arbiter bared his mandibles in anger, his fists clenching. Ezekiel's fingers strayed towards his sidearm, but then realized that the alien wasn't mad at the Lieutenant Commander. This Isto 'Vadum must have been someone he knew.

The Arbiter was silent, then he said. "Thank you. We should get ready to find the Fallen. Please follow me."

Beta, Katana, and Sabre were fully aware that they were the first humans to ever enter a Sangheili Keep. They were not, however, the first to get stares from the Sangheili. They were obviously getting mixed reactions. Some seemed almost happy that humans were there, and some looked resigned.

The ten Spartans entered through the grand doors, and were amazed at the emptiness of the hall. They had expected a full hall of alien warriors. What they were greeted with were a few guards. Crystal approached one of the walls carved with art and writing.

"They're all out in battle. Where we should be."

An old Sangheili garbed in a large robe approached the two teams, and Ash noticed a greater abundance of guards step out of the shadows.

He approached the Councillor. "Councillor, it's a pleasure."

The Sangheili waved a three-fingered hand. "Please, spare me the pleasantries. We need to find the young ones. Go upstairs and meet with Cyla. She will want to speak with you. Just you and the other team leader, if you will."

Ash and Joey glanced at each other. "Alright."

"Then follow me. This way."

The bedroom was a large affair, but its details were like the entry hall. Not much in decorations, but an abundance of carvings on the wall, along with some of the Sangheili's poetic writing.

A small, hunched, emaciated Sangheili female stepped out from another room, the first any human had seen.

Joey was shocked. He had, naturally, studied the mission parameters, which had included descriptions of the key creatures he might be interacting with. Cyla had been a minor one, but now he saw that the mother of three Sangheili was probably the most affected by the turn of events. She had been described as a proud, straight-backed Sangheili. Now the loss of her children had reduced her once proud stature to something far less.

"My greetings to you, humans. What might I help you with?"

Ash was first to respond. "I'm not sure, ma'am. We thought you might know something about who we're going after."

She nodded, and sat down on a chair. "Would you like a seat?"

Still keeping the same manners and strength of will she was described with, Joey thought.

Ash spoke again. "I'm afraid we can't. The chairs would not likely support our armor."

"Very well. I assume you know who the Leader of the Fallen is?"

"Isto 'Vadum, ma'am."

"And you know who he is?"

"Only what few tidbits we can squeeze out of the Arbiter. Nothing solid."

"Do you know the Fleet Master of the Fleet of Homogeneous Clarity?"

"Of course."

"Isto is in his family."

This set both Spartans back on their heels. The fact that the leader of leader of the Fallen was in the same bloodline in the most famous Fleet Master of the Sangheili was obviously an insult to them and an indication of deepest shame.

Something of this showed in their body language, as Cyla's eyes flickered from one to the other, and she acknowledged their shock with an almost imperceptible nod.

"This is... most enlightening, ma'am."

She waved her hand. "Please, stop with the 'ma'am'. I'm not one of your human officers."

"It's a sign of respect in our culture. We will cease if you ask."

"Interesting. How do you plan on finding Isto?"

It was Joey's turn to speak.

"We're not sure yet. We need to learn as much as we can about him as possible."

"Well then, get comfortable. I will tell you all I know..."

Joey was perplexed. "Well, that was unexpected."

Ash nodded in reply, but didn't say anything.

The two Spartan teams were sitting stock upright on stone benches in the hall. On the approach of Ash and Joey, they stood and joined them.

Ash jerked his head, and they left.

Sara was being her usual curious self. "Well, what did you learn?"

"Can't tell you."


"Seriously, we can't. Its for the leaders ears only. I'll tell you if I can."


Maria Esquival worried about her son. She couldn't help it. He worked for the UNSC, as an ODST on the now slightly clearer front lines. Every day she feared that today would be the day, and she'd open the door to find two Marines there, holding the UNSC flag. She remembered the day the Covenant came to Earth, and not long after found out that her husband had been killed. She didn't want to lose her son the same way.

She finished her shopping, paid for the groceries, and went home. Maria lived on a pension from years of work in civic sociology, occasionally contracting out for the UNSC to establish colonies. Under her guidance, colonies had flourished.

All for the UNSC.

Her car glided slowly into her driveway, and she stepped out of the vehicle. Maria popped the trunk and took the bags out and carried them into the house. Putting the groceries away, she closed the refrigerator door and the lights went out.

A gigantic hand clamped over her mouth, and she was lifted in the air, kicking and struggling, turned to face her attacker. An Elite had a hold on her. His armour, however, was very odd for the alien.

It seemed to be a throwback to the human middle aged eras. It had many overlapping black plates that were made to slide easily over each other, but it obviously had incredible technology behind it. She could almost feel the shield around the Elite's armour. His helmet covered his head, and a mask finished it off to cover his face. The eyepieces were slanted, made to inspire fear in his enemies. It was doing a pretty good job of it, too. An Energy Sword sprang to life, the light from it throwing shadows throughout her kitchen.

The Elite clicked its mandibles, and spoke through a translator.

"If you scream for help, you die, human!"

"What do you want?" Were the first words out of Maria's mouth when the Elites tore the gag out.

The leader, one who called himself Isto, stood on the other side of her table, his mask slung over his shoulder.

"I want you to remember what you used to fight for. Do you remember your time in..." He thought for a moment. "The Rubble?"

She glared into his eyes. Was that what this was about? The UNSC were allies with the Sangheili now, were they rooting out anyone with traces to the Insurrection?

"Of course, but I'm not even an Innie. I used to live on Mad—"

He cut her off. "That has nothing to do with it! We want your talents, in order to strike a blow to the UNSC and Separatists at once."

"I'm not sure—"

"Remember what you wanted? You wanted to work with the Covenant, you knew that we were the right ones, that the UNSC is the tyrannical regime!"

Maria's gaze faltered, then hardened again. "But those Jackals betrayed us! They were set to slit our throats!"

"The Kig-Yar can never be trusted! It is in their blood to be treacherous! But I, as a Sangheili of the Covenant, and a Fallen, give you my word and honour that I cannot betray you. Remember why you hated the UNSC. Where has your fire gone?"

"What are you doing here?"

He told her about the kidnapping of the Sangheili newborns, and his plan to lure the Sangheili to Earth. Maria tried to pull away.

"I won't help you do this!" she said. "We're allies now! What honour is there in kidnapping children?" She shuddered. "I can't believe you would do this to your own species, and mine!"

Isto's grip tightened, and placed the Sword in front of her face. "If you do not do as I say, I will kill you."

There was steel in her eyes. "Then kill me. I won't help you do this."

He was surprised, and a bit impressed. This human had as much honour as any Sangheili.

Isto's pondered for a moment. His mandibles parted in a nasty smile. "If you do not help me, I will kill your son."

Maria seemed to be struggling with herself. "You—"

"Honour comes at a price!" he said. "You were willing to pay that price, and I am too! Now you will do as I say, or you will watch me kill everyone you care about in front of your eyes. Starting with your son."

She looked frustrated as she looked away from his eyes. At last, she said, "What do you want me to do?"

Isto 'Vadum smiled, and explained the plan. He was amused by her looks of repugnance.

"Remember," he said. "Speak of this to no one. If you do, I will find out."

"You don't have to tell me that," Maria said with a spark of defiance. "But I'll warn you now that this won't work out for anyone, least of all you." She sighed, and left the kitchen.

The ODSTs' backs were rigid as they marched through the streets of the elite city. After fighting the Elites for years on end, it went against every instinct they had not to shoot.

The Elites did not respect them as they respected the Spartans. As augmented humans in powered assault armour, the Spartans matched the Elites strength and were many times faster. The ODSTs did not have this advantage, being much weaker of muscle and not as fast.

The ODST armour had been repaired and improved upon, with basic shields having been added that were half as strong as MJOLNIR Mk. V armor. The armour plates had been reinforced, able to take much more punishment from high heat sources, such as plasma.

Sergeant Hafsa fingered with the trigger guard on his SMG as he saw some Elites slink off into an alley. The ODSTs had split into two groups, eight in one, nine in the other, in order to travel faster.

It was too long for the Marines before they found five of the Spartans in a small courtyard with a fancy fountain in the centre. The other team, Bravo, had found the other Spartans.

The Spartan team leader, one with G148 one his shoulder, stepped forward.

"Apparently the Fallen leaders and Sangheili newborns have left this planet. We'll be staying here to here to fight the Fallen."

Hafsa's hand reached for his SMG. "Well then, why are we just standing about?"

G148 nodded. "Follow me, then."

Better standing by some pretty fountain than sitting helpless behind some rock. Hafsa thought not half an hour later.

The ODSTs had hit a group of thirty Fallen from two sides, crushing five of them in seconds. Then the tables had turned to the side with greater numbers. Now twenty-five Elites had the seventeen Helljumpers pinned down.

Hafsa tilted his head up, then whipped it back. He had an idea. Tapping a Corporal's shoulder, he spun his fist around his wrist. The Corporal nodded and repeated the gesture to three others. They moved off.

Hafsa scooted over until he reached the edge of their barricade until he had a line of sight with Bravo team. He held his hand flat, fingers completely parallel and straight vertically, then waved.

A gloved hand appeared, fingers held horizontally, and twitched up and down. Hafsa turned back to the remaining three left on his team and pumped his arm, fist up. They nodded and primed four grenades.

Hafsa closed his exterior mic and opened the team channel. "Hit 'em now!"

The four stood and threw the grenades, then ducked back down. One ODST took a hit in the chest and dropped, but he waved the medic away and picked his MA5C back up.

The grenades detonated, and ten of the Elites' shields went down. Battle fire ripped into them, cutting seven more down and wounding the other three.

That's more like it, he thought. Looks like we're back to fighting Elites. "Bravo, up and at 'em."

Bravo team stood, throwing plasma grenades. Elites dove left and right, scattering their forces. One grenade stuck, and the Elite roared before being consumed by blue fire, taking one other with him. Just nine were unharmed.

Now scattered, it was not hard for the experienced ODSTs to cut the rest down. Three were left alive, bound tightly, and marched up to the Vadam keep.

John was still there, talking with the elder Elite.

Hafsa and two other ODSTs hit the Elites in the back of their legs, forcing them into a kneeling position. "Got a package for ya."

The elder stepped forward. "How many were there?"

Hafsa shrugged. "Twenty-five. These are all that's left of 'em."

The two Elite guards on either side of the doors shifted and glanced at each other, and the elder's eyes widened a bit.

"Truly, a skillfully fought battle. Were any of your number killed?"

The newly promoted Sergeant shook his head. "No, just a couple burns and a melted breastplate."

The elder nodded approvingly.

The two teams of SPARTAN-IIIs walked up, and the two team leaders stepped forward. G148 spoke first, then G099:

"Thirty five dead, no prisoners."

"Got forty here, two prisoners."

John nodded and walked away. It was progress, and there were more battles to be won later.

Corporal Raphael Esquival-Cortez entered the house. His mother Maria immediately walked into the hall.

"Raphael, you got another shore leave?" she asked, smiling.

"Not really, mom," he said, setting down his bag. "Sergeant Reynolds insisted I take a break before I kill myself."

"Well you do work too hard," she said, leading him into the hall. Raphael froze when he saw who was standing there.

A Sangheili was examining something on a portable Covenant database. His mandibles parted in a satisfied smile, and he closed it, turning to him.

"Raphael, this is Isto 'Vadum," Maria said. "He's a representative from Sanghelios, and will be staying with us in a while."

"Has he talked to the UNSC?" Raphael asked, warily gazing at him.

"Yes," she said. "And the brass has requested he remain here. It will be less...conspicuous."

There was something odd about the Sangheili. Raphael had worked with them before, and grown to trust them. But something wasn't right here. After a long, awkward silence, he said, "Welcome to Earth, Isto. I hope you will enjoy your stay."

"Thank you," Isto said tonelessly. "I have been here before, on a few...errands."

