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Chapter 1: A Warrior’s Heart Vusan Keep, Sangheili colony world of Kurotta - 2552 The Jiralhanae fell to the floor with a thick, wet 'thud'. A slender female Sangheili stepped over its body, plunging a curveblade into its skull. Saia's mandibles twitched in satisfaction as a pool of burgundy blood slowly spread out onto the stone floor of the cooking room. A hand gripped her arm, firmly pulling her up from the Brute's corpse. Utem, a male of the clan that maintained tradition among the people, looked incredulously from the body on the floor to the blade in her hand. "What have you done?" He demanded. "You know full well that it is forbidden for a female to wield a blade!" "As it is forbidden to strike the favored of the Prophets, and yet I have done so." Saia wiped the Brute's blood from her blade on its mangy brown fur. "And look; no wrath, no vengeance." She looked up to him, emboldened by the realization of recent events. "The Covenant has broken. The Hierarchs are dead." "How do you know this?" "A message was received, sent from a carrier named Shadow of Intent to all Sangheili colonies and keeps. An Arbiter returns to us, to lead our people from under the haughty feet of the San'Shyuum. The Hierarchs put in motion an uprising of the Jiralhanae, disposing our people as protectors and slaying the Council." Utem's gaze fell back to the dead Brute on the floor as he pondered what this meant for them. "By the gods…" "There are no gods." Saia blinked, finding the words hard to believe, even as she said them. "This Arbiter, he… spoke with an oracle; he learned the truth of the Sacred Rings." She looked to Utem, her jaw firm and a stone in her gut. "The Forerunners are long dead. The Sac—" she corrected herself, "the rings are a weapon, one that destroys all life. The Prophets are mad." Utem's mouth moved silently, trying to find the words to refute this truth. He could not. Their revelation was cut short as the sounds of battle rose from the courtyard. Steel curveblades were met by plasma fire, and the occasional explosion of Jiralhanae grenade launchers. Saia and Utem dove to the floor as one of those grenades hit the window, obliterating the wall around it. Debris scattered across the room, harmlessly pelting the two Sangheili as they took cover. Utem looked around when the debris settled, a fine dust obscuring his sight. Saia grunted in disgust, shoving the Brute corpse away as she clambered to her feet. "Something is wrong," he said, "the fighting has stopped too suddenly." "Perhaps they are all dead." "'Vusan Keep is one-hundred Sangheili strong, and only half that number are Jiralhanae overseers!" Utem said, trying to convince himself. "They cannot overcome us all." Saia crossed the room, stepping carefully around loose stones and sharp bits of mortar. Her hand reached out to grasp the edge of the hole. The courtyard was a slaughter pen. Thirty Sangheili lay on the ground in pools of their own blood, dotted here and there with Jiralhanae – all with cuts and plasma scorching over their massive hides. What Sangheili remained standing looked to the sky, where a CPV-class destroyer dropped into high orbit just above the planet's atmosphere. A booming voice – oddly, a Sangheili's - came from all devices capable of transmitting. "Beasts and Heretics below: know that your deaths spur forward the glory of the Truth, as the final death throes of the false Covenant." With that, the ship's energy projector began to glow as plasma was prepared for assault. "We need to leave, quickly." Saia growled as she pushed away from the wall. She grabbed Utem's arm, attempting to pull him with her. The male tore his arm from her grasp, objection flashing in his eyes for an instant. "And go where? You are no warrior – I am no warrior. And as a female you are forbidden use of our ships." "Those customs no longer mean anything!" Saia bit back. "If we do not leave now, we are dead. You heard the declaration of whoever commands that destroyer." A muffled explosion sounded in the distance—plasma slamming to the ground as the destroyer began its assault. Saia's attention snapped to the sound, and she realized there wasn't much time left at all. Utem realized the same, and did not object this time when Saia grabbed him by the arm, pulling him urgently as she ran towards the Keep's shipyard. The outer fields burned as the beam of plasma drew closer, the crops sending thick black smoke into the sky. Stones shook loose from the walls and ceiling of the keep, forcing the fleeing Sangheili to dodge them while also watching their footing. Only twenty yards to go – the docked Phantoms were within sight. Saia sprinted through the doorway of the keep and a wave of hot air stopped her in her tracks momentarily. She could not stop, though, she needed to keep running. A thunderous boom urged her forward as well; the Keep collapsed as its stones were shattered and melted. She leapt to cover the final distance, tumbling into the open crew deck of a Phantom. Quickly clambering to her feet, Saia lunged towards the cockpit door; she heard Utem fall to the crew deck – good, he was still alive. The controls were barely familiar to her. A jumble of geometric hologram controls, some of which clearly indicated direction. Thankfully, many were labeled in standard Sangheili. She slammed her hand onto the control for ignition, and thanked whatever gods might be looking over them when the impulse drives hummed to life. "Hang on back there!" She shouted, before moving her hand to the directional control away from the Keep. The Phantom rose rapidly into the