The Priestess and the Warrior - Spark in the Casket
Posted By: Jillybean<email@example.com>
Date: 19 September 2008, 9:47 am
The Priestess and the Warrior
Spark in the Casket
The human who met Saia 'Jalahass seemed to be a spectacular example of the species. His pale skin was almost translucent. He had a protruding belly but angular shoulders, a thin covering of dark hair on his scalp. He bowed three times before she had managed to fully disembark from the Phantom that had been cleared to land on Earth.
"Oh . . ." the Honour Guard on her left trailed off for want of a deity to swear to.
"I am Ambassador Saia 'Jalahass," she said, extending one hand in the human greeting. The human took it, slicking her palm with sweat, and he shook her arm thoroughly.
The silken robes she had borrowed from 'Kanal were a little too large for her and began to slip off the shoulder. Knowing the humans took a dim view on the lack of clothes, she reached up to tug her garments back into place, sending the human what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
"Excellent, excellent, yes, ah!" Groaning, the human fumbled with the files he carried. "My name is Jeb McKinnon."
She bowed her head politely, catching the gaze of Elte 'Frelle as she did so. "These are my Honour Guards, purely assistants, please do not be alarmed by them."
Jeb McKinnon hesitated for a moment, as though the thought had not occurred to him. "Of course," he said, his words tripping over themselves in their haste to leave his tongue. "Come on, this way, there must be somewhere to sit, and I've got so much that we're going to have to discuss, I don't know how much you'll know, but there's always a chance, isn't there?"
Saia said there was, but she doubted he heard as he led her down the paved streets.
"Hey, Uzi, you ever play trumps?"
Orna didn't spare any time for the marine, sliding into the Scorpion's driving seat with little room to spare.
"I do not believe so," Usze said, he had long since ceased correcting the marine over the mispronunciation. If anything, Orna thought Usze liked the shortening, liked the acceptance with the humans. Not that he could argue it himself. He could see the demon run over the baked earth, his boots sinking through the dry layer on top, to the harder packed earth underneath. The Chief mounted the treads of another Scorpion, struggling as Orna had with the minimal space inside.
"Are you ready, Spartan?" Orna asked, waiting for an affirmative before he started the unstoppable roll forwards. The fine, clay-like surface seemed to shatter into tiny particles of sand, a choking cloud that issued out from behind their vehicles. Pushing the engines as far as they would go, he veered closer to the cliff face, sneaking his own Scorpion between the rock and the Chief's. He heard his passengers shout, along with the Chief's, close enough for them to reach out and touch each other or close enough to the cliff face for them to raise their legs and pray if they were on the wrong side. The Scorpion slipped into darkness, stealing the lead by a tiny, slow-growing margin. He nudged the aim of the Tungsten firing cannon, sighting the glow of the Ghosts up ahead. Machinery clunked into place, sliding a round into the cannon and firing it along the precisely calculated trajectory.
"Tank beats Ghost!"
Swinging the turret around as they plundered through the cave, Orna fired again, his own round sailing underneath the Chief's. Twin explosions knocked out the Lekgolo fools who had chosen the wrong side.
"Tank beats Hunter!"
In the light, a tower powered into the air, the grav lift sparkling in the sunshine. Orna tugged at the controls, bringing the tank closer to the centre. For a second the light blinded him and he fired, not trusting his eyesight as the white aurora dimmed.
"Tank beats everything! Man, I could do this all day!"
The Chief thundered forwards, taking the direct approach. It was a tactic that suited Orna well, allowing him to skirt the edges, to drink in the situation and perform a tactical strike, or to worry at the edges of the defences to enable the forward push to get through. The Chief had commented, not long after landing, that it wasn't dissimilar to the way the Covenant fleet had worked with the humans. Of course it wasn't, Orna had responded, I was the Supreme Commander. It was my decisions, my choices. It was him who had killed so many humans. He fired at a band of choppers as they propelled off of a rise, their wheels spinning freely as their riders focussed entirely on the Chief's tank. They exploded into glowing shards of twisted metal.
