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Court of Darkness (chapter six): Halls of the Damned
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 16 February 2007, 4:02 am

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Court of Darkness (chapter six): Halls of the Damned

Mikaela looked down at the lifeless animal and wiped her beautiful, tear-streaked face with the palm of her hand. Even though she was only ten years old the little girl knew something that her parents would never understand: Puff was not a mere dog who existed to bark at strangers and empty his food dish twice a day. No, this dark brown mixture of a dozen breeds—who was just big enough to wrestle and just small enough to carry—was the most fun and interesting person she had ever met.

Puff had been her companion and protector in all of her numerous forays into magical lands and kingdoms. It was he who defeated nine trolls at the gates of Neverwall and chased away the Great Cat of Androsia. In fact, if it hadn't been for his wizardry just ten days before in the land of Wolvrin, Mikaela may never have become a Wolvrinian Princess. A mere dog? Nothing could be more absurd. He was a knight in seven royal courts, king over the free dogs of Bowserland, and revered as a prophet in Quasimutt. And even though he was three years older than her, Puff was Mikaela's best friend in all the world. But there he lay, cold and stiff at the bottom of a shallow grave without even a cardboard box to shield him from the dirt.

"He'll be cold, mom. Can't we bury him indoors, like they do kings?"

Her mother bent down and held her tear-swollen face. "Bury him? Honey, Puff's not really in that hole."

"He's not?" Mikaela's large eyes opened wide. "Then where is he?"

The woman leaned forward and whispered into her little girl's ear. "He's in Bowserland, Neverwall, Wolverin and of course guarding the borders of Androsia. That cat's still on the loose, right?"

Mikaela looked at her mother as if for the first time. "Yes, and Puff vowed that he wouldn't taste death until the Great Cat was destroyed!"

"See?" her mother said with a smile. "And you know he would never break a promise."

The little girl grinned from ear to ear, and then whispered excitedly. "Mom, you knew?"

"Of course I did. But let's not mention it to daddy. I don't think he'd understand."

The humble funeral continued but thanks to a mother's wisdom, with more hope and less tears. As her father shoveled dirt into the shallow hole, Mikaela ran to her room and scoured half a dozen kingdoms in search of Puff. She finally found him in the king's court of Androsia where, after witnessing the joyous reunion, the Queen declared a national day of celebration.

Nearly a week later, Mikaela stood in her farm's small chicken house, handing out feed and telling tales of her magical travels. After food and story were finally exhausted, she stepped out into the overcast morning and began heading for the house when she heard something behind their small red barn—the place they'd buried Puff. Fueled by childish curiosity, she ran behind the building and what she saw made her mouth drop open. Muffled sounds, both like and unlike a dog's bark emanated from the ground as dirt undulated and stirred above the still-fresh grave.

It was a miracle!

Even as Mikaela ran toward the house to tell her mom, she knew that she would never tell her dad. He was a great guy, but mom was right; he simply wouldn't understand.

A short man burst through the door holding the sort of small data-pad preferred by techies, and O'Carrol stood to her feet in surprise.

"Barry, you'd better have a good reas—"

"There's a homing beacon going off in this house!" he yelled without looking up from the screen. "It started broadcasting a couple minutes ago, and we're shining like a strobe!"

O'Carrol's green eyes flashed. "A beacon? Set off by somebody here?"

"No way to tell," Barry replied, staring at the readout and moving around the room. "It's military grade, so it could have been activated from deep orbit or next door." With calculated haste, he walked in clumsy, shrinking circles; seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was bumping into every piece of furniture in the room. "We're gonna have the UNSC bunking with us in ten minutes—shorter if they're the one's who set it off. I'm pretty sure the signal's coming from somewhere in this—" He stopped cold as his data pad collided with O'Carrol's left side and began beeping excitedly. He punched a few buttons, stared at the screen for a moment, and then looked into the rebel leader's eyes.

"Oh my God."

The system's bright star hung at high noon over Lifford, but few ventured outside to enjoy its brilliance. It was Sunday, everybody's day off, and that meant packed churches and empty streets. Tethra had been a devout community even before the Silent Plague, but in the pain and devastation that followed, attendance at Sunday services exploded. Neighborhoods that had once been fractured pulled together to deal with their loss, and churches that had been little more than social clubs became living, breathing communities. As a result, Sunday meetings—which took place in schools, houses and even a few taverns—became all-day affairs that usually began with a communal breakfast and concluded with a communal supper.

