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Aratech's FINISHING THE FIGHT (now uninterrupted)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing Archive' started by Trivia Freak, Dec 28, 2009.

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  1. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Prologue: Arrival

    “Well, that could have gone better.”

    No one thought to answer the owner of the voice, a glowing, blue white figure coming up out of a data port. The three figures that were in front of her were too busy trying to assess the situation that they now found themselves in. The Dawn was battered, its engines down, and they were adrift… well, wherever the hell they were now. Still, they weren’t dead, that had to count for something.

    “Cortana, report,” Commander Miranda Keyes said from up in the bridge.

    “Structural integrity stable, as is the reactor. The engines were damaged by the Halo firing. Weapon systems are out of sync, but reparable with what we have onboard. The only problem is that I think the portal didn’t take us home… or, for that matter, anywhere near it.”

    “What do you mean?”

    Cortana turned to face the source of the iron hard voice. A man that she had come to care for and respect in the months that they had worked together: Spartan-117. John. “What I mean, Chief, is that I don’t recognize any, and I mean, any, of the star patterns that the sensors are picking up.” She paused and flicked a strand of hair out of her eyes. “I don’t know where we are.”

    The cyborg said nothing, but Cortana detected a massive spike in neural activity. He was thinking.

    The Chief’s mind raced over the possible implications of this. If the portal had malfunctioned, not sent the Dawn back to Earth like it was supposed to, what might have happened? Perhaps the firing of the Halo ring had caused it to malfunction. If that was the case, where were they? Near another Forerunner shield-world? Perhaps they could land there and find a way to get a signal to the UNSC.

    At the same time, another part of his mind was attempting to calculate possible exit vectors for their ship, how long it would take for a ship to reach them. If it was any significant distance, then finding a safe landing area was a priority.

    The cyborg continued to let his thoughts race along.

    “Spartan, what are your thoughts on the situation?”

    John turned to face the only non human member of the group. Orna Fullsamee, Arbiter of the Sangeheli, looked at him, the four mandibles that formed his mouth clicking together at seemingly random intervals. It was a sign of agitation among the Sangeheli. The Elite’s four fingered hands were clenching open and shut, perhaps trying to rid himself of the massive overload of adrenaline that came with their escape from Halo.

    Halo… Guilty Spark. John remembered his last few moments with the A.I.

    --

    “You are Forerunner, the inheritor of all that they left behind,” the floating machine’s single eye glowed a vibrant blue. He seemed almost sad. “Remember this well, Reclaimers. An entire galaxy had to be wiped clean of life because of the Flood. There is too much at stake for the knowledge of your forefathers… of… never mind. You cannot allow history to repeat itself again!”

    “Set this thing off and let’s get out of here!” Johnson growled. “We can catch up on Humanity’s newfound history later.”

    “No.” Guilty Spark shook himself back and forth in the air, suddenly looking down at the ground. “Halo is incomplete. A few more days and it would be ready to fire without complications, but you are right… we scarcely have a few more minutes.” He looked back up at the three soldiers. “There is too great a risk for me to leave. The Installation will shake itself apart under its own power… and the damage to the Ark would be catastrophic. If I stay behind I can monitor and contain the situations as they arise. Besides…” he trailed off for a moment. “I cannot bear the thought of losing yet another installation under my control.”

    John nodded, and moved forward. Within moments, Cortana had linked into Halo’s control systems, and inserted the activation index. The station began to glow and pulse.

    “One last thing, Reclaimer,” Spark said. He moved over as the Chief put Cortana back into the slot at the base of his neck. “I want you to take the data caches I have stored inside of myself. A slot suddenly opened on the side of the A.I. “Study it, there is much information on it that will aid your rebuilding.”

    The Spartan nodded and took it. Then the room started to rumble and a beam of light, blindingly bright, shot up from the depths of the installation. The firing sequence was beginning. They couldn’t stay here. They had to leave.

    “Godspeed, Tinkerbell…” Sergeant Johnson snapped to a salute, before he dashed out of the room. Chief and Orna fast on his heels.


    --


    The Spartan didn’t know what to make of the little A.I. He was an enigma. Half the time, on the first Halo, he’d been trying to kill him and Cortana to get the activation index back. Other times he had thrown every Sentinel drone he could in-between them and the ravenous Flood. He felt an ache inside of himself, like when he had lost a brother or a sister on the battlefield.

    He shook his head. There would be time to remember the sacrifices of the fallen later. For now, they had to make sure they didn’t join their ranks.

    “Cortana, is there anywhere nearby where we could land?” Keyes asked.

    “Scans of the initial area within the next few billion klicks indicate that we might be in luck,” she gave a faint smile. “There’s an Earth-type planet just a little ways away. I read an earth-type atmosphere, continents, oceans, the works. I don’t want to try and calcs the odds that that thing conveniently dumped us in front of a habitable planet, but right now, I’m not complaining.”

    “How long will it take to get there?”

    “No more than a few hours, Commander. I’ve already dispatched an emergency signal, so the fleet will know where we are when… if, they ever get it.” She put her hand to her forehead. “Giving the engines ten percent power. That’s all I can risk.”

    “What about our equipment,” Johnson said. The man was tapping the front of his ODST helmet with a great deal of agitation.

    “Well, the armories survived intact, so weapons and ammo won’t be a problem, We’ve also got a Longsword, two Pelican dropships, a pair of Scorpion tanks, some warthogs, and a good dozen Mongooses onboard.”

    “Thank God for small miracles.” He said. “If you guys don’t mind, I’m going to have a smoke.”

    John looked up at Orna, who crossed his arms and stared back at him. “It is amazing how calm your sergeant can be under duress.” Then he clacked his lower mandibles. “I never truly had the chance to apologize, Spartan. For what I did… for what our Covenant did to your kind. Blinded by our delusions…”

    “Save your apologies,” The Chief started to walk off. “Words are meaningless. Prove your sincerity with your actions. When the time comes, get your people to help rebuild what you tore apart.”

    The Arbiter said nothing as the cyborg walked away. Then he nodded his head.

    Unknown to any of them, however, was just how quickly their world, their reality, was about to get thrown for a loop.

    --

    Bruenor Battlehammer exhaled slowly. Around him, the night was crisp, and bitterly cold. The sky was clear, though, and the stars twinkled in all their glory. A fresh carpet of snow lay upon the Dale and Ten Towns, a testimate of the blizzard that had just passed through.

    Much had changed in the past few months. Akar Kessel’s bungled attempt to take them over, the Barbarians suddenly siding up with them against that common threat, and the discovery of his ancient home of Mithril Hall. With all that had happened, this period of calm was driving the Dwarf king out of his mind with boredom.

    He leaned back against the entrance to the tunnel. Drizzt was away somewhere, probably heading to Silvery Moon again. The Lady Alustriel had just allowed access to the city for him, and the Drow had been all too eager to set off, to see the wonders of a city where his heritage would not haunt him. Wulfgar was back helping his people to survive. The Barbarians had still not recovered from the disastrous attack on Ten Towns six years ago, and the battle with Kessel’s goblins and Orcs had only further weakened their ranks. The coming winter would not be an easy one for them to survive.

    “Out here again, Father?”

    Bruneor turned and saw his daughter, Cattie-brie, standing at the entrance. The human girl wore her usual smile beneath the furs that she was wrapped up in.

    “Bored out of my skull. I’m almost wishing those goblins would come back for another round,” His gruff accent distorted his words.

    Cattie planted a kiss on top of her father’s head, causing his skin to suddenly match her hair. The Dwarf sputtered and mumbled, glaring up at her. The glare melted after a second girl.

    “I’m starting to act like one of those bloody humans…” He got a good natured punch for his comment. “Girl, you will be the end of my sanity yet.”

    “Oh, Father, you’ll never change.”

    “You say that like it’s a bad thing…” he trailed off and glanced up at her again. Then he sighed and returned to watching the stars. The Dwarf king did a double take a second later, though.

    Was it just him, or was one of the stars getting brighter?

    He squinted and stared out at it. Then he looked over to his daughter.

    “I see it too,” she nodded fervently.

    It wasn’t just getting brighter, the Dwarf noticed, it was moving. It cut across the night sky like it was a shooting star, only a hundred times larger. The other stars winked out and night became day as it blasted across his field of view. He knew it had to be miles off, but even from where he was standing, he felt the air temperature rise. His furs and armor suddenly felt uncomfortable and he started to sweat. The snow near his feet seemed to loosen and melt slightly.

    Then it was gone. He watched it as best he could. It went just over the horizon, past the Spine mountains, and then there was a tremendous flash.

    A shockwave seemed to hit then, a blast of air that almost deafened him and blew him and Cattie-brie off of their feet.

    “What in the Nine Hells was that?” His daughter exclaimed as she pulled herself back together.

    Bruenor could only shrug his shoulders. Still, there was the possibility that it might be dangerous. “Tell Olthick and Mortar to get up here, we’re heading out to see what that thing was.”

    “Are you sure it’s safe?” Cattie asked.

    “Don’t question me, girl, just go get them. This reeks of some wizard…”

    --

    For hundreds of miles around, the inhabitants of Faerun bore witness to the fireball. In Ten Towns, Regis found himself shaken out of his bed from the light and the blast. Out on the frozen plains, the Barbarians saw it, as did the few goblinoids that dared to stick their heads out of their caves.

    None could comprehend the changes that would come, what that fireball would herald.
     
  2. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter One - Welcome to the Neighborhood

    “Status report?” Keyes said, rubbing her forehead.

    “Ship armor and hull integrity still solid,” Cortana said, “shutting down the main reactor now. Auxiliaries still running, auto-cannons still online, attempting sensor scans of the surrounding area.” Cortana said.

    “Everyone okay?” Johnson barked.

    “Green,” the Chief said, though Johnson knew that his friend had to be uncomfortable. The acceleration seat that he was strapped into had been designed with a normal human in mind… not a half ton walking tank. The ODST didn’t even want to think about how the Arbiter had to feel right now.

    “I am alive, though I must admit that I’ve had better landings.” Orna said, hoping out of his seat. His cloven, hoofed feet clacked against the deck and he reached up behind his head to rub his neck painfully.

    “Data assembled,” Cortana said. “We’ve come down right where we wanted to. Damage to the surrounding environment is near catastrophic, and we’ve torn a twenty kilometer canyon through the ground, but we avoided population centers. Collateral damage should be almost non-existent.”

    “Well, we’re down, any ideas or suggestions?” Keyes looked around.

    “Ma’am, I’d recommend that we shut down all non-essential power to maintain our fuel. Minimum life support only.” John said. Getting up out of his seat and stretching slightly.

    “Chief’s right,” Cortana looked around at the flesh and blood beings before her. “We’ve got remote sensors that can be set up around the ship to spot incoming trouble. As for the auto-turrets, no need to keep them powered up unless we need them.

    “With your permission ma’am, I’d like to take a Mongoose and go scout, take some of those scanners with me,” The Spartan saluted.

    “Permission granted. Johnson, Arbiter, go help him load up. Cortana, you and I are going to stay here and see if there’s anything we can analyze about this world.”

    --

    The Spartan looked around himself as he shot out of a side landing bay. His Mongoose hit the ground and its tires caught on the ice, propelling him forward. The stars, unknown, never before seen by Human eyes blinked before him. His eyes moved down to the area around where the Forward Unto Dawn had come down. The trench it had torn through the ground was more than a hundred meters deep, and pools of still cooling liquid rock mixed with water, putting steam up into the air that refroze and crystallized as it cleared the ship’s vicinity. Water tried to form into ice, creating a myriad of beautiful artificial sculptures around him.

    John wasted no more time on the scenery, though. He had a mission to accomplish. He was to head forty klicks out and set up the perimeter of the base. He could have taken one of the Pelicans, but this would be more discrete. Something had troubled him. On the way down, Cortana had picked up large population readings, several hundred million life-forms, mostly clustered around the central regions of the planet, with more underneath the surface and into the crust. There was, however, almost zero indication of industrialization. No power grids, no visible mechanized plants… nothing. It was entirely possible that this planet had not yet reached that stage of its growth. If so, there was no need to risk scaring the locals any more than they probably already had.

    The Mongoose clawed its way up the sides of the newly formed canyon, clinging to the walls like a spider. Once he was up over the top, the cyborg gunned the throttle and shot off. His speedometer hit sixty… eighty… one hundred and twenty. A pulse of adrenaline spiked through the soldier, and he focused on world around him. It moved slowly despite his speed… Spartan Time. He kept the headlight of the vehicle off, though. Over snow, on a night like this, it would be seen for kilometers. His own, built in night vision would suffice for the moment.

    The two dozen sensors that he was to place were magnetically attached to the back of the ATV, and he wore a BR-55 rifle across his back, with a M6D pistol strapped to his right hip. Several grenades were secured by an ammo bandolier he had slung across his chest and across his back, just above his supply belt, was a large knife. Fondly nicknamed “Helljumper Toothpicks” by the ODSTs that used them, it was a twelve inch long monster, doubled bladed and curved slightly at the tip. He wasn’t expecting trouble, but only a fool went in unprepared.

    At the speed it was going, it only took him a few minutes to reach the outlying point of his destination. He looked around. The tundra was clear and flat for miles. He brought the ATV to a halt, jumped off, grabbed a sensor, and quickly prepared to deploy it. The machine was automated, all he had to do was press the button. The machine scanned his armor, registered him as an authorized user, and then shot into the ground. A small auger on its base activated and it drilled itself down into the snow and semi-frozen dirt. In mere seconds it was at a depth of ten meters—deep enough that nothing should be able to bother it. Nodding to himself, the Spartan covered it back up, and then moved on. He had a lot of ground to cover, and he was looking forward to a little luxury R&R when this mission was over.

    Five hours of uninterrupted sleep, a hot meal, and maybe even a shower.


    --

    Casius banged his gavel on the table of the Ten Towns council chamber in a futile attempt to bring about some order. No one seemed to want to listen, though. The other council members were shaking fists and hurling curses at each other. This pre-dawn meeting was getting them nowhere fast.

    “Another glorious day in the life of a councilor, ey, friend?”

    Casius looked down to see Regis sitting next to him. The tiny Hafling was barely half his human compatriots’ size, but Regis had always carried himself well in the chamber… though part of that was doubtlessly that ruby pendant he wore around his neck, capable of charming and enspelling those who looked into its depths. He noticed that it was absent today. Since the secret was out, it seemed that he was using it less and less often. Still, the human found himself wishing for it right now… if only so that Regis would use it to quiet this place down so he could hear himself think.

    The doors burst open and in walked Cattie-Brie, flanked by a quartet of heavily armed Dwarves.

    “Silence!” one of them bellowed, smashing the butt of a massive battle axe into the floor.

    It got the desired result. Everyone stopped shouting and looked at the fiery haired woman.

    “That’s better, my lords,” she gave a coy bow. “I understand that everyone is troubled by the events of last night—“

    “Troubled is not the word, lady Battlehammer,” Kemp of Targos sneered at her. “The other towns are in a virtual panic.” He placed heavy emphasis on the word “other.” While Kemp was a seasoned fighter, being head of the second largest town in the region had gone to his head, and he constantly reminded others of their inferiority, he also had little in the way of diplomatic skills. “The war with Kessel bled us dry, if this is another trick by one of the wizards at Luskan, we’re finished.”

    “Since when have wizards been able to hurl fireballs the size of mountains?” Regis spoke up, glaring over at Kemp. “That fireball was not crafted by the hands of a mortal wizard, I can assure you. I’ve seen wizards… been around more of them in my lifetime than the rest of you in this room combined.”

    “Kessel erased half of my town with a single blast from his tower,” Kemp began.

    “Using an arcane artifact powerful enough to bend a Balor to its will!” Regis cut him off with a gesture. “On his own, he was nothing… Gods be praised.”

    “An artifact that was never recovered,” Casius stated. “It’s entirely possible that someone could have found that crystal again, or that it might have been something not of the Material Plane. Perhaps another Baalor, or a Pit Fiend.”

    “Those are possibilities,” Regis muttered.

    “My father has already set out with two of our best soldiers to investigate the area where the fireball landed.” Cattie-Brie held up her hand to stem the argument that she knew was coming. “He suspects that he’ll be back with your answers inside of two weeks.”

    “Ah, yes, your charming father,” Kemp grumbled. “Why isn’t he sending that black skinned rat to fetch us some answers? Isn’t that usually who you go scrambling too?”

    “That black skinned rat, as you call him,” Casius spoke up, “has saved all of our lives more times than we can count, so I would ask that you show him a little more respect, Kemp. As for Drizzt, he has currently departed for a temporary stay in Silverymoon.”

    “Indeed,” Cattie-Brie crossed her arms and looked over to the Targos councilor, “I suspect he wanted to find out what it was like where people would actually be grateful to him for saving their worthless hides.”

    Kemp’s face went red as his temper flared up. He leapt to his feet, and reached for a small sword he was wearing. The Dwarven guards just growled, though, unimpressed by the human. They brandished their axes, swords, and hammers menacingly. Kemp was momentarily cowed, realizing that the prospect of facing five seasoned warriors with a small blade and no armor was probably not the most conductive towards his continued breathing.

    Fortunately, though, the meeting soon turned to its usual subject: arguments over who owned what portion of the three lakes that the towns surrounded. Cattie-Brie and Regis just exchanged a glance with one another and sighed. Life seemed to be getting back to normal.

    --

    The Master Chief planted the last of the probes in the ground and smiled faintly. Mission accomplished. Dawn had just crested the horizon, and the perimeter was now secure. There was nothing else to be done but to head back.

    The cyborg decided to take one last look around the area. He switched his suit over to thermal viewing, and gazed around the landscape. It was icy cold, the lot of it, just as it always had been.

    He had almost completed his scan when he noticed something. A blob of heat, barely more than a speck. He zoomed his visor in, the built in binoculars going to thirty two X in a matter of milliseconds. Despite himself, the Spartan’s jaw dropped. He switched back to normal vision and blinked, once, twice, three times.

    There was no mistaking it… he was looking at a reindeer.

    “Sierra-117 to Dawn,” he growled into a commline.

    “Dawn here, go ahead 117,” Cortana’s voice was coy, as usual.

    “Uploading visual package, I think you and the commander are going to want to see this.” Even as he spoke, more of the small deer started moving into his field of view.

    His suit’s data recordings were bundled off in a flash, received, decrypted, and analyzed by Cortana in a matter of nanoseconds.

    “Chief… am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?” The A.I. Sounded flabbergasted. It was a sound that John was not used to hearing from her.

    “I’m not sure,” he shrugged.

    It was true, this place was a lot like earth, but what were the odds that whatever proto-evolutionary form that the thing might have come from would have come up to be exactly like the ones on earth? Something wasn’t adding up, and the cyborg didn’t like it.

    “Cortana, can you confirm what we’re seeing here?” Commander Keyes said.

    “Well, its warm-blooded, and appears superficially similar to the ones we’re familiar with. I’d need a full DNA scan to determine more…” she trailed off, and the Master Chief suddenly had a sinking feeling he knew where this conversation was heading. Chief, bring one of those back, I’d like to study it,” He could practically feel the codes racing across Cortana’s surface as she brought herself up to full speed.

    “Besides, we could use the meat to boost our rations,” Johnson said. “Eating cold MREs till the fleet shows up to pull us out of here is not something I particularly look forward too.”

    Chief found himself in silent agreement with Johnson. Besides, information was power, for whatever it was worth. He thought about the best approach for a few moments. His weapons were both too powerful for such a purpose. The rifles rounds were as large as his thumb, his pistols even larger—and explosive to boot. With a sigh, he drew his knife from its sheath and started towards them.

    --

    Meanwhile, a few hundred miles away, in the town of Silverymoon, a certain dark elf was hustling about in his chambers. The mages in and around Silverymoon were abuzz about a fireball that had come screaming down near Ten Towns the previous night. Information was scarce, but those fromt eh Hosttower in Luskan had stated that had been massive, nearly the size of a mountain. The Drow knew there were only a few such creatures that could cause such a calamity, and fewer still of those would be on friendly terms with mortals.

    “Scimitars, check,” he belted Twinkle and Icingdeath on, before slinging on a bow and quiver, his bed roll and supply pack. “Supplies, rations, check.” He instinctively felt at his pocket to his right, making certain that the onyx figurine inside of it was secure. He breathed a sigh of relief when it was. Guenhwyvar was his closest friend, and he was always paranoid about leaving the panther behind somehow.

    “Favorite companion, check.”

    “Leaving already?”

    Drizzt turned to see a young human standing in the shadows of the doorway. Dove Falconhand, the younger sister of Lady Alustriel and a fellow ranger stood there. She had her arms crossed and looked somewhat upset.

    “My apologies to you, lady Falconhand, but I fear that I must return to my home. The calamity that came from the skies last night must have come down near there.” He hastily pocketed a few more supplies, minor potions and the like, before double checking all the straps and harnesses. “Though the Ten Towns have not always been kind to me, my duty is to them. I have to make sure they’re safe.” Her face fell further, and a kind smile came to the ranger’s face. “However, you have my word that I shall return once I am free. I haven’t forgotten your promise to give me a tour of the city.” He bowed again, and started to move.

    “Head for the stables then,” Dove said, resigning herself. “My elder sister has seen to it that a special mount be provided to hasten your journey back to Icewind Dale.”

    Drizzt nodded, and hastily made his way down from the keep where he had been staying. It tore at him bitterly to have to leave this wondrous city so quickly. The myriad of architecture from all over the world was a sight to behold, to say nothing of the people! Elves, Dwarves, and Humans all mixed and mingled with each other, with Half Orcs, hybrids of all sorts as well. He had even laid eyes on a Kobold merchant, cheerily selling his wares in the streets.

    And their treatment of him… nowhere had he seen the hate filled glares, fear filled eyes, or the loathing that had hounded him ever since he had come to the surface world. For the first time since Bruenor had taken him in, and Regis accepted him as a friend, he felt like he actually was seen for who he was, and not what his skin, ears, and eyes painted him as.

    Such a shame to have to leave this sanctuary and return to the Dale. Kemp of Targos was still threatening to put a blade in his gut if he even so much as looked at him again.

    Still the Dwarves and more recently, the Barbarians were his friends and allies, and he was not going to leave them to themselves with what had just happened.

    The Drow headed out to the stables, where one of the guards greeted him with a salute.

    “This way if you will, Sir,” he gestured the dark elf along. “The Lady has a special gift for you.”

    They turned the corner, and Drizzt found his mouth going slack in disbelief. It was no ordinary steed that stood before him. Standing nearly seven feet at the shoulder, the massive black horse seemed to fade in and out of the material plane. An arcane mount, one that would not tire and could ride on for days, weeks, if the rider chose to do so. With something like this, Drizzt knew that he could be back inside of the Dale’s reach within a week.

    With grace that was beyond human, Drizzt leaped up into the saddle. A word of command, and the ethereal steed shot off.

    For better or worse, he was going back home.


    --

    The Spartan moved as slowly as he dared. The lack of a proper ranged weapon was grating on his nerves. It was just like hunting Covenant, he reminded himself, only these creatures were less intelligent. He tried to remember what he could about the stalking of wild animals from Chief Mendez’s training. They reacted to sudden movement, so slow, even steps were the best. They were also color blind, which helped him greatly, and also relied mostly on scent to detect cunning predators. His suit prevented that from reaching them, so as long as he made no sudden moves and focused on his objective, it should be possible to do what he was trying here.

    “Chief, Status?” Cortana asked.

    “Fifty meters and closing. Trying not to spook them. I need a better weapon for this, though.” He growled. His eyes narrowed, and he slowly looked around himself, making certain that there was nothing else but him and the caribou herd. Most predators were instinctual, and would probably be smart enough to realize that the Spartan was a more ferocious animal than they were, and not try to tangle with him. Still, one could never be certain. Assumptions were the death of a soldier, more often than not.

    He was within thirty meters now. His motion sensors were staring to pick up fain traces from the herd’s travels. Here was where it was going to get tricky. He took a slow step, wishing he had a sniper’s net to drag over himself. Something like that would aid immensely.

    He looked around again and cursed his surroundings. The nooks and crannies that the mountains made meant that keeping a line of sight with the surrounding area was a difficult task at best. The reindeer were in a small V shaped area that curved around the slope of one of the peaks.

    Grumbling to himself again, he took another step, and then paused. The hackles on the back of his neck stood up. Soldier’s instinct was kicking in. He wasn’t alone. He scanned around with infrared again, certain that it had to be close wherever it was. Nothing, nothing that he could see. He opened his ears even more. There was the grunting of the deer as they searched for grass and roots among the rocks. The trees were devoid of anything except birds, which were silent…

    Silent birds?

    The Spartan tightened his grip on his knife. There was something very much amiss here. He resisted the urge to twist as he heard rocks clatter from up above. He slowly looked up and scanned the peaks. He saw a faint heat dot at the far end of one, no larger than a human head, maybe a hundred meters distant. He zoomed in on it, and watched as it moved. It turned out to be a hand, a hand that appeared to have prominent claws. A head joined it, and the Spartan watched as a creature crawled around the peak.

    Now this one was definitely not from the Earth he knew. He returned his sight to normal, and saw that it possessed a shaggy white coat, perfect for blending in with the winter landscape. Claws, and fangs, combined with a vaguely gorilla-ish appearance made it remind him of a Brute. He was instantly on alert. That thing couldn’t be anything but a predator.

    Then he watched as seven more joined the original. Eight of them, moving in towards the deer, spreading out and preparing to encircle them. An ambush. So, they were smart enough for pack level hunting tactics. He made sure that his recorder was working, and glanced back at the deer. The creatures were sniffing the wind. They sensed that something was wrong… but the… predators, were downwind, there was no way to smell them.

    The Chief knew that trouble was brewing, and that if he wanted to get Cortana’s sample, he needed to be swift, before those things scattered the herd. Tightening his grip on his knife, the Spartan went for broke. He dashed in, faster than any normal human could have moved. The caribou spotted him, and a warning grunt was issued to the herd. But the one closest to him never had a chance. Cobra quick, the Spartan crossed the thirty meter distance in the blink of an eye. His knife lashed out, its finely honed blade slashed across the throat and jugular, sending bright red blood across the snow. The creature tried to thrash for a moment or two while it bled out, but John was well clear of its strikes. The reindeer gurgled and then slumped to the ground. Grunting, he moved to hoist it and leave before the creatures could become a problem.

    They snarled as they saw what he had done, and the eight of them bolted forward. John understood. They were looking for an easy kill, in this case, one where the kill had already been made for them. He could move with the deer fast enough to get to his Mongoose, but could he secure it quickly enough?

    He brandished the knife. They were smart enough to hunt in packs, and had just seen what he could do; maybe they would be smart enough to leave him alone.

    They spread out as they rushed in, several moving to try and flank him.

    “Apparently not,” the Chief muttered out loud.

    In a single, fluid move he drew his pistol with his left hand and sighted up the closest creature. He pulled the trigger, and the M6D kicked against his palm. Time started to slow as he entered combat, his foes appearing to move like they were wading through thick mud. The first round penetrated his target at chest level. A blossom of crimson had started to form in the split second before the explosive payload of the powerful, fifty caliber round detonated. There was a flash, a boom, and the upper half of the thing was virtually erased from existence. Blood splattered everywhere, covering some of its comrades. If they noticed, they didn’t seem to care.

    He sighted up another one, and gunned it down. The round penetrated its side, right above where the forth rib was. The Chief was graced with a look of its internals as the round blew a basket-ball sized chunk of its body out. He had time for one more shot before they were upon him. He twisted and fired to the side at one of the ones attempting to flank him. The bullet hit it in the hip, next to the femoral artery. The ensuing blast blew the leg apart, and the creature went down with a howl that echoed through the mountains.

    Then they were upon him. He tightened the grip on the knife again, and kept an eye both on the three at his front and on his motion sensor for the two behind him. The beasts didn’t know that he had eyes in the back of his head. They’d strike there first, if he didn’t turn to acknowledge the threat.

    Sure enough, the creature lashed out at him, trying to get those claws into his back. The Spartan leapt, four and a half meters straight up, more than twice his own height. The predator was dumbfounded as to where its prey had gone and stumbled forward neatly into the trap.

    Tundra Yeti’s were powerful creatures, strong enough to rip a man in half, and their bones were sturdy, especially the neck, which had to hold up such a large skull. Those vertebrae were not, however, designed to hold up to the five hundred kilograms of power armor, iron-dense bone and rock hard flesh of an irritated cyborg coming down on it in a split second. The vertebrae became so much dust under John’s right foot, while his left shattered what had once been its spine and left a deep impression of his boot in its corpse.

    The four others were not disturbed by their fellow’s death, and the two from the sides pressed home at once.

    --

    Unknown to the Spartan, or to the Yeti’s that were fighting him, was that they were not as alone as they thought. Just a few hundred meters away was a young boy, scarcely into the latter half of his teenage years. Rognar, son of Elthiliak, he was called, a member of the tribe of the Elk. It had once been the largest of the twelve barbarian tribes, but their assault on Ten Towns when he had been just a lad, a raid that claimed his father’s life, and the war with Kessel had made it to where it only had a few score capable warriors left. It had still been better off than other tribes, which had almost been utterly wiped out and forced to incorporate into larger ones for survival.

    The coming of winter’s hardest period was upon them soon, and the meat stores were running low. Every hand was needed to bring in game before the next blizzard hit. That was why he was out here now. Armed with a bow and a spear, wrapped in wolf furs to keep the cold at bay, he struggled to find the game he sought. Behind him was a small sleigh to help him carry whatever he might find back. There were caribou tracks before him, but the boy was not certain if he would find them. He had heard their cry a few minutes earlier, and knew that another hunter had found them. Still, he had to try.


    He was shocked when a loud roar echoed through the canyon a few moments later. The call was easily recognizable: a Tundra Yeti, some of the most ferocious predators at this end of the world. This one however, sounded like it was in pain. Roars of rage testified that there were others.

    The boy knew that it might be another hunter, or perhaps someone from the Towns. He didn’t much care for those people, the way they always looked down on his kind, but they tended to be wealthy, and some pieces of silver, copper, or perhaps even gold could go along way in securing stores for the winter.

    He hurried up over the top of the rocky ledge, and sure enough, about a hundred feet off, he saw a quartet of Yetis. However, what surprised him more was that there were four more, one lying on the ground in a pool of its own blood, its leg missing, and another one that appeared to have had its neck broken, and two more that… well, he wasn’t exactly certain what in the Nine Hells had happened to those two.

    Then he saw what had done it. It looked like a man to the boy… an enormous man, larger than even his people, and clad in a suit of armor the Gods themselves would envy. Then he took another look. Was it really a man? The affairs of late had taught him enough about wizards. He had been told tales of constructs by Wulfgar, golems, they were called. Massive beasts of flesh or steel, created to do their master’s bidding. Infused with powerful magicks, they were supernaturally tough and strong. It would explain the man’s size, and there were some things about that armor that didn’t make sense to the young lad. There was a gold colored plate across the front, that completely hid whatever face might be back there. How might a man see through something like that?

    He moved in closer, trying to get a better idea, and knowing that he might have to help, for all the good his spear would do him against those numbers. It would take a well placed thrust with plenty of power behind it to fell a Yeti, and even then, it sometimes took a while. He had only planned to find one or two, not a full pack.

    The armored figure snapped its head towards him for a split second, and one of the Yetis took that time to strike.

    The sight that followed, Rognar knew he would carry with him to the afterlife.

    The Yeti lunged, its claws outstretched to maul its victim. The other creature seemed to blur and flow, then. The swipe finished, and connected with nothing but air. Rognar blinked, the thing… for he now knew that it could be no man, simply wasn’t there anymore. The Yeti suddenly screamed in agony and clutched at its back before falling to its knees and slumping to the ground. Blood went everywhere, and Rognar knew that the golem, or whatever it was, had severed the spinal cord with the strike.

    The next Yeti lunged blindly at the thing. The knife weaved and dove while the creature blurred into action again. It took a few moments for Rognar to sort out what had happened, for there was a split second howl of agony, swiftly silenced, and then the Yeti’s head seemed to crumple and come apart like an over-ripe melon struck by an axe. It was then he realized that the armor clad thing had in the course of less than a second, sliced through its arm, made a cut through its chest, and then spun around and kicked the beast upside the head.

    The final two acted as one, lunging in from either side. The golem was once again nothing more than a faint blur through the air. The monster vaulted over the first Yeti, and the knife it was carrying lashed out. The blow neatly severed the neck, leaving the head hanging on by just the few forward tendons. It collapsed in a heap, but the final member of the pack just kept running regardless, as it landed, the golem lashed out again, and a powerful stroke that came down across the creature’s side, dove into its groin and left a shower of blood. In the same motion the green armored being spun around and ducked, sweeping the Yeti’s legs out from underneath it. Pitching forward from its own momentum, the Yeti’s last sight was of a knife blade coming up to meet it.

    The Yeti that had had its leg torn off, and the one with the severed spinal cord were still alive, and were pitifully trying to crawl away from their prey-turned-predator. The creature observed them for a second, before it walked up, bent down, and buried the knife into the back of the first’s head. It shuddered for a moment and then died. The one with a missing leg continued to howl and snarl at its foe. Rognar saw the golem cock its head to one side, then it raised something, he couldn’t quite make out what. The Yeti’s upper torso suddenly flew apart and a loud bang reached his ears.

    His eyes widened for a moment. A golem that knew magic? Wulgar had never spoken of something like that. Further, what mage would dare to create a servant of that power? What if he should lose control of it?

    Then it turned and stared right at him. Fear clutched at the boy’s bowels; for while he knew something of the ways of wizards and golems, he knew not how they commanded their constructs. Might it attack him next, thinking him an obstacle?
    The Master Chief, for his part, was utterly dumbfounded by what he was seeing. He kept changing his vision modes, zooming in, examining his face. His eyes and his mind conflicted with one another, logic and reasoning arguing back and forth and for the second time that morning, his jaw dropped just a bit.

    “What… the….” Cortana began as the visual package was unloaded back at the Dawn.

    “Hell…” Johnson finished. “Is that…?”

    “Attempting a scan,” Cortana said. “Biometrics, body temp, all I’m missing is a DNA sample… that’s a human.”

    The lad hesitantly brandished the spear towards the Chief. The Spartan knew that it didn’t have a chance of hurting him, but he understood by the waver in the end of the weapon, and the look on his face that the boy was scared of him. He got that reaction a lot, even from those he was protecting. In this apparently medieval aged world, who knew what kind of demon the boy might be mistaking him for?

    “Should I attempt first contact?” He asked.

    “Negative, get back here with those samples. We’ve logged your position and we’re dispatching a UAV,” Keyes said. “Besides, you need rest, the mission clock says it’s been more than seventy hours since you got anything vaguely resembling sleep.”

    “Not the first time, ma’am. Med stims will keep me good for another ten hours.” John responded.

    “Negative, Chief, I want you fresh and ready in case something comes along. Now load up that deer and one of those… things, and get back here.”

    “Yes ma’am.”

    The Spartan looked over the corpses, trying to find the one that appeared to be the most intact. Finally, he settled on the one that he’d paralyzed. It seemed the least damaged.

    He shook the blood from his knife, sheathed it, and grabbed the two carcasses. Then he trekked back to the Mongoose, pausing just long enough to secure them before tearing off back to the Dawn.

    ***

    Rognar, once he was sure the creature was gone, moved in as quickly as he could. He needed proof of his story. That thing might be a threat to his people, and if so, they would need to be ready. Besides, though it was greasy and tough, Yeti meat was still meat.
     
  3. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Two - Observations, Plans, and a Xanatos Gambit

    Bruenor’s breath seemed to crystallize before the dwarf. He was cold despite his furs, and frost could be seen on his usually red beard. Moradin had been kind to them, and the weather had warmed slightly. As a result, their travels had been swift and sure. They’d cut two days of their expected travel time, and now their destination lay before them. The many huts of the combined Barbarian Tribes were down in the valley in front of him and his two companions. Smoke drifted up from the campfires that cooked what meat there was in preparation for the next storm. The dwarf king frowned though, when he observed the perimeter of the camp. The encampment was a full half mile in length and breadth, and there appeared to be less than sixty guards around it. A mere token resistance. If the Orcs dared to attack now…

    He shook his head. With luck, the cowardly beasts had been too badly set back in the war with Kessel to cause trouble.

    “Let’s go,” he said to the others, who nodded.

    They were spotted soon enough, as they made no attempt to hide their movements. The guard called out to them, his waraxe held at the ready. Though they had been allies recently, the Barbarians would not soon forget the slaughter that had happened in their raid on Ten Towns. Clan Battlehammer Dwarves had utterly slaughtered more than a thousand tribesmen that day, a blow that they would spend generations recovering from.

    “Well met, lad,” Bruenor leaned slightly on his axe as he drew close. “Nice and alert, just like you should be.”

    “What business have you here?” The north-man’s voice remained gruff, and he was wary.

    “You can probably figure it out, but in case you can’t, I’ll give you a hint: it fell out of the sky not five days ago.” The Dwarf smirked.

    “Yet another seeking it…” he paused. “Fine, make your way to the center of the camp, you will find King Revajik there, along with Wulfgar. They’re currently bandying words with one of those wizards.”

    “A wizard?” Bruenor was on guard instantly. “What’s one o’ there kind doing here?”

    “She would not say, not that she needed too. ‘Arrived by means of sorcery just this morning. I’d bet half my winter rations that her fellows are the cause of this mess. Probably lost control of one of their… abominations.”

    The way the man had spoken it led Bruenor to believe there was more going on here than he knew about.

    “What do you mean?” he asked. Better to go to this meeting fully prepared and armed with all of the knowledge that he could get.

    “One of our youngest, Rognar, four days ago, encountered a golem the likes of which none of us has ever heard of. I don’t know all the details, but the king has forbidden anyone from even going near where the fireball came down.” The guard scratched at his unkempt beard. “You had best hurry though, the words of our king won’t bind a person of sorcery, and you know how those robed ones can be around dangerous things.”

    “Like a gnome in a china shop,” Bruenor groaned and shook his head. “Thanks for the help, though.” He motioned to Olithek and Mortar, both of whom came up behind him.


    It didn’t take long to reach where the meeting was, and sure enough, there were Revajik and Wulfgar. The former was the one that Wulfgar had passed his kingship onto, a tall wiry man who preferred to let his wits do the fighting. Wulfgar himself had changed little. The blond haired man was still enormous, and his muscles like bands of steel. His belt also held a familiar sight: Aegis-Fang, a powerful warhammer that Bruneor had forged himself. Made of mirthril and admantite, the weapon was potent enough to send fear into the gods themselves, and slay giants with a single throw.

    Before the two men was a black robed figure, a hood covering its head: the mage the guard had spoke of. The Dwarf could hear snatches of conversation and they drew closer.

    “We know only that the thing is dangerous,” Revajik said, his arms crossed over his chest, “Rognar spoke little of the creature, except to tell us that it was strong, fast, and it could do this to a Tundra Yeti.” He gestured to a tent behind him.

    Bruenor moved up close, and it was then that Wulfgar looked behind the mage and saw him. Instantly, his face lit up, and a deep throated laugh came from within him.

    “Bruenor!” he exclaimed, walking over, before snatching the dwarf up and giving him a spine crushing hug.

    “Ack! What in the Hells?” the Dwarf king sputtered. “Put me down this instant, pup, before I cut you down to a height more suited for your age!”

    “Same old Bruenor,” Wulfgar chuckled, placing a now very much red in the face dwarf back down on the snow.

    Bruneor fumed inside, but knew that he was helpless to do anything. Wulfgar was the closest thing that he had to a son, raised and trained by him many years ago, after the raid.

    “I’ll assume you’re also here about the… disturbance.” Revajik said, moving up and bowing before the Dwarf.

    “Aye, your guards were speaking about a wizard, too.” He nodded towards the black robed figure, who turned and lowered the cowl over her face. Her skin was pale, and her hair the same color of her robes. Green eyes glittered with intelligence, set into a face that reminded the dwarf faintly of a falcon.

    “Lady Alicia, was it?” Wulfgar looked over at her, and she nodded.

    “I come from the Hosttower in Luskan, and am here to confirm the nature of the disturbance and this so called golem that one of the plainsmen claim has come from it.” She said.

    “Meaning no offense, milady,” Bruenor said, “but it was a rather large fireball that stirred up the whole region. Giant balls of flame happen to be the stock and trade of your kind.”

    “I can assure you that if it was the doing of a wizard, it was not one of our branch. There has been much infighting at the Tower, with the death of Dendibar the Mottled, the wizards are vying for his seat on the Arcmage’s council.”

    “Oh, that little arse,” Bruneor growled. The wizard had caused them no end of trouble when he’d been searching for his ancestral home. Dispatching his own apprentice, a golem, and the assassin, Artemis Entreri, after them. It had nearly been their deaths on more than one occasion.

    “I understand your concern for your village, King Revajik, but I must be allowed to ascertain this creature’s nature, and determine the threat it poses, if any.” Alicia said, looking to the king.

    Revajik shook his head. “And as I told you before, my lady, I cannot spare any of my men. We’re nearly starving as it is, and I will not risk losing any more of my people, either to Orcs and goblins, or this… thing.”

    “What exactly makes it so dangerous?” Bruenor asked.

    Revajik simply pointed to the tent behind him. The Dwarf shrugged and entered. The sight before his eyes made him stop short. Five Tundra Yetis, well, what was left of five, were in it, surrounded by snow and ice to keep them from decomposing.

    “Rognar, one of our youngest, was off in the mountains when he saw the creature,” Wulfgar said, drawing up behind him. “Apparently it was fighting with this Yeti pack over a slain reindeer. There were eight, initially. Two we carved up for food, a third was carried off by the golem itself.”

    Bruenor drew up close and stared at the corpses. There were slashing wounds, evidence of a sharp knife or blade of some kind, and further, one missing most of its head, but then there were three that puzzled him the most. One was little more than half a Yeti, everything above the middle of its abdominal muscles completely absent. Another had an enormous chunk missing out of its side. Then there was a third that was on its back.

    The Dwarf king examined the two damaged ones first. The wounds were large, and gapping, but there was something about them that puzzled him. Small bits of the area were blackened and charred, partially cauterized and fused. He knew of nothing that caused a wound like that. Fireballs set people aflame and burned flesh and fur alike. This had been localized, almost like someone had set off a small fireball inside of the Yeti.

    “We believe that it was some kind of magic that may have been responsible for this,” Revajik said. “Rognar said that the creature had a wand of sorts, and that was what caused this.”

    “Another reason why it could not have been us,” Alicia stated. “No wizard would be foolish enough to give their creation an understanding of magic. They’re dangerous enough on their own.”

    Bruenor nodded and then moved over to the final Yeti. He stopped short. Buried in the creature’s back was an enormous boot-print, larger than any he had ever seen before. He poked and prodded at the impression, feeing the crushed body organs and bones underneath. The neck appeared similar, squashed absolutely flat. Whatever had done this had weighed over half a ton.

    “This thing is clearly dangerous,” the wizard said, looking to the others. “If you cannot spare any men, King Revajik, I understand. But I have my own duties to perform. I must try and make contact with this thing.”

    “Same here,” Bruenor said, “I may not care much for Ten Towns, with them being more stubborn than an old mule, and so thickheaded that Rumblebelly had to bewitch them into defending themselves with that stone o’ his, but they’re the closest trading partners that we’ve got.”

    Revajik sighed, and nodded. Wulfgar looked uncertain and stepped over near the Dwarfs. “Well, I can’t just let my mentor wander out alone, now then can I?”

    “I see those lessons on loyalty weren’t wasted on you, boy, but you don’t have to do this.” Bruenor knew it was just a taken statement. Once Wulfgar set his mind on something, nothing could deter him.

    “I set out immediately,” Alicia warned.

    “As do I, spell caster. Just be warned,” Bruenor shook a finger at her. “If you fall behind, you get left behind.”

    “I’d be more worried about you keeping up,” she said with a wry smile. “Those short little legs must make running difficult.”

    “Do I smell a wager?”

    “Perhaps,” she nodded. Then turned and left.


    --

    The Master Chief spread the oil over his weapons with loving care. They were vital pieces of equipment, and though he was not so foolish as to trust his life to them, treated them with the utmost respect. Once he was done, he reassembled the battle rifle, and slapped it to his back.

    Then he went to the mess. It was time for breakfast.

    Johnson was already there, as was the Arbiter. “Morning, Chief,” the Sergeant Major gave him a two fingered salute. “Up for some venison?”

    The Caribou that the Spartan had downed had provided them with almost two hundred pounds of edible meat, once Cortana had confirmed that it was indeed genetically identical to the ones found on Earth. The predator had proven somewhat less so. Its meat was tough, greasy, and had a taste to it that reminded the Spartan of undercooked squirrels. Fortunately, Orna had taken an instant liking to it. The Elite’s lack of a lower jaw and much of a tongue, and therefore, taste buds, aided immensely in that fact. The Sangehili picked up a hunk of rare flesh, and dropped it back into his throat.

    Chief shook his head, popping the seal on his helmet and drawing up next to the two soldiers. He sat down, the table’s bench groaning slightly under his massive bulk. He took the headgear off, grabbed a tray, and speared himself a hunk of deer.

    They couldn’t spare much power for cooking, so it was not much beyond raw. Still, it had a spicy, beef like taste to it, which was absolutely a slice of heaven compared to his usual combat rations.

    “The Commander still trying to raise FleetComm?” The cyborg asked.

    “She’s got Cortana on that. Right now she’s trying to get a good idea of where we stand with vehicles.” Johnson cut off a slice of meat and gestured with his fork. “Our ammunition manufacturing facility is going to have problems getting enough DU for the larger caliber weapons. She’s running scans to see if there’s anything we can use nearby. Otherwise, our Pelicans aren’t going to be much more than glorified busses.”

    The Spartan nodded. “What about fuel for the tanks and other vehicles?”

    “We got lucky there,” Johnson smiled. “This world is pre industrial, so there’s no one tapping the crude and natural gas. There’s a large deposit of the stuff just a few kilometers away from here. Cortana thinks we can build a pipeline out to it, pump it up, and use it to power the charging generator. Not as efficient as using the ship’s reactor, but that leaves more power available for the dawn, since we’ve got no clue how long we’re going to be out here. It also beats the hell out of having to push a warthog. Later today, we’re going to get started on cannibalizing some of the Dawn’s non vital systems to try and get that pipeline assembled.”

    “I see,” Chief muttered as he wolfed down a large hunk of his meal. “What else have we learned while I was sleeping?”

    “Not much,” Orna shrugged, placing a hunk of his meal down. “Your construct has calculated that we will be here for some time, though, months at the least… and years more likely, so we should get used to the snow.”

    “At least we’re allowed to use the heater,” Johnson said with a smile. He finished what was on his plate, and then drew out one of his cigars. He placed it into his mouth, but didn’t light it. “And I must admit, I’ve forgotten how much I just like to chew on these things some times,” he stretched.

    “What about our neighbors?” the Spartan also finished his meal quickly. There was work to be done. “Any thing else since that hunting party came back to the battle site?”

    “Not much, the UAV is still monitoring them, Cortana has analyzed something interesting though.” Johnson took the cigar out of his mouth and held it between two fingers. “It’s a large group of hunter-gatherers, sort of like the native Americans back home on Earth.”

    “Odd,” the Chief muttered. “I would have thought that most of those tribes would have converted to farming or something, or at least moved to a more hospitable area.” He tapped his fingers together in thought.

    “Well that’s not what’s peculiar,” Johnson leaned forward and took his cigar out of his mouth, holding it between his thumb and forefinger. “Based off the UAV’s findings, Cortana estimates that there could be as many as four thousand people in that camp. One small problem, though. There’s a major difference between the number of men and women. She’s only spotted about two hundred and seventy five or so men that are past their early teenage years.”

    The Chief’s brain kicked into action. He ran calculations through his head, equations and the like. A slightly lower than fifty percent ratio was to be expected. The men would likely be involved with hunting, and if there were other predators here that were anything like what he’d run into then the possibility of a high mortality rate was to be expected. Early Cro-Magnons had a what? Sixty percent chance of being killed or maimed beyond the point of being able to hunt by the time they were thirty? Granted, this tribe had access to what appeared to be steel and iron, so their odds of survival were likely somewhat higher in comparison. So then why were there so few?

    A blizzard was out of the question, that wouldn’t have discriminated between gender. Famine and plague had the same problems. Exposure while hunting was a possibility, but if they were that stupid they wouldn’t have survived up her long enough for their numbers to reach where they were at. Tribal warfare? But with whom? They appeared to be the only people in this area… wait a minute.

    “Did Cortana send the UAV over those small villages that we spotted up in orbit?” The Spartan bowed his head slightly, cradling the pale skin and faint growth of gray hair on his enormous hands.

    Johnson smiled. “Bingo. Scans of the snow indicated that underneath it was a large amount of carbon based ash, and a shit-load of iron and steel that look like medieval weapons. Someone fought a battle there not too long ago, and it was a big one.”

    Interesting, so they were a hunter gatherer society that possibly supplemented their lively-hoods by raiding the towns. If that was the case, then the last raid must have been an absolute disaster.

    The Spartan reached down and put his helmet back on. He would ponder this later when he had more time. Right now, they had a pipeline to build.

    As he got up, though, he tensed, and the hairs on the back of his neck rose. His gaze drifted down to his monition sensor, then he switched his helmet through its vision modes. He was being watched. But his eyes couldn’t see anything.

    If you ever feel yourself at risk, but can’t spot the threat, go with your gut, you’ll be surprised how often its right

    Those had been CPO Mendez’s words to them in their first week of Spartan training. He had never forgotten the lesson. His hands slowly drifted down to his weapon, a P-60 SMG that was attached to his hip.

    He noticed that Johnson and Orna also had their weapons out. Scowls were on their faces as they swept the corners of the room with an MA5C carbine and plasma rifle respectively.


    --

    He started down at them through the bowl of water. A gauntleted hand rubbed at a faint beard, and he smiled.

    “They seem to have taken notice of your scrying, Helm,” A gruff voice said.

    He turned to face the owner of the voice, a large, heavily muscled Dwarf. The armored warrior was leaning on a war hammer that was as large as he was, with an enormous (for his size, at least) broadsword buckled at the back of his waist. Between the horned helmet, and the almost comically fierce beard it was hard to see his face, but the god knew it nonetheless.

    “What do you expect, Moradin?” He said, letting his hand drift down to the large, heavily plated helmet that sat next to the scrying pool. “Simply because their world branched off into technology, rather than magic, do not assume them to be wholly ignorant of it. Each one of those soldiers has decades of combat experience under their belts. Their instincts have become a sixth sense to them.”

    “You really think those two humans are going to be able to help my people out?” Moradie’s eyes narrowed. “I just had to sit back and watch that bitch, Lloth, take over what my people had just managed to win back, because this damned problem with the Weave.”

    “Yes…” Helm turned to his friend. “They may be few in number, but I have told you what they’re capable of. A single seed of wheat can mean the difference between survival and starvation. Besides,” he smiled, “they won’t be completely alone. I predict that they should be sufficient to teach that little spider a thing or two about messing with locations and relics that are not hers.”

    “And how come the others haven’t seen you engineering this little scheme?” The Dwarf sounded confused.

    “Simple. For one, I am the Watcher, blessed with foresight that they do not have. I have planned for every eventuality in this, and have spent my time carefully shielding their eyes, or keeping them otherwise occupied. Most of them are already too busy anyways,” he shrugged, “everyone from Bhaal to Tyr are currently scrambling for contingency plans in the event of a mortal getting ambitious.”

    “You should probably be doing that yourself, rather than worrying over this,” Moradine said with a gesture towards the humans and the Sangehili, currently still sweeping the bridges and the corridors with the help of their construct.

    “My duty is to Faerun first, my friend. Take care you do not forget that,” Helm growled. “For too long I have watched that treacherous spider making her deals with the surface worlders, spreading her poison and corruption. It is time someone did something about it.”

    “I just hope you know what you’re doing,” Moradin ran a hand through his wild beard.

    --

    John growled as the feeling left him. “Cortana, you’re positive that there was nothing showing on the scanners?”

    “A strange fluctuation on the EM frequencies, but little other than that,” the construct replied. “I’m trying to pin it down, but it just vanished.”

    “I don’t like this,” the Spartan muttered. “Keep scanning, if it comes back, isolate it and cut it off if you can.

    “Nothing we can do about it now,” Johnson said, “Let’s get to building that pipeline.”

    “Your sergeant is correct,” Orna said, flicking his head in the direction of the docking bay. “The sooner we have fuel for the vehicles, the sooner we can do some more scouting. Perhaps the residents of those towns could help us to explain this strange feeling.”

    John nodded silently and shouldered his rifle. They had a job to do, and it needed to take priority over this… goose chase.
     
  4. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Three - First Encounter of the Third Kind

    Bruenor sighed to himself and hugged his cloak just a little tighter around his body. Dawn was approaching quickly enough. He sat with his back to the merry fire that was crackling in the center of the camp. Around them was the evidence, what little there was, of the golem’s activities. By now, it had been reduced to boot prints in the snow and scattered rocks with the occasional piece of charred yeti fur. The blood was gone, consumed by predators looking to squeeze a few extra nutrients out of the snow. The Dwarf king reached behind him and grabbed the poker he had over the fire. On it was a small bit of jerky that he’d been warming back up.

    He bit into the smoked meat with relish. The meat was tough and dry, but it made for excellent taste. He would have to thank Rumblebelly for it. If there was one thing that overweight Halfling could do right, it was cook.

    He kept his eyes roaming over the surroundings, his axe and shield close to his side. There was some rustling from behind him, and he turned to see Wulfgar getting up out of his tent. Bruenor nodded to the young plainsman, and motioned for him to have a seat. Aegis-Fang gripped loosely in his hand, Wulfgar did so.

    “Morning to you, Bruenor,” he said, and then motioned to the jerky. “Got any of that to split?”

    “Sure, lad,” the Dwarf ripped the hunk of meat in half. “Think we’ll find it today?” He pointed out towards the mountains and the rocky peaks.

    “Never know,” Wulfgar shrugged. “We might, we might not. Rognar said it headed north east from here, though, back towards where the fireball came down. There’s only so far it could be.”

    “Rather strange behavior from a golem though, don’t you think?” Bruenor reached for a canteen and took a swig of Dwarven ale, just enough to warm his insides, as his water was still thawing out from the previous night. “I mean, what could it want with a deer and a Yeti’s body?”

    “The ways of wizards will always be a mystery to me, old friend,” The human shook his head. “The deer I could understand. Wizards must eat too, and perhaps there was nothing about to threaten its master, so it was sent off to hunt. The Yeti makes less sense, but their fur can be used as a shield against the cold.”

    “I suppose,” Bruenor mumbled. There was still something about this that didn’t make sense, like how come a wizard powerful enough to make something like that didn’t just conjure up his own food and use that to feast upon, rather than risk damage to such a valuable piece of work.

    Of course, given the destruction that it appeared to be capable of, the term “risk” was a loose one, very much subject to interpretation.

    He supposed that they would find out soon enough.

    --

    The Dwarf king and his friends were not the only ones searching for clues to the newest mystery of Faerun, though. Some miles away from them, steadily closing in on where the phenomenon had been seen, was a cloaked figure. It would have been difficult to tell anything about the person at first glance, aside form the fact that it was about five and a half feet tall, and clad in a combination of white and gray leather equipment. A long cloak, white on one side, gray on the other, flowed behind it. It appeared to be human, but there was something different about it steps, like they were unnaturally graceful. It paused for a moment and moved towards a hill a few hundred meters away.

    Upon reaching the top of it, the figure reached into its belt, and drew out a telescope. Eyes that shone a faint red were visible for a moment, before it stared down the length of the device. It gasped a moment later, the tone of voice revealing it as a female.

    “Hells…” she breathed.

    Before her eyes, faintly visible in the distance, was a massive scar across the landscape, like some God had come down and extracted vengeance upon the land for an offense. But what had caused it? The canyon seemed to widen out towards the end, similar to the end of a sewing needle, but she could not see what was inside of it.

    She’d just have to get closer. She had a mission to complete after all.

    Plus, where there were mighty magicks, one could usually expect to find mighty treasure.

    --

    “Never seen anything like this before,” Bruenor muttered to himself.

    “Nor I,” Wulfgar knelt down and placed his fore and middle fingers into the tracks before them. “They are similar to a wagon’s, but these indentations.” He pointed to the depressions left in the center and edges of the marks

    “Like someone worked the wheels so they could grip better,” Alicia muttered, moving further back into her robe. The chill was clearly starting to get to her. "Curious though, where are the animal tracks? What was pulling it?"

    Everyone remained silent. They had no effective answer for that, aside from magic. Still, this was a golem, the chance of it using arcane equipment were pretty high, given that it already carried a wand.

    “Well, on the bright side, it should be pretty easy to track our quarry now. Just follow the trail o’ breadcrumbs back to where they come from.” Bruenor chuckled, rubbing some snow from his beard. “Weapons out and at the ready, just in case we bump into this thing and it’s not friendly.”

    Olthick and Mortar nodded in unison, and readied war hammer and sword respectively. Then they were off again, hot in pursuit of the creature. With any luck, they would be able to reach its location before nightfall.


    --

    “Tracking additional movement,” Cortana said over the commline, “this one’s bigger--a small group.”

    John quietly acknowledged her as he welded another pipe onto its mountings. It wasn’t very big, only about six inches around, but it would do for now. In the distance, he could see the Dawn’s crater. Their timing had been good so far, more than two hundred meters of the pipeline was completed, thanks to the large amounts of now unnecessary piping that they were cannibalizing. Of course, planning on how to get here had been a little difficult. Cortana had had the best solution though, and it had been decided that the pipeline would empty into a reservoir that had been constructed from a few prefab living quarters, and then could be carried back by vehicle or manpower to the small refinery they had onboard. Somewhat inefficient, but it beat the hell out of having to drill through the Dawn’s three meters of Titanium-A armor plating just to get inside.

    “What about the single ping we had earlier?” Johnson asked. “How close are these new ones to it, and what’s going on?”

    “The newer group is closing faster on our location, probably exercising less caution or stealth. As for distance, there’s about half a kilometer between the two, and given the timing difference, and direction of arrival, I don’t think they’re working together.” Cortana said. “I’ve got a UAV almost on top of them now, feedback should be obtainable in just a few seconds.”

    John thought about the information he was being given. Two groups were currently aware of the location of them and the ship. It was to be expected of course, considering the commotion that they’d probably made on the way down. He also pondered other possibilities, like if the two groups did not like each other. That might explain why the lone ping was trying to stay away from the others.

    “Feedback acquired, sending visual package.”

    As soon as Cortana’s voice died away, an image appeared in the upper left corner of the Spartan’s helmet, painted onto his visor. The UAV was about three hundred meters off the ground, its camera zooming in to where it could see the details about the individual groups. It focused on the individual first, which the Master Chief believed to be a scout. He couldn’t make out any distinguishing features about the individual, aside from the fact that its movements were measured and cautious, slipping between one rocky crag and the next, trying to keep from moving out in the open as much as possible. Someone who didn’t want to be detected.

    The drone zoomed out after a few seconds, and flew over to the other group. For a brief second, the cyborg stopped his welding, and so did Johnson.

    What they saw had to be one of the weirdest assortments of people in the history of their race. There was one man, obviously of the same stock as the young hunter that John had encountered a few days ago, but the others were somewhat out of place. A woman clad only in some furs and raven colored robe, and then… three very short people.

    Very short people, who seemed to be armored out of the wazoo, as Sam would have said, were he still alive. There were also a number of weapons on them.

    “Cortana?” he asked.

    “Scanning… biometrical and physical analysis indicates that these things are similar to humans, but not the same. Muscle density’s off, and their internal body temperature’s higher, especially around the eyes. It’s like they’ve got more blood flowing to them. I’d wager they have good night vision.”

    “What about the scout?” the Spartan put his curiosity aside for a moment, and went back to welding.

    “I’m… I’m not sure.” Was the reply over the radio.

    John gave no outward sign of acknowledgement, indeed, any outsider would have thought he didn’t hear her. Inside of his helmet, as he finished welding the seal, he raised an eyebrow. “Care to elaborate on that?”

    “Well, it’s got a humanoid build, as you might imagine, and it’s a mammal, definitely got a bit of human biology… but aside from that…” she sighed, and he could imagine her holographic form rubbing her forehead. “The life form has a tail, and what appears to be a pair of vestigial horns, it’s also apparently a female.”

    “Can you show me?” He asked, moving on to the next pipe. Johnson kept working too, but the Spartan could tell that the sergeant was somewhat distracted by all this.

    A rough diagram of the scout appeared on his visor. Not much that he could see that made it different from humans, but the tail was there. It looked like it was about two and a half feet long, and judging by the number of bones the X-ray scans had given it, apparently semi-prehensile. The Spartan didn’t know what else to make of it, but he logged it away in the back of his mind.

    “Looks like they’re closing in on each other. The solo trooper seems to be aware of the other group’s presence, and is actively attempting to evade them, but the other gang isn’t aware of her yet.” Cortana said. “This could be trouble, Chief.”

    “I agree,” Commander Keyes said from the bridge, where she was currently trying to assess the best means of accessing the uranium deposits that were nearby. “Chief, take a Mongoose and head out there, see if you can make a first contact, and if you have to, mitigate between the two. Johnson, you go with him. I want both of you armed, just in case.”

    “Yes ma’am,” the Spartan said, placing down his torch and turning to the Sangehili working a little ways away from them. “Orna, think you can hold down the fort here?”

    “It would be my honor, Spartan,” the Elite spread his upper mandibles in a smile.

    “I’d move quickly, Chief,” Cortana said. “The Drone’s showing that the larger group is stopping, and turning right towards the scout. I don’t know how they did it, but I think they’re on to her.”

    By the time the construct had finished, Johnson and the cyborg were already tearing down the landing bay. Within seconds they had armed themselves up, and were heading out.

    --

    “I can sense something near,” Alicia said, pausing suddenly in her steps.

    “Our quarry?” Bruenor asked, his hand tightening its grip on his mithril axe. The Dwarf king began to listen for any sign of the approaching creature.

    “No, this is something else… it’s making my skin crawl just a bit,” the woman paused and placed a hand to her temple. “I sense the taint of the lower planes… faint, but there.”

    “Demonic or devilish?” Wulfgar asked. His hands were instantly at his war hammer. He remembered all too well Drizzt’s tale of his battle with Errtu. Creatures of that nature would be difficult to defeat, to say the least. The Ten Towns had considered the Balor a far greater threat than the rest of Kessel’s army combined, despite the fact that he was one and the rest of the Orcs, goblins, and giants had numbered in the thousands.

    “Devilish, by the feeling,” the mage looked out towards the mountain in the distance. “It’s coming from the base of that peak.”

    “Be ready for it,” the Dwarf king growled, drawing its weapon. “If that golem’s a rogue instrument, we don’t want the fiend getting its hands on it, ‘cause there’s no telling what it might do, and if their allies, well, we might as well face them down now.”

    “I do not think we face a full devil,” Alicia shook her head as they started off towards the peak. “The sensation I get is too subtle for that. I suspect that we are dealing with a creature of the Nine Hells, but the blood feels like it’s been weakened or diluted.”

    “Half breed, possibly,” Bruenor muttered, before he motioned the party onward.

    It took them only a few minutes to arrive at the base of the peak. Bruenor raised his mithril shield, the symbol of his clan, a foaming ale-mug, stood out emblazoned upon it, its golden light shinning up towards the peak, as if daring the creature to show itself. He started to move up the rocks, his gait surprisingly nimble for one so heavily armored. It was the result of more than a century of living in, under and upon the rocks of this end of the world. He knew the stone as one might know his brother, or his son. Could tell at the merest glance which routes were safe and which ones hazardous. The Dwarf’s keen eyes were staring around at the rocky crags before him. He could sense it too, now. The old warrior’s instincts were rising up inside of him, and he growled as he waited for his prey.

    He saw a flick of motion off to one side, and heard a pebble fall, but he simply smiled. Far too obvious—a diversion like that—at least to the likes of him. He was tempted to call out a boast, but instead worked his way around in the opposite direction of the one where the sound came from. He imagined the frustration of his quarry as he neared, any moment now, it was going to have to bolt. He climbed up on top of a rock and looked at the area before him. Stones and snow patches lay out before him, but no sign of the creature.

    Then an idea occurred to him, and he started to stare at the snow patches and the rocks a little more carefully. His eyes spent a minute or two roaming over them, until he noticed one, about twenty feet away that was moving faintly. So, this half-breed was cleverer than he had given it credit for. It came prepared.

    “Game’s over, hellspawn, I can see you hiding under that cloak,” he growled. Stepping forward and brandishing his weapons.

    He was amazed by what happened next. The “snow patch” exploded upwards, revealing a thinly built individual. Bruenor caught a glimpse of a dark gray tunic, and on the center of it, what appeared to be the faint outline of an eye. He also spotted two blades, one long and one short, hanging from its—no, her, waist.

    She didn’t stick around to chat, whoever she was. Instead, she bolted upwards, gracefully springing from rock to rock and flanking around the Dwarf king. He lunged outward with the flat side of his axe, not wanting to permanently harm her until he could get some answers. The half-breed, however, just jumped up along the face of a rock, ran along its surface for a few feet, and leapt again, landing on top of another bolder before springing down the sides of the mountain base.

    “Head’s up!” Bruenor cried. “Coming down the northern slope!”

    Wulfgar and the Dwarven bodyguards were standing at the bottom, waiting for her, but she simply jumped over their reach, came down behind them, rolled, and took off running like the Abyss was on her heals.

    She did not get far, though. Alicia was hastily casting a spell, and before the half-breed had made it more than twenty meters, she suddenly froze in mid stride, suspended helplessly.

    “Nice trick,” Wulfgar said as he came up next to her, “how long will that hold?”

    “Against a creature with Baazettu blood in it? I’m not sure. Best secure whatever information you need quickly.” The mage shrugged.

    “First let’s find out who our guest is,” Bruenor grumbled as he made his way down the rocks and marched up besides the girl. Wulfgar yanked the hood back and took a step away, making a symbol to Tempus while he was at it.

    The creature was indeed a half breed, a Tiefling to be precise. Not as powerful or as cunning as a pure half devil, but descended from one nonetheless. She looked to be in her early twenties, the Dwarf reckoned, and had a close cropped mane of fiery hair, complete with the typical horns of her kind, and a slight series of markings just below her hairline. The pointed ears and red eyes completed the picture, and marked her for what she was. Still, the Dwarf had to admit that she’d been clever. The hood would hide her horns and most of her face, and her tail could also be concealed if she was careful enough.

    “Looks like we’ve found ourselves a rogue,” Bruenor rubbed his chin, looking up at the young woman. “What’s your name girl, and your business here.”

    “I could ask you the same,” she growled. There was a slight pitch to her tone that made it hard to take her seriously, but Bruenor could see fires smoldering in her eyes.

    “That is true, but we happen to have a bit of a numbers advantage over you,” Alicia said, drawing up close, “and I just happen to have some holy water on me. We could loosen your tongue in a different manner, if you want.”

    “I don’t think that’ll be necessary, Mage,” Bruenor looked towards the human and shook his head. “I’d wager you’re probably here for the same reason we are.” He leaned in closer to the suspended hellspawn, and smirked. “Tell me, girl, where did you get that tunic.”

    “What’s it to you?” She glared down at him, her eyes speaking with the desire to get out of this situation and turn the tables on him.

    In her mind, she was struggling not to panic. This was bringing back some very unpleasant memories.

    “Because that happens to be a tunic marked with the symbol of Neverwinter, and the means by which you came by it will determine whether or not I let you go, or send you back where you came from.” He brandished his axe. Neverwinter was a large metropolis about four hundred miles to the south, one of his clans primary trading partners.

    “All I can say is that I’ve come by it fairly and within the bounds of the law,” she could feel her fingers starting to get some movement to them again. That was good, she’d break out of this soon, just needed another minute.

    “Your name?” Bruenor asked, arching an eyebrow. “You see, I happen to have friends in high places at that city, and ways that I can check on you. I’m certain Lord Nasher doesn’t have many of your kind under his employ, he makes a habit of not dealing with Infernals and their ilk.”

    “I’ve already said all I’m going to say,” she growled.

    “I’m not going to ask politely again, girl, your name?” Bruenor crossed his arms over his barreled chest.

    She growled but hung her head. “Neeshka,” she muttered.

    Alicia arched her eyebrow, while Mortar cocked his head to the side. “Bless you.” The dwarf said.

    The Tiefling glared in his direction, clearly not amused. Still, she could feel the spell starting to weaken. Just a few more seconds.

    However, before she could try to force the spell to release its grip on her, she heard something. It was a high pitched noise that sounded like a combination of a growl and a whine. Her hellish lineage had blessed her with a few things, good eyesight was among those, so she saw it before the others. It came up over a hill about half a mile away. It was clearly some kind of machine, moving fast on four strange wheels that gripped the ground as no wheel rightly should have. She could see two things on its back, but couldn’t make them out at this distance.

    As they quickly moved in, though, she saw clearly enough what they carried. Neeshka took a deep breath and tried to blink a few times to make certain what she was seeing was correct. The two objects that she saw were soldiers—living or not, she did not know—and though she couldn’t quite make out the nature of the tubular devices that they had strapped to their armor, she could tell quite clearly that they were weapons of some sort.

    They pulled up to where they were only a hundred or so feet off, and both dismounted. Neeshka felt the spell release her, and nearly stumbled to the ground. The others were not paying attention to her, and she knew that she could easily make a break for it. However, that small part of her mind that had kept her alive for all the years of living on Neverwinter’s streets and its back alleys told her to wait. The solders’ craft, for one thing, could move far faster than she could run. She might get a chance to use one of her scrolls to get back home, but Lord Nasher would not be pleased to get a report as incomplete as what she had now. He was already being extremely lenient with her, and she had no desire to get chucked into an eight by ten cell for the next few decades.

    The green one, which she could simply not believe the size of, moved a few steps ahead of its black armored comrade. The gold plated face moved back and forth over them, and she felt eyes that she could not see boring into her, reading her. At last, the soldier pointed towards the Barbarian of the group, and spoke a series of words that the Tiefling found that she could not understand.

    The group looked around at each other, and the big one shrugged before responding.

    “I am sorry, I do not understand what you are saying.” He shook his head as he spoke to try and convey the meaning.

    The soldier paused, cocked its head to one side, and then said something else. Neeshka couldn’t make it out, but it clearly sounded like it was a different language, harsher, more robust. All it got him was a look from the Barbarian. Another language after that, and then another, and another. The black armored one joined in as well, but still nothing came of it. She wondered what in the world was going on here. What kind of thing would not know Common in this day and age? It was clearly smart enough to know several languages, and none of them sounded like curses, or any arcane or infernal language that she knew of, for that matter.

    Neeshka carefully reached down to her pouch to pull out a ring that the Many Starred Cloaks had given her, one that was supposed to aid in the understanding of languages. Before her hand had moved more than two inches, though, the soldier reacted. It was a green blur as it reached down to the black object on its legs, yanked it off, and had it pointed straight at her. All of it had taken a fraction of an instant, and she had scarcely even seen it move.

    Again it spoke, and again she could not make out a single word, but the faint gesturing of its head was indication enough for the girl. She pulled her hand back away from the pouch, and then shifted it to where the soldier could see it better.

    “Look,” she said in a soft, slow tone. “I know you can’t understand me, but I’m not getting anything dangerous.” She tried to open it again. The weapon was raised up a little higher, but she sensed that it would not attack unless attacked first. It was probably just lost and confused.

    She opened up the pouch, searched around for the ring, felt it, and placed it on her finger. “Can you understand me?” she asked, hoping that she might get a better reaction out of it.

    The black armored one said something, and to her frustration, Neeshka found that she couldn’t make out a word of what was being said.

    “That a ring of translation or something?” the Dwarf asked.

    “Yep,” she nodded to him. “Supposed to work on any language born of Faerun, the hells, or the heavens.”

    “So what does that make this thing’s language?” the Barbarian gave her a weird look.

    “Rather obviously, ‘none of the above,’” she rolled her eyes at his inability to get her initial meaning. “Whatever, or wherever, this thing is from, it’s nowhere around here.”

    The Master Chief for his part, was equally baffled. What was so important about that ring? The inability to communicate was equally irritating. He’d tried English, French, German, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish with these people, while Johnson had chipped in with a few contributions of his own, including, of all things, Latin and some surprisingly well toned Old English. Nothing seemed to be working.

    “Have you managed to analyze anything?” John muttered, shutting of his external speakers.

    “The language they’re using bares some resemblance to an old Scandinavian dialect, or something similar. It’s not much, but give me a moment and I can try to make some connections,” Cortana said.

    Then he heard a beeping noise. The UAV was attracting additional movement.

    “Cortana?” The Spartan asked.

    “Give me a second, moving the drone into position.”

    The Spartan kept one eye on the native group before him, while the other one drifted up to watch the feed from the UAV. They crossed the snow and ice covered landscape rapidly, and before long, was zooming in on a large group of objects. He couldn’t make out much at the range that the drone was at, just that they were large, fast, and the contrast between hot and cold objects seemed to indicate that they were well armed.

    They were also headed for the Dawn, though it looked like they were going to have to pass by here first.

    “My, aren’t we popular these days,” Cortana seemed amused.

    The Master Chief said nothing, but the drone was now close enough that he could start to make out features on the new group. Were he not so used to seeing strange things and places, he might have been alarmed by what he saw. The drone switched back over to the visible spectrum, and he did arch an eyebrow. The new group was composed of gray skinned, vaguely humanoid creatures, heavily armed with wicked looking axes and spears. Crude plate armor covered most of their torsos, but their arms were bare. Their faces had a look to them that resembled a cross between a boar and an ape, augmented by the tusks sticking out of their lower jaws.

    And they were riding wolves.

    Very, very big wolves.

    “This place keeps getting weirder by the day! First abominable snowmen, then short guys, a girl with a tail and horns sticking out of her head, and now this?” Johnson sighed in disbelief. “Orders, Chief? They don’t look particularly friendly.”

    “Take up a sniping position among the rocks. They don’t look friendly to me either, but assume nothing. They may just be a patrol or something, coming to check on the hole we made in the ground.” The Spartan moved closer to the rocks, and left himself partially exposed so that the humanoids would see him, but that he could still duck back and return fire in quick order if they proved to be hostile. He had to admit though, that was awfully big for a patrol. Still, better safe than sorry.

    Bruenor scratched at the side of his head as he saw the black armored golem suddenly reach up behind it and pull the enormous device off its back. It looked almost like an odd shaped wizard’s staff that ended like the butt end of a crossbow. It quickly put the other such device that it held (a smaller object with a heavy, well defined forward grip, and a pair of rods running down its length) away. Then it took off, rushing up the slope of the rocks, moving in a manner of a being that was well trained in such actions and was in good physical condition. Once it reached a large overhang, it lay down flat, and from his vantage point, the Dwarf king could see little. The green one did the same, returning the shorter, wand like device to its hip and reaching for the larger one on its back.

    “You think they know something we don’t?” Wulfgar asked, leaning down close to his mentor.

    “I don’t know,” the Dwarf shrugged. Let’s head up and get a better look,” he gestured to where the black one had gone.

    Bruenor and his two body guards were up quickly enough, with Neeshka coming up right on their heels. Wulfgar and Alicia however, took more time, being less sure of the rocks. Still, it took no more than a few minutes for them to get up there.

    Neeshka frowned as she stared around at the landscape. She could see nothing out of the ordinary. But the two soldiers were so alert, like they knew that something was coming.

    The black one grumbled something to her, staring over at the group. She couldn’t tell what it had said, but it sounded rather irritated. She looked at the weapon that it held, the massive tube at the end, flared out slightly, the way that the soldier was orienting it and had braced it against the ground, and realized that whatever was coming was off that direction, and that even these things, likely so far from their home that it wasn’t even funny, believed it a possible threat did not bode well with her.

    She took out her telescope again, and scanned the horizon. Even from this height, it took her a little while to see what was coming their way. It was hard to make out at first, but as the blob drew closer she started to make out individuals among it, and then quickly felt dread pool in her stomach. She turned to look down at the Dwarf leader, Bruenor if Nasher’s intelligence on this was correct.

    “Orcs,” she hissed.

    “What? How many?” he sputtered, going red in the face.

    “Can’t quite tell, let’s just say ‘lots.’ And all of them are mounted,” she said.

    Bruenor frowned. The Dire Wolves upon which they were likely riding could not only match the pace of a warhorse, but were excellent climbers as well. This place wouldn’t make for a good defense, not with their backs to the wall. Running was out of the question, too. Or rather, at least trying to flee outright.

    The Dwarf king looked around, trying to find someway to change the odds. Then he spotted it. Another outcropping of rock, about two thousand feet away. It was narrower, would require that the Orcs and their wolves come at them no more than a few at the time. The question is, would they be able to get that far, climb the rocks, and get set up before their foes were upon them? Well, there was only one way to find out.

    “To that ledge, come on!” he shouted, gesturing to the location.

    The others fell in beside him, even the Tiefling, who pulled out a short bow as they descended the rocks.

    “Up, or down, make up your minds!” Alicia said as she nearly stumbled down one of the boulders.

    As he hit the snow, Bruenor ran for all he could muster from his little legs. If they got caught in the open like this, by mounted opposition, they were done for.


    “Something’s got them spooked,” John muttered to himself, double-checking the sights and scope on his BR-55. “Think they know something we don’t?”

    “The girl with the tail yanked out a telescope and started staring off where those Hell’s Angels wannabees are coming from.” Johnson replied. “Can’t say that I’m too upset they’re gone, though. They were blowing my cover.”

    The Master Chief had a sinking feeling that this was going to end in a shootout. From what he could gather, they were dealing with two very hostile groups here, and the ones that he had just met were badly outmatched if that were the case. He zoomed in on them to track their progress, and noticed where they were headed. They were attempting to set up a secure, defensible perimeter apparently. The Spartan cocked his head, and then looked back over towards the approaching group of humanoids.

    They were too close. The fleeing group would never make it, not with those small ones slowing them down.

    The milliseconds began to tick by, and the Spartan’s mind raced, weighing potential actions, reactions, causes and effects. Eventually, his mind settled on the one option that he knew would be the ultimate choice: to act, or not to act.

    “Sierra-117 to Dawn, requesting air support. Incoming fourth party appears hostile,” the Spartan said.

    “Are you sure, Chief?” it was Keyes. “I don’t want to start a war if we can help it.”

    “Yes ma’am, second and third parties have banded together, despite their apparent dislike for each other, and are currently breaking for better cover. Suspect high probability of violent outcome.” He saw the first one of the riders come up over a small ridge. He spotted the moving group immediately, raised his peculiar, double headed axe, and gave out a loud roar.

    “Roger that,” the commline crackled for a moment, “Arbiter, meet me in the Pelican bay, the Chief’s calling in the cavalry.”

    “Understood, commander,” the Elite replied. “I’ll be there in a minute.”


    The Chief watched as the humanoids drew closer to the fleeing group, and made his decision. “Johnson, weapons free.”

    Johnson’s sign of acknowledgement was the unique double shockwave of the S02M Oracle that he held. Through the scope of his battle rifle, the cyborg watched as one of the beings just seemed to fly apart, dissolving into a rapidly expanding mist of blood, bones, and flesh. Another half second passed, and they were inside of six hundred meters, the maximum range of a BR-55. He squeezed the trigger, and felt the faint kick of the rifle against his armored shoulder. The ammo counter in his upper left HUD decreased by one and a moment later, the one he’d sighted up coughed up black colored blood and stared stupidly down at itself, no doubt curious as to where the twelve inch wide hole in its chest had come from. The Spartan wondered if it had even felt the ten-millimeter, depleted uranium round as it passed through.

    It slumped off its mount, but not before two more of its brothers had joined it in death. The Spartan did not relent, and fired again and again, targeting both the riders and their mounts. But there were a lot of them—he counted over two hundred, easily—and while they were confused by the sudden and unexpected flank attack, they did not break, but kept on charging towards the group out on the ice covered tundra. Was it possible that they were unaware that he and Johnson were the ones killing them?

    Up above, the ODST fired again, catching two of the creature’s dead on as they were lining up. Both of them dissolved into blood clouds as the fourteen and a half millimeter slug tore through them and kept going. Then his battle rifle clicked empty. John reached down and released the empty magazine with his right thumb, while his left had had already grabbed a fresh one. A fraction of a second later, he slammed it into the rifle, cycled a round into the chamber, and fired a double tap. It hit one of the wolves square in its center mass, and blew the beast wide open. It went down in a tumble, flipping over and spreading its guts and blood over the snowy ground like the stroke of an artist’s paintbrush.

    But there were too many, the Spartan simply couldn’t kill them fast enough to stop them from making it to the other group. He needed an autocannon, or something similar.

    Johnson fired twice in rapid succession, splattering a large humanoid and its mount. “Empty! Reloading.”

    The Chief slipped his third magazine into the rifle, and noticed that they had finally managed to get some of the humanoids to branch off towards where he and Johnson were. But the number was small, dealt with easily enough. “Forget them,” he growled, “focus on the main body.”

    As before, Johnson’s only response was the loud booming of his sniper rifle.

    Neeshka looked to see the horde come charging towards them. They weren’t going to make it. Frowning grimly to herself, she knocked an arrow in her bow, drew it back, and fired into the advancing mass of Orcs. The shot was well aimed despite the fact that she was running, and sank deep into the arm of one of the lead charges. It snarled, and she could see it reach up and tear the arrow out. Then there was a flash of red from their ranks, and one of the Orcs on the flanking edges of the wave just… disintegrated. A pair of loud booms reached her sensitive ears a moment later, causing her to wince.

    She instinctively looked back to where they had left the other two soldiers. She couldn’t figure out why in the world they weren’t running. Granted, they weren’t from this neck of the woods, but just about every plane of existence knew of Orcs and what they meant.

    She couldn’t make out the details, but as the Tiefling fired again, more Orcs started to fall to some invisible force. They ignored it, though, and kept coming. She fired twice more into their ranks as they vied to see who would be the first to spill blood. One she caught in the throat, the other shot went low, into the shoulder of the dire wolf. The beast howled in pain, but kept coming regardless, its eyes seemed to scream murder for her.


    The Orcs were within a hundred paces of them as they reached the base of the outcropping. The wizard starting going up first while the rest covered her, Bruenor ordering everyone into a defensive circle that would back its way up. As soon as she got up, Alicia started chanting the words to a spell, though what kind Neeshka could not exactly tell. She fired twice more, and then slung her bow and drew her blades.

    The large Barbarian gave out a roar and sent his warhammer flying end over end. The Orc that was closest took it straight in the chest, and was blasted right back into the one behind him. The still living rider and mount went down in a tangled heap to be trampled by the ones behind it. The mighty weapon reappeared in its owners hand just in time for him to smash in the chest of another wolf. As before, the dead mount went down, with its rider getting tangled up in the harness.

    Bruenor leaped backwards as a wolf overextended itself, and countered with a furious cleave that split its skull straight in half. He raised his shield to ward the next series of attacks just as a fireball descended into the ranks of those behind them. The sphere exploded, setting all within thirty feet aflame and causing panic in Orc ranks as the wolves bucked about, trying to put themselves out, but only succeeded in throwing their riders or putting their fellows to fire as well.

    Something was bothering Neeshka, though. Though the ranks pressed in around them, it was as if the Orcs were holding back, waiting for something. A spear came in towards her, and she narrowly dodged it, lashing out with her longsword taking the end of it off at it passed by. The rider’s mount pressed in, and in a deftly quick move, she shoved her shorter weapon up to the hilt in its maw. The edge was sharp, honed by killing dwemores, and pierced the bone with ease. The blade poked out of the top of the brute’s skull for a moment, before it fell to the ground.

    Another one of those weird booms reached her ear, and several of the Orcs twitched about in their saddles, before they broke and headed for the other outcropping, where the two soldiers had been left.


    A bolt of lightning struck through the ranks of their enemies, but still they did not waver, still they pressed the attack. The Tiefling was confused, her mind trying to figure out what was going on as best she could while still dodging blows and trying to keep the wolves at back. Orc war parties didn’t come out to the middle of nowhere without reason, and if they were interested in the fireball, why this focus on them? Why not decide to just leave them be and head for the prize?

    The thought was derailed as she had to duck an axe blow aimed at separating her head from her shoulders. She gutted the Orc for its trouble, leaping forward and stabbing her shorter blade right into its heart, parrying another strike with its longer twin.

    Then she saw one of their ranks, larger than the rest, rise up. Its skin was paler in hue, its muscles more knotted… a half ogre. It raised its double bladed axe high and let out a war cry. The Tiefling narrowed her crimson eyes, while her tail twitched in agitation. It lowered the blade, pointed straight at Bruenor and roared again. This time, though, the roar was cut off in mid cry. A curious blue object, burning as if on fire, landed squarely in its open mouth. There was a moment of confusion from all parties, and then with a high pitched beep, it exploded.

    The Tiefling’s world turned white, and her eyes burned from the flash. Whatever just happened did sow confusion into the ranks of the opposition though, as they started whirling about just in time to watch another object drop in among them. This one was brown, and resembled a large pine cone.

    The HP-9 frag grenade detonated a half second later, turning every Orc and wolf within ten meters of it into something more commonly associated with a slaughterhouse. Blinking away the lights in her eyes, the Tiefling found the source of the commotion.

    --

    The Spartan had eighteen shots left, and then his rifle was dry. There were simply too many to handle from here, and it was clear to him that there was no way for the group to survive until Keyes arrived with a Pelican, not unless a distraction was provided.

    He noticed something strange with the robed girl’s hands, and suddenly a blast of fire shot out from it and detonated. The Spartan froze for a millisecond, and then shook it off. There would be time for questions later, provided that they all made it through this, and he figured out how to talk with them.

    “Johnson!” he barked, ripping off his SMG and the few clips he was carrying for it, before tossing them up to the ODST.

    The Helljumper got what the Chief wanted, and pulled the P90 off of his back, along with a few boxes of shells. Both were lobbed down to the Spartan, who hastily secured the ammo around his abdomen, and took off towards the battle.

    Johnson kept up the pressure, firing off his sniper rifle and butchering more of the strange humanoids.

    The Master Chief blitzed past the group that had broken off towards their position, catching all of the brutes by surprise as they wheeled their mounts around, no doubt thinking to try and squash him between the rest of the force and themselves. The meters between them closed in a blur. Five hundred… four… three… two hundred… One hundred. He could see a large brute rising up from the pack, bigger than its fellows, possibly a leader. It raised a chilling war call and brandished its weapon.

    John saw an opportunity. He reached for his grenade bandolier, and yanked out a plasma grenade. One push of the arming button, and the device burst into blue fire. The cyborg reared back and threw the device like a base ball. He’d been aiming for its face, but the creature opened its mouth to scream again, and the grenade found the invitation well enough. Were the situation not so serious, the Spartan might have laughed.

    The small grenade detonated a moment later, unleashing hell. Everything within five meters of the device was instantly vaporized, with many more further out howling and burning in the wake of the intense heat. Still others were scorched and found their lungs seared by the steam blast that came from the snow and ice being heated so quickly. Water did expand roughly a thousand times upon conversion from liquid to gas, after all.

    He primed a frag grenade, and tossed it as well, hoping to stir up more confusion among his foes.

    It worked, taking the attention of several of them away from the besieged group and putting it on himself.

    He was fifty meters away, well inside of the lethal range of the P90. He leveled the weapon, sighted up the closest one, and fired. The scattergun boomed, kicked, and sent a spray of supersonic uranium at the brute and its wolf. The rider dissolved into a cloud of bloody giblets, while the front part of the mount suffered a similar fate. Then he targeted the next closest, and fired.

    Ten shots left.

    He kept shooting, each blast taking down a rider and mount, but still they closed. They were a persistent bunch, he gave them that. Fanatical, almost.

    Reminded him a lot of the Covenant.

    He fired off the last shell, and then lobbed a grenade. The explosion killed a good dozen, sending body parts and chunks of what the Spartan assumed were once organs splattering across the landscape. He ripped open the lid to one of his ammo canisters, and yanked open a handful of shells. He had to hurry, the ones from behind would be closing in right now. He could already see faint blips on his motion sensor. Three shells were loaded. Not enough to kill them all, and he didn’t want to waste a grenade, or have to go hand to hand if he could help it. Six shells, they were too close.

    A blast from Johnson came up from behind, ripping two of them to pieces and continuing into the ranks of the larger group. That left eight of them. The Spartan leveled his shotgun, and fired. The results were the same as always. Two more pairs fell in less than a second. Then he twisted and dove out of the way. One wolf anticipated this maneuver, and moved to intercept. What it had miscalculated, though, was the speed at which its foe would move. The cyborg was back on his feet in a flash, and caught the wolf around the throat as it came sailing in. Ducking beneath the clumsily made swing of its rider, he yanked his left arm out. The bones of the enormous canine snapped and broke under the force imparted on them, killing it instantly. He let go, and the momentum ensured that it sailed some distance away, rolling over and over again and crushing its rider in the process.

    The brutes that wheeled about to face him were too slow, and presented perfect profile shots for him. They never even had time to scream.

    Another boom from Johnson, and another group of them became so much fertilizer.

    “That was the last round, Chief, I’m all out of long range death right now,” Johnson growled. “I’m taking the Mongoose and moving into flanking position, I’ll try strafing their lines.”

    “Commander, initial native parties are going to be overwhelmed soon,” John said as another ball of flame flew from the hands of the robed girl. “ETA?”

    “ETA is forty five, keep your head down, we’re coming in hot and loud,” Keyes responded.

    “Advised, ma’am, friendlies in the combat zone,” the Spartan lobbed a second plasma grenade into the midst of the brutes. It stuck to the back of one of the riders, who pawed around with it for a moment or two before the device went off. Blue hot fire leapt up, slaying dozens of them and causing more chaos. He suspected that at least two thirds of the initiate force was lying in pools of their own blood, had been reduced to little more than that, or were currently floating around on the air currents. Still they persisted though.

    There was a whine a few seconds later, Johnson tore up on the Mongoose, the SMG he was holding began to fire short, quick bursts into the ranks of the brutes. The caseless rounds tore great gapping holes in the creatures, and a solid dozen wheeled about to face the ODST. He could hear Johnson snort as he turned away and led them off on a chase, firing back over his shoulder as they cleared the distance.

    Amongst the melee, Neeshka realized that they were getting help from the soldiers, but knew that it wasn’t going to be enough. These Orcs were disturbing in their dedication to eradicating them, for what purpose she could only guess. She’d battled more than her fair share of the things, but had never heard of them being this ferocious, this mindlessly one tracked in their determination to take out a target. They should have broken long ago, her mind kept insisting.

    But, as she lopped the head off of a wolf that got too close, the rational part of her brain kept telling that little voice that some part of the game had changed, and not for the better.

    “Tempos!” she heard the barbarian, Wulfgar, gasp. It was not from pain, but from surprise. He’d been able to retreat higher up into the rocks than she had, perhaps he had seen something that she hadn’t.

    Another blast ripped through the Orcish ranks, and more booms, these ones lower and more robust, came from where the green armored one fought, somewhere she could no longer see due to the pressing throng. The blasts were getting closer though, and more and more of the riders were having to turn to engage the threat that it represented. She snarled and deftly leaped over the swing of a pole axe, coming down and lopping off the head of the weapon with her longsword, driving her shorter one into the neck of its mount. The Dire Wolf went down with a yelp.

    To her side, Bruenor took a slash across the face, just above the cheek guards of his helmet. The blow was light and shallow, but it did send a great deal of blood spilling down his face, which only seemed to add to his ferocity.

    It was bound to happen eventually, she supposed. One too many attackers managed to coordinate on her as she was trying to step back, further up the hill. A hole opened up in her guard and a Dire Wolf took advantage of it. It lunged forward, and she felt its teeth close around her right arm. It punctured her tunic, and her leather armor, and yanked hard to the left and right.

    Pain and agony surged through her, and she barely managed to bite back a scream as her longsword fell from nerveless hands. She brought its shorter twin up, though, and stabbed it straight through the head.

    It let go of her at once, and she fell to the ground. Groggy with pain, she barely managed to dodge a strike meant to cleave her head in half. Instead, it bit deep into her side.

    So, this was how it ended…

    She faintly heard blasts of the soldier’s strange weapon, and noticed that one of the Dwarfs, the one closest to her, also went down as a spear caught him in the shoulder, punching clean through it and out the other side. Something heavy landed in front of her, blocking out the sun. It was the soldier. The weapon it held boomed, and kicked backwards, and the Orc nearest to him erupted into a mass of gore and fragmented plate armor. Its mount lashed out, and only a blur registered the soldier’s movement. The wolf slumped to the ground at the same time that the weapon went off again, she faintly noticed that a few small bits of its head were left, the rest of it missing somewhere, and that the solder’s boot was now stained red and gray.

    An Orc stabbed at him with a spear and others jumped in, trying to bury him under their numbers. Their nightmarish foe simply blurred to one side, ripped the spear from the Orc’s grasp, shoved it back into him with enough force to send the beast flying into the rider the next rank back. The Dire Wolf got a quick death as well, its skull smashed into pulp by the butt of the strange weapon.

    Something warm touched her cheek, and she realized that it was her own blood. She was surprised that she hadn’t died yet. Blood loss like this was supposed to kill quickly, right?