"Hoora," the marine who had been teasing Uzi was quick to leave the tread of the Scorpion, running towards the bodies of the fallen Brutes. They oozed blood onto the Forerunner walkway, reflected by the light of the Oracle as he zipped past.
Easing himself out of the Scorpion's driving seat, Orna was thankful for N'tho's hand to help him. "I knew them," the young Sangheili said quickly, quietly.
Still holding N'tho's hand, Orna tugged the younger soul away from the humans. "Who?"
"The Lekgolo pair. They were posted on my first mission." N'tho's eyes were wide. "They gave me silk to send home to my mother."
"And they would have killed us all," Orna said softly, tightening his grip. "Remember that." He caught sight of the Chief watching him and sent N'tho towards Usze. Usze was with his human companions, picking over the corpses for new weapons, or sharing a drink of water to guard against the heat.
The Chief's steps echoed off the alloy under their feet as he walked towards Orna. "Everything okay?"
I killed a friend of his. I'm sure I've killed a friend of yours. "He'll be fine." Orna forced himself to relax, flashing a smile at the Chief. The humans were beginning to recognise these expressions, and he was confident in at least understanding the basis of their body language, but the Chief was protected by his visor. "How are you holding up?" he asked, eager to turn the subject away from N'tho and past transgressions. "Any more imaginings."
The MJOLNIR clad shoulders drew together by a hairsbreadth, the tiniest sign of discomfort from the Spartan. "None," he admitted.
"You've stopped denying them," Orna observed, careful to keep his voice low. "Do you think it is your Construct?"
"I know it is," the Chief said softly.
An abhorrent cool breeze brought a shiver to Orna's skin. He turned towards the Chief, stepping closer. "What are your intentions, Demon?"
"I'll get the mission done," the Chief said quietly.
"There we are," the Oracle chimed. "Please, follow me." The doors opened and Oracle hovered through, humming to himself.
Gesturing for the marines to take the Scorpions down, Orna took the lead, the Chief falling in alongside. "I don't doubt that you will," he said carefully, "but I am concerned that your Construct may try to persuade you otherwise."
"She knows what she has to do."
"Knowing and doing are very different."
"Cortana has her priorities."
Sighing, Orna let the matter rest. "I suppose she is a Construct after all."
"Your mate," the Chief began, "she was part of your religion?"
"The High Priestess. A figurehead, if you will. The convent was long ago cut out from the council, but she was a spiritual leader, yes."
"And here you are destroying everything she believed in." The Chief paused at the control panel. "What does she think of that?"
"She never believed. She was a spiritual figurehead, but I would hesitate to call her a religious leader." In the cool dark of the Forerunner structure, Orna's gaze was caught by a metal pillar. He approached it slowly, surprised when the casing shot up. "Another one!" he said in surprise, touching the golden globe that he had seen before, earlier in the canyons.
"Hmm?" With the light bridge activated, the Chief hoisted his rifle, waiting for Orna to finish.
"Listen to this, 'activation is murder. A genocide larger than . . . this galaxy . . . has ever known' . . ."
"Is it talking about the rings?"
"I believe so. It's a transcript of a conversation. Librarian and Didact." Orna shook his head, skipping through the fractured data. "Librarian had the right idea."
"You think? It's still genocide."
"Would you prefer the alternative?"
"I'd fight until we had nothing left."
"Hmm." Orna sighed as the terminal closed up again. "You sound like my mate."
"I think that's a compliment."
"Hah!" Clapping a hand on the Chief's shoulder, Orna shook his head. "I hope I didn't give you the wrong impression about her. She's manipulative, scheming, too clever for her own good . . ."
The Chief inclined his head to the side, "she sounds like my Construct." A shudder ran through the installation and he tightened his grip on his gun, glancing to Orna. Without consultation, Orna sprinted forwards and they exited the building together, skidding on the ground as a Scarab's leg slammed into the earth before them. Orna ducked, checking the rounds in his carbine. He would need something with more firepower to take out that Scarab.