What was good for the Lord, however, was bad for the taxi service and nearly an hour of aimless driving had made Lowden Caffrey a bit queasy. He had just decided to park and listen to the radio when he noticed a man up the street waving his arms. A smile curled across his face as he gunned his engine, performed a perfect u-turn and came to a stop directly in front of his first Sunday fare in nearly a month.

But as the customer slid into the backseat, the cabby's smile vanished. The man had nothing but foam protruding out of his right eye socket and looked just plain mean. Lowden opened a small door in the bulletproof panel between them to get a better look, and found himself staring down the barrel of a large automatic. The wounded man leaned forward and pressed the gun into the driver's neck.

"Take me to the airport and make it fast." The voice was rough and unfriendly.

"M-Metro airport?"

"I thought there was only one?"

"No," the driver replied, doing his best to sound helpful, "There's Lifford Municipal. It's just a few blocks away."

The man in black thought for a moment. "Does they have small craft?"

Lowden nodded. "'Bout all they got."

"Then that'll do fine."

Although the official name of the small UNSC base was Bart Kurchwild Station, the one hundred and seventy-six soldiers who manned the facility simply called it The Wild; and given the name's inherent irony, they seldom said it without a smile. Nothing ever happened at "The Wild."

Well, almost never.

The base, which had been named for the UNSC Major who led the first wave of colonization back in 2388, had been mobilized only once in its sixty-four years. During the chaos that followed the outbreak of the Silent Plague, its soldiers acted as glorified riot police and took their orders from a crooked politician. Other than that stark episode, they had been little more than outsiders—and that was no accident.

Unlike Reach, the UNSC's other major weapon producing colony, Tethra was an industrial rather than military culture; and the difference in their accepted values was striking. Where vigilance, order and discipline ruled the one, expedience, manipulation and greed ruled the other. Where one had a heavy military presence in an effort to bring security, the other had a nominal military presence in order to promote profitability. Bluntly speaking, the UNSC did not know or care what happened on Tethra, so long as they delivered a steady supply of military hardware on time and for the right price.

Thus, The Wild became a dumping ground, albeit a small one, for the dregs of the armed forces. Indeed, it was not uncommon for soldiers suffering from severe mental trauma to be sent to Tethra to convalesce while the UNSC mulled over the possibility of admitting them into a comparatively expensive psychiatric facility. And if the troubled individuals didn't commit suicide or murder they were, as often as not, left at The Wild for the balance of their enlistment. Such heartless conduct was not the norm within the UNSC, but then the norm never seemed to apply on Tethra. Sure, it was a grim bit of business, but it was also expedient, manipulative and a credit to the bottom line; and on this planet, that was virtuous as Hell—idiomatically and literally.

It was one o'clock in the afternoon, and Major Kevin Purves, commanding officer at the Wild, had just flipped over his second consecutive ace. After four dead-end games, it seemed his luck had finally turned. Solitaire, however, was always unpredictable, and he dared not get cocky. Besides, right now he needed kings worse than aces. Without taking his gaze off the cards, Kevin took a large bite of his tuna-cheddar sandwich and then noticed something that made his eyes go wide.

Oh my God! I can move the seven over here and—he flipped another card over—a king!

A firm knock on the door interrupted his little coup and he looked up with annoyance. "I'm on lunch!" he yelled, almost choking on a large chunk of tuna. "Leave a message with Sandie."

Captain John Moretti shook his head in disgust. "My apologies, sir. I tried to call, but—"

"I took it off the hook, Captain, because I wanted to eat in peace. Now talk to Sandie or come back in an hour."

"She's not out here, Major, and this is a matter of some urgency." He wanted to add "you moron" but decided against it. Even though he had chosen to return to his home planet and serve at The Wild, his future in the UNSC still looked bright. No sense jeopardizing his career just to insult the incompetent fool who happened to be his boss. "We've picked up a Spartan homing beacon."

"Yeah, so?"

