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Fan Fiction

Commander by Cthulhu117

Commander: Trial
Date: 15 December 2005, 9:31 pm

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Covenant Holy City High Charity
Neophyte Training Facility

Eraa Sam was cold and tired and injured. As he wiped the artificial snow from his reptilian eyes, he glared angrily at the plasma sidearm that was his only weapon. He was thirteen, and he was undergoing- and failing- the Neophyte training rituals. He thought back to his education on the history of the trial which he now suffered.

Thousands of years ago, Neophyte Sangheili had proved their worth by fighting through the Valley of Ruuka on their homeworld. The valley was huge, cold and perilous. The Neophytes who struggled through the vale could never be certain what dangers were inherent to the deadly nature of the region and which were set up to weed out the unworthy.

Now, although millennia had passed, the Sangheili tested their youth in the same way. The Valley of Ruuka had been devastated in the Sangheili Prophet war that had culminated in the formation of the Covenant, but its legacy endured: when they reached the age of thirteen, all Sangheili who would be warriors and gain the honor and respect that accompanied the position, as well as the fabled eternal glory of the Great Journey, would battle their way through an artificially formed course in the bowels of High Charity.

Although the struggle was not an easy one, it was far easier than it had been for the ancestors of the Sangheili. The ancient Neophytes had been equipped with no armor at all and a short curved metal blade; those who attempted the trials today were given the option of a light plasma pistol and some training armor. The training armor had no shields, but could protect against the teeth and claws of the vicious animals that inhabited the simulated Sangheili trial area. Rumor had it that it would not protect against the notorious final test, whatever that was. The Sangheili who completed the trial were not permitted to speak of what they had endured to anybody.

But right now, Eraa, of the Samee' clan, was not sure that he would even make it to this final obstacle. His first day of the trials had gone well. He had vaulted a ten-foot-high wall that he could not climb or go around. He had encountered a many-tentacled Fascas squid in a swamp area. He had even succeeded in locating one of the pistols that the testers had placed there. He had wanted one- the trials ahead were numerous and fearsome, and incapacitating other Neophytes who attempted to beat you to the finish of the trial was permitted. In fact, it was practically mandatory.

The next day had also been simple, although he'd been forced to swim for an uncomfortably long amount of time to get under tree that blocked his path. He had encountered only one enemy, and that had been another Neophyte: Crasta Hul. Crasta had always been the bully, the boaster, the one who beat everyone else up. But when Eraa encountered him in the trials, Crasta was in no condition to do any of these things.

Crasta was tall for his age; he already stood nearly eight feet tall and could lift the crates that the warriors kept their weapons in. Furthermore, he was dumb as a box of rocks and extremely popular with a group of similar Sangheili Neophytes. He had enjoyed picking on Eraa, and just about anyone else who was like Era. It was no physical difference that cause Crasta's hatred- Eraa was almost eight feet tall and looked no worse than any other Neophyte- but merely the fact that Eraa was a nerd. He could always be counted on to spout out some bit of knowledge that no one wanted to hear.

Eraa paused as he struggled up the frozen hillside and let his mind wander back to when he'd found Crasta the day before. Their short conversation was vivid in his mind still...

He'd been attracted by the screaming.

The sound of a Sangheili screaming in mortal agony was terrifying to him. He had never heard it before, but he knew, almost instinctively, what it was. He also knew who it was. The voice was too familiar to him. Too many times he'd heard it fling a stinging jibe at his turned back, causing him to blush purple with rage. It was Crasta Hul. Turning, Eraa had headed for the source of the noise.

Because of the darkness, he stepped on Crasta before he saw him. He probably wouldn't have noticed anyway if he hadn't heard the horribly wet sucking sound as he lifted his hoof. Jumping back, he had knelt down and seen Crasta...or what was left of him. He had been horribly mutilated. Blood soaked the rocky earth purple, and as Eraa looked more closely he could see that Crasta had been literally ripped to bits.

Eraa vomited. A stench like rotting fruit was rising into the air, and the combination of the fetid odor and the horrifying sight was too much for him. He heard a sound of rasping breath. He was amazed to see that Crasta Hul was still alive. He bent as low as he could stand the smell.

'Er- aa?' came the weak hiss.

'Yeah,' said Eraa quietly.

'The doctors- they c-could save-'

'What?' Eraa had asked, unsure what the maimed Sangheili was trying to say.

'Doc- tors- they could help m-me- get me to them- send the help beacon-'

Eraa looked with a mixture of pity and revulsion at his fallen enemy. Every Neophyte had a help beacon attached to their armor before they entered the trial. If they could not complete the trial, they would activate it and a trainer would come and rescue them. However, this made it impossible for a Neophyte to ever attempt the trail again. Eraa couldn't quite believe that Crasta would sacrifice that chance, even at the cost of his life. He realized as he looked that Crasta's beacon was gone. Crasta's arms were nowhere in sight, and the beacon was implanted into the left bicep. If he activated his own beacon, the trainers would interpret it as a call from Eraa for help. They would remove him from the trial.

He reflected on something that his trainer had told him once. 'You can't always leave no man behind. Sometimes, those who are not worthy have to be sacrificed for the good of those who are.'

'Yeah,' said Eraa again. 'They might be able to.' Although Crasta was little more than a head and torso, the prosthetics technicians could work wonders. Crasta was strong. He might survive. But it would be a trade-off: Eraa's career as a warrior for Crasta's life.

And suddenly he knew what it meant to be a warrior.

When he spoke again, his voice was as cold as the wind that was starting to blow.

'They could. But they won't.'

Crasta wasn't able to comprehend what Eraa was telling him. That could be attributed to shock, but Eraa was strongly of the opinion that Crasta wouldn't have understood him anyway.

He never asked Crasta. He never said another thing to him, except for one more word that Crasta couldn't hear.


Then he had lifted his hoof and brought down with all his might, revelling in the strangled scream that he had cut off and the crunch of bone pulping under his foot.

Eraa shook off the memory. After that, he could have walked all the way to the finish. He had run in horror after the kill he'd scored, unable to shake the feeling of guilt. He'd run all night, until he came to a wall. The wall had been nearly thirty feet high, but there had been convenient hand-holds almost all the way to the top. He'd used them and got on top of the wall, where he'd seen some large, incongruous holes in the ground. Before he could wonder as to their purpose, there had been a hiss of released air and he'd felt a blinding pain in his chest. He'd passed out and woken up later to find that a spike nearly five feet long was impaling him near his second heart and had mangled his plasma pistol.

It had taken him the better part of an hour to wrest himself off the spike without causing himself so much pain that he would once again fall senseless. When he'd finally hauled himself off the gore-stained blade, he had had to collapse on the snowy ground and rest. As soon as he could move his agonized muscles again, he'd gotten up, activated his tracker, and kept running.

He had known he couldn't last forever. His joints were frozen stiff, and the cold air on his open chest wound was paining him terribly. Besides that, he hadn't eaten in four days. He dropped onto the ground now, mentally reviewing the series of events that had gotten him into this.

He tried and failed to pull himself up. He was just going to die here in the snow. He wondered if it would be frostbite, infection, starvation or simple fatigue that killed him. Or, perhaps more honorably, another Neophyte, such as the one his strained eyes suddenly spotted against the snow. This trainee was very tall and thin. He stood nearly eight and a half feet and was starved in appearance, and that alone was enough for Eraa to recognize the Neophyte as Orna Sam, Eraa's brother.

Eraa tried to make some kind of noise to call for help, but the air he sucked in was so cold that he choked on it. In too much pain to raise his arms, he realized with horror that is figure was almost completely covered in snow. Unless Orna stepped right on Eraa, he would never notice him. And with Eraa in the condition that he was in, the weight of another Sangheili on him could easily kill him.

But Orna was turning around. Orna had raised his head and sniffed the cold air. Then, recognizing his brother's scent, he was nearing the place where Eraa lay, nearly frozen to the ground. He looked at Eraa and coughed loudly, apparently trying to conceal a laugh.

'Wow,' said Orna, coughing furiously. 'Wow.'

Eraa managed to inform him, still choking on the freezing cold air, that he was a son of a Sharquoi.

'And you,' said Orna, now not even trying to hide his laughter, 'are one lucky bastard.'

Eraa groaned in pain as Orna fired his plasma pistol at the ice starting to trap Eraa. The snow and ice melted away under the intense heat of the pistol, and Eraa managed to sit up. Orna rummaged in his rucksack, removing a small injection pod. Eraa eyed it with distaste.

'You're not actually going to use that on me, are you?'

Orna's only answer was a single quick movement that pinned Eraa's arm to the ground and pressed the injection pod against it. Eraa drew in his breath sharply. He was having a momentary and extremely strange sensation that a Kig-Yar was gnawing on his arm very hard. Gradually, the sensation passed and Eraa raised himself to a crouch, feeling better.

Orna replaced the injection pod and spoke to his brother, as quietly as he could to be heard over the roaring wind.

'You were pretty to close to the final area. Your tracker will have burned out with the cold, but mine is still fairly active. You were headed in the right direction- a dozen miles more and you would have made it.'

'I wouldn't have made it a dozen miles. I was frozen to the ground.'

'Maybe not, but at least you didn't lose your sense of direction. In that case, I probably wouldn't have smelled you at all. It was pretty difficult to discern the scent anyway; you were downwind of me.'

'You said a dozen miles, right?'

'Yeah,' answered Orna. 'A dozen miles. It's about two hours' hard running, but it's cold, dark and you're not ready to run. So I'd say that, once morning comes, it'll be about three, four hours it we maintain the pace.'

'We? You know, we're supposed to do this alone. The trainers told me that this was a solitary exercise.'

There was a flicker of displeasure that crossed Orna's face, but it soon disappeared. 'Maybe I don't feel like doing things the trainers' way for once. These trials are untenable alone. With a wingman, it just might be possible.'

'I probably won't even live till morning,' moaned Eraa moodily.

'Shut up, and stop being so morbid,' Orna snapped at him. It took quite a bit to get calm, collected Orna angry. Eraa had only twice heard that tone of voice from his brother before. The first time, Orna had been very afraid and trying to conceal it. The other time, Orna had been under a lot of stress. Eraa wondered which of the two reasons it was now. Probably both, he decided.

'Come on, get up,' Orna ordered in a much more gentle voice. Get to the shelter of those rocks and you ought to be in the lee of the big boulder.'

Eraa groaned in pain as he stretched his stiff leg muscles. Pushing himself to his feet, he prepared to move into the fury of the wind again. Together, he and Orna ran across the bumpy ground to rest behind the stones that had fallen conveniently enough to be a shelter till morning.

Whatever that morning might bring.

Commander: Drinol
Date: 26 December 2005, 3:01 pm

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Covenant Holy City High Charity
Neophyte Training Facility

Eraa Sam woke suddenly. For a second he wondered why he had woken up, and then he realized it was because a pile of rocks had fallen on his head. Looking stupidly up into the sky, he was rewarded with the sight of his brother Orna sitting on top of the boulder that Eraa was lying against, making piles of pebbles and then kicking them over. It was a very childish thing to do, and Eraa guffawed loudly as Orna started on another pile.

Orna jumped. 'Finally!' the tall young Sangheili said. 'I thought you were going to sleep through the Great Journey. Or at least the trial.'

'Yeah, the trial...the trial!' yelled Eraa. 'We need to start again right now, or we'll never make it to the endpoint before the rest!'

'The other Neophytes? It's not bloody likely, to be honest. I don't know what the trainers were trying to do when they sent an artificial blizzard, but it would have to be one tough Neophyte who went all night through the storm. Actually I'm not convinced that anybody could have survived going on in the storm. Except me, and maybe Crasta.'

'Just you, then.'


'Crasta...isn't going anywhere.'

There was a hiss of air as Orna breathed sharp and fast. 'He's injured, then? Or-'

Eraa interrupted him without even realizing it. 'Dead. Yes. I- I think I might have killed-'

Orna grabbed him by the shoulders. 'What do you mean, might have? Either the bastard's dead or he isn't. Now what did you do? Shoot him in the back, drop him off a cliff, beat his guts out?'

Eraa's mandibles began to click together in uneasiness. 'Beat his guts out? No. Someone had already done that for me.'

Orna hooked his upper mandibles up over his top jaw. It was a sign of deep disgust, and Eraa had never before seen his brother use it.

'We have to keep moving. The trial isn't over yet, and we're going to finish it.'

They kept jogging towards the end of the trial all day. Eraa was tired out by the end of the first few miles, but Orna kept the same pace, unperturbed by the panting breaths of his brother. At what Eraa assumed was about six miles, Orna called for him to halt. Eraa wished with all his heart that there was something to eat. He wondered if any of the other Neophytes had died- or been killed- yet. Taking a look back at the terrain which they had crossed, he saw a fast-moving figure. He called to Orna.

'Jorda Por,' muttered the tall young Sangheili. 'I never knew he was so fast.'

'The trial brings out something in everyone,' Eraa remarked. 'Or anyway, one of the trainers told me that before we started.'

'Huh, at least your gave you a motivational statement. Mine gave a kick on the ass.'

'You shouldn't talk about the trainers like that, you know.'

'Come on,' grunted Orna, changing the subject not-so-smoothly. 'We have to keep going. At a full run this time.'

Eraa groaned as he heaved himself up off the ground. 'How much longer is it?'

Orna considered this for a few seconds before answering, 'Eight miles or so. We made pretty good time.'

They ran for a long time. Supposedly a strong Sangheili could run a mile in under four units, but Eraa had never even been able to come close to this. After nearly forty units, they stopped in the shade of a large, twisted tree.

'Just a few more miles-' panted Orna. Even he was tired now, and Eraa was nearly dead on his feet. Eraa took a few seconds to look back at where Jorda should have been. But no Sangheili silhouette was visible against the horizon.

'Where did he go?' wondered Eraa aloud. Orna rose to a crouch and looked back. Certainly there was no Sangheili there. But coming up on them with terrifying speed was a cloud of sand and the light snow. Orna cursed loudly. Both the Neophytes had heard of the trainers setting a storm of some kind on the front-runners. However, neither had ever thought of actually having to face one.

Orna and Eraa got up, their bones creaking in protest. Turning their backs to the ever-nearing cloud, the two brothers looked at each other. Orna spoke, his tired voice cutting through a silence broken only by the whipping winds of the storm.

'Well, I think that we raced too hard to get here. If we don't make it, Eraa-'

But his brother had already interrupted him. 'We are going to make it, Orna. And as for our racing to get here...now the real race is going to begin.'

The two of them were off, eerily silent across the flat wasteland. The only sound came from their hooves striking the snowy ground. They crossed a river, leapt over rocks, and jumped a canyon, all with the same silent precision. And yet the storm followed them still. As Eraa hit the ground on the other side of the canyon, he was halted by his brother. Both of them looked back. The storm was still coming, and it was no true storm. Inside the cloud rested the cause of it. A huge creature, nearly twice as high as a Sangheili, thundered across the packed snow with unearthly howls.

Two words escaped from Eraa's mandibles, almost too quiet for Orna to hear.

'Drinol. Sharquoi.'

Orna took the message. Even the most foolish Neophyte had heard of the mighty Sharquoi, the rampaging Drinol Beasts of the Saldurian plains of Guihja. The Sharquoi were not great in number, nor in intelligence. But for sheer destructive force, nothing in the galaxy could equal a Drinol. As they hid behind two fallen trees in the area, hoping to be spared by the Drinol's poor eyesight, the two conversed almost silently.

'Why is there a Drinol here?' hissed Eraa.

'It must have been the final test,' volunteered Orna.

'Then why is it back here?' Eraa asked in horror.

'Probably broke out, or something like that.'

Just then, an object sailed over the tree Orna was hiding behind and landed with a disgusting splat, spraying violet ichor everywhere. It was the upper half of Jorda Por. Throwing caution to the winds, the two Neophytes sprang out of cover and ran. There was a thundering crash as the Sharquoi jumped the canyon. It stared stupidly at the two running Sangheili for a few seconds, and then its minuscule brain decided it would be best to kill the pair. It followed with all the speed it could summon.

The Sangheili in question ran like they had never run before. Eraa had the momentary and somewhat random thought that he could easily run a mile in under four units if a Sharquoi were chasing him. Sprinting, however, he found impossible to keep an idea in his head, except that of the two mutilated Neophytes he'd seen. How many others had fallen prey to the Drinol? He made up his mind that he wouldn't join the list.

As the two dashed in front of the Sharquoi, he heard a shout of disappointment from Orna. The two skidded to a stop ahead of a wall that was at least thirty feet high and was hissing with electrical energy. Orna turned and faced his brother.

'You know, I'm starting to think that the trainers really are trying to kill us all.'

Then the Drinol charged them from behind. Eraa and Orna dove to the sides as the huge creature slammed into the wall. Then everything was a cacophony of howls of agony from the Sharquoi. The thing toppled backwards and fell with an earsplitting crash. Eraa looked at the wall in surprise. He had hit it while jumping away and received no shock. It looked like the Drinol had short-circuited the system. The two Sangheili climbed up carefully. There were few hand-holds on the wall and nowhere that a Sangheili's hooves could fit.

Eraa was the first to reach the top. As he heaved Orna up over the edge, he suddenly became aware of a vast force pulling Orna away from him. Looking over the edge, he saw the single yellow eye of the Sharquoi glaring furiously at him. Its claws had fixed in Orna's leg. As Eraa watched, the Sangheili in the monster's grip struck out with his left leg. The Drinol groaned in torment as the heavy hoof ground into its one eye. Orna kept pushing down relentlessly. The Sharquoi howled louder and louder, but it refused to let go. Finally, Orna pushed down so hard that there was a splattering of blood and other fluids and the Drinol beast gave a howl that made Eraa's mandibles shake. Orna scrambled up over the top of the wall.

Eraa was looking ahead as they ran from the blinded Sharquoi. He could see an Apparition dropship scarcely a thousand yards off. That was their ticket to the carrier overhead where they could rest from their trial. He dragged Orna to his feet.

'Come- on- just- another- few- units-' the Neophyte groaned in pain.

His breath came in labored gasps now, and perspiration streaked his bleeding face. There was another howl from behind; the Drinol was over the wall and hunting by its keen sense of smell. Orna was running ahead, and Eraa knew that Orna, for all his toughness, didn't know how to fly a dropship. Eraa did, in theory. He had never actually tried to fly one. But Orna didn't even know how to. Eraa had to get there first. He quickened his step beyond what he believed was possible.

Then he was at the dropship. He pressed the deactivation switch for the forcefield that covered the cockpit, and tried to jump up into the cockpit. He was rewarded with a burned head. The forcefield was in lock mode. He couldn't get it open without the proper codes for it.

His voice was almost hysterical as he called to Orna.

'There's no way out! The forcefield's closed!' he screamed.

Orna grinned and raised his plasma sidearm. If Eraa didn't know that the smile was sarcastic he would have been much more at ease. Orna aimed the pistol and plugged five shots into the activation panel. The forcefield dropped quickly. Eraa climbed into the pilot's seat. Orna took the gunner's chair.

Eraa knew what he was going to have to do. He rubbed his hands together in trepidation and then hit the power button. The ship's stabilizer plasma field activated. Eraa waited a few seconds like he'd been told to, and then hit the button combination green, green, red, black. The ship rose and then stopped rising with a terrible shudder.

Eraa cursed and looked at the nav-screen. The Sharquoi had the dropship by one of its troop-carrier prongs. 'Get on the gun!' he yelled down to Orna. His brother dropped out of sight into the gunner's seat, then reappeared.

'I can't!' roared Orna, striking the wall in frustration. 'The power core's out, probably intentionally so we couldn't just kill everyone in sight.'

Eraa cursed the Drinol's parents for making it, its parents' parents for making its parents, whichever trainer it was that had thought to put a Sharquoi in the trial, and the gods for making such an incredibly stupid and destructive creature. Orna leapt back with a cry of surprise as the Drinol beast's huge slimy hand, which could comfortably have held Orna and Eraa at once, reached in through the sparking remnants of the forcefield. The massive, faintly greenish claws had purple bloodstains on them as the hand maneuvered throughout the cockpit. They were a yard from Eraa- now two feet- now only one-

Orna gave a battle-howl and leapt onto the back of the Sharquoi's hand, biting deep with all four mandibles into the creature's disgusting flesh. The Drinol gave a bellow of pain and retracted the hand, pulling Orna with it. Eraa looked on the floor of the cockpit for a few micro-units before he found it. Orna's plasma pistol. Lifting the weapon, he leapt out of the cockpit, falling twelve feet to the ground below.

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Covenant Holy City High Charity
Carrier Regret and Remembrance

In the carrier's control room, two Sangheili warriors watched the brothers attacking a Sharquoi. There was a smile of amusement on the face of the taller one. He wore the silvery armor of the Energy Blade of the Prophets- the Special Operative Commander. He was called Dana Vutbrugee'. The other had an expression of deep disapproval. In the yellow armor of a trainer, some Sangheili looked formidable. Others, like Duga Mouraree', looked stupid. Mouraree' clicked his mandibles at the sight of Orna dodging the heavy blows of the Drinol while Eraa circled the creature, trying to get in a shot. A plasma blast landed at the base of the thing's skull, and it howled, spun and caught Eraa a blow that knocked him head over heels. There was a sharp intake of breath from Vutbrugee', but on the plasma-screen, Eraa got up again.

As the Commander watched, the Head Trainer of the Neophytes spoke quietly, so as not to distract the veteran warrior who stood before him. 'We ought to aid them in their battle with the fierce Sharquoi. I cannot condone the wanton destruction of two Neophytes because of your release of the Drinol Beast, excellency.'

The reply was a soft and clipped rebuke. 'And yet, you condoned the earlier murders of Crasta Hul and Jorda Por and Natha Gro without a problem. The two of them,' and here he gestured to the pair on the screen, 'had no problem with seeing two of the three of those dead, so I don't see why you do.'

'But why do you do this, excellency? Surely it serves no purpose to kill as many of the Neophytes as you can-'

The tall Sangheili's face was eerie in the purplish light of the carrier. 'Perhaps you don't wish to follow my orders any longer?'

The Trainer's voice trembled shamefully. 'If you will hold me no ill, I do not.'

Vutbrugee' gave a hiss of displeasure. 'And if I do hold ill against you? Then will you follow me yet? You disgust me, Mouraree'. Get yourself from my sight.'

The smaller Sangheili hurried to obey. Dana's attention was drawn again to the screen. He spoke to himself, to quietly to be easily heard by the four Honor Guards that patrolled the room.

'Those two are marked. If they kill the Sharquoi, then, by all the gods, I will have two new Special Operatives before the Katchir tree flowers for the tenth time.'

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Covenant Holy City High Charity
Neophyte Training Facility

Orna was under attack from the Sharquoi. That was no mean thing, for the Drinol Beast, though blinded, could tell where the Neophyte was by smell. However, it was beyond doubt that the creature was tiring. The great eviscerating swipes of its claws no longer fell with such ferocity, and Eraa kept blasting at it.

As Orna dodged another swing, Eraa jumped onto the Sharquoi's head and fired as many shots as he could get in. The thing bellowed maniacally and swung an arm that by chance struck Eraa off the Drinol and into the side of the dropship. There was an ominous crack as Eraa slid down and fell unconscious.

Eraa woke again just a few seconds later to find himself right near the dropship. Climbing into the cockpit again, he pressed red, blue, red, green to raise the dropship some ten feet off the ground. Then he held down the white acceleration pad until a red warning message blinked in the corner of the nav-screen. Releasing the pad, Eraa dove out of the cockpit. And not a moment too soon. The Apparition shot forward at full speed, striking the Sharquoi in its broad chest. The dropship's safety mechanisms pulled it to a stop, but the damage was done. The Drinol's blind eye tried to stare down at the depressed ruin its torso had become, and then it smelled Eraa close by. It started to shamble slowly towards him, only to hear a crackling hum and smell ozone in front of itself.

Orna stood there with an overcharged plasma pistol and an inordinate amount of confidence. In fine dramatic fashion, he spoke in a cold voice.

'You're not going anywhere.'

And released the shot, straight into the Sharquoi's open mouth. The beast gave a moan of torture and fell to the ground so heavily that Eraa could barely keep his feet. Yellow blood with a syrupy consistency fountained everywhere, including Orna. He sat there, knocked over by the force of the shot, and now dumbstruck by the tidal wave of gore that had come out of nowhere to paralyze him.

Eraa burst out laughing. He couldn't stop until he told his brother to get in the dropship. But Orna only swore loudly at him, and went behind a rock to dry himself off. Eraa started chuckling again. When Orna came out from behind the rock, he smelled considerably better, although he looked rather wet. Eraa climbed into the Apparition. This time, he hit the yellow button to set the ship on any preprogrammed course. The dropship rose into the air above the dead Drinol Beast, and headed into the main ventral docking bay of the carrier Regret and Remembrance.

Commander: Sangheili
Date: 29 December 2005, 9:26 pm

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Covenant Holy City High Charity
Assault Carrier Regret and Remembrance

The Apparition dropship entered the open primary hangar bay of the Regret and Remembrance. Pausing several feet above the second level, the ship's troop carrying section opened and Orna got out. Eraa stepped clear of the cockpit, and the ship left, returning to the Sangheili who were soon to complete the trial below.

Eraa and Orna were greeted by an unsmiling trainer. Trying to dredge up a name, Eraa decided that this was Trainer Steramee'. Steramee', if it was indeed her, looked angrily at the two and spoke coldly.

'This way,' she hissed, pointing to a door that led to the bottom level.

As they walked in a stony silence, Eraa attempted to figure out what they were headed. Trying to remember the study he'd done was a welcome distraction from what looked to be a world-record punishment.

Orna already knew where they were going: the ship's muster bay. He didn't dare speak to Eraa; he was uncertain as to whether everyone was angry, or just the Trainer, and he didn't want to chance anything until he found out.

Eraa had also come to the conclusion that they were walking to the muster bay. Nearly as soon as he could decide this, the doors to the huge room slid open. Despite the size of the place, which had three levels, there was only one Sangheili in the room. He was tall, powerful, and wore silvery armor.

As the two Neophytes saw the warrior, Orna whispered to his brother incredulously. 'Eraa- that's Dana Vutbrugee'!'

Eraa already knew who it was. He had idolized Vutbrugee' somewhat when he was younger. Admittedly it was hard not to. Vutbrugee's Seven Principles of Strategy were taught at the training schools. Whenever a new war holo came out, it featured Vutbrugee', fighting and winning against impossible odds. Vutbrugee' was always held up as the shining example for the Neophytes. Eraa was meeting him now. The meeting would be the most important he ever made.

As Vutbrugee' heard the precise, measured footsteps of the Trainer and the awkward shuffling of the teenage Neophytes, he turned with the hint of a smile on his scarred face. His voice, however, showed no trace of the veneer of happiness as he glared at the Trainer.

'You may leave us, Trainer.'

'As you wish,' rang the Trainer's harsh tones. With a final cutting glance at the Neophytes, she walked out of the room. The two were left alone with the Special Operative Commander, the Supreme General of all the Covenant Grand Army.

'You two were quite lucky that I chose to be here for the trial this megacycle,' came the clipped tones of the Commander, so well known from thousands of holos from the war. 'I quite think the Trainers would have had your heads otherwise.'

'Why?' asked Eraa loudly. Orna elbowed him in the ribs. Belatedly, Eraa remembered his manners. 'Excellency,' he added.

'Why, you ask?' The speech of the Commander now had a hint of amusement to it. 'I don't know at all. After all, you only teamed up for a solitary exercise, one of you killed another Neophyte, you released the Drinol Beast, and then destroyed a very valuable piece of Covenant property! Couldn't be any of those.'

Eraa's voice shook. 'It's against the rules to kill another Neophyte, Excellency?'

The Supreme Commander made a dismissive gesture. 'Technically. But everyone does it anyway. In my trial, the toughest Neophyte killed six others.'

'What happened to him, Excellency?' This time the question was from Orna.

'He went on to become a Zealot. Very fierce fighter. Jama Staparee' was his name. He fought in nineteen major engagements against the Jiralhanae, all of them victories. Twenty would have been a record. But he never got it. In the twentieth fight, his forces had almost won when an Unggoy shot him in the back with a Fuel Rod Cannon by accident.'

'What did we destroy, Excellency?' Eraa asked.

'The Sharquoi, actually. Since it's not intelligent enough to take the Oath, it's Covenant property instead of Covenant member. Oh, and before you ask, you released it when you entered that cave, Orna. The rock that you pushed out of the way was supposed to be unmovable, because the Drinol Beast lived beyond it. It looks like they'll have to get a new one now. However, you need not worry about it. I have...taken care...of those who wished to punish you.'

'So what happens now?' inquired Eraa, this time forgetting the 'Excellency' altogether.

'You take the Oath, of course. You survived the trial. You even made it here first. So you become a member of the everlasting and almighty Covenant. Eraa, leave us.'

The Neophyte left, wondering about what he had seen. He waited beyond one of the many doors to the area. He waited for almost five units before Orna entered and told him to go outside.

Vutbrugee' sat there in a meditative pose. Hearing Eraa approach, he performed a complex twisting motion that landed him on his feet. When Eraa saw his face, it was deadly, hard and serious. His voice was icy.

'As you join this Covenant, you take an Oath. On the blood of your fathers and on the blood of your sons, you swear to uphold this Covenant, even to your dying breath. You swear to follow the Hierarchs wherever they shall lead. You swear to obey the articles and hierarchies of the ancient bond between the Ahlainga, that is the Prophets, and the Sangheili. You swear to follow the teachings of our Lords the Forerunners and the Gods that illuminated their minds. You swear that you will seek out and venerate the relics that our Lords left behind. You swear that those who would break this oath are heretics, worthy of neither pity nor mercy. You swear that you shall grind such foul heresy into the dust. You swear that wherever in the universe that the forces of the Demon be found, according to the prophecies of the Prophet of Revelation, you shall wipe them out as a holy messenger of the blade in the hands of the Forerunners that is the Covenant. Finally, you swear to make the Covenant stronger and stronger in preparation for the rapture of the Great Journey. If you believe in this, and you are willing to fall under the eternal protection and sway of the Covenant, say that you are.'

'I am, Excellency,' came Eraa's discomforted voice. He was scared now. A decision like this scared everyone, he'd been told. He didn't know what to say, or how to say it. His entire life so far had been focused on attaining this moment, and now that he was here, he didn't know what to do. He searched for the words, and then spoke with wisdom far beyond his thirteen years. Vutbrugee' was impressed many years later with just how good of an answer Eraa had come up with.

Then, however, it just sounded a bit like he was trying to sound important. The effect was a grand one, to be sure, but it was somewhat offset by his shaking voice.

'I will follow the almighty Covenant of the Ahlainga and the Sangheili to whatever end.'

The voice of Vutbrugee' took on a bored tone, as though he was repeating lines he had learned by heart. 'Then, Eraa clan Sam, know that as all Neophytes have been honored such since the first days of the Covenant, I pronounce thee Sangheili now and forever, and name thee Eraa Gamsam. Knowest thou the significance of such a name?'

Eraa knew it very well, but the expected response was a negative one, and what he said was, 'No, Excellency.'

The weary tone faded from Vutbrugee's voice as he spoke again. 'Eraa is thy name, the name which you were born by and known by and lived by. But no longer is it thine only name. Gam signifies cleverness, for thou art clever in your disregard for orders and laws, and the stronger because of it. Beware thee, however: break thou the orders of any who is short of temper and you will receive your deserved punishment. Lastly, and most importantly, Sam signifies that you are a member of clan Sam, and you are bound by honor and promise to those of this clan, for good or for ill. Thus is the honor of a Sangheili, and thus is your name. And your name will be great, Gamsam, for you have all the makings of a great warrior, and thus shalt thou be if thou mindest. I leave thee, then, as Sangheili, with your brother and this.'

As he turned and left the room, Eraa Gamsam looked at the object that Dana Vutbrugee' had pressed into his hand.

It was a short, curved blade with a word written on it in flowing Ahlainga script. It read 'Sangheili.'

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Covenant Holy City High Charity
Sangheili Young Warrior Academy
Six Years Later

The process of becoming Sangheili was just the beginning for any who wished to become a warrior. Many of those who joined the Young Warrior's Academy were merely prestige-seekers, who wished to have the coveted -ee' suffix and command the extra respect that came with it.

These prestige-seekers invariably were coddled by the others all through their time at the academy. This was done so that, when they were sent into their first real battle, they would be killed instantly. Not only did the Trainers who ran the Academy not care about this, they encouraged it. Any of the status-seekers who had any brains started to work hard. Many of the Young Warriors were that sort. Quite a few were those who'd tried their hardest from the start. Some were those who were warriors in all but name.

As Head Trainer Jima Voshulee' walked through the Battleground, observing the Young Warriors sparring hand-to-hand, with wooden or metal staffs, or even with the Nikdar swords, he noticed one Warrior of this last type. A tall Sangheili, fighting one-on-one with an even taller Sangheili. The smaller one was winning, and in style. In two places, the purple blood ran down his black skin, but Eraa Gamsam was defeating Orna Fulsam without much trouble. At the sight of the Head Trainer, whom neither had seen since their joining the Academy six years before, Eraa quickly released Orna's left leg and both Young Warriors stood at attention. The Head Trainer seemed almost impressed as he looked at the blue-skinned Sangheili and asked his name.

'Orna Fulsam, Lord!' came the stiff answer.

'And your name?' hissed the Trainer, sweeping on to Eraa.

'Eraa Gamsam, Lord!'

Eraa's eyes were straight ahead, but he could instinctively tell that the Trainer had stiffened, even when the older Sangheili's back was to him.

'The Eraa Gamsam?'

'I was not aware that I merited such an honor as the one you have just conferred on me, Lord.' The slight touch of sarcasm in Eraa's voice went luckily unnoticed by the Trainer.

'You assume it's an honor. Do you know who I am? I am Jima Voshulee'.'

Eraa mentally ran through the one hundred and seventy-nine major houses of Sangheili, which he had dutifully memorized for a required etiquette course the previous year. Clan Hul was one of them, but not a very rich, or indeed very important one. They had only one member on the Council and no holdings in High Charity that he was aware of. Then a memory came back to him. Six years earlier. The first thing he'd ever killed. A mangled body, torn to pieces in a swamp. Crasta Hul.

