The Priestess and the Warrior - Relive, Relieve
Posted By: Jillybean<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 6 August 2008, 10:21 am
The Priestess and the Warrior
The sweat was gathering on N'tho's brow, a slick line that followed the young Sangheili's evident concern. A bead dripped onto his mandibles and he twitched them irritably, his fingers flexing over the barrel of his gun. He was pressed against a shipping crate, his shields whispering quietly from the pressure against the metal. His weight made his feet sink into the sandy ground, the drizzle from the storm front turning the dirt to mud. A human was crouched beside him, loading a clip into its assault rifle. Orna felt the tableau should be pictured, or commemorated in verse, Ode to Desperation. To Terror.
"What are you thinking?" The Chief said quietly, barely a crackle coming over his speakers.
Orna hesitated, confusion and surprise warring within him until he realised the Spartan was indicating to the AA gun on the horizon. The Spartan's metal encased head nodded towards the bursts of super heated plasma that arced into the sky. Breathing a sigh of relief, Orna turned his attention onto the hillock, bristling with Grunts and plasma cannons. "If we storm it we'll take heavy losses, but I don't see that we have another option."
The Chief grunted, silent for a moment as he contemplated that fate. "We have to get that gun down," he said, resigning himself to the loss.
"You are not the solider I thought you were," Orna said quickly, the words rushing to come out before common sense could stop them. He trained his gaze on a solitary Grunt on the perimeter.
"Nor you," the Chief murmured. He twisted so his visor pointed in Orna's direction. Orna had the feeling that if he could see the Chief's face, and accurately read human expressions, the Chief would be disappointed. He was a little disappointed in himself too. It was a hard nugget in his mind, the only part of him that felt anything other than tired and obedient.
The Chief drew his assault rifle, it unlocked from his armour with a clink, checked the sites, then handed it to a marine with a shake of his head, taking the human's needler instead. Orna thought it an odd choice, but perhaps he wasn't thinking of his own safety.
"Arbiter," Usze growled at him, brandishing a first aid kit. "You told me you would see to that bleeding."
The cut on Orna's forehead dripped into his right eye and he shoo his head. "That is a human kit."
"It works just as well." The Sangheili stood beside him, cracking the seal on the plastic before Orna had a chance to complain. "You would not have me explain how the Arbiter died of blood poisoning, would you?"
"One did," Orna said, watching with some fascination as Usze carefully peeled the wrapping off a gel pack. His long fingers found the human trappings awkward.
"There are more of you?" the Chief asked.
"Many more," Usze said, vehement. He pressed the gel against Orna's skin, concentrating on the skin of his superior, rather than the cyborg beside him.
Taking pity, Orna waved a hand at the Chief. "They're not likely to come for you, not unless we find ourselves unexpectedly and inexplicably on the Great Journey. And then we'll have bigger things to worry about. They're dead." He scrutinised the flat visor for any hint of emotion. "My rank is not supposed to live."
"The Hierarchs intended to kill you," Usze said, finishing up. He wiped his hands off on the ground, flicking congealed globules from his fingers. "But they needed you too badly."
"Needed me. Needed my supporters to think I was dead." Rising to his feet, Orna prodded the lump on his skull. The gel held fast, protecting the cut. "Form up," he called to the others, glancing to the Chief to give the final order. The helmet swivelled to the AA gun. The soldiers waited for an answer, holding in pattern that automatically placed N'tho to the right flank, where he could break away with his superior speed if needed. Orna gritted his teeth. "Move out," he told them, taking his own position upfront.
The Arbiter who had died of blood poisoning was Efne 'Zuhammee. Old style ballistic needlers had left him with improperly cauterised wound on his leg. Before his death, he destroyed three platoons of rebel Jiralhanae, succumbing to the fever as reinforcements arrived. Over two Ages ago. Orna's death wouldn't be so noble, he knew that now. Childish dreams of dying in battle had been replaced by lucky shot by a Kig-Yar, into the base of the skull and he'd know no more. He lay down suppressive fire for the Chief to reach the glowing base of the gun. White hot, the AA gun seemed to pulse with energy.