"That does not look like any Scarab I've seen," one of the marines shouted.
"It's worse than any you'll have encountered," Usze announced, staring up at the creature-like mechanism.
"Son of a Kiggari!" Orna swore, drawing his mandibles tighter. "I put in for that model and they only ever gave me the damn mining versions."
"Hah!" Stacker's voice crackled through the comms. "Nice to see funding strikes the Covies too. How do we deal with it?" The screech of a Hog's tyres heralded his arrival and he vacated the driver's seat for the Chief. "Same as before?"
Orna nodded. "Enough concussive blasts to the legs will disrupt the Lekgolo pathways connecting it to the main control hub, they'll take time to stabilise again, giving us an opportunity."
"You heard the man, er, alien," Stacker slapped him on the arm, skipping easily over his faux pas. "Get to it!"
The Scarab skipped to the side as one of the Scorpions fired at its legs. The nimble machine regained its balance by propping one leg against the cliff, pushing itself off. The Lekgolo infused systems vastly outstripped the old neurogel models what had been Regret's exact words: "We can't simply give you an ascendant model Scarab! The expense must be explained!"
"And my Sangheili are not worth the cost of one Scarab?" Orna had snarled, losing his patience. He had brought this to Regret's attention because they were consistently outperformed in ground combat. Regret seemed to enjoy reading the casualty reports and of course he had, it had been music to his ears to hear of so much death, less for the waiting Jiralhanae to overthrow.
"Take some from the Honour Guard if your troops perform so poorly," Regret had sneered, leaving Orna to stalk from the Hierarch's chamber and wish that this visit to High Charity had coincided with his mate being in the convent, but she had been on Sangheil for once and he had taken the Smoke that very night, furious with bureaucracy, and he had gone AWOL for a while. The Hierarchs had punished him with further cutbacks. Saia had bought him a Scarab for their anniversary present, out of her family wealth, and he had used it on Reach.
The Scarab went up in a plume of plasma and blue fire, arcing in the sky and causing a momentary glare in Orna's visor. He blinked to clear his vision, hearing a crackle over his comms from the plasma's energy. "Not bad, Spartan," Rtas said. "I saw that explosion from orbit. Truth's fleet lies in ruins. Find where the liar hides . . . so I may place my boot between his gums." The vehemence in his voice was enough to make Orna reach up for his helmet, clicking his lower mandible to open a private channel.
"Arbiter!" Usze called him over. "This carbine has jammed again," he waved a claw at the malfunctioning weapon he had in his hand. "I think it's done this time."
"Damn," the marine by Usze's side grunted unhappily. "I like that gun."
"Well it's a newer model," Orna said, breaking the gun apart. "Did you check for grit melting onto the trigger?"
The human meeting room was bedecked with a long beige couch oddly similar to something Saia had seen in her brother's house many years ago, if proportioned differently and bright yellow cushions that she had taken a fancy to. As she tried to listen to McKinnon drone on about the human's significant financial problems, she let her right hand run over the fabric. It was finely made, it rivalled Kig-Yar quality, and when she thought about it . . . had anyone thought to send a detail to the Kig-Yar planets? The monks who trained the snipers were perfectly capable of fending off waves of soldiers from their fortified monastery. Who was reassuring the Unggoy that they weren't going to sacrifice clan safety now the Covenant was in ruins? Which of the Councillors had thought to take a note of how many Jiralhanae were inside the hatcheries and in our cities and . . .
Why was she here?
Clearing her throat, she rose to her feet, startling McKinnon so much he dropped the writing implement onto the ground. "Have I said something?" he asked quickly. "I know we're asking for a lot."