Moretti could hardly believe his ears. "If you remember, sir, O'Carrol is actually Aimee Peal." He waited for the Major to put things together himself, but got only silence. "Peal is a Spartan," you moron!

Inside the office, Purves looked longingly at his so-far-so-good round of solitaire and sighed. "Very well, come in." Captain Moretti walked through the door, glanced blankly at the food and cards covering his superior's desk, and sat down.

"Sir, that beacon is coming from the center of Lifford. If it's O'Carrol, and at this point we have to assume it is, then we'd better move fast. We can get all three Pelicans there within ten minutes. They're being readied as we speak."

The Major shook his head and spoke with disdain. "Keep your pants on, son. I know you're just dying to play soldier, but this is my base, and if you don't mind, I'll make the decisions." Purves smiled and stared silently at his inferior.

"Sir, with all due respect, you need to decide now."

The Major turned over another card—an ace—and leaned back in his chair. "Okay Captain, here's my decision. I'll lead the Pelicans into the city and have Lieutenant Spencer follow with a ground assault team." He placed a two of spades on the corresponding ace, flipped over another card and smiled with delight. "You must be good luck, Moretti. Another king."

"Sir," John said, ignoring the stupidity, "If Spence is leading the vehicles, am I to fly in with you?"

Purves shook his head. "No, you can stay here and watch the base."

"But sir—"

"You're too eager to be a hero and that'll only end up getting men killed." To John's disbelief, the Major turned over another card, placed a three of hearts on a four of spades and then studied the results like a General sizing up a battlefield.

"Sir, what are you doing?"

Once again, his commanding officer chuckled. "Why don't you go tell Spence to get his men ready."

The Captain pursed his lips and stood. "And when should I tell him you'll be along, sir?" He spit the last word out like a piece of spoiled meat.

"I don't know," Purves replied, looking down at the cards, "I'm probably about half done. How long could a game of solitaire take?"

Sean followed O'Carrol down steps and through hallways while the considerably smaller techie tried his best to keep up. The towering woman barked orders to her second in command as she ran.

"Start the evac Sean, and don't wait for me!" They passed through a large room, and then started down another flight of stairs. "Have everyone report on the COM once they're clear and meet at the safe-house in four hours. And for God's sake, leave the weapons and ammo behind!"

"I know," Sean replied as he whipped around a blind corner and nearly trampled a fellow rebel. "Don't you think I've been listening for the last year?" They burst into the small first aid room, nearly tearing the door from its hinges.

"Just see it gets done!" O'Carrol laid down on an examining table as Barry ran into the next room to get the doctor.

Sean took two steps toward the doorway and turned. "What do you want me to do with Sagus?"

Cairren shuffled her feet, which hung half a meter off the end of the table, and uncharacteristically averted her gaze. "Kill him."

Barry entered the room followed by an elderly man as Flannery disappeared into the hallway. Doctor Van Mock approached the table, looked down at the fiery redhead with his usual stoicism and waved a small device back and forth across her left shoulder. He looked at a screen on the wall behind the table and grimaced—if only slightly.

"It's fused to the lining of your lung about nine centimeters below your left shoulder, and it's centered in your body almost perfectly. To do it right, I'd need a couple of hours and a trained nurse."

"Then do it wrong," O'Carrol replied with impatience.

"But Cairren, you don't underst—"

She grabbed Van Mock's neck with her huge left hand and pulled him so close that their noses touched. "You've got five minutes doc, so stop talking and start cutting!"

At first he'd worried about slipping into a suitable position in broad daylight, but since it was Sunday in a city with perfect church attendance and zero windows, he had encountered no problems. Heck, maybe he'd been wrong; maybe church wasn't useless after all.

The UNSC, however, was a different story. It had been nearly fifteen minutes since he activated the beacon, and even though they had to know the signal led to O'Carrol, the UNSC was nowhere in sight.

And then he saw it. Finally. Off in the distance, barely visible against the white and gray clouds, an aircraft headed straight towards the hide out. Lifting his binoculars slowly, he located the craft—and cursed under his breath. It wasn't a Pelican as he had hoped, but rather a small private vessel.