One of the workers fell, his arms splayed to break his fall. Orna crouched beside him, using his own shields to protect the human as one of the gun's legs crumpled and it fell, bringing rocks and trees with it down the cliff, thunder ringing out to echo its demise.
"All ships," Hood's voice crackled over the comm. "Fire at will!"
Reaching down to help the human off the yellow rocks, Orna turned his face towards the Dreadnought. His fingers dug into human's shoulders and it hissed in pain, flinching away from him.
Light exploded over the dark skies, the ships bucking away like shying animals, frightened of the Dreadnought's released power. The Chief froze, his suit making no motion, and on Orna's HUD he saw a confusing array of signals, the Spartan pinging KIA. With a whine so eerie it would have ruffled his feathers if he had still been a Hatchling, the Dreadnought sent a pulse of energy upwards. It became so bright, Orna looked away, shielding his face with his arm. Perhaps this would kill him. A sudden death, with so many others, just one more with no one left to grieve.
Unworthy of him really.
The human worker cried out again, the light blinding it.
Orna twisted, arching his body over the human. "Get behind me," he growled, "hold fast."
"What did Truth just do?" Hood demanded, his lungs giving out as he spluttered his way through his demands.
Giving the human a gentle push back to his comrades, Orna approached the Chief. The fire tingled over his skin still as the Dreadnought rose in the air.
"No, sir, but he certainly did something," Keyes announced.
The Dreadnought rose, reaching the suspended glowing orb in the sky with all the gentleness of a kiss. Now Truth was going to escape, to trigger the Great Journey, or simply bring more suffering to races who had suffered too much too often for too long. The fire was being absorbed through his skin, into his muscles and bones, into his mind, burning away the soft, reedy mess of fear that had allowed dust to gather. He threw back his head, barrelling out his chest, and he let out a roar of dignity.
"Evac wounded and regroup. Wherever Truth went . . ."
"Sir! New contacts slipping in!"
Yes let them come, Orna thought, seeing a billowing cloud rip across the skies. "What is it?" he said to the Chief, trusting to the sensors in his suit, better than Orna's eyes. The Spartan was certainly more able to grasp situations, refusing to give orders when Orna found himself weakened. "More Brutes?"
The Chief seemed to shiver, his armour giving away only the barest hints of movement. "Worse."
Now the ship was closer, breaking through the storm front. Orna almost thought he smelled the stench of death. "Get the workers to an evac point," he hissed to Usze. "Now." To his credit, Usze didn't hesitate, herding his charges towards the belly of a Pelican. "Gather all the short range heavy projectile weapons you can find, the, uh," Orna hesitated, raising a hand to his head as he thought, his fingers accidentally brushing his tender wound, "shotguns, yes! The human shotguns, and if we have any carbines they'll work too." He turned away from the hill, casting his gaze over those who remained. "You're wounded," he noted of one marine, who clutched his arm to his side. "Go."
"Sir, I can fight."
"Go, or I will have you escorted to the Pelican," Orna snapped at him. His teeth clacked together, the marine paled and left, limping from the hillock to the ground beneath him. Orna nodded, taking a deep breath as he regarded the task force before him. "Chief, we will not have long. If the Flood have landed on your planet, it must be cleansed. Do you have flamethrowers?"
"There are few within the city, with other squads," another marine responded. She too looked pale, but her grip was steady on the shotgun she had acquired.
"Then we go, defend the city as long as we can. If we can cleanse the ship, maybe this planet can be saved. Move out."
Sen landed on the scored flooring of the Shadow of Intent, turning to help Saia off the drop ship as though she was a dignitary visiting to bless the hull. Or a frail old Prophet who could should accept the use of his chair. She took his hand none the less, wobbling a little as she felt the ship's gravity on her.
