They're Random, Baby!

Fan Fiction

The Priestess and the Warrior - The Covenant
Posted By: Jillybean<jillybean@bungie.org>
Date: 4 October 2008, 5:46 pm

Read/Post Comments

The Priestess and the Warrior
Author: Jillybean

The Covenant

The shoulder guards of the Arbiter's armour were showing the evidence of a long fight. The Arbiter was not supposed to live long enough to need to change his armour, things like rips in the gel suit were not accommodated for in the design. Resting the chest piece on the deck of the Phantom, Orna cast his mind back over long forgotten history lessons. One Arbiter, one who had been called to fight a rogue AI on High Charity, had lived for over a year, until sacrificing himself in a room that had the air sucked from it while he disabled the AI. He still had some time to live before he went about taking the honour of longest surviving Arbiter. Easing his upper body out of the gel suit he took the repair-kit from N'tho, breaking the tube of liquid sealant open. He could see the other Sangheili watching him. They stared, or tried not to stare, at the mark on his chest. It was almost healed now, the scabbing subsiding as new flesh grew underneath. He didn't think about it any more. It didn't ache constantly, or pull with every quick movement, and he had other things on his mind. Seeing it now, at the bottom of his vision, made him aware again.

What did they see when they looked at him?

"We're coming up on the island," the pilot warned them. Orna pulled the gel suit back on, feeling the left over resin where the tear had been mended. Replacing his armour, he took a deep breath, testing the limitations of his own body.

"One of the human Pelicans has been brought down!"

"Are they alright?" Orna asked. He didn't expect the Spartan to be wounded, but if the humans needed assistance, he would be prepared to re-route the second Phantom.

"They're pushing forwards."

"Then we continue as planned." He reached up for the bulkhead as the grav lift powered up. "Ready?"

Commander Shef 'Lahara nodded. "We are here Arbiter. We're ready."

Orna took a step into the haze of the lift and sank onto the surface of the Ark. Grey mountains rose up in front of him, great trees clinging onto the scree and eking out an organic life on this oversized machine. Orna missed real planets, missed real sun, and missed the stars over the canyon in the night when he was at home. These mountains were not the same as those back home. The pebbles under his feet were rough, too young to be a real planet, and the grass was too regulated, without a single patch overgrown. He turned away from the Ark's beauty to watch the others disembark.

Shef 'Lahara left the Phantom first, known to Orna through years of work. Shef was one of the traditional Sangheili, with a substantial dowry that had allowed him to bond with a Priestess. Saia had kept in touch with that Priestess but never spoken much about her, protecting her perhaps, protecting another heretic like herself. He looked up when he landed on the ground, clocking Orna and approaching slowly. If his gaze lingered over Orna's chest, it was a momentary lapse in his demeanour.

And then it was Usze, relaxed and confident as he approached the tree line, scanning the horizon. He was untrained but not unskilled. Usze could become a very fine soldier. As if feeling the weight of Orna's gaze on him, he turned, raising his head in acknowledgement.

Mor 'Flesamm was next, one of the Covenant's finest. Young, but impressively trained, the shining star of his family. This was the first time Orna had served with him, and his expectations had been surpassed so far.

And lastly it was N'tho, who almost stumbled on the way down. He was so busy checking that no one saw, he nearly tripped again. N'tho held a human shotgun, his favoured weapon, and he tightened his grip as the Phantom powered up its thrusters and moved away to engage the loyalists.

Orna holstered his gun and waited for them to approach. "You are here because we . . . we Sangheili have reclaimed our independence. It has been thousands of years since we worked for ourselves, since we had a hand in our fate, and did not follow the every whim of a Forerunner that were all knowing and all seeing. I will tell you of the Forerunner, brothers, they were like us. Like us, they feared the Flood, like us they made sacrifices, like us they loved their families. This is the way the world ends, my brothers, and we are the harbingers of doom. Onwards!" Arching his spine he roared a challenge into the trees, birds taking flight, shrieking as they rose into the skies.