air as the deck doors sealed, pulling away from the oncoming plasma bombardment. She stabilized the dropship, leaving the wreckage behind as 'Vusan Keep was obliterated. Setting the ship to autopilot – plotted to Kelsam, the nearest ally state – Saia left the cockpit. Utem sat propped against the troop deck door. His skin was raw and blistered, burnt from their proximity to the plasma bombardment. He reached out feebly. "You… are brave." Utem coughed, blood flecking his mandibles. Saia knelt next to him. "You are the last of the 'Vusan. You must fight for the injustice done here." He coughed again, grasping Saia's arm. "Perhaps you have a warrior's heart… after all." With that, Utem 'Vusan grew still, and coughed no more. Saia rose from the corpse, his bloody handprint on her arm. She returned to the cockpit, pushing the engines further to leave her past behind. Chapter 2: Permission and Perfidy Kig-Yar pirate camp, Valyanop – April 9th, 2558 Saia scowled at the Kig-Yar perched across from her. She was Ruuhtian, of high social status among her peers on this rock. The table between them was littered with trophies; small knives and personal sidearms, baubles and broken bits of technology. All practically worthless, but impressive to the bird-like creatures all the same. The Ruuhtian was adorned with almost as much junk. Chains hung from a headdress - made to look like the males’ quills - and draped around her large, bright orange eyes. Eyes that darted between Saia and the human female at her side. "You speak chatty crazy!" The Jackal snapped, spittle flinging from her beak. "Hunt piyrats, they kill!" Saia's mandibles drew back into a snarl. She was about to let the Kig-Yar have it, until the human female next to her butted in. "With all due respect, Queen Chur'R-Maat, I think the both of us have fought worse than a few scraggly pirates." Talitha Macer was young, even by human standards, at only two decades. Yet she had survived a life of constant combat with the Colonial Marines of her homeworld, Sedra, and had attained the rank of Lance Corporal after enlisting with the Office of Naval Intelligence. Now she worked for Section One, the branch of ONI that gathered intelligence. They had assigned her to Valyanop – a Kig-Yar colony world – to assess the threat that growing numbers of raids posed, but Talitha suspected that there was more to it than just pirates. Her long, dark hair was tied close in a bun, effectively giving the human an authoritative look. Chur'R-Maat made a chortling nose, amusement flashing in her eyes. "Why need my help, you thhight so good?" Saia chuckled. Sangheili had trouble pronouncing human phonetics as well, but they didn't often try for that very reason. The "queen" only sounded like a fool. "The pirates are your soldiers." 'Vusan retorted. "Should we charge in and slay them all, you would likely retaliate." The Kig-Yar threw her head back, cackling. "She smart! You luckee she wit you." She said to Macer. "So be! I tell piyrats they no shoot at you. You poke at ruins. But one day--no more!" They stood, giving a short bow. "It's been a pleasure working with you." Macer said, with a slight hint of sarcasm in her voice. She stepped out of the Kig-Yar's tent, Saia following after her. The atmosphere of Valyanop was humid, and thick with foliage. It had rained recently, and mist rose from the forests around the camp. "Surely you are not so foolish as to believe the Kig-Yar will leave us to your investigation?" Saia asked once they were a good distance away. Macer glanced up at the Sangheili warrior. Now that they were in the light, her crimson armor gleamed majestically. Gold adorned and accented it, denoting her status as an accomplished warrior. That must have been difficult for her to manage as a female. "I doubt it," Macer replied plainly, "but when they do attack us, that'll give us something to hold over the junk-queen." Saia smirked. "ONI has taught you a dangerous game, Agent Macer." Talitha had joined the government agency after her experience on a shard of Installation 04. ONI had been reluctant to accept a colonial pilot with no enlisted experience, but with a recommendation from Lieutenant Commander Jameson Locke, she was hard to refuse. Her late superior, Aiken Randall, often said that her gods didn't let ONI into Valhalla; the resting hall of their honored dead. Talitha hoped to change their mind, and show them that even spies could have honor. She had met Saia 'Vusan when the Sangheili was assigned to her mission as a liaison for her faction. The warrior had made quite a name for herself in the up-and-coming Swords of Sanghelios, and making the assignment a joint-operation would further prove the UNSC's commitment to amicable relations with the Sangheili. Talitha climbed into the seat of a M121 Light Strike Vehicle - commonly called a Jackrabbit – and punched the ignition button. The three-wheeled reconnaissance vehicle's engine purred to life. Saia mounted her adjacent Ghost. "The pirates are holed up in some old Kig-Yar ruins; pre-Covenant." Talitha said over their comms. "They're about ten klicks north of here, shouldn't take us long to get there." "And when we get there?" Talitha gave a shrug. "We're just there to ask questions, 'Vusan." -------------------------------------------------------- Saia's Ghost drifted to a stop, the propulsion drives humming softly. Macer's vehicle pulled up beside her, the front two wheels separating to stabilize the bike. The Kig-Yar ruins stood off in the distance, roughly two kilometers away. They looked almost like the castles of humanity's ancient past, but patched with rusted ship