Normally the assassin enjoyed being alone with his thoughts before a job, but today it was downright dangerous. His interrogation of Mr. Black yielded many sick and disturbing facts concerning Tethra's future; and with facts came responsibility. As an assassin, Wiley could live with the knowledge that he had caused or allowed an individual's death; but what about the deaths of millions? Was he an honest-to-God monster like Mr. Black or would he end up swallowing the business end of his automatic and gladly pulling the trigger? And if he couldn't live with it, what was he supposed to do? Sure, he was skilled, but he hadn't survived this long by overestimating himself. The odds weren't long, they were impossible.

Trying desperately to calm his mind, he replaced his binoculars and swept the surrounding area with careful eyes. A glance down at his data pad confirmed that the beacon was still broadcasting and had not moved significantly. Once again, he looked up at the house—and this he couldn't look away. The craft he'd written off moments before was dropping out of the sky like a rock—and heading straight for O'Carrol's roof.

Even though he'd taken a terrific beating in order to capture Sagus alive, Sean couldn't help but respect him. Using a poisonous mix of skill and madness, the ONI spook killed one of his men, put the other in critical condition and came within a hair's breadth of defeating him as well. It was quite a display, especially when one considered that the mere sight of Big Sean Flannery was enough to make a sane individual dismiss any notion of fighting. But Sagus had stood his ground and fought bravely.

Flannery rushed up two flights of stairs and entered the long hallway that led to the holding room. He didn't relish the idea of shooting a man while he was chained to a chair, but this wasn't a movie and he didn't have the time to make it feel honorable. At least he had a chance. Those kids I blew up in the condo didn't even have th—

The building shook and the floor jumped beneath Sean's feet; slamming his head into the wall and dropping him like a two hundred and fifty pound sack of grain.

Thrown to the ground by what seemed like an earthquake, Todd Levinson took a moment to get his bearings and started to get up—only to be knocked down again by an explosion above his head. Charred chunks of wood and plaster rained down around him and when he finally opened his eyes he saw a shadowy figure approach, back-lit by the newly exposed sun. The shadow yanked Todd to his feet and shoved a large pistol under his chin.

"Where's David Sagus?" It was the voice of certain death.

"A couple floors down." As the rebel's eyes adjusted to the bright light, he saw that his attacker was missing an eye. Helljumper.

"Take me."

Stumbling out the door and down the steps, Todd prayed that he'd run into someone, but the hallway was deserted and all too quickly they were standing outside the holding room.

"Is this it?" As soon as the rebel nodded, Helljumper planted a boot on the small of his back and kicked him forward so hard that the door tore free of its hinges and the rebel hit the ground dead.

David's head lifted in surprise as the ODST rushed in and grabbed the keys off the desk.

"Hell?" he said, shaking sleep from his head. "My God, your eye."

Helljumper bent down to unlock the chains binding Sagus' feet. "Lucky for me the UNSC's got a killer health plan." As he moved behind the chair to free his hands, David watched in horror as a large man appeared in the doorway.


Sagus' scream caused the ODST to look up—too late. Flame blossomed from Sean's pistol and a bullet slammed into Helljumper's left shoulder with a wet smack! Falling backward from the impact, his head hit the ground with a roar of pain and the gun flew from his hand.

Sean rushed around the chair, but Helljumper rolled left, jumped to his feet and flung his combat knife at the Irishman; sinking it three inches into his right shoulder. The ODST kicked the gun out of Sean's hand and followed with a vicious left to the Adam's Apple.

But the big man barely flinched.

With the huge knife jutting out of his shoulder like a Halloween decoration, Sean curled his right hand into a massive fist and—moving faster than seemed possible for a man his size—landed a crushing blow to Helljumper's head; felling the legendary soldier like a dropped doll.

David's desperate fingers finally bent enough to turn the key Helljumper left in the lock, and with the care of a surgeon he silently lowered his chains.

Pulling the knife from his shoulder without so much as a wince, Sean approached his foe's motionless body and raised the bloodied weapon. Sagus rose behind him; the solid steel chair in his strong, angry hands.

Time stopped, warmth fled and even the lights seemed to dim as Rage painted its masterwork on the face of the young ONI analyst. Strength that could not be measured in terms of muscle and bone swung the heavy steel object with smooth, vicious grace; striking the rebel on the hip and with such force that he crashed into a wall three meters away.