And from up in the hills came an answering roar, primal, mammalian . . . Jiralhanae.

With a grunt, Orna motioned for Usze and Mor to go on ahead scouting the terrain. They hurried over the rough ground, leaping from rock to rock, leaving the heavier weapons to the three who could afford to take the slower route.

"Take this," Orna handed N'tho one of the human rocket launchers. "Use it carefully, it has more power than you think." He knew it was a needless warning, N'tho had used them before and had so far succeeded in not killing anyone. He couldn't help but think that if this were an opera, it would be N'tho who died in the final act, and though the soliloquy would be beautiful, he wouldn't rise for a curtain call.

Then again, if this were an opera, he would likely die too. He had too much to atone for.

With that thought haunting him, he took the easier path on the grass up the hill. He would leave tracks but he didn't care, no one would be alive to follow him this time. Shef hoisted the plasma cannon and dropped into line behind him, his breathing a soft rasp as he did his best to keep up. An unpleasantly smug feeling burned inside of Orna. He was still capable of out-running these younger Sangheili.

"We've taken out a Ghost and the Unggoy," Mor said through the radio. "But there are two choppers down there and I suspect more enforcements in the tower's base."

"Hold position. We'll take out the vehicles with the fuel rod cannon," Orna responded, coming over the rise to see that the Ghost was still functional. The purple skin nestled into the undergrowth, the engine still purring. The two Unggoy who had been posted on guard had been dragged to the rocks, bodies respectfully turned over as the Unggoy preferred. Orna wondered if that had been Mor or Usze.

The tower rose up from a basin in the mountain side, but the only way down from this cliff face was a direct path into the valley. They'd be spotted the moment they left the cover afforded by the tall trees. Mor was crouched by the base of one, sighting the valley with his carbine. He raised one shoulder in acknowledgement of Orna's approach, but concentrated on the troops below. "I think they're about to replace the Unggoy," he said quietly. "Another Ghost is powering up."

"Hold here," Orna muttered. "Hide." He strode towards the Ghost, hitting the shut-off switch and climbing onto its blunt nose. From here he was hidden from the view of the path, only Mor was still visible and he hunkered down in the bushes, almost unnoticeable.

The Ghost was coming towards them, the nose and wings coming over the rise of the path first. The Unggoy were talking and Orna shut his mind to the conversation, he could ill afford to feel guilt now. He sprung from his hiding place as the Ghost's engines sent a waft of hot air his way. His foot on the Unggoy's neck snapped the smaller beast's spine and it fell to the ground as Orna wrestled the Ghost back under control. He spun it around, motioning to Shef. "Take the other. Follow me down. They'll expect one but not two so we'll have to be damned quick."

"We'll cover you with the heavy weaponry," Usze said, taking the fuel rod cannon from Shef. "If you stay out of the shadow of the tower we should be able to stay on you."

"Heads up," Mor warned in his low voice. "They're looking restless."

Firing up the Ghost, Orna pushed its engines to the limits and felt the Ghost soar down the steep path, the wind whipping past him and drowning out the surprised cries of the Jiralhanae. He opened fire, hot plasma being flung off in all directions as he veered to the side to make way for Shef's second barrage. A blob of fluorescent green exploded in front of one of the Choppers, discouraging anyone from their use. Orna brought his Ghost around, feeling the searing heat under his feet from the hot ground. A well aimed Brute shot knocked him off balance and the Ghost spun towards the sea-cliff. Now was time to run. He turned tail and fled back up the hill, Shef ahead of him. They reached the safety of the treeline as N'Tho loosed a rocket at a foolish Chopper plundering up behind them.

Leaving the cockpit of the Ghost and letting it crash to the ground, Orna grabbed the fuel rod gun from Usze. "Take the Ghost," he snarled, turning back. "We're charging them."

"Arbiter - " Mor began, his worries lost as Orna shouldered the fuel rod gun and took a deep breath, filling his single lung with all the air he could.