parts, defunct turrets, and held together more often than not by the dense foliage of Valyanop. Saia and Macer were just outside the range of Covenant beam rifles, and with luck any snipers wouldn't even notice them. To ensure this, their vehicles were parked behind a small but dense grove of trees, out of sight from the fortified ruins. Talitha pulled a DMR from the back of her Jackrabbit, fixing a suppressor onto the muzzle. She donned a helmet – modeled closely after the Recon helmets of the MJOLNIR armor systems, but optimized for ONI operatives – and holstered an M6C/SOCOM pistol. Her armor was a variant of the standard ODST battledress, also modified for ONI field use. Saia shook her head as she donned a closed helmet, a hand drifting to her hip where her Energy Sword was held in place. It was all she needed. While Sangheili generally did not name their weapons, or regard them as significant in their own right, Saia could not help but feel a sense of pride in her blade. As a female, she had fought harder to attain it, and so it represented far more to her – and others – than the blades of most other swordmasters. Macer raised a brow. "That's all you're bringing?" The Sangheili scoffed. "They are Kig-Yar. Not well-known for being master warriors, or even good soldiers." She motioned to Talitha's weapons. "You said that we are only here to talk. We have the word of their queen that they will not fire upon us." Macer nodded, buckling a tactical pouch of medical supplies to her right thigh. "You are correct. We do have her word." The human glanced to Saia's armor. "Does that have strong shields?" "Indeed." Talitha gave a small grin. "You get to ring the doorbell, then." A moment of confusion passed over Saia's face before she understood. The Sangheili gave a deep huff as she stepped past the edge of the grove, her hands held in the air. There was no sound of a shot, but an energy beam slammed into Saia's chest, flaring her shields. She dropped, rolling to the side and back into cover of the trees. The warrior snarled. "Are you content with their answer?" Macer exhaled, sliding a magazine into her rifle. "Oh yeah. I can't wait to rub this in Maat's smug beak." "Wait." Saia handed Talitha a slender, curved device. "They are snipers, which is why we are better to use these. It is a cloaking device, similar to those used by the Covenant during the Ninth Age of Reclamation." Talitha eyed the device with contempt. "That doesn't seem very honorable. A warrior should meet their foes and death head-on, without cowardice." Saia shook her head. "The Kig-Yar are without honor, as you have just seen. You humans are often reckless, but do not be a fool; you would fall before even stepping foot inside their fortress. A wise infiltration is not cowardice; you must learn this, with the agency you have chosen to work for." Macer's mouth pressed into a thin line of disapproval, but she clipped the cloaking device to her belt all the same. Her pride would have to take a back seat. The operatives activated them, fading from clear sight and becoming nothing more than mirages. They made their way towards the ruins, being sure to avoid foliage and streams; anything that could show their presence. Footsteps were almost unavoidable, but snipers wouldn't spot those. Talitha pressed herself up against the stone walls just as her cloaking timed out. A thin smoke rose from the overheated device. She clicked off the safety of her pistol, motioning to Saia to move in. The Sangheili warrior slipped around a corner into the ruins, Macer following directly behind her. "I'll take point," she said over their comms, moving to the front, "you watch our six." They moved silently through crumbling halls, their path illuminated by low-light enhancing optics of their helmets. The dim sound of industrial work could soon be heard, and the operatives moved in its direction. Saia peered around a corner, her hand moving to her blade. The courtyard of the ruins had been all but gutted. A scrapped Locust mining walker was positioned in a corner of the yard. A Kig-Yar manned a makeshift cockpit of the mining craft, blasting the center of the grounds with plasma. "We need to nab one of these Jackals," Talitha said, "find out what the hell is going on here." She poked her head back around the corner, looking quickly for one of the pirates that were on patrol. One of the birdlike aliens was on a clear path around the perimeter of the dig site. He was equipped with a Carbine, as well as targeting headgear. The Agents would need to be very careful. Talitha pressed herself to the wall, just to the side of an archway. The Jackal's headgear would spot the heat thrown off their active camo, so she relied solely on her armor's stealth principles; reduced infrared signature and reflective coatings. Her helmet enhanced her hearing, picking up the slightest scuffle. It was hard to discern anything with the constant drone of the mining laser, so Talitha tuned her helmet to filter out that noise source. ONI tech sure had its perks. There it was. A slight scraping as claws dragged across stone. The pirate was no more than two meters away from her. She waved two fingers down low, directing Saia back. As the Jackal passed by, Macer grabbed his beak and held it shut, ripping the Carbine out of his surprised hands as she dragged him back. The Kig-Yar struggled in Macer's grip, almost breaking loose until Saia slammed a fist into his gut. The pirate doubled over, the breath driven from his lungs. Her next blow came to his temple; subdued, but enough to knock the Kig-Yar out cold. "It would be wise to take this beast far from