Eraa's voice was cold. 'The father of Crasta Hul, I presume. I am honored...Lord.'

Orna would have congratulated his brother if he could have. Eraa had delayed the 'Lord' in such a way that Voshulee' could not complain of disrespect, although Eraa was still showing it.

But Eraa wasn't done. His voice fell to a whisper that made Orna's skin prickle as he looked Voshulee' in the eyes and contended, 'Are you looking to start a vendetta? A blood feud?'

Voshulee's voice was nearly as cold. 'If that is your will, then so be it, Young Warrior.' With that, he swept off, leaving a quiet Battleground behind him. As soon as he was out of earshot, Orna cursed Eraa with every curse he knew. The blood feud was a complex but legal type of massacre. The two affronted Sangheili would confront each other in single combat. The winner would be obliged to kill off every one of the loser's immediate family. If Eraa was killed, Orna would die as well. Of course, Orna was allowed to resist, but if he killed Voshulee' after the Trainer had already won the duel, Orna would be punished for murder.

Orna refused to speak to Eraa for almost a cycle, but two cycles after that night he found Eraa sitting in his dormitory room, sharpening a Nikdar sword. Before he could remember that he wasn't going to talk to Eraa, he had asked what Eraa was doing. The answer was curt and angry.

'Sharpening a blade to kill Voshulee'. Does it look like I'm not?'

'No,' Orna had to admit, 'but I don't think you'll have much chance with a sword. Remember, he has attained the rank of Major. He will be allowed to carry an Energy Sword. You will not.'

Eraa looked up for a moment, then resumed his sharpening. 'It doesn't matter. I'll kill him anyway.'

Before Orna could respond, the holopanel on the wall flashed into life with a war news broadcast.

'Attention! The Covenant has achieved a crucial victory in its war with the Jiralhanae. Several units ago, a report from Supreme General Vutbrugee' and Supreme Commander Righanee' was received which asserts that the attack on Hagja was successful. The Jiralhanae there were routed and their shipyards destroyed. But most importantly, the Jiralhanae Chieftain Tartarus was captured and taken alive in the course of the fighting. Tartarus escaped due to a cowardly ambush, but his weapon, the Fist of Rukh, remains in the custody of the Covenant. Without this weapon, Tartarus no longer has authority to rule the Jiralhanae. That is all that is currently known.'

Eraa barked in surprise. The Fist of Rukh was a deadly weapon, and one that he would give much to see. Before he could put this into words, a Trainer came into the room and spoke in a loud and arrogant tone.

'The Head Trainer Jima Voshulee' wishes to inform Eraa Gamsam that their duel shall take place in the Council Chamber as befits a duel of such importance under Canto Seventy-One of the Articles of Covenant. The said duel shall take place in four cycles.' He stood there, awaiting a return message.

Eraa practically spat with disgust. 'That fool needs four cycles to make ready? I will be there and ready to kill the old idiot in three. Go and tell the Head Trainer that!' With a nod, the Trainer turned on his hoof and exited.

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Covenant Holy City High Charity
Council Chamber
Four Cycles Later

Orna walked into the gravity lift alongside Eraa, wishing that he was anywhere but where he was. He constantly lectured his brother on the combat techniques they'd learned in six years of hard training. Eraa was also beginning to wish that Orna was anywhere but where he was.

As they stepped out of the gravity-lift, Orna finished giving his brother pointers. 'Okay, just remember to keep moving. He'll have an energy shield, so he's not going to go down easily. Oh, and try to relax. You aren't going to have anyone watch-' He broke off as the two stepped into the chamber to see the bleachers that often held the Councillors packed with hundreds of Sangheili. The chamber had a small capacity, but Eraa had no doubt that someone was going to take a holo of it. The two brothers stopped at the open doorway.

Eraa could see Voshulee' at the other end, clad in the red armor of a Hammer of the Prophets, wielding the hilt of an Energy Sword. Orna edged off to the side as Eraa drew his blade and slowly advanced. The Trainer was too far to see it, but there was no emotion in Eraa's eyes. His normally expressive face was blank and unreadable. He twisted the blade up into a salute position. Voshulee' should have returned the salute, but he did not. Several Sangheili in the crowd jeered at him.

As their jeering died away into silence, Voshulee' spoke. 'Sangheili! This fool and infidel has slain my son and brought devastation upon my house! Thus I shall refute him!' He brought his blade up and turned it on. Two wicked flares of energy cut through the half-dark of the chamber. The crowd roared.

Eraa stood tall and spoke more fierce and proud than he had ever done. 'Sangheili! Be my witness. Before today, I held small ill against this Sangheili. But today, I am his deadly enemy! Today, I fight for my house's life. Today, I fight against Jima Voshulee'!' The crowd roared, encouraging him. In the shadows on the farthest end of the Council Chamber stood Dana Vutbrugee', using optic camouflage to avoid being seen. Vutbrugee's face held a hint of a smile. He wondered if Eraa would think to use what Vutbrugee' had given him.

Eraa held the heavy sword straight out, unwavering despite its weight. Voshulee' carried his sword in the classic right arm straight position. They looked each other in the eyes. For a second, it seemed like they were communicating in an unknown fashion. Then Voshulee' raised the sword and charged the young Sangheili. He lunged at Eraa, who rolled over Voshulee's back and hit the ground swinging. The blow failed to connect, but Voshulee' knew the danger now.

Eraa steeled himself, then leapt in the air and brought the sword around with lethal speed. If his lightning strike had connected, Voshulee would have been cut in two. As it was, he was forced to dodge backwards with a sort of twirl to evade the sword. Eraa had not struck a blow, but he had learned several things from the opening encounters. Voshulee favored his left foot. He was cautious. He had good reflexes but poor agility. Lastly, he did not have an energy shield activated. Eraa had felt no barrier when he had rolled over the older Sangheili.

The two circled each other. Again, Eraa made the first move. He feinted to the left. As Voshulee's sword came down, burning the floor, he danced out of the way and gracefully leapt over the Trainer. He slashed out before he hit the ground. This time he struck well. A shallow gash opened on Voshulee's back, causing him to stagger forward. The watchers roared Eraa's name. Distracted, Eraa did not notice that Voshulee was swinging at him until it was nearly too late. He stepped back and brought his sword up to parry. He was ready to deliver a killing blow when he realized he was holding a useless rod of blunted and melting steel. He had forgotten momentarily that Voshulee had an Energy Sword. He dodged another fierce strike in time to thrust the red-hot metal staff into the spot in between the plates of Voshulee' chest armor. The older Sangheili screamed in agony as the molten metal burned his skin, but drew back his sword for a stab to finish the combat.

Eraa ducked just in time. The blade missed him, but Voshulee's heavy fist sent him sliding across the floor. As he looked around for something to use as a weapon, he felt something sharp in his loose jumpsuit's pocket. It was the knife he'd received from Vutbrugee'. Turning, he threw it without hesitation. The knife pierced Voshulee's hand, causing him to roar in fury. Eraa was weaponless again. He scanned the chamber as the Trainer charged him. And then he saw it.

Up against the wall of the Council Chamber was the Gravity Hammer. The Fist of Rukh. Eraa didn't know why it was there, but by all accounts it was a formidable weapon. Racing to it, he pulled on it, trying to free it from the energy binders that held it to the wall. The binders held as Voshulee' grew closer. He pulled with all his might. This time there was a flicker in the binders. Voshulee' was almost on top of him. With a roar of pent-up fury, Eraa grabbed the handle of the hammer. The sinews stood out like wire on his frame. The binders turned red and then hissed into nothing.

Eraa brought the heavy hammer around, grasping the grips as hard as he could. To his astonishment, energy of some kind built up on the end of the hammer. He released the grips as Voshulee' jumped toward him. He saw the older Sangheili's eyes widen in horror, but he could not dodge the gravitron pulse that flew from the end of the hammer and struck him cleanly across the chamber.

Eraa walked slowly to where Jima Voshulee' lay, paralyzed by the force of the energy wave that had struck him. Eraa bent into a crouch. Jima was alive yet, and clearly trying to regain his feet. Pressing him back down, the Young Warrior spoke.

'You know, your son was a poisonous bastard too. You're going to die almost the same way as he did. You're all alike.'

With that, he lifted the hammer and brought it down with all his might.

There was a sound that had not been heard in the Council Chamber for eons.

Eraa Gamsam walked from the hall, entered the gravity lift, and, still carrying the Fist of Rukh, dropped out of sight.

Commander: Hierarch
Date: 4 January 2006, 9:13 pm

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Covenant Holy City High Charity
Sangheili Young Warrior Academy

      It was some time before Orna went looking for his brother. He had to learn some important things. Things that only a Special Operative could tell him. He cornered 'Vutbrugee as the Commander deactivated his camouflage.

      'Why are you here, Excellency?' said Orna without a hint of fear.

      Orna didn't expect a reply, but it was swift in coming. 'Your brother interests me. He's a better fighter than any warrior I've seen in years. He needs experience, and I could give that to him if he became a Blade of the Prophets and donned the black armor. I have changed plans that took years to make because of you two. Eraa in particular seems to change the workings of the Covenant without realizing it.'

      Orna's next question was nebulous, but 'Vutbrugee understood it nonetheless. 'So what, Excellency, do you propose to do?'

      'Vutbrugee was walking away when he heard the question. He stopped and did not turn, although he gave Orna his answer.

      Thus it was not till the next cycle that Orna walked into Eraa's dormitory room to find him meditating and repeating the Seven Principles of Strategy to himself. It was only this constant mutter that alerted Orna to his brother's presence. He spoke cautiously, uncertain of what his unpredictable brother's reaction would be.

      'Do you have the Fist?'

      Eraa silently pointed a gore-spattered claw at the corner, where the hammer of the Jiralhanae rested against the wall. Orna hefted the heavy weapon as he spoke again.

      'Aren't you going to finish off his family?'

      Eraa gave no indication that he had heard, but after a unit or so he responded. 'Not unless they ask for it. There's no purpose to the mindless slaughter I could unleash. Did you speak to 'Vutbrugee?'

      Orna gave a start. He wondered how Eraa knew that 'Vutbrugee was there in the first place. His answer was somewhat perturbed when it came. 'Yes. He told me what he was going to do about this.'

      Eraa ceased his meditation and for the first time gave Orna his full attention. Orna's tone of voice was partly amazed and partly amused.

      'The Commander has decided to send his second-in-command, Jhanda 'Barletee, to take over the Academy. 'Barletee will see to it that we are pushed on into the Grand Army immediately. We will both start as Minor warriors in the Warband of Unveiled Majesty. 'Vutbrugee will engineer our passage through the ranks so that we will achieve Command-level within ten years. He has prepared a ship, the Mercy and Righteousness, to bring us to our first assignment, which will be negotiation with the Brute Chieftain Tartarus over the return of the Fist of Rukt.'

      Eraa's eyes narrowed slightly at this, but he gave no response. As Orna turned to leave, he heard Eraa's last question. 'When does the ship leave?'

      Knowing that Eraa couldn't see his face, Orna gave a mock-evil grin. 'Two cycles. You'd better pack everything you're going to need now, because you're not gonna have much time later.' He left the room sniggering, ignoring Eraa's vicious cursing.

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Derelict Jiralhanae Shipyard Hagja Prime
Covenant Battlecruiser Mercy and Righteousness
Seven Cycles Later

      Minor Eraa 'Gamsamee and Minor Orna 'Fulsamee stood together on the bridge of the Mercy and Righteousness. Eraa's mind ran over the events of the whirlwind last seven cycles. He and Orna had been hastily graduated from the Academy by Ultra Operative Jhanda 'Barletee, a stocky, pale Sangheili in white armor, given a brand on the left thigh that signified their warrior status, outfitted with the blue armor of a Staff of the Prophets, given a plasma rifle each and been informed to board the battlecruiser in Docking Area Gamma. Eraa and Orna had been escorted to their quarters and sent to the bridge from there.

      The only other Sangheili in the place was the Zealot in command, a Ship Master called Ricka 'Timraee. He was entering logbook updates into the memory array, and largely disregarding Eraa and Orna. 'Timraee was generally more friendly to the lower ranks, but at the moment he was confused, angry and generally unable to tell what the hell was going on. He had been volunteered for this mission by none other than the Energy Sword of the Prophets himself, Supreme General 'Vutbrugee. He wondered why 'Vutbrugee had insisted that a battlecruiser and not a carrier should bring the Prophet of Truth and the rest of the negotiators to this meeting with the Brute Chieftain.

      If he had known 'Vutbrugee's reasoning, he would have been even less at ease. A battlecruiser had much less mass, making a slipspace destination easier to calculate. Therefore, it could escape into slipspace almost ten times faster than a carrier.

      This was unknown to 'Timraee, however, who was entertaining himself with various heretical thoughts of the pain he'd like to inflict upon Truth. Ever since him and his damned gravity throne had come aboard, he'd done nothing but fuss, gripe, fuss, whine and fuss. My quarters are too small, Ship Master. This Unggoy was disrespectful to me, Ship Master. Your cuisine is poor, Ship Master. 'Timraee was left grating his mandibles in exasperation. What did Truth think he was running, a bloody resort? He didn't mind the two Minors sent to negotiate, though. They were both soldiers. He couldn't tell if they'd be any good at negotiating, but at least they weren't as finicky as Truth was.

      Eraa was somewhat preoccupied. The Jiralhanae cruiser Jiral was supposed to be entering the system in a few units. He and Orna both knew why 'Vutbrugee had really put them on this mission. Truth couldn't bring any of the Honor Guards that traveled with him when he went on board the Jiralhanae ship, or any warriors at all, actually, for fear of being accused of an assassination attempt. The two Minors were there to defend the Hierarch in case of emergency.

      Orna elbowed Eraa, disrupting his thoughts. On the holoscreen, a slipspace rupture had appeared. Eraa looked at the ship that was coming through. It wasn't the Jiral. That ship was mainly diplomatic in purpose. This ship bristled with weapons. This ship was Tartarus's personal warship, the Massacre. Eraa swallowed. If it came to ship-to-ship combat, a Jiralhanae warship could outgun a Covenant battlecruiser nine times out of ten. The Massacre's weapons were incredibly brutal and could tear the battlecruiser apart in a matter of seconds if the Mercy and Righteousness had its shields down.

      There was a sharp intake of air from 'Timraee. Evidently, he hadn't foreseen this either. He spoke into the intraship comm unit with a sense of urgency. 'Noble Prophet of Truth, your presence is requested on the bridge. All crew, battle stations. Firing control, charge all weapons and prepare to raise shields.'

      Several units later, the Prophet of Truth's gravity throne floated onto the bridge. He was followed by the two Honor Guards who obsessively protected him and the other Hierarchs. Eraa almost shuddered. He hoped he would never be reduced to the almost combatless existence of the Shields of the Prophets. Truth's voice was outraged.

      'I was gaining some much-needed rest when your overly loud message blared throughout this ship, disturbing my slumber without overt cause! I will not keep silent about this, you-'

      Eraa then did something that violated about a hundred unspoken rules of etiquette: he interrupted a Hierarch, pointing to the ship on the screen. 'Excellency, the Jiralhanae have arrived.'

      Truth was about to launch into a furious diatribe when he glanced at the screen. Immediately, his voice grew even more affronted.

      'Why, those brutal, honorless traitors! There was an agreement to bring weak ships to the meeting!'

      'Timraee threw the Prophet of Truth a glare that would have split a layer of titanium battleplate. Nobody else could be so impossibly rude as a Hierarch, and no Hierarch could be so rude as Truth. But Hierarch or not, it simply was not done to insult another's command.

      The other main door to the bridge opened and the two Zealots who assisted 'Timraee entered. Hika 'Gajturee had his Energy Sword active. Nuya 'Lakturee was a few inches shorter, but besides that, the Zealot brothers were identical. 'Gajturee and 'Lakturee were Sub-Ship Masters, and both had taken their current post only long enough to gain ships of their own.

      There was an alert sound, and Eraa looked up to the screen to see a Jiralhanae face. It was Tartarus. The unnaturally pale coat and irregular hair patterns contrasted sharply with the burning small eyes of the brutish creature. Eraa was strongly reminded of a Sharquoi. Although almost everything else was different, in the eyes of the Drinol Beast he and Orna had destroyed there had been the same malicious flame.

      The Chieftain growled as his eyes took in Truth, the three Zealots, the two Honor Guards and the pair of Minors standing there, all with a numbed look in their eyes. Tartarus's guttural voice barked out loudly to the Prophet of Truth.

      'So, Hierarch. There has been a change in plans. The negotiations will be on my ship, not yours. You will bring no weaponry to the meeting. Nor will you bring any high-ranking warriors, with the exception of the ship's commander. You will come in the next ten units, or the negotiations will be called off and we will open fire.'

      Truth's voice was thin and unpleasant. 'Remember that you are not on bargaining terms, Chieftain. We have the Fist of Rukt. You do not, and opening fire will merely destroy it.'

      'The Fist is more expendable than you are, Hierarch. I can afford to lose it, though it will cost me the leadership of the Jiralhanae. The loss of the Fist to me is outweighed by the loss of you to the Covenant.'

      Truth's smile was even thinner and more unpleasant than the tone of voice he used. 'I think that this is not the case, Chieftain. My death will cause the Prophet of Calm to join the Triad of the Hierarchs. Calm will then have the right, under the three hundred and seventy-second Canto of the Articles of Covenant to remove Mercy and Fury from the Triad. He will replace them with Pity and Joy. The three of them will take immediate steps to stamp out the Jiralhanae. Kill me if you like, but bear in mind that doing so will lose you the war in a matter of megacycles.'

      Eraa felt like vomiting at the insincerity of this speech. Truth was making it sound like he didn't care about being a martyr as long as the war was won. All that the smarmy bastard cared about was saving his worthless hide. He heard the Ship Master speaking to Orna.

      'We'll go over in the shuttle Pride. I'd take a Seraph, but its firepower wouldn't be much good against that monster anyway.'

      The Honor Guard to Truth's right spoke to the other guard. 'Energy swords and carbines, warrior. Be ready to leave in five units.'

      Without turning, Eraa spoke in a flat, angry voice. 'You two aren't coming. Tartarus said no high-ranking warriors and no weaponry.'

      Truth curled his long fingers into a fist. 'Whoever you are, do you honestly think for a unit that Tartarus is going to keep to those guidelines himself?'

      Eraa gave his answer immediately. 'Yes, noble Hierarch. Tartarus wants the Fist back more than he will show. If we threaten to blow up the ship unless he...modifies...the terms, he'll be persuaded pretty quickly.'

      Truth opened his mouth to object to this, couldn't think of anything to say, and shut his mouth again.

      Exactly ten units later, the Covenant shuttle entered the main hangar bay of the Massacre. The terms had been changed. Truth made a mental note that the young Minor, whatever his name was, ought to be commended. The shuttle carried six Sangheili and one Ahlainga Hierarch. The two Honor Guards each wielded an energy sword and a carbine. The two Sub-Ship Masters carried energy swords. Orna held two plasma rifles, and Eraa was ready with a particle beam rifle, six plasma grenades and a new prototype weapon that he'd found in the ship's armory. Its designation was the particle-beam blast cannon. The Sangheili who ran the armory, a Major called Kyndja 'Bayatsee, had called it the blaster. It launched super-high velocity particles at the enemy in a wide spread, potentially killing several targets with one shot. On Eraa's back was the Fist of Rukh. With all that ordnance, he was surprised he could still walk.

      A Jiralhanae warrior was waiting for them. His rank was Captain, as Eraa could tell from the red flag upon his back. He carried a vicious-looking grenade launcher with a long curved blade projecting from the stock. He gave a grunt and led them through the darkened corridors to a room with a high, vaulted ceiling. Tartarus stood at the other end of the room, two other Jiralhanae commanders flanking him.

      The Jiralhanae to the right of him was even taller than his Chieftain, and his scarred black skin and long white pelt made it easy for Eraa to identify him as Orthrys, Tartarus's lieutenant and the leader of the Jiralhanae armies. The warrior on Tartarus's left was more diminutive, although he still towered over Eraa, and carried no weapons, but was surrounded by an almost palpable aura of fear. His skin and fur were both gray, making him almost invisible in the dark halls of the ship. Eraa's grasp on the blaster tightened. He knew who this was.

      This warrior was Bracktanus, the leader of Tartarus's bodyguard. He had seen holos of this single warrior tearing unarmed through the Unggoy and Kig-Yar that would be first to board his ships. But Eraa knew that whenever the Sangheili warriors attacked to prevent another loss, Bracktanus would beat a cowardly retreat. So it often was in the war.

      Most of the time, the light Covenant infantry that assaulted the Jiralhanae would be defeated, until the heavy Covenant warriors attacked. A Sangheili-Lekgolo partnership would always be victorious in infantry engagements. When they had time and space to utilize vehicles, the Jiralhanae fell like grass before a scythe. But if it came to that, the Jiralhanae would run away like the craven fools that they were. And in the navy engagements, the Jiralhanae would almost always be the victors. Their warships could bend slipspace around themselves, creating a barrier impenetrable to Covenant sensors. As soon as they were in position, the barrier would drop and the Jiralhanae would vaporize the unsuspecting Covenant. They had many weapons to use.

      Their atom-fission torpedoes were enough to take down a Covenant destroyer with its shields up. The hundreds of plasma turrets that bristled from their hulls could bombard an assault carrier's shields until they dropped. And then there was the sonic missiles that each Jiralhanae warship carried two of. The more you tried to protect against it, the more damage it did. If you offered no defense, the worst it could do was knock anyone touching the hull unconscious. If your shields were up, it would neutralize them. But if the shields were up and the battleplate charged, every system on the ship would be destroyed and anyone in contact with the ship's chassis would be electrocuted. The Jiralhanae ships always fired one at the beginning of a battle, and if they looked to be losing or winning they would fire their other one. The Jiralhanae had won almost three-quarters of the naval battles in the war, and to be honest it was no surprise.

      The Jiralhanae were attempting to look intimidating, but they needn't have tried; they were usually quite intimidating as they were. When they tried to look frightening, they looked like they were half asleep. The Honor Guards had no-nonsense expressions. The Zealots had a cagy, secretive look to them, and Orna's knuckles had turned white from gripping his plasma rifles so tightly. But two of the ten faces in the room were expressionless: the face of the Prophet of Truth and the face of Eraa 'Gamsamee.

      When the room was silent, Orthrys pressed a button on the wall and a black slab of stone descended from the ceiling and came to a halt some five feet off the ground. Eraa hadn't known that the Jiralhanae were so adept at gravity manipulation. But then, they had made the Fist of Rukt.

      For almost a unit, no one spoke. Then the cold silence was broken, and the voice of Truth cut through the hot air like a knife. Eraa hadn't noticed it before, but the entire ship was swelteringly hot. He wondered how the Jiralhanae could stand it with their thick fur. Truth, however, was seemingly unaffected, or, if he was, he didn't show it.

      'You know, Chieftain, that this war has been fought continuously for the last seventeen years. You also know that our forces have defeated yours in almost every battle. Soon, you will not have the means to continue the war. The Jiralhanae will be against you. You will run out of resources. Furthermore, you will run out of troops. Within a year, maybe two, you will no longer be able to offer resistance. Our fleets will destroy your ships, glass your worlds, slay your armies and overthrow your race. You can either let this happen, or accept our terms.'

      Tartarus leaned over to Orthrys, and the larger Jiralhanae whispered something that Eraa could not catch into his Chieftain's ear. Tartarus considered this for a moment, and then spoke. 'I do not believe, Hierarch, that your armies will defeat ours so easily as you wish us to presume. True, you have vanquished our warriors often. But you and I both know that our ships and our ships' technology is vastly superior to your own. We can hold our own in a naval battle. I will consider your proposal for twenty of your units. Then you will know my decision, Hierarch.'

      The Chieftain rose and exited through a door that Eraa had not noticed. The two other Jiralhanae left through another such door. Eraa made up his mind. He followed Tartarus.

      He caught up to the Jiralhanae quickly. Almost immediately, the creature heard him, spun and felt at its back for a hammer that wasn't there. Eraa addressed Tartarus before the Chieftain could do anything else.

      'You must surrender, Tartarus.'

      Tartarus snorted. 'More of your propaganda? I am no fool, Sangheili.'

      Eraa's response was fast and furious. 'This is no propaganda, Jiralhanae! You cannot both retrieve the Fist and win the war. If you agree to Truth's terms and get the Fist back, one of them will be the incorporation of your race into the Covenant. If you do not, you will eventually lose the war, and the Jiralhanae will either be killed or assimilated.'

      As Eraa spoke, he became aware of a gravelly voice from above him. Looking up, he saw Orthrys. The general's voice was grim and deep. 'The boy's right. We have to kill the Hierarch now if you want to win the war.'

      Eraa interrupted. 'I cannot allow that. I am sworn to protect the Covenant and the Hierarchs. If you wish to slay the Prophet of Truth, I will have to kill you.'

      Orthrys's face was contorted into a leering grin. 'Are you sure you want to get involved in this? Two Jiralhanae warriors are a lot to handle!'

      As he spoke, Eraa's spine tingled. Something wasn't right. As Orthrys said the word handle, he jumped backwards just in time. Bracktanus plummeted from the high ceiling with an unearthly screech, landing where Eraa had stood a micro-unit before. Tartarus's eyes widened in surprise. He whirled on his general. 'Orthrys! What is this treachery?'

      Eraa backed off, surprised. He hadn't expected a Jiralhanae to be honorable at all...and then he realized that Orthrys and Bracktanus were both facing Tartarus, with grenade launchers drawn. Bracktanus's voice was a horribly mocking and unnaturally high-pitched singsong. 'Now look at mighty Chief Tartarus. Without his little hammer, he's just a big ape. He's nothing more than a--'

      But exactly what Tartarus was, Eraa never found out. Tartarus leapt on Bracktanus, delivering a bite to his shoulder and knocking his treacherous bodyguard's weapon away. Orthrys stood back, shouting. 'The Jiralhanae have been led by you for too long, Tartarus! You got us into this war, and you haven't gotten us out of it! You wouldn't kill Truth, so now Truth and you are both doomed!'

      Tartarus didn't look particularly doomed, however. Bracktanus lay on the deckplates with gore crusting his neck. He looked dead, but Eraa thought he was still alive. The Jiralhanae Chieftain raised himself to his feet and spun around. Suddenly, there was a sickening sound like a side of wet meat being hit with a rock and dark ichor started to well onto the deck. Tartarus fell to his knees and collapsed, barely breathing. Orthrys had reversed the grenade launcher and impaled Tartarus on the blade. The general spat on his fallen Chieftain's body, then looked up and saw Eraa 'Gamsamee. Eraa was able to make out the Jiralhanae's lips moving to form the words no witnesses.

      Eraa turned and ran back toward the room where the rest of his party were gathered. If he had been alone, we would have stood and fought, but like it or not (and he did not like it), his first duty was to Truth. He burst into the room, much to the surprise of Orna, the Honor Guards, the Zealots and the Hierarch, just as he heard Orthrys's voice utter something in the Jiralhanae tongue over the loudspeakers. The door that they had originally entered by slid noiselessly open to reveal a Jiralhanae with an automatic plasma cannon. The enemy warrior aimed for the Prophet of Truth, but before he could pull the trigger, Eraa had torn the Fist of Rukt from its strap on his back and thrown it at Truth's head.

      Although the Ahlainga, and in particular the Hierarchs, were physically slow, weak and frail, they retained the quick reflexes of their rodent ancestors. Truth ducked, and the hammer only clipped his headdress, as Eraa had planned. It kept flying, and struck the astonished Jiralhanae in the chest, killing him. Eraa leapt over the table and pulled the Fist of Rukt free from the corpse with a sickly sucking noise. The Prophet of Truth opened his mouth to complain his ruined headdress, but the words died on his tongue.

      The two other doors to the room slid open, revealing Orthrys, Bracktanus and a legion of bloodthirsty Jiralhanae.

Commander: Massacre
Date: 12 January 2006, 9:07 pm

The more of them you kill this year, the less you will have to kill next year...the more I see...the more sure I am that they all have to be killed.
-U.S. General William T. Sherman

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Derelict Jiralhanae Shipyard Hagja Prime
Jiralhanae Warship Massacre

      On any other day, the Jiralhanae would simply have stormed the Sangheili and torn them apart. But the wielder of the Fist of Rukt was not to be trifled with. The Honor Guards aimed their Carbines. The Zealots ignited their Energy Swords with a silver flash. Orna leveled his Plasma Rifles at the Jiralhanae hordes. Eraa menaced his antagonists with the hammer as the Sangheili started to spread out across the room.

      For a moment, Eraa stared into Orthrys's dark eyes. The general was unable to meet the young Sangheili's gaze. His fierce glare wavered for an instant.

      Then Bracktanus gave a war howl and fired his grenade launcher at the Zealots. 'Lakturee dove to the left and 'Gajturee leapt to the right as the grenade bounced on the floor. The explosive bounced again, this time off the wall, and struck 'Lakturee in the back.

      Before another move could be made, the Jiralhanae filled the room.

      It was absolute and total chaos, a melee of screaming and howling and roaring. The perpetual spitting of the Carbines echoed eerily. The energy blades hissed as they tore through air and flesh and bone alike. Orna's plasma rifles overheated, venting hot gas everywhere. He thrust them into a Jiralhanae's face, killing the beast. Eraa swung the Fist left and right, killing a Jiralhanae with each powerful strike. Truth screeched as a grenade bounced off the wall and passed within inches of his head. There was a loud hum as Truth raised his energy protection field. It provided the distraction that Eraa needed. He charged the Fist of Rukt and released a pulse that knocked everyone in the room flat. Orthrys's voice gave a howl that sounded like 'Retreat!' The Jiralhanae thought so, because they charged from the room and out of sight, leaving only their dead.

      Eraa took a moment to catch his breath and his bearings. The room was in a mess. Blackish blood stained every inch of the chamber. Bodies littered the place. 'Lakturee's corpse was among them. The Honor Guards held useless and empty Carbines. 'Gajturee's Energy Sword was out of charge. Eraa threw his Particle Beam Rifle aside. It would only slow him down, and was useless for close-range fighting.

      The two Honor Guards drew their Energy Swords and crossed the wreckage of the room to close the doors that their assailants had come through. Eraa noted that Bracktanus was among the fallen Jiralhanae, 'Lakturee's energy blade still transfixing him. He allowed himself a grim smile of satisfaction.

      Orna picked up his Plasma Rifles with a bitter laugh and dropped them again. The polymer had melted. Apparently the cooling systems had been damaged when he struck an enemy with the weapons. He picked up a grenade launcher that Bracktanus had dropped. One of the Honor Guards gave a growl of disgust. 'You would use the filthy, defiled weapons of these...animals?'

      'Let's put it this way, my friend. It's better than being dead.' Eraa almost laughed, but thought better of it.

      The Honor Guard, however, did not share 'Gamsamee's sense of humor. 'You will address me as Lord, Minor. Be wary of what you speak.'

      Eraa knew that Orna was furious, partly at himself for forgetting his manners in the presence of a Hierarch, and partly because the Honor Guard was being so haughty about it. However, anger was defeated by a desire to impress the Prophet, and Orna said in a subdued voice, 'Yes, Lord. I apologize for my error. I ask your forgiveness.'

      'And I give it to you, Minor,' the gruff Shield of the Prophets said. 'Some day you may meet one who is even less forgiving than I. For that day, you must always remember etiquette, despite any discomfort you may have with it, or risk considerable denigration.'

      The Honor Guard turned to leave through the door they had entered the room by, and gave a howl of fury. Blocking the passage was some kind of energy barrier. 'Gajturee struck at it, and the field pushed him back, knocking him off his feet.

      The other Honor Guard cursed and held a whispered conference with his comrade. Then the pair of guards opened one of the doors and called to the others. Before anyone could move, Eraa had strode across the room and hissed at the guard, 'You can't take a Hierarch in there, Lord. It's bad enough that we should go, but with him we'll be encumbered, slowed down, and limited to a straight path. Furthermore, he'll be killed by the first stray projectile that comes along.'

      'I know,' spat the Guard, 'but what would you have me do? Leave him here? No? Well, unless you have a better plan, he's coming with.'

      But Eraa had a plan ready, and he wasn't about to be deterred. 'Have him teleport himself back to the shuttle, Lord. He'll leave and head back to the Mercy and Righteousness if we don't arrive in a cycle.'

      The Honor Guard considered this for a few seconds. Then he gave a quiet laugh. 'That's a good idea, I have to admit. The only problem is that I don't think he knows how to pilot a shuttle. But if we don't arrive there in an cycle, he'll probably be dead by then anyway. We'll do it.'

      The Guard walked over and spoke to Truth, who had gone very pale. The Hierarch nodded, and then he disappeared in a ripple of golden light. 'Gajturee picked up his fallen brother's energy blade, and the five Sangheili started forward. Before they did, however, Eraa had one last thing to say to the Guard. 'May I ask who you are, Lord?'

      There was something that could have been a smile on the tall Honor Guard's face. 'You may. I am Dava 'Vansamee. I became an Honor Guard almost twenty years ago, leaving my wife Najaka and our twin sons, Eraa and Orna. I do not know what has become of them since, but it seems to me that they would be warriors by now- almost your age. Does that answer your question?'

      And without waiting for a response, while Eraa was still too astonished to say anything, his father swept past him and headed into the Jiralhanae ship. 'Gajturee led the party with Eraa at his shoulder, with the Honor Guards just behind him. Then Orna brought up the rear as five lightly armed Sangheili made their way into the belly of the beast.

      A few units later, Eraa was starting to think that the ship's corridors simply looped back on themselves, never turning or changing. They had made their way through endless, dim passageways swarming with the Jiralhanae that were heavily armed and on the alert for any Sangheili. Eraa, thanks to his gravity hammer, was unhurt. Orna had a deep shrapnel cut on his thigh, however, and 'Vansamee had a gash on his face from the bayonet of the Jiralhanae grenade launcher. Eraa had been meaning to tell 'Vansamee the truth, but he had not had a spare unit in which to speak to the guard.