And what would those be? "You won't be seeing me a lot," Raphael said. "I'm mostly in active duty."

"I will have things to attend with your military," Isto said. "But there is also a lot to discuss with your mother."

"Well, I've got to change," the humans said. "I won't disturb you anymore." And he walked out of the room.

"He suspects something," Isto said as soon as Raphael left the room.

"He's just wary," Maria said, looking slightly uneasy.

"He seems tense," the Sangheili said. "We must be careful."

When he had told her what he was doing, she felt guilty. But she had no choice. No doubt Isto had a dozen Sangheili hiding inside the house and out, ready to attack her son should he give the word.

Raphael had not been popular in the Marine Corps when he joined, because of her. But he had brushed it aside and proved himself a good soldier. Reynolds had even recommended he joined the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. Maria felt a slight twinge of guilt. Her son...

What would it do to Raphael if he knew what she was doing? He was so dedicated to the UNSC...

Maria sighed, and watched Isto walk out of the room as well.

Chapter 5

Time 17:29:10:04 (Accuracy 1/10 to that of Forerunner), sixteenth sunrise shift of the fifth month (Sanghelios Time Unit), 4th Age of Amendment (Covenant Time Unit, based on Forerunner Time Unit)

Location: Planet Sanghelios

2100 Hours, February 27th, 2559 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"We have discovered something of great importance in the State of Pyron," said Special Operations Officer Tico 'Serul over the COM. "Taszar was correct, the Fallen were hiding something of great importance here."

"What was it, Excellency?" Autel asked. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that his squad had arrived at the factory.

"Navigation charts. The Fallen are planning something outside the system. We are not sure yet, the maps are not complete, but 'Oltem says there should be another part of it at the factory you are approaching."

"We're here. Are there any leads to where I could find it?"

"The Fallen use a coding pattern. I will send it to you now, you will understand when you see it."

Autel beckoned to the squad to take positions around the entrance. If the Fallen were still here, they would be taken by surprise this time. The factory had looked inactive from the outside, but it could be a ruse. Making sure everyone was ready, he entered first, weapon raised. He looked around, and saw—

No one was here. The factory seemed to be completely abandoned. The squad entered, looking around the various rooms. The facility was empty, at least on the first level.

It was likely that the part of the map was gone too, but now that they were here, it would be worth looking around. It was possible there was something else to find inside.

"Split up into twos," he ordered. "Search the factory. Tell me if you find something."

Most of the Sangheili approached the gravity lift, which was deactivated. He tried to get it working. The power didn't respond, and the battery processor was removed. It seemed the Fallen had shut everything down after leaving.

Autel frowned. They could go back outside, call 'Pyron to take them to the top floor, and make their way down, but the Fallen would no doubt notice. Looking up the tube that wrapped around the gravity lift, he could see that it was too smooth to ascend, with or without climbing tools.

"Major, we have found something!" one of the Sangheili said, walking out of another room and holding a storage device and an empty sack. The former turned to see.

"It was placed inside the bag," the minor explained. "It might have been left behind by accident." He gave the storage device to the albino Sangheili, who examined it.

"This could be important," Autel said. "We should take this back to the Special Operations facility and see if we can access the data. Maybe—"

An explosion rocked the factory. The squad immediately raised their weapons, looking around. "That explosion came from above..."

A Sangheili with a jetpack flew down the lift, followed by others. Seeing the device in his hand, he shouted, "The dishonourables have the plans! They must not leave here alive!" As a dozen Fallen appeared from the lift, Autel stored the device and opened fire. The room didn't have a particularly high ceiling, so the separatists' jetpacks didn't do them a lot of good. But they surrounded the squad on all sides, and he couldn't help but feel frustrated. It was the second time he had walked into a trap at this very facility. This time, there was no way out.

"Target them one at a time," Autel ordered. If they could punch a hole in the Fallen's circle, then maybe they could escape...

A second explosion was heard from overhead, followed by two more. The metal in the roof began to fold. The Fallen seemed caught off guard. Maybe the first explosion hadn't been caused by them, maybe someone saw them enter the factory. Turning to see the exit, he made a straight run towards the door, followed by his squad. Enemy fire made contact on their armour, but a fifth explosion blew the ceiling in, burying the Fallen in hot metal as his team made it out.

Autel turned to see the upper levels of the factory enveloped in blue flames, and it began to collapse from the top. Some civilians nearby had stopped in alarm to see, but the albino Sangheili was looking at the door. There were a few of the Fallen that would have been able to make it out alive, but no one burst out the door after them.

They know they cannot stop us, he thought. Perhaps they thought death was preferable to failure. Despite their many acts of atrocity, the separatists were still Sangheili, and Sangheili stuck to honour until the very end. Turning to his squad, he said, "We should meet 'Pyron somewhere we will not be noticed." As they moved out, he contacted the Special Operations facility.

"What is it, 'Vadam?" Commander Tono 'Kamul asked.

"We have found something in the factory, Excellency," Autel replied. "I think it is of great importance to the Fallen, they tried very hard to stop us. We are returning to the facility soon."

When the squad reached the abandoned building 'Pyron had told them to get to, the squad boarded his dropship, and it lifted into the air and back to the military base. Autel remembered how startled the Fallen were upon hearing the explosions inside the building. He wondered who it was that helped them.

"The coding is tricky," Kei 'Oltem said, frowning at the device being held by the energy bonds. He had been asked to be brought back to the facility because he was the best Sangheili they had at understanding technological things. He worked at the terminal, reading the holographic screen. "It is odd how the Fallen would be so negligent as to leave this behind," he said. "I don't suppose they checked the sacks when they left—"

"They were in a hurry," Autel said, looking at the screen as well. "You said there was something of significance at the factory, and we knew that they were there, so they had to find another place to run their operations. I don't think this held the navigation charts, because they would not have left without it if they noticed it was missing. But this may give us some leads."

"We have no time to talk," said 'Kamul sternly. "Have you hacked into the device?"

"Almost," 'Oltem said. "I have reprogrammed the coding sequence to allow my entry past the security lock. Now I need to bypass the secondary authorization barrier to allow me into the mainstream layers of data."

The Commander frowned. "You what?"

The former sighed. "I 'stuck my hoof in the door', so it won't lock on me again. Now I need to pry it open so I can get through." Something flashed on his screen, and he looked down in surprise.

"I've cracked the code. I must have been lucky, it was estimated that in another seven subunits—"

"What does it say?" 'Kamul asked, cutting across him. 'Oltem scanning the newly projected words, and frowned. "That can't be right." Reading one of the sentences again, he turned to Autel.

"Where are the humans?"

"Still fighting," he replied, surprised. "They are being sent to many parts of Sanghelios, why?"

The former waved him over. "Read this."

Felix slammed his Battle Rifle into the Fallen's chest, taking down his shields, following up with a three-round burst, effectively killing the alien. A second one charged with an Energy Sword. He grabbed his wrist, pulled him in, and rammed him between the ribs with his shoulder, hearing the Fallen's bones breaking. He grabbed the sword, and threw it at a third separatist, decapitating him.

A purple beam hit him in the side, glancing off his shields. He spun to face his attacker, just as Ezekiel found the sniper and broke his spine. The Lieutenant had been assigned elsewhere during the attacks, but it seemed he was all done. Wiping the blood off his rifle, he jumped off the rock the sniper was on, and casually joined the group.

One of the Sangheili lying on the ground was still trying to reach his weapon. Joey shot him in the head.

"That's all of them," he said.

The Lieutenant Commander nodded. "All squads report in."

"Bravo team, clear," said Fred.

"Charlie team here. We're good," Hannah said.

"Delta team, all hostiles eliminated," Ash said.

"Sir, I think we've got something!" Crystal called. The senior Spartan looked where she was. It seemed to be an opening, hidden among a rock cluster.

"All squads, move to our position," the senior Spartan said, watching the Sangheili moving around to check for more enemies. Taszar 'Vadam was speaking into his COM. Turning back, he continued, "tell the Arbiter he should—"

He froze. Turning around, he saw Taszar and the five other Sangheili pointing their weapons at them. "You are going back to the Keep," he said.

"What the hell is going on?" Dennis asked.

"Give us your weapons," Taszar ordered. The Spartan was about to protest, when Felix gave him a subtle "do it" gesture, and complied. Slowly, the others did so as well.

The Sangheili pulled them into a Phantom and flew off, keeping them under careful watch.

Felix saw that the other Spartans, as well as the Marines, were at the Vadam Keep as well. Twenty Sangheili were standing around them, holding weapons and looking none too friendly.

"Where is their frigate?" the elder was asking.

"We have sent soldiers aboard," a Sangheili said. "They should be restrained soon."

"Why are they doing this?" the senior Spartan asked.

The Spartans, noticing his entry, turned to face him. John said, "They've tracked the Fallen's corvette...to Earth."

"As of now, you are suspected of giving aid to the Fallen," the elder said. "We can no longer trust you."

"So why would we come here?" Hafsa retorted.

"Perhaps they wish to steal more of our newborns!" a Sangheili cried.

"They are heretics!" another one shouted.

"Kill them! Shoot down their ship!"

"Silence!" shouted a voice. All heads to turn to see Cyla walking down the steps.

"I demand to know what it is you are doing," she said quietly, but her voice held a certain danger.

"The humans are helping the Fallen!" a Sangheili said.

"I believe no such thing," she said. "Where is your evidence?"

"Isto's ship has headed to Earth!" the elder said. "There can only be one purpose he wants there, because that is where the humans are!"

"And they, like us, have traitors," came a voice from the doorway. Autel had returned, his armour marked by plasma bolts, and still holding his rifle, strode in slowly.

"I think these humans should be executed," the elder said, "like any Sangheili who has committed heresy."

"That would be unjust," Autel replied. "We should give them a chance to explain themselves. Perhaps a trial would be sufficient."

"Autel—" the elder began, but he cut across him.

"This matter," the soldier said, "is best left to the Arbiter. I think you were rather hasty when you pronounced these humans as heretics, as a single event we have realized that holds no specific meaning does not mark them as treacherous. These humans will stay at our Keep tonight, and if any harm befalls them, I will find those responsible. Do you understand me, elder?" Autel's eyes flashed dangerously.

After a long pause, he finally nodded. "Very well. Escort them back to their rooms."

Felix gave a nod of thanks to the albino Sangheili, and followed a Sangheili out of the hall, followed by the others. Some of the Marines looked back at the guards, who were still glaring suspiciously at them.

When the humans left the hallway, Autel turned to Taszar. "That was foolish."

"We must obey our elders," his stepbrother pointed out.

"I think," he said coldly, "that I know these humans more than you, Taszar. And especially more than the elders."

"Be wary," Taszar warned, sounding worried. "If you had been anyone else, you would have been punished for the impudent manner of which you spoke to the elder."

"I have reason. The elder does not."

"These are dangerous times, brother," he sounded half-pleading. "We cannot fight amongst ourselves."

"Then neither should we fight amongst those that are no less our allies," Autel said, walking past him. "This decision had been one of prejudice, nothing more."

"I am asking you to be calm. Right now, we cannot afford to lose you, one way or another. And do not forget: honour cannot be taken lightly, reason or not."

The albino paused and turned back to face Taszar. "Perhaps that is why we are at war with ourselves," he said quietly, "and the humans are not." And without another word, he strode out of the hall with Cyla.

Thel marched into the detention centre, and found the cell grouping he was looking for. After checking his DNA with the guard at the entrance to the cells, he walked in after being searched for weapons or any other objects that could be used for a potential escape.

The twenty Spartans and seventeen ODSTs were sitting calmly in their cells. With them was Commander Gregory Montrose of the Independent Crusader. The Spartan looked disproportionate from the rest of the humans, their physical augmentations having increased their width and height by quite a bit.

Felix and John stepped forward, as did Montrose and Hafsa.

Montrose spoke first. "What is this about?"