Orna roared and plunged forwards, Mor and N'tho on his heels as the others overtook them with the Ghosts. Orna's limbs were moving so fast he could barely keep up with himself and when he hit the bottom of the valley he dropped to one knee, staring at the Wraith as it lumbered towards him, gunnery convulsing as it prepared a measure of plasma. He fired at the gunner, killing him instantly. The heat blistered his face as he dived out of the way of the plasma. Some of the vegetation caught fire, red and orange tongues licking up the bark of the trees. Leaving the fuel rod gun on the ground he sprinted towards the hulk of the Wraith, planting a grenade on the hatch as he continued his flight over it's back, escaping.

"Arbiter!" N'tho howled in warning.

With a turn against momentum that ripped his shoulder muscles, Orna slid to the ground to avoid being trampled by a Chopper. He heard the spurts as the Jiralhanae fired a spiker at him, the lethal barbs embedding in the ground as they tracked closer to where he lay. Orna rolled, knowing he only had a sword, the fuel rod cannon out of reach. The sky above him showed him his galaxy and the relentless hammering of the Shadow of Intent. He brought his elbows under him and pushed off, landing ungainly against the ground as the Chopper rounded and came towards him. He grabbed the hilt of his plasma sword and clambered to his feet, running towards the wheel. Without allowing himself to think about the consequences of failure he leapt, placing one foot on the wheel and nearly being sucked under. With every muscle screaming he reached the handles – solid and unmoving. He ignited the plasma sword and allowed his speed to sever the Jiralhanae's head from its body. Suddenly uncontrolled, the Chopper bucked, throwing him through the air. He twisted as he felt gravity working on him and he landed on his feet, knees cracking as they flexed to take the impact.

"Arbiter," Shef approached him slowly, fuel rod gun languishing in his hands. "Are you . . . we're ready," he said, changing his tact quickly.

"Good." Extending his hand to take the gun, Orna rolled his shoulder, feeling the muscles and ligaments complain. Later. "Onwards, brothers," he said, casting a quick look over his comrades. All still alive and whole.

"Arbiter, we're sending more weapons your way," the Phantom's commander announced, the heavy green pod swooping into the canyon. It spat weapons cases into the canyon and Shef began breaking the seals open, handing out short range weapons. He grinned when he came out with extra ammunition for the Brute Shots that were left behind.

Away from the heat of the plasma fires, Orna felt the first sharp smacks of the cold breeze that came in off the mountains. He could taste snow in the air and wondered if it was only their proximity to the salt sea that kept the ground clear. In the shadows of the tower's tunnels he could smell the stench of the Jiralhanae. "Remember this," he murmured. "Remember that smell."

"It will be a long time before we allow the Jiralhanae back on our ships," Shef agreed.

Even so, Orna wondered if they would ever return. Before Truth had struck his bargain with the rebels, they had been happy on their auxiliary worlds, mining ore and trading on the outskirts. They were far from human territory, with the shipyards between them and the rest of what remained of the Covenant fleet. Would they want to join a new society, or would they prefer to slide back into anonymity?

Shef and N'tho advanced first, using their carbines to clear the corridors as the hid behind the corners. Orna reloaded the Brute Shot slowly, humming under his breath. He murmured the odd word of the song, knowing that the joke was lost when the rhyme didn't repeat itself, and he remembered fighting the Brute rebels when he had first joined the fleet. A long time ago.

Hearing a snippet of the song, the last Jiralhanae defending the elevator flew into a rage, storming into the prongs of Shef's energy sword.

Stepping onto the platform, Orna rolled his shoulders as N'tho activated the elevator, bringing them up into the waiting jaws of a Chieftain and his loyal few. Diving behind a glass barrier, Orna thanked the Forerunner for the foresight in proofing the glass against even high powered gravity pulses. If his good luck held, he might have to begin praying again.

"What now?" Mor called from the left corner, brandishing his pair of Needlers as a blur moved between the pillars.