David dropped the chair and knelt to examine Helljumper. His pulse was shallow and the swelling in his brain caused the bio-foam plug in his eye socket to bulge grotesquely. Sagus was not a doctor, but that didn't mean he couldn't see what was happening.

The man before him was dying, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

No living man could identify the assassin known as "Wiley" and Lexicus suspected that if the dead were suddenly able to speak, they would come up empty as well. Thus, even though the UNSC had spent nearly ten years trying to dispose of the gifted killer, they had never found so much as a fingerprint.

And then, six months before, they caught their first break. After the poisoning death of Admiral Thomas Kraft on one of Earths military installations, the UNSC discovered images of a man talking and eating with the doomed officer during the final minutes of his life. And even though the man—who was almost certainly Wiley—had made sure that the cameras never got a good look at his face, they had managed to record something far more useful: his voice. Like the fingerprint, the human voice is unique to each individual, but it is much harder to hide than a print and far easier to track. All the UNSC had to do was add the voice to filters already in place and see where it led.

Four months after they began their search, it led them to ONI. Colonel T. Stephen Black, who spearheaded some of the clandestine agency's most secretive operations, hired Wiley to eliminate O'Carrol. Less than three days later, Admiral Denning sent Lexicus to eliminate Wiley. As the unarmored Spartan moved quickly towards the blip on his data pad, he knew that the odds were still stacked against him. Even though he carried a device that would identify and locate even a whisper from the assassin as far out as five hundred meters, there was no guarantee that Wiley would find the need to talk—and without that he had nothing.

Passing through empty streets lined with rundown houses and abandoned storefronts, he felt a growing sense of pity and dread for the planet. Tethra had a cursed, morbid stench about it that reminded him of Erebus. Thankfully, a familiar sound interrupted his depressing line of thought, and he looked up to see three Pelicans headed in his direction.


Wiley watched with satisfaction as the Pelicans circled overhead. Moments later, four APC's roared onto the street and soldiers began to spill out. The assassin punched a button on his COM and listened.

"Roger, sir, that's the building. Seems to have a small craft on top."

"Yeah, looks like a crash." The man chuckled. "This ain't O'Carrol's day."

"No, sir."

"All right, Spence, I want every house on the street emptied. Dodge and Tyler, just hold your ships steady until then. I'll let her know we're here."

Wiley covered his ears as one of the Pelicans hovered close to the building and at least fifteen soldiers zip-lined down and surrounded the huge house. A voice boomed from the speaker.

"This is UNSC Major Kevin Purves and I am speaking to anyone in residence at 6145 South Karona. I repeat: anyone in residence at 6145 South Karona, you are ordered to leave the building with your hands behind your head!"

As the order went out once more, Wiley watched as soldiers escorted people from homes up and down the street. They all seemed more than willing to go. The Major, on the other hand, was getting no cooperation whatsoever.

"This is your last warning! If you do not leave 6145 South Karona immediately, you will be detained by force!"

After seeing the shoddy zip-lining and clumsy footwork of the soldiers thus far, Wiley had to smile at the use of the word 'force'. If push came to shove, these guys would get shoved badly. Once again, the COM came alive.

"She ain't gonna come out, sir."

"Don't you think I know that, Lieutenant?" Wiley smiled at the lack of professionalism. "Okay, Dodge, Tyler, turn'em loose."

The other two Pelicans came in close, and thirty or so additional soldiers zip-lined down—and it came as little surprise that two of them managed to break bones in the process. A door was blown open—again, injuring one of the inept soldiers—and they poured into the building. After waiting for the Pelicans to back off a sufficient distance, Wiley tousled his authentic UNSC uniform and ran towards the house as clumsily as he knew how.

With Helljumper draped over his left shoulder and a smoking twelve-millimeter automatic in his right hand, David paused just long enough to slap in fresh clip. He'd gone through several hallways and down three sets of stairs in search of an exit, but all that lay behind him were windowless rooms and four rebels unfortunate enough to get in his way. Moving cautiously, he walked through the next doorway—and nearly jumped out of his skin when the door across the room exploded into a thousand pieces and Marines poured into the house.