Thel turned his head to look at him. "We have suspicions that you all have been aiding the Fallen in the kidnapping of Sangheili newborns."

Hafsa snorted. "Impossible. Not one has gone missing since we've arrived, and we've been doing nothing but kill and capture Fallen."

Thel shook his head. "That is the crux of the problem. No matter how many bases you infiltrate, no matter how many Fallen you capture, we've come no closer to finding out what Isto's plan is. We know where he's gone, but not what he's doing. We know he's gone to Earth, and there has been no word from your command about Fallen attacks. This points out that the humans are working with them."

"We've only gotten orders to come here and aid you," John said, his tone unreadable as usual, "not to help the Fallen in any way. How does killing them show we're on their side?"

Thel agreed readily. "I know this, Spartan. But there are those that argue that command just wanted you out of the way."

"Then why throw us in here?" Hafsa spat indignantly.

"They also argue that you're loyal to your military that you'd turn on us and help them the instant you got back to Earth."

"You Sangheili are crazy. We're innocent until proven guilty." Another ODST spoke up angrily.

Thel sighed wearily. "Which is why there will be a hearing held on the morrow in order to determine whether or not to proceed to a full trial. In the meantime, I'm afraid you'll have to remain in here. Autel and those who believe you are searching for evidence to support you. I must warn you, the tribunal does not look kindly on logical deductions, but facts and evidence. Even then, the long hate between our races may sway my two colleagues to finding you guilty."

Felix nodded. "Thank you, Arbiter."

The door opened, and the guard leaned in. "Time's up, Excellency."

The Arbiter saluted them, fist over heart, and walked out.

"What do you think it is?" asked PFC Alana Borengo, sitting in the passenger seat of the Warthog, her sniper rifle resting in her lap. She ignored the look of alarm that flitted across the face of a civilian as they sped past his car.

"Dunno," replied Lance Corporal Bail, making a sharp turn to follow the LRV in front of him. "All Reynolds said was that we traced it to this district here."

The ODSTs were driving through the edge of Murcia. A few hours ago, there had been a report of unusual activity around the less-frequently used area, namely a series of trucks with dark-tinted windows seemed to be moving something around the area. Their CO had been annoyed when they had been called in.

"This is at most some drugs shipment," he said. "Call in the local police department if you really think it's worth pestering them about."

The MPD had said that several officers had investigated, and went missing not long after. They had tried to find intel on the area, but nothing turned up. So now the squad was making their way to try and find a lead to what the trucks were being used for. Coming in with a convoy of Warthogs isn't exactly stealthy, Raphael Cortez thought, who was standing on the back of the jeep and clutching the turret. But obviously the multiple investigations would have caught the anonymous enemies' attention already. But whatever it was couldn't be too hard to take care of, nothing on Earth would pose a serious threat to the UNSC. Nothing on Earth...

It was then that the Corporal remembered the strange Elite, Isto. What was it about the him that unnerved him so much? There was certainly something not right about him, and Raphael wondered if the alien had anything to do with these disappearances. Surely not, it wouldn't be like the Sangheili to be so secretive.

The Warthog in front of them turned off the road and onto a dirt path. It stopped, and Master Sergeant Joshua Reynolds and two other ODSTs climbed out of the driver seat. Bail braked as well, bringing their vehicle to a halt. Cortez got off with Bail and Borengo, and approached their CO. Behind them, the rest of the squad was piled onto a single TT Warthog, which pulled up behind them. The eight Helljumpers, six of which had been seated tightly on the back of the transport vehicle, disembarked as well, and quickly regrouped.

"Alright, boys and girls," Reynolds said. "Let's get this over with. The Murcia Police Department says that one of their officers had come here minutes prior to his disappearance. We'll do some snooping, see what we can find out, and if it gets hot, call in the Warthogs to cover our exit. In the meantime, we'll see how quiet we can keep this. Bail, Erikson, Cortez, Berthold, stay with the vehicles, we'll call you if we need you. Everyone else, make teams of two, and move out."

Bail got back onto his Warthog, and Cortez climbed onto the back again. As the team moved out, the Corporal looked around. The dirt road extended into a cluster of trees, where the ten ODSTs were disappearing into. It was going to be a long wait. Most likely nothing was going to happen...

"Bail, Erikson! Get over to our position, double time!" Reynolds shouted sharply over the COM. The two Helljumpers quickly started their engines, and seeing the Sergeant's location on their long-range detectors, floored the Warthogs and drove down the dirt road. Cortez hung on tightly to the turret as they drove down the bumpy track. He could hear the sound of the second M12 jostling behind them.

After a long time, the sound of gunfire reached his ears. The Corporal saw the squad firing their weapons everywhere. Nothing was firing in return, but he thought he could make out movement. Aiming at where he thought they were, he fired the turret. Automatic machine gun fire ripped into the trees, but he heard no screams of pain or anything that indicated his shots had found their mark. However, Reynolds ordered, "Troopers, fall back!" The ODSTs on foot were running back down the dirt road, although nothing was stopping them. After making sure the team were out of range, Bail turned the Warthog around and followed Erikson after them.

Cortez's mind was racing. What was it that Reynolds had found? The Sergeant was too busy to explain, but it seemed to be worse than an enemy like the Covenant.

"Shit!" Bail yelled, turning the Warthog sharply. The vehicle, which had been going at top speed, raised dirt as its tires scraped across the road. The jeep flipped over, and he felt the Lance Corporal grab him. The two ODSTs hit the ground, and as the LRV rolled away from them, it exploded unexpectedly.

"Just spotted it stuck on the side of the vehicle," Bail panted, picking up his weapon. "Some kind of explosive, really hard to see."

Raphael found his weapon too. He tried to contact the others on the COM, but received only static. "There's something interfering with our communications," he said.

"Great. Guess we'll have to walk back?"

"Afraid so. Watch your back, though. I have a bad feeling about this."

"Hey, Cortez," Bail said suddenly. "What's that?"

Raphael followed the direction of his gaze. There was just the green on green of the trees, but he could make out a faint grey-ish colour. It was possibly artificial.

"Let's take a look." Weapons still raised, the two ODSTs moved silently through the forest, and came closer to the grey thing. As their view of it became unobstructed, the Corporal could see that it was a building. It was very old, and being unfamiliar with this part of Murcia, he couldn't imagine what it could be. It was possible it was just an abandoned place used long ago, but something odd was going on in this forest, undoubtedly. It didn't hurt to check.

They circled the structure, and found a door. It was locked.

"Wait one," Bail said, pulling out a charge. "You might want to step back, Corporal." He set it to the door, activated it, and stepped back.

The charge detonated, blowing the door open. The Helljumpers moved in, sweeping the room with their rifles. But it was unoccupied. There were a series of empty cells, closed off by rusty bars. It looked like a storage facility rather than a prison.

"Look, what are these?" the Lance Corporal said, pointing at some unmarked black boxes. They were perfectly cubical, and unlike everything else in the room, they were new. Still watching the door, Raphael kept his weapon ready while Bail tried to open the boxes. There were no seams on the boxes, and even with tools or blunt force, there was no way to open them.

"Take some video logs," he advised, "and let's get back to the others."

"You couldn't tell what they were?" asked Captain Bruce Outlaw, pausing the video log.

"No, sir," Reynolds replied. "They didn't fire shots or anything. We couldn't tell what they were attacking us with, but it didn't leave traces. We didn't make any hits either."

The ODST officer frowned. "Casualties?"

"None, sir. It seemed they didn't kill us because they wanted to keep their identity hidden."

Outlaw looked back to the video log, and played it for the sixth time, pausing at certain points. "You're firing between these trees here," he said. "But these cameras couldn't pick up what they were?"

"I tried thermal too, sir. Nothing. But I'm sure whatever these things are, they're not human."

"Very well," the Captain said. "We'll come back to this." Turning to Bail, he said, "Now, you said you found some boxes inside an abandoned storage facility?"

"Yes, sir," the Lance Corporal said, handing the video chip over. "We couldn't determine the location of the facility, because there was some interference on our gear. We've left some markers though, we could go back later."

"Good," Outlaw said, looking at the video. He froze it when the camera pointed at one of the black boxes directly. Looking at them carefully, he asked, "This is strange." He paused. "Wait a minute..." Switching to the audio controls, he filtered out some of the sounds, and increased the volume. The ODSTs strained to listen. There was a faint murmuring issuing from the boxes.

"Scans couldn't penetrate the boxes, Captain," Bail explained. "But we certainly didn't hear that."

The officer looked troubled. "Very well," he said, "We'll see what we can make of this. Troopers, you're dismissed."

As they left, Raphael wondered again if Isto had something to do with this unusual turn of events. But there seemed to be no evidence suggesting something like that, and since the UNSC knew he was here anyway, it wouldn't do much good to make accusations.

"Someone has discovered where we were hiding them," one of the Sangheili said in an undertone, showing Isto the screens. "Humans."

"They did not find anything of importance," the Fallen leader said calmly. "The 'Marines' do not know what was inside." Turning to another one of his subordinates, he asked, "Did you chase the humans out of the forest?"

"Yes, Excellency. They did not see us, and we did not kill them. We have also erased the humans' tracks from the forest. They will not find the storage facility again."

"Well done. We will proceed as planned. And then we will wait." The humans at Sanghelios must have been apprehended by now.

The door opened, and the human soldier, Raphael, entered. Still thinking of the Spartans' fate, his mandibles parted in a nasty smile. The Marine gazed at him, his expression indiscernible. But the tense moment passed as Maria came from upstairs, and greeted him. They spoke quietly for a moment, as the Fallen leader turned back to his Sangheili. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the ODST give him a sideways glance before he walked upstairs with her.

Isto thought for a moment. "Was he one of the humans who found the hideout building?"

"Yes, Excellency."

Perhaps he suspects me. This will not do. He smiled again. Time to cause some trouble for the humans.

"Silence him."

Chapter 6

Time 21:44:93:17 (Accuracy 1/10 to that of Forerunner), sixteenth sunrise shift of the fifth month (Sanghelios Time Unit), 4th Age of Amendment (Covenant Time Unit, based on Forerunner Time Unit)

Location: Planet Sanghelios

2350 Hours, February 27th, 2559 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"Where did you say they were?" asked Sona.

"Over here," Autel said. "By this group of rocks, Felix told me one of the Spartans saw something."

"We'll take a look around," the Ultra said. He ordered his squad to spread out, and look for anything that could be an opening. Everyone remained camouflaged, however, so the next few minutes consisted of blurs moving back and forth among the cluster of boulders. Some bodies were still present, as well as weapons and equipment scattered on the bloodied ground.

Autel knew they didn't have much time before the trial began, and decided to look for anything that could prove that they had no allegations with the Fallen. Since a great number of Sangheili had believed otherwise, he was unsure of whether his own squad did so as well, so he found someone he could trust. Sona selected some of his subordinates who he knew for a fact trusted greatly in the humans.

A low sound caught everyone's attention. It was not natural, like the scraping of stones or hooves moving on the rocks. It was the whirring of a mechanism.

"There," whispered 'Antinr, pointing at a tall but seemingly normal outcrop of boulders. It was emanating from there. The squad froze, watching as a door of the exact same colour as the surrounding rock opened, and a separatist stepped out.

The others were undoubtedly eyeing the hidden entrance, but knew that there wasn't enough time for everyone to enter undetected before it closed.

"Remain here," Autel said to Sona over the COM, and without waiting for a reply, he slipped in as the door closed behind him. The passage was dimly lit but surprisingly roomy, and snaked downward. Careful to remain as silent as he could, the Special Operations Major soon reached the other end, one that was much more illuminated than the passageway.

He must be deep underground. The air in the hallway was chilly, where even the heat of Sanghelios' climate couldn't penetrate. The corridor was musty and worn-out. It possibly once served a role in their war against the San'Shyuum long ago. And now, it might hold a more ominous purpose.