Bringing the Brute Shot out, Orna kept his hands under the solid shelf of the barrier so the Jiralhanae wouldn't see his signals. Not that there was much strategy in his plan. Five Sangheili against five Jiralhanae? Even odds. They broke ranks, ploughing into the trunk of the room. Orna ignored the Jiralhanae on either side, confident his brothers would deal with then. His target was the Chieftain. The first grenade he launched was blown aside by a smack of the hammer. Orna used the push of gravity to vault off one of the pillars and he drove the bladed butt of the Brute Shot into the skull of the Chieftain, splattering his armour with blood.

"Arbiter?" The Phantom Commander's voice crackled in Orna's ear and he remembered the barrier. Leaving the Brute Shot where it was, nothing short of Lekgolo would pull that out of the spinal chord, he walked to the tower's controls and disengaged the barrier quickly.

"Arbiter, Sergeant Johnson's team has been compromised. Commander Keyes requests that we meet the Spartan at the third tower. Come out and I'll pick you up."

Orna nodded, bracing himself on the panel as he watched the Shadow of Intent. "We'll be there," he said, turning back to his fellows as they returned to the elevator. He was almost out of the tower's base when he caught sight of another of the terminals. "Go, I'll be one moment," he said, hurrying to access the panel.

"Arbiter?" Shef turned his weapon on the terminal as it slid apart. He frowned, expression half hidden by his helmet. "We don't have time."

"It won't be long," Orna said, flicking through the screens and reading the transcript as his radio recorded the data. "Your history is an appalling chronicle of over-indulgence and self-appointed authority, you have spent millennia navel gazing while the universe has continued to evolve and now you claim the mantle is justification for impending nature's inevitable refinements. You are deluded but through death you will transcend ignorance . . . confirmed rampant" he murmured, watching as the terminal closed up again. Something didn't want him seeing these data.

Or wanted to restrict it.

"Come on, Arbiter!" his radio shouted at him. "The Spartan is in the air!"

Hurrying outside to the waiting Phantom, Orna let the grav lift drag him into the belly of the ship. It jerked as it turned, the atmosphere placing stresses on the little vessel as it manoeuvred to avoid the loyalist Banshees. Holding onto the ship like an inexperienced graduate, Orna hurried to a seat, strapping himself in as the Phantom dropped like a stone.

"Any word from Johnson?" he called through the radios.

"None, the Chief will need help disabling that tower, the anti-aircraft guns are making an approach difficult," Miranda responded.

Gritting his jaws together, Orna nodded. He would have preferred to be in this battle, to be flying at the helm, but some things couldn't be helped. He would rather know what information the Ark held secret even if it meant sacrificing a Banshee to a comrade.

"Watch out, Arbiter, we're coming in hot," the pilot warned him and Orna could feel the rapid deceleration of the Phantom. He dropped out of the grav lift and hit the ground running, noticing the solidity of frost under his feet. He could see the Spartan leaping from a Hornet and charging at a nest of Kig-Yar. The Spartan raised an arm in salute and Orna responded with a holler, leaping over the hastily erected barricades and using his last remaining round in the fuel rod gun to spill superheated plasma over two Jiralhanae .

"Arbiter!" Mor retreated quickly from the entrance of the tower. "Drones!"

"Assault rifles and Needlers," Orna began, the words shocked into silence as a pulse of green energy smacked into Mor's chest and sent him backwards. The Sangheili fell to the ground, armour burned and twisted, his chest ripped open. "Hunters!" Orna heard himself say, while he stared at Mor. "Take cover!"

He crouched beside Mor, taking his shoulders and hauling him backwards while the others dealt with the Hunters. Spreading his fellow Sangheili out on the cold ground, he pressed his hand into the back of Mor's cooling neck. "Sorry, brother," he murmured. "I have nothing else to give you."

It wasn't your fault.

He shook the thought of what his mate would say out of his head and entered the tower, cleaning up the last of the drones. "Darken this tower and the barrier will fall," he said to the Chief. As the Mjolnir suited human hesitated, Orna felt a growl ripple through him. "Go, Spartan! We have no time to waste!"