"Nakomo," shouted an Unggoy deckmaster, his grizzled face contorting as it saw Saia. "What are you doing? Who's this?"
Sen took a step forwards, raising a hand. "I have to speak to the Ship Master."
"Hah!" The Unggoy threw its head back and cackled. "Now? The Flood has landed upon the human planet and R'tas wants the whole thing glassed. There's no time to speak to the Ship Master!"
Before Sen could argue, Saia placed a hand on his arm. "Take me to the bridge," she said in a low voice. "I've met R'tas Vadumee once or twice, he served under my mate. I can't let him glass this planet."
Sen's eyes narrowed and he turned to her, clicking thoughtfully. "He doesn't need this in the middle of a battle."
"My mate is still down there," she hissed. "And our allies, the human allies you were so proud of when we were back down there with them. Take me to the bridge, you can leave after that, he need not know your involvement. Come on!" Tugging him towards the corridors, she noticed the battle scarring all over the [I]Intent. She had seen plenty of gunfire in her halls. The ship and her crew looked as though they had been dragged over hot coals to prove themselves. How had they taken this fleet from the Sacred Ring to Earth? In the face of this order, her plan to simply stop Truth by being there felt hollow.
Sen led her through the wide hallways, ignoring the few crew they met, and none recognised Saia. The guard on the door of the Bridge paid them little attention, allowing them access to the control centre. The darkness was broken only by the flickering holo screens, the ship's many AI holding off the drones. She saw R'tas standing on the podium, his armour stained with blood and dented from his last battle. He had his head tilted to one side as he listened to a human voice coughing through the speakers. Half his jaws had been ripped away, leaving a stump that twitched as though trying to express disgust. Saia almost stepped back, shocked as always by the disfigurement. It had turned his once plain but pleasant face into the stuff of nightmares, hatchlings would point in the street, females would certainly recoil. But then, he didn't have a mate, did he? Too poor to offer a dowry.
"You are running out of time, Lord Hood, the Flood must be stopped!"
"That's our home" the human responded, a hacking cough cutting him off.
"And it will be destroyed, by the Flood or by glassing. We'll help you evacuate one." R'tas reached forwards to end the communication, catching sight of the newcomers on the bridge as he did so.
For a moment Saia was sure she wouldn't be recognised, that her hopes had been pinned too high on this bloodless, hideous individual. But then R'tas's body convulsed as though he was about to bow but stopped himself. She raised a hand. "No cause for formality, R'tas, my institution is burned to the ground by now. At least I should hope."
"'Jalahass," he said, bowing his head to offer some sign of respect. "We had thought you died on High Charity."
"You - " she paused, her steps faltering. "You did?"
"There were no reports of you on the evacuated fleet. We assumed the worst. One of your aides said you stayed at the convent till the last. It's what many would have expected from you," he added, narrowing his gaze. "You condemned your mate for heresy after all."
Suddenly, without armour or robes or ceremony, Saia felt quite exposed. "Would you have had me support him? Then we both would have been executed, and our children too. The hierarch was not impenetrable, I knew he would be saved for the Arbiter. I did what I had to do. Does he know I'm alive?"
"He thinks you're dead. He will be too if we don't evac that planet."
"You can't," she began, stopping herself with a little dignity left intact. "I won't beg, but you can't do much worse than to kill the Arbiter, R'tas. Our society has been shot through the heart, we can't survive if we lose everything."
"No?" He spun on her. "We use this opportunity now! The Councillors are useless, your convent was merely a tool of the Prophets. The poor were crushed underfoot, the bloodless had even less. Those poor kiggari who chose to invoke the ancient warrior right of mating were hated by their females and their mates, their children had no great honour. And if you chose to be noble and leave females to the mates they had chosen you had better hope you had a dowry worth shouting about. You have no idea."