The hallway was lined with old stone doors, and Autel spotted a ladder on the far side. This underground corridor must be very old indeed. Remembering how new the door hidden in the rock cluster was, he knew the Fallen had likely repurposed this place for something else.

The closest door to the right was ajar. He heard the sound of conversation from inside the room. Silently moving inside, he saw a pair of Sangheili sitting next to a large control mechanism, and where an energy tube protruded into the ceiling. The machine's appearance was in clear contrast to the older objects placed around the room, from the hand-made tools carelessly placed on tables to the wooden chairs the guards were sitting on.

One of the Sangheili stood up. "I must go," he said. "Tell his Excellency when he returns that I have left the map fragment in his room."

"It will not make up the fact that we lost one of the other fragments to the traitors," said the other one.

With a nasty smile, the first said, "It will be of little consequence. I have heard that the humans were taken into custody by the military. It looks like they have taken the bait. It will not be long before the humans are executed. After this is finished, we can find the other fragments."

"They had already found the false transmissions in the factory," the Sangheili operating the mechanism said. "The military is thoroughly convinced that we are working with the humans." He gave a laugh, and added, "The thought of it is disdainful to me, but it does give them something to think about while we carry out our plans." He watched a ceiling-mounted camera showing the other separatist walking up the passageway. When he reached the top, the former switched to external cameras, and took no alarm as his eye didn't catch the half-dozen blurs hovering around the rocks. Tapping one of the holographic buttons, the hidden door slid open in response.

Autel waited for it to open completely, and made his move. Pulling out an energy garrotte, he coiled it around the other Sangheili's throat, and clenched it tightly. The enemy spluttered silently, grasping at the weapon. He rolled onto the floor, twitched once, and was silent. Stepping over the body and the blood pooling from it, the Special Operations Major said into his COM, "Sona, come down the passageway. Remain camouflaged." After watching the blurs move through the door, he closed the door behind them so as to avoid suspicion. Leaving the room, he waited for the squad to enter the hallway, and they regrouped.

"There is a way up over there," the albino Sangheili said, pointing to the end of the corridor. "I think I may know where it leads, but first we should see what is in these rooms."

Sona gave a nod, and slowly pushed open one of the doors.

A pair of Fallen were standing inside, looking bored. But they caught the slight movement of the door, and raised their weapons.

Sona ignited his Energy Sword, and lunged at one of them, easily cutting him down. The other didn't have time to react before Autel smashed his Plasma Rifle hard into his spine.

"That was not as silent as I hoped," he said. "The others may be alerted to our presence."

But the Ultra was staring at something. The former followed his gaze, and saw a series of jet-black cubes placed inside the room. Both of them immediately knew what was inside.

"Newborns," Sona said, moving towards them. Autel put a hand on his shoulder.

"Wait, Sona. We cannot bring them with us right now. We should find out everything and come back for them later. I know there is something of importance nearby."

Fira's cousin looked torn, but they were interrupted by the arrival of more enemies. They had come down the hallway to investigate.

"Disengage camouflage!" he ordered, his voice changing immediately to that of a leader during combat. "If we must fight, then we will make it a fair one."

The room made it hard to move around, but they made the best of it. Autel didn't even bother to aim as he cut down the separatists one by one. The team didn't take a single injury as they made quick work of the Fallen. When it became silent again, the albino Sangheili unclipped something from his armour and turned to Sona. He held it out to him.

"Take this," he said. "It is a recording of everything from the location of our entrance to an important conversation I just overheard. It is the evidence we need to prove the humans were set up by the Fallen."

The Ultra looked perplexed. "Why are you giving this to me?"

"I am fairly certain that the ladder over there leads into the Vadum Keep. As you know, we are forbidden to enter it without their permission. But there is something I need to retrieve from inside, and it is best I go alone. It would be less conspicuous, and should I fail..." He paused. "...it will be up to you to find these newborns again. You must also ensure that the humans are not executed."

"Are you telling me to leave you?" Sona asked. "Autel, you are asking me to commit a great dishonour. Fira would stay by your side, and I must as well."

"Sometimes," Autel said quietly. "We need to put our honour aside to do the right thing. Someone of great wisdom told me that once before during a time of turmoil, like the one we have now, and he is correct. Please, we cannot give this opportunity up because of honour. It is something that has obstructed us for so long, and our allies are counting on us. We cannot compromise that."

Fira's cousin blinked. "You are right. Very well, I wish you luck." Taking the recording device, he said, "I hope to see you at the trial." The Special Operations Major returned to the control room and opened the door as the former led them back up the passageway, their cloaking devices bringing them back into invisibility.

Taking one last look at the cube units, Autel vaguely wondered if Isto kidnapped newborns from his own lineage during his raids. I would not put it past him, he thought, engaging his camouflage. He would do anything to avoid suspicion. He left the room and quickly ran to the other side of the hall. Looking up, he saw that the ladder wasn't very long, and that a trapdoor was closed over it. He began to climb it when he heard a faint clicking behind him. It sounded like it came from the passage. It could just be Sona's team, but could also be the Fallen. He quickly reached the top and pushed the trapdoor open. The albino Sangheili clambered out, looked around for enemies, and quietly shut the opening behind him.

The room he was in was old like the corridor, but a lot cleaner. It looked like it was recently vacated. Almost certain he was in the Vadum Keep, Autel found the staircase and quietly headed up each floor, checking each room for anything of interest. To his surprise, he saw that all of them were not only unoccupied, but completely empty. Everyone must have been moved to safety or into combat. He soon reached the ground floor, and the upper levels. There were still no guards. It would be too obvious if there were Fallen wearing armour and brandishing weapons walking around the Keep.

It was not until Autel reached the second floor that he saw something interesting. Inside one of the rooms, he saw that it was not empty like the other ones. There were a series of magenta-silver devices laid on a table. One of them resembled the map fragment he saw 'Oltem examining in the Special Operations facility.

Autel grabbed some of the storage devices and stored them in his armour, and was holding the map fragment when one of Fallen entered the room. Seeing the object seeming hovering in midair, he opened fire immediately, joined by two more enemies.

The albino Sangheili hastily placed the fragment into his armour slot, and returned fire. But his few seconds of vulnerability had cost him. His shields were nearly drained, and he knew he could not kill all the enemies by himself without being overwhelmed.

Suddenly there was the sound of plasma fire echoing through the hall, accompanied by the sound of shouting. Someone was coming up the stairs as well. Had Sona and his squad come back?

One of the separtists gave a roar of surprise as something glowing adhered to his back. Knowing what it was, Autel immediately moved away as the plasma grenade exploded, killing all three of the guards in the confined space and blowing the doorway apart. Disbelievingly, he saw a pair of Sangheili decloaking in front of him. He recognized them immediately.

"Good throw, Zehr'tul," Taszar said. "But never mind keeping quiet now, the others will find us unless we leave soon." Looking over at his stepbrother, he asked, "You have everything of importance? Good, let's get to the roof. 'Pyron is picking us up."

"Taszar, how did you find me?" the Special Operations Major asked incredulously as they made their way up the stairs, ignoring the stray plasma fire that occasionally brushed them.

"We followed you. We would have entered sooner, but the doors closed before we could get in. When they opened again, I thought I saw someone moving up a ladder, so we came to see what Sona and his squad were doing here."

They reached the rooftop, and Zehr'tul quickly jammed the door in the ceiling shut with his Energy Sword handle as the sound of guards rushing after them was heard.

An invisible Phantom was waiting for them there, its turbines humming silently. As it decloaked and the three Sangheili quickly climbed in, the sound of someone banging on the door was heard. The dropship quickly took off, not even bothering to shut the hatches or wait for its camouflage to come into full effect. Taszar gave a triumphant laugh as the Fallen broke through the trapdoor and desperately fired at them.

"Fly carefully," he advised, as they left the Keep behind. "The last thing we need is an anti-aircraft cannon interrupting our departure."

'Pyron did not smile. "You never know with the Fallen. And I have had experiences with being shot down before."

The Sangheili minor turned his gaze to Autel. "Well done. I think our enemies will not be pleased with what you have taken from them."

The albino Sangheili was unsure of what to say. Taszar had just saved his life, but he himself couldn't help but remember their last conversation. It was really the things you weren't proud of that really stuck in your mind, he thought. He could see now that his stepbrother never suspected the humans of treachery. We cannot allow this confusion to divide us. "Taszar, I..."

"We can discuss what just happened later," Taszar said, who didn't seem to notice his discomfort. "Our entrance into the Vadum Keep will be the least of Isto's worries. For now, we need to ensure that we bring the navigation charts back for examining."

Autel trailed off into silence. There would be time to say everything he wanted to when they settled everything with the humans. He felt considerably more relaxed as he leaned back against the Phantom's wall. This wasn't over yet, but he was certain he would be able to prove that the Fallen had set this whole affair up. Afterward, assuming the others believed him, the Sangheili would have the chance to sort out this entire mess.

The Special Operations Major's thoughts drifted. He had put Fira's predicament out of his mind for a while, but remembered the sight of all his horrific injuries. Whether he would recover from his wounds or succumb to them, he knew his friend would want them to make sure everything was made right. It was what he had be willing to die for.

Cyla was still ill. She was clearly worried about her newborns, and as haunted by Isto's actions as he himself was. After the humans were accused of aiding the Fallen, Autel had seen how she had gone from outrage into a bitter, dejected blankness. The last few days had seeped an unshakable weariness into the Sangheili. Even the more fiery warriors were becoming subdued over time.

He hoped that once the humans were cleared they would feel hope again. The separatists could easily crush a group of defeated, burned-out soldiers, but would be fighting for their lives should they find the determined and honourable species the Sangheili once were, eager to bring the Fallen their long-awaited judgement.

"This hearing of the humans is now in session."

Hafsa looked around. They had been given the chance to put forward four representatives to defend themselves, and they'd chosen Felix, John, Commander Montrose, and himself.

The hearing hall was large, with the four humans in their own cubicle, and the tribunal up in their own personal ones encased with an energy barrier, with the Arbiter on the highest, without the barrier. The witnesses were waiting in individual units. It looked more technologically advanced than a human court, and was spherical rather than cubical, and everyone else was below them in a single large unit.

Around all of this were large, arena-like stands, packed with angry Sangheili. He knew they'd been searched, but Hafsa reckoned that at least a few had weapons.

The elder that was convinced they were guilty was standing. "You are all suspected of the atrocity of aiding and abetting our sworn enemy, the Fallen, and for the kidnapping of Sangheili children. What is your statement?"

The Lieutenant Commander, who they'd elected to be the main spokesperson for them, stood. "Not guilty."

There was a slight rumble from the onlookers. Some Sangheili looked a bit puzzled by the words that were considered the normal way of announcing in any human court. The Arbiter stood. "We shall begin with the presentation of evidence against your claim."

The elder on the right, the wild card in this situation, rose. "Tono 'Kamul, come forward."

One of the Sangheili from the cluster of witnesses drifted his cubicle forward, and the tribunal began to question them.

The Arbiter started. "Start from the beginning, if you would."

The Special Operations Commander nodded. "Yes. I got my first suspicions when I arrived at Earth to ask for help. Upon meeting the officers, I observed the response of the human superiors. They were not happy to help, and at first hesitated to do so. When pressed, I noticed they sent the best of them to our planet, as if to get them out of the way. During this time I've seen these humans do naught but plan on how to fight the Fallen, and nothing on how to get our young ones back."

The wild card elder stood. "You described the reaction of the human superiors as 'hesitant'. Could you elaborate?"

The witness nodded again. "I have video and audio of them, and it does show them seeming to want to somehow shirk this plea."

The main holographic screen lit up, and everyone could see the inside of the Eagle's Nest ops centre from a Sangheili's eye level. 'Kamul was seen standing in front of the camera.

"They were recording that?" hissed Montrose indignantly.

"There is not much time," the recording of the alien officer said. "As you already heard, we require your immediate assistance in this matter. Our ship is in orbit awaiting departure, and we will need as many of your forces as you can spare."