"Lower your weapon!" a nervous soldier yelled as somebody outside screamed for a medic. "Do it now!"

Sagus let the gun fall to the floor and spoke in a calm voice. "Sergeant, my name is David Sagus and I'm a Lieutenant in the Office of Naval Intelligence. I was O'Carrol's prisoner."

The Marine narrowed his eyes and lifted his weapon a little higher. "How do I know you're telling the truth?"

David was incredulous. "Use the standard UNSC identification procedure, soldier."

At an obvious loss, the Sergeant glanced at the men around him and then moved on. "Who's the man on your shoulder?"

"ODST Captain Helljumper."

Again, the soldier's eyes narrowed. "Helljumper? The Helljumper? The one who fought on Erebus?"

Sagus nodded and lowered his friend gingerly to the ground. "And he needs medical attention immediately."

"Now I remember who you are!" The Sergeant suddenly brightened. "You're that ONI guy who got tortured! Wow! My wife's never gonna believe that I actually met—"

Without warning, David snatched the weapon hanging lazily from the fool's hand and shoved the barrel under his chin. "Get him a medic now or I'll splatter what little brains you've got all over the ceiling."

For the poorly trained soldiers looking on, things were getting more complicated with each passing second. For the Sergeant, however, the way forward had never been more obvious. He took a deep breath and screamed at the top of his lungs.

"Medic! Mehhhh-diiiic!"

Sagus tossed the man his gun and spoke with an authority that compelled armed men to obey. "One of O'Carrol's leaders is lying unconscious in the room they were holding me in. Take your men up there and secure him."

"Yes, sir," the man said as he wiped two fingers under his chin to check for blood. "How do we get there?"

David's reply chilled the air. "Just follow the bodies."

Major Purves looked at the building one hundred meters below and spoke with impatience. "Corporal, have you located O'Carrol yet?"

"Negative, sir. Her beacon is holding strong, but we keep running into dead ends. This place is a danged maze."

"How close are you?"

"We're coming up on a door now, sir. This could be it." Background noise filled the COM as a door was kicked open and UNSC issue boots pounded the floor like a small stampede. After nearly a minute, the Major heard a disappointed sigh. "Sir, we've found the beacon but, um ..."

"But what soldier?"

"It's in a bowl of what appears to be blood and human tissue." He sighed again. "O'Carrol's nowhere in sight."

"Hold your position, Corporal. Neighborhood evac is complete, and I'm sending Spence's team in there to assist."

"Roger that."

A man ran through the doorway, took one look at Sagus and stopped dead.

"You the medic?" David asked, lifting nothing but his eyes.

"Yes, sir!" the man said, kneeling quickly and fumbling through his bag. "Staff Sergeant Charles E. Bolles." He looked down at the ODST and shook his head. "Dang."

"What is it?"

"Well," the man said apologetically, "I just don't see how this guy's still breathing. I mean, given the head injury alone ... he must be tougher than a ten mile hike through a forest fire wearing nothin' but—"

"I already know how tough he is, Sergeant!" Something seemed to break inside the ONI officer. He placed a hand on the man's shoulder and the tough facade melted. "Please, just help him."

Charles Bolles nodded. "We're gonna hafta get him outta here and to someplace more secure. Grab his legs; I think I know just the spot."

"Yes, sir! Staff Sergeant Charles E. Bolles."

Lexicus watched a map appear on his instrument's small read-out as Wiley's voice played like music in his ear. Patience had paid off, and at long last he could put a face to the assassin's voice and, even more importantly, a few cheap bullets in the assassin's head. After checking his six, the Spartan palmed his pistol and slowly emerged from cover.

O'Carrol looked at the techie and then back down at the floor. "How many soldiers are in there now?"

"I show seventy-seven, and that's gotta be most of 'em."

She took a deep breath and tapped her COM. "Gary, has Sean Flannery radioed in yet?"

"Negative, ma'am."

O'Carrol dropped her head and focused on the rotting plank floor beneath her. But for this, everything had gone as planned. The UNSC had even been kind enough to personally evacuate them from the houses. What could have stopped a man like Sean between leaving her and getting out?