here, so that our interrogation will not alert the rest." Talitha nodded. "A sound idea. Let's head back to our rendezvous point—that'll put us back out of range." The two agents retreated from the dig site. Saia held the unconscious Kig-Yar by his feet; the pirate was light enough that she draped him over her shoulder with ease. As they crossed the threshold of the ruins, Saia and Talitha activated their active camouflage. Macer was pleased to see that Saia's system covered their prisoner as well. When they reached the grove that hid their vehicles, Saia tied the Kig-Yar securely to a tree. The Sangheili pulled her hand back, prepared to smack the Jackal to wake it. Before she could, Talitha laid a hand on her arm. "Let me—you hit too hard." The human slapped the Kig-Yar a couple times, jerking her hand back as he came to with a start and snapped at her. "Woah! Mouthy little s**t, aren't you?" The Jackal hissed angrily, struggling against his constraints. His breath was rancid, even through her helmets air filer, and she was glad he couldn't see her wince. She snapped her fingers, drawing his attention back to her. "Here's how this is going to work. We ask you some questions, you give us answers. If you don't," she motioned back towards 'Vusan, "she gives you a nasty scar." The Kig-Yar spat and hissed, answering in his native tongue. Macer looked over her shoulder for a translation. "I didn't quite catch that." Though her helmet was equipped with a xeno-lexicon, the Kig-Yar language was far too complex to get an accurate translation. Large parts of it relied on tone, quill color, and pheromones. Saia leered at the pirate. "He said that he ate the hearts of your mothers, and passed them quickly because they were bad meat." Talitha nodded, pulling her M6 and pistol-whipping the Kig-Yar. He shrieked as a few teeth flew in an arc of bright purple blood. Macer pointed the gun at his face. "Don't talk about my ancestors like that, Tree-Turkey." The pirate lunged at her again, the ropes creaking as he growled and screeched angrily. "Now he threatens to eat your heart and eyes, indigestion or not." Talitha shook her head. "I love it when they play hard to get." She dropped her pistol, balled her fist and drove it into the Kig-Yar's gut. "How about we just start with your name. Can you give us that? Huh?" The pirate gasped and hacked, Saia translating again. "He says his name is Dak, Shipmistress' favorite." Macer feigned impression. "Queen's pet, huh? So Dak, what're you doing in those ruins? It was hard not to notice the Locust you rigged up." Dak cackled, squawking as he glanced from Talitha to Saia. The Sangheili gave a tired sigh. "He says that they are digging our graves, and that Chur'R-Maat said to use their dung as mortar to seal them." Macer cracked her knuckles. "Y'know, holding out? Only makes this worse for you." The Kig-Yar spat at Talitha's feet, hissing in English defiantly. "Iy ssay no word! Yuu no—no see any-thing!" Saia growled in annoyance. She was in no mood to listen to another pirate struggle with the humans' speech. "The Kig-Yar barely has grasp of your language, Agent Macer; worse than their queen." She loomed over the pirate. Talitha's comm translator kicked in as 'Vusan spoke to the Jackal in her native language, which served as a lingua franca for the Covenant. <Enough false-bravado, pirate. Your lance—what do you unbury here? You work as though the coin of the San'Shyuum fills your coffers once more, eager to turn up trinkets to make you rich.> Her face was but inches from the birdlike alien, who shrunk from her presence. "But it does not. You scavenge and steal, piecing together ragged ships barely worth calling a fleet." The Kig-Yar snarled. <And you are so mighty, 'warrior'? You are a mercenary, just the same as us. You have no San'Shyuum-coin; you do not even have Sangheili-coin! What do you think you can buy us with?> 'Vusan glanced back to Talitha. The human gave a small shrug, as if to tell her 'Make something up'. She returned her glare to the Kig-Yar. <For starters, I will not break every bone in your body. Then – if you aid us – we will give you a ship.> The Kig-Yar's eyes gleamed covetously, darting from Saia to Talitha. "Nuu ship!? Sshiney sship! Yuu give to Dak, Chur'R-Maat maayk Dak maayt!" Saia snatched the Kig-Yar's neck in her hand, prying his attention back to her. <After you tell us what you are doing here.> The Kig-Yar gave a hard swallow, his beak snapping in anticipation and greed. <We dig. To find the Great One, hidden beneath this temple. The San'Shyuum did not lie, not always. It sings to us, beneath the rock.> Talitha stepped forward, suddenly nervous. Something in the Jackal's voice sounded too zealous, and humanity had seen what that caused. "What sings to you?" The Kig-Yar's eyes glazed with fervor. <The Demon in the Rock. It will grant us more than ships; it will destroy Humanity, who killed the Kig-Yar's greatest contract!> Saia fingered the hilt of her sword. <This demon… name it.