The Priestess and the Warrior - Erudite Celebrant
Posted By: Jillybean<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 29 May 2008, 9:00 pm
AN: A 'concise' (considering this fic is very long) explanation of the previous chapters can be found here, http://hboff.bungie.org/viewtopic.php?t=5272 I'll also take the time to remind old readers and inform new readers that this fic was started before we knew as much about the Covenant. The human terms (eg Elite, Brute) are military slang terms when used within the Covenant. If Saia is to say 'Brute' she is not being polite.
"Damn this heat." The human marine drew his fingers along the collar of his army issue shirt. "I can't stand it. I wasn't bred for this, you know? I'm from Shillady. It's not like we have long Indian summers. I hate it."
"Marine," Johnson growled, rolling his head on his neck, "if you don't stow it I will feed you to squid face."
Orna took no offence. He wasn't sure what a 'squid' was, his translator didn't come up with anything appropriate and left it as the peculiar, elongated human sounds. For him the moist heat was bearable, his suit wicking away the moisture from the close air. He preferred the arid heat of his homeworld, but he could tolerate this easily. One of the heavy green fronds brushed over his shoulder, dislodging water droplets on those behind him.
"There, that oughtta refresh you," another marine joked. "April showers."
"It ain't April."
"Oh shut your trap."
Orna caught sight of 'Usze's armour flashing in the sunlight. The young Sangheili was good, undoubtedly, but badly trained. The purple metal should have been invisible, shaded by the good foliage on offer here. This ravine was so clouded by plant life that Orna could barely see the Sergeant at the head of the procession. He had sent 'Usze to scout ahead, preferably uphill, and had held hopes that 'Usze might have been from the same school as Rtas. So few were these days. So many had been killed in the Jiralhanae Rebellion, and those that weren't had retired. Orna had lamented before about this new crop, pledging a case to the Hierarchs that he couldn't be expected to defeat the humans if his army was so dilapidated. A feral grin stole over his features and he glanced back at the diminutive creatures following him.
"What are you looking at?" muttered the cantankerous soul.
"You really don't like us, do you?" demanded N'tho. He shot Orna a rebellious look. "We are trying to help," he pointed out, in a quieter voice.
"Do you expect the humans to forgive and forget?" Orna asked, raising his voice.
"Damn right you shouldn't," the marine continued his mutterings.
Forcing himself to slacken his grip on his gun, Orna concentrated on his footing. "I don't."
Don't. Didn't. Wouldn't, perhaps, he wouldn't allow himself to expect more than their aid. His body ached with the effort of convincing himself he needed their help. His body still twinged from fighting the Flood. He was not as young as he used to be. And so that was why he needed these humans. And their allegiance allowed him free rein on their planet.
"Excellency?" N'tho prompted him, his concerned expression shaking Orna more than his tone.
N'tho hesitated, stepping closer in a vain attempt at excluding the humans watching them. The forest dripped with humidity, the air condensing on the wide leaves, water steadily falling from leaf to ground. Animals, Terran animals that Orna had never seen, made their noises as they moved. Perhaps the humans would allow his people to hunt here. The young Sangheili dipped his head. "Should we wait here? They think they have found the Demon."
Noticing 'Usze lope back towards them, Orna nodded curtly. "If the Demon is close, he knows we are close," he warned Johnson as the marine led off.
"I know," Johnson muttered. "That's what worries me."
The humans moved out, leaving the three Sangheili waiting under the canopy. "It looks like a crater," 'Usze announced. "Fell hard and fast. I don't think anything could have survived that."
"Have you fought the Demon?" N'tho asked quickly, lurching around. He still moved as though he was uncomfortable in his armour, his right eye scrunching closed.
'Usze shook his head. "I have not. I was not favoured by the Prophets." His dry tone only served to inspire the younger Sangheili and Orna shook his head, rolling his shoulders as he walked away from them.
"Why?" N'tho murmured, his voice still carrying in the heavy air.