    An earth shattering roar suddenly filled the Tiefling’s sensitive ears, so that even as she lay in a pool of her own life fluids, she wanted to curl up. For a second she feared that her nightmares were coming true, and that her heritage had damned her to the Hells. She heard the Orcs screaming, finally panicking and breaking, and wished that she knew what had caused it. Something blotted out the sun, flying by, and more loud roars, these ones higher in pitch, reached her.


    The Master Chief swore as he spared a glance to the wounded girl beneath him. Those wounds were fatal if not treated. “Cortana, we’ve got at least one critically wounded trooper here!” he barked as he reloaded his shot gun, only managing to slide three shells into place before he was forced to dodge a series of spear thrusts, axe swiped, and lunging bites from the wolves. They were more cautious now, though, wary of him, especially given the viciousness of his counter attacks.

    He kicked out, catching one wolf between the lower jaw, crushing its skull and flipping it over, much to the irritation and pain of its rider.

    Graced by Spartan Time, he got plenty of satisfaction out of what came next. There was no sound to warn of its approach, no flash to give heed to it. The creatures all along their encircling ranks, suddenly began to splatter and fly apart. He even saw a brief glimpse of what was responsible for it, a glorious little piece of uranium, seventy millimeters wide, zipping past at supersonic speeds.

    That did cause them to panic. They broke ranks, and he took full advantage of it, reloading in a flash and gunning them down with impunity. In slow motion, he saw one of them gesture to the sky and bark out something in a harsh tongue that grated on his ears. The Pelican zoomed overhead a moment later, its back doors open.

    Orna Fullsamee was there, manning a thirty millimeter gattling gun. The Sangehili opened fire, spraying death and chaos into what semblance of discipline they had left.

    “Johnson, get back here now!” the Master Chief said, blasting another brute to pieces from thirty meters away.

    “Already on my way back,” the Helljumper announced.

    Sure enough, he cleared a ridge a few seconds later. John couldn’t help but notice that there was nothing behind him. He fired again, and the pellets of his shotgun cut another rider down and tore fist sized hunks of flesh out of its mount’s flanks.

    They were flanking around the Pelican, trying to get out of the way of Orna’s murderous autocannon fire. The Elite, however, was not so easily evaded. In a flash, he had disconnected the weapon from its ammo feed mount, hooked it up to large, backpack like device, slipped that over his shoulders and then took the weapon off its tripod mounting. He hopped out of the back of the drop ship, twisting and firing off shots in short bursts. The fist sized rounds were massacring what was left of the attack force.

    Keyes was backing the Pelican up and lining it up with the ground. Johnson was in first, racing up the short plank with the Mongoose, before hopping off it and rushing back out towards John.

    “Load up, evac, evac!” he shouted to the ones that could still stand, hoping they got the meanings, gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb just in case.

    They seemed to get the message clear enough, and went dashing off towards it.

    John slung the shotgun over his shoulder and leaned down, carefully picking up the horned girl. She still groaned in pain and her eyes widened a bit. He jogged towards the Pelican and moved up the ramp, before setting her down on the padded bench and getting a better look of her wounds.

    Outside, Orna still fired off into the distance, slaughtering all he could see.

    “Biofoam!” The Spartan twisted to Johnson, who quickly produced a vial of the stuff. He shook it up, twisted the end to reveal the small needle and plunger, and squired the white substance into the gash along the girl’s side. The self sealing medical foam went to work as soon as it touched blood, staunching the bleeding from there.

    Her arm was another matter. It was mangled beyond all logical repair, and twitched weakly as the nerves died. Only tendons and a few stray bits of muscle connected it to the rest of her body. She would need a new one, provided she could survive long enough to make the four minute trip back to the Dawn, and the two minute run to medibay. And all of that was moot if they couldn’t get more blood into her. She’d lost a lot.

    “Cortana, think you can synthesize alien blood?” he asked.

    “Depends, can you get me a sample?” her tone was neutral, though a faint trace of worry was detectible to those who knew her well.

    “Hard not to.”

    “That bad?”

    Chief didn’t respond, merely reached into his supply pouch, pulled out a small tube always carried, and then made a dash up to the cockpit, just as Orna pilled into the back.

    The Pelican rose into the air and shot off into the distance, leaving nothing but a bloodstained smear of earth behind it.

    John moved into the cockpit, hardly sparing a glance at the other native behind him. Johnson and Orna were trying to keep the girl steady, and piling on emergency blankets to prevent shock from setting in.

    The Master Chief took the vial, and inserted it into a slot in the Pelican’s control console. It was a standard thing of late. Marines, ODSTs, and Spartans all had their DNA on file, capable of being withdrawn and used for anything from blood synthesizing to flash cloning of replacement organs and limbs.

    UNSC civilians, however, did not have that luxury, and extracting wounded ones from combat zones had gotten dicey. With logistics strained by the war with the Covenant, adding everyone to the database was just unfeasible, so the UNSC went for the next best thing, a data port adaptation for their drop ships and transports. The blood would be inserted into the computer, then read by an A.I., who could read out the entire code in a matter of minutes.

    “Analyzing,” Cortana muttered. “DNA scanned, synthesizing in progress. Anything else?”

    “Start cloning a right arm, I don’t think we can save the one she’s got.”

    “Roger that,” she paused for a half second. “She’s lucky, and peculiar, you know. Her DNA is… well, disturbingly similar in nature to a human’s, just a few genes that don’t match up properly.”

    “Really?” the Chief cocked his head. “Hold that thought till we get her secure.”

    He moved back into the transport area, and looked at the others. All were sporting wounds, one of the smaller warriors a nasty stab through the shoulder, but a little biofoam would patch that up nicely. The horned girl was their priority at the moment.

    “Come on trooper, stay awake!” Johnson growled, thumping her lightly upside the head. She hissed at him, barring canines far sharper than any human the Chief had seen before. Still that was good. Anger was an excellent motivator for survival.

    The minutes passed quickly, and as the Pelican landed he picked the girl up, bloodied blankets and all, and headed off for the medibay. Inwardly he sighed. His sixth day on this world, and already he’d kicked off a war.


    --

    Back on the icy tundra, the half dozen or so Orcs that had survived regrouped.

    “Who is leader now?” one asked, scratching the back of its head.

    Accusations and denials quickly began to fly around, no one wanting that position. Finally, they decided on lots, and as luck would have it, one by the name of Jordaz was chosen. The Orc cowered in fear and struggled to maintain control of his bowels as he contemplated the remainder of his, he was quite certain, brief time upon this plane.

    The Spider Cleric was not going to be happy about this.
     
    UrielAngeli and RogueInquisitor like this.
  5. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Four - Adjustments

    As the golem took off with the Tiefling, Bruenor and his compatriots were left alone with the other three in the… well, wherever the hell they were. Bruenor grunted and hopped down off the ramp. A grunt came from inside of the… spelljammer’s cavernous depths. He noticed that Mortar was getting his shoulder wound caulked full of that white gunk they’d sprayed into the Tiefling’s wounds. He wondered what the substance was. Perhaps some kind of healing potion that was applied like a salve?

    The woman said something to the black golem, who performed a strange action, going ramrod straight and bringing its right hand to the hip of its armored head. Then it relaxed, and called out to Mortar in its strange language, making a “follow me” motion.

    The large… hellspawn that was onboard came off next, its four mandibled mouth speaking in what appeared to be the native language of the woman. She nodded and walked off.

    “My king?” Mortar asked, shaking Bruenor out of his thoughts.

    He turned to face his bodyguard. “Yes, Mortar?”

    “I think this thing wants me to follow it. Should I?” The wounded Dwarf kept staring back and forth between the strange golem and his leader.

    “If they’d wanted to kill us, they’d have done it by now, or let the Orcs do it for ‘em. I don’t think they mean us any harm,” Bruenor motioned him along. “He probably wants to get that wound patched up.”

    Mortar nodded, and trotted off.

    The Dwarf king went back to analyzing what he had discovered. They were, somewhere, surrounded by a huge fortress of metal. No doubt this was the headquarters of this group. He had deduced that the female was the one in charge, and that she was a rather powerful wizard, judging by her ability to construct arcane artifacts with the power he’d seen unleashed on the Orcs. And the fact that she’d constructed several golems, one of which he could find no better term to describe than “walking murder machine,” and a demon to boot.

    He looked and saw the woman standing over by the far wall. She seemed to be talking with someone, but what he couldn’t tell. He was never one much for the conversations of wizards anyway. Instead, he decided to check out what he could about this place. The Dwarf king began to slowly walk around the spelljammer, noticing the battle scars that ran along its metal hull. This thing was no stranger to action, apparently. Along its side was a series of runic markings, for what purpose he could not tell, and a large drawing in the center of the craft.

    There were two parts of it. At the lower bit there was a massive bird of prey, an eagle, its wings spread wide with a starred banner underneath it. Its talons clutched a trio of lightning bolts and one of the arcane weapons that the golems had been using. Above it, seemingly supported by the bird’s wings, was a blue and green sphere, dotted with bits of white… a planet.

    Could these humans be from an entirely different world? The Dwarf mused to himself, scratching at his beard for a moment. Then he heard Wulfgar cry out. He turned to his large friend, and found that the former Barbarian king was staring, slack jawed, at something. The Dwarf did a double take, and felt his eyes bulge out.

    There were more spell jammers in this place but the one that Wulfgar was staring at was far larger, and in the Dwarf’s eye, much more ferocious looking. It was solid black, and looked as if someone had just taken a hunk of metal and carved this device from it. It was currently braced on a quartet of support poles, and was as large and wide as a fully-grown dragon. Everything about its appearance screamed to him that this was an instrument of war.

    “Where are we?” he asked aloud.

    “I don’t know,” Wulfgar muttered aloud as he stared up at the ceiling. “Are we even still on Faerun? I have heard that some jammers may cross to other planes.”

    “I’m not sure, but look on the bright side, at least its warm in here!” Bruenor chuckled and nudged the much larger human in the side. Then he moved up to get a better look at the spell jammer in front of them.

    From where she was off to the side, Miranda Keyes watched in amusement and fascination. “Seems they’ve taken a liking to the Longsword,” she muttered. “Cortana, anything on the language yet?”

    “Negative, Commander, still working on it. On the other hand, there is something I’d like to do to the little group of natives, if you’ll indulge me.” The A.I. said.

    “It’s not dangerous, is it?” Keyes frowned and stared up at the ceiling of the hangar.

    “Not at all commander, just want to give them a little perspective.” The A.I. sounded giddy, despite everything. “Plus, it might take their minds off their busted up friend for a few minutes.”

    “How is she, by the way?”

    “Stabilized, but it’ll be about a day or so before she’s back on her feet.” Cortana said. “The smaller alien should be good to go in less than an hour.”

    “How about the Chief?”

    “Headed for the nearest armory to reload his weapons. He’s still a little on edge, I think.” Cortana didn’t sound worried, which surprised the commander. Still, she was the one with the greatest amount of work experience with the cyborg, and the only one to have gotten inside of his head, so to speak.

    “Alright then, show them your big surprise,” despite it all Miranda found herself smiling.


    As Bruenor was admiring the large, multi-tubed mechanisms on the end of the spell jammer, a loud warbling noise suddenly blasted through the chamber. He and Wulfgar looked at each other, and both went for their weapons. Olthik and Alicia also stood at the ready, but then he looked over at the wizard that was in charge of this place. The female mage just leaned back against the wall, her expression unreadable.

    “Look!” Wulfgar shouted, and pointed over to one section of the wall.

    Bruenor gasped as he realized that it was separating. It wasn’t part of a wall at all, it was a door. And a very large one at that. That must have been how the jammers got in an out. He cautiously walked over towards it, Wulfgar beside him. Both shivered slightly as a blast of chilled air hit them. They reached the edge, and gaped.

    The ground was a hundred or more yards below them, and looking around, they could see the metal substance that the chamber was made from extending for a thousand feet in either direction. Then he saw the environment, the smooth, far too smooth in fact, stone. Having been born and raised around rock, Bruenor recognized that this was the work of a extremely potent heat source, like a volcanic eruption.

    There were no Volcano’s in this region, though.

    … But there had been an extraordinarily large heat source in this area in the last week.

    “Not a fireball at all,” the Dwarf king gasped as it dawned upon him. “A spell jammer… this whole thing is one giant spell jammer!”

    What power did this mage command, to be able to craft and control such an artifact? He shook his head in disbelief. Then he noticed something else. Parts of the jammer’s hull were scored, blackened and charred by something. It wasn’t from the entry into the atmosphere, that would have heated up the entire craft, instead. These were pits, like the scars left from a pox infection. Something had attacked this thing, but what? And further, what manner of contraption could inflict damage upon something that could bury itself like this without any apparent problems?

    His line of thought was cut off by a loud rumbling. For a moment, he expected an attack… then he realized that it was just his stomach. Frowning a bit, he put his weapons away and started to search his pockets for some trail rations. A deep, throaty chuckle cut him off and he looked back over his shoulder to see the demon standing there. It shook its armored head, and motioned with its strange, four fingered hand to follow.

    Olthik and Alicia had come up next to them by now, and the four of them exchanged glances with each other. As the creature turned away and started to walk for the other end of the room, they decided to follow.

    Bruenor found himself curious about the demon, as much about its strange appearance as the fact that it hadn’t tried to murder them all yet. Drizzt had told him much about the demons he’d seen and learned about during his training in Menzoberrazan, and none of them matched this description.

    As they followed the thing, it led them past the wizard, and into a strange, box like contraption. As soon as they were in, it pressed a button, and the doors closed. There was a grinding noise, similar to the racket that large door had made when it opened, and the box began to rise.

    After a few seconds, the small room came to a stop, and the doors opened up on a new level.

    The demon walked out, reaching up and taking off the odd helmet that it wore. Able to get a better look at its skull, the Dwarf king noticed that it had scaled skin, rather like that of a snake’s. The overall shape of it, combined with the razor sharp teeth both on its mandibles and inbetween them reminded him of a bizarre cross between a shark and a insect’s.

    Then it turned and started to head down a long hallway. There were a few doors off to one side, and the creature twisted abruptly entering one set of them.

    The Dwarf looked up and noticed that there was a sign and some of those character markings above the door. “M” “E” “S” “S” Whatever that meant.

    He found out a minute later as he entered it and noticed the large rows of tables and benches. It was a kitchen, of sorts.

    “Like a mead hall,” Wulfgar muttered aloud.

    “So where’s the food?” Bruenor frowned, and watched as the demon set its helmet down upon a table, walked over to the wall, and pressed another button. There was a beep, and then a few seconds later, a ding, and a small door opened up.

    The demon reached inside and pulled out a black tray made of an unknown material. Steam rose from within it as the creature brought it over to the table.

    The Dwarven king noticed what appeared to be some kind of meat floating around in gravy, and next to it, in a smaller container, chopped vegetables.

    He shrugged and made his way over to the device. He couldn’t read what was written, so he decided just to try the same thing that the demon had. Of course, he realized too late there was a slight flaw in that plan.

    He was too short to reach the buttons.

    “Bloody hell. You can tell this thing was not designed with non-humans in mind,” he grumbled, tapping a booted foot against the floor.

    Wulfgar picked his mentor up a moment later, resulting in a rapid flurry of curses that would have made a sailor red in the face. However, Bruenor quickly resigned himself and pushed a button.

    The large Barbarian set him down, and handed him his meal when it was ready, then he went over to the table, sitting on the opposite edge away from the creature, hoping to further study it. It certainly had an interesting way of eating. It reminded him of a wild animal.

    Bruenor picked up a fork that came with the tray, and speared a piece of the meat. Hesitantly, he took a bite. The food was hot, almost scalding, but it was good. He started to dig in, as did the others.

    He spent some time talking in hushed tones with Wulfgar and Olthick, but his eyes kept drifting to the demon. Its gold, slitted eyes would occasionally fall upon him, and while he trusted that whatever sway the female mage had over it was secure, there was still something about it that puzzled him.

    Eventually, the door hissed open, and Moratar walked in, a smile on his face, and only a hole in his chain mail to show where he’d once been skewered.

    Bruenor, however, didn’t spend a whole lot of time focusing on him. The black golem was behind him, and further, had taken off its head. Or rather, its helmet.

    The Dwarf’s jaw dropped. The thing was a flesh and blood man underneath that armor? He stared at the skin that was almost as black as the armor he wore, and the slight graying of the hair along the edge. The human still wore his weapons, but seemed in a good mood. He cheerfully greeted the demon in his native tongue, and the mandibles twitched in a strange pattern, before it replied with something. The soldier moved over and got a plate of food for himself and Mortar, before returning to the table.

    “Mortar, how are you doing?” Bruenor asked as the other Dwarf sat down with his food.

    “Right as rain, my king,” he grinned behind his beard. “That white stuff stopped the bleeding, sealed the wound, then they took me into some kind of room with a lot of beeping magic stuff, and what appears to be some alchemy equipment. Injected me with this stuff, and lo and behold, my skin started putting itself back together. Like one of those healing potions, but without the taste of sewer water.”

    “And the hellspawn?” Bruenor took a sip of the water that had been provided with the meal, wishing it were something stronger.

    “Got her hooked up to some facing equipment, a mask over her face, and blood coming out of some kind of contraption going into her,” Mortar said, hesitantly testing out some of the vegetables. “What’s more, I think they’re growing her a new arm. They had to take the old one off.”

    “What do you mean,” Wulfgar took a sudden interest in the conversation.

    “I mean they’ve got some kind ‘o tube filled with this green gunk and there’s an arm being made in it, already got the bones together and some of the muscle,” he said in between forkfuls of food.

    “Huh, what about the big green golem?” his king asked.

    “Not sure, sir, it left after it got the girl all hooked up. It was talking with someone though, a girl I couldn’t see. Her voice kept coming out of the ceiling,” he pointed up.

    “The wizard?” Wulfgar raised an eyebrow. “Magic users do have such means of communication.”

    “Nah, this one’s voice was different,” Mortar said. “There’s someone on this fortress we haven’t met yet.”

    “Spell Jammer,” Bruenor said. “We’re on a Spell Jammer, and a big one at that.”

    Mortar just shrugged and went back to his food. Being wounded and all that fighting must have worked up a mighty appetite.


    --

    The hours had passed swiftly, and night time was quickly approaching. Cortana was still ironing out the kinks in the translation program, based of her continued observations of the natives interacting with one another. What most intrigued her was the robed one. She was often separate from the others, moving around on her own, and muttering words that had no discernable relation to the other words that were being spoken. The A.I. had spent a few nanoseconds contemplating this, before she remembered the video feed that John had left on his suit’s recording instruments.

    She had watched the scene a hundred times in the space of a few seconds, watched as a ball of flame, and then a bolt of ionized energy had come from the palms of her hands. The suits sensors detected nothing out of the ordinary up until that moment. The phrase “there was something screwy going on” came to mind. If so, what power or energy field was this woman tapping into? And further, how might one gain access to it?

    The woman muttered again, very quietly this time, and like it had been the day before, there was a sudden spike in the EM frequencies on her scanners. Had this been the feeling that John had gotten? What did it mean? If there was truly some manner of long range communication or observation going on here, Cortana didn’t like it. She didn’t know enough about these natives to trust them, and this unidentifiable source of energy was enough of an enigma to warrant suspicion and caution of the highest caliber. She reacted as quickly as she could isolating the frequencies, and then cutting them off.

    The woman seemed confused, almost disoriented for a second and looked around, almost fearful. The A.I. made a special note to keep as many of her electronic eyes as possible on that woman, until she was able to establish communications. Hopefully, that wouldn’t be more than a couple more hours.

    “Cortana?” Commander Keyes asked.

    “Ma’am?” she responded, having a holographic image of herself pop up on the arm rest of the captain’s chair.

    “Status on the alien in medibay?”

    “The slash wound’s been patched up, and I’m about to finish the final nerve connections with the cloned limb,” the A.I. said. “It’s taken a little longer, as I’m in unfamiliar territory here, with her not being human.”

    “Understood, about how long until she’s awake?” Cortana watched as Miranda finished making a report of the day’s activities in her personal log.

    “I’m going to start bringing her out of her induced sleep soon, I’d say a good twenty minutes. Why?” She took another look around the ship, monitored the little bit of power that the backup reactors were turning out, and corrected a minor inefficiency in them.

    “Okay, have the Chief bring some food up to her, and stay there. He was the one that bailed her out, maybe she’ll be less inclined to spaz out if there’s what at least passes for a familiar face there.” Keyes said. “Where is he, anyway?”

    “Heavy weapons lockers.” Cortana flicked and imaginary piece of hair away from her face.

    “Should have known,” The commander gave a wry smile. “Pass the info along to him, and tell him to make certain the helmet’s off. I want our patient to realize that he’s human, just to help ease her into this.”

    “Will do, ma’am.” Cortana gave a two fingered salute before she blinked out of existence.

    In the heavy weapons locker of Armory C, Spartan-117 was double checking a pair of Jackhammer rocket launchers. Both of the twin 120mm tubes spun properly when he pressed the cycling button, and the scope appeared to be accurate. Another quickly glance over the casing for any damage that they might have incurred proved satisfactory.

    “Chief?” the voice came into his ear.

    “Yes, Cortana?” he asked as he put the anti-armor weapons back in their secured lockers and closed them up.

    “I’m getting ready to wake up our little resident in the medical bay. The commander wants you there with a hot meal for her, and she wants the helmet off.”

    “You sure that’s a good idea?” He muttered, but sighed. Orders were orders. He slapped an assault rifle to his back and a pistol to his hip, and headed for the mess.

    It didn’t take him long to get there, but when he did he was in for a surprise. The doors opened for him, and his combat reflexes kicked in, slowing everything down a fraction of a second before an armor plated alien was about to smash into his kneecaps. Acting quickly, the Spartan reached down and scooped up the little alien. It giggled, twitching and squirming in his grasp, poking at his arm, possibly curious as to why his finger kept stopping about half an inch short of the actual armor. The Chief raised an eyebrow and just stared at the thing, watching as it laughed manically. In the mess, Johnson and Orna both let out sighs of relief.

    “Yeah, it’s been going on like that for about twenty minutes now,” Cortana said in a mirth filled voice. “You have no idea how funny it was.”

    “You might have warned me of this…” the Chief growled, not amused with the situation. The small alien, having tired of poking him, had drawn the axe that it carried, and was prodding him with the flat end of it, still puzzled about his armor.

    “Oh, but the look on your face was priceless!” Cortana laughed merrily in his ear.

    “You can’t even see my face from where you are.”

    “But I can certainly imagine it,” she giggled, and the Spartan frowned as he was prodded again.

    He reached down and yanked the axe out of the alien’s hand. “That is quite enough of that,” he glared at it. It moaned and seemed to pout.

    “Johnson, Orna, Sitrep?” he looked over to them as the thing went back to poking him with its finger.

    “They seemed interested in what we had to drink besides good ‘ole H-two-oh; and Squid Face here thought it would be a wonderful idea to give them some of the Mega Jolt cola,” Johnson glared at the elite, who simply shook his head.

    “Orna,” the Chief stated, remaining calm despite all of this, “were you aware that stuff was reserved for long shift personnel so we didn’t waste stimulants in non-combat situations?”

    “No, I was not,” He hung his head, and his mandibles moved in a manner that could only be described as sheepish. “I had no idea they would react like this to it.”

    “How much caffeine did he get in him?” John shifted his head to the side as the little alien reached up and tried to feel the helmet’s faceplate.

    “I’d reckon about four hundred milligrams…” Johnson trailed off, scratching the back of his head nervously.

    “For the love of…” the Spartan threw his eyes towards the ceiling. “Cortana,” there was a simmering anger to his voice. “You saw this happening, why didn’t you stop them?”

    “Scientific curiosity. I wanted to see if the caffeine would affect them the way it does humans.” He could hear her shrugging.

    “I’m going to delete you for this.” He dodged another poke.

    “Oh, Chief, you wound me.” She finished the statement with another girlish laugh.

    The Spartan sighed, and put the thing down. It immediately started running around the mess hall again. He shook his head and made his way over to the food preparation area.

    “What do you think our patient would enjoy?” he asked.

    “Well, my scanning of her systems indicates that she’s an omnivore like us, but the pointed teeth lend more to her being primarily a predator. Focus on something with meat.” Cortana said, her voice reverting back to a scientific tone.

    The Spartan nodded to himself. He had no idea of the metabolic necessities of the alien, but it seemed likely, considering the movements and reaction times that it possessed, that they would be somewhat high. Coupling that with the fact that she hadn’t eaten at all since arriving, he decided that bringing two meals would be preferable. He considered it for a moment, before selecting the roasted turkey meal that suddenly seemed so popular, judging by the contents of the waste bin, and a beef based entrée. Both meals popped out, and he scooped them up.

    “Give that back!”

    The Spartan turned and watched as Johnson pursued the caffeinated alien around the mess hall. The creature held Johnson’s ODST helmet in its hands, and was gleefully leaping from table to table all across the room.

    He heard a grunt of disbelief and something in the native language of this world. He looked down and saw the red bearded one, who he suspected was the leader of this motley bunch, shaking his head at the scene before him. John just sighed, before heading for the medical ward.

    --

    When he arrived, Cortana’s remotely controlled medical drones were double checking the nerve attachments to the new arm. With gentle pokes and prods, the A.I. observed how the nerves twitched and responded to stimulations. She seemed satisfied, based of the cheery “Good as new,” that came from the holotank in the center of the room.

    “How long till she wakes up?” the Spartan asked, as he set the food trays down next to the bed that the alien lay upon.

    “Probably about five minutes. I’ve already administered stimulants,” Cortana winked into existence, a smile on her face. “Not a bad piece of work, if I do say so myself.” She looked over at her friend. “John, you know the commander’s orders.”

    The cyborg said nothing, but popped the seal on his helmet, and slowly took it off. For the first time since he’d woken up that morning, he smelled the air of the ship as it was. He took a chair from the room and drew up next to the holotank.

    “Cortana, divide the tank into two sections,” he said. A barrier sprang up between them, and he nodded. “Load AV file two-four-nine-one-dash-oh-eight in the left section, and the battle from today in the right, starting from time index zero-zero-nine.”

    On the left side, High Charity came to life, and images of Brutes, Grunts, and Jackals were everywhere. In front of them, frozen in time, was a large, almost snake like creature with enormous eyes… Truth. In his hand he held an activation index. The small, green T shaped object looked so harmless, beautiful even, held there in his three fingered hand. Few could guess its true purpose, to start a process that would wipe out all life in the galaxy. The Prophet of Mercy playing the role of the wizened old advisor, was right behind him.

    The right side showed the brutish humanoids just as he closed into combat range with his shotgun.

    “Start both of them.” The Master Chief brought his hands up and laced his fingers together, holding them about level with his nose. Before him, both images sprang to life.

    The Brutes became aware of his presence, and moved to guard their holy leader, while the humanoids made similar growls and roars, charging at the besieged group with mindless ferocity. Some of the Brutes drew their weapons, other’s charged at him with their power spears, intent on skewering him. He grabbed a Needler, and opened fire on them.

    Neeshka found herself floating in blackness, slowly rocking back and forth. The Tiefling’s mind struggled to figure out what was going on. She could feel a tingling sensation on her right arm. Her memories were a tad fuzzy, but she distinctly recalled being mauled by a Dire Wolf and then getting pulled into some kind of metal contraption, with the two soldiers and some kind of demon hovering over her.

    She felt a little sore, but none of the burning pain associated with the Hells, so either she wasn’t dead, or her fears weren’t true, and her heritage by itself was not enough to condemn her. The sounds of explosions and roars faintly reached her, and the blackness started to recede. Was there still a battle raging? Or had she, by some mistake in the afterlife sorting system, wound up in Valhalla?

    For all the problems that she’d been plagued with, growing up with devil blood in her veins, one advantage was that she could easily wake up and shake off poisons in her system. She cracked an eye and stared around. She was in a white colored room, made out of some kind of metal, with beeping machinery all around her. Her armor had been removed, and she was wearing some kind of robe like piece of clothing. There was also some kind of mask over her face with a tube coming out of It certainly didn’t look like a battlefield, wherever she was.

    The second thing she noticed was that she could move her right arm. She looked down at it, and wiggled the fingers just slightly. Everything seemed to be working like it was supposed to. These people apparently had access to a powerful cleric.

    She heard a voice, deep, iron hard and distantly familiar to her. Slowly sitting up, she felt the straps along the back of her head, and tried to remove them. Then she saw it. The green armored soldier was sitting about twenty feet away from her, watching two scenes of combat play out before him. One she recognized as the battle with the Orcs, but the other one was not only in a place she didn’t recognize, it was against foes she didn’t recognize.

    Well, she took that back. The large, furred things reminded her of a cross between an Orc and a Bugbear, only larger, and better equipped. She certainly didn’t know of any of those species that wore heavy plate armor on a regular basis. Then there were the little small things running around between them, yipping their heads off. Bolts of strange colored light flew from the weapons they held in their hands.

    The soldier said something and both images halted, slowly rotating. The Tiefling leaned forward staring at him. She had no way of knowing it, but she had just become a member of a very select group of people. She was one of less than fifty individuals outside of the Spartan-II program that had ever seen the face that lay behind that helmet. The solder’s face was what might have been described as ruggedly handsome, with a solid jaw and chin, although his cheekbones did stand out quite a bit, almost enough to make her think he had some Elf blood in him. Scars marred some of the right side of his visage. His age was also something of a mystery, and she couldn’t place it. His face looked as though he had just entered his mid thirties, but the sandy blond hair on his head was rapidly giving way to gray, so that was unlikely.

    Then again, his skin had an unhealthy, almost pasty white-gray coloring to it. There were also his eyes, green, and they seemed to glow with some kind of inner fire. She got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach and gulped. Was she sitting in the same room with a vampire?

    Those eyes darted over to her, and it rose up, before striding over next to her, and uncoupling her mask. He hung it up next to the tank, and then gestured to her side. There were a couple of trays of food there, and her stomach suddenly reminded her that she hadn’t eaten in a while. She reached over and grabbed one, barely remembering to nab the eating utensils, before she wolfed down a large bite.

    She heard a voice, a female one, and suddenly looked around the room. She couldn’t see where the source of it was, until the image of the two battles flickered suddenly and were replaced by a woman. At least, Neeshka thought it was a woman. Her skin changed between purple and blue, with strange runes that she’d never seen before rushing over it. Hair that was long in the front and cropped short in the back moved in some unseen wind. The Tiefling realized that it was looking at her, and then it stared up at the soldier. She spoke to him, and he responded. The hellspawn took some slight comfort in the fact that she was able to see its teeth and noticed that it was sporting canines, rather than fangs.

    Secure in the thought that it wasn’t going to suddenly try and drink her blood, she went back to eating. The soldier and the other woman exchanged some words, and then the battle popped back up.

    The Chief went back to his observation now that their patient seemed to be okay. She had looked a little spooked when she saw him, but he wasn’t surprised. The few people who had seen his face, outside of his family, usually got pretty freaked out too. He looked, as Kelly had once said “unnatural.” Still, she seemed to accept him faster than most did. It was possible that considering what appeared to live on this world that he wasn’t too out of place. Either that or she was simply hungry and preferred to concentrate on food for the moment.

    His recording of the Battle of High Charity was reaching on of its most peculiar moments. The Flood had touched down a few minutes prior, and were already swarming over the city. Soldier, both human and Covenant, had been converted into nightmarish Combat Forms, and raced around, killing all who opposed them while the small, jelly-fish like Infection Forms added the dead and living alike to their numbers. He had been walking along a corridor, with a window off to one side, showing a view of the mobile city-world. Truth came over the broadcasting system, trying to rally his forces to repel the invading parasites. Gravemind’s response had been furious, both on the battlefield and in their minds. His rage had been so palpable as to leave behind what Cortana had described as a “Psychic Echo” upon the feed. John could hear every word within his mind, but those who had not been there merely reported that they felt off, like something wasn’t right when the eons old creature had been speaking.

    Neeshka heard another voice start talking, but she couldn’t understand what it was. One word did stand out however, because the tone of voice was almost reverent, worshipful, when speaking it: Forerunner.

    She had no warning for what happened next. Her mind suddenly exploded into white hot agony. She dropped her fork and clutched at her head as pain surged through it. A scream was torn from her throat before she could stop it.

    Arrogant!... A voice screamed in her head, deafeningly loud, full of anger, malice. It was like a demon’s telepathy, but much more powerful… much more palpable. Rage and hunger and fury filled her mind and she screamed again, shaking her head back and forth, desperate to rid herself of the pain.

    …conquered fleets of millions! Consumed a galaxy of flesh and mind and metal! it descended into an indecipherable rage again. She felt hands gripping her, dragging her down. She was dying, she knew it. …pathetic… more malice, fury and raw anger consumed her mind. …insignificant life will be snuffed out… again the voice faded out, and this time the rage, and her pain doubled in intensity. She heard another voice screaming, that woman from before, and she felt blackness try to swallow her.

    Then the pain faded, leaving her drawing deep breathes, vaguely aware that there was a face staring into hers. The soldier kept looking between her and then back to the battle that was playing out. She paid him no mind, however, merely tried to piece together what had just happened, what had just been unleashed upon her.

    She wasn’t certain how much time had passed, but the doors to the room burst open suddenly, and more people came in. She recognized the black armor from the other soldier, and the demon. Bruenor was there too, as well as Wulfgar and another woman that Neeshka had never seen before. She caught snips of hurried conversation, and occasionally heard that voice again, though it was less intense this time, merely feeling like an uncomfortable itching in her mind, rather than raw power trying to cleave her skull open.

    “By the gods!” she heard Wulfgar exclaim.

    Weakly, she looked up and saw the battles raging. The Orcs were merely ignored, it was the other that she focused on. The images—possibly from the soldier’s memory, she wondered—kept moving around, showing him slaughtering everything in his path, but then came other things. Small little creatures that squiggled about the floor on more tentacles than she could count, slithering towards corpses and bodies. One of the shorter creatures got one on him, and the thing squealed and thrashed as the little monster sliced open its armor and burrowed in. The demonic soldier began to twitch and spasm horribly, and she could see something moving underneath its skin, which quickly turned from a mottled, purple grey in color to greenish brown. The thing’s head suddenly slumped to the side, clearly dead, but it rose up and shifted its aim, firing upon its former comrades. Distracted, many were buried under the living tide that rushed them.

    Some were gunned down though, but it didn’t seem to make a difference, they rose as walking corpses anyway.

    Become one… the voice echoed in her mind.

    The soldier raised his weapon, and emptied it into all of them, the smaller creatures burst and popped like bubbles, but the… zombies, took shots from the light weapon that ripped off limbs, heads, and punched massive holes in the guts of the creatures and they still kept coming. They did fall though, after being reduced to charred husks.

    Child of my enemy…

    The soldier looked up, and four of the transformed things suddenly jumped from a ledge, a hundred feet up. Weapons in their hands gave of flashes of orange, red, and blue lights. Several of them seemed to hit the soldier, but nothing happened to him, then the image blurred, like she was watching everything too fast, and he was gunning them down, racing for cover while they tried to do the same.

    It was only after they had been blasted to pieces that she realized something. These ones were, or at least, had been, human. Their necks hung at odd angles, and body armor was strained to protect their ravaged bodies. Tentacles had burst from beneath their skin, and still wiggled and twitched.

    Pulses of light appeared at the far edge of the images. The soldier turned and faced them, and like her telescope, the image suddenly zoomed in. She could see a strange contraption, shaped vaguely like an arrow-head and floating a few inches above the air. A quartet of creatures that resembled the massive demon manned it, two bracing against the sides and firing weapons spitting green and blue beams at an onrushing horde of things, while a third one manned a massive weapon of a similar nature that was mounted on the back. The zombie-like creatures dove out of the way of the blasts with frightening speed, taking cover behind metal structures, occasionally leaning out to take quick, coordinated bursts of fire with their weapons. Five of them did so from roof tops and alley ways, and the demon on the right edge of the craft had some kind of energy field spring up around it. Then it faded as dozens of bursts of light connected with it in the space of less than a second. The blasts continued, and it screamed out in pain and fell to the ground, twitching as steam rose from chunky, gapping holes that had been blasted into it.

    The demon with the larger weapon managed to catch one of its foes, vaporizing an arm and a head, but the monster simply ignored this and ducked back down to cover.

    Behind the machine, Neeshka noticed another one slump out of an alleyway. It held a large, double tubed weapon in its hands. There was a blossom of fire and smoke, and something streaked towards the contraption. Too late, the demons noticed their peril. Their machine and they themselves exploded into a fiery mushroom of destruction. The Tiefling’s eyes bulged. She knew zombies almost as well as she knew Orcs… and they didn’t do those sorts of things. They relied on overwhelming numbers, not coordinated assaults and surprise flanking maneuvers. She watched the creatures a little longer as the soldier pulled his vision back to normal, and observed the efficiency with which they moved. It was as if they were being controlled by a single, all powerful entity.

    The doors in front to the soldier opened, and he went out firing, mowing down demon and monster alike.

    Sinner! the voice boomed in her head again, making her temple throb painfully, she heard little more than a roar after that, with only the occasional snippets getting through.

    …your voice with mine… the source called out, as the three way battles continued to rage, beams of light and bursts of fire bursting and exploding all around.

    Another one of the machines showed up, this one crewed by the Orc like things. Their fire cut through the zombies that were out in the open, but many more sought cover and fired off retaliatory bursts from their own wands.

    To her amazement, one of the human monsters came in from nowhere, landing next to the craft. The Orc-thing closest to it tried to twist and get his weapon up, but it was backhanded by the zombie’s right fist. Even from the images, from where she sat, Neeshka swore she could hear the vertebrae crack and snap. Its head virtually turned completely around, the thing slumped. In the blink of an eye, the left arm, which now sported several of those tentacles, slapped the contraption. The fury of the blow sent it flipping through the air, crashing and rolling over, killing the two Orc-things on the outside instantly. The one apparently controlling the craft was pinned, and screams that were a mixture of fury and fear came from it as more of the little jelly-fish like things closed in. One landed on it, sliced into its neck, and burrowed inside. The thing howled, thrashing about horribly and spasming as its body twisted and mutated into another of the monsters’ ranks.

    Rejoice… I am salvation… the voice said, barely audible as the twitching stopped and the thing’s hands returned to the controls. The one that had knocked it over hurried up, and pushed the machine back upright. Two more joined it, and manned the other positions. Then it took off, into the depths of the strange city.

    She shuddered as the images filled her mind, and felt the urge to wretch in her throat. The new female human seemed to notice her condition at last, and barked out an order. The images stopped. One of the floating machines came over to her and started beeping a few times. She just wanted it to go away. Bruenor and Wulfgar were whispering to themselves, but she didn’t care what they were saying. She just wanted the throbbing in her head to stop.

    The three humans and the demon, along with the glowing woman, appeared to be talking as well. Their eyes kept drifting over to her, and she noted looks of concern on their faces.

    “What do you think was her problem?” Miranda asked Cortana.

    “Well, she started to freak out when we reached the part in John’s recordings where Gravemind went postal. We know that he left an echo behind on the recording device, it’s possible that she might be sensitive to psychic events.” The A.I. shrugged. “We should be able to ask her tomorrow, I’m running over the final modifications to my translator program. I’ll be uploading it into your neural nets when you hit the sack.” She held up a hand. “No guarantees of it being one hundred percent accurate, but it should at least allow us to converse.”

    “Good to hear,” Keyes said with a nod. “Is she fit to leave the infirmary?”

    “One hundred percent back to normal… well, aside from whatever mental scars we may have just unwittingly given her.” Cortana crossed her arms and looked over towards the alien.

    “Okay, well, then everyone out,” the commander turned and started shooing the other two natives away. Johnson and Orna followed, with the Master Chief pausing just long enough to grab his helmet and slip it back on.

    As they left, Neeskha pulled herself back together. “Okay, Neeshka, focus. You’ve stared down demons, undead, Orc hordes, assassins, and ticked off wizards, a few enhanced zombies shouldn’t bother you.”

    She took a few deep breathes, and got up out of the bed. It didn’t take her long to notice that the owners of this place had left her a change of clothes, with the pants adjusted for her tail. She noticed the coloring was odd, dark green for the shirt, while the pants were a mottled, brown and green, with seemingly random stripes and splotches scattered about them. There was also a pair of black boots and some socks.

    She hurriedly donned them, and then stepped outside, looking around at the long metal corridors, with pipes running overhead. Strange metal chunks were strewn throughout it, attached to the floors, walls, and ceiling. She wondered what they were for, as they seemed terribly inconvenient for a pathway.

    She almost missed the soldier, as still as he was, some fifteen feet away from her. His legs were spread slightly, his hands clasped behind his back. Once he saw her, he motioned for her to follow him. They traveled down the corridor for a few minutes, stepped onto a lift of some sort, and sank deeper into the fortress.

    Once off, it only took a couple more minutes for him to lead her to a long room with a series of bunks inside of it. She noticed that Bruenor, Wulfgar, and the others were laying down, getting ready to go to sleep. Except for Olthik, who had climbed up on his and was excitedly bouncing up and down. She raised an eyebrow. Had the Dwarf been possessed by something? She seen Imps that were less off the wall. The Tiefling just sighed, and looked up to the soldier.

    “Which one’s mine?” she pointed to the beds to try and convey her meaning. He simply shrugged, which she took as pick the one of her choice.

    She chose one far enough away from the others and nestled into it. Surprisingly, the mattress was quite comfortable, as were the sheets and pillow.

    There was a slight thunk, which she realized was Olthik bouncing too high and smashing his head into the bunk above him. He grunted and rubbed his head, before apparently deciding that this might be a good time to get some rest. She looked at the others, most were already asleep, but the black skinned soldier called out something to his comrade, who responded in what sounded like a friendly tone. The green one then sat down against the end to the wall, and bowed his head. Unusual sleeping habit, the hellspawn noted. Before shrugging and turning over.

    For a moment, she heard that voice again in her head, screaming in rage, and its subtle chilling whispers. Then she shook her head and forced it form her mind. Despite being out of it for most of the day, her body still needed rest, and wondering about nightmares in the dark would not help her there.

    Fortunately, if she had any dreams that night, she did not remember them.

    --

    A hundred miles away, with only the light of the stars to guide him, Drizzt Do’Urden galloped past the small canyon that marked the entrance to the Ten Towns region.
     
  6. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Five - Conversations and Revelations

    Jardoz whimpered as the cloaked figure looked down upon him. It was dark in the cave, but he could see well enough. The Spider Cleric in front of him was a large specimen for one of her kind, nearly the size of a human, only far stronger.

    “Why the Matrons bother with your kind, I will never understand,” the cleric crossed her arms, and leaned down to where she was only a few inches away from the Orc’s face. “I sent out three hundred of you to silence the king of Clan Battle Hammer.” Her voice was quiet, but Jardoz honestly would have preferred if she’d been screaming. Her kind were less dangerous when they were like that, more predictable. “Not three, not three dozen, not three score, but three hundred to destroy him so that he could not rally his Clan to take back the Hall… This was a boon to our cause, a Godsend!” she twitched and started to pace back and forth, her black cloak, covered with a spider-web patter, softly slid over the floor of the cavern. “King Bruenor Battle Hammer, all alone save for a pair of body guards and a one backwards human savage, and what happens? Do you slaughter him with ease? No!” she whirled, and her hand dove to the whip she carried at her side.

    Jardoz never had time to scream before the whip came to life. It was a wicked thing, five heads shaped to resemble snakes, each moving with its own evil intelligence. They struck him across the face, chest and arms. The fangs bit in deep and tore at him, injecting their foul venom. He suddenly went numb there, chilled to the core by the strikes. The whip landed again, and then a third time, causing the Orc to fall over in pain, clutching and writhing at his wounds. He dared to look up, straight into the burning red eyes of the Dark Elf.

    “No,” she hissed, grabbing him around the throat and pulling him up into her face. “You come running back like the Hells were unleashed upon you, screaming tales of demons and doom…”

    “It is the truth, blessed one,” Jardoz managed to gasp out, only to get punched upside the head. His world spun and twisted, and he felt like he was going to be sick. Provided, of course, that he survived the next few minutes.

    “Well then, let us just see, shall we?” The cleric snarled, placing her black palm over his face.

    Images began to bombard her mind, she could see the snow and the blood around herself. Orcs were falling left and right, some of them cut down by the Dwarven king and his allies. However, most of the carnage was coming from behind them. The perspective changed, zipping over and focusing on a green armored… creature, the likes of which she had never seen before. It raised a wand like device, and it gave off a flash. An Orc and a Dire Wolf dissolved into a bloody mess.

    The creature kept using the wand, before it paused, and in rapid blurred motions, put some manner of tube into the wand. A curious method of recharging an artifact, she noted. Then it rushed forward and leaped over the remaining ranks, disappearing from sight.

    It was only a few seconds later something else showed up. Something wet hit her back, and a loud roar nearly deafened her. The viewpoint twisted, looking up. A strange craft blasted overhead, and there, standing in the back, was some kind of otherworldly beast. The device it was holding began to roar and Orcs and wolves began to fly apart, reduced to little more than smears.

    She released Jardoz from her hold. The Orc fell back, gasping for breath and just twitching upon the ground. She ignored him for the most part, contemplating this turn of events. It was unexpected. There was a third player in this game, one with access to a Spell Jammer and some manner of powerful, arcane weapons. The Matrons would need to be informed of this immediately.

    “Take your leave of me, I must speak with my superiors,” she waved a hand dismissively.

    Jardoz struggled to his feet, but couldn’t rise because of all the poison that was in him at the moment. Two of his comrades came forward and shouldered him up, helping him to escape before the priestess changed her mind, as she often did.

    The Dark Elf reached down into her belt pouch and drew out a scroll. She broke the seal in it with her thumb, and opened it up. Reading the arcane words written upon it was easy enough, and soon, the cave around her faded. She floated in blackness for only a few moments, before eight other Drow suddenly stood before her. Each was clad in regal robes, and cloaks, with symbols of Lloth and their houses emblazoned upon them. Each was within her own private sanctuary, away from the prying eyes of males and other lesser beings.

    “Nobel matrons,” she bowed before them.

    “Yes, Briza?” the one in the center spoke.

    She was different from the others. While the other seven Matrons were centuries old, none of them looked the part. The center one, however, was a withered crone, with deep set wrinkles and sagging features. However, none doubted her power. Matron Baenre held more power within herself than all the other seven Matrons of the ruling council combined, and her house held enough soldiers, wizards and high priestesses to challenge the rest of Menzoberrazan.

    “Matron Baenre, I have an update on our activities for you,” she bowed again.

    “Is the Dwarf king dead?” the First Matron asked, her tone neutral, but her voice full of the power that she commanded.

    “No, honored Matron,” Briza shook her head. “The information provided to us was accurate, but the Orcs that were dispatched were unable to slay him.”

    Baenre narrowed her red eyes, and her lips tightened into a frown. “Briza, I selected you personally for this task because I felt you were the most capable. If you, with the thousands of Orcs that you have at your command, and our other surface allies, are unable to slay one meager Dwarf and a pathetically tiny ‘escort’ I may have to rethink that.”

    “My apologies, Matron Baenre,” Briza bowed as low as she could. “I dispatched a number of Orcs, and they almost had him, but they were halted by the unexpected arrival of a Spell Jammer, and a pair of unusually powerful demons.”

    The Drow’s eyebrows shot upwards at this and she cocked her head to one side. “Are you certain, child? The Dwarves are not in the habit of making infernal alliances. Not surface Dwarves at any rate.”

    “I will show you what the survivors saw,” the high priestess opened her mind, allowing the eight Matrons to peer into it.

    They saw Jardoz’s memories, and several of them seemed surprised, others curious, and Matron Dilias even seemed unnerved by the presence of the two creatures and the Spell Jammer.

    “What should I do, my lady?” Briza asked, daring to stare up at Baenre.

    The elder Drow merely cupped her chin, deep in thought. “Those are not like any demons I have ever seen, and I wonder if they truly are, or if they’re something else… possibly creatures from another plane of existence, like the Githyanki. At any case, we can safely assume that Bruenor is no longer a target of opportunity at the moment. Focus on securing our alliances and depriving Clan Battle-Hammer of any allies they might secure. I will do what I can to gather additional information.”

    “As you will it, Matron Baenre,” Briza said.

    “As Lolth wills it, child.” The First Matron held up a finger. “As Lolth wills it.”

    “Of course,” she bowed again, and then left their thoughts.

    As the Orc cave rematerialized around her, Briza Baenre pulled her cloak further down over her head. It was time to marshall her forces and prepare them for the next move. Soon her task here would be done, and then she could move on to far more pleasurable tasks… like hunting down the one loose end that had haunted her all these years. Her brother was upon the surface, near here, actually. The simpering, weak fool apparently watched over some hovels that dared to call themselves gatherings of civilization, easy prey for a dedicated strike force.

    She imagined flaying the traitor alive, torturing him to the breaking point, and then carving out his heart with her sacrificial knife. The joy of the thought was rapturous, but, business before pleasure.

    --

    The cold wind bit into his face as he rode along the icy tundra and towards the mountains, but Drizzt ignored it. He had met with Cattie-Brie a few hours earlier, and the young woman had explained to him the situation. It had been almost eight days since Bruenor had departed. He wasn’t expected back for another week or so, but Drizzt wasn’t about to leave him out there by himself if he could. He owed his old friend too much.

    He’d been riding for hours now, and dawn was just starting to crest the horizon. He was really going to have to thank Lady Alustriel for this horse, it was turning into a real life saver.

    He came up to the top of a small rise in the tundra, and suddenly pulled his mount up short. The horse snorted, but did as instructed. Stretched before him in the pre-dawn light was a scene that he could only describe as hell. Frozen, twisted corpses stretched by the score across a bloodstained landscape. He guided his horse towards the battlefield, stopping a hundred or so feet short of it. He hopped off the animal and landed gracefully, his feet barely making a mark in the snow.

    He moved over to the nearest set of bodies, and stared down at them. They had been gnawed upon by predators—wolves, more than likely, but one never could tell. However, even though many of the bodies had been partially savaged by animals he could tell that swords hadn’t killed them, nor any blade that he could recognize. Dire Wolf and Orc carcasses lay where they had fallen, with no signs of them being dragged through the snow, but they had still be ripped to pieces by some unseen force.

    Drizzt frowned. Orc armor was not exactly renowned for its defensive properties, but it did protect against most slashing attacks. These warriors, though, had been utterly ripped apart by something, and done so in very short order, given that few had attempted to flee, and those that had hadn’t gotten very far. The Drow frowned and shifted back further into his cloak. There was something very strange going on here, and he shuddered slightly. This virtually reeked of some kind of extra-planar being.

    He sniffed the air. There was a slight scent to the area that felt demonic, but not potent enough for a full blooded hellspawn. No hybrid could have caused devastation like this, though, so what had done it?

    The Dark Elf looked around, searching for that one clue that he knew had to be waiting here for him. He spent several minutes searching the snow, silently grateful that he found nothing indicating that Bruenor had perished here. There was, however, evidence of magic, judging by the number of corpses clustered in regions of the battle field that appeared to have been charred beyond recognition, rather than blasted apart.

    It was over by the rocky cliff rise that he found his first clue. There were few bodies and less blood here, and the corpses were arranged around it. Whatever the Orcs had pursued had made a stand here, and had fought well. There were, however, several things that caught his attention. Down in the snow were several strange casings, red mostly, but with bits of gold metal on the bottom.

    Drizzt reached down and picked one of them up. The metal part chilled his fingers, even through the fur lined gloves that he wore, but he ignored it. It looked like it was brass, or some similar metal, and as he flipped it over, he noticed a number of strange markings on the back, runes that he had never seen before. His mouth twitched into a frown, and he stared at the other part of it. The crimson bit was made of an unknown material, completely alien to the touch. It compressed and flexed too easily to be metal, but it wasn’t a form of paper either. It almost felt like hardened resin.

    He quickly pocketed the thing, before moving on to see if there was anything else. A couple of other objects grabbed his attention, such as a matched pair of blades that seemed far too high in quality for Orcish weapons. He picked them up out of the snow, and noticed the dark blood on them. One of the things that the Orcs had been hounding had been using these.

    Drizzt noticed that near the pommel of each blade was a half lidded eye with three teardrop like markings on it. The symbol of Neverwinter. What would a Neverwinter agent be doing out here? The Dark Elf frowned again, and slipped the two weapons into his belt before heading back to his horse.

    He traveled onwards for a few more minutes before he got the shock of his life. There was something there waiting for him. As the sun started to clear the peaks behind the mountains, he caught sight of a large figure standing next to some kind of object that reminded him a lot of the floating thrones that Matron Mothers used out in public. He raised an eye as he stared at the armor on it, and its posture. He thought it might have been some arcane construct at first, but there was something about it that seemed off. The way it was reacting to his presence, the slight movements in its arms that were uncharacteristic of golem kind.

    Drizzt approached with caution, his hands ready to fly to his twin scimitars if it proved hostile. As he got closer, he began to appreciate just how much more massive this thing was than him. He barely began to come up to its chest, and it looked as if it would have towered even over Wulfgar. He was inside of twenty feet when to his amazement, it addressed him.

    “State your name and business in this region,” it said. Its voice was hard as the steel of his scimitars.

    “I could ask you the same…” he responded warily.

    “I asked first, and you’re trespassing,” There was a heavy accent now, he realized, but not one that the Dark Elf could recognize. He frowned underneath his cloak, and decided to see if he could draw some unwitting answers out of this thing.

    “The Dale is free to all who travel it, and are prepared for the challenges it posses to invaders,” he looked to see if there was any change in the creature that he could spot.

    “You’re inside our personal space, traveler… Now identify yourself.” nothing changed, no real change in the tone of voice, no mannerism or obvious body language shifts. Maybe this thing was mechanical.

    It was at that moment that an icy wind came down and teased at the edge of his cowl. Drizzt was able to shift and catch it, but he knew that with the sun shinning at him, that some of his hair and his dark skin would have been spotted. He waited for the hate to form in the creature’s stance, and for it to attack.

    It was an attack that would never come. The thing just stood where it was, its hands by its side.

    “I will not ask nicely again, your name and your business here.” Well, it was getting a little testy after all.

    The Drow sensed that further antagonizing of this thing would not have any benefit, while the cost of it would be a fight that he probably didn’t need right now. Sighing, he pulled back his hood.

    “Drizzt Do’Urden, ranger and scout of Ten Towns,” he tried to keep his tone polite, just in case it was capable of understanding his tone of voice.

    “Your reason for being here?”

    The Dark Elf sighed. “I come seeking a trio of Dwarves, one of them with a very distinctive red beard and a knack for seeking out fights that are not always his.”

    The creature remained silent for a moment. “May I ask why?” The accent was a little heavier this time, as if it was uncertain how to pronounce certain words.

    “They are friends, and I am concerned for their well-being.” He stated simply, He suddenly felt very nervous. All these questions that pertained to Bruenor. Did the creature have his friend captive in his possession?

    It remained silent for another moment, before it nodded to itself. “Follow me. We’re taking your word for this right now. But know that the… Dwarf, and his comrades are under the protection of the UNSC. The slightest bit of aggression towards them will be met swiftly and decisively.”

    The thing turned around and took a few steps over to its device. It twisted the right handle, and stomped down on a stirrup like device, and a high pitched whine split the winter air. Drizzt’s horse snorted, and he had to calm the beast as the transport took off over the snow.

    A split second before it did, Drizzt got a good look at the black device on the soldier—creature’s back. The design was strange, unlike anything he had seen before, but he did recognize one thing on it: a trigger. He’d seen something similar with a priest of Gond once. The man had promised to revolutionize society with the device he was building, make it to where the elite no longer horded such power over the common folk. Drizzt had thought that it was going to make society all the bloodier.

    He was instantly on guard. There was something about this situation that seemed very much wrong now. Still, he supposed that he had no choice but to follow this soldier—creature. He needed to get Bruenor home, there was disturbing news that he needed to hear.

    --

    It did not take them long to reach the Forward Unto Dawn, and the Master Chief was surprised at how calm the humanoid behind him seemed in regards to it. The others had reacted with a sense of awe and shock. This one, though, seemed to raise an eyebrow and retreated further into that cloak.

    The Spartan was confused about why he hid beneath that hood, and had seemed alarmed when part of his face had been exposed. Was it possible that he was some sort of assassin sent after the Dwarf? He would have to be on his guard for any tricks.

    “Cortana, are the others awake yet?” he asked as he drove the Mongoose onto the vehicle elevator platforms.

    “Our guests are still catching forty winks, Johnson and Orna have woken up since I informed you and the commander of the sensor ping,” she said as the one called Drizzt brought his horse up onto the lift.

    “Alright, well our new arrival wants to see the Dwarf leader.” The Spartan stepped off of the ATV as the elevator started to rise.

    “I know, I was listening. I’ve got Johnson and the Arbiter both on guard duty, weapons hot in case anything funny goes on.” Her tone was deadly serious now.

    The elevator entered the primary motor pool area with a deafening clang that seemed to bother the alien behind him. The Chief cocked his head slightly at this. Evidence of sensitive hearing, perhaps?

    “Leave your horse here. It will be seen to,” he said, and causally pulled his assault rifle from his back. “This way,” he motioned with his head. “Your… friend, is still asleep at the moment. He will be brought to you when he wakes up.” The Spartan noticed that the humanoid seemed to be staring around at the Warthogs and the Scorpions with apparent disgust.

    John admitted that he was rather confused. How was it possible that a native of a medieval level world would be familiar with things like tanks and assault vehicles? Theories fired back and forth in his mind.

    Was it possible he was from a different society, one more advanced? If so, then where was it? Their sensors had detected nothing in the way of even industrial revolution era factories or the like, let alone evidence of a space faring society. Further, if that was the case, why was he wearing swords and riding a horse? He resolved to keep an extra eye on this individual. He was an unknown, even more than the others.

    “Please,” he said, “I must speak with Bruenor immediately, it concerns his ancestral homeland.”

    “Commander?” John asked into his suit’s private communications systems.

    “I’ll… allow it, but I want a gun at his back. Johnson’s got his carbine loaded up with stun rounds. If he so much as breathes on that Dwarf in a way I don’t like, drop him.”

    “Understood ma’am,” he said, and then switched his external speakers back on. “The commander has agreed to let you see him.”

    “Thank you,” Drizzt gave a slight bow. The Master Chief merely nodded. The new translation system seemed to be working out okay.

    It took them a minute or two to arrive at the barracks where the group had been sleeping. Orna was standing there, his plasma rifles gripped tightly in his hands and his mandibles weaving about in the air. He nodded as the Spartan approached, along with the native, and backed away from the door slightly. John stepped to the side as the door opened and saw that Johnson was in the back, in full armor and holding a loaded weapon, just as the commander had said.

    “After you,” the cyborg gestured with his assault rifle. The native frowned at him, but moved in anyway.

    Spartan and Sangehili came in right behind, their weapons aimed center mass at his back. Drizzt moved forward until he was about four meters away from Bruenor’s bed. The Dwarf was snoring loudly, his axe and shield by his bedside.

    “That’s close enough,” the Master Chief said.

    “Bruenor,” Drizzt spoke, crossing his arms and staring down at the Dwarf. “Bruenor,” he spoke a little more loudly. Finally raising his voice to a light shout, he managed to get the Dwarf up out of bed.

    “Wha, huzzap!” his beard flew around him as he shook his head back and forth. Another voice moaned off to the side, and John noticed that the horned alien had been woken up as well. Bruenor blinked a few times, and then jumped up out of bed. “Drizzt!” he exclaimed, throwing an arm around the black skinned alien as best he could. “What in the hells are you doing here? Aren’t ye’ supposed to be in Silverymoon relaxing and enjoying the company of others?”

    “I heard about the fireball that came down here, and came back to check on you. It seems that I have also found the source of the commotion,” Drizzt glanced back over his shoulder.

    Bruenor seemed to notice the other three for the first time, and let out an exasperated sigh. “Look,” he said, holding up his hands, “I know he’s a Drow, and I know what people think about them, but he’s my friend, and you have my word as a King of Clan Battle-Hammer that he’ll not do a thing to harm you, so please lower those wands o’ yours.”

    The Spartan raised an eyebrow behind his helmet, and looked over to Orna, and then to the ODST at the back of the room.

    “Uhh, what’s a ‘Drow?’” Johnson asked, though he still kept his MA5K carbine level on the taller alien.

    The look on Bruenor’s face would best be described as a study in comedic confusion. His jaw dropped open a bit, both of his bushy eyebrows shot upwards, and he twisted his head in a manner that seemed to the Chief to be screaming “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

    “You know, Drow, Dark Elves, butchers of the Underdark?” It was the horned girl speaking, and the Chief spared her a glance. She was sliding up out of her bed, her tail twitching back and forth in obvious agitation. “The black skinned devils that parents tell horror stories to their kids about in order to get them to go to bed on time?”

    “You’re speaking Greek to me,” Johnson shrugged.

    The girl crossed her arms over her chest and just shook her head. “Look, I know you’re not from around here and… hey! Wait a minute!” she shot John an accusing look. “Since when did you learn how to speak our language?”

    “We listened.” A good answer, the Spartan thought to himself. A partial truth, without giving away too much of their knowledge.

    “Wait a minute, you mean to tell me you’re this paranoid with everyone who comes on board your Spell Jammer?” Bruenor sputtered, looking at him with what appeared to be absolute disbelief.

    “He was making a beeline for our ship, paused to investigate the battle from yesterday, took some weapons from it, and then stalled for time when asked what his business here was. For all we knew, he could have been some manner of assassin,” Cortana spoke over the ship’s communications systems. The natives just looked around for the source of the voice, but finding none, looked to the Chief and his two fellows. “We’re very security minded here, given our sudden, and very unexpected arrival on this planet, and that we know next to nothing about your world.”

    “You seem to know enough to summon demons and the like… though I suppose you could be from another plane,” Bruenor scratched at his chin. Around him, the others were starting to awaken.

    At the word “demon” the Master Chief noticed that Orna was looking at him, and then back at the Dwarf.

    “He’s a powerful warrior, the last you’d want as an enemy, but though we call him that, he’s as human as your big friend,” he nodded in the direction of the blond haired human.

    “What?” Bruenor looked at the Arbiter, and just shook his head. “I’m not talking about him,” he gestured towards John, and the Spartan shifted his stance slightly. “I’m talking about you… whatever you are.”

    “I don’t think he’s a demon, Battle-Hammer,” the horned girl said, “he doesn’t smell like one, for starters.”

    “Yes, I suppose you would know, Neeshka.” The Dwarf glared over at the girl, his eyes narrowed, which John assumed to mean distrust.

    “The irony here is thick enough to cut with my combat knife,” Johnson remarked as the other Dwarves started to rise, along with the robed girl and the large human.

    “Bruenor,” Drizzt said, drawing the Dwarf’s attention back to him. “Mithril Hall has fallen.”

    “What!” the Dwarf exclaimed, his eyes bulging outwards. “How? When?”

    “Just recently. The survivors returned to the stronghold just before I arrived… as to the means… it was an army of my people,” he bowed his head. “They attacked in force, coming up from the lower tunnels. They were supported by Kobolds, Orcs, and Minotaurs. The survivors were few.”

    The Dwarf sat back down on his bed, shaking his head slowly. “Moradin’s beard,” he breathed heavily. “We just got the place back from the stinking Druegar.” He rested his head in the palm of his left hand, and sighed again.

    “Your people need you back, Bruenor.” He glanced up and looked straight at the Master Chief. “These people have sheltered you, and for that they have our thanks, but we need to plan to take back the Hall before they can get too entrenched.”

    “Yer’ right, Elf,” he snarled suddenly, “none of those black skinned rats are going to be getting their lecherous hands on the halls of me fathers,” he reached down and scooped up his armor to start putting it on.

    The other two Dwarves started to do the same, and the elf walked over to the large human and began to converse with him. Apparently they knew each other too. John caught the name “Wulfgar” being used, and numbers were tossed around that the Spartan assume pertained to the strength of the tribe of Wulfgar’s people.

    “Ma’am, what are your orders?” the Master Chief asked Keyes.

    “These people are the closest things that we have to allies at the moment. There’s still a lot that we don’t understand about this place. We need to gather intelligence, and the best way to do that is for us to start hobnobbing with the locals,” she responded. “See if there’s anything that we can do to help.”

    “Understood,” he said, and then stepped forward. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

    “That will not be necessary,” Drizzt said, twisting and look at him with a glare. “This matter does not concern you.”

    “We’re a little short on friends, and not sure how long we’re going to be stranded here,” Johnson said, a bit of his boot camp drawl slipping into his tone. “Besides, there some rather funky stuff we’ve seen here, and we’d like to know more about it so we don’t get jumped by something unexpected.”

    “If you’re going to plan on taking out a small army of Drow, you might actually want their help,” the one called Neeshka said, her tail flicking back and forth in a manner that reminded the Master Chief of a cat. “It may have been the life threatening injuries messing with my head, but I seem to recall that their weapons were making quite a mess out of the Orcs.”

    The cyborg looked over at her again. There was something about her face that suddenly seemed familiar to him, like he had seen it before. Then he shook his head. There were more important things to worry about at the moment.

    “And their little flying craft could at least get us back to the Clan faster. The sooner we mobilize, the better.” Olthick stated, palming his axe with a look of barely controlled rage.

    “I agree,” Bruenor said. “If it’s not too much trouble, could we ask for your help in getting back home?”

    Drizzt seemed to flinch at this, shifting in a manner that seemed as though he was ill at ease.

    “Cortana,” Keyes came over the commline, “Ready a Pelican with a transport Warthog.”

    “Will do, ma’am.” The A.I. responded.

    “Well, not to be rude,” the robed girl said, “but I need to report back to my superiors, and I can show myself out.” She took out a scroll as she spoke, and the Master Chief tensed. There was something in the air, like when he felt like he was being watched a few days ago.

    There was a flash of light, and suddenly, she was gone. Orna fired reflexively, a bolt of bright blue plasma streaking out of his weapon and hitting the far end of the fall. The metal heated and some of it melted, pooling on the floor.

    “What the hell was that?” Johnson growled, turning his gun to the Dwarf and the Dark Elf.

    “Ummm, magic?” Neeshka offered.

    The trio exchanged more looks. “As in, hocus-pocus, watch-me-pull-a-rabbit-out-of-my-hat magic?” Johnson said, but didn’t lower his weapon.

    There was a moment of what was best described as awkward silence.

    “You guys, don’t know what magic is?” Neeshka said. “First the Orcs, then the Drow, and now this… Hells, what’s next?”

    “They probably don’t even know what you are, Hellspawn,” Mortar said, chuckling to himself.

    Neeshka’s body language changed in an instant, she went from being confused to enraged. Her hands flew to her waist, only to realize that there was nothing there.

    “And here I was hoping, that maybe, just maybe, that I might be able to go more than two days without someone trying to kill me over that,” she hissed. Her red eyes were narrowed to a hateful glare, and her hands poised like claws.

    “Calm down,” The Master Chief said, stepping between the two of them. “No one’s attacking anyone here.”

    Neeshka bowed her head and sighed, before she mumbled an apology. Her tail drooped and she crossed her arms again. “I should probably be going too, Lord Nasher’s going to want a report on all of this… What happened to my old stuff?”

    “It’s been put through the cleaner,” Johnson said, “Should be ready for you.”

    “Thanks…” she trailed off, and suddenly blinked. “I’m sorry, I just realized that I don’t know your names.”

    “Ack,” Bruenor swatted himself upside the head, “the lass’s right. You’ve been rather gracious hosts to us, and we haven’t even properly thanked you for it, or for pulling our arses outta that tight spot yesterday.”

    “Don’t worry about it,” the Master Chief said with a shake of his head. “We were trying to establish contact with you anyway.”

    “As for names,” the door opened and Keyes stepped in, clad in standard marine armor that had been adapted for cold weather wear. “I’m Miranda Keyes, UNSC navy, and I’m the commander of this ship. “I believe some of you may have already met our A.I., Cortana.”

    “Pleasure to serve,” Cortana said, “The Pelican’s ready for departure, commander.”

    Keyes just nodded. And then gestured to Orna.

    “Orna Fulsamee, Arbiter of the Sangehili, soldier, born and bred.” He stood a little higher as he said it, as if reminding himself of that helped to ease the burdens he carried.

    “Sergeant Major Avery James Johnson, UNSC Marines, Orbital Drop Shock Trooper division,” Johnson twisted slightly, so that they could see the patch on the left side of his armor: a black boot surrounded by red and white flames Feet First Into Hell written below it. Not that the Chief trusted them to be able to read English. “Thirty five year veteran of the Human-Covenant war.”

    Expectantly, all eyes suddenly fell upon the Spartan. The Chief mulled over what to say for a moment, before he finally spoke.

    “Master Chief Petty Officer, First Class, Spartan-117, UNSC ONI branch, NavSpecWep subdivision.” All of his technical details, nothing too personal.

    “You got a name with all of those numbers and words?” Bruenor asked.

    John looked at him for a second. “No.”

    “We just call him ‘Chief.’” Johnson chuckled as he spoke.

    The Dwarf king looked perplexed but shrugged after a moment. “Well, we don’t want to impose on you too much, so let’s just grab the Tiefling’s gear and get a move on.”

    “Fine by me,” Miranda said with a nod. “We’ve been meaning to establish contact with the surrounding area anyway.” She turned to Neeshka. “I’m afraid that we were unable to fix your armor, but we do have a set of our own that we can give you,” she motioned. “Come this way, we’ve got an armory were we can suit you up.”

    Neeskha scratched the back of her head, but then shrugged and followed. John motioned for the others to fall in behind him. They would head for the docking bay, and be ready to move out by the time that Keyes and the native girl returned.

    --

    Neeshka swore that if her eyes bulged anymore they would fall right out of her skull. Before her was row after row of suits of armor like Keyes was wearing, along with more of those strange, apparently non-magical weapons that the other three had made use of. She wondered briefly if she might be able to bring one back to Lord Nasher. The Many-Starred-Cloaks would certainly be interested in them.

    If the Grey Cloaks and the Watch could be equipped like these people were, the Tiefling suspected that troubles with Luskan would decrease accordingly.

    “This one should fit you,” Keyes remarked, looking up at a number written above the suit. She started handing her various bits. Neeskha was curious about the gear, as it seemed surprisingly lightweight.

    "Put these on first, over what you've got." Keyes, said, gesturing to a table at the far end. There was a white piece of material sitting there, that had already been modified for her extra appendage.

    As Neeshka slipped into it, it reminded her of some of the sealskin tunics that people took with them when exploring the dale. After that she had to swap out her black boots for ones that were more apt for blending in with the snow. After that, it was time to don the armor itself

    First came lower leg guards, that came up almost to her kneecaps, then ones that strapped across the outer sides of the hip. Vambraces and a type of armored gauntlet followed, and then armor for the knees and elbows. Then came the chest plate. It was a hinged piece of material that was coupled at the shoulder portions and came down over her head. Along each side were several armor plated straps that the commander showed her how to secure.

    The Tiefling thought that it was a might bit uncomfortable at first, but then something weird happened. The inside of the armor seemed to warm up for a moment, and then molded to the shape of her torso. Neeshka gaped again. Now it felt almost like she was wearing a second skin. She noticed that the armor had a little bit of elasticity to it as well.

    At last, there was the helmet. She frowned when Keyes showed it to her. “I don’t know about this… commander,” she gave a self conscious look at the floor. “Horns… you know.”

    Keyes just smiled with a look that said “trust me” and slid it on over her head. Neeshka felt the same strange material that was on the inside of the chestplate as it went on over her skull, which warmed up and allowed for a proper fit, horns and all. She looked down at the armor, which was a dull white in color, probably to minimize reflection, the hellspawn supposed. There was a faint bill going out over the front, somewhat like an exaggerated cap that some of the noblemen back in Neverwinter would wear. A darkened piece of material that looked like glass, but didn’t feel like it, went over her eyes. Despite the helmet covering all of her face, she found that breathing was easy, not at all like she had expected.

    For not knowing about magic, these strange new comers certainly had some pretty nifty tricks, the Tiefling decided. And they were treating her so nicely. It would almost be a shame to have to head back to Neverwinter, with all the glares that she would get, despite the things that she did for Nasher. She wondered if she should talk to Drizzt about how he managed things like that. He’d been up on the surface for longer than she’d been alive, after all. At least, if the tales that she’d picked up from other intelligence agents were to be believed.

    “Set, and ready to go,” Keyes said. “Now let’s go grab the rest of your stuff.”
     
    UrielAngeli and RogueInquisitor like this.
  7. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Six - New Guys on the Block

    “This the place?” Keyes asked over the commline. She was sitting in the pilot seat of the Pelican, staring out at a large cliff face with a single cave entrance that looked barely large enough for a human to enter.

    Bruenor walked up next to her and stepped up on his toes to stare out of the cockpit screen. “Aye, that’s the fortress.”

    “Smart place to set something up,” Keyes remarked as she brought the ship down to a large plateau on the cliff face. She was able to carefully navigate the Pelican up to where the Dwarves, Drizzt (and his horse), and Wulfgar would be able to leap down onto the narrow pass below.

    As they moved to leave, the Dark Elf paused for a moment. Hidden in the depths of his cloak, he stared over at Neeshka, and walked over to her.

    “Your pardons, but I believe you mentioned Lord Nasher was your superior?” He asked, waiting for her reaction.

    “Yeah, why?” she looked up at him and cocked her head slightly to one side.

    “I believe that these belong to you,” the Drow reached inside of his cloak and pulled out the twin blades he’d found earlier. “They are marked with Neverwinter’s symbol, and I don’t think Bruenor has anything like that, nor the Orcs,” he finished with a light chuckle.

    “Yeah, they are!” Neeshka leapt to her feet and eagerly grabbed both the long and short blade. “You’ve saved me quite a bit of trouble, I already owe Nasher quite a bit, I don’t want to think about having to ask for new blades with my report.”

    “Pleasure to serve,” Drizzt smiled and bowed, before hopping out of the back end of the Pelican.

    The door sealed up behind him, and the interior temperature of the drop ship began to return to a more comfortable one. The red lights cast everything in an eerie, almost hellish manner, but for once, Neeshka wasn’t put off or disturbed by it. The ship began to rise up into the air, and soon bolted across the open tundra and the frozen lakes. She busied herself for a moment, ducking down under her seat and pulling out a bag that the humans had given her. She opened it up and pulled out her weapons belt, quickly donning it and sliding her swords back into their sheathes.

    “So where’s this Neverwinter place that we need to take you to?” Keyes called out.

    “Oh,” Neeshka waved a hand dismissively and smiled behind her helmet. “I’m not expected back for a few more days, it can wait. You guys need to get to know this region first, anyway, and for that, you’ll probably need a guide.”

    “You sure this won’t get you into trouble?” Johnson asked, staring up from where he was wiping down that large weapon of his with an oiled rag.

    “Positive, don’t worry about me,” she said with another wave of her hands. Then she leaned back and crossed her legs over one another. “The first place that you’re going to want to drop by is probably Byrn Shander. It’s the largest of Ten Towns, and the only one not located along one of the lakes. It’s where their central authority ultimately lies.” She paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. Did she really want to go into that place? It hadn’t been pleasant the last time that she’d been there. Of course, these people had gone out of their way to help her, and they didn’t know much about this place. She did kind of owe it to them.

    “Something wrong?” The Master Chief asked, leaning forward in his seat.

    “Nothing, just, well, haven’t had good experiences in Ten Towns before.” She responded with a shrug of her shoulders.

    “What can you tell us about the place?” the creature-Orna, asked her.

    “It’s about the last bit of civilization on this end of the world. Of course, much of that depends on your definition of civilization. All things considered, its home to your usual unsavories. Almost everyone who lives there, first generation, at least, has a criminal record a mile long.”

    “That the voice of experience talking there?” Johnson asked suddenly, looking up at her.

    “Yes, actually. Used to be a thief, bit off more than I could chew finally, and now I’m working for the Neverwinter government. Lord Nasher is nothing if not efficient.” She shrugged again. “Before I went there, though, I tried out Ten Towns. Let’s just say that for some rogues, even the edge of civilization isn’t enough.”

    “What exactly did you steal?” Johnson was shaking his head in disbelief.

    “It’s my… heritage. I’m a Tiefling… a Planetouched.” Despite the fact that two of the three individuals in front of her had their faces covered, she realized they were staring at her blankly. “My Grandfather was a demon, well, devil actually. Baazetu to be precise.”

    The trio exchanged glances and then stared back at her.

    “Normally, I would ask how that’s possible, but I have come to believe that this place is just crazy enough to allow for it.” The ODST leaned back and sighed. “So I’m guessing that the medieval mindset is that you’re pretty much evil incarnate.”

    “How’d you guess? And what do you mean by ‘Medieval?’” The Tiefling raised her eyebrow behind the strange piece of clear material that covered her eyes.

    “History,” the Master Chief said. “Your civilization is in a technological time span that our own went through, a little more than fifteen hundred years ago. The mindset towards creatures of potentially otherworldly origins was not pleasant.”

    The Tiefling whistled to herself. Two thousand years, and they were this advanced? For not having magic, they moved pretty fast.

    “A question, if you don’t mind,” asked a voice from the Chief; but it wasn't actually his. It was that of the other woman on the ship, Cortana. “I was curious about that magic stuff that you mentioned. Would you mind explaining it to me?”

    “Well, you’d be better off talking to an actual mage, but I’ll tell you what I can.”

    --

    “Interesting…” Cortana trailed off. “I need to think about this. Commander, would it be too much to ask for you to try and acquire some samples of magical equipment or crafts while out in the field?”

    “I’m not exactly sure how we’d come by them, Cortana, but if I can, then I will,” Keyes responded.

    “Thank you,” she said. And with that, she clicked out of the commline.

    John was left to contemplate what he had been told. All logic in his mind, all reason, rallied against it, spoke of it as being impossible. How could one conjure up flame and ice with mere words? Was there really such a power? Or was it all some trick? Smoke and mirrors designed to keep the ignorant in the dark and in their place. And further, if it was true, how might one tap into it? What were its applications, its limits? If one ran afoul of one of these mages, how might one stop them? If they were a potential enemy, he needed to know how to kill them.

    “How do you stop a spell-caster?” He asked the girl.

    “What do you mean?” Neeshka looked at him coolly.

    “If you were fighting one, how would you kill it?” He stared at her behind his visor, leaning forward a little bit more and propping his head up on his right fist.

    “Well, it’s kind of hard to get close to stab a wizard when he’s chucking around fireballs and lightning bolts, but if you can do this, they’re not much on melee combat. All that time burying their noses in books doesn’t leave many hours for practicing self defense.” She giggled a bit. “But most of them realize this, and the smart ones have either a stone skin spell prepped and ready, or have body guards to keep people away from them while they work.”

    “How does this ‘stone skin’ spell work?” he double checked to make certain that his helmet cam was recording all of this, it would be invaluable to future conflicts if a mage showed up.

    “Just what the name implies. Turns the mage into a walking statue. Stops most attacks dead.” Neeshka stretched out for a bit, sliding back further into her seat. “But the spell does wear off after a few minutes, or you can overwhelm the magic by whacking them enough times.”

    “Does it matter where you hit them, or how hard?”

    “Sometimes, but not normally,” she said with a shake of her head.

    Good, John thought to himself. That meant they would still be vulnerable to his weapons. “Any other weaknesses?”

    “Well, casting their spells requires a great deal of concentration. If they get disturbed, it could fizzle, or worse, backfire.” She said, and then rubbed at the chin of her helmet. “Oh yeah, they can also get so absorbed in their spell casting that they forget to watch behind them, or focus on anything but their target. It’s usually another reason why the smart ones use body guards.”

    John logged that away for further study. Any further questions, however, were cut off by the commander.

    “We’re about five clicks away from the town. I don’t want to spook the locals too badly, so we’ll unload the Warthog and go in that way—that way we can get out fast if things turn south. Cortana, I want you to take over and take the Pelican up to twenty thousand meters once we’re away, so that we don’t cause any more hysterics than we have to.”

    “Aye-Aye, ma’am,” the construct replied.

    The Pelican’s rear hatch opened smoothly, spilling white light and cold air into the troop compartment again. The drop ship dove towards the ground, halting about five meters above it. Up in the cockpit, Keyes flipped a switch that turned off the magnets holding the Warthog in place, and it dropped to the ground.

    “Who’s driving?” Johnson asked.

    “Chief will,” Keyes replied as she came to the rear of the ship, a shotgun and an assault rifle slung over her back. “Neeshka rides shotgun, and the rest of us take the back. Now move out, troopers.”

    John was the first one down the ramp. He leapt to the ground, making a deep impression in the ground with his boots. Combat instincts kicked in, and though the Pelican’s sensors had detected nothing in the vicinity of their LZ, he had never fully trusted machines… aside from Cortana of course. Still, his mark one eyeballs, and mark six binoculars confirmed the sensors’ accuracy. He slapped his BR-55 over his shoulder and piled into the driver’s seat of the Warthog.

    Neeshka stood in the snow with her new UNSC duffle bag slung over her shoulder as Johnson and the others piled into the rear portion of the light recon vehicle, which held seating for six. The Spartan stared at her, and then realized that she wasn’t sure where to go. He reached over and tapped the seat next to him.

    “Shotgun,” he clarified.

    “Oh, okay.” She leapt up and clambered in as he fastened a heavy duty safety harness.

    “Buckle up, it’ll keep you from bouncing around,” he pointed the seatbelt system out to her.

    She nodded and then did as instructed.

    “Why do you call it shotgun?” she asked. “This seat, I mean.”

    “Holdover from the late nineteenth century back on our homeworld,” Johnson said as he gripped a safety bar in the back. “Coach drivers used to keep a man next to them, usually armed with a shotgun to try and ward off thieves. The name stuck.”

    “I see,” Neeshka said.

    Cortana picked the Pelican back up, and it was soon out of sight. That task accomplished, Chief placed his hands on the steering wheel. Built in biometrics confirmed him as an authorized user, and the vehicle started up. He tested the accelerator a few times, before he put the LRV in drive. The tires spun for a second, then caught, and they shot off towards Byrn Shander.

    --

    In the early morning chill, most of the guards of Byrn Shander were huddled around the fires of their watch houses, only occasionally bothering to look out into the tundra that surrounded their communities. Thus, they were confused for a moment when a loud noise the likes of which they’d never heard reached their ears. Grumbling, they grabbed their weapons and emerged out into chill.

    They stopped dead in their tracks and gaped at the sight that met their eyes. It was a large wagon like device, pulled by no creature that they could see, and covered in some manner of armor. They steadied their grips on their weapons, and tried to gather their courage. However, that faltered when they saw what clambered out of it. The first thing to hit the ground was a mountain of a monster, half again their size. It walked upon cloven feet, and was covered in some kind of plate armor. Others joined it, these ones looking like humans, but clad in protective gear the likes they’d never seen before—though one had a tail. Then the wagon went quite, and out came the largest man they’d ever seen… if it was a man at all. He stepped up behind the other three, his strange helmet looking right at them.

    The Master Chief fought the urge to shake his head. He was used to getting looks due to the fact that he was a Spartan, but this was getting old, fast. He was tired of drawing stares.

    Neeshka walked forward then, taking off her helmet and identifying herself to the guards. Unfortunately, all that seemed to do was to put them more on guard. Their spears were pointed straight at her, and the Master Chief frowned. His hands reached for his P-60. The small sub machinegun was loaded with stun rounds that would be sufficient to knock the wind out of a person and certainly leave them on their backside, but wouldn’t usually leave anything beyond bruises. He carefully unlatched the gun from his hip, just in case he found that he needed it. He also took a split second to figure out the best vectors for fire if things should go sour.

    “Crossbows on the towers,” Johnson whispered over a private commline.

    “Noticed them on the approach,” John whispered back. “How many soldiers do you think they’d have here?”

    “Can’t be more than a few at most, considering this weather. I’d reckon a dozen at absolute maximum. Plus, these guys seem more like glorified militia. They weren’t even watching the gate when we pulled up.”

    John had noticed that to, and shared the sergeant’s opinion. His soldier’s instincts were telling him there was a real lack of discipline here. Their jitteriness was understandable. Their lack of an alert guard, and poor manner in which they’d kept their watch was not. A part of him felt disgusted. The rebels he’d dealt with in Operation Trebuchet, his first mission, more than thirty five years ago, had been more alert and aware than this.

    “Look, just go get Casius, he’s got guests,” Neeshka jerked her thumb over her shoulder at the group behind her. “They’d like to speak with him about a possible mutually beneficial arrangement.”

    “And leave you here to work your whiles on the other guards, I don’t bloody well think so!” one of the guards exclaimed, jabbing his spear a few inches closer to her. “You’ll be staying right here until we decide what to do with you.”

    “Right, like I’m really going to waste my time cutting down a few rent-a-guard mooks. Seriously, use that thing between your ears for something more than a place to hang your skull cap.” Neeshka’s tail was twitching again, something the cyborg understood only happened when she was angry, or irritated at someone. Possibly a combination of both in this case. “That is of course, assuming there is something other than air between them.”

    “You filthy little demon-whore! I ought to cut your tail off and strangle you with it!” the man was clearly incised, but still kept his distance from her. Was fear of her heritage truly that strong? The Chief wondered.

    “Commander, should I attempt to intervene?” He asked, his eyes darting up to the crossbow wielding soldiers on the top of the wall.

    “Stay ready in case things turn ugly, but hold off for now.” Keyes said.

    The Chief noticed something approaching. It was covered in a heavy green cloak, possibly woolen, and standing a little more than three feet tall. What made him really curious was that in spite of the fact that his temperature gauge was telling him that the outside environment was in the single digit negatives, this individual was barefoot.

    “Someone’s either drunk, asking for frostbite, or pretty hardcore,” Johnson muttered as he took note of the newcomer.

    “I say, what is all this commotion about?” the voice was a little higher in pitch than a human’s, but clearly a male, the Chief noted. “Some of us are trying to have a good meal to take our minds off this abysmal cold.”

    “With all due respect, Councilman Regis, this is the business of this town, not Lonely-Wood’s,” Another guard said. “We have a demon-spawn trying to get admission through the gates, and the Gods only know what along with her.” He gestured to the Chief and his compatriots.

    “Look, I know you’re probably not going to believe me, but trust me when I say that if these guys wanted to kill you, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.” Neeshka began to tap her foot in the snow. This got her nowhere, so finally, she let out a growl, and just stamped her boot into the ground. “You know what, fine. I’ll be certain to let Lord Nasher know you refused entrance to one of his agents. I’m sure that’ll go over well. And then we’ll see just how much it comes back to bite you when he decides to cut this place off from his trade routes!”

    “You’re bluffing,” the one closest to her growled. “Like Nasher would really let a Tiefling into his service.”

    “Nasher is smart enough to recognize talent and use it when he sees it, less than can be said of you lot. Seriously, when’s the last time you had the scale armor taken in for maintenance? A goblin knife could probably sheer right through it.” Neeshka gestured towards their mail.

    Zooming in with his visor, the Chief did note bits of rust forming, as well as a few missing scales. The chain-mail coifs that some of the guards wore were also badly in need of repair, with links that were loosely connected, a dangerous, possibly fatal, design flaw, or missing altogether.

    Still, Neeshka had mentioned that few people came to this region of the world by choice, and in combination with the evidence for the battle they’d discovered, offered a possible excuse for the lack of discipline and complete disregard for proper care of equipment. Perhaps there were few “true” soldiers up here that were willing to instruct people on how to fight? Perhaps the main army had also been devastated in the attack, and these were all that were left? He mulled the ideas over in his head while he looked at the guards as they continued to shout back and forth. One of the crossbowmen on the upper right wall had his weapon pointed right at the Tiefling, and seemed a might bit eager to use it, given how badly his finger was shaking.

    The Master Chief frowned again, and slowly lifted his SMG. The targeting reticule on his visor followed the gun’s smart link, and glowed red when it settled on the man. He didn’t seem to be aware of the threat, or redirect his attention in any manner towards the Spartan, so the Chief found himself forced to settle for keeping an eye on him.

    “Now, now, everyone just calm down,” the one called Regis said. Chief spared him a glance, noticing that he’d shifted his stance and that a large pendant was now visible through his cloak. There was a stone in it. A ruby or a garnet, he couldn’t tell, and it seemed to catch the light in a most peculiar fashion.

    Still, he shook his head and focused back on the men on the wall.

    “Johnson, keep your eyes focused on the walls,” he whispered.

    “Roger that,” the ODST said, his hand resting on the MA5K on his hip.

    “Well, now I suppose I can let you through after all,” the guard stated in a much more cheery manner than before.

    For a moment, the Spartan wasn’t certain that he’d heard correctly. He played the statement over again in his head. He heard no trace of sarcasm or malice. Confused, he spared a glance towards the gate. The man in question was actually bowing before Neeshka and the newcomer, one arm splayed out towards the town behind them in welcome. He cocked an eyebrow. Something very weird was going on here. Perhaps some magic, like Neeshka mentioned earlier. If so, why didn’t the guards have some sort of detector to warn them? Or training to resist it?

    He’d have to ask the Tiefling later.

    For that matter, he suddenly wondered if they could trust this Regis fellow. They mentioned the word councilor, that implied a high ranking politician, or as close to high ranking as one could get in this neck of the woods.

    “This way, quickly,” the small alien gestured to them.

    “Come on, its okay,” Neeshka said, slipping her helmet back on.

    “Commander?” John asked, his SMG still out and at the ready.

    “I think we’re in the clear for the moment,” Keyes said. “Move out.”

    The group began to move towards Regis, who threw the hood back on his cloak, revealing a surprisingly human-like face with brownish-blond hair. Some kind of a midget, perhaps? He made haste to cover his stone back up and beckoned to them again.

    “Apologies for that, but I need to get you to Casius in a hurry if you want to see him,” the small councilor said. “Everyone and their mother knows what this pendant can do these days, and as soon as those lugs snap out of it, they’ll be none too happy about it.”

    “You’re being awfully helpful,” Keyes commented. “And it’s my experience that people don’t usually extend courtesy like that without expecting a payoff.”

    “My payoff will come in the spring, my dear lady,” Regis said with a bow. “Those idiots may not realize it, but this region depends on trade with Neverwinter and Luskan to survive, and I happen to be heavily invested in both. I’d rather not see my finances ruined, thank you very much.”

    “Still seems just a tad convenient for me, considering that we’re not exactly blending in with a crowd,” Johnson spoke up, and gestured to Orna.

    “I’m friends with a Dark Elf, and have stared down demons, dragons, crazed Barbarians, Trolls, and power mad wizards. Trust me, I’ve seen more than my fair of weird stuff,” Regis retorted.

    As they made their way down the streets, the Master Chief took note of the town. Most of the houses were stone, with either wooden or thatch roofing that appeared to be made from dried grass. It would keep them warm during this time of the year, relatively speaking. The placement of the housing was somewhat random, though. In some places, it would be neatly planed out, in others, like someone had just up and decided to build there, with no thought given to coordination. The town must not have been built all at once, then.

    There were a few guards standing out in the cold, hovering over fires for the most part. Some civilians were out in the street as well. All of them, however, dropped what they were doing and stared at the group that was approaching the center of the town. He saw grips on weapon hilts and spear shafts tighten, and the humans chewed uneasily on their lips. The Spartan would have preferred a more low-key approach, but sometimes, overt displays and intimidation had their advantages.

    A few minutes later, the large council building came completely into view. The group exchanged glances, as they saw it. Someone had put thought into constructing this building. Its walls were thick and reinforced, the windows that were present were small, and along the top he could see a multitude of slits, possibly murder holes for snipers. The Master Chief wondered for a moment who might have built it, and then followed Regis up the steps.

    --

    “Now, Kemp, I understand your frustration, but you cannot just have your people raid the ships of Bremen whenever they happen to cross over to Targos’ section of the lake.”

    The Chief heard the voice through the heavy oaken doors in front of him. He paid it little mind though. He was more occupied in ascertaining the defenses of this place. The hallway leading into the council room was fairly wide; large enough, in fact, for him, Orna, and Johnson to all stand side-by-side with room to spare. It made for an impressive entrance, but a narrower hallway would be better suited for defensive purposes. The guards here seemed better though, and kept an alert eye on the group in addition to maintaining better equipment: chain mail, well kept, a broadsword for each of them, and a halberd. However, there had been no attempt to deprive the Chief, or anyone else, of their weapons.

    His thoughts were interrupted by the shouting of another individual, presumably this Kemp fellow.

    “That region of Maer Dualoon was promised to us by the treaty we signed six years ago! I will not stand for its violation!”

    “Yet that doesn’t seem to stop the people of Targos from coming over to our region,” someone else said, and a loud banging followed.

    “If one of our ships just happens to travel into your territory, I can assure you that it was by accident,” the other replied, his voice held a sneering undertone to it, and the Master Chief frowned. This might get ugly.

    Regis Carefully opened the doors, and the Master Chief was greeted with the sight of a circular room with ten tables set up in it. An old, gray haired man sat at the center one, his attention divided between the other two tables nearest him, currently occupied by the two shouting men. One was a portly fellow, completely bald, while the other was an armed individual who looked like a seasoned fighter. Both were red faced and their eyes screamed in rage. They stopped going at each others throats when they realized they were not alone.

    The reactions between the men varied between shock, fear, and outrage.

