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Commander: Hunt
Posted By: Cthulhu117<spartan_eric_271@yahoo.com>
Date: 18 May 2006, 10:29 pm

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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.