"There's another terminal there. It seems to be open for access." The Chief gestured to the upper level. "Record it."

Bristling at the command – and the loss – Orna walked to the orb, activating the stream of data.

"What is that?" N'tho asked, his voice trembling a little.

Glancing at the younger Sangheili, Orna forced composure over his features. "These terminals crop up all over the Ark." He grimaced and swore as the control was stolen from him once more. "Something stops me from accessing the whole database though. We've been recording them for posterity, the Spartan and I, in the hope they will offer some clues, some valuable . . . for when we return home." He didn't look at N'tho. "We will return home," he said softly.

"'My work is done,'" N'tho read from the screen. "It's Cyrillic Sangheili," he said in surprise.

"And yet it's also Latin English." Without elaborating, Orna scanned the report. "More of the Librarian and the Didact."

"Wait." Laying a hand over Orna's to stop him from flicking through, N'tho leaned closer to study the passage. He tensed. "'Be proud. The mind claims victory but it still doesn't suspect. You've outwitted it, my love. And now you can destroy it.'" He shivered, his sombre tone attracting the other Sangheili and the remaining marines. "'But you cannot save me.' Who was she?"

"He, she, it, it doesn't matter." Reaching the tactical reports, Orna raced through them quickly while N'tho related what he had read to the others.

"He ought to have saved her, if he could," Usze announced, with so much boldness in his tone that Orna had to laugh. He seemed affronted by Orna's cynicism but continued as though his leader had made no comment. "She was a friend of his. We would not leave our brothers behind."

"Wouldn't we?" Shef asked. "Forerunner knows one of us bears the mark of our loyalty."

Orna's chest itched.

"We had no choice, and the Arbiter does not blame us," Usze spat back. He was too riled up for Shef's casual words. The humans were watching with concern, exchanging uneasy glances.

"Then perhaps Didact had no choice either."

"Perhaps Librarian left him no choice," Orna murmured, his hands going still as the meaning of the words on screen impressed into his mind. "Dear Forerunners on the Journey," he hissed. "They sacrificed everyone."

"What?" Shef asked.

"They . . . they used it like a cudgel, to beat their enemy into submission. No elegance here, no grace." He stepped back as the terminal closed up on itself and was startled by the sound of the elevator moving back in the shaft. Except it wasn't. "What is that?" he demanded, hearing the crackle of their radios as the noise grew louder. "Out!"

"High Charity?" R'tas' voice seemed to crack with the strain. Emerging back into the sunlight, Orna could see the sky being ripped apart by the slipspace rupture. "By the Gods, brace for impact!" R'tas warned as parts of the delicate city spiralled out of control.

"Back in the tower, they're going to land right on top of us," Orna warned feeling the ground shake from the impact. He could see the Intent and to him it looked as though High Charity was heading straight for the carrier . . . a trick of the light surely.

"High Charity?" Shef whispered, his skin pale. "Who knows how many the Flood could have turned."

"Shipmaster, what's your status?" Keyes asked. Orna fell to his knees as the ground shuddered underneath them.

"Significant damage, weapons systems disabled!" R'tas boomed back. Orna closed his eyes. He remembered meeting R'tas, a poor Sangheili son, steeped in tradition and frustration. He hadn't got along well with Saia . . .

"Here they come," N'tho warned, opening a burst of rifle fire on the spores swarming towards them.

"Move to a safe distance, stay away from the Flood!" Keyes ordered him. She was a good human, she would have made a brilliant Ship Commander, had she been Sangheili. And male.

The thought of Saia arguing for her gender's right to fight made his blood run cold.

"Why would the parasite come here?" R'tas asked, almost to himself.

"The Ark is out of range of all the active installations!" Even the Oracle was panicked. "Priority: We must contain this outbreak before -"

"No! First, we stop Truth! Then we deal with the Flood."