"I don't know," said Fleet Admiral Terrence Hood uncertainly. "We're a bit busy at the moment."

"Do you mean to refuse us?" 'Kamul asked, his voice raising slightly. The camera shifted. "After our agreement during the Schism? We had come to your aid when you were under threat of the Forerunners, and now you do are saying that you would turn us away."

"I'm not saying anything of the sort. It's just that your arrival was unexpected, and we need to think about something like this, and at such short notice, it could take a while—"

"Listen, Admiral," the Special Operations Commander said impatiently. "We did not journey all the way from Sanghelios just so you would leave us to deal with this crisis. Our newborns are being kidnapped as we speak. The Fallen think in ways completely different from ours, so we cannot hope to overcome them on our own."

"Alright," Hood said, cutting across him. Turning to one of the technicians in the room, he ordered, "Inform Commander Montrose that he needs to ready his frigate, and locate SPARTAN-116. Tell him to rally the Spartans—"

"You do not have a lot of Spartans at your disposal," 'Kamul remarked.

The Admiral sighed. "Our Marines are dealing with something else at the moment. I don't think your allies will find them very helpful anyway." The statement sounded almost accusing. Before the alien could respond, however, Hood added, "You will bring your ship into the frigate. We have recently improved our Slipspace drives, so the return trip will be faster."

The video faded. The Sangheili below muttered amongst themselves. Montrose looked exasperated. Hafsa looked somewhat outraged.

Without comment, Thel gestured toward the humans. "And now to discuss with the accused."

John and Felix exchanged a glance, and the Spartan officer stood.

"Did you think about what the humans are undergoing during your time of 'crisis'?"

'Kamul shook his head. "I do not understand."

"You know how many humans remain alive, don't you?"

"Of course, you tout it over our heads."

"And why not? Two hundred million humans from more than a hundred billion that we had a mere three decades ago. We're trying to rebuild, and our resources are spread thin. We're war-weary as we have never been. Of course we'd be hesitant to help anyone, allies or not. We're having enough problems of our own trying to solve."

"Then why send you?"

"Because Spartans are not suited to rebuilding a nation. What we need are engineers, workers, scientists, not fighters. So this was the perfect place to put us, where we'd be doing nothing but fighting."

"Then how do you justify planning to only fight the Fallen, and not rescue our young ones?"

"Think strategy. The young ones are already gone to Earth, and the Fallen are all around you. Would your young ones have a home to come back to if you got overrun? We can't focus on one problem, we'll have to split our attention, which we were planning. You called us here because the Fallen think differently from you, and so do we. So I was under the impression that you would trust our decision."

This set 'Kamul back a bit. Felix sat, and the Special Operations Commander drifted back to the witnesses.

And on it went, Sangheili standing and speaking their piece against the humans, all with similar stories. Each time the Spartan officer overcame their arguments with his own, the rumblings in the onlooking stands got louder.

Then, finally, it was time for them to defend themselves.

First was Sona 'Demal. He spoke his piece well, telling of how the humans had fought the Fallen on every possible front. He added a new element, that being that he knew they were keeping a close eye on information pertaining to the Fallen's plans for the young ones.

The elder on the left chuckled, and the enhanced hearing of the Spartans allowed him to hear the "hearsay". Felix and John looked at each other, smiling.

Several more Sangheili vouched for the humans and finally, it was Autel's turn. Sona handed the albino Sangheili something, and the latter pulled something else out from under his unit.

"During a mission where I returned to Isto 'Vadum's aircraft factory, I found this and had someone hack into its contents. He unlocked a series of logs that showed Isto's communications with Earth, and a series of plans that were very disturbing to us. The humans were taken into custody on account of this, and many believed they are not actually intending to help us."

He gave the storage device to Thel, who placed it into the projector. A long line of text appeared on the holographic screen. Montrose's expression tensed, and he frowned in confusion.

"This is the reason why my Commander thought that the humans were treacherous," Autel continued. "But I believed otherwise, and went to find out whether they were guilty or not. I returned to a location where the Spartans had been previously, and one of them told me she saw something hidden at a rock cluster. This is what I discovered upon further investigation." Handing his recording device to the Arbiter, everyone watched as the recording showed the albino Sangheili entering the passageway, and later the conversation between two of the Fallen. Montrose looked more relieved at this new evidence.

"As you have all heard, this has all been a set-up. We never would have expected any of our own species to be so deceptive, but we must not forget how the Fallen would put their honour aside so others would take the blame for their actions.

"They know that we cannot defeat them unless we have unity, and they do everything they can to break that. The Fallen have sworn allegiance against us and against the humans for heresy. They swear allegiance to the Covenant, which slaughtered more than a hundred billion humans in twenty seven years and turned on us after a millenia of our blood was spent to them. The Covenant burned human planets, killed their children, destroyed their civilization. And you have the gall to accuse them of helping the Covenant, when they willingly move to help us? It is we who should be helping them, for we are the ones who burned them, who killed them, who tried to destroy their rightful existence.

"I am most ashamed to be a Sangheili this day."

The tribunal left to deliberate on what they'd heard. Autel's words had caused a great stir of guilt all around the chamber. The humans had been returned to their holding cell to await the verdict.

Autel entered later, and the four human representatives stood forward. Felix noticed how downcast he looked, and how there was that hint of weariness in his expression that wasn't there before this entire crisis.

"That was quite a speech," the Spartan officer said.

The albino Sangheili shook his head. "Speeches mean nothing to us."

Montrose laughed. "They mean more than you think, whether your culture says they do or not!"

The Sangheili warrior smiled as the escorts entered, and he looked slightly happier. "Yes, I suppose they do." And he walked out.

"The tribunal has come to a verdict, The Arbiter will make the announcement."

Thel stood.

"After reviewing the evidence, we have come to the conclusion that the evidence of the humans' supposed guilt is considered null to that of more recent discoveries. We find them innocent."

None of the humans smiled just yet. Some of the Sangheili looked unsatisfied and still suspicious, and Felix was glad the others didn't say anything or show their open relief. As they were collected their equipment and walked out of the building.

Raphael rearranged his shoulder sling for his Assault Rifle to a more comfortable situation as he sat down near the front of the Pelican.

Reynolds sat in the back, near the hatch. The fourteen-man team jumbled into the dropship, with four left standing.

Raphael's mirrored visor kept the rest from seeing his grin. Sitting next to the hatch was not fun during an op, and standing was least desirable, as anti-aircraft fire tended to shake them around a bit.

The dropship lifted off the deck of the super carrier Advent and glided out of the hangar.

"Who's the CO of that ship?" a Private asked, checking the ammo in his sniper rifle.

"Captain Warren." Reynolds supplied.

"He's a dick." Bail said bluntly, and the rest laughed alongside him. Reynolds was silent.

"So what's the scoop on this drop?" The Private spoke up again.

"You need to pay attention at the briefings, Jake!" Borengo answered. "This is just a standard defencive action. We take a hill and hold it."

"Damned nice if they'd just have us take a planet, and not a hill." The Lance Corporal said.

Jake slapped his magazine into the sniper rifle. "Have fun sending fourteen Marines to take a planet."

"The Spartans do." Raphael challenged.

The junior ODST snorted. "No one's heard about the Spartans in years. My guess is they're dead."

The Corporal didn't respond, as he knew Jake wasn't around when Reynolds' squad had witnessed the Forerunners' brief arrival at Earth three years ago. However, Bail answered for him.

"Spartans don't die, remember? None are listed as it."

"Well yeah? Then why'd they disappear from the news almost overnight?" Jake retorted.

"Damn straight!"

"Hey boys, we got a problem here." The pilot's voice crackled over the PA system.

They all got quiet, and Raphael hit the COM button. "What's up?"

"Port yaw controls are jerking up. See if you can find out what's up, sensors are showing nothing."

Raphael stood and scooted his way to the back. "I'll get it." He knew that another would grab his seat, but he didn't care. Unlike most people, he liked holding on by his hands and feet to a ship travelling over 40,000 meters above the ground.

He opened the hatch and activated the magnetic clamps in his gauntlets and boots. Folding his body double, he leaned out the port side of the Pelican and slapped his hands against the hull and pulled him head around to look. Sometimes Drones liked to fly up and clamp on the Pelicans for a fast ride. When they did this they usually shot the hell out of whatever systems they could reach.

But what Raphael found himself looking at was definitely not a Drone.

The ODST pushed himself off the hull and back into the troop hold, slamming the hatch shut with the control panel next to the outermost seats.

"What's going on, Marine?" the pilot asked.

"Bomb on the port wing! Brace!"

Without replying, the pilot put the Pelican into a dive, and a second later the bomb exploded, shredding through the armour of the dropship like a hot knife through butter. The ship lurched as it was embroiled in fire, and began a steep ascent.

The pilot's voice crackled in their earpieces, his voice calm like that of many Navy pilots in the face of death. "Yaw and pitch controls are offline, PA system is out, and my copilot's down. Brace for hard impact!"

The safety jets on the underside fired, slowing the Pelican's descent to the surface.

Raphael reached over and caught Jake as he fell from his seat, patting him as the fire spread across his body, attempting to put the flames out. The other ODSTs were buckling in tight, and Raphael grabbed the unconscious Marine and slammed him into a seat, strapping him in.

Reynolds roared orders. "All those able to stand and jump, grab drop chutes, we're going in hard! The rest of you buckle down and wait for us on the surface!"

Raphael grabbed a chute and hurriedly strapped it on, and jumped after the others. The Pelican shot away from him as he dropped, wind buffeting him left and right, up and down. At the proper height he hit the trigger and the body chute popped out and expanded. His rate of descent slowed, and he and the rest of the jumpers hit the ground a few seconds before the Pelican slammed nose first into the hillside.

The Corporal hit another button and his chute detached, and he ran flat out for the Pelican.

Borengo was there first, and she and Raphael were able to pull the crushed hatch open as Reynolds rushed up.

"Get 'em all out!" And the ODSTs got down to the job of pulling the injured out. Only one in the Pelican had landed uninjured, and was the last out.

The uninjured Helljumper, who'd had his helmet torn off and his face dirtied by smoke, reported to Reynolds. "Lance Corporal Bail's KIA, sir. So is the pilot, he crashed the ship nose first to save us."

Raphael dragged Jake out of the wreckage and examined him. The private was covered in severe burns. "Sir, you might want to call for medevac!" Then the Corporal checked the injured Marine's vitals.

Shit. No heartbeat.

Raphael began CPR as Reynolds radioed for another dropship.

The Corporal who'd reported to Reynolds rushed over with a defibrillator, and they tried to get Jake's heart going again as a Pelican appeared in the distance.

Chapter 7

Time 24:13:52:16 (Accuracy 1/10 to that of Forerunner), sixteenth sunrise shift of the fifth month (Sanghelios Time Unit), 4th Age of Amendment (Covenant Time Unit, based on Forerunner Time Unit)

Location: Aboard Covenant Carrier Shadow of Intent, in orbit around Sanghelios

0700 Hours, February 28TH, 2559 (UNSC Military Calendar)

"Are your Spartans on board yet?" Fleet Master Rtas 'Vadum said.

"They're on their way," Commander Montrose replied.

"Hurry," the Sangheili commander said impatiently. "I want to end this quickly."

Montrose decided not to comment. Things were still tense between the humans and the Sangheili, and he'd already been locked up once today.

Sunsets truly were beautiful on Sanghelios. The multiples suns cast red streaks across the skies, and the surface mirrored that with its crimson volcanoes.

But there was no time to appreciate it. Everyone was on a tight schedule, and they couldn't risk being discovered by the Fallen with things like scenery.

Thel looked to the Spartans. "I am sorry about what has happened today. The elders were wrong to accuse you when you come only to help."

Felix nodded, waiting as the Marines were climbing aboard the two dropships.

"I must remain behind," the Arbiter continued. "The negotiations must continue, and if I leave, it will attract attention. And for the time being, it would be better if they think we have not caught on to their plans."