    “What is the meaning of this, Regis?” the old man asked, his hands carefully folded in front of him. “We agreed to hear you this afternoon, after this matter between Bremen and Targos had been settled.”

    “My apologies for the interruption, Councilman Casius,” Regis said with a bow. “But there has been a situation at the gates. These individuals wish to meet with you regarding some negotiations.”

    “You brought a demon into the council chamber?” the thinner man roared. The voice matched the one called “Kemper” earlier. “You miserable little Halfling, I should…” he trailed off, too overcome by his rage to continue.

    The Master Chief looked over at Orna and smirked behind his helmet. The Sangehili was groaning and shaking his head, his lower mandibles clicking together. It was a refreshing change of pace, not being the one that everyone referred to as a creature of hell.

    “They have it quite tamed, my fellow councilmen,” Regis said. “At any rate, I felt it worth the risk. The guards were being obstinate, and with this one,” he gestured towards Neeshka, “being one of Lord Nasher’s agents, I believed that it warranted your attention. She was threatening that Nasher would cut us off his trade routes if we did not comply.”

    The old man frowned, and Chief watched his face intently. There was irritation present on his face, the way that his lips were drawn tight, and his face and the way his brow furrowed. Finally, he sighed, and motioned for them to go ahead.

    “My apologies for the disturbance, Councilmen,” Commander Keyes said as she stepped forward and removed her helmet. “We will try not to keep you too long. I am Commander Miranda Keyes of the United Nations Space Command, and I apologize about any inconveniences or alarms we may have caused to the region by our unexpected arrival here a week ago.”

    “You mean to tell us that you are responsible for the large fireball that appeared in our skies?” Casius had folded his hands and was tapping them against the bridge of his nose.

    “Yes, Councilman Casius.” Keyes nodded. “That was our ship. It was damaged in heavy combat with an enemy force, and we had been drifting for some time before we were able to land it here.”

    The old man pursed his lips slightly, and then spoke. “I see… this is quite a bit to understand. We do not get Spell Jammers in this world very often, let alone in this region of Faerun. What exactly is it that you are asking of us… commander?”

    “In short, we’re stranded here and years, perhaps decades, from any help that our comrades might send to us. We’re blind about this place. Our sensors were able to get a lay of the planet and its environmental regions as we came down, as well as mark population centers. However, we know next to nothing about local customs, traditions, balances of power and potential warring factions. In short, we want information.”

    There were several seconds of silence, and Casius appeared to be deep in thought. He spoke after a minute or so.

    “An interesting plight, Commander, one that I am not unsympathetic to. Under normal circumstances, I would gladly give you free access to our archives and maps. However, the past season has been difficult. Most of our men are dead in the field, and we need everything we can get to survive… what can you offer us in return?” Casius raised his eyebrows and looked dead at the commander.

    “What do you need?” she asked in return.

    “To be frank, everything. Most of our soldiers are dead, and those left are either under equipped or under-trained. There is also the issue of transport. We have recently allied ourselves with the Plainsmen tribes… well, what’s left of them at any rate,” Kemp snorted suddenly, and shook his head. Casius just glared. “They have recently gained access to the hoard of a slain dragon, Icing-Death. However, they have no means of rapidly raising it out of the beast’s lair, and getting it to us in a timely manner. In return for the gold and jewels, we are supposed to help supply them with food. But while we have the stores, we have no way of quickly getting it to them.”

    Keyes bowed her head slightly for a moment. “I do not know what we could do to help your soldiers. Your way of combat is not ours. Transportation, however, is something that we can help you with. We have several transports that would be capable of rapidly ferrying supplies and payment shipments to and from the tribes.” She paused again, and looked the Councilman dead in the eyes. “And while we cannot help you train your troops, we can assist with the defense of this region. We have means by which to spot raider movements from several dozen kilometers off… approximately a hundred miles in any given direction.”

    “And how many of there are you?” Kemp spoke up.

    “Just the four of us,” Keyes said, looking over at him.

    “Then what the hell good are you?” he sneered. “Four… warriors, are not enough to turn any battle.”

    “You wouldn’t be saying that if you’d seen them in action, Councilman,” Neeshka said, smirking at him. “And I have. Trust me, they’re not big on quantity, but when you’ve got weapons like they do, you don’t really need it.”

    “No one asked you, demon wench,” Kemp said with a glare. It was a glare that Neeshka was all too happy to return.

    “That is enough, Kemp,” Casius shouted, and then turned his attention back to Keyes. “You offer much in return for little. Pardon me if I ask what the catch is.”

    “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” Keyes replied. “I told you, we have no information on this region, aside from the topography, and population concentrations. There are things that our scanners can’t tell us. We need your history and tomes for that.”

    “And how quickly can your ‘transports’ move?” The Master Chief noticed that his voice had a certain eagerness to it, and he gave a tight lipped grin. They were approaching a perfect Nash’s Equilibrium. Both parties walked away happy.

    “Fast enough to move anywhere inside of the Ten Towns region in minutes. Out to where the tribes are and back, not counting loading time, might take as little as twenty, grand total.”


    Casius arched another eyebrow at this. Then he frowned and tapped his fingers together. At last he sighed, and leaned back slightly.

    “That is a bold claim, Commander. I am inclined to take it with a grain of salt. I don’t want to be duped, no offense. Would you mind terribly if a few of Bryn Shander’s guards went along for the initial trip? This would enable them to oversee the proper exchange of goods, as well.” He twisted his head slightly, giving her a pointed look.

    “Of course.” Keyes nodded. “Say the word, and we’ll be ready to move.”

    “It will have to wait just a moment, I need to have this taken care of first,” he gestured to Kemp and the other councilman. “In the meantime, Regis, as a show of good faith, would you be so kind as to escort our guests to the archives?”

    “It will be my pleasure,” Regis responded. “We’ll take our leave now, if that is okay, and let you lot get back to sorting out those border problems. Sorry again to intrude.”


    The door had scarcely shut behind them when the shouting between Kemp and the other Councilman resumed.

    “Is it always like that?” Johnson gestured towards the door with his thumb.

    “Always?” Regis chuckled heartily. “My good man, that is a good day!”

    --

    The archives of Bryn Shander were not exactly the largest on the planet, but they looked as if they could present a useful amount of information to them. Of course, they couldn’t yet read the language, but Cortana was already working on that. The A.I. figured that in a matter of hours, she would have the entirety of it decoded.

    Several maps had already been scanned by the Master Chief’s recording devices, detailing towns, cities, and various hazards, natural and man-made, within six hundred miles. Currently, he was talking with Regis about the local political situations.

    “Well, like I said, Nasher is usually a hard bargainer, and there are days I’m certain he’s got a parade rod shoved up his rear, but better dealing with him than with Luskan,” the Halfling said with a pointed look.

    “What do you mean?” The Spartan cocked his head.

    “Well, around these parts, we have a assaying: Beware a Bauldurian bearing gifts, for there is fine print attached. Beware a Neverwinter man with a smile, because it means he’s got an unpleasant job for you. And beware a Lusakan with his arms open to embrace you, because it means that he’s getting ready to stab you in the back.” Regis finished with a chuckle.

    “I see.” The cyborg logged that away in his brain. It was, of course, possible that there were two sides to this story. “What else can you tell me about Luskan?”

    “Well, the city is run by its archmages, who operate out of the Hosttower. Each one has a few puppet captains under his or her control. This wouldn’t be a bad setup, except they’re constantly making power plays and scheming against their compatriots.” Regis rolled his eyes and shook his head. “This trickles down through the ranks, and having soldiers openly clash is the streets is not exactly an uncommon sight. The citizenry are made up of pirates, thieves, and a few poor sods who are just trying to survive.”

    Evidence of a highly unstable political situation, John thought. That was something they could use to their advantage if they had to. Provide information to the right individual, or attack the right target, and it could set off a chain reaction that could destabilize the region and make the place vulnerable. Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that, but one of the first things that Mendez had taught them was to always analyze everyone and everything as a potential enemy, and know exactly what to do to take it down. That way, when and if they did turn on you, you were prepared.

    “And what can you tell me about the other regions on this map?” he gestured up to a large one hanging on the wall.

    “Well, there’s Nesime,” Regis pointed to a small speck of a town bordering a large, swampy region. “You practically have to be crazy to live there, considering it’s on the edge of the Evermoors.”

    “The swamp?” The Master Chief asked. “What’s so dangerous about it?”

    “Better to ask what isn’t, the list will be shorter.” The Halfling moved over to a bookshelf, and muttered quietly to himself while searching through it. After a moment or two, he yanked out a small black book. “This can give you more details. It covers most of the hostile species that live there.” He paused for a moment. “The other major place of interest is Silverymoon. That city is something of a melting pot, home to people, creatures, and cultures from all over Faerun. They pride themselves on their lack of prejudices, and openly welcome any who come to their community.”

    The Chief frowned. That sounded like a good way to invite in agent-provocateurs. This in turn implied a powerful military capability in order for them to have survived this long. Either that or they were exceptionally politically savvy.

    His thoughts were cut off by Cortana coming over his exterior speakers.

    “Commander,” she said. “We have a problem.”

    “What is it, Cortana?” Keyes said as she looked up from the map she was pouring over.

    “The UAV you had me dispatch to watch the Plainsmen tribes is detecting movement from those Orc things, heading right towards them.”

    “Numbers?”

    “Oh, it’s a full scale warband, I count close to two thousand of them, along with several hundred auxiliary units that appear to be human.”

    There was a moment of staring amongst each other, before the group rushed out of the archives.
     
  8. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Seven - It Begins

    The doors of the archive burst open and the group poured out, Johnson in the front and the Master Chief bringing up the rear.

    “Wait!” Regis called out. “What’s going on? What’s happening?”

    “The Plainsman tribes are about to come under assault.” the Spartan growled. “Cortana, ETA on the Pelican?”

    “Bringing it down now, it’ll be at your position in five seconds.” The A.I. responded. “Should I mobilize the other one? That transport Warthog won’t do much good.”

    “Affirmative,” Keyes said as they rounded another corner, shooting past startled guards and merchants. “Load one up with a fifty, and have the Pelican meet us at the camp perimeter.”

    As they approached the main entrance hall, John could hear screaming from outside. The drop ship had probably scared half the town into hiding. Still, it was a small price to pay considering the circumstances. The guards had already opened up the doors to see what the commotion was about, and one of them had fallen on his rear end in surprise at the hovering Pelican before them.

    “Move, move, move!” Keyes shouted, scrambling out the door and up into the cargo bay.

    “Wait!” Regis cried, and rushed up behind the Master Chief, a couple of guards in tow behind him.

    Johnson and Neeshka were right behind her, followed by Orna and the Master Chief, and finally the three natives. The doors sealed up behind them, and they were already leaving the town behind when Keyes sat down in the cockpit seat.

    “Cortana, release it to manual control. We’re making a pit stop first. That human, Wulfgar, will probably want to know that his people are under attack.”

    “Aye-Aye, commander.” Cortana said. “Warthog loading in progress, the other Pelican should be arriving at about the same time that you do. Just be quick about warning this guy.”

    It did not take long to arrive back at the cave where they had dropped off Bruenor and the others. Keyes spun the ship around, putting it right up next to the hole.

    “Bruenor and Wulfgar are personal friends of mine, I’ll be back a just a moment,” Regis said.

    With that, the Halfling bolted out of the bay and onto the rocks below. He was inside the cave in seconds.


    --

    “Our first moves are in action, many things hinge upon this moment… now, are you sure you have told us all you can about these… plane walkers?”

    The voice was coming from a hooded man, clad in a flamboyant purple robe. Hands that were withered by age were tucked away into the sleeves, and he moved so quietly when he walked, that it was as if he was floating upon air, rather than moving upon the ground.

    “Yes, master,” Alicia bowed before him. “It is as I told you. Trying to read from them was like trying to throw eggs at a brick wall, especially from the green one.” She paused for a moment. “There is something different about him, something that is alien in its own right.”

    “Very well. We will have to trust in our… allies to deal with them. What of their Spell Jammer?”

    “It appears to be somewhat damaged, milord. I do not think it is capable of moving at the moment.” She bowed again.

    “But they can still move the smaller ones, yes?” He got another nod is response from her, and reached up to scratch at his withered chin. He frowned for a moment, and then started to pace back and forth throughout the chamber. “I need to commune with the others about this bit of information. You have done well, though, my apprentice. Something that shall not be forgotten, I assure you.”

    “My lord is gracious…”

    --

    The Pelican screamed through the air, leaving a double shockwave behind it. In the cargo hold, a group of twenty warriors and soldiers awaited the coming battle.

    They were an odd mix, brought together by this event, the Master Chief thought to himself. The Dwarves that Bruenor had brought with him were busy double-checking their many weapons and their armor, while Wulfgar kept palming the handle of his hammer. The one called Drizzt just sat over at the far end, deep in thought.

    The Master Chief busied himself with checking the weapons lockers above the seats, going over supplies. A few BR-55s, some MA6Cs and Bs, the latter of which he had armed himself with to complement the longer ranged battle rifle he carried, as while its bullets were somewhat shorter and less powerful than the C’s, it could carry a clip that was twice as large. In a battle that was pretty much going to define “target rich environment” that would be invaluable. There were also SMGs, pistols, shotguns, and as he looked towards the back of one, a MRK1 Spartan Laser.

    “Coming up on the camp, looks like this is going to be a hot LZ,” Keyes remarked.

    “Second Pelican’s coming in right behind you ma’am. I’ll keep an eye out for targets of opportunity, but aside from the Warthog delivery, I’m not sure how much good I’ll be able to do.” Cortana spoke up.

    “If you need to, just land the ship on top of them,” Johnson chuckled.

    Then the doors started to open. The now mid-morning light made the sun glare harshly off the snow. The Master Chief’s visor polarized more to compensate for this, and he brought up his BR-55. He found a target, and squeezed the trigger. The Orc slumped to the ground, its head vaporized by the impact of the round. He fired twice more as he stepped off the ramp. One of his targets was caught in the chest, nearly tearing it in half and leaving a dinner-plate sized hole in its center. The other one was hit just a few centimeters above the groin. It fell to the ground, blown in half at the waist, pawing and feebly reaching out for the remnants of its legs and guts, as if it thought that by grabbing and holding onto those it might be able to save its life.

    The arrival of the Pelicans was anything but subtle. Both Barbarians and Orcs alike panicked and wavered at the sight of the apparently magical constructs. However, the Plainsmen seem to be put somewhat at rest when they noticed that they were belching forth Dwarven solders, and more importantly, Wulfgar. The mighty barbarian charged down the ramp, his enormous war hammer cocked back behind him.

    “Tempos!” he screamed, rushing at an Orc warrior and throwing the hammer end over end.

    The Orc had just enough time for his eyes to widen in surprise and to try and turn to run. All this did was allow for the mighty hammer to catch it squarely between its shoulder blades. Armor shattered, bones were crushed, and flesh ripped from its sinews. The Orc was dead before it hit the ground. Then the hammer reappeared in his hand. And he twisted to face another, only to see a flash of blades and second, bloody smile appear in the brute’s neck.

    “One for me, and one for you!” Drizzt exclaimed, laughing as he threw himself at the largest group of Orcs that he could find.

    Wulfgar understood the humor. It was Drizzt’s way of distracting himself from the death that was soon to surround them. He heard the bark of one of the weapons that the strange humans were using, and watched an Orc spill its guts all over the landscape. Still, he wondered if they would be enough. There were less than three hundred of his people here that would have to defend the women and children against a force that apparently numbered in the thousands. Powerful though these new warriors might be, they could not be everywhere at once.

    Johnson and Keyes were making their way towards the anti-infantry warthog that Cortana had brought with the other Pelican. Though only a light reconnaissance vehicle, the tri barreled, twelve-point-seven millimeter chain gun on the back of the craft would enable them to hopefully help route this attack force in short order.

    The Helljumper reached out and cycled the weapon. A loud, ominous “chick-chock” sound filled the air, and a targeting reticule became painted onto his visor. The sergeant smiled to himself, and sighted up a group of about a hundred Orc infantry making their away around the eastern flank of the camp. What made Johnson raise an eyebrow was that there appeared to be a group of humans leading them. He thought it odd, but didn’t let it get in the way of what needed to be done.

    “Smile!” he shouted, and depressed both firing studs.

    Those nearby were nearly deafened by the thundering roar as the fifty caliber weapon went to work. It was a sight to behold. The first rounds struck, ripping through the steel and leather armor that the warriors were clad in. The first Orc wad all but vaporized by the fury of the hypersonic rounds as they ripped into his chest. His comrades were splattered with the remnants of his guts, bits of muscle and bone fragments, and one particularly poor sod who slipped one what had once been Orc brains.

    The effects were devastating and instant. The group wheeled and scattered, trying to get out of the way of the strange, deadly instrument that the ODST had manned. It availed them little. Bodies were ripped in half, torsos vaporized and limbs sent flying away like broken bits of a child’s toy. In seconds, the hundred soldier strong group had been reduced to little more than chunks of meat that the beasts of the wild would feast upon.

    Johnson kept firing as he targeted other groups, and watched as this one was also reduced to red and black splotches upon the ground. Then Keyes started the LRV up, and they took off into the battle, with the ODST constantly vying for the best angle of attack.


    Neeshka found herself running alongside the Dwarven fighters that had come along with Bruenor. They were more organized and disciplined with their tactics, and the Tiefling felt that this would better compliment her style of combat. Further, they knew that she was on their side… the tribe did not, and considering her heritage, she wasn’t about to leave that to chance.

    The twenty or so Dwarven soldiers formed up into a wedge shaped formation, and charged straight at the largest concentration of Orcs that they could locate. Neeshka drew her bow, and fired an arrow. Years of training with the weapon paid off, and it slipped between the plates of armor on one of the hostile humans. Blood gushed from the wound, telling her that she’d hit pay-dirt: the jugular vein had been punctured, by the hit. It would be just a matter of moments before he bled out. The man slumped to his knees as the Orcs swarmed around him, growling and frothing at the mouth like rabid animals.

    She rewarded one of them with an arrow to the back of his mouth.

    She stood back as the Dwarves hit the line with Bruenor leading the charge. The mighty king brought his shield up to block and upward strike from an axe, before using his own in retaliation. The finely honed mithril blade bit into the Orc’s leg and kept going. It howled as it fell to the ground, now nearly two feet shorter. Bruenor took a moment to stare it in the eye, and then pushed it backwards. His soldiers were to his left and right, battle hardened veterans that had fought goblinoids and their ilk a hundred times over.

    The Orcs tried to run in and knock them over, using their weapons to try and cleave the Dwarves’ skulls. It failed though, as their well crafted armor held up under the assault. The wedge dove deep into their ranks, leaving naught but broken bodies and corpses behind them.

    Some of the Orcs were smart enough to try flanking the formation and surrounding the Dwarves. However, Neeshka quickly cut down three of them with fire from her short bow. Howling in rage, a group of them broke off towards her. She fired two more shots as they covered the fifty-foot distance. Then she slung it over her shoulder and drew her blades.

    The first two leapt at her, only to die in mid jump as bolts of blue light impacted upon their bodies. With the speed and coordination granted to her by her hellish blood, Neeshka was able to see what happened in exquisite detail:

    The bolts hit. Leather caught fire and metal melted. The putrid, stinking scent of burning flesh reached her sensitive nose. Then they dropped, their entire chests blasted open, blood fused and cauterized in the large craters that had once been their torsos.

    “Die, mongrels!” She heard the deep voice of Orna Fulsamee shout, his voice coming into her helmet by means unknown.

    More bursts of light followed, and the Orcs charged towards him with reckless abandonment. Neeshka saw her opportunity. She dove into the ranks of the enemy as they wheeled around her. Longsword flashed and short blade stabbed, cutting through the leather and hide armor that they wore with ease. One attempted to come straight at her, but as it closed, she used its momentum against it, ducking down and sweeping its legs out from underneath it. It hit the rocky ground with a loud crack, and she wasted no time burying her longsword straight into its heart.

    Still, it wasn’t going to be enough, she realized. Even as she hit them from behind again, sliding her longer blade into the leg of one of the brutish monsters and hamstringing it, they were within a few dozen feet of Orna.

    Then the Sangehili surprised her. His strange wands went down to his hips, and attached in a fashion similar to the human soldiers’. He reached behind himself and pulled out two small handles. The Orcs were less than fifteen feet away from him now, in half a second they’d be on him. The Arbiter gave a deft flick of his wrists, and suddenly, light sprang up from the handles, forming into sword blades. He cross the blades over his chest, and spread his mandibles wide in challenge to them, something that made him seem oddly regal, almost like a judge, about to decide who would live and who would die. Then he charged.

    His strange, triple jointed legs propelled him forward at nightmarish speed, and Orna crashed into their lines with the force of a rampaging elemental. The Arbiter was everywhere at once, little more than a blur in battle. Orcs went down left and right before his weapons, but what confused Neeshka the most was that there was no blood. There should have been gallons of it splashed all over the ground, staining the snow dark with its essence. Where was it?

    A second glance at the creature told her why: she saw his blades dive down against a pair of Orcs. Both raised their weapons to try and parry the blows, but it did no good. The glowing weapons slashed straight through metal sword and wooden axe handle like they weren’t even there, and then into the brutes themselves. Wood, leather, and fur burst into fire as the light passed through it, and metal scales and rings were turned to molten slag. There was no blood to be spilt in the first place, it was all fused and cauterized, just like his other weapons.

    The Tiefling wondered what the light truly was for a moment, before she plunged headlong back into the fight. One of the Orcs twisted around, trying to flee the Arbiter’s wrath, only to find her standing there. Her first strike slashed across its eyes, cutting them out and blinding it. The Orc howled in pain, rearing backwards and bringing a hand up to grope at the wound. Its guard down, its chest exposed, it never had a chance. Neeshka lunged forward and impaled her smaller blade into it. Chain mail rings were punctured and bits of cured animal hide effortlessly sheared through. Bone and flesh met the same fate, until she’d buried the hilt of the weapon up to the hilt in her foe. Blood gushed from its mouth, and its strange, twisted face gaped silently, until the Tiefling twisted her blade sideways, making the hole larger and then ripping the sword out.

    Blood went everywhere, shooting out from the severed arteries and veins right above its heart.

    “Well meet, Tiefling,” Orna said, his mandibles fluttering and his head dipping slightly. “Now, let us take the fight to our foes!” The strange light blades disappeared, and his ranged weapons reappeared in his hands. He dashed closer to a large battle, where a group of Barbarians were trying to hold the line against an overwhelming number Orcs. “Your cursed hides will burn!”

    The Tiefling shuddered for a moment. Orna’s voice held none of the strange warmth that it usually had when he spoke. It was icy cold, filled to the brim with hate. The light pulses flew out of his weapons again, cutting down any in his path. He may not have been a demon in the true sense of the word, but Neeshka knew that to their foes, the difference would be a minor one at best.

    “Large group targeted, bearing six-two-zero, one hundred meters distant,” the Master Chief’s voice echoed in her ear. “Initiating attack, five rounds rapid.”

    “Roger that, Chief. Target of opportunity has arisen in Sector oh’-five-nine, opening up with the seventy,” Cortana’s voice joined him.

    It was the same all over. The…off-worlders… kept in constant communication with each other. One moment, Johnson was talking about the position of the Warthog that he and the commander were driving, and the next the Master Chief briefly commented on an Orc battle group that he had cut down with his “assault rifle.”

    She drew her bow once again as she marveled at this. The ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere. Nasher was absolutely going to fall in love with these helmets, or whatever this power was.

    The Tiefling nocked an arrow and sent it flying. An Orc took it in the thigh. The beast howled and gripped its wound, before looking over to her in hatred. Its comrades charged towards her, screaming for blood. She fired while backpedaling, trying to keep as much distance between herself and them as was possible. It worked, and there were only five of them left once they’d managed to close to melee range. Her blades were back out in a flash, and they began to weave and dive in a furious bid to keep her foes at bay.

    An axe came in from the left, trying to cleave her arm off. She whipped her longsword into position, catching the weapon underneath the blade. A flick of her wrist redirected the axe’s momentum and ripped it from the hands of her foe. She had no time to follow up, as she had to duck another strike. She barely managed to, and heard it whistle over her head. There was something strange about this situation, Neeshka thought, as she jumped over a strike aimed at her kneecaps. Her blows seemed to have more power and speed behind them in this battle. She wasn’t certain how, it was almost like the armor that she was wearing had been enchanted, but the off-worlders knew nothing about magic.

    She vaulted backwards, dodging a blow that was intended to cut deep into her side. The Orc overextended himself, though, and she took the opportunity to slice his hand off. Another got too close to her right side, and her tail lashed out. With a grunt, she wrapped it around both of the Orc’s legs, and gave a yank. It slipped on the icy ground, hitting its head at an odd angle. The Tiefling heard the bones crack and snap as it did so, and smiled to herself. Two down, three to go.

    That number quickly became one as a loud crack reached her ears. The heads of two of them burst open like ripe melons, spraying brain matter and blood everywhere. The final Orc turned to run, giving Neeshka the perfect opportunity to leap out and stab it in the back. Twisting her shorter blade as she buried it in her opponent’s spine, she looked over and saw the Master Chief standing a hundred yards away. He was already turning in another direction however. She could hear the barking of his weapon, and more Orcs fell.

    “Moving to Sector Five-Six-Niner,” he growled. “Ammo down to fifty shots for BR, one sixty for MA.”

    “Roger that, logging your position,” Cortana said.

    The Spartan raised his MA5B and fired another double tap. It caught his intended target, one of the humans that were supporting the Orcs, square in the chest. It punched through his chain mail armor and kept going, ripping a pair of fist-sized hole straight through his body. It got the attention of his fellows, who raised their shields and charged towards him. He picked his shots carefully, each time targeting the man that was closet to him. His ammo counter was decreasing steadily, and after this, he only had two magazines left for each of his weapons.

    He fired again, catching one of the humans in the face and blowing her head apart inside of its chain mail coif. Twenty shots left for the mag, and they were one hundred feet away. Another brief pull of the trigger, another two seven-sixty-two millimeter rounds
    spat out of the rifle. They punched through shied, through armor, through, flesh, through bones and vitals, and then went out the other side. The man fell, landing on his face and rolling over a few times with his momentum.

    Out of the corner of his eye, John saw the two soldiers from Bryn Shander. They had formed up with one of the Plainsman groups and were trying to beat them away from a large tent. The Mjlonir’s sensor suit picked up life readings from the inside of the tent. It took him a millisecond to put two and two together. The tribe’s non-combatant population, or at least a large portion of it, had to be inside of there. It would also explain the ferocity with which the Plainsmen were fighting to keep the Orcs and invading humans away from there. They were going to be overwhelmed though, unless something happened to even the odds.

    A distraction was what was needed. The Spartan casually reached down to his grenade bandolier, and yanked off a frag grenade. He flicked the pin off, and tossed it towards the charging humans, who were now bunching up in preparation for surrounding him. The humans ignored the device until it went off, and spread what was left of their bodies all over the landscape.

    The Orcs and hostile humans were packed so closely together around the large tent that the Master Chief swore he could have walked upon them. He quickly loaded a new mag into his rifle, sighted up the most densely packed cluster he could find, and opened fire. His automatic rifle sent out a barrage of high velocity rounds into their ranks. Heads were ripped apart, limbs shorn off and chests blown open at the rate of more than seven every second.

    The MA5B clicked empty after four seconds of firing, and while he had only made a small dent in their numbers so far, he had drawn their attention away from the defenders. He primed a plasma grenade, and threw the little orb like it was a baseball. It hit one of the humans in the face, and the Chief knew from the way he had lurched backwards that it had connected with the force to break the man’s neck.

    The resulting explosion resembled a small sun, and opened up a huge hole in the lines of the enemy ranks. Combined with the earlier barrage of fire, the Master Chief knew that he had made himself a threat in their eyes. A number of the group broke for him, while others threw down their shields and weapons and ran for their lives. He unslung his BR-55 and went prone. With his targeting profile minimized, he took aim at the closest target and fired a single shot.

    The Orc was wearing little for headgear aside from a fur and leather cap with a pair of horns in it. This obviously did very little to slow down the mach two slug that hit it. The Orc’s head dissolved into a splatter of blood and bones, while the bullet kept moving and hit another Orc behind it. This one was somewhat taller, and the upper portion of his chest simply vanished after it hit.

    Another target, another gentle squeeze of the trigger, another body to add to his kill count.

    “Ammo supplies running low, requesting resupply,” he spoke into his mike, calm as ever.

    “Roger that, I think I can help you with another problem as well,” Cortana said.

    He understood what she was about to do. The Plainsmen and the heart of the line pressing them were about thirty meters apart, just sufficient for a carefully aimed seventy millimeter round to wreak havoc upon the enemy. The Master Chief smiled grimly behind his helmet. Aimed by an A.I. construct who was capable of performing hundreds of trillions of calculations and operations in a fraction of a second, the round would go exactly where it needed to go. The Pelican swooped in, barely a meter off of the ground, scattering snow and ice with its thrusters. A deafeningly loud bang echoed through the tundra and the auto-cannon round dead its deadly work. Moving at speeds in excess of twelve times what sound itself was capable of, the hunk of metal didn’t even need to hit an individual to kill them.

    The Plainsmen, indeed, none of the individuals that were native to Faerun, save Bruenor and Wulfgar, had ever witnessed what a death caused by sonic overpressure looked like. It was messy, to say the least. The rapidly expanding air hit the Orcs with the force of an exploding thermobaric warhead. Bones were shattered, hearts stopped, organs liquefied in an instant, and arms, heads, and other extremities ripped to pieces. Anyone within ten meters of the round was killed instantly. Others were left to crawl, deafened and disoriented, to and fro about the battlefield, their eardrums shattered and blood oozing out of their ears, noses, and eyes.

    The line broke utterly, fleeing in every direction that they could. The Pelican banked to keep as many lined up as was possible, while also keeping a safe distance from the Plainsmen. It fired three more rounds, and scores died as a result.

    John picked off the remainder of the group that had been headed for him with contemptuous ease. Scared witless by the fate of their comrades, they wheeled and scattered. Easy prey for a predator of his caliber. Rifle cracks echoed in rapid succession, each one marking the death of a man or an Orc. Blood, dark and crimson alike, flowed through the snow.

    The last bullet went sailing into the back of a soldier that was fleeing towards the south. The round tore through his armor and kept going, splattering bits of his spine all in front of him. His body slumped to the ground and skidded for a few meters before stopping.

    Cortana wheeled the drop ship around then, and the Master Chief leapt up inside of it. He immediately secured his weapons locker, pulling out assault rifle magazines and ammo for his BR-55, focusing mainly on shredder rounds as opposed to armor piercing. He took a moment to restock on his grenades as well.

    “Ammo at one hundred percent, moving back out into the field,” he said.

    “Roger that,” Keyes responded. “The fifty’s almost dry, Johnson’s going to have to take a time out to reload soon enough. “We’re clearing the outside perimeter well enough, but the Warthog’s gun is too heavy to risk firing into a melee or into the village. We need you to move in and assist with securing it. Understood?”

    “Perfectly ma’am.” He paused for a minute and hovered back over the weapons locker. That would mean close quarters work, and the BR-55 wouldn’t be best suited for that. He pulled out a shotgun and some ammo boxes, noting curiously that Johnson had seen fit to pack some explosive shells. He grabbed the box, stuffed it into one of his deep combat pouches, and leapt off the back of the dropship.

    The Plainsmen had rallied around the large tent, and he noticed one elderly fighter who seemed to be barking directions. He carried a large spear, wickedly serrated and adorned with a small flag that had the skull of an elk painted on it. The Spartan cycled his assault rifle and raced over towards him. He covered the three hundred meter distance in about eight seconds, skidding up to a stop at the edge of the group.

    “Rally to me!” the man shouted thrusting his spear up into the air and letting the banner wave slightly.

    They noticed his approach and for once, did not seem overly wary of him. They knew that he was helping to slaughter their enemies, and what was the enemy of the enemy, if not temporary friend?

    “You have our thanks for your help,” he said with a slight bow.

    “Where are the rest of your women and children?” The Spartan asked him.

    “Throughout the village,” he gestured to the different tents. “The attack came without time to get them all to the main hall. We’re rallying to press in and save as many as we possibly can.”

    “Get your people together then. I’ll scout ahead and plow the road.” He placed the butt of the MA5B to his shoulder and took off into the heart of the camp, one eye on his surroundings, and the other on his motion tracker.

    “Everyone, Sitrep!” Keyes called.

    “Moving into the camp, killing house,” John said, twisting and firing off a round at an Orc that was trying to hide, but was betrayed by the movements of its body. The 7.62 round hit it in the throat and ripped its head off.

    “I am assisting the Dwarves and Neeshka along the eastern flank. Enemy has massive numerical superiority, but they’re faltering,” Orna said. “The strange humans seem to be the backbone of this operation. When they go down, the courage and discipline of the Orcs seems to waver and fade.”

    “Okay, we just slapped a new ammo drum onto the fifty, so we’re good for a while,” Johnson said. “We’re going to keep moving around the perimeter, see if we can’t spook some of them out of hiding and out into the open. Push comes to shove, we can always run them over.”

    John nodded to himself, and he could hear Orna’s plasma rifles sending off bolts of death into the ranks of the enemy.

    He reached a patch of tents, and started his sweeps. Dead Plainsmen were on the ground in front of a couple of them, the ground around them stained dark with blood that was both human and Orc. His motion sensor was not detecting anything, but best to play it safe. The tents were arranged in a somewhat hexagonal manner, each about five feet apart around what appeared to be a communal cooking fire.

    He swung his rifle around in front of him, right first, then left, moving quickly and efficiently. Most of the tent flaps were open, and whatever valuables had once been inside were now gone, leaving only scattered earth and bedrolls, along with what appeared to be traces of dried meat left as proof of habitation. The people of this group had been carried off.

    “Commander, be advised of possible non-com POWs intermingled among fleeing hostile groups,” he spoke into the radio.

    “Understood, Johnson careful where you shoot. Cortana, get the other bird up in the air and see if you can locate any before these bastards get too far away.” Miranda responded.

    The Spartan could hear the other Plainsmen coming up behind him. Right now, they had all the subtlety and stealth of a rampaging Brute Chieftain. Still, they were allies for the moment, even if he would have to baby sit them, likely as not.

    “This area’s clear, moving on,” he informed Keyes.

    The next group of tents was less than twenty meters away. This one did have activity—a few Orcs milling around looking for valuables of some kind. Looting while the battle was still raging, the Spartan had to resist the urge to start rolling his eyes at the ineptitude that he was witnessing here. He leveled his rifle and opened fire on them. Three were cut down in an instant, two more as they went for their weapons. One turned to flee, and received a double tap that blew out most of his chest for his efforts. The final one dropped its weapon and fell to its knees, its hands clutched out before it in what seemed to be a gesture of surrender. It was gibbering something to him in a growling, barking tongue that reminded him a lot of how the Grunts spoke.

    He fired a single round that hit it dead in the forehead, blowing the back of its skull out and spreading its brains all over the ground. It was nothing personal. The Orc was an enemy, he had a job to do, and no means of realistically detaining it while went about his work, and he wasn’t about to trust the thing to stay down and play nice once his back was turned.

    The corpse slumped and he moved up to the tents, double checking for civilians and survivors. There was nothing.

    “Second group empty, moving forward to the third. Seven Orcs KIA.”

    “Roger that, they’re still pressing hard around the eastern flank, but they’re starting to waver,” Keyes said.

    The third and forth tent groupings were the same, but he was getting close to some fighting. There was a cluster of Orcs and hostile humans bunched up around the north western region of the camp. The Spartan deviated from his intended route rushing over to ascertain the situation.

    There was a quartet of defenders, freshly slain, lying in front of the tents. Screams of women and young children reached his ears, and he saw two girls, one in her teens and the other one not much more than eight. The child immediately tried to bolt, but an Orc scooped her up and slashed the back of her right leg, a classic hamstringing maneuver, he recognized. One of the humans was also wrestling with the older girl, trying to tie her down.

    The girl’s frantic screams and desperate struggles went still a tenth of a second later, replaced by surprise. The human wore a similar reaction, no doubt caused by the realization that the front part of his throat was missing from the jaw down. He was able to twist and stare at the Master Chief for a fraction of a second before massive blood loss caused him to slump to the ground. The next round cut into the Orc carrying the younger girl, a sister, the Chief supposed.

    Then they began to fall like dominoes, one after the other. Some charged, only to be slain by shredder rounds that penetrated their chests, fragmented, and turned their insides into what could best be described as bloody confetti. Some chose to run, and all that happened was that they died with their backs to their enigmatic foe.

    The last one quickly scooped up the younger girl, holding a knife near her throat. John couldn’t make out what it was saying, but he got the jist of it. For a moment, the cyborg was tempted to explain to the Orc that his MA5B’s bullet, traveling at just under mach two, would be able to cross the distance between them, burry itself into the Orc’s head, blast the back of his skull off and splatter his brains—or what passed for them—halfway from where they were to the next tent group before the first commands for the Orc’s arm to move reached the corresponding nerves. Then he realized that it was probably a futile exercise and pulled the trigger.

    It happened exactly as it should have. The Orc’s eyes crossed, and its corpse slumped over backwards. The girl tried to stand, but her bleeding leg was too damaged. The Master Chief rushed forward and picked her up off the ground, motioning for the older one to get to her feet. He noticed another couple of hostile humans fleeing from the scene, and leveled his rifle, spitting off a pair of rounds at each of them. They connected and the two men dropped as dark clods of what almost looked like dirt flew from them.

    “Civilians recovered, falling back to main defending group for the moment,” he spoke into his commlink.

    He heard a shout, and saw that some humans had spotted him. One of them leveled a crossbow, and fired at him. He twisted instinctively to protect the child that he was carrying. The bolt came in and hit his shields. They flared up and crackled over the armor suit, but the gauge on his HUD didn’t show a drop by any significant degree. He leveled his assault rifle and fired one handed towards the man. The round penetrated his breast plate and ripped into his heart, turning it into so much useless muscle. He could see the man cough up blood and slump down. Others were taking notice though, and also readying bow weapons. He sent a spray of suppressive fire at them, killing some, and making others drop what they were doing and dash behind concealment after they saw what happened to their comrades.

    The Master Chief was content with that for the moment. Once he’d gotten these civilians to a safer area, he could go back and hunt them down.

    He reached the Plainsman line, who quickly surrounded him and plucked the wounded child from his arms. Her sister was right behind the Spartan, and secure in the knowledge that there was a small army between them and the enemy, he headed back out.

    There were only a few more tent groups along the row that he was traveling in, and all of them were deserted. The Orcs and their human allies were pulling back, taking whatever prisoners they could with them. The Master Chief’s blood began to boil, despite his attempts to keep it under control. This was bringing back memories of countless battles before this one, of the fights on worlds where the Covenant had been victorious and were hauling off human prisoners to be consumed by ravenous Grunts and Jackals.

    Spartans were famous for the cold, calculating rages that they could enter in the field of battle. Emotion almost departed, and every action became the end result of split second logical decisions. Mercy, what little the Spartans had in them, also fled. John himself carried the infamous title of “Demon” to the forces of the Covenant—a title earned by the blood of the hundreds of thousands that he had slain with bullets, grenades, fusion bombs, and in some cases, his bare hands. His squad mates, soldiers like Will, Fred, Kelly, Linda, Anton, and Grace… they were simply known as the avatars of death.

    Such was the nature of the creature that the invaders found themselves up against. He knew no fear, no pity, no pain. Cries for mercy went unheeded as the Spartan ruthlessly executed human and Orc alike, his massive bulk grinding their corpses into the frozen earth below.

    “Chief, got movement one hundred and fifty meters northwest of your position. Looks like more hostiles, but be warned, they’ve got hostages.” Cortana said.

    “Roger that,” he looked thirty degrees to his right, and stepped around the tent that was in his way. Sure enough, a group of humans, women, children, and a few elderly people near them. Two of the soldiers appeared to be arguing with one another. He couldn’t hear them from where he was, they were apparently taking pains to try and remain quiet, but by their frantic gesturing, he figured that they’d realized things were going south, and that it was time to bug out.

    It took the Spartan another millisecond to deduce the source of the argument: the village elderly. They might have wisdom of the area, and knowledge of resources and trades that would prove useful as slaves, but they were also going to slow the group down. And when you had an unknown, enigmatic hostile force chasing after you, you did not want to be moving any slower than you absolutely had to.

    Some of the children started to cry, and the older ones to shout. A sword started to flash up through the air, and the Spartan acted. Before the blade had reached its zenith, His MA5B had fired a single round that had buried itself into the back of the man’s skull, shattering the chain mail coif that he wore as if it wasn’t even there, and probably giving his comrades a very interesting and in depth look into the inner workings of the human skull. The others were just beginning to react with horror when supersonic uranium tore through them.

    Two of them turned to flee, ducking behind a tent. John raced around to flank them, and the men’s last few moments were filled with terror as they realized just how quickly a Spartan could run.

    This time the Chief didn’t even bother to waste a bullet. He was close enough that he just reached out and punched the nearest man square in the face with speed that rivaled a striking cobra. There was a sickening crunch as bones shattered and flesh tore. The man’s nose bone was jammed up into his skull, his shattered temporal and zygomatic bones sent razored fragments tearing into the delicate nerves, which were themselves utterly destroyed by the metal covered fist that came plowing through a fraction of a second afterwards.

    The second never knew the fate of the first, because the Chief pivoted his body and lashed out with a vicious roundhouse kick. It connected heel first into the man’s hip, crushing the femur and pelvic bones and causing the femoral artery to burst under the pressure. His mouth opened in a scream of agony that was never to be heard, cut off at its source when the Spartan reversed the kick and brought the front of his foot across his foe’s face.

    What was left of the soldier’s head was left to ooze out along the ground, along with the rest of his corpse.

    “Help’s that way!” John shouted, gesturing towards the advancing group of plainsmen.

    The civilians were left to gawk at the sight of the seven and a half foot tall killing machine bolting further into the village.

    “Be advised, Chief, enemy is pulling out and retreating into the mountains,” Cortana said. “I’m detecting numerous Human biosignatures mixed in with them, and visual feedback indicates a number of them to be captured civilians. I think this may be a slave raid.”

    “Little large for a slave raid,” Johnson muttered, and Chief could hear the heavy pounding of the fifty caliber firing off. “We need to find out who was in charge here, see if we can get information out of them.”

    The Master Chief looked around, and thought of all they had learned of the Orcs since their arrival. They seemed to operate by strong-man rule. Which would mean that the leader would probably be the largest and most well equipped Orc. Easy enough, find the one with the best looking equipment.

    He sighted up another group that he saw fleeing, but was forced to yank his gun away when a cloaked figure dashed into their midst. A pair of scimitars led him to deduce that it was Drizzt, and he fought the urge to swear. Had his reflexes not been what they were, the Dark Elf would have just gotten a round in the back. He was going to have a few choice words with the Drow and explain to him the concept of “field of fire.”

    Still, as he watched the Elf at work, he felt a small bit of respect inside of him. Spartan Time gave him a very clear view of exactly how the swordsman went about his work. The two weapons were like extensions of the Dark Elf’s body, one moment working against separate enemies to knock both off balance and then coming in to work in perfect harmony against one of them, stabbing deep into an Orc’s gut while the other slashed across its throat. The other Orc went down a fraction of a second later, blood erupting out of its belly and chest as the expertly crafted weapons did their work.

    The Drow twisted out of the way of another strike, countering with a stab that punched through the scale armor that the Orc in question was wearing. The Orc was stunned just long enough for the other scimitar to make it shorter by a head. The Dark Elf’s speed was impressive, especially for someone not augmented by cybernetics or power armor, and his stance and form indicated someone who was very close to the peak of his trade.

    Sensing that Drizzt had things under control with that squad, the Chief raised his rifle towards another nearby group and proceeded to cut them down without mercy. Behind him, the Plainsmen were rapidly approaching, and out of the corner of his eye, he could see Orna, Neeshka, and the Dwarves moving up and biting hard at the heels of the enemy.

    The only warning that he had was a sudden spike of light, and then a huge column of flame, twenty feet around, burst up from out of nowhere. The Spartan instinctively threw himself to one side, ignoring the screams of the Plainsmen who had just been consumed.

    “Cortana, where did that come from?” he growled, sweeping the area with his rifle.

    “Not sure, Chief, scanning. Detecting EM signature spiking, though, and I’m pretty certain it was some form of magic.”

    “See if you can find the source,” he said to her, as he heard cries that they were under attack from behind.

    “Be careful, that stuff was almost as hot as Covenant plasma fire,” the A.I. responded, and then went silent for a tick. “Umm, Chief, you might want to have a look behind you.”

    The cyborg turned around and saw that corpses were rising up from where they lay, grabbing their weapons and charging towards the Plainsmen line. For a moment, he thought the Flood had somehow landed here, that Grave Mind had followed them. Then he tossed that notion from his mind. These… animated corpses, did not have the characteristic color that the Flood’s combat forms had possessed, nor the tentacles that were strong enough to send a four ton Warthog flipping end over end. Their gait was also somewhat slower, and dare he say, clumsier than the Flood’s lightning quick fluidity from which they drew their name.

    If they were anything like that menace, though, it meant that they would be hard to kill, and would need to have their bodies rendered virtually inoperable before succumbing. He slung his assault rifle over his shoulder, and drew his shotgun. He lined up with one and fired.

    The explosive pellets flew out of the weapon with a thundering boom and a super-sonic crack. The first shambling corpse that they connected with simply vanished amidst the orange and yellow fireball that enveloped it. Bits and pieces went flying and he decided this was probably the ideal weapon for them.

    Still, while he had put one of them down, well over a dozen remained. He loaded another shell and let fly. This corpse, a human who had already been decapitated, was also reduced to charred metal and hunks of cooked meat. That hammer that Wulfgar carried also came flying out, and smashed into one of the undead. The corpse went flying back, utterly broken, before the hammer vanished. A neat trick, the Spartan thought. One with enormous tactical application.

    Between himself and Wulfgar, it did not take more than a few moments to dispose of the shambling creatures. Satisfied that his work was finished here, the Master Chief headed out on the advance again. He needed to find that spell caster.

    Drizzt was destined to be the first one to locate the source behind the attack. His keen eyes noticed her standing off on a rise, hidden amongst the chaos and the shadows. The spider etched into the front of her armor told him clearly what she was, a cleric of Lolth, here to oversee this slaving operation. The question was why. The ranger shook his head. There would be a chance to find out later. Right now, he needed to put an end to her games, before any more of the Barbarians got hurt.

    With the agility that his race was infamous for, he began to leap up onto some of the rocky protrusions, propelling himself towards the cleric. She glanced his way, and he knew that he’d been spotted. The priestess pulled out a small object, and seemed to be chanting a spell. Just as the Dark Elf cleared the top of the ridge, she finished and hurled the object to the ground. Scimitars held out in front of him in a defensive posture, he glared over at her.

    The ground rumbled and shook, and suddenly shot up. At first Drizzt believed it to be some kind of wall, then he realized that it was taking shape, and faintly gulped. Nearly thirty feet tall, and hewn from living rock, an earth elemental stood before him. The creatures were armies unto themselves, able to tear down the mightiest of walls with ease, and entire military companies were often lost before such brutes could be dropped.

    “Destroy them…” she whispered harshly, and it was a voice that Drizzt thought he recognized.

    The elemental charged past him and leaped over the cliff. It came down and hit the ground with a thunderous crash. It made a beeline for the barbarian lines, rampaging towards them with the fury of a hurricane.

    Wulfgar would be able to handle it, Drizzt tried to convince himself. Right now, he had to stop the Cleric. If he could take her down, it might damage the connection of the elemental to the Material Plane, weaken it somewhat. He approached her carefully, his eyes on the mace she carried in her left hand, and the snake-whip in the right.

    “Hello, brother,” the girl whispered.

    For a second, he wasn’t sure what she meant, but then he realized who it was. The priestess robes, the sneering tone… and the build. It was Briza, his eldest sister. She was large, even by female standards, nearly the size of a human. Zak, his father, had always joked that was because she had too much anger in her for a smaller body to do. There was much malice and cruelty in her as well. He still had a few scars on his back from where he had earned her wrath as a child.

    “So… our dear mother would chase me this far…” He muttered, keeping his eye on her. If he could lure her into a rage, she’d be easier to beat. It had worked the last couple of times he’d run into her in the Underdark.

    “Our dear mother…” Briza hissed glaring at him and clenching her fists. “Malice is dead because of you, you foolish male. Her failure to kill you cost her heavily. She did not survive the retribution Lolth sent as a punishment.”

    “Well, I’d say a prayer and hope that she was resting in peace, but I seem to recall that fat spider that you worship doesn’t really swing that way, so I’ll make her eulogy short and sweet,” he paused for a moment, and then grinned. “She had it coming.”

    Briza snarled and attacked, her whip sailing out and the five heads coming to life, each one seeking to try and bit through his leather and mithril armor. He swung his scimitars back and forth, swatting aside the heads and slicing one of them in half with Icingdeath. It went limp, but he had no reprieve, because his sister brought her mace in, causing it to burst into fire with a word. The harsh light bothered his sensitive eyes to a degree, but he was able to fight through the pain and parry it, making a stab at her midsection at the same time. Briza was able to twist out of the way.

    He had to dive beneath the next attack, his eyes widening as one of the snake heads came within a hairsbreadth of hitting him in the face. Again, though, he proved to be the victor, bringing Twinkle up and lopping its head off. Now she had only three heads left.

    “You think this bothers me, little brother?” she grunted as she swung her mace. “Even now, my elemental is rampaging among your lines, slaying your friends, crushing them without mercy! It shall destroy them—“

    Whatever Briza had been about to say was cut off by a tremendous roar and explosion.

    Both Drow turned and stared out below. All they could see was an enormous amount of steam and molten, slagged rock. Drizzt noticed the Master Chief, the sun shining off of his armor, standing near the blast zone, a large, box like device on his shoulder. The Barbarians also appeared to be absolutely stunned by what they had just seen.

    “Yes, sister, you were saying?” he arched an eyebrow over to her.

    Briza screamed in rage and attacked him straight on. The remaining heads of her snake whip lashed out, and combined with the flaming mace, forced the renegade Drow to work furiously to keep them from landing. He sliced another one off, swatted the mace aside, and then dodged to the right to avoid the furious retaliation of his sister. Briza was going on a rampage, or trying to. With a twist of his left wrist, Drizzt was able to slice the remaining two heads off of the snake whip, but it bought him only a short respite.

    Briza cast another spell, and another flaming mace appeared in her hand. She also seemed to grow even stronger, her muscles cording up and making her look even more deranged than was usual. An impressive feat, Drizzt thought to himself.

    He flipped out of the way of the strike that followed, knowing that there was no conceivable way he’d be able to dodge it. Snarling, Briza tried to bring the other mace down from overhead and smash his skull into his shoulders, but he dove to the side and the mace connected with nothing but air. Rolling, the ranger came up to his feet and slashed out with both scimitars. Twinkle was deflected off of the breast plate that his sister wore, but Icingdeath was able to score a slight wound just underneath her arm.

    Briza cried out as the weapon’s chilling touch made her right arm limp and unresponsive, and her mace fell to the ground from suddenly numb fingers. She countered with a furious swing that would have crushed his ribcage if he hadn’t danced out of the way.

    Scimitars and mace continued their dance as the Spider Priestess started to call on more of her powers to aid her. A glowing shield of energy leapt up around her body, keeping Drizzt at bay. The renegade Drow frowned, then decided to play dirty in his own way. A thought was all it took. There was a crackling of black lightning, and a loud yowl reverberated throughout the area. Guenivyer had come to play. The enormous black panther, six hundred pounds of muscle, fangs, and claws, shook her head and lunged towards the cleric.

    Guen remembered this one. Nearly two decades ago it had hunted her friend in the underground wilds. She had wanted to bring her keeper back to his death. The large cat threw herself at the Drow priestess. Briza leapt to one side, rolling around in the snow, before scrambling back to her feet. The cleric had no desire to test her magic against a creature of the astral plane.
    As she rose back to her feet, the only warning that she received was a sudden pressure in her back, followed by the boot of her brother. She made a clumsy swing with her mace at Guen, who had darted in to maul her, but the agile panther easily avoided the blow. Again, she rolled around, muttering a complex chant under her breath.

    As Drizzt again approached her, a glowing portal opened up, and out of it came a human sized lizard creature. It gave a screech, and leapt at the ranger, who barely managed to avoid the jumping lunge. Grimly, he noted that each of the creature’s feet sported a large, sickle like talon, about eight inches long. Its tail was also lightning quick, and caught him square in the chest. He grunted and was sent flying. It was on him in an instant, but as it went to pounce, a loud roar resounded through the air, and a black blur knocked the creature off its feet.

    Drizt took advantage of the reprieve and vaulted back up to his feet. Briza was back up as well, glaring at her brother with hate filled eyes. The ranger, however, had had quite enough of this little contest. As his elder sister went to cast her next spell, he sheathed Twinkle, and reached down into a pouch that he wore on his belt. He drew out a small object about the size and shape of a child’s marble.

    He tossed it to the ground, and squinted. There was a flash and Briza cried out. His eyes, somewhat more used to the bright light after more than two decades on the surface, were only mildly disturbed by the sudden change in luminescence. He raced over towards his sister, and punched her square in the face, following it up by a blow to her temple with the butt end of Icingdeath. Her eyes rolled up, and she slumped to the ground, blinded and disoriented.

    Once he was sure that she was down, he raced over to help Guenivyer. The black panther sported several wounds from her fight with the reptilian beast, but she had repaid it in kind. He reached down, pulled a dagger from his boot, and threw it as hard as he could. The six inch long blade sunk up to its haft into the flesh of the creature. It screeched, and twisted to face him, a move that would ultimately prove fatal. Guen took the opportunity to pounce, coming down hard and clamping her teeth on her foe’s spine. The bones snapped and shattered under the panther’s fury, breaking its back, paralyzing it, and sealing its fate.

    Once it was disposed off, the ranger looked around. The battle appeared to have been won, though he used that term hesitantly. He didn’t know how many people had been carried off by the raiders.

    One of the off-worlder’s vehicles roared by down below, the large weapon on its back thundering and causing Orcs to transform into clouds of blood and chunks of flesh before his very eyes. The black armored human that was manning it—Johnson, was cutting their ranks apart with the thing.

    He felt a shudder well up inside of him. What world did these people come from, what wars did they fight, that merited the use of such a weapon? How could anyone be so brutal as to craft something like that?

    A small nagging voice in the back of his head took extra care to remind him that whatever that device was, it could shred him as easily as it could the Orcs here.

    --

    The Master Chief looked around himself and took stock of the casualties. Many of the Plainsmen were sporting wounds, some of them serious. They were also looking exhausted, and would be in no condition to fight. He frowned and palmed his rifle a few times, trying to think of the best solution.

    “Cortana,” he asked, “How many hostiles escaped, and do you have a number on the captured civies?”

    “Several hundred of them made it out, and there is always the possibility of reinforcements,” the A.I. said. “As for civilians, I’m not sure, but judging by the scans I’m getting of the camp right now, they may have made off with as many as half of them.”

    The Spartan paused for a millisecond, noting that Drizzt was hauling up someone, a female Dark Elf. He was surprised, as he recalled Neeshka saying something about Drow not coming to the surface very often. Still, she represented an intelligence gathering opportunity, one that needed to be exploited at the earliest opportunity. They had a tribe to rescue, after all.

    As he began to approach the aged warrior he’d met earlier, Keyes pulled the Warthog up to the group and put it in park. She and Johnson both hopped off the LRV, and moved over. Bruenor, Neeshka, and Orna were also converging on this location. He noted that there only seemed to be a couple of missing Dwarves, though most were sporting minor wounds. They were experienced fighters then, and their armor of high quality.

    “Gonna be needing to add some more notches to me axe,” Bruenor said, looking towards the elderly warrior, who Chief was beginning to think the leader of this tribe. “Still, the bastards made off with quite a few of your number. Any plans for what’s next?”

    “First, preparation,” Keyes said, crossing her arms over her shoulders. “We’ve got a drone in the sky monitoring the movements of the Orcs and the other parties. Once we ascertain their destination, we take stock of their defenses, and plan accordingly.”

    “You may get some help from this one if you can weasel it out of her,” Drizzt said, toeing his the female’s side. “I’m not sure how you’ll do it though, Spider Clerics are quite resistant to pain and torture.”

    “Cortana, get one of the birds down here,” Keyes said.

    “Aye-aye, ma’am.” One of the Pelican’s rapidly descended to ground level, causing some of the natives to quickly back away.

    Johnson hurried onboard, and the Master Chief knew what he was looking for. ONI had long ago cooked up a series of drugs that could be injected into prisoners for interrogation purposes in the field, where time wasn’t exactly a luxury that soldiers could afford. They did things like suppress mental ability, distort judgment, and the like. He still wasn’t certain if it would work, though. It was entirely possible that the cocktail, made for use on Humans or Covenant forces, wouldn’t affect a being of Drow physiology, or that the priestess’ body might be “hardened” against such toxins by delivering similar substances in minute amounts, building up tolerance and resistance over time.

    There was, however, a possible solution. He looked around for Regis, and found the small alien standing near a tent, seemingly deep in thought. He approached carefully and saluted the councilman.

    “May I help you, soldier?” Regis asked.

    “We might need your stone to interrogate the prisoner Drizzt captured,” he said.

    “I thought as much. Though I warn you, Clerics tend to be able to resist such tricks like this.” He started to follow behind the Spartan.

    “We’re also going to administer a drug cocktail and see if it can’t loosen her up a bit,” the Spartan said as Johnson emerged from the Pelican with a hypodermic needle in hand.

    “She’ll need to be fully awake for anything,” Wulfgar said, turning to face them. “And before that happens, we need to gag her. I don’t want her trying to fry us all.”

    “Agreed,” Drizzt said with a nod, pulling out a piece of cloth from one of his pouches and making a quick but effective gag with it.

    “Might want to do something about those hands too,” Bruenor gestured with his axe. “Not all spells need a voice to get moving.”

    There was a quick exchange of glances among the gathered people. The Master Chief considered hand-cuffs or restraints for a moment, but those only stopped the wrists, not necessarily the fingers, and it wasn’t like they made a habit of carrying military grade Chinese finger traps with themselves. Still, there was one solution that was certain to work, even if it was extreme. He looked over to Keyes, who understood, and nodded her head twice.

    The Spartan shifted his assault rifle, slipping a strap over his shoulder where it clacked against the Spartan Laser and his shotgun. A few steps brought him over to the female Drow. He knelt down next to her, and before anyone could react, had taken her hands into his own and squeezed. The bones shattered instantly, and she awoke with a muffled scream. This was followed by Johnson, none to gently, picking her up by her cloak, jamming the needle into her neck, and depressing the plunger.

    “She can’t cast spells with her hands if the hands don’t work,” Keyes said, her voice cold.

    The natives were just staring at the off-worlders, and Drizzt himself seemed almost alarmed. He opened his mouth to say something, but then thought better of it. Then everyone’s eyes fell upon Regis, and the Halfling nervously stepped forward, taking his gem out of his shirt and shinning it at the cleric.

    The combination of drugs and magic coupled with the pain of having every bone in her hands shattered worked wonders on the cleric, and within moments, she had a dull, glazed look to her face. The gag was removed from her mouth, and as a precaution, nearly every weapon in the area pointed straight at her.

    “Take it away,” Keyes said, gesturing to Wulfgar and the elder Plainsman he was next to.

    “Who are you?” Wulfgar asked.
    The Dark Elf looked over to him for a moment, before opening her mouth.

    “I am Briza Baerne, first born daughter of Matron Malice Do’Urden,” the Master Chief noticed that her tone was monotone, as if she was oblivious to all else. He also caught the last name, and his eyes shifted over to Drizzt, who seemed to withdraw deeper into his cloak. “Adopted by House Baerne when House Do’Urden fell a decade ago.”

    “Fell?” Orna asked, cock his head to the side.

    “We failed to eliminate my brother, who had blasphemed against the Spider Queen,” she twisted to see Drizzt, her crimson eyes connecting with his violet ones for a second. “When my mother failed to destroy him, Lolth took vengeance upon her. Our house was eradicated. But Matron Baenre is wise, she knew that my sisters and I had nothing to do with the rebellion and blasphemy of Drizzt. She spared us, took us into her own house, thereby increasing its power.”

    “Why were you here?” Wulfgar said, crossing his arms and glaring down at the woman before them.

    “I was under orders to orchestrate a raid on the Plainsmen,” Briza shook her head for a moment and then focused back on the hulking warrior. “The raid’s purpose was to be twofold. The first objective was to deprive Bruenor Battle-Hammer of any reinforcements or aid that he might obtain from them, or from Ten Towns, as they would be to worried about their own hides to send help.”

    “And the second?” Bruenor growled, drumming his fingers against his axe handle.

    “To cement an alliance with Luskan. The Plainsmen are strong, their women and children as well. They make excellent sources of heavy labor or other work deemed too dangerous for the city’s guard or standard workforce.” Briza said with a shrug.

    “What are the plans of Matron Baerne?” Drizzt took a step forward, his heavy cloak draped around his form like an oversized robe, hiding him from the stares of the others.

    “Mithril Hall is to be just the beginning. Alliances are being forged, and armies from all over the Underdark mustered.” She laughed slightly. “We are going to band together, and sweep your world aside to forge our empire.”

    Briza continued to cackle, and the Master Chief frowned.

    “How long until your invasion is ready? Where are you concentrating your forces? What makes them up, and what fortifications does Mithril Hall have that you are augmenting?” he snapped off questions in rapid succession.

    “Where and when is information I am not privy to, and cannot tell you. As for our forces, if it lives in the Underdark, we will bring it to your surface world.” Briza smiled as she finished, a somewhat dreamy look on her face.

    “What about the Luskans, explain them,” Bruenor spoke up.

    “They’re to get a large portion of Faerun and the Moon Islands to control. A number of powerful Drow artifacts have also been promised to their arcmagi.” A lopsided grin was still on her face.

    The interrogation continued for some minutes, but little further headway was made. At last, the questions were exhausted, and everyone was lost in thought or a moment. Finally, Keyes spoke.

    “Is there anything else we need from her?” she asked.

    “Not really.” Bruenor shook his head. “And holding her will be tricky, I’m not really sure what we’re going to do with her now.”

    “Any chance of turning her from the enemy? How potent is that stone?” She turned to Regis.

    “She’s already fighting it,” Drizzt nodded his head. “As for her turning traitor? You’d have a better chance of getting sympathy from a Balor,” he sighed. “Briza was always fanatical as a believer, even for a Priestess of Lolth. That spider bitch has her fangs deep in my people.”

    Keyes bowed her head for a moment, then looked up. “Chief…”

    Nothing else needed to be said. The Spartan drew his rifle, pointed it at Briza’s chest, and fired two rounds and point blank range. The snow splashed red with blood, and she toppled backwards, sprawling out as her shattered heart leaked out life essence.

    Everyone was too stunned to react for the first few seconds. Their eyes kept moving between the Spartan and the dead Drow before him.

    “Problem solved.” He said it with a tone of finality.

    “You… just executed her?” Bruenor looked up at him, and John could clearly see the confusion on his face.

    “She was a hostile target only temporarily subdued, we had no way of extracting further information from her, and our resources are already strained. Further, I’m not about to let a hostile, who’s full capabilities I do not yet know, onboard my ship.” Keyes said.

    Drizzt’s head was bowed, his eyes closed as if he was praying, the Master Chief noted. When he was finished, and opened his eyes back up, there was a combination of sorrow and resignation in them. The Spartan figured that there must have been some very… interesting… history in the Drow’s past. He also had the impression that Drizzt was hiding something. He frowned, but put it in the back of his mind for the moment. He could inquire about that at a later date. There were more important things to worry about at the moment.

    “Let’s move,” Keyes gestured towards the Pelican. “Get those with critical wounds onboard, we’ll take them back and patch them up. You three,” she nodded to Chief, Johnson, and Orna, “load up with them and head back. Prepare yourselves for a night assault.”

    “Infiltration or dynamic?” Chief asked.

    “Both,” Keyes said. “Anyone who wants to help us get those civilians back is more than welcome to assist.”

    “We will need time to prepare,” the elderly warrior said, “but they are our wives, children, brothers, sisters, and parents. I, Revajik, promise you all the help that we can spare in dealing with this threat.” He thumped his fist against his chest.

    “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Bruenor said. “‘Sides, the fewer Orcs in this area, the better.”

    “I cannot just stand by and watch innocents suffer,” Drizzt said nothing else, merely bowed his head again.

    “Count me in too. This is a chance for me to pay you guys back for all the help you’ve given me,” Neeshka said, waving her hand in the air. “And if Luskan is involved, well, it’s bad news for Neverwinter.”

    Keyes nodded. “Then prepare yourselves. We’ll be back ASAP to explain the plan.”

    With that, she and her soldiers stepped up alongside the wounded Barbarians and shot out of sight.
     
  9. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Eight - By Demons Be Driven

    Once more, the Master Chief found himself in a Pelican with the natives. Sitting in the seats along the wall, or desperately holding onto the grips in the ceiling, was a strange and varied assortment. Dwarves, Plainsmen, even some soldiers that Bryn Shander had sent along when they'd gone back to warn the town. They made small talk with each other, or muttered under their breath. Everyone, though, seemed to be keeping a wide berth around him, Johnson, and Orna.

    He wasn’t surprised. While he had helped, he and his two comrades represented an unknown element, an enigma that wasn’t truly understood. Neeshka didn’t seem to be bothered by them, though. Neither did Bruenor, and both he and the Tiefling seemed eager to understand all that they could about the weapons that the UNSC issued to its soldiers, especially the Oracles that he and Johnson were carrying.

    “So what exactly are these things?” Neeshka asked. Her helmet was off, and she was staring at the massive sniper rifle in a manner that told John that she was used to trying to analyze the value of weaponry and other war materials.

    “S02-Ms,” Johnson said. “We call them Oracles, usually. It’s a long range sniper weapon, anti-infantry classification.” He stopped with those technical details, and then reached into a kit next to him, pulling out a long, tubular device which he attached to the end of the flared barrel.

    “And what is that?” Bruenor raised an eyebrow.

    “Suppressor,” the Master Chief said, reaching into the weapons locker above his head and pulling out one for himself. “Makes the gun quieter, so you can use it without being detected. It also hides the muzzle flash.”

    The Spartan did a last minute check of the Oracle in his hands. The sights and scope were both calibrated for him, as was the smart link system. He could also be a tad more liberal at where he aimed, as the gun was currently loaded with subsonic ammunition.

    This was necessary to avoid the double shockwave that the normal, hypersonic rounds gave off, which could betray his position.

    His MA5B was also similarly equipped, currently loaded with subsonic shredder rounds. Though he did have normal ones for when the infiltration segment of the mission was over with.

    They were, however, bringing some heavier weapons along with them. When the Dawn had shipped out for the Ark, she’d had several state of the art weapons and add-ons onboard her. However, time constraints prevented them from being distributed before now, and they were too powerful for the instances where they had engaged in combat on this world so far. Now that they wouldn’t have to worry about civilians milling in among hostiles, though, they could be a little less selective when targeting large groups.

    The Spartan palmed the M-608 GDS attached to the bottom of his assault rifle. Standing for Grenade Delivery System, it was an ugly, tubular piece of machinery with several knobs and dials near the rear. It featured a fifty millimeter wide barrel and a rear fed tube for launching specially designed grenades via electro-magnetic acceleration. At the moment, both the Master Chief and Johnson were carrying a mix of fragmentary and white phosphorus incendiaries.

    The Pelican began to slow down, and he made his way towards the door at the rear. It opened and a beautiful, almost pristine sunset spilled orange, red, and purple light into the troop bay. He hopped out of the drop ship, and looked around at the surroundings. He interfaced with the smart link of his scope, and began to stare around at the mountains, the infrared scope turned on. Once he was certain that the area was secure, he motioned towards the others, and they began to spill out of the craft.

    Cortana’s remote controlled UAV and the other Pelican had tracked the Orcs and Luskans deep into the mountains. There was a trail through them that would turn south a few kilometers in. No doubt, they were hoping to use that to lose any pursuit, while simultaneously moving around the Ten Towns and any other regional powers. The trail would also make it easier for the younger and older slaves to be moved without the risk of losing them.

    This information had been relayed to the bulk of the remaining Plainsmen, and a force of about two hundred strong was here waiting for them. They approached cautiously, and John saluted Revajik as the Plainsman King walked up to them.

    As Johnson, Orna, and the natives piled off the transport behind him, the Chief reached down into his supply belt, and brought out a portable hologram generator. Over three hundred square kilometers of terrain sprang to life. The group drew closer, staring at it.

    “Cortana, zoom in on the camp and bring up the data feed for it,” John said, placing the small device on the ground and taking a knee next to it. Different colors sprang to life, each one detailing where guard patrols were being set up, where Luskans and Orcs were clustered, and finally, in the center, a large gold area, representing the captured plainsmen.

    “Okay,” Keyes said over the radio. Her Pelican was still a few klicks off, but she was looking at the same holomap. “First order of business is the elimination of the patrols and sentries. That task falls to the Master Chief and Sergeant Major Johnson.” Details sprang up, indicating the paths that the patrols took, what intervals they operated at, and how many made up each one.

    “The patrols appear to mainly be Luskan scouts,” The Spartan said, gesturing towards the outermost ring. “They’re lightly armed, and lightly armored, but they seem to know the terrain well enough. Orcs make up the interior, and they aren’t as… disciplined, in regards to their work. Once they’re down, Johnson will set up on this ridge here,” he pointed to one that was about a half kilometer away from the majority of the camp, “while I take this one over here to the west.”

    The natives, especially Neeshka and Drizzt, nodded their heads. From both of these ridges, they would have a complete view of the camp, and be able to cut down anyone at will. “We’ll be sniping, looking for targets of opportunity, group leaders, any chiefs or similar officers. Should be somewhat simple, they look like they’re trying to pack up, so the camp’s already in partial disarray.”

    “With luck, we might even be able turn their own insecurities against them,” Johnson remarked, chuckling slightly. “Let them start killing each other, then move in and mop up the survivors.”

    “A possibility, but don’t plan on it,” Cortana remarked.

    “Agreed,” the Master Chief said. “Once the scouts are neutralized and the perimeter sentries are taken out, we’ll begin phase two.” The decals on the hologram changed slightly. “Cooperation is going to be paramount here. The slightest slip up, and people are going to start dying.” He let the sentence hang in the air, so they could understand exactly what was at stake. “Bruenor, you and your soldiers are the best equipped and most well trained,” he heard several of the Plainsmen snort at that remark, and he looked up at them. They fell silent, and he continued. “We need you to form up, and try and get towards the prisoners, just in case the Luskans decide to start killing them as well. The plainsmen will assist you, as will Orna.” He stared intently at the Dwarf. “Hit hard, and hit fast, do not engage in unnecessary fights.”

    “Hostage rescue isn’t exactly our forte, are you sure about this?” The Dwarf frowned and crossed his arms.

    “Look, the Chief’s been doing this sort of infiltration and assault operations for more than forty years. Trust us, he knows what he’s doing.” Cortana said.

    Silence permeated the air for a few seconds, but then Bruenor nodded somberly.

    “Good,” the Spartan reached down into his supply belt, and started drawing out some small, angular devices. “Now these are commlinks. I need the designated leaders for both groups,” he looked at Revajik and Bruenor, “to put them on. They’ll allow you to communicate with us from any point on the battle field. If you’re getting bogged down, let us know, and Johnson or I will provide cover fire and take out what we can. If it’s really heavy, a group of fifty or more, let Cortana and Commander Keyes know, and they’ll provide assistance with one of the Pelicans.”

    “Who’s the other one for?” Neeshka asked, scratching her head slightly.

    “Drizzt,” John said, tossing the device towards the Drow, who deftly caught it, stared at it for a moment, and then, with some reluctance, put it in his ear. “You’ve already got a radio built into your helmet. What I need for you two to do is to move around together and try to figure out who’s in charge of the Luskans.”

    “Not following you,” the Tiefling said.

    “That Spider Cleric may have been in charge of the operation, but these people would have had their own chain of command to operate under. We didn’t spot an individual who stood out or seemed to be issuing orders during the raid, so he’s probably still alive. Sneak through the camp, see if you can find him, and capture him.”

    “You want information from him, don’t you?” Drizzt cocked his head to one side.

    “Correct.” The cyborg nodded his head. “From the information you’ve provided us with, and what Briza revealed, it seems as though Luskan is getting ready to start a war up here. This individual might have data on certain weaknesses that we can exploit.”

    “Stab them before they stab you,’ Neeshka said. “I like the way you think.”

    The Spartan nodded, and then continued the briefing. “A couple of final notes. First, remember, do not break radio silence, speak, or attack until after we initiate phase two. When you hear the word ‘Dynamic’ coming from me, start your parts. Until then, use the hand signals that we showed you.”

    “What if we get spotted?” Wulfgar asked.

    “Take them out quietly if you can. If the camp’s alerted to our presence, things get harder.” The Master Chief looked up at him as he spoke, and then back down to the map. “If we’re prematurely discovered, you’re free to break radio silence.” Then he looked over to Drizzt and Neeshka. “I want you two to stay together. It’ll make it easier to keep track of you, and you can watch each others backs. Understood?”

    The two of them nodded.

    “Well then, let’s get this show on the road,” Johnson said. “Daylight’s about gone, and I’m in the mood for a little nighttime hunting.”

    It took them only a few moments to gather up their stuff, and then they were on their way. The Pelicans remained behind, lest their noise give away the group. They would, however, be able to reach them in a matter of moments once support was called in, or phase two of the rescue operation was under way.

    --

    Moradin grumbled as he moved around the fortress that Helm resided in. The human god was hard to find at the moment, and the Dwarven deity had a bone to pick with him. He’d searched just about every square inch of the compound, and so far found nothing.

    There was only one place left to search: Helm’s inner sanctum.

    Moradin turned a corner, and not surprisingly, found the hallway lined with angelic soldiers. Some had been created by the God’s will; others were mortal heroes whose deeds and skill were sufficient to earn them an honored place at their deity’s side. All were heavily armed with a variety of weapons, and sported heavy armor. None, however, moved to stop the Dwarf as he marched through.

    The Dwarf entered the sanctum, and got the surprise of his eons long life.

    Helm was conversing with an infernal. The Devil—for he recognized the smell of a Baazetu—was walking about freely at the God’s side, not bound by a summoning circle or any wards that could be seen. The Baazetu was in its humanoid form, and appeared to be a blue skinned man wearing crimson and off black robes. Nonetheless, Moradin could see through disguise, and recognized the Pit Fiend for what he was.

    “You’re absolutely certain that’s where he’ll be?” Helm asked, looking over to the fiend.

    “Yes,” the Devil responded. “Are you certain that you can handle him?”

    “It will be a difficult fight, but I believe I can exploit his weaknesses properly.” Helm responded with a shake of his head. “You have my thanks for the information.”

    “No thanks are necessary,” the devil shook his head. “We stand to benefit just as much as you do from the fool’s fall.”

    “Very well,” Helm bowed. “That is all I required, Mephasm, you may take your leave.”

    Mephasm said nothing, but merely shifted out of the plane.

    “What was that all about?” Moradin asked after a moment.

    “Planning, in advance.” Helm held up a finger and then turned around to face his friend. “Before you ask, you needn’t worry. I haven’t filled them in regarding everything, just that I intend to make a move against Demogorgon when the Weave shatters.” He nodded over towards a small box at the far end of the sanctum. Even from this distance, Moradin could feel the wards and traps that guarded the box.

    He wasn’t certain what was in that thing, but he knew that it had to be something important.

    “So when do they start to mobilize to take back Mirthril hall? Every day they delay…”

    “Timing is everything, my friend. The opportune moment will arise soon enough. Until then allies have to be gathered, and alliances forged.” Helm said, with a mysterious smile.

    --
    The Master Chief brought his fist up, and then gestured for those behind him to get down. They had reached the areas where the outer patrols were set up, and the natives, with the exception of Drizzt and Neeshka were going to hold here, inside of a small copse of pine trees and evergreens. He spared a look back over them, and double checked everyone’s equipment. Green triangles that were splashed on his HUD flickered over the head of everyone wearing a commlink, as well as Johnson and Neeshka. Up in the sky, more than a kilometer in the air, a white triangle symbolized where the remote UAV was.

    He turned to the Tiefling, the Drow, and Johnson, and motioned for them to fall in behind him. They did so, and with his assault rifle braced against his shoulder, the Spartan led the way.

    “First sentry group three hundred meters and closing. UAV detects six men.” Cortana said to him and Johnson.

    Both the cyborg and the ODST had their external speakers turned off, and so they winked the acknowledgement lights on their HUD. The Master Chief motioned for Neeshka and Drizzt to get down behind some rocks.

    Spartan and Helljumper ducked behind a series of rocks and double checked their assault rifles.

    The Master Chief opened up a private communications line with Johnson. “You take the ones on the left, I’ll take right.”

    His acknowledgement light blinked blue, indicating an affirmative. A sub-window opened up on his HUD a moment later as the UAV zoomed in on the patrol. The Chief could hear bits and pieces of hushed conversations among the men of the patrol, and noticed that they were packed tightly together, those with shields had them raised, and everyone had their weapons out. They were alert, and spooked by what had happened with the raid on the Plainsmen village earlier.

    “I’m telling you, I’ve got a bad feeling about this whole thing… those things were demons, they had to be.”

    “Like the barbarians would really know that kind of stuff. You know they hate magic, think it’s only used by the weak.”

    “Then what the hell were those things? And what if they hunt us down?”

    So it went. The Spartan almost smiled at the irony of their statements. Then he looked over to Johnson. The Sergeant was ready as ever. It took another minute or so for them to round the bend in the trail that would put them in sight. The Spartan watched his HUD intently. Once the targets were inside of one hundred and fifty meters, he decided to strike.

    “Now!” he hissed to Johnson.

    Both men popped up over the rocks and took aim. The soldiers saw movement, but could not make out precisely what it was in the dark. Even if they had been able to, it wouldn’t have helped them. The MA5B’s gave three muffled coughs apiece, and all six with down to expertly placed head or heart shots.

    The Master Chief signaled for the group to move forward, and Neeshka and Drizzt got their feet. The group moved over rocks and through sparse bits of foliage that were too stubborn to realize where they were trying to grow.

    Another heads up from Cortana came about two minutes later, and they prepared themselves for another six man patrol. This time, the crags were becoming more prominent, and the four of them went prone on a large rock face some twenty feet above the ground.

    The first of the soldiers came into sight once again. On the Spartan’s infrared sensors, they stood out as brightly glowing targets, acutely defined objects of white, range and red in a realm of blue, purple, and black.

    “Hot in three… two… one…” the Spartan whispered over the private commline.

    Once again, the MA5B’s gave muffled coughs. The Luskans went down, their bodies internally shredded by the steel, lead, and tungsten alloy rounds that they’d been hit with.

    “Next group is four hundred meters out, move quickly.” Cortana said.

    The Master Chief winked an acknowledgment light, and motioned for everyone to get up. The group hopped down the rocks, trying to avoid making a single sound that would betray their presence.

    A few scraggy pines were growing along the next part of the trail, and the team took cover behind it. This patrol would be slightly larger, carrying nine people instead of six, and they’d need to move faster before an alarm could be sounded. Mountains had an annoying tendency to echo, and even if the man didn’t get more than a few meters before getting a 7.62 round in the back, he might still give them away.

    He saw them coming, lined up his assault rifle, and squeezed the trigger. There was a faint kick against his shoulder, and the man’s head disintegrated inside of his chain mail coif. The patrol leader went down as Johnson mimicked his superior. Two more fell as the Spartan fired towards center mass, ripping fist sized holes straight through their bodies.

    And so it went. Time and again, they took cover, waited for their prey to arrive, and then cut them down mercilessly. There were ten patrols in all, and none of them were able to get off so much as a shout before dying.

    Eventually the team split, with Johnson heading east, while the Master Chief took the western edge of the camp, snake crawling up the rocks to their designated sniper positions. Neeshka and Drizzt hugged the sides of the cliffs moving along the ground, searching for the mysterious head of the Luskans.

    The Master Chief could see the fires burning brightly on his infrared scanners. The Spartan decided to rely more on his natural night vision than the sensor, given the chance of the heat affecting his aim and perception… and what they were about to unleash. The myriad of false colors faded, and everything returned to normal.

    The cyborg scanned around the camp, looking for targets of opportunity. In the chaos of everyone packing up, the place was rife with them. He saw food stocks, a blacksmith and a fletcher, leather works, and a wagon train for carrying it all. There were also troop concentrations all over the place. They were huddled around camp fires, staring into the flames while they ate or talked. The Spartan frowned. Didn’t they know how badly something like that would destroy their night vision? You always kept your back to a fire.

    “Strike teams, move up the trail, stop after six hundred yards,” he whispered into his mike after he opened up a temporary radio channel with them. His HUD told them that they were moving, and then he took stock of where Johnson and the others were. The Helljumper was in position, and ready to unleash a deadly rain of high precision fire into the camp.

    The Spartan drew his Oracle and began to look through the camp. The sentries along the extreme perimeter would be the first ones to die. His sights settled on one, an Orc that appeared to be skulking in the dark, upset at having drawn this shift from the duty roster. Any complaints the brute might have had left his mind a second later, along with most of the gray matter itself.

    Muffled coughs, inaudible to anyone standing more than a few feet away, crisscrossed through the camp, each one marking the end of a life.

    Once they were down, the two men moved on to the next objective: targets of opportunity. The Spartan stared about, and noticed that around one of the fires was an Orc that was carrying different equipment from his fellows. His plate armor covered most of his body, and by his side was an axe almost as large as he was. A sergeant, or perhaps a group chieftain, John mused. He settled the targeting reticule upon the humanoid, right on his left temple.

    “The UAV and Pelican scanners don’t detect anything that looks like civilians being held inside the military tents. They must have orders to leave them be.” Cortana said.

    Good, John though, they could be even less discriminate.

    “Begin phase two, repeat, Dynamic, Dynamic.” he said, right before he squeezed the trigger.

    The Orc’s head exploded like a boil, showering his comrades with his brains and skull fragments. Johnson also went hot, his identification triangle turning yellow to indicate that he was firing his weapon.

    The Spartan started targeting others that seemed to be higher up on the command chain, tearing enormous holes in their bodies, or decapitating them with precision rifle fire.

    “Strike teams five hundred meters and closing.” Cortana said.

    “Acknowledged,” the Master Chief said, placing his rifle down at his side. He then drew the MA5B, and armed the GDS attached to it.

    It was loaded with a phosphorus grenade at the moment, and he took aim at the largest concentration of troops that he could find. They were over by a communal kitchen, getting bowls of food, or had been, rather. Now they had dropped their chow and were hastily pawing at weapons. Behind them was a vast majority of the wagon train that was supplying this camp.

    He squeezed the trigger on the grenade launcher. Electromagnets did their work, hurling the round out at nearly twice the speed of sound, leaving behind a faint ‘foomp’ noise. The minute crack it made was drowned out by what followed. A moment prior to impact, a micro charge inside of the grenade detonated, spreading the phosphorus around and igniting it. The results would have been absolutely horrific to anyone who had not seen the carnage of a modern battlefield.

    A twenty meter wide spray of flames went out, white hot. White Phosphorus burned hot, far hotter than a standard combustion flame. Flesh, leather, wood, hair, steel, it didn’t care. It even burned underwater. Men and women ran to and fro, some throwing themselves onto the ground to desperately try to put out the flames that were eating through their clothes and starting to consume their flesh. All they did was help to spread the fire. It latched onto the wood and pitch of the wagons, and like an insatiable beast, set them alight as well.

    The screams… The Master Chief knew that any Luskan or Orcish survivors of this night would carry those screams with them to the grave and beyond. There were few deaths more horrific than being burned alive, and it became even worse when the individual was screaming as the flakes of blazing phosphorus were burrowing into their skin, setting their bodies to fire from the inside out.

    The Spartan loaded another incendiary, and fired it into a midst of troops that were paralyzed by the scene at the supply wagons. They joined their comrades in a series of fiery death throes a split second after Johnson’s GDS reduced a group of Orcs to bits of meat and splashes of black-red blood.

    In the face of firepower like this, the two groups quickly began to panic and run around like chickens with their heads cut off. The two soldiers, however, were utterly ruthless and methodical. The Master Chief launched a third phosphoric grenade right into the blacksmith. The coal and wood stored inside of it went off in an instant, creating a roaring blaze that would quickly engulf most of the camp. All the better. The more chaos, the easier it would be to dish out more havoc.

    “I think we found the leader,” Neeshka announced to them. “Big guy with the lightning enchanted sword coming out of the tent to the northeast.”

    John spared a glance, and sure enough, there was an armored soldier who was standing around shouting orders at the top of his lungs. His large, two handed blade had glowing bolts of electricity that would arc over the surface about every half second or so, and for a moment, the Chief was curious as to how you might do something like that. Then he focused back on the mission and fired a frag grenade into a bunch of milling Orcs.

    “Think you can lure him away and isolate him?” The Spartan asked.

    “We can try,” Drizzt responded.

    “Strike teams inside of three hundred meters.” Cortana announced.

    A ball of darkness suddenly formed up around a group of Luskans and Orcs that were trying to organize themselves. The Master Chief found that his night vision couldn’t penetrate it, but focused on other targets for the moment.

    “Drizzit, was that you?” Johnson asked as one of his incendiaries exploded along the camp perimeter, igniting an entire group of Orcs that had been trying to escape.

    “Yes, and I think…” he trailed off as screams and cries came up from inside the orb. When the darkness cleared, most of the enveloped men, Orc and Human alike, were down in pools of their own blood. “Perfect.”

    Both sides stopped, and stared at each other, despite the carnage going on around them. The Orcs howled, and some of them charged at the Luskans. The Humans tried to form up, but were overrun before they could do so.

    Johnson launched a frag grenade into the swarms below. It detonated with a loud boom, sending body parts everywhere.

    “Good fricking God,” the Helljumper muttered over the comlink. “I’ve seen leaderless Grunts that had more discipline than this.”

    “That’s something I’ll have to see to believe,” Orna muttered.

    “Target of opportunity on the western edge of the camp,” Cortana announced. “Valkrie missiles inbound.”

    The Spartan noticed a group of about three hundred Luskans and Orcs that were fighting each other in the chaos. A few seconds later, the whole bunch was enveloped as the Pelican’s multi-purpose missiles detonated among them. Sporting a twenty kilo warhead, the weapons had an effective lethal shrapnel radius of about five hundred meters. Most of that, however, was absorbed by the large amount of bodies in the way.

    “Strike teams, one hundred meters and closing,” the A.I. said.

    “Drizzt, grab that C.O. and get him out of there. You’re running out of time,” the Master Chief barked.

    The Dark Elf said nothing. Instead, he pulled out a small crossbow and leveled it towards the man. The Drow fired, and the bolt connected with the man’s shoulder. The officer gave a cry as it punched through his plate armor, and then he slumped to the ground, twitching faintly.

    “Neeshka, come on, I’ll need your help to move him,” the Dark Elf said.

    “Johnson, you cover them, I’ll try to clear the way for the strike teams.” The Master Chief said.

    “Roger.”

    Two men who rushed to the aid of their commander did so only to die with a shredder round between their eyes. Both slumped back, the rears of their skulls scattered on the ground behind them.

    John saw one Orc, larger than the rest, raise its war axe high into the air and shout. He couldn’t see any identifying markings on the humanoid, or anything that would lend itself to the creature being of high social rank, but it did appear to be trying to rally the masses.

    He fired a frag grenade at the humanoid. Half a second later, everything within ten meters of its position had been ripped apart by the shrapnel.

    “We’ve almost dragged this guy away, keep them off us for a few more seconds,” Neeshka shouted.

    The Spartan turned his attention back towards the Tiefling and the Drow. A squad seemed to notice what they were up to, but before they could so much as twitch in the direction of their abducted commander, a series of well placed shots put them all down. Then the two were in the shadows, back in their element.

    “Secondary objective complete,” the Master Chief said.

    “Roger that, saw it myself,” Keyes radioed back.

    “Targets in visual range!” Orna said as the strike teams rounded the final corner. A series of plasma bolts came from his twin rifles a moment later. Orcs were blasted off their feet, and Luskans cut down where they stood as the Sangehili Arbiter came in.

    The Dwarves and Plainsmen screamed at the top of their lungs, their weapons reflecting the firelight and carnage that had torn through the camp like a tornado. The Luskans immediately tried to rally and face this new threat, with some of the Orcs realizing that they were under attack from a third party, and trying to join them. Others still lashed out blindly at anything that drew near them.

    The Master Chief noticed what appeared to be a secondary commander ordering the troops into battle, and he loaded his last phosphorus grenade. The device enveloped the entire Luskan command group, with just the results that the Spartan was hoping for. The heat of the flames, well over two thousands degrees centigrade, drove everyone who hadn’t been bathed in them staggered backwards, and those with combustibles on themselves, such as leather or fur equipment, that were too close found themselves turned into living torches anyway.

    The command group itself descended into a howling gaggle of men and women pawing at leather armor that was burning them alive, or steel chain mail that was melting to their skin and muscles. More than a few were clawing at their faces at bits of impossibly hot phosphorus that had hit them there, causing skin to melt off their faces, eyes to liquefy in their sockets, and their exposed facial muscles and skull bones to become charred beyond recognition. Steam was everywhere as snow and ice were violently vaporized by the ambient heat.

    The Luskan line barely held together, some men breaking and fleeing, while any semblance of order among the Orcs was now officially gone. The Spartan and ODST let them go for now. Given the illusion of a chance for escape, it was all the more likely that the group would break. He’d kill them if they got to close to the captives, but other than that…

    “Cortana, can you move one of the Pelicans down towards the end of the trail?” He asked as he fired a few more rounds into the mass. Orna’s plasma rifles continued to vaporize enormous chunks of metal, leather, and flesh as well.

    “I can do that,” he heard a smile in her voice. Cortana was usually caring and fairly compassionate, but true to her “mother” Doctor Halsey, the construct had a vicious streak—sometimes outright sadistic towards those she felt deserved it.

    The Master Chief said nothing in return, only fired at a few more fringe elements. Then the Dwarves, Plainsmen, and Ten Towns soldiers, more than two hundred and fifty battle hardened soldiers, hit the panicking lines like a sledgehammer striking a block of ice. Arrows from Drizzt and Neeshka joined in, and combined with assault rifle fire, had the effect of utterly destroying the morale of the enemy soldiers. Scores—hundreds, broke and fled. The allied front kept pressing forward, the Dwarven and Human soldiers fighting with skill and fueled by centuries of hatred for the Orcs. The Plainsmen were more wild, but even more ferocious, fighting to reach their women, children, elders, and fellow warriors.

    And then there was Orna. The Elite had drawn his plasma swords, and fought like a possessed being. Graced by power, endurance, and reflexes that nearly matched a Spartan, he was an army unto himself among his foes. It was like watching a wolf rampage among sheep, the cyborg thought to himself.

    The Orcs broke to the north, no doubt planning to head deeper into the mountain range. A few Plainsmen looked to follow, but Keyes was quick to cut them off.

    “Revajik, keep your people heading towards the captives. Cortana and I will deal with the retreating enemy forces.” She shouted over the comm.

    Seconds later, her Pelican appeared over the mountains. The drop ship got in-between the fleeing forces and the allied front, and now, with no need to worry about allies being in the way, Keyes was free to utilize the drop ship’s weaponry as she saw fit.

    A pair of Valykrie missiles exploded at the flanks of the retreating Orcs, while the seventy millimeter chain gun mounted on the chin took care of the main body. It was over in seconds, and if any of the ones in the force were still alive, they didn’t try to move or flee.

    The Master Chief turned his attention back to Bruenor’s group. They were making steady progress, now. The chaos that had been sowed was doing its deadly work. Try and flee rather than fight. They were throwing down their weapons and their shields and running away from the allied force that was pummeling them.

    “Let them go, stay focused on your objective,” the Master Chief said to the group commanders. He reloaded his assault rifle, and then took aim again. Some of the Luskans and Rocs were getting comfortably close to the pinned captives, and the Spartan opted to take them out. They were cut down like animals, with all the ruthless precision that dictated the actions of a UNSC soldier.

    “Press on!” he heard Bruenor shout. This was followed by a scream, and he suspected that the Dwarven King had just cut another Luskan down.

    “Enemy forces moving into a full on route,” Cortana said.

    “Revajik, Bruenor, chip away at the flanks and those that fall behind, but once you reach the captives, worry about securing them. Every thing else is secondary.” The Spartan said as he put shredder rounds into the back of another pair of Luskan soldiers. Organs, or what was left of them, went flying out of the new holes in their bodies, and the extra movement pitched their dying bodies forward.

    They landed face first in the mess that had once been their internals.

    “Target opportunities diminished from current position, moving forward to provide assistance,” the Spartan said.

    It was true, the Luskans were a little too close to the captives now for him to take chances. Plus, it was possible that tales of hen and the others had spread, if the conversation the scouts were having was any indication. It was possible, given their current state of mind, that his mere presence would shatter any hope that the Luskans might attempt to reorganize.