But Keyes was too late. Orna watched, his gut clenching sickeningly as he saw the first of the Flood's combat forms lurching through the doorway. He still looked like himself, only overrun by the plague. One of the humans fired a shot gun at Mor's chest and he fell. "Chief, come on!" it yelled as the elevator slid back down into place. "We gotta clear this room."

Orna glanced down as the Chief came up to his left shoulder. "Demon?" he said, half in acknowledgement . . . half waiting for the reassurance of a response.

"Arbiter," the Chief echoed, nodding his head. And he opened fire on the Flood, pushing forwards with Orna back into the Ark.

The fading light glinted off of the hull of a Pelican as it landed, dropping warthogs and marines off. One of the warthogs slid on the frosty ground, tyres struggling to find purchase. "Shipmaster's carrier is out of commission, Chief," Keyes informed them. "I need you to take down Truth. The Flood's just going to put pressure on him and accelerate his plans. Punch through the cliffs! Get inside that citadel!"

"Spartan with me," Orna said, taking one of the Warthogs. The Chief took the gunner's seat and Orna accelerated quickly, letting the wheels spin in their haste to find grip.

"Quickly!" the Oracle swept down beside them, flashing irately. "I must see the point of impact; assess the damage done to the Ark."

"To the top of these hills, Oracle, no further! We cannot risk your capture by the Flood," Orna growled, aware he was scolding the Forerunner artefact like an errant hatchling but Forerunners willing he would see his own hatchlings soon – and that would be less likely if the damned thing was captured. They emerged from a tunnel into a snow drift, the hog powering through with the help of the heat from Gauss cannon as the Chief neatly took out the waiting Wraiths. The Scorpion behind them had nothing else to do but pick off the stragglers with its machine gun. Skirting a path along the cliff edge, Orna could see the citadel in the basin below. It looked familiar, like so much else he'd seen. It was like the oldest parts of High Charity, cannibalised from Forerunner technology, or the identical rooms in the sacred rings and on the ark itself. The citadel was nothing more than a place where someone worked . . . where someone had to make the choice to release Offensive Bias, to sacrifice all for the slender victory . . . where someone chose to kill those they loved.

And now he was here.

The sound of the atmosphere being punctured heralded two Scarabs falling from the sky and unfurling on the snow.

"I count two Scarabs, repeat, two Scarabs!" the radio shouted.

Slamming the brakes on, Orna left the Warthog idling, heading for the two Hornets left on the cliff. "Left or right, Spartan?"

"I'll go left," he said, almost flippantly, leaping across the snow to reach his Hornet at the same time as Orna. Even as they left the rock behind, the Scarabs were turning their guns on them.

"Then I shall take right. My finest pelt for you if you bring your down before I do." The Prophets would hate this. Gambling with a human? So vulgar, even if it wasn't blasphemy.

"I don't know what that is, but I'll take you up on it," Stacker responded in place of the Chief's stoicism.

Orna grinned and slid down under the Scarab's fire, dancing under the legs as it skittered to the side in an attempt to sight him once more. The marines hitchhiking on his Hornet did their best to help, firing their rifles at those on the Scarab's decks. He could hear the Chief's Scarab wailing as it sank to its knees, quickly followed by his own. "Hold on," he warned his marines, sending snow spiralling into the air as he reversed the engines on the Hornet. He began firing, dancing the Hornet from side to side as the Scarab fired on him. He could see the conduits heating up, the disruption in the core of the mechanics with the repeated rocket fire.

"That's both Scarabs down," Keyes announced.

Orna soared into the air, scanning the horizon for any sign of his former allies. The Scarabs were lying crumpled together, fires still smouldering where the snow didn't extinguish them. "All Covenant forces eliminated," Shef's voice came over the radio.