"I think Autel has already given them a few hints," the senior Spartan said.

Thel gave a smile. "He is an outstanding warrior. Insightful in ways I have not seen in myself. He holds great promise for the future of the Sangheili."

Linda lowered her Sniper Rifle and moved back to their position. "I've spotted sentries, sir. They're headed this way. They'll be at our position in five minutes."

The Lieutenant Commander nodded. "Then it's time to go."

He had ordered the SPARTAN-IIIs stay at Sanghelios, as well as Commander Montrose and a few squads of Marines. It would hopefully fool the Fallen, and with any luck they would assume the UNSC presence was still here.

Thel placed his hand over his chest in the "goodbye" gesture, and watched the two Spartans climbing aboard the Phantom. The others were spread through the area, taking off at a predesignated time. If they remained scattered, it would be harder to be discovered. The dropship engaged its camouflage, the green on its hull fading to a blur. Thel heard the engines activating and the two Phantoms vanished.

The Arbiter engaged his own camouflage, turned to the forest, and slipped into the group of fireproof kafel trees.

"This will end at Earth," Sona said, "and see our young ones returned home soon."

"I hope so," Autel said. "Isto's force is small, and we have the element of surprise."

"Excellency, we need to talk to you," 'Antinr, his sharpshooter said, approaching them. The Ultra nodded, and left with his subordinate. Decided to do something rather than just stand around, the albino Sangheili walked through the other door and into the hallway, and found himself face-to-face with Taszar.

His stepbrother looked surprised at his sudden appearance. "Hello, Autel. Is there something you need?"

Autel paused. He realized now that there would be no better time for him to say what he wanted to. After all, with the upcoming battle, he wouldn't know if they would both make it alive. "Taszar..."

The minor domo patiently waited for him to continue.

"I...I am sorry," Autel said. "I know I have been disagreeable these past few days. There has been a lot on my mind lately, but you are like a brother to me, and I do not wish to have bad blood between us. I know you know what you believe in is the same thing I do, so...thank you. For putting up with me."

Taszar smiled.

"Do not worry about it, Autel. I know you have worked hard to keep us all together during this entire affair. I hold nothing against you, for I know what you think is right, but let us have more...trust in the future. It will keep our heads up when the time comes to stand together."

"Agreed. When we arrive at Earth, let us fight like brothers to the end."

"Like brothers."

The two Sangheili clasped hands. Autel felt a newfound confidence surge through him, and knew that the healing process of the bond the Sangheili had begun, starting with them. Then they would place their trust in the humans once more.

Raphael entered the room, feeling not scared, but guilty. He had as good as killed his long-time squadmate, Bail. He had hardly thought twice about it during the heat of the moment, but now it sank in, and the images kept replaying in his head. The young Marine Jake and two Pelican pilots were dead as well. Jake had died of his injuries not long ago while under intensive care. The squad was shocked that they lost so many during such a simple, standard-procedure mission.

The guards closed the doors behind him, the sound echoing in the quiet room. Raphael stood straight as he faced the three ODSTs sitting in front of him. There was Lieutenant Colonel Gauthier, the XO of the Orbital Shock Drop Troopers and the CO of the 105th's 7th Battalion, Major Krueger, an officer who fought during the Battle of Antarctica in 2556, and Master Sergeant Reynolds, Raphael's superior officer.

The Corporal waited in the silence. Finally, Krueger, who was holding a clipboard, said, "Please provide your name, rank, and serial number."

"Sir," Raphael said. "Raphael Esquival-Cortez, Corporal. Serial number 96817-23046-RC."

The Major scribbled down the information, and enquired, "Cortez? Are you related to Brigadier General Francisco Cortez?"

"Yes, sir. He was my father, sir," he replied tensely. General Cortez was killed in action during the Second Battle of Earth seven years ago.

"I knew Francisco," Colonel Gauthier said thoughtfully, but then looked to Raphael. "But we're not here to discuss him, boy. We're here to discuss you."

"I was inside the Pelican, and didn't see much. Tell us what happened," Reynolds said neutrally. Raphael took a deep breath, and described what had happened on the dropship.

"So you saw a bomb on the Pelican's wing? A UNSC-made bomb?" Krueger asked. The Lance Corporal nodded.

"Then it was no accident," Gauthier said testily. "Why was it not found during a flight check?"

"We didn't find anything, sir," Raphael said. "It could have been planted during flight."

"Only a Spartan could have been capable of planting a bomb in space during flight," Krueger said.

"Or a Sangheili," Reynolds added.

"And neither of whom are at Earth," Gauthier said, "Which leads us to one possibility." He glared at Raphael suspiciously. "You seemed very eager to fix the problem, Corporal. I find that rather odd."

"He is a good soldier, and always takes the initiative," Reynolds cut in, immediately seeing the implication. "What is so odd about that, sir?"

"You could have dispatched anyone, Sergeant," the Lieutenant Colonel snapped.

"And Cortez was positioned in the innermost seats," the NCO said evenly. "If he was planning to bomb the Pelican, he would have chosen a more convenient spot. And what would his purpose be of killing his squadmates? I've had him watching my back for a few years, sir, and I'll tell you that he's been nothing but loyal and devoted to the UNSC. I'll also add, sir, that his record has been spotless."

"He's got history," Gauthier said. "His mother used to be an Innie—"

"ONI has already settled that matter, sir," Krueger pointed out. "And we've agreed not to become biased because of personal matters."

"Are you questioning me, Major?" Gauthier asked.

"No, sir, I am merely pointing out facts," Krueger replied fearlessly. "If you'd like, we can discuss it with Lord Hood."

Gauthier turned away. "That's hardly the issue. The problem is, four soldiers are dead, and whether we like it or not, evidence points to Cortez."

There was another pause. Krueger finally said, "Perhaps a temporary suspension would be ideal. Until we resolve this matter, perhaps he should settle down for a while."

Reynolds looked like he wanted to object, but the Major said, "It would be best if you re-oriented your squad. Inform First Sergeant Stacker that his squad will be filling in for your mission. And for now, Cortez should stay out of our way—" he glanced briefly at Gauthier, "—for his own sake as well as ours."

Reynolds nodded reluctantly, and Krueger grabbed a sheet of paper and wrote something on it. "Colonel, Sergeant, if you would please sign this," they did so, and he turned back to Raphael. "Corporal Cortez, you are hereby suspended from active duty until further notice. You will gather your things and are to leave within three hours. If this suspension is permanent, we shall inform you. You may leave now."

Raphael brought his hand up to salute, feeling numb with shock. As he turned to leave, he realized something.

"Sir," he said, turning back to Gauthier. "I thought a group of Sangheili had established contact with the UNSC."

"I don't know what you're talking about, boy," the Colonel said. He still looked suspicious. Deciding not to argue now, Raphael walked towards the door, when Reynolds said, "Corporal, wait."

The former looked back. The Sergeant looked very disheartened. "If this is permanent...it's been a pleasure working with you."

Raphael nodded, unable to speak. Then he walked out of the room without another backwards glance.

When he finished telling Maria about what had happened, she said, "I'm sorry to hear about it, Raphael. It wasn't your fault."

He sighed. "I feel like I killed those soldiers, Mom. Two of them were in my squad. They were like my family to me."

"You didn't kill them," Maria said. "And I don't think you could have done anything. You've always been a great soldier, Sergeant Reynolds says so all the time. And it's no more your fault than mine—" She stopped. She had meant it as a casual remark, but suddenly it seemed so obvious.

Raphael stared at her, and she tried to keep the look of unease off her face. Finally, he asked, "Can I trust you, Mom?"

Maria didn't say anything. She wasn't sure she could answer.

"You had something to do with it," she said accusingly at Isto, as Raphael walked up the stairs.

"And why would I do that?" the Sangheili asked. "I would not risk losing your...cooperation."

"I've seen what you've done," she said. "You're holding these...newborns like common prisoners. Smuggling them around the area. Putting them in boxes. They've done nothing wrong, and your actions are way below your Sangheili honour."

"Their families are blinded," Isto growled. "They side with the humans like they are equals."

"Kind of like you?" she asked. "If you hate them so much, why don't you fight them, instead of kidnapping their young?"

"They will come," he said ominously. "I have just decided to give your military's Spartans a bit more...trouble." And he walked out of the room.

Maria decided that she couldn't stand it anymore. Her son had worked hard to shake off the prejudice others had cast upon him because of her, and all she did was bring him shame. That was going to change. What Isto was doing wasn't right, and neither was she for going along with it. He had no doubt tried to kill Raphael with the Pelican incident, and she was going to end this.

Maria opened a drawer, and drew out an M7 Submachine gun and two fragmentation grenades. She quietly slipped out of the house, and down the streets. Raphael had told her about the abandoned facility he had found, and she now knew what it was for. When she found the dirt road that led to the abandoned laboratory, she kept an eye out for the signs that he had described. After trekking through the trees for a long time, she began to wonder whether she should have asked for help from some Marines. But after thinking about it, she shook her head. Maria didn't know who she could trust this information with, and there was something in Isto's statement that told her the force sent to Sanghelios wouldn't be back for a while. She was on her own.

Reaching the forked tree Raphael had described, she walked off the path and saw the facility in a clearing. Squinting, she noticed the camouflaged guards outside the doors. Priming one of the fragmentation grenades, she threw it between them, careful to remain hidden behind a tree. The explosion killed the invisible Sangheili. Quickly, Maria grabbed her gun and the other grenade, and hurried inside. It was not exactly a quiet entrance, and maybe there were more hanging around.

She didn't expect there would be a lot of Sangheili inside, as it would seem suspicious, but there were four more guards. She didn't think she would be able to bluff them, so she threw the other grenade at the two on the far side. Hardly realizing how reckless she was being, she dashed up to the first one, stuck the barrel in his back, and pulled the trigger.

Maria hadn't fired a weapon for years, and the SMG nearly slipped from her grasp as the recoil kicked against her grip. The other guard turned in alarm, and she emptied her clip into the Sangheili. Three plasma bolts whistled past her head and melted against the wall, and the guard fell, dead.

Her hands were shaking as she dropped the empty gun, and she walked up to the cells. In each was a group of Sangheili newborns sitting inside, still too young to walk. There were more placed inside the black units clustered around the room. It repulsed her to see them treated like this. Not thinking about how to free the ones inside the cubes at the moment, she decided to release the ones in the cells first. Picking up one of the guards' Plasma Rifles, she fired at the bars, careful not to shoot the newborns. They melted, and she moved to pry them open, when something slammed her to the ground.

The rifle fell with a clatter, and Maria looked up. Fading out of camouflage, standing over her with a look of hatred on his face, was Isto.

The Shadow of Intent came out of Slipspace over Earth. Immediately, Felix sent a broadcast to the stations in orbit. "This is SPARTAN-116, requesting immediate contact with Lord Hood."

"Okay, Commander," replied a tech from inside a space station. "We'll have him up as soon as we verify your signature. Give us a few minutes to—"

"There's no time for this," the Spartan officer snapped. "Establish a connection to Eagle's Nest now, soldier. Ping every channel it's linked to, I need to talk to the Admiral."

Wisely deciding not to argue, the tech complied, and a few seconds later, Hood's voice was heard on the Control Centre's COM channel.

"Sounds like you're in a hurry, Spartan," he said. "What happened during your mission?"

"Sir, this wouldn't be a good time to ask questions. We need to get something done, it needs to be done quick. We'll tell you the short and simple version once we're inside the base."

Reynolds listened as Felix told Lord Hood about what happened. Krueger was also listening, along with Gauthier. They had been sorting out the recent issue when the Spartans entered the conference room and insisted that the situation was urgent. The Admiral was too busy listening to dismiss the Marines. When they finished, the Sergeant frowned. Walking up to Krueger, he said quietly, "Sir, did you remember Corporal Cortez mentioning that there was Sangheili present at Earth? This could be what he was talking about."