    It took the Spartan only a few seconds to make his way down the cliff, and charge into the camp. He moved past Drizzt and Neeshka, who were still shooting into what retreating soldiers they could target.

    He heard shouting as soon as he entered and sure enough, there was a group of sixteen or so troops that were trying to form up. One of them reached into a belt pouch, and pulled out an object. It was spherical, and black, the cyborg noticed. He leveled his assault rifle, and fired it. The shot was dead on, ripping the man’s head to pieces, but he’d already lobbed the object. The Spartan began to move, firing as he did, and mowing down more of them.

    The object hit some twenty feet behind him, and the only warning he got was a sudden spike on his temperature gauge. Flames enveloped him, slowly draining his shields. However, while the fireball that the object had created was potent, it was brief and his armor and shielding systems weathered it without incident.

    What he was unaware of was that among the captives was the young boy who had first seen him. Rognar had been seriously wounded during the attack, and was sporting a number of slash and arrow wounds to his body. His life had only been saved because of a timely healing potion by the Luskans, who did not wish to lose such a potentially valuable investment.

    He saw the blast orb hit the ground near the golem, and saw flames envelope it that would have turned any man to ash, or turned steel red hot. He expected that to be the end of the thing. One could only imagine his surprise, and the surprise of the Luskans, Orcs, and other who witnessed the event, when the creature emerged completely unharmed from the fireball. Yellow lightning crackled over its green and black surface, and it leveled its weapon. He couldn’t see or hear anything over the chaos of the melee, but the offending group of soldiers began to fly apart. Heads were shattered and scattered over the area, and holes the size of a man’s head punched through their torsos.

    There was also a strange demon, even more impossibly huge than the golem. Two swords of light were in its hands, and with super human speed and grace, it carved through the remaining foes as they tried, in vain, to flee from it.

    One man, a sergeant from the looks of his armor, tried to run away, screaming and sobbing at the top of his lungs. From thirty feet away, the demon leapt through the air. Its am was perfect, and it came down right on the man’s back, crushing him into the ground and silencing him forever.

    In another minute, it was all over. The Luskans had fled past their makeshift pin, running down the canyon and out of sight, around the curve in the mountain. It took a moment for reality to sink in, for them to realize just how quickly fate and fortune had changed. Then one of the tribal elders raised a fist into the air and gave a strained cheer. Another joined him, and then a woman, a young child. It spread like wildfire through the ranks of the captive people, and Rognar found himself joining in despite the aches in his body, and the chill on his skin.


    The warriors of the Elk tribe were already tearing apart the posts that made up their holding pin, and people were rushing out through any available hole they could find, some even bashing their own, now that the threat of being cut down where they stood had been removed.

    “Shouldn’t we be pursuing the bastards?” he heard one man say as he finally managed to get out in the open.

    The man was a soldier from Ten Towns, judging by his armor.

    “I don’t think that will be necessary,” Wulfgar said, Ageis-Fang, bloody and dripping a steady stream of gore, was held in his right hand. HE turned to face the golem and the demon. “I saw one of their contraptions fly over head and move down into the canyon. Its waiting for them there, isn’t it?”

    Before an answer could be made, Rognar heard screaming, the screaming of hundreds, perhaps, to be heard so far away. This was followed by a sound he had never heard before in his life. It was loud, and seemed to be a combination of a high pitched whine and a loud boom. It drowned the screaming out, and was swiftly followed by another, and another. There were nine in all, and less than a minute after that, another one of the large flying craft came from where the noise had been.

    “Answer your question?” a new voice said, and Rognar watched a smaller, black figure walk up.

    “The first objective is to loud up the ones who are critically wounded and in need of medical aide. Once that’s taken care of, we have an interrogation to start.” The young lad frowned. He heard the voice of a woman, but couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. He scratched his head and looked up at the group. Wulfgar saw him, and came over to him. The enormous warrior towered over him, and started looking him over.

    “Might want to get these looked at, before they become infected,” he pointed to the scabs that ran along his chest and arms. The young boy nodded.

    “He’ll have to wait for the second load, we’ve got more serious cases at the moment,” said another woman.

    “Agreed,” the first female said. “Master Chief, Sergeant Johnson, help get these people loaded, and then go have a chat with that captain.”

    “Yes ma’am.” The two golems. Moving over towards the mass of captives. They were soon helping the worst cases onto their flying craft.

    As they finished, the Master Chief and Johnson walked back over to where Drizzt and Neeshka had left the captain. The man was still on his back, paralyzed by whatever the Dark Elf had hit him with. He pulled the bolt out, and pocketed it. Cortana would be interested in seeing what the head of the bolt had been coated with. The man could still control his movements a bit, as he was moving his eyes, and when the Spartan picked him up by the catches of his cloak, he whimpered audibly.

    It was to be expected, as here was this large green… thing, that had just helped to slaughter the entirety of his expeditionary force, and that of the Orcs, and now it was holding him more than three feet off the ground with a single hand.

    “Were you in charge of this operation?” The Master Chief asked. He allowed a little bit of menace to work its way into his voice.

    “Y-yes,” the Luskan gulped as the others drew close. “The Hosttower charged me with securing these captives. They were to help us build up war materials and take over menial labor so that we could conscript and prepare more troops for the upcoming battle.” He whimpered some more at the grip around his cloak tightened. The chief watched the captain stare down at him.

    How terrifying must it have been for him to look at something like a Spartan? To stare into that cold, emotionless visor, and see no mercy, no pity, no feelings whatsoever. Mendez had always drilled using psychological warfare to its greatest potential on the battlefield, one reason that John was so pleased for the Spartan’s reputations as angels of death and destruction to permeate through the Covenant ranks. It made their army scared of them. They were more likely to panic and make a mistake if they realized just what they were up against.

    This man would have had no way of knowing that, but the sight of an armored Spartan was always imposing, especially considering what he had just done.

    “Your battle plans, what do you know of them?” The Spartan asked.

    “I don’t know much,” the man gulped, and placed his hands reflexively around the Spartan’s massive fist. “Only that Neverwinter was our first target. From there, we were to move down the coast and secure it so that the Drow and their allies, when they reached the surface, could begin securing and utilizing the ports.”

    “Why am I not surprised?” Neeshka groaned, tapping a finger to her helmet. “What is it with you guys and your obsession with Neverwinter. You should seriously see a cleric about it. I mean, really,” she shook her head and spread her arms, “frothing at the mouth at the mere mention of that city cannot possibly be good for your health.”

    “What else can you tell me?” The Spartan asked, tightening his grip just a little more.

    “Nothing, nothing at all! I swear!” the man screamed. The cyborg noticed a growing stain down the leather of the man’s trousers, and his face wrinkled in disgust. The captain had just soiled himself. The way that the natives like Drizzt and Bruenor were now sniffing at the air made him tempted to roll his eyes inside of his helmet. He resisted though, and focused back on his captive.

    “You’re sure,” he reached back over his shoulder, reaching for his rifle.

    The Luskan burst into a new set of futile struggles, flopping around in the Spartan’s iron hard grip like a fish out of water. “Yes! I promise you! I swear on my mother’s grave!”

    “Hah, like a Luskan’s promise is any good,” Neeshka crossed her arms as she spoke, and John noticed that her tail was twitching back and forth in agitation.

    The Master Chief stared back into the eyes of his captive. The captain’s face was a dictionary definition in terror and fear, pale despite the cold, his eyes wide, his chest heaving in hyperventilation. “Gods, please, don’t kill me, I’ve told you everything!”

    “Commander,” the Spartan said, as he switched off his external speakers and opened up a commline. “I’ve interrogated the prisoner, and I think he’s out of information. Do we need him forth anything else?”

    “Don’t think so, check and see if he’s of any value alive.” Keyes responded.

    “How much value is placed on the lives of a Luskan officer?” The Spartan inquired, turning to face Drizzt and the others.

    “Precious little,” Bruenor rumbled. “Their kind run through the street by the thousands. You can’t go anywhere without stepping on someone looking to rise in the ranks of the city guard.”

    “Please…” the man begged. He was close to sobbing. Once more, the Chief’s lips curled in disgust. He was tempted to reach for his rifle and silence the man there. But then he thought of a better idea.

    “I don’t have the right to judge you,” he mused aloud, before turning and heading back towards the mass of Plainsmen that were gathering what they could from the ruins of the camp. “But there are some people here that you’ve… wronged… today. I think it rather fitting that they be the ones to decide your fate.”

    He found Revajik and Wulfgar easily enough, as the latter towered head and shoulders over his fellow Plainsmen. The Spartan causally tossed the man before the group. “We’re through with him. Do as you please with him.”

    There was a moment of silence, and then Wulfgar started to palm his hammer, while others stroked their weapons. In moments, they swarmed around him. The man screamed and thrashed, but was no match for the powerful warriors that surrounded him. Cries went out for wood and rope to be brought, along with any tent stakes that survived.

    “What are they doing?” Johnson muttered as he drew close to the Chief, tapping his finger to the chin of his ODST helmet.

    Bits of armor started to fly from the circle as the requested materials were brought up. The breastplate and a gauntlet fell close to the group.

    “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say they were making some manner of yolk, or the like,” Orna mused, his mandibles twitching.

    Sure enough, a cross was soon erected, and the man lashed to it. The Master Chief noticed that his armor, leather padding and other clothes were now gone, stripped and taken by the group, and he was clad only in a stained and soiled loincloth. He stared at his temperature gauge. It was currently reading more than twenty five degrees below zero. A quick flip over to thermal vision revealed that parts of the man’s extremities were already starting to lose valuable body heat.

    “He won’t last more than thirty minutes like that,” John said, matter-of-factly.

    “He violated our people, and our land,” Revajik said, turning and staring at the Spartan. The Master Chief noticed the raw hatred in the eyes of the king. “Let the land claim him, and let him hang here as a warning to everyone else who would dare try this.”

    The Spartan nodded. Chief Mendez would approve.

    “First load dropped off, we’re returning for the second,” Keyes said. “Cortana’s remotely activating the Longsword, we’ll be able to carry more that way.”

    “How long can you keep them at your spell jammer?” Bruenor asked.

    “Not more than two days, I’m afraid,” Keyes said, speaking through the commlinks. “The Dawn’s equipped for a five thousand hand crew, usually. But right now, we’re cut off from resupply, and a long way from home. I’d rather not strain our resources if we can’t help it.”

    “Our fortress may not be suited to creature’s of Plainsmen height,” Bruenor said, “but we can keep some with us, at least until they can get their village back together. Ten Towns can likely help the rest. They’ve got a lot of room, with the battle against Kessel having left so many dead.”

    “In the meantime,” Cortana said. “We’ve made a deal with Casius in Bryn Shander to help transport food and supplies to Ten Towns in exchange for this dragon horde you’ve got.”

    “Indeed?” Revajik raised an eyebrow. He seemed wary. Evidence of bad promises in the past? The Chief wondered. “And what portion of it are we to give to you in exchange.”

    “Nothing,” Keyes said. “We’re more interested in learning the lay of the land at the moment.”

    The Plainsmen King frowned. “That seems, rather generous of you. I know we’re not what you people consider ‘civlized’ but we have our honor. You’ve helped us greatly. It demands that we must do something in return for us.”

    “Commander, we still need to get that pipeline built, and see if we can get a mining operation going to get to that uranium and tungsten deposites that our scanners picked up.” Johnson suggested.

    “True,” Keyes responded. “We’ll discuss it later, once we get everyone stocked away for the night.”

    “I agree, the sooner my people are in some kind of shelter, the better,” Revajik said. Then he quietly took the earpiece off. “Tell me, if I may ask, exactly what is this Spell Jammer of yours like? My people are nervous around the… arcane arts.”

    Wulfgar chuckled and placed a hand on the older man’s shoulder. “Well, that is quiet the tale to tell.”

    As the Plainsman started to speak of the wonders he had seen there, The Master Chief noticed that Drizzt had a scowl on his face.
     
  10. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Nine - Unexpected Arrivals

    The Master Chief double checked the storage bin above his head, making certain that the weapons were secured and locked away. Then he turned and sat down, his massive form causing the Pelican seat to groan beneath him. Orna and Johnson sat across from him, with Neeshka nearer to the front of the craft. Keyes was in the cockpit, overseeing the final takeoff procedures.

    The past thirty six hours had been hectic, to say the least. Overseeing the migration of more than three thousand people was not an easy thing to do. No one had gotten more than a few hours of sleep. However, while there might have been the urge to pat themselves on the back for a job well done, the UNSC soldiers knew that there was still work to be done before rest could be enjoyed.

    For starters, Neeshka had to be brought back to the city of Neverwinter, and this Lord Nasher fellow needed to know that Luskan was gunning for his city. And so they had all popped combat stims, and piled in.

    The docking bay doors opened, and the Pelican shot out. It quickly reached hypersonic speeds, leaving a double shockwave behind itself. Moving at speeds exceeding six thousand meters a second, the journey to Neverwinter, if Neeshka’s directions were correct, wouldn’t take more than a few minutes.

    “So what can you tell us about this Lord Nasher guy?” Cortana asked.

    “Well,” Neeshka said, bringing her hands up to her chin, “in his younger days, he used to be an adventurer—a catch all term we used to describe someone who goes around looking for trouble by looting tombs and taking on odd jobs for people—but that was years ago.” He paused. “He’s pretty fair, I mean, look at me. Could have thrown me in irons and tossed me into a cell till Asmodius died of old age. Instead, he takes me and makes me one of his agents. Especially rare, if you consider what I am.”

    The Master Chief nodded. So they weren’t dealing with a tyrant. Good. That would make negotiations easier. The Spartan wondered what the people of Neverwinter would think though. Thus far, they had been met with fear at almost every turn. Casius had been eager for an alliance, but that was out of necessity. The Plainsmen were now the closest thing one could call to a staunch friend, but that was because they had helped save their people from enslavement and annihilation.

    Neeshka spoke more of the city, and something surprised the Chief. She was telling them about the walls, the defenses, the skill of the soldiers, and the town’s history. Its many wars against the Orcs and Luskan to hold onto their little spot on the map, the arcane forces brought against it time and again, and the heroes that had risen up to try and quell the threat.

    Those were vital statistics and information, things to be carefully hidden… unless the listening party was trusted explicitly not to betray the information. The Chief smiled to himself. Maybe they were making friends here after all.

    There was something that puzzled the Spartan about the girl, though. Her face, there was something about it that seemed hauntingly familiar to him. It lapped at the edges of his memory, just out of reach, and he wondered what it could be. Her carefree, vivacious attitude reminded him a lot of Kelly, but aside from that, she had nothing in common with the Spartan scout.

    He frowned, but put it aside. There would be time for that later.

    “Approaching population center,” Cortana announced. “Recommend we start slowing down. I don’t think shattering every window in the town would be a good way to make a first impression.”

    Keyes said nothing, but the Master Chief could feel the drop ship coming to a stop. Once the shockwaves behind them had dissipated, they started forward again, moving at a comparatively slow three hundred kilometers an hour.

    It had been decided that this time, since Neeshka was on the city’s employ, and the guards were more likely to trust her, that the Pelican would bring them all the way to the front gates. This might also help put on a display of power, and convince Nasher of the benefits of an alliance.

    As they drew close, the Pelican swung around and its back door opened. A faint bit of morning light poured through, but for the most part, the interior remained dark. The sun had not yet risen above the city walls.

    Neeshka moved out first, slinging her duffel bag over her shoulder and heading out. She paused for a moment to remove her helmet and tuck it under her shoulder, and then she hopped off the short landing ramp, before marching up the thirty meter distance that separated the Pelican from the walls of the city of Neverwinter.

    The Master Chief could feel the eyes of dozens, possibly hundreds of guards upon him and the craft he was on. He and the other paused long enough to gather up a selection of weapons they wished to display to Lord Nasher, and then the Spartan edged out, making certain that his supplies were secure in his webbing, belts, and bandoliers before tanking a step off the end of the ship.

    No crossbow bolts, arrows, or vials of flaming oil came towards him, or any more of those grenade type devices. He was aware of the other three gathering at the rear of the other three a few meters behind him, hiding in the shadows of the craft. It had been decided that Chief would move out after Neeshka, followed by Johnson and Keyes. Orna would come last, as it would be best not to alarm them too quickly with a creature that was apparently thought a demon on this world.

    Much to his surprise, the guards at the gate were saluting the Tiefling and didn’t seem to be too terribly alarmed by the Spartan’s presence. Slowly, he started to walk towards them. As he drew closer, some of them did start to look surprised at his massive bulk, but the cyborg was equally mystified about them. Neither his gait nor his pose would have given anything away, but the Spartan was amazed by the quality of equipment that these soldiers were equipped with.

    Finely made chain mesh clinked together as the guards moved and conversed, while the sergeant was clad in spectacularly made plate armor. If these were just the soldiers assigned to guard the gates, then what did the elite soldiers wear? The knights? Lord Nasher’s bodyguards? This city must have had access to an enormous amount of quality metal ore in order to outfit their soldiers like this.

    Some of them gasped suddenly, and the Spartan knew that Orna had stepped out of the Pelican and was now walking towards them. The Sangehili moved forward slowly so as not to further alarm the guards, occasionally double checking the straps on the back-pack styled power cell he was carrying.

    “Don’t worry about it, he’s with me,” Neeshka said with a dismissive wave.

    The guards did not seem entirely convinced, but they sighed and stood away. One of them remained next to the Tiefling, though, and motioned for them to follow.

    “This way,” he said, moving past the gates and deeper into the town.

    The Master Chief gazed around the city as they moved inside of it. For a Medieval Era, it seemed surprisingly advanced. Late Gothic, if his history lessons were correct. High arches characterized the larger buildings, along with a myriad of buttresses. The houses that the civilians lived in appeared to have shingled roofs and be made of either wood or stone. They were also laid out in a very orderly fashion. Great care and planning had gone into this city, rather than the haphazard and seemingly random construction that he’d found in Bryn Shander.

    They reached a square and were assaulted by the noise of city life. Merchants were hawking wares, each one crying out that theirs was the best, and available for the cheapest amount of gold. Even here, great organization seemed to be in place. Stands that were selling dried fruit and smoked vegetables and meat were organized close to one another. Next to them was what appeared to be a series of bakeries, judging by the people that were walking out with loaves of bread tucked under their arms.

    Further down the road (which he noted was finely paved and cobbled) were other merchants. Some of these were selling standard items that one might expect to find in a city like this: salt, leather goods, baskets, even a metal smith offering various trinkets made of gold, silver, and copper. He noticed little in them, though, that could tell him the culture of the place.

    He tried to ignore the stares and the sudden quietness that enveloped the area as more and more of the local citizenry became aware of what was going on, of the group of strangers that were moving through their city. Whispers soon sprang up, some of them loud enough and careless enough hat he couldn’t help but overhear them.

    “What in the name of the gods?” a man selling fish remarked.

    “Who are those… what are those.”

    “Their with that demon girl,” he heard someone say just a might bit too loud, he gave the person a stare, noting the slim build and the pointed ears. They looked like a lighter skinned version of Drizzt. A surface Elf, he supposed.

    Evidence of racial prejudice, he thought to himself. If that was the norm, and the kingdoms of this world splintered up into regions that only had control over a region within a few dozen to a few hundred miles of the capital, he could see why the Drow would be interested in taking them over. Fractured and disunited, a powerful outside force could take these places over piecemeal, without ever having to worry about facing a large, united assault force.

    It was a lesson that Earth humanity had learned very well. It had been driven home by the gladii, philums, and ballistae of the Roman Legionaries under the Caesars in the first two centuries A.D when they had conquered nearly half of the known world, and held it for almost a thousand years. Genghis Khan’s cavalry archers had devastated Asia, Russia, and nearly all of Europe, creating the largest empire the world had seen up till then. The British, with their rifles and enormous warfleets, had done it until their consecrated and conquered lands literally stretched over the entire planet.

    And then the UNSC’s predecessor, the Allied Nations’ Defense Initiative, forged together from an alliance of the United States, Germany, and Australia (the only countries with anything that resembled an intact military and infrastructure in the wake of the third world war) had used these tactics to slowly bind the entire world together, at long last achieving the dream of putting all of humanity under a single flag.

    This disunity would also mean that securing allies against the Drow’s aggression would be all the harder. These kings, regents, and oligarchies wouldn’t budge unless they thought it in their best interests to fight back, and it was entirely possible that some would actively attempt to undermine others, thinking to use the invasion to their best advantage.

    Such shortsightedness would doom any effort to resist literally before it could get off the ground.

    Laughter reached his audio sensors, and he turned to see a group of children running through the streets, their chores at home apparently finished. They were hitting a small ball that appeared to be made of wood and was painted a bright yellow. It bore a slight resemblance to the Earth game of hockey, but the sticks didn’t have a paddled end, and he couldn’t see any goals, or for that matter, any teams. They seemed to just be hitting it for the fun of it.

    One of them, one of the larger children, gave the ball a hard hit, and sending it sailing through the air. Chief’s reflexes kicked in, calculating velocity, acceleration, direction of the ball, wind speed and direction. His arm blurred forward and the ball was captured by it.

    Everyone stopped, and the laughter died in an instant. The Master Chief was bemused for a moment, and stared down at the object in his hand. It was well worn, sporting dents and a few faint cracks in a number of places. Some of the paint was also flecking off. Then he stared back at the children, who were pale faced and shifting nervously.

    He gently lobbed the ball towards them. The wooden sphere bounced a few times along the cobblestones, and rolled back into the group. Fear filled faces disappeared, and they went back to their game.

    “Awww, such a way with children.” Cortana spoke through his internal speakers.

    The Spartan said nothing, but continued to follow behind Neeshka and the other guard. They soon passed through a large, fortified gate. The Spartan noted the incline that they were moving up, and nodded approvingly as he stared around at the walls and portcullises around him. This place had been designed with defense in mind. He could see a castle in the distance, and looked over its architecture.

    It was again, mid to late Gothic in appearances. The battlements were smooth and rounded to eliminate weak points, while the towers sported steep coverings to ward off damage from arrows and siege weaponry. Zooming in with his visor, he noted that the shingles on the room appeared to have been secured and reinforced by a number of steel bands. Clever engineering trick, and it again reinforced his theory that there were a large number of metal veins around this town. This was especially in light of the number of soldiers that had been seen wandering the streets.

    The cyborg had also been pleased by those. They were well disciplined, marching in perfect step, and their eyes were shifting about for trouble, especially staying focused on the alleys.

    As another group passed them by, he also noted a solid distribution of weapons among them. The squad leaders typically was carrying a large warhammer—a tactical anti-armor weapon. Two men behind him were carrying axes, weapons that he knew were hard to stop once the user got his momentum up. The remainder were carrying halberds, great for being able to harm an adversary before he could harm you.

    They also wore a cloak, he noticed; a pattern of silver stars on a sky blue background. He had seen others in heavier gear every once and a while as well, and theirs held a single star surrounded by gold. Were the cloaks used to denote what branch of the military that these soldiers belonged to?

    “The cloaks that the soldiers are wearing, what do they mean?” he asked Neeshka. The Tiefling looked at him for a second and then shook her head slightly.

    “Sorry,” she said, “that’s pretty common knowledge around here, I forgot that you wouldn’t know it.” She smiled faintly, and pointed at the guard in front of them. “The light blue means they’re part of the city watch. Three stars means the rank and file, four stands for a sergeant, and four with a silver border means that the individual’s a captain.”

    “And the gold?” Orna spoke up. “What does that signify?”

    “It means that the person’s a knight.” The Tiefling went silent for a moment, and the Spartan saw something, he wasn’t certain exactly what, flicker across her face. Sorrow? Regret? It passed as quickly as it came. “Beyond that, you’ve got the Nine. You’ll recognize them when you see them.”

    The girl was hiding something, the Master Chief was certain of that. Still, it wasn’t his business to pry, not unless he suspected that it was something that would be detrimental to the safety of his fellow UNSC personnel.

    The rest of the journey to Castle Never passed in relative silence.

    --

    Back at the sight of the battle, strange things were afoot. There was a slight swirling in the air, moving in a circular manner. It was nothing as violent as a tornado, more like a hay-devil, a small cyclone with winds that rarely exceeded twenty kilometers per hour. Suddenly, there was a flash, and a silvery-blue disk opened up out of nowhere. The object was standing on its thin side, and looked to be relatively two dimensional. Out of it stepped a few, all of them shrouded in cloaks that hid their features. The lead one nervously gripped his twin blades and stared around. He squinted, and then motioned behind him.

    Two more people stepped out, the first was a figure clad in black robes, with a series of blue runes sewn into the material. Behind him was someone how confirmed the identity of the party. One could immediately tell that this Drow was different from his fellows. Where they hid from the sun beneath their cloaks, he did not. He almost seemed to revel in the bright light.

    A large, wide brimmed had adorned a head that was shaved bald. Its dark color was offset by an enormous white feather that curled backwards out of it. Numerous gemstones adored the vest he wore, and a number of rings and amulets hung around his neck. An eye patch covered his left eye, though those who knew him well would know that both eyes were intact, and the patch was just as likely to be on the left one day as it was on the right the next.

    His name was well whispered in the heart of Menzoberranzan: Jarlaxle. Aside from the archwizards of Scorcere, he was the only male Drow in the entire city who was seen as anything more than fodder for the Matrons’ schemes. That was because he commanded Bregan De’Aerthe. The militant arm of his mercenary band rivaled the power of many of the leading houses, while his spy and information network was so well entrenched and integrated into their society that no one in the city so much as came down with a chest cold without him knowing about

    But despite his power, there were some that even he could not ignore. Matron Baerne herself had requested… no, ordered him to come out here and find out what was going on. She had tried communing with Lolth, but had been unable to effectively contact her deity. It had made the old matron worried, and so he had been called in.

    The Drow mercenary whistled as he looked around at the remnants of the Orc and Luskan camps. Bodies blown to pieces, ripped in half, missing limbs, and the whole place laid to ruin. He hadn’t seen this much devastation since House Arlias had failed in its attempts to eliminate a higher ranking family, and the Abyss had been unleashed on it in retribution for its violation of Menzoberranzan’s “laws.”

    “My, my,” he said, rubbing his chin, “someone made quite a mess.” He turned to face the first Drow that had come out of the portal. “Something tells me that if your sister was here, that she’s no longer among the living.”

    “No information would please me more,” the Dark Elf, Dinin Do’Urden, replied, spitting into the snow. “Briza always was an insufferable bitch.”

    Jarlaxle said nothing, but motioned for his soldiers to spread out. He himself went for the far side of the camp, to see what he could scrounge up. The carnage was almost surreal to him, and considering his society and upbringing, he considered that to be impressive. He trod over the frozen bits of meat that had once been humans and Orcs, noting for a moment that there was a man hanging from a cross at the far end of the camp.

    He saw something else on the ground that puzzled him. He knelt down next to the stone, and frowned slightly. There were smooth, glassy pools about six inches deep in the center of it, as if flakes of dragons fire had struck the stone and melted through it. Whatever had done this had been hot enough to burn through the rock effortlessly, and looking around, he could see where armor had fused, and people had been burned to the point that had he not know what race they were beforehand, he would have never guessed their identities.

    He saw many corpses that bore marks of combat that he was familiar with, the slash marks of a sword or axe, or the crushed body parts of a hammer. There were, however, even more pieces to the puzzle here. Bodies had been blown completely apart, and blown apart with such ferocity that there didn’t seem to be anything left of them larger than a fist.

    Jarlaxle tapped a booted foot against the ground, wondering what could have caused it. Magic Missile? No, that spell didn’t do this to people. An Isaac’s Missile Storm, or perhaps a blast of raw eldritch power? Were they dealing with a warlock here? If so, then he was one unusual potency.

    Then the mercenary’s eyes fell upon something else. One of the northern passes that lead from this clearing was filled with Orc bodies. Dozens… hundreds, in fact. He arched an eyebrow at this, and made his way over to the field of slaughter. The devastation here was inconsistent with any type of spell that he knew of, and with a small army of wizards at his employ, that list was long and thorough.

    The ones in the center had been reduced to smears of flesh and giblets, and those on the outer edges were ether burnt to a crisp or had been shredded in a similar manner to the ones in the center of the massacre. It was the ones in-between those two that puzzled Jarlaxle. Their bodies were missing limbs and some had been torn in half. Others… others had been, jellified, for lack of a better term.

    The mercenary leader prodded one such corpse with his toe, marveling at how easily it sank into the depth of the Orc’s body. He nudged it over, and watched as muscle seemed to flow and every part of its body deformed, almost like a slime monsters had bored inside and started to digest the poor fool from the inside out.

    “Zetarin,” he called out.

    The wizard detached himself from the others and made his way over to his leader. He had his hood pulled down so low that it was a wonder he could even see where he was going.

    “Sir?” the man asked, bowing slightly as he drew close.

    “What do you make of it,” Jarlaxle gestured around the whole camp. “What kind of magic are we dealing with here?”

    “I’m honestly not sure, sir,” Zetarin shook his head and held up his hands helplessly. “I’ve sensed and pried into the arcane, but I can only detect the faintest traces of it.” He sighed. “My attunement could be off, there is something strange in the ley lines and currents these days, but I cannot sense anything trace of power on the level necessary to cause this kind of devastation.”

    There was something in his voice that puzzled his commander. “Something bothering you?” the mercenary asked.

    “No sir… well, slightly.” He shifted slightly, and Jarlaxle caught a glimpse of his compatriot’s crimson eyes, the only thing visible in the depths of his cowl. “This just brings back bad memories.”

    Jarlaxle nodded sympathetically. With a few exceptions, his mercenary band was composed entirely of survivors from fallen houses. Males that were not given the right of accusal against the attacking house in the rare event that they were able to survive, elite soldiers who had managed to evade capture, and even a handful that had survived the retribution of failure.

    Zeratin himself was from House Kerlias, though it was no longer acknowledged as such, or for that matter, neither had its history been. Failure meant more than death, it meant that you and all your family and past were effectively erased from the history of Menzoberranzan. You never existed in the first place.

    “Well, I think that we’ve learned just about all that we can from here,” Jarlaxle muttered. “Come, let’s be on our way before we fry our brains in this light.”

    What Jarlaxle didn’t know was that a mile above his head, a Frisbee sized object had recorded everything that had just happened with amazing detail and clarity.

    Back on the Forward Unto Dawn Cortana mused over their sudden arrival. Billions of outcomes, scenarios, and hypotheses zipped through her artificial mind and crystal matrices in the time that it would take a human to blink.

    She decided against scrambling the Longsword to try and wipe them out. There wasn’t a guarantee that she’d be able to get it there and take them out before they went back through their little portal, and she’d just overplay her hand. Instead, she downloaded the data, transferred it to another UAV, and launched it. The small object flew out, heading away from the frigate and towards the mountain caves where Bruenor lived.

    Drizzt might know something about these individuals.

    --

    There, were, however, events occurring that even Cortana was not aware of. The Dawn’s long range sensors had been shut down to conserve power, and to eliminate the possibility that anyone with an active sensor equivalent finding the ground ship. Had they been on, they might have spotted the object that was burning its way down through the atmosphere, almost a thousand kilometers away.

    No one on Faerun would have recognized the thing, merely believed that it was another Spell Jammer. To someone from the UNSC, though, its sleek lines, predatory appearance, and purple-blue hull would have clearly marked it as a Covenant vessel.

    It was a small craft, not much more than a hundred meters long. It was a scouting craft, designed with aggressive reconnaissance in mind, sporting a few pulse lasers and a plasma torpedo launcher, in addition to an impressive array of jamming and sensor systems.

    At the moment, though, it was in trouble. It had departed through the portal less than twelve hours ago. It’s mission: ascertain the fate of the Human vessel, Forward Unto Dawn and if possible, rescue any survivors of the four soldiers that had stayed behind. Fleet Shipmaster, Rtas Vadumee, had made finding the Arbiter a top priority of the mission, as well as the Demon, Spartan-117.

    Ship pilot Vlades Dursamee struggled with the unresponsive controls of the craft. Ever since they had entered that other portal floating above the Ark, things had gone south. A massive special anomaly had ensnared the craft, and shredded its shielding systems, while also knocking the weapons offline. What had followed had been a slow, eleven and a half hour limp towards a planet that seemed the most hospitable, while spamming distress signals and ship identification in every known frequency.

    Nothing had come of it though, and now the bare hull of his craft was being exposed to the raw heat of reentry. The few scanners that were still working had enabled him to find an ideal “soft spot” in the planets terrain to set the ship down in, though the busted engines were not making it an easy job for him.

    And of course, when your ship was coming in at fifty times the speed of sound, the term “soft spot” was relative.

    “Impact in ten seconds!” he shouted over the ship’s communication system. “Everyone brace!”

    He faintly heard affirmative feedback over his channels, ranging from the high pitched squeaks and yelps of Unggoy, the barking commands of his fellows, and the faint rumbling of the pair of Lek’golo on board.

    The atmosphere rushed by their craft and ignited from the friction. Those ten seconds passed quickly, and through his holographic instruments, the Sangehili was able to see the ground approach and fill his field of view.

    The scouting craft hit the ground and shook the earth with enough force that it would have leveled a small city. It bounced, sailing a kilometer or two through the air before it impacted again, this time staying down and skidding through the swamping terrain.

    Copses of trees and small rises were obliterated as it slashed its way across the ground. Water boiled away behind it, leaving an immense steal trail almost a kilometer wide in its wake and burning swamp grass. As his ship smashed through yet another rocky rise, reducing it to so much molten lava, Vlades was suddenly grateful for the fact that this ship, like all Covenant craft, had been built with the bridge in the exact center of it. He could hear stuff breaking loose in the troop hold, and hoped that too many wouldn’t be injured by it.

    After what felt like an eternity, the ship finally came to a stop. The Elite let out a sigh of relief, tapping his mandibles against the sides of his helmet.

    “Status report!” his commander, Mias’ Tarkimee barked out.

    “Ship at full stop. Significant damage to the hull plating along the bottom edge of the craft,” Vlades said. He tapped a few more holographic buttons. “The weapons in the cargo hold broke loose, damage unknown. Reactor stable, but shield capacitors are damaged.”

    “Sound off, casualties!” his superior said, as Vlades busied himself with shutdown procedures.

    The end results were better than could normally be expected. No fatalities, only a few serious injuries like broken bones among the Unggoy, and thanks to their shields, the Sangehili had survived with nothing more than a few bruises. It went without saying that the Lek’golo hadn’t even had their armor scratched by the impacts and rough landing.

    --

    Within minutes of crashing down, Mias had his troops in line and organizing what they could onto their vehicles: two Specters and a pair of Shadow heavy ground transports. Things had been better than the commander had hoped for. All three hundred of his soldiers were alive, and most of their infantry and logistical equipment was salvageable. The portable fusion generators, plasma cell rechargers, combat rations, weapons, and also, methane synthesizer and portable habitats for the Unggoy were all intact.

    He activated a holomap on his gauntlet, and looked at it. According to the scans they’d managed to snag before everything had gone to hell, there was a large city, around tier two technological level, about two hundred clicks to the southeast. With luck, even having to move on foot, they could make the distance in a week. Once there, he could have his Sangehili make supply runs back and forth until they had everything unloaded.

    Time to get this show on the road. He looked around at his command staff. They were all in place, and there were only a few more orders to give.

    “N'tho, Usze, take point,” he said.

    Both Sangehili saluted. They stood out from their comrades by virtue of their black armor and the two blocky protrusions that came off their backs. Both of them were Rangers, elite commando units trained to fight in every conceivable environment, up to and including the vacuum of space. With their heads completely covered by ferocious helmets that were patterned to resemble a Sangehili skull, they had lived up to their incarnation as angels of death in the face of the Brutes’ treachery, and more importantly, on the Ark, where they had battled alongside the Spartan and the Arbiter.

    Both of the soldiers unslung their newly issued weaponry—longarmed plasma rifles that bore more resemblance to human weapons, with protruding sensor scopes and iron sights—than the elegant, but somewhat poorly designed weapons that they’d been forced to use under the rule of the Prophets. Mias supposed that was one advantage to breaking away from the Covenant, in the event that his cybernetic targeting networks failed, he’d still be able to aim his gun. Both of them also carried a pistol at their sides, and a particle beam rifle over their backs.

    “Lotar, Denos, cover our flanks.” He signaled to the two Lek’golo.

    “We obey…” they rumbled. A Hunter communicated by vibrating the many eel-like organisms that made up its collective body and mind. The result was a deep, baritone voice that was more felt through the bones than heard through the ears.

    Like the Sangehili, the separatist Hunters had altered their armor to signify breaking away. It was now an iridescent black, with tinges of blue white scattered around it, and it was also more jagged than those of the loyalists. They did, however, still sport the enormous assault cannons that made them so dangerous. Stationed on the flanks of the formation, their incredibly attuned senses would make it almost impossible for an enemy to take them off guard, while the assault cannon’s enormous firepower and range would ensure that anything that did try to attack them met with a quick, if painful, demise.

    “Gazap, are your troops ready to move?”

    “Yes, Excellency,” the Unggoy replied with a salute.

    Gazap was a hardened combat veteran that Mias had served with for some time, something evident in the Uggoy commander’s pearly white armor and large build, though both were somewhat hidden by the massive fuel rod cannon that he carried. Some might think it comical that the four foot tall soldier was carrying a weapon bigger than he was, but any who knew the power that the device could bring to bear knew better than to laugh.

    “Good, then move it out!”

    It would serve the group well that they were alert. They had no way of knowing where they were, but they had crash landed in the dreaded Evermores. The swamps and bogs were calm enough by day, but at night, this place would bring forth its own horrors.
     
    UrielAngeli and RogueInquisitor like this.
  11. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Ten - Hobnobbing

    The Master Chief looked around at the castle before him and nodded appreciatively. Like everything else in Neverwinter, it seemed to have been designed with defense as the first priority, and pleasing aesthetics as the second. He could see the bowmen on the walls that had weapons trained on them, and the men-at-arms with their swords and shields.

    One man at the castle gates did stand out however: he was clad in a strange kind of silvery plate, different from the rest in that it seemed to positively shine to the Chief. His face was difficult to see behind the helmet that he wore, which reminded the Spartan a lot of the helmets worn by his ancient namesakes. The tabard that he wore over the armor was a deep blue in color, with a black eye that seemed to be shedding three teardrops. These must have been one of the Neverwinter Nine that Neeshka had told them about.

    The man carried a large, two handed blade over his back, and crossed his arms over his chest as the Spartan drew nearer. A slight buzzing went through the Master Chief’s helmet as Cortana activated some of the scanners. She was looking at the armor, he noted.

    “Interesting,” she said. “The armor’s not steel at all… well, not completely, at any rate.”

    “Meaning?” The Spartan inquired over a private com-line.

    A screen appeared in the upper corner of his HUD, showing several molecular structures that were bonded together. The Chief’s eyebrows shot upwards as he stared at them. He recognized steel, carbon, titanium, and boron all mixed together. An alloy like this would provide excellent protection and only weigh a fraction of the amount that a full steel suit would weigh. The question, of course, was how they would have gotten their hands on the equipment required to successfully mine and extract this kind of ore, let alone successfully smelt an alloy of its caliber with medieval equipment.

    “Sir Neville,” Neeshka said with a bow as she approached the man. He nodded curtly in response and then paused to scrutinize her armor very carefully, his gaze thoughtful and a little suspicious.

    “We’ve been expecting you for some time, girl. You’re running late on your mission.” He frowned and the Chief saw his eyes wander over to him. “And who are these people?”

    “The reason I’m a little late,” the Tiefling said. Her voice was even, but the cyborg noticed her tail twitching. She was clearly displeased with the manner in which she’d been addressed, but was doing well to conceal it. “The fireball that came down up in the Dale was their craft.”

    “A Spell Jammer?” Neville cocked his head. “I see. Is this why you saw fit to bring a demon into town as well?” he glanced over at Orna, whose mandibles twitched and eyes narrowed.

    “They’ve got him under control,” she nodded towards Keyes, “but I’ve also learned that some very bad things are going to happen up here. Luskan’s about to go on the warpath again, and they’re not going to be alone this time.”

    The man stiffened instantly, his eyes narrowing. “Are you sure, Neeshka? We’ve only just gotten through with another war with them. Are you certain they have the strength to come at us again?”

    “Ohh, most definitely,” she nodded. “These offworlders want to help us, and they wanted to see Lord Nasher to discuss the possibility of an alliance.”

    “Well, they’ll have a chance to speak with him, then. They’ll have to wait their turn though,” he said, and then he turned around and walked inside the castle.

    Neeshka turned to face then, and seemed to sheepishly kick the ground at her feet. “Well, I think this is the best I could do. Sorry.”

    “Nothing to be sorry about,” Johnson said with a shrug. “Let’s go meet the man in charge.”

    “Agreed, lead the way, Neeshka,” Keyes said.

    The entrance to the castle was lined with murder holes, the Master Chief noted, and probably manned at this very moment. Further evidence of a militant, or at least, semi-militant society. He wondered what history had prompted them to become like this. Then he took note of the main entrance hall. It was wider, with columns evenly dispersed through it. People in brightly colored clothing, expensive gowns, and more than a little jewelry were standing around talking with each other. Based off their appearance, and their discussion of taxes, mercantile and agricultural profits, and the like, the Spartan deduced that these were probably nobility. He was a little surprised at the number of women present here at the moment, though. Not as many as the men, but a good dozen at least, and they seemed to not be very gender specific with their conversations, addressing men and the other women equally.

    Evidence of a gender equal society? Or at least one that wasn’t as patriarchal as Earth’s had been during this time period.

    There were also a number of guards clad in some manner of blackish armor. As with the silvery stuff that Neville wore, it seemed to be something other than steel. A brief scan by Cortana indicated it to be the truth. These ones had something in them that truly did surprise the cyborg: carbon nanofibers. They didn’t appear to be aligned in a manner that would increase strength, as the early twenty first century armors would and the current issue marine gear, but the defensive and damage absorption capabilities would be incredible for this time period. He fought the urge to whistle.

    The guards’ grips on their weapons tightened as the group drew near, and as always, conversation came to an abrupt and grinding halt.

    “Neeshka, a question,” he asked quietly, so as not to draw too much attention to himself. “Do the nobles here have any sort of dress code? How do you tell who is what social rank?”

    “Ah, sorry, should have warned you about that,” she scratched the back of her head, and her tail wrapped around her left leg. “Dukes and duchesses usually wear purple, trying to flaunt that they can afford the color of the dye, which, rest assured, is worth its weight in gold.”

    The Spartan discreetly looked around, and noted only two of such individuals, both male, and both speaking to one another in a cheerful tone that indicated either a close relationship or alliance, or, based on the nearness of appearance, blood ties.

    “The Marquises and Earls tend to wear gold, and usually have enough jewelry on them to set a metalsmith for life. Then come the Barons—the people in red.” She subtly pointed to each in turn, and the Chief nodded.

    Information was power, and irritating the local rulers would not be helpful. He simply hoped they could pick up on the protocol around here.

    It took them a few minutes to pass through the hall, and then they reached a guard point. Some of the soldiers in the black armor held up a hand.

    “All weapons and dangerous implements must be left here,” he said. “The agent may pass, but the rest of you…” he trailed off.

    The group exchanged a glance as Neeshka moved into the next area, probably to announce their arrival. Then there was a collective shrug, and they moved over to the table next to them. The Spartan took notice of a few swords, mostly rapiers and a few broadswords, and then he started unloading.

    First came the battle rifle. He took it off his back, clicked the safety on, ejected the magazine and then opened the chamber. The ten millimeter round sprang out, but he caught it with ease, slipping it back into the mag. Then he turned it to where the guard could see the empty chamber, and set it down. This was followed by the spare magazines that he was carrying, carefully stacking them on top of each other.

    His shotgun was next. He emptied the loading tube, and popped the eight-gauge shell out of the chamber. The twelve shells were lined up in two rows of six, and then he took out the two boxes of ammo that he was carrying. Then came his knife, followed by the bandolier of grenades that he was carrying, three plasma, three frags, a napalm, and one Brute grenade that Keyes had wanted him to take along to show to Lord Nasher. The massive device bore more resemblance to a spiked club, and he made doubly certain that it was deactivated before he set it down with the spikes point out at an offset angle.

    A second knife, balanced for throwing, followed this.

    The others did the same, Johnson offloading an SMG and his O2, drawing more than a few stares from the guards gaped openly at the 14.5x114 SABOT rounds sticking out of the top of the magazine, followed by his own grenades and knives.

    Orna and Keyes were also busy, unloading a variety of assault rifles, knives, plasma swords, and other equipment.

    When they were doing this, Neeshka returned, and the Master Chief noted that she had another man with her, an old fellow, probably about his age, but still looking physically capable for the most part. He was wearing a captain’s cloak, and there was a pendant around his neck, one of a shield with a few spiraling patterns on it.

    “Ummm, guys?” The Tiefling scratched at the side of her head. “Lord Nasher’s ready to see you regarding the information on Luskan, he bumped a few people back in line for you…”

    “Still unloading,” Johnson said, placing a sniper round back in the enormous magazine, as well as his cigar casings.

    Orna unslung the backpack powercell for the plasma cannon that he was carrying, spreading out its tripod and to set it up properly and then disconnecting it from the power source. He trusted that these guards would be smart enough to keep their hands off, but his long time spent battle humans had taught him one thing: they were curious creatures. Sometimes too curious for their own good.

    Neeshka and the others just continued to stare at the ever growing mound of rifles, pistols, and other assortments of destruction.

    It ended with Johnson and Keyes placing the two cases up on the table, opening them to reveal a Spartan laser and a Jackhammer rocket launcher. The guards present took an uneasy step away from the devices, and stared at each other nervously.

    “Is that everything?” the old man that Neeshka was with asked, his eyes wide with disbelief.

    “I think so,” Keyes said, looking back at the table. It was hard to distinguish the wood paneling of the table beneath all the UNSC and Covenant weaponry that covered it.

    “What’s that?” one asked, pointing to a little triangular piece of equipment that was hanging off of Johnson’s waist.

    “E-tool,” the ODST muttered, opening it up and showing the man the little fold up shovel.

    “A shovel?” the guard’s tone was incredulous.

    “Don’t insult it, the little baby’s saved my life quite a few times. Never know when you’re going to need to dig a foxhole.” Johnson gave the entrenchment tool a loving pat.

    The guards simply looked at the Helljumper like he was crazy, and waved him on.

    “What’s the procedure from here?” Keyes asked.

    “Well, Nasher’s never really been one much for formalities. Simply respect his position, always call him Lord Nasher, milord, or Sir, and don’t openly insult the city, and you should be fine.” Neeshka said, smiling at them.

    “Here goes nothing,” Johnson remarked, staring up at the ceiling for moment.

    The Master Chief nodded, and fell into line. Neeshka went first, leading them up into the throne room, then Commander Keyes. Johnson stood slightly behind her, while he and Orna brought up the rear.

    There were a large number of nobles of all stations, as well as more of the guards and a few nights in the room. Several of the Nine were present as well, flanking Nasher’s throne. Conversations went silent as they entered.

    Lord Nasher himself was a very imposing individual. He looked to stand about six foot two, and was clad in some kind of ceremonial plate armor that was an off-white color. A small, neatly trimmed beard circled his mouth and chin, and his eyes spoke of a great amount of experience and wisdom. The Master Chief also noticed that the man had a longsword within arms reach of his seat. A very smart move, the Spartan thought to himself.

    “Lord Nasher, may I present to you, Commander Miranda Keyes of the UNSC,” Neeshka said with a bow.

    “My Lord,” Keyes removed her helmet and bowed, while the Chief and Johnson assumed parade rest positions, and Orna brought his left arm across his chest, and spread his mandibles.

    “Arise, commander.” Nasher’s voice was deep and even, and very calm despite Orna’s presence in his court. “Neeshka tells me that you’re not from around here…”

    “You might say that, Lord Nasher,” Keyes said as she stood back up. “My… companions and I were engaged in a top priority mission for the UNSC when our ship was damaged and sucked through a portal. The next thing we knew, we were here. It’s been… difficult to adjust to.”

    “Yes, Neeshka made a brief mention that you were war veterans,” he nodded. “I’ll come to that later, but you will forgive me if I am slightly more concerned about this new Luskan threat…” he trailed off.

    “Completely understandable, My Lord,” Keyes nodded her head and then looked behind her. “Master Chief?”

    The Spartan walked towards the large map at the far side of the room, noting how some nobles hastily moved out of his way, while other seemed to press closer, as if they were more curious than afraid. The cyborg gestured up to the region around the Ten Towns, roughly where the Luskan and Orc forces had raided the Plainsmen camp.

    “Two days ago, we engaged in a series of hostile actions against Luskan and Orc forces. The first took place at zero-nine-twenty-seven hours, and the second at sixteen-forty-five.” He paused for a moment, and let his words sink in. “Casualties varied, and we feel that we were able to get a good assessment of the enemy’s force projection capabilities, as well as their combat tactics and discipline.”

    He paused again, and then turned to face the map.

    “Enemy forces were engaged at this location two days ago, among the village of the Elk Tribe Plainsmen. Hostile units consisted of Orc soldiers intermixed with Luskan forces. Initial sensor contact came at zero-nine-fifteen hours by a UAV reconnaissance drone.” He pointed back to where Bryn Shander was located. “We scrambled to intercept, and made ingress via Pelican gunship. Hard contact with enemy forces initiated at zero-nine-twenty-seven hours. They had inflicted a number of casualties on the Plainsmen, and taken a large amount of civilians prisoner.”

    As he spoke, Johnson stepped forward, and took out a small holo projector. It was set on the floor, and then activated. What followed was about fifteen seconds from the UAV’s battle camera, focusing on Johnson and Keyes as they sped along the perimeter of the camp. Nasher and the others watched as the Helljumper reloaded the fifty caliber machinegun on the back of the Warthog, and then chambered a round.

    “Okay, we just slapped a new ammo drum onto the fifty, so we’re good for a while. We’re going to keep moving around the perimeter, see if we can’t spook some of them out of hiding and out into the open. Push comes to shove, we can always run them over.”

    Just a few seconds after Johnson spoke a group of Orcs broke cover and dashed away from the village.

    “Target spotted, going hot!” he shouted, and then depressed the firing studs.

    The massive weapon began to roar and the seven Orcs in front of it were disintegrated before the onslaught. There were gasps and he noticed that a few of the nobles turned an interesting shade of pale green. He heard one person whistle, and saw that mixed in among the crowd was a Dwarf, clad in just a simple, white and red robe. He crossed his arms across his burly chest and stared at the image before him with appreciation, and if the Chief didn’t know any better, a little bit of eagerness.

    The image switched focused over to him and Orna for a few brief moments, giving them a few seconds to understand what he and the Arbiter were capable of.

    “At zero-nine-forty hours the enemy had been routed, but they escaped with a significant number of prisoners. We attempted to gather intelligence, and discovered the leader of the assault force.” At his words, Cortana changed everything over to his helmet camera, and they witnessed the confrontation between him and Briza.

    There was an almost universal recoil as the Drow’s image was revealed, and the Spartan raised an eyebrow. Neeshka had mentioned that the Dark Elves had something of a reputation, but he never figured that they would be able to induce fear simply by their appearance. Interesting, he thought, and a powerful psychological weapon if utilized correctly. Perhaps this was what prompted Luskan to side with the Drow?

    The clip ended with Briza’s execution, which, John noticed, got a nod of approval from Lord Nasher and the strange Dwarf. He could also hear whispers between Neeshka and the older soldier they’d seen her with earlier. He caught the name “Casavir” and logged it away.

    “A UAV drone was dispatched to scout out the enemy camp, and a battle plan was drawn up,” the Spartan continued, circling the area just outside of the pass that led to the camp. “After medical attention had been provided to the wounded, the remaining Plainsmen forces, and a small detachment sent from Bryn Shander rendezvoused at this location at sixteen-thirty hours.” He tapped his armored fingers against the spot. “Once the sun had set at sixteen-forty, myself and Sergeant Major Johnson proceeded up the pass and moved to eliminate enemy scouting patrols. The first patrol was encountered and eliminated at sixteen-forty-five.”

    As before, there were a few brief images from Johnson’s battle camera, showing him and the Master Chief in action as they moved up the path.

    “Once we’d secured the pass, the main assault force moved to occupy it. The sergeant and myself moved up to a sniping position, while a second scout force, consisting of Agent Neeshka and Ten Towns ranger, Drizzt Do’Urden, search the camp for the Luskan commander. This occurred at sixteen-fifty-five. At sixteen-fifty-eight, we initiated hard contact.”

    The screen switched to that night, showing sniper rounds vaporizing targets, phosphoric grenades detonating with their hellish payload, and a brief glimpse of Cortana’s valkryie missile strike.

    “By seventeen-zero-three, the assault force had engaged the enemy, and the second scouting team had retrieved the Luskan commander.” The Spartan turned and faced Lord Nasher, clasping his hands behind his back and spreading his feet slightly. “Sergeant Major Johnson and I continued to provide sniper and grenadier support until seventeen-zero-eight, when we moved down for direct infantry support. By seventeen-twelve, the enemy forces had broken and were dispatched by the Pelicans. An interrogation with the commanding officer followed.”

    The scene switched to show the Luskan commander dangling off his feet, with John’s iron hard voice barking out question after question.

    “We don’t feel that we can analyze the data and come to a conclusion as precise as you might, considering we’ve never had a combat encounter with the Drow. We were hoping this information might prove useful to you and aid in any defensive or counteroffensive operations that you undertake.” He said.

    After that, the briefing came to an end, and the cyborg moved back over behind his commander, reassuming parade rest.

    Nasher appeared to be deep in thought. His eyes were closed and his fingers were drumming slowly against each other. After about thirty seconds, he reopened his eyes, and looked at all of them.

    “Commander… all of you, have my thanks for this information, and I feel that I am in your debt for both conveying it, and for helping to protect Neeshka,” he looked over at her with a wry frown on his face. “When I can keep her fingers out of the royal treasury, she’s quite valuable to us, and we are grateful for her services.”

    The group said nothing, and merely bowed. Nasher leaned forward slightly and smiled at them. “I will send a message to the Lord’s Alliance, and inform them of this coming threat. Rest assured, that when the action is made to take back Mithril Hall, that Neverwinter shall stand beside our old allies of Clan Battlehammer.”

    “Yessss,” the strange Dwarf growled, and smiled fiendishly. Was he a part of the clan? The Master Chief couldn’t help but wonder.

    Then the hairs on the back of his neck started to stiffen. There seemed to be a tingle running down his spine, and he tensed, staring around at the crowd. Was there some assassin hiding amongst these ranks? Something was setting of danger alarms in his mind. He brought up an EM scanner inside of his HUD monitor, and his eyes widened. There was a spike in the frequency levels, and it was growing. He also went for his rifle, before remembering that he didn’t have it.

    “Commander,” he began.

    He was cut off by a series of flashes of light on the far side of the throne room, followed by the sound of some strange high pitched noise that reminded him eerily of a general quarters alarm. He reacted instantly, leaping to one side. A hail of crossbow bolts erupted, hitting guards and nobles without discrimination. In the case of the former, their strange armor protected most of them. Then same could not be said of the nobles. Fur and linen rarely made good protection against impacting penetrators. At the same time, a large portcullis slammed down in the throne room, cutting it off from the hallway.

    The Chief felt his adrenaline kick in, felt Spartan Time take over. He took stock of the situation as everything slowed to a crawl. Lord Nasher had hurled himself over the side of his throne the instant the flashes had appeared, and the heavy oaken seat had stopped him from being harmed. His sword was in his hands, drawn, and ready for use. His guards were already maneuvering to surround him, Neeshka and Casavir included.

    There appeared to be close to forty attackers, some already spreading out for a better shot at the leader of Neverwinter, while others drew melee weapons and began to charge. Most of those headed towards the entrance, intent of cutting off the guards from reaching their leader. The Spartan balled up his fists and shifted into a stance. Hand to hand combat training had been one of the most basic things drilled into them, starting with the very day that his training had begun. Chief Mendez however, had discouraged the concept of “styles” preferring instead that his Spartans remain on their toes at all times and keep thinking freely, rather than restricting themselves in the mannerisms that styles often imposed.

    The end result was that all seventy five of them had learned how to cherry pick the best out of what the styles of the ancient world had to offer and blend them together into a seamless series of strikes and maneuvers that could be changed at a moment’s notice. Muay Thai mixed with Taekwondo, Akido with Ju-Jitsu. It had served him well in the times where he’d been forced to tangle with Elites or Brutes.

    The first man came at him, screaming with a longsword drawn back over his head to try and cleave it into the Spartan’s chest. The Master Chief blurred to one side, noting the confusion that suddenly registered on the man’s face. The Spartan reached out and grabbed his foe’s left arm. He shifted, using the man’s own momentum to flip him head over heels. John applied force of his own as the man came down, and he smashed the man into the ground with enough force that he could hear and feel the spine shatter.

    His motion sensor alerted him to another contact, and the Cyborg whirled around, grabbing a descending warhammer in mid-strike, wrapping his hand around his opponents, and squeezing hard. Knuckles and finger bones turned to dust under his power, and he knife handed the man.

    Clad in the Mjolnir Mark VI armor, a Spartan was strong enough to lift more than four thousand kilograms over his head and hold it there. Compared to strength like that, the average human was little more than a glorified water balloon. The strike tore through the man’s leather and metal armor, and shattered his rib cage. The Master Chief didn’t stop though. Their earlier encounter with the Luskans had indicated that psychological warfare could be used to great effect against these people, and this was a perfect opportunity to put it into action. He spread his fingers out, shredding muscles and tendons before he found his prize.

    The cyborg’s hand burst from his foe’s back and clutched within it was the man’s heart. Blood dripped out of the torn arteries and veins as it tried futilely to preserve the life of the person it had been inside of just moments ago, and the Master Chief tossed it at the nearest man. It smacked into his face, blinding him momentarily. The Spartan blurred forward and lashed out with a right cross at the nearest would-be assassin. The powerful strike tore the man’s head from his shoulders.

    He saw a moment of fear flutter through the eyes of his opponents, and then he was upon them.

    Sergeant Johnson muttered under his breath about having to leave his weapons behind in order to get in her, and now being cut off from them. ODST training kicked in, and he went for the nearest available substitute: his E-tool. He ripped it out from its compartment, and extended the device, but left the shovelhead bent at a ninety degree angle.

    The first sword wielder was on him a moment later. The man paused to sneer at the impromptu weapon. Then Johnson struck, bringing the E-tool down at an angle. The man moved to parry it was a look of contempt on his face. What he underestimated was the strength behind the blow and the material from which the shovel was made. The two weapons locked up, and Johnson was able to force down to one side, and brought his kneecap up into the man’s abdomen. ODSTs were also no stranger to martial arts, and the knee smash, enhanced by muscles that had spent decades on battlefields hauling heavy equipment and enhanced by the nanofibers of his armor, impacted with the force of a speeding automobile. His assailant’s face twisted into a mask of pain, but no sound emerged. Johnson could feel the muscles shredding and tearing under the force of his blow, but gave no respite.

    His left fist went right into the man’s face. He struck palm first, with it upturned just slightly. It hit the nose, and slammed the bone up into the brain. Death was almost instant, and the man dropped without a sound.

    The Helljumper twisted out of the way of another attack. The man over extended himself, and while he was recovering, Johnson swung. The E-tool bit into the man’s head and cleaved it open like a gourd.

    He used the shovel to deflect the next assault as well, before driving his kneecap up into the man’s groin. Johnson took satisfaction in the feeling of the soft tissue and organs crushing beneath the force of the blow. As the man recoiled in pain the ODST reached out and grabbed him around the neck, just underneath the jaw. There was a loud snap and he saw the light die in the man’s eyes.

    “Come on! Who’s next?” the Sergeant snarled, his eyes narrowed behind his helmet.

    Neeshka had managed to get up to Lord Nasher, and was busy trying to help his guards. The Tiefling moved silently, despite the chaos, and the first two to die were never even aware of her presence, save for the slight bit of pain their necks as her blades bit into them.

    She heard a deep throated roar and turned just in time to see one attacker get bowled over by a four foot tall bundle of robes and rage. There were a few sickening cracks, and then the man went limp.

    “Hello, Goat Girl,” Khelgar the Dwarf said with a grin as he jumped back up, kicking a man in the shin as he did so and crushing the leg bones as he did so.

    “Nice to see you too, ale-breath,” she muttered, twisting out of the way of a strike while parrying another, sticking her tail down and using it to trip one of the men up. She was forced to roll out of the way of an attack before she could finish him, though.

    “Hey, you know I’ve stopped drinking!” He roared playfully, as if blissfully unaware of the fact that he was fighting for his life, while a the same time smashing a man in the side of the leg and making it twist in a manner it was never meant to.

    Neeshka growled, flipping back up to her feet, and parried the next thrust, sending her shorter blade down its length and locking them both up at the hilt. She stared into the man’s eyes, hate filling them, and she regretted that she wasn’t wearing the helmet to the suit right now.

    She saw another two come in at her, but she couldn’t block their strikes. She twisted as best she could, but the swords connected with the side of her shoulder and the bracer on her arm.

    And bounced back off the strange plate without leaving so much as a scratch. Curiously, she hadn’t even felt much of the impact, which should have left her arm throbbing regardless. Both men were off balance, though, and she was unharmed, so she wasn’t about to complain. Neeshka exploded into action, wrapping her tail around one man’s wrists and yanking them to the side, while diving forward with both swords. The first one she drove into one man’s heart, twisting the blade before yanking it out. At the same time, her short sword was stabbed into the other’s abdomen, and she ripped it across, tearing out his guts and leaving them to pool on the floor.

    Then a green blur dashed past her. It was the Master Chief, and right behind him was the Arbiter. The formers arms were covered in blood all the way back to the elbows, while the latter carried a pair of stained longswords that looked more like children’s toys in his massive hands.

    The Spartan hit the remaining attackers while Orna went for the men carrying crossbows and the mage that had teleported them in. Neeshka noticed that the man wasn’t casting any spells, and she found that odd. Still, she didn’t question good fortune when she could get it.

    The crossbow carriers stared at the demon that was charging them, and fired their weapons at him, all thoughts of Nasher forgotten. Their fear multiplied many times over as the steel tipped shafts stopped short of their target, and crackling will-o-the-wisps formed over the Arbiter’s body.

    “Die where you stand, cowards!” he roared, spreading his mandibles wide and blurring in towards them.

    They dropped their crossbows, and drew short swords. The blades would not avail them, though. The first man attempted to deflect a powerful chop that Orna lashed out with. The Sangehili’s strength, which enabled him to go toe to toe against a Spartan, drove the blade down, and to the man’s horror, kept coming at him. The Arbiter cleaved the Human’s head in two almost effortlessly. Then he twisted and planted a booted foot deep into the guts of another, breaking his body and hurtling him into the wall of the chamber.

    The third died with a blade in his guts, and the forth was cut in half at the waist. The last man dropped his weapon and fell to his knees, his hands clasped in a gesture of mercy. Orna contemplated his next actions for a second, and then thumped the man upside his head with the flat of the longsword. He might know something after all, and it would be useful to figure out exactly who and what was going on here.

    The Arbiter turned his attention towards the man who was responsible for bringing the assassins here, but he found that there was little he could do about him. He caught a blur of movement out of the corner of his eye, and upon turning to face it, saw the Master Chief. The Spartan had grabbed a spear from a dead guard and was in the process of hurling it like a javelin. It hit one of the sword carrying assassins, tearing completely through and leaving the man with a fist sized hole in his chest and spine.

    The missile kept flying, and too late, the mage seemed to notice his peril. He attempted to dive out of the way of the spear, but wasn’t fast enough. The spearhead pierced his body picked him up, and pinned him to the wall, with the shaft quivering back and forth as it embedded itself in the stone.

    There weren’t many hostiles left, now, maybe six or seven. And they had already been herded away from Lord Nasher.

    “Surrender, dogs!” Sir Neville called out, brandishing his weapon, while several other soldiers also did.

    The would-be assassins looked about warily, seeking escape. The mage was dead, they were surrounded, and slowly moving to flank them were the two enormous demons that had killed so many of their ranks.

    One by one, they started to lower their weapons to the floor and back away with their hands in the air.

    The Master Chief started scanning around, looking for casualties. He noticed about five guards down, and two or three nobles that had been killed in the crossbow volleys. Lord Nasher himself appeared to be unharmed, if more then a little irate over this attempt on his life.

    “Get the Cloak-Tower mages in here, now! I want to find out how they bypassed the wards!” he barked. A moment later, the portcullis that had cut the throne room off opened up, and more guards poured in. The captive assassins were quickly subdued, and hauled out of the room.

    The Spartan looked around and took a moment to slide the blood off of his shields and down onto the floor. Stone could be cleaned, and he didn’t think it a good idea to appear before the lord of the realm with bloodied arms. People were likely to think him demonic enough without that adding to his appearance.

    Lord Nasher appeared to be relatively calm, all things considered, and the Spartan wondered how many times attempts on his life had been made. He stared around at the room one more time, before looking over towards Nasher.

    “Do the gates of this place always seal you in with your attackers?” he asked.

    Sir Neville seemed to bristle for a moment, and the Spartan realized he’d forgotten to address Lord Nasher by his title. He’d have to be doubly careful not to do so in the future.

    “No…” Nasher said with a shake of his head. “It’s almost as if the wards of my castle are… malfunctioning.” He frowned. “The Many Starred Cloaks have informed with of unusual fluctuations in the Weave of late. They should be informed of this as well,” he said, rubbing his chin as he looked around. Then he headed over towards the body of the mage that had been killed

    His guards surrounded him as he went to look at the corpse, pilfering through the robes as if looking for something. Eventually, he pulled away with a small amulet held in his hand.

    The Master Chief took note of the small bauble. It was pewter, and covered in a number of strange designs and runes. Nasher’s face twisted into a hate filled scowl, and he held it up high to show it to everyone.

    “The Hosttower,” he heard Neeshka growl, her tail lashing about.

    John’s eyes narrowed behind his visor. Luskan again. Clever maneuver, he thought. Decapitate the chain of command. A flaw in these ancient feudal societies was that there was often not a clear line of succession if the current ruler didn’t have a son or an adopted heir. This often led to infighting, even civil war, over who was going to be next in line. But he was certain that Neverwinter could not be alone. There would be other targets, likely as not.

    “Are there any other cities or nations that Luskan would hold a grudge against?” The Spartan asked Neeshka, crossing his arms over his chest.

    “A number of them, why?” She looked at him for a moment, and then her crimson eyes widened. She spat out a word that he didn’t understand, possibly Infernal, because it didn’t sound anything like the languages he’d heard down here yet.

    She hastened off to inform Lord Nasher of the possibility of other assassination attempts, while the Master Chief headed back over to Commander Keyes. Johnson was there as well. He’d grabbed a rag of clothing from one of the dead men, and was in the process of cleaning his E-Tool. Orna seemed busy inspecting the swords he’d taken, curous about the workmanship.

    “Well, I guess we’re going to put off a display of our weapons until a slightly later date,” Sergeant Johnson mused.

    --


    N’Tho stared around at the growing darkness, his combat visor automatically adjusting for the low light. The Sangehili growled and looked over to his partner.

    “Usze, brother, do you feel it?” he asked, keeping himself off the command line.

    The other Ranger, some twenty meters away from his companion slowly moved forward, his plasma rifle held against his shoulder. The new stocks certainly aided greatly in aiming and comfort, but that was the last thing on the soldier’s mind at the moment. He could feel it as well. Decades of combat had honed his instincts well.

    “Indeed. The very air around us seems repressive. And there is a smell on the air. It is as if we battle the Parasite all over again.” He said.

    “I hope not,” N’tho shook his head as he stared around. “Our present location excepted, this place seemed to be quite… beautiful. Much like Sangehilos. It would be a tragedy to have to burn it.”

    “Amen to that brother. But such longings are ill suited,” the other Ranger said. “Lotar, Denos, can you see or sense anything?”

    “Negative, Rangers,” Lotar responded in its deep voice. “Nothing appears on any of the spectrums, and even though this is less swampy than the crash site, we still can sense no movement. At least, not any that is of any use.”

    “I want everyone’s eyes sharp and at the ready. I feel as though battle will be upon us soon,” Mias spoke.

    The Sangehili commander had no idea just how right he was.
     
    UrielAngeli and RogueInquisitor like this.
  12. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Eleven - Hobnobbing

    The Master Chief paced back and forth in the small room, his armored boots quieting his footfalls as his fellow servicemen and Orna slept. The room was a barracks styled guest room, about thirty feet long and half as wide with several rows of bunks making up the interior. The only source of light was a small, wooden chandelier hanging in the center, the candles of which had long since burned out.

    Still, the cyborg had no difficulty in watching where he was going. His augmentations had made his eyes much more effective in low and no light conditions, and he could clearly see the outlines of the others. The clock on his HUD was also helpful, telling him that on local time it was just prior to six o’clock, pre dawn in this time of the year.

    The Spartan was restless, agitated underneath his armor shell. There was something in the air, something that was warning him of things to come and battles that would be fought. It was the feeling he got right before he was loaded into a drop pod and shot out of a cruiser to take the battle to the Covenant. He almost wanted to chalk it up to yesterdays attack on Lord Nasher, but he knew that it was something more than that. There was something greater at work here.

    He twisted suddenly, breaking his stride and heading for the door. He needed to get out and observe the world, do something to take his mind of this calm before the storm.

    Peace was not his element, calmness and serenity not his natural environment. He felt out of place within these stone walls.

    His suit had registered about six guards outside the door, and taking a look outside, he saw that was indeed the case. He nodded towards them, but got no response aside from a glance in his direction. Total dedication to their duty. A good sign, he felt. These soldiers had been trained well.

    As he entered the corridor and gently closed the oaken door behind him he took a brief moment to remember the path that he and the others had traced on their way here. Nodding to himself, the Master Chief turned to his left and began to walk down the hallway. His motion sensors detected two guards moving in behind him, following him. So they didn’t fully trust him yet. That was good.

    After all, it was the same procedure that the UNSC would have followed. Looking at it from the native perspective, it was entirely possible that the previous attempt on Nasher’s life was a feint, designed to lure the solders of Neverwinter into a false sense of security. Plus, they had seen him and the others in action, and knew that even without their weapons, they were still serious threats. In all honesty, the Spartan would have been more worried if he wasn’t being followed.

    It took him a few minutes at a brisk walking pace to move out of the maze of corridors that composed the castle and back to the main entrance way. There were still a couple of guards manning the weapons table, and he took the time to grab a battle rifle and a shotgun, along with a standard supply of ammunition and his supply belt. As he was loading the weapons, he noted the look in the eyes of the two men in front of him. Both of them seemed to be looking him over in a combination of awe and a careful analysis. He was once more impressed by what these people had put into their soldiers.

    It was still dark outside when the Spartan stepped out of the main gate. The soldiers were still following him, hanging about fifteen meters behind him at all times. Their following procedures needed a little work, but it was perhaps possible that they were not trying to be stealthy. An overt presence to remind him that Neverwinter’s eyes were still upon him. He made a mental note to inform Commander Keyes about it when she awoke.

    Despite the early hour, it was evident that there were people who were hard at work in the city. The Castle and its grounds were the highest point in the city, and gave a commanding view of the place. From where he was standing, the Spartan calculated that the city was approximately ten square kilometers in size, and judging by the density he had observed on the way in, home to perhaps some twenty thousand people. Very impressive, considering the era and the climate of this region. Though it was more mild than Ten Towns, it wasn’t by much, and his temperature gauge was giving him a reading of about negative four degrees, made slightly colder by a five kilometer per hour wind that was blowing in from the northeast.

    Zooming in with his binoculars, the Spartan could make out merchants setting up their stands, with many of them carrying small metal containers that, judging by the smoke rising up out of them, probably were to help keep warm. What was curious, however, was the large building about five hundred feet to his right. Next to the castle, it was the largest structure in the city, and home to the city’s arcane academy. It was strangely quiet, almost deserted save for one person moving around the grounds, tending to the various animals that were caged there.

    He found that rather odd. Everything that he’d learned about magic indicated that one needed constant study to hone the mind to the point where it could control the arcane forces and bend them to one’s will.

    Early to bed, early to rise, as Benjamin Franklin had said.

    It was a philosophy that Chief Mendez had subscribed to as well, and the Spartan could vividly remember the shock sticks used to get him and the others out of bed when they felt like sleeping in.

    He paused in his observations for a moment, wondering what had ever happened to the man. Mendez was a harsh trainer, brutal in his doctrine, ruthless with punishments and demerits. To an outsider, he may have seemed a monster.

    But John knew the truth. He knew the reasons for the CPO’s actions, and the ends certainly justified the means. Without that training, he, his brothers, and his sisters would have never survived as long as they had against the Covenant juggernaut. You had to be hard to survive on a battlefield, had to be as ruthless as the enemy and then some.

    There had been another side to the man as well, one that though he did his best to hide, his Spartans had seen anyway. He could remember the pride filled on Mendez’s face when the first lesson on teamwork had sunk in, the crooked grin when they’d managed to successfully complete an infiltration mission. And he remembered the unshed tears that he’d tried to hide when half of the group hadn’t survived their augmentations.

    He wondered what had happened to the man, and reached down into his supply belt. He fumbled around inside of one of the pockets, searching for one specific object as he thought about the closest thing he had to a father. Mendez was supposed to have been shipped off to train other Spartan candidates, but he’d never heard of them or seen any hair to hint at their existence. That had been nearly thirty five years ago, and there’d been no sign of Mendez since then. Not a hair of a reassignment notice on his Combat Service Vitae, or any reports of MIA/KIA. He’d just dropped off the grid.

    He pulled out a small object from inside the pocket, and held it carefully in his hand. It was a small, silvery disk, only a few millimeters thick. One side held a profile shot of a long dead man, his hair tied back in a ponytail, and a date on it. The back held an eagle, its wings spread and its talons clutching at arrows. Along the bottom was a saying: E Pluribus Unum.

    Out of many, one.

    He was reminded of his purpose here, or as near to it as he could get without orders from UNSC high command or ONI, and he carefully put the old coin away. Then he resumed moving into the city. As much as he admired Mendez, the old petty officer had always despised bellyaching, and wondering about where the man was and what had become of him was not going to help drive off what was coming.

    Voices were breaking the chilly silence as he moved into the central region of the city. The area was set up in a circle, with a cobbled road ringing a series of buildings in the center, and more lining the outside of it. Pathways split off, heading to different residential districts, more shops, and the city’s large port. There looked to be a few more ships coming in, and the Master Chief made a note to head down there later and try to get a good idea for the logistical capacities of the area, as well as what cargo they typically received here.

    The two soldiers were still tailing him, hanging back a little farther now that they were further away from the palace. Occasionally the Chief would turn to stare at a store or a merchant stand and catch a glimpse of them out of the corner of his eye. They seemed more nervous now, perhaps because they were on their own. He still wasn’t surprised. Almost every time that he’d encountered civilians, they’d been terrified of them. Clad in this armor, he looked to be as alien as the foes that were attempting to exterminate Humanity.

    He focused his attention back on the road, noticing that up ahead was a group of white clad individuals with cowls over their heads. The robes seemed out of place for this section of the city, and they bore little resemblance to the magic academy’s students and teachers. Perhaps some sort of religious organization? That would be worth studying, and could offer valuable insight into the culture of these people. It wouldn’t do to offend the clerics at this point in time, after all. Back on Earth, whole wars had been started off over such things.

    He moved up along the edge of the street, trying to get a better view of them. The “priests” moved in slow steps, muttering softly under their breath. He could still pick out words from time to time. Things like “light” “holiness” and “deliverance.” They seemed unusually agitated, though. Perhaps yesterday’s fiasco had them up in arms.

    The Spartan decided to further his investigation, taking a moment to further scope them out. The robes were fairly plain in appearance, though some of them had additional colors, and some had symbols of what was apparently pewter hanging around their necks. The Master Chief took note of the appearance of the talisman: a kite-shield shaped pendant, with what appeared to be a set of scales resting on top of a hammer set into it, similar to the shield that Casavir had.

    On Earth, the symbols were universal embodiments of justice and fair-play. While it might not be the same here, perhaps they were judges instead of priests? He pondered whether it would be wise to disturb them, or to continue to observe. He settled on the latter, and continued to discretely watch them.

    They moved slowly, but relentlessly around the circle, finally breaking off and heading towards a large building with several domes around the top. The entrance had an iron wrought gate in front of it, but it was open at the moment, and several people other than the robed individuals filled in.

    Deciding to see what was up, he moved towards the gate, getting more than a few stares from the citizens of Neverwinter took notice of him. As he reached the gates, he noticed something else: off in the corner, about twenty meters away, was the robed Dwarf from yesterday, and Neeshka. The two of them were talking amiably with each other, like they were old friends. The Spartan headed over towards them, a hand raised in silent greeting.

    Neeshka spotted him first, and she waved. The Spartan was tempted to smirk. She was still wearing the armor that Keyes had given to her.

    “Hi, Chief,” she said, smiling at him. “Up early as usual. What do you think of the city?” she spread her hands around as she finished.

    “A lot of activity, considering the time and season,” he said, staring back at the people who were slowly entering the courtyard. “What’s all this over?”

    “The crowds?” the Dwarf, Khelgar if he remembered properly, looked up at him. “It’s the celebration of the Day of the Striking Lance, in which Tyr the Even Handed descended from the Heavens to aid the people in their time of need.”

    The Spartan raised an eyebrow behind the visor of his helmet. A local legend, probably religious in origin. That confirmed the individuals were priests. The Dwarf in front of him seemed to belong to the same order, based off his clothing.

    “I see,” he said after a moment, and then crossed his arms. “Who is this ‘Tyr’?”

    Khelgar’s bushy eyebrows moved closer to the apex of his bald head. “Tyr? Lord of Justice, Protector of the Oppressed, head of the Divine Triad?” He shook his head while staring at him.

    John remained silent, staring back.


    “I’m honestly not surprised, barrel head,” Neeshka said, leaning back against the wall. “He and the others aren’t exactly from around here. I’d be surprised if he knew of any of the Gods.”

    “Well, then allow me to further your education,” Khelgar said with a bow and a chuckle. “Tyr’s the Lord of Justice, as I said, a stalwart defender of the pure and the innocent…” he went on to name a few of the events and virtues that the deity stood for, and the Spartan nodded, and then looked around at the grounds and the temple.

    He could see little in the way of statues or images of the deity, though there were carvings of his symbols on the walls of the building and the courtyard. The Spartan shifted a bit as Khelgar’s lecture was coming to a close, and got a good look at the inside of the building. It was relatively plain, adorned with blue and bits of gold. Towards the back, behind the head priest was a marble statue not much larger than the priest himself. Zooming in to six times magnification, the Spartan got an intimate look at the carving. It portrayed a weathered man with a great, flowing beard, wearing a heavy belt and criss crossing leather straps that coupled to shoulder pauldrons. Aside from that, his chest was bare, and it reminded John of an image of an old Viking warrior... fitting. The statue’s right hand held a longsword with a wide crossguard, while the left, curiously, was missing. It had been a while since he had studied his Norse, but the Spartan was beginning to get a little unnerved by this.

    “Is that him inside, the statue?” the Master Chief asked.

    “Why yes it is, actually,” Khelgar said with a bit of pride.

    “Why is he missing his hand?”

    “Oh, Tyr was maimed in his battle with a great chaos hound many centuries ago. He’s borne it cheerfully enough, though.” Khelgar smiled and folded his arms across his great barreled chest.

    Chaos hound... Fenfir, perhaps? The Spartan wondered. So these people were polytheistic, and their deities could apparently be wounded. That was a far cry from the majority of Earth religions, though Nordic gods were often depicted and being quite killable, if Ragnarök was to be believed. One thing had perked his interest though.

    “You speak of Tyr as if you’ve had a conversation with him.” He looked down at the Dwarf and cocked his head to one side.

    “I have actually, a few times, in fact,” Khelgar smiled. “Granted, it was to inform me that, once and for all, altar candlesticks were not meant to be used for staff practice.” He finished with a chuckle.

    The cyborg paused for a moment, and felt a cool, liquid presence around him. Cortana had been watching too, apparently, and now she was really focusing her attention on what had just been heard.

    “You look surprised,” Neeshka said after a moment or two had passed. “Don’t the gods of your world speak to your people on a regular occasion?”

    How was one supposed to answer a question like that?

    "I too am curious to know more about your world. Neeshka has told me what she could, but there is so much else. So, who do you call your patron deity?" Khelgar asked, smiling broadly.

    The Spartan's mind was a mix of tumbling thoughts. This was not exactly something that Mendez had prepared them for. Further, how could these people actually be certain these so called gods were in fact that? He'd seen enough magic since his arrival to this world to understand that it was sufficient to pull the wool over someone's eyes if you were careful about it. Also, perhaps it was some mix of technology and magic. After all, Neeshka had certainly believed that the weapons they'd brought with them, and indeed, the Forward unto Dawn itself was an arcane device when she'd first seen it.

    Finally, he decided to keep it short and simple.

    "Religion was not a large part of our training, aside from its historical implications and military applications," he said. "Humanity has a number of religions, and I've served with people who come from almost as many: Judeo-Christians from all branches and walks, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, Deists, the list goes on."

    "But what of yourself?" Khelgar insisted, twisting his head to one side.

    The Master Chief felt a pang of bitterness shoot up into his throat, a vile taste coating his tongue. "There are things in this universe I don't know, and I'm smart enough to realize that there are some that I never will understand. But after all I've been through, I'll say that if there were any divine gods or goddesses present in our galaxy, they had no interest in preserving Humanity, and stood back and watched as the Covenant systematically exterminated us."

    Both Neeshka and Khelgar exchanged a look. The Tiefling seemed upset, frowning and nudging the toe of her right boot into the ground. The Dwarven monk seemed a tad confused. He scratched the back of his head, and looked up at the sky, then back at the Spartan.

    "You have my sympathies then, Spartan, and I must say that if that is indeed the case, I'm glad I live here. Your… realm, seems a rather cold one." He shook his head shivered for a bit.

    "You don't know the half of it," Cortana said, causing the two in front of him, as well as the nearby worshipers to jump.

    "It's Cortana," The Master Chief said, holding up a hand. "Her programming allows her to use my suit's speakers to communicate remotely."

    "I see," Khelgar muttered. "What exactly do you mean, miss? If you don't mind my asking, that is."

    “It’s not something I’m officially cleared to talk about, but long story short, we’ve spent the past thirty five years fighting against a collective of alien races hell bent on wiping us out.” Cortana said, and then sighed. “Sorry if I sound a bit harsh. It hasn’t been easy these past few decades to be a Human.”

    The two natives looked confused, and the Chief sighed. “Imagine that this city is involved with a war against a hostile neighbor, say, Luskan,” he paused, and waited for them to nod. “Now imagine that Luskan armies bust down the gates and slaughter every man woman and child simply because they happen to be from Neverwinter. Imagine that out of the entire city, maybe one person makes it out alive. Then, when the battle is over, the Luskans go to the surrounding areas and plow salt into the ground and poison all the water supplies, so that nothing will ever grow or be able to live here again.” Neeshka’s face had gone pale, and Khelghar’s seemed to be contorted with rage, and his fists were clenching and unclenching like they were trying to squeeze someone’s neck.

    “Now imagine, that instead of a city, it’s a planet… hundreds of planets like this one.” Cortana said.

    “I think I’m going to be sick,” Neeshka said, shaking her horned head.

    The group remained silent for a few moments, and Khelgar made something that the Master Chief assumed was a holy symbol. He decided that shifting the discussion away from Humanity’s near genocide would probably be a tact course of action. Fate seemed destined to provide one for him. There was a crackling sound over his commlink.

    “Chief?” It was Keyes. “Chief, where are you?”

    “Near the heart of the city. Talking with Neeshka and the Dwarf from yesterday, ma’am.” He responded, getting a set of looks from the two natives. “One moment.” He held up his hand, and cut off his external speakers. “Orders, ma’am?”

    “We’re getting our stuff together now. One of those Nine bodyguards said that Nasher would want to see us later, but he’s got a pretty full plate on his hands right now. We were planning on doing a little sight seeing, and getting a feel for this place.”

    “Some food probably wouldn’t hurt either,” Johnson broke in with a chuckle.

    “This is a command channel, Sergeant…” Keyes tapered off.

    “Sorry ma’am, but—“ whatever the sergeant had been about to say was cut off by a loud rumble that sounded like a monstrous groan.

    “What was that?” Cortana asked.

    “Let’s just say we know now what a Sangehili sounds like when his stomach says ‘feed me.’” Johnson couldn’t keep the mirth out of his voice, and both the Spartan and the A.I. heard the Arbiter’s indignant grunt that followed.

    “I’m putting a waypoint marker on myself,” the Chief said. “I’m about a click and a half away from your position.” A glowing orange triangle appeared on the HUD of his visor.

    “Roger that, we see you.” Keyes said. “Be there in fifteen.”

    “Understood. Sierra-117 out.” The Spartan said, and then switched his speakers back on. “Apologies. That was my commander. She’ll be joining us shortly.”

    “Oh, excellent then,” Khelgar rubbed his hands together. “I’ve been meaning to ask the lot of you about some of those moves you were pulling yesterday. I’ve never seen things like that before, and I have seen quite a few in my days as a monk.”

    The Chief twisted his head slightly. He remembered seeing the Dwarf using some kind of martial arts moves that he’d never seen before, but he’d backlogged it then. He’d been more concerned about protecting Nasher and taking out the assassins. It wasn’t terribly surprising that the monks would learn some form of defense against attackers. After all, the Chinese and Tibetan ones had done so at every opportunity, creating styles that were still in use among the UNSC. However, he was curious about Khelghar. He hadn’t seen many Dwarves, but the behavior of the Battle Hammer clan led him to believe that they were the type for quiet study and meditation.

    “What’s your story, Khelgar?” Cortana asked, giving voice to his thoughts.

    “Well, there’s not a whole lot to tell about,” the Dwarf said with a shrug. “I’m an Iron-Fist, true and through, though I had a bit of a falling out with my Clan for a while. Wanted to go my own way, do my own thing.”

    “That’s unusual?” The Spartan raised an eyebrow behind his helmet.

    “I can tell you’ve not had much experience with Dwarves,” Khlegar said with a chuckle. “The Clan is everything to us. It’s what we are, where we come from. And without it, we’re nothing more than lost souls. Or so I now realize.”

    “So what prompted you to leave?” The Master Chief crossed his arms over his chest.

    “I just wanted to see what was out there. And of course, scrap it out at every opportunity,” he smiled, but the smile seemed bittersweet. “Went like that for years, wandered around, taking on the odd mercenary job, brawling in taverns. Then things changed.” He chuckled. “You’ll think I’m crazy, but I swear it was destiny that I met those monks in that bar.”

    “I’ve heard, and seen, weirder.” The Spartan looked down at the Dwarf.

    “Well, suffice to say I had a good brawl going, and tried to get them in on it. What I got was the most thorough beating of my life. Took me a while to find all my teeth, but I made sure to thank them.” He stopped in mid laugh, and his eyes suddenly got a far away look to them. “It was a long journey, but with the help of a good friend, I finally came back to the path I was supposed to tread.” He lowered his head, and his voice got very quite.

    “I’m sorry, have I brought up bad memories?” The Spartan knew that look and tone all too well. It suddenly felt like a knife was buried in his heart, and he remembered all the brother’s and sister’s that he had lost thus far.

    “We first met each other through Kale Romar, a Paladin of Helm,” Neeshka said, her eyes joining Khelgar’s in that downcast look. “He found Khelgar in the middle of a fight, and helped him out of a scarp. In my case, he found me when I was being attacked by some corrupt guards at a fort south east of here… saved my life.”

    “To make a long story short, he helped save this place about a year ago from an ancient evil that got stirred up. The King of Shadows, it was called, a sentinel from a long dead empire that was still dead set on defending its long deceased ‘masters.’ We managed to get into its fortress, beat it down, and stop it.” Khelgar’s lip looked almost like it was trembling. “But the cost was high. Kale, Sand, Grobnar, and a Warlock named Ammon Jerro didn’t make it out of the citadel before it collapsed.”

    The Spartan uncrossed his arms, and bowed his head slightly. “You have my sympathies.”

    “He was the first person to really treat me kindly, Neeshka said,” frowning in a way that seemed uncharacteristic for her. “There isn’t a person in this city who doesn’t owe him their lives.”

    “A brave soldier.” The Spartan’s voice was quiet, barely above a whisper. Humanity had many heroes from the war against the Covenant. Johnson, Captain Keyes, Admiral Cole, Jericho platoon. And like this Kale fellow, with the exception of Johnson, not one of them had survived to see the silver lining, the victory over Truth’s forces… that those they’d fought for, bled for, and died for, would survive.

    There was a moment of silent understanding among them all, and then Khelgar chuckled weakly.

    “Much as I miss him, Kale wasn’t the kind to want us to stay around here, moping like a bunch of weeping friars.” He looked over to Neeshka, who smiled faintly. Then he looked over at the Chief. “Have you eaten yet?”

    “Not particularly hungry,” he shook his head. “But there’s still much myself or the others don’t know about the city, or this world. I’ll accompany you, if you don’t mind.”

    “We’d be honored,” Neeshka said, smiling.

    The Spartan frowned behind his helmet. Once again, he thought there was something familiar about the Tiefling, and he kept wracking his brain, trying to figure out what it was. He might need to have Cortana run a backlog of the memories stored in his neural lace.

    In the meantime, he had some local culture to observe.


    --

    “Are you sure that you want to do this alone?”

    Helm looked over his shoulder, staring back at Moradin. He gave the Dwarven God a crooked grin and shook his head.

    “Yes. It is something I must do before I head to the Staircase. Your people need you know more than ever.” The God’s voice changed at the end of his sentence, becoming faint and barely audible.

    He turned to face a large armoire and rested his hands against its smooth surface. It was enormous, more than twenty feet tall and wide, and set deep into the wall of the Watcher’s celestial fortress. He opened it up, and inside of it were several sets of armor and weapons. Swords, axes, shields, maces, and spears all hung along the sides and along chains dangling down from the top.

    He heard Moradin gasp and knew what it was that had surprised the God so. Off to the left, at the very end of the armoire was a suit that didn’t belong. Far from resembling the plate armor that he usually wore, this thing looked like some manner of golem. Sharp angles covered the suit, making it look rather like a cut gemstone. Its colored varied between blue, black, and gray, and it stood like an eternal sentinel, unaffected by time and age. Bulky protrusions came off the arms, legs, and collar bone regions of it, making it look far more like it was forged for some manner of demon, rather than a humanoid.

    The Dwarven God would have never guessed the suit’s true history, and its true purpose. Helm felt himself drawn to it, and he walked over and stretched out his hand. It shook for a few moments, before he slowly touched the ends of his fingers to the metal. He closed his eyes, and memories flashed before his mind. A face appeared, a woman with black hair, blue eyes, and a haunting smile.

    Helm shook his head violently and stepped back from the armor. He headed over to the more conventional weapons, grabbing a bastard sword and a large shield and hefting both to test their weight and balance. Then he closed the armoire with a gesture, and then headed off. A few of his personal guards fell in behind him, and then they were gone.

    --

    They appeared on a small cliff side, overlooking the sea. Down below them was a large, ominous looking castle. Helm’s eyes narrowed, and his grip on his blade tightened. His quarry lay inside of it.

    “You can come out of the shadows, Mephasm, I know you’re there.” He said.

    “Nothing gets past the Watcher,” the devil gave a wry smile as he emerged into the visible light spectrum. Behind him was a small army of various Devils, about two hundred strong. “Just here to see if you’d like additional assistance.” He bowed slightly.

    “What’s in it for you?” He smiled wryly behind his helmet.

    “The knowledge that Demogorgon will be defeated that much sooner, granting us an edge in this eternal war between his kind and ours.” Mephasm blinked, and turned into his true form. He was now ten feet tall, with deep red and gold scales, and a wingspan of more than half again his height. His demonic face twisted into a grin, and with a gesture, a flaming mace and blade appeared in his hands. “Besides, my master and I have one thing in common in regards to you, Helm.”

    “And what might that be? What does that old snake see in all this?” He gestured towards his body.

    “Well for starters, he respects you. Did you know that?” Mephasm cocked his head, raising a scaled eye-ridge. “And so do I. You are an anomaly among the Gods. You have no hubris or ego to speak of, you do your job without complaint, and you’re always willing to do whatever is necessary.” The Devil chuckled a bit. “I suppose that’s why Ao chose for you to guard the Staircase. Why you alone, out of all of them, will not suffer his wrath. You’re different from them… unique.”

    “Strange words to come from you, Pit Fiend.”

    “True. Perhaps in you, I see a bit of myself.” Mephasm shrugged. “You should know, my master has foreseen a part of the future. You will have to do battle with at least one of the other Gods. Which one, and the outcome of the fight, he cannot tell.”

    “I feared as much.” Helm said, bowing his head.

    “You will probably become very unpopular among the other deities, to say nothing of the mortals.” The Devil continued.

    “Won’t be the first time that I’ve had enormous consequences for my actions. For now, though, we’ve a Demon Prince to imprison. Shall we?” He looked over at the angels and demons behind him.

    “Lead the way,” Mephasm said with a bow.

    Helm tightened his grip on his blade and glared down at Watcher’s Keep. The air around him stirred a bit, and the God levitated up a few inches. He cocked his sword back, and then swung it forward, a single world leaving his mouth.