> Dak hesitated for a moment, but was too swept up to stop himself. "Lee-vru-kah." The Sangheili drew her blade with a sharp, static 'crack!' and plunged it through the Kig-Yar's thin body, burying the twin sheets of plasma into the tree. He screeched in agony before Saia drew the blade out to remove his head from his slender neck. "Gods, 'Vusan!" Macer's eyes went wide at the show of violence, taking a step back as the Sangheili dropped the corpse. "What the hell was that about?" Saia didn't bother to explain, a wild look in her eyes as she holstered her blade. "We must stop the Kig-Yar; the Lee-vru-kah must not rise, or you will see how terrible gods are!" Talitha sensed the urgency immediately. She quickly grabbed a satchel charge from her Jackrabbit, stowing it in her pouch. "This should take care of their Locust, and put a stop to their operation." The Sangheili scowled, but did not say anything. She had heard tales of what the Kig-Yar searched for, dread stories whispered around campfires, but nothing that she had ever considered real. Or at least, something that she hoped was not real. Chapter 3: Bring Down the Hammer Dak's absence had been noticed—again. It was not the first time that the young Kig-Yar had skimped on his duty. Vosk growled in annoyance as he prowled the rooftop of the ruins. He was supposed to be sleeping, comfortable and full after a freshly killed meal, not covering for a lazy green-beak. The sniper was so distracted by his irritation that he never saw the air shimmer behind him. He didn't hear the thin whisper of steel pulled free from its sheath. As the combat knife separated his spinal column from his brain, he noticed too late. Talitha wiped her blade clean, sheathing it as she stepped over the corpse. She de-cloaked and waved Saia forward. The Sangheili crept past her, a blur of the foliage behind them. Her outline was a thin green line in Macer's Heads-up Display. Talitha clicked off the safety of her DMR, powered up her active camouflage, and followed Saia to line up behind her next to the entryway of the ruins. "Storm or stealth?" 'Vusan glanced over her shoulder. "Why not both? Our stealth systems will cover us, while an aggressive assault will confuse and panic the Kig-Yar." As she said that, their camouflage began to hiss and sizzle. Rain slowly began to fall on them, and within moments the systems failed entirely. Saia growled. "Or the pirates will see us outright. An aggressive move is our only option." She raised her blade, the plasma smoking as raindrops evaporated where they hit. Talitha pursed her lips, tensing for their breach. She flinched as light flashed, momentarily blinding them. At first, she thought the Kig-Yar had stolen flash-bang grenades and used them against the two agents. A loud boom of thunder disproved that theory, and Macer's frustration turned to a grin. "We will be fine." She assured the Sangheili. Saia gave an incredulous look. The human was mad. "They outnumber us three to one." "Then it is an even fight; the gods watch over us." A second clap of thunder seemed to emphasize her point. "The thunder will cover our movements and our attacks, if we time them right. Wait for the flash before you take your targets. With luck we will cut them down before we are noticed." Saia snorted. "Gods have never watched over me, Agent Macer." They waited for the next flash of lightning, sprinting into the main chamber and taking cover as thunder roared overhead. Talitha sighted a Kig-Yar that perched atop the Locust. Lightning flashed, and the creature jumped in surprise. The crack of her DMR was lost in the thunder, and the pirate tumbled to the ground. Saia waited patiently, grabbing a Kig-Yar in the next flash. His choked squawks, and the subsequent snapping of his neck, went unnoticed. She moved in the shadows, her footfalls drowned out by the rain as the warrior made her way around the ruined courtyard. Lightning flashed and she froze, but when the thunder boomed she was sent flying into the center of the room. Angry hisses and snarls rose around her from the four remaining Kig-Yar as Saia stumbled to her feet, disoriented. Macer swore, breaking cover to fire on what pirates she could see. One went down with a headshot, a second dropping as a round tore through his shoulder. Her rifle snapped to Saia as she searched for targets, covering the Sangheili. A thin cackle rose above the rainfall. Saia turned to see the pirate queen, dressed in combat armor, step into the courtyard. Behind her loomed a massive Sangheili. He was clad in midnight black Zealot armor accented with gold; a pattern that 'Vusan did not recognize. "Chur'R-Maat." Talitha said, unsurprised. "So much for allowing us to investigate these ruins. We didn't even get to say hello, and your boys started firing at us." The pirate snarled. "You get no farther! I tell piyrats they no sshoot at you—they kill you! Stupid idiots no can do job. But Lut," she motioned to the warlord behind her, "he take care of problem now!" The Sangheili stepped past the Kig-Yar, scowling at Saia. "You." His voice was accusing. "Dishonor and last of the 'Vusan, long have I sought this glory. You have persisted in breaking sacred tradition, and taken up a blade of your own as is forbidden by the Abiding Truth; your death will bring me more honor than burning your blasphemous keep to the ground." Fire flashed in Saia's eyes, the memory of her home burning fresh in her mind as the day it happened. "It was you…" Her blade snapped into being just as lightning flashed. She thrust the blade towards him. "Your blood will avenge my clan—will give them peace!" The Zealot chuckled. "We shall see." His amusement turned to annoyance as three shots bounced off his shields, causing them to flare. "You talk too much, split-chin!" The human shouted impudently. Lut thrust a finger towards Macer's position, snapping an order to Chur'R-Maat. "Hunt that vermin! The heretic is mine." He lunged for Saia, bearing only his fists. The female warrior slashed at the Kig-Yar pirate as she swept past, causing the queen to stumble for a moment. Saia had no time to follow through as Lut bore down on her. She leaned to the side as a fist swept past where her head had been, but was caught off balance as his elbow pulled back