"Not all," Orna murmured. He let the Hornet drop, too quickly, the marines cried out. Landing on the citadel's bridge he left his vehicle, watching as the Oracle began tinkering with the citadel's door. "Spartan, come to me. This platform hides a path," he called over the radio, noting the electronics shining through. A drawbridge. A Forerunner drawbridge. His daughter had so loved studying the ancient Sangheili architecture. The deep space cruiser he had taken command of . . . what was it called? The Grave Leanings, that was it. Saia had remained on High Charity after Regret's brother had died, while he had run and taken his children with him. That had been his daughter's home and she had studied planet bound life in holo-vids and ancient texts, while her mother had worked tirelessly to help the Sangheili regain their place in the world after the dishonour Orna had done by not saving Regret's kin. His daughter was dead now. He could remember Truth's condolences as though it was yesterday.

The Spartan joined him, reloading his rifle as he did so.

"The Flood scale the citadel's far wall," Orna warned him. "Activate this bridge, Oracle!" As the Chief made to move past him he reached out to halt his progress. The Spartan was like a stone golem, stopping because he did not wish to break Orna's hand. Leaning in closer, Orna could feel the prickle of their respective shields fighting the close contact. "The Prophet will die by my hands, not theirs," he hissed. The Chief nodded, returning the contact with a hand on Orna's forearm.

The bridge lit up and they crossed to the citadel at a run, halting only when inside and the doors slammed closed. The Chief sagged suddenly, lurching into Orna's shoulder. Before the weight of the armour could crush Orna, the Chief regained his footing, vitals flashing KIA as the screens lit up with a human visage.

"It asked and I answered . . . for a moment of safety I loosed damnation on the stars!"

"Your construct," Orna waited for the Chief to regain his strength. "She's close."

The screens cut out, returning Truth to his audience. "My faithful . . . stand firm."

A growl rippled through Orna's chest and he sped up, the Chief keeping to his heels.

Truth continued, his words pounding into Orna's skull. "Though our enemies crowd around us, we tread the blessed path! In a moment I will light the rings, and all who believe shall be saved."

But did you ever believe, Truth? Orna had to wonder. Devious, scheming, brilliant in his wickedness – Truth was no fool. He chose to orchestrate the long game, to cripple Orna's people and make room for the blindly following Jiralhanae, so the war with the rumoured humans was more difficult than it ever should have been. Truth knew to take young, impressionable Sangheili and offer them too much to refuse – like Fera 'Talsamee. He had even thrown aside his own people, like kind Solitude.

"Chief, how close are you?" Keyes asked, her voice quiet and resigned.

The Spartan looked to Orna and then tilted his head backwards to gauge the distance. And now, Truth, you sacrifice another, Orna thought, his growl becoming more audible. The Chief lowered his head. "Not close enough."

Orna paced the confines of the elevator as it began its slow rise.

"We'll get there," the Chief said quietly. "We won't lose. Not now."

Rolling his shoulders backwards, Orna hung his head. "We can lose at any time, Spartan. It's not over . . ."

"Until it's over."

Sliding his gaze over the Spartan, Orna smiled. "And when it is, I will know your name."

"And I will know yours," the Spartan agreed, tensing as the elevator slowed.

"You were weak," Truth's voice carried, barely, over the length of the room yet to travel. "And Gods must be strong."

"The rings," Orna began, activating his sword as two Flood forms dropped in front of them.

"Do not shoot, but listen! Let me lead you safely to our foe. Only you can halt what he has set in motion!" the Gravemind spoke, the words echoing more in Orna's skull than in his ears. The spores began trickling past Orna's feet and he suppressed a shudder, moving forwards with the Chief.

"How could I have known the Parasite would follow?" Truth howled, his holograms twitching as they tried to keep up with his movements. "Undoubtedly this is the Heretics' doing! A final, bitter curse. Clear evidence of treachery long hidden!"

The air burned Orna's lungs, every sinew aching with the effort of hurtling forwards, fighting with the stinking creatures that swarmed over their opponents. Fitting that the last of the Covenant should fall to the diseased corruption that worked at its heart for so long.

"So far are we along the path that I must strain to hear the clumsy patter of their feet. Know this my brothers. They may foul the way with their charred and broken bones, but they will not stop the Journey!"

He never knew the path!