    “Charge!”
     
  13. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Twelve - Survival

    “And so then, I tell him, ‘I know you didn’t just call me short, because it’s not wise to insult something eye level with your groin!’” Khelgar roared, balling up his fists and sweeping them back and forth. “And then I drug him across the table and booted his arse out of the window.”

    Johnson began to laugh like a madman, thumping the table with his armored gauntlet. “Man, just like what happened when I first ran into Besenti.” He man got a faraway look in his eyes, but quickly shook it off.

    “Interesting story. Are all Dwarves as… rowdy, as yourself?” Orna said, cocking his head to one side.

    “Mostly,” Neeshka remarked, her tail sneaking up behind Khelgar and tapping him on the shoulder to make him look the other way, a move that made the Dwarf snarl in a good natured fashion. “As you can see, they can be a little predictable too.” She finished it with a giggle.

    “So it would appear.” The Master Chief mused, standing upright next to the table that they were eating breakfast at. He was doing this because the bench that he had tentatively attempted to sit in at first had creaked very ominously, and the cyborg had decided that trying to push his luck, when he weighed as much as he did in his armor, was probably not a good idea.

    The inkeep was already being especially nice to them, letting them have breakfast on the house. It had seemed as though word had reached the ears of the populace about the attempt on Lord Nasher’s life the previous day, and the result was that he and the rest of the crew were being hailed as heroes. He could have done without the accolades, and it truly made him concerned. It meant that there was an information leak somewhere in the palace, and that they would have to be extra careful when letting out information. The large number of guards and nobles present during the attack made it hard to figure out who had let it slip. It was, of course, entirely possible that Nasher had freely let the information out. After all, several nobles had been killed by crossbow bolt fire, and covering up the reason for their demise was an operation that would have been tricky at best. Failure would probably not have sat well with the people, and they would need to be united now more than ever.

    “Chief, you are aware that you can take your helmet off, correct?” Commander Keyes said, looking up at him from where she was chewing on a piece of dried meat.

    “Apologies, Commander, but I believe that it would remain in our best interest that my face remain hidden. The locals are unnerved enough by the Arbiter, and from what I’ve gathered, my skin and eyes make me resemble a,” he paused for a moment, stumbling for just a second over the native word, “vampire.”

    “Oh, really now?” Khlegar looked around, staring at him and then at Neeshka for a moment. “That true, lass?”
    “I thought he was one at first. How did you get like that?” the Tiefling cocked her head to one side, tapping a pewter fork against her plate.

    “Most of the information in regards to my… augmentations, is classified, and I can’t tell you. My skin suffers from an absence of sunlight, too much time spent in the armor.”

    “I see,” Khelgar said, and then smirked. “Can’t say I blame ya, if that thing can do all the things that goat girl over here says she’s seen it do, I wouldn’t want to take it off either.” He chuckled again.

    The Master Chief couldn’t’ help himself, he smiled underneath his helmet and nodded his head. “It does have it’s uses, and it has saved my life. But equipment is only as good as the man or woman behind it.”

    “You’re preaching to the choir here,” Neeshka said. “You wouldn’t believe the number of idiots I’ve run into in my line of work. They make you wonder how we’ve managed to survive this long.

    “I’ve had my fair share of those individuals myself,” Orna said, his mandibles twitching in the Sangeheli variant of a smile. “Though in my case, most of them were my superiors.”

    “That is a question I’ve been meaning to ask,” Johnson said, pointing a finger at the Elite. “Were all the Prophets as deranged as Truth was, or was he something special?”

    “Most were not quite… that out of the loop,” Orna said with a shrug. “But they did have their moments.”

    The Master Chief sensed where this might have been heading, and decided that it was a good time to change the subject, before old wounds got torn open again.

    “Has Lord Nasher had anything to say to you in regards to the incident?” He asked Neeshka.

    The Tiefling looked up at him and shook her head. “Nope. He has a tendency to put the needs of his kingdom before his own. He has a number of advisors and messengers he usually has to wade through before he gets to me. I suspect, if anything, he’d still be reviewing the reports that I left for him. “ She leaned back and stretched her arms slightly. “Which means that I get to enjoy a rare day off.”

    “We still need to get a good look around this city, Neeshka,” Keyes said, looking at the other girl pointedly. “If the Luskans decide to mobilize, we might have to help defend the city, and we need to know where best to stick our gear.”

    “I agree,” Orna said, nodding his head eagerly. “Knowledge of the terrain grants one an enormous edge on the field of battle.”

    “Then let’s get moving,” Neeshka said, reaching for the UNSC helmet at her side.

    However, as she went to put it on, the door to the pub opened. Sir Nevalle walked in, his face a mask of impassiveness, but the Master Chief was able to read his eyes. There was sorrow there, and a hint of fear. He held his helmet under one hand, and chewed on his lip nervously as he approached. John gave no movement, but his mind was aflutter with theories. What could be wrong? Could the Luskans have returned? Could another attempt have been made on Nasher’s life?

    “Sir.” Neeshka said, taking notice on him and bowing slightly.

    “You’re hard to track down some times, agent.” He kept his face neutral. “Something has come up. Lord Nasher wishes to make use of your friend’s Spell Jammer, if he can.”

    All eyes fell upon Keyes. She rose from her seat and crossed her arms, staring at the man in front of her for a moment or two.

    “It depends,” she said. “What does he want to use it for?”

    Nevalle leaned in closer to her, and the Master Chief noticed that he was starting to sweat, apparently nervous from something. “I cannot speak of it publicly, Commander, but it is an issue where hast is of the utmost importance. Haste, and safety. Two things my lord needs right now. Two things that your ship can provide.”

    Keyes frowned for a moment, and then nodded. “Let me bring it in. There’s a market square up ahead. We’ll load up there and then head for the castle.”

    “You have the thanks of the city, my lady.” Nevalle bowed low.

    --

    Mias growled and raised his rifle, snapping off a round. The plasma burned off shaded colors of white and blue, testament to its extreme temperatures. It hit the creature dead in the center of its chest. It seemed to ignite as the fire hit, turning into a fiery torch that screamed and flailed about, heading away from the battalion.

    “Regroup!” he barked over the comm. channel.

    It took only a few seconds for everyone to fall back in line. Still, the Sangehili commander was ill at ease. There was so much going on in this accursed swamp land. First those strange creatures that looked like walking tree stumps, then huge serpents, and finally these…parasites. He knew no other term appropriate for them. They were not like the Flood. They did not seem overly intelligent, nor near as cunning as that old foe… but like the Flood, they were absolutely relentless. They never stopped. In the daytime, they would retreat somewhat, and attacks would become less frequent, but they never truly ceased.

    Lokar and Denos were invaluable here. Their worm like bodies could sense the vibrations caused by the massing tides of green, giving them warning and enabling them to seek out defensive ground.

    “N’Tho, Usze, any signs of additional hostiles?”

    “Negative, Commander,” Usze responded from his position, some hundred meters in the air. The Ranger’s jetpack was keeping him stabilized, and enabled him to fire down on these parasites without fear of retaliation.

    “Come back down and let your jets recharge,” Mias said, sighing to himself.

    By some miracle of the universe or another, they hadn’t suffered any fatalities, though a number of the Unggoy had been wounded by the battles that had been waged, and Gazap had been swallowed alive by one of the large snakes and had cursed up quite a storm until the thing had been killed and he’d been cut out of its belly. Their ammo, however, was something else. They were running low, down to about six hundred rounds for a standard rifle, and two power cells for each of their plasma cannons.

    If they didn’t figure out a way out of here soon, they would be cut down simply because they would have no means by which they would be able to defend themselves.

    Still, they were about a day and a half away from their intended destination. If they got free of this infernal and accursed place, he could have his troops bunker up, while the Specter’s made runs to and from the ship to retrieve supplies.

    The Commander clacked his lover mandibles together and kept moving forward. Had to keep pressing, he reminded himself. There was too much at stake to just be lost in one’s own despair.

    --

    Helm grunted as he swung his bastard sword at his hated foe. The lightning quick blow connected, and he heard his foe howl in rage and pain, while blackish-green ichor splattered everywhere. A blast of holy energy appeared from nothingness a moment later, enveloping his foe and causing another scream of agony to echo through the chamber, rocking the keep to its very foundations.

    The God held up his shield and started to circle Demogorgon, his eyes narrowed in hate and daring the Demon Prince to come and get him. Four eyes settled on him, and both of the creature’s mouthes opened in a roar that was long and loud. Its tentacled appendages blasted towards him, crackling with dark, unholy energies that could slay ordinary men with even the slightest of touches.

    The God parried and blocked each strike with mastery and precision, sending spells blasting into the hide of his adversary.

    For how long the battle had raged between the two of them, he knew not. He couldn’t hear the sounds of combat from elsewhere in the keep, and judging by the fact that there was not a small army of monsters rushing into this chamber to defend their wretched master, he assumed that it had ended in his favor.

    At last, Demogorgon made a mistake, and overreached himself. Helm took the opportunity, and ducked underneath the Demon Prince’s reach, stabbing his blade straight into its heart. Even that was not enough to kill the vile creature, but it did cause it to falter and stumble. Helm smiled grimly behind his helmet, and started to chant. It was a haunting, echoing tongue that he used, unknown to even the magi and clerics of this world.

    Demogogon instantly knew what was happening, and what fate would be his if the God should finish. It screamed in rage, a sound that would have driven men mad and caused the roof to shudder above their heads. He tried to rise, but he had been too weakened by the God’s strikes and spells. Steam and ash rose from his battered body, and he glared at his foe with hatred that would have unnerved even the most staunch of paladins.

    Helm finished his chanting with a thunderous cry, and a great light filled the chamber, falling down over the Demon Prince and transforming itself into a tightened series of chains and bars, trapping him within them.

    “Wretched, cursed, God!” his twin heads screamed at Helm, their teeth gnashing and snarling. “Do you think that this binding will hold me forever? I will get free, and I will come for you! None may contain me, and none are without retribution. I will escape, and I will devour your divine essence, feast upon your life-force… and I will slaughter everyone who had even the remotest involvement with this!” He struggled furiously lashing out and straining his bindings, only to be repelled by the holy energies that were running through them.

    Helm said nothing merely turned from where he was and headed back towards the stairs that had lead down to this chamber. There was a faint smile on his face. Bound as he was, unable to directly interfere with the events of the world, Toril would finally be rid of Demogorgon’s hated influence. As he climbed the stairs he could still hear the beast struggling, spitting curses at him, vowing vengeance, even if it took him ten thousand years.

    Helm’s response was to slam the doors that led down to the chamber, and ward them against intruders. No one would be getting past this place without paying for it with their lives, and possibly their souls. The grim smiled widened, but he knew that his day was not done. As soon as he was finished warding this place, he would have to assume his post at the Celestial staircase. His foresight had blessed him greatly.

    Already, Bane would be breaking into the halls of Ao, and stealing the divine tablets of the Overgod, thinking to tap into its power and make himself the ruler of all creation.

    The arrogance. The audacity. He would shed no tears when the fool was destroyed by his actions. They reminded him all too well of the actions of another, countless lifetimes ago.

    “I take it then, that the battle ended in your favor?”

    Helm looked over to see Mephasm standing there. The Pit Lord’s demonic face was twisted into a grin, his fangs bared and his wings spread as wide as they could.

    “He’s bound. For now, at least. I’ll need to come up with a means to isolate him completely, but we can expect no further trouble from him.” Helm took off his namesake, and extended his hand towards his unlikely comrade.

    Mephasm took it and shook it. “I assume that you go to your post?”

    “Within minutes, Bane will make his move, and all will come tumbling down. Such is how things must go.” Helm shook his head. “And what of you?”

    “I figured I’d go visit someone while I was up here.” The Devil shrugged, and assumed his more human like form.

    Helm chuckled heartily, clapped his ally on the shoulder. “You are a peculiar one of your kind. Don’t the others speak of you about that?”

    “If they do, they are intelligent enough to do it when I’m not in earshot.” Mephasm said with a scowl, before bowing and teleporting away.

    Helm chuckled and shook his head, before gathering his forces and following suit.

    --

    The Master Chief clutched at the handgrip above his head, his battle rifle held down by his side in the other. He was staring out of the small porthole in the back of the Pelican’s holding bay. The landscape beneath them was whizzing by at a dizzying rate, but he wished it would go faster. The situation merited all haste, and every moment they were in the air could result in some vital clue disappearing or being damaged.

    “Commander, ETA?” he asked over the comm. system.

    “One minute and thirty at current speed. Beginning to slow our approach. Cortana, status on the second Pelican?”

    “Second Pelican will arrive twelve point zero five seconds after we do.” The A.I. responded. “The occupants are confused, but once I mentioned the possibility of this being a Drow raid, they were scrambling to get on board.”

    “Open up a link to them, if you can.” The Spartan said. Cortana gave no audio acknowledgement, but his speakers were soon flooded by the sound of the chatter in the second dropship. There was a lot going on, he deduced, and while he recognized the voices of Wulfgar, Drizzt, and Bruenor, there were several that he didn’t. A personal escort perhaps? “Contacting Pelican Omega-Eight, this is Spartan One-One-Seven, do you copy, over.”

    There was a moment of pause and then he heard the voice of Bruenor.

    “We hear ya, if that’s what yer meaning.”

    “You’re going to be over the target in less than a minute get ready.” The Spartan replied.

    “It won’t matter,” it was Drizzt, “they’ll be long gone by now, back into the hole that brought them to the surface.”

    “And what are the odds of them leaving behind traps?” the Chief inquired.

    “Possible, but unlikely. They come in, butcher at will, and then leave. That is how my people operate.” Drizzt said. Chief detected a note of sorrow in his voice and something else. It sounded like the voice of experience. He decided not to press the issue.

    “T-minus thirty to ingress,” Cortana’s voice echoed in his ears.

    He tightened his grip upon his battle rifle, and narrowed his eyes. Slowly, he made his way over to the hatch, being careful not to crowd Khelgar, Neeshka, or Lord Nasher’s bodyguard. At the same time, he would have to be ready in order to protect any of them in the event of an ambush.

    The dropship suddenly spun around as it rapidly descended, and for a moment the Spartan felt his stomach try to relocate to a higher portion of his stomach. The doors began to open, and his rifle blurred up to a ready position. His adrenaline spiked and the world once more began to slow.

    The sight of death and smoke met his eyes, but his breathing filters mercifully kept the stench of death away from him. He scanned left and right, catching no sign of any hostiles on any of the spectrums. He stepped out onto the ramp, ready to bolt back to protect the other occupants of the ship in the event that a trap was sprung.

    A whir came form behind him, and a pair of UAVs bolted off into the air. They would scope around and try to find any hint of where the Drow might have gone, or where they could have come from.

    Not seeing or sensing any hostiles in the immediate surroundings, the Master Chief slung the battle rifle over onto his back, and drew his shotgun. Behind him, Johnson dashed towards a nearby hill, his O2 held in his hands and another UAV taking position over him, just in case there were any surprises waiting nearby.

    The Spartan slowly walked towards the burning huts of the village, his weapon at the ready, but his eyes were also upon the ground. Foot prints were stamped into the earth. Some were heavy, some were light. He raised an eyebrow at one particular set that came in from the east. They were spread out, definitely not human. In fact, they almost appeared to be reptilian in their nature. Frowning, the Spartan kneeled down to get a better look at them.

    Each print was about seven feet apart from one another, and behind them was a series of wave like motions in the ground, like a tail had been drug across it. He’d never seen any large lizards in his time around here, and it probably wasn’t an ideal candidate for a farming animal. That meant it was likely a Drow war-mount of some kind. Perhaps the leader’s?

    The Spartan logged the bit of information in the back of his mind and kept moving forward. From the west, Drizzt and the others had landed, and were making their way in towards the village heart.

    “UAV scans of the surrounding complete. No sign of hostiles within one kilometer of the village. Moving on to search for probable entrances.” Cortana said.

    “Roger,” Keyes said. “Arbiter, move up and assist the Chief.”

    “Of course, ma’am.” Orna said, his rifles drawn and held in his hands.

    It took the Sangehili only moments to reach the Spartan’s position. Johnson came down soon after, putting away his sniper rifle and pulling out his carbine.

    “Cover me,” The Chief said, moving forward, towards the heart of the village. He could already see the bodies.

    “Nasher and his escort are moving out,” Keyes said.

    “Acknowledged.” The cyborg returned, passing the first fire gutted structure.

    He gave the building a quick scan, but found that there was nothing there that was of use. Everything had been burnt to ash, and the support structure could go at any moment. The second held little more.

    Then he reached the first of the corpses. He noticed the others coming in from the side, and his motion detector was picking up Nasher’s escort, twenty five meters behind his current location. Taking another look around, double checking to make certain that there was nothing that constituted a threat, he knelt down next to the body, his shotgun still held in his right hand. It was a women, elderly, probably mid fifties to sixties, judging by the lines and the wrinkles on her face, and the gray color of her hair, and dressed in a nightgown of sorts. Her eyes were open, staring silently up at him, her face a mask of pain. The Spartan was tempted to reach out and close the eyes, but he resisted that urge. It could wait until all observations had been finished.

    He carefully prodded an arm, and met stiff resistance. Rigor Mortis had set in completely by now, not unexpected, considering that these corpses were likely a day or two old, but there were some neural and muscle toxins that prevented it. That ruled them out.

    A fly buzzed onto the corpse, and John recognized it as a bluefly, which confirmed his suspicions about the corpses age. Those were always the first to arrive. However, it didn’t seem to be trying to feed on the body, or lay eggs. Perhaps it knew that something was wrong? There was a distinct lack of blood around the body, after all. He’d wait for Drizzt’s opinion on the matter, but it seemed like poison was the likely killer.

    Just in case, the Spartan reached down into his supply belt, and pulled out a syringe. Finding a vein in the old woman’s arm was easy enough, and he was able to collect a small amount of blood. He carefully sealed the syringe up in a biohazard container, and pocketed it. He’d have Cortana analyze the blood when he got back onboard the Pelican, see if she could figure out if a toxin had been administrated, and if so, what was it, and more importantly, could an antidote be synthesized.

    The Spartan rose and moved up towards the next set of bodies. They seemed to be clustered around the center of the small village, as if they’d been trying to run here and seek shelter. Some had bolts wounds in their back, evidence of small, but still potent, crossbows. Others had been hacked apart, their body parts spread all over the landscape. Others had swelled up horribly from some type of toxin.

    The Master Chief took it all in with a cold, precise eye. He looked at the footprints upon the ground, the way the bodies were splayed out, and began to put together the pieces.

    “They snuck up, surrounded the village. Probably a night assault,” it made sense. Dark Elves could see heat, and humans didn’t have the best night vision, particularly if they didn’t get enough vitamin A, and he wasn’t certain there would be many viable sources for it this far north. It also explained the state of dress most of them had. “Drizzt.” He called out, waiting until he had the ranger’s attention.

    “Yes?” the Drow asked, his lavender eyes staring around at the destruction. They seemed haunted.

    “What’s the size of an average raiding party?” He asked.

    “The one that I was in held twenty members. This one seems to have been larger, maybe thirty or more.” The Drow replied.

    The one that he had been in? So there was more to Drizzt’s past than he had let on. He supposed it was natural. Drizzt was an exile among his own people, and if this was any indication of what the Drow were like, it wasn’t something that most people would openly discuss. The Master Chief sympathized with him. The Spartans certainly had their fair share of demons in their past.

    “Not even the children…” he heard Lord Nasher say, and turned to face him. The man’s face was a twisted mask of sorrow, and he could see unshed tears glistening in his eyes. “This is but an omen of things to come…” he whispered, shaking his head and looking down at the ground. But, when he looked back up, rage burned in those eyes, sharp as daggers and hard as steel. “Mark my words, all of you, for the blood spilled here, I will make the Drow pay a hundred fold!”

    The Master Chief nodded, and began to turn around, when he heard a gagging noise, followed by retching. He twisted back to see Sir Nevalle releasing the contents of his last meal onto the ground.

    “Suck it up, boy,” Johnson growled, his face hidden behind his helmet, his visage and enigma. He shook his head for a moment. “And you call yourself a soldier.”

    For a moment, one could have heard a pin drop in the ruins. All eyes fell upon the sergeant major. They moved between him and Nevalle, and their expressions varied. Some looked shocked, some looked horrified, others, like Khelghar and Bruenor, seemed almost curious as to what could have prompted such a statement.

    Sir Nevall spoke first, wiping his mouth with the back of his gauntlet.

    “This does not bother you… soldier.” He put a bit of contempt into the last word, and then gestured around, still coughing a bit. “The sight of a good hundred or two murdered, in cold blood, utterly defenseless before these… savages… doesn’t make you sick to your stomach?”

    “How old are you?” Johnson asked.

    “What kind of a—“

    “How. Old. Are. You.” Johnson repeated.

    “Thirty and two winters.” He said, glaring slightly.

    “Thirty two years… okay.” He nodded. “I’m about seventy myself, and I’ve spent half my life fighting a war. A war that carried me across three hundred worlds, across a thousand battlefields, every one of them littered with scenes that make this,” he gestured around him, “look tame, look like a paradise. Hell, I wish the Covenant had been so kind to people they captured. At least these wounds killed the folks here quickly.” He moved towards Nevalle, and stopped when the two were nearly chest to chest, though Johnson was taller than the man by a good half foot.

    “The Covenant,” he continued, “they don’t kill quick unless they’ve got somewhere else to be. They like to torture, to watch you squirm. To them, a Human’s nothing more than an animal, a piece of meat to stab and prod until it finally stops twitching.” He gestured down to his knife. “The Sangehili had these little knives, kinda like this one, except they could electrify ‘em. They’d take these, stick them in you; maybe in your leg, maybe your gut, and then they’d twist them back and forth,” he accentuated each word with a stabbing gesture aimed at Nevalle’s chest and thighs. “Sometimes they’d cut off a finger, or a hand. Then, when they were done, they’d take their plasma rifles and turn the yield down, just enough to cauterize the wound and keep you from bleeding to death. They’d do this for hours… days sometimes. And finally, after you’ve screamed yourself hoarse, begging for them to kill you, they cut you lose, and they toss you into the environment chambers with the Unggoy.” He paused for a few moments, drawing a few ragged breaths, and his free hand was twitching spasmodically. “Unggoy are methane breathers, a Human can’t live in their atmosphere for long… but there’s just enough oxygen for your body to hold out for a few more minutes. And the Unggoy, well, they’re low on the Covenant totem pole, they don’t get good field rations, and they enjoy a little variety.”

    Nevalle’s face paled and took on a greenish tint as the implications sank in. Even the Dwarves were looking a little white underneath their fire tanned skins.

    “And the worst part? The Unggoy aren’t a patient bunch. You’re still alive when they start to eat you.” He was clearly glaring behind his helmet. “You see enough of that kind of shit, and you see it often enough, and you get desensitized to it… it doesn’t bother you anymore.”

    “Now I think I’m going to be sick,” Khelgar muttered. Bruenor nodded faintly.

    “Don’t be.” Johnson growled. “Puking up your last meal all over the ground won’t avenge these people. Tracking the sorry bastards who did it and killing them will. Lord Nasher has the right idea.”

    With that Johnson turned and headed over to a small group of corpses. Children that had been cut down where as they’d huddled together for protection. The Master Chief and Drizzt soon joined him.


    From where she stood, Neeshka wrestled with her disbelief, and tried to quell the feelings of nausea that were building in her stomach. The horrors that Johnson had spoken of weighed heavily on her, but so did something else. He’d mentioned ‘Sangehili’. That was what Orna’s race called itself, wasn’t it? Could he…?

    No, she didn’t want to think about it, but the thought kept nagging at her. Faintly, she could hear Drizzt speaking with the other two about how the children had died, and what methods the raiding party had employed. She barely noticed, however. Stumbling about in a daze, Neeshka made her way around. After a moment, she paused, and realized that there were two more bodies in front of her. It was a man and a women, both a little older than herself. Brother and sister, or man and wife? She wondered as she knelt down next to them. It was hard to tell, their faces had been mutilated beyond recognition by the Drow.

    She reached out, and ignoring the blood on both of their faces. With a heavy heart she closed the woman’s eyes. The scene here was far too much like Ember. There, the Luskans had slaughtered the whole village for the purpose of pinning it on Kale, and trying to get their hands on him… and the chunk of the Githyanki silver sword in his chest.

    A shadow fell over her, and she looked up to see Orna standing there, his mandibles twitching. He too assumed a kneeling position and shut the eyes of the man. He said nothing, but his strange, slitted eyes seemed filled with sorrow, and perhaps, haunted. There was much that the Tiefling wanted to ask him right now, but she couldn’t bring herself too. The possibility that the honor bound soldier that she had come to see Orna as might not be the whole truth weighed heavily upon her. She was used to being lied to, deceived because of her hellish blood. But these people had seemed different, had not judged her.

    She didn’t want to think that she might be standing the presence of a mass murderer. Johnson’s claims of torture brought back other unpleasant memories.

    She remembered herself being caught in the Illfarne ruins. Black Garius hovering over her, his burning skeletal face screaming in insane laughter as he ripped into her mind, picking through her memories and torturing her with his magic. She shuddered, despite the warmth that the embers and coals provided.

    “Neeshka… is something wrong?” Orna asked, his eyes focusing upon her.

    She tried to look him in the eyes, but found that she couldn’t. Sighing, the Tiefling turned away, and headed over to where the others were.

    She saw that a new member had been added to the little team over there. Drizzt had summoned Guenhwyvar. She had heard tales of the massive, arcane cat, a black panther of supernatural power and strength. It was sniffing around, seeing if it could detect any traces of magic. Nothing appeared to come from it, though.

    “Interesting pet,” she heard Commander Keyes say as she drew closer.

    “Guenhwyvar is a loyal friend… and has been my companion for longer than you have been alive, commander,” Drizzt said, rubbing the cat’s large head, though his eyes were filled with sorrow. “I was once involved with a raid like this… many decades ago. Moon Elves were the target then. A small village, celebrating some holiday still unknown to me.”

    “What happened?” The Master Chief spoke up, shifting slightly as he stared down at the body of a slain dog, seeming to take note of how the ears had been removed.

    “They were butchered… all save one.” Drizzt bowed his head and then turned away.

    Neeshka went to open her mouth, but then she felt a strange tingling in her body, like her blood was simmering. It wasn’t painful, just strange. It made her nervous and she looked around, seeing if there was a Drow wizard, or something else unpleasant that had just popped up.

    Nothing.

    She heard a groan, and turned to see Khelgar falling to the ground, along with several of Lord Nasher’s escort. Drizzt sword suddenly as the black oynx figuring that Guen had come from turned red hot and fell to the ground, causing the dark earth to smoke and bake in its heat.

    The Master Chief, Johnson, and Keyes reacted instantly, their weapons out and looking about in different directions, searching for this foe. Fearing for her friend, Neeshka rushed over to Khelgar. The Dwarven monk was groaning, and slowly trying to rise up. He managed to get halfway to his feet, and then slumped again.

    “What’s wrong?” she asked, picking up by the shoulders and staring into his eyes, a feat easier than it had been in prior times, thanks to her new armor. “Khelgar?”

    “Tyr… his… presence… I can’t feel him anymore.” The Dwarf looked up at her, and for one of the few times in his life, the fear was livid on his face.

    “Neither can I!” cried one of Nasher’s bodyguards.

    Drizzt hurriedly snatched up the figurine, apparently it was cool enough to touch now. Even from here, and with the cloak covering most of his face, Neeshka could see the uneasiness on his face. Guenhwyvar edged closer, growling softly and staring at her means of summoning. Drizzt kept it well away from her, though. Something was wrong.

    “Cortana, bring the Dawn’s long range sensors on line immediately, I want to know what’s going on!” Keyes barked as everyone scrambled about.

    “Scanning.” The A.I. said, and Neeshka could hear a strange tone to her voice through the comm. system of her suit. “Amazing… the EM scanners are absolutely of the charts… everything is going berserk. And—hold on, wait a second.” She paused for a split second. “Commander, you’re not going to believe this. Long range scanners are picking up a transponder signal from a downed ship.”

    “What?” Keyes, Johnson, Orna, and The Master Chief all said at once.

    “Covenant in origin, Sangehili to be specific. It’s spamming an S.O.S. signal from the middle of that swamp that Regis was telling us about.”

    There was a moment of silence, and everyone seemed to look at each other. Then Orna’s eyes narrowed. “If my brothers are here, then I will not abandon them.”

    Keyes nodded. “For better or for worse, they are our allies now. And the UNSC does not abandon its allies. Cortana, keep the UAV’s in orbit over this village, just in case something comes up. Neeshka, tell Lord Nasher to board the Pelican and get back to Neverwinter. We’ll take the other one, head back to the Dawn, and gear up.”

    There was a mad scramble of activity as everyone rushed about, picking up those who were stunned and carrying them to the Pelican heading for Neverwinter. Neeshka made certain that Lord Nasher was onboard, and safely buckled in, and then moved to secure herself.

    “Wait, Neeshka,” he said, holding up a hand. “This swamp—“

    “The Trollmoores, my lord.” She said, answering his question. His face paled a bit.

    “Neeshka, you are among our most skilled agents. These strangers have been an enormous aide to us. If you do not mind, please, go and help them. They may need you.”

    She nodded without hesitation, and bolted out of the craft, racing over towards them. She heard Khelgar call out for her to be safe, and waved in return. The Tiefling saw Drizzt standing next to that girl, Cattie-Brie if she remembered correctly, and handing her the figureine that he carried.

    “Bruenor, Wulfgar, and I have traversed the Trollmoores before. Our expertise may be needed. Take Guen with you, and please keep her safe. I don’t know what’s happening, but I can’t stand the thought of loosing her.”

    “I’ll keep your cat safe, don’t be troubling yourself about that. You just make certain that big lummox and my father come back in one piece.” She replied, her eyes and tone serious.

    Drizzt nodded, and then turned and headed for the other Pelican.

    --

    It was unknown to any of them, but all across Faerun, and Toril itself, thing were changing. The theft of Ao’s tablets by Bane and his associates would have consequences that none of them could imagine.

    As he took his post at the Celestial staircase, and watched his fellow Gods and Goddesses be cast down by the wrath of Ao the Overfather, helm gave a smile that was bitter, sad, and triumphant all in one. The board was moving and shifting, and now it was time for the second phase of his plan to fall into motion.
     
    UrielAngeli and RogueInquisitor like this.
  14. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Thirteen - Alliance

    The Pelican rumbled as it accelerated back towards the Forward Unto Dawn and within it, the motley and unlikely group of soldiers, warriors, and covert scouts were busy. The Master Chief had his audio and visual recorders rolling, capturing every second of what was happening. Orna Fulsamee was pacing back and forth, trying to get his personal comm. unit to burn through all of the interference between here and the downed Covenant ship, trying to see if he could reach any of his Sangehili brothers. He wasn’t having any luck, though, and it seemed as though they were going to have to wait until they got back to the dawn to manage any form of contact.

    “Okay, one more time, run it by me, what can they be expected to run into out there in the moors, and how do you put it down and make certain that its not getting back up.” Commander Keyes growled, her voice hard in a unique way, something that reminded the Spartan of how her father used to speak.

    “I’ve been running over that book that Regis gave us, and it looks like Bog Blokes, Dire Serpents, and Trolls are the largest threats.” Cortana said. “I’ve read up on all of them, but Drizzt, Bruenor, and Wulfgar claim to have experience dealing with them. I’d prefer firsthand accounts.”

    “Then ye’ll be getting ‘em,” Bruenor said, leaning forward in his seat, and using his mithril axe as a cane of sorts. “The Bog Blokes are probably just like your little text describes, little walking tree stumps. Stubborn as the Nine Hells, the lot of them. Hard to knock down, harder to kill.” He paused for a moment collecting his thoughts, and the Spartan saw a imposed picture of one of them appear on his HUD. “Just like dealing with a tree stump, though, you want a large, hefty blade to get through that wooden hide ‘o theirs, and then you don’t let up.”

    The Master Chief frowned. Their combat knives were monoblades, but if what the Dwarf King was saying was true, it was debatable how quickly they’d be able to hurt the things. Still, there was always punching the things, or burning them.

    “Dire Snakes?” he asked, cocking his head to one side.

    “Just your big damned snake is all. Fast, though, and they like to strike from the water.” Bruenor continued. “Simple enough to kill. Whack ‘em over the head enough times, and they’ll topple like anything else.”

    The Spartan thought back to what he knew of serpentine biology. The creatures tended to have organs that were tightly clustered about one third of the way down their bodies. Shots to that region would be the most fatal. Then he nodded, and the Dwarf continued.

    “Trolls are likely to be their biggest worry. They don’t call that place the Trollmoor for nothing. Those things… those monsters don’t know how to die.”

    “What do you mean?” Orna’s mandibles flared slightly in agitation. “I do not understand.”

    “What I mean, Arbiter, is that you can hack a Troll apart, cleave it into a score of pieces, or squash it so flat you could write on it, but it won’t be doing you a lick of good. It’ll heal. The parts that you chop off will regrow, and the chopped off parts will become new trolls themselves!” he finished with a shake of his head.

    “You can kill them, though,” Drizzt said, his head bowed and tucked back into his cloak. “Acid will harm them, and fire causes them to ignite like a torch.”

    “They are vulnerable to intense heat?” Orna seemed relieved. “That is good then. My brothers will be armed with weapons like mine. It should enable them to hold their own.”

    “Well, I hope those fancy wands of theirs have enough of a charge to take down everything they’ll be up against. The Trolls will mass by the thousands when they smell food, and they’ll never stop, not until either your friends get out, or they become the next meal.”

    The master Chief was left to wonder how such a species would be able to support itself in a biological ecosystem as they closed the remaining distance between themselves and the Dawn. Still, he knew how to kill them, and exactly what would be needed.

    --

    Mias growled, firing another shot from his rifle. It hit the targeted monstrosity dead in the face, destroying it and igniting its body like a torch. Rumbling in satisfaction, the Sangehili turned his attention back to his troops. They were spread out along a large hill top, covering every possible approach that the brutes might take. His mandibles flared inside of his helmet, and he looked at his ammo counter. Ten shots left in this cell. Three hundred in total. And out before them, for what seemed kilometers in every direction, were these… things.

    Lotar and Denos both growled, before firing off a barrage of fuel rod bursts. The supersonic pulses of green energy erupted into a fiery holocaust as they hit the ground, taking out dozens of adversaries with every single shot. However, it would not be enough. These creatures had no fear, and it seemed, no survival instinct. It was like they could tell that the task force was running low on munitions.

    The commander’s eyes fell on the vehicles that they had. Each Specter could maybe carry four, the Shadows a solid two dozen if they could cling to every possible spot. But what of the Leg’kolo? What of the Unggoy? They would die. A snarl of rage was fighting its way up Mias’ throat. He and the rest of his troops had fought their way through too much over the past few decades to die like this. He had not conquered Human shock troops, with all their clever tricks and traps, Brutes, with their overwhelming strength and endurance, and the ravenous parasites of the Rings to die like this.

    The noise was so small at first that he didn’t realize what it was, and chalked it up to being a bit of static caused by the surrounding plasma fire. Then it got louder, buzzing his command comm. system until he could no longer ignore it. Then there came a voice, a voice that Mias had heard before, but now, had never thought he’d hear again.

    “Task force, do you copy, over?” It was the Arbiter. “Say again, Task Force, do you copy, please respond.”

    His mandibles spread wide for a moment, then he sent a few rounds down range as he opened up the response channel. “Arbiter, this is Task Force: Reclamation, Commander Mias Tarkimee speaking. We are pinned down and under heavy enemy assault. Requesting orders.”

    “Are you in a defensible position?” The Arbiter asked. Mias noted how calm his voice was, and found it reassuring.

    “For the moment, yes, Arbiter, we are. Our ammo supplies are running dangerously low. They are insufficient to deal with the remaining hostile forces.” Mias responded then waited a tick, firing off two more rounds. Both were on target, not that it was easy to miss the rolling mass before them.

    “What are the numbers of your forces?”

    “Forty Sangehili, three hundred Unggoy, and two Leg’kolo,” Mias responded.

    There was a brief moment of silence on the other end of the line. Then the response.

    Understood. Tell you troops to hold their position, I will be enroute with reinforcements, supplies, and evacuation ships. In the mean time, turn on your comm. channels, it will make it easier to track you down.”

    “Understood, Arbiter.” Mias said, and then, with rising elation, he turned on company wide channels. “Valiant soldiers of the Alliance, you have made me proud today!” his voice echoed in his own ears, as plasma fire streamed off the hilltop and cut down rank after rank of the advancing lines. “Some of you have served with me for more than thirty years, and we have fought through heretics, traitors, and stared down the agents of hell itself.” There was a rumble of acknowledgment from all of his soldiers, and even some of the Unggoy pumped their fists and cheered. “But know, even now, that the Gods smile upon us. We have been found! The Arbiter himself comes to our aid, and will be along with more troops, fresh supplies, and a way out of this hellhole. In the meantime, though, he asks that we kindly hold the line. Would you be so honorable as to oblige him?”

    A mixture of roars, grunts, and raucous laughter echoed in the channel, and Mias’ mandibles flicked in the gesture of a Sangehili smile. He joined his troops in laughing in the face of death, before snapping off two more shots from his rifle.

    --

    As soon as the back of the Pelican opened up, the crew of the Dawn rushed out. Machinery came to life, securing the dropship and moving it into position to have its armaments changed. High explosive warheads were being replaced with incendiaries, while the Longsword was also prepped for launch. As the Faerunian natives hopped out of the craft, they stared around in wonder at the machinery that was moving by itself. The missiles that were being loaded, and the four man crew that was rushing around like Ragnarok was upon them.

    “Where are you headed?” The Dwarf King asked Commander Keyes as she bolted for the far end of the hangar.

    “Weapons locker,” was the reply.

    The king of Clan Battlehammer looked to his companions and allies, before gesturing for his elite bodyguards to fall in behind him. They growled and did so, while Drizzt, Neeshka, and Wulfgar were all swift to join in.

    It took them only a minute or two to make their way through the twisting corridors and maze like tunnels of the Dawn to reach the nearest weapons locker. Johnson, the Master Chief, and Orna were already inside, loading up a series of wheeled cart like mechanisms. Their jaws dropped and their eyes widened in disbelief as they saw the ordinance and firepower that was at their disposal. The Master Chief and Orna were lifting large, purple crates of something that none of them had seen before. They resembled little rectangular boxes, except that they pulsed with some inner blue light. They seemed to be inspecting, them, and then the two armored soldiers slammed the tops of the lids shut.

    Johnson was loading his own, and they saw similar objects on his cart, except they glowed
    green, and seemed to be made of a series of oblong crystals. Then he brought forward a heavy tripod and the weapon that went on it, while slinging a strange, metal backpack on. Keyes was assisting, bringing out those fire grenades that they had, and hefting a large, ugly device that she quickly hooked up to the backpacks. Drizzt couldn’t help but notice that right below a nozzle of some kind was the feral grin of a sharp toothed predator, and he found himself wondering what the device was.

    Neeshka and the Drow exchanged glances with one another as crate after crate, box after box, of weaponry was loaded, finally, the Tiefling shook herself out of her stupor.

    “What can we do to help?” she asked.

    The others didn’t even stop to look at her, but there was almost a simultaneous “load ordinance” from all four soldiers. There was a moment of pause, and then Bruenor stepped forward.

    “Tell us what to carry.”

    “Plasma cells, Covenant weaponry,” The Master Chief gestured to a series of crates over by the far end of the wall, “those phosphorus packs,” he pointed to more of the backpack like devices, some of them nearly as massive as a full grown man, “and napalm grenades.”

    They didn’t need to be told twice, and were soon swarming over the equipment, loading it up, helping to secure it, and then racing back out of the armory.

    The whole process took about five minutes.

    As soon as they were back out in the hangar, they loaded the equipment up on the Longsword, just as the second Pelican, remotely piloted by Cortana, flew back in. Once they were finished, everyone jumped up onboard, and headed back out. As the door shut, Orna once again opened up a line of contact with Mias.

    “Commander, we are inbound, carrying troops, equipment, and power cells,” The Sangehili looked to Keyes, who flashed him a series of fingers, “ETA is approximately ten minutes. Be advised, tell your troops to try and avoid panicking, the Demon is with us.”

    “I understand, Arbiter, Gods grant you speed in your travel, and in your sword arm.” Mias growled in response.

    “Orna, can you direct their chatter over our frequencies?” The Master Chief asked, as he hooked up the tubes to another of the strange, predator faced weapons. The Spartan then slung one of the enormous backpacks over his shoulders. “We need to get a good idea of what’s going on down there.

    “That is within my abilities.” The Arbiter bobbed his head up and down, before fiddling with something on the side of his helmet.

    The sounds of battle soon filtered in over the comm. Channel of the Pelican. The natives looked back and forth as they heard the sound of Covenant plasma fire crackling through the air, the harsh squeaks and grunts of the Unggoy, the biting commands of Sangehili, and the deep, rumbling roars of Leg’Kolo.

    “What in the hells was that?” Wulfgar muttered, looking up at the Spartan a few feet away from him.

    “Leg’Kolo,” he responded. “We call them Hunters.”

    Wulfgar opened his mouth once again, but Johnson cut him off.

    “It’s a four ton walking monster that’s an infantryman’s worse nightmare come to life.” He growled, affixing some napalm grenades to his harness. He realized that he was still drawing blank stares, and so he gave a disgruntled sigh. "Look," he glanced over at them, "Imagine, if you will, bunch of little worm like… things, working together. They all think with the same mind, but at the same time, they're separate from one another." They were nodding, and he supposed that on a world as whacked out as this one, that probably wasn't too out of place. "Now imagine that that group of slugs is wrapped up in a suit of armor that can take this Pelican's rail cannon straight the face and all it does is get mad, strong enough to knock tanks over, and faster than an world class sprinter." They couldn’t see his face, but they noticed that a change had suddenly come over him, he seemed more subdued, weighted down again, like he had been at the village. "You never forget your first encounter with those demons."

    "I do not follow you." Drizzt raised an eyebrow behind his cloak.

    "He’s not exaggerating,” The Master Chief said, looking over towards the Dark Elf. “My group's first encounter with Hunters nearly got us killed. There were two of them, in a museum. WE got the drop on them, but it didn’t do us any good.”

    Blank stares met him. He sighed. “We were firing armor piercing rounds, they'd be able to go through about,” he did some quick mental math, based off penetration capacity and thickness of armor, “a good dozen suits of plate mail and still retain lethal velocity. We put over a thousand rounds into these things, and nothing happened. Our weapons were completely combat ineffective. We had to shoot the floor out from underneath them.”

    “Oh, so that killed them?” Wulfgar asked.

    “No. They fell three stories down, and then we dropped about sixty tons of rock on their head. They were still alive, and didn’t seem to be terribly injured.”

    There was a collective gulping from the group.

    " We're almost there, get ready!" Keyes shouted back. "Jesus," she muttered. "Does it always get this dark in this place?"

    "It is said that the Trollmoors were cursed by the Gods long ago. Darkness comes early, no matter the season," Drizzt said. "Your… comrades… are sturdy if they have lasted this long against the forces that this land can throw at them."

    "We are born fighters, Dark Elf," Orna replied, his grip on his plasma rifles tightening for just a moment. "each of us has a long and noble history, with battle poems that speak of the deeds of our ancestors, going back dozens of generations… well… most of us."

    The Dark Elf looked at the Sangehili strangely, but whatever question he or any of the others might have had upon the tips of their tongues were cut off in the next moment, as the Pelican shuddered.

    "Missile barrage," the Master Chief said. "Just opening up some holes in their ranks, and beating them back."

    He slung one of the massive backpacks over his shoulder, and raised the nozzle like device before heading to the door of the drop ship. A couple of seconds later, it started to back up, and the door began to open. Darkness, seemingly unnatural, seeped into the holding area, devouring the red lighting of the craft's interior. If this bothered the cyborg at all, he didn't let show. He leapt twenty feet down onto the hill top.

    Neeshka dashed to the loading ramp, making certain to grab some of the supplies they had brought. The sights and sounds of the battle washed over her in the next instant, and she found herself overwhelmed by all of it. There were hundreds of little creatures, barely larger than a Dwarf, scrambling about, firing strange wands into the ranks of their foes. Others manned large tripodal weapons. Commanding them were dozens of Sangehili, who screaming in a harsh, unknown tongue that seemed to be one of defiance, as they used their much larger weapons to beat back the Troll horde.


    And what a horde it was. As the Tiefling leapt down onto the ground, she could see it stretching out for what seemed to be miles in every direction. She had never seen so many of the beasts, had no idea that there were even that many alive.

    "One moment," she heard the voice of Cortana through her armor's radio. "Caliberating and adjusting translation software."


    Suddenly, she could hear what the creatures were saying, and it made the strange dichotomy of order within chaos all the more palpable.

    "Power cells running low, need reload!" once of the smaller ones barked.

    "Cleansing flame!" bellowed one of the larger Sangehili, right before activating one of those strange blast globes. It glowed blue, driving back the darkness of the moors, and then the creature hurled it. It sailed out into the ranks of the monsters, and vaporized a number of them.

    "More fire needed here!" another smaller one squealed.

    Then came a voice that rumbled through her bones. Deep and powerful, like the voice of a Balor demon, it echoed hauntingly over her radio.

    "Moving to assist the Unggoy."

    The darkness itself moved then. Bruenor, his Dwarves, and the others were momentarily struck dumb, and Neeshka herself wondered how she had missed such a behemoth. It was twelve feet tall, easily, covered from head to toe in black armor that would have made a Silverymoon knight jealous. Its left hand carried a massive, tower shield like hunk of metal, while the right one had a tubular device granted into it. A series of eight spines that looked wickedly sharp protruded from its 'spine', and they waved back and forth menacingly as it quickly crossed from one side of the hilltop to the other. It stopped just a few feet behind the Unggoy, and leveled its right arm.

    There was a flash of green light, and Neeshka saw a blob of energy fly off into the darkness. It crossed the half mile distance in less than a second, and exploded. A white hot flash nearly blinded her sensitive eyes, and when it cleared, there was an area of the horde where nothing existed anymore. Nothing but a glowing crater, forty feet wide. Every Troll within double that distance was a burning effigy. They flailed about, screaming and howling, but they managed to do nothing more than set their comrades aflame.

    "That is a Hunter," she heard Orna's voice in her ear. "Now that you've seen one, please assist with the rearmament."

    Neeshka snapped out of her trance, and looked around to assess the situation. Orna, Johnson, and Keyes were busy bringing along those strange crates, and the Master Chief was spraying down the Trolls with some kind of white flame, burning them to ash.

    "Bruenor, get those plasma cannons over to the northeast corner !" Keyes shouted. "Drizzt, Wulfgar, help me distribute plasma cells. Neeskha, I need you to start passing out grenades."

    "Understood," the agent responded, before heading over to the nearest group that she could see. It was a squad of some twenty Unggoy, all of them being held together under the command of another of their kind. This one was larger, covered in heavy white armor, and carrying a weapon larger than itself.

    "Keep the pressure on them, don't let up!" it shouted. It noticed her as she drew up, and for a second, its eyes settled on her tail and it cocked its head to one side.

    She knew that it wouldn't be able to understand her, so she just passed out a small box of' grenades.'

    "Ahh, thank you." it said, sounding surprisingly polite, for something that she knew would have few qualms about munching on her flesh. "Soldiers, grab grenades and prepare for a volley. Zebos, you and the others focus your cannon fire just a little further out for the moment. "

    The addressed soldiers growled in affirmative, before adjusting their angle of attack. The others swarmed over the box of grenades and picked it clean. Not knowing what else to do, Neeshka set another one down, and started to move on.

    The resulting detonation of the grenades shook the earth itself.

    “We have a surge in the western slopes, requesting close range support!”

    Neeshka peered around to see that there was a pair of Sangehili warriors there. They were different from their fellows, wearing black armor that made them almost impossible to see, were it not for the flashes of their weapons. Bruenor was up beside them, as well as Drizzt, and they seemed to be trying to hook up one of the large pulsing crates to the tripod type weapons. There was a massive number of Trolls that were attempting to rush the position, though. The ground rumbled, and another of the Hunters came into position. The massive creature gave out a roar that shook the very air around them, and Neeshka found herself grateful this thing was on her side.

    It pointed its weapon down towards the rushing tide of green, and greenish blue ‘flames’ seemed to leap from its weapon. The first Trolls in its bath were burned to dust in an instant, and anything near it exploded into flame. Even the marsh grass, sodden by perpetual dampness and never ending rain, exploded, and the puddles of damp rainwater became steam.

    “Moradin’s arse!” Bruenor screamed. “I gotta get me one o’ those. Be great the next time the goblins decide to pay us a visit.”

    The Hunter seemed to stare at the Dwarf King for a moment or two, and then shook his head.

    Neeshka kept an eye on them as she delivered another batch of grenades to the Unggoy. She passed Sergeant Johnson who was using a weapon similar to the Master chief, spitting out blast after blast of white hot fire.

    “Come on, you ugly little…” He trailed off, and she could imagine his hidden face twisted into a snarl.

    Then she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. The Trolls were trying a new tactic, one that involved slinging up large numbers of their own troops onto the hill itself. Rather ingenious of them. However, most of the beasts were cut down before they could get close enough to become a threat. They fell to the ground as little more than charred husks. The ones that were hurled at the Hunters, though, got a different treatment. The one near Drizzt and Bruenor shifted far faster than a creature of its size should have been able to, and cocked its massive shield back.

    The Troll that sailed in got backhanded by the massive hunk of metal. The Teifling watched, amazed, as the four hundred pound monster went sailing back out into the night. Her enhanced vision picked up its broken corpse smashing into the ranks of its fellows, nearly one hundred and fifty feet away. She couldn’t help but gulp at this, but reminded herself that there was more that needed to be done.

    All the while, Orna spoke with Mias.

    “Your timing is excellent as always, Arbiter.” The commander saluted the other Sangehili as he spoke.

    “What sort of a soldier would I be if I did not rush to the aid of my brothers?” Orna cocked his head to one side. “An Arbiter’s life is sacrifice, after all.”

    Mias shook his head. “We need to begin evacuation. Even with these supplies, I think it’s only a matter of time before they run us dry.” Even as he spoke, Denas fired off a barrage of assault cannon blasts into the ranks of the enemy.

    Hundreds of Trolls were consumed in the fury of the plasma attack. But still they pressed on, roaring and growling in the night.

    “listen up, everyone,” Mias growled through the commline, “We are commencing evacuation. Wounded take priority, and after that we’re going to start shifting out of here starting with C-company. Am I understood? This is going to be an orderly withdrawal. The first trooper I see try to break ranks is going to be the last one to get out of here. Understood?”

    Another chorus of Yes-sirs came from the ranks, and Mias nodded his head approvingly. “Very good.” He said.

    And then it began. It was just as the Snagehili commander ordered. Everything was done in an orderly, precise manner. The Unggoy loaded up their wounded numbers, and then the designated company began to shift up onto the hovering Pelicans and the Longsword. As they moved out, others shifted in, holstering their pistols and taking over the manning of plasma cannons and fuel rod guns.

    “A very disciplined lot,” Orna observed, drawing his rifles and heading for the fray.

    “I’ve managed this company for years, Arbiter, they don’t break and run.” Mias joined him, leveling his long-armed rifle and spitting a trio of plasma bursts downrange. “Burn, you miserable little abominations…. Burn.”

    Neeshka rushed about, finishing up her delivers just as the Pelicans were departing. Then the Teifling fumbled around, not really sure of what to do. This wasn’t’ like her fights with Kale. What use was a blade against a horde like this? What good could she do? Out of instinct, she headed over towards where Johnson and the Master Chief were. The two of them had moved closer together to help cover the southern portion of the hilltop. Their twin streams of white hot fire reached out and touched the Trolls, the grass, the murky mud of the ground, and set it to fire.

    “What do you need me to do?” she asked, hoping that she wasn’t distracting them.

    The Master Chief spared her a glance, and then motioned over to a plasma cannon that was being manned by a wounded grunt. “Round up someone else, Bruenor or Drizzt, and keep that cannon going.”

    “How exactly do we do that?” The Dark Elf asked as he drew near.

    “Drizzt, move the green knob on the left side, about six inches out from the handles, that’ll adjust the weapon to your height,” The Master Chief said, gesturing to the general area before turning his flamethrower back onto the horde. “Neeshka, monitor the heat index bar on the right side. When it starts turning red, tell Drizzt to let the gun rest for a few moments. He doesn’t have a link index, so he won’t be able to do it himself.”

    “Where are the… trigger mechanisms?” the Drow asked as he got the weapon centered with himself, and noticed that there were a strange series of lights that sprang up and floated just above the metal of the barrel, in-between what appeared to be some sort of metal sighting devices.

    “The two handles on the back of the cannon. Squeeze those to fire weapon.” The Spartan said, shooting a blast of phosphorus based flame down into the swamp below. A score of Trolls were ignited, and howled as they fell apart and burned to ash. More rose to take their place however, and the Spartan found himself growing irritated.

    Still, at least they were not Flood. Just like Mendez said, things could always be worse.

    The Pelicans and the Longsword took off just as Drizzt began to open fire. He didn’t hold the weapon tightly enough however, and it nearly kicked out of his control.

    “Hold it more firmly. We need that thing in action.” John tried to remain patient, reminding himself that they had likely never even seen anything remotely like a plasma cannon before, let along fired one. “Cortana, how are we doing on evac?”

    “ETA to return is about twenty minutes. We can got about a hundred Unggoy on that run, with them packed in here butt to gut. Probably going to take three trips to pull this whole thing off.” She trailed off, leaving them with the obvious problem of force management.

    As the Covenant task force was pulled out, the manpower necessary to man the weaponry here would diminish significantly, leaving them with the increasing probability of the Trolls throwing enough bodies at them to swamp the position. And there was one other problem.

    “Orna, what’s the situation with the Shadows? They’re too large to properly attach to the Pelican’s magnetic grapples.”

    Over on the northern end of the battlefield, There was a moment of pause. The Arbiter noticed that Mias had twisted his head in a strange manner, one of confusion. It occurred to him then, that no one here even knew who he was. Truth had done a magnificent job of purging him from the records of the Covenant after the Master Chief destroyed the fourth Halo.

    “I am uncertain. Commander, they are your vehicles, what do you want done with them?” The Arbiter asked, as he slipped new cells into his plasma rifles and took aim once more, swiftly sending a hail of blue plasma fire down range.

    “I’d like to salvage them if it is at all possible, Arbiter. We have few vehicles, and every one will be vital, I feel.” The Commander responded without bothering to look up. He kept his eye on the enemy.

    “Cortana,” it was Keyes. “Where are with in this muckball? How hard would it be to try and rush the vehicles past the Trolls?”

    “The UAV that I dispatched indicates that the Troll ranks thin out about a klick and a half away from your position. The Trollmoors end about twenty four kilometers to the south east. If my understanding of the texts is correct, once you pass that, the Trolls won’t follow. They don’t like being outside of unfamiliar territory.”

    “Ma’am, we could use the Pelicans and the Longsword to assist with opening up a hole in their ranks, while the Shadows and Specters are manned and make a break for it.” The Master Chief said, monitoring the level of his backpack. Still enough pressurized phosphorus to keep him good till the next round of evacuations.

    “It’s risky, but the Commander is correct. We’re going to need those vehicles, especially if we’re going to be dealing with Luskan and the Drow.”

    “Who and the what?” It was a voice that the Master Chief recognized: N’Tho. So, those two were here as well.

    “Long story, we’ll fill you in once we’re out of this mess.” Cortana responded.

    The next few minutes seemed like hours to most of the people down there, but it was filled with its interesting moments.

    Bruenor kept distributing power cells to the different soldiers when heard them say that they were needed. To him, these ‘Covenant’ forces were a strange thing, something never before seen in his two centuries of life. They looked like demons, but they found with organization far and above anything he’d seen. They constantly communicated through their ‘radios,’ calling out when a side was being threatened, or when their munitions were reaching the point of exhaustion. None of them seemed to panic, and indeed, the Hunters seemed to be reciting some manner of battle poetry as they blasted and incinerated their foes.

    At the same time, he could not forget the quiet rage and cold anger in the voice of Sergeant Johnson as he’d spoke of the horrors that he’d witnessed at the hands of the very creatures that he was helping to save. It just seemed so, surreal, to the Dwarf King. He’d faced creatures that indulged in torture and cannibalism before. They were weak, cowardly things, usually. Goblins, Orcs, Ogres, and Gnolls. They fought that which they could overpower, their through brute force or sheer numbers. They did not fight when they were outnumber hundreds… thousands to one. They did not recite poems of the deeds of their forefathers, did not tell their comrades to keep coming, or joke that this was nothing compared to battles past.

    They were savage, yet courageous and noble all in one. To a degree, it fascinated him.

    What the Dwarf King didn’t know was that he was also the subject of much thought among the off worlders. The Unggoy in particular were fascinated by these short bearded ‘humans.’

    Gazap kept moving around the hilltop, offering encouragement to his troops and using his fuel rod cannon to devastating effect. However, when he could, he took a moment stare at the newcomers that the Arbiter had brought with him. The small ones fascinated him. Was this some manner of Unggoy equivalent among the Humans? Something they’d never seen before? It didn’t seem terribly likely, given that they were running around with bladed weapons that had fell out of use among the various Covenant sub-races thousands of years ago. But, if that were the case, where did they come from? Were they native to this world? He frowned behind his methane rebreather unit. The odds of such an occurrence were highly unlikely. He would have to question them later, though probably by some manner of proxy. The Arbiter seemed to know their language well enough, judging by how he and the others seemed to be ordering them around.

    “Need heavy fire support!” one of his troopers cried over the comm. networks.

    “En-route,” Gazap grunted, hefting the massive cannon and dashing over to the eastern slopes. A barrage of green plasma left the cannon, before smashing down into the depths of the enemy.

    “Ancestors have mercy, I doubt even the parasite was this persistent…” he grumbled as he saw even more coming.

    On the other side, Drizzt shuddered involuntarily as he unleashed another barrage of the strange spell-fire from the weapon he was manning. It never seemed to run out of charges, and could blast anything in its path to pieces with trivial ease. The screams of the Trolls reached his tapered ears, and another shuddered worked its way through him. That could just as easily be him down there. If his fellow Drow tried to invade, it would be their screams as these weapons burned them to ash.

    From an elevated position, with equipment like this, one man could slay thousands without effort. One man who’d only been taught how to use the weapon five minutes previously.

    Drizzt had spent the first three decades of his life learning nothing but the way of the sword, how to thrust, slice, and parry with the best of them. He’d reached the point where he had even been superior to his father, Zaknafien. With a weapon like this, even a child could cut him down.

    A chord was struck deep within the Drow’s heart. If weaponry like this took hold in this world, he would go the way of the stone axe and bronze spear. He would become obsolete, his sword mastery good for little more than showing off at some nobleman’s ball.

    He had to resist the urge to unsheathe Twinkle and try to slice the contraption in half. What sort of barbarism and bloodshed would a weapon like this bring to his world?

    “Um, Master Chief?” Neeshka’s voice shook him out of his thoughts.

    “Yes?” The green armored giant responded as he torched a group of Trolls.

    “I think that the power cell, thing, is getting low on charges.” The Tiefling said as her tail started to twitch back and forth in agitation.

    “Go get another cell, and I’ll walk you through the reloading process.” He said.

    Neeshka was gone and back in a flash, holding one of the crates in her hands. It reminded Drizzt of the little cages that he’d once seen chickens being put into. Size was about right, at any rate. She placed it down next to the one that was being used, and waited for the Spartan to give her further instructions. The Master Chief paced over behind them, and sent a few more fire blasts downrange once he’d gotten back into a clear field of fire. Once there, he took a moment to stare at the readout. The weapon had about a hundred shots left before the cell was depleted.

    “You’ve got enough shots left for about thirty seconds of burst fire. Go ahead and use it up before we switch over to the new one.” He told them.

    Drizzt complied with the order, but the Spartan noticed that he seemed uncomfortable with his job. He’d have to question the Drow later, see what was wrong. It was highly probable that Drizzt would be required to operate another firearm before this mess was over and done with, and he didn’t need a gunshy individual operating heavy equipment.

    Once the cannon’s power cell was drained, he moved into action, keeping the Trolls at bay would be harder now, without the aid of the weapon.

    “Disconnect the power coupling, the rope-like device.” He said, burning another Troll as it came sailing in through the air. Its corpse was little more than a lump of charcoal when it hit the ground.

    “Alright.”

    “Next, take the coupling from the new cell, and hook it up. Once you’ve done that, flip the switch on the side of the cell, and you should get a confirmation signal telling you the cannon is prepped.” He blasted another group of the monsters as they made the mistake of clustering together to try and charge him.

    Neeshka did as instructed, and sure enough, there was a loud beeping noise, and then reading on the side of the plasma cannon indicated that it was back at full charge: nearly twenty five thousand shots.

    “Good to go, resume firing!” the Spartan ordered.

    A hail of blue energy bolts lanced downrange in compliance with the cyborg, joined a moment later by yet another stream of white phosphorus based fire.

    --

    It had taken almost an hour to get everyone loaded up and on their way out. Now, only a dozen Sangehili, the Arbiter, Johnson, the Master Chief, and the two Leg'Kolo remained on the ground. The Longsword and the Pelicans were busy blasting the Troll horde with incendiary missile fire, enveloping them in massive fireballs to clear the path.

    “Assume positions!” Mias barked, priming the heavy plasma cannon on the back of a Shadow.

    The Hunters boarded the Shadows, leaping up onto the spines of the large transports and readying their weaponry. The Master Chief and Sergeant Johnson boarded a Specter, each taking a seat on the opposite wing. Both had restocked their flamethrowers, and were ready to burn anything that tried to get near their little convoy. Orna, meanwhile, leapt into the pilot seat of the other Specter, his mandibles twitching.

    The Trolls seemed to be able to sense that their last chance at a meal was making a break for it, and surged forward with renewed vigor. However, it was to be in vain, as weapons fire erupted from the convoy and the ships. Other Sangehili and Unggoy also kept up the pressure, firing out of the open hatches of the Pelicans and the Longsword.

    With a single signal from Mias, they shot off down the hill, over a path of broken and charred bodies.

    They were still far from out of this, though.
     
  15. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Fourteen - Revelations One

    The Master Chief fired one more burst of white hot fire into the depths of the Trollmoors, and then they passed by into the safety of the forest that surrounded the place. His enhanced vision caught a few glimpses of them slipping back into the depths of the swamp, and he nodded in satisfaction. He still kept his weapon trained upon the surroundings, just in case something nasty should come their way, but for the most part, it seemed as though the operation was over and done with.

    Well, at least the combat portion of it. The Troll horde had required several weaves and twists to successfully penetrate and evade, and now they were near a town that Drizzt and Bruenor had told them was called Neseme. The brief bit of chatter that the Spartan had heard in the frantic rush to get out of range of their foes had left him feeling that the locals would be standoffish at best. He wasn’t certain how well they would react to the likes of Orna and his comrades, and they would be unable to get the Shadows back to the Dawn by anything other than a straight run.

    The good news was that thanks to the terrain and the fusion cells in the Covenant vehicles, that they could make the trip in just a few hours. The bad news was that there wasn’t much that could be done to hide them.

    “Are you certain that only Bruenor is going to be able to help us out here?” Commander Keyes asked over the comm. channels.

    “The last time that we came in close to Neseme, my heritage forced us to slog through the moors. I don’t think such an experience would be appreciated by your… allies, after what they just went through,” Drizzt remarked.

    “It’s the same with me,” Neeshka said. “A Tiefling is more likely to send the Riders on the defensive, and they’re the kind of people who… oh, what was the phrase that you guys used… kill first, ask questions second?”

    “They’ll listen to me, though,” Bruenor growled. “The Halls of me father’s fathers had a nice, rich contract with them. With all the fighting that they do, the Neseme Riders couldn’t get enough of our mithril weaponry.”

    With that, the Dwarven King hopped out of the back of the Pelican that he was in, and clambered into the troop transport department of the lead Shadow. He was followed by a number of his body guards.

    “While we run these back, Commander, I would like to ask that you use your dropships and your fighter to run back to our ship and retrieve supplies.” Commander Mias said. “We have a number of useful weapons, supplies, and generators that survived the crash that may prove useful to our mutual survival.”

    “With pleasure.” Keyes responded. “It’ll give me time to bring you up to speed on the events that are transpiring here.”

    “Heed her words well, Commander.” The Arbiter spoke. “She’s done much to help establish alliances with the natives, and there is something coming that is bigger than all of us.”

    “As you command, Arbiter.” Mias said.

    With that, the two parties separated. The ships shot off into the sky, leaving double shockwaves behind them as they accelerated to atmospheric cruising speeds. The vehicles also headed off, although they were moving considerably slower.

    --

    It was not long before what Drizzt feared had come to pass. The UAV that was traveling with the convoy detected an approaching patrol on the road ahead. The Sangehili and the Leg’Kolo tensed, the former carefully fingering weapons, while the latter tensed and their many worms rumbled.

    John found himself reminded of a quintessential prisoners’ dilemma. However, with any luck, Bruenor could act as an intermediary, and keep things from getting too heated. Still, he kept his finger on the trigger of his flamethrower. It wouldn’t do to kill the natives, but he could still spook them if he needed to. The cyborg stared over towards Sergeant Johnson, who similarly raised and patted the projector for his slightly smaller weapon.

    Then the small convoy crested a hill. Down below them, riding up the path that bordered the swamplands was a group of some three dozen odd riders, a little more than half a kilometer off. The Spartan zoomed his visor in, reading the details and expressions of every man in the group. They were squinting, and some of them were shouting. It was clear that they could see the Covenant vehicles. The question remained, however, as to what exactly the ultimate reaction would be.

    “They’ve spotted us,” he said, staring hard at them and pulling the magnification back just a bit. They were signaling and shouting to each other by the looks of it, and some were going for bows, while others were drawing axes and melee weaponry.

    The Spartan hopped off the side of the Specter that he was sitting on. It would likely be better if they met the more human-like members of the group first, along with Bruenor, to ease them into the situation before them. Around him, he could hear the faint clicking of the mandibles of the Sangehili. They were agitated, still shaking off the adrenaline of their last battle. N’Tho and Usze seemed to be intent on seeking out some manner of cover as demanded by their Ranger training, but there was none to be found. The two black armored soldiers growled softly and their fingers tapped against the tactical foregrips and barrels of their rifles as they awaited the inevitable confrontation.

    Johnson joined the Chief, and kept his flamethrower pointed towards the ground, though he kept his helmet on. The Master Chief nodded in approval. No sense giving a foe a free target if you could help it.

    The cyborg focused his attention back on the Neseme Riders. They were within two hundred meters now, and would be upon them in seconds.

    As they drew nearer, he could see the looks of shock on their faces, but he noticed, not one man seemed afraid, or at least overtly so. It seemed somewhat logical, given the hazardous nature of their jobs, courage and steadfastness would be a prerequisite for joining the ranks of the riders. However, their lack of subtly and the fact that they were taking no care around a completely unknown force bothered him.

    There was a reason that back on Earth, blind rushes had become obsolete as soon as machine guns had appeared. They paused some thirty yards away, and bows were trained upon the group by those who had them. Bruenor, unphased by this display of force, calmly stepped forward and placed the butt end of his axe into the ground and then casually leaning upon it.

    “Top of the morning to you, Riders of Neseme,” the Dwarven king said with a smile in his voice. “How are things in your town.”

    “What business have you here, Dwarf, and what manner of things are these creatures?” a rider spoke, stepping forward just slightly.

    The Master Chief stared at the man, deducing that he was the leader of the group. Where most of the others wore heavy chain mail, this man was clad in a full breastplate and partial plate armor in addition to mail and coifs of the others. The silvery glint of the metal, bright than the steel of his fellows, indicated to the Spartan that it was also of that mithril material that several of Neverwinter’s elite guard had had. He also carried a heavy riding war axe, reminiscent of something the Vikings often used on his own world.

    “I resent that statement,” Johnson muttered, crossing his arms above his armored chest. “I am as human as the next man.”

    The statement seemed to catch the rider off guard slightly, and his brown eyes narrowed. He pressed his heels into his horse, and the animal advanced towards the group with a soft snort.

    “Then you make curious company…” he growled. “I won’t ask again, who are you , and what is your purpose here.”

    “King Bruenor of Clan Battle-Hammer,” Bruenor said. If he was put off by the rider’s tone, he didn’t let it show. “Passing through back on the way to the stronghold of me people. Why, is there a tax we must pay these days?”

    The rider, to his credit, kept calm and cool in the knowledge that he was addressing royalty. He looked down at the red bearded Dwarf, and his brows furrowed.

    “Well then, my lord, would you mind explaining to us the presence of these… things.” He swept his axe towards the Specters and the Shadows, and to the Covenant forces that were manning them.

    “Those fellows?” Bruenor gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. “Friends of the clan. They were in a bit of spot, their Spell Jammer crashed down right in the middle of the moors, and they’ve spent the past four days fighting their way out.”

    The man’s eyebrows shot up at this. The Master Chief cocked his head to one side. Curious, so these people considered that worthy of respect? Or was it fear that he saw forming in the eyes of the soldier.

    “No small feat. The Evermoors are quick to ensnare, slow to let go of their prey.” His eyes drifted from the king and his bodyguard over to the Master Chief. “But what manner of beings are they. I’ve never seen such demons, and I do not wish to have them anywhere near my town.”

    “Aliens… not demons.” John said. “Soldiers from a race far from your world.”

    “Aliens?” The rider stumbled over the unfamiliar word, which did not exist in his native tongue.

    “Think of them as extra-planar beings, like the Githyanki,” Bruenor said. “But, lads, if you don’t mind, we’re in a bit of a hurry, and the fellows could use a bit of rest. We’ll just be on our way.”

    “You’ve yet to prove that they’re not a threat to Neseme, and until that happens, no one’s going anywhere.” The rider brandished his axe.

    Very loyal, very true to his duty. The Master Chief admired that. Still, they needed to move, and he was unsure of how to prove that Orna and his comrades were not a threat. Somehow, a weapons display didn’t seem the ideal means of showing non-hostile intentions. He frowned behind his helmet, and were it not there, might have reached up and scratched his chin.

    “You have our word that we mean no harm to your small city.”

    The voice was Orna Fullsamee, advancing towards the meeting. Flanking him was Mias Tharkimee, and one of the Hunters. The Elite commander had removed his helmet, allowing his face to be visible for the first time. John noticed a series of crisscrossing scars across the top of his reptilian head. It was as if someone had taken a grid like section of hot wiring and burned a mark into him. The Arbiter had both his swords and his rifles tucked away in his belt, as did Mias but the Hunter was alert, and hunched down in its ‘combat mode’ with the interlocking plates of its enormous armor covering the multitude of worms that made it up.

    The lead rider recoiled slightly at the sight of the Sangehili commander’s face.

    “What in the hell… What are you?” the man asked.

    “As a species, we are called Sangehili,” Orna said. “As a collective, we are the Covenant.”

    “And why should I trust your word, Sangehili?” Again, the man stumbled over the unknown word. The Master Chief heard a buzz in his comm. channels, it was Cortana.

    “Just a second, Orna, I’m uploading a translation program into the network of your comrade’s armor suits. They won’t be able to speak their language yet, but you can at least understand what is going on. Tell him to stick his helmet back on.”

    Orna dutifully relayed the command, before turning back to face the lead writer.

    “Because as the Arbiter of our kind, I am sworn to the pursuit of truth and honor, that I might due justice to the memories of my ancestors, and not be ashamed when my battle poem is interwoven with theirs.” Orna crossed an arm across his chest. “As such, upon my word and my life, I swear we shall bring no harm to your town or your people.”

    There was a pained look on the Arbiter’s face, and the Master Chief found himself puzzled by it. He watched Orna carefully, noting every mandible twitch, every tensing of a facial muscle. Something was bothering the soldier, something that seemed to be hurting him far deeper than a physical wound. The Spartan logged that knowledge away in the back of his mind, reminding himself to bring it to the Arbiter’s attention later. He would need for everyone to be at top combat potential, and no impediments could be allowed.

    The Neseme rider, however, still appeared to be somewhat unsure, and on a certain level, the Master Chief could empathize. As a soldier it was his duty to protect his hometown, and here was a group of individuals who he’d never seen before, and probably bore a great deal if resemblance to what the man hunted for a living. It would be difficult to win him over. Hopefully, Bruenor could make it through to him.

    “Look, lad,” the Dwarf spoke up. “There’s a bit of a situation going on here on Faerun at the moment. Dark forces are massing, that are sooner than later likely to have a go at your town, and these fellows here can through a lot of muscle around in a fight.”

    The rider’s expression softened slightly, and he appeared to be contemplating his next move carefully.

    “Look,” Bruenor said with an air of finality, “Mithril Hall just got overrun by the Drow a couple of weeks ago. These soldiers have agreed to help try and liberate the place. The sooner they gear up, the sooner we get the control of the Hall back.” He let the sentence hang for a second or two. “And lest you forget, if we don’t control that Hall, you won’t be getting nothing for weapons and armor.”

    The master Chief smiled behind his visor. A brilliant ploy and expert tactical maneuvering on Bruenor’s part, he’d appealed to the man’s emotions, his sense of honor, and driven the point home by explaining the gravity of the situation should Mithril Hall remain in enemy hands.

    The Master Chief wasn’t certain how Mias and the others would react to being volunteered like they’d just been, but he had little doubt that Orna would be able to convince them that the cause was in their best interest. The Sangehili were no fools. They’d know that allies would be necessary to survive on this strange and unknown world. And helping to free ancestral hall of Clan Battlehammer would go quite a ways in securing those allies.

    “Very well,” The rider spoke at last, and moved out of the way.

    “Many thanks, lad,” Bruenor said with a chuckle and tip of his battle helm. Then he turned and rushed off towards the Shadows. Orna radioed for the troops to advance to their position to speed things up, and within minutes, they were loaded again and on their way.

    “If the Drow are massing an army for a surface attack, then taking back the hall probably won’t stop them. Do you have a contingency plan in the event of a counter offensive?” the Master Chief asked Bruenor as the ships moved along.

    The Dwarven king was still getting used to the radio that was in his ear, but he caught on fast enough.

    “We know those tunnels like the backs of our hands. We just didn’t have a large enough garrison there.” The Dwarf’s voice ended in a vicious growl. “With your help, we’ll drive them back, and then I intend to make that place impregnable. None of those dark eared dogs are going to be soiling the halls of my fathers while I still draw breath!”

    “We’re going to need plans of the place if you want us to help.” Johnson spoke up, his flamethrower nozzle braced against his knee.

    “We’ve got some maps of the place, don’t you worry about that.” Bruenor said.

    “Before we assault anything, though, I need to bring my brothers up to speed on the situation. Many of them will also need to be instructed on the use of UNSC vehicles.” Orna spoke up. “And there are things need to tell them of that do not concern this world…”

    The Master Chief cocked his head to one side, curious about the sudden sagely tone that had crept into the Arbiter’s voice. He supposed he would find out soon enough.

    --

    The rest of the trip back proved uneventful, and within a few hours, they were back inside the Dawn’s hangar. Orna was swift to round up Mias and the other Sangehili that were not rushing back to the downed ship for supplies, along with Lotar, Denos, and Gazap. Once that was accomplished, they went into a nearby weapons locker, the closest thing to privacy at the moment. With his mandibles twitching, the Arbiter turned to face them.

    “Brothers, it warms my heart to finally see more of our kind here, and to know that even in the wake of all our trials, our Covenant still holds true.” Orna dipped his head slightly.

    “Even if the promise of salvation has proven false, our honor still binds us. We are proud to serve alongside your kind,” Lotar and Denos rumbled together, their deep voices vibrating the very room.

    “The Leg’Kolo speak the truth,” Mias said. “United together, even as battered as we are, we are still strong, and the Brutes will never find us such easy prey.”

    “True,” Orna held up a hand to signal silence for a moment, and then bowed his head. “However, as we were preparing to fire the ring and destroy the parasite… I learned a most terrible revelation.” He paused for a moment, thinking of how best to phrase what would come next. “What the Oracle told us on the Delta Halo, about the Forerunners, is not entirely accurate. There were some Forerunners who survived by hiding away on the Ark.”

    Murmurs shot up immediately, but Orna held up his hand and bid silence once more. “The knowledge is bittersweet, my brothers. For while they survived, they were returned to a reality where their society was gone. In just a few generations, all their knowledge was lost. They were left to wander, ignorant of their heritage, until they finally began to build themselves back up again.”

    “Where are they?” N’Tho asked. “What happened to them?”

    “They began to wander the stars again after a time... and they called themselves by a new name: Humanity.” He closed his eyes.

    The room was quiet except for the soft hissing of Gazap’s methane rebreather unit. Glances were being shared, and Orna saw confusion, disbelief, denial.

    “Arbiter, if this is your idea of a joke, I am not amused,” Mias spoke, twisting his head to cast a golden eye upon the Arbiter.

    “It is no joke, I am afraid,” he shook his head. “Even as we revered the Forerunners as gods, we slaughtered their children in the name of the Great Journey.” Orna felt the despair in his heart being replaced by rage as he came to the next part. “I wonder how we could have been so blind. The Sentinels, the Oracles, the way they referred to the Humans as Reclaimers, the way they would devote their forces to protecting the Humans above all else… the reason that only the Humans could activate a ring… all the signs were there.”

    He could feel the rage building in his brethren, hatred towards themselves and their own ineptitude. Now came the final note in the symphony.

    “And worst of all, from what Sergeant Johnson spoke of during his brief captivity, Truth and the other Prophets knew… they knew what the Humans were, and ordered their destruction out of fear of losing their power should their heritage be revealed.”

    There was silence once again, but he could see the fingers of his fellow Sangehili twitching, while Gazap blinked on in disbelief, and the two Leg’Kolo growled ominously.

    “You mean to tell me that the Prophets knew all along were we butchering Forerunners?” Mias growled. His voice seemed calm, but there was a deadly undertone to a it, threatening to boil over at any given moment.

    Orna merely nodded.

    The Sangehili commander began to pace back and forth, his breath coming in deep, angry growls. Murmurs among the ranks filtered up, and Orna heard promises of vengeance, retribution, and war.

    “There is still a chance we may yet redeem our sullied honor, Mias,” The Arbiter said, stepping towards him and placing a hand upon his shoulder. “As you saw, there are Humans native to this world. There are dark forces mustering to enslave them and everything else here. As well as petty opportunists who would sell out their own kind for the sake of getting a little further ahead in the game of life.”

    The other Sangehili clamped his mandibles together, and his face became like a mask of steel.

    “Then we shall repel the fiends, and defend the Humans here, even at the cost of our own lives, if need be.” The commanders four fingered hand curled into a fist that was shaking violently. “We will not be remembered in our families battle poems as the ones who brought shame to our bloodlines by slaughtering the very ones we worshiped!”

    A cacophony of roars met his statement as the other Elites spread their jaws wide and screamed out their rage. Orna nodded softly.

    “Indeed we shall. But battle must wait,” he placed his hand on the commander’s shoulder again. “Come, let us prepare the equipment that we have salvaged.

    --

    “Well, that was certainly enough excitement for one day,” Wulfgar muttered, helping to stash a box of plasma cells.” He reached up and wiped some of the sweat from his brow.

    “No kidding,” Johnson muttered off to the side, where he and the Master Chief were busy stabilizing a small fusion reactor that would recharge the cells in-between battles. Still left to be done was the large reactor core of the Covenant ship, which was to be plugged into the Dawn to supplement her own reactor.

    “I’m going to need a week to get the stench of Troll out of my clothes,” Neeshka muttered, staring at a box of needler clips. The purple oval fascinated her, as she hadn’t seen the weapons in action during their battle. “Do you guys need me to help with anything else?”

    “Not as of right now, no,” The Master Chief said as he finished bolting the reactor to the floor, and flipped the switch. The reactor came on, and status readouts indicated that everything was green.

    “Well, if that be the case, do you mind if your little… computer… can show us to the nearest bunks?” the one of Bruenor’s bodyguards, Mortar, if the Master Chief remembered correctly, asked.

    “Be glad to,” the A.I. responded, and a door opened to the front of the room, “right this way.”

    “I think we’ll be joining her, if you don’t mind,” Wulfgar gestured around to his comrades. “I think Drizzt still has questions, but he was never one much for sleep.” He ended his statement with a chuckle.

    “Indeed, Bruenor and I do not yet feel fatigue,” the Dark Elf said, letting his cloak slip back just a bit and revealing some of his face. “If it is alright, we would like to remain.”

    “Don’t let us stand in your way,” Johnson said with a shrug. “So long as you don’t rbeak anything, there won’t be a problem.”

    “I think I’ll stay just a bit too, I’ve got some things I need to ask the Arbiter,” Neeshka said, self consciously reaching down and picking up her tail.

    As the other natives took their leave, the Chief noticed that the Elites were gathering around a large container that they’d brought in on their last run. The Grunts and the Hunters also seemed to be getting anxious by its presence. Curious, he looked over to Johnson, and then over to Commander Keyes, who was emerging from the Longsword fighter. None of them seemed to have the faintest idea what was going on, so they decided to investigate.

    Mias stood in front of it, while N’tho, and Usze seemed to be forming an honor guard of sorts around the crate, grasping their weapons tightly at attention.

    “Arbiter,” the Sangehili commander called, “we saved this until last, as there was more important equipment to be retrieved. Now, however, we may open it, and rejoice.”

    “What is it?” Orna asked, stepping forward.

    Mias’ response was to raise his hand. As one, the Covenant troops flowed and ebbed into ranks in such a manner that even Bruenor and Drizzt seemed to be mystified and enspelled by it. The Sangehili held their new rifles tight across their chests, the Hunter’s raised their arms in a shielded salute, and even the Grunts stood ramrod straight.

    Mias pressed a few buttons on the side of the container, and it slowly hissed opened. Orna walked up to see what was inside, and then gasped. His hands began to shake, his mandibles trembled. He reached down into the container and pulled out something. Staring at it for a moment, the Master Chief realized that it was a helmet, but unlike anything that he’d ever seen before.

    Its coloring alternated between a dark cobalt and black, and it bore some superficial resemblance to the helmets the Elites had worn when under the command of the Prophets. However, this helmet was fully enclosing, with a visor across where the eyes would be. Also, in addition to the long back ridges and the two fang like protrusions that came off of where the mandibles connected to the skull, were a set of blade like attachments, and two spinal ridges running along the top of the helmet that reminded him distantly of a human Samurai.

    “This is…” Orna breathed, shaking his head. “You cannot be serious, I could never.”

    “The Council, the survivors of it, at any rate, deemed you worthy, Orna Fulsammee.” Mias said, his voice quiet, reserved. “You fought long and hard against the parasite, survived suicide mission after suicide mission. You saved them from the Jiralhanae. You fought to stop Truth from activating the array index and destroying an entire galaxy.” He nodded his head somberly. “You have more than earned the right to wear the armor of the Light of Sangehilios.”

    “But—” Orna began.

    “But nothing, Ascetic. You are not the broken failure that Truth squashed beneath his foot those many months ago.” Mias said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Your name is shouted on the voice and wind of every member of the Covenant. They have looked to you in the time of crisis, your bravery, your steadfastness in times of danger… and your ability to see beyond what is told to you, to see the truth, as it really is.” He gestured over to the Master Chief. “The Light of Sangehilios will have never received a more worthy member.” Then he chuckled. “Besides, that relic that you wear may look nice and shiny, but it’s horribly outdated.”


    Orna said nothing, but slowly reached up and took off his helmet. A number of Elites shouldered their rifles and stepped forward. One at time, they reverently removed the plates of the armor from his body. They took them, and stepped back into line, while others stepped forward and withdrew the other pieces of the new armor from the crate. Orna shed the under-suit for his equipment, and the Master Chief heard several gasps. He looked over and saw that it had been Neeshka, Drizzt, and Bruenor. No doubt they were staring at the Mark of Shame, the horrific series of scars that had been burned into Orna’s chest after the destruction of Installation 04.

    A new under-suit was quickly donned, hiding the disfigurement away.

    The next bit reminded John of what he’d seen once with Deja back in his training days: a knighting ceremony. One by one, the Sangehili stepped forward and began to attach the plates of armor to Orna’s body. Then others presented him with weapons. Two plasma rifles, just a hair larger than his old ones. These sported a single barrel, as well as iron sights and what appeared to be some manner of smart link. Then came a set of plasma swords, which he took and holstered.

    “Orna Fullsamee, by the power and authority invested in me by the Council of Elders, I know proclaim you an Ascetic, and you are entitled to all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of the Light of Sangehilios.”

    “I will shoulder these responsibilities for as long as I am called, Commander,” Orna responded, his face fully hidden by the helmet that he wore. “I will dedicate my talents and abilities to the defense of the Covenant, to our people, and to our allies.” He crossed an arm over his chest and clenched the hand into a fist. “I swear this upon my life and my honor.”

    “Your vow is accepted.” Mias stated. “Company, salute!” he bellowed.

    Those not holding a part of the armor of the Arbiter brought their weapons to attention, and Orna took a step back.

    The Master Chief was tempted to whistle as he stared at the armor. It reminded him of what Ritas Dursamee, Shipmaster of the Shadow of Intent, had worn. The shoulder pads were more rounded however, curving over to help reinforce the area around Orna’s collar bones, and the plates on his hooves, hands, and upper chest were slightly thicker. The black and cobalt color of the armor was complemented by a runic like script that was pasted onto several regions in a manner similar to the Honor Guard that had protected the covenant Leadership.

    Combined with the helmet and weapons, it made Orna look like a demon spat out of hell, a ferocious combatant that few would wish to battle. As the group of Covenant soldiers dispersed, going back to their duties and sealing the old armor up in the crate, the newly christened Elite slowly walked back over to them, and the Master Chief noticed that his gait was different. His shoulders seemed to be held just a tad bit higher, his footfalls not so heavy as before.

    “It feels like a great burden has been lifted from my shoulders,” he said softly, staring at the group. “I suppose you have questions, though.”

    “What’s an Ascetic?” Johnson asked.

    “Long ago, before the Covenant was formed, they were the guardians of the Council, and the protectors of our people. The Light of Sangehilios is the order to which they belong, and only the greatest soldiers were admitted to its ranks.” Orna responded. “My ultimate role is no different, save perhaps, for no longer being sent out to die a martyr. The new equipment is nice.” He paused for a moment, and then looked at the Master Chief again. “I believe that Mias said they also had something for you and your friends, we should get to that next.”

    The Master Chief opened his mouth to speak an affirmative, but then he felt something tingle up his spine. Something felt wrong, like he was being watched. In and instant, his battle rifle had been drawn and leveled.

    His instincts proved correct, as he heard soft laughing, and looked over into the corner. There was a humanoid there, dressed in scarlet and black robes, with a face that was a pale blue in color.

    “Oh… I see. Helm, you sly dog…” he smirked as he looked at the group.

    A loud series of cocking and whines filling the air stated that the rest of the crew was aware of his sudden entrance, and he got a very uneasy look upon his face. Slowly the man raised his hands into the air.

    “A tad jumpy… understandable.” He took a few steps forward. “But I have no wished to harm you. I merely wished to converse with my granddaughter.”

    “Hells, hells, hells,” Neeshka spat, shaking her head in disgust. “What do you want?”

    “Is saying hello a crime?” the man returned, raising an eyebrow.

    “It depends.” The Tiefling responded, her tail lashing back and forth.

    “Who the hell is this?” Johnson asked, an MA5B leveled at the intruder.

    “Hell, such an ironic choice of words,” the man mused.

    “Ladies and gentlemen, meet Mephasm, Pit Lord of the Nine Hells, and one of the personal lieutenants of Asmodeus, Lord of Darkness… and my grandfather.” Neeshka growled with a dry flourish.

    Mephasm simply smiled.
     
  16. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Fifteen - Revelations Part Two

    There were a few moments of silence from all parties, thought the Covenant soldiers kept shifting about to improve their vectors of fire. Mephasm slowly lowered his arms and clasped his hands in front of him, before bowing softly.

    “So you are the ones he wanted… interesting. Cunning. So like him, amazing that I didn’t see something like this coming.” The so called ‘Pit Fiend’ muttered, bringing on hand up and rubbing his azure chin.

    “Stop with the monologing, gramps, what do you want.” Neeshka growled, her hands going to her blades.

    “Nothing much, my child. I was genuinely concerned for you, with all that’s going on at the moment.” He responded, and the Master Chief spotted what looked like a slight softening of his burning eyes.”

    “Yeah, your boss wouldn’t have anything to do with that, would he?” The Teifling kept scowling.

    “Perish the thought, Little Neeshka,” Mephasm scoffed and shook his head. “The problem lies with the gods. Suffice to say, Bane brought down the star that broke the camel’s back, and now Ao has had quite enough.” The devil shifted in his place, staring around at all the weapons that were directed towards him.

    Ao? The Chief thought to himself. Who was that, and what sort of mischief could this ‘Bane’ have brought about.

    “What did the god of tyranny do this time?” Drizzt asked, his hands tight upon his scimitars.

    Mephasm stared at the Dark Elf for a moment, and then smiled wide. “Well, well, well, the famous Drizzt Do’Urden of house N'a'shezbaernon, a pleasure to meet your acquaintance at last.” Mephasm bowed.

    “You know me?” Drizzt’s violet eyes seemed to glow from the depths of his cowl, and his swords came out an inch or two.

    “Yes, Banisher of Errtu,” the Devil chuckled. “I’ve been meaning to thank you for that. I swear, I could hear his roars all the way from my citadel!”

    “I take it there’s something else we’ve missed?” Johnson whispered over a private comm. line with the Master Chief. All the Spartan did was nod and activate an acknowledgement light.

    “Back on track, what do you know of Bane’s actions?” Neeshka continued to glare at her grandfather.

    “Bane, Lord of Tyranny and Oppression,” he cast an eye towards the offworlders, and the Chief assumed that the title was for their benefit, “once more has gotten too big for his pauldrons. He infiltrated Ao’s celestial stronghold, and tried to steal his divine power. The Overgod did not take kindly to this, and now all the gods have been stripped of their powers and cast down to walk the world as mortals.”

    The eyes of the natives shot open wide, and their jaws dropped open. Bruenor went to speak, but Mephasm held up a hand. However, he was interrupted himself by yet another new voice.

    “For all save one.”

    Half the weapons that were directed towards Mephasm twisted towards the new voice. Chief spared the briefest of glances to ascertain the new threat, and saw a man walking towards them. At least, he believed it was a man. The face was hidden by a silver armet, and the glowing blue eyes begged the question of what exactly they were dealing with here. The Spartan noticed well crafted plate armor, what appeared to be a hand and a half sword and a kite shield strapped to his back, peaking out from behind the edges of a cloak. A tabard covered some of the plate armor, white in color, with a silver gauntlet set into the center. An unblinking eye stared back at him, held in the palm of the gauntlet.

    “Oh wonderful…” he faintly heard Neeshka mutter. “Now he shows up.”

    “The next person who teleports in here is getting a belly full of uranium,” Johnson growled.

    “Wouldn’t do any good.” Neehska said. “Well, I take that back, you’d mess him up, but that’s just an Avatar.”

    “A what?” the Master Chief said, racking his brain for any historical context associated with that term.

    “Mind your tone,” Bruenor hissed. “A devil is one thing, but you’re looking at a God!”

    “Not entirely,” the newcomer said, and the Master Chief noticed that his voice seemed to have a strange after echo to it, like he was speaking over a great distance. “This is merely an aspect of who I am. Some clay and steel, molded by my hand and altered through magic.”

    “A shell, in other words, animated by your will, to keep your real ‘entity’ safe, am I right?” Cortana’s voice said. She sounded most curious.

    “That is correct, computer.” The figure looked up, and nodded towards the ceiling of the hangar, then he turned to face the group before him. “My apologies,” he said with a bow, “I should have introduced myself and not been so hasty with my arrival.”

    “And you would be?” John asked, his head twisting slightly tone side.

    “I am known in these realms as Helm, the Eternal Watcher and vigilant guardian of the world of Torril… and it was I who brought you here.”

    There was a moment of stunned silence, and uneasy glances were exchanged. The natives seemed to be muttering among themselves, huddled up together, occasionally looking out towards the offworlders. Mephasm just smiled and chuckled softly.

    “If I may ask,” it was Commander Keyes who broke the silence, “why? What’s so important about us? And if the Gods have supposedly been smitten by the divine wrath of this… overgod, why are you still like you are? What makes you so special?”

    “Because I am the only one Ao trusts enough to guard the entrance back to the celestial planes. I am the one selected to make certain that the other gods do not return until they’ve recaptured their divine essences.” The Avatar crossed its arms, and its eyes seemed to glow just a little bit brighter. “It has to do with my origins.”

    “What do you mean?” Keyes arched an eyebrow.

    “I cannot explain here. Even with the Gods stricken as they are, there may be unfriendly eyes trying to watch. Your computer has done a splendid job of keeping your frigate off the charts, as you would say, but information like this could be dangerous in the wrong hands.” The Avatar looked back around, before his gaze settled upon Orna. “Gather a few of your brethren, and your sub-commanders, and have them prepare to travel.” He then looked at Keyes, “the same with you, too. And bring your construct, you will have need of her.”