"Cairren," the techie said with trepidation, knowing his life might hinge on his choice of words, "I like Sean as much as you, but we don't have much time. Once they find the tunnels they're gonna tuck tail and run. We've spent the last year prepar—"

"I know, Barry." The infamous rebel leader ran a hand through her thick red hair and searched for a logical reason to delay the order. She had planned on accomplishing two things before embracing death: exacting revenge on those who killed her family, and asking Sean's forgiveness for killing Connor right in front of him. And if she lived more than a minute past completing the latter, it would be too long.

Forgive me, Sean ... for everything. Cairren turned a tortured face towards the techie and nodded. "Do it."

The fake medic came to a stop in a patch of overgrown grass between two buildings on the opposite side of the street.

"Let's put him down here." Bending at the knees, Wiley lowered the ODST to the grass and deftly retrieved his pistol from the small of his back. By the time he had straightened up, it was pointed at the ONI officer's brain. "David Sagus?" he asked, using his real voice for the first time. "Look at me David."

Rounding the back of O'Carrol's building at inhuman speed, Lexicus saw the scene in the alley—and moved even faster. Sagus lifted his head; Lexicus lifted his gun; Wiley lifted his eyes ... and the world disappeared in thunder and flame.

Major Purves watched in horror as O'Carrol's building exploded with such force that the concussion nearly knocked his ship out of the sky. The other two Pelicans, which had been hovering much closer to the building, were gone. Debris clanked off the ship's window as he turned to the Pilot seated beside him.

"Get us outta here!"

"Yes, s—" A three ton piece of steel crashed through cockpit glass; bringing one offensive and two military careers to a decisive end.

The blast blew Lexicus off his feet and slammed him into the brick wall just inside the alley. After a moment of disorientation, he jumped up and turned towards the assassin—only to discover that he no longer held his pistol. In that stark and hopeless moment, Lexicus took in the entire scene.

Unhurt and pointing his gun at the Spartan's head, Wiley appeared almost inhuman; standing straight and still as a statue while flaming debris crashed to the ground all around. Helljumper lay dying, sprawled unconscious in the grass at the assassin's feet with foam bulging out of an ugly head-wound. Sagus knelt beside the ODST with surprise and sorrow, looking like he'd just been sucker-punched by God.

Without a hint of emotion in his cold blue eyes, Wiley held his weapon steady and glanced back and forth between ONI agent and Spartan. After a long moment, he steeled his nerve and spoke four explosive words.

"I need your help."

As darkness descended on Lifford that evening, every door was shut and every lock was turned—except one.

Benny Gunderman lay tied up in the hotel bathtub, watching the clock mark off the last minutes before sundown and bemoaning the inequities of life. How could God be so unfair? He'd done everything the ODST had asked, and yet he was still bound, crippled and helpless; like some sick offering to the gods of night. Why did the darkness even speak his name? What had he done to deserve such a fate?

Sure, he'd helped blow up that condo in the Pallisades and a lot of innocent women and children had died; but such sacrifice was necessary to shake the rich from their false security. Tragic as it was, it helped bring about change. If that was murder, then some of the greatest men in history had—

Benny heard hinges squeak on the front door and his blood turned to ice. A second later the light clicked off, plunging him into complete darkness. Panic seized his guts and he pulled against the ropes with all his might.

Soft, scratchy footsteps—first one and then many—moved slowly through the living room. A horrid smell assaulted his nose ... and then he heard it.

"Benneeee Gundermaaan. Benneeee Gundermaaan."

Flesh peeled off his wrists like wet paper as he pulled against his restraints with all the savagery of a bear caught in a trap. His eyes strained to see in the pitch black, but saw nothing.

"Benneeee Gundermaaan!"

The damning words were spoken right next to his ear. Benny shrieked in horror and his mind searched desperately for a place to hide. Something cold and foreign touched his arm, then his leg—and then everywhere. As it turned out, the darkness was not interested in Benny's theories of right and wrong. It didn't take time to debate his reasons and rationalizations for targeting the innocent. No matter. As the rebel's limbs were snapped like toothpicks and cruelly twisted from his body, he was far too busy screaming to discuss ethics.

And cries that soon ended in the land of the living had only begun to echo through the halls of the damned.

C.T. Clown