"Excuse me," she said, folding her arms around her torso as she made her escape, hopping over the low table McKinnon was writing on. Her guards followed her, respectfully silent, but she didn't dare glance back. The human corridors looked out onto a beach, golden sands and blue skies sparkling. She could see a satellite moving into position and wondered if it was a new MAC gun, or if her own people were helping and
"My apologies!" Someone walked into her shoulder and she stumbled, her speed taking her grace.
"Not at all," she said, turning to see the human. He was instantly recognisable as Lord Hood, his hairless head pock marked with scars. His face tightened when he saw her fully and she made an effort to let her shoulders slump and appear less threatening. "I wasn't looking where I was going."
"Hmm." Hood raised a hand to cover his mouth while he coughed. "You are . . . Saia 'Jalahass?" he asked, only fumbling a little with the pronunciation.
She inclined her head. "And you are Lord Hood. Your people have a great respect for you, Lord, I had heard of you years ago."
Hood hesitated a moment before nodding once, as though accepting the compliment pained him. "One of your kind has arrived on Earth, looking for you I believe. McKinnon should escort you to the courtyard. Where is he?"
Glancing over her shoulder, Saia shrugged one mandible. "I left him working."
"Hah." Hood grinned at least Saia thought it was a grin. "I'll escort you. He has someone watching him, they can watch you too."
"You don't trust me on your planet, do you?" she asked, following him. "Even though we're unarmed. And you should have seen how difficult it was to persuade these two to relinquish everything." She jerked her head at her Honour Guard and received a scowl from both of them.
Hood raised his hands. "You've killed enough of us."
"We're under new management," she muttered, stepping out into the garden that Hood had referred to as a courtyard. It was more of an oasis, a watering hole. She could see refreshments being served beside a pool, a few humans sitting and talking, while one decidedly not-human stood at the far end of the bar, sampling a drink that the human server was reluctantly pouring. Saia dropped all pretence of control and sprinted over the grass, leaping towards the Sangheili. "Hans!"
"'Jalahass!" Hans turned in time, bracing himself to stop her headlong flight. "It is good to see you!"
She crashed her forehead against his, sighing as she breathed in the smell of the older Sangheili. "You're alive, oh thank the Forerunners, you're alive."
"Of course I am," he scolded, giving her a gentle push away. "I'm too old to die in battle." His grin was feral.
The tightness in Saia's chest stopped her from speaking and she eased herself onto one of the human stools, watching her Honour Guard as they approached with great reverence.
Hans 'Galatash turned back to the bar, raising the glass that the human had offered. "It's called Brandy," he said to her. "As far as I can tell it's made in the same way as our brandy."
"You're not going to drink it, are you?" she asked.
"It's not toxic, I checked." Raising the large glass he tipped his head back and poured a generous measure down his throat.
"It doesn't look like brandy," she muttered, watching as he swirled the brown liquid. The brandy she was familiar with was always a shade of pink.
Hans coughed, setting the glass down. "I could certainly get used to that," he said, sliding the glass towards her. "Go on, try it. I'll be back here," he added to the human. "I'll be sampling everything."
"A drunk Elite," Hood muttered. "Just what we need." He shot a glare at the human server who seemed almost eager to speak with a fellow connoisseur, then he turned his dour expression onto Saia. "Were you leaving?"
"Leaving?" Hans repeated, staring at her. "I was told you were our new Ambassador. I nearly promoted 'Kanal there and then. A sensible choice I though. You've always sympathised with these humans." He slapped a hand onto Hood's shoulder, starting a coughing fit. "And you're smart enough not to be taken advantage of. I could think of a better Ambassador for our people. You've been fighting Truth longer than these humans have been alive." He met her gaze and drew his left mandibles towards each other, a subtle reassurance. "Not to mention your own losses," he glanced to Hood. "You killed her son."
Remembering belatedly that Hans had lost a grand-son as her daughter had lost a mate, Saia swallowed roughly, reaching for the drink. "It was war. Now we have a chance for peace."
Hood grunted, taking a step backwards. "Are you staying planetside?"