A chill settled down Saia's spine. She took one step closer, so she stood at the foot of the ramp and had to gaze up at the commander towering above her. "I have done more for the plight of our species than you could ever imagine. I have risked my life, the life of my mate, the lives of our family to do the work that my convent has never been able to speak of. I was never the puppet of the Prophets. They hated me, would have had me ousted, if I was not so popular with the crowds at every blessing. I blessed you, did I not? You all devoured the lies I gave you, so don't try to blame me for our problems. And now my mate and our allies are on that planet and you want to glass it, I will not allow it."
"How will you stop me?" he snorted.
She pointed over his shoulder to one holoscreen. "That is the continent, is it not? It's isolated, water all around it. Refine your fire to that landmass, it saves most of the planet."
"And if the Flood spread?"
"Then do it quickly."
R'tas glowered at her, waving imperiously. "Take her away, but make sure she's comfortable at least."
"Think about it," Saia implored, as Sen took her by the elbow and led her away, murmuring a hundred apologies as they moved off down the corridors. He brought her at last to what would have been the guest of honour suite, placing his palm on the door lock as the AI made a soft enquiry. "Something wrong?" Saia asked, narrowing her eyes as Sen stared the reading.
The doors parted and a fully adorned Councillor stood before them, in ceremonial silver armour, headdress bearing the legend of her constituents. She gasped when she saw Saia, her throat muscles going slack in a way that would be unattractive on most Sangheili, but only made Fera 'Talsamee more beautiful. She surged forwards, extending both elbows in a gesture of delighted greeting, leaving Saia with nothing to do but clasp them awkwardly in her hands. "Saia 'Jalahass, oh it is so good to see you!"
"Really?" Saia managed, her voice coming out in a squeak.
"Yes," 'Talsamee said vehemently. She shook her head. "We though you were dead!"
"Because of you I nearly was. Traitor."
Sen stepped between them while 'Talsamee drew back as though wounded. "Priestess," he began. "'Talsamee was imprisoned with the other Councillors. Truth betrayed her like he betrayed us all."
"She had fair warning." Closing her eyes, Saia placed her hands over her skull. "Find me other rooms, Sen, I can't speak to her now."
"You would want to know surely," 'Talsamee said, "that my father is still alive and co-ordinating the evacuation to Sangheil." The note of desperation in her voice gave Saia cause to look at her again. 'Talsamee bowed her head. "I hear he has Saia 'Nyahasea on the planet."
If 'Talsamee had drawn a pistol on Saia, she couldn't have made more of an impact. Sagging against the bulkhead, Saia let a grin take over her expression. "She's alive?"
"Yes. And well." 'Talsamee raised her hands, palms stretched out to forestall any attack. "And Saia 'Kristassi is alive too. She is here."
"Councillor 'Kristassi," Saia gave her older daughter her formal title.
"Yes." 'Talsamee sucked a deep breath into her lung, her hands making fists. "My son died getting her onto a transport."
There was nothing that could be said for the other Sangheili. Losing a son-in-law was nothing compared to losing a son, Saia knew, she had lost a son and a daughter. She wanted to ask about Kray and Hara, her remaining sons, but didn't know how to without grieving the poor Sangheili further. The Intent shuddered, lights flickering, and Sen glanced up. "We're glassing the planet," he warned.
Saia reached forwards for 'Talsamee's elbows, taking a firm grasp and pulling the Councillor closer. "I am so sorry," she whispered. "Nothing will ever make up for the loss of such a soul. He will watch over you always."
"From where?" 'Talsamee choked out as a long flicker of power coursed through the Intent.
"There may not be a Great Journey, but your son could never leave you," Saia promised, gripping tighter. Over 'Talsamee's shoulder she could see Earth through the window, watching the continent as it was set ablaze, the heat distorting the shape . . . she had seen that shape before. When she had taken her Oath of Learning and lived in the libraries of the convent for what felt like long Sangheili years, she had seen that symbol in only the oldest texts, untranslated from their original form. That symbol had been translated into three words: peace resting place. She watched the old glyph burn into the surface of the Earth even when her eyes were closed against despair.