to slam into her chest, knocking her to the floor. The warrior rolled with the blow, springing to her feet and putting some ground between them. She wished that she had brought some manner of firearm, but this wasn't the time for regrets. Saia took a defensive stance, her sword held high and angled towards the Zealot brute. Lut assaulted her again, and her shields brushed aside two blows. As he reared for a kick, Saia thrust forward. Her sword slid across his chest, energy arcing as the plasma put his shields under duress. She quickly pulled back as he pitched away from her, thrown off balance. Her blade flashed, landing several rapid hits until his shields burst with a blinding flash. The Zealot landed on his back with a 'thud', snarling in frustration. He kicked Saia away, denying her a killing blow. As he clambered to his feet an acrid stench caused him to recoil. His shield generator sparked and smoked, the rain having shorted out the vulnerable tech. Saia noted this, and kept a close eye on her shield monitor. If she lost them as well, she would be at a significant disadvantage. Lut drew an energy sword from his hip, the blade snapping active as he leveled the weapon towards her. -------------------------------------------------------- Macer pressed against a pillar as Chur'R-Maat howled past. The self-proclaimed queen was furious at the affront to her authority, and was intent to take it out on the human. Talitha leveled her M6, firing off four shots at the Jackal. One shot hit her in the back - barely doing anything against the thicker hide there - and the others hit her ornate headdress. Chains disintegrated and baubles shattered as the gold jewelry crashed to the floor. The queen stopped dead, snarling angrily. She whirled around to face Talitha, her beak flying open as she shrieked a challenge. Several shots dented and ricocheted off her armor as she lunged for the agent, doing minimal harm but hardly slowing her charge. The Ruuhtian bowled into Macer, knocking the pistol from her hands. Chur'R-Maat became a flurry of claws on the downed human, scratching and battering her armor but occasionally scoring a hit on battledress, slashing fabric and tearing flesh. Talitha screamed in both anger and pain, her left arm held up to try and block off the Jackal's attacks as her right balled into a fist, driving up into the queen's gut. She sprawled to Talitha's side with the blow, but quickly recovered to clamp her jaws around the human's upper arm. Her claws grabbed for purchase on Macer's helmet, intent on ripping the armor from the young woman's head. Talitha wailed on the side of Maat's head that she could reach, breaking several teeth but doing little to release the Kig-Yar's iron hold on her. As her helmet was ripped free, the Ruuhtian put herself off-balance. Macer shoved her aside and rolled to the right, staggering to her feet and drawing a combat knife from her left bracer. She wiped blood from her nose, raising the blade as Maat dropped her helmet, cackling in amusement. The Jackal began to circle Talitha, who never gave the alien her back. Her eyes narrowed, her adrenaline spiked, and she roared a battlecry—so that should she fall, it would not be as a coward. The Jackal hissed as they lunged at one another, throwing her claws wide. Talitha dropped her shoulder, driving it up into the queen's chest as they met. As she rose back up she hooked the pirate's arm, flipping her over onto her back. She held Maat tight, using the Kig-Yar's weight to pull her momentum around and face the queen. Her right hand gripped the combat knife tight, bringing it down with force into the bird-like alien's chest as her knee dropped to pin Maat's neck. Brittle ribs fractured and thick purple blood spattered Talitha's arm, chest and face. Chur'R-Maat screeched in agony, writhing beneath Macer in vain. The human drew her knife out, plunging it into the Kig-Yar's side with another cry of fury again and again. She stood as the queen writhed no more, staggering as exhaustion caught up to her. Her armor was stained violet; she could smell the blood on her face even as the rain slowly washed it away. Talitha spat down at the queen's corpse. "Been a real pleasure working with you." The sharp clashing of plasma drew her from her bloodlust—Saia was still in trouble. After scooping up her helmet Macer stumbled to recover her rifle, loading a fresh magazine into the weapon as she leaned on a fallen pillar to cover her partner. -------------------------------------------------------- Saia slid beneath the legs of the Locust as Lut's sword slashed at the metal above her, and she scrambled towards the other side. Lut followed around, climbing over debris and equipment to catch up. She rolled from under the mining walker, turning as he roared behind her, leaping from the Locust and lunging ahead with his sword. The plasma blade glanced off her chestplate, flaring her shields to half as she leaned back away from the blow. She struck the Zealot with an armored fist, drawing blood as it crashed into his mandibles. He spun away, snarling in rage; his pride more wounded than his person. "Imagine the shame," Saia taunted, "when it is told across worlds that you were slain by a female." Lut sneered. "Even should you prevail, heretic, the Abiding Truth will stamp out such dishonor against the Sangheili way. Your tale will never be told past the camps of the blood-traitor." He gave a roar, his mandibles going wide before he lunged at her again. Their blades clashed, sending sparks flying as the warriors danced across the ruin courtyard. "Agent Macer," Saia grunted as she keyed her comms, "while