"Yes." She took a drink, surprised at the warmth in the liquid. "Yes I am staying, Lord Hood. But I request a different liaison. Jeb McKinnon has no authority here."
Hood almost grinned again but he quashed it quickly, nodding. "If you expect the politicians to listen," he muttered, walking away.
"But you'll tell them?" she called after him. He didn't respond with anything more than a grunt, but she couldn't help her self from grinning and finishing the brandy. "I need your help, Hans," she said to him. "We have to repair a lot of bridges."
Hans shrugged, pointing to another bottle of brown liquid. "We'll manage. I repaired your relationship with Orna, didn't I?"
She hit his shoulder affectionately, realising the humans at the other end of the bar were watching them, one an expression she didn't quite recognise. This human stood up, smoothing her shirt before she approached. "Hello," she said, her voice sounding strained. "I'm Armita Sangha, CEO of the Sangha Mining Corporation." She licked her lips and nodded to the server. "I'll have a vodka and orange, and one for my friends here," she said. "I want to talk to you about those lovely thick hulled Phantoms you use."
"This is the cartographer?" N'tho asked, lowering his weapon as the entered the room.
"Keep your guard up," Orna warned, approaching the precipice as the Chief began manipulating the controls. He looked out over the constructed world they were on. The deserts began to give way to mountains by the barrier, snowy peaks no doubt housing machinery, that was how the rings worked.
A hologram sprung into life beside him and he twisted, recognising the iconic image and homing in on the part of the galaxy he knew best, Sangheil. Tearing his gaze away, he focussed on the world in front of him, on defending their position. The knowledge that he was so far from home prickled at the back of his mind and inadvertently he found himself watching the skies and the flares of the battle overhead. A Phantom howled towards them and he braced himself against the railing, shouting a warning.
"Chief, you got a whole mess of hostile air inbound. Get back inside while we take 'em out," Johnson shouted over the radios.
Orna crouched, roaring a challenge to a circling Banshee. The foolish pilot took him up, veering closer at too steep an angle to fire. He leapt, his grip tenuous on the Banshee's seamless skin. Forcing his foot between the canopy and the hull, he broke the seal, tossing the Jiralhanae to the ground as he slid into the heated space. His hands fastened around the controls and he jerked the Banshee upwards. In the skies he was at home, responsible only for himself. He could protect the troops on the ground, but he didn't have to direct them, to provide for them, to grieve with them. This was his element and he celebrated by bringing a Phantom down in a blaze of glory. He curved around the installation, seeing the Spartan make short work of Chieftain, using the swells of gravity to leap out of harm's way. Orna grinned, turning back to the fight in the skies. N'tho was so safe the poor youth was bored.
Escorting Johnson's Pelican to the pick up point, he made lazy circles over the top of the drab human ship, nearly colliding with a rapidly ascending Sentinel. Thrusting backwards to find a safe place he watched the horde of machines rise into the sky.
"No! Don't shoot! They mean us no harm. Those units have a priority task," Spark shouted, his voice higher pitched than usual.
"Oh, yeah? And what might that be?" Johnson muttered. Through the radio, Orna heard the click of the safety on the machine gun.
"I really can't say... not for sure. But if you allow me to find a terminal closer to the Core . . ."
"No, Oracle. We must keep the Prophet of Truth in our sights," Orna interrupted. He tipped a wing as he passed by the Chief, the Spartan making no move to acknowledge him.
"But what about your Construct?" Spark sputtered, "her solution to the Flood? With more data, I - "
Keyes was quick to halt him, the Chief raising his head as the transmission came through the comm. "The Arbiter's right. We have priorities too. Until we kill Truth, stop the Rings from firing - nothing else matters."
Pushing his mandible against his comms, he opened a private channel. "Do not let your concern for my welfare commit you to this suicidal scheme," he quoted.
The channel remained silent for a moment before the Chief responded, his voice quiet despite their privacy. "We have our priorities. Perhaps we are doing so from a worm's eye view." He stepped into the waiting Pelican and the comms went quiet.