    At last, his gaze settled upon Neeshka, Drizzt, and Bruenor. The trio exchanged glances, and seemed to shuffle about nervously.

    They were distracted by the sound of the Master Chief’s boots thudding upon the armored deck as he rushed over towards a nearby console. The Mjolnir armor’s crystal interface layer allowed for him to link directly into Cortana’s consciousness and pull her into the suit.

    “I’ve locked the ship down, and left a few subroutines online to make certain that anyone who tries to come close to this thing is going to get a barrage of rail gun fire in their faces.”

    “Good,” Keyes responded.


    It took only a few more moments to get everything together, and then the Avatar spread its arms wide.

    “Prepare yourself,” it said. “The first time is always quite unsettling.”

    What happened next reminded the Master Chief of the time he and his family had been forced to drop out of slipspace without the aid of a ship to protect themselves. He felt his stomach try to fly up through his throat, and his very bones seemed to vibrate. There was a swirl of blue blackness all around them, and then it faded.

    The Spartan immediately took stock of the new surroundings. They were in a room of some sort. It was square, about sixty feet on other side, and it was dominated by a series of what were unmistakably holographic computer symbols. For a moment, he felt like he was on a Covenant ship, or back on one of the Halos.

    “Where are we?” he asked. This was certainly not what he expected of a God.

    Speaking of which, this so called ‘Helm’ was nowhere to be found.

    The thought had no more entered his head than a door slid open and the Avatar entered. No, wait, that wasn’t right. An Avatar entered, but it was a different one from the one that had brought them here. The equipment was somewhat different, the armet replaced by a sallet and the sword and shield combo by a pair of arming swords.

    The Chief also realized that Mephasm wasn’t with them.

    “Mephasm is an ally of mine, but there are things that I don’t trust him with. And your safety at the moment is paramount,” the being said. The voice was still the same, it seemed. “Still, I suppose you have questions.”

    “For starters…” Keyes said, before pausing, and the Master Chief knew what she was pausing for. How did one address a figure of divinity.

    “Please, Helm will do for the moment. I’ve never been one to stand on ceremony.”

    “Helm, then. Would you care to explain why you yanked us halfway across the known universe?” The Commander kept her tone neutral, but her eyes were full of suspicion.

    “Because, this world needs someone like you, Commander. Someone brave enough to stand against a tide of darkness, to show the surface world that the Drow are not invincible, that they can be beaten.” Helm responded. “And for another reason, part of a plan that has been eons in the making… though not without its hiccups.”

    “I’ll bet,” Neeshka growled, her eyes narrowed and her tail flicking back and forth.

    The Avatar stared at her for a moment, before its eyes softened, the glow became less intense. “I know you, Neeshka, and your story.”

    “Yeah, but that’s not what bothers me.” She clenched her fists. “I said goodbye to you after half a decade of having to put up with your priests, but Kale… he worshiped you all his life. Every victory saw him giving thanks to you…. And how did you repay him?” Her voice cracked just a tiny amount, and the Master Chief thought he could see part of a psychological mask slipping away, something that kept hidden pain from being seen by others. “When the King of Shadow’s citadel was crashing down, why didn’t you save him? Why did you leave him to die?”

    The Avatar gestured and a light filled the chamber. Everyone looked down, and to their surprise, saw that the floor of the room had been transformed into a holopanel of some sort. The Master Chief saw the jungles of some strange place, filled with monsters that reminded him of the Trollmoores. The creatures were trying to scramble up a stone wall that was being defended by a number of soldiers. Some of them were females, he noticed, favoring spears and shields, while others were clad in plate and robes, spitting fire and lightning from their blades.

    One group stood out from the others. It held the central barricade, the hardest pressed area from the looks of things. Defending it was a small troop of soldiers, clad in silver armor. Their weapons were bloodstained, but what surprised the Master Chief was that there seemed to be glowing, multicolored auras that were wrapping and pulsing around the troops. Their speed was too great for any normal human, as was their strength. Fireballs did nothing to them. They shrugged off blows that should have crippled an ordinary human.

    The creatures took losses, and then broke and fled, screaming back into the jungle. A hearty cheer went up among the defenders. As the image zoomed in, the Spartan noticed that one man was slightly different. Through the gaps in his helmet, he could see that his skin was tanned by the sun, but pale in its origins. His brethren were as dark skinned as Sergeant Johnson, and only this man had a tabard on that matched the symbol the Avatar bore.

    “Impossible,” he heard Neeshka breath.

    “Kale Romar fights on the world of Sanctuary, along with several others you may recognize.”

    “A splendid fight!” a voice suddenly shouted, and a small person, barely larger than a child, rushed up. “Oh, I shall have to write something about this.”

    Two others joined him soon. One was an elf, small even compared to Drizzt, who seemed to be grinning sardonically as he shifted the armor that he wore. The other was a tall man who spoke in a deep, gravely voice that seemed as though it carried the weight of the world upon his shoulders. John couldn’t help but notice the skeletons that trailed behind him, or the strange, black and white armor that he wore, which looked as if it resembled a bleached skeleton wrapped in the abyss of darkness. Even the helmet that he was carrying looked as if it had been carved from the cranium of some great demon.

    “Grobnar… Sand… Jerro…” the Tiefling said, her eyes wide.

    “Each is there learning new skills, new magic, new arts of forging weaponry and bending the arcane to their will.” The Avatar spoke. “When they are done destroying the demon lords that terrorize that world, they will be brought back here, and then their skills will spread.”

    “You trust Ammon Jerro not to go mad with power?” She arched and eyebrow.

    “He deserves the chance, child,” Helm said. “Noble is the man who would die for his people… nobler still is the man who would damn himself for them.”

    “That doesn’t tell us why we’re here,” Johnson spoke up for the first time.

    “That is true, Sergeant Major,” the Avatar stated, and nodded its head. “I brought you here, to this world so far from your own, to help rally humanity to resist those who would enslave them. The Lords of the surface are divided by petty strife and conflict not terribly different from that of your own world in this stage of its life.” Helm paused, and crossed his arms, before bowing his head just slightly. “I’ve researched your pasts, all of you. Where you have battled, people have risen and stood by your sides. When defeat seemed in inevitable, you showed your people that victory was possible.”

    “What’s so important about Humanity? What’s it to you?” Johnson arched an eyebrow.

    “For that, you must know that there are three ways that a… being, may become a deity.” Helm said, and held up a hand, his index finger pointed up. “The first is to be created as such. This is what the overwhelming majority of the current gods and goddesses of this neck of the universe are. The second is to slay a deity and take its power. That’s no small feat, but as the coming weeks will reveal, certainly possible.”

    “And the third?” the Master Chief asked.

    “There are certain… equations, for lack of a better term, that one may discover, buried in the twin progressions of science and magic. If one is able to balance and decipher the equitation, and fulfill the necessary steps for it, energy, matter, and all the essences of the cosmos can become clay in your hand.”

    John stared long and hard at the Avatar, his eyes trying to see past that sallet that covered its face. “That’s what happened to you, wasn’t it.”

    “Correct, Spartan-117,” Helm said, and in his mind, John heard his name being whispered by the Avatar. “As I said earlier, I am currently called Helm, but that is not the name that was given to me by my mother and my father.” There was a sigh, and the eyes of the being seemed to grow faraway, like it was filled with a sudden longing. “I was born more than a hundred thousand years ago, on a planet long since blasted to ash and dust… There, on that day, at that time, I was given the name Arias Didact.”
     
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  17. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Sixteen - Flashback to Oblivion, Part I

    There was a moment of stunned silence among the offworlders, while the natives stared at each other in confusion. Drizzt, Neeshka, and Bruenor looked back and forth to each other, and shrugged. They’d heard of mortals becoming gods before, although not in the manner of which Helm spoke of. What significance did the name have?

    A shuffling noise caught their attention, and they were surprised to see Orna Fullsamee and the other members of the Covenant forces going down on one knee, their heads bowed low and one arm crossed over their chests.

    “Forgive us for our ignorance, mighty one,” Orna spoke. “For we have sinned against you and all your children.”

    “So I have recently become aware,” the Avatar bowed his head. “I mourn for those you have slain, but as my own experiences have taught me, we Forerunners are nothing if not resilient. The UNSC and its people will recover in time. Rise, Orna Fullsamee, Light of Sangehilios. You serve no one by bowing your head. Rise up, all of you, and restore your honor by defending those you once sought to destroy.”

    As one, the Covenant soldiers rose, and saluted the deity in front of them.

    “Begging his greatness’ pardon,” Bruenor said with a bow, “but we’re a tad in the dark here.”

    “Arias Didact,” the Master Chief spoke. “The Reclaimer of the Forerunners. A three hundred year veteran of the war against Gravemind, and the one who activated the Halo arrays to stop him.”

    “That is correct,” the Avatar’s voice grew soft, and the Spartan thought he could detect a crack in it. He arched his eyebrow. This was again, not what he expected of a supposed deity.

    “You’ll pardon us if we remain a tad suspicious,” Commander Keyes said. “The last ‘omnipotent’ being who shanghaied us into working for him was Gravemind himself.”

    “Yes… I know. I’ve learned much over the past few weeks,” Helm said. “I can offer you proof, however. My own memories.”

    The Avatar’s eyes flashed, and there was that strange, slip space like feeling again. When it cleared, the Master Chief had to blink his eyes, and for one of the few times in his life, felt awe overcome him. He couldn’t help it, his jaw dropped open behind his helmet, and he stared around like a child.

    Holographic computers filled a large room, which appeared to almost be a hangar of sorts. He became aware of the fact that he could only change his perspective and his viewpoint so much, like he was looking through the eyes of another, and then he realized why: he was. These were Didact’s memories, of course he’d be seeing through his eyes. Which begged the question, how was the Forerunner doing this? Was it sorcery, or technology that was enabling him to do such things? He became vaguely aware of the natives and the Covenant soldiers standing near him, but he paid them no mind at the moment.

    Didact advanced forward a few paces, and the Spartan realized that the Forerunner was wearing what appeared to be some kind of clothing stitched out of a rope like material. Then he noticed others, a group of six, moving forward, clad in the same manner. There were markings on the arms of the material, right about where the shoulder connected to the torso. Was it some kind of BDU? Military issue clothing?

    “Salve, Imperator, promptus ut loricatus sursum?” One of the others said.

    The first thing that the Chief realized was that the speech was Latin, specifically, a very old dialect of it. The second, was that the man addressing Didact was covered in mechanical components. A cybernetic eye glowed red, while several metal tubes came out from his left temple, trailing down for a bit before slipping into the strange clothing. A name popped up, pointing out something that seemed to be a military rank, and then the words “Horatius ‘Cocles’ Norastas.”

    “Apologies, one moment,” Helm’s voice echoed in his mind.

    The language shifted into something that he could understand better.

    “So typical of you, Cocles,” Didact said with a laugh, “so very typical.”

    “Commander, everyone has to die sometime,” the man laughed as he spoke, and slung an arm up around the other Forerunner. The Master Chief watched the strange clothing that the man wore bulge and flex in a manner that didn’t quite seem natural, and then realized that it was some kind of powered undersuit.

    Script appeared on the inside of his vision, bold and red.

    If you are through fraternizing, we’ve a mission to attend to, Commander Didact.

    A response, printed in gold, was the response.

    You are correct as always, Medicant. What’s the job?

    The Master Chief noticed that others were responding as well, and took notice of the color coding. The names, however, held his attention more than anything. There were several that he recognized. Hypotheses started to form in his mind, checking and double checking what he knew of ancient history, but he dared not leap to a conclusion, not yet.

    The objective is simple. Approximately five hours ago, contact was lost with Observation Post P-360745. High Command has finally decided that sending in a combat team may be the best course of action. Their last transmission indicated that System PL38-27 had come under assault from an Omega Strain.

    Omega Strain? The Parasite? The thoughts were Didact’s.

    Correct, Commander. Medicant responded.You are to investigate the Outpost, reestablish contact with the research team, and monitor the groundside situation.

    Assets?

    Your standard battle attire. Seven Class Twenty combat exoskeletons.

    I see command is opting to err on overkill for a change. Another trooper, one by the name of Gilgamesh, responded.

    Anything else? Didact responded.

    Negative, Commander. You are to suit up and ship out immediately.

    Then let’s get to it. Didact said.

    It was then that the Master Chief noticed that there was a clock of sorts in the bottom right hand corner of the Commander’s vision, probably cybernetically projected as well. He understood the symbols as easily as if they were standard Phoenician based characters. According to what the clock said, that entire conversation had transpired in a fraction of a second. How would something like that be possible? Did the Forerunner’s have an electronic neural lace of sorts, similar to his own, only much greater?

    His thoughts were cut off as he watched the Forerunner soldiers turn towards a row of armor suits towards the back wall, and start moving towards them. Again, his breath caught in his throat. They were painted a solid, non reflective black, and stood just a little taller than he was. Each was opened up slightly, with room for a man to step inside of them. Some manner of targeting recital appeared, and began to identify various aspects of the armor suit. He saw layers of cooling and cushioning gel, hyperstrong alloys that boggled his mind as to how they were possible, and identification for weapon systems whose power was unbelievable.

    Didact stepped inside of his, and the plates hummed, came to life, and shifted around him. Then the Forerunner soldier reached for the helmet that lay next to it. It was the same color as the armor, and molded in such as way that it vaguely reminded the Master Chief of the Corinthian styled helmets worn by ancient Greek hoplites. The black visor was partially reflective, and he gaped for a moment as he caught a brief glimpse of Didact’s face. It almost looked like a younger version of his own. The cheekbones were less pronounced, and rather than scaring on the right side of his face, a number of cybernetics were protruding from his skin.

    Some parts of his past confrontations with Guilty Spark suddenly started to make a lot more sense.

    He shook his mind from that thought, though. There would be time to piece together that puzzle later.

    Didact slipped the helmet onto his head and began to power the suit up, revealing that the ‘visor’ was apparently just there for aesthetics, as what we was looking at appeared to be some form of computer interface. A barrage of messages assaulted the Chief’s mind as he watched the armor interlink with Didact’s brain.

    Primary fusion powercell active. Bringing reactor up to ten percent power… reactor power holding steady at 5.647E17 watts

    Shields coming online… shields activated, and holding.

    Life support on standby. Medical systems activated.

    Powering reactor up to twenty percent… reactor output increased.

    Weapon systems identification in progress… weapons identified: Telo-38-PR. Weapon power up successful. CQC-PP-23. Weapon power up successful. CQC-PCB-47. Weapon power up successful. MRLS-980-NLOS. Weapon Power up successful. TLAC-240. Weapon power up successful. Telo-38s-PC. Weapon power up successful.

    Increasing reactor power to thirty percent… output increased to 1.640E18 watts.

    Powering up servomotors and thrusters… activation successful.

    Powering up cyber-network linkings and internal computer/communication systems… power up successful.

    ECM and ECCM coming online… power up successful.

    Self repair systems coming online…. Self repair systems activated.

    Increasing reactor power to forty percent… increase complete.

    Activating slipstream portal drives and chronoscopic manipulators… power up complete.

    Increasing reactor power to fifty percent… power up successful. Power generation holding at 2.334E18 watts.

    Psionic amplifiers inter-synching with operators cognitive patterns… synchronization complete,

    Powering reactor up to sixty percent…. Power up complete.

    Secondary and tertiary reactors on standby. Unit power-up complete. Welcome back, Commander.


    Almost before it started, the process seemed to be complete. Text one more scrolled across the screen as Didact began to move forward, indicating that his suit was set to ‘real time.’ What did that mean?

    Didact and his fellows quickly made their way over to a sleek looking craft that sported a couple of small wings and weapon blisters. The seven man task force clambered up into the back of the apparent dropship, and the door snapped shut behind them.

    “Medicant coming with us on this one?” one of them asked, whose FoF identification system pegged him as ‘Beowulf.’

    There was a faint glow, and a man sized hologram appeared. It showed an individual with plain robes and a wrapping around his head that reminded John of a type of monastic order. Aside from that, his only attire was a curved sword belted at his hip.

    “Answer your question?” came a smooth voice that had a bit of a snarky undertone in it.

    “Unfortunately, yes,” Beowulf muttered.

    “ETA?” Didact asked as the craft rumbled to life and started to accelerate.

    “Ten minutes. I wouldn’t bother to strap yourselves in.” The A.I. responded.

    There was a flash of light, and the next thing that the Master Chief saw was of a pristine, earth like planet, floating calmly within the harsh vacuum of space. He could see forests, mountains, deserts, and in an ocean near the planet’s equatorial line, a hurricane that was brewing. There were differences between this world and the human homeworld, though. The oceans were smaller, the planet itself, somewhat larger, if the readouts were correct.

    Didact turned as the ship changed course, heading for an asteroid belt several million kilometers away. The ship’s acceleration and Delta-V capacities must have been enormous, because it only took seconds to reach the belt.

    Sir, long and short range scanners are both detecting strange fluctuations in the equipment of the outpost, and they are refusing hails. Medicant’s text scrolled up.

    “Outpost P-360745, this is Commander Arias Didact, please respond, over.” The Commander waited a tick, and then continued. “Repeat, P-360745, please respond and tell us of your operational status. Failure to comply within thirty seconds will result in standard containment protocols. Repeat, status of situation. If your comm. system is damaged, please…”

    Whatever he was about to say went dead in his throat as the dropship rounded an asteroid larger than High Charity. There was another one, not much smaller, that was floating in front of the ship.

    “Oh… sweet Jesus…” he heard Johnson breathe. John shared the sentiment.

    The surface of the asteroid was covered in the tell tale brownish green… flesh… of a Flood infestation.

    Medicant, scan that! Didact ordered, switching back over to mental communications. See how far down into the facility that it goes, and if we can reach the research team.

    Scanning… scanning complete. The Parasite infestation has taken over the entire facility. I’ve located the research teams’ neural networks, but I cannot access them. Attempts to contact them psionically have also met with failure. Their cognitive and biometric feedback seems consistent with observed parasite transformations. I’m also detecting a very large and rapidly growing infestation on the planet’s surface. It’s on the primary continent, near what appears to be a large metropolitan area.

    Show me. Didact responded.

    A display came up on the HUD of the helmet, revealing a infestation moving so quickly that the Master Chief swore he could see it expanding out of the city.

    The number of Parasite controlled life forms already exceeds one hundred million. I predict complete planetary infestation within twenty four hours. Medicant ‘said’.

    Everyone, activate slipstream generators, and prepare for insertion. Heracles, you have the heavy weapons, take the forward position. Gilgamesh, ready that X-208, and prepare for containment protocols. Agilaz, move to coordinates 234.1 by 1500 and take up sniping position. The rest of you, form up on me, and get ready for mop up duty. This civilization is rated Class Two, so its probable building interiors will have to be cleared in a slightly more personal manner.

    Commander Didact, with all due respect, the Council has adopted a Wait-and-See approach to dealing with the Parasite. They fear that the Mantle forbids—

    I respect the Mantle, and have followed its path all my days, Medicant, but do you really think that the Precursors would have stood by and watch a planet be overrun?

    Sir, I cannot immediately hazard a guess at the odds of what the Precursors would have done, based on the few texts that we have of them, but if you like I could calculate—

    Just deal with the outpost,
    Didact responded.

    The Master Chief was once again amazed by the speed at which the parties had communicated. If Diact’s internal clock was correct, the mental conversation had lasted a fraction of a second.

    He thought back to that data cache that Guilty Spark had given them. If such means were available to create something of this nature, he was first in line to try it out.

    He saw multi-color slipstream portals starting to form inside of the ship, one for each of the seven soldiers that were present. The last thing that he saw before Didact slipped into his was the dropship opening fire on the Flood infested asteroid before it started to be vaporized by the impact of energy weapons and some manner of missile.

    The group reappeared down on the planet, six of them anyway. A flashing icon appeared on Didact’s HUD, highlighting a portion of a mountain quite some distance off.

    Aligaz here, in sniper position… and by the Mantel, Sir, I suggest you move fast. My long range scanners are detecting a mobilization of native troops heading towards the city.

    More fodder for the Parasite to convert and feast upon…
    Didact responded. Gilgamesh!

    On it, Commander, the other Forerunner responded, and hefted what seemed to be a multi-barrel missile launcher. A series of highlighted spaces appeared in the city, and the visibly expanding Flood infection.

    A small data read up appeared on the Commander’s HUD, and the Master Chef took note of it. Apparently, the X-208 was a ‘Crowd Control’ weapon. Omnidirection, long range, and very fast. It was packing a scatter burst missile, loaded up with six different warheads… and each one of those containing several kilograms of compressed antimatter.

    “Eeep…” he faintly heard Cortana’s voice inside of his suit. “Tell me he’s not going too—”

    Whatever the A.I. had been about to utter was cut off by a loud roar and a whooshing column of flame that leapt back out of the missile launcher, turning the rocks behind Gilgamesh to molten slag. Then the missile took off, streaking up towards the city at a steep angle. Didact’s perspective moved upwards, monitoring the path of the missile, and zooming in on it. As it neared the target, the missile burst apart, and smaller ones shot down towards the metropolis. They went below the skyline of the city, and a moment later, six fireballs expanded outwards, soon joined by a seventh as the original missile impacted right in the metropolis’ heart. The flash should have blinded everyone staring at it, but then the Master Chief remembered that this was merely a computer screen.

    The explosions changed color, from blue-hot blasts of flame and superheated air to mere polygonal displays.

    Medicant, try to get our sensors through that, mark the progress of the Parasite’s destruction. Didact ordered.

    Understood, Sir, but I believe that you should know something. The High Council is aware of your current activity, and in the words of Councilor Sipula, they’d ‘like to know what they hell you’re doing.’

    Containing an outbreak. The Parasite attacked and assimilated the Outpost, and now we’ve got to reel it in. Simple as that.

    I will relay the message, Medicant responded. Sensors are indicating that the Parasite is being destroyed almost instantly by the explosion… hold that thought a second, Commander. I’m detecting movement, and energy sources that do not seem consistent with expected levels of this civilization. The Master Chief thought he could detect a note of worry, perhaps even apprehension, in the ‘voice’ of the construct.

    Aligaz, can you confirm? Didact asked.

    Checking, hold a tick, I’m increasing the power to my scanners, but there’s and awful lot of ECM and interference down there, and its not just coming from the explosions. Something’s trying to hide from us…. Scanning complete. Movement confirmed. Highlighting contact areas. The sniper said. Several flashes appeared within the very heart of the detonation. Then there were dozens… scores… hundreds.

    Tiny meters and bars appeared next to each of the dots, indicating the level of power that the contacts were giving off. Didact stared at the display for a moment, then growled.

    Everyone, prepare to move in. I want standard spacing. Aligaz, remain where you are. Be prepared to provide cover fire if called upon.

    A ‘chorus’ of yes sirs met the order. Slipstream portals opened again, and everyone ducked into theirs. The Chief noted a small message that stated that Didact had brought some manner of time dilation field online, and then the Forerunner soldier burst out of his teleport.

    The Forerunner soldiers must have had some manner of sound dampener, the Master Chief mused, as he could hear nothing of the massive roar of the explosions that should have shattered the earth drums of any this close to it. What he could hear was a faint hiss of what sounded like some manner of thruster mechanism. It made sense. The blast that Didact and his fellows were currently jetting through would be packing the power to pick up Rhino tanks and toss them about like leaves upon a hurricane. The thrust necessary to stabilize their armor in such a maelstrom, let alone make headway against it, would have enormous.

    Everyone through? the Commander asked. A series of affirmatives flashed across the view screen. Okay, move forward. Standard formation, three hundred meter spread.

    It didn’t take long to encounter the source of the movement. The HUD zoomed in and highlighted a number of armored shapes, and John heard an intake of breath. Filtering through all the ECM, Didact’s scanners were able to pierce the metal alloys of the enemy suits, and confirmed that they were Flood controlled life forms. Another blazing scroll of data bombarded the Spartan’s brain, so quickly that even his mind had trouble processing it.

    Scans initiated… Parasite presence confirmed.

    Compiling data from additional unit feedback…. Enemy presence approximately five hundred strong.

    Scanning enemy comm chatter… scans negative. Scanning known psionic patterns… psionic communications confirmed. Presence is extremely potent, rated at Alpha Level, represents extreme threat.

    Scanning enemy armor and weapon systems…. Suit does not match known parameters of native civilization or that of Human based systems... Power levels analyzed… suit approximately equivalent to class sixteen combat exoskeleton. Combat threat: Minimal unless outnumbering friendly units by thirty or more. Enemy group scanned, fifteen present. Warning, slipspace generators detected. Ascertaining odds of victory… odds ascertained: 95.7% chance of total victory, Commander. Recommend attack pattern Sigma-Sigma-Beta.

    Orders, Sir?
    It was Cocleus.

    Purge with extreme prejudice! Engage! Didact responded.

    A slip space portal appeared before the Commander, and he blasted through it. A moment later, he emerged a few kilometers above his foes, leveled the Telo weapon that he carried, and sighted them up. His foes were intelligent, however, and seemed to catch on quickly. He’d only managed a quick burst before they were vanishing into the own.

    Warning alarms blared within the Forerunner’s helmet, and he began zipping around in seemingly random patterns. Time seemed to slow even further as a slipspace portal started to form in front of him, about three klicks off.

    Bring Secondary and Tertiary generators online and up to full power. Channel power to shields, weapons, and psionics. Didact ordered.

    Commencing power up… power up completed, suit reactors now running at two hundred percent of standard operational setting. his suit responded.

    Medicant! the Forerunner mentally barked as he unloaded his weapon into the heart of the portal, which had opened to reveal a Combat Form jetting out, some manner of SMG type weapon blazing away at the commander. Make certain that the council is receiving this video feed!

    One step ahead of you, Commander, the A.I. responded. Sir, you should note that I am picking up long range pings on the FTL scanners. It appears to be a native invasion fleet, judging by the size. he continued, as Didact weaved his way around a half dozen of his foes, firing away at them. A ten shot burst caught one unawares as he jetted behind it. The Master Chief watched its shields flicker and fade as it started to evade and return fire. Purple tinted bolt ripped through it at impossible speeds moments later.

    Another enemy tried to face the commander, but was pegged a moment later from another vector. The large bolt blasted a massive hole in the unshielded suit and kept going, boring through several buildings. With no protection against the stellar level temperatures surrounding it, the Flood form inside the power armor was instantly transformed into its component atoms.

    Thank you, Aligaz, Didact said, before warping away again.


    Chatter filtered over the HUD, so much, so quickly, that the Spartan couldn’t process it all. Judging by the decreasing counter that had appeared in the upper left corner when Didact had first engaged, he guessed that the battle was going well.

    Enemy is showing signs of adaptation to our battle tactics, Heracles remarked. Orders, sir?

    Regroup. Prepared your cannon for heavy duty work Didact responded. Then the Chief felt him glare at an offending combat form some distance off. He could somehow feel power coursing through the Forerunner. The combat form seemed to crumble in on itself, and then its power armor exploded spectacularly. The counter decreased again.

    Then Didact warped again, appearing back down on the ground. The scanners of the Forerunner’s suit picked up energy readings from his comrades, displaying them even through the buildings that were in the way.

    Here they come! Didact growled.

    Portals began to appear all around the Forerunners, and the retaliated with a furious barrage of energy fire, missiles, and psionics. Beams went straight through the buildings, punching multi-meter wide holes in them. The blasts from the anti-matter missiles slipped through and purged them of any Flood infestation that dwelled within them. Psionic attacks ripped the city to pieces, and focus charged missile detonations added to the already hellish temperatures that raged around the Forerunners.

    There was a strange, orderly chaos to it all, as they jetted and teleported around. When one looked as though he was going to be overwhelmed, his friends would instantly be at his side, laying down suppression fire, and unleashing everything they had. The enemy counter dwindled steadily.

    Several bolts impacted upon Didact’s shields, causing them to drop slightly. The Forerunner growled furiously, and sighted up his opponent, unleashing a barrage of well aimed automatic fire that shredded the suit and its occupant. A warning alarm indicated a proximity alert for a slipstream portal. He twisted about and flicked his left hand. The armor glowed, and a gleaming energy blade, shaped rather like an arming sword used by the knights of old, appeared in his hand. The Master Chief felt that pulsing that accompanied the flux of psionic power course though the Forerunner soldier, and with a roar, he thrust it into the portal. It skewered right into the chest of one of the Flood controlled suits, overloaded it, and blew the armor to pieces.

    Most of the resulting detonation was shunted into slipspace, but some of it blasted back out over the Forerunner. If it bothered him at all, he ignored it, twisted around, and shouldered his rifle again. He jetted sideways as he fired off energy rounds into the Flood operated power suits. The bolts tore into their shields, into their armor, and ripped them open. They turned to ash and dust in an instant as they were exposed to the fireballs.

    The Forerunner commander shot down a sidestreet, moving up alongside one of his companions. FoF identified him as Heracles, and the Master Chief came to understand what the Forerunners considered a heavy weapons operator. The device that Heracles was operating was an ugly, multi-barreled weapon that reminded him ominously of the 50mm railguns that the UNSC used for point defense. Only this thing was shooting out energy beams that were slagging building walls and causing the Flood combat forms to explode in a very spectacular manner.

    As he watched, another weapon activated and came to life. Mounted on the soldier’s shoulder, it was a large, cannon-like device that unfolded and took aim independent of Heracles. There was a resounding boom, and a visible amount of recoil as the device leapt backwards like a tank cannon. The weapon punched a hole straight through a combat form that had been a few klicks above the Forerunner’s position. Didact took aim, assisting his brother in arms. The Telo rifle that he carried let off a twenty round burst and reduced an enemy combat form to molten slag. The powersuit, still operating under its own momentum, smashed into a building and became an interesting addition to its outward superstructure.

    The Master Chief felt Didact’s psionic abilities start to hum to life once more, and then a massive blast-door was ripped off of one of the structures. The Flood lifeforms inside of it were gone in a flash. But Didact wasn’t done yet. The door came to life like it was held in the hand of some invisible giant, and flew upwards. The Forerunner’s visor zoomed in on it, and watched as it was swiss-cheesed by Flood fire. Too late, it seemed, the Flood unit realized its danger as the door shot by it, turned around, and slammed into it.

    The form had been more than three kilometers up when Didact had connected with it, and it accelerated all the way down, getting faster by the millisecond. There was an earth shattering crash as the door and the combat unit hit the ground. Didact picked the door back up again, and took aim at the weaker power suit. Several well placed shots from his rifle destroyed the combat form.

    Sir, I might be in need of assistance. It was Aligaz. Enemy units are onto my position and have slipspace jumped to surround me. Attempting counter evasions.

    On it, Didact responded. Gilgamesh, Enkidu, Colces, Beowulf, assist Heracles with mop up. I’m moving to assist Aligaz.

    A portal appeared in front of the Forerunner commander, and he jetted through it, appearing a split second later within visual range of Aligaz. The sniper was zipping around the mountain, engaged against a swarm of Flood controlled powersuits. A bolt from his sniper rifle blasted through the mountain, turning countless tons of snow and ice into super heated water vapor before it burrowed through the rock and exploded out the other side. The shot sent one of his foes reeling, end over end as it was blasted apart by the fury of the bolt.

    Didact shot forward, holding his rifle steady and sending bursts of fire straight towards the Flood controlled units. They twisted and evaded, but the Forerunner was too good. Three fell in as many bursts, holes punched in their suits and their insides reduced to ashen ruins. A small missile fired from his shoulder, tracking and targeting another one before flawlessly impacting upon it. The Flood form went up in a blue hot flash as the missile’s focus charge warhead detonated.

    By this point in time, less than a hundred Flood combat forms remained, and the Forerunner strike team had yet to be wounded. The Master Chief was in awe at what he saw before him in Didact’s memories. As the soldier struck down two more of his foes, the Spartan thought back to all the battles that he’d witnessed and been a part of. Just one suit, just a single exoskeleton like what the troops here were wearing, and everything might have turned out different.

    He shook his head and focused back on the battle at hand. Reminiscing about the past would not do him any good. One could not change it after all.

    Didact warped through a slipspace portal, appearing right behind one of his foes. The Flood unit had its back to him, but sensed his approach. It tried to evade, but could not match the inhuman speed that Didact came at it with. The energy blade appeared in his hands and in blurred series of motions, his opponent was falling to the ground in pieces. Didact flew towards the northeast, where a group of the unit seemed to be trying to escape his wrath. They didn’t get far, though. Between the Forerunner commander and Aligaz’s unnatural shooting abilities, they were quickly dispatched.

    Enemy forces in full retreat. Medicant, track them! Intercept and eliminate, Didact ordered.

    Exit vectors confirmed, moving to intercept, Medicant responded.

    Reestablishing sniper vector Aligaz ‘growled’. Then he warped away, appearing back on the mountain top. Within moments, he’d sighted up some of the remaining foes, and was blazing away with his longarm rifle.

    Moving back into sector three by four eight Didact responded, before jumping back into the metropolis and the small star that was blazing away there.

    The Flood controlled units had formed up into a defensive perimeter, and seemed to be attempting to use the buildings for cover while engaging with non LOS weaponry such as missiles, and what seemed to be some form of energy howitzer. It didn’t do them much good. Even massed fire was shrugged off by the Class Twenty suits. What followed was a fast, brutal battle in which the Forerunners showed no mercy.

    Didact crouched as he moved forward, his rifle level with his foes as he fired again and again. The energy pulses punched through the buildings like they weren’t even there, before slamming into the inferior enemy suits and destroying them.

    Squad advance forward to coordinates 100.05 by 250.1 and open fire with everything you have. I want this finished. Even though he couldn’t hear inflections in the voice of the commander, the Master Chief could feel the cold bloodedness to his tone. There was something about this scenario which was bothering Didact, and the Spartan’s keen mind told him it was something more than just the fact that the Flood had managed to assimilate some Forerunner research scientists.

    Even Aligaz warped in, and the area soon blazed with energy weapon fire. Death claimed a number of forms as Didact once again proved how adept he was with his rifle. Heracles moved in from the southeast, his enormous, multi-barreled weapon opened fire and cut down a swarm of Flood controlled units. The counter dropped to twenty five. It was less a battle now, more a massacre. Still, Didact and his fellows did not relent.

    Didact fired another missile at a Flood unit that was attempting to flee through a slipstream portal. The device followed it through a split second before the portal closed.

    Fifteen clicks away form their current position, another portal opened up, but all that emerged from it was an explosion. The Master Chief couldn’t help but smile.

    His smiled faded into a look of disbelief as he realized that the last combat form had been taken out by the group. He’d been so enthralled by the battle that he’d failed notice the mission clock in the lower left hand corner of Didact’s HUD. It read as plus twenty two and a half seconds since the Forerunner squad had engaged their Flood controlled adversaries.

    He blinked once, twice, three times, as he continued to stare at the number, and his neurons exploded into activity as he tried to fathom how such a thing was possible. Then he remembered something. When the suit had been powering up, the checklist had mentioned a chronoscopic device, and there had been a brief mention of a time dilation effect when Didact had initiated planet fall. Was it possible that they had the ability to literally slow time? To speed themselves up?

    It made some sense, in a strange way. He’d already seen one of their artifacts that could perform such feats. The crystal that they’d found on Reach, the one that had distorted Space Time itself and allowed the Ascendant Justice to cross a quarter of the galaxy in less than five minutes; a journey that, even with Covenant technology, should have taken the better part of a week. He had just never believed they could have had something like that on the infantry level.

    I don’t like this one bit. Didact muttered to himself.

    Indeed. The destruction of the station and its research will be something of a tragic loss… Medicant said.

    Not that. Not that at all. Didact shook his head. Think about it. The Parasite didn’t just happen across blueprints to construct suits like that. Where would they have gotten the knowledge? Where would they have gotten the materials?

    You are suggesting that within the time period since they took over the station, that the Parasite has learned how to create dedicated combat equipment far superior to anything the natives had, simply from analyzing some of our civilian technology? the A.I. seemed bemused.

    Not so much that… but the ability to learn on its own. This thing has demonstrated the ability to learn at an astounding, dare I say, alarming, pace. I think we’ve drastically underestimated the Parasite’s adaptive and cognitive capacities.

    What now, Sir?
    Cocles asked as he looked around at the city.

    We split up into two teams, and work our way around the city. Once we’ve cleansed the buildings, we start to try and see if there’s anyone left alive in this mess. Didact responded. Gilgamesh, Cocles, Enkidu, go with Heracles and start at the northeast sector. The rest of you come with me to the southwest. We’ll work our way around in a counter clockwise motion, and meet back up at the central region of the city. Everyone understand?

    A series of affirmatives echoed through the cybernetic mind of the Forerunner commander, and then they split out, heading for their respective targets. What followed was an almost surreal unfolding of events, as the solders split out and enveloped the city. Nothing that was infested was spared. Every last molecule of Flood infested matter was wiped clean. It was like Armageddon, the Master Chief thought to himself as if the hand of an angry God had swept down and purged the area of some manner of foul heresy.

    By the time that the soldiers were finished, the antimatter explosions were clearing up, though the area still virtually glowed with radioactivity, and dust clouds covered the area of hundreds of kilometers in every direction.

    Native armed forces are approaching three hundred kilometer perimeter. Aligaz said as he scanned the area around them.

    Native fleet is within one minute of FTL exit vector. Commander, you orders? Medicant asked.

    Keep them away from the planet, we can’t risk any chance of a Parasite spore getting onboard their craft. If they get their hands on additional FTL tech, they could spread themselves all over this quadrant. There was a pause. Try to limit your methods to non lethal means of dissuasion. Target an asteroid, show them what you can do. If they still press onward, use the dropship’s ion cannons to disable their warships.

    Then the Forerunner turned his attention to a large, central building. It was the last one left to clean, and it appeared to be some kind of command and control center. It was militant in nature, judging by how deep it appeared to go. Most curiously, though, was that there was a large power source underneath it, below the regions that showed Parasite infestation, and life forms that appeared to be untainted by the Flood’s touch.

    That’s our target. Move! Didact ordered.

    Seven portals appeared in front of the soldiers, gateways to a realm that was beyond the laws of physics and where the rules of reality held no sway. The Forerunner fire team jetted inside.

    They reappeared in the interior of the building, surrounded by a host of Flood infested flesh. The room they were in appeared to be some sort of entrance lobby, or what had been one at one point in time. The Master Chief could hear more gaps of disbelief coming from the natives, but he himself wasn’t surprised. He had been on High Charity. He had witnessed, first hand, just how fast the Flood could spread. There was a faint pulsing in the Spartan’s temple, and he fought the urge to remove his helmet and rub at it. Instead, he redirected his medical systems to administer a small dosage of caffeine, Acetaminophen, and Aspirin to deal with the mounting migraine. He wondered what could have been causing it.

    It’s in distress… Gilgamesh muttered.

    That’s because it knows we’re here to kill it. Beowulf said, hefting his weapon and fiddling with an attachment to the underside of his rifle.

    Projectors out. Didact ordered.

    A small tube extended out of the left bracer of each of the soldiers’ wrists. It didn’t go out very far, just an inch or two beyond the back of their hands. They placed their backs to one another, and aimed the weapons down at the floor. Deep blue flames of some sort out of the tube, and the room quickly grew hotter than the surface of a star. John knew that Gravemind was able to somehow manipulate reality, use its psychic abilities to make it and its minions far sturdier than they should be otherwise. He’d seen Flood flesh survive atmospheric reentry on the Ark and Installation 08. However, before these temperatures, even this dug in infestation soon began to burn and cook. Soon, it was little more than vaporized liquids and cremated ash.

    His temples throbbed as he felt its psionic screams ripping through his mind. It was hurting… it was in pain. Distantly, as he’d gunned down one combat form after another, he’d always wondered if Gravemind, or the infection form itself, was capable of feeling pain. Now, it seemed he had his answer.

    Still, in a bestial manner, he was glad to see the wretched, putrid flesh burning away into nothingness. Rtas had once said that a single Flood spore could destroy a species. The Sangehili ship master was only too right about that.

    It took only moments for them to finish up. By then, not only was the infestation gone, but the floors, walls, and ceiling of the room they were in glowed white hot, and the Master Chief knew that to even set foot in a room like that without shielded armor would result in a nigh instantaneous death as the ambient temperatures caused the water in the body to boil inside of itself.

    Phase one of cleansing completed. Didact remarked. The Forerunner soldier then holstered his rifle and pulled out a weapon that looked like a carbine version of it, with a underlsung barrel that was significantly larger. Split into teams and fan out. I want beacons and video feed on at all times. Medicant, monitor us. If it looks like there’s trouble ahead, warn us. If I go down, you take over command and control… Everyone understand?

    Again, the chorus of yes sirs came.

    Good. Let’s go hunting.
     
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  18. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Seventeen - Flashback to Oblivion, Part II

    Beowulf, with me! Didact growled.

    Coming, Commander the Forerunner soldier said.

    The squadron split up into two other groups, Enkidu and Gilgamesh going together while Aligaz and Cocles backed Heracles up.

    They descended deeper and deeper into the complex, their carbines held out in front of them and their strange flame projectors at the ready. Whenever they encountered the brownish green hue of Flood flesh, they burned it to ash without a moments hesitation. There were other creatures out and about as well. The Master Chief recognized a few Flood infection forms. It was almost laughable, watching the little balls trying to skitter away on their tentacles. Or rather, that’s what they appeared to be trying to do. The basic forms of the Flood parasite had no means of temporally speeding themselves up. As such, they were utterly exposed and helpless before Didact’s onslaught. There were some combat forms as well, of an alien species that he had never before borne witness to… or had he?

    There was something eerily familiar about the manner in which the long, serpentine necks flopped over the back and the large, faded eyes that were built into the sides of the heads rolled about. Three fingered hands that were encased in armor and sported heavy weaponry turned so slowly that the Spartan had to squint and take a second look to discern any movement whatsoever.

    They stood before Didact for microseconds before the Forerunner blew them to hell. Automatic bursts were no longer necessary. Single shots vaporized the combat forms, armor and weaponry and all, in the time that it took the Spartan to blink.

    Commander, native fleet has exited FTL vector. Numbers are identical with prior analysis. I’m detecting approximately ten battleships, three dozen ships in the heavy cruiser range, and about nine score destroyers and frigates. Fighter craft are present, and number in the thousands. Mendicant stated.

    Proceed with previous orders, Medicant, Didact responded as he turned his projector upon an infestation of Flood forms.

    Affirmative, Commander Didact. Asteroid targeted at coordinates 6-gamma-seven by 809. Commencing fire now…. Asteroid eliminated. Slowing to real time to give ships time to adequately respond. Will update you when information becomes available.

    Didact said nothing, merely eradicated another group of native combat forms literally before they could become aware of his presence.

    The Master Chief watched as level after level was cleared by the Forerunner soldiers. At last, they came to just outside of where the power readings were coming from.

    Move in. Killing house formation. Didact ordered.

    Beowulf’s response was to blast open the final set of doors with a single well placed carbine bolt.

    The room inside was covered in the flesh of the infestation. However, the center of the room held two things. The first was a glowing orb, contained by a gun metal gray machine that reminded the Master Chief of one of the old plasma ball toys that civilians sometimes purchased. Didact’s HUD identified it as a matter energy converter, powered by a number of singularities. John raised his eyebrows at that, but refocused his attention upon the scene unfolding around his eyes. The second was another set of doors, strangely untouched by the Parasite.

    Stay alert. The Parasite could not possibly be so foolish as to leave something this valuable unguarded. Didact ordered Beowulf.

    The other Forerunner soldier complied, keeping his weapon raised and his scanners online.

    The doors at the far end of the room started to crease and fold, and that was the only warning that the two of them would receive as a pair of massive combat forms burst through the door. The Master Chief was uncertain as to what they might have been previously, or if they were even some type of native life form at all, as opposed to a created Flood variant. Regardless of what they were, they moved along the ground on six legs, interspaced with armored plates that seemed similar, if larger, than the class sixteen that the previous forms had been clad in. The Spartan cocked an eyebrow and wondered what Gravemind and his minions were up to this time around.

    The new forms sported a number of arms as well, each one clasping a weapon of some variety. A large cannon was leveled at both Forerunner soldiers, and they quickly dashed out of the way as it blasted a hole straight through the wall of the room and kept going. Didact thrust his will forward and blasted the abomination off of its feet and sent it sailing across the room hard enough to squash the flesh that coated the walls and dent them inward. He put a dozen rounds into the creature as his armor’s sensors told him that it was a class seventeen armor suit that the creatures were clad in.

    The combat forms raised their other arms and other weapons were brought to bear, resembling multi-barreled autocannons. The energy rounds impacted up Didact as he jetted to the side, causing his shields to drop by a hairsbreadth.

    The other monstrosity charged towards Beowulf, and the second soldier was knocked flat. Then he got hit by a psychic attack that felt as if it had the force of a falling mountain behind it. The soldier cried out in agony, a scream tempered by rage. A plasma blade of some kind appeared on one of the creature’s many arms, and it made to run Beowulf through. Didact altered his aim, leveling his carbine at the beast. As he went to fire, the arm shot forward, impossibly fast. Beowulf, though, was not destined to die then.

    The Forerunner leapt up, and with a single arm, grabbed the combat form around what appeared to be its wrist. He let out a scream of rage and fury, and yanked backwards. A cacophonous din of rending metal, flesh, and circuitry reached the ears of the Master Chief. Sparks flew, fluids of some unknown nature gushed, and in the blink of an eye, Beowulf had torn the creature’s arm from its socket.

    "The horrible monster suffered grievous pain; a gapping wound opened on his shoulder; the sinews sprang apart, the muscles were bursting. Glory in battle was given to Beowulf..." John heard Cortana whisper in his mind.

    Beowulf jetted up, dodging weapons fire as he shields began to recharge, firing off rounds from his carbine and blasting large holes in the armor. He tossed the creature’s arm back at it, smashing it in the face with enough force to knock the creature down. A back mounted weapon, resembling a much smaller variant of what Heracles had, swiveled up and fired a single round. The Spartan thought that it looked somewhat like a grenade. The device penetrated through the Flood flesh of the exposed arm socket, giving the cyborg just enough to time to read a data file that had popped up, identifying it as a XP-308 anti-infantry device. A moment later, the anti-matter payload went off with a deafening boom. The Flood combat form died instantly, and its suit was reduced to a half melted pile of slag.

    Didact turned his attention back on the one that he was dealing with. The combat form let out a psychic scream of rage and leveled all of its weapons at the Forerunner. Didact was promptly nailed by more weapons fire than even the Spartan’s enhanced perception could keep track of. However, while the physical impacts of the bolts were enough to slowly push the power armored soldier back, they were not enough to breach his protective shields.

    Didact retaliated with a massive psionic strike. Unlike the previous attacks, this was no mere working of psychic muscle, no thrust of will. This was a tidal wave that rippled around the room. Flesh was torn from the walls, conduits and circuitry exploded. Metal shrieked in agony before bending and distorting to the mental fury of the Forerunner commander. Assimilated consoles were reduced to so much useless tin foil as the attack washed over them. The lights flickered, the surviving machinery sputtered, and the combat form screamed as it was smashed around the room like a tinker toy.

    Only the converter in the middle of the room was spared. Didact leveled his carbine with one hand, and extended his left wrist. At the range he was at, even firing one handed, the carbine was dead on. From his left wrist came a scattering of energy blasts, like some type of plasma based shotgun. The barrages struck the large Flood Juggernaught, driving it backwards, ravaging its shields in an instant. Its armor heated white hot, was breached, and summarily vaporized by a single bolt from the carbine.

    There was a tense moment among the two soldiers as they waited for Flood reinforcements that never arrived.

    Well, that was interesting. Beowulf muttered. What do you suppose those things were, Commander? Heavy Infantry of some kind?

    Not sure. Mendicant, do you copy?

    I copy, Sir, what do you need?
    The A.I. responded.

    Run a time index back through our monitors and see if you can cross reference those things we just fought with archived native life forms Didact ordered. And status on the native fleet?

    Running now. Native fleet is beginning to attempt respond, Sir. Please bear in mind that it’s been about .05 seconds real-time since I turned that asteroid into gravel. I think their minds are still trying to comprehend the destruction that our drop ship is capable of inflicting upon the then. There was a brief pause. I’ve cross referenced the database. The creatures that you just killed are not registered as native life forms upon this planet.

    They made them… the Parasite created something new. Something born of its own essence, rather than simply hijacked…
    Didact partially computerized mind somehow seemed quiet, fearful almost.

    He and Beowulf exchanged a look, and then the two of them pressed deeper into the complex. Not, however, before Didact created a slip space portal and put the matter converter back within the safety of the drop ship.

    From there on out, the resistance that the two soldiers encountered was relatively light, and both they and the other groups had little more to do besides burn the Parasite’s infections to ash. At last, though, they reached the bottom of the facility, and rejoined each other down there. There was one final door. It was heavily reinforced, shielded, and had large, menacing looking weapons protecting it. Still, judging from the lack of burn marks upon the walls, it looked as if the Flood had simply ignored this area of the facility.

    Scans detect non-infected life forms on the other side of that door. Mendicant responded. Native fleet is holding position. I was forced to disable one light cruiser as it attempted to jump to FTL and pass my position. They seemed to have taken the lesson to heart. Either that, or they haven’t decided what to do next...

    Moving forward, Didact said. Enkidu, disable these defenses. I don’t want those cannons firing when we get these people out of here.

    The Master Chief understood. The weapons posed no risk to the Forerunner soldiers. They could probably fire until whatever power reserves they had ran completely dry and not even begin to make a dent against those shields. However, it was highly improbable that all the individuals inside would be combat shielded soldiers, as opposed to frightened civilians. Best not to take any risks when dealing with a potentially volatile situation like that.

    It took Enkidu only moments to disable the weapons and shields via some manner of remote hacking. The Master Chief could sense Cortana stirring a bit within his mind. He wasn’t surprised. Hacking was what she was literally born to do. Watching a Forerunner in action was probably a dream come true for her. He could only imagine what sort of theories and hypotheses might have been firing back and forth within her mind at the current moment.

    Switching manipulators back to real time, preparing for first contact, Didact said.

    The Forerunner commander stepped up to the door, and it slowly opened. The Master Chief stared, blinked a few times, and felt shock course through his system. Standing in front of Didact were a number of small figures, not even a meter tall when one didn’t include the neck. They were obviously children, hidden down here as a last attempt to keep them safe from the Flood. However, what held his attention was not their age, but rather, their species. Pinkish brown skin, large, blinking eyes set into an almost serpentine head and neck and a thin, frail looking body. What stood before Didact was nothing other than a group of San 'Shyuum. Prophets…

    Didact took a few steps towards them, holstering his carbine. The children quite naturally recoiled in terror. Here was this big, black monstrosity every bit of two and a half times their height, and the powers that be only knew how many times their mass standing before them, and they were virtually naked save for the thin clothes that they wore. No weapons, no means of defense, their parents probably dead or worse. It was a horrible fate to have to endure, and a pang of sympathy welled up in the Spartan’s normally ice cold heart.

    Looking at these creatures, he did not see Regret’s fanaticism, Mercy’s sadistic cunning, or Truth’s cold blooded scheming and power mongering. He saw frightened young ones who’d just been put through the closest thing to hell this plane of reality had to offer.

    A soothing, psionic thrumming came from Didact then, almost hypnotic. The young San Shyuun relaxed, and one slowly advanced towards Didact. With surprising gentleness, considering his suit’s strength enhancers, the commander picked up the young child in his arms. The Master Chief could feel the loss and the pain in the child’s mind through the strange ‘vision’ that Helm was showing them.

    What do we do with them? Heracles spoke up.

    We take them to their people. Didact responded.

    The Forerunner opened up another portal, and stepped through. The whirling maelstrom of slip space twisted and pulsed for the briefest of microseconds, and then they were at their destination. The bridge of the ship that Didact had warped upon was nothing like the Master Chief had expected. It was large, round, and judging by the readouts coming from the Forerunner’s HUD, placed upon the top of the ship. Gray walls and touch-screens were everywhere.

    There were gasps, and what appeared to be a security detail aimed weapons at the Forerunner, but didn’t fire. The Master Chief stared long and hard at the new, no, old San 'Shyuun. They still had the oblong heads that he was used to seeing, but far from appearing frail and weak, as the ones that he’d seen had, muscles could be seen bulging underneath plated combat armor. The saw that he was holding one of their young, and raised their weapons away from him.

    One of them, presumably the captain, stood up and shouted something at Didact in a language that the Spartan couldn’t understand. He felt the pulsing of the Commander’s psychic powers as the others entered, carrying the rest of the children in their arms.

    Be at peace, we mean you no harm… Didact said, his ‘voice’ echoing inside the mind of the captain.

    What? the response was not as deep as the Master Chief expected. Was the captain a female?

    We regret the loss of life and destruction that befell your city, but it was necessary. The foe you face is not like anything that this galaxy has ever seen before. Didact remained calm, handing the child over to the alien. The Parasite is a voracious learner, a devourer of knowledge and technology as well as your biological essences. We have contained the outbreak, but already, the creature may have learned enough from your technology to begin to augment itself. Be wary and on your guard. There was a pause. If you discover one of these outbreaks has infested one of your cities or your planets. Do not hesitate to destroy the infection. Left unchecked, one single spore of this... creature… can destroy a entire species.

    With that, Didact and the others turned, and reopened their portals.

    The captain said a single word that the Spartan could not understand, but judging by the outstretched arm, he believed it to be a ‘wait’ equivalent.

    Who are you? he heard the captain think.

    We are those that watch in the absence of the Precrusors. Didact said. We are those who strive to maintain order and balance in the galaxy.

    Then he entered the portal.

    The next few moments became a blur of mixing images and conversations and events. The Spartan understood vaguely what was going on, based off the data entries that he had been able to read. The Council, as Didact had called it, had been uncertain what measures to take with the Flood, and as a result, it had moved unchecked save for a few small counter offensives. By the time they realized the true threat that Gravemind presented, it was too late. Gravemind had learned too much, assembled too much of an industrial basis. He no longer had to rely on assimilating others technology, because he could make it himself.

    Ships loaded with Flood spores and capable of crossing the galaxy in mere days were soon impacting on planets all over the Milky Way. What followed was a three hundred year war of attrition that the Forerunners could not win. Their ships destroyed whole solar systems. Planets were reduced to gravel, heedless of the life forms still struggling upon them. Ships risking Flood infestation were self destructed and destroyed, before slip space portals were opened and sucked the debris into the other dimension, where on the off chance that a spore of an infection form had managed to survive, it wouldn’t be able to threaten anything.

    On the ground, Didact and other Forerunner soldiers fought with a fury the Spartan had never before witnessed. Infestations were brutally exterminated as the power-armored soldiers streaked into battle. Sometimes they worked alone, sometimes in tandem with the native forces. He ‘saw’ rumors begin to circulate among the less-advanced races, rumors of strange avatars and powerful beings that would appear wherever the Parasite was, and attempt to reclaim the world for its true inhabitants.

    The name seemed to stick. Intercepted transmissions and observations of the other races indicated that they were always seeking out these mysterious ‘Reclaimers,’ each trying to enlist their aid more fully, none realizing that there were a thousand other species in the same boat. The Forerunners battled for them all, and fought with a determination that was unmatched, against odds that would have caused most to balk at, or run in terror from.

    But it was not enough. Gravemind controlled most of the galaxy. Its forces numbered in the quintillions, its naval assets the hundreds of billions. There was too much to destroy, not enough weapons to do the job.

    And one by one, the Forerunners were taken down. They were overwhelmed.

    The Master Chief watched Gilgamesh and Enkidu were slain in a desperate holding action to buy time for civilians to evacuate. Heracles met a similar fate, laughing in a deranged manner as he overloaded his armor’s reactor cores and self destructed rather than be assimilated by the Flood. Aligaz met his end when his drop ship was taken out by a well placed strike from a Flood-controlled capital ship.

    Beowulf was killed by an orbital strike from an allied ship. The Spartan supposed his FTL generator must have been damaged, because he stood his ground and did not try to flee as a Forerunner frigate took aim at the world that he battled upon. As he continued to lay waste to his opposition, the ship above fired. One shot was all that was necessary. In the blink of an eye, the planet detonated as if it had been little more than a hand grenade.

    The last to die was Cocles. The Spartan saw him holding a bridge-like structure. At the far end of it was a portal from which Flood combat forms spilled like a never ending tide. Lighter-armed Forerunners were retreating around him, clutching small objects to their chests while they fired pulse rifles and missiles back in the direction of the portal. As Didact moved to cover one of the other soldiers, John was able to gasp a glimpse of what they were carrying, and his breath caught in his throat again.

    It was a young Sangehili.

    Species 40201 ‘Sangehili’ secured. We have sufficient stock for viable genetic variances to produce altered clones and allow for reseeding. The mental ‘voice’ was similar to Mendicant’s, but sounded younger and at the same time colder.

    We copy that Offensive Bias. Didact responded. Preparing to pull back. Get these young ones onto the nearest Shield World.

    Shield World? Reseeding? A cold chill worked its way through John’s soul. That meant one thing: the Arrays. They were either in the process of, or had already finished the constructions of the Halo rings. They were preparing for their last stand. For the last battle with Gravemind that would leave an entire galaxy dead.

    Move it, Sir! Cocles said.

    Waiting on you. Didact fired back.

    Not happening. You heard Offensive. The Parasite has trillions of combat forms on the other side of that thing. A constant field of fire is the only thing stopping them from getting through. I’m not about to risk letting one of them get into the Maginot Sphere.

    That is an—
    Didact began.

    Even as he telepathically responded, a transformed Sangehili slipped through. It was quickly atomized by Cocles, but more could be seen. The Master Chief understood. Gravemind was trying to run his foes out of ammo. He knew the Sangehili were currently incapable of matching a class-twenty combat exoskeleton, so he sought to remove the threat by depleting the ammunition stores of the suit. A clever, if costly, maneuver.

    Sir, I’m expendable in the bigger picture here. There’s a high probability that I’ll be dead before this is all over with anyway. Might as well make it worth something.

    The High Council agrees with Sergeant Cocles' assessment, Didact. They are ordering you to fall back and assume command of the Maginot defenses at Galactic Coordinates 34067.1 by -69025.7 immediately. Failure to comply will be met with court marshall and or your death. They are collapsing the singularity bridges in approximately .75 real time seconds...
    Offensive interjected.

    Didact stood where he was for a few seconds as Cocles continued to fire into the portal, desperate to stem the tide.

    Precursors grant you peace, my old friend. He said, and then jetted towards the other end of the energy bridge.

    “One by one, they died, and I was left alone… then, came my Fall.” Helm spoke.

    The Master Chief knew of what he spoke, but he was curious. Who exactly was the Librarian that Didact had gambled everything for?

    “Ah, I see you wonder what could have been so important to me, Spartan, that I ultimately damned trillions for it.” The Avatar appeared next to him, and the visions before him and the natives stopped. “The answer is simpler than you might think… The Librarian was Diana Merlianius, my wife.”

    “Your wife?” Keyes spoke up for the first time.

    “Yes.” Helm said. “She was an ambitious scientist, seeking to catalog and document all the species of the galaxy. She especially loved studying the sentient races to see how they acted and occasionally, reacted to her presence… ultimately, that would be her undoing…”

    An image appeared, showing what appeared to be a young woman not out of her twenties. There was a smile on her face, reflected in her green eyes. Black hair that was neatly trimmed partially covered a number of cybernetic implants in her face and skull.

    “Any new species discovered?” It was Didact’s voice.

    “A number. Since our arrival at this planet, we’ve discovered several insects and aquatic life. Along with a strange life-form that has never before been encountered. It is wormlike, but sentient and hive minded.” Diana said, crossing her arms. “Has the council decided anything regarding your incident with the Parasite?”

    “They are concerned about the extremity of the methods the squad and I undertook, but aside from that, I have heard nothing.” Didact shrugged.

    The image shifted again, and the Spartan recognized a text scrolling that he’d read on the Ark.

    D: We've confirmed your observations. Infected supraluminal ships are arrowing inward from several clusters. No more spiral growth. The thing is counterattacking. Suppression, Security and Emergency Circumstance fleets are all being recalled. Systems are evacuating.
    Mendicant Bias is no longer communicating with us.
    But now I can guess where you are.

    L: I've remotely destroyed our Keyships. A security measure. Without them I cannot reach the Ark. But neither then can the thing.
    I'm trapped. On a beautiful, empty world. Its inhabitants have been safely indexed, every single one of them. They're special--well worth the effort it took to build one final gateway even at this late hour.
    Forget about me, D, I am already dead. You have a job you must do. People you must safeguard and bring to the Shield Worlds and the Ark.


    “I do not understand.” The voice belonged to Drizzt. The Dark Elf turned to face the God, his arms crossed and his face eerily visible beneath his cloak. “What is this indexing? What are these ‘Arrays’ that the other being spoke of?”

    Helm’s answer was a wave of his hand the creation of the images of the seven Halo arrays.

    “Halo.” Helm said.

    “What is that?” John heard Neeshka breathe.

    “A series of artificial ring worlds created by our people. Ten thousand kilometers in diameter, possessing one standard gravitational unit and a standard oxygen nitrogen atmosphere… and housing both research facilities for studying captured Parasite infection forms and ultimately, our final weapon.”

    John noticed that the natives were staring at Helm with blank expressions, and the Avatar nodded its head somberly.

    “Do not let the rings’ beauty deceive you. They were weapons of last resort, created just in case we failed. Upon activation, each Array would create a superluminal pulse that could cover the entire galaxy in minutes.” He paused. “This pulse would kill any life form with sufficient biomass and cognitive capacity to sustain the Flood. Every trick we had failed, every fleet was overcome. Eventually, we had no choice but to try and activate them.”

    “I don’t follow.” Drizzt spoke, and the Master Chief could hear the mounting horror in the Drow’s voice.

    “During the course of our campaign, a decision was reached to try and assault the Parasite’s hivemind, its core essence. We had tracked its location, and knew that it identified itself as ‘Gravemind,’ but previous attempts had met in failure from a combination of the sheer number of ships that the Parasite had defending its core, and its mind.” Helm’s glowing eyes seemed to bore into the Dark Elf. “The Parasite was psychic, and its potential power increased with every additional mind that was added to its collective. By the time we located it, those numbered so vast that they could have given pause to the combined legions of the demons and the devils. Gravemind showed his superiority and his disdain for our efforts with the last time we faced him by wiping out a star cluster a thousand light years away from his central core with what amounted to a snap of his fingers.”

    Johnson whistled, Miranda gulped.

    “Indeed.” Helm turned his attention to them. “It was decided that a new advent would be needed to prevent another such failure. A combination effort was created. Our fleets would engage and destroy as many clusters of Parasite forces as they could, while one of our artificial intelligences would be given an upgrade, and given the psychic potential necessary to resist Gravemind’s power and try to take it out of the picture.”

    “But something went wrong.” The Master Chief nodded his head, remembering the texts that he’d read on the Ark.

    “That is correct, Spartan. Again, we underestimated the Parasite’s potential. Not even Mendicant was a match for it.” Helm bowed his head. “Gravemind overpowered the A.I. and turned him to its side. Our greatest weapon had been turned against us, in more ways than one. Mendicant knew our defense protocols, our plans for the Arrays in the event that we failed.” The Avatar paused once again. “We knew then that it was all over. Everything we had fought for had been for not. The Arrays would have to be activated. I was assigned with a fleet to protect a vital sector in the outer regions of the Maginot Sphere… it was there, where I fell. In a single moment of lapsed judgment, with one selfish action, I doomed myself and the rest of our society.”

    “What do you mean?” It was Neeshka who spoke this time.

    John looked over at her. There was a glint in the eyes of the Tiefling, unlike anything he’d seen before. She was not glaring at the deity, per say, but her look wasn’t kind. A mixture of horror and distrust, if he were to hazard a guess.

    “Very simple, Neeshka,” Helm seemed to sigh. “I knew that Diana was out there. Her fate would be oblivion as the Array’s shockwave slammed into that planet. The thought of her being there, utterly helpless…” he raised a fist, and clenched it tight. “I abandoned my post, raced to the aid of her and her research team. Mendicant was ready though. He had predicted an eighty five percent probability of such actions from me. A Parasite fleet intercepted us, and tore us to pieces. Worse, with us gone, there was no one left to guard our sector. The council moved swiftly to counter act my rash actions, but it was too late. Gravemind pounced, and tore into the sector like a blood mad predator. Whole planets were overrun, the keyships that were to take our people to the safety of the Shield Worlds lost. Trillions were killed or converted into vessels and food for the Parasite’s forces.

    “By some, twisted mockery of fate, my dreadnought was able to limp home. I think Mendicant let me go, perhaps some bizarre form of gratitude both for our past time’s together, and for letting him have his victory.” Helm paused again, and sighed. “Needless to say, I was put on trial for cowardice in the face of the enemy, dereliction of duty, and for all the blood that now stained my hands.”

    The scenes before them changed again, revealing an area that was vaguely reminiscent of a courtroom. The Master Chief realized from the present perspective that Didact was standing on a raised platform with monitors surrounding him. People dressed in robes were on the other end of them, and read ups on Didact’s built in HUD kept identifying various councilors. The one called Sipula glared down at the soldier in front of him, and pursed his lips.

    “Commander Arias Didact,” he said. “It has henceforth been decided by this council, that because of your blatant disregard of military protocols, and the enormous consequences of your actions that—”

    “Spare us the theatrics, Councilor,” Didact interrupted. “We both know what I did. We both know what the consequences were. Let’s not waste time with acting… when am I to face execution?”

    “You are not.” The councilor responded. There was nothing in his voice, the Master Chief was surprised to note. No hatred. No malice. The man just seemed tired. “The council has decided that your fate is to be different. The arrays will need to be activated soon. The enemy is aware of our plans however, and a number of fleets are massing to prepare to jump to the last areas that we hold, and then to stage an assault upon the Ark itself.” Sipula paused. “The Arrays must be activated before this, but in order to avoid arousing the suspicion of Mendicant Bias or the Gravemind, we must use a decoy. Our remaining ships will engage in a holding action, while a single scouting craft slips through and heads for the Ark.”

    “I am to be part of the defenses?” Didact asked.

    “You are to be the one to activate the Arrays.”

    There was a moment of pause, and the Master Chief felt something in Didact’s mind, like something was about to break. A new series of images bombarded the Spartan’s mind, images of what appeared to be young children, Didact’s children, John quickly realized. He saw them again, grown up and in military uniform, men and women alike. He saw parents as well, relatives from all walks of life.

    “You cannot mean that!” Didact’s voice was barely a whisper. “My crime is great, but surely—”

    “The decision of this council stands.” Sipula said, and all faded into blackness.

    “I don’t understand,” Bruenor spoke up. “What exactly are they going to make you do?”

    “Simple, my good Dwarf,” Helm replied. “I am going to be the one to head to the Ark, and then activate the Halos. There was a sword pointed at the heart of the galaxy, and I was to be the one who would plunge it in and twist it.”

    “So then, how did you survive?” Neeshka asked.

    An image of the Milky Way appeared before the group. With a gesture, Helm highlighted an area located some distance above it.

    “The Ark is here, located a little more than two hundred and sixty thousand light years above the Galactic Core. The maximum effective range of the Halos was a little over two hundred and ten thousand. I was safely out of the blast range.”

    “So they punished you by letting you live?” The Tiefling raised an eyebrow in disbelief.

    “Yes. And it was quite cruel, Neeshka… but then, I deserved no less.” He turned to face her, and let his glowing eyes bore into her soul. “I still had children alive, grandchildren, even. My parents had survived thus far, as well. Everything I knew… everything I loved, would die by my own hand. As a civilization, we were finished, and I was going to have to be the one to slit its throat.”

    He paused, and let that sink in.

    “Offensive Bias led the counter assault. We’d created him after the Parasite first appeared, using Mendicant as a template, specifically with the idea of combating them in mind. Later, after Mendicant went rampant, we altered his combat protocols to be able to deal with hostile A.I’s as well.” Helm gestured and an image appeared from his memories.

    He was getting into a small shuttle-like craft. The Master Chief could tell that he was wearing his armor once again, and Didact’s hands flew over the control panel, activating a number of devices and bringing the ship online.

    This is Reclaimer. Standing by for launch. Didact said.

    Copy that, Reclaimer, this is Sovereign. an image appeared before Didact, first of a massive, city sized ship. It was long and thin, with gun mounts, missile tubes, and a host of other weapons splitting off of a hull that vaguely resembled a triangle. Off the dorsal and ventral stern areas sprang a wing type structure that went straight out at about a sixty degree angle. Weapon mounts were also highly visible upon those structures.

    Maximum effective coverage, minimum targeting profile. Very clever, the Master Chief thought to himself. Very clever indeed.

    The image zoomed in and revealed a Forerunner in full battle armor present upon the ship. He was identified as Admiral Octavian Dulianus and from what the read outs were saying, he was inside of the Sovereign’s bridge. The structure was buried within the very heart of the ship, and judging by the small readout/diagram in Didact’s lower right HUD, protected by multiple secondary armor belts and had other less vital decks serving as sacrificial ablative armor in the event of a shield breech.

    Reclaimer is in away in T-minus three. All battle groups report in, The admiral said.

    A flashing screen appeared in front of Didact. It zoomed in on a portion of the Milky Way that was about a thousand light years across.

    Battle group Truth and Reconciliation reporting in. A flashing highlight pointed to an area at the far end of the map.

    Battle group Far Sight Lost standing by. An area was highlighted on the other side of the map.

    Battle group Lawgiver standing by.

    Battle group Ascendant Justice standing by.

    Battle group Bloodied Spirit standing by.


    And so it went. There were scores of battle groups, and as the map zoomed in, the Master Chief could see tens of thousands of Forerunner ships, hundreds of thousands possibly. They ranged from light frigates and escort ships all the way up to the massive dreadnoughts that the Admiral was upon. It was an armada, the Master Chief knew, that would strike fear and terror into the heart of any sane creature.

    But what they were fighting wasn’t exactly sane, and didn’t know fear in the traditional sense. Gravemind wouldn’t even pause at such a force, especially if he knew the consequences of failure.

    Didact’s craft finished powering up, and shot out of the hangar that it was in. Within moments, the craft had entered slip space, and was speeding away. However, Didact remained in communication with the battle group, and was able to observe what was going on. Some of the ships began to arrange themselves into various formations. Communications between the groups were constant and never ending and they positioned themselves for maximum effective coverage.

    A portal was opened up in the center of the battlefield, one that resembled the one that had appeared over the ruins of New Mombassa.

    “A decoy,” Helm spoke. “It led to one of the Arrays, not the Ark. Mendicant didn’t know that, though. He thought our goal was an organized retreat of sorts.”

    Didact’s craft had not been away more than a couple of real time minutes before slip space portals started opening up every where around the battle groups. The number was large to begin with, and seemed to consist of small craft. But then came more. And more after them, and yet more still. For forever it went on, or seemed to. Finally, the torrent of portals disappeared.

    Space was unbelievably vast in its size, and even with the amount of ships that Mendicant had brought with him, there would have been no way to observe them, spaced as they were. Fortunately, the displays took care of that, giving each ship in the flotilla a detailed view of what was out there, and the viewing screens that were available inside of Didact’s craft made it painstakingly clear that his comrades were about to be in the fight of their lives.

    Enemy fleet analyzed the message appeared on Didact’s HUD, and from the color, the Master Chief was able to see it was Offensive Bias. The A.I. appeared out of a holographic pedestal a moment later. He looked somewhat like Mendicant, except that the flowing, somewhat ragged robes had been replaced by a suit of combat armor. Admiral, I regret to inform you that the enemy fleet outnumbers us approximately four hundred and thirty seven to one.

    There was a gasp from the natives, and even the Chief felt a sense of awful dread creep up his spine. To hear about such a fleet was one thing, to read about it in a data entry… but to see it. To see countless millions of warships, converted civilian craft, cruisers, dreadnaughts, and the like, all pointed at you, with only one goal in mind. It was sobering. He was reminded of Reach, of the fear that passed through every member of the UNSC there to see such a massive Covenant force come screaming in out of Slip Space, knowing that the defenses would be a stalling measure at best.

    It was no different for the poor souls onboard those ships. This would be their final hour. Defeat meant assimilation by the Flood. Victory meant their deaths as the shockwaves from the Halo arrays ripped the galaxy apart and killed any sentient life in it.

    An image appeared of an A.I. It took the Master Chief several moments to realize that he was staring at Mendicant. The computer had changed so much since he’d last been seen. His robes were torn and more ragged than ever. Party of his face was distorted, and sported a few wavering Flood tentacles. His hair was likewise altered, with several tentacles moving around independently.

    Admiral… Offensive… he responded. So good to see you again. I was hoping to have a chat with you before we got down to business.

    Then speak. Offensive said, and the Master Chief swore that he could feel the chill in the younger A.I.’s ‘voice.’ They were stalling for time. Every second counted.

    My master offers you a chance to surrender. To become part of a greater whole. To link your voice and mind with his own. Mendicant spread his arms slightly. Do not throw away your lives defying the inevitable. Your era of naval gazing is at an end, your vaunted Mantel has not saved you. Surrender. And the Gravemind promises to make your assimilations as painless as is possible. One way or another, his voice, his song, his thoughts, will be the one to live on in eternity.

    A tempting offer,
    Admiral Dulianus responded, rubbing the chin portion of his helmet. Offensive, what say you?

    I think I speak for us all, Sir, when I tell my brother than he and his ‘Master’ can both go to Oblivion, and rot in the endless void. The younger A.I. snarled. Come, Mendicant, let us see if you and your master can triumph over us. We will not go quietly to our deaths!


    The Master Chief heard cheering over various comm channels and non-command frequencies.

    Mendicant’s eyes narrowed.

    So you have chosen death. So be it.

    The mighty armada of Mendicant Bias streaked into action. A count down timer appeared in the lower corner of Didact’s HUD. He recognized it. A twelve minute timer. It was an approximation of how long it would take Didact to reach the Ark and activate it.

    The converted civilian craft went in first. Mendicant held no illusions about the combat capabilities of this sub fleet. They were insects compared to what Offensive and his Forerunner allies could bring to bear. The Forerunner ships verily exploded with weapons fire. Energy pulses streaked left and right, while some ships streaked into Slip Space. All began to maneuver at speeds that baffled the Master Chief’s mind. Admiral Dulianus and his fleet shot forward. The Sovereign zipped past a massive gas giant before pulling a pivot turn that would have snapped a UNSC ship in half. In a flash its weapons were presented, and it opened fire.

    The rest of the fleet engaged in a series of turning dives and maneuvers that made the large ships seem more like graceful raptors or air superiority craft than battlecruisers. They fluttered and twisted, evading the smaller craft, and firing, always firing. The civilian transports swarmed around them, overwhelming the point defenses, the light, the medium, and the heavy energy weapons. There were simply too many targets, and not enough guns.

    The Admiral’s battle group managed to suffer only light losses, but as the opening minute of the battle came to a close, Offensive reported heavy losses among other fleets.

    The Master Chief, though, knew what was ahead. Mendicant had just unwittingly sewn the seeds of his defeat. Within those craft were hidden protocols, remote control mechanisms, and redundant failsafes that would enable Offensive to take them over in a moments notice. It did not, however, mean that the soldiers onboard those ships could go down peacefully. They had to make the act look like it was real… a façade that would require their lives.

    Didact saw comm videos and holograms of the interior of the ships as the Flood infested them. Soldiers in Class Twenty combat skins battled with all their might against the relentless tide of converted Forerunners that charged at them. Whenever defeat seemed inevitable, whenever they knew they could not hold out any longer, the soldiers would overload their armor and self destruct. The explosions of the powerful reactor cores rocked their ships, but they remained undamaged and combat viable.

    The Master Chief knew that last key fact would be absolutely vital to the plan.

    We have loss approximately ten percent of our fleet, and of those, fully half of them are Dreadnaughts, Admiral. Offensive turned to face the Forerunner leader, who nodded sagely.

    So it begins. Dulianus responded. How many—

    Approximately three quarters of all civilian craft destroyed. My brother will use his warships next. Offensive responded. Sir, you should know that I have calculated that the collateral damage from this battle—

    It is acceptable, Offensive. Failure is too great to worry about the shattering of worlds and stars. We must cauterize a wound to save the body.
    This time the Admiral interrupted. …may the future inhabitants of this galaxy forgive us our sins.

    Offensive said nothing, but readied the remaining ships for the true attack wave. Mendicant came in force, sparing only a few of his ships. Energy blasts, missiles, mass drivers, particle cannons, and even tactical FTL weapons came into play. The stars seemed to be blotted out by the brightness of the fire that was traded. The ECM and ECCM of the combined fleets caused planets to shift, and rocky asteroid fields to flux in and about as the very rules of reality were cast aside. The battle was chaos given form.

    Dulianus and the Sovereign shifted into Slip Space, only to find that there were six other ships upon their tail, more than five million kilometers astern. Two of the ships were dreadnaughts, the rest a heavy cruiser equivalent. The ship flipped end over end in the blink of an eye, reorienting itself and setting every weapon that it had upon them. Missiles, superluminal slugs, and energy pulses were traded. Offensive Bias handled it well as he kicked the ship around and kept it mobile. He focused his fire upon one of the smaller ships first, trying to knock them out of the fight and remove the number of weapons that were firing at the Sovereign. A massive fusillade pounded into the ship as it tried to evade, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Its shielding failed, its hull became breached in a dozen locations, and it finally spun off, trailing smoke and blistering sheens of energy. Even so, it didn’t explode, but merely remained a dead, lifeless husk in Slip Space.

    But the Sovereign herself was not immune. Energy blasts rocked her, and a number of missiles detonated along her portside stern. Her shields held, though, and she popped back into real space.

    The other ships were right behind her, firing away as she tore through a binary star system. The Sovereign twisted to one side, and dove behind a planet. One of the cruisers fired, and the beam hit the terrestrial sphere rather than the ship. Despite the time manipulation fields that were running, as soon as the beam impacted, the Master Chief could see the cracks start to appear in the world’s crust as it vaporized away and the planet itself violently exploded. The Sovereign fired through the rapidly expanding debris field, scoring a number of energy pulse hits and sending several hundred missiles streaking into the nearest ship as Offensive frantically tried to keep the flagship from taking too many hits from the enemy’s weapon systems.

    Units two-six-five and two-six-six move in now! Offensive ordered.

    On cue, another pair of dreadnaughts appeared at the far end of the system. They blazed away, using long range missile swarms to scatter the enemy formation until they could close to range with their other weapons. A barrage of mass driver shots connected with a cruiser, sending it spinning wildly out of control as its shields failed and two more rounds slammed into its starboard side. The momentum shifted it out of the path of the third round, but it was clear that the ship had been mission killed.

    The third round continued onwards, slamming into another earth-like world closer to the main star of the system. Cracks emerged in the world’s crust and it went spinning out of control as the power of the round blasted it out of orbit. The planet’s gravitational field struggled to try and hold it together, but could not, and massive chunks of the sphere’s crust and mantel began flying off in a hauntingly beautiful arc as it hurtled helplessly through space.

    All the while, the Master Chief struggled to process the data feeds that the Sovereign was sending out and receiving from the other battle groups.

    Lawgiver three-six-seven reporting: mission kill confirmed on Parasite controlled frigate. Moving on to assist the rest of sub-group Beta.

    Sacred Promise nine-nine-eight, heavy battle damage. Shields are gone. Hull armor is holding. Requesting cover fire until heat sinks are finished dumping.

    Revenant seven-five-four reporting Parasite infestation through hull breach. Automated defenses and security teams are being dispatched, but unsure if they will be able to hold. In the event of failure, a tactical slip space ramming is planned for the nearest dreadnaught under Parasite control.


    And so it went.

    Six minutes of real time had passed, and the Master Chief knew that the battle was a little more than two fifths finished. The devastation was immense. Hundreds of stars had gone supernova during the battle, thousands of planets had been reduced to debris fields. There would be a hole, here, he realized. There would be a gap, five hundred light years in every direction, where no starlight shined, where no life could ever live again. There would be as barren a wasteland as reality could offer.

    Didact began to open up other channels of communication as the battle raged on. The Master Chief noted seven channels grand total.

    Monitors, Reclaimer here. Report in and status.

    1202 Celestial Reflex reporting in. A bright gold line of text streamed across Didact’s HUD. Installation-01 active and on standby alert. All simulations run. Ready to fire on command.

    5671 Sentinel Guard reporting in. This message was silver, the Master Chief noted. Installation-02 active and on standby alert. All simulations run. Ready to fire on command.

    809 Long Watch reporting in. Now the text was green. Installation-03 active and on standby alert. All simulations run. Ready to fire on command.

    343 Guilty Spark reporting in. Blue text scrolled up, and the Master Chief recognized his unlikely comrade in arms. Installation-04 active and on standby alert. All simulations run. Ready to fire on command.

    2401 Penitent Tangent reporting in Red text. The Spartan remembered the monitor of the Delta Halo, destined to eventually be captured and assimilated by Grave Mind. Installation-05 active and on standby alert. All simulations run. Ready to fire on command.

    717 Ethical Imperative reporting in. This text was white. Installation-06 active and on standby alert. All simulations run. Ready to fire on command.

    951 Acana Directive reporting in. The final test was black. . Installation-07 active and on standby alert. All simulations run. Ready to fire on command.

    Stand by. I’m inbound within four minutes. Didact responded.

    Understood
    was the simultaneous response.

    There was a few moments of silence. Then, Didact perked up slightly.

    I wonder if it had to be this way… or if there might have been something else. he mused. He seemed pensive, now, resigned.

    Pardon? Blue text. Guilty Spark.

    Tell me, Spark, what would you do? The Forerunner asked.

    I am not sure that I understand the question, Reclaimer. Spark responded.

    If the choice was yours to make; to activate the Arrays, or to wait and hope for a better option, what would you do? There was a weight that seemed to hang in the air as Didact blasted towards the Ark.

    I am not fully qualified for this observation or estimation, sir, but based on observed data and our findings with captured Parasite forms… there is no other choice. We must activate the rings. The words echoed ominously within the Master Chief’s mind, and he remembered when he and Spark had turned on each other, on Installation-04.

    “Last time, you asked me if it were my choice, would I do it? Having had considerable time to ponder your query, my answer has not changed. There is no choice. We must activate the rings.”

    Spark truly had thought that he was Didact at the time.

    John shook his head, and focused his attention back on the scene playing out before him.

    The Naval battle was still raging. The Sovereign, along with two heavy cruisers and a small group of escort craft blurred into FTL. Once in Slip Space, they targeted a group of Mendicant’s ships. Ventral and dorsal weapons of all kinds opened fire, and the Flood controlled ships returned the favor. Particle cannons and mass driver shots tore through the alternate dimension as the ships blasted past each other at superluminal speeds, missiles detonated, filling the space with bright flashes of light and raw bursts of power that made the UNSC’s vaunted NOVA bomb look like a child’s firecracker.

    Focus on target six-niner-niner, Offensive Bias ordered. Fire for effect!

    A torrent of energy weapons, slugs, and missiles targeted one of Mendicant’s dreadnaughts. The ship twisted and evaded, performing snap turns that awed the people watching the flashback. Even then, despite jamming, point defense, and evasive maneuvers, bolts and rounds tore home. The ship was bracketed, and slammed by fire. It slowly broke apart as fire was poured onto it, spilling out atmosphere and fuel as it spun out of control and drifted helplessly. More shots targeted the crippled vessel, until its hull superheated and vaporized away. By the time the Sovereign and its escorts were done, nothing remained of the twenty kilometer long warship larger than a field mess kit.

    They are scattering and reverting to real space. Pursue, but be wary in event of ambush. Offensive ordered.

    The other A.I.’s and commanders responded with affirmatives, and then the Sovereign was back in the normal plane of reality. It pursued a frigate that opened fire with every gun and missile that it had. Offensive evaded the fire and returned with his own weapons as the frigate plunged into the heart of a hyper-massive blue star.

    Kill it. Admiral Dilianus ordered, tightening a fist.

    Offensive opened fire with the Sovereign’s main energy weapon batteries. The star seemed to rumble as the superluminal pulses slammed into it and tore through. The Master Chief recognized the beginnings of a so called ‘hypernova’ as the star began to cook off and explode.

    That blast would leave everything within light years shattered and uninhabitable, even if the Arrays weren’t going beat it to the punch. A shudder twitched through John’s spine as the frigate emerged from within the star, one engine smoking from where a bolt had hit it. Offensive wasted no time in destroying the craft completely, and then sucking the debris into Slip Space.

    Status report? the Admiral asked.

    Mendicant is becoming increasingly reckless, and our ships are proving superior. Enemy fleet outnumbers us approximately 58.9 to 1 now, but we are down to thirty percent of our original power, Offensive responded. Collateral damage for the battle zone is nearing one hundred percent. Some of Mendicants ships are breaking off and heading for the inner areas of the Maginot Sphere.

    It is acceptable.
    The Admiral responded in a sober manner.

    Time passed, and Didact finally emerged over the Ark. Like a lotus blossom, it floated in space. It was a piece of carved beauty, seven times the size of Earth. Didact stood up, and activated a slip space portal. As he went to step through it, though, he stiffened and drew his rifle. The Master Chief could feel it too; something was watching the Forerunner soldier.

    I see you, little Reclaimer. A deep voice rumbled. The Master Chief recognized it instantly: Gravemind.

    Reclaimer to Sovereign, Gravemind is aware of my presence. Didact responded.

    Then hurry up, Commander, Offensive Bias responded.

    Didact complied, jetting through the portal and reappearing just outside of the temple in which the main controls were housed. The Master Chief wondered why he had not just appeared in the main room. Perhaps there was some sort of defensive measure that kept that from being possible? He wondered.

    Snow was frozen in midair as Didact stared around and rushed for the main entrance.

    Why, Reclaimer… why do you resist the inevitable? Why do you continue this destructive course of action? Gravemind asked.

    An image appeared in Didact’s mind, Diana and his children.

    You doom them through your actions. They need not perish like this.

    Didact ignored Gravemind and activated the primary doors for the temple, zipping through and then up. He didn’t even bother with the elevator.

    He moved past the holographic diagrams of the seven Halo rings, and over to the control panel at the far end of the room. Placing his rifle down next to him, he ran his hands over the system and quickly interfaced with it. It responded, moving the platform up, and bringing the system to life. In moments, it would be ready to fire.

    Gravemind, sensing its defeat, screamed in rage.

    There will be no more hate! No more envy! No more strife! No more fear! No more prejudice! No more—

    Shut! Up! Didact mentally roared, and slammed his armored fist down upon the activation key. A high pitched whine started to fill the area, along with a blinding light.

    Detailed maps sprang into being, telling him of what was going on. The system was powered, the Arrays were firing. The maps of the galaxy showed it from all angles as it highlighted where the seven rings were. Then they burst out.

    Arrays have fired. Pulse expanding along X, Y, and Z axis at approximately 9.87E12 times C. the read out stated. Real Time passed: .1 Seconds. Estimated infected/non-infected casualty count: 2.56E20 sentient life forms.

    With a mixture what seemed to be painstaking slowness, and at the same time nightmarish speed, the maps depicted the expanding shockwaves.

    Real Time passed: 25.3 seconds. Estimated infected/non-infected casualty count: 7.61E38 sentient life forms.

    Didact typed in a series of coordinates, and one of the maps zoomed in on a small sector of the galaxy, just ahead of the rushing wave. It zoomed in again, showing a solar system with a main sequence star and nine planets. John recognized Sol. Then it zoomed in on Earth, focusing on Africa, right where New Mombasa would one day be built. Didact’s hand reached out, as if to cup the Earth and shield it from the coming storm. As his fingers closed around it, the blast wave washed over the planet, and its life form count dropped to zero.

    Real Time passed: 30.6 seconds. Estimated infected/non-infected casualty count: 4.5E41 sentient life forms.

    The pulses reached the area where the Forerunner’s last stand was taking place.

    As the shockwaves washed over the battling fleets, the Flood forms were destroyed, falling dead as their host’s nervous system decayed and fell apart in accelerated fashion. From his position on the bridge of the Sovereign, Admiral Dilianius uttered one final command.

    Gentlemen… ladies… and vaunted artificial intelligences of the military… the future generations of the galaxy will thank you for this. It has been an honor to serve alongside you, and to die by your sides. Farewell, everyone. See you on the other side. He snapped to a salute as the blinding white light of the Array’s pulse crashed into the Sovereign. When the light cleared, the Admiral was on the floor, his body decaying inside of his armor. Ships plunged forward blindly, carried on by their momentum now that they had no crews to control them. Or at least, Mendicant’s did.

    Offensive Bias played his trump card. In a flash, the psionically-enhanced A.I. took control of the remains of the Forerunner fleet, including those ships that had been taken over by Mendicant. The rampant A.I. now had an enemy at every turn, even within his own ranks.

    What? Mendicant screeched. What is this?

    Offensive’s response was an icy stare. My turn, Brother.

    Now that he no longer had to worry about the crews of his ships, Offensive took off the gloves. In a flash, he began to create Slip Space portals all over the battlefield. What few planets and stars were left after the Olympian shoot out were quickly caught in the grips of gravitational fluctuations that made black holes resemble calm eddies in a creek. Other energy fields came into play, and the Master Chief saw readouts on energy types, particles, neutrino types, and other such things that Humanity had yet to discover. Correction, he thought, rediscover. The battlefield became a scene from hell, as everything in proximity to the mass spawned portals was destroyed in every way it was possible to be destroyed… and a few that were theoretically impossible.

    Offensive’s viable ships now outnumbered Mendicant’s ten to one, and the overwhelming majority of his ships were dreadnaughts. John swore he could feel the rampant A.I.’s fear now that he was cut off from the Gravemind, the great entity temporarily silenced. Offensive gave no quarter. Just as his name indicated, he battled with aggression that had been held back this whole time.

    He targeted the handful of remaining dreadnaughts that Mendicant had, and ravaged them from extreme range, while lighter vessels such as frigates and destroyers jumped in and opened up with everything they had from two light seconds off. Knife fighting range as far as these ships were concerned.

    It was all over in three minutes of real time. Every last one of Mendicant’s ships lay in ruins. Offensive destroyed them all, left nothing larger than a speck of dust before blasting the remains into the alternate dimension. There lay before him one final ship. A Keyship, kept for ramming and boarding purposes. Mendicant had retreated there, but the vessel’s FTL system had been disabled by the fighting. Offensive’s remaining fleet hovered before the craft, and for many moments, what must have been a lifetime for the A.I., it did noting.

    Commander, are you there? he asked suddenly.

    Reclaimer here… go ahead, Offensive, Didact responded.

    I am officially requesting permission to carve out the central behavior matrix of Mendicant Bias. I believe that there may yet be some of him we can save. The coldness seemed to be gone from the A.I.’s ‘voice.’ Instead, there was resignation, a sense of loss, almost. It made John raise his eyebrow.

    Why request permission of me? Didact inquired.

    Because, Reclaimer, you are the last ranking member of the military left alive. Offensive responded, as if it was the simplest answer in the world.

    Didact stumbled and fell to one knee, as if the shock of what had happened had just finally been processed by his brain.

    Do it. There’s been enough death for a hundred lifetimes today… for a thousand lifetimes. Didact said. The Master Chief could see him shuddering, but he did not break down.

    I cannot help but wonder if he would do the same for me, were our positions reversed. Offensive stated.

    The old Mendicant? Didact asked, and images flashed before his mind of the centuries that he had spent working with the other A.I. Without a moment’s hesitation.

    That is what I would like to believe, Commander. It is why I do what I do now. I want my brother back.

    The scene changed, when they were at the Ark, standing around a computer control station. Offensive’s avatar was hovering out of a holographic post, and he was remotely controlling a number of machines.

    There. Done, he said. Now all we have to do is wait, and hope for the best. There was a pause. Sir, what now?

    Gravemind is silenced, the Parasite destroyed. We have ‘won.’ But at a high cost, Offensive. Didact crossed his arms over his chest. He bowed his helmeted head and leaned back against the console. Our civilization is doomed. Too many minds were lost. Too much data corrupted or stolen away. The foundations of what we are is gone. It’s only a matter of time before we start to forget. Didact clenched a fist. But, by whatever shred of goodness is left in this miserable reality, this will not be the end!

    Sir?
    Offensive looked over at him, and his hologram raised an eyebrow.

    It will be long, and it will be difficult, Offensive, but time is something we have now. We will reseed these worlds. We will watch over the young of the races we saved. We will build them up, and one day, things shall be as they were before the Parasite invaded. His fist shook, and Didact was panting heavily.

    And I will aid you. The voice belonged to Mendicant. He appeared as he had the first time the Master Chief had seen him, except his face seemed aged, now, and his sword was gone. Only an empty scabbard remained.

    Final scans show no sign of rampancy, Offensive said. The Master Chief swore he saw a digital tear trickle down the A.I’s face. Welcome back, big brother.

    Hardly a welcome I would have wanted. The A.I. hunched over and bowed his head. He looked every bit the part of a whipped dog, as C.P.O. Mendez would have said. What destruction I have wrought. What doom did I bring upon this galaxy.

    No more destruction than I have, old friend, Didact spoke up. I am just as responsible as you are. And we will gain nothing by sitting around mopping and feeling sorry for ourselves. Too many have died this day for us to wallow in self pity.

    I agree,
    Offensive said. We should begin immediate cloning of the indexed races. Once that is done, we shall begin reseeding.