I have him distracted, set the charges and destroy their Locust!" Talitha looked up from her rifle. "You're too close! There's no way—" "A sacrifice I must make!" She kicked out at Lut as he recoiled from a parry. "Do it now and retreat!" Macer climbed over the pillar, sprinting for the Locust. Her cuts stung, and her body was sore, but she gritted her teeth and pushed on. She grabbed the satchel charge from her pouch, securing it to the body of the Locust. Saia kept the Zealot's attention on her and his back to the Locust. She glanced past him, keying her comms as Talitha primed the explosive. "Go now, Agent Macer!" The female Sangheili ducked low as Lut's sword rushed over her head. Talitha paused at the edge of the courtyard, looking back to the Sangheili. Saia knew foolish thoughts passed through her mind. "I'll see you in Valhalla, Saia 'Vusan." She said, turning to slip from the ruins unnoticed. Saia did not know what Macer meant, or where this 'Valhalla' was, but in her distraction Lut caught her with an uppercut blow. His fist drove the wind from her lungs, and sent her falling back several feet. The warrior's helmet fell from her head, clattering to the floor as she clutched at her chest, gasping for air. Lut loomed over her. "All that bravado, yet you prove to be as weak-willed as all females." He kicked her sword from her hand. "Pathetic." He pinned Saia with a foot on her chest, leveling his sword to her throat. "A warrior's death will not find you, last of the 'Vusan. You will burn, like the rest of your clan. But unlike them, you will burn slowly." The tip of his sword pressed to Saia's face, scorching her left eye blind and burning an angry red line on her flesh. She would not give him the satisfaction of her pain, and was thankful it would be over soon. Her good eye saw a red light blinking on the underbelly of the Locust. Her mandibles pulled back in a sneer. "We shall burn together, Clanslayer." Lut turned as the charges began to beep rapidly. Saia scrambled out from under him, snatching her sword and helmet from the ground as she dove behind a pillar. She was not ready to die—not yet. Lightning filled the courtyard, but it was close and streaked with fire. Thunder shook the ruins, but it did not come from Macer's god. The pillar between Saia and the explosion trembled, flames licking the edges. Lut's charred and broken body sailed past her, tumbling to rest in a pile of rubble. Her shields fluctuated, blinding her momentarily as they overloaded and burst. The alarm was drowned out by the grinding roar of stones crumbling and falling. The storm passed, and the ruins were silent but for the periodic tumble of pebbles as the destruction settled. Saia fell to her knees, taking a moment to recover. Her muscles and chest ached, and her blinded eye screamed with pain. The warrior's arms shook, and she collapsed to the ground. She did not know how much time had passed before she heard footsteps walking slowly toward her. Her eye opened, blurred vision surveying the room around her. Agent Macer swept the room, her shoulders low. She looked to where Saia laid, and moved slowly towards her. The human knelt next to her, reaching out to lay a hand on her shoulder. Saia found the strength to groan, her head lifting slowly. "Godd**n!" Talitha exclaimed with a start, falling back flat on her rear. "I thought you were dead!" Saia rose to her knees with help from Macer. "I feel as though I should be. But I am thankful that I am not." She looked over to the dig site. The Locust was obliterated, twisted and charred legs bent outward. Blue flames burned throughout the wreckage as coolant and plasma seeped onto the floor. The dig site had collapsed in, and a section of the ruins opened into a pit of unknown depth. "Help me up, Agent Macer. I must see for myself." She stood, using the smaller human for support as little as she could; she did not want to crush Talitha and injure them both even further. They moved slowly across the rubble until they stood at the edge of the hole. Saia peered down into the darkness. A soft orange glow emitted from magma deep within the cavern below. She could not see much aside from the face. It was fearsome and enormous; Forerunner metal, teeth bared, and eyes that were dead and black. Yet a silent fury seemed coiled in that un-living visage, a power uncontested and barely contained by the planet's crust. The eyes stared up at Saia, and she knew that it saw her. It was the face of death, and she had cheated it twice now. "Let us leave this place." Saia forced the fear that gripped the base of her neck to abate. "There is nothing here for the Kig-Yar to use." Chapter 4: Lee-vru-kah Saia and Macer sat around a small campfire. Their vehicles had been stolen by two of the Kig-Yar that had fled the ruins before the explosion. Thankfully, Macer had thought to take her medical kit with her; the two soldiers nursed bandaged wounds and exhausted bodies. Saia's eye was covered as well in both a healing salve and field dressing; Macer had done her best to secure the cloth to the Sangheili's face. She stared at the fire, contemplating the events of the day. "Agent Macer, I have been wondering something." The young human gave an amused snort. "Saia, we just went through hell together. I think you can call me Talitha." "Very well, Talitha." Her gaze rose to the human. "What is Valhalla?" The human tossed a twig into the fire, remaining silent for a moment. "It is the resting place of my ancestors, the hall of my gods. To reside there after death is a great honor, and our deeds in life are told as examples to the future warriors that are