The Major looked perplexed, but also interested. "Go on."

"Then maybe..." Reynolds hesitated, hoping he wasn't going too far with the statement. "Maybe some things that have happened...aren't the fault of who it appears to have been directed."

Krueger stared at him. The noncom threw caution to the winds, and added, "Sir, maybe Cortez can tell us what's going on. And maybe he's in danger from whoever's doing all this."

The Major nodded. You're right, Sergeant. Go, find him," he half-glanced at Gauthier, who was speaking with Lord Hood. "And keep it quiet. I'm not sure everyone would be as ready to involve Cortez in this."

Reynolds ran out of the room, ignoring the glare Gauthier fixed him with. He hoped to find any members of his squad as he passed, and found Borengo.

"Come with me, Private," he said quickly.

"Sarge, what's going—"

"I'll explain on the way, grab some gear and meet me in the hangar ASAP!" The sharpshooter, trusting her CO, ran off into a nearby room to get her armour and weapons.

Reynolds reached the hangar, and found a pilot doing check-ups on his Pelican. "Is your bird fully working?" he panted.

"Yeah," the flight officer said, slightly alarmed by how rushed the Sergeant was. "Why?"

"Then warm up the ship," he said, climbing aboard. "Put a Warthog under the clamps."

The pilot looked quizzically at him, as Borengo rushed towards them with a cart, with her ODST suit on and a Sniper Rifle on her back. She quickly handed Reynolds two more suits and a BR55HB SR, and climbed aboard as a Warthog was placed under the Pelican's magnetic clamps and was raised off the ground.

"Close the hatches," the Sergeant said. "Get us to Murcia, on the double."

"Spain?" the flight officer asked.

"Where else do you think I'm talking about?" the Sergeant said. "C'mon, move it!"

As the pilot made a quick clearance check and took off, Borengo asked, "Sarge, why are we going to Murcia?" Reynolds told his sharpshooter what he heard in the conference room, and how there was an unknown Sangheili separatist force present. "I think that's why we were targeted with a bomb after running into those invisible guys and finding that facility. It's likely they'll try to take out Cortez, now that the Spartans are back and we know the whole story."

The pilot had made sure their trip across the Indian Ocean was made as quickly as possible, but the flight still seemed to take forever. As Reynolds checked his rifle for the fifth time, the Pelican landed on a side road, and dropped off the Warthog, he grabbed the extra gear and stowed it in the back of the vehicle. If these separatist Sangheili were really responsible for the recent incident with the Pelican, then technically Raphael wasn't suspended from active duty.

"Thanks for the ride," the Sergeant said. "Stay in this area, we'll need a lift back." He took the driver's seat, with Borengo riding shotgun, and they pulled onto the road as their Pelican took off to wait somewhere less conspicuous.

Reynolds forced himself to drive carefully as he entered the city, manoeuvring the bulky LRV through the streets. After several close calls and a few driving methods that were most certainly not legal, the two ODSTs arrived at Maria Esquival's house. He could see Raphael walking around inside. Then something caught his attention.

A Sangheili, wearing armour that was different from their original, was standing on a roof across the street, holding a Beam Rifle, and aiming it at the window.

Borengo moved fast, jumping out of the Warthog, raising her rifle and firing a shot. The bullet glanced off the alien's armour, but did not penetrate.

Reynolds had taken the gunner position of the jeep by then, and swivelled the turret to face the enemy. He thumbed the triggers, firing the powerful bullets rapidly at him.

The sniper flinched and loosed off a single shot, shattering the window.

Raphael wondered where Maria had gone. She and the Sangheili, Isto, were both gone from the house. He moved to the door, and decided to find—

The sound of a sniper rifle firing shattered the silence. A moment later, the sound of a machine gun was heard, as a lance of purple energy destroyed the window and destroyed a vase behind him. The shot had narrowly missed him.

Light footsteps were heard, a series of three round burst from a UNSC rifle, another round from a sniper rifle, a deep howl of pain, and silence.

The Sangheili ducked behind the roof, and was no doubt aiming for another shot. Reynolds leaped off, grabbed the Battle Rifle, and ran towards the sniper. He aimed squarely at its elongated head, and fired three round bursts at the alien's chest area.

The alien, its shields greatly weakened, flickered and died from the impact of the bullets. He slipped around the roof again, taking cover from the rounds.

But Borengo took the initiative, and fired again, taking the alien through the head this time. The separatist screamed as the 14.5mm round penetrated and blew his brains out. He collapsed on the roof, his Beam Rifle slipping out of his grip and falling onto the sidewalk with a clatter.

Raphael moved outside, and saw the neighbours coming out as well, looking alarmed at the commotion.

"Don't worry," a man was saying. "UNSC Marine Corps, private business. Return to your homes."

It was Reynolds! As the civilians departed, Raphael approached him. The Sergeant exhaled when he saw him.

"You're alright, Cortez. Good."

"Sarge, what happened?"

"Well, let's just say that those Sangheili you were talking about turned out to be a group of hostile separatists who did something the others took offence to, and came to Earth to pin it on the Spartans. Get your suit on, we need to get back to the base for debriefing."

"You got lucky, huh Cortez?" Borengo asked, climbing into the passenger seat. "Seeing as we just saved your ass, that means you're riding on the back."

Raphael knew Borengo to banter whenever she was feeling relieved after a tense moment. As he put on his armour, Reynolds started up the Warthog, and he grabbed the turret's grip. "But sir," he said. "I thought I was suspended from active duty."

"That wasn't your fault, Corporal," the Sergeant said. "We'll sort things out later. Where's Maria?"

"She hasn't been in the house since—" Raphael froze, and realized something. "He took her. That's why they've both been missing."

"Then we'd better hurry," Reynolds said, flooring the Warthog, dodging between traffic. He passed the COM to Borengo, holding onto the steering wheel with one hand and still driving quickly with ease. "Call the Pelican, Private. Cortez, I think you'll want to be part of this mission."

Maria looked out from her cell. Unlike the ones in the factory, this one had a plasma wall.

Isto walked into the brig and approached her. "You see, human, this could have worked out well. Unfortunately, you had to try and stop my plans, so I've decided to kill you once that carrier has glassed this planet. And you see, your actions were of no use whatsoever."

The newborns were moved to the other cells. She looked away from them, and said, "You're wrong. The UNSC will know what you're up to, and they'll come and stop you. Them and the Sangheili."

Isto laughed unpleasantly. "You fool. I have already ordered my sniper to assassinate your son, and he is no doubt dead by now. The only other witness will be silenced, and your pathetic military will be turned into glass and sand, along with your world."

The corvette shuddered as something hit it. Isto stumbled, nearly hitting the deadly plasma wall.

Maria gave a bitter smirk. "I'd say otherwise."

Chapter 8

1200 Hours, March 1st, 2559 (UNSC Military Calendar), aboard Covenant stealth Corvette, in orbit around Earth, Sol system

Raphael's DMR spat four rounds in quick succession, and a Fallen Sangheili dropped, roaring as the 7.62mm bullets punched through his helmet.

The Elite called Taszar waved to Raphael, and his voice came over the Special Operations COM. "Human, Raphael, come with Autel and I. We will get you to the brig."

The ODST stepped in line behind the albino and his stepbrother, slapping a new mag onto his rifle.

Working their way down the hallway, the makeshift Special Forces team moved towards the brig.

Raphael stopped, hearing something behind him. A click.

"Behind us!" He roared and threw himself in to a side hallway. Autel and Taszar followed swiftly as a few dozen plasma bolts whizzed by.

Raphael plastered his back to the curved wall and peeked out. Five Fallen Sangheili had taken up positions behind them, and had them pinned.

He turned to look at Taszar, carrying a carbine. "How well can you use that thing?"

The Sangheili minor hefted it. "Fairly well, why do you ask?"

Raphael grabbed a fragmentation grenade. "Come here. When this goes off, pop out and hit as many as you can."

He primed the grenade, leaned out, and threw it.

Taszar leaped out around the corner and fired five shots. One missed, but the other three struck unshielded heads, and the last hit one in the shoulder.

The Sangheili got back behind cover and turned to Autel. "Circle around behind them. We'll keep them distracted here."

Raphael backed up a few paces. "I'm going to the other side of the hallway, give me some cover."

Taszar leaned out and fired, driving the three remaining Fallen Sangheili under cover.

Raphael ran forward, across the hallway, and ducked behind that corner. Now he and Taszar could fire on the enemy position without being in each other's way.

One more went down before Autel was able to get behind them.

Raphael had just finished his magazine and went for a reload when Autel leapt out from a side hallway, driving an Energy Sword straight through one of the Fallen.

Lifting the body in front of him as a shield, Autel stepped forward, bringing a second Sword up and cutting the last Fallen Sangheili down.

Taszar stepped out from cover. "Hurry."

The brig had only two guards, and they withered under the barrage of plasma bolts and DMR rounds.

Raphael went to the first cell. His mother lay there, holding a small bundle. He reached up and deactivated the plasma barrier.

Maria looked up, and Raphael saw that she was holding the smallest Elite he'd ever seen.He went to her and wrapped his arms around her.

The ODST turned his head to see the albino, Autel, looking in to the cell as Taszar deactivated the rest of the plasma barriers, a strange look on his face as he stared at the two humans.

Then the look passed, and he moved to the next cell.

"I'm sorry, Raphael, I'm so sorry." Maria said. "It was me, he told me. I was afraid he was going to kill you."

"Mom, it's alright. Let's get out of here first."

Autel deactivated the last barrier, and saw three familiar newborns. He went to them and picked them up.

Taszar was already radioing in more Sangheili warriors to come fetch the rest, but these small ones were for Autel to carry.

His children. His blood.

Ezekiel squeezed the trigger on his MA6, sending a sustained stream of 7.62 mm rounds in to the enemy group. Reynolds added to his fire with a burst of SMG rounds.

Their spread of fire in the the enclosed hallway caused devastation among the two Fallen, and they dropped quickly.

Ezekiel stepped out, a plasma bolt splashing against his shields, ramming a new magazine home and continuing the fire. Reynolds followed at a steady pace.

Behind them, Blue Team opened up, covering their six.

The bridge door opened as Ezekiel approached. He, Reynolds, and Blue Team were first there, so there was plenty of work to be done.

He primed and threw a plasma grenade. It attached to a Major's mask and detonated, spraying purple blood and gore everywhere. Two other Fallen were taken in the blast, and the Spartan and ODST opened fire on the rest. The remaining Fallen Sangheili turned to fire, but were hit on all sides by the other teams entering the bridge from all directions. Within seconds, the bridge was cleared. Ezekiel stowed his assault rifle away on his back, and went to the control interface.

The Sangheili Ship Master, Rtas 'Vadum, moved to join him. Ezekiel tapped away at the console, tightening his parameters each time. "Do you have him yet?" Rtas growled.

Ezekiel turned to stare at him. "If I did, then I would have told you." A ping emanated, and the Spartan zoomed it in.

"There he is."

Rtas turned and began walking away. "I'll take care of him."

Ezekiel jogged up beside him. "Isto isn't the only one there. You'll need my help. The others can finish up here."

"Very well," the Fleet Master scowled. "But leave Isto to me. This is personal."

Raphael marched out in front of Maria, making sure the hallway was clear. The two had left Taszar and Autel and struck out for the control centre. He turned the corner and ran into Isto and a Fallen squad.

The ODST pushed his mother away, shouting, "Get out of here! Get back to the rest!"

Isto stepped forward, speaking to the other Fallen. "This one's mine."

Raphael fired his DMR, the bullets bouncing off Isto's shields.

The Fallen leader swung his energy sword horizontally, and the ODST leapt back, his gun sliced in two. Isto kept turning and stepping forward, smashing his left fist into Raphael's chest. The Corporal was thrown into the wall, the breath knocked out of him. He watched Isto's Energy Sword coming around for a stab, and threw himself to the right along the wall. The Energy Sword missed, slamming into the metal.