Orna passed the Flood that had destroyed the Jiralhanae. He saw Johnson on the ground, Miranda laid out beside him and barely registered the significance of the tableau. Shutting down his sword, he strode to Truth, the Prophet splayed out over the engraved floor. Orna seized him, hauling him off his feet and yet still not at eye level, Orna had to hunker down to look him in the face.

Truth face tightened before a smile escaped him. "Do you see now, Arbiter? The moment of salvation is at hand."

Pushing his talons into Truth's flesh, Orna's growl almost overcame his words. "It will not last!"

Truth's eyes narrowed. "Your kind," he trailed off, the grin becoming lecherous, "never believed in the promise of the sacred rings."

A daughter. A son. Brothers. Family. Lineage. Orna's fury was so consuming he nearly dropped Truth when the Gravemind spoke through him.

"Lies for the weak! Beacons for the deluded!"

Deluded still perhaps. Orna activated his sword, drawing back a little from the Prophet. "I will have my revenge," he growled, "on a Prophet, not a plague." On one Prophet, not a race. On one person, not a society. On Truth.

Pain contorted Truth's features and he arched his back, pustules breaking out over his skin. "My feet tread the path! I shall become a god!"

"You will be food - nothing more."

Truth's eyes rolled in his skull, catching sight of the Chief reaching over the panels. "No!"

With all the force of a hatchling's sigh, the anger left Orna's body. Not this Prophet, nor a hundred would ever bring back the lost. Not this victory, nor a thousand repent for the sins he had committed against innocents. He could not replace any father's son, any mother's daughter, and Truth was already a negligible threat. The Gravemind had him.

Now Truth sputtered, wracked by the throes of infection. Stirrings of pity in Orna's soul made themselves known. "I am Truth! The voice of the Covenant!"

What Covenant? Driving his sword through Truth's spine, Orna pulled him closer. "And so you must be silenced," he hissed, letting the body fall. Shaking his hands to cleanse them of the Prophet's stench, Orna roared into the cavernous room, hearing his own voice reply. The Covenant . . . what was left of it? An anarchic Priestess who found the traditions of her own people too stifling? A repentant Fleet Commander who remembered too well the sting of being poor?

Was there anything worth salvaging?

How can you ask that?

It wasn't Saia's voice in his head but Hans 'Galatash's. The mentor and father figure. Orna could see himself as a young warrior, holding the nadir as he watched the older Sangheili rant and rave about some social issue that Orna didn't really understand.

Even now? Why are you here, Orna?

Luck. Will of the Forerunners.

You're here because of a certain Sangheili. A warrior named Gul 'Tarmassan. You and me both. He saved my life and in turn I looked out for you when he died.

Honour. The will of the Forerunners.

Really? – now that was Saia's influence, amused, teasing.

You're here, Orna, because I could not leave the son of a friend by the wayside. You're here because Gul 'Tarmassan adored his mate, Asa 'Fulsamee, and spoke of her often when I missed my mate so. You're here because when Gul 'Tarmassan succumbed to illness I wanted to pay my respects. You're here because even with the promise of a rich sponsor as myself you wanted to work for it and you spent your years fighting for it all. You're here because of our people, Orna, and you must serve our people.

Was there anything worth salvaging in the Covenant? There was him. And there was Saia. And there were his children. Even if there were nothing else, he would still have that.

But there is something else, isn't there?

Usze. N'tho. R'tas.

And he had a name to learn.

The Chief met his gaze with a little nod, remaining silent as Johnson stooped to lift Keyes's body from the floor. Orna glanced away, brows furrowing as he noted one of the combat forms rising to its feet. As he drew breath to question it, Gravemind's tentacles shot into the air, snaring around the pillars and platforms. Orna backed up against the Chief, judging the distance between them and the Pelican.

Gravemind's voice echoed around them once more, "Now the gate has been unlatched, headstones pushed aside, corpses shift and offer room, a fate you must abide!"

With a snort, Orna tilted his head towards the Chief's. "We trade one villain for another."