    I will take the keyship after we have finished, and I shall wait for a chance to reveal to our descendants the truth of what they are. Mendicant stated. Until that time comes, command me. Mendicant stared up, and his holographic eyes were full of purpose. I will not fail our people twice.

    Another voice seemed to echo in the Master Chief’s mind. Something he hadn’t understood until then. Mendicant’s logs in the Halo database. His promise that he wanted atonement, that he would ‘keep the path level and safe.’ The Spartan had assumed it to be an old log, erroneously copied over into the Halo’s database. But if that was the case… could it be that Mendicant had helped Guilty Spark keep the Halo intact until they could get away?

    The path around he, Orna, and Johnson had certainly been falling apart the whole way back to the Dawn, but for some reason, the one that they chose never suddenly exploded, or fell apart with a groan as the planet sized installation shook itself to pieces. Now it all made sense. Mendicant had been keeping them safe, sheltering them. Was it possible, he wondered, for the A.I. to have survived the resulting calamity, then? If he was on the Ark, remotely aiding the Halo ring, it just might be possible. He’d have to have a chat with Helm after this was over.

    “That was merely the beginning,” the Avatar stated as all went black, and the lights of the room came back on. “It was not long after that that I discovered magic, and shortly thereafter, transcended to a God. But things were far from over.” Helm gestured to a door, which opened. “Move along through there. There are some items I need to give you that will help you in the coming days. I’ll be along shortly.”

    Everyone nodded, and quietly exited. John went last, acting as rear guard. As he was passing through the door, his enhanced hearing picked up a quiet noise. He looked back over his shoulder, and saw Helm standing there. There was an image of a woman there, Diana. His gauntleted fingers once again reached out, but simply passed through the hologram. The Avatar let out another quiet sob, and fell to his knees. He drove his fist into the floor and let out a barely-muffled scream of agony.

    The Spartan retreated through the door, leaving Helm to his mourning. It seemed that even Gods could be only Human.
     
  19. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Eighteen - Strategy, Well They Just Rush

    The Master Chief stood ramrod straight as he awaited Helm’s arrival. There was a few minutes of silence among the groups, as everyone tried to realize that they’d just been told. A God had just revealed to them all that not only was he responsible for the sudden arrival of the Forward Unto Dawn and the Covenant to this strange world, but that he himself was none other than the Forerunner who had activated the Halo Arrays and purged the Milky Way of life.

    The Master Chief stared around at the room he was in. Strange devices, tomes, and melee weapons hung upon walls and were nestled away in bookshelves. Helm had mentioned that they were to receive aid. He was curious, though, as to what exactly he meant.

    The cyborg didn’t have to wait more than a few minutes to find out his answer, as Helm’s Avatar walked in through the door.

    “I apologize for the delay,” he said as he walked around to a table, “I’ll make this swift. You’ll want to mount your assaults as swiftly as possible.”

    “Assaults?” Orna said.

    “Luskan and Mithril Hall,” the Master Chief said. “If Helm is right, and the magic of this world is in upheaval due to the Gods and Goddesses being cast down, then that means we have an edge. One we need to exploit while they’re still reeling and disoriented.”

    “The Spartan is correct,” Helm said, nodding sagely. “That is what I have to offer you. Complete maps of Luskan and the Hosttower, as well as ones of Mithril Hall… among other things.” The Avatar gestured and a series of parchments turned back to face the group. A series of tomes levitated and moved over as well. “These are a series of spellbooks. I believe your computer has expressed interest in learning about magic, and learning how best to counter it.”

    Everyone nodded. Next came a weapon, a vicious looking war axe. The Master Chief noted that it was made of that ‘Adamantine’ material, judging by its molecular make up. The blade was also incredibly sharp. It floated down in front of Bruenor Battlehammer, and the Dwarven King let out a breath as he stared at the weapon. The Master Chief understood the reaction. Dwarves were craftsmen, they dedicated their whole lives to it, and it made sense that he would appreciate great craftsmanship.

    “Ragnarök. Once, long ago, one of my greatest champions wielded this blade. It has a long history of striking fear and terror into the hearts of those who skitter in the shadows. Take it with my blessing.” The Avatar said.

    Bruenor nodded, but said nothing. Carefully, he reached out and grasped the weapon around its handle, and then ran his hand up and down the leather wrapped grip. He took an experimental swing with it, and John swore he heard the axe sing as it cut through the air. With an air of reverence, the Dwarf reached down and placed it carefully into his belt.

    Helm nodded, and then continued. “Commander Keyes, there is little that I can give you that your allies will not soon provide you with. There is, however, something that I can teach you.” He turned his back to them and walked over to another book that he had set up on a small pedestal.

    “As you may have noticed during my memories and during your travels here, the human mind has a great aptitude for the arcane and the psychic, if only it is applied in the proper direction.” The Avatar picked the book up and carried it back over to them. “I regret that I cannot teach you about the more… offensive applications of the mind, that requires years of properly attuning oneself. However,” he raised a finger, “your long years on the field of battle have hardened your minds and taught you to sense what cannot be seen. This book contains techniques to further your mental defenses and prevent unfriendly entities from trying to poke around inside of them.” His finger tapped against the sallet on his head.

    “Know also, as you plan your attacks, that my other Avatar has been busy,” he turned back around and stared at them, and the Master Chief somehow knew that there was a smile on the other end of that sallet. “I have blessed and sanctified the weapons and ammunition material onboard your ship. I do not know how much comfort that can give you, but it will make the weapons a bane to all who follow the path of evil.” Helm looked down for a moment, “I will do my best to aid you further as the needs arise. I owe you that much.”

    “We will begin planning immediately.” Keyes said.

    --

    The Master Chief and Sergeant Johnson moved down one of the Dawn’s corridors and emerged into the Motor Pool. The Neo-Covenant soldiers and the natives that were with them stood around waiting. It was time for the final briefing. Commander Keyes had been conferring with Cortana, Lord Nasher, and King Bruenor about the best course of action. Thus far, it had been decided to first launch an assault upon Luskan, and nip that problem in the bud, before turning their attention towards Mithril Hall.

    The Spartan was looking forward to the battle. He had a new addition that Commander Tarkimee had brought along, curtsey of Rtas: the plans for a UNSC compatible cloaking device. From what he had been able to research on the occult here in Torril, the art of invisibility was nothing new, but the spells usually only allowed for careful movements. Anything else could disrupt the EM fields that allowed for light bending. This would be something the wizards would likely not expect.

    Cortana claimed that she had also been fiddling around with some spare parts in the Dawn’s supply caches, and had a ‘gift’ for him and Johnson.

    A series of holotanks had been set up next to the wall, and on them, the Master Chief could see a

    The Master Chief stared down at the strange weapon before him. It brought to mind images from his old history class, of a French made AR known as the FAMAS. There were some differences, however. The magazine coupling had been moved further back, the carrying/mounting rail extended and a scope mounted on top of it, and the forward portion of the barrel lined with additional mounting rails, three of which were occupied. The undersided one held a tactical foregrip, the left one a rangefinder, and the right one a secondary smart link for his HUD.

    The gun felt slightly heavy for an assault rifle, however, and he disconnected the magazine and stared down at it. He paused for a moment, as instead of the standard NATO rounds, a collection of brass and red tubes met his eyes: shotgun rounds. He was holding a scatter-gun. He stared up at Cortana, but didn’t say a word.

    “Like it?” she asked. He cocked his head to one side, and she nodded. “I call it the ASG-60. I’ve been doing research through the history archives, and I’ve had a few designs that I’ve been wanting to try out. The weapon you are carrying should prove pretty useful when charging through the Hosttower. As you noticed, its bullpup configuration, has a forty round mag, and fires three different kinds of shells.” She held up a hand with her index finger extended. “The standard wide spread, eight gauge magnum high brass of the M-90, as well as its explosive shells,” she ticked off a second finger, before turning to face a black and gold shell that was sitting on the table, “and these little babies.”

    The Master Chief picked up the shell, and looked over at Johnson who was likewise examining his own ‘ASG-60.’ It was a high brass shell, heavier than the standard. He flipped it over and stared at the underside. The standard series of numbers and letters denoting its gauge and usage met his eyes, but what confused him was one small set of letters: FCH-FRAG.

    He placed the weapon down on the table and continued to handle the shell trying to figure out what Cortana was playing at here. The A.I. giggled slightly, and disappeared. In her place, a series of fragments appeared, and the Master Chief stared at them. He recognized the rough design, or at least he thought he did. They resembled flechette rounds. The military had experimented with those a while back, but they weren’t effective for much more than breeching rounds due to being sensitive to the combat environment and the flechettes having momentum transfer problems. However, a flechette shell should have been lighter than the standard ones, not heavier. Something was up here.

    “An experiment,” Cortana’s disembodies voice said, and the diagram began to break apart and show different sections of the fragments. “The flechette rounds can best be thought of as a miniaturized APFSDS. The depleted uranium outer casing surrounds a ‘pineappled’ core. Upon contact with the target, the outer casing’s momentum transfer sheers it off, releasing the core after the fragment has already penetrated. Due to the weakened casing, the core then fragments and breaks up inside of the target.”

    The Master Chief was tempted to wince upon hearing that. A round like that would turn a target’s insides into something more commonly associated with a meat processing plant.

    “Muzzle velocity and spreading?” he asked, placing the fragments back where the Dawn’s machinery could grab them and reassemble the shell.

    “Muzzle velocity is just under nine hundred MPS, and the scattering is less than that of the standard, due to the round’s profile. It’s still capable of turning a human being into hamburger meat at a hundred a seventy meters.”

    “Love at first sight,” Johnson whispered softly, and caressed the shotgun. “Please tell me I get to use this soon.”

    “Just as soon as we’re done planning,” Keyes said, walking in with Bruenor and the other leaders. In her hand she held a portable holo-generator, upon which Lord Nasher could be seen. “Lord Nasher, is the signal going through properly? Can you see us?” she asked.

    “Perfectly, Commander,” the Lord of Neverwinter responded in his baritone voice. “Show me what your plan is.”

    “With pleasure,” Miranda stated, placing the generator on a table in front of the motor pool’s main holotank. She then brought up a holographic map of Luskan, as if it were viewed from a satellite. A series of scales and multi-colored highlights appeared. “We’ve decided to split the strike force into three separate teams, codenamed Shadow, Striker, and Barricade respectively.” Force deployment holograms became displayed, showing Shadow in a dark blue format, Striker in gold, and Barricade in red.

    “Shadow will be our infiltration team, under the command of Spartan-117, code named Sierra for this mission. Accompanying him will be Orna Fullsamee, N’tho, Usze, and a additional six man combat team composed of Commander Tarkimee’s best troops. Assisting as a scout and arcane seeker will be agent Neeshka,” Keyes said, and with a nod, Cortana zoomed the map in on the Hosttower, flipping the map around and dissecting the various areas of it, taken from the maps that Helm had provided.

    “Shadow is to infiltrate and assault the Hosttower, our primary objective, via the roof and work their way down. Ladies and gentlemen, your goal is simple here: the so called Time of Troubles has left our enemies without the ability to call on their arcane skills. We’re going to kick them between the legs as hard as we can before they get those skills back.” Keyes smiled viciously. “Point blank: if it moves, kill it. Top priority goes to arcmagi, who should be identifiable by their robes.” The display cleared to show a series of brightly colored robes: one purple, one blue, one brown, one red. “Those who surrender are to be subdued and brought in for questioning by Lord Nasher’s many stared cloaks.”

    “A question, commander,” Lord Nasher spoke up. “How exactly are you to ‘ingress’ through the top of the tower? The Hosttower has no entrances at that level, save for teleporting, and with the Weave in the state that it’s in right now…” he trailed off with a frown.

    “Simple, Lord Nasher, we make our own entrance.” Keyes snapped her fingers, and machinery groaned to life. The far end of the motor pool lit up, revealing mechanical arms and powerful magnets at work. What was coming out of it bore a vague resemblance to a Scorpion MBT, but sported a larger turret, heavier treads and armor plating, more machine guns, and a cannon barrel with a bore that was half again as wide as the M-808.

    Orna and the other Elites shuddered where they stood. It was a Rhino, a newly developed heavy assault tank that the Humans had deployed on Earth in a last ditch defense effort. The newly christened Ascetic had never seen one of them in action, but he had read reports. Those things could core a Wraith, Phantom, and supposedly even go toe to toe with Scarabs. Why hadn’t Keyes deployed that on the Ark? Had she been afraid of losing it? It was certainly a possibility, given that the tank would represent a high value target and the Brutes might have been willing to use orbital bombardment to remove it from the picture.

    “Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to have the pleasure of introducing the HA-227 ‘Rhino’ heavy assault tank.” Keyes said as the tank was placed upon the ground. Then she turned to Johnson. “Sergeant, you’ve always had a way with words when it comes to this sort of thing, take it away.”

    “Lords, ladies, aliens, and miscellaneous other entities, allow me to present the final word in ground combat.” Johnson said, taking out his final cigar and chewing on it. “This here is eighty one tons of death dealing, man-at-arms squashing, divine intervention. Its four separate suspension tread mounts make it capable of sustained seventy five kilometer per hour speeds over rough terrain, and the Rhino sports the latest in UNSC reactive armor, electromagnetic armor, point defense interception, smoke, chaff, and thermal flare grenades, ECM warfare, and computer targeting. The Mark-Two-Six Gregori miniaturized reactor core powers the computer systems, allows for A.I. remote interface, and helps to aim, power, and stabilize the MAC gun on the business end of it.” On cue, Cortana took control of the tank and swiveled the barrel about, though she did not point it anywhere near the group. “This baby’s dial-a-yield magnetic accelerator field can throw a thirty-five kilo DU slug at nearly forty six KPS, and is backed by a money back guarantee to absolutely ruin the day of the poor, sorry bastard in the crosshairs. In short, we at the UNSC are proud to demonstrate our continuing commitment to excellence in fields of ground combat, kicking ass, and taking names.”

    A faint gulp was heard from several Elites, and the Sergeant Major smiled before stepping back.

    “Striker team is to move in from the north of the city, and fight their way to the harbor. Once there, you are to secure the warships.” Miranda paused and glanced around at everyone present. “Remember, we want a minimum of collateral damage here. Neverwinter and the other members of the Lord’s Alliance are hurting for capable warships after their last few wars with Luskan. We need at least seventy five percent of these boats intact. We do not need half vaporized wreaks. Commander Tarkimee is to lead this assault team, along with half the remaining Sangehili, Sergeant Johnson, and sixty Unggoy support troops.”

    “Finally, Barricade will be lead by Sub-commander Zaris Mulasee,” Keyes nodded towards a red armored Sangehili major. “This will be the largest task force, and your role will be to make a line for the center of the city and tie up the Luskan military. You are to engage and destroy every barracks you see, but attempt to preserve infrastructure where it is possible. Assisting in this matter will be the remaining Sangehili, the majority of the Unggoy under the command of sub-commander Gazap,” he nodded towards the white armored Grunt, “and heavy fire support is Denos and Lotar.” The two Hunters rumbled softly. “Vehicular assets will consist of transport and anti-infantry warthogs, the Rhino, Specters, Shadows, and Cortana will be flying top support in addition to operating the Rhino itself. We move out in fifteen minutes, so gear up. Estimated travel time is four hours, and our assault is scheduled to begin at two thirty hours.” Keyes said.

    “Move out!” Tarkimee barked, and then began issuing further orders. As always, the place descended into organized chaos as weapons were readied, grenade bandoliers slapped on, medpacks and biofoam carefully packed and stored.

    There was a tenseness in the air. They were going on the offensive again, and this would be no mere raid against a glorified raiding party. This would be a full scale attack upon a massive military target. Enemy force projections put the Luskan military at no less than sixteen thousand. The Master Chief and the others had read up on the history of the place, from the information that Neeshka had provided and the annals of Lord Nasher’s history scrolls. Luskan soldiers were power hungry, ambitious, and lacked the focusing loyalty and dedication to their jobs that UNSC Marines or even the Trebuchet rebels. However, when backed into a corner and fighting for their lives, only a fool considered a foe harmless, no matter how cowardly or ill equipped.

    He’d seen enough Grunts turn themselves into living bombs to know that better than most.

    The loaded up the ASG-60, grabbing two magazines of standard widespread, one of flechette rounds, and one of explosive. These were supplemented by a BR-55 with two magazines of AP and shredder rounds, and underslung GDS, and an M6D with three clips. Four fragmentary and plasma grenades went over his right shoulder. His last act of preparation was to slip a few canisters of biofoam into his supply belt, and then he was ready.

    He looked over to Sergeant Johnson, who was still smiling. The Helljumper was as eager for battle as he was. Both were soldiers, and the ennui of peace was getting to them. It was time to earn their keep.

    Orna slid his plasma sword handles into their holsters, and made certain that he had plenty of spare power cells for his plasma rifles, before looking over at Usze and N’tho. The two Rangers had their mandibles spread wide in a grin as they put on their helmets and tested their jetpacks. The other Sangehili, now prepared, began to sing and chant. Lines from their family battle poems filled the air with haunting lyrics as each boasted of the deeds of their forefathers, and their own deeds that would be woven in when their time came to leave this mortal coil.

    The Lek’golo joined in a moment later, their deep, unearthly voices vibrating the floor and reverberating off the walls. Then, surprisingly, came the Unggoy. Their higher pitched voices added conflict and a strange harmony as they prepped pistols, rifles, and plasma cannons.

    --

    At two hundred hours, the combined Neo-Covenant and UNSC forces stood ready and waiting. The city had been effectively flanked, with the Rhino stationed along the eastern hills, approximately seventeen kilometers outside the walls of the city with two warthogs as support escorts. From this angle, Cortana and the others had not only a perfect view of the Hosttower, but also of two primary military barracks. The hundred and twenty millimeter MAC was locked onto the top of the structure, ready to fire a kinetic kill slug and rip it open. Striker and Barricade teams would rush in about ten seconds after the first shot had been fired, overwhelming the hopefully confused night watch guards and then methodically making their way towards their objectives.

    Night and thermal vision would given them an almost overwhelming advantage in the near pitch blackness of the night. Fate, or perhaps a slightly more direct entity, had blessed them. The sky was thick with a brewing winter storm, which hid the light of the stars and the moon. The colder weather would also be affecting the guards more, but their foes would either be immune to it due to their sealed armor, or in the case of the Unggoy, by this being their natural environment.

    Now all there was to do was to wait.

    The tension before the battle was always the worst, the Master Chief thought. Once it began, once the adrenaline kicked in, things were always moving too fast to be worried, or to at least dwell on fear.

    Slowly the seconds ticked by. Dry lips were licked, and liquids swallowed to avoid dehydration during the battle.

    As one, all of the digital readouts, clocks, and chronometers snapped to two thirty.

    “Initiate!” Keyes ordered.

    Even as the words were leaving her mouth, Cortana had already sent the signals to the appropriate pieces of machinery, and the Rhino fired. A white hot slug of Depleted Uranium streaked across the landscape. It took it under half a second to reach the Hosttower. The round slammed into the side and penetrated clean through. Momentum transferred throughout the structure, and enchanted metal, stone, and wood shrieked as if in agony, before warping, splintering, and shattering.

    Video feedback was broadcasted via holo tanks to where Lord Nasher and the other natives were watching, hundreds of kilometers away from the battle. Their eyes widened in shock and awe as they watched the might Hosttower of the Arcane Brotherhood utterly torn asunder, to fall and break apart upon the ground, some seven hundred feet below. The full upper third of the tower had been removed by the strike. Never before had they witnessed such devastation.

    The Master Chief, on the other hand, was rather impressed. For dealing with a technology level that they were at, that building held together incredibly well. Two seconds later, he found out that such construction methods, whatever they were, seemed to be limited to the tower itself. Cortana had lined up the first barracks and fired. The sonic overpressure of the round and its resulting impact utterly destroyed the barracks and kicked a cloud of dust, rocks, soil, and other material up into the sky. Moments later, the second one suffered a similar fate.

    The two Pelicans streaked down towards the city, their thrusters shoving them through the air at incredible speeds.

    “Striker going hot!” he heard Johnson shout. Over the command channel, the Master Chief heard the sounds of particle rifle fire as the Sangehili marksmen took out the night guards at the northern gate. He opened up a channel for video feedback, and watched via his HUD as the rose up and stormed forward. A fuel rod gun was fired, and the gate was reduced to vaporized wood and slagged steel puddles when it impacted. Luskan was open and ripe for the taking.

    Barricade moved in after them holding their fire until they attracted the attention of a juicy target.

    The Master Chief refocused as they came upon the Tower. The Pelican quickly spun around and hovered fifteen feet above the shattered remnants of the highest floor. Scans indicated it was secure, and would hold even his massive weight. He made a final check to the ASG-60, currently loaded with standard magnum ammo, and activated his cloaking system. As he faded into a blur he reached out and grabbed Neeshka. The Tiefling gave a word of sharp protest, but they were already airborne. He slammed into the floor, crunching tiles underneath his feet and setting the Tiefling down.

    Nothing was alive up here. Splattered remains of what had once been people could bee seen dripping down off of the walls along with tattered fragments of what had once been cloaks and robes.

    “Feel anything?” he asked Neeshka, staring back at here as cloaked Elites began landing all around them.

    “A faint bit of magic’s down below us, probably nothing major. I warn you though, I could be wrong about this due to everything going haywire.” She said as she nervously twirled her blades.

    “We’ll just have to trust you, then,” Orna said, his voice calm and warm. “Seirra, orders?”

    “I’m on point, fall in behind, and protect our guide. Monitor fields of fire and make use of suppressive devices when able.” John said over their private comm line. Then he moved towards the stairs. He wasn’t overly swift, but there was no sense trying to be too stealthy.

    They’d already knocked on the door, so to speak.

    He descended down the stairs, and in front of him was a very disoriented pair of magi, both of them holding their heads. Judging from the blood oozing out of their ears they were likely incapable of hearing anything. He wasn’t surprised. Rhinos were loud beasts. They didn’t look overly important either. The relatively plain robes indicated that they were just out of their apprenticeship. The ASG-60 was set to single shot, and as close as they were, one was all it would take. They never even saw the invisible soldier as he leveled the shotgun and pulled the trigger.

    The weapon kicked against the Master Chief’s shoulder, and a spray of uranium pellets left the gun doing mach three. A moment later, the Spartan’s boot descended upon the shredded bowels and organs of the two and continued to sweep the hallways. His motion sensor was going crazy, and he supposed one relief of having to enter this way was that he knew that there was nothing above him.

    The Spartan moved down the steps with a stealth and grace that belied his weight. He moved at a crouch, his shotgun held out in front of him. He snapped the weapon about, checking lightly hiding spots. This weapon was somewhat loud. If anyone down here had retained the ability to hear what was going on, they’d know the jig was up. Fortunately, the same case met him here that had upon what was now the roof.

    There were easily twenty magi here, bleeding from their ears, noses, and eye sockets. Some stumbled about, others remained on the ground unmoving. Biometeric sensors indicated that five of the bodies were dead, but there were three who were alive.

    “Shadow team two, move up on my flank, prepare to secure the unconscious ones,” He said. The Sangehili winked acknowledgement lights, and the Spartan’s sensitive hearing could detect the sounds of their booted feet on the stair case.

    The Master Chief moved forward, checking for hidden passages or tunnels or some other means of evacuating this area. He found none. Satisfied that the survivors had nowhere to run, he sighted up a pair that were trying to help each other limp to one of the lower levels. The shotgun blast ripped them both to pieces. Some of the wizards were apparently not quite stone deaf, and the loud booming of the shotgun got their attention.

    Their eyes darted about wildly as they tried to find out where the attack had came from. One saw a blur move in the darkness, and attempted to call out of his brethren. He had a split second sensation of fiery pain before everything went black.

    The Master Chief moved forward, firing methodically as the Sangehili entered the fray. When it was over, twenty five lay dead. No mercy was showed, no quarter given.


    As they worked their way down, Sergeant Johnson and Striker team moved into the city. There were a few patrol patterns that they had spotted, and they timed their movement to intercept as many of them as were possible. This would induce fear and terror into the ranks of those who were meant to try and retake the docks, seeing all the bodies lying about, and make them move cautiously. That would in turn set up the first phase of their defense.

    The Sergeant Major raised his ASG slightly as a troop formation emerged from the backstreets to find out what all the commotion was. He fired off three shots, and a number of soldiers fell as their chain mail and leather armor was shredded by the high speed pellets. Tarkimee was right by his side, leveling a plasma gun and sending out short controlled bursts. The Sangehili’s incredible strength enabled him to keep the weapon from bucking too much in his hand as supersonic plasma tore into the Luskan ranks. Within seconds, the twenty man patrol was nothing but cooling bodies and parts.

    “Press forward!” Tarkimee ordered. “Alpha team, branch over to the next street, Gamma, head southwest, bearing two-four-zero, UAV is detecting massing enemy forces there. Use of heavy weapons authorized!”

    Various HUD feedbacks from multiple orbiting UNSC UAVs began to broadcast there data and information towards the attacking teams. Barricade was moving forward, with Lotar and Denos methodically firing their assault cannons at anything remotely resembling a military patrol. Screams were echoing throughout the night, and Sergeant Johnson knew that if anyone was still asleep after this, they were about to get a rude awakening.

    Movement in a second story window caught the sergeant’s eye. Thermal graphics indicated to him that it was human, but it was a hundred meters off, and it couldn’t identify if it was military or civilian, he raised his ASG, holding fire until he could zoom his smart-link scope in and get a better look. As it hit 10X, he was able to make out a much cooler object orienting itself, a crossbow. He didn’t hesitate another moment. The shotgun roared and the target disintegrated before the onslaught, becoming little more than a hot smear upon the back of the wall.

    More bodies spilled out of the lower stories. They didn’t appear to be Luskan military, but there was no denying that they were armed as they charged towards the group. The Sergeant Major and his Neo-Covenant allies performed the standard operation procedure of such a situation: shoot first, ask questions second.

    Johnson refocused on the waypoint indicator on his HUD.

    “Harbor, three hundred and twenty meters.” He stated and looked up at the ammo counter for his weapon. Twenty five shells left in this magazine. Still plenty to go around.

    “UAV Epsilion detects incoming Luskan platoon. Distance of sixty meters. Bearing Southeast, one-six-eight. ETA is eight seconds,” Cortana said.

    The offending platoon charged out only to be met with hellacious counter fire. They were down in seconds.

    “Shadow team reports five secured prisoners,” Keyes said from her position onboard the second Pelican. “Sierra-117 reports one confirmed arcmagi kill.”

    “Status on Barricade?” Tarkimee asked.

    “Moving forward, they are approaching the heart of the city,” the Commander responded.

    Johnson saw a map of Luskan appear in the upper right corner of his ODST armor. It zoomed in and highlighted a large central market area. The Sergeant Major understood. Wide open forum area, large enough to part their specter assault vehicles and give them a good field of fire, while the low overhangs would let Sangehili troopers get up onto the second stories and provide high ground covering fire. The grunts would support the two Hunters as they blew any Luskan soldier dumb enough to come at them straight to hell.

    Further, the river that ran through town would be to their back, this meant that any flanking attempts would have to come down the bridges. Sergeant Johnson suspected that the Luskan troops would know about narrow causeways and how they favored the superior combatant, but they would know nothing of the horrors that a killzone of that nature presented to troops armed with high powered, automatic energy weaponry.

    He almost felt sorry for the poor sods.

    Almost.

    --

    One hundred and fifty meters until they emerged into the harbor. The guard patrols were relatively thin. After all, it was five hours till dawn this far north, and the outside temperature was close to negative thirty degree Celsius. Who in their right mind would want to cause trouble now? Once there, it was simply a matter of holding the fort until Shadow could finish its job and Barricade could mop the floor with enough Luskan blood to force them to surrender.

    Cortana gave warning of three platoons of troops that had formed up just to the right of the main harbor entrance. Tarkimee held his forces back for a few seconds, and ordered his spec-ops commando squad forward. Grunts and Elites alike faded into blurs and moved through the darkness of the alleyways. They showed up brighter on Johnson’s thermal gear, but he knew that his opponents were not blessed with such equipment.

    Second later, chaos opened among the Luskan ranks as twelve different plasma weapons opened up on the platoons, raking them with white hot plasma fire.

    “Move!” Tarkimee ordered.

    The commandos had flanked the troops prior to assault them, and now the platoons were scrambling back across the main entrance. Hammer descended upon anvil, and the trap closed. Johnson leveled his ASG and fired into a group of men-at-arms. Arms were shredded and torsos reduced to bloody ruins as the high powered buckshot did its job. He fired two more and five men fell. Others were hit by fire from plasma rifles and needlers. A man’s head was vaporized by one shot, while another shot seven times by a needler going full auto. The crystals resonated with one another, and a pink-purple explosion reduced the man to flying shards of crystal, steel, and meat. Two of his comrades that were standing too close to him were shredded by the ensuing shrapnel.

    A trio of well placed plasma grenades finished the job. What few soldiers remained were in no condition to fight.

    “Commander Keyes,” Tarkimee said as he walked into the harbor, searching around for more targets. “What is the course of action in regards to prisoners of the rank and file?”

    “They’re a snag we don’t need,” she responded. “Get what you can from them and eliminate them.”

    The Sangehili commander nodded and walked up to what appeared to be a sergeant of types, judging by his heavier armor. With a single hand the Elite reached down and ripped the man up. He growled softly. The intel they had received from the Ascetic indicated that the local population thought them a subspecies of otherworldly demon. No sense in not using such a vast psychological advantage.

    “Tell me what you know about the defenses of this place.” He pulled the man in close to where his nose was practically touching the Elite’s helmet. “In the event of enemy assault, what are your counter attack plans?”

    “Oh gods….” The captive man breathed. He brought his hands up to his neck and grappled with the fist that held him, but his strength was no match for the alien that held him.

    “What are you counter attack plans?” Tarkimee virtually roared, drawing a plasma blade and activating it. He pressed the blade to where the end of it was just against the human’s throat. The leather gorget that surrounded it began to smoke and hiss and the man cried out.

    “Captain Taerl is to take command of his battalion and rush the port in the event of its falling into enemy hands.” The captive gulped. Tarkimee moved the blade slightly away from his throat, just enough for the human to feel more comfortable. “What of your tactics? How does he intend to do this?”

    “Troops are to be brought in through both harbor entrances, while archers take the roofs and the Arcane Brotherhood provides support.”

    The Sangehili commander nodded. Sound combat doctrine, if hampered by the lack of magical capabilities, and the fact that the arcane brother hood had problems of their own. Still, they had means of dealing with such an assault.

    “The Neo-Covenant thanks you for your services.” Tarkimee growled, and then impaled the man on the blade.

    The blade’s temperature was hot enough that any nerves surrounding the area of the blade’s entry would die instantly, death would be as painless as they came. Plasma fire echoed throughout the harbor as the rest of the troops dispatched the wounded and the dying Humans.

    Tarkimee frowned as he stared about. It was unsettling. He had just been informed, not twenty four hours prior, that the Humans that he had so gleefully did battle against the Forerunners that he had so fervently worshipped were one in the same, and here he was, killing them again. How much things changed, how much they stayed the same.

    “Not easy, I know,” he heard Johnson say, and he turned to look at the Helljumper. “You just got to remind yourself, in times like this, that these ones are looking to make an easy time and a quick profit at the expense of their fellow men. To them, life is cheap.” The Human sighed. “Remind yourself, big guy, that for every one of these soldiers that you kill, you’re saving more lives than your taking.”

    The Elite cocked his head to one side. There was a logic to what the helljumper was saying.

    “I see.” He said.

    “Good. Now lets roll out the welcome mat.” Johnson growled.

    Tarkimee began to bark orders to his troops. Heavy plasma cannons were set up, squad level automatic weapons double checked, and a pair of UNSC eighty one millimeter mortars taken from the Elites that were carrying them and readied. They synched up with two of the hovering UAVs and prepared to unleash hell at the first sign of enemy counter assaults.

    --

    High Captain Jonas Baram swore and cursed as he tried to get his men to move forward. He had been afraid of something like this. He was one of the few who had been entrusted with the knowledge that the arcane brotherhood was virtually powerless at the moment. An assault upon the Hosttower was not unexpected, but the vector of it was. He had expected Neverwinter, Waterdeep, or one of the other members of the Lord’s Alliance. Perhaps even a assault from King Bruenor of Clan Battlehammer. The Dwarves were certainly audacious enough, and had had some bad dealings with Luskan in the past, despite their tentative trade alliances.

    But demons? No, nothing in his battle plans had accounted for that.

    The Hosttower’s top had been ripped off, High Captains Kulth and Sulijack were already dead and the whole barrack complexes where they had been sleeping were in ruins. The sole consolation that he could take was that there didn’t appear to be that many demons in the attacking force.

    “Move those ballistae up now! Move it, you sons of sea-whores!” he roared, spittle flying into his dark brown beard.

    His men hastened to obey, moving the ballistae up towards one of the bridges. The enemy had foolishly chosen not to station their forces upon it, and the High Cpatian intended to get as many of his men across them as he could before attempting a counter assault.

    “We have a target, firing!” one of the men manning the massive weapon shouted.

    An arrow barrage joined the two enormous bolts as Baram got a good look at the intended target. He was tempted to whistle. In his dealings with the Arcane Brotherhood, he had seen many a demon and a devil, but never had he seen something like this before. Easily ten feet tall, almost invisible against the darkness with its black armor, the monstrosity was a terror to behold.

    The bolts sailed in, and then time seemed to slow for the High Captain. The creature shifted a shield larger than an ogre and blocked the first bolt, before lashing out with its other arm to his disbelief, actually parried the second bolt. The arrows rained down on it moments later, but they were bounced off of the armor. The creature gave out a reverberating roar that shook buildings and sent prickles of fear up his spine. It leveled its free arm, and Baram squinted as a harsh green light filled his vision. There was a pulse, a second roar, and the horrid sound of screams cut short, the stench of roasted Human flesh, and bubbling rock.

    The High Captain was aware that the concussion of whatever had just happened had knocked him to the dirt. Blearily, blinking his eyes to try and readjust them to the darkness, he stared out ahead. His jaw opened in abject horror at the scene before him. Along the central bridge had been the better part of three hundred men, plus the ballistae. They were gone, now. Nothing left but ash and tiny bits of blackened skeletons. The bridge’s flagstones burned white hot and pooled around like the water that they were built above. For dozens of yards all around, men screamed and flailed as anything upon them that had been remotely flammable burned. They writhed in agony, doomed by the very equipment they had been counting upon to save their lives. Others threw themselves into the churning waters in a desperate bid to extingquish the flames that ate away at them. Their deaths would be no less gruesome. At this time of day, the water would be fifty degrees below zero. It would paralyze them instantly, and with the weight of their armor and their wounds, would sink like anvils to the bottom.

    The creature roared again, and a bright green light flickered at the end of its arm. Baram noticed its direction, and opened his mouth to scream. It never made it out of his lungs. The light flashed over him, and in that instant, High Captain Jonas Baram was no more.

    All throughout Luskan the scene kept repeating itself. Over and over again. Men and women died as they assaulted the Neo-Covenant forces, while the Master Chief and his allies methodically and mercilessly worked their way down through the Hosttower.
     
  20. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Nineteen - Demonic Onslaught

    The Master Chief leaned back out of the way as a bolt of energy zipped past him. He leaned around the stone corner and leveled his ASG-60. A shockwave ripped through the room as the super sonic uranium flew out of the gun and reduced the mage in question to bloody fragments.

    “Command, be advised, certain arcane artifacts still appear to be capable of operation, despite Weave disruption,” he shouted into a private commline, before looking back down at his motion sensor.

    There was nothing moving on it, but that didn’t mean nothing was there. He motioned behind him for the cloaked elites and Neeshka to hold their positions. Double checking his own optical stealth systems, he fished a fiber optic camera around the corner. There didn’t appear to be anything there, and after a few second he withdrew it and stored it carefully away in one of his pouches. He double checked his second magazine’s load. Twenty six shots left in this one. Enough to keep it in place for now.

    “Sierra moving forward. Be prepared to provide support,” He whispered to the rest of the team. Acknowledgment lights winked in response. It brought back memories.

    The Spartan-II refocused on the task at hand, and brought up his weapon again. He moved around the corner, ready to unleash a hail of fire on anyone who dared to stick their heads out. Nothing moved.

    Approximately fifteen minutes had passed since the start of the operation, and they were about halfway down through the tower. They had taken seven prisoners, and two archmagi were dead. That left three to go.

    He descended down another flight of stairs and emerged into another level. Panicked troops and magi were hiding behind overturned desks and tables, crossbows and what appeared to be wands leveled at the various entrances. They didn’t see the faint distortion that he left though. The only warning that they received was when an HP-9 frag grenade landed in among them. They spent a split-second staring at the small, spherical device, before it exploded. Dozens were killed instantly, and then the Master Chief went dynamic. His scatter gun kicked against his shoulder and two men dropped as their chests became forcibly separated from their waists. The next targets of opportunity were three mages hiding behind a thick oak wood desk. It might have protected them from arrows, bolts, or some spells, but to the weaponry of the UNSC, it might as well have been papier-mâché for all the good it would do them.

    From the slow motion of Spartan Time, the Master Chief watched with cold eyes as they were spread over the nearest surface areas. He was a blur as he moved, gunning down four Luskan soldiers as they wildly fired their crossbows, some of them crying out in fear. The cyborg shifted over behind a stone wall, and opted to employ some psychological warfare. He decloaked, and pivoted around, little more than a green blur before his ASG vaporized a trooper from the waist up. The next shell was chambered, and he stuck his head out again. Two crossbow bolts came flying in at him. They moved as if through mud, and the Master Chief let the first one bounce off his shields, before grabbing the second one out of the air and crushing it to kindling in his grip.

    Then his weapon resounded again. Another man fell.

    “Shadow team, fire for effect, now!” he barked. A torrent of plasma fire answered his command, and the few frightened survivors were quickly dispatched.

    The Elites moved in, Neeshka right behind them. A quick sweep was done to search for survivors. None were found, and they moved into the next area of the tower.

    --

    Johnson almost smirked as the UAVs sent them visual data from up above the city. The Luskans were already organizing their counter-attack. Most were vainly trying to throw back Barricade, but the Hunters and vehicles were making it suicidal at best. The rest were headed their way. The Sergeant Major watched the two mortars carefully. At Cortana’s go ahead, right when the native troops got full force out into the open, they would get an eighty one millimeter surprise.

    A few platoons entered the main road towards the harbor, and the word came. Johnson allowed himself to smile, and dropped the explosive down the tube. The electromagnetic coils of the weapon flared to life, and shot the device out. Intersynced with the targeting computers of the UAVs, the devices were accurate down to fractions of a centimeter. Four hundred meters away, Johnson heard a loud boom, followed by a red rain and interspaced chunks that had once been human body parts. Everyone within seventy meters of the impact sight was in pieces or lying in pools of their own organs and internal fluids.

    The second one came down, and gave off a deafening roar. Even that couldn’t drown out the scores of screams of those who were mortally wounded, or the hundreds more who were forced forward, their fear of their commanding officers and the mages behind them battling against their fear of whatever Abyss spawned weapon had just been unleashed upon them.

    The Sergeant Major knew the truth, though. There was no running from this weapon. The mortar could spit a round almost eight kilometers. There was no place in this city that was safe from them. The next set of mortars rained down, and exploded outwards. More and more troops were coming out now, some curious, some fearful and trying to break from the rear. Those more fearful of their commanders pushed forward, and the result was one big mess for the Luskans… and one giant target of opportunity for the Sergeant Major and his allies. The mortars came down like a hellish rain, never stopping for a second. Block by block, street by street, the ranks of the Luskan soldiers were obliterated as the explosives fell upon their heads.

    “Flee, undisciplined cowards!” he heard Tarkimee roar. The Elite shook his fist in the air, and Johnson nodded.

    “Striker, Barricade here,” he heard another Sangehili call out over the comm, “Hostile enemy forces have gathered at bearing six eight seven by three oh nine, They have taken cover behind an open air market place and a number of other buildings, and are out of our line of sight. If possible, would request some cleansing fire.”

    “We’ve got thing under enough control here,” Tarkimee said. “Sergeant Major, would you have your construct redirect the second mortar?”

    “Already on it,” Cortana said. The UAV in control of the second one moved over towards where Barricade was, and within moments, an eighty one millimeter round had impacted there.

    “Shadow team here, moving down towards ground floor of Hosttower,” the voice of Sierra-117 could be heard.

    “Roger that Sierra, monitoring your progress,” the A.I. replied.

    --


    The Master Chief held up a hand to signal for the other members of the strike team to wait for him. Activating his camo again, he slunk forward. He could hear voices up head, frantic and filled with fear. Crouching down, the Spartan moved with the stealth of a ghost. He reached a corner, and fed his endoscope around it once again. What lay before him was a large antechamber, with a number of mages and armored soldiers in it. One man, clad in purple, seemed to be arguing with a mirror. Zoomming in, the Master Chief found that, to his surprise, there was a face in the mirror.

    It was a Drow, a female one at that. Her face was a study in age, which surprised the Spartan. Drizzt had said that his sister had been the better part of three hundred, and yet she’d looked to be in the prime of her life, about the twenty to sixty range by UNSC standards. How ancient must this crone have been?

    “You have failed us, Andarius…” she hissed in the common tongue of this world. “Lolth does not look kindly upon failures. I shall not waste what precious little power my people have at the moment to save your incompetent skin.”

    “But your eminence,” the purple robed man pleaded. “The fault is not ours. We are beset by an army of creatures not of this world. Our men are powerless to stop them, and all who have tried have perished at their hands.”

    “Spare me your pathetic excuses, you miserable Human,” she barked, waving a hand. “If you are incapable of dealing with this small attack, then you are clearly nothing but a weak link in the chain, one that might as well be destroyed now before it can cause any more damage.”

    The Master Chief had heard enough. He reached up and grabbed a frag grenade. He pulled the pin, and hurled it with all of his might. The small object smacked into the mage’s back. He gave a cry of pain and then looked down at what had hit him. The Spartan felt his enhanced reflexes kick in as he reentered combat. He saw a black robed figure off to one side dive behind a metal topped tabled and kick it over. The Drow female’s eyes widened slightly, and then the grenade detonated. John saw the concussion wave and the shrapnel fly outwards from the grenade, shredding the Archmage where he stood and killing anyone within fifteen meters who wasn’t clad in heavy armor or behind something. Even those that survived sported horrific wounds to the face, arms, and their torsos.

    The Spartan charged, leveling his ASG-60 and sending a burst of shotgun fire into the room. Men and women disintegrated before the onslaught, splashing blood and body parts everywhere. The Spartan took aim at the mirror, now badly damaged, and fired twice at it. The near hypersonic pellets from the shotgun ripped it apart, destroying whatever connection there had been with the Drow. No sense giving her a front row demonstration of what her foes could do.

    The Master Chief cut down two more men, before he noticed a red robed individual, another Archmage, frantically opening an ornate box. Within it was a strange censor, and a dozen balls of light emerged from it.

    “Fool!” he heard a female scream, the black robed one. The voice was hauntingly familiar.

    The balls of light touched the floor, and with a burst of flames, twelve towering monstrosities were in the room. Each one was the better part of five meters tall, and looked as if it weighed nearly two metric tons. Muscles coiled, tensed, and pulsed under thick white and gray fur, and hellfire red eyes stared down out of a lupine face. Four massive arms, two ending in hands, two in massive, crab-like claws, twitched. They howled in bloodlust, and charged. The Luskan soldiers were the first ones to die, including what appeared to be a high captain. Then they went to work on the mages, picking them up and tearing them asunder. One of them turned and stared at the entrance, pointed and snarled. The Spartan understood. These creatures could see infrared. His camo was useless against them.

    The Master Chief acted. They would destroy him and his allies, or at least, attempt to, whenever they were done with the group in there. Might as well take the initiative. He called for Shadow team to move in, leveled his automatic shotgun, and fired three rounds at the nearest one. The pellets tore deep into the creature’s chest and sides, but it kept coming, ignoring the bloody rivers that appeared on its fur. It reached out wide with its arms, and tried to smash the Spartan to powder beneath its fury. The Master Chief dove between its legs, twisting around and firing another round into its hamstring. The beast howled in fury, and twisted with alarming speed to once again try and crush him, but John was back up on his feet in an instant.

    The other claw arm came sweeping in, with the demons normal one below it. John jumped up and twisted sideways, spinning around and flipping through the gap. Another round boomed out of his shotgun and went into one of its armpits; he could hear the pellets pinging off the monstrosity’s ribcage. Again, it seemed to shrug off the wound, and John was tempted to raise an eyebrow. This brute had durability that would have the Brutes themselves envious.

    The demon spread all four arms out wide in an attempt to envelop the cyborg in a bear hug, but its foe was far too quick for such a clumsy maneuver. The Master Chief leaped upwards, leveling his ASG-60 with the demon’s face. A burst of fire raked across its visage, blasting open its skull and showing the Spartan its brain. The shot also tore out its eyes and sent it howling backwards as it pawed at its now blind face. Before he had hit the ground, the Spartan fired off one last shot that tore into the exposed gray matter and dropped the monster.

    Its body faded into nothingness as the Spartan tried to reach around and grab another mag for the shotgun.

    “Control, Sierra-117 here, requesting four-one-one from natives in regards to new hostiles.” He shouted as Orna and his comrades came in, plasma rifles blazing. The creatures roared and turned to face this new threat, ignoring the terrified Luskans for the moment.

    “Control here,” Cortana’s voice echoed in his speakers, “Lord Nasher says they’re something called Glabrezu, a high level demon. They’re strong, tough, and have a fondness for snapping people in half with their claws.”

    “Roger,” the Chief choked out. One of them lunged at him, too quickly for him to reload his ASG. He unslung his battle rifle, and fired a three round burst into the creature’s chest.

    The Glabrezu grunted and slowed before the barrage, a series of fist sized holes torn in its chest. It leaped again, and while more bursts tore into its chest, sending bits of muscle and lung tissue flying through the air. The Master Chief noticed that there was another one heading in from the side, and growled. The Ascetic and his comrades had their hands full dealing with the other nine. He would have to take these ones on this own. The first one swung both of its right arms at him, and he was forced to block the move. Lightning fast, he swatted the claw aside, and grabbed the ‘normal’ hand, before twisting it backwards in a manner that it was never meant to move. The sound of shattering bones was audible, followed by a lupine howl of agony. Distracted as it was, it could not prevent the Spartan from turning to deal with its comrade. The Spartan twisted, and raised his BR-55 with a single hand.

    There was almost no time to react. In a blur of motion, John flicked his thumb across the power dial for the GDS attached to the weapon, and fired it. At this range, the fifty millimeter grenade wouldn’t arm its explosive payload, but that wasn’t what he was hoping for. The battle rifle bucked, and shot the grenade out at hypersonic velocity… right into the Glabrezu’s open mouth. An audible crack was heard, and the monster was launched backwards by the impact.

    The Master Chief turned back to his original foe, reached down to his back, and drew his combat knife. The mono-edged blade tore two lines of red as he buried the weapon into the beast’s gut and slashed across it. The wolf like demon tried to retaliate, but all it got for its trouble was its other hand sliced off. Howling in fury and agony, its glowing red eyes glared down at this pint sized mortal that had dared to wound it so.

    It promptly received a burst of ten millimeter uranium slugs to the face. The multi ton demon crashed to the floor in a bloody heap, before fading away. The Chief turned to face the other one, which was attempting to get back up, coughing up large amounts of blood as it did so. A burst of fire to its head blew the demon’s cranium apart.

    “Shadow team confirms five enemy kills,” Cortana said, and out of the corner of his eye, the master Chief saw two more of the demons succumb to a barrage of plasma fire. He also saw Neeshka out of the corner of his eye.

    She was being silent for the most part, still trying to get used to the concept of rapid communications. Two of the Glabrezu had broken off to engage her, for reasons that the Chief could not understand. The Tiefling was skilled, but the Sangehili and himself represented a much larger combat threat. Some of the Luskan mages were behind her, perhaps that was the reason. The wolf like monsters had seemed a little perturbed at being summoned after all.

    The Spartan reached down, snatched up his ASG-60, and loaded his explosive round mag.

    --

    Neeshka had been preparing to try and usher the three mages out of the room when it had happened. She felt her blood tingle in her veins, and turned to see two of the Glabrezu behind her. She uttered a soft curse as they sniffed the air and their eyes flashed with hate. They slavered before her, and all four of their arms twitched like they were mad dogs.

    “We smell your stench, Spawn of Mephasm,” one of them hissed in the tongue of the Hells. “Even if we are banished today, slaughtering one such as you will earn us a great reward among our fellows. Take some comfort in the fact that our pressing situation requires your death to be quick.” With a laugh that sounded like breaking glass, they charged.

    Neeshka readied her blades, and sprang out of the way of the first strike. The armor that the offworlders had bequeathed her with was more durable than anything she’d ever had before, but she wasn’t certain she trusted it enough to stand up to a strike from one of these behemoths. She’d seen the brutes rip castle walls apart as if they were made of wet clay. The nimble thief ducked another strike, rolling in-between the legs of one of the creatures, before lashing out and drawing a line of blood along its calf. The wounded Glabrezu snarled and twisted about to try and crush her. Neeshka rolled out of the way, and then cursed her position. The other one was closing fast. Still, she thought wryly, at least the mages were more likely to survive to their interrogations if the Glabrezu were too busy trying to tear her heart out.

    She vaulted back up to her feet and jumped again to avoid another strike by the demon. As the claw like arm passed under her, Neeshka jammed her arming sword down into the junction that passed for its wrist. The Glabrezu howled and whipped the arm back to try and shake her off. Neeshka used the momentum to her advantage released her grip on her sword as it snapped about, angling herself to where she was facing the monster’s back. Her short sword flashed as she grabbed it with both hands, and jammed it down. The magically sharpened blade, driven by muscles toned from years of athletics and combat, and complimented by the strange armor that she wore, let her sink it up to the hilt into the brute’s back. It let out a loud howl, and tried to reach her, stomping about. Neeshka kept twisting the blade, trying to rip open as much of the Glabrezu’s back as she could.

    By the time it was able to dislodge her, the young Tiefling had inflicted enough damage to allow casual observers a detailed view of the chest cavity of the monster.

    “Shadow team confirms five enemy kills,” she heard Cortana say into her ear, something that still unnerved her. Bad memories of Black Garius surfaced for a moment, but she shook them off.

    The two creatures changed their strategy up all of a sudden, moving to both try to flank and assault her simultaneously. She cursed again, there would be no way of avoiding that many arms. Still perhaps there was a chance that she could get them to—

    Whatever she had been thinking was cut off as something rammed into her from the side. She hit the ground hard and skidded along the stone floor, twisting about and trying to get back up to her feet. She looked back in time to see the Glabrezus’ many limbs descend upon the Master Chief. Will-o-the-wisps crackled to life as their arms landed upon that strange barrier that covered his armor. The Spartan blurred about, impossibly fast, and fire two shots from his large weapon. There was a loud boom, and a flash of fire and light as something exploded and one of the Glabrezu went down, its right leg blown off at the hip. The Spartan evaded a counter attack from the other demon by ducking underneath the multitude of arms, and then cocked his fist back and retaliated with an upper-cut aimed between the demon’s legs.

    The Spartan’s fist connected with the bronze codpiece that it wore, and a resounding ‘gong’ echoed through the room. The Tiefling’s mouth dropped open as the piece of protective equipment crumpled inward and collapsed under the fury of the blow. The Glabrezu stumbled backwards, its eyes crossing slightly. It collapsed to its knees, its lower arms clutching at its wound. Then it howled in agony as its brain finally finished processing what had happened to it. It was a scream, Neeshka noted with a smirk, that was quite a few octaves higher than she believed the wolf demons were capable of. This was followed a by a moment of whimpering, before the Spartan turned his weapon upon the creature. The Glabrezu seemed to disappear from the chest up, spurting blood all over the room, floor, and the Spartan’s force field.

    The Master Chief turned to face the other demon. The Glabrezu stared up with hate filled eyes that promised a thousand deaths and torments, each more horrid than the last.

    “Know that you have not slain us!” it screamed in the tongue of the Abyss. “We will remember you and we will ret—

    Whatever it had been going to say was cut off by a two shot burst that splattered it all over the nearest surfaces.

    “Enemy count reduced to three combatants. Demonic entities show higher than standard resistance to plasma weaponry.” Cortana said.

    Sure enough, the Tiefling noted that it was taking several dozen ‘plasma’ rounds for the Sangehili to make headway. Of course, the fact that there were more than a half a dozen of them firing on the brutes meant that it only took them a few more seconds to reduce their bodies to vapor.

    Orna battled one on his own while his comrades handled the remaining ones. The Ascetic clasped one of the new modeled weapons in his left hand, one of his plasma swords in his right. As the Glabrezu roared and swung, Orna leapt, straight up and over the attacks. He pivoted in mid-air, firing off several bursts from his rifle, while lashing out with his plasma sword and taking the clawed end off of one of the Glabrezu’s primary arms. The rifle fire made double-fist size holes in the creature’s torso and back all the way down, but despite that, the monster was still on its feet. It twisted and lunged with speed that Neeshka knew Orna would not be able to evade.

    Instead, the Sangehili champion roared in his own deep voice, dropped his guns reached out, and grabbed the arms of the demon. She saw shock appear in the face of the wolf like beast, which quickly changed to horror as it realized two things. The first, was that its one free hand could not harm the strange foe it faced, due to a barrier around its armor. The second was that the Ascetic was just as strong—no, stronger—than it was. Orna roar again, snapped the brute’s wrists, and lunged forward. He dug his four fingered hands deep into the demon’s furry hide, and then to the amazement of all watching, picked the Glabrezu up above his head and tossed it through the air. It crashed to the ground and landed upon its wounded arms, howling in pain.

    Orna wasted no time. He sprinted forward, and grabbed his weapons. The rifle went back into its holster as he snatched his second sword and activated it. As the Glabrezu rose, trying to ignore the pain in its broken limbs, he stabbed it in the chest, punching the sword in all the way up to the hilt. In a single blurred motion Orna Fulsamee ripped the weapon across the demon’s chest. Its face a mask of pain, the creature slumped back down, where the second blade descended and decapitated it.

    It was the last of them, and the Ascetic gave off a loud roar of triumph. All around them, the room was covered in demonic blood and human body parts. The survivors among the Luskans had been few. A scant four from the looks of things: a single soldier and the three mages that Neeshka had defended from the demons. The Master Chief walked over towards them, his weapon leveled at them. The black robed one was shaking her head, her face lowered towards the ground.

    “Idiots,” she muttered. “Trying to use that without the proper incantations and summoning circles.”

    As she looked up, the Spartan understood whyt he voice had seemed so familiar to him. It was Alicia.

    He paused for a fraction of a second. Clever maneuver. If she had been working for the Luskans, she might have attempted to warn them of the capacity of him and his fellows. She would need to be interrogated, and they would need to find out exactly how much she and the Drow knew about him and his allies.

    “Form up, shoulder to shoulder,” he informed them. “On your knees, hands behind your backs.” His voice was chilled, devoid of emotion. It was something he’d often found to be more terrifying than any rage of fury he could let into it. “Shadow, restrain them and the other prisoner.”

    The Sangehili were swift to comply with the order, and within moments, the mages and the one guard were handcuffed and shackled. Shuffling forward as best they could, they headed back towards the roof.

    “The first person who so much as twitches in a manner I do not like will find one of their legs burned off.” Orna said, brandishing both of his rifles. “I suggest then, for your continued safety, that you not try anything immensely stupid.”

    “Sierra-117 here,” the Chief replied over the private comm line, his external speakers remaining silent, “Shadow team has completed all objectives. Repeat, objectives complete. Requesting status on other teams.”

    “Barricade reports success,” Cortana said, and John could hear the smirk in her voice. “By my calculations, over three quarters of the Luskan military are probably trying to figure out how to explain their sudden appearance to whatever God they worship.”

    “And Striker?”

    --

    Jonhson whistled to himself as he watched via UAV link up as another mortar smashed into a Luskan combat formation. It was among the last. They had broken quite some time ago, and only the suicidal still tried to retake the harbor. However, if they wanted to die so badly, the Sergeant Major wasn’t about to stop them.

    “Tarkimee, status report.” Cortana’s voice echoed over the line.

    Johnson turned to where the Sangehili Commander was picking off Luskan troops with a longarm plasma rifle, hitting pockets too small to warrant a mortar bombardment.

    “The Commander’s a little occupied right now, Cortana,” Johnson said.

    “Then what is the status?” she asked again.

    The Sergeant Major smirked and cleared his throat. “These Luskans are a buggar folk, their mothers are all rugger folk, their army is a bloody joke, they couldn't beat an artichoke!”

    “What in the name of Baator?” he heard Neeshka say.

    “Bit of a UNSC in-joke, Neeshka,” Cortana said. “He means that the Luskans are dying left right and center.”

    “Indeed,” Tarkimee finally spoke up. “Aside form the initial group,” he paused for a moment as he fired his rifle again, “there were none who made it into Harbor to even begin a counter attack. They day is ours, Commander Keyes.”

    “Don’t celebrate just yet,” the Master Chief said. “There’s still Mithril Hall. The mages were attempting to contact the Drow for reinforcements when we assaulted them. I’d recommend an immediate implementation of our assault plans in order to keep them off-balance.”

    “I agree,” Commander Keyes spoke up at last. “I’ll have Cortana leave the Longsword flying overhead to keep the Harbor secure. Aside from that, though, we’ll need to make a beeline for the caves. Bruenor and his compatriots will join you there. He wants to have a hand in retaking his home.”

    “Can’t fault him there,” Johnson said. “If a bunch of these punks kicked me out of my home, I’d want to be first in line to teach them a lesson.”

    “Then gear up and prepare to move out.” Keyes said. “If we hurry, we can get all of our forces into position to stage an assault within a few hours.”
     
    UrielAngeli and RogueInquisitor like this.
  21. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Twenty - Bringing Light to Darkness

    The Pelican dropship streaked away from the Forward Unto Dawn, followed closely by its sister ship. This was the final load. All of the munitions, power packs, troops, and medical supplies had been loaded and dropped off in a series of rapid fire trips to and from the staging area of the assault. From where he stood, the Master Chief looked out throughout the loading bay. Bruenor, Drizzt, Neeshka, Wulfgar, and even Bruenor’s adopted daughter, Cattie-Brie, sat. Sergeant Johnson, Orna, and a number of other soldiers from Neverwinter, Clan Battle Hammer, and even a few plainsmen were there as well.

    Johnson kept tapping his foot up and down as the ship streaked through the air. The Spartan could see that the sergeant was tense. They were heading into an unknown, against a race they had only once observed in battle. He had a right to be. However, John suspected that that wasn’t the only thing that was making the shocktrooper act as such. There was something else, something that went a little deeper. Perhaps the Drow’s actions at that village? It was possible that it had drudged up bad memories.

    He entertained the thought of remote accessing the Sergeant Major’s Combat Service Vitae, but he decided against it. There would be things enough to worry about on the mission ahead. It didn’t need the distraction.

    “Commander, feeling a little on edge here, you mind if I put on some music?” Johnson suddenly asked.

    “We’ve got ten minutes until we arrive. Go ahead. Just, try not to freak out our allies. I’ve a feeling that our musical tastes are somewhat different from theirs.” Keyes responded.

    “Don’t worry, got something relatively tame in mind.” He looked up at the Master Chief.

    John was tempted to roll his eyes, but his lips twitched upward in a faint, hidden smile as the Helljumper uploaded a file from his UNSC issue neural lace and pumped it through his external speakers.

    Bruenor and the others looked over towards the ODST as the music came on. It started with a low thrumming, some instrument he’d never heard before, follow by a chanting that reminded him of some human monks he’d once met. The strange instrument picked up again, giving a high pitched wail that caused him to raise his eyebrow. A set of strange, almost tribal sounding drums joined in with the instrument, creating a strange, harmonic dissonance as the primary instrument began to repeat a series of short notes, and followed into a loud, highly fluctuating chorus of sorts. There and now, the strange, chanting like voices would return.

    There was something strange about the melody, something that caused the Dwarf’s adrenaline to start flowing. Was this something that the humans of this culture used to prepare themselves for battle? Orcs and Goblinoids were well known for having drummers along that would pump their troops up and alleviate the fear before a battle, so that their troops would fight harder.

    “What is this?” He asked the Sergeant Major.

    “Song’s called Mjolnir,” he said with a chuckle.

    “Something that he never let’s me forget,” the Master Chief growled.

    “Eh?” Bruenor seemed somewhat confused.

    “Mjolnir is the name of the warhammer of Thor, one of the gods of Norse mythology,” the Spartan said. “It’s also the name of my armor system,” he thumped his forefinger against the chestplate of the power armor.

    “Ah,” Bruenor said, before trailing off into a deep fit of laughter. “It’s strange, but I like it!” He got control of himself for a moment, and wiped his brow. “I’ve been meaning to ask you, what’s in those crates we’ve been bringing with us?”

    “These?” John asked, pointing to the ones in the overhead storage compartments. When he got an affirmative nod from the Dwarf, he reached up into one of them and pulled out a small, cylindrical object. “Multi-charge C.L.N.G., stands for Chemical Luminescence and Noise Grenade. We call them flash-bangs. They’re typically used to subdue unarmored opponents, or to sow chaos before a rapid entry into a room where a large number of hostiles are known to be.”

    “You planning on taking many Drow prisoners?” Neeshka spoke up, cocking her head at him.

    The Spartan shook his head. “The grenade has six charges, each one gives off five million candela and about two hundred and twenty decibels of raw noise. It’s about like having a small sun dropped in front of you and sticking your unprotected ear next to the engine of this drop ship,” he snapped his fingers, “instant perforation of the eardrum. In the case of the Drow it should cause permanent blindness, as well.”

    The Tiefling shuddered for a moment. A device like that would render a Dark Elf completely helpless before the assault of these soldiers. There was one question, though, that bothered her.

    “How do you stop it from affecting you?” she asked.

    “Simple,” Johnson said. “We’ve brought polarizing glasses for everyone to wear, along with a computerized set of earphones. They’ll sense the light and noise increase, and adapt to block it out. They’ll also tag you so our Friend-or-Foe indicators will decipher you easier on our motion sensors.”

    She said nothing, simply nodded.

    It took them only minutes to go the distance and arrive at their destination. The Neo-Covenant were in position, along with most of the Dwarves of Clan Battle Hammer. There was a murderous gleam to their eyes, tempered by righteous fury. They were ready to take back their home.

    A series of hologram emitters were set up, each one displaying the many levels and floor plans of the Hall. Commander Keyes looked around to King Bruenor, and waited for his permission. The red bearded dwarf nodded, his hands upon Ragnarok, ready to cleave Dark Elven skulls open.

    “Okay, people, our objective is simple,” she gestured to the primary holo-emitter, “retake the entirety of Mithril Hall from the hands of the Dark Elves. Enemy force projections indicate there may be as many as two thousand soldiers stationed here, with an unknown number of Kobold, Goblin, and Orc slaves. Estimates put them at a maximum of twenty thousand.” She pulled out a remote and pressed a button on it. “Master Chief, you and Sergeant Major Johnson are going to be the personal escorts of King Bruenor and his group.” She nodded towards the two armored soldiers. “His safety is paramount. Protect him with your lives if you have to.”

    “Understood ma’am,” the Master Chief and Johnson both said, saluting their superior.

    “Orna, you and Commander Tarkimee will be splitting your forces up to take the lower levels,” these were highlighted by another push of her remote. “The corridors will be narrow, and so Lotar and Denos may be of limited use to you. If you find an area where they cannot enter. Send to the nearest area that needs clearing out where they will fit. Also, try to avoid collateral damage here as much as possible. Rely on your flashbangs, and then mow down the opposition with precision shots. Use grenades and FRCs only if you have a large group of enemies that are not near anything vital or vulnerable. Targeting priorities are Drow first, everything else second.”

    “Understood,” the chanting response echoed.

    “Prepare to move out,” Keyes said with a cold snarl.

    It seemed that vengeance was on everyone’s mind tonight.

    --

    The Master Chief crawled up over the hill in front of him. He held an Oracle in his hands as he slithered upwards like a snake. Over the rise, eh could see the massive, imposing doors of the ancestral home of Clan Battle Hammer. His cloaking device was off. It would be counter productive towards his goals here. The Drow naturally saw heat, and while the Mjolnir armor suit masked most of his emissions, the optical cloaking device heated up the generator beyond the standard level. He’d make himself a glowing bullseye for no gain.

    He leveled the sniper rifle, zooming in until he could make out the individual runes on each of the doors. There were small slits in each side, and he could see the heat effects of two Drow warriors at each of them, standing watch. The smart link scoped factored in bullet drop, wind sheer, distance, and all of that. However, The Master Chief reran the figures through his head, trying to make certain that the machine matched up with his own.

    Three seconds later, he was ready. He fired the rifle twice in rapid succession, switch to the other side, and emptied the magazine.

    The Drow at the gates didn’t even have time to figure out what was going on. They never saw Death come, never heard him. Their headless corpses flew backwards as the SABOT round pinged and ricocheted around inside of the main entrance hall, sending other Dark Elves scurrying for cover.

    Lotar and Denos moved up next to the Spartan, and leveled their massive assault cannons. The fuel rods glowed a hellish green as they activated, and a plasma charge streaked across the distance between the entrance. A solitary Drow soldier that had managed to get up where the sentries were had the blinding agony of a small sun manifested to his vision, before the two charges struck the doors and sent them flying. They landed as half slagged messes.


    “Charge!” Keyes ordered.

    The Spartan let the sniper rifle go, reaching up and drawing his ASG before sprinting down the hill. Two Specters came roaring up behind him. Between the three of them, they crossed the two kilometer distance in less than a minute. The two light assault craft breeched the gap first, and the Sangehili manning the plasma cannons on the back threw down a combination of suppression fire and precision targeting. The Drow, who had been forming up to try and deal with a conventional assault, were completely unprepared for what came bursting through.

    Orbs of darkness settled over the attacking craft, but the Elites fired on regardless. Their motion sensors told them where their prey was.

    Charging in behind them, the Master Chief saw a bolt take a Drow warrior and punch through his chainmail. The soldier was ripped in half, and fell to the ground. No scream escaped his lips. Screaming required lungs. His had been blown to ash.

    The Spartan lobbed a flash-bang. The small object bounced along the floor before rolling to a stop in front of the larger concentrations of soldiers.

    Night became noon, and then brighter, far brighter than any natural source of light that had ever graced the depths of Mithril Hall, while the incredibly powerful shockwave, muted due to his armor and hearing receptors, shook the whole place. Drow soldiers fell screaming in agony, clawing at their eyes and thrashing about while blood poured from their ears. They were utterly helpless, fodder for the Sangehili and their cybernetic ally. For the remaining few moments of their lives, the Drow soldiers that were involved with the initial defense of the gate learned of the fear they had so long instilled in others.

    “Entrance hall secure, waiting on back up,” the Master Chief reported, staring around with his infrared vision turned on. There were a few survivors of the assault, missing arms and legs, or with half their body reduced to shredded or half vaporized messes. It was obvious that they would not survive the next few minutes. He left them where they lay. No need to waste ammunition on them.

    The Spartan walked over towards one of them, missing both of his legs and lower portion of one of his arms where an ASG shell had removed them. The Spartan looked down upon the blind and deafened alien, studying the physiology of his enemy. They were built much like Drizzt, though they seemed to prefer heavier armor. Nimble looking fingers, high, very pronounced cheekbones, and long white hair. The crippled Dark Elf seemed to sense that he was near, and turned to face him. The pupils didn’t dilate or focus. The required nerves and muscles had been burned out by the flash of light from the grenade. A weak hand moved towards a fallen arming sword, but the Master Chief stopped it. The Dark Elf howled as his wrist was shattered under the force of the half ton soldier placing his weight upon it. The Spartan stooped down and studied the weapon. It was slightly curved at the end, an unusal design, he noted, while the back half was serrated.

    Very odd. Such implementation would make the weapon virtually useless for slicing with that end, at least, against anyone wearing armor, but perhaps that was not its job. Drizzt mentioned that his people were fond of torture and other unpleasantries that made a deep, almost feral part of the Master Chief’s mind pulse with rage. This was meant to double as a torture instrument, something to slice a person up like a hunk of meat.

    He took a moment to study the rings of the armor. Analysis indicated a similarity to the armor of Lord Nasher’s elite guard, Adamantine, if he remembered right. But there were key differences. Chemical compounds and alloys that would rapidly oxidize if exposed to sunlight. A critical weakness to anything on the surface, but in the lightless abyss of the so called Underdark, not such a problem. The sword was made of a similar material, and was nearly as sharp as one of his combat knives.

    “Bruenor’s moving up with the others. Get ready to move further in,” Cortana said to him.

    “Roger, retrieving flash bang,” the Spartan said, leaving the dying Elf where he lay, and heading over to where his charge had bounced.

    A few moments later, the Dwarven King charged in through the front door, and smiled wickedly as he stared around at the carnage.

    “Don’t suppose you saved any for us?” he asked as he walked up to the Master Chief.

    “Plenty more deeper inside where our Specters can’t go, your majesty,” he said.

    “It’ll be fun to fight alongside you again,” Bruenor said with a nod. “Almost as much fun as showing these dogs why you don’t mess with the Battle Hammers!” His grin faded slightly as he looked over to Drizzt, who had both of his scimitars out. “Present company excepted of course.”

    “You’ve been around me long enough to know that I am not my people, old friend,” Drizzt gave a somber grin in return, his violet eyes hidden behind the polarizing visor, “let us finish this.”

    “Tell us which way to go,” Johnson said.

    “Right door leads to the throne room,” Bruenor said. “Expect a mess of Goblinoids to come through, though.”

    “Not an issue,” Keyes said over the comlink. “Chief, you and the others get those doors open, and let the plasma cannons and the Hunters go to work.”

    “Understood, ma’am,” the Spartan nodded his head, and dashed over. Between him and the Elites, it wasn’t hard to muscle open the large double doors that led into the depths of Mithril Hall.

    As sure as Bruenor warned, the Dark Elves unleashed their slaves. However, as the goblins, kobolds, and even a few minotaurs poured down the hallways, they caught sight of one of two things. Some saw a strange craft that floated upon the air like the chariot of a Dark Elf matron. Others saw a hulking demon in black armor. In either case, they met a swift death as the medium plasma cannon unleashed dozens of bolts of superheated energy into their midst, or they were blasted to ash by the fury of the Lek’golo’s assault cannons. Within moments, the hallways were clear.

    “Press the attack!” Bruenor shouted.

    The command group consisted of the Dwarf King, a number of his body guards, Drizzt, Wulfgar, Neeshka, and Cattie-Brie, with the Master Chief and Johnson taking up point escort. The Spartan felt a pang of sympathy for anything that happened across them. The Dwarves were out for blood, and it would be a while before they were sated. This was holy ground to them, and the Drow had desecrated it with their very presence, and had slaughtered the Dwarven defenders here to boot. From what he’d been able to research, nothing made the Dwarves more dangerous than when those conditions applied.

    He moved forward with Johnson at his side. Their boots squished beneath their feet as they trodded through the remains of the still cooling piles of meat that had once been living beings.

    The corridor opened into a narrow pathway lined with pillars and display stands. John resumed this must have once been a display area for great works of Dwarven craft. Whatever had been here, it had long sense been looted. His heat vision picked up movement at the far end of the chamber. A Dark Elf leveled a crossbow while Orcs and other goblinoid slaves rushed out to assault the team. The Spartan blurred, leveling the shotgun he carried and firing two shots down range. The Dark Elf archer flew apart under the fury of the assault, while Johnson reached down to the grenades across his chest.

    “Banging clear!” he shouted, hurling one of the objects down range.

    A miniature sun formed and a shockwave pulsed through the Spartan’s bones. In truth, he’d been worried about the possibility of cave ins through using the flash-bangs, but Bruenor had assured him that Dwarven construction was designed to withstand full fledged earthquakes, and that the Hall had weathered such events before. Still, he kept an eye out for falling debris as the group pressed forward towards the blinded defenders.

    Some of the Minotaurs were still on their feat, albeit howling in pain, with blood trails visible in their ears. Nonetheless, they charged. The Master Chief and Johnson opened fired simultaneously ripping the creatures open. They heard a cry of ‘Tempos!’ behind them, followed by a large warhammer spinning by. Wulfgar’s strike caved the head of one of the brute’s in, while blasting it off its feet. Bruenor’s bodyguard charged forward to deal with the rest of the assault, while his daughter stayed back, leveling a large bow and firing off silver arrows at the stragglers to the rear.

    True to his predictions, the Master Chief watched the Dwarves rush towards the deafened Minotaurs, and absolutely butcher the creatures. Worse still, for the black hearted defenders, were that they faced no ordinary Dwarves. These were battle ragers. Clad in spiked armor and armed with wickedly sharp axes, they plunged into the melee and fought in a strange combination of weapon play and hand to hand combat. Their spiked gauntlets ripped through the crude leather armor of the walking cows and cut deep into their legs. The Minotaurs responded by trying to crush the Dwarves beneath the fury of their maces and morning stars.

    The Master Chief leveled his shotgun at a target, and fired. The Minotaur’s head and shoulders were taken off by the blast. He caught one of the brutes trying to throw an axe at him, and twisted to the side as it came hurtling through the air. Cobra quick, his arm snaked out, grabbed the weapon, and hurled it back. The creature went down to its knees, its eyes crossing in an attempt to spend its dying moments staring at its own weapon, now buried in its muzzle.

    Johnson’s ASG-60 punched a basketball sized hole in the chest of another, before flying into a trio of Orcs that had been trying to get up at the far end of the corridor and ripping them open. The final Minotaur dropped as Drizzt blurred forward, evaded its comparably clumsy attacks, and leapt up to slice its throat open. The Master Chief could help but smile. The technique was flashier than he’d like, but it did get the job done.

    He and Johnson resumed point, not bothering to step over the bodies of those who were dead, and those not quite dead. They’d leave them to be sorted out by the soldiers behind them. The motion sensor alerted them to more hostiles up ahead, and sure enough, another wave of Goblinoids came crashing in.

    Two flashbangs later, and they were on their knees and backs, squealing in their various tongues.

    The Master Chief wondered what it was that drove these creatures onward in the face of such opposition. He and the sergeant, to say nothing of the Elites, would butcher any one of them. Their fear of the Dark Elves must have been great indeed. Still, if they would rather die than face the horrors of their masters, the Spartan would be happy to oblige.

    As the corridor opened up into a multi leveled facility, the Spartan could hear com chatter indicating that Fulsamee and his comrades had managed a breakthrough in the other regions. The Spartan nodded, and then took stock assessment of the situation. His motion scanner was alive with movement on all the stories of this huge chasm. Metal forges, probably processing the mithril ore of this place, lit it up and glowed brightly in his infrared scanners. Goblins, Orcs, Dark Elf overseers, and the like, were everywhere.

    He pulled out his battle rifle, and started shooting. The Dark Elves went first, their heads burst open like ripe melons before the fury of the ten millimeter rounds. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and saw a Dark Elf female, two scimitar like blades held in her hands. She began to whip them back and forth in a somewhat stunning display, probably a challenge for Drizzt, he supposed. The allied Drow began to move forward, but Johnson beat him to the punch.

    The Sergeant Major calmly drew his sidearm, and fired. The female was hit directly in the center of her chest by the heavy slug. It exploded a moment later, leaving her with a enormous cavity where most of her innards used to be. He returned the pistol to its holster as she slumped to the ground, before drawing an MA6B assault rifle and letting go a flurry of tightly placed shots that wreaked havoc and chaos on those down below.

    “Too many of the damn little fodder ones,” he barked. “We’re going to need more bullets to get the job done!”

    The Master Chief agreed with the statement. The area below them crawled, as if the ground itself was living. There must have been thousands of fodder slaves, waiting to rush forward and die for their masters.

    There had to be another way. Something else, something they wouldn’t expect, he thought, as he primed a grenade and hurled it downwards. He barely heard the concussion of the fragmentary device, so muffled was it by the bodies that erupted amongst. Then it hit him. The collateral damage might be an issue, but if things went according to plan, then maybe he wouldn’t have to shoot for long.

    “Johnson, hold the line with them, I’ll be back ASAP,” he ordered his comrade. “Commander, requesting that you move one of the Pelicans in close.”

    “Chief, what are you—” Johnson began.

    “I need the thirty on the back,” the Spartan finished.

    “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” The ODST shook his head. “Just err on overkill why don’t you!”

    The Master Chief was already dashing back around the point, heading for the entrance.

    “Question,” Neeshka said, as she and Cattie-Brie kept firing their bows into the writhing mass below, a mass that was steadily stomping up towards them, rushing over catwalks and metal walkways, “what’s a thirty?”

    “You remember that gun that Orna used back when we first ran into each other?” Johnson said, “the big one that he took from the dropship? That’s a thirty.”

    The Tiefling said nothing, but Bruenor gave him a strange look, while Drizzt seemed uncomfortable. The Drow’s facial expressions became unreadable a moment later, when he slipped back into the depths of his cloak and nocked his bow again. Three archers, though, could not make a dent in the numbers that lay before them. Three hundred couldn’t have pushed them back. The horde drew ever nearer. They were less than three levels down, now. It would take them only another minute or so to get up, even with them having to trample over the bodies of their comrades. Johnson dropped a frag grenade, but knew that it would be the last one he could hurl at the front. They would be too close after that, he might hurt one of the natives.

    Bruenor growled, and readied his axe. He didn’t like these odds, but if they had to fall back, then so be it. There were reinforcements further out.

    “Excuse me, your majesty, how much weight can your catwalks hold?” The voice belonged to the Spartan, and it echoed in his ear. He wondered why the Spartan asked such a question.

    “There’s a horde of a couple thousand goblinoids trampling up it right now, and it ain’t shaking loose. Dwarven construction’s built to last, me good man,” he let a note of pride slip into his voice.

    “Just what I wanted to know,” the Master Chief said.

    Bruenor heard a loud thumping behind him, and turned to see the Spartan reemerge. True to his word, the massive, multi-tube weapon was held in his hands, while a large backpack hung by metal reinforced straps. There was a trail of the weapons ammunition that ran between it and a large cylinder that Bruenor suspected was a secondary storage unit. His eyes bulged slightly as he stared at it though. Last time, he hadn’t gotten a good look at the ‘bullets’ that this monster used. They were as big around as his fist, nearly as long as his forearm.

    The Spartan looked over the edge of the catwalk that they were upon, and leapt off. He landed heavily, about a hundred feet away from the pressing horde. A number had already may their way up the stairs to the level above, and would be bearing down on Bruenor and the others. Nothing he could do about them. Here, however, there wouldn’t be an issue of friendly fire.

    He had about six hundred rounds between both ammo storage units. He needed to make them count. He leveled the weapon, and gently tapped the firing stud. A single thirty millimeter round shot out of the cannon and streaked through the lines of the enemy. A second followed, and then a third, as the catwalk turned into a meat grinder.

    “Fire, pause, fire, pause,” the Spartan whispered to himself.

    The area in front of him cleared for the moment, and he could hear the sound of screaming from the area above him. None of the screams sounded like his allies, and if Bruenor’s jubilant voice was anything to go by, they were doing just fine. He needed to press forward, keep the enemy off balance. It would be the last thing they were expecting. He raised the autocannon up higher, even with his shoulder, and kept the belt out of the muck and gore as he stomped across the catwalk. His motion sensor was still one red blur, and beneath him was a mass of slaves and fodder, waiting for their turn to fight and die.

    How did the Drow gather so many into a single location? Mithril Hall had fallen to them less than a month ago. If this chamber was any indication, there could be tens of thousands of troops stationed here. How did the Drow keep the all supplied? How far were they from the nearest Dark Elf logistics base? Questions for survivors, he thought to himself.

    “Moving down to third level, ammo supplies at ninety five percent,” he echoed into the comm system.

    “Roger that, Sierra, marking your position,” Cortana said. “Hope you know what you’re doing. Things could get ugly in there really fast.”

    “Clear for the moment,” the Spartan said.

    John looked down below him. Another wave was stomping up, but it would take them some time to reach his position. He scanned his way across the forge area beneath him, and spotted a clustering of Drow troopers. He angled the thirty as he needed, and lined up. The crosshairs on his HUD flashed red, and he depressed the firing stud. Two rounds leapt out of the barrels, and the group seemed to erupt into a mass of body parts. He caught sight of a single Dark Elf bolting around a corner, and forced himself to check his fire. The autocannon round would punch through the rock like it wasn’t even there. One target, however, was a waste of his limited ammo supplies. He was curious about who the individual might have been though. He wasn’t aware of any Drow ranks that included the use of wide brimmed hats with what looked like some kind of feather sticking out of them.

    Fifty feet above his head, Bruenor locked axes with a rather heavily built Orc warrior. The creature’s face was twisted, marred by scars and pitted by what looked to be fang marks. For once in his life, Bruenor actually felt a bit of sympathy for the wretch on the other end of his weapons. He could remember Drizzt’s tales quite well, and knew the fate that usually befell slaves. There’s was not an envious lot in life. He was doing these things a favor by killing them.

    The creature brought its axe down as if it were trying to cleave the helm from his head. Bruenor let the weapon fall. It smashed into the helmet, but bounced off the well craft mithril without leaving so much as a dent. His rock hard skull took care of the rest of things, and he grinned as the impact threw the Orc off balance. Ragnarok flashed once, burying itself up into the groin of the creature, before the Dwarf King reached back and took another chunk out of his adversary’s side. A pair of Kobolds rushed over the fallen body of their comrade, but there was little they could do against the Dwarven juggernaut that stood before him. The blood in the King’s veins began to boil, and his axe began to become on unstopping engine of destruction.

    At his sides, two Battle-Ragers lunged forward, deflecting blows with their axes before grabbing their adversaries in a bear hug. They went into a series of convulsions, and their spiked and bladed armor reduced their foes to shredded messes. Gobliniod ichor dripping off their armor and their half covered faces, they gave great shouts before plunging further into the group.

    Bruenor took stock, there were less than a score of troops left before them. There was a blur of darkness over his head: Drizzt. The Dark Elf was like a specter of the reaper itself. He plunged both of his scimitars home into a single foe as he leapt through the air, riding the body to the ground. In a single blurred motion, both Icingdeath and Twinkle were back out, and hacking away. The enemies around him seemed to fall apart, and the remaining troops seemed to waver as they finally realized that there was a Drow among this group. Instinctive submission welled up for a moment, and Drizzt didn’t hesitate. Before they understood what was going on, the slaves were groping at slit throats, opened bellies, and a number of other wounds.

    They slumped to the ground, and Drizzt flourished his weapons, before starting to head down the staircase in front of them.

    “Ascetic, Tarkimee, status report?” Keyes asked.

    “Sangehili troops have forgone plasma weaponry in favor of swords. Too many of the vermin for us to squash with ranged weaponry without running out of ammo. Casualties nonexistent thus far,” Orna responded.

    On the other side of that line, Orna Fulsamee led his brothers once again. The Sangehili’s twin plasma blades dove downwards and slashed to and fro, biting into Orc and Goblin flesh, while the smaller Kobolds were simply stampeded over like they were not even there. Behind them, the Grunts busied themselves with finishing off the stragglers that had managed to survive.

    They exited the corridor that they were in, and like Bruenor and his compatriots found themselves in a large forge. The Ascetic marveled at the wondrous construction that surrounded him. To create such a great work with only the tools afforded them, it was a masterpiece, an architectural work of art that almost distracted him. A barrage of arrows and small bolts descended from the upper levels. Orna spread his mandibles behind his helmet. Time to show the warmongers was battle was about, starting with a little psychological warfare.

    The Sangehili line formed up into a wedge shape, each one of the enormous aliens locking themselves into a set position. They raised their blades as more arrows bounced harmlessly off their shields. Goblinoids charged towards them in a barely organized line.

    The Ascetic and his compatriots kept pace, moving forward methodically, their faces hidden behind the emotionless fronts of their helmets. Still the slaves charged. They slammed against the front row of the Elite line, and almost instantly disintegrated. The Neo-Covenant forces erupted into action, becoming multi-colored blurs as they slashed, chopped, and stabbed with their energy blades. Armor melted, weapons burst into flame and became bubbling pools of slag before them, and before long, the Goblinoids were torn between fear of their masters, and fear of the mysterious foes in front of them.

    --

    Jarlaxle panted softly, before reaching up underneath his feathered cap. The Dark Elf pulled out a whistle and blew a series of harsh notes on it. He prayed that the magic was still effective despite the troubles with the weave. With luck, it would alert his fellows deeper back in the mines, and let them know to get the hell out of this place. The mercenary leader shuddered and for one of the few times in his life, felt genuine terror.

    He had seen something up in the higher alcoves of the mines, nearly invisible to his heat based vision. A hulking monster, carrying a massive device that couldn’t be anything other than a weapon. The others that had been with him, they were all dead, he knew it. It was only by the skin of his teeth that he had managed to get out of this mess alive.

    His memory flashed back to the battle that Matron Baenre had had him and his fellows scope out. The dead Orcs, the dead Luskans, the shattered, shredded, and mutilated bodies, he knew what had done it now. Why had the Matrons kept this hidden from him and the others? They had to know that something like this was on Faerun. A creature of that nature could not remain hidden for long, someone with the proper arcane attunement would have noticed, and it wasn’t as if the Luskans wouldn’t be curious as to what wiped their forces out.

    Anger began to simmer in his blood as he contemplated what that meant. Either the Luskans had foolishly chosen to keep that information to themselves—unlikely, given that even the Arcmagi were afraid of Matron Baenre—or that the Matrons knew, but decided that he, his mercenaries, and the other soldiers here simply were not important enough to be notified.

    The anger turned into a full blown rage that made his only visible eye glow. He struggled to resist the urge to lash out, to deny the anger and bloodlust that seemed his birthright. First, he had to get as many of the men and women under his command out of here as possible, before they were slaughtered like Roth before a bunch of Hook Horrors.

    He blew on the whistle again as he descended into the depths of the mines. Shortly, he found his playing was paying off, a group of six Drow shifted out of a tunnel to his left. He recognized them as his own, and they saw his relieved grin and returned it.

    What’s going on? asked one of the males in silent code, one of his sergeants, by the name of Dilafay.

    Trouble up above. Bruenor and his friends, Jarlaxle responded with a few flicks of his right hand. They have with them some manner of creature I’ve never seen before. I believe it’s the one that wreaked such havoc among the surface forces we were sent to investigate.

    Is this why you order the retreat? a female inquired.

    Indeed.

    “It is wise that he does,” someone dared to whisper. Another group had emerged from the darkness, their faces colored bright by the heat of their blood. They were out of breath. Jarlaxle recognized Dinin Do’Urden. “There are demons loose in the lower chambers, creatures I have never before born witness to. Hundreds of them.”

    Jarlaxle’s eyes narrowed dangerously. The Heavens and the Hells may have been in disarray, but there was no excuse for this. To not see an event of this nature coming, with as much arcane training as the vaunted Matrons possessed was sloppiness and ineptitude that the mercenary leader would have never believed possible in his lifetime. It was the kind of sloppiness that got someone killed, or their house destroyed.

    He shook his head and motioned for the others to follow. That crone might give him hell for what he was doing, but he was not going to throw away the lives of the men and women who were loyal to him in some showing of fanatical loyalty to the Spider Queen. This day was lost, and so, he suspected was this cause.

    “Come,” he whispered, “we move. Bruenor will be content with the halls, he will not follow… and I doubt that any who stand their ground will survive to see us flee.”

    --

    Unknown to the mercenary leader was that someone watching him. Helm nodded sagely as he stood before the Celestial Staircase. His shook those thoughts from his head, though, as he sensed something nearing. He looked out across the area before him and saw someone approaching, hidden within the depths of a midnight blue cowl. He knew who it was though, and his eyes narrowed behind his cowled armet.

    “Mystra…” he said, as she drew near. “Again you return, and you still do not have your sacred tablets. You know the rules laid down by Ao. Turn back now, lest I be forced to scar your face once again.”

    “Ever the lapdog,” the woman before him hissed. “I have had enough of this. The people languish without us. They cry out for our aid, and we cannot—”

    “Spare me the theatrics, I’ve heard them before.” Helm shook his head, while drawing a large bastard sword. “Maybe this will teach you and the others to spend less time plotting amongst yourselves, and more time worrying about the mortals we are pledged to guide and protect.” He paused for a moment. “And I see through your tales of woe, Mystra. Bane pleaded as well, before I sent him back, sent him to his death. Lathander, Tiamat, all of them. I see the same thing in their eyes,” his unseen lip turned upwards in disgust. “I see fear. You fear what you have become. You know what it is to be weak, to be vulnerable. You must feel like a statue made of glass, milady, worried that the slightest misstep will cause you to shatter.”

    “Simply because you have known the bitterness of mortality before you became a God does not give you the right to pass judgment on us like this,” she snarled.

    “The bitterness of mortality?” Helm chuckled. “Poor deluded woman, you’ve spent too much time lording over a bunch of magi and ordering around people with sharp sticks. You have not the slightest inkling of what those ‘bitter mortals’ are capable of. I have. But enough of this. Turn back now.”

    “Never! Never again! I will not be bound to this wretched form any longer!” the Avatar screeched. She summoned a bolt of raw power, a spell strong enough to leave a Baalor stretched out dead before her, and hurled it at the God before her.

    Helm made no move. The spell crashed into his chestplate, and harmlessly dissipated. The glowing eyes narrowed and faster than a man could have blinked, he slashed his sword through the air. A crash of thunder, a blast of energy, of raw cosmic power, streaked off the pointed end of the blade and hit the former Goddess of Magic square in the chest. She screamed in agony, before another sharp pain erupted through her spine. Looking down, she saw the tip of Helm’s sword protruding from between her breasts. He coughed, and more blood spattered onto the sacred ground before them. Slowly, she looked back up into the hidden face of the other God. Her mouth opened in a gasp of surprise, as if she were unable to believe that Helm had actually gone through with his threat.

    “I warned you, milady, I warned you. You authored your end with your own hand… not my own. “ Helm said. His voice was calm now, devoid of all emotion. Then he twisted the blade and ripped it out of her, cleaning its edge upon her cloak. “Your body will lie here until the Troubles are ended, and perhaps you may yet save some lives in that respect. A dead body, after all, makes a much more effective deterrent to others that would break the High Father’s command than my mere words.”

    She took a last, gasping breath, and then went silent. Helm shook his head. Such a waste. Still, he had warned her. Once with words, the second time with a scar. That she had not learned, and though her burden too great to bear, such that it merited trying to storm the gates of the Heavens themselves, was her problem.

    Helm’s eyes narrowed once again. The loss of divine power. He was tempted to snort in disdain. Half these gods knew nothing of what true loss was. Mortals were puppets to them, all of reality their plaything, with lives sold and wasted in their schemes for power among their fellows. Bane had exemplified that more than anything when he started this whole mess.

    It was time for a reality check. A check that would soon be coming, in more ways than one.
     
  22. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Twenty One - Rest for the Weary

    The Master Chief walked among the hallways and corridors of the Forward unto Dawn his mind processing all the information that had been learned during their twin assaults upon Luskan and Mithril Hall. First, from his observations of the Dark Elves in action, they were highly skilled at small squad tactics, and had a knowledge of combined arms that surpassed any medieval army he had ever learned about on Earth, and anything he had seen here on the surface. However, there was an Achilles Heel, one that Drizzt had confirmed the existence of after the battle. While they were undeniably lethal in small groups, their lack of trust led to problems of hesitation and second guessing when they were ordered about on larger missions and ‘unified’ attack plans.

    As he entered and elevator and pressed a button for the third floor, he tried to formulate how that might be used against them. It could be useful for sowing dissention and misinformation among their ranks, if only there was a way for them to infiltrate the Dark Elves’ intelligence networks. E wasn’t certain how something like that could be done, but he would wait and see if an opportunity developed. There were a number of Drow prisoners in the holding cells of their brig, awaiting interrogation along with the Luskan mages that they’d captured.

    This brought him to another problem, what to do with their allies. Bruenor and his soldiers were incredibly skilled fighters, Drizzt, Neeshka, and Wulfgar no less so. However, problems were arising, as seen in Mithril Hall. While skilled with their bows and ranged weaponry, the Dwarven forces had been unable to inflict enough damage to stop the raging horde of bodies that the Dark Elves had thrown at them. It had taken heavy anti-infantry firepower, and an overwhelming shock and awe blitz from himself, the Lek’golo, and Orna’s troops to drive them back. The Dwarves would have lacked the numbers to successfully retake the hall on their own, and that was with the Dark Elves being cut off from their magic.

    Clearly, something had to be done to increase the combat effectiveness of the native soldiers. But how to do it? The solution to Neeshka, Wulgar, and the other humanoid’s was fairly obvious: a crash course in small arms training. Drizzt and the Dwarves, however, were a tad more problematic. Submachine guns and plasma pistols might suffice for the latter, but the other weapons that the Dawn had onboard were simply not geared towards use by individuals whose height maxed out around one and a quarter meters. Drizzt also seemed increasingly uncomfortable around high technology. Was it possible that the Dark Elf was gun-shy? His sensitive hearing might irritate him, but the Master Chief sensed that this was not the true cause. The Drow ranger had been particularly unnerved by the presence of the thirty millimeter cannon he’d waded into the halls with the other day, even though he’d been wearing ear protection that would have provided him a significant measure of protection against the racket the gun made.

