Posted By: Cthulhu117<email@example.com>
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.