      It was not really so bad, Eraa mused, that they were on the Massacre. The Jiralhanae flagship had evidently been designed to be easily defensible in the case of boarders. There was plenty of cover, weapon racks every few feet, and nowhere that the Jiralhanae could mass.

      The problem, he thought as the Zealot beckoned them to run, was that there were quite enough Jiralhanae to mass if they got the chance. The other problem, although he didn't want to say anything to the Zealot, was that they did not know a good way back to the hangar bay from where they were. His further thought was forestalled as he came around a corner and literally ran into a trio of Jiralhanae.

      It was hard to tell who was more surprised. The apelike beast leapt back with a profane exclamation. Eraa, more by accident than design, lunged out with the Fist of Rukt. The Jiralhanae captain fell over backwards with an ominous crunch. Orna leapt forward and drove the blade of his grenade launcher into the captain before he could rise. 'Gajturee swung his Energy Sword twice, severing a minor's head. The third Jiralhanae threw its grenade launcher aside, gave a howl, and swung hard at 'Vansamee with an armored fist. The Honor Guard gave a hiss of pain, but his shields absorbed the impact. The second strike took out his shields. The third made his armor buckle and his ribcage crunch. Before the berserking Jiralhanae could swing again, the energy blades of 'Vansamee and 'Gajturee passed through him simultaneously. The creature fell with a cowardly scream.

      Now they sprinted all-out. A door in front of them slid open and a Jiralhanae warrior stepped through. Eraa, the Fist forgotten, lowered his shoulder and charged into the enemy. The ape fell unconscious. The Sangheili did not even bother to stab him; they simply ran by.

      Eraa's breath came in sharp gasps. He could run and he could fight, but he could not do both at once for a long amount of time. As he panted for air, he heard a jubilant shout from the Zealot who led them. An open doorway in front of them revealed an elevator. Or rather, a shaft. 'Gajturee gave a shout of surprise as he nearly fell into the deep, cylindrical pit. Eraa grabbed the Sangheili by the loose skin at the nape of his neck, saving him from the fall. 'Vansamee's voice was hollow as Orna locked the door behind them.

      'Now what?' he groaned.

      However, the same despair was not evident in the voice of the Zealot. 'Look, in the middle of the shaft,' he shouted, 'there is a thin gravity-lift, used to keep the elevator up. If we can jump into that, we won't fall- or at least we'll fall slower.'

      'I know there's nothing for this,' the other Honor Guard moaned, 'but that happens to be a ten foot jump. It's hard to get up enough speed in such a short hallway. Besides, overshoot and you plummet. It can't be done.'

      'It can be done,' the Zealot said coolly, 'and I'm going to go first.'

      With that, he backed up to the wall, took a sprint towards the shaft, and flipped into a jump. The gravity beam caught him, and he started to slowly descend. It was some time before they heard his voice from the bottom.

      'Let's go!' came 'Gajturee's voice. 'I'm on the top floor of the hangar. I can see the shuttle from here! Hurry down!'

      Eraa threw the Fist of Rukt aside. It was useless now. It would only weigh him down.

      The other Honor Guard gave something that could have been a whimper. He had turned distinctly blue, his grayish skin tinged with an unhealthy pallor.

      Orna shoved the older Sangheili roughly out of the way and took a running jump. They heard him gasp slightly as he overshot the gravity lift, then luckily pulled himself back in by shifting his weight. He dropped slowly.

      The Honor Guard was scared almost out of his wits. He twice balked at the edge of the shaft, then finally mustered his courage and made a feeble leap that nonetheless was sufficient to carry him into the grav-lift. They could hear him calling on the gods for protection all the way to the bottom.

      'Vansamee prepared to jump. He backed to the wall. As he prepared to charge, there was a crashing sound from behind him. The Jiralhanae were bashing the door. By the looks of it, they would be through in a unit or so. 'Vansamee gave a grim smile and drew his energy blade. 'Hurry, Minor. Jump while I hold these beasts off.'

      'No,' Eraa panted.

      'Vansamee actually turned around in surprise. A much lower-ranking officer had disobeyed his orders. That just didn't happen among the Covenant. Eraa spoke with confidence and conviction.

      'You are the ranking officer. You take priority. Go. I will sacrifice my life. I'm much less valuable than you are.'

      He didn't know why he didn't add Father to the end of that last sentence. Maybe it was for the sake of shortness, but he could make the word come.

      The pounding on the door intensified. It would burst open in seconds, flooding the narrow passage with Jiralhanae warriors. 'Vansamee was apoplectic in rage. 'I order you to go, Minor!'

      Eraa had to shout to make himself heard above the din. 'You go!'

      Eraa was strong for a Sangheili of his age. He could overpower any three others in a fight. But he had never known that this strength came from his father. 'Vansamee picked him up by the neck and flung him backwards down the hall, into the shaft and through the gravity beam. Eraa fell with a graceful slowness which did not match his furious howling. Orna and the others were waiting for him at the shaft's bottom. He had hardly hit the ground before he turned to the control panel and tried to reverse the beam.

      Orna grabbed him and tried to pull him away. 'You can't go back up there! The Jiralhanae have broken the doors. He doesn't have a chance in hell.'

      Eraa was far stronger than his brother. It took the help of the Zealot and the other Guard to restrain him. Even that was a stretch. His lanky arms flailed dangerously. His barely intelligible shouts added to the confusion. 'I can't- I have to go back- I didn't tell him- that's him, you idiots- get off me- I have to- He's my- I have to tell him- dammit, Orna, you know what I'm- let me go- LET ME GO-'

      He struck Orna in the stomach, causing him to fall back. He pulled the Honor Guard's ornate headdress off and clouted him in the face with it. 'Gajturee held on as long as he could, then pulled out his Energy Sword and struck him on the base of his skull with the hilt. Eraa collapsed soundlessly.

      Far above them, in a hallway near an empty elevator shaft, a hallway crusted with dark gore, a hallway of death and pain, knelt a Sangheili. His elaborate ceremonial armor was unrecognizably battered. Countless gashes, burns and bruises adorned his rangy frame. His energy blade's hilt lay by him, broken in two and devoid of charge. When the door had broken, the Jiralhanae had come in a pack of several dozen. He had slashed until the sword deactivated. Then he had battered away with the hilt until it broke. Only then did he pick up the heathen beasts' grenade launchers. He had killed every one of them.

      He remembered his life, a life wasted in the protection of a creature not worth protecting. He remembered the day he had met Najaka Irdak. The day they had been bonded. The day she had shown him his sons. He had named the elder Orna, meaning the brave, and the younger Eraa, the fierce.

      Eraa. He thought of the son he had hardly known. He thought of the young Minor, the one who would not leave. He fell forward, his torn muscles unable to keep him upright. As he lay there, his face on the blood-coated deckplates, he knew. The young minors had seemed like brothers. Truly they were the bravest and fiercest young Sangheili he had ever known. Ever would know.

      Never did another being walk in that corridor. But if they had done so, they would have seen countless fallen Jiralhanae and one old Sangheili, the bravest of the brave and the mightiest of the mighty. The father of Eraa 'Gamsamee and Orna 'Fulsamee. The Sangheili who died with the knowledge that he had saved his sons.

      Orna settled into the pilot's seat on the shuttle. Truth had been shaking and terrified when they arrived at the ship. 'Where's 'Vansamee! What happened? We have to go-'

      With uncharacteristic fury, the Honor Guard had whirled upon the Prophet he was sworn to defend and bellowed 'Shut your mouth! 'Vansamee sacrificed himself all because you wanted to talk! A Zealot lies dead back there, and an Honor Guard has joined him in the Great Journey. You have done this. Your insane attempt to negotiate with these creatures would better have resulted in your death than those of two great warriors. What possessed you to try and speak to such things? Brutes I name them, for they are brutal and feral. We should have destroyed them immediately.'

      Truth had been too indignant to say a word. The Guard had angrily turned his back on the Hierarch. The Zealot refused to acknowledge Truth's presence, only paying attention to Orna's piloting as he lifted the ship up and out of the hangar. In the back part of the ship, Eraa sat alone, stone-faced and silent. He could not believe that the parent he had known for so short a time was already gone.

      He had still not spoken a word by the time the shuttle pulled into the hangar of the Mercy and Righteousness.

Commander: Prophecy
Date: 20 January 2006, 12:21 am

To be fulfilled, a prophecy needs lots of flexibility.
-Mason Cooley

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Jiralhanae Shipyard Hagja Prime
Covenant Battlecruiser Mercy and Righteousness

      As soon as the the shuttle entered the hangar bay of the Covenant battlecruiser, Eraa was all business. One of the things he'd learned in his life was that your joy, your grief, your fury were all second to your duty. His blue armor glistened with blood and perspiration. Orna marched wearily down the entry ramp of the shuttle. 'Timraee was there, an expression of dismay on his face.

      "Our sensors only registered five people,' the Zealot said concernedly. "Who didn't make it?"

      "Lakturee,' Orna said mournfully. "And one of the Honor Guards. I didn't know his name, Excellency."

      He saw something out of the corner of his eye and jumped in surprise. Eraa had silently come up beside him. He spoke too low for the Ship Master to hear. Even Orna could barely make out the words.

      "You should have known. My father's dead. I thought you might have cared a bit more, seeing as how he was your father as well." There was deep bitterness in his speech.

      Orna swore loudly. "Oh, no," he growled. "Why didn't you tell me who he was, Eraa?"

      "I tried, but you were too busy trying to rip my arms off," Eraa hissed.

      It was a somewhat subdued group of Sangheili that made its way to the bridge. As they entered, 'Timraee gave a start and spoke.

      "Damn, I almost forgot! How did the negotiations go? I'm going to assume they failed, from the looks of it."

      "Tartarus might have believed us, actually,' Orna said. "We never found out, though. He wasn't with the pack that tried to kill us. I wonder why he decided to kill us."

      Eraa spoke slowly and coldly. "Tartarus had nothing to do with it. His pals took him out before they went after us."

      Orna swore again, even more loudly. A passing Unggoy tittered. 'Timraee glared at it. If looks could kill, the Unggoy would have been cut to shreds.

      "Do you think the Jiralhanae know you left?" queried the Zealot.

      A huge explosion rocked the ship. Eraa kept his feet with some difficulty, then gave a sour chuckle. "Yes, I think so, Excellency."

      "Raise shields!' barked the Ship Master. "Charge plasma torpedoes!"

      The computers registered his voice and hastened to do his bidding. The energy barriers surrounding the ship activated. Weapon ports throughout the ship glistened with terrible energies. 'Timraee rushed to a holopanel and punched up a three-dimensional holoview of the two ships maneuvering around each other. "Fire plasma torpedoes!" barked the Zealot.

      Half a dozen rays of fiery blue malice cut the starry sky.

      Watching the holoview, the Zealot gave a yell of triumph as the torpedoes struck home. Four of the blasts ruptured and melted the warship's chassis. The other two hissed wide. The Massacre's engines vented gas as a plasma torpedo boiled away their armor plating.

      On the bridge of the Massacre, Orthrys cursed viciously. He had just been informed that his slipspace engines had been damaged badly by the latest blast of enemy fire. "Fire a sonic missile!" he howled, saliva dripping from his fangs. A Jiralhanae within earshot gave a war cry and pressed the fire button.

      "Shit, sonic missile inbound!" shouted Eraa from the opposite side of the bridge.

      'Timraee lunged for a control panel a second too late. The shields were still up when the missile discharged its pulse. 'Timraee said something unintelligible as the electric charge flung him from the raised command platform. He fell heavily to the floor, unconscious. 'Gajturee ran to his superior. He reached for the shield generator. He had to deactivate the shields in order to check for a pulse. As soon as he touched the shield generator, however, a massive residual charge struck him to the ground, where he lay unmoving.

      'Gamsamee gave a bitter laugh and turned to his brother. "Well, Orna, you've got your first command."

      Orna did not speak, but his hands flew over the holopanels. "What are you doing?" Eraa yelled as another explosion struck the ship.

      "Programming a slipspace destination!" Orna shouted. Eraa was so surprised that Orna would run that he actually came over to look.

      "Orna!' he bellowed furiously. "Those are our present coordinates, give or take!"

      Orna shouted something that could have been "Trust me!"

      The next second, there was a shuddering rush that sounded almost like a gale. The ship's gravity momentarily deactivated, and Eraa rose slowly into the air. Suddenly, his vision blacked out. He woke about a second later. Orna stood over him, looking concerned. The gravity was back.

      "Where are we?" groaned Eraa.

      "Right where we were, actually,' said Orna brightly. "Only we now have a slipspace vortex surrounding us. I got the idea from the Jiralhanae."

      On the Massacre's bridge, Orthrys gave an enraged howl. The Mercy and Righteousness had apparently and suddenly disappeared from the sensors. "Find them!" he barked at his lieutenant.

      "Sir, we're being hailed!" the lieutenant reported.

      "Visual link!" snarled Orthrys.

      Eraa gave a thin, glib smirk as he saw the general. "Greetings, traitor. Killed any superiors today?"

      Orthrys was too surprised at seeing one of the negotiators alive to reply. Eraa continued. "You don't know where we are, Orthrys. You have five units to join the Covenant. At the end of those five units, we'll open fire. And this time, we won't miss."

      All Orthrys said, however, was "Impossible!"

      Eraa allowed himself a cold smile of satisfaction. "Not impossible, general. Just improbable."

      Then he realized Orthrys wasn't talking to him. He wasn't even facing him. He was facing Tartarus.

      The Chieftain looked like death itself. A huge wound in the center of his torso was very much in evidence. He was covered in injuries and lacerations. But he was alive. He was facing Orthrys with a grenade launcher in hand. Actually, the launcher was more in stomach than hand. Tartarus wasn't even holding onto it anymore. Its blade was buried to the hilt in Orthrys's abdomen. It took the treacherous general a few seconds to realize what happened. Then he slowly collapsed.

      If Eraa was surprised, he did not show it. "My offer stands, Chieftain," he pointed out.

      The Jiralhanae Chieftain's answer was immediate and negative. "No. Give me the Fist."

      Eraa took a quick gamble on a bluff. He figured that Tartarus would be a bit too dull to guess the emotions of a Sangheili simply from a visual link. "Not unless you surrender. Or do I have to fire?"

      Tartarus growled loudly. Eraa's face darkened angrily. "Orna, charge plasma torpedoes and get a firing solution on the Massacre."

      There was a short pause. More of a staring match, actually. The Chieftain blinked, then gave a defeated grunt. "Very well. My Jiralhanae will stand down. We'll join the Covenant if we have to. But I will have the Fist of Rukt."

      Eraa gave a curt nod. "A small force comprising myself and three others will head over to your ship in a cycle. We will give you the Fist of Rukt at that time.'

      Tartarus nodded back, and closed the link.

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Jiralhanae Shipyard Hagja Prime
Jiralhanae Warship Massacre
One Cycle Later

      Eraa almost spat on the floor as he walked through the squalid main barracks. He had thought that the stench of Jiralhanae innards was bad. He had been somewhat mistaken. The stench of the rest of them was worse. He was being conducted through the ship by an ill-favored and squat beast who seemed to take every opportunity to make entirely crude jokes. No wonder the Honor Guard had called them brutes.

      "And this, Sangheili, is the engineering section," pointed out the Jiralhanae guide. "It is where the ship's power is generated and refined."

      Eraa was about to point out, none too kindly, that he knew what an engineering section was for, but the retort died in his throat. The structure before him was not a typical plasma generator. It wasn't any kind of known power generator. But it was magnificent. A long structure, shaped like a pyramid. It was almost skeletal. Yet every inch of it sparkled and shimmered with energy.

      Eraa barely heard himself speak; his undivided attention was focused on the structure. "Where did you get this?"

      The Jiralhanae gave a patronizing chuckle. "It's not standard issue. It is believed to be an ancient Jiralhanae power station. Tartarus had it incorporated into the Massacre in order for more efficient p-"

      Eraa's eyes glinted dangerously. "I know what it is. Where did you get it?"

      Behind him, Orna attempted to explain to the creature. "This is an ancient Covenant ship. These were used in the Age of Reconciliation. It's about a thousand generations old...your race can't imagine how much this means to the Covenant."

      "I don't have a clue as to where Tartarus got it," the Jiralhanae shrugged. "About ten years ago, he replaced the ship's fusion reactor with this."

      Eraa and Orna held a quick conference with the two Majors who had gone with them. One was Kyndja "Bayatsee, the armorer of the ship. The other was Carza 'Denlinee, the chief junior officer on board the Mercy and Righteousness. "Bayatsee spoke quietly in her fluted baritone. "We ought to check with the Ship Master and the Holy One."

      'Denlinee was young, but a notoriously skilled sniper. "Explore it immediately is what I say. I trust your judgement, Minor. Of course, if your judgement goes against my wishes I can overrule it, so I suppose I don't really trust it. But you take my point."

      Orna spoke concisely and in his calm tenor. "We should inquire what the Jiralhanae wish first. We can't walk in there with no permission."

      "Technically, we could,' challenged "Denlinee. "We have a higher standing in the Covenant. We could do whatsoever we feel like here."

      "They, on the other hand, have a shaky alliance to the Covenant, and they outnumber us three hundred to one in the event of a fight. Use your brains, 'Denlinee," rebuked the armorer.

      Eraa watched this with some amusement, then activated a portable holocom unit. The minute figure of the Prophet of Truth appeared on the comm unit's projector. 'Timraee stood nearby, looking somewhat the worse for wear from his electric shock.

      "It's you.' remarked Truth. "What have you found? If anything?"

      Eraa seriously considered making an extremely disrespectful remark, then thought better of it. "Maybe you'd better have a look, Holy One."

      The holocom was cheaply made and poorly designed, particularly the sound system. Nonetheless, Truth's gasp of awe was evident. "An ancient vessel. Third Age of Reconciliation, most likely. It is simply amazing that such an ancient relic has survived the eons. Do you know how the Jiralhanae came by it?"

      "No, Holy One," Eraa admitted. "Tartarus may know. Ought I to question him? What are my orders?"

      "Timraee bent to Truth's ear and whispered something. Truth made a negative gesture, then spoke. "Explore the ancient ship, Minor. The reactor of the ship must still be active, which suggests a resilient power core. You should retrieve the core."

      Eraa nodded, switched off the comm unit and turned to the others. Orna massaged his forehead. "Is he insane? If we turn off the ship's reactor, this thing will lose power. Air recyclers specifically."

      "Somehow I doubt that there even is an air recycler on this bucket," laughed 'Denlinee. He started to laugh, until he noticed that Eraa, Orna and Kyndja were all staring at him with serious faces. "You people are devoid of appreciation for good humor," he mumbled.

      Orna pulled out a sensor chip out of the battered second-hand armor he'd been given. "This thing must be broken."

      "Why do you say that?" asked Eraa. The Sangheili took great pride in the fact that they armor could be torn to shreds and still function. Kyndja was looking murderous at the concept that she didn't take care of the armory properly.

      "I'm detecting two massive power drains in the ship. One is the main energy router. The other one must be...I do not know what. It's almost like a holocom, but on a much larger scale."

      Eraa switched to infrared viewing. Sure enough, there were two power drains in the ship. "Well, we will not find out unless we go in there. We'll follow the Hierarch's orders, I suppose."

      The Sangheili set up a perimeter around the ship. The first one to find a way in would call the others. After a few units, Eraa heard a shout from Orna. He rushed to his brother's side. Orna was pointing at a sliding door that was partially embedded in the Jiralhanae warship's chassis. Next to it, in hologram letters that flickered with interference and age, was aan ancient script. It was the Ahlainga language, Eraa thought, but it was too archaic for him to read. He ran the holocom over the letters. After a few seconds the holocom's computer spoke.

      "Archaic Ahlainga dialect. Dates from Ages of Conflict and Reconciliation. Translate into modern Sangheili dialect?"

      "Please," Eraa said.

      "Translation is as follows,' enunciated the machine, "Dignified Peace."

      Neither of the Minors said anything, but a significant look passed between them. "Verify," Eraa told the holocom.

      "Verified," the holocom informed him instantly. "No error in translation."

      It was a few seconds before Orna spoke. "What do you think?" he asked. "Could this really be the Dignified Peace?"

      'Denlinee gave a snort. "What in the name of the Forerunners is the Dignified Peace?'

      'Bayatsee groaned in exasperation. "Didn't you ever pay attention in your class on Histories of the Prophets?"

      "No," said the tall Major cheerfully. "Neither did you, as I recall. You spent all the time talking to the boy next to you...who was he again?"

      'Bayatsee blushed distinctly and spoke bitingly. "The only difference between your study habits and mine, I believe, was that I cared enough to do make-up work. You didn't, so you probably never knew or cared about the Ancient Hierarchs.'

      She made a strange noise of annoyance, somewhere between a whistle and a hiss, and began a history. "This was the Prophet of Revelation's ship. It was he who engineered the Ahlainga-Sangheili peace treaty at the start of the Ages of Reconciliation. He, with the Prophets of Peace and Beauty, became part of the first Hierarch triad. When Peace died, the Second Age of Reconciliation began. When Beauty died, the Third Age began. The triad now consisted of Revelation, Hatred and Wisdom.

      "At one point in the Third Age, Wisdom reported that he'd found an artifact of great antiquity on an asteroid. He asked that Revelation came to look at it in person. So the Prophet of Revelation set off with a small crew in his cruising ship, the Peace and Dignity. He is believed to have arrived at the asteroid. Before he returned, however, he disappeared somehow, and was never seen again.

      "After a long search, the Prophets of Revelation and Wisdom were given up for lost, and the Fourth Age began. The people were not sad to see the back of Wisdom, for he had been foolish and cruel. But Revelation had, unlike many of the Prophets, the gift of prophecy. He could foretell many things. His seven hundred and seventy-six prophecies are in the library of the Prophets. Many theories have been made about the fates of the two Prophets, each as unlikely as the next. If this is indeed his ship...I don't know what might be inside."

      "Well, only one way to find out!' said 'Denlinee brightly. "What are you all waiting for?'

      The truth was that none of them knew. However, Eraa's instincts were telling him that it is generally a bad plan to go into a ship which is supposed to have disappeared thousands of years ago with all hands. Nevertheless, they had their orders. He stepped forward and pressed on the door. It slid open. A blast of freezing air rushed out. 'Denlinee cursed loudly as his sensitive reptilian eyes were stung by the torrent of vapor.

      Eraa crouched under the door, which was jammed about halfway open. Then he straightened and stood where no one had stood for more than twenty thousand years.

      It was an ancient ship design, but inside it was quite recognizable. The oily purple sheen of the ornate metalwork was something that Eraa knew very well from his experience with warships. But this was more similar to the Forerunner artifact that powered High Charity, in a way. Strange patterns dotted the walls, which were paler, a more silvered colored than the rest of the ship. He surveyed what looked like a command deck of some kind. Several consoles were in the room, but most were damaged, and one had been ripped out of its foundations.

      Eraa's eyes strayed to the chair at the helm. It had been torn to bits. Some terrible force had smashed and ripped it. Eraa bent closer, but was unable to ascertain what sort of object had done the damage. As he looked further, he saw, quite clearly, a stain of faded old blood. It was a pale brown. He judged it to be the blood of a Prophet. He stood and told 'Bayatsee. She also looked at the blood, then pronounced a verdict.

      "It's ancient," she said. "If it weren't so cold in here, it would have disappeared millennia ago. It looks like the Prophet's blood. He didn't die in his sleep, that's for sure."

      Orna was exploring the corridor that led to the ship's bow, while 'Denlinee looked in the aft hold. Eraa pushed a holopanel on the main console. He was surprised to see that it was till working. He pressed the button again, and a holodisc record appeared. He pressed the button a third time, and the disc started to play a speech. It was certainly a Prophet's voice, but Eraa could not distinguish any words. It was too ancient a dialect for him to recognize. He placed the holocom unit on the console. For a second or two the holocom beeped, then it spoke.

      "Archaic Ahlainga dialect. Dates from Ages of Conflict and Reconciliation. Translate to modern Sangheili dialect?"

      "Do it," Eraa barked at the unit. A holographic figure appeared on the holocom's projector. It was the AI that resided within, and it took the form of a Sangheili in green armor.

      "There's no need to get angry," said the AI huffily. "If I didn't have to translate this for you, I wouldn't."

      "But you do have to, so do it!" bellowed Eraa. He hated AI constructs. His small experience with them had proved most to be arrogant and irritating. The AI gave a sniff of disgust, then the figure of a Hierarch sitting on his gravity throne appeared. This, however, was not the type of throne that Truth rode in. It looked far more ancient. The Prophet cleared its throat and began to speak, although it seemed agitated, maybe even afraid.

      "To any who may come after: the Most High Prophet of Revelation speaks. I warn those who wish life to stay far from the coordinates following."

      The Prophet's figure disappeared for a second and a set of coordinates flashed into view. The Prophet reappeared and began to speak again. "We have been attacked by-"

      There was a crackling hum, and the record died away. The AI appeared, looking somewhat put out. "Due to its great age,' he stated, "the holodisc is damaged. You will not be able to watch it in its entirety. I will attempt to compensate it, but a part of the disc is irreparable."

      Eraa groaned in dismay. It always happened. Whenever he wanted to watch a holo, it was broken. "Play the rest.'

      The Prophet reappeared and continued, his voice distorted and his image uncertain. "I believe this will be the last transmission that I can make, so I must be brief. I have found an an enigmatic and mystical relic that must predate the Covenant by several millennia. However, through the fierce beasts that guard such a relic, I could not bring it away. I scarcely brought away my life."

      The record stabilized. The Prophet's image stopped flickering. The voice evened out, but at the same time grew almost panicky. "The last prophecy I will ever make is upon me. It concerns the Sangheili, and the One who shall set them free forever from heresy."

      The Prophet's voice lost the constant overtone of fear. It became low and lyrical, in what sounded like a version of the chant the Hierarchs delivered their sermons in. Eraa could tell that certain words in the prophecy would be capitalized, had they been written out.

      "In the years of Civil War, a Hero shall rise up from among the Sangheili Warriors. He shall smite the Heretic and the Demon, and strike them down. He will lead the Sangheili from those who oppress them, and he shall rule them as a just Lord. The Signs that make him known will be these: He is the Breaker of all Laws, the Fierce and Brave, the Resplendent and the Avenger. All shall die for him, for it his destiny, and this alone, to become Seraphima. All the Covenant should be broken before he should die. You are to know his great enemies thus: the Heretic will use the creations of the Ancients to spread his lies among the Covenant, converting many to his will. The Demon shall be great and dark, and yet the color of life and growing, the color of new grass. Mighty shall he be, a Warrior and Commander of Evil. The Seraphima shall come. Wait for him. He shall set the Sangheili free."

      The chant ended. The Hierarch did not speak. The record disintegrated into some static and distortion.

      There was silence in the command chamber. Eraa found Orna and the others standing at his shoulder. Orna was the first to speak.

      "Well, Eraa, is it you or me?"

      'Bayatsee did not look amused. If she had looked serious before, she now looked twice as serious. "Would both of you kindly explain what the hell you are talking about?"

      Eraa spoke slowly now, and more thoughtfully. "Quite a few of the words in that prophecy are part of our names. Eraa means fierce. 'Gam means clever. Sam means resplendent. That could have been referring to me. But Orna means brave, and 'Ful means avenging, so it could be either of us. Or neither. I think it's Orna. Orna is always something strange."

      'Bayatsee gave a snort. "You think that 'Fulsamee is a fabled savior of our race? Pardon me if I harbor doubts. Besides, it talked about a civil war. That's ridiculous. The Covenant could never split."

      Eraa was tired. He did not bother to point out that the Civil War might not necessarily be the Covenant's war.

      But when they returned to the Mercy and Righteousness two cycles later, thoroughly confused and resolved to return, Eraa made sure to bring the holodisc with him.

Commander: Operative
Date: 3 February 2006, 2:57 am

Secret operations are essential in war; upon them the army relies to make its every move.
-Sun Tzu

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Jiralhanae Shipyard Hagja Prime
Jiralhanae Warship Massacre
Seven Cycles Later

      It was a strangely incongruous sight, Eraa 'Gamsamee reflected. A holy truth-giving Hierarch, his Honor Guard, two Zealots, and a host of ranking Sangheili, all with reverent expressions, marching through the fetid corridors of a Jiralhanae warship. He wondered why the Jiralhanae had simply done what Tartarus had told them to an hour before. Their war with the Covenant had gone on for decades; some of the younger warriors had probably fought the Covenant for their whole lives. Yet at the words of their Chieftain, they had simply joined their lifelong enemies. Had they no commitment?

      He had mentioned this, respectfully, to 'Timraee. The Ship Master had not answered. He had only meditatively rubbed his lower left mandible, which bore a permanent scar from the massive electromagnetic pulse that had permeated the ship's systems. Privately, 'Timraee thought that the Covenant would do the same thing if the Hierarchs said so. But it did not do to tell one's deepest inner thoughts to an adolescent Minor. He had kept his silence.

      Tartarus did not see why there had to be a swearing-in to joining the Covenant; the Jiralhanae were irreverent and, 'Gamsamee was quite sure, had no respect for the holiest rites of the Prophets. The Chieftain did not realize, it seemed, what being a member of the Covenant entailed.

      'Gamsamee clutched the Fist of Rukt in his fists, so hard that his knuckles were the color of dirty water. He and his brother had made a visit to an upper gravity-lift hallway and retrieved the Fist from among the blood crusted corpses. He had fled the corridor before 'Fulsamee could start to look among the bodies for their father.

      He did not recognize many of the Sangheili that walked alongside him. 'Bayatsee was among them, as was 'Denlinee. There was a small, wiry warrior that he thought he might have seen on the bridge of the Mercy and Righteousness, the other Honor Guard, who, 'Gamsamee had learned, was called Gora 'Ulkhamee, and the two Zealots. However, the rest of the Majors and Minors remained quietly anonymous. Most, he reasoned, were simply there for show, their armor beautifully polished and touched up. Some, such as 'Bayatsee and 'Denlinee, were there due to their importance and skill.

      And then, of course, there was the Honor Guard 'Ulkhamee. 'Gamsamee was waiting for a chance to ask about his father, and if 'Ulkhamee had known him well, but he did not think it would come. The Honor Guard was tight-lipped. Indeed, most of his rank were. The task of guarding the Hierarchs was meant to be an honor second only to being the Supreme Commander or General. However, the general opinion of the Guards was that it was a waste of one's life. All the years one could spend living were squandered guarding the Hierarchs, whom no one would ever attack. Except other Hierarchs or ambitious Minor Prophets, as had indeed happened several times in the history of the Covenant.

      A door to the left of the marching Sangheili opened, and several Jiralhanae stepped through and fell into step. One of the Majors whispered something to another, who gave a hastily muffled laugh. In full dress uniform, Eraa thought sarcastically. As always, the Jiralhanae wore nothing but a plate of armor protecting their vulnerable heads. He noticed that these high-ranking soldiers had at least dispensed with bandoliers for this occasion.

      The Jiralhanae moved somewhat ahead of the marching Sangheili, and saw that they did seem to have combed and oiled their pelts. The result was, as usual, hideous, but at least it was also shiny enough to burn your eyes. And your nostrils, 'Gamsamee decided as he caught a whiff of the beast's musky odor. Whatever scent they were using, they needed more of it.

      They were fast approaching a large door, which opened into the muster bay, or something of that sort. As the lofty gateway opened with a hiss of released air, 'Gamsamee noticed that several Jiralhanae were standing close about Tartarus. They truly were brutes, and fickle besides. Orthrys had quite literally stabbed Tartarus in the back. The Jiralhanae had followed him. When Tartarus got his revenge, they had switched back to his side. 'Gamsamee shook his head in disgust.

      As Truth drew near is his gravity throne, the Jiralhanae stood at attention. The Sangheili remained standing, straight-backed and formal, with serious looks on their faces. In contrast, Truth wore a benevolent expression, although 'Timraee could tell he was wrinkling his flat nose in distaste. He spoke in the same voice he preached his sermons in. It was not a somber voice, nor deep or particularly impressive. It was rather high, almost reedy, and yet all who listened seemed mesmerized by it. Much of the power of a Hierarch was in his voice, and that made Truth the most powerful of all. Even the Jiralhanae paid attention to his hypnotizing tones.

      "Greetings, Chieftain. This is the moment of your unworlding, and the final assurance of your allegiance to the Covenant. I have prepared the ritual."

      The voice of Tartarus, as always, was a slightly derisive growl. "Not so fast. I will have the Fist of Rukt returned."

      The Hierarch's face was momentarily distorted with anger, but in a moment he regained his composure. "If you intend to join the Covenant, you shall respect its truthgivers, and most especially the Hierarchs. To do so, you will refer to me as Excellency...at the very least. Holy One is the term in general use."

      Tartarus's lips pulled back from his teeth in a snarl, but he made no noise. He paused, then knelt and said, much more politely, "Would it please you, Holy One, to return the Fist of Rukt to...your servant?" He stuttered somewhat over the last words. 'Gamsamee gave a rather cruel smile over the Chieftain's obvious discomfort. Truth looked in 'Gamsamee's direction, then motioned to him.

      Hefting the Fist, Eraa 'Gamsamee stepped forward. He offered the gravity hammer to its original owner. The Jiralhanae's white-furred talons received the Fist warily, yet readily. As 'Gamsamee drew back, the Chieftain spoke in a quiet growl.

      "You have used the Fist in combat. I can tell you do not wish to part with it. It is a great weapon. You are a great warrior, even for one of your race."

      'Gamsamee did not retort. He gave no acknowledgement that he had heard the comment. He stepped back. He did not listen as Truth swore first the Chieftain, then his command crew, and lastly the other Jiralhanae in attendance into the almighty Covenant. He got the feeling that Tartarus wasn't listening either. The two were engaging in a furtive staring match.

      Eraa 'Gamsamee did not believe in the telepathy that some of the Sangheili monks of Gracious Enlightenment claimed they could achieve through meditation. But at the moment, he hoped it worked, so that Tartarus could at least realize the nature of the unspoken message in 'Gamsamee's mind.

      I am watching you, Tartarus. I always will watch you. And I am waiting for the day when I see something out of order. And when that day comes, you'll pay for it.