    John concluded that he would have to find the solution to the problem as the elevator dinged open. He moved out and headed down a corridor towards an armory. That crash course would have to begin soon. They had no idea how long the so called ‘Time of Troubles’ would continue to last, and once it was over with, the Drow would want the Hall back. Its resources were too valuable to just allow the Dwarves to waltz in and take back without a response.


    As he made his way past the mess hall, he realized that the door was open, and he could hear the sound of raucous laughter coming from inside. He also heard the sound of a musical tune, the lyrics altered so that the natives could understand them. Even then, it seemed that Cortana had found a way to throw in a comically heavy French accent with the translation.

    “If battle you choose to renew, we’ll taunt you till we all turn blue; we turn our assess as you part, in your direction we all fart!”

    The line was followed by what was unmistakably the sound of exaggerated human flatulence. The Master Chief recognized the tune, and the play that it came from. It appeared as though Johnson was introducing them to some of the Human classicals, starting with satire and deconstruction. He stuck his head inside, and found that Orna, and several other Sangehili were present, along with Bruenor, Neeshka, Drizzt Wulfgar, Cattie-Brie, and a handful of Dwarves and Plainsmen.

    “Run away! Run away! It seems like a helpful solution!” one of the knights on the hologram shouted, while being pummeled by a combination of poultry and baguettes.

    “To avoid this French Revolution!” another one added, barely avoiding a catapulted pig and trying desperately to stop a mob of angry French women from beating him with various household implements.

    King Arthur strode forward as he finally broke free of the mob, announcing in song that it was time for an intermission. As the screen went dark, the last sound to wash over the group was the sound of a large amount of miscellaneous heavy objects falling upon someone, barely audible over all the laughter that rocked the room. In truth, he was surprised that the Faerunians found it so funny. They probably didn’t understand half of the references. But, on the other hand, they were bound within a lifestyle that was eerily similar to the one that had been portrayed on the screen, so perhaps they could relate more than he realized.

    Small talk broke out among the others, but the Chief noticed that Johnson’s laughter suddenly turned quite and bitter sweet.

    “Run away… run away,” he muttered, before hiding it and repeating another humorous line from the play.

    Neeshka and Drizzt stared at him for a moment, their eyebrows raised. The Master Chief understood the sudden change, though.

    While the song had been written and sung in jest, Run Away was a phrase that the UNSC and its personnel were all too familiar with. From the start of the Covenant War, it was all that the Humans had been able to do. Run away. Flee from this enigmatic alien juggernaut that was hell-bent on genociding them for a reason the Humans didn’t even know. There had been eight hundred worlds at the start of the war, more than three trillion lives. Now, they had one world, and less than two hundred million souls left to tell the tale.

    The cyborg’s eyes drifted over to Mias Tarkimee, and he stared at the Elite commander for a few seconds. Once again his helmet was off, and the crisscrossing scars upon his head were visible to everyone. He stared at those, they seemed so familiar to him, something that he knew he should remember, but couldn’t. Then he shook his head, and stepped forward.

    “Hey, Chief,” Johnson said, but he remained seated, rather than standing or saluting. The Spartan didn’t mind, though. Protocols had become just a tad lax in the weeks since they had arrived. With only three of them on this ship belonging to the UNSC, they were bound to.

    “I need to speak with Neeshka, Drizzt, and Wulfgar.” John said, crossing his hands behind his back. The three addressed people looked over to him.

    “What is this about?” Drizzt again seemed wary of the massive soldier before him.

    “The Commander and I have been doing some talking, and we’d like to teach you a few things that can be passed on to your respective colleagues.” He kept his speech as enigmatic as he could without sounding untrustworthy. If he mentioned firearms training around Drizzt it was possible the Dark Elf wouldn’t want to comply and the Chief needed to find out what was going on in the ranger’s mind.

    The three exchanged glances, and shrugged. They then followed the Spartan out of the room.

    It took only moments to reach an armory, where the Chief opened up a series of weapons lockers. The Faerunians seemed fascinated by some of the UNSC’s security measures, especially the biometric scanners and voice authentication protocols. Wulfgar, however, noticed that there was an area at the far end of the armory that seemed sealed off, and brought it up.

    “What lies beyond that area?” he asked, pointing to it

    The Master Chief followed the direction of the Plainsman’s finger, and understood. At the far end of the area was a triple sealed bulkhead, armored like a tank, with pop out points for A.I. controlled autocannons. They were standing inside the Spartan’s own weapon locker, reserved for specialty black ops weapons that were not always available to the rank and file marines. In the lockers around him, in addition to assault rifles, battle rifles, shotguns, SMGs, sniper rifles, mortars, rocket launchers and other such standard issue gear, were Spartan lasers, a number of additional ASG-60s that Cortana had turned out, man portable gauss cannons and rail rifles, and the like. This particular locker also held access to one of the specially hardened lockers. Ones that required the permission of the Captain and shipboard A.I. to unlock.

    “Tactical NBC weaponry” the Spartan responded. “Weapons of mass destruction meant to turn the tide of a battle.”

    “Your normal ones don’t do that enough?” Drizzt’s tone was neutral, but the Spartan thought he detected animosity underneath it.

    “As Spartans, we find ourselves going in alone, often times without the luxury of armor or heavy artillery support.” He paused for a moment and cocked his head. “Think of it like being forced to move through a battlefield, always staying out of sight of the enemy, and the clerics and mages can’t help you. You have to fend for yourself, or worse, support them when they run into trouble. To accomplish that, we’re usually given weapons to compensate.” He shifted back to his task of gathering weaponry. “Remember, you’ve met our former enemies. They can more than equal what our weapons typically can do.”

    Neeshka seemed to shudder a bit, and a dark frown came over the Tiefling’s face. The Spartan thought about asking her what the trouble was, but decided not to press the issue. Not yet.

    “So, what exactly are you here to show us?” Wulfgar asked.

    “Not show. Teach,” the Master Chief said. He opened up the door to the next room. Inside was a firing range, separated from the rest of the ship by a half meter of Titanium-A armor plating. One could set a Havoc off inside of this place and the rest of the ship would barely feel it. Additional bullet proof meshings lined the back of the range, the targets, and each of the firing stations, with machines in place to restore it to original condition when the range became cold. A good thing, considering it was occupied.

    Unggoy soldiers were inside standing up on stools and step ladders as they discharged needlers, plasma pistols, and even the occasional energy carbine and heavy plasma cannon down range.

    “Telas, tighten up that stance, Nekar, stop holding that pistol sideways, you are not here to show off!” Gazap was walking back and forth between the rows, his black eyes roaming over his troops like a hungry predator, looking for mistakes. The Spartan found himself oddly reminded of Chief Mendez as he watched the diminutive soldier make his rounds.


    Gazap noticed his approach, and saluted, crossing his arm over his chest and bowing slightly.

    “Welcome, Demon,” he said, his voice slightly awed. “A moment, I will make room for you.”

    “I need three open slots,” the Master Chief said, shifting the large pack on his back. Gazap nodded accordingly, and ordered his troops out of the way accordingly.

    “What are we doing here?” Neeshka asked as the Spartan moved to the central slot, “ and what did he mean, calling you a demon?” she raised an eyebrow.

    “It’s the title the Covenant gave me, after I helped take out an entire battle fleet,” John responded. “The rest of the Spartans have similar titles.” He started laying out weaponry, starting with pistols and began loading them up.

    “That is a question I’ve been meaning to ask,” Drizzt said, looking at the massive soldier in front of him. “What exactly is a ‘Spartan.’ I understand that it means you are something different from the normal soldiers of your… world,” the ranger’s violet eyes shifted somewhat. “But what does it mean?”

    The Chief paused for a moment as he set down an MA6B. How to explain that? How best to relate it? Better make it short and swift, highlight the major reasons, and then move on to the task at hand.

    “The name comes from a city-state in the land of Greece, located upon Earth,” he said, and turned to continue laying down weaponry. “The Spartans were an ultra militaristic regime, training their would-be soldiers from the age of six. They were raised in barracks, given little food, taught to steal and forage to make up for this. They were ruled by former soldiers who had survived all the battles they’d fought. Even in the other tasks they performed, they were taught to think with the discipline and will needed to fight on the battlefield.” He loaded up an Oracle and placed it near the station that he would put Wulfgar at, before prepping another one.

    “In the end, they left no art or great works of poetry or stone cutting like the other city states. They left one enduring legacy though.” He turned to face the group. “About three thousand years ago, the Persian Emperor Xerxes launched an invasion of Greece. The Persians commanded an army of two hundred and fifty thousand soldiers, culled from an empire that spanned half the known world. The Greeks formed a two prong defense, with the navy of a city state known as Athens blocking one route in, while a force of seven thousand footmen, led by King Leonidas and three hundred of Sparta’s best took up a defensive formation in a pass called Thermopile.”

    “Seven thousand, against two hundred and fifty?” Wulfgar raised an eyebrow. “Odds even my people would baulk at.”

    “They held the pass for three days, and inflicted more than twenty thousand casualties upon Xerxes troops.” The Spartan recited the lesson he had learned in his first day of training. “The ground was red with Persian blood, while the invaders marched over the bodies of their own comrades to reach the Greek lines. In the end, though, they were sold out.” He paused, and looked at the natives, aware that some of the Grunts had also stopped firing and were listening to him. “A sheepherder, seeing a chance to get rich quickly, told the Persians of a small goat pass that led around the Greek lines. When they discovered this, the Greeks knew they finished. Leonidas sent the Athenians back to their city to evacuate the civilian population.”

    “What of he himself?” Wulfgar asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

    “Leonidas, his Spartans, and a thousand troops from a rival city-state known as Thebes stayed to hold Xerxes army at bay.” The Spartan turned back to his work, taking out a battle rifle. “Pressed from both sides, Leonidas and his soldiers fought like they were possessed, they knew that every minute they held up the Persians was one more minute that their comrades had to retreat, regroup, and prepare. They held almost a full day.”

    “The Greeks…” Drizzt ventured.

    “Dead to the last man. Leonidas himself was butchered, his corpse desicrated, and his head mounted upon a pike,” the Master Chief said. “Their sacrifice, though, turned a tactical defeat into a strategic victory. They held up the Persians, let the other cities prepare, and the psychologically terrified the troops they faced. Our names are in memory of those soldiers.”

    “I see,” the Drow responded.

    “Which brings us to a similar problem,” the Master Chief continued, seeing a chance to turn a history lesson into something a little more hands on. “The Spartans ‘won’ at the battle of Thermopile for three main reasons. The first is better training. While the former may not, unfortunately, apply to the majority of the troops from the Plainsmen tribes and the Lord’s Alliance, it does apply to some of you. We can use that to our advantage with Bruenor’s elite, the Knights of Silverymoon, and the Knights of Neverwinter, and going by my observations, even the lowliest of Ten Towns militia seems to worth a few of the fodder. The second reason behind the Greek’s success was the cause. They fought for their homes and their families. The Persians were conscripts for the most part.”

    “Like the Drow slaves,” Drizzt nodded. “We certainly hold the edge there.”

    “Correct. This will also ensure a tighter knit group, in terms of the big picture.” The Spartan nodded his head, and double checked the sights on an assault rifle. “The third reason, as a combination of having the advantages of defensive placement, and superior equipment.” He placed the final weapon down, and then turned back to the group, clasping his gauntleted hands behind his back. “The Persians carried willow spears, linen armor, and wickerwork shields. The Spartans had iron spears and swords, and heavy bronze armor that covered almost all of their bodies. The Persians found their weapons almost completely combat ineffective against the Greek’s defenses.”

    “Mithril Hall’s lowest areas are a series of narrow tunnels,” Wulfgar nodded, “but equipment wise we—”

    John cut him off by pointing to the large amount of weapons that he had laid out before them.

    “Your training starts now.” He motioned for Wulfgar to come forward. The two of them were almost equal in height, and it would be easiest to demonstrate with him. “Over here, we’ll start with the basics. Once I’ve taught the three of you what to do, we’ll move on to having you assist Johnson and the Commander with teaching other individuals.”

    Wulfgar seemed to balk and opened his mouth to protest. Then he lowered his gaze, and the Master Chief knew that the Plainsman was thinking hard. He believed he knew why. The Plainsmen tribes seemed to bind themselves according to a strange code of honor, one that the Spartan admitted he didn’t fully understand. They had raided the people of Ten Towns so often that the two groups had only agreed to work together when refusal meant their utter destruction. Even then, according to Regis and Drizzt, mind control magic had been involved to a degree. Yet at the same time, there was a strange “nobility” about their savagery. A determination to eek out a living on one of the most hellish environments this world had to offer. It seemed that along with that was some notion of fair play. They appeared to detest ranged weaponry aside from hunting purposes. It was time, then, for another lesson.

    “You worry about whether or not there is ‘honor’ in such combat?” The Spartan asked.

    “I will not deny the usefulness of your weapons in battle,” Wulfgar said with a shake of his head, and then looked down at Aegis Fang. “But the enemy has no chance, he has no means of fighting back.”

    “Your hammer is magic, is it not?” The Spartan crossed his arms again.

    “Yes, very powerfully enchanted at that.” The Plainsman shook his head affirmatively.

    “But most of your adversaries lack arcane equipment. I’ve seen what you can do with that thing. What defense can be mounted against a man armed with a weapon that can shatter a giant’s spine with one swing? Who can throw it and have it magically returned to his grasp?”

    Wulfgar opened his mouth again, but was cut off by Neeshka.

    “What the Chief’s saying, Blondie, is that there’s no such thing as a fair fight. One party always holds the edge over the other.” He looked him straight in the eye. “One person’s always faster than the other. Always stronger, always got more friends at his back. By putting on magic stuff, or by using it to try and bash someone’s head in, you’re increasing that distance between yourself and another person, or attempting to make up for it against someone whose better than you.”

    “Correct.” The Master Chief folded his hands behind his back. “I know this may offend some of your sense of morals, but the first thing that we Spartans are taught, is that if something is worth fighting for, it’s worth fighting dirty over. The only unfair fight, is the one that you don’t walk away from.”

    Drizzt seemed to retreat deeper into his cloak, but the Dark Elf’s mind was a blur of thoughts. The Spartan’s words echoed those of his father. He remembered when Zak, before he had revealed to Drizzt that he was indeed his father, had unleashed a series of light stones to disorient him during a training session. He’d asked the weapon master if he so hated to lose. For a moment, the ranger heard his father’s voice once more.

    “Yes! Foolish boy, do you not understand what is at stake when you cross blades with another? You may win a hundred fights, a thousand, ten thousand, but you can only lose once!”

    There was truth to the words of the human soldier. Drizzt never once claimed to have fought fairly in his entire life. But there was fighting dirty, and then there was butchering without mercy or remorse. Again he found himself wondering what life did this Human lead, what wars did his kind wage, where such manner of heartless slaughter, of cold, ferocious ‘battle’ was not only accepted, but even encouraged? How much did he really know about this supposed ally? Aside from what they had done here, nothing. It was entirely possible that he was helping something far more dangerous than his people ever would be.

    He found himself wishing that Geunivyer was with him. The panther was his truest friend, his dearest ally. But she needed her strength. He did not dare send her home until the problems with the Weave and the Gods was sorted out. So she lay within the depths of one of the barracks of this mysterious ship.

    He wanted dearly to trust this man before him. This man whose actions, while cold and ruthless as any Drow soldier, had served to aid Bruenor so much. Mithril Hall had been retaken with virtually no casualties. The barbarians had been saved from the Luskans and the Orcs, the shipments of food and treasure between the tribes and the Ten Towns were ferried with so little payment required. But in an instant, all that could change.

    His thoughts drifted momentarily to his father, to Mooshie, his mentor, and then to the Thistletons… the farmers that he had tried to protect when he first came to the surface. They were all dead, his father for him, Mooshie of old age, and the Thisltons when a Barghast had assumed his form and slaughtered them for their life force. What would they want him to do? Should he cross the boundary that lay before him, should he accept this training, and whatever evils or aspects of goodness it would confer upon him?

    He looked up to see the Spartan placing one of those ‘pistols’ in Wulfgar’s hands. Within the hands of the Plainsman, it looked like a child’s toy. Few could imagine that it could make a man explode like a wizard had set a fireball off inside of him.

    “Do you understand how to aim it?” The Spartan asked, referencing the two raised areas along the ‘spine’ of the weapon.

    “Yes, and this… safety, mechanism keeps it from firing?” Wulfgar asked, getting a nod.

    “Now, for the next part, I’m going to teach you how to load and unload the weapon…”

    The Ranger knew that it would not be long before it became his turn; it was time to make a decision. Again and again, he weighed the consequences. What he might gain, what his entire world stood to lose.

    He was distracted by a sudden hissing noise from behind, and turned to see the door opening. Sergeant Johnson strode in, carrying his own sack full of weapons. To the Drow’s immense surprise, were a number of the members of the Lord’s Alliance, including Lord Nasher and Lady Falconhand. The latter took notice of the Dark Elf and smiled at him. The Dark Elf tentatively smiled back, before turning his attention to the UNSC Sergeant.

    “Sorry to intrude, Chief, but we’ve got delegates from the Lord’s alliance here. We never did get a chance to show Nasher what we can do, and the rest of the Lords and Ladies want some reassurance that we can help with the Drow. They want to see it first hand.” Johnson said.

    The Spartan nodded, and Johnson moved forward, setting down the rucksack that he was carrying, and pulling out a number of weapons that the Master Chief had not brought into the firing range. Meanwhile, the cyborg motioned for everyone to gather around the central shooting station. There was a moment of silence, while the Lords and Ladies of the cities of the Lord’s Alliance formed a semi-circle around him.

    “Cortana, can you pull up the two safety bars from around my position. I want everyone to be able to see this,” the Master Chief said. The construct complied with his request, and there was suddenly a four meter wide gap in which to view the end of the shooting range.

    Gazap promptly ordered a cease fire to all of his soldiers, and they stood back. There seemed to be a small amount of awe that glistened in their eyes. The Master Chief looked at them for a second, wondering why they gazed at him like they did. Then he picked up a pistol that was lying on the table. It was the C variant, a stripped down version of the M6D, issued to noncombat personnel.

    “United Nations Space Command standard issue noncom sidearm, the Mark Six ‘C’,” he said, showing the pistol around as Cortana put out new targeting dummies on the range. “The weapon is a short ranged ‘last resort’ weapon, intended to be used when the individual has no other alternative, or is working in a situation that requires a free hand. This device weighs about four pounds, unloaded, and features a smart link scope for linking up with UNSC biometrical neural laces, recoil dampening technology, and may be fitted with a suppressor to make the gun quieter for times when stealth is necessary.” He looked around at the crowd before him. Some were looking a little lost, but others seemed to at least understand what he was telling them.

    “The M6C fires modified fifty caliber action express ammunition,” he held one of the bullets out, and motioned for it to be passed around among the group individuals. “The slug is depleted uranium, armor piercing and shredder variant, with a muzzle velocity of just over five hundred and fifty meters per second—a little more than eighteen hundred feet per second,” he corrected himself. These people used a variation of the standard system, not metric, he reminded himself. “The weapon is accurate out to on hundred meters.” He quickly loaded the pistol, and chambered a round. At the far end of the range was a target, that he noticed that Cortana had made to resemble an Orc. He was tempted to laugh.

    “This target dummy is fashioned out of ballistics gel, a chemical compound that can almost perfectly mimic the flesh of a humanoid creature,” the Master Chief continued. He waited until all eyes were back on him, and then acted. In a blur of motion, twisted, grabbed the pistol in both hands, sighted up the ‘Orc’ and fired a double tap.

    The first round punched straight into the Orc’s belly, ripping through the gel. Half the round sheered off and began to fragment as the other half punched on through and slumped into the back of the range. The second one ripped most of the target’s head off.

    The Spartan unloaded the pistol as Cortana reached out and brought the dummy back towards the watching group. With the Master Chief’s help, it was disconnected, and laid out before the lords and ladies.

    “As you can see, the shot to the torso almost completely disemboweled the target,” Johnson spoke up, peeling back the wounded area and letting everyone see the shredded mess of gel that was inside of it. “If this sucker had been real, he’d currently be holding most of his guts in his hands.” Johnson smirked behind his helmet. “Of course, that would also require that he have a sufficient amount of his central nervous system left to command his hands to reach out and grab said guts. Which as you can see, he clearly lacks,” the ODST pointed to the head. “Not that they ever had much up there to start with.”

    A little bit of a chuckle broke out among the assembled people. The Chief was reminded of a classroom where students would chuckle at any joke the professor made, good or bad, in order to keep the tension to a minimum. These people were still somewhat nervous about them.

    “Neeshka,” the Spartan said. “Come here. I want you to demonstrate how to use the pistol, now that you’ve seen it.”

    The Tiefling went red in the face all of a sudden, aware that eyes were upon her, and not all of them looking favorably. Lord Nasher’s eyes fell upon her, and he motioned for her to step forward with a kind smile. The Tiefling chewed on her lips slightly, and then exhaled slowly. She walked forward to where the Chief was standing, and he extended the side arm towards her, barrel facing down, with the chamber open and the weapon still unloaded. Gulping softly, the girl moved up to the barrier between her and the range, looking for the same kind of magazine that the Chief had put down.

    She could see Cortana putting another Orc out onto the range, as she found what she was looking for. She pulled the clip up, and looked down at the rounds, something that she had seen both the Master Chief and Sergeant Johnson perform many times, probably looking for defects in the rounds or something that was misaligned. She’d seen some crossbowmen do the same.

    She put the clip in, noticing that the front portion of it had a small overhang at the bottom. The she reached up and pulled the main body of the weapon back. One of the bullets slid in, and she noticed the thing was larger than her thumb. Exhaling softly, she looked down the range and carefully tried to line up the weapon with the target. The Master Chief shifted suddenly, stepping behind her and gently grabbing her arms. He applied a gentle amount of pressure, and she understood that he was trying to adjust her stance. She was somewhat surprised. He had the strength to out wrestle Glabrezu and his arms were strong enough to shatter stone. That he could be gentle was something of a shock.

    “Now,” she heard his voice speak up, “look between the two sights. Line them up, the front one with the rear one.” She did so, and his hands shifted forward, clasping around hers and moving her fingers slightly. “Watch your grip. The recoil dampeners will keep most of the kick from reaching you, but if you’re not holding it tight enough, it’ll throw your aim off.”

    He then backed off. “Go ahead.”

    Neeshka pulled the trigger, and the gun kicked softly in her hands. She pulled the trigger once more, and then a third time. The shots were dead on, and the Orc dummy was little more than a shredded mess by the time that she got through with it. She could feel the shock on her own face, and she almost forgot to unload the gun when she put it back down.

    “Nice shooting,” Johnson said, walking up and clapping her on the shoulder. “I’d say you’re a natural at this.”

    The Tiefling smiled faintly, and then moved backwards, somewhat nervous about all the eyes that were coming down on her again.

    “Next up is the MA6B assault rifle,” Johnson said, moving over to where it was. “This baby fires seven-six-two millimeter NATO depleted uranium rounds at four times the speed of sound itself, and can empty its sixty round mag in less than four seconds.”

    --

    And so it went. Every weapon was covered in detail, each one more dangerous and devastating than the last. Then holographic battle recordings were shown of the heavier weapons, rocket launchers, thirty millimeter vulcan cannons, the massive assault cannons that Lotar and Denos had used against the Luskans, and finally the Spartan Laser. The crowd has gasped in shock as they watched a single shot from the shoulder mounted weapon reduce the Earth Elemental that Briza had summoned to molten lava and vaporized rock.

    Then came defensive demonstrations, as the Lords and Ladies were invited to swing their personal weaponry at the Master Chief, and bore witness to how none of their swords, axes, or maces could harm the cyborg as the crackling lightning of his shields stopped the melee weapons cold.

    At last, the demonstration came to an end. Small talk was made among the lords and the ladies, and the Master Chief could tell that there was a heated discussion going on about what to do in light of their new allies.

    “Butchery,” Drizzt whispered, and the Spartan turned to face him. “What is your reality like, where you must arm and defend yourself as such?” He could hear distaste in the voice of the Dark Elf, and he cocked his head to the side as he walked over towards him.

    “Does our technology bother you?” the Spartan asked.

    “Yes,” the Drow hissed, “yes it does. With weapons like this, what’s to stop one man from butchering dozens before he can be stopped? What’s to stop massacres from occurring? People dying needlessly?” he looked up at the Spartan as Lady Falconhand walked over towards them. “What is it about your world that necessitates the existence of devices capable of such bloodshed?” the last sentence was loud enough to be heard by all, and everything grew eerily silent.

    Glances were exchanged, and the Master Chief frowned behind his helmet. Drizzt was the foremost expert here on Drow tactics. They didn’t need him agitated like this. He had to be made to understand. And the Spartan looked down at the man, so small, so seemingly fragile before him, and then over to the members of the Lord’s Alliance. The gaze that he was receiving was one similar to the one that Neeshka had received. He remembered the Tieflings words, that no one came to this area of the world by choice, they were driven here by criminal records or social stigmas.

    And Drizzt lived outside of the towns. He remembered the raid, Drizzt’s mention of them being somewhat common, and even having been on one himself. Things started to fall into place. Like Neeshka, he faced his own social prejudices because of his heritage, because of the fear that he was a Drow, and because of that, he would stab everyone in their sleep at the first opportunity, or perhaps sacrifice their souls in some unholy ritual. Here, he had found a little niche to fit in, even if it was clinging to life on frozen rocks with no friends outside of the Dwarf Clan.

    To be hated, fear, and hunted simply because of what he was. The Spartan felt a moment of kinship with the Dark Elf, and he looked over to Johnson. The Sergeant Major understood, and nodded.

    “Follow us, we’ll show you why we needed these…” he removed his helmet, and the Spartan nearly did a double take. The Sergeant’s face was a mask, but his eyes were filled with grief. Something had happened, some memory stirred up.

    With Johnson in the lead, it didn’t take long for them to arrive at a briefing room.

    “Cortana, you got access to my index?” the Helljumper asked.

    “Affirmative, Sergeant. What are you looking for?”

    The ODST spouted off a series of time date index numbers, and a moment later, an image appeared on one of the two holotanks. It showed what had once been a city, now reduced to a bombed out waste. Johnson was looking out a window, and the Master Chief saw a few wounded Marines and Army soldiers behind him. He cocked his head for a moment, and then realized something. This was Azure Twelve, an Earth-Type planet that he and his fellows had battled on during the first few years of the Covenant War. It was an outer colony, home to approximately three quarters of a billion people. The Spartan nodded to himself and then stepped forward, requesting his own time index. It opened up with a Pelican interior, and seventeen of his brothers and sisters.

    “Play.” They both said.

    The recordings started, and hell was unleashed.
     
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  23. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Chapter Twenty-Two - Battlefields of Blood and Tears

    The Master Chief watched as both of the screens came to life. He and his siblings were in their old Mark IV suits, the dull green plates scratched and scored by plasma fire. Their helmets, slightly bulkier and more elongated than the Mark VI he wore now, reflected each other’s gaze. Over their comlinks was the voice of Admiral Cole, informing them of various statistics of Azure Twelve. Population, strategic importance, local defense forces, and what had happened. Occasionally a burst of static came over the signal as an especially powerful burst of ECM and ECCM disrupted it, or a large weapon detonation.

    Johnson’s was the one that most of the natives focused upon. He was down in the thick of things.

    “Say again, Fleetcomm, local defense garrisons have been overrun!” someone shouted, and Johnson turned around to face him. The Master Chief saw a pale skinned young man, half his face burned black and red by proximity plasma fire, shouting into a satellite uplink. Johnson’s implants identified him as private first class Derrick Toliver. “Covenant force too strong. We need air and armor support, reinforcements, everything you can spare!”

    “Much regret, unable,” came a garbled voice from the other end. “Covenant forces too thick, Seraphs… Cruisers everywhere. Can spare one dropship. Already inbound to your position… Admiral wants you to link up with them and press into the downtown region of New Bismarck. Do you copy?” a pause. “Repeat, groundside, do you copy?”

    “A single dropship?” Johnson spoke up, walking over as the whole building shook and a flash of light filled the room. “That’s not reinforcements, that’s a goddamn funeral detail!” he pushed the private aside and stood in front of the small device. “Listen, I don’t know what you flyboys are going through up there, but down here, it’s the damned Apocalypse! There’s nothing left, we’re down to twenty men fit to fight, and there’s nothing between these split chinned bastards and the civilian population of New Bismarck but a bunch of blown up buildings and the Fortress.” He shook his head. “We need something to work with. Give us some Longswords, Skyhawks, death from above.” The building shook again. “We’ve got nothing down here. Nothing!”

    “You have your orders. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more that we can spare. Friendly dropship’s coming down a half click south by southwest of your position. That’s all I can tell you.”

    “Fleetcomm!” Johnson practically roared. A burst of static met him. “Fleetcomm! Dammit Toliver, get them back up.”

    “The link’s fine, sergeant,” the PFC said with a shake of his head. “Trouble’s on their end of things.”

    “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” someone whispered. Johnson turned and observed a somewhat lanky man of Asiatic descent, identified as Private Adam Kamiara. He wasn’t a marine, but a member of the UNSC army, judging by the uniform and digital identification tags. “This is it, we’re about to get slagged!” he started whimpering and rocking back and forth, clutching at his assault rifle until his knuckles turned white.

    “For the love of…” Johnson trailed off, before walking up and yanking the man off his feet. “Look, landlubber, this is my homeworld too, and I am not about to let these xeno bastards take it away from us! Now, pull yourself together, or I swear on my grandmother’s grave I will throw you out that window and leave you for the Jackals!”

    “While I agree with you, sir, I can’t say I blame him,” Toliver said. “We’ve all seen what happens after the flyboys go down.” The man paused. “I’m not afraid to fight, but Allah have mercy, I don’t want to die like that.”

    “I don’t want to either,” Johnson said, lowering Kamiara back to the floor, “but if we don’t do something, a whole lot of people are going to die. Men, women, children. Unarmed, scared. You want that to be the last thing you take with you to the grave, trooper? That in your last minutes, you were too scared about your own tail to worry about the civvies you signed on to protect?”

    “‘Whole lot of people are already dead, including most of those men, women and children,” Toliver responded. He moved over towards what appeared to be an ammunition stockpile. “I don’t want anyone else to die either, but let’s be realistic; it’s going to take a miracle to pull this one off.”

    “Friendly dropship, inbound!” someone said, and a mad dash to the window ensued, before Johnson harshly called them back.

    The Master Chief digested what he saw with great interest. He’d fought the Covenant thousands of times on hundreds of worlds, and after a while, they all just started to blur together. He hadn’t even known that this was where Johnson had come from, up until he’d seen what Johnson was calling out, he’d forgotten that Johnson had even been on that planet. He felt a pang of sympathy for the sergeant.

    Back on the holovid, he signaled for his team to move. Blue Team went out first, Kelly and Linda taking point. The former braced a BR-55 against her shoulder, the latter an Oracle. Both had shotguns strapped to their backs, loaded with explosive ammunition, and Kelly also sported a rocket launcher. James and Kurt bolted next, taking up flanking positions. They’d keep their UAV out of the sky for now. Intel was sketchy at the moment, and they had no idea how many Covenant troops were present in New Bismarck. They caught sight of the little aerial vehicle, and the jig was up. William and Fred followed him out, followed by the other members of Red and Green Teams. They scattered into the back allies and focused on a waypoint that had been erected.

    “Form up into your squads, radio silence unless hard contact is initiated. Move towards the way point. Acknowledge.” He said.

    A series of lights across his HUD flashed, and like ghosts, the Spartan-II’s began to move.

    It was five hundred meters to the target. Five hundred meters of hell. Burnt out buildings stood like skeletal guardians of the once proud city, while others were half slagged mounds of metal alloy or had been reduced to vapor in their entirety. The ground and streets were covered in blood and bodies, most of them Human. Every here and there was a shredded body of what had once been a Jackal, or a pile of meat and metal covered in sky-colored blood. Splashes of dark purple and the occasional luminescent orange could be found as well.

    Civilian and soldier alike lay upon the ground; judging by the positions of the bodies, the latter had probably fallen trying to prevent the former from being gunned down. They lay with their bodies have vaporized by plasma, or strewn all over the rubble where well placed needler rounds had ripped their bodies apart like a grenade had exploded inside of them. Other had just enough of their mass left for rigor mortis to contort their bodies into pain twisted effigies of what a human should look like.

    The Master Chief looked down as he moved up in a back alley, his enhanced vision picking up a cold lump in front of him. He looked at it for a split second, before carefully rolling it over. There were no booby traps left by the Covenant. What lay in front of him, though, was a small child, about five or six, if he were to hazard a guess. The pattern of a small dress was burned into her flesh. She’d been branded by a proximity detonation, probably a plasma grenade or something similar. But that hadn’t killed her. He throat was slit, and her corpse looked as if it had been gnawed upon. Jackals had done this.

    A great flash and an aurora borealis filled the evening sky. Admiral Cole was unleashing Shivas. Not a good sign. It meant he was getting desperate. As they had descended to the surface, the last of the three SMACs that had defended Azure Twelve had been reduced to a slagged ruin. Time was running out. He paused just long enough to close the glassy, unblinking eyes of the child, and then moved forward. Kelly and Linda were across the street in another alley. They’d noticed the body too, judging by their body language. They were tightened in their stances, like predators waiting to pounce. Linda flashed her fingers across her visor, turning them down at the last moment. It was a Spartan hand signal meaning vengeance. The Master Chief returned the gesture, and then signaled them onward. There would be a time for avenging these people later. Right now, they needed to make certain that more didn’t join the ranks.

    Another burst of light filtered down from above, a critically damaged Longsword, visible only through Spartan Time. It blasted overhead, disappeared among the buildings, and a great flash followed. A mushroom of blue fire formed, swallowing the buildings on the horizon front of them with its fury.

    The Master Chief remembered his temperature gauge spiking and the shockwave rattling his metal bones as the reactor destabilized. He wondered how many hiding refugees had been consumed when it had been destroyed.

    --

    Neeshka and Drizzt stood side by side, each one watching the twin films with horrific interest. Neeshka felt her insides churn as she watched the Spartans move through the rubble. Her mind flashed to Ember, where she, Kale, and the others, had stared at the bodies of the people that Lorne Starling and his Luskan minions had butchered without mercy. It was that all over again, only on a much greater scale. She looked over to Sergeant Johnson’s memories. He was staring out the window of a building, looking at the explosion that seemed to be miles wide. The skyline of this ‘New Bismarck’ stretched forward forever. It went all the way to the horizon with buildings so tall it was a wonder they didn’t intrude upon the domains of the gods. Scores were gutted and half melted by some unseen force, as if the Hells themselves had paid them a visit.

    How many people had died here? Slaughtered like sheep…

    Then she looked back over to the Master Chief’s, and she saw the child. The eyes that stared upwards into nothingness and a body that looked as if wolves had partially devoured it. She forced herself to hold down her food as she became aware of others entering the room. She didn’t turn to look and see whom it was, though some of the voices seemed familiar. She could not pull herself away from what was on the screen before them. She gazed back over to Johnson’s and the carnage that lay upon it. Soldiers were missing their arms and their legs, others had bandages covering one of their eyes, or faces that looked as if they’d been stuck into a blacksmith’s forge and then pulled back out.

    Somehow these men remained on their feet, refused to lay down and die. They clutched at their weapons, some in terror, some in rage, some with a calm, impassive look on their face that Neeshka had seen before in soldiers exposed for far too long to the horrors of the battlefield.

    As for Drizzt, the Dark Elf kept himself well hidden within the depths of his cloak. He gazed at the little girl and felt his soul crack and threaten to shatter. Images became superimposed. He saw a little Moon Elf girl, her whole village slaughtered by the hands of his fellows. He saw himself desperate work his scimitars over her body, covering her in so much blood from her slain mother that she looked to have been carved up like a roth. The features changed, Moon Elf became Human, and he felt his hands tremble in rage as he looked at Liam Thistledown, the boy who had naively ‘befriended’ him when he was alone, after the Barghest fiend had left the boy half eaten within his family’s farmstead. The Hunter, that dark, cold, anger filled portion of him that had kept him alive during his decade of living alone in the Underdark, raged and screamed within him. It wanted to be unleashed, for him to draw his scimitars and find the ones who had did this.

    By the time he snapped out of it, he realized that the two groups were close to making contact with one another.

    “Moving up stairwell forty two,” he heard the Master Chief say. “Stand by for contact.”

    Johnson and the others said nothing, but trained their weapons upon the door. Drizzt raised an eyebrow for a second, and wondered what was going on with that. Did they fear subversion, or was this merely a safety protocol? This was the kind of paranoia he would have expected from his people, not the UNSC. The Dark Elf strained his sensitive ears, trying to hear the sounds of the approaching soldiers. The only warning he got was when they opened the door with a single hand, and a gauntleted fist came through the gap.

    “Friendlies, moving in,” this time the voice was audible without the radio static. “Check fire, check fire.”

    The weapons were lowered slightly, and then the door opened the rest of the way. The members of the Spartan teams moved in, and everyone in the room seemed to draw back. The Dark Elf heard Johnson gasp.

    “What the hell?” he heard one of the soldiers gasp, his voice filled with awe as he staggered away from this armored juggernaut that moved over the floor as if it were a ghost, making no noise, moving far too fluidly to be a human.

    Others swore quietly, and some simply stood there silently. The Drow supposed that from their perspective, this was something wholly new and otherworldly. Details sprang up along Sergeant Johnson’s “HUD” displaying the ranks of each of the soldiers, along with call signs. Drizzt noticed that unlike the ones that showed up with a normal soldier was focused on, there were no names for these soldiers. This was a fact that did not seem to be lost upon the rank and file, judging by the whispers that broke out among them. Eyes also focused on the impressive array of weaponry that the green armored soldiers carried with them, including two that were holding tri-barreled devices that reminded Drizzt of a slightly smaller version of what the Master Chief had carried back in Mithril Hall, and a third who carried what looked like the ‘oracle’ weapon that he’d seen both the Spartan and Johnson use, except it was larger, with some kind of strange black attachment that ran from the weapon to a backpack. It also had a strange attachment where the ammunition holder would be, resembling a large circular drum.

    “Master Chief, Sir?” Johnson said, snapping into what appeared to be a strange form of salute and drawing his attention back to the events occurring before him. Neeshka found herself surprised. He looked so young—well, younger than he was now, considering he was eighty five years old at the current moment—and his Helljumper armor was no where to be seen. Instead he wore the green and steel colored armor of a UNSC ‘Marine.’

    “At ease, Sergeant, who’s in charge here?” the Spartan asked.

    “At the moment, me. Our El-Tee got his head taken off by a plasma rifle five minutes into the shooting war. That was about twelve hours ago. Army didn’t fair any better.”

    “The rest of the platoon also dead?” The Spartan cocked his head to the side.

    A bitter chuckle echoed through the air, and both of the points of view focused on a soldier called Eric Fitzgerald.

    “Platoon, sir?” the man seemed to be a corporal, if Drizzt was reading his information correctly. “Shit, Fleetcomm must not have given you the full four-one-one on what’s going on down here. You’re looking at all that’s left of New Bismarck’s Alpha and Beta divisions.”

    There was a moment of stark silence, and Drizzt looked over to the others. They also had confusion. The images in front of them paused for a second as Dove opened her mouth to speak.

    “What are these divisions that the soldier speaks of?” she asked.

    “UNSC army and marine corps organization,” the Master Chief said. “It consists of fifty thousand front line troops—riflemen, grenadiers, marksmen, heavy weapons, etc.—their support troops, auxiliaries, and their integrated recon vehicles, armored personnel carriers, tanks, artillery and close air support.”

    A heavy, chilling silence fell over the group of natives as their minds tried to comprehend what that meant. Dove looked to Drizzt, Bruenor to Wulfgar, Neeshka to Lord Nasher. Such an organization was larger than the military forces of half the Lord’s Alliance itself, possibly more than that, depending on how large the other ‘support forces’ were. And two of them had been reduced to less than threescore men in twelve hours?

    Neeshka felt horror and nausea well up inside of her. Warfare on that scale, bloodshed of that magnitude… whole wars that had raged upon the surface of Faerun, with villages and cities put to the torch, men, women, and children slaughtered without mercy or pity. All of it seemed so… inconsequential, compared to this. And this was one city. Another chill worked its way up her spine. While it was true that the UNSC seemed more militant in nature than Neverwinter, in the case of her home city, there was one soldier for about every hundred people. If that was the case, then the past twelve hours had seen the deaths of millions.

    “Resume play,” the Master Chief said.

    “Any word on Gamma or Delta Division?” his younger self asked Johnson. “Fleetcomm’s last message from them was that they were at half strength and had no tanks or APCs left. They were falling back towards the Fortress with a number of civilians.”

    “That’s the last we got as well.” Johnson said, shaking his head, and staring down at his boots. “What’s the admiral got in mind?”

    “As of right now, ONI is taking over this operation, and NavSpecWep has control. You operate under our orders, and through our chain of command.” The Master Chief gazed around, as if taking stock of the room once again, seeing how many were fit to fight. “Under UNSC protocol Alpha-to-Omega, this has become an off the record mission. We were never here; you never assisted us. You will adhere to this protocol under the jurisdiction of the UNSC war crimes tribunal. Violation will be considered treason… understood?”

    Johnson nodded his head. “Everyone get that?”

    “What’s going on?” Lord Nasher asked. The recordings were paused once again, and Johnson turned to face him.

    “For most of their careers, UNSC high command wanted the Spartans' existence kept secret. Anyone who worked with them was sworn to keep their mouths shut about them. Didn’t want to get people’s hopes too high.” He said. “Wasn’t until about two decades in that they finally decided to stop with the cloak and dagger…” he caught himself, reminding himself that swearing in front of the Lord of Neverwinter was probably not the best move he could make “At any rate, what that mumbo-jumbo meant was that if we blabbed about them existing, we’d either wind up in a brig cell for a nice long time to reflect on our actions, or they’d just save the taxpayer’s money and give us a seven-sixty-two millimeter headache.” He pointed to the assault rifle on his back. Nasher nodded in understanding.

    “Tyr’s lost hand…” the words came from Khelghar, and Johnson raised his eyebrows. He wasn’t aware that the Dwarven monk had been present.

    Play resumed again.

    “What are our orders, then, Master Chief?” Johnson asked.

    “We’re to support an evacuation of the New Bismarck populace by taking out Covenant surface to orbital guns and liberating any civilian populations we come across,” the Spartan said.

    “And the Covenant?” one of the Army troopers asked.

    “Terminate with extreme prejudice…” he said, and turned to face the rest of the assembled soldiers. “Gather weapons and ammo. If it launches, lacerates, or detonates, I want it coming with us. That includes everyone fit to fight. Those who cannot will be left here for a UNSC dropship to retrieve.” He turned to face his own troops. “Blue Four, you take point, Blue Three, back her up. Green Leader, you and your squad procure that fifty cal…”

    --

    Neeshka felt as though hours had passed before them. Her feet ached, and she felt tired, her brain numb and aching, but she still could not tear her eyes away from what was before them. The Spartans were magnificent in action, moving like blurs, as if they could read each other’s minds. But that was only part of the reason. The carnage went on and on. Bodies lay contorted in the streets, corpses for whatever beasts and fowl chose to try and feast upon them.

    Every now and again, a massive bolt of blue-green energy would streak up from ahead. She had no idea what was causing it, but she knew that it couldn’t be good. Her tail made its way to her hands and she clutched at it in confusion and fear. This was alike a scene from her nightmares, where she was dragged screaming into the hells, damned by her infernal blood. The scorched flesh and bone reached upwards like the screaming of condemned souls, and she could imagine the screaming of these people in their last moments of agony.

    And in some disturbing way, the Master Chief and his fellows were like vultures. Anything that was still intact and useful was collected from the bodies. Medical kits, ammunition, grenades, weapons, even ammo drums from shattered vehicles were taken and strapped to the backs of the Spartan soldiers. They picked everything clean, with the Spartan himself claiming a weapon that his readouts identified as an M6J.

    As they had progressed forward, some of the groups had begun spreading out, as if they were attempting to flank. Communication was done via hand signals and the winking of strange lights on their HUDs. The Master Chief explained what they were, and what was going on. After a few more minutes of hellish landscape, though, she was startled by the sound of a repeated staccato echoing, and a loud roar. A viewing module appeared inside of the Master Chief’s display, and Neeshka realized he was watching the HUD of another Spartan. Identification at the top indicated that it was an individual known only as Red One.

    A Warthog rushed by, with three people inside of it. One man drove, another was firing his assault rifle out of the back of the craft, while a third manned the massive gun on the back. A bolt of green energy impacted in front and to the side of the craft. The blast erupted outwards, and everything within thirty feet turned to ash, while the blastwave picked the warthog up and threw into the side of a building across the street from where the Spartan was hiding. The speed that the vehicle hit was strong enough to smash through the mortar and steel of the already weakened side, and the Tiefling winced as a loud crunch reached her ears. A choked off scream resounded moments later, coming from the man on the back. While his comrades in the front had been killed instantly, by blast or impact she did not know, this man still lived. For how long was anyone’s guess, as the heat of the explosion had burned most of his clothes from his body, and bones protruded from his legs and chest, along with a couple of pieces of metal. Neeshka could see the man’s agony, but somehow, he kept fighting, the massive weapon thundering at whatever unseen foes assaulted him.

    Three blue lines flashed across the Spartan’s field of view, and left her eyes dazzled. When she blinked away the spots, the gunfire had stopped, the weapon the soldier had manned reduced to a half melted mess.

    His face a twisted mask of agony, the soldier, identified as Jonathan Smith, reached for a pistol on his hip that had somehow survived the blast. Before he could even draw it, though, a forth bolt streaked in and took his arm off at the elbow. He slumped in the harness, biting off his screams. Red One zoomed in on the man, and Neeshka could see him biting his lip, the tender flesh bleeding profusely as he fought to keep his pain under control.

    Something drew near, flashing on the Spartan’s motion sensor. It was large, a group of strange, avian like creatures. They hunkered behind shimmering shields and wore some kind of strange armor and visors. Then her breath caught in her throat. Standing tall among them, wrapped in armor the color of human blood, was a Sangheili. The marine struggled as the muscled behemoth drew near, and then a Lek’golo stepped out of the shadows. Neeshka blinked, once, twice, three times. Horror began to well up inside of her. She looked over to the Master Chief, who nodded softly at her, and placed a hand on her shoulder. So what Johnson had been claiming at the raided village had been true. The Sangheili had made war upon humanity.

    The Sangheili warrior spoke then.

    “You have fought well, Human,” It said, tearing him out of his harness and holding him up above the ground. The man barely coked off a pain ridden. “I am impressed by your courage and your spirit. Know, heretic, that we are not entirely without mercy. I will grant you a swift death.”

    “Fuck… you…” Smith replied, summoning up the strength to spit on the creature that held him. The blood tainted saliva trickled down an unseen force field as the Sangheili shook its head.

    “Even in the face of death you hold to your convictions. Again you impress me.” Its mandibles were spread wide in a smile.

    Red One’s HUD lights flashed in a coded message.

    “Requesting permission to engage,” the Master Chief said to the onlookers.

    A red flash returned.

    “Permission denied.”

    The Sangheili placed its rifle against Smith’s head and pulled the trigger. Neeshka closed her eyes, but opened them a moment later as a loud squawk reached her ears. Smith’s execution had flushed two civilians out of hiding. A boy in his early teens, and a younger sibling, about four years old if the Tiefling were to hazard a guess. The bird like creatures raised their guns, and fired. Green bolts of energy tore into the two children, and they had scarcely made it ten meters before they were slain. Their smoldering, shattered bodies rolled to a halt and the Sangheili nodded, before moving his squadron further up the path the two Humans had taken.

    As Red One and his team began to move up the stairs of the shattered building they occupied, the Master Chief and his drew ever closer to their target. Neeska could see the top of a large device emerge from between the skeletons of the buildings. The Spartans and the rest of the defenders began to spread out, preparing themselves for their attack.

    “Why?” Drizzt voiced suddenly.

    “Yes,” Dove whispered, looking up at the Master Chief. “Why did you just let that happen? Why didn’t you do something?”

    John stared down at the woman. Her gold eyes, silver hair, and tapered ears marked lineage with at least some Elvish ancestry. Those eyes were currently wide with rage and hate.

    “Our wars are not like yours… milady,” he said, cocking his head to the side and clasping his hands behind his back. “Here, if you were to slaughter an Orc patrol, or a group of Luskans, you would have hours to move about unchecked, until they were missed back at the base. With our technology, those hours become minutes, possibly seconds if they can get a radio warning off. Then our cover is blown. The Covenant knows we’re there. They’re alert, and their defenses become that much harder to crack.”

    “It’s not an easy decision,” Johnson said, his voice quiet. “But it’s two people, or the remaining civilian population of New Bismarck.” There was a strange resignation in his voice.
    A silence settled over the group assembled before them. Neeshka slowly nodded her head, as if in understanding. One by ones the others did as well. The simmering anger and helpless rage was visible in their eyes, but they seemed to be understanding what was going on at least.

    The minutes passed, and the group arrived at a large clearing. A massive, cylindrical device pointed up towards the sky, firing every few seconds.

    “Covenant surface to orbital gun,” the Master Chief said as his past self spread his forces out and moved through the gutted buildings. “Effective range of over a hundred thousand miles. Think of it as an anti-spelljammer weapon.”

    The Marines and Army troops that were still alive took positions up around him. He sent Kelly and Linda twenty stories up to get a good sniping position, and serve as secondary spotters for Red Team’s one-twenty mortar in the event of their UAV being destroyed. He braced his M6J against his shoulders and double checked the mag. The weapon was an army issue carbine that could double as a SAW in a pinch, featuring a one hundred and twenty round double-drum magazine. It fired the same armor piercing explosive rounds as the M6D, but it could shoot them more accurately and at a higher rate of fire. While it only had an effective range of four hundred meters, at the distance he was at now, that wouldn’t be much of an issue.

    Hundreds of Covenant troops milled about the multi-story gun and around an intact structure that was off to the side. White armored Sangheili and a few Lek’golo milled about it, as alert as ever. They would be the greatest threat. He wasn’t certain if their mortars would chew through the defenses that they had. Still, there was only one way to know for sure, and they had to knock that gun off line.

    He paused for a moment, staring at the door, and then zoomed his visor in. He saw a human civilian, a middle aged man, being marched past the front door and deeper into the building by an Elite. A frown came over his face. He pointed it out to the rest of the Spartans, and tagged the building as a secondary objective.

    One by one, the teams winked acknowledgement lights. They were ready. Then he sent the signal. It wasn’t much, three quick flashes and a fourth one that was slower.

    Engage.

    The UAV went up, a silent spy to guide death down on top of the enemy. Coordinates relayed between the onboard computer and the Spartans of Red Team. Visual feedback allowed him to see the first one hundred twenty millimeter mortar slide down the tube. Electromagnetic forces combined, and flung it out. It went from the building top that the team was on, more than ten klicks distant, and descended right into the center of the largest cluster of Grunts and Jackals.

    A great roar ensued and they disintegrated into blobs of meat, bone, and blood. Everything within thirty meters became a pool of gore, while shrapnel pinged off the armor of the massive gun—armor that was as thick as a Hunter’s shield. The second and third mortars were already in the air.

    “Break radio silence. Dynamic!” The Master Chief shouted. His HUD became alive with targeting symbols as Green Team, Blue Team, and the normal soldiers opened fire. Off to his left, Blue Three, James, opened fire with a procured fifty caliber tribarrel heavy machine gun. Hypersonic rounds tore down range, joined by fire from Green Team, creating a horrific crossfire.

    A line of purple and blue erupted across the open square as Green Two unleashed the fury of his M99 Stanchion. The gauss rifle spat a 5.4x60 millimeter DU slug at velocities comparable to the Rhino tank’s main gun. Lightning crackled as the Elite’s were hit by the massive anti-armor weapon. A double tap ripped one commander to pieces as his shielding failed and he exploded like a grenade had gone off inside of him.

    The Master Chief snapped out, sighted up a group of Jackals that were shifting around in confusion. A hole opened up in their shield wall, and he fired the carbine. The explosive rounds left his weapon and ripped into them. Purple blood and flesh splattered against the shimmering hemispheres of their shields among flashes of fire and screams of pain.

    Mortars two and three rained down slaughtering the light infantry troops present. From up above, Linda entered the fray. A series of SABOT rounds left her rifle, smashing into a blue armored Elite that was trying to rally his troops under a hail of machinegun fire. His shields flickered and faded in time for a trio of fifty caliber rounds to penetrate the open slit of his helmet and his mouth. The decapitated corpse fell to the ground, buried by the panicking Grunts and Jackals.

    The Lek’golo roared and raised their assault cannons.

    “Defilade! Defilade!” The Master Chief shouted.

    A bolt of green energy green energy, followed swiftly by another, flew through where they were hiding. The Spartan’s temperature gauge shot up to over five hundred degrees as the plasma blob smashed through a wall behind them and showered the group with molten metal and rock.

    “Take those things out!” the Spartan exclaimed.

    M99 rounds pinged and thudded off of the Hunters as they turtled down behind their shields, each moving to cover the other. Barrages of heavy caliber rounds impacted their armor, joined by anti-armor jackhammers. The Behemoths were not stupid, however, and let out barrages of suppression fire, leaving glassy craters as the Spartans and normal soldiers crawled among the wreckage. Another mortar came in, exploding right on top of the monsters. They grunted and staggered, but did not relent. The Covenant forces were rallying around the beasts, using them to bolster their morale. It was imperative that they fall.

    Another fuel rod blast shot through one of the open walls. It detonated with earth shaking force, and the ambient heat washed over the group. Private Kamiara was engulfed in green fire along with a half dozen others. A choked scream, forever silenced, was his only epitaph. When the flash cleared, nothing was left of where he and his fellows had been except for a glassy crater three meters deep and small bits of carbonized skeleton.

    There was a surreal horror to it all, Neeshka thought, as a group of flying spelljammers termed ‘Banshees’ came screaming into the fight. Guided, flaming projectiles rushed up to meet them, swatting some from the sky in a fiery holocaust of burning metal. The wreckages crashed in among the Covenant troops, scattering them. Still more rallied around the large Lek’golo troops. More shots from their assault cannons blasted building and men to bits. Johnson and one of the Spartans of Blue Team were hurled through the air by the impact, and both landed heavily.

    The Spartan continued firing, but looking through Johnson’s memory, Neeshka saw something that surprised her. The Spartan had his back up against a wall, identified as Blue Two, and he held his rifle in a single hand. He held it that way because his left arm was gone, burned off by the impact of the Hunter’s cannon. Blue Two twisted out into the open for a few seconds and fired off a few rounds, before turning back inside.

    “Excuse me, Sir,” Johnson began.

    “I am aware of the situation,” Blue Two responded. If he was in pain, no traces of it made their way to his voice.

    Johnson shook his head, before priming a grenade and hurling it out into the open. It detonated at the feet of the Hunters, but did little more than annoy them. A few Sangheili swarmed around them, using them as mobile cover, but many were cut down by the Human’s strange ‘rail gun’ weapon. A Banshee strafed by, blue and green fire streaking out away from it. The Master Chief raised his weapon, riddling the flying machine with pockmarks. It was hard of her to make sense of everything that was going on, all the chatter, all the noise, how did these soldiers remain sane?

    “Jackhammer’s empty, reloading,” a female voice said, Blue Four.

    “New pack for the fifty, going loud,” a male this time, identified as Green Two.

    More mortars rained down, more bodies turned to chunks of flesh. A barrage of fire from the two heavy machine guns finally brought the remaining Banshee down, and then everything in the area focused on the hunters. Explosive rounds, assault rifles, battle rifles, rockets, gauss cannons, machineguns. Their armor dented and slowly began to glow before the raging heat of explosive rounds. Slowly, ever so slowly, they started to stagger, and leave gaps in their armor. At last, a hole opened up large enough for the rail gun to slip through. In quick order, the beasts groaned and slumped to the ground, their little eels splattering all over the place, flopping about and squirming to try and get back together and reconstitute themselves.

    “Frag those things!” the Master Chief shouted as a plasma bolt struck him in the shoulder. His green armor glowed white for a moment, and Neeshka found herself surprised that there was no force field to stop it. Why was that?

    A trio of fragmentation grenades bounced out into the open, where they detonated moments later, splattering orange goop and much everywhere. Corporal Fitzgerald remained exposed for a second too long, and a Sangheili shot him with a three round burst, center mass. In an instant, the mans armor had been blasted away to nothing, and in seeming slow motion, the energy rounds tore into him, vaporized the water and blood of his body, and his entire upper half exploded violently. He never even had a chance to scream before a set of legs and part of a waist slumped to the ground, blackened blood oozing from it.

    Heavier pulses were streaking in, along with a few glowing orbs. Blue Team had less than half its non Spartan combat population alive at the moment, and from the sounds of things, Green Team’s weren’t fairing any better.

    More roars from the mortar, targeting some kind of fixed gun installations, and wrecking them.

    “Moving to better position,” the Master Chief said, “stay low. Blue Three, take out those gunners!”

    The response he got was a series of double boom shockwaves as Linda did her deadly work.

    “Boss, we got a problem,” Red Team said over the comm line. “Covie bastards must have gotten a warning off, there’s a Scarab inbound towards your position. ETA is three minutes.”

    “Three minutes till contact, confirmed,” the Master Chief responded. “What’s its route?”

    “It’s going to move right by us. Probably figured out where the mortar rounds are coming from and wants us gone. We’ll attempt to board and take it out. Fleetcomm’s got nothing for us until we take out that gun.”

    “Do it,” the Spartan said, leaning back out with his M6J leveled.

    The cameras never properly recorded Spartan Time, and all that the onlookers saw was a long segment of blurred movement, interspaced by loud explosions and blossoms of alien blood and meat.

    “Shit, as if things are not bad enough, now we got a Scarab on our tails,” Toliver groaned while blind-firing his assault rifle over a concrete and titanium barricade.

    “Red Team has the Scarab situation under control, focus on your objective,” the Master Chief responded while he reloaded his carbine.

    “If a five man team of infantry with no vehicular support can take one of those things out, then I’m Lord Hood!” someone shouted.

    The Master Chief opted not to respond, but instead looked out upon the shattered square. The Elites and Hunters were dead, at least the ones outside, but the Jackals were locking their shields together and firing through the gaps for all they were worth. He knew the civilians inside didn’t have much longer to live. If the Covenant believed themselves in danger of losing this area, they wouldn’t let them survive.

    “Blue Five, with me.” He looked over and picked an M6C from a dead marine, and double checked the ammo supply. One hundred rounds, good enough. Between these two weapons, and the BR-55 on his back, he should have sufficient firepower to deal with most of what he could run into inside of the structure. “Red Team, I want that formation dead yesterday.”

    “Mortars in route,” the response came. “Packing up, preparing for the Scarab.”

    “Blue Leader, Blue Five, moving out, covering fire!” the Master Chief shouted.

    Gunfire erupted from every surviving soldier, forcing the Jackals down behind their shields as the Master Chief and Blue Five, James, leapt up and began to rush towards the open door of the building. They were halfway across the courtyard when a pair of mortars landed among the Jackal formation. As he watched the recordings of his memories, the Master Chief was vaguely aware of someone being sick behind him.

    He and James were through the door in an instant, which opened up into a square room about fifteen meters wide. He had a split second to take stock of enemy forces: A white armored Sangheili commander, some Grunts, a few Jackals, and a couple of Drones. He raised both of his weapons and fired as he leapt through the air. The M6J’s explosive rounds tore into the Commander’s shields, while the pistol’s non explosive bullets went sailing into the startled Jackal’s skulls. James came through right behind him, his BR-55 blowing the heads of the Drones clean off and sending the Grunts into a panic. They died screaming just as an Elite Major came through a door to the back. The red armored warrior roared, and raised a plasma rifle.

    The M6J clicked empty as the Master Chief landed behind some computer consoles that the Covenant had set up. He furiously reloaded his carbine, just in time to hear the sound of an igniting energy sword. He swore, reached for a grenade, and primed it. It landed on the ground, and the Elites gave cries of surprise. The resulting explosion shook the room, but he knew they weren’t dead, not yet. James leaned out and targeted the Major, switching his BR-55 to full auto and hosing the monstrous warrior with a hail of hypersonic uranium.

    The Master Chief saw a read blob moving towards him on his motion sensor, and swore. He dove out of the way as the plasma blade cleaved the cover he was behind in half. The Sangheili roared and lunged. Cobra quick, the Spartan twisted out of the way, and unleashed his carbine on his opponent. The Elite raised a plasma rifle with its left hand, and fired twice. The supersonic plasma bolts punched into his chest, but the Mjolnir armor held up.

    Luck of the battlefield came a moment later, as a third round struck the carbine he carried and turned it into a useless hunk of slag. The Master Chief threw the ruined weapon at his foe, catching it off guard, before tackling it to the ground. The plasma sword sliced a stone pillar clean in half as he gripped the Elite’s wrist and smashed it against the floor. Its shields flickered and died, and then a second strike forced the blade from its hand, where it skidded across the floor, tearing gouges of molten stone and metal out of it.

    He slammed the plasma rifle into the ground as well, discharging it and melting a part of the wall away, revealing a crisscrossing segment of metal that now glowed red with heat. The Spartan then headbutted the Elite as he heard James unleash his pistol against the Major. He headbutted the Elite again, and then a third time, before the thing roared and pivoted forward, putting itself on top of the Human. The Master Chief brought his knee up and slammed it into the alien’s groin. Its grip upon him weakened just enough for him to shift about, and he reached up and grabbed the Sangheili around its head, thinking to twist it and break its neck. The alien commander grunted, and pivoted the other way while trying to bring up its plasma rifle. The Spartan responded by kicking it in the wrist, sending the rifle flying from its hand as he tore its helmet from its head.

    An opportunity presented itself, and John didn’t hesitate. He grabbed the Elite by its mandibles, thrust his thumb forward, and pivoted it. The Elite howled as its left eye was popped from the socket and burst like a ripe fruit. John shifted again, got a hold on it, and slammed it into the wall. Its head went right into the still glowing metal, and the alien screamed horribly as it was burned. It kicked out, but the cyborg’s incredible reflexes enabled him to get out of the way. As it rolled back up, he got a good glimpse of its head, now branded with the pattern of the metal.

    Back in the present, John cocked his head to one side. Could it be?

    Off to the side, James smashed his fist into the Major. Bones smashed as its neck shattered under the force of the blow. However, before they could finish off the commander, a barrage of plasma fire from a group of surprisingly courageous Grunts drove them behind cover.

    “Retrieve the Commander!” one of them shouted. “Then pull back to the dropships!”

    The Master Chief swore mentally, but there was nothing that they could do. There was enough plasma flying over their heads that he felt like he could try a hand at swimming through it. After a few seconds it died off, and he carefully peeked up from behind his cover. The room was a mess, filled with smoke and blobs of liquefied concrete. He unslung his battle rifle and moved forward.

    To his surprise, the civilians that had been inside were still alive. There were about thirty of them, people of all ages and ethnic groups. The Spartan was confused. The Covenant didn’t act like this normally, and a sense of dread filled him. The Grunt leader had mentioned dropships. Maybe they were retreating? Unlikely. That left one more possibility.

    “Red Team, status?” he asked.

    A viewing module appeared, and behind him, he heard the Natives gasp as they got a view of what a Scarab was right as Red Team leapt from the shattered building they occupied. The Spartans descended among a heap of corpses, Covenant slaughtered as they’d tried to come up and personally dispatch the cyborg fireteam.

    “Pushing down into the Scarab’s interior. Will keep you updated.”

    “Roger. Blue Team, Green Team, status on the gun?” the Master Chief asked.

    “Setting Demo charges now. Should be ready to make fireworks as soon as we’re clear of the area.” Green Leader replied. “Civilian Status?”

    “Thirty, all alive and breathing. Picking them up and calling for a dropship,” John said, as the civilians slowly rose up and walked towards him. Then he opened up the command channel. “Fleetcomm, this is Avenging Angel, primary objective complete, thirty additional secondary objectives secured. Requesting pickup for secondary and new orders.”

    “Much regret, unable,” it was the voice of Admiral Cole. “Covenant troops are pulling back and skittering up into orbit. Long range FTL sensors have detected inbound Covenant task forces. Read about sixty ships. We don’t have the firepower to throw back that kind of an assault. I’m ordering the evacuation and withdrawal of all of the ships I’ve got left.”

    “Sir, the Fortress, the—” the Master Chief began.

    “I’m sorry, son, but there’s nothing more we can do. Get those people out of there. We’ll have Pelicans inbound to recover your teams and the wounded Marines at your insertion point.”

    “Admiral, detecting energy buildup along the Covenant ships. Enemy formation rearranging itself!” a new voice interjected. “Oh my God…”

    “Get those men out of there, double time!” Admiral Cole roared. “Master Chief, get everyone out into the open, now! Covenant forces are assuming glassing formation!”

    In a single, horrific moment, everything fell into place. The hasty Covenant withdrawal, why they left the civilians alive… they were finishing up at Azure Twelve. Whatever they had wanted at this planet, they now had. All that was left was to mop up and move on.

    “Move! Move! Go!” he shouted to the civilians, picking up the small children to try and get them out into the open faster. “All Teams, prepare for immediate evacuation, repeat, we are pulling out!”

    “What the hell’s going on?” Johnson asked as the group bolted outside.

    “Covenant are initiating glassing protocol, Admiral Cole has ordered immediate evacuation of all unsnagged personnel and civilians.”

    “What?” Johnson staggered backwards. Neeshka saw his dark face turn ashen. “No! No!”

    “Pelicans are already inbound,” the Master Chief said. “I’m sorry, Sergeant. There’s nothing more that can be done.”

    “Sorry?” Johnson’s eyes were shimmering. “God-damnit, I’ve still got family down here!”

    Whatever Johnson had been about to say was cut off by a roar and a blinding flash of light. Overhead, the sky seemed to burn and the temperature gauges spike to temperatures usually associated with an oven set to broil. A Covenant pulse laser, fired at something over the horizon. There was a second blinding flash, and in the distance, a blue hot fireball began to form. The Spartan stared at it, the sensors on his suit trying to calculate distance and speed of expansion. They had three minutes before their position was engulfed. A countdown timer appeared.

    “Avenging Angel, this is Storm-Hammer, we see you, moving in.”

    The Spartan looked up to see a quarter of Pelicans rushing down towards them. The birds slipped in between the buildings and the massive Covenant artillery piece and pivoted around, bay doors open.

    “Civilians first, army and marines second!” he barked. “Red Team, status?”

    “Scarab secured, Pelican in visual range. We’re bugging out.” Red Leader responded. “Wounded marines and army troops from insertion point have been picked up already.”

    “Good,” the Master Chief said. In the distance, he could see Phantoms streaking away from the ground. They were out of sight in seconds, leaving the atmosphere and the soon to be ravaged Azure Twelve behind.

    He looked at his timer. Two minutes, thirty seconds left before the fireball swamped them, and far less time until the exposed civilians were roasted into cinders. The temperature was already climbing to near lethal levels. The civilians and the ordinary soldiers needed to be gone, now.

    “Civvies onboard and secured. Troops filing up now.” Green Leader spoke up.

    “Double time it, Spartan, we’re cutting this way too close,” John said.

    As Johnson and Toliver hustled onboard the Pelican, Blue Team joined them, backpedaling with weapons trained on the surrounding area, just in case some particularly suicidal Covenant soldier was waiting to take a potshot at them.

    None revealed themselves, and the bay door slammed shut. The Spartans scrambled up and strapped into the acceleration chairs. As soon as they were done, the pilots gunned the throttle. The Pelicans shot up at a near ninety degree angle, rushing towards deep space as fast as its engines could propel it. Within seconds, they’d left the planet behind. The Master Chief looked towards the small porthole in the rear of the ship. Gasps from the natives echoed in the present. They could see the Covenant ships firing pulse lasers and plasma torpedoes towards the planet. In an instant, the seas began to boil and vaporize, the polar caps to melt, and the atmosphere itself began to ignite and catch flame.

    Johnson’s view was much the same, except his was less stable. His breathing was deep, heavy, like someone who was stuck halfway between going into a berserking rampage and breaking down entirely. Toliver was swearing in the background, and many of the civilians were holding themselves or others close.

    “Cut feed,” Johnson said.

    Everyone looked at the visibly shaking ODST, memories nearly three decades old dragged back, squirming and writhing into the sunlight. He turned and walked out of the room, heading towards one of the Dawn’s onboard barracks.

    “That… that is how wars are fought where you come from?” Drizzt asked, his voice quivering and faint.

    “That was merely a battle… not the war. The war would drag on for almost thirty more years.” Cortana’s voice came over the speakers of the room, and she appeared in the viewing tank where the Master Chief’s video index had been. “What you saw there happened hundreds of times as the Covenant waged their systematic genocide against us. Rough causality estimates accounting for population fluctuation from the war as well as those born during the conflict indicate that only about one person in a hundred thousand survived.”

    Neeshka rocked backwards as if she’d been visibly struck. One by one, the members of the Lord’s Alliance looked at each other.

    “After what they’ve done to you, how can your people trust them—the Sangheili—I mean?” Lord Nasher said, shaking his head.

    “Because, they were also betrayed,” Cortana said. “Their leaders tried to eradicate them as the war neared its end. Once that occurred and they learned the truth behind the war, they came to our aid, saved us from the rest of the Covenant. We’ve been working together sense then, though things have at times been tense. Wars are not easily forgotten.”

    Neeshka Barely heard any of it. She staggered out of the room, and away from the door. She felt like she was going to be sick. Her mind tried in vain to digest the new information that it had been bombarded with. Orna and his brothers, so honorable, so polite, noble even… they were really murderers on a scale that would make the most vicious of Balors go purple in envious rage. Destroyers of worlds, butchers of innocent men women and children, unarmed, helpless in the face of their weaponry. She tried to reconcile the two images, the two sides. The alien soldiers that had treated her so well, looked past her infernal blood, the ones that had done so much to keep her hometown safe, to drive back the Drow. She couldn’t understand it.

    And then another thought crept in: Helm. Or Didact, or whoever the hell he really was. He had been a human too, his people had saved the Sangheili from the ravenous Flood, and ensured their survival. And they had repaid their saviors with a dagger to the back.

    Neeshka was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she didn’t realize where she was going, and the only warning that she got was when she stumbled over something and went crashing to the ground. She heard a grunt of pain, and looked over to see Gazap picking himself up off the floor.

    “My apologies, lady Neeshka,” he said, with a bow, something that looked almost comical with his short stature. He extended a hand to help her. “I’ve been a bit distracted lately.”

    Neeshka recoiled from the outstretched hand, and Gazap twisted his head to the side. “Something wrong?”

    Neeshka said nothing, as Gazap continued to stare at her.

    “How could you?” she asked at long last. “How could you just kill them all, just like that?”

    “I’m sorry?” he asked, and then his eyes widened in understanding. “Oh… I see. Found out about the war, did you?”

    The Tiefling nodded her head.

    “Had to happen sometime. I can make no apologies great enough to make up for what we did,” he said, extending his hand again, and helping her up. “All I can tell you is the tale of my people, and of our Covenant, and let you judge for yourself as to whether we are ‘men,’ duped into a war built on lies, deceit, and the workings of power hungry old fools, or monsters worthy of your fear.” He looked up at her, his mottled skin shifting as he furrowed his brow. “Will you hear our tale?”

    “…Yes…” Neeshka trailed off.

    “I’ll start at the beginning…”

    Back in the control room, the Master Chief had Cortana upload another visual segment from both his memory and Johnson’s.

    “You’ve seen the Covenant… but there was another threat we faced, later in the war. A power so terrifying that even the Covenant feared it.”

    Images flashed to life, showing Johnson upon the Alpha Halo, standing right outside a large, gaping structure.

    “Wait here for the Captain and his squad, then get your ass inside,” he said, before tromping forward with a group of Marines at his back.
     
  24. Trivia Freak

    Trivia Freak Geeky Lunatic!

    Valde quod Insciens Proditio: The Great and Unknowing Betrayal

    Gazap turned and started to walk down the hallway of the Dawn, sighing softly, before looking up at Neeshka.

    “The first thing that you must understand about us, Lady Neeshka, is that the Covenant operate on a caste system, a tier based society in which every has a place, usually based on the order in which we became part of the Covenant,” the Unggoy said. “My brothers and I, we were the last, and thus, the lowest. Our purpose is to serve as laborers, workers, and the bulk of the military. It is for this reason that the UNSC and termed us ‘Grunts.’ To this end, we are well suited,” he extended a four fingered hand. “Much like your own variant of us, we are small, but strong, we are hardy, and reasonably intelligent. We also have a high rate of reproduction, which serves us well in our role as cannon fodder…”

    “Wait, what?” Neeshka asked, cocking her head to one side.

    “Sorry, military slang,” Gazap said, smiling behind his rebreather mask. “What I mean is that we have the highest causalities of any troops in the Covenant, and are largely considered expendable by our commanding officers.”

    “No, no, what did you mean by ‘our own variant?’” The Tiefling arched her eyebrows.

    “The short ones, the Dwarves. They appear to be your heavy labor force, from what I’ve seen… granted, they have a great deal more freedom and rights than we do,” his voice became faraway, wistful.

    “Ummm, they’re not a heavy labor force. They’re separate from us, their own people.” Neeshka said, scratching the back of her head. It seemed the Unggoy still had a lot to learn about Faerun.

    “Truly? Most fascinating. I’ll have to have a talk with one of them later.” He shook his head. “To get back on the topic at hand, our life is not an easy one. It is one of toil, sweat, and blood. Those of us drafted into the military usually do not last very long. Whether we are quelling uprisings, squashing heretics, or exploring new worlds, most of us don’t last past a couple of tours of duty. There are, however, exceptions.”

    “Like yourself?” The Tiefling nodded towards the Unggoy.

    “Correct,” Gazap said with a nod. “I have served in the Covenant and Neo Covenant military for the better part of three decades. By the standards of my kind, I am ancient, and should have retired long ago.”

    “And you haven’t, why?”

    “Because, my lady, Commander Tarkimee treats us well. Far better than most. We’re elite units, special operations, above and beyond the normal troopers.” He gestured to the white color of his armor. “I hold the highest rank an Unggoy can obtain within his lifetime, and the Commander has not forgotten that. I suppose I don’t want to head into the unknown of civilian life, because I’m treated well in my current job.”

    “And the war?”

    “Ah, the war. Next, you must understand that after a lifetime of work, and the fear of death, that one hopes for a reward, no?” He got a nod from her. “In this, the Prophet’s delivered. They gave us wondrous technology, far and wide above what we had. New advances in medicine, farming, industry. They told us of a wondrous truth they and the Sangheili discovered, mysterious devices, seeded throughout the galaxy by an ancient race known as the Forerunners.” Gazap’s eyes started to mist up. “These would take all who were worthy, living and dead, upon a Great Journey, where they would be transformed, and find salvation from the hell of our lives.”

    “Interesting approach,” Neeshka muttered.

    “Indeed,” Gazap nodded. Then he sighed again and shook his head. “About thirty five years ago, we happened across a new race, one that called itself Humanity. At first, we expected that the war against them would be brief, whereupon they would be brought into the Covenant, as we had. But that was not to be. The Prophets decreed that they were heretics, desecraters of the holy artifacts and sanctuaries of the Forerunners.” He paused, cocking his head to the side. “It would be somewhat like the highest, most sacred shrine of the gods you worship being invaded by a group of barbarians, who utterly destroyed the place and carted off the most holy relics of your faith to be used for reasons unknown. You can imagine, milady, where this is probably headed…”

    “Yeah, I can,” The Tiefling’s tail began to lash back and forth in agitation.

    “For a while, things went as expected, mostly. The Humans were no match for our military might, in space or on the ground. They, were, however, unique in one way that I found interesting. They never surrendered to their despair. Never lost their courage. The more we attacked, the closer we got to the heart of their fledgling empire, the harder their struggled, the more ferocious their tactics became.” Gazap’s breathing was becoming heavier, and his hands started to tremble. “And then… and then they appeared.”

    “Who?”

    “In our tongue, they were called the Rakash Denos,” the Unggoy’s voice had become deathly quiet, and Neeshka swore she could smell the fear roll off the small alien. “I’m still not fully familiar with your language, but the closest translation that I can think of would be ‘those moving as Death’s shadow.’”

    “The Spartans?” she cocked her head to one side. She’d seen the Master Chief in action, enough to know that he and his brothers and sisters were warriors the likes of which this world had never seen, but this was from one of Humanity’s enemies. The situation seemed a little surreal.

    “Yes… they appeared, almost out of nowhere, it seemed. No one knew where they came from, but tales began to spread among the ranks, tales of Human warriors that moved far too fast and were strong enough to tear a Sangheili Zealot limb from limb.” The small alien’s whole body seemed to quiver now. “Some said they were machines, implacable and unfeeling, others, that they were specially trained Humans. As our confrontations with them grew in number, others began to claim that they were an unnatural blight, a supernatural curse that the Gods themselves had unleashed upon us, for some crime that we had committed.”

    Neeshka raised an eyebrow, and Gazap nodded his head feverishly. “Hard as it may be for you to understand, you must look at it through our eyes. Human were ferocious combatants on their own, almost feral in their determination to survive and triumph over us. They were dangerous enough, but could be overcome through our superior technology and weaponry. These… demons, these Spartans, battled us hundreds of times, thousands. And no matter what we brought against them, we always lost. No, we were slaughtered.” He stopped, and leaned against the wall, before taking a few deep breaths, and swallowing deeply.

    “One of my younger brothers, Yarath, encountered the Spartans on a world the Humans called Jericho Seven.” Gazap’s voice was quiet, and his eyes were closed. The echoing of his rebreather filled the corridor as he took deep, gulps of methane. “Yarath was part of an entire regiment, one thousand strong. They had plasma cannons, armor support, Banshees, every thing they should have.” He looked up at her, and his tiny, blue eyes pierced her crimson ones. “There were four Spartans. Just four, and they had only what they’d been able to carry into battle with them.”

    “What happened?” Neeshka said, kneeling down next the small alien, before slumping down to sit against the wall as well.

    “Yarath died. His whole regiment was slaughtered to the last suckling pup. Nothing survived, nothing. Of the Spartans, from recovered combat footage from the commanders, we were able to deduce that none of them had so much as been wounded.” He shook his head again. “They were legends among the Covenant, beings of awe and terror, nightmares made flesh. To see them was to die… in all but the rarest of cases.”

    “That’s the voice of experience, isn’t it?” the Tiefling said.

    “Among my people, I am a statistical anomaly, Neeshka. For I have seen the Spartans, faced them, not once, not twice, but three times, and somehow managed to live to tell about it.” He snorted derisively. “The Prophets did their best to quell the rumors of these beings, and label the reports of them as exaggerations, the results of ‘combat induced hysteria.’ I knew better. I had seen better. I had seen these Spartans run faster than any creature should have. I had seen them punch through stone walls and soldiers empty entire power packs at them and hit nothing but air. I watched them lose whole limbs, and not even so much as scream. But… even they were not enough. Slowly, inexorably, we began to push towards their home. We glassed their worlds, destroyed their fleets, laid waste to their armies. And the Humans never gave up… Then came our greatest discovery. As the Humans fled what we thought was their homeworld, Fleetmaster Orna Fulsamee, whom I suspect you have become acquainted with, pursued a Human craft called The Pillar of Autumn. The chase led them to Halo, one of the sacred rings the Forerunners had left behind.”

    “Wait a minute,” Neeshka gave him a confused look, “are you saying…”

    “Indeed, the true purposes of the Rings had been lost to time and history. We knew so little about the Forerunners, not even their true appearance. Only what there was in the legends of the Sangheili and San ‘Shyuum lore, that being that they were a race of gods that had descended from on high to defeat a nameless evil.” Gazap shuddered again. “There, on that ring, Fulsamee and his fellows would find that evil.”

    “The Flood,” Neeshka whispered. A chill roamed over her body as she remembered the events of the holoemitter, the Master Chief’s memories.

    --

    “I mean, it’s weird, right… looks like something scrambled the insides.”

    Private First Class Mathew Besenti reached out and nudged the corpse in front of him with his armored boot, as if he half expected the Sangheili wasn’t dead. The corpse was a mess, blue-purple blood dried along a dozen holes, the creature’s neck twisted at an angel nature never intended for it to move to, and with its insides scrambled as the Marine had so aptly described.

    “What do we have, Sergeant?”

    Johnson’s viewing module twisted to observe a new man and a group of heavily armed marines moving into the room. He wore standard marine armor, and carried an M6D with an elongated barrel and extended clip at his side. Identification indexes sprang to life as Johnson nodded—the closest thing to a salute allow in the field of battle—identifying him as a one Jacob Keyes, while an insignia in the shape of a silver eagle appeared next to him, marking him as a navy captain.

    “Master Chief, does this man possess—” Lord Nasher began.

    “Captain Jacob Keyes is the father of Commander Keyes,” the Spartan answered.

    “Covenant fireteams, Sir,” Johnson remarked, looking back across the room, where bodies lay among pools of blood. “Badass special ops units, all K.I.A.” the words “Killed In Action” scrawled across the bottom of the holotank as Cortana provided definitions for the military acronyms of the UNSC.

    “Real pretty… friends of yours?” Keyes said as he drew up and eyed Besenti.

    “No sir, we just met,” the Marine responded. He looked slightly ashen.

    Keyes stared around at the rest of the room. “What’s all the stuff on the walls, plasma scoring?”

    Johnson looked over to what the captain was gesturing at. His ODST armor identified a number of components and compositional probabilities which were in line with plasma scoring. Two things, of course, stood out. The first being how little damage there was to the walls, the second being the lack of Human retaliation. No brass casings, no fragments of metal or slugs on the ground. Nothing. What then, had these troops been shooting at? What had killed them?

    “Maybe there was an accident, you know, friendly fire, or something,” Private Mendoza ventured. It was clear from his own tone of voice, however, that the marine didn’t believe it.

    “We’ll find out soon enough…” Johnson said, raising his assault rifle. He motioned for Mendoza to take point, and they progressed forward.

    Bodies and blood filled every corridor. Something had happened here. Something very bad.

    From where he stood, Drizzt felt a growing sense of terror and a palpable sense of apprehension. It brought back memories of the time when he had faced his father, raised as an enslaved Zin Carla to do his mother’s bidding, and all the slaughter that had been wreaked as he’d passed through the Underdark. He was aware of Dove Falconhand suddenly stepping closer to him. She was less familiar with this technology that the visitors used, these memories that were real yet not.

    Within the tank the corpses piled up, dead by the scores, possibly the hundreds. Every one of them died with a look of terror on their faces, visible despite their alien features. At last, the Humans reached a door that was locked down. Besenti fumbled for a strange device, and then placed it upon the center of the door. He stared at the small readout.

    “Whoa… triple encrypted,” he whispered. “Whatever is behind this door, the Covenant went to a lot of trouble to lock it down.”

    “Just open it, son,” Keyes said.

    Besenti’s hands flew over the device, and after a few seconds, the lights around the door turned green, and they opened up. Weapons snapped up and everything from pistols to shotguns to grenades were readied.

    The door opened to reveal nothing. Nothing but another room. Besenti motioned ahead, and his friends moved forward, Jenkins going right, Mendoza left. Johnson joined them a moment later. The room was secured.

    Drizzt felt the terror nearly overwhelming him, a sixth sense in the back of his mind that all was not as it seemed. Something tickled in his soul, like a dark hunger that had suddenly awoken.

    “I have a bad feeling about this…” Jenkins muttered.

    “You always have a bad feeling about everything,” Johnson said, scanning every corner of the room.

    As if to mock the Sergeant Major, a strange hissing, slithering noise echoed through the air. Weapons snapped about, and eyes went to motion sensors. Nothing. Then static crackled over the radio.

    “Sarge! Hard Contact! Hard Contact!” It was the members of the second squad, the one that had been left back at the entrance. “Shit! Shit! Shit! James, Eight O’clock! Eight O’Clock!”

    “What’s going on, Soldier?” Keyes barked.

    “Contacts, lots of contacts!” the man responded. The panic in his voice seemed almost infectious, and the rest of the Marines started to look uneasy. “…They’re… They’re not Covenant… oh God…” Whatever he had been about to say was cut off by a horrific scream, and then total, absolute silence.

    “Corporal? Corporal!” Johnson shouted into his mike. “Mendoza, get your ass back up to second squad’s position and find out what the hell is going on!”

    “But—”

    “I don’t have time for your lip, Soldier. I gave you an order, now do it.” Johnson cut him off.

    The squirming noise returned, louder, more insistent this time. Johnson’s motion sensor suddenly came to life in a solid blob of red. Shouting broke out among the Marines, and they spread out a few meters, covering every single approach. A loud booming echoed through the room, and one of the doors started to buckle and warp. It burst open, and out poured… something.

    Drizzt nearly recoiled out of instinct. The creatures were about the size of a sprite, and skittered about upon a number of small tentacles. Their mottled green and brown skin shimmered in the faint light of the room, and they raised more feelers, each one tipped with a wicked looking crimson barb.

    “What the…” Mendoza said, slowly backing away from the things, his assault rifle trained upon the largest group.

    A scream split the air moments later, and Johnson turned to find another marine down on the ground, his armor ripped open as one of the things landed on him. The marine went down, struggling and trying to get the thing off of him.

    “Get it off! Get it off me!” he shouted, choking as his chest was sliced open and the thing looked as if it was trying to burrow into him.

    “Hold still, hold still!” Besenti said, frantically ripping the thing off of his fellow. It was too late, though, the marine was dead.

    “Let ‘em have it!” Johnson barked, and his assault rifle blazed into the heart of the group of creatures. Bullets would tear into them, causing them to explode and release a cloud of spore like vapor, sometimes even starting a chain reaction. The others followed suit, those who weren’t in a panic, at least. “Goddammit, Jenkins, fire your weapon!” Johnson shifted position as another door broke down and hundreds of the squiggling little things swarmed towards the fireteams.

    “Sergeant, we’re surrounded.” It was a Keyes, a bastion of calm in this new storm.

    “There’s too many of them!” Mendoza shouted.

    “Jenkins, clear a path behind us, Besenti, Mendoza, I want you to lay down suppression fire,” Johnson began, before twisting to look at Jenkins. The young man was livid, nearly on the verge of a panic. “Jenkins, behind you!”

    Something loomed in the darkness, an enormous shadow against the corridor. Jenkins started to turn, but one of the smaller creatures leapt onto his back, and bore him to the ground. Johnson’s rifle clicked empty, and he reached for his side arm. The gun kicked against his palm as he fired at everything he could. It wasn’t enough. There were too many, they swarmed over the marines, burying them under a pile of bodies. A bolt of blue plasma flew out of the darkness, striking the Sergeant Major directly in the chest. The bolt hit him like a superheated sledgehammer, blasting him backwards and into a pile of the creatures. Many were crushed under the Human’s weight, but not enough to buy him time to get back up. They swarmed over him, burying him alive. Warnings flashed on the Sergeant Major’s HUD, warning him of breaches to his armor, and he gave a grunt of pain.

    Just as quickly as it began, it stopped, and the creatures swarmed away from him. Johnson panted, shaking his head at what had happened. The creatures had swarmed off, leaving him alone except for the bodies of a few of his fellow marines. The ODST was panting, staring down at him self, as if he was unable to believe that he was still alive.

    “Besenti? Mendoza? Captain?” he called out. Nothing answered. Then he heard a squirming noise, and he twisted to look behind him. Besenti was there, or rather, what had once been Besenti.

    His skin was turning into the same brown and greenish material that the small aliens had been made out of, and his neck hung at a very odd angle. His eyes here closed, and he stumbled forward in an unsteady gait. Drizzt was reminded of a zombie.

    “Besenti?” Johnson said, taking a step back away from the man.

    Besenti ignored him, and instead seemed to be focusing on walking about and moving. Those movements were becoming more and more fluid and graceful. Johnson seemed to be unnerved, and noticed that the other ‘dead’ Marines were starting to move as well. He dove for his assault rifle, and quickly loaded a fresh magazine. At the same time he did, Besenti’s left arm bulged, and with a sickening crack, a trio of long, wavering tentacles burst out of it. The arm shot through the air, the tentacles whipping out and lashing around an assault rifle, before flinging it back at the Marine. The right hand clutched around it, and raised it with a single hand as if the weapon was as light as a feather.

    Johnson was faster though, and took no chances. He fired a double tap, one into Besenti’s guts, another that went straight into his neck. The first one caused the Marine to stagger, the second effectively decapitated him.

    Besenti responded with a barrage of gunfire that thudded into Johnson’s ODST armor. The Helljumper threw himself over a rise in the middle of the room, and a moment later, a grenade arced over the top of it and landed at the feet of the Marine. It exploded, and Johnson peeked back up. Where Besenti had been was nothing but a pile of greenish red blood and bits of flesh. The others were stirring, though, and unlike Besenti had been at first, they weren’t clumsy in their movements. They immediately went for their weapons. Johnson hurled another grenade, and wiped half the group out. Then he bolted for the doorway. More depleted uranium rounds impacted against his armor as he streaked by, and he fired back.

    Arms were shredded, legs torn off, heads burst open like melons. None of it bothered the beasts. They rushed, crawled, and stormed after him. What followed was a three minute long, running gun battle where the sergeant was forced to take cover, fire back at his pursuers, as the altered marines frantically pursued him. All the while they were eerily silent. There was no moaning, no growling, no roaring. They were quiet, but moved with alien grace and tactics that mirrored what they had been capable of in ‘life.’ Even from his limited understanding of the Humans and how they fought, Drizzt was able to recognize flanking maneuvers, suppression fire, grenades being used to flush the ODST out of hiding. It was horrifically surreal.

    Again, he was reminded of his father. Zin Carla. That’s what these creatures reminded him of. Strong and durable as the most hardy of undead, but retaining their minds and knowledge in life. His father’s animated corpse had showed him all too well what such a combination could result in, and now here was something like it, only each one of the little creatures had the potential to unleash something like this. Worse, they were armed with UNSC weaponry. A cold sweat broke out over the ranger’s forehead. How many of those things had there been? How many hundreds? Something like that could have swarmed nearly any town or city along the Sword Coast. There would be no stopping them. Gods have mercy, what if those things could reproduce?

    In the holotank, Johnson’s assault rifle clicked empty. His hands were a blur as he released the empty mag, and tried to load a new one. Fast as he was, though, he was not fast enough. One of the creatures jumped in and lashed out with its tentacled arm. Johnson barely had time to get his left arm up in a futile attempt to block the strike. There was a loud ‘thwack’ that echoed through the room, and Johnson’s viewing module was a blur of dizzying motions as he was catapulted end over end through the air. Less than a second later he smashed into a metal wall, and fell to the floor in a heap. The creature followed him, leaping across the thirty-meter wide room in a fluid motion that reminded the Dark Elf of a vampire.

    Johnson growled, assumed a kneeling position, and ripped out his M6D. He had time for one shot that caught the creature in the gut as it closed in. The depleted uranium round tore through its armor and exploded, ripping the beast in half and splattering it around the area. Johnson panted softly, and then looked down at the pistol that he carried. He nodded softly, and then continued through the compound.

    --

    “Tymora have mercy,” Neeshka whispered.

    “Indeed. The Flood was a terror right out of our worst nightmares.” Gazap said as they approached one of the hangars of the Dawn, where a methane habitat had been set up. Other Unggoy milled about, chattering softly with each other. They snapped to a salute as their commander walked by them, before following along behind him, listening to his tale.

    “The Flood were voracious learners. They learned how to use our weapons, our vehicles… our ships within minutes of taking over the bodies of our warriors.” Gazap shuddered again. “Let the Prophets say what they would in regards to the supposed crimes of the Humans for destroying the Forerunner ring, I was glad to be rid of it. Then came the attempted exodus to Earth. We had found the Oracle of the Halo, an entity that referred to itself as 343 Guilty Spark. It was a computer of some sort, radically advanced, more powerful than anything we’d seen before except for the Keyship in High Charity. It directed us to a way to reach the main activation device for the Rings. A fleet was assembled to pave the way for the Prophets arrival. Something went wrong.”

    “What?” Neeshka asked.

    “The Rakash Denos.”

    “Spartans?” Neeshka raised an eyebrow. How would they have gotten to where the Covenant were gathering? She’d learned that Human ships were no match for these Covenant ‘Cruisers’ and ‘Super-carriers.’

    “Five of them,” the Unggoy seemed wistful again. “We thought them still on Reach. If any doubted that they were plagues sent by the Gods before, there was no doubt left after those two events. On Reach, we had destroyed the ship they were traveling to the surface in. They fell for kilometers, smashed against the unforgiving ground and rock and forests. We thought that the end of them… only it wasn’t. They rose from the ground, and took the fight to us. Millions of soldiers were upon that world, and still they hid from us, still they fought back. We lost troops, tanks, transports, even a cruiser to their unrelenting fury. Worse… we saw them with new equipment, new armor, new weapons. They were faster, stronger, and more deadly than ever before.”

    Neeshka thought about what Gazap spoke of. She tried to focus her mind and put herself in the place of