"I refused a position with the Honour Guard."
"It's lucky you did, as it turned out."
"Luck had nothing to do with it. Nor divine intervention."
Divine intervention. That was a nice thought. Orna skulked lower to the ground, tracing a path through the undergrowth that would disturb as few plants as possible. The foliage on this planet was delicate, he could not hope to stalk silently. He could hear Johnson. "Stay sharp."
"What about you? You're not long out of training, are you?"
"Service," N'tho said, with the right amount of humility for a Sangheili who didn't care for promotion, would serve his time, and leave the military.
"His armour's locked up. Gel layer could have taken most of the impact . . ."
"What are you going to do when it's over?" 'Usze asked.
N'tho did reply straight away.
"Radio for VTOL, heavy lifting gear. We're not leaving him here."
"Will you go home?" 'Usze pressed.
"Yeah." Orna stiffened. That voice was familiar. That voice pervaded his mind. He hulked closer to the ground, wondering if he could have imagined it. "You're not."
"I don't have much to go to home to," N'tho whispered.
His active camouflage was on. He had moments at best, the generator was fried. I don't have much to go home to . . . no, nor do I, Brother. Orna stepped forwards, his fists tightening around his carbine. The Demon saw before Johnson, was moving even as Orna's shields gave up. Orna reared backwards, the abnormally tall Spartan shoving a pistol into the sensitive roof of his mouth. The gunmetal tasted acidic, a little blood trickled down Orna's throat. The others, the humans, they flurried around like snowflakes above a fire.
Go ahead, Demon. Pull the trigger.
Slowly, the Demon removed the gun, paying more attention to Johnson than Orna did. He snorted softly, feeling that rush of anger and fear leave him. The heat left his mind and he was aware of their surroundings, of the two young Sangheili behind him. The Demon stepped backwards. Tasting blood in his mouth, Orna growled. "Were it so easy."
"Arbiter?" It was 'Usze, moving into the clearing, weapon in hand. He took in the tableau and, with the kind of thinking that would earn him a promotion in time, he turned to Johnson. "The Brutes have our scent. They'll be here soon."
Nodding, Johnson tugged his flak jacket down into place. "Then they must love the smell of bad ass!" With a wave of his arm he assembled his men. "And I left a present for you, Arbiter. And I'm walking away." He cackled, cracking forwards into the lead.
Saia was beginning to believe. Her hand splayed over the top of the crater. The Earth's crust soaked up heat from the sun and baked her palm. She glanced back at the Dreadnought, towering above the plain. She didn't dare look down to see how far she had climbed. She hadn't attempted an exercise like this since she was a much younger Sangheili.
Draping the upper half of her body over the top of the cliff, she pulled herself to safety, her shaking muscles giving out her. Out in the open, she was not far enough from the Dreadnought to take this time to relax. Although her mind argued she should make for the shade of the rocks and mountains, she remained splayed out on the cliff top. Her arms and legs were weakened by the climb and the flood of relief. Far above her, the whine of a Phantom pressed home the need to run. The Brutes would have no problem with killing her . . . no Jiralhanae would, even if they knew exactly who she was when they found her. At the moment she was dressed in the simple gel suit that went under armour. It was designed to keep her cool or warm as environment dictated. It had protected her on her flight from the Dreadnought, her escape under darkness, and her climb in the morning hours. Only her hands were scratched and cut from the sharp rocks.
This planet was beautiful. She opened her eyes to consider it. Yellow rocks bleached by the sun were artfully thrown together under an azure sky. It reminded her of Faithful Bride, the planet she had grown up on before moving to High Charity to join the Convent. If the Covenant had ever conquered the humans she would have happily considered a second home here. Her villa in the mountains of Sangheilos was too perfect to give up all together. The easterly breeze in the mornings brought the taste of snow with it, requiring Lekgolo wool shawls if one wanted to dine out for breakfast. That was her favourite thing. A late morning breakfast on the balcony overlooking the canyon and snowmelt river that would lead down into the bustling capital city, where the heat was dry and cracked soft skin, but up in the mountains it was pleasant.