Raphael came up with his M6G pistol in hand, firing three rounds into Isto's chest. They bounced off his shields.

He stepped backwards, passing an intersection. Isto stepped forward going for a horizontal slash. Raphael knew he couldn't dodge this one, and it caught him in the chest, throwing the ODST to the floor.

A silver blur came from out of the intersection, and slammed into Isto.

Sona had just arrived inside the room, his Energy Sword ignited. His eyes had a fury that was never known to take him before.

"You will not spill one more drop of blood of these humans," he growled. "They are far more honourable than you are."

Isto retaliated, slashing his own Energy Sword. The Ultra parried, and rammed the Fallen leader.

"One of my kin has placed his own life on the line so that your attempt to kill newborns would not spoil the name of the Sangheili," Sona said, pushing him back. "And still you continue to act as if you have no shame."

"You fight for the wrong things," Isto replied menacingly. "You live for the wrong things. I will make the Sangheili see what it takes to bring back what we once believed in. Before the Covenant, before the San'Shyuum." He suddenly lashed out, tripping his opponent. With a roar of triumph, he drove his blade downward.

Sona rolled aside, but caught the bars of energy in his shoulder. Fighting back his pain, the Ultra pulled out a pistol with his other hand, and fired, taking down Isto's shields. The Fallen leader stumbled back, and broke into a run.

Sona stood up, but knew he could not give chase and continue battle.

"There is one in your family who seeks your blood," he called after Isto. "He knows your life tarnishes the name of his Lineage."

Isto reached the end of the hall, as Rtas stepped in through a door, Energy Sword ready. Giving no surprise, he slashed down at the Fallen leader, who blocked it and kicked the Fleet Master, launching him backwards.

Down the hall, Ezekiel had engaged the Fallen squad. Raphael struggled with a grenade on his waist, feeling the energy washing from his limbs.

Isto stood as Rtas came back at him, and forced the former backwards, in the direction of the Control Room.

Raphael got a hold on the grenade and chucked it towards the Fallen squad. "Frag out."

Ezekiel heard it, and heard the grenade land. He snatched a Fallen Elite up in front of him, the shrapnel riddling the body.

Raphael passed out. Ezekiel had to focus on his enemies now, and not protecting the ODST.

He dropped the body and brought his assault rifle around, emptying the last ten rounds into another Fallen.

Rtas came in with a vertical high slash. Isto countered with a high horizontal guard, turning Rtas' blade aside and kicking out with his foot. The Ship Master twisted away from the kick, bringing him alongside Isto. A horizontal slash was countered with a straight stab.

Another twist, and this time Rtas was on the defence, countering several attacks as he was pushed backwards in to the Control Room. Spartans and Sangheili looked up as the two bashed their way in. Kelly moved to intercede, but Felix waved him off.

Another stab, and Isto overextended. Rtas grabbed his wrist and pulled him in, headbutting the Fallen leader. He stumbled back, dazed, and Rtas stepped forward. The tip of his sword drove a hole into Isto's shoulder. The Fallen leader roared in pain, and struck a hammerblow to Rtas' head. Rtas dropped to his knees, his vision swimming, then felt the hot burning of an energy sword piercing his stomach.

The pain brought him back to reality.

He stood, grabbing the handle stuck inside him and twisting. The fire spread in his belly, but he wrenched the handle free of Isto's grasp and pulled it out. Isto stepped back as Rtas came at him. He didn't scream as the blade swung towards his neck.

Ezekiel stepped on to the bridge, carrying the unconscious Corporal Raphael over his shoulder.

He gestured to Reynolds, who ran over carrying a first aid kit. They started to work on the ODST, staunching the bleeding with biofoam and wrapping him up.

Fred and Linda were rolling the headless body of Isto into the airlock, and Rtas had placed the two Energy Swords on his thigh plate. Kelly kicked the head in after the body.

Felix was organizing hunting parties to clear the rest of the ship. It had been calculated that a little over half the Fallen forces had been neutralized. Now they just needed to finish the job. Stacker's squad was holding the Engine Room, and Grey Team was working their way along the gunnery stations.

The senior Spartan called Ezekiel and Hannah over, and the Class 2s marched up to him. "Sir?"

"You willing to go hunting?"

Ezekiel nodded. "Yes sir. Where do you want us?"

"Hallways. We don't know much about how these stealth corvettes work. Just get as many of the Fallen as you can. You two could split up and work your way across."

Hannah went to one of the supply cases they'd brought in and grabbed a shotgun and several boxes of buckshot. She held the weapon against her shoulder as she walked by. "Race you to the bottom level," she said.

It was about an hour until the ship was cleared, the UNSC engineers moved in, and the Special Forces moved out.

Felix met Ezekiel as he was preparing to leave. "Have to go so soon?"

The Lieutenant nodded. "Afraid so. Apparently you need training these days in order to train special forces."

"Understandable. I've heard things about this new batch."

"I know things about them, and I can tell you they're going to be something that even us old ones won't have seen."

"How many are you going to be training?"

"Somewhere along the lines of 3,000."

This set the Lieutenant Commander back on his heels. "How did the UNSC find the funding for that?"

Ezekiel gave a rare smile. "You remember the tech the Forerunners gave us?"

"Ahh. I knew that had something to do with it."

"Good thing too. We have the resources to not only get Delta Company back on track, but also make sufficient programming and technology. Now it's my job to train them, so train them I shall."

"We had quite an adventure at Sanghelios. We couldn't have done it without you, and I mean that. You're...quite the Spartan. I must admit, you make working alone look easy."

The Lieutenant gave a rare smile. "Thank you, sir. I try."

The senior Spartan held out his hand. "It's been good working with you, Ezekiel."

"Same with you, Lieutenant Commander." He saluted and marched onto the Pelican.

"He's quite the Spartan," Felix repeated quietly.

"He likes to work alone," Hannah replied. "I used to think it was weird, but Ezekiel certain earned my respect these last few years."

"We all have our ways. I have a feeling we won't see him for a while."

"Oh, he'll be back," she said. "With 3,000 Spartans ready to kick ass. Then it'll be my turn to play DI." Hannah gave a mock grimace. "Until then, I guess I've been landed on this boat for a long time."

"Perhaps. Looks like we're in for another fight. So I'm glad you're with us."


2240 Hours, March 1st, 2559 (UNSC Military Calendar) inside UNSC Pelican dropship, planet Earth, Sol system

Raphael woke up, and realized he was slumped in the cargo seat of a Pelican. He shifted, and realized his torso was bandaged.

"You're awake," Sergeant Reynolds said from next to him. "Your mother's very worried about you. I told her you'll be fine, but she wanted to see you anyway. She's waiting for you."

"Sir, where are we going?" Raphael asked.

"Back to the station to get a few things straightened out," Reynolds said. "Those separatists caused a lot of confusion, and we're talking to that Fleet Master now."

The Corporal felt uneasy. "Sir, maybe I shouldn't be coming with you."

The Sergeant laughed. "Don't worry, Cortez. Your suspension has been lifted, and you'll be back on active duty...as soon as you recover. We've got everything sorted."

The Pelican touched down on the station's landing pad, and Reynolds helped Raphael out of the Pelican. The Sergeant led him to a room where a group of Spartans and Sangheili were gathered. "C'mon," Reynolds said, pulling him forward. "They'll want to hear what that bastard's been up to in your house."

Fleet Admiral Terrence Hood was there, as well as Lieutenant Colonel Gauthier, Major Krueger, and Sergeant Major Pete Stacker. Raphael raised one hand to salute them, which was returned. "At ease," Lord Hood said. "Now, if that's all, Fleet Master, I daresay you'll want to bring your young ones home. And please tell Commander Montrose he can come back to Earth." 'Vadum nodded, and gestured for the Sangheili to leave. The Admiral turned to the Spartans, and said, "Good work. I'll bet your trip to Sanghelios was no less hassling, so please make yourselves comfortable." The Lieutenant Commander led the team out of the room as well, and there was silence.

"Now, Corporal," Hood said. "I realize these past few days have been...unusual. Not to say a bit hard-edged on the receiving end of all this trouble. I must ask you to tell us what has happened. We've got a pretty good idea from all the others, but I'll want to hear your story first-hand."

So Raphael told them what had been happening; how odd Maria was acting, the Sangheili's suspicious nature, the accident he retold, this time with more certainty. He finished with Sergeant Reynolds finding him and their assault on the corvette.

When he was done, the officers and Sergeants were silent, taking in his words. Finally, Lieutenant Colonel Gauthier gave a chuckle and said, "I guess I read you wrong, Corporal. You are something after all. I daresay your old man would have been proud."

"Indeed," Hood added, "your actions have been noble. You will be awarded the Medal of Honour at a ceremony next week." The Admiral gave a slight smile. "Make sure you're there."

"Sir!" Raphael saluted.

"You are dismissed," Hood said. As the Corporal left the room with Reynolds, Maria was waiting outside. The Sergeant nodded to him and walked off.

Maria embraced him in a tight hug. "I'm sorry about everything, Raphael. I can't believe I let myself help that monster."

"It's okay, Mom," Raphael said quietly. "You cared about me, and that means a lot."

"But I lied to you," she said, "I didn't trust you."

"Let's forget all this. Then let's not keep any more secrets," he said. "Promise?"

Maria nodded, and finally let go of him.


Autel entered the Vadam Keep, and walked up to Cyla's room. He entered quietly, and saw that she was asleep. He gently laid the newborns down on the bedside, and was about to leave, when he heard her say, "You're back."

He turned back to her, and they embraced. Autel smiled for the first time in a long time, and when they let go, Cyla held the newborns as if she never wanted to let them go. She said, "We haven't named them yet."

Traditionally, the mother named the children, and she said, "I haven't decided on names yet, but I'll tell you when I have. In the meantime, I think you'll want to pay a visit to the Demal Keep."

Autel was silent. Did that mean what he thought it meant?

Cyla smiled. "Fira will be regaining consciousness in a few units. You may want to be there when he does."

Autel nodded, took one last look at the newborns, and left the Keep. He ran all the way out of the Kolaar mountains, and found 'Pyron, who took him to the Demal Keep.

Sona let him in. His shoulder was bandaged, and his walking stance was slightly awkward as he tried not to move the injured part of his arm.

"I heard you ran into Isto," Autel said as they walked up the stairs. "The others said you were fighting with...anger."

"Yes," the Ultra replied. "I have never known something like that to take hold of me. I have never been one to be motivated by the thought of vengeance. But I have never met a foe as who was so disregarding of what it means to be honourable."

They reached the second landing. A group of Sangheili were standing inside the medical room, Demal and outsiders alike. A doctor was examining some charts.

It was the first time Autel had seen his friend since he left him at the medical facility. Fira's wounds were sealed, but purple scars were seen all over his body, barely distinguishable from the dark of his skin. The holographic projectors showed his status currently in a wake-up state.

"He will regain consciousness within this subunit," the doctor said. "His body is doing checks to make sure he has healed sufficiently. He will be unable to move around for a while, but he will make a full recovery in time."

Autel stood beside Sona, waiting...waiting...

Something pulsed on the projector. Red lights flashed to yellow, and to green.

"He is waking up," the doctor said.

Fira's hand twitched. His eyes opened.

Autel felt an enormous sense of relief. He had known that his friend would make it, but he had a deep sense of fear that he would never wake up.

Fira slowly turned his head. He looked around at his friends and family, and gave a bare smile.

The Sangheili in the room began to talk at once, asking him how he felt and telling what had happened over the lapsed time. His eyes met Autel's, who said quietly, "We've brought them back. All of them."

The doctor stepped forward. "He requires medication. I must ask you to leave for now. You may visit him later."

As Autel left the Keep with Warra 'Mantakr, 'Tullum, 'Antinr, and the others, he felt a great sense of contentment. The Fallen were still out there, but they had been defeated for now. Everyone he cared about was alive, and that was all that mattered today.

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.