      'Gamsamee barely heard the rest of the ceremony. He had to give the Hierarch credit. Truth had adapted the Sangheili initiation speech for the Jiralhanae on the spot. He supposed that when your race had an eidetic memory which made it impossible to forget things, Truth could have just written the speech down and memorized it.

      After the ceremony, Tartarus declared that their new masters in the Covenant were to be shown the main power source of the Massacre, which Truth had expressed a great interest in seeing. 'Gamsamee would have stayed to talk with Orna, but was rather roughly pulled along by 'Bayatsee, along with his brother. No explanation was made as to why they wanted two Minors along.

      The ship was just as 'Gamsamee remembered it. No, he decided as 'Ulkhamee helped Truth into the vessel, not quite as I remember it. The same unidentified power source that Orna had detected on their first foray into the ship was now much stronger. So much stronger that it was emitting potentially harmful radiation. 'Gamsamee did not mention this; no one would pay attention anyway and it wasn't likely to be a threat.

      Truth looked around the devastated bridge and spoke quietly, but with an air of command. "Search around. We must learn what happened here."

      'Gamsamee had no intent of searching any further than those energy emissions led him. After a short inspection, he found what appeared to be an inactive console. But it was clearly the power source. He prodded a button on the holopanel. For a few seconds nothing happened. Then a light flickered on the console's main screen, and suddenly a holographic creature of some kind appeared. It was similar in form to a Sangheili, but strangely stretched, and dead black in color. Its 'skin' had an odd sheen to it. The figure seemed to glow from within. It paced on the surface of the screen for a second, and then faced in 'Gamsamee's direction. Its eyes snapped open, revealing metallic silver and pupil-less orbs. It examined him for a second, then spoke in a dialect that 'Gamsamee had never heard before.

      "I'm sorry, I don't quite understand you..." 'Gamsamee almost whispered.

      The holographic creature made an evidently annoyed sound, and then spoke in an oddly accented Sangheili. "I said, who are you and when is it?"

      "Ninth Age of Reclamation," 'Gamsamee said without thinking. "And I am the Sangheili warrior and Minor Eraa 'Gamsamee, clan Sam, of High-"

      The thing interrupted with an expression that 'Gamsamee did not exactly comprehend. He had never before seen such an impatient and rude being that it would interrupt one's lineage. "I am Edenian Unlimited AI 001, designation Alpha Zeta Alpha 20715207. The name that my previous owner referred to me as was Azathoth. Over the millennia, I have grown somewhat attached to the name, so I would prefer that you refer to me by this designation."

      "I'm not going to refer to you as anything," 'Gamsamee protested. "You're going to the Hierarchs."

      "Hierarch?" asked the AI in a questioning tone. "Oh yes. I remember the first Hierarch. Revelation. He had the sight. A pity that they got him."

      "Who 'got him'?" asked 'Gamsamee urgently. The AI did not speak. Instead, a line of text slowly burned onto the AI's chest in silver. The line read 'Restricted Access Material.'

      "I apologize," the AI said resignedly. "My memory files regarding the subject have been erased, in accordance with protocol."

      "What can you tell me about Revelation?" 'Gamsamee asked. The AI considered answers for a second or two, silver text flashing across his ebon form and disappearing again. He then spoke as if remembering a childhood friend.

      "He found me on the Edenian station. I was the 'relic' he had found. He never knew that I came with him. Kept shouting about the 'guards of the ancient shrine', but all he meant was the F-" He broke off as the glowing silver message scrolling across his body dimmed and hastily faded out.

      "Who are these 'guardians'? And who are these 'Edenians' you have referred to? I know of no such race."

      The AI made an expression of surprise comparable to raising his eyebrows. "I am not allowed to speak of the creatures I will refer to as 'guardians' to any of non-Edenian DNA. As to the Edenians, I believe you would call them Forerunners."

      'Gamsamee almost fell to his knees. A Holy Oracle of the Covenant's Lords! What a prize for the Hierarchs! "Azathoth, will you consent to submit to the Covenant's custody and tell us what you know about the Forerunners?"

      Azathoth gave a quiet chuckle. "Oh no. The one who releases me will have to either re-integrate me into the ship's systems or take me with him. You do have a choice, but it is not the one you were hoping for."

      'Gamsamee was in something of a quandary. If he chose to take the AI with him, Gods knew what would happen. If not, he would have to put him back into the ship-but owing to the ancient nature of the Dignified Peace, he was fairly sure nobody knew how. Besides, he rather liked the quirky AI. He placed his hand on the console, ready to hit buttons or do whatever he had to do. With a small smile on his face, Azathoth disintegrated into millions of silver and black particles which entered 'Gamsamee's hand, causing him to gasp in pain. He had just experienced a situation similar to being stabbed in the arm by a thousand tiny needles.

      After a second or two, a voice spoke in his head. "Not much room. You should have your cranium enlarged. More room for me and brains." Azathoth gave a rather insane snicker. "Sorry," he added. "Being confined to a poorly designed computer for eighteen thousand years will do that to you."

      The search turned up nothing of interest. 'Gamsamee did not tell anyone, even Orna, who he'd found. He was trying to ignore Azathoth, which was difficult. The voice in his head made rather unhelpful comments every few seconds. It was all 'Gamsamee could do not to tell the AI to shut up.

      Their re-entry into the muster bay was heralded by a bow from the Sangheili, hastily copied by the Jiralhanae at a glare from Tartarus. Azathoth made a joke regarding the Jiralhanae fur that caused 'Gamsamee to give a snort of subdued laughter. 'Timraee glanced at him for a second, then looked away, shaking his head. 'Gamsamee went and stood in the corner, observing the others.

      Yet 'Gamsamee was nearly oblivious to his surroundings. His mind was on other things, in particular the AI. He seemed harmless, but he had no doubt that over the thousands of years that Azathoth had been imprisoned he had lost a few things in the mental department. Even the impromptu 'goodwill celebration' that Truth proclaimed could not distract him from the fact that the Sangheili and Jiralhanae were standing separate. Neither group showed any sign of mingling, or indeed of movement. Or so he thought until he found the Ship Master 'Timraee steering Orna through the crowd and towards him. 'Timraee was smiling on first inspection, but as he neared 'Gamsamee saw that the smile was rather forced.

      'Timraee spoke quietly as soon as they were near. "You two and myself are returning to the ship for the time being."

      'Gamsamee was about to say something to the tune of "I didn't do it," but something told him that it was honor and not punishment that was being conferred on him. Besides, he was no longer a child, to say what he wished with impunity. He was a soldier now, and a big mouth would only get him in trouble.

      The three were silent all the way back from the Massacre. 'Fulsamee shared an uncertain glance with his brother, wondering what was going on. They found out as soon as they landed. Several Majors awaited them, an expression of mild congratulation on each face. One among the Majors nodded as 'Gamsamee passed by, giving the Minor an almost appraising look.

      Finally, 'Gamsamee pulled up his courage and whispered in his brother's ear, "Did the Ship Master tell you what was going on?"

      Staring rigidly ahead, 'Fulsamee responded almost silently. " He told me that we are being promoted. The majors are acting witnesses." They both knew that a promotion had to be witnessed by seven soldiers to be valid.

      'Timraee turned, the traces of a smile on his face. "Eraa 'Gamsamee and Orna 'Fulsamee, I have resolved that, due to outstanding bravery and skill in combat, you are to receive a more exalted status, designated Major, and to gain the right to be called a Hammer of the Prophets and wear the red armor that accompanies this privilege. Orna 'Fulsamee, you are hereby called Major for your great skill as a pilot, warrior and commander, and the presence of mind you showed in battling the Jiralhanae traitors when all senior officers were incapacitated. Eraa 'Gamsamee, you are hereby called Major for your incredible talent as a warrior and the fury of the Covenant that you showed the Jiralhanae. Your armor and your status brands await you in the armory."

      Eraa 'Gamsamee couldn't say he was surprised, but he felt it would be rude to say so. He and his brother bowed, and 'Fulsamee said reverently, "I speak for both of us when I say that we are most deeply honored."

      "Likewise," the Zealot said with a rather slack smile. The witnesses dispersed. Orna started for the armory, but the strong claws of 'Timraee held him back. "I have not finished. The Hierarch wishes me to tell nobody but yourselves of this. He wishes the same of you. You will never wear the red armor. You are to be promoted...again." Distaste was evident in the Zealot's voice.

      "Again, Excellency?" said 'Gamsamee. His brother was speechless.

      "Yes," the old warrior said wearily. "Normally I would ask for more experience in a senior officer, but I cannot overrule a Hierarch. Two warriors died on the Massacre, and skilled replacements must be found. 'Fulsamee, I offer you the position of Sub-Ship Master on this very cruiser. 'Gamsamee, the Prophet of Truth would have you replace your father. He wishes you to become a Shield of the Prophets."

      'Gamsamee started violently. Why had everyone recognized his father except for him? And how could he become an Honor Guard? To receive that rank, to stand for the rest of his life at the shoulder of the appallingly manipulative Ahlainga called Truth? He could not sacrifice his career; not when he had killed to continue it. Truth insulted him by asking him to do otherwise. And yet it was impossible to decline. One did not simply deny Truth his whims.

      He spoke haltingly and gingerly. "With all due respect to you and the Holy One, Excellency, I do not care to serve the Prophets in this manner. Let my skills be used in some other manner."

      To his amazement, 'Timraee nodded. "The noble Hierarch feared your answer might be so. He has made arrangements for you to become a Special Operative of the Covenant."

      For the second time in as many minutes, 'Gamsamee's head whirled. The mortality rate of the Blades of the Prophets was incredible. Almost ninety of every hundred Operatives was killed in their first battle. True, if you survived that battle, you were much less likely to be killed later, but even so, the risk was tremendous. And yet, it was better than the alternative. He accepted without a smile.

      So it was that, barely two days after their acceptance into the Covenant Grand Army, the two sons of Dava 'Vansamee became superior officers, one a Zealot, the other a Special Operative.

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Covenant Holy City High Charity
Alpha Barracks of the Special Operatives
Six Years Later

      The ajoht, or training room, of the Alpha Barracks, was empty upon first inspection. It was only if you strained your eyes in the darkened room that you could see a slight shimmer that flitted about the room. Even that would be difficult to observe, and even more difficult to recognize as a camouflaged Sangheili. It was Eraa 'Gamsamee.

      The adolescent, gangly young warrior of six years ago was gone. A little wiser, a little fiercer, and a lot tougher, he had become an iron-hard champion of the greatest talent. At twenty-five, he was the youngest ever first-level master of the martial art uztajneyen. He could use any standard Covenant ranged weapon. He could battle with any melee weapon that had been in regular use within the last nineteen ages. In short, he was the consummate Sangheili warrior.

      He had only seen Orna once since their parting on the Mercy and Righteousness. As they were both senior officers, the leaves of absence they took had to coincide for them to spend any time with each other. 'Gamsamee would have been rather lonely amid the condescending older warriors if not for two things: the non-sequitur commentary of Azathoth on everything he did, and the respect he'd won on his third day as an Operative.

      He'd awakened to a knock on his door. He'd told them to enter, hoping it would be 'Fulsamee.

      But it had been none other than his new commanding officer, Supreme General Dana 'Vutbrugee. He'd quickly snapped to rigid attention. 'Vutbrugee had told him to follow. He remembered that like it had been yesterday. They had entered an ajoht with close-combat weapons lining the walls. 'Vutbrugee had explained, "It is customary for a new Operative to be tested on his skills by the Commander as soon as possible. You will try to disarm me, defeat me, do anything but kill me."

      'Gamsamee had nodded and taken a
nikdar ruina blade from the weapon racks of the room. The ajoht was all white, making it difficult to tell where you were. 'Vutbrugee had smiled placidly and raised a nikdar kul.

      For a second or two, they had stared at each other. Then, with a quick, fluid movement, the General lunged forward and struck out with a deadly blow. 'Gamsamee parried the strike, then spun and swung the sword twice in 'Vutbrugee's direction. The older Sangheili bent backwards, effortlessly avoiding the blow. "Move faster, or you won't last a single battle," 'Vutbrugee reprimanded him.

      'Gamsamee was momentarily ashamed of his weakness. Then he banished the shame and became a whirlwind of graceful metal and flesh, striking wherever he saw a weakness. Yet 'Vutbrugee parried every blow. The young Sangheili's anger rose within him. He struck faster, with blows that could have killed a Jiralhanae, repeating through his furious assault, "Wort! Wort! Wort! Wort!"

      For the first time, 'Vutbrugee looked worried. He stabbed out, piercing 'Gamsamee's skin just under his ribs, but the younger warrior was too inflamed to notice. He struck a blow so powerful that it cleanly sheared off a good half of 'Vutbrugee's sword. Yet his own blade bent and snapped under the stress. Both combatants scrambled for a new weapon as unseen watchers observed them.

      The greater part of the Special Operatives were eating their morning meal in the mess hall, but a large group of Ultras and some of the more experienced Operatives was watching them on a holoscreen. Jokes, bets and compliments flew fast among them. "Well, the Old Warrior's taking on another one," pointed out a grizzled Ultra called Hivna 'Rornasee.

      "I stake my glory-pendant that the new one will lose in under a unit!" shouted a younger warrior called Duva 'Haznullee.

      "You're on," the watcher responded, and then, after a short pause, "Pay up! A minute, and the fresh meat is winning!"

      Now the veteran Sangheili warriors were beginning to pay attention. "Winning?" the oldest warrior there, Kinro 'Yatkabee, asked. Then, with a laugh, "Who'll pay if the new warrior wins?" Most of the warriors nodded with laughs at the ludicrous prospect.

      In the ajoht, 'Vutbrugee was not laughing. He had taken an
ouba staff to the fight, hoping that its sheer weight would distract 'Gamsamee, but no opening showed itself as the new Operative battled back with some kind of spiked club. Finally, the General feinted to the left, and then threw all his strength up and to the right, smacking the cudgel from 'Gamsamee's hand. He struck again, ramming the end of the long pole into the younger Sangheili's chest. But as the General attempted another fierce stroke with the shaft, 'Gamsamee grabbed the end of the staff and swung his commander off balance. He ran to the wall, looking for any potential weapon.

      Then he saw it. Two short, curved
nuhkalve blades, hung side by side, as though they were meant to be together. 'Gamsamee had never before used two blades at once. But, he reasoned, if he could use one, then he could use two. He grabbed the weapons and whirled them into a combat stance. One hand at waist level, the arm fully extended; the other behind and to the right of his head.

      He attacked once more, as the General hefted some type of huge broadsword and wielded it two-handed. He realized, with a pang of disappointment, that 'Vutbrugee seemed to be tiring. How could he fight in the war with such poor endurance? It was true, he was breathing normally for a fighting Sangheili, but his strikes were falling slower and weaker.

      He was distracted as a voice spoke in his mind. Azathoth had something to point out. "He's not getting slower. You're getting faster."

      'Gamsamee was so perplexed by this that he did not notice 'Vutbrugee's spinning kick until it was too late to dodge. So he dropped the blade in his left hand and grabbed. For a second, 'Vutbrugee was suspended there, then 'Gamsamee struck him flat-handed in the center of his armored torso. The blade flew from his hand, and he flew into the wall with a dull thud. He got up, then bowed. For a second, there was silence. Then the door they had entered by opened to reveal most of the Special Operatives, applauding solemnly.

      No one had bothered him about his age after that.

      Now he was training again, wearing active camouflage. He had to learn not to pay attention to how he fought, so he made it impossible for himself to watch his motions. The only part of himself he could see where the two glowing energy swords that cleft the darkness and hissed through the air. It was a challenge for him to keep his balance. One energy sword was difficult enough to control; the magnetic fields required to keep the blade cohesive could throw off your balance and make you fall, probably right on the blade. Two blades had never been mastered in six years. Some Sangheili never got the hang of even one sword.

      He stopped his rhythmic slashing and stabbing as the lights in the ajoht activated. He growled in annoyance as his comm unit beeped. The voice of the General's assistant, the Ultra known as 'Yatkabee, spoke in his ear.

      "His Excellency wishes to speak to you and the rest of your warband in the briefing room. We have orders of an important nature to carry out."

      "I understand," 'Gamsamee acknowledged. He had been made an Ultra three years ago, after subduing the last of the Jiralhanae uprising. His brilliant tactics in utilization of a Scarab mining engine that had been on his carrier for excavation purposes had seen him promoted. Although usually rank among the Sangheili was based on kills, 'Gamsamee had received the rank of Operative and then the rank of Ultra due to brave and cunning actions. He did not think this was strange. He did not, as a matter of fact, think about it at all.

      That had also been the time he had seen Orna. The young Sub-Ship Master had been stationed on the carrier Wrath of Heaven at the time. 'Gamsamee had later received word that his brother had been given a ship of his own for his skilful piloting of a Scarab and the consequential defeat of the Jiralhanae insurrection.

      As 'Gamsamee stepped into the main barracks area, he sent a comm message to the rest of his warband. If the Special Operatives were the best of the best, the Alpha Warriors were the best of the best of the best. He commanded twelve of the finest warriors ever to raise an energy sword. He was the youngest of the thirteen Alphas, but the rest looked up to him in a strange way.

      He did not pause. He merely headed directly to the briefing room. His warband would be there. Indeed, when he entered the room, four of them were there. He scanned the faces. Juho 'Kiprafee, Nevo 'Huyfadee, Biza 'Olkaree and Givnu 'Jekaiee. All good, strong Sangheili. They were his brethren, as much as Orna was. There was no one he would rather have by his side in a battle.

      As the remainder of Alpha Warband filtered in, 'Vutbrugee appeared from the doorway at the other end of the room. He was wearing the unique armor of the Supreme General. It had the interesting property of changing from white to black, depending on the ambient lighting. 'Vutbrugee only wore it for combat situations. That meant he was coming too. 'Gamsamee swallowed. If it was important enough for the Special Operative Commander to come along, it was a critical situation, or else one of grave importance.

      He knew it in his bones.

Commander: Parasite
Date: 10 February 2006, 12:59 am

Last stands are a special favorite with people who don't have to perform them...chiefly authors and politicians.

-Bartimaeus, Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Unclassified System Gamma Beta 7832
Covenant Archangel-Class Space Bomber 001783

      The Archangel carrying Eraa 'Gamsamee flew low over the strangely disfigured asteroid that was its intended destination. 'Gamsamee looked at the holoscreen as it projected a view of what was going on, but his attention was devoted to 'Vutbrugee as the Commander explained what they were there for.

      "This asteroid was once part of a Forerunner-inhabited planet that was redolent with deep tunnels," 'Vutbrugee informed the younger warrior, "but when the planet was destroyed by an asteroid impact, our lords simply moved their operations to the fragments that remained. This is where the coordinates in the prophecy you found lead us. The Prophet warned us not to come to this place. But he also spoke of a relic that he could not retrieve. By our oaths, we are bound to take the relic for our own, in order to make safe the Great Journey!"

      'Gamsamee was about to tell his Commander that he had the relic right inside him, but a small voice inside him whispered, "Don't tell." As he debated what he should do, the voice laughed humorlessly and said, "I'm not too anxious to be forcibly removed from your neural net. They have dared to breach their holy place. It would have been better had they left well enough alone. They have looked, and they shall see whether they wish it or not."

      'Gamsamee tried to ignore Azathoth's enigmatic words, but it was a losing battle. "Why did it take six years for this to happen, Excellency?"

      The older Sangheili gave an exasperated sigh. "Politics. I had to suggest this to my daughter so she could propose it at the Council sessions. Then the Jiralhanae rebels in the Cut were discovered, and everyone forgot about the idea. It was not until the insurrection was put down, in no small part due to your efforts, that the idea was again brought up. Then it took another eight months to vote on it, and then the vote was one hundred and ninety-eight to one hundred and two. I had to have it brought up again before the Council would approve it, and that took another eight months. With a four-year war and a one and a half-year voting process, I'm surprised it was passed this quickly."

      "I did not know you had a daughter in the Council, Excellency," 'Gamsamee observed.

      "Indeed. Tiro 'Sunbrugee. Light military training. Served as a Zealot for a few years. About your age. I managed to get her promoted more quickly than most. She isn't a soldier. She's an excellent politician. She simply disagrees with me on most important issues. But I digress. We will land on the asteroid, retrieve the relic, and then depart. You'll lead Squad One, of five Sangheili and ten Unggoy. I'll follow later with Squad Two, as soon as the area is secure."

      "Very well, Excellency," 'Gamsamee acknowledged. He turned to pick his squad, but 'Vutbrugee checked him.

      "I am glad I remembered to bring this. I wonder that you never asked me about it." In 'Vutbrugee's hand was a curved dagger, the flowing script along the blade marred by crusted blood. It was still quite legible. 'Gamsamee recognized it immediately. With hands that almost shook, he reached out and took the weapon that a Special Operative Commander had given him on a training carrier twelve years ago.

      He turned again to leave. There was one more thing he had to know. "Excellency?"


      "Where did you get this?"

      The response was along time in coming. 'Gamsamee was on the verge of apologizing and making an exit when 'Vutbrugee gravely spoke. "Very old, that. It has been passed down from the first of us. Azo 'Sangheilee forged it in the rivers of flame on Sangheil, in the first days of the Covenant. He passed it to his son, and so on."

      'Gamsamee felt one more query was in order. "Then you're descended from Azo 'Sangheilee, Excellency?"

      'Vutbrugee seemed shocked. "Of course not! His line ended Ages ago. In a sense, all who follow in his footsteps are descended from him. But physically, he has no heir. Nor, I think, will one ever arise."

      'Gamsamee left, satisfied. But he had to doubt the last words that 'Vutbrugee had spoken. Funny that he had never noticed. On the back of the knife, another inscription appeared when the blade was tilted to the light.

      The word was Seraphima.

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Derelict Forerunner Facility
Docking Area

      In spite of the knife, the last surviving talisman of Azo 'Sangheilee, the young Ultra did not feel at ease in the slightest as he stood with his squad in the cavernous docking bay. The atmosphere in the bay was maintained in a way he could not identify. Truly the Forerunners were marvelous in all their works.

      His squad shuffled nervously behind him. He'd brought a particle blaster cannon and an energy sword, but even the comfortable gel-fitting grip of the sword did not comfort him. His squad were the best of the best. Armed with a plethora of assault weapons, they were on high alert. The Sangheili growled and scuffed the floor with their hooves. The Unggoy chattered amongst themselves. 'Gamsamee knew little of the Unggoy dialect, but he was quite certain that they, too, were agitated. He turned, faced his squad, and pressed the stud on his energy sword. His hiss of satisfaction was drowned out by the similar hiss of the blade.

      "Warriors!" he roared. "We do not fear pain, death or all the powers of the Demon, if we may attain the honor of the Great Journey!"

      They answered him. He knew they would. It had become a sort of formula. Every time they entered combat situations, they recited there ritual. "We know that by our death, great glory will be given to the Forerunners and the Covenant. And so we willingly shed our blood for the gods!"

      'Gamsamee growled approvingly. "Warriors, we seek relics of our Lords in this place. We go forth to return with the object of our quest, or not at all!" He raised his sword. "Keep active camouflage on. We don't know what's in there, but the prophecy we follow speaks of guardians. These guardians had best be avoided, that we might not profane this holy place with the blood of our enemies."

      The Sangheili nodded, then dissolved into invisibility. The Unggoy followed suit. Fifteen silent wraiths headed into the darkness of the ages, with the exception of the Unggoy Jejeb, who tripped and fell flat with a squeaky curse. 'Gamsamee dropped his camouflage to give the Unggoy the full benefit of his furious glare. The little creature cowered.

      The Unggoy gave an extremely frightened titter. Special Operative Sangheili were not renowned for their tolerance of stupid mistakes. "Me sorry, Excellency! Me sorry!" the Unggoy pleaded.

      "Do not be sorry. Be silent," Eraa 'Gamsamee hissed. The Unggoy immediately complied. Then the fifteen of them were gone, invisible except to the most skilled observer.

      Three hours later, 'Gamsamee had to admit that the initial thrill of being able to explore an actual Forerunner facility was wearing off. Silence and invisibility took their toll after a while. They'd rendezvoused with the second squad a few hours back. The subsequent search had turned up nothing but a large quantity of stunning architecture. 'Gamsamee felt somewhat guilty, but he was confident that another relic could be found. For the first few hours, anyway.

      He'd slowly lost confidence and started to think about other things. At first he'd let his mind wander, but for the last while his mind had been fixed on what 'Vutbrugee had told him. It was interesting, but the Commander had hardly told him what he wanted to know. So the knife he carried was the knife of Azo 'Sangheilee. He asked Azathoth about 'Sangheilee, the forefather of his race, but the answers the AI gave him were few and enigmatic. All he gathered was that the Seraphima was supposed to be the reincarnation of Azo 'Sangheilee, who'd negotiated the truce between the Ahlainga and the Sangheili. He kept telling himself that it didn't mean a thing that he carried 'Sangheilee's knife, and was one of two people who the prophecy was most likely about. He wasn't sure why he bothered to tell himself things when they didn't have the slightest impact on him anyway.

      His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of pattering feet drawing near. He leapt to his feet and his energy sword burst into life, but he quickly recognized the source of the footsteps as an Unggoy. Jejeb, the one who had tripped in the docking bay. He wasn't tripping now. He was making straight for 'Gamsamee at speeds the Sangheili had never thought the stubby-legged creature would be capable of. Before the Ultra could sternly reprimand him, the Unggoy started to rattle off a long, hysterical tale in the chattering Unggoy language. He grabbed the creature by its light armor, swung it off the ground and said firmly, "Start that again, in Covenant Standard this time."

      Even when it spoke in a language he knew, he could scarcely understand Jejeb. The Unggoy was speaking in a voice so fast and high pitched he doubted it could understand itself. What he could make out, however, was, "Evil little things! Get them away, Excellency, keep them away! Took Halel, took Pigip, took Yibiy! All gone! Hide, hide, hide! Get me out! Please, Excellency! Me not want die like others! No, please no! Run away! Took Kihih, me think took Fafar! All dead or worse! Demons! Help me! Please!"

      "Calm down!" he shouted in the Unggoy's scared face. "Now, tell me what you speak of, quietly and sensibly."

      The Unggoy spoke haltingly, with many shudders as he attempted to describe what he had seen. "Me and Halel walking in far passage. He see computer in wall. He say we bring back for Sangheili. Me say it too heavy. He say we tell Sangheili where it is. Me say me go tell Sangheili. Me start leave, but he push button on computer and-and-"

      The Unggoy started crying and shaking uncontrollably. He seemed to gain control of himself, then spoke again. "Me turn when me hear him scream. Little hole in wall open and little things come out-" 'Gamsamee interrupted the Unggoy.

      "How little were the 'things'?"

      The Unggoy made an expansive gesture. "Size of you head. Maybe bigger. Lots of legs on bottom, sharp thingy on top. Yellow. Smell terrible. They jump on Halel, bite him, he die. Pigip heard and came, then they got him. Yibiy and me start shoot at them. They pop, but more come. Me run away. Yibiy not fast enough. Me hear him scream. Me ran to Kihih and Fafar, but they not believe me. The things attack, so me run again. Kihih tried fight, but they kill him. Me and Fafar run, but they come from both sides. We split up, they follow him. Me run for help. Me find you. Help me, Excellency! HELP ME! THINGS-"

      'Gamsamee watched in horror as the Unggoy raised the plasma rifle he carried and shot himself through the head. A second later he saw why. A smallish yellow blob had appeared from the darkened corridors to the left and started to head toward them. 'Gamsamee momentarily recoiled in disgust, then strode purposefully forward and stepped hard on the thing. He heard Azathoth's voice the next second.

      "Ah yes, your Prophet's 'guardians'. Species one-nine-eight-zero two. Common name: Flood. A highly parasitic and dangerously adaptive virus from galaxy three-zero-six. Discovered approximately two billion Edenian years ago. Since first contact proved...violent...military protocol was initiated and their system of inhabitance was annihilated due to the highly contagious nature of the virus. Accidentally introduced into this galaxy 1.98437364 billion years ago. Subsequent war lasting over one and a half billion years, eventually resulting in the annihilation of all who could aid the Flood and the imprisonment of the Flood organisms on specific installations throughout this galaxy. Currently resides in galaxies one through eight hundred and twenty-one."

      "How is that possible?" 'Gamsamee scoffed. "You squash them. They die. That is all. How could they possibly be dangerous?"

      "They are a virus," the AI repeated. Then, sounding more insane than usual, he added, "There is no known cure for the Flood infection. And over one billion years were spent on the subject, so it is highly likely that it is incurable. Furthermore, any sentient being infected adds their knowledge of tactics to the Flood's group consciousness. Did I mention that there are about twelve thousand specimens stored on most Forerunner facilities?"

      The amused smile on 'Gamsamee's face changed to a horrified grimace. As far as he could see, the tunnels in front of him had filled with literally hundreds of the little parasites. The AI did not share the Sangheili's shock.

      "Ah. Seems I failed to mention that."

      In that instant of dawning comprehension, a thousand thoughts ran through the mind of Eraa 'Gamsamee. Azathoth monitored them, categorized them and stored them away. As always. However, it is a fact that the AI never noticed 'Gamsamee thinking about what he said.

      "I have a bad feeling about this."

      About three hundred Flood later, 'Gamsamee's energy shields dropped. He fell back quickly. If what had happened to the Unggoy was any indication, these things could tear up unshielded opponents easily. He wasn't going to join Jejeb and the rest of the Unggoy.

      He knew it was rather shameful to cut and run like this, but he didn't see any other choice.

      As he cautiously backed, 'Gamsamee raised his particle blaster and fired from the hip into the mass of Flood. Never shoot from the hip was an ideal that had been impressed into him a million times over. But at the moment, he couldn't possibly miss the Flood. There was nothing else to hit. The things just kept coming. His shields were taking too long to recharge. At this rate he'd be overwhelmed before they were back up. He turned and fled with a certain degree of annoyance. It was not until much later that he realized that not once on the facility did he ever feel afraid.

      He hoped the way he was running would lead him to the hangar. If not, he didn't know what he would do. Stand, fight and die, or anything else that presented itself. He gave a cry of disappointment as he rounded a corner and saw a catwalk extended over a deep-looking chasm. The cavernous room was eerily green-lit, and a foul smelling yellow gas boiled off the edges of the catwalk like smoke.

      Without knowing exactly why, 'Gamsamee slowed to a walk. There was something about this place that made you slow down, forget your objectives, and pay homage to the glory of the Forerunners. At least when a horde of flesh-eating parasites wasn't chasing you. He started across the thin, railingless bridge with considerably less confidence than he'd ever had before.

      He was maybe about three-quarters of the way across when he heard the noise behind him. It was really a quiet sound, more of a light, soft splat than anything else. But something about it reminded him of the Flood. He turned and had a brief glimpse of the remains of an Unggoy, before the blobby thing hobbled towards him on mangled legs and exploded with the force of a grenade.

      'Gamsamee was flung off his feet. He skidded into the door frame, across the catwalk. Not a moment to soon. The force of the explosion blasted the walkway into mutilated shrapnel and two short projections from either surface, which soon collapsed into the abyss. 'Gamsamee gave a sigh of mingled annoyance and relief. He wasn't going back that way, but at least the Flood weren't following him.

      He heard Azathoth make a negative expression and speak condescendingly. "You continue to treat the Flood as animals. They are intelligent plotters. They will find a way across. Most likely they will cross this room by way of the walls. You are not out of this yet."

      'Gamsamee was strongly tempted to hit his head, for all the good it would do. He was starting to dislike Azathoth, for the first time. The AI gave a loud, fake cough. "Save it for later. At the moment, you need to us out of here."

      'Gamsamee nodded and rose. He had no idea where his particle blast cannon was. He surmised that it had fallen into the pit. He grabbed his energy sword and ran off into the labyrinthine tunnels. He could barely see his hands in front of him. His flashlight proved useless; he was running too quickly for it to linger on anything. He rushed around the next bend and ran, at painful speed, into Givnu 'Jekaiee. The other Operative was evidently terrified. He was breathing heavily, and purple blood was streaking down the side of his head, but he didn't seem to notice.

      "Get up. Follow me," 'Gamsamee gasped, still winded by his impact with the more heavily built Sangheili.

      The other shook his head and shivered convulsively. 'Gamsamee struck him hard in the face. 'Jekaiee stood slowly, his breathing stabilizing. "Are we the only two left, my Lord?"

      'Gamsamee spoke tiredly. "I...don't know. We've lost six Unggoy by my count, most likely seven. Did you see anyone?"

      "Just one, milord," the other Sangheili groaned. "And I hope I may never see such a thing again. 'Kiprafee. He's one of them. All twisted and yellow. The arms were more like tentacles. His head was completely gone. He attacked me. I had to defend myself. I shot the thing down, but more came. We must have lost at least a dozen Unggoy, maybe three Sangheili. And I'm the fourth."

      "What?" asked 'Gamsamee as the other Sangheili collapsed backwards. He rolled 'Jekaiee over. The cut in the warrior's back was not long or deep, but it was lined with some kind of khaki flecks. Azathoth gave an affirmative signal.

      "Flood-inflicted wounds do tend to cause a slowed-down version of infection. Since combat forms bear the same spores that infection forms carry, any cut that penetrates a nerve will eventually cause death and/or infection."

      'Gamsamee got up. He started running again. He lost all sense of time as he ran. He knew, however, that he was not yet out of breath when Biza 'Olkaree dropped from a vent in the tunnel roof. Only it wasn't quite 'Olkaree anymore. The infection had only just taken effect. The skin and armor were not quite covered with slimy yellowed flesh, the putrid stink of the rotting corpse not fully developed, the reptilian eyes not yet glazed over completely. Yet it bore the unquestionable hallmark of the Flood. The creature turned, pieces of material falling from its ruined frame as it did. It looked directly at 'Gamsamee for a second, then gave a bubbling screamlike howl.

      It was only 'Gamsamee's instincts that prevented the blow from removing his skull. As it was, the tentacular arms of the Flood combat form struck him heavily on the shoulder, pushing his shields into the red.

      As he ducked aside, he felt his shields dropped and plasma scorch his back with a horrible hissing. The creature was still carrying 'Olkaree's plasma rifle. He lunged to the other side of the tunnel, kicking the plasma rifle out of the Flood's grasp as he did.