Easing herself onto all fours, she crawled towards the rocks, settling in the crevasse between boulders.
The sun climbed in the sky. Multilegged exo-skeletoned creatures scuttled around her, going about their daily business, and Saia felt her body regain control. When she felt capable, she stood, and limped away from the plains where the Dreadnought had landed.
And where, Priestess, are you going?
Resolutely not listening to the inner voice, she followed the terrain as it rose and fell, coming to a stop when she reached a long, flat construct. She hesitated, standing on the black rock and feeling the slightly tacky texture under her hooves. It smelled too, of oil and . . . something she couldn't register. "This is a road," she murmured, studying the lines. Now the thought had come to her, she wondered why she hadn't seen it earlier. Although her mental image of a road was of the curving indigo lines, ready to cushion hover pads to stop them veering off, this fit better with what she had seen of human technology. The black too, they favoured earthy colours, colours that blended. It seemed to her that humans didn't strive for the heavens, they were happy to wallow down here in the dirt.
She thought of her villa. She had rejected much of the heavenly aesthetic that the Covenant's cities were built around. None of the glorious colours of the Forerunner could be seen in her home, except for when they were woven into some of the Unggoy art she adored so much.
But road meant people. People brought the chance of being discovered. Swallowing, she crossed the stretch of black rock and moved into the banks of sand and boulder that would disguise her.
The possibility of being caught was looming in her mind. Human or Prophet, which was worse?
"'Usze!" The marine dropped to one knee, taking aim and firing a steady stream of bullets at the Brute looming above 'Usze's prone form. The Brute stalled, jerking backwards as his shields fought the onslaught.
Orna could hear his shields beeping, warning him against staying out in the open any longer. He lunged for the crate that had fallen into the river bed, he rolled in the water as his shields gave out with a fizzing sound. Pressed against the crate, he lifted his carbine and eyed the charge left in its battery.
"Come on, King Kong," the marine hollered. "Take me if you dare."
From his position, Orna could see the human's face. The helmet was crammed down low on its brow, but Orna could see the pale skin. From what he knew, this human looked terrified. Dropping its spent rifle, the marine reached for a side arm, continuing firing as the Brute roared furiously.
The building hum of Orna's shields was too slow.
"Come on, you bastard," the marine hissed, more to himself than anyone else. His weight on the loose shale bank of the river bed was sending tiny stones tumbling into the water.
"Infidel!" the Brute bellowed, coming into view. It raised an arm, ready to swipe the marine aside.
"Move!" Orna roared, leaping forwards with plasma grenade active in his hand. He saw the marine drop into the water, the Brute turn with deceptive nimbleness. With sure aim, Orna planted the grenade, continuing his run into the forest as the plasma exploded. The Brute's anguished howl was cut short and Orna was tossed forwards by the impact. He landed on the dirt painfully, all the air expelled from his single lung. Grunting and gasping, he scrabbled for purchase against the loose earth.
"Gotcha." Someone pulled Orna to his feet with ease. The Demon's visor flashed in the sunlight as he shouldered his shotgun, steadying Orna until he was ready to stand.
Straightening to his full height, Orna looked down upon the Spartan. His mandibles faltered on 'thanks', he could taste the swollen, hot lump on the roof of his mouth. Between the trees, the moment passed, and the Demon turned away. "'Usze," Orna called out, stalking back to the river. The river was cloudy with blood and dirt, but with no fallen marines, thank the Gods . . .
"Thanks," the marine called out to Orna. His colour was returning and he was sitting with 'Usze. "I don't know the first thing about patching you guys together . . ."
