Providence by MaxRealflugel
Providence Part One
Date: 20 April 2011, 9:37 pm
Searing pain thrashed at his bare chest, but Reaga held firm, concentrating on a single shaft of cascading sunlight that pierced the gloom of the archaic hall.
For millennia, the chamber had been little more than rumour and even then few spoke of it, let alone took part. It came as no surprise to Reaga when he discovered the number of previous initiates was barely into double figures, but then, few Sangheili sought forgiveness and those that did usually died in the process. Reaga Thalum was the first initiate for over three centuries.
The attending elder stepped away and plunged the branding rod in to a pot of glowing coals. It was the sixth time he had done so.
The pain subsided.
But Reaga did not deserve respite. He could not afford himself the luxury, not while the memories from all those years ago were still fresh in his mind.
"Continue," Reaga ordered.
The Sangheili elder, a frail but devoted cleric, had already advised him against a speedy ritual. But Reaga needed to continue. He needed to banish the overwhelming sense of guilt that he was constantly racked with.
"I said continue."
With a reluctant nod, the elder stoked the coals until they were bright yellow in colour.
Reaga flexed his mandibles, took a deep breath and steeled himself for the sixth epoch of Absolution. Each stage was a test of oneself. A test of commitment, of devotion and loyalty—a seven-tiered experience with the sole purpose of casting aside all doubt from deep within any who volunteer. But it was more than that to Reaga. To him, it was self-imposed punishment and a desire to seek out the truth to a lie that had held him captive for decades. For while the conclusion of the war with the humans and the betrayal of the Prophets had caused chaos among many devoted Sangheili, who were desperate for direction and purpose, Reaga's own experience towered above them all.
The elder raised the smouldering rod, indicating he was ready and that the branding iron was sufficiently hot. Reaga was prepared, both mentally and physically.
The initial marking would be tempered by his tough, coarse skin, a trait shared by all Sangheili who were born under the triple suns of Sanghelios—a natural resistance to higher than average solar radiation constantly demanded the best of his species. But Reaga's skin would only provide a few seconds of protection before the procedure demanded a more direct response, which usually came in the form of unrelenting pain. Fortunately, though, his chest would not be touched, nor his arms or back—they had already played their part in the ceremony. The last stages would, instead, be a test for his legs to endure. To see if he could remain on his feet as his flesh burned.
The elder pushed the brander onto Reaga's right thigh. There was a dull sensation at first and then the heat rapidly wrapped itself around his leg. He was immediately tempted to let off a deafening roar, but any acknowledgement of the pain, now creeping towards his abdomen, would bring about a premature conclusion to Absolution. He had to remain quiet. And standing.
Just like before, he cast his mind back to the catalyst of his true pain and suffering, back to the invasion of the human colony of Reach, and the part he played in its downfall.
He could remember, as though only yesterday, the sight of the planet as they swept unnoticed through the system. The outer perimeter was formidable, even by Sangheili standards. The human defenders had covered every avenue of approach, but their one mistake had been the anticipation of a large-scale assault, and not a small vanguard with the sole purpose of establishing a foothold on the planet before the main attack. That mistake would and did cost them dearly.
Reach itself was different to most human worlds he had seen scorched in previous assaults. It was mixture of greens, blues and browns, much like his beloved Sanghelios, and was a bastion of human military might. Surrounded by a formidable fleet, orbital defences and thousands of single attack craft, Reaga knew this world not be easy meat, a thought that forced an excitable smile from his scarred mandibles.
"It is done," announced a voice.
Reaga looked around, realising where he was. The elder was stood before him with a dull-coloured branding rod.
There was a brief slash of pain as his senses refocused, but he remained standing. Undaunted.
"Absolution has been satisfied, Reaga," the elder explained. "You may proceed with the final stage."
"Final stage?" Reaga queried. He had thought the branding to be an end to his suffering, but even as the thought reverberated in his mind, an overwhelming sense of guilt began to rise within.
The elder returned the rod to its ancient iron bracket and then looked upon Reaga, not as the most revered Sangheili within the city but as a friend. "It is clear your past still troubles you greatly, Reaga. In previous cases, the initiate would be placed before the council to root out the origin of their guilt. But I believe your situation requires a more effective approach, and one with a great deal more experience than I."
"How can that be, Talassis?" Stuttered Reaga. "You are respected by all Sangheili. And experienced beyond measure."
The old Sangheili smiled. "I may be experienced, but there is still much that I do not know, especially where humans are concerned."
"Then who will help me? Who will remove this burden?"
The elder took a dozen tentative steps towards the western wall of the hall and opened a previously unseen compartment. He retrieved a small wooden chest and handed it to Reaga.
"Inside you will find your answer."
Reaga had never doubted the words of Talassis. He was a former tutor and comrade, but he found the concept of simply opening a small box to solve his incessant guilt somewhat amateur and childlike. "How will this small chest atone for my sins?"
Reaga obliged and peered inside. It was empty, save for a small fragment of silver-blue metal.
"I was never fond of your jesting, Talassis. What am I to do with this glorified toothpick?"
"Take it to its previous custodian. He will share your pain and you will both be free to move on."
Reaga picked out the small sliver of metal. It glittered in the dim light as he examined it. A thin band of blue ran up its length on one side while a number of minute markings covered the remainder of the shard. Forerunner markings. Reaga suddenly realised what he was staring at. It was a fragment of the first halo ring, destroyed by one of the human "Spartans".
"What of the parasite?"
"It is clear of infection. You need not concern yourself with that element of history."
I do not understand," Reaga voiced, the weight of the situation weighing heavily on his mind. "The previous custodian would have been the residing Fleet Master, which at the time was Thel Vadum."
Talassis nodded. "That is correct."
"What are you saying?" Reaga said. "That I must to take this to Thel
to the Arbiter? The ring is reason he was chosen."
Talassis placed his hand on Reaga's naked shoulder. "You think too much, Reaga. Both you and the Arbiter have much in common. Previous heroes of Sanghelios, like you and Thel, have given much in battle. But those before you gave little consideration of our former enemy, letting their guard down to the true lies and those who spoke them."
Talassis retrieved a ceremonial robe and handed it to Reaga with a broad grin on his old face. "And together, you will both determine the future of our race and that of the galaxy."