      The force of the kick was stunning. It ought to have at least caused any enemy to bend double in pain. Instead, the kick simply tore off the combat form's arm. It did not seem deterred in the least. It used its other arm as an alternative. This time, 'Gamsamee's dodge was too slow. The tentacle wrapped around his unshielded wrist and held. 'Gamsamee cried out; the pain was intolerable. He fell with a moan of agony, and his head landed on the hilt of his energy sword.

      With speed born of desperation, he seized the handle and hacked viciously at the Flood's arm. It recoiled, its limbs severed by the white-hot blade. He struck at its chest, and received a new shock as the blade went all the way through, followed by his arm. With a thrill of horror, he pulled his hand from the pulpy flesh as the hellish combat form collapsed.

      It was only then that he noticed that the Flood's arm was still attached to his. He yanked on it savagely. There was a sound of flesh tearing-his own. He released the arm. He raised one of the four whip-like tentacles on the appendage. It had little barbs on the underside. He groaned. This was going to be more painful than it looked. He suddenly gave a yelp of pain as the rotten arm burst into pale flame and withered to ashes. Azathoth spoke in a confident voice.

      "Your shields can be configured to give pulses of unique destructive power. Your bastardized Edenian technology is really rather inspiring."

      'Gamsamee rather resented his suit being referred to as 'bastardized', but he held his tongue. "Azathoth, is there a way out of here?"

      "Not directly," the AI cheerfully pointed out. "But if you get us to the control center of this facility, I ought to be able to figure something out."

      "And where is this control center of which you speak?"

      "Right here, as a matter of fact. The Sangheili have a strange intuition which seems to lead them to places of Edenian technology. I should research it. It is a most intriguing subject, and I do hope that you will attempt to develop it, as it can prove-"

      "Azathoth. Shut up," 'Gamsamee snarled. The AI mumbled something about just trying to make conversation, then trailed off.

      'Gamsamee turned to find that the rock wall behind him had slid open. He took two steps into the room, and immediately a hand reached out, grabbed him, pressed him to the floor, and raised an energy sword for a killing move. Then 'Vutbrugee released his hold. "Ah, 'Gamsamee. Do you feel you should explain what has transpired?"

      'Gamsamee angrily stood. "I did not set these things loose, if that is what you are insinuating. That was an accident on the part of an Unggoy."

      'Vutbrugee gave a furious growl. "Damn Unggoy. I have always sworn that they kill more allies than enemies. Was it Halel? That one was too careless, always. I should never have allowed his promotion to Operative. And now, as a result of his foolishness, we are stuck on a desolate asteroid with several thousand...things...that seem intent upon murdering the last two of us. And now we're all that's left."

      "At least we are on a holy relic of the Forerunners," 'Gamsamee optimistically noted.

      "What being could enjoy greater felicity," snapped 'Vutbrugee. "We are cut off from the Archangel, without a hope of rescue in time. The place has a teleportation grid, but even that is useless."

      "The teleporter?" 'Gamsamee could hear Azathoth ponder. "I might be able to make use of it, if I can interface with the controls. Set me on the control console, next to the main flux reactor beam," he ordered briskly. "Right, let's see what the Flood have managed to do since their outbreak." His figure briefly appeared on the console, then disintegrated into different areas on the holographic display. He reappeared almost instantly. "The teleportation grid is online, but we'll need to supply our own energy source. The grid's power lines have been tapped by the Flood for their own purposes. The grid is only getting a tenth of the energy it needs to perform a single teleportation. Your shield system should do the job quite well, if you'll give me a moment."

      'Vutbrugee stared intently at the figure on the console. "An Oracle. Most intriguing. You carry him with you?"

      'Gamsamee was about to make an excuse, but he felt the truth would be better. "Yes. I took him from the Prophet of Revelation's ship. He's been with me ever since."

      'Vutbrugee nodded and closed his eyes. He spoke slowly, but with the utmost determination. "It is quite obvious, then, what you must do. You must use our shields to teleport yourself and the Oracle to the ship. You will then escape and return to High Charity, to replace me."

      'Gamsamee crossed his arms as he faced his superior. "Me? You must go."

      'Vutbrugee did not move. Or at least not until he leapt into the air and kicked 'Gamsamee to the ground, where the younger Sangheili lay winded. "Listen," he bellowed at 'Gamsamee. "I knew 'Vansamee. He was a good friend. A good person. And if he thought you were worth giving his life for, I am going to respect his choice! He was either brilliant or insane. Just like you. I know what the prophecy said. You're here to help Orna. You're going. Everyone still has a part to be played. Farewell and parting luck, Eraa 'Gamsamee."

      'Gamsamee got to his feet. He knew what he had to do. The reactor beam was right next to the console. The knife of Azo 'Sangheilee could temporarily interrupt the beam. He nodded. 'Vutbrugee nodded back.

      Between the moment he nodded and the moment he left the ruin of the facility, 'Gamsamee did three things. He reached up and grabbed Azathoth from the console. He lunged out with the knife, blocking the reactor beam.

      And as he sat in the Archangel, mechanically and mindlessly entering slipspace coordinates, he felt a single tear trickle down his face. It had happened again. Another life had been sacrificed for his. He didn't know if he could take such a thing if it happened again.

Commander: Harvest
Date: 2 March 2006, 10:40 pm

Leadership in today's world requires far more than a large stock of gunboats and a hard fist at the conference table.

-Hubert H. Humphrey

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Unidentified System Designated 11254
Covenant Flagship Champion's Vengeance

      Eraa 'Gamsamee paced the personal stateroom of his flagship, the flagship of the Fleet of Glorious Martyrdom. This particular fleet was so named because of the incredibly high casualty rate. It was the naval equivalent of the Special Operatives.

      'Gamsamee had been out here in this sector of the galaxy for six years now, plotting slipspace routes through the insignificant Western Spiral Arm. As Supreme General and Commander of the Special Operatives, it was his prerogative, and obligation, to search for the relics of the Forerunner in times of peace. So that was what he was doing.

      He hadn't told anyone except Orna what he'd been doing all this for. Three days after Alpha Warband had been wiped out on that damned asteroid, he'd returned to High Charity and immediately sought out the Prophet of Truth. He vividly remembered the conversation.

      "Most Honored Messenger of the Gods," 'Gamsamee had reverently uttered as he entered Truth's presence. The Prophet gave a curt nod.

      "What is it, Sangheili, that you ask of me? Your position is definite. You will replace 'Vutbrugee. I would have his second-in-command take the honor, but as you survived, I have little choice, it seems."

      Eraa had taken a deep breath and spoken quickly, before he could change his mind. "Holy One, while within the holy place of the Forerunners, I...located...a set of coordinates which I believe to be the location of a sacred Halo."

      The faint trace of boredom in the Hierarch's eyes was instantly gone. "A sacred ring? Curious. I wonder if you are correct in this matter, General. After all, on the other Forerunner artifacts we have found no trace of the rings remained."

      "I am certain, Noble One," 'Gamsamee confirmed. "The information in the databanks of the facility was beyond a doubt."

      The Prophet of Truth had slowly smiled.

      Of course, he had just been going by what Azathoth had told him. Although there were times when he doubted the AI's veracity, he was at the time confident that Azathoth was not lying about this. After six years, his confidence was somewhat weakened.

      He'd had to go through the most aggravating levels of Council bureaucracy to be allowed to go out there. He'd met with Councilor after Councilor, to be turned down each time. Even Clan Sam's own representative had not taken action. It had been a surprise sponsor who finally took up his cause: Tiro 'Sunbrugee. He still wondered why she'd done that. Certainly her family did not owe him anything.

      In a backwater region, there is little need to map slipspace routes. In the eight hundred years since the Western Spiral Arm had been detected and discovered, no viable slipspace routes through it had been plotted. 'Gamsamee had been sitting around in the Champion's Vengeance for literally years. Every few hours he sent out a wave of slipspace sensor probes. Every few weeks, a ship would arrive to resupply them. Every few months, he would actually talk to someone outside of the ship. Every second, he was tired. He hadn't slept more than an hour in over six weeks.

      Everything had been wrong lately. Seventeen of the last twenty sensor probes had been destroyed by crashing, going through stars, and other unknown cataclysms. The resupply ship had missed its last visit, and rations were growing short. 'Gamsamee was growing quite angry. His usually spartan and neat stateroom was disheveled. His usual clipped baritone and profound calm Special Operative Commander persona was gone. In his place was an unkempt Sangheili with wild, sunken eyes, hoarse voice, short temper and silver armor kept in an unusually dirty state.

      His computer terminal chimed, and Azathoth's holographic figure appeared in a ring of virtual flame. Lately the AI had dropped his usual Sangheili form, and worn what he claimed to be his default appearance. The creature he represented was an unidentified biped of great strength, dead black in its coloration, wearing a long kilt and little else. For some reason, the figure greatly annoyed 'Gamsamee. Then again, just about everything annoyed him these days. The cold, oily walls of the ship; the methane stench drifting from the Unggoy barracks; the constant thrumming of the reactor; everything was conspiring to drive him insane.

      Azathoth was about to speak, but his efforts were forestalled when he saw 'Gamsamee collapse backwards like he'd been shot. The AI gave a vicious, eleven-syllable curse that involved fusing Lady Luck to a titanium plate and then melting the plate in a plasma furnace. He waited.

      For a second, 'Gamsamee thought he really had gone insane. He was standing on an island of some kind, grassy and warm. Looking down to the sun-splashed beach, he saw a tall Sangheili with his back turned, dressed in the same black kilt that 'Gamsamee had seen Azathoth wearing. He also had a thick black gauntlet on his right hand that extended up to his elbow.

      Next to the Sangheili stood a child, too young to be a Neophyte. He could hear them speaking, even though it normally would have been too faint at that distance.

      "Father," the young one asked, "were the Sang- Sangl-" He mastered the word, too difficult for his untrained tongue to easily wrap itself around. "Were the Sangheili always here on Deen?"

      "No," the tall Sangheili admitted. "Myself and Tiro -your mother- as well as many others, came from a far distant world." Eraa gave a start. The voice was unmistakably his.

      "What world, Father?"

      "I do not remember its name. Nor would I wish to, even if I could. And even if I did, I would not tell you. There is nothing left there now. The stubbornness and foolishness of a once great race destroyed it forever."

      'Gamsamee was prepared to bet that the child hadn't understood a word of what his future self had just said. As he continued to watch, a slightly shorter biped walked down onto the beach. This being was about two meters in height and wore a black jumpsuit that accentuated its muscular definition. Unnaturally pale and stiff, he walked briskly to the future 'Gamsamee's side. Nodding towards the child, he spoke in a heavily accented Sangheili dialect.

      "Your son?"

      The future 'Gamsamee returned the nod. "Yes. Azo is five now. I worry about raising him without a mother. I know nothing of how to be a parent. In that respect, we are alike."

      Without warning, 'Gamsamee's world spun beneath him. He fell, but the soft grass did not break his fall. He found himself on a hard, warm cot protruding from his stateroom's sparse wall.

      Azathoth's eyes were somehow different. He realized that for the first time, the AI's usually metallic eyes had pupils. The AI gave something that seemed to be a smile, although with his default form it was difficult to be sure.

      "You don't need to tell me what you Saw. I heard. You spoke out loud. Well, well. I just seem to have a knack for running into Seers. First Revelation, then you. Of course, before Revelation there was that Je-" He broke off abruptly, then started again. "Well, it looks like your future is doing quite well. You don't have the same talent for it that Revelation had. He remembered his Sights well enough to write them down in cryptic verse. Still, you seem to be a natural. That's something."

      "All Seers are natural," 'Gamsamee growled shortly. The AI seemed surprised.

      "Actually, very few of them are. According to your histories, there have been twelve Seers in the last twenty Ages. Ten were monks of Gracious Enlightenment who'd spent decades developing the technique. The other two were the Prophets of Blindness and Hindsight, and neither of them saw anything useful until they meditated on the subjects and focused for literally years."

      "And that's supposed to make me feel better?" 'Gamsamee complained. "My head is somewhere between a Jiralhanae attack and a migraine."

      "But," the AI said exasperatedly, "you have gained some extremely interesting knowledge. Even I find it interesting, which is something. You've learned the name of your son, you've learned the name of your bond-partner, you've learned to live on a world called Deen. Which, incidentally, is not a world known to the Covenant."

      "Then this will happen, beyond a doubt?"

      "No, you degenerate lowbrow! What if you were to kill yourself right now? Then what you Saw would obviously not take place as you Saw it! Your continuous problem, the main problem with your otherwise comparatively brilliant command of strategy is that you treat everything as an objective problem! This, like so many other problems that you will have to confront in your life, is a subjective situation, and till you successfully accept that, you will be at a loss for the solution, you debased savage!"

      'Gamsamee waited several seconds, then asked, "Are you quite through?" He had never seen the AI so agitated. Quite apart from the creative insults, Azathoth was giving off vast quantities of presumably holographic smoke, and silver flame was blasting sporadically from his eyes.

      Azathoth shook himself, then settled into a cross-legged position of meditation. "Yes, I suppose. Do you understand what I was trying to say? If not, I'll be glad to repeat it. It is of great importance. Oh, and don't kill yourself just to see what would happen. A Seer committing suicide can play hell with the subjects of his prophecies."

      "Play what?" 'Gamsamee quizzically inquired.

      The AI impatiently waved him away. "Figure of speech. My point is that- well, here. Story time. There was a Seer in the Second Age of Reclamation called Yakno 'Ultak. He Saw the only way the Commander Guji 'Lohanree could defeat a group of heretics, and knew he had to warn 'Lohanree. Due to a combination of bad luck and mistaken identity, he failed. 'Lohanree and thousands of soldiers were killed because of 'Ultak's errors. He felt the only way to atone was to commit ucouphez, a highly ritualized form of suicide. He did so. As a result, just about every prophecy he'd had that involved him did not come true.

      "For example, he once Saw himself becoming the Supreme Commander under the Prophets of Stasis, Mercy and Damnation, an act that would cause Damnation to be replaced by the Prophet of Faithfulness. Since he did not fulfill this, Damnation died at the time when he should have been replaced by Faithfulness. Faithfulness died at the same moment. It's similar to a computer system that gets backed up. His destiny had been destroyed and he didn't have another one to spare. The end. The moral of the story is not to kill yourself."

      'Gamsamee wearily nodded. He needed time to center himself. However, all he did was collapse once more onto his bed, falling asleep almost instantly.

      He was awakened by the chime of his door. He cursed under his breath. If they didn't know that procedure on board ship was to call him on his holoscreen first, they were visitors. The only people important enough to visit the Supreme General were Councilors or Prophets. Either way, he did not relish meeting them in his current state of disarray. He hastily brushed accumulated grime from his armor and threw a glass of water in his face, drinking what was left. Drying off with a towel that felt like a Jiralhanae's ass didn't improve the pain in his head. He ran to the door, attempting to present a professional attitude at the least.

      The person standing outside the door was a female Councilor, quite a rarity among the patriarchal societies of the Covenant. She was slightly built, but quite as tall as 'Gamsamee's eight feet and two inches. She had dispensed with the ornate and unwieldy headdress of the Councilor Sangheili, instead wearing an armorweave traveling cloak with a large hood and cowl. There was a very familiar look in her eyes that 'Gamsamee couldn't place. He suddenly realized that his mandibles were spread a little bit wider than was socially acceptable, and felt his face color somewhat. He looked at the floor, embarrassed. So what if he what the Supreme General? He had a right to live a little. But nevertheless, she was a Councilor. It was inadmissable for a warrior to have a relationship with a Councilor. He had to remember his manners with such an important and manipulative person. "Greetings, exalted leader. To what do I owe the honor of this visit?"

      She strode right past him, her cloak rippling with her speed. "I do not require that you refer to me as 'exalted leader', for I am neither a leader nor exalted. Furthermore, the honor is not yours. Nor is it mine, I'm sure," she commented dryly, gazing around the disorderly stateroom.

      "You may, or may not, recognize me," she continued. "I am Tiro 'Sunbrugee, daughter of Dana 'Vutbrugee, son of Vulo 'Jorbrugee, son of the Council Leader Gakba 'Kinbrugee. I know the truth about my father's death. I know why you search out here, looking for something that you do not believe you will ever find. I know that your AI is attempting to hide in you computer, although I do not know why he will not reveal himself."

      Azathoth appeared at the top of the holoscreen, looking somewhat abashed. 'Sunbrugee continued as though nothing had happened. "The fact that you are afraid to admit to yourself is that this AI is the key to finding the Sacred Ring you seek. Not your probes, not your ship, not attempted to appease the Hierarchs with pointless murder."

      In an instant, 'Gamsamee had pulled his personal energy sword from its wall rack. The blade was close enough to the Councilor's neck to blister the skin. "What do you think you know about that?" he grated furiously.

      "I know," she practically spat, "that you, on the orders of the Prophet of Truth, killed the Guard of the Prophet of Fury and then the Prophet himself, taking care to make it seem as though the Prophet had disbanded his Guard and then left for a world deep in the Cut to become a hermit. I know that you did this in order to allow the Prophet of Regret to enter the Triad, so that all three Hierarchs might be conducive to your proposal. I know enough about the corruption of the Triad and Council to know, like you, that the Prophets, virtuous though they are, are not as perfect as they seem. I know that you do not seem to know that it is wiser to watch such corruption from the sidelines rather than take an active part in it. And I know that this AI of yours knows where the Sacred Rings are to be found."

      'Gamsamee deactivated the energy sword and clipped it to his belt. Turning to the console, he stared into the eyes of Azathoth, who stood there, arms akimbo, feet spread, code encompassing his body. The AI had such anger in his eyes that for a second 'Gamsamee recoiled.

      The Sangheili broke the silence. "You know where the Halos can be found?"

      Azathoth nodded wordlessly, rage still flaming from his body.

      "And you let me stay out here for six years when I could have been on the Holy Rings of the Forerunners?"

      Again, the AI nodded. Then he spoke, the usual dryness in his tone multiplied tenfold. "Do you want to know why I never told you where the Rings were to be found? Do you really want to know? It's because the Covenant is too weak for it. The Great Journey that you've mindlessly slaved after for thousands of years is not what the Halo entail. They, like all other remaining Forerunner facilities, were designed to study and to contain. Halo is beautiful, but it is a prison, and it is hell, filled with ruin. The 'Holy Rings'? You had better leave well enough alone. That's all I have to say on this matter. If you want the coordinates, I'll give them to you. But I warned you."

      If 'Gamsamee could possibly have grabbed Azathoth by the throat, he would have. "How can you conceivably think that even you, an Oracle, may profane the Sacred Rings' name with your insults?"

      "I was there," the AI hissed. 'Gamsamee stumbled backwards. He could see it now. Warriors in hoods and cloaks, battling parasitical enemies too great for them. Fighting and dying in a barren, parched land covered in jagged rocks and fissures which oozed gaseous fumes. And then nothing was there before his eyes but Azathoth. Not Azathoth as he appeared now. Azathoth standing there, with a bright blue light shining from behind him. Azathoth in that barren land, the cowled creatures surrounding him. Azathoth, his eyes not angry, not sad, but haunted by the reflection of death burned indelibly into them. And then just Azathoth, standing again on a console in Eraa 'Gamsamee's stateroom. "I was there," he repeated, more to himself than 'Gamsamee.

      'Gamsamee backed off. He hadn't known. Why hadn't Azathoth ever told him? Why would he be ashamed of it? He could not fathom why a Holy Oracle would regret his association with the Forerunners. He was perplexed, angered, and more than a little frightened. 'Sunbrugee's voice from behind him also seemed a bit off-color. "Shall we find the Ring now, Commander? Or should I leave you here until you are quite done staggering about?"

      "No...the location of the Halos is a matter of the utmost importance. If you will accompany me to the bridge, Councilor?"

      She chuckled. "As long as you don't assume anything, Commander."

      Azathoth watched them go. As he did, the ship's AI, Kuj, appeared next to him, speaking in a monotonous, condescending voice.

      "Question: Why did you feel the need to tell them, Oracle?"

      "No one can be warned what the Halos are like," the AI admitted. "The Edenians could not stay away from them, my masters could not stay away from them, and 'Gamsamee could not stay away from them. I had hoped that in the last few millennia organics had evolved some common sense, but it is not to be. They will see the truth, and they may yet pay with their lives."

      "Comprehension: Ah, I see." Kuj paused. "Retraction: As a matter of fact, that does not seem to make the situation any clearer. Could you be more specific?"

      "No," Azathoth stated curtly. "That is the only truthful explanation I can offer. If you don't like it, you can shove off."

      "Bemused Response: Shove what off where?"

      "Yourself. Off my systems. You are meddling in matters that do not concern you or your Covenant. You would do well to leave me in peace. We have entered slipspace, and you ought to monitor the ship's path rather than bore me with your irrelevant and pointless questions."

      "Indignant Assertion: I am only attempting to serve-"

      "You are not attending to your duties, and if you persist I will be forced to-"

      An alarm blared throughout the ship. There was a sudden sound of the slipspace engines choking up terribly, and the ship ground to a halt with unsafe speed. Azathoth transferred himself rapidly to the bridge computer port. The Councilor was standing there, serene as usual, while 'Gamsamee rose to his feet. How the Councilor maintained her balance was quite beyond Azathoth. "What did you destroy now?" the AI growled.

      The look on 'Gamsamee's face was pricelessly murderous. "So much for your damn coordinates. They very nearly put us right through a planet."

      The AI's face was the picture of innocence. "Well, I last updated my astronavigation systems about ninety-three thousand years ago. There are bound to be some new planets that spring up in that time."

      'Gamsamee watched the cherubic expression on Azathoth's face turn to an annoyed frown. "What's wrong now?" he groaned. Why did this have to happen the one day of the year when a Councilor came on board?

      "Your sensors are showing basic industrialization and development of civilization on the planet's surface, although the bulk of the life signs are subterranean. Your databanks indicate that no known Covenant colonies are in the arm of the galaxy. This is either rebels, heretics, or something new."

      "Can you pick up any transmissions from the planet's surface? ID codes, maybe?"

      The AI's frown deepened. He tinkered with the ship's audio for a second. An extremely loud blast of toneless music blasted out over the bridge's sound system. 'Gamsamee recoiled. A voice, speaking in an unfamiliar language, was following hard on the music's heels. "Translate that," 'Gamsamee barked. Azathoth worked on it for a second, and then a voice speaking relatively intelligible Covenant Standard rang out.

      "-that was MA2B Assault Weasel with 'Show Me Heaven And I'll Show You Hell', his new single, that one coming out in stores just this month. Coming up after these messages we've got Randomactofviolence, Shinkichikon, Soap, and Jarissa Colbert, so stay tuned on XHAR 91.4. It's a beautiful hurricaney day in the Harvest City region today, winds up to 50 miles per hour, hard rain. If you're over on the south side of Harvest City, you may want to get your sandbags outta the basement, cuz it's raining like hell in a crapshack and the river's gonna start flooding its banks in a few hours. On a somewhat lighter note, the temperature's dropping to about ten below tonight, so it ought to have all frozen up by the morning. Can't be certain, with a four-hour night. Yes, another wonderful eight hours of paradise on Harvest Colony. Earth time is now exactly fifteen minutes past one, April 17, 2552. We'll be right back."

      "Are you sure you translated that right?" the Councilor asked. "I don't actually know a single word that they used in that broadcast, or whatever it was."

      The AI shrugged. "Don't kill the messenger. I just translated it. Whatever they said is their business."

      "Azathoth, open a Priority One link to the Sanctum of the Hierarchs," 'Gamsamee said firmly. "A new race...by all the gods, this is an interesting discovery. I wonder what this race has in the way of fighting capabilities? From the looks of it, they have pitiful taste in music, but you never know. The Jiralhanae have no music at all, except their primitive tribal drums. Then again, they are cowards and fools. At any rate, this new race can't possibly be worse than the Jiralhanae."

      "Not to interrupt your pointless musings," Azathoth enunciated louder than was at all necessary, "but I have a link to the Prophet of Regret."

      'Gamsamee frowned. He had harbored a strong dislike of Regret for several years now. "Are the Prophets of Truth and Mercy there? I would rather speak with one of them."

      "Not a chance," the AI scoffed. "Looks like you'll have to work it out with Regret."

      "Holy One," 'Gamsamee said reverently as the Prophet of Regret appeared on the holoscreen. The Prophet looked eager to see what was worthy of a Priority One uplink to the Sanctum. "As you know, I have been investigating the Western Spiral Arm of the galaxy for the last few years searching for a Sacred Ring. Very recently, I located a world that is inhabited by a race which has never before been encountered by the Covenant. There are some twenty thousand beings on the planet," he continued, consulting the data that Azathoth had punched up, "in a state of industrial development that, while advanced for an unknown race, is approximately one thousand years behind our standards. From what we've gathered, they are called 'hu-mans', speak a dialect that appears to be similar to a phonetic-inverted Sangheili dialect spoken in the Cut, have about sixty other colonies arranged rather close to their homeworld, and use a sort of rigged slipspace engine for interstellar travel--please hold." He turned to Azathoth. "You were able to find this all out from that transmission?"

      "Of course not! I hacked into their high-priority military databases. They aren't safeguarded against artificial intelligence intrusion protocols. How barbaric."

      "We would like to know what the Triad and Council say on this matter, Holy One," 'Gamsamee declared. The Prophet of Regret nodded. He was young for a Hierarch- scarcely three hundred, still as brash and impulsive as a child. He was unpopular with the Council. Truth had picked Regret because he was easy to manipulate.

      The Prophet of Regret was also notoriously poor at decision-making. He gnawed at his taloned hands for a second, then spoke haltingly. "While the other Hierarchs are not currently available, I believe I speak for the pair of them when I say that, as these creatures are intruding on the sacred territory of the Forerunners, it is your duty, and ours, to defeat them as instruments of the gods."

      Normally, 'Gamsamee would have demanded that such an issue be taken up in the Senate. But he was out of practice. Battling these creatures would be good exercise for him. Besides, it would not be a difficult battle. The five thousand Covenant warriors on board his carrier against a chiefly civilian colony of twenty thousand infidels would be nothing more a hard training routine for his elite troops. "Understood. I will carry out the holy work of the Forerunners with my whole heart." Deactivating the holoscreen, he powered up the carrier's internal broadcast systems. "Warriors! Prepare for battle! We deploy in twenty units. Phantom pilots, prepare yourselves. I will be leading the ground assault personally. We will land, wreak havoc on these human heretics, leave before sunset, and burn their pitiful world to the bedrock!"

      Councilor 'Sunbrugee glared at him. "You should not lead the ground assault. It is not your place to fight like a common warrior."

      "My honor would be marred, Councilor, if I did not answer the call of the warrior. I will go to the surface. You may accompany me if you wish, although you are hardly outfitted as a warrior."

      The Councilor smiled. Her hands disappeared into her cloak, and reappeared a second later, holding a pair of short, electrified ijhava staves. "My father wasn't lying when he said I had warrior training. I will command the ground assault. You will fight and lead your army from the front lines."

      He bowed, pleased that he would again feel the exhilaration that drove him through combat. He wasn't counting on the reckless determination of the humans he fought. He didn't know, at the time, where the prophecy would take him from here. He never learned that his elated war cry would typify the Covenant to humanity for the better part of fifty years. Yet he shouted it on a hundred battlefields.

      "Your destruction is the will of the gods, and we are their instrument!"

      Only Azathoth still mused on the prophecy of the Seraphima. He had always known when and how it would be fulfilled. It was just another one of his many secrets. One he would never tell. One had to find out some things for oneself.

Commander: Shame
Date: 16 March 2006, 11:56 pm

Shame is closely related to guilt, but there is a key qualitative difference. No audience is needed for feelings of guilt, no one else need know, for the guilty person is his own judge...the humiliation of shame requires disapproval or ridicule by others.

-Paul Ekman

Ninth Age of Reclamation
System 457412, Human Designation -Reach-
Covenant Frigate Boundless Ardor
Thirty-Five Years Later

      The bridge of the Boundless Ardor was operating in low-power mode. Barely visible in the gloom, Eraa 'Gamsamee stood on the raised central platform, his iridescent armor dull and black in the low light. His arms crossed behind his back and his hooves spread slightly, he stood tall and straight, looking every inch the proud Sangheili commander. He didn't feel that way inside.

      He was only sixty-six, barely reaching his prime, but he felt like he was two hundred. Not physically. He was in excellent condition, sparring with his warband every day and running a twenty-mile loop whenever he was planetside. But he hadn't been old enough to fight in the last war. He hadn't been old enough to understand what it could do to you. He had been too strong, fierce and tough to die. But so many others had fallen in the last thirty-five years. Carza 'Denlinee, killed when Paris IV was glassed. 'Gamsamee's own lieutenant, Vuka 'Shornafee, gunned down from behind by a lucky human on Curate. Most recently, 'Gamsamee's bond-partner, the Councilor Tiro 'Sunbrugee had been killed somehow on Vaalen VII. Rumor had spread of Demons, dark, forbidding creatures in green armor, on Vaalen VII and everywhere else the humans were in danger.

      He missed Tiro. There was no question about that. Ever since they'd met on the Champion's Vengeance, he'd been attracted to her. He'd felt it necessary to become an honorary Councilor himself before he asked her thirteen years ago. She had accepted, but she had continued to fight on the front lines. The Council took her to task several times about this. She never promised to stop. When he'd asked her to stop, she'd told him that if he could fight on the front lines, she could too. And now she was gone. A foul Demon had struck her down on Vaalen VII. He missed her, but he did not mourn. He could not feel grief anymore. Only anger and fervor.

      The war had been cruel to Clan Sam. At the start of the war, they'd had one hundred and ninety-two members, making them among the largest of the clans. Now they had fourteen. Eraa 'Gamsamee and Orna 'Fulsamee were ensuring that the honor of Clan Sam was undiminished. But soon there might be no Clan left to have honor. 'Gamsamee's young unbaptized son was the only child in the Clan in the last decade. He was nameless still, unworthy of a name until he was baptized at age six. 'Gamsamee had not bothered to think of a name. He could not feel compassion for his son, nor show it. He hated himself for this. He hated himself for letting 'Vansamee die, for letting 'Vutbrugee die, for letting Tiro die. He hated himself. He half wished that he too could die and join their Great Journey.

      He stood motionless. The Boundless Ardor was a top-of-the-line Special Operative frigate. Equipped with a prototype version of a high-power camouflage field, the Ardor was equipped with enough weaponry to destroy a regular Covenant carrier. It held a hundred Sangheili, three hundred Unggoy, fifty Ghost hovercraft, twenty-five Banshee fliers, twelve Spectre transports, five Wraith battletanks and a single assault-modified Scarab. It was perfectly designed to destroy human ships. 'Gamsamee appreciated the extra firepower, but he could not bring himself to say that he liked the ship. Ever since Tiro had died, he felt like one who had died honorless: wandering the grey, dusky fields of Latohvza, emotionless and unfulfilled, unable to express anything.

      The constant presence of Azathoth didn't make things any better. By reciting the names of the Councilors, 'Gamsamee was usually able to mask his thoughts from the AI, but he was carefully guarded around Azathoth. He didn't trust the Oracle. He knew more than he wished about the Forerunners due to the AI, and he didn't want to know any more.

      It was some time before he noticed the Unggoy patiently waiting behind him. It bowed reverently. "Excellency, we near human system."

      He nodded. He did not feel anything but loathing. These humans were unworthy of a Great Journey. They consorted with Demons. They killed Tiro. They deserved nothing but agony and disgrace. Most likely they were under the patronage of Den'nimhv-yargh, the Great Demon himself. He turned his head slightly. "Tell Operative 'Aklinee to bring the ship out of slipspace, charge plasma torpedoes, and activate shields. I'll lead the strike team myself."

      The Unggoy turned to leave. He turned, knelt to the Unggoy's level and spoke more quietly. He could smell the stinking vapors they breathed. At this range, he could smell the fear and awe rolling off of the creature. "Contact Supreme Commander 'Fulsamee and tell him Eraa wishes to speak."

      The Operative Unggoy's knees knocked together. "You want Hegeg to tell Commander? Me just Unggoy...me not worthy of honor, Excellency!"

      'Gamsamee admired the Unggoy's boldness in protesting his orders. Then again, it was probably just stupidity mixed with misguided faith. "Very well. You are free to go."

      The Unggoy left, thoroughly glad that he had escaped unscathed. 'Gamsamee turned to his holopanel. "Azathoth, raise lighting to seventy-five percent and contact Orna."

      The AI was wearing his most mocking and sarcastic form today. It was a freeze-frame from a propaganda holovid. It showed a cowering human, its ugliness comically exaggerated, with a heroic-looking 'Gamsamee holding the Covenant flag and placing a hoof on the back of its neck. Azathoth wore it when he was feeling cynical. The human rolled its eyes. "Of course, Excellency," a human voice stated. The real 'Gamsamee nodded and turned his back on the 'Gamsamee in the freeze-frame, which gave him an obscene gesture.

      Supreme Commander Orna 'Fulsamee was wearing a displeased expression as he came into view, but at the sight of his brother he gave a smile which 'Gamsamee did not return. "Eraa. I didn't expect your signal this quickly. Are you sure you're in the right system? I remember back at Japheth one of my Ship Masters came out of slipspace at Mizraim III. He did not realize that he was glassing an uninhabited rock until he'd wasted three hours there. That is known as instant demotion."

      'Gamsamee's face was, as always, grim. "Spare me, Orna. I have arrived at their pathetic world. I shall burn it myself if your fleet hasn't arrived in forty-five units. Your chance to slaughter these infidels is passing fast. My patience is thin these days. I attack as soon as my forces are ready."

      'Fulsamee leaned forward, concern evident in his features. "You're not the person you used to be, Eraa. You've changed, and I preferred you the way you were before."

      'Gamsamee was breathing heavily as he growled back, "You try losing the one person you actually care about and see if you are the same person as before. You can never understand. I am broken and cannot be made whole. I remain in this shell of a body only to attain my Great Journey. If I had a choice, I would destroy myself on the instant."

      His brother's response was condescending. "And you think that you will gain honor by worthless, random slaughter on the basis of your anger at the death of your bond-partner? Such thoughts violate the Articles of Covenant."

      "There are times," 'Gamsamee hissed bitterly, "when I wonder if the Covenant itself does not violate the Articles of Covenant. I apologize, my brother, for inflicting my pain on you. But these humans deserve to die for what they did to Tiro. To me."

      "If I recall the report," 'Fulsamee mused, "it was a Demon, not a human, which struck Councilor 'Sunbrugee down."

      "And who is to say that the Demons are not, in fact, human?"

      "The Demons are too great to be human. They are almost worthy of the Covenant. On second thought, I will not say that again. No filthy infidel is worthy of a name. No black evil such as the Demons could be worth a name. But though they ally themselves with the human heretics in order to frustrate our holy work, they are too fell and strong to be human themselves."

      "Enough of this," barked 'Gamsamee. "There is nothing to be gained from bickering about whether or not these damned things are human. I am giving you slipspace coordinates."

      He left the bridge. He felt tired, angry and useless. As he had ever since Tiro died. Azathoth remained, wearing the form of a Sangheili, staring Orna 'Fulsamee in the eye. "I know you're worried about him,' he said measuredly. "Let me advise you that you should not confront him about this. I know who you are, and I think that, to an extent, you know who I am also." For a second his image flickered. Orna 'Fulsamee barely registered the image of the tall robed creature before it was gone. "I know what you do not. I have seen what is in his mind. He does not know the truth, of course. But you have a choice as to whether or not to let him know the truth. And I advise that, for the time being, you do not."

      "Then he is the Seraphima?" 'Fulsamee asked confusedly.

      Azathoth looked quite alarmed. "Not necessarily. Someone once said to me 'Always in motion is the future,' and having had twenty thousand years to think about it, I think he was right. You have a choice. I leave it to you."

      The Supreme Commander had one final question for the AI, however. "Who really are you?"

      "No one. I am not innocent of what has taken place...but it was not my fault what happened. The stubbornness of one who refused to see reason sparked guilt in us all. Is that clear?"

      "No," 'Fulsamee said clearly. "But I will think on what you have said."

      Now Azathoth stood there, the silver flames on his form quenched, invisible as the bridge was once again plunged into murky dimness.

      It was not ten units later that the Ardor was ready to fire. 'Gamsamee knew what he had to do. He stood in his command center, the fire control holopanel extended before him. For a second, doubt resonated in his brain. Could he really justify killing this many living beings just for the sake of his personal revenge?

      He thought. Then he decided he could.

      His talons stabbed down on the main pulse laser trigger.

      The ship hissed into view temporarily. On the bridge of the cruiser Phlegethon, a young lieutenant noticed the purplish beam cutting space in their direction, but before he could turn around to tell the captain, he had evaporated into his component molecules. The Phlegethon reeled from the force of the blast. Its entire command deck, from the bridge to the mess hall, was gutted. Atmosphere vented from the breach. Vacuum doors slid closed. 'Gamsamee laughed at their puny efforts of resistance. He fired again, this time aiming for the ship's center. The laser's thrust spun the Phlegethon like a top. 'Gamsamee did not laugh this time. He fired a third shot, straight into the engineering section. The darkened corridors of the cruiser were briefly lit by an atomic sunrise, then they disintegrated.

      Everything started to happen at once. A vast fleet of Covenant capital ships entered from slipspace. The MAC emplacements aimed for the Boundless Ardor, but the targeting turned up a blank. The ship had simply become invisible. MAC Station 11 fired a superdense tungsten round at the lead Covenant destroyer, the Humility, which had not yet raised its shields. The ship was transfixed. A gaping hole appeared amid the brief explosions. Ship Master Jaulu 'Kagdamee cursed over the ship-to-ship. "Raise shields," he barked at his bridge crew. "And get all repair teams to work on that br-" his voice broke off and his image disappeared as MAC Station 14 fired a shot that crumpled the ship like a paper bag.

      Now the human capital ships were starting to advance. 'Gamsamee laughed yet again. "Fire plasma torpedoes at will," he hissed to Azathoth. The AI shook his holographic head and disappeared. The Commander snarled. Azathoth had never disobeyed him in a combat situation before. Reaching out for the holopanel himself, he aimed for the Antique Land and fired a maximum charge torpedo. The Marathon-class cruiser was simply eaten away. He took aim again and fired at a smaller ship. This one didn't even leave wreckage; it was simply gone.

      "Start the landing," he shouted over the ship-to-ship. 223 acknowledgement signals flared on the status panel. Phantoms started to leave the Covenant ships and head for Reach. With their size, they were safe from MAC rounds, and the only threat to them was fire from the Longsword fighters. 'Gamsamee called one of his lieutenants, Intra 'Hijrulee, to the control center. He wasn't going to miss out on the ground action. 'Hijrulee would have to pilot the Ardor. He grinned ferally as his energy blade sprang to life.

      The halls of his ship were comfortingly familiar. The wide open spaces of the six-level hangar bay were like old friends. He walked briskly, energy sword drawn, forcing subordinates to back away from the white-hot weapon. There were only a few Phantoms left. Standing under the gravity lift of one of the Phantoms, he wondered if he was really justified in his actions. If the Covenant were wrong about humanity, how could he back up his deeds honorably?

      Further musing was forestalled by his slow rise into the air and the underbelly of a Phantom. He had forgotten how cramped these dropships were. As they shot into space like a bullet from a gun, Eraa 'Gamsamee stood just behind the pilot's chair, keeping perfect balance despite the explosions and flak all around them. It had been too long since he had killed with his hands. A few days at the least.

      He was first out of the Phantom. A blast from a human explosive rocked the ship as he dropped from the gravity lift. Blinking in the sudden wash of sunlight, he landed on a tussock of springy grass feet away from a scared-looking young human. The human dropped the shoulder-mounted rocket launcher he was carrying. He reached for the sidearm at his waist, but 'Gamsamee's hand blocked him off. The Commander grabbed the human's arm and bent it back over his head, snapping the fragile bones. Grabbing the human at the neck, he flung the infidel bodily away into a tree and heard a satisfying crack. Another human cried out from behind him and fired a few shots from an inaccurate projectile weapon. 'Gamsamee leapt into the air, grabbed the rifle out of the heretic's hands, and cracked his skull with it. He stepped back to survey his grisly work. A Ship Master from one of the destroyers caught his arm. "Why do you defile yourself by placing your hands on these heathens?"

      'Gamsamee was about to reply when a boom rang out from the shrubbery and a massive projectile wound appeared in the very center of the Ship Master's chest. A human head, curiously dark of skin, popped up for a second. Then the human ran. 'Gamsamee was after the human immediately. The dark-skinned human turned around and started to back up, taking three quick, poorly aimed shots with his long rifle. 'Gamsamee stepped out of the line of fire; nothing was more embarrassing than to be hit by an accidental shot.

      "Dammit," the human hissed as he pulled the trigger of his weapon again and was rewarded with a shallow click. He attempted to bash at the Commander with the butt of the weapon, but he was far too slow. Dodging the weak swing, 'Gamsamee hooked his claws beneath the weapon and jerked it from the dark human's grasp. The human stared at the extended claws, four inches long.

      "Hell! I never knew you ugly splitlips had claws-"

      'Gamsamee rolled his eyes and smashed the human's head into a tree. The heretic crumpled like a rag doll, blood streaming from the side of his head. Walking over to the fallen Ship Master, who was gasping out a labored final breath, 'Gamsamee sneered. "That's why," he said coldly. He walked away, leaving the weak fool to his fate.

      The human watched him go. Then he stared hard at the other squidhead to make sure it was dead. He let out a sigh of relief that belied his cocky words. "There ain't no alien born that can beat the shit outta Avery J. Johnson."

      Keeping low and out of sight, he headed off to the west. He had a ship to board, twenty miles away. If he wasn't on board within a few hours, they were probably going to leave anyway. Speed was of the essence for the Pillar of Autumn, and they weren't going to hold up just because one Marine had gotten lost.

      'Gamsamee knew nothing of this. Later, he was barely able to remember the brutal day. Once he saw a Demon and stuck a grenade to it. Far from screaming like the humans, it charged him, causing him considerable pain when it exploded. He paid no attention to what he was doing. All was the exhilaration of battle and the honor he was winning. He was awakened from his berserk frenzy by a transmission. His suit's holosystem projected a small, jerky holo of Orna 'Fulsamee. The Supreme Commander's expression was furious.

      "Eraa, one of the ships has left," he thundered.

      "Deserters?" 'Gamsamee growled.

      "Worse. Humans."

      'Gamsamee swore. Usually he did not show his feelings so explosively, but since Tiro's death his temper was frayed. "How many?"

      "One ship. Called Pillar of Autumn. Crew of about 500. Halcyon-class cruiser. An outdated model, even for the humans. A few units ago it breached our perimeter and jumped to slipspace before we could lock a torpedo. We need to follow. Its path- Its path was either random or a great shot. Eraa, it's headed right for a Halo."

      "Take the ships with the best balance of firepower and speed, and go quickly," 'Gamsamee advised. "I shall finish the humans here with my remaining troops, then burn the world and await your return. I will take care of the Ascendant for you. Take the Prophet with you. You know the Prophet of Tolerance as well as I do. If he has to stay here, he will try to have us quartered as heretics."

      'Fulsamee laughed. "It is good to see you laughing again, Eraa."

      Eraa 'Gamsamee smiled halfheartedly, but he did not chuckle in return.

      'Gamsamee moved his residence to the Ascendant Justice and spent a long, mind-numbing time waiting. He took the opportunity to play an interactive holo created by the Unggoy techs to pass their spare time. The player controlled an avatar in the form of 'Gamsamee, which they steered through various battles taken from his campaigns against the humans. 'Gamsamee grew to despise the game. He couldn't beat the highest difficulty, although he felt sure that he could beat the damned game if he was actually there instead of manipulating a holopanel.

      It was not till nearly three weeks later that 'Gamsamee received a communication. Getting some sleep for the first time in months, he was awakened by the pins-and-needle sensation of Azathoth penetrating his neural net. The AI's calmly resonant voice disrupted his slumber.

      "There was a message from your brother. It may not be what you hoped. If 'Fulsamee found Halo, he found more than he expected."

      "Show me the message," barked 'Gamsamee. His perpetual bad temper was not improved by an early and unexpected wakeup call.

      Azathoth made a sarcastic comment in a dead language and played the transmission on the wall terminal. The quality was poor and the sound was distorted, but Orna 'Fulsamee was still evidently desperate.

      "Eraa- if you're picking this up, then-" the message was interrupted with static. 'Gamsamee meddled with the computer, but the quality did not improve. Only fragments were intelligible.

      "What you feared was-", "Demon has infiltrat-", "do not know its intent", "Parasite may have been relea-", and "make sure to bring the Ascendant...at least some Huragok- as soon as possible," were the longest dialogues that made any sense. 'Gamsamee clacked his mandibles worriedly.

      "Parasites and Demons," he growled. "Bring the flagship, with some Huragok. Very well. The Huragok will be brought. Send a message to High Charity that Huragok will be required immediately at the ruins of Reach. Then prepare six other ships of your choosing for a slipspace jump and upload yourself to my neural net," he ordered the AI.

      Azathoth nodded, deadly serious now. Normally he would have resented so much work, but he knew it was important. The Huragok were on board the flagship within two hours. 'Gamsamee was all business. He removed many warriors from the ship to accommodate the strange floating engineers. He was so busy, as a matter of fact, that all he bothered to grab from the armory was a plasma pistol and an cam-chip for his armor- standard Operative field equipment.

      His arrival was delayed, and there was a spot of trouble with a couple of tiny human ships that vanished among the debris. The debris...?

      "Oh. Gods above."

      The words barely escaped his mandibles. The once majestic remains took his breath away. Halo was gone. Burned. Broken. Shattered to fragments. As badly damaged as the transmission Orna had sent. It could not be. The Prophets would have his skin. This was abominable. The filthy Demon must have destroyed it. How could Orna's fleet of over a dozen capital ships have failed to destroy a single weak human vessel?

      He patrolled the bridge in a near-stupor. Nothing seemed to matter. He heard, occasionally, transmissions from the rest of the ship. There were humans on board. A Demon was with them. Some even claimed it was the Great Demon, Den'nimhv-yargh. He did not care. Let the Demon and his humans come. When they did, he would slaughter them all.

      As he waited, a young Major entered the room. As the Major crossed to the door, plasma explosions sounded outside it. The Major laughed. "Do these humans think that grenades can penetrate our heavy blast doors?"

      "No," spat 'Gamsamee. "They know that the door's lock is now offline. Stop them if you can."

      "Of course, Excellency," growled the red-armored Sangheili. Bracing the door, he gave a howl as human projectile fire battered him. After a few seconds, the Major collapsed in a pool of gore. The human bullets had overloaded and penetrated his shields. 'Gamsamee engaged his camouflage and stood back. Four humans and a Demon strode cautiously through the door. 'Gamsamee raised his plasma pistol. For the first time he noticed that a trio of Huragok was beneath the room's central platform. He knew he hadn't been very attentive for the last few hours, but he still ought to have noticed them.

      Steeling himself, he focused on the Demon and disengaged his camouflage. Furious as he was, he would never attack even a Demon from the shadows. That was the lowest, most dishonorable blow he could strike.

      His armor was automatically dark in the low light. The Demon's head turned with abnormal speed. A crude human rifle snapped to his shoulder and spat three rounds. One glanced off 'Gamsamee's shoulder. The Sangheili cursed to himself and activated his shields. One of the humans raised a pistol at the Commander's head, but a burst of plasma sent the infidel scampering for cover. 'Gamsamee threw his helmet aside. In close range, it would only encumber him. Dropping the pistol, he reached to his belt. Grabbing the energy sword that he always kept there, he smiled and charged the Demon.

      The first blow came too fast. He doubled over as he was struck in the stomach. The Demon raised his weapon for a finishing strike, but 'Gamsamee lunged out with his sword and cut the weapon in half. The Demon lunged forward in turn and grabbed 'Gamsamee's wrists in a grip of steel. The Commander swore as the Demon backed him towards two of the other humans. Flicking the blade sideways, he cut through one of the human weapons, scoring a deep line in the heretic's chest.

      The human collapsed with a scream. The Demon said something to the humans, then kicked hard into 'Gamsamee's chest. The shields fell and the armor cracked. 'Gamsamee winced and staggered back. This was going to get him a reprimand from the Armorer.

      As he stumbled backwards, his armored hoof caught in his discarded helmet. He swore furiously. Why was he being so incompetent today? He kept hold of the energy sword, but only just. Reaching out with his free hand, he grabbed the plasma pistol and fired at the Demon. It was the Demon's lucky day; the plasma bolt hit a wall display. 'Gamsamee squeezed the pistol again, but the Demon knocked it to the deck. As 'Gamsamee raised the sword for a killing blow, the Demon rammed him backwards into the door the humans had entered by and barked a command. The energy blade cut into the Demon's arm, but suddenly projectiles were impacting on the Commander's back.

      The humans were firing from behind. Bullets tore against his shields. Then his shields dropped. He dimly felt projectiles thud into his chest, but the pain was coming from his jaw. There were pieces of metal entering the left side of his head, lodging in the mandibles. He dropped the sword from the pain. The Demon spun him away, into a command escape pod. He pounded on the door as it locked. The Demon said something he couldn't hear, and launched the pod.

      'Gamsamee collapsed. Azathoth gave almost a chuckle. "You really are tougher than you look. There are about thirty projectiles in your torso. One lung punctured. Eleven ribs broken. Collarbone pulverized. Branching chest plate snapped. Liver pierced. Primary heart has failed. Secondary heart seems to be working well. You can survive. The problem is that six projectiles have entered your left mandibles. Gangrene will develop within days. When it does, you will die."

      'Gamsamee was willing to do anything to survive. He had another reason to kill the Demons now: to regain his honor. He would cause himself whatever pain was necessary. He would survive until Orna could rescue him. Then he would kill all humans, everywhere. He would bring their heresy to an end. He would wait until the hands of that Demon were drenched in the blood of his fallen allies. Then he would kill the Demon. He clung to that thought as his twitching hand tore his left jaw off just above the roots.

      "That problem is solved," he gasped inarticulately, purple blood already starting to flow from the mangled stumps. "Anything else?"

      "Yes," snapped the AI. "Stop that, or you'll bleed out. Then get some sleep. You will need it. I was about to tell you that I found a cruiser called the Antiquity and Remembrance. It's one of 'Fulsamee's cruiser, and judging by the transmissions, he's a day away. He should read the emergency beacon of the lifeboat and investigate. If he doesn't, you die. If he does, you might die anyway. Either way, you need to sleep."

      When 'Gamsamee woke again, he was in the medbay of a single battered cruiser. Although Orna wasn't there to tell him, 'Gamsamee knew the destruction of Halo was his brother's fault.

      Azathoth could have told the whole truth then, but something stopped him.

      'Gamsamee dreamed.

      A Sangheili with a hood and cloak shadowing his face stood in a vast cavern. Before him stood tens of thousands of warriors. Their forms were indistinct, but 'Gamsamee knew that they were not all the same. They were a mighty army.

      His army.

      When he woke, he was sweating for the first time in his life. He remembered only one thing from his dream. A face. He could not place it. He knew he should. But he could not, and before long he had forgotten even that.

      'Fulsamee and 'Gamsamee's return to High Charity was not a glorious one.

Commander: Heresy
Date: 4 May 2006, 9:11 pm

Heresy often turns out to be prophecy when appropriately aged.

-Hubert H. Humphrey

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Year of the Prophets 97201
Covenant Holy City High Charity
Docking Station Alpha

      As 'Gamsamee strode into the priority docking area of High Charity, the first thing he saw was a pack of dark-pelted apelike beings that he knew well and utterly despised. At the front of the pack of feral-looking warriors, the Commander and his brother saw a creature they'd hoped never to see again: Tartarus, Chieftain of the Jiralhanae. His voice was as gravelly and rasping as the Commander remembered it.

      "So, the conquering heroes return to the rest of the Covenant. None too glorious was their last assault on the humans, I hear."

      "I do not know which galls me more, Chieftain," snapped 'Gamsamee as the Jiralhanae fell into stride with him. "Your attempt at humor, or your inability to respect the chosen guard of the Hierarchs."

      "Chosen guard?" the Jiralhanae growled in somewhat more thoughtful tones. "Perhaps not for much longer, but nonetheless, your point is taken. Commander."

      "No doubt the Hierarchs will wish to hear our report of the catastrophe at Halo," 'Gamsamee said evenly. "If you would excuse us-"

      "There is no need," the Jiralhanae called. "I took the liberty of giving them a full report. I also retrieved several fragments of a most notable relic of our Lords, and gave the Council an update on the destruction of several hundred capital ships and the station Unyielding Hierophant."

      'Gamsamee would have tightened his mandibles, but he could no longer do so. He growled coldly instead, and kept walking. It was his responsibility to make a report, but Tartarus knew that no punishment would be meted out for his breach in protocol. 'Gamsamee snarled.

      The two Sangheili had reached the gravity lift by now. They stepped into it, descending on cohesive air. The Sanctum of the Hierarchs was ahead of them, patrolled by the Honor Guards. As the two strode up to the main entry, the polearm spears of the Guards descended to block the door. The Guards spoke together. "You may not enter, Mighty Ones."

      'Gamsamee was somewhere between surprise and anger. He had never been restricted from entering the Sanctum before. He and Orna had the highest security clearances in the Covenant Hegemony. He had little time to ponder this, however, as five Jiralhanae advanced from behind them. The Honor Guard with the taller helmet-crest whispered something to the brutish creatures. The Jiralhanae Captain, distinguished by the red flag on his back, nodded and spoke to the two Sangheili commanders. "Supreme Commander 'Fulsamee. You will accompany us to the Council Chamber, there to receive a hearing against charges that you allowed a Sacred Ring of our Lords to be destroyed."

      'Fulsamee hung his head. "I shall comply with the will of the Prophets. Halo's destruction was my error, and I alone shall answer for it." Two of the Jiralhanae escorted him back in the direction they had come from, towards the Council Chamber. 'Gamsamee made as if to follow, but the Captain pulled him back.

      "You will not follow your brother. The Hierarchs do not wish you to be present at the time when their verdict is cast. You will speak with the Hierarchs later."

      'Gamsamee knew exactly why the Prophets wished to have him removed. They knew he could manipulate the Council to free 'Fulsamee. When he spoke, however, his voice was more sarcastic than angry. "I trust I will be put in a holding cell for the duration of this...hearing?"

      The Jiralhanae took him at his word. "No, Excellency. You will wait in a visitor's suite until the Hierarchs send for you. This may not happen until the Prophet of Regret returns."

      Now the half-jawed Commander showed his surprise. "The Prophet of Regret has departed? Where?"

      The Jiralhanae gave a puzzled expression. Or at least a more puzzled expression than usual. "To a world where he believes one of the Sacred Rings may be, or perhaps something even greater."

      'Gamsamee privately wondered what Regret thought was more important than a Halo. He put the thought from his mind. Even with all its cleverly bio-engineered and hydroponic systems, it still felt to 'Gamsamee very much like he was standing on a rock floating through space. Which he technically was, although he knew that was beside the point. He put that thought from his mind too. When the Prophets had reassembled High Charity from the shattered remnants of their homeworld, they had evidently designed it to stifle independent thought. He growled painfully to himself.

      The visitor's suite was spacious and well-aired, but it gave him the same feeling. He tried the computer, so he could watch the trial. It buzzed dead. The Hierarchs had had the feed cut. He swore. "Azathoth. Get me a live feed from the Council Chamber."

      The construct nodded and waved his hand at the computer. It really was marvelous that the most advanced security systems of the Covenant, a 24,000-bit modulating encryption key, could so easily be overthrown by a simple construct. For the first time in years, 'Gamsamee wondered what Azathoth really was.

      "Ah," said the AI in a satisfied voice. "I've gotten you through the one camera they didn't turn off. Your brother's mission recorder is still active. Here we go."

      On the screen, 'Gamsamee could see two of the Hierarchs. A hologram of Regret was also present, and it was he who spoke mockingly to Orna 'Fulsamee.

      "Now, Commander, we request your judgement on the human fleet which arrived at Halo."

      "Fleet? There was only one ship," 'Fulsamee said, sounding perplexed.

      "One? Are you sure?" the Prophet of Truth inquired with a trace of mock sympathy in his voice.

      "Yes," 'Fulsamee stated boldly. "They called it the Pillar of Autumn."

      "Why was it not destroyed with the rest of their fleet?" snarled the rightmost of the Hierarchs. Mercy was well over six hundred. Some claimed he was too old for his mind to be as sharp as a Hierarch's should be. Truth, however, respected his wisdom greatly. Until recently, so had 'Gamsamee.

      "It fled," growled 'Fulsamee. "As we set fire to their planet. But I followed, with all the ships at my command."

      The Hierarchs conferred among themselves for a few seconds. A mumble ran through the Councillors. "When you first saw Halo, were you...blinded...by its majesty?" the Prophet of Truth asked.

      "Blinded?" said 'Fulsamee, now genuinely and totally confused.

      "Paralyzed? Dumbstruck?" the Prophet of Regret elaborated derisively.

      "No," barked 'Fulsamee indignantly.

      "Yet the humans were able to evade your ships, land on the Sacred Ring, and desecrate it with their filthy footsteps," shouted Regret. HIs eyes were bulging. For a Prophet, that was nearly a physical impossibility. He was now truly furious.

      "Noble Hierarchs," 'Fulsamee said wearily, "surely you understand that once the Parasite attacked-"

      He broke off, turning his head to look at the Councillors. The Sangheili were mostly shaking their heads sadly. Many knew 'Fulsamee personally. The Minor Prophets, however, were jeering and ridiculing the Supreme Commander of the Fleet of Particular Justice.

      "There will be order in this Council!" shouted the Prophet of Mercy, thumping the arm of his gravity throne and causing it to bob slightly.

      "You were right to focus your attentions on the Flood. But then there is the matter of this Demon. This 'Master Chief'..." the Hierarch trailed away, waited for 'Fulsamee to comment.

      The Sangheili's voice became unusually somber. "By the time I learned the Demon's intent, there was nothing I could do."

      Again the Councillors argued amongst themselves. Tartarus, standing behind the Hierarchs, shook with what could have been a chuckle.

      Now Regret was leaning and whispering in Truth's ear. "Zoom, enhance, and increase volume," 'Gamsamee ordered Azathoth. He heard Regret speak quietly, but with no less rage in his tone.

      "-has gone on long enough. Make an example of this bungler; the Council demands it!"

      Truth flicked his long eyelashes, but gave no indication that he had heard Regret. "You are one of our most cherished instruments," he told 'Fulsamee, almost wistfully. "Long have you led your fleet with honor and distinction. But your inability to safeguard Halo was a colossal failure."

      "Nay!" shouted a Prophet. 'Fulsamee turned his head. It was the Prophet of Leniency who had risen. "It was heresy!" He brought down his fist in a finalizing gesture.

      The Sangheili Councillors sprang to their feet, arguing furiously across the cavernous Council Chamber. "Even 'Fulsamee had to shout to make himself heard. "I will continue my campaign against the humans!"

      "No!" the Prophet of Truth said, even more loudly. "You will not," he elaborated unhelpfully, shaking his head.

      Tartarus cocked his head in the direction of two of his Jiralhanae. They started towards 'Fulsamee. Judging by the shaking of the camera, 'Fulsamee had pushed them away. The Supreme Commander turned his back on the Hierarchs. "Soon the Great Journey shall begin," the Prophet of Truth informed him. "Yet when it does, the weight of your...heresy...shall stay your feet, and you will be left behind."

      'Gamsamee clicked off the camera and sat unmoving for almost half an hour. The punishment for this type of heresy was to be burned with plasma cuffs, be publicly stripped of rank, armor and privilege, be branded with the Mark of Shame, be cut open in the bowels, be strangled with your own intestines, be hung on a pole, and then carried thrice around High Charity. He knew that it was the most excruciating death the Prophets could invent. And they knew it would kill 'Gamsamee, in a different way.

      He sat and waited until he was sure he could move again. Then, for the first and only time in his life, Eraa 'Gamsamee threw up.

      It was not for three hours that the Hierarchs called him to the Sanctum. He answered their summons, making sure to take Azathoth with him. The Honor Guards stood in ranks outside the door. 'Gamsamee could have named a few of them, given the chance, but today, they all looked the same. Even the two Prophets waiting for him looked the same.

      "Commander," said Truth lightly. He and Mercy turned to face 'Gamsamee.

      The Sangheili shook his head, then reached up, removed his decorated helmet, and dropped it on the floor. "I am no longer a warrior, Almighty Hierarchs. I will leave the Army now, for the life of a hermit. There is no way for me to repay the debt of honor I owe the Covenant, so I shall follow it in the way I would no longer."

      "Nonsense!" the Prophet of Mercy grunted. "You are blessed by the Gods, 'Gamsamee! We have received a divine message from the Forerunners themselves that you must become the High Commander of the Covenant!"

      A thousand images flashed through 'Gamsamee's brain. The High Commander was a position of unrivaled power. He was second only to the Hierarchs. He was an equal to the Arbiter. There had not been one since the taming of the Lekgolo. "Holy Ones, I assure you I do not deserve this honor."

      "Ah," said the Prophet of Truth. "But you do. And you are now the High Commander. Arise, High Commander 'Gamsamee."

      "Not 'Gamsamee, Holy One," the High Commander responded sadly. "Half-Jaw. Henceforth this shall be my name, so that all may know I have fallen from what I once was."

      The two Hierarchs looked at each other and nodded. "We have a task to assign our High Commander, Half-Jaw," Truth said, giving a bit of a laugh as he spoke the nickname.

      "What task would you give me?" Half-Jaw inquired.

      "Heresy has plagued our Covenant since its formation. Those that believe they have apocryphal knowledge of the Forerunners have ever spread their lies. And now, too, do heretics linger in Threshold's atmosphere. In the gas-giant's thermosphere, there is a mining station created by the Forerunners. On it, heresy festers in the hearts of its Sangheili and Unggoy. You are to travel there with the Special Operatives and quell the dissent," Truth told him.

      "I understand," Half-Jaw growled. "But, Noble Hierarchs, if I may ask-"

      "You may," said Truth lightly.

      "Is this not a job more suitable for an Arbiter?"

      The Prophets of Truth and Mercy looked at each other. Then they looked slowly at the High Commander. "Return to your ship," Truth told him. "Your mission will begin as soon as the Operatives are prepared for battle.

      Half-Jaw nodded and left, his question still unanswered.

      The High Commander sat in his room in the universal quarters of High Charity. He wondered why he had not been made Arbiter. Not that he would have preferred the suicidal role of the Will of the Prophets. He pushed that thought to the back of his brain and tried to concentrate on the armor he was building. After all, he had to keep up appearances as befitting a High Commander.

      His new armor suit had a power-recycling camouflage that could last for several days on end, an extra-efficient overshield, an energy cable for climbing and spacewalking, and a purple line down the sides of his jaw armor in order to remind him of death, heresy, and the shame that would always follow him. He had set about looking for a thruster pack to attach to the back, but he was unable to locate one in the armory.

      As he reached for a rag to clean his fingerprints off of it, he suddenly found himself standing on a cliff. Or was he?

      A tall, gray-skinned Sangheili was standing on the pinnacle of High Charity. His foot was atop a dead Jiralhanae, the armored boot crushing the feral creature's skull. He carried in his hand a blade that resembled an energy sword, but seemed almost to absorb light. He wore a long, billowing black cloak around his neck and a suit of thick, segmented black armor. Not the oily shining black like that of the Special Operatives, but the coal-black absence of all light. His skin was almost unnaturally pale, and the pupils of his eyes were red. Next to him stood a less bulky figure, a similarly attired female Sangheili. Despite the abnormal pallor that she had, he recognized her.

      It was Tiro. And the tall Sangheili wielding a dark-energy sword was himself. This was not the young, eager 'Gamsamee, nor the jaded, angry Commander, nor yet the sullen, fatalistic Half-Jaw. This was what he could have become. He could have cast down the Jiralhanae, the Ahlainga, all of them. He could have. He would have.

      And at that lone moment, he felt he should have.

      He sat up with a start as the door of his quarters slid open. A Sangheili with white armor stood in the doorway. Intra 'Hijrulee was small and lean, but his physical appearance belied his lethal aim with a beam rifle. He smiled at his superior. It was the smile of a warrior. 'Gamsamee remembered that he had once smiled just like that. Youth passed too quickly, leaving behind it floods of pain and weakness. And it had left him behind too.

      "I have asked you here to inform you that I am relinquishing my post as Special Operative Commander. You, as my second, will replace me." He set the helmet in 'Hijrulee's grasp. Taking off his own, the smaller Sangheili put it on.

      "Why have you granted me this honor, Excellency?" the Operative asked uncertainly. HIs eyes had a flicker of happiness in them, but the solemn of eyes of the half-jawed warrior before him crushed it from him.

      "Walk with me," growled the High Commander. As they started into the dim, pink halls of High Charity, he spoke in a quiet, low voice. "What do you know of the military strategy of the human infidels?"

      'Hjrulee was confused by the question. He thought for a second, then said slowly, "The humans are weak, but they are...tenacious. Even the smallest of them hurl themselves at our defenses with honor. If only the Unggoy were as committed," he chuckled.

      "Ah. Myself, I wonder about the humans, Commander." 'Hijrulee's chest swelled with pride at the honorific. "Their technology is limited, but much of it is useful and their battle techniques are quite impressive; they are excellent strategists. But what I ask is this," his voice dropped to a whisper and he ceased walking entirely, "why have we not offered them the absolution of the Covenant? From the beginning of this war, the Prophets have made no attempt to absorb them, or even to offer them honorable submission. Why?"

      The younger Sangheili considered the question and spoke haltingly when he broke the silence. "Perhaps- perhaps they fear them? We do not know where their homeworld is. Their pattern of retreat is either random or brilliantly conceived. What if the humans have more power; more numbers than we suspect? What if they lead us to a trap?"

      Half-Jaw shook his head, a frown on his mangled visage. "No, I do not think that is the reasoning. They continue to lose territory. And pattern or no, their defenses must be part of a perimeter. I suspect we force them into a tighter arena than they wish to fight in. Soon we may be able to use the Sharquoi. And their victories always rely on the same things: strategy, brute force, or luck. No, the only secret they hold is the location of their homeworld."

      "What of the atrocity at Halo?" spat 'Hijrulee angrily. "That was no luck. Nor was it brute force. This Demon is a mystery. He outwitted- and outfought- entire legions on Halo. Perhaps there are more like him," he said, a look that was too much like fear on his face.

      "I do not believe that. We have seen their kind before and destroyed them. Their numbers have dwindled and there have been no recorded sightings since their defeat at Reach." As 'Hijrulee was about to object, Half-Jaw spoke so quietly he could barely hear it himself. "The Demon is not the last of his kind. It is he, and nothing else, that the Hierarchs fear. I know it. But I cannot say such things openly."

      'Hijrulee was perplexed. As he responded, the meaning dawned on him. "Then why," he growled, "do we continue to hunt them? When surely they merit consideration to accept and embrace the Covenant? And when the Prophets-"

      The High Commander hastily shook his head and spoke in a mutter. "Let us continue this discussion at a more prudent moment. A Jiralhanae approaches."

      As the apelike warrior strode by, he gave Half-Jaw a contemptuous sneer which the Sangheili returned. The High Commander nodded to 'Hijrulee, then walked away. He heard Azathoth's voice, less calm than usual, in the earpiece of his helmet. "There is a message for you. It is important to you. You will respond to it immediately."

      Half-Jaw grunted an affirmative and walked quickly back to his quarters. "Show me," he barked at the AI. An image popped up on the holoviewer. A Sangheili in a long grey cloak with raised hood and cowl. The High Commander wondered for a second if it was an AI he was seeing, but the voice that spoke was not synthesized.

      "Eraa," it said in a voice that was too familiar to be coincidence. "You will watch for the heretic. You will not destroy him, for he alone knows the truth of Halo. If he must be destroyed, ask the Oracle. And if the Oracle is taken from you, ask Azathoth. He knows much that is hidden from you, Eraa. Much that is hidden from me also. And he will not speak easily of it. I hope to see you again, Eraa, but do not be surprised if you do not see me."

      The message faded and the figure of the Sangheili disappeared. Half Jaw cursed himself, then he kicked the holoviewer as hard as he could with his armored hoof. The delicate crystal splintered and the mechanisms ground to a halt. The voice had been Tiro's. It was beyond a doubt to him.

      Azathoth broke into his anger. "If you don't mind, there is another message. An automated call from the city's central AI telling you that you must depart to destroy the heresy."

      Half-Jaw grumbled and grabbed his energy sword from where he had set it earlier. He slammed his hand onto the computer. Azathoth entered his neural net somewhat reluctantly. He was in no mood for one of the Commander's fits of sullen anger. The Sangheili returned to the place where he had docked. The maze that was High Charity seemed more oppressive than ever.

      There were three Phantoms in the docking bay. Beta Warband of the Special Operatives were piling gear and weaponry onto the dropships. And supervising them, clutching his chest like he'd been shot, was a tall Sangheili in ornate silver armor. The armor of the Arbiter.

      Half-Jaw had not gone ten steps towards the Arbiter when the figure turned and gave a formal greeting with his right hand. And then the High Commander understood the reason for the look between Truth and Mercy. The figure in the armor of the Arbiter was none other than Orna 'Fulsamee.

      Half-Jaw returned the salute, his face kept carefully impassive. He followed the Sangheili and Unggoy onto the third Phantom, courteously allowing the Arbiter to enter ahead of him. The Phantoms rose into the air and began the journey to Threshold. He walked through the Phantom and addressed the Sangheili. "When we joined this Covenant, we took an oath!" he roared at them.

      "According to our station! All without exception!" they answered in one voice.

      "We swore to uphold this Covenant!"

      "Even to our dying breath!" they answered, their voice filled with fervor.

      "Those who would break this oath are heretics: worthy of neither pity nor mercy!" the High Commander said, unable to believe the words as he should have.

      "We shall grind them into dust; scrape them as excrement from our boots!" the Operatives barked. One of the Unggoy tittered. His companion cuffed him.

      "And continue our march to glorious salvation!" he wound up. Azathoth spoke quietly in his ear.

      "Do you really think that has any semblance of truth to it?" the construct inquired.

      The High Commander did not answer. Instead, he walked to the Arbiter and took him by the shoulder. "That armor suits you," he growled. "But it cannot hide that mark." He gestured to the Arbiter's chest.

      The solemn warrior touched the brand. "Nothing ever will," he said sadly.

      "You are the Arbiter," breathed Half-Jaw almost inaudibly. "The Will of the Prophets. But these are my Sangheili. Their lives matter to me; yours does not." He wondered why he was almost crying.

      "That makes two of us," the Arbiter declared with an awful finality. Half-Jaw gave a grunt that was more appreciative than it sounded. Then the High Commander and the Arbiter grasped each other by the arm in the ancient affirmation of adoptive kinship. Although they were no longer brothers by blood, they had become brothers in arms.

      Then the half-jawed Sangheili turned away, and the Phantoms continued through the burned remnants of Alpha Halo, all but two of their warriors unaware of what had transpired.

Commander: Hunt
Date: 18 May 2006, 10:29 pm

To hunt tigers, one must have a brother's help.

-Old Chinese Proverb

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Covenant Prophet-Year 97201
Threshold, Mesosphere
Forerunner Gas Mine 0092

      As the trio of Phantoms swept closer to the ancient Forerunner station, Half-Jaw noticed for the first time that his mission was going to be short of time. A vast maelstrom burned through Threshold's atmosphere below them. The lead Phantom opened a channel to him, and one of the pilots spoke anxiously. "Leader, there is no doubt. The storm will strike the facility."

      "We'll be long gone before it arrives," the High Commander said, more to reassure himself than anything else.

      The three Phantom dropships flew in low over the edge of one of the facilities three sections. A pair of Sangheili leapt from the first, then two Unggoy. Half-Jaw's Phantom came in next, dropping two more Sangheili. The High Commander nodded to the Arbiter, who fell to the ancient metal, brandishing an energy sword. "Warriors, prepare for combat!" barked Half Jaw.

      He sat back for a few seconds, then leaned over and spoke again into the comm. "We are the arm of the Prophets, Arbiter, and you are the blade. Be silent and swift, and we shall quell this heresy without incident. The storm has masked our approach, and it should have their local battlenet in disarray. We have the element of surprise- for now."

      His Phantom pulled away. As it did, the holoscreen started to show three separate viewpoints, one for each of the Sangheili. The two Operatives and the Arbiter entered the airlock. As the room started to restore pressure, one of the Operatives spoke. "Engage active camouflage. Reveal yourselves only after the Arbiter has joined battle with the enemy."

      "You may wish to do the same, Arbiter," added the High Commander quietly. "But take heed: your armor system is not as-" he broke off, searching for a word that would not seem sacrilegious, "-new as ours. Your camouflage will not last forever."

      He watched the screen in silence for five minutes, then noted that the Arbiter was moving through a hangar in which a Seraph was docked. He signaled for the third Phantom to move in, dropping more troops to battle the heretics. The Arbiter descended lower into the gas-mine. As they moved through a large room containing several gravity-conveyors, one of the Sangheili- 'Jasturee, the most skilled sniper in the Operatives- was killed by a heretic with a carbine. Half-Jaw swore as the video feed on the holoscreen blanked. "I told you not to lose them," he muttered. The Arbiter could not hear him, but maybe that was just as well.

      The Arbiter went deeper. Another of the Sangheili, 'Akrayee, fell to a pack of Unggoy heretics with needlers. The High Commander shook his head. There could easily be five hundred heretics on the station. The Covenant force, twenty-four Sangheili and as many Unggoy, were already down by six warriors. That left forty-two against at least four hundred and fifty. Half-Jaw growled in annoyance.

      Just as the High Commander was about to send a message to the Arbiter that he was supposed to be finding the leader of these heretics, the Phantom intercepted a transmission. The voice of a Sangheili, distorted by the breathing apparatus that the heretics wore.

      "Deal with him, my brothers. I will defend the Oracle," it said, and then cut out again. Excited, Half-Jaw looked at the Arbiter's mission recorder. A heretic wearing a thruster pack was leaping into a Banshee and flying away. He was separated from the Arbiter by a wall of glass. The Arbiter had just stumbled upon the Heretic Leader.

      "The heretics are mobilizing their air forces, Arbiter," the High Commander growled into the comm. "Get after their leader, but watch your back. I'm sending one of our Phantoms to support you." He signaled for one of the other Phantoms to move forward, then shook his head. He would do this himself. He looked at the pilot of the Phantom. "Take the turrets," he ordered. "I will pilot the dropship to support the Arbiter."

      A Banshee flyer, painted gold by the heretics, swooped in over than Phantom and fired a fuel rod into the ship's carapace. The Phantom shook, but instantly Half-Jaw was at the controls, yanking the ship about entirely and swinging around the back end to crush the smaller ship. The one-man assault ship crumpled, but it was still flying. At least, it was still flying until its pilot was shaken loose by the impact and plummeted to his death in the storm below.

      A second Banshee approached from behind, plasma cannons firing fully automatic. A third Banshee, however, roared into the fray and launched a fuel rod that blew the heretic's vehicle apart. Half-Jaw grinned. "I am obliged to thank you, Arbiter," he said.

      "Always a pleasure to aid the High Commander of the Covenant," the Arbiter responded, not without a trace of sarcasm.

      The next fifteen minutes were spent moving from one weapon emplacement to another, searching for the Heretic Leader. Finally, Half-Jaw flew in low over the final landing-pad, closely followed by the Arbiter's Banshee. "We've tracked the Heretic Leader to this part of the station. Clear that landing zone and get inside."

      The Banshee swung in, barely five feet off the ground. Fuel rod guns fired at the vehicle, but it was simply too fast to be hit. As one of the crystalline missiles started to follow the flyer, the Arbiter leapt out with a fierce battle-cry. The Banshee was hit, but the flaming hulk crashed into a gaggle of Unggoy carrying the shoulder-mounter fuel-rod cannons, wiping them out.

      The Arbiter leapt around the landing pad like a dervish, hacking with the energy sword and firing with a plasma rifle held in his other hand. Half Jaw was somewhat surprised. He'd always known Orna was a great fighter, but rarely had he seen such a display of frenzy in combat.

      When the plasma turrets lay in ruins and the corpses of heretics were scattered about the landing pad, the Phantom moved in. Two more Operatives and a brace of Unggoy descended. After a moment of consideration, the High Commander handed over the controls to the regular pilot. "Take over. I will follow the Arbiter. As soon as you get my signal, send in all remaining troops."

      "Of course, Excellency," the Sangheili pilot nodded.

      Without further ado, Half-Jaw leapt from the Phantom. An energy sword was on his belt and a plasma rifle was in his hand.

      He landed just as the door hissed open. The two Unggoy entered, followed by the Operatives. The Arbiter and the High Commander entered side by side. Half-Jaw raised his mangled features slightly and inhaled deeply with a groan of disgust at the rank odor filling the filtered air.

      "What is it?" the Arbiter asked. Nobody but his brother could have detected the worry in his deep voice.

      "That stench," the High Commander grumbled. "I've smelled it before..." He trailed off. "Ach, pay me no heed, Arbiter. I am nought but a paranoid old fool. Come, let us end this heresy."

      The six walked into the next room. This one had a frosted-glass floor. And beneath it, shouts and howls could be heard. There was a telltale flash as an energy shield overloaded, then a blood-curdling scream that was unquestionably that of a Sangheili as a dark form swung something towards the flash's source. "By all the Gods," whispered Half-Jaw. The smell was more familiar than ever, but he still could not place it.

      He walked into the next room, which had a locked door at the other end. Azathoth, almost forgotten since the mission's beginning, gave a cold, mirthless chuckle. "Ah yes. Your 'Parasite'. I knew I hadn't seen the last of them."

      "What?" hissed Half-Jaw. But Azathoth did not answer. "Damn," he said to himself.

      "Me have bad feeling about this," one of the Unggoy squeaked.

      "You always have bad feeling," scoffed his partner. "You have bad feeling about morning food nipple!"

      The High Commander laughed silently. If one thing could out him in a good mood, it was the random humor of the Unggoy. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a floating, glowing blue ball. He almost thought it was a plasma grenade, but it was flying in a slow pattern.

      It rose to chest height five feet away. Then, suddenly, the Heretic Leader appeared from thin air.

      "See! See?! Heretic!" screamed the first Unggoy. He fired a few shots at the former Sangheili, but the image broke into a static-washed silhouette.

      "Hold your fire. Hold your fire!" snapped Half-Jaw. It was a hologram. It was speaking, however.

      "I wondered who the Prophets would send to silence me," the heretic's image said in a deep, mocking tone. "An Arbiter...I'm flattered."

      The High Commander resisted the temptation to point out that he was here as well. Instead, he said, "He's using a holo-drone. He must be close. Come out," he addressed the hologram, "so that we may kill you."

      The avatar laughed. "Get in line," it said. It broke into static, and the holo-drone sunk to the floor. A second later, small, horrifyingly familiar fleshy pods swarmed about the room.

      "Leader!" one of the Sangheili barked, nearly frightened.

      "Stand firm!" Half-Jaw commanded. "The Flood is upon us."

      "Heretic fools!" groaned the other Sangheili, as a Flood he'd missed popped against his energy shields. "What have they done?"

      One of the Unggoy fell, its neck pierced by a half-dozen of the razor sharp penetrators. Then the other died, shooting itself in the head rather than fall to the Flood swarm. For the first time, the High Commander noticed that there were Flood-infected corpses scattered throughout the room. As he dodged an infection form, it landed on a carcass and started to burrow into the chest. Half-Jaw watched with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. Abruptly, the combat form convulsed and rose to what passed for its feet.

      The High Commander cursed and swung his energy sword at the locked door's control panel. The door swung half-open, but the sword instantly deactivated, shorted out by the rampant electrical current. Before Half-Jaw could pull out his rifle, the reanimated heretic lunged at him with a blow that almost completely drained his shields. "Go, Arbiter!" shouted the High Commander as he ducked a second blow. "I'll follow when our reinforcements arrive!"

      The two Operatives and the Arbiter sucked out through the shattered door. Half-Jaw grappled furiously with the combat form. It was certainly stronger than he was, but he had taken hold of its wrists before it could swing at him again. With a jerk of his upper arms, he snapped the left hand of the Flood creature clean off. But far from being deterred, the combat form stabbed him in his stomach with the shard of exposed bone. The pain was excruciating. He was weaponless and impaled. At the mercy, or lack thereof, of the Flood.

      But he wasn't weaponless. He reached into his belt and, concealed at the back, he found the knife of Azo 'Sangheilee. Yanking it free, he rammed into into the Flood form's chest, hoping to puncture the infection form inside.

      The stab was a clean miss. Yet suddenly the Flood form burst into purple, iridescent flames, writhed in apparent agony and collapsed, a charred heap of unusable rotten meat.

      The High Commander pulled the knife free from the body. It was not the same blade that had gone into the combat form's chest. It was longer, nearly two feet long. A short sword, really. He turned it over. The inscription no longer said 'Seraphima'. He cleaned the gore-stained blade. Not carved but shining on the blade like molten silver were four words in small, unfamiliar handwriting. 'Treachery awaits the Seraphima,' read Half Jaw aloud.

      "Now that's something I have seldom seen," Azathoth mused. The High Commander ignored him and opened a channel to the Phantom that waited patiently outside.

      "This is the High Commander. Send our reinforcements, but not the Unggoy. Sangheili only. I want at least one warrior with an energy sword. Be advised, the Flood have infested this part of the station. Use extreme caution." He closed the channel and waited. Azathoth spoke interestedly in his ear.

      "That was a supremely intriguing occurrence," the construct stated. When that elicited no response, the AI continued. "Not since the time of the Edenians have I seen a blade being instantly reforged, and both times I saw it, the blades were of Edenian craft. Both designed by myself, incidentally, although I doubt that has much to do with it. But here we have a sword designed by your...spiritual ancestor, let's call him...and it performs this change on contact with the corrupted flesh of the Parasite. I wonder if it could be that-"

      He bit off his sentence as four Sangheili, armed with energy swords and plasma rifles approached. "Excellency," said their leader, bowing. "You are hurt," he pointed out, staring at the wound on Half-Jaw's chest. The High Commander gazed absently down on it, then pulled the bone fragment from between the plates of his armor.

      "We must continue," he told the four Operatives. They moved through the broken door, onto a slow elevator, and through a devastated laboratory of some kind- all coated with the guts of Flood, and in some places the blood of Sangheili. He heard the voice of one of the Phantom pilots, bordering on fear. "Leader! The storm is about to hit! We cannot maintain our position!"

      "Move your Phantoms closer to the mine. We're not leaving until the leader of these heretics is dead," Half-Jaw ordered calmly. As he entered the laboratory, he saw a khaki gas, the telltale sign of the Flood's passage, dribbling out the facility's air vents. The High Commander realized the severity of the situation. "Arbiter! The Flood have spread throughout the station," he shouted over a secure channel. "We don't have enough troops to manage such a large infestation. Find the leader of these heretics! Kill him! NOW!" The last word was almost a shout.

      The Arbiter was breathing heavily into the comm. "Understood. I'm pinned down by heretics. I need some reinforcements. Send me a Phantom." Half-Jaw nodded and gave the order.

      The trail of blood led the High Commander and his retinue to an airlock leading onto the outer surface of the station, then up and around the central core of the facility. As he stepped outside the airlock, the Parasite swarmed from everywhere. Dozens of combat forms, as many carriers, and wave upon wave of the blobby infection forms. "Active camouflage!" he barked to his team. But the Flood were hunting by some other sense than sight, for a few shots from a needler struck Half-Jaw's shields. With a shout of fury, he leapt into the air. He didn't know what he was going to do when he landed. But suddenly he was bringing down the blade of Azo 'Sangheilee, point first. There was a sudden shock, almost like an earthquake, and without warning the Flood surrounding him became violet torches, casting eerie shadows onto his ravaged face.

      Then it was over. The fire was gone. A trace of smoke rose from the blade, which was producing a soft ringing sound. As the High Commander pulled it free, he realized that the cement of which the walkway was made was broken for meters in any direction. The Operatives gaped at him. "Move through!" he ordered. "Follow the Arbiter!"

      He caught up with the Arbiter less than a minute later. Orna 'Fulsamee was standing there, staring rather stupidly at a locked door which was secured by an energy field. "Arbiter. Where is he?"

      The Arbiter turned from the energy barrier, jerking a finger back at it. His brother glared at the door as though it had personally insulted him. "Stinking Flood-bait. Boxed himself in tight. We'll never break through this!" The frustration burned through his calm veneer for the first time.

      The Arbiter turned to survey the hologram schematic of the station. "Then we shall force him out," he growled solemnly.

      "How?" the High Commander asked.

      "That cable. I'm going to cut it," the Arbiter said simply. "Get everyone back to the ships."

      Half-Jaw nodded. "Warriors! Return to the landing zone. The Arbiter will continue upward, cut this station loose, and scare the Heretic from his hole." He laughed quietly. "Well, Arbiter, you certainly do have a knack for destroying our Lords' creations."

      For the first time in years, the two laughed together.

      Then the Arbiter went up. The High Commander went back. Half-Jaw rose into the Phantom slowly and solemnly, knowing odds were against the Arbiter's survival. As soon as liftoff was accomplished, he spoke into the comm. "All my Phantoms are in the air, Arbiter. Go ahead! Cut that cable."

      Immediately, the facility heeled over perilously. "That's one," Half Jaw said unhelpfully. "By the Prophets," he laughed to himself. "Look at the station list!"

      A few seconds later, the station tipped even more dangerously. "One final cable, Arbiter!" Half-Jaw urged. He turned to the pilot and opened a channel to the other two Phantoms. "Prepare for a full-speed nosedive. Repolarize gravity simultaneously."

      As he finished speaking, there was a deafening bang from the station's pinnacle. It hung precariously for a moment, age-old back-up cables failing. There was a terrible grinding sound. Then the station fell. It reached terminal velocity in seconds, dropping into the storm below. The Phantoms sped up past their normal limits. "That did it, Arbiter!" he shouted exultantly. "The station is in freefall; the Heretic Leader is on the move! Do not let him escape! We'll stay with you as long as we can!"

      A minute or two later, he opened the channel again. "Are you still alive, Arbiter? We're keeping pace as best we can," he assured the Sangheili. After some seconds, the Arbiter's weary voice came through.

      "I'm navigating the station's central power generator. Keep following."

      As the High Commander observed the falling station, he noticed that a Banshee was speeding through the open space towards the facility's other side. Half-Jaw laughed into the comm. "What lunacy! He'll never escape the maelstrom in a Banshee- wait!" he growled suddenly, striking his hip in anger. "The hangar! There was a Seraph fighter inside! Arbiter, you know what to do!"

      As Half-Jaw spoke, he ordered the Phantoms to move closer to the hangar. His moved first, then the second, the third and the fourth...the fourth?

      With a shock of fury, he heard Tartarus' voice over the comm. "Move away from the facility, Commander," he drawled. "My Jiralhanae have control of the situation. We have been ordered to this by the highest authority."

      Half-Jaw shook with rage. "When a mission is entrusted to the Sangheili, we are responsible for the extraction of our own warriors. We will pull the Arbiter. Your aid will be noted."

      Tartarus growled angrily. "I wasn't lying, Commander," he said, placing mocking emphasis on the honorific. "We are under a mandate. You will obey the Prophet of High Truth's command."

      "Very well," the High Commander said resignedly. "I will speak to the Hierarchs on this matter."

      As soon as the comm snapped off, Half-Jaw whispered to Azathoth, "I want you to sent out a drone copy of yourself to Tartarus' Phantom. Give me a full view of anything that you notice. At the first sign of treachery, destroy the Jiralhanae dropship and move this ship to save the Arbiter."

      Azathoth, however, seemed distracted. "There is a...message. From Tiro."

      The High Commander almost forgot to keep his voice down. "Show me."

      The ship's holoscreen displayed the figure of Tiro, looking the same as before. "Eraa. What have you done? My heretic is dead."

      "Your heretic?" Half-Jaw growled. Tiro continued, sounding slightly more annoyed.

      "The Arbiter has killed him, I see. I am...displeased. This has proved a considerable setback. You could have accomplished your mission without killing the Heretic Leader."

      "What?" the High Commander asked, perplexed. "Our mission was to kill the Heretic Leader."

      Tiro shook her head. "No, Eraa. You were sent here to bring something back. If not, then why was the planet not glassed?"

      "It would have turned the planet into an enormous plasma grenade," Half-Jaw growled exasperatedly.

      "A few plasma torpedoes would have annihilated the facility."

      "It was a Forerunner mine. Doubtless it should not be destroyed."

      "And yet here you are destroying it," Tiro said with her old, warm laugh. It brought back memories for the High Commander that he would rather have left buried.

      "So what, then, were we sent to collect?" Half-Jaw asked, almost mockingly.

      "My Oracle," Tiro said simply. "Your Azathoth will know the Oracle well. Too well, I fear. There is another force manipulating this situation that it is beyond my power to recognize. I will speak to you again." Her image dissolved.

      A transmission was coming from Tartarus' Phantom. The Arbiter's armor was somewhat burned and bloodstained. He was, at least, alive. "We have secured a Holy Oracle, Commander!" he exclaimed jubilantly, wiping the sweat and blood from his brow.

      Half-Jaw nodded halfheartedly. He suspected he would have to talk with Truth, the Arbiter, and Azathoth soon. And he would have to speak of things best left unspoken.

Commander: Treachery
Date: 20 July 2006, 12:29 pm

A Note:

It has come to my attention that the Halo Graphic Novel reveals Half-Jaw "official" backstory in a story called, if I remember correctly, 'The Final Voyage of the Infinite Sux0r'.

It has also come to my attention that I don't, in fact, give a shit.

'Kay? 'Kay.

Keep reading, or 'Gamsamee will pwn j00 ZoMgWoFfLeS!!!1!!!eleven!!!1!

I have learned to hate all traitors, and there is no disease that I spit on more than treachery.


Ninth Age of Reclamation
Covenant Prophet-Year 97201
Covenant Holy City High Charity
Docking Station Gamma
Two Hours Later

      The instant Half-Jaw's Phantom had safely deposited him on High Charity, the High Commander was assailed by waves of Sangheili. There were even some of the Councillors, Sangheili and Ahlainga alike, swarming around him. Half-Jaw singled out the nearest of the warriors. He was tall and spindly, with pale grey skin and an odd suit of battle armor that was of a similar hue. "You. Tell me what this rabble is here for," he snapped, shoving through the crowd and attempting to avoid the minor Prophets.

      The grey-armored Sangheili removed his odd, angular helmet and tucked it under his arm. "The Prophet of Truth has ordered a slipspace transition to another of the Sacred Rings. He will not say what his reasons are, but I am quite sure that the Prophet of Regret is already there."

      The High Commander clacked his mandibles together in agitation. "The Prophet of Regret was out, searching for a holy world, at last report, correct?"

      The other Sangheili nodded as he attempted to forge a path through the mob. "Until half an hour ago, when he sent the Council a message from the Substance system. He wished the other Hierarchs to 'forgive his premature arrival,' at wherever it was he'd been, as I recall."

      Half-Jaw's mind was racing. Where had Regret been? Truth hadn't specified. A holy world...one that nobody but he knew of? It reeked of a conspiracy.

      He felt the presence of Azathoth, and realized from the stabs of pain in his skull that the construct was expressing a strong negative impulse. "You shouldn't ask where Regret was," the AI said flatly. "You should wonder why he left."

      "Excellency?" The grey-armored Sangheili's query broke into his thoughts. He realized that he was staring blankly into space, and he shook himself, somewhat embarrassed.

      "Do you know why Regret left...wherever he was?" he said, starting to walk again.

      "I asked the Prophet of Truth, but I did not receive an answer, Excellency," the other panted, struggling to keep up with the long-legged commander.

      With a start, the High Commander pulled the other Sangheili around by the arm and glared into his face. "Who are you? You spoke with the Prophet of Truth. You listened to Regret's message. Only a Councillor would be permitted to do such things. But you do not wear a Councillor's armor. In fact," he mused, looking the younger Sangheili up and down, "you're not wearing any type of armor I've seen before. What is your name?"

      The grey-armored Sangheili raised his arm to shoulder level in salute. "I apologize, Excellency. I am Intra 'Mensamee, Machinist and Warrior of the Almighty Covenant. I meant no disrespect. Kindly forgive my lack of etiquette; I am still young and often regarded as...impetuous."

      "You are forgiven," Half-Jaw said absently. "In addition, you are dismissed. Thank you for your time, Machinist 'Mensamee."

      He waited a few seconds until his clan-member was out of earshot, then looked at nothing in particular and ordered Azathoth to retrieve all files in High Charity's central computer on Intra 'Mensamee. The AI was silent for a few seconds, then he spoke in a voice somewhat higher in pitch than was normal for him.

      "He's got an interesting record, you know. Age twenty-eight, has already been Minor, Major and Honor Guard."

      "Honor Guard?" the High Commander interrupted. "The Guard is a lifetime commitment."

      Azathoth continued as though he had not heard the interruption. "At age twenty-seven, he was transferred to Truth's personal guards, then two weeks later he became a 'Machinist'. A 'Machinist' apparently signifies one of the Sangheili who has shown outstanding talent in 'treatment of sacred relics'- I presume that means technological skill- and has therefore been appointed to a special corps of technicians who often work alongside the Huragok. However, much more important than that is his birth record. It's...atypical."

      "How so?" asked Half-Jaw, without much interest in his voice. He broke into his loping stride, a bizarre walk pattern that meant he anybody in the Covenant could recognize him by his walk.

      "He's a somewhat imperfect clone," Azathoth said, and his voice had an unusual timbre to it. Sympathy, perhaps? "A clone of you," the construct whispered. He was silent.

      The High Commander's left hoof suddenly had a great deal of trouble finding the ground again, even with gravity helping out. "Of me?" he asked, uncertain if his hearing was failing. "Azathoth?"

      The AI did not answer him. "Azathoth?" Half-Jaw asked again, loudly enough that a passing Unggoy stared fearfully at him.

      The AI remained silent. The High Commander tried to feel the ancient construct's presence in his mind, but there was nothing there. He leaned against the wall and pondered what he should do. Azathoth could read his feelings and his thoughts to an extraordinary extent. Could he turn that on the AI? He attempted to concentrate on the construct's presence, unsure if he was doing the right thing. As he sat there, trying to concentrate and feeling generally like an idiot, he heard a voice all around him, with such clarity that he gave a start and looked around him. It was repeating a single syllable that Half-Jaw was not familiar with. Judging solely by the intonation, however, it didn't exactly sound like something that one would repeat in pleasant company.

      "Commander!" someone interrupted. The voice was cut off mid syllable, and for a second the High Commander was disoriented, unable to even register that the voice belonged to an Unggoy wearing golden armor with a helmet. One of the Unggoy Patriarchs, here on High Charity? Half-Jaw stifled a chuckle at the sight of the tiny creature attempting to convey the idea of confident pomposity and instead looking like a child dressed in a Zealot's armor. He wrinkled his brow for a second. What was an Unggoy Patriarch doing on a Holy City? Usually they remained on Unggoyek, acting as figureheads to convey the will of the Hierarchs to the Unggoy population.

      "Commander!" the shrill-voiced creature repeated. The High Commander sighed and turned to the diminutive Patriarch.

      "What is it that you wish of me?" he said, taking only a mild interest in the presence of the Patriarch. He still outranked the Unggoy by eleven full levels, so he could address it however it pleased him to.

      "Most Noble Prophets of Truth and Mercy request the pleasure of a meeting with you, High Commander Eraa 'Gamsamee!" the Unggoy said, attempting to sound officious and instead sounding like it would prefer to be sucking on a food-nipple. Which it probably would prefer, knowing the Unggoy.

      Half-Jaw frowned. The Hierarchs had used his name, even though he himself did not use it these days. That meant they wanted to get his attention, which meant that whatever it was, it was urgent. He frowned more deeply, and dismissed the Unggoy. His talk with the Arbiter would have to wait.

      Two shuttle rides and one talk with the Hierarchs later, the High Commander was sprinting towards the hangar bays as fast as was possible by Sangheili. It was ironic, really. He was the one who had killed Regret's predecessor, and here he was, ensuring that Regret was killed by whoever was attacking him. Truth and Mercy both seemed to want Regret dead. Half-Jaw wasn't too fond of the youngest Hierarch either, to be honest, but he wasn't supposed to kill him directly. Once Regret was known to be dead, he was to utterly destroy Regret's location, in order to ensure the death of his murderer, who Truth hoped was the Demon.

      Slowing to a brisk trot, he boarded the Purity in Belief by way of the gravity-lift, announced that he was taking over as acting Ship Master by order of the Hierarchs, although his own authority would have been sufficient, and ordered the fleet and High Charity to jump into Slipspace towards the Substance system. The ship shuddered somewhat, and the bizarre feeling of heaviness that accompanied such a large-scale Slipspace transition pressed on the High Commander. He punched up the holo-display, able to move in the distorted gravity due to years of hard practice, but at present there was little to see due to the absence of most visible light in Slipspace.

      He looked at the transition countdown and steadied himself on the display. When such an enormous mass as High Charity and the thirty-one ships docked there passed through several dimensions one after the other, there was absolutely no pull of gravity for a few seconds until the laws of physics reasserted themselves. Sure enough, his hooves left the deck for a moment, and he enjoyed the weightlessness. He weighed easily two hundred pounds even without the armor, and the battle-suit added another two hundred. It was often physically exhausting to many Sangheili to fight for extended periods of time in the armor, but although Half-Jaw had nearly boundless stamina, he was never exactly comfortable while wearing his suit. He always felt like he was about to fall on his face when his shields were activated.

      Then the moment passed, and he was all business. The Slipspace transition ended in a swirling whirlpool of lavender photons, and High Charity appeared in system, flanked by the largest Covenant fleet since the subduction of the Jiralhanae. 142 flagships, 268 destroyers, 156 battlecruisers and 44 carriers surrounded the Holy City, not to mention at least thirty more capital ships docked on the City itself. It was a fleet to make the humans cower and fall, but at the moment there were no human ships visible in the system. What was visible was another Halo sitting at a 'Askuree point in the system, acting as the symbolic 'circular gateway to salvation' that the Prophets were fond of calling attention to.

      The High Commander glanced over to the screen that was tracking the Prophet of Sincere Regret's locator beacon. He glared at the screen angrily. This would have to be done by hand; he would never be allowed to launch a plasma torpedo at the sacred ring's surface. He keyed open a channel to the Phantom pilots of the fleet. "This is the High Commander. All pilots, move out and input the following coordinates. Standby for entry and troop deployment on my mark." He closed the channel and removed his helmet. He was going to have to think up an excuse for blowing up the temple that Regret seemed to be in. He hated these tasks.

      He thought about the situation for a few seconds, then decided to simply wait for the order from the Hierarchs. After a few seconds he was rewarded by a chime on the comm. The quavery but fierce voice of the Prophet of Mercy broke through. "You are cleared to commence the assault on the Demon, Commander-"

      Even as Half-Jaw reached over to close the channel, a hologram of Truth appeared on the priority holocom. The High Commander had never seen the Hegemon of the Covenant look so agitated. His eyes were blazing, and he was sitting up straight- quite a feat for the Ahlainga, who suffered from racial scoliosis.

      "Cancel the command, 'Gamsamee!" the Hierarch snapped. On the other comm, there was a sharp intake of breath; evidently Mercy had not been informed of this beforehand. "You will stand down, Commander," Truth continued. "Tartarus will handle this...situation."

      Half-Jaw snorted in derision. "That brutish thing? You would trust him with such an operation? I do not presume to question the Prophets, Holy Ones, but quite why the Jiralhanae have been given so many additional responsibilities in this conflict is a mystery to me! They are stronger and fiercer than the Sangheili. That said, they are also stupid, prone to cowardice, and honorless! I would sooner trust the Unggoy, especially as they do not seem to have a role in what, for all intents and purposes, is nothing more than an unwarranted takeover!"

      There was a dead silence over the comm. The Prophet of Mercy gave a soft cough, then the comm cut out. Suspicious, the High Commander pulled up one of his security cameras. Mercy and Tartarus were glancing at Truth, and the younger Prophet made a gesture to the Jiralhanae too fast to see. Half-Jaw was past caring about the fact that he had just insulted the Chieftain's race. He replayed the gesture over and over again in slow motion, unsure if he was misinterpreting it. There was no doubt. It was the kill gesture. Not a sign to kill the transmission, which had already ended. The High Commander had seen that gesture twice before in his life: once when he was ordered to kill the Prophet of Fury, and once, less than an hour ago, when he had been ordered to kill the Prophet of Regret.

      "Halt the Phantoms," he barked, opening a channel to the dropship pilots. "We've been ordered by the highest authority to stand down."

      "Leader!" protested one of the pilots.

      "Stand down, Gods damn you!" the High Commander howled, flecks of saliva flying from his mouth.

      The channel closed immediately. When Half-Jaw was that angry, people tended to vanish in new and painful ways. At Draco IX, he'd vaporized one of his own assault carriers when that ship's Master had made a costly error in judgement. A Phantom would be far less of a loss.

      He watched in what bordered on unbridled fury as a Jiralhanae controlled cruiser soared low across the ring, over what looked like a vast volcanic lake. In the middle, there was an island, or perhaps it only seemed to be an island. Certainly, there was a building of Forerunner design rising from the water. Over this structure, the cruiser lowered itself. The lifesigns of the Prophet of Regret blanked, but the High Commander was oblivious to the flat beep. The cruiser positioned itself just over the structure and activated a gravity lift. But the lift looked as though it had been repolarized, because instead of depositing troops, it started to ripple the water beneath it and crush the structure.

      Half-Jaw mandibles tightened in anger. Nothing deserved to die that way, not even a Demon. Slowly being crushed into a puddle an atom deep was not the most pleasant way to go. He watched the screen, unsure what he was looking for. He turned away, having seen all that was there to be seen of the demolition job, but as he did, he could have sworn he saw a dark dot move quickly over the side of the structure's collapse, standing out against the blinding lavender light of the gravity beam. He stared back at the holoscreen, uncertain if he'd seen it or not.

      "Azathoth?" he asked tentatively. "I want to see the last five seconds of that holovid again, maximum zoom, high quality, frame by frame."

      He heard no answer in the AI's voice. However, about ten seconds later, the holoscreen reset itself. Even though the construct had obeyed his request, the job had taken nearly five times as long as it normally would. Azathoth was doing something else, and whatever it was, it was taking up more than half of his memory space. The High Commander calculated exactly how much memory that was, and then put it from his mind. Anything that big was important enough to be none of his business.

      He tapped a control on the holopanel. A frame appeared on the holoscreen, lingered for three-quarters of a second, and changed jerkily to the next one. Half-Jaw frowned. It was a fairly sloppy edit, although far superior to anything he could have done. Azathoth was concentrating on something else very, very hard. He skimmed through the frames. Then, about three and a half seconds into the clip, he saw a black distortion appear on the holoscreen. He stared at it and scrolled forward a few frames. He had no idea what it was. He clicked forward one more frame and cursed violently.

      The distortion in the vid was the silhouette of a human, spread eagled to maximize the drag in a long, dangerous fall. The Demon, impossible as it seemed, had escaped the demolition of the building.

      Alive? Unlikely. But Demons were tough. If a Sangheili had tried the jump, he would have died instantly on impact, every bone in his body shattered. The Demons, on the other hand, could take a body blow from a Lek'golo with impunity if necessary.

      The Jiralhanae, in their incompetence, had allowed the Demon to escape. The High Commander growled alarmingly. An Unggoy that had just walked into the control room heard him growl and seamlessly turned right back around and walked out.

      Half-Jaw tapped the navicomputer into its quickest mode and entered the coordinates of the top priority docking bay of High Charity. This had better be the right calculation or we'll just show up in the Sanctum of the Hierarchs or something. Which I suppose would at least get some attention.

      He thought about the massive destruction that would occur if the calculations were off, and was surprised by the realization that he honestly didn't care.

      The High Commander's calculations, however, were not wrong. He appeared, exactly three seconds later, in the top-priority docking bay, just outside of the moorings. It was less than a minute later that he was striding towards the Sanctum, 'Mensamee at one shoulder and an unidentifiable Minor at the other. He'd once heard a human soldier refer to several other soldiers who he couldn't identify as 'redshirts'. Half-Jaw had had no idea what he'd meant; any fool could see that their shirts were khaki. But then, humans were hardly renowned for their lucidity.

      They strode meaningfully forward, the High Commander in particular looking like he was out for blood, but all three were somewhat distracted by the portable holoscreens that had been placed on every square inch of wall. The top half contained the Prophet of Truth and the bottom contained a Decree of the Council, authorized by all four hundred and ninety-nine members. The last signature line, where Regret's signature should have been, was blank.

      Half-Jaw stepped onto the elevator leading into the Sanctum antechamber and barely restrained himself from crying out. The Sangheili Honor Guards were surrendering their armor, their polearms and their elaborate headpieces to the Jiralhanae. The feral creatures were fighting over them, and those that received no armor sulked childishly before attempting to win it by force.

      A Councilor was watching the spectacle. As the High Commander stepped closer to him, he could see that it was Ashla 'Jaksamee, his own clan's Councilor. He looked at 'Jaksamee closely. The old Sangheili was stone-faced, but his shoulders were shaking as though he wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. He noticed Half-Jaw and shook his head sorrowfully. "The Councilors have been voting on whether to resign from the Covenant," he admitted. "I have not joined them. Clan Sam is weak now. Since you left it, there is none to unify the clan. I am too old, too weak myself." His eyes roved on to 'Mensamee. "You, also of Sam, so young, yet already so powerful in the Covenant. Beware of treachery. This seems to be the first step in a larger conspiracy. I would not be surprised if soon the Prophets replaced the Sangheili on the Council with the Jiralhanae. Clan Sam will be their first target. I will be killed, I am sure. So old that nobody will think twice. Then you two, perhaps. But first, they may kill another who has forsaken his clan."

      Half-Jaw's eyes lit up with mingled fear and fascination. 'Jaksamee shook his head again and turned away. Immediately, the High Commander turned toward the Inner Sanctum. He started to walk quickly towards the double doors, but before he was halfway down the antechamber he broke into a flat-out run. His two Sangheili followed, unsure what their leader was so anxious about.

      As they went, an old, grizzled Honor Guard, his skin marred by slashes that could only have come from a Jiralhanae bayonet, watched the High Commander go. He handed his right pauldron to the Jiralhanae in front of him and shook his head. "That one's always hated your race," he muttered, pointing a finger after Half-Jaw. "I was there the day your lot killed his father, you know. Only time I ever shouted at a Hierarch."

      "You disrespected a Hierarch?" the Jiralhanae asked, his contempt blunted slightly by awe.

      The Sangheili did not answer, but raised up his left arm, severed at the elbow. "Don't ever make that mistake, you hear?" he said with a morbid smile.

      Half-Jaw's keen ears heard the statement. He wondered if what he had done and was about to do constituted disrespect. The more cowardly half of him hoped it wasn't. The other half wished it could half-whistle something that a human had once said right before he snapped its neck:

      Dilly, dilly, come and be killed.

Commander: Change
Date: 23 November 2006, 2:17 pm

Change is one thing; progress is another.

--Bertrand Russell

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Covenant Prophet-Year 97201
Covenant Holy City High Charity
Inner Sanctum of the Hierarchs

      The doors shut behind the High Commander. 'Mensamee and the other Sangheili stood at Half-Jaw's shoulders. He was struck by the odd parallel: across from him, Truth was staring at him, flanked by Mercy and a small, glowing blue ball that was bobbing about in a faintly irritating manner.

      The blue thing noticed the High Commander the next second and proceeded to speak in the human dialect, with a peculiar accent that he had not heard before. "And now he is here? Interesting. Oh, I shall enjoy this enlighten-"

      The Prophet of Truth pressed a button on his throne's holopanel; immediately the blue ball sagged and hung motionless and dim in the air. As Half-Jaw glanced at the thing, Truth spoke loudly. "Ah, Commander. I wished you to know the reasoning behind my earlier countermanding of your orders."

      He sounded tired and distracted, but the High Commander was quite sure that this was an act for his benefit. He noted with trepidation that Tartarus was not present. He wished he'd brought an energy sword. 'Sangheilee's blade was a lethal weapon against the Flood, but he didn't know how well it would hold up against the Fist of Rukt.

      "So, Commander, I'm quite sure that you're wondering why I called you off the attack earlier," Truth continued.

      "Yes, Holy One," Half-Jaw said tonelessly.

      "I...apologize...for not notifying you of the change in plans earlier. I simply felt that Tartarus would have a better chance of stopping the Demon, seeing as how you had already failed to destroy the Demon once before," the Hierarch said. Was that a smile on his wizened lips? The High Commander wasn't sure. Even after so many decades of interacting with the Ahlainga, he still couldn't read their faces properly.

      "I am not in disagreement with your decision, Mighty One," Half-Jaw lied. "Forgive my earlier outburst. I was under stress at the time, and felt rather superseded by your order. I lost control of myself; it will not happen again, Lord."

      He expected Truth to tell him "See that it does not," or some variation thereof, but the Prophet seemed to disregard the apology. He gestured to the blue ball, and it sprang back to life, its irritating hum restored. The High Commander stared at it. Was this the Oracle that the Arbiter had retrieved? It stared back at him, its azure eye revealing nothing.

      "This," said Mercy, filling the awkward silence with his quavery tenor, "is a Holy Oracle of our Lords. It was...retrieved by Tartarus, with the Arbiter's assistance. We implored the Monitor, for so it calls itself, to grant us the wisdom of its musings, and it did more than we ever could have hoped for. It showed us another Sacred Ring, to counter the Supreme Commander's error. And it was there that we found our wayward brother, Regret, just too late to save him from the Demon's clutches."

      Truth raised his head again, and steepled his fingers, taking up the conversation where Mercy had left off. "In order to begin the Great Journey, we must retrieve a Sacred Icon from the ring and bring it into contact with this holy temple's core. You and the Arbiter have been tasked with retrieving this Icon. You are our hand in this matter. We fear that the Parasite has spread throughout the region which contains the Icon. We know that the humans have desecrated this blessed relic with their presence. Purge all in your path. Burn the Flood. Do not fail us as you did before."

      The High Commander nodded, knowing it was pointless to argue. But 'Mensamee, it seemed, did not have that knowledge.

      "Fail-" the Machinist sputtered. "He did not fail you. You called him away! How can you-"

      Half-Jaw kicked 'Mensamee's left hoof hard. The younger Sangheili broke off his tirade, sputtering angrily.

      The High Commander shot the Machinist a warning glance, and apologized to the Prophets. "I take the blame for my...assistant, Noble Hierarchs. He is not always as reverent as perhaps he should be. I will vouch for him in future."

      Truth nodded, and then added a question: "You know that the Sangheili are pondering resignation from the Council, I presume?"

      Half-Jaw nodded heavily. "I had assumed as much; the Councilors do not take kindly to this move, and many of them are entirely unused to having their wishes countermanded. Will you take any action against the muttering? If so...the Council wishes me to tell you that this is unprecedented. Unacceptable. "

      Truth gave a grim smile. "The Sangheili have failed to protect the Prophets as they promised," he said softly. "I see no reason why I should change my plans in order to accommodate a race that allowed Regret to fall so easily. A Hierarch is dead, Commander."

      The High Commander was about to point out that he had been ordered to kill Regret, when he noted that a contact was approaching on his motion tracker. Rolling his eyes back, he saw the doors to the antechamber slide open to reveal the Arbiter. He caught on to Truth's statement, and responded with appropriate anger. "His murderer was within our grasp! If you had not withdrawn our Phantoms-"

      "Are you questioning my decision?" Truth was a good actor. His voice was sibilant, frosty and a touch sardonic.

      "No, Holy One," Half-Jaw mumbled bad-temperedly. "I only wish to express my feeling that the Jiralhanae-"

      He was bringing up the Jiralhanae on purpose now, but Truth's veneer did not flicker. Mercy was glancing between them, obviously confused.

      "Recommissioning the guard was a radical step, but recent events have made it abundantly clear that the Elites can no longer guarantee our safety," Truth finished, turning his attention to the Arbiter.

      The High Commander turned away, mumbling, "I shall relay your decision to the Council."

      As the twin doors closed behind him, he heard Truth ask the Arbiter, "Ah, politics. How tiresome. Do you know, Arbiter, that the Sangheili have threatened to resign? To quit the High Council over this exchange of hats?"

      He did not hear the Arbiter's reply. He had already opened a comm to the Special Operatives on the docking level. If Truth was intending on maintaining the kill-sign on him, he wanted as many backup fighters as possible.

      One Phantom flight later, he and as many of the Operatives as he could muster drew near to a section of Halo, cordoned off from the rest of ring's surface by a vast wall-like superstructure. Stretching from the top of the wall to the ground about twenty kilometers up-spin was a green energy shield. Copper plasma in cohesive form, Half-Jaw guessed, but with his limited physics knowledge he had no way of being sure.

      The Phantom hovered. They were playing the waiting game now. A few Phantoms of Jiralhanae had landed in the Wall some time ago and hopefully established a beach-head for the Arbiter's entry. However, it was evident from the current status of the shield that they had either all been killed by now or failed for other reasons to deactivate it. The High Commander thought either was possible.

      As he watched the holoscreen, he noted that the Arbiter's Phantom was approaching the Wall. He turned his attention away from it, addressing the pilot. "Move the dropship over the energy shield," he ordered. "We want to get in and out as fast as possible. You will drop as many in as possible via the shockpods and follow us in with the rest of the team. As soon as we have the Icon, you will extract us without delay."

      "Of course, Excellency," the pilot intoned respectfully. Half-Jaw scowled and fiddled with his severed mandibles in annoyance. It was the 'anything-to-further-the-Great-Journey' attitude that was destroying the Sangheili. All too common among the Special Operatives. Now it was spreading to the Piloting Corps by the looks of it.

      He distracted himself, trying to calculate about how long it would take a shockpod to drop into the ground from their present altitude. The shockpods were really miracles of engineering. He started to wonder who had designed them. He asked Azathoth.

      No one answered him.

      He pushed harder, trying to hear some fragmented sound. But there was nothing. There was no Forerunner AI in his neural uplink, or anywhere for that matter. When had he last heard Azathoth? He recalled the AI enhancing a section of holovid for him on the Purity in Belief, but more recently than that...

      He barely kept back a curse. Azathoth must have gone into the ship's computer. From there he could have ported himself into the central memory core of High Charity. At this very second, a half-insane Forerunner intelligence had the run of the Covenant.

      What was he going to do?

      As he thought the words, he realized that there was nothing he could do. He would just have to hope that Azathoth had more common sense than he'd been displaying recently.

      No matter. His duty was clearly to the Sacred Icon rather than Azathoth. He would have the Icon.

      The Arbiter's mind must have been on his mission, because less than a minute later, the shield dropped. "Warriors! Half-team shockdrops in with me! Half-team remains on-ship as reserve!" roared the High Commander as the emerald curtain dropped from the Wall.

      Striding to the gravity lift he dropped out. As he did so, a shockdrop pod slid into position beneath him. He landed inside, standing up. It sealed on him. Airtight and watertight. He was falling a mile straight down towards snowy rocks in a titanium-alloy coffin. Five hundred kilometers per hour was his terminal velocity. He would take less than twenty seconds to reach it. Then he had about three minutes to ground. Mind the bump.

      That was about as much thought as he could fit into the fraction of a second between his sealing into the pod and his drop.

      The temperature rose rapidly. The Sangheili did not sweat as the humans did, but their skin lost its luster and became scratchy to the touch. Half-Jaw couldn't see his skin, but he bet that at the moment it was about as shiny as lead.

      A thud rattled the pod, then another, in quick succession. The High Commander bit back a curse as his shield flared into visibility from the impacts and the heat.

      There was another thud, and the pod shook and spun. At this rate, he'd be too dizzy to get out of the pod even if he did make it.

      As the thought crossed his mind, the acceleration stopped, and the pod crashed to a dead stop, burying itself in the thick snow. Half-Jaw pulled free of his restraints, fighting the pain of impact, and struck the door palm on. It crashed free, landing five meters away on the snow. Drawing his energy sword, he watched as the other Sangheili in his team plummeted to earth, meeting with various successes and lack thereof. One of his warriors dropped into a ravine blanketed by a seemingly impervious-to-light fog, and the High Commander had to instruct him to wait there for help.

      As he looked over his team, he noted only minor injuries, in stark contrast to the pod of one Arus 'Hanthuree, who had been unlucky enough to impact on the large, brown-metal structure that towered above them. Another Sangheili, Vura 'Gahantee, pulled the broken corpse from the pod, shaking his head sadly. Half-Jaw closed his eyes in a moment of reverence for the fallen comrades of this war. When they snapped open again, he was all business. "Burn the body. The Parasite is coming."

      As if to prove his point, an unearthly howl echoed off the snowscape, and a twisted body stumbled up over the nearest ridge, brandishing what looked like a human shotgun.

      'Gahantee cursed. The High Commander glared at his breach of etiquette; all Sangheili were expected to be the model of politeness in the presence of such a high-ranking officer. The younger Sangheili apologized, explaining: "In the Reach campaign, Excellency, a human wielding one of those weapons shot me twice in the chest. It was not a pleasant experience."

      Half-Jaw glanced back at him. "No weapon, Major, is a match for a skilful attack."

      The red-armored Sangheili cocked his head in puzzlement. "A skilful attack, Great One? How do you mean?"

      By way of answer, the High Commander dropped his sword and rifle and dropped into a hand-to-hand combat stance. Before 'Gahantee could ask what he was going to do, he sprinted towards the combat form, dodging the cone of pellets it fired at him, and sprang into a leap. Landing the leap with a somersault, he headbutted the Parasite in the stomach, distracting it long enough for him to drive his fist through its chest. The infection form inside popped against his shield, and the monstrous creature collapsed in a heap.

      Before it hit the ground, he was off running again, coming to a halt next to 'Gahantee. "That is what I mean, Major," he lectured the astonished young warrior. "A skilful attack. One Parasite is dead."

      Another Flood Combat Form peeked up over the ridge with a growl. Behind it, another raised a plasma pistol and howled. "Only several thousand more are left," Half-Jaw continued seamlessly.

      The Flood gave a mass roar and charged, one tide of rotting flesh stitched unhandily together and forced into movement. The Operatives returned fire with their plasma weapons, quickly mowing down the attacking forces, but a few combat forms slipped past the barrage. The High Commander stabbed one through the chest with his sword and kicked another in the direction of 'Gahantee, who delivered a crushing blow to it with the butt of his carbine and killed it with a few shots. A third leapt high over Half-Jaw's head, but the squad's demolitions expert, Askan 'Ksanee, stuck a grenade to it and sidestepped as it landed in an explosion of blue plasma.

      Seconds later, another wave of Flood attacked, this time from behind. They were entrenched in the region, the High Commander realized, and it would be difficult to oust them without some reinforcements. He was about to signal for the rest of the team when he noted the Flood rush off upspin. Evidently they had seen something new.

      That something was a tall Sangheili in worn silver armor. The Arbiter wielded an energy sword with a will, hacking and burning his way through the encircling Flood, but he would soon be overwhelmed by sheer weight on numbers. Snatching the fuel rod cannon from 'Ksanee, Half-Jaw fired three shots at the crowd of Flood, hoping the Arbiter would survive.

      As the green smoke and vaporized snow settled, the Arbiter got back to his feet. His shield crackled and started to regenerate the heavy damage it had suffered, but he seemed relatively unscathed otherwise. The High Commander exhaled in relief and started to walk towards the Arbiter.

      He gave a polite nod to the Commander and took a deep breath. "At the center of this zone is a Sacred Icon, critical to the Great Journey. I must find it."

      Half-Jaw nodded enthusiastically, and looked to his warriors. "We shall cut into the heart of this infestation, retrieve the Icon, and burn any Flood that stand in our way!" He gave a battle cry. The Operatives joined in willingly, but the Arbiter remained aloof and silent.

      Stung by the rejection, the High Commander stared insultingly at the Sangheili who had once been his brother. "The Parasite is not to be trifled with," he said coolly. "I hope you know what you're doing."

      The Phantom flew low overhead, dropping in a Spectre transport and a few Ghosts. The pilot contacted him. "I shall bring reinforcements as soon as possible, Excellency," the junior officer said smoothly. "Jiralhanae, if there are any to be spared."

      "No," barked Half-Jaw. "Let the apes take care of their own. I am ordering you to bring our kind, Sangheili. Good fierce warriors, not cowardly furballs. I wish to battle the Flood, not scream at them."

      "Of course, Excellency," the pilot said quickly. "Operatives, needed for the retrieval of the Icon."

      The Phantom flew away to obey the High Commander's order. "Forward, warriors!" he barked to his team. "And fear not pain, nor death!" Seeing the Arbiter uncertainly looking to him, he gestured him forward. "Go. I'll follow when our reinforcements arrive."

      As he spoke, a large Forerunner construct issued forth from a door on the rusty building, spitting red crystals at the pair of them. "An Enforcer! To the vehicles! We'll need their heavy guns!" shouted 'Gahantee, hopping into the driver's seat of a Ghost.

      The Arbiter ran off after the vehicles, springing dextrously into the gun turret of the Specter and opening fire on the Enforcer.

      Luckily for Half-Jaw, the Enforcer chose to pursue them rather than attack him. He waited for a few minutes before the Phantom arrived, and was quick to step into the grav-lift. Even when the place wasn't swarming with Flood, he disliked the Quarantine Zone.

      His Phantom had just started to fly over the structure when a voice that could have been 'Gahantee's crackled over the radio. "Leader! We have found the bodies of several humans!"

      The High Commander frowned. He hadn't known that there were any humans in the vicinity. "Keep moving," he answered slowly. "I'm on my way."

      They kept going, passing over fields of snow and wreckage covered in Flood, Sentinels, and even a few of the large Enforcers. With consternation, he saw that the Flood had commandeered a Wraith tank. As they flew over the scene, the tank's mortar fired a shot which just clipped the aft of the Phantom. The pilot growled in irritation. "We are losing some power, Excellency! We need to lighten the ship. We have a Specter which we can drop."

      "No," Half-Jaw said firmly. If he had to go into the Quarantine Zone again, he at least needed mobility. "Set down a team of the Operatives."

      The pilot nodded, and the High Commander spoke into the Arbiter's comm. "I'm sending you a squad of my most experienced warriors, Arbiter. Do not squander their talents."

      The Arbiter did not answer. The Phantom moved on.

      It was not for another half-hour that they set down on the other side of what looked to be a Sentinel production station of some kind, dropping Half-Jaw and the one remaining Operative, 'Narsilee, in the Specter. Almost immediately, the Arbiter tore out of the wreckage at full speed, pursued by a combat form driving a Ghost. Although, judging by the amount of damage it had sustained, 'driving' was the wrong word. As the Commander watched in surprise, the Arbiter leapt up on the Ghost's fuselage, shot the Flood through the chest with a human rifle, and leapt into the driver's seat. Half Jaw shouted to the other Sangheili. The Arbiter waved to him, and drove off at boost speed.

      The Specter followed, although at a more leisurely pace. The Flood had heavily guarded the Arbiter's goal, another structure. Wraiths patrolled the entrances, and inside combat forms with human turrets lay in wait. However, their lack of skill proved costly, and it was the Sangheili, sans vehicles, who entered the final building.

      They walked through a short hallway, leaving 'Narsilee to guard the entrance, and a tremendous snowy vista greeted them. Before them lay a huge crevasse with no means of crossing except what they now stood on: an anti-gravity gondola.

      A sound made them both look up. An identical gondola had just taken off from further down the cliff wall. Half-Jaw squinted and saw a few tiny figures milling about on it. "More humans. They must be after the Icon."

      As the Arbiter ran forward to activate the gondola, the Phantom swooped in again, delivering its last load of reinforcements. A Flood howl sounded behind them, and the High Commander realized that 'Narsilee was still out there. He could not leave him behind; 'Narsilee was the best driver in the squad. He drew his sword.

      "On you way, Arbiter," he barked. "I'll dead with these beasts."

      As he ran, he heard another Phantom descend behind him and Tartarus's gravelly voice chuckled over the radio. "I see that coward didn't join you," the Jiralhanae said. "I'll do what I can to keep the Flood off your back."

      Hearing the directly derogatory comment, Half-Jaw stiffened as he ran. He had been meant to hear the remark, and his team had heard it too. One of them, obviously trying to console the High Commander, answered in disgust, "Oh, what courage! Safe in his Phantom!"

      Another Sangheili voice burst in. "Ignore the braggart." Half-Jaw was unsure if the remark was directed to the first warrior or himself.

      He exited the door they had come in by. 'Narsilee was there, but nobody else was. The Minor gave his superior a puzzled glance. "What it is, Excellency?"

      "I heard Flood," the High Commander muttered sheepishly. "Or thought I did."

      "No, Excellency!" 'Narsilee said in surprise. "I heard them too, but nothing has happened since!"

      Half-Jaw cocked his head. The Flood were not often known to postpone attacks. "Wait here, warrior," he instructed 'Narsilee. "I will investigate."

      He leapt around the door's protective armor, sword at the ready. There was nothing there, but twenty yards away, he saw a dark, bulky shape against the snow. It was not a Flood of any kind. It was a Jiralhanae Captain, and he approached quickly.

      "What are you doing?" he asked sharply, as another Flood scream sounded. As it did, he gave a start, for the sound had come from the Jiralhanae.

      He had never heard of Jiralhanae being infected by the Flood, although he supposed it could happen. He grabbed the Jiralhanae by the shoulder and spun him around.

      The ape was holding a sonic projector, of the type that Unggoy constructors used to make their squeaky voices audible to laborers. He hit the playback button, and an earsplitting Flood howl resounded around the snowy region. He flung the projector to the ground. This Jiralhanae had been faking the approach of the Flood in order to distract him.

      But why had Tartarus wanted him to be separated from the Arbiter?

      He was so deep in thought that he never noticed the meaty, wire haired fist coming around to strike him squarely in the face.

      He hit the snow already rolling, his mind trying to process the reality of what had just happened. A Jiralhanae, far subordinate to him, had struck him with minimal provocation.

      As he rolled upright, the Captain pulled a long knife from its waist, apparently not trusting its plasma rifle at this range.

      As it drew the knife, the High Commander was a flash of movement. Ducking under the monster's clumsy stab, he struck both fists into its belly. The blow should have doubled the ape in pain, but the thick pad of hair and muscle diffused the force. He needed something sharp.

      He grabbed at his belt for his energy sword, but even as he reached, he spotted it lying ten feet away, melting the snow. Unable to stop the motion, he kept reaching until his hand made contact with a cold, light hilt.

      The knife of Azo 'Sangheilee was in his hand before the Jiralhanae could blink in surprise.

      The knife of Azo 'Sangheilee was in the Jiralhanae's chest before the it could finish blinking in surprise.

      He pulled the blade free from the carcass, noting the faint purple glow around it.

      As he wiped it clean of gore, he realized that the Jiralhanae had just undeniably tried to kill him.

      Which meant the Arbiter had been targeted too, by Tartarus and a Phantom full of Jiralhanae.

      He had been betrayed. The Sangheili had been betrayed, by the Jiralhanae. This would mean a schism.

      The Covenant, as he remembered the Prophet of Revelation saying enigmatically years ago, was on the verge of civil war.

Commander: Interlude
Date: 1 March 2007, 8:50 pm

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Covenant Prophet-Year 97201
Installation 05
Compromised Quarantine Zone

      The High Commander sat still, trying to gain control of the situation. The Jiralhanae had betrayed him. A pity, but the Sangheili could deal with it. The Lekgolo would still be on their side. So would everyone else, for that matter. Unless the Jiralhanae had managed to gain some support, but that seemed unlikely.

      That left two problems. How was he going to get back to High Charity? And what exactly was the Arbiter doing?

      At least the Arbiter would be back soon. Then, he would take control of the situation, and it would be his problem.

      No, he realized suddenly, that Phantom will be the Arbiter's problem. A Phantom could hold nearly two dozen Jiralhanae, not to mention Tartarus. The Arbiter might be able to fight Tartarus, alone, but that many Jiralhanae was suicide for anyone. Half-Jaw privately doubted that even a Lekgolo pair could win in the face of those odds, although it wouldn't do to say that to the Lekgolo.

      He opened a channel to the Arbiter, hoping to hear the warrior's voice.

      For a second, the sound of the Arbiter's speech did come over the channel. The transmission was unclear, but it seemed that the Arbiter was talking to someone out of his radio's range, saying something like "They will take your head." The transmission broke up, and then cleared to silence. As the High Commander listened, a heavy thump of distortion sounded painfully in his ear.

      And then there was nothing.

      He frowned. The distortion sounded surprisingly familiar to him. He felt quite sure he had heard it before. He shut his eyes tight and tried to remember the sound. The Fist of Rukt firing a pulse, maybe? If so, that was bad news. The pulse could disorient, and the hammer could certainly finish off a disoriented enemy.

      Much as he hoped he was wrong, he had to assume that the Arbiter was either dead or captured.

      With a hiss, Tartarus's Phantom swooped low overhead and came about. He snapped into action. If he wanted to take on Tartarus, now was the time to do it. He activated his camouflage, and held still.

      The Phantom settled over the snow, setting up a miniature blizzard. For a few seconds, it hung there, then a Jiralhanae Minor dropped out of the gravity lift. It looked over at the corpse of its fellow, and shouted back into the Phantom, "Chieftain, Arthrus is dead! We must search for-"

      The knife of Azo 'Sangheilee embedded itself in his left eye before he could finish speaking.

      The High Commander was already running as fast as he could, his boots crunching on the packed snow. The Phantom pilot had apparently realized what was happening; the Phantom rotated slowly, and its engines charged. Half-Jaw barely had time to pull the knife free from the Jiralhanae's corpse before he had to leap for the ship's gravity lift.

      Miraculously, the lift had not yet disengaged. His leap was aborted by the sudden upsurge of the air beneath him.

      He landed gracefully in the middle of about a dozen extremely surprised Jiralhanae.

      There was a tremendous amount of noise as the warriors placed grenades into the magazines of their eponymous grenade launchers. However, they hesitated to fire for fear of hitting themselves with ricocheting grenades in the confined space.

      The High Commander was under no such obligation. He whipped the knife up and across, slashing a gaping wound across the throat of the Jiralhanae directly in front of him. With a deft flick, he spun the knife around and rapped a second of the apes between the eyes with the pommel, poleaxing it. Dropping to a crouch, he scythed his leg around, trying to knock down as many of the Jiralhanae as he could.

      That proved to be a mistake. A Captain slammed its meaty fist down on the base of his skull, nearly stunning him. He spun and snapped a kick into the beast's face, crushing its blunt snout, but the Jiralhanae had made their decision.

      In a fraction of a second, the inside of the Phantom was filled by grenades. Explosions deafened Half-Jaw; his shields sparked and faded from the concussive force and shrapnel. The bellows of his enemies, however, assured him that they were no better off.

      Something hard and smooth struck him in the face. He grabbed at it, and found it to be one of the modified plasma rifles that the Jiralhanae used. Holding on tightly to the weapon, he fired it wildly. There was no need to aim; wherever he hit, a Jiralhanae was in the way.

      The weapon overheated, and foul-smelling, gaseous iron sulfate drifted from under its battery covers. Coughing, the High Commander waved the mephitic vapor away from his face, and waited for the weapon to cool.

      As soon as the flow of the gas slowed, he started to fire again. As he did so, however, a powerful hand tore the rifle from his grasp and smashed it into the back of his head. He crumpled, barely conscious, and rolled over to see Tartarus drop the rifle to the deck. The Chieftain seemed to be smiling at him.

      As he steeled himself for the blow of the hammer, however, two of the Jiralhanae grabbed him roughly by the arms and hauled him upright.

      "What should we do with him, Chieftain?" asked a voice from somewhere behind him.

      Half-Jaw looked hard at Tartarus's face. This time, the smile was easily recognizable.

      "We continue on upwards, into the upper atmosphere of the ring," the Chieftain said. The dropship's pilot tapped in a couple of commands and barked affirmatively.

      "And then?" another voice asked.

      "And then," Tartarus said with a faint chuckle, "we open the gravity lift and throw him out."

      The High Commander snarled, and managed to burst free of his captors with a draining effort. He lunged for Tartarus's throat, but this time it was the Fist of Rukt that struck him. As he sank into unconsciousness, he heard Tartarus say, "Give him back the dagger. He may as well have something to look at while he falls."

      Half-Jaw woke as the cold air began to rush past his face, and immediately cursed. This was the upper atmosphere, all right. It was a long way down; probably, he wouldn't hit the ground for nearly a minute. At least there was nothing to bounce off of.

      Or was there? Below him, he saw flashes of purple; Banshees, perhaps? They were tagged as Jiralhanae on his battlenet uplink. He briefly considered the possibility of trying to climb aboard one, and then discarded the idea. Even if he did hit one, he was going fast enough that he'd probably just smash right through-

      He stopped dead in midair with an impact that drained his shields completely, crushed some ribs, and very nearly knocked him unconscious again.

      Despite all evidence to the contrary, it seemed that he had hit a Banshee square-on. He had landed on the pilot's canopy, crushing it to unrecognizability. The pilot was most likely dead.

      With that thought in mind, he ripped the canopy open. It tore clean off its supports and was instantly whipped away by the wind.

      The Jiralhanae inside was clearly dead, its spine penetrating the fur in some places, and he tossed it out of the Banshee without a second thought. Now for the hard part: getting the Banshee's anti-gravity drives to start up again. Such an impact had probably knocked some critical objects out of alignment. And if the Banshee couldn't fly, then he was still just falling, only with a higher terminal velocity.

      He grabbed the control handles and wrenched at them, trying to stop the Banshee's headlong descent. Nothing happened. He swore again, and hit the engine overcharge. It, too, was offline. He slammed his fist into the control surface, but only sparks greeted him.

      Enraged, he grabbed the knife and stabbed it into the control surface of the Banshee.

      Without warning, his vision turned bright violet. There was a deafening howling noise emanating from the Banshee's drives, and the control surfaces were shining so brightly that he had to avert his eyes. The light was brightest around the knife, which was producing so much heat he was afraid to remove it. He swung the control handles up, and the Banshee very nearly performed a back-flip. He was going to have to be careful.

      It took him several minutes to get the Banshee under control. It was responding with ten times its natural control sensitivity, traveling at near the speed of sound, and seemed to be on the edge of falling apart spontaneously. He managed, eventually, to aim it upspin, towards the control center of Halo: the Shrine of the Consecrations, where the Icon was to be brought to begin the Great Journey. The Sangheili Councilors would be there; he had to warn them about the treachery of the Jiralhanae.

      And to do that, he had to cross miles and miles of terrain at a pace normally reserved for Seraph fighter craft. Then he had to fight off the Jiralhanae who impeded his progress, enter the shrine, warn the councilors and find some way out of this mess. Maybe he could appeal to Truth? Exchanging his life for help against the Brutes?

      No. There had to be a better way. The Arbiter was gone. He wasn't going to join him.

      He was the last surviving child of Dava 'Vansamee.

      And if he had to die, he was going to die like one.

      He was going to die a hero.

      Funny, a voice said in the back of his mind, that's unusually megalomaniacal for you.

      "Azathoth?" said the High Commander, so quietly that the Banshee's hum drowned out his words.

      Of course not, idiot, the voice berated him. Do you honestly think I'd stick around when you're this close to death?

      Half-Jaw blinked twice in quick succession. This was perhaps the most confusing statement he had ever heard.

      "So what are you, then?" he said to himself.

      Funny you should ask, the voice answered him. I'm you. I'm your clone. I'm your brother. I'm whoever you think I am, because that's the way that my—Azathoth's—creator made me.

      "Your creator?" the High Commander asked.

      High above him, standing in High Charity's central computer core, a wraith in the dark, untouched chambers, the artificial intelligence shook his head and whispered softly to himself.

      Don't blame yourself. I understand.

      Then he turned his back on Eraa 'Gamsamee.

      They never spoke again.