Orna didn't question the marine's strange altruism, and he suppressed his guilt at not thanking the Demon. Aware that the other marines and N'tho were watching them curiously, he crouched down beside 'Usze. "He is not badly hurt, a little concussed I think. He owes you his life," he added to the marine, infusing his tone with all the gravitas he could muster. Even N'tho seemed to reel from this revelation.
"I do," 'Usze coughed.
"Not a problem," the marine assured him, patting 'Usze on the shoulder. It was such a simple gesture, something that Orna might have expected N'tho to do, or something he might have done himself, that Orna was forced to step away from the pair.
"We'd best move on," he said.
"Wait." The Demon's low voice sounded almost amused. "Patterson, how far now?"
"I reckon about half a klick," the female marine responded. Orna had gone to great trouble to memorise her gender. Poor N'tho had already made that blunder.
"We ready to move out?" the Demon asked, surveying their small band. "Then let's go."
Saia could smell Brutes. The scent of the Jiralhanae pervaded the air. She crouched low to the ground, listening out for the tell tale grunts and snorts that would announce their presence. The sun beat down on her shoulder blades, she could feel the skin at the nape of her neck beginning to blister.
"Valitous," a gravelly voice called out, "there's a report of more humans back at the gully."
"Is Tronus back?"
For a moment, Valitous was silent. Saia pressed her back against the stone and closed her eyes, slowing her breathing. The Brute spoke again. "We cannot spare any further Jiralhanae. Send the Unggoy and Kigyar if there are any left."
"The Prophets will not be pleased . . ."
"Then we will not fail."
Sliding her foot along the rock, Saia began to edge away from the voices. She shivered as a breeze whipped over her head, her sweaty skin was chilled.
"Wait," Valitous announced, his command coming out in a snarl. "Sangheili!"
Springing forwards, Saia ran back in the direction she had come, taking the smaller boulders at a bound. This headlong flight was dangerous, she would fall and snap her neck if she continued. Stumbling as the rocks gave way to dry, compacted earth, she risked a look back over her shoulder. Two Brutes were looming over the top of the boulders, one sighting her with his pistol. The third, a brawny creature with braided hair over his shoulders, was barrelling towards her. She would never make it. The Brute reached her, forcing her to the side with a ferocious backswipe. Bouncing off the rocks, she cried out, stifling her own screams as the Brute lifted her by the back of the neck.
"A female," the Brute she recognised as Valitous was practically purring as he carried her back to his comrades. "This is interesting."
"I'm starving," muttered the underling, licking his lips.
Frantic kicking was getting her nowhere, and the pinch of Valitous's hands against her neck was making her dizzy. From this new vantage point she saw a stretch of desert, spotted with troops and a single Covenant cruiser above them, dropping Phantoms like mites.
"A female," Valitous repeated, dropping her to the soft earth. "Why are you here, heretic?"
"Your Gods are false," Saia spat into the dirt.
"I know you." Crouching, Valitous's tilted his head as he contemplated her. His fur bristled. "I do know you," he announced, pleased with himself. "My honoured brothers, we have a distinguished guest."
"For dinner?" muttered the underling.
"No," Valitous was softly spoken, reaching out to lift Saia by the shoulder. "You are the High Priestess. I recognise you. Even without that ridiculous headdress."
She stared up at him, nausea clawing at her belly. "That's blasphemy. That headdress was ceremonial."
Smirking, Valitous gave her a little push. "We'll take her back to Truth. He may have a use for her. Perhaps against the Arbiter."
Losing her balance as he shoved her, Saia gritted her mandibles together. "My mate is dead," she snarled at him.
"Hah." Valitous shook his head. "He's punching a hole through our defences with the Demon and the rest of the damned."
Turning so he wouldn't see her expression, Saia knew she was pathetically transparent none the less. Orna was alive. He had survived what had happened on the Sacred Ring.
"Your mate killed my cousin," Valitous murmured. "In the rebellion."
"Your Prophet killed my daughter," Saia responded softly. "Let's see which one of us lasts the longest."