trained by those we led." She gave a sigh. "It was a common saying on my homeworld that the gods wouldn't let ONI into Valhalla. They were too cowardly, too manipulative—sowing only strife and war throughout the galaxy. My superior blamed them for an attack that claimed his daughter. "But then we met an ONI agent who was not a coward, and who defied his own men when they would just as soon have left innocents to die in order to save their own skin. He was the exception to ONI, and the reason that I decided to join as well; to change them for the better with all I can do." Saia shook her head. "That seems a foolish goal, Talitha. You cannot change ONI; you are but one person." The human gave her a wry smirk. "Pebbles start an avalanche, 'Vusan." The fire crackled, the only sound for several moments before Saia spoke again. "I lost my faith long ago, when my life was burned around me. Our leaders were shown to be liars, and our faith an illusion. I realized that the strength that I had credited to the Forerunners came from my own skill and fortitude, and left the illusion behind to carve out something real for myself. I have cheated death twice now, yet still I do not know my place in this galaxy." Macer toyed with a white bead, fastened to her dogtag chain. "You can't cheat death, Saia. All of us have a day that we are fated to die, and nothing we do can change that." She shrugged, looking to the Sangheili. "If you have not died yet, then there is still much for you to do. If you've come close twice now… Well, someone might be trying to get your attention." Saia looked to the human, something in her words sounding like the life she had lost. And yet, it sounded—more. "I do not know your gods, Agent Macer, but you are no liar. Honor drives you, not selfish glory. When I should fall, I do hope to meet you in this Valhalla." Talitha smiled faintly. "Well, that's hopefully a long way off for the both of us. What's not far away is our de-briefing, which is never fun." She patted Saia on the shoulder. "Best get some sleep now; it's a long walk back to the shipyard, and a longer ride back to base." Saia thought about what Macer had told her as the human slept. Those thoughts soon drifted to her clan and her family lost six years ago. Perhaps they watched over her as well, and had spared her from the dread gaze of the Lee-vru-kah. Sleep found the warrior, as she walked her dreams with her kin once more. -------------------------------------------------------- Office of Naval Intelligence Prowler, UNSC Burn After Reading – April 12th, 2558 Talitha sat silently as Captain Sigurdsson read her report. Saia stood off in a corner, her arms crossed. Her left eye had healed enough that a bandage was not needed, though the burn was still a bright pink and her eye was completely white. The look emphasized her clear discomfort in the silence. A fourth guest, who Talitha did not recognize, sat in the opposite corner. He appeared to be a civilian, though his suit was clearly UNSC affiliated. His head was bald, and a tattoo emblazoned the left side of his face: an armored fist clutching three arrows. The Captain set the report down, rubbing his forehead. "This mining operation," he said, "there was nothing related to Jul 'Mdama's Covenant?" Macer shook her head. "No, sir. The Kig-Yar seemed to hold no affiliation to the Covenant. Rather, they were digging for something they called the 'Lee-vru-kah', in service of a Sangheili warlord who claimed to speak for the 'Abiding Truth'. They almost succeeded." Saia shifted, her face grim. While they had stopped the pirates and slayed both their queen and her employer, the Demon remained partially exposed beneath Valyanop's surface. Captain Sigurdsson referenced the report. "Yes, I see that here. I'll dispatch a survey team now that the Jackals have been cleared out of the ruins and see what we can make of it." Saia stepped forward. "That would not be wise. I have heard tales of these monsters all my life; it is better that it remains beneath the rock. We slew the Kig-Yar to stop them from unearthing it, not so that it might be discovered by another. Cover it again, and ensure that none find it a second time." He gave a small nod. "That is one course of action, but with respect to your beliefs I don't see the chance of anything surviving for hundreds of thousands of years beneath the surface of a planet, of all things. Caution will be exercised in preliminary measurements before any future excavation or burial is decided upon." The officer stood, signaling the end of the debriefing. Talitha rose from her chair, saluting her superior before leaving his office. Saia followed closely behind, her objection to the decision barely contained. The bald civilian watched them leave, cracking a small smile as the door slid shut. "I'd say they did pretty well, wouldn't you?" The Captain sat back at his desk, casting a sidelong glance at the Spartan. "Their competition was mostly Jackals, Spartan Jun. I don't often question higher orders, but that doesn't seem like much of a challenge to me." Jun gave a small chuckle. "It's not the difficulty that matters; it's how Agent Macer handled it. Initiative, loyalty—all the things we look for in Spartan IV's." He leaned back in his seat. "Add that to the incident on Alpha Halo and she'd make a good Spartan, if she accepts the offer." Captain Sigurdsson shook his head, looking back down to her report, added to similar findings on Conrad's Point, Oban, and even Sanghelios. "She'd damn well better. If this thing is half as dangerous as the Sangheili believe it to be